I Grew Up in a Cult. Here’s What Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt Gets Right.

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Photo: Netflix

For most viewers who stream the new Netflix show Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, the story line will be an unfamiliar peek into what it’s like to emerge into the world after living in an underground doomsday cult. But for me, having grown up in an apocalyptic cult, which cut me off from the world completely until I was 14, it’s all too familiar. While there may be some plot points that are structurally incongruent, there are important details that are strikingly spot-on. 

Set in rural Indiana in the time of viral YouTube videos, officers raid an underground bunker while four women inside, known as the “mole women,” cheerfully chant, “Apocalypse, apocalypse, we caused it by our dumbness,” to the tune of “Oh, Christmas Tree.” Kimmy Schmidt sees the light of day for the first time in 15 years, and her life goes spinning into a whole new orbit. Savior Rick’s Spooky Church of the Scary-pocalypse, was postapocalyptic. The cult that I grew up in, the Children of God, was preapocalyptic. “Father” David Brandt Berg, the leader of the Children of God, led his 12,000 followers to believe that we lived in preparation for the end-times that would come in 1993.

Like Kimmy, growing up, my days were tightly regimented, and I was constantly being watched. Unlike Kimmy, I never saw our leader nor knew what he looked like, as he lived in complete hiding. Richard Wayne Gary Wayne (an awesome name for a Netflix cult leader, by the way) is also enigmatic, and we don’t see his face until later in the season. When the mole women emerge from underground, they land a guest spot on the Today show with Matt Lauer, who questions them about their past. It’s in these first five minutes of the pilot episode that the stage is set: One woman sold her hair to Wayne on Craigslist; another was lured into his car to “look at baby rabbits” after he was a regular customer at the steakhouse she worked at. She joined because, as she put it, she didn’t “want to look rude.” These are all lighthearted spoofs that poke fun at the reality behind cult radicalism and religious extremism, but I’m curious to know Richard Wayne Gary Wayne’s motive: Is he just a womanizing pervert who gathers a group of women who believe his every word, or is there some ideology captivating them to stay? I can say from personal experience that no one would stay in a cult without some promise of utopia or change.

When 29-year-old Kimmy decides to stay in New York instead of going back to Indiana with the rest of her clan, her wide-eyed wonderment is met with all the typical conflicts of living in a big city: She has to find an apartment, a job, and, of course, a flourishing social life. These are the perfect obstacles for someone who has spent 15 years in an underground bunker (unlike me, she was forcibly recruited, i.e. kidnapped, at 14, the youngest member of the cult). These first few minutes of B-roll are spot-on — Kimmy runs alongside a random jogger because she’s just so happy to be outside (cult escapees are unrealistically grateful — for everything!). A quick clip shows her discovering water flowing out of a faucet and then laughing in glee at the hand dryer in a public restroom (a public restroom for an ex-cult-member is a novel idea — functioning toilets and running water are a first-class experience).

For a 29-year-old, Kimmy’s enthusiasm to be at a park and swinging in a swing for the first time might seem questionable, but it’s not. I remember the first time I walked on soft wood chips at a park in the suburb of Berwyn near Chicago. I will never forget the first time we stepped off the plane at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport and my 11 siblings and I discovered a drinking fountain for the first time. We all gathered around and took turns pressing the button that magically spouted a clear fluid arch of drinkable liquid. We probably looked hilarious, but it didn’t matter; we had discovered water like it was life on Mars. Kimmy doesn’t care either if she looks ridiculous; she is discovering the world for the first time, and that is the appeal of the journey of Kimmy Schmidt. 

When you’ve grown up in a cult your whole life (or since your early teens, as in Kimmy’s case), you want nothing more than to be “normal,” although you don’t quite have a grip on what this “normal” is. All you know is that you’re not it. At one point we hear Kimmy explicitly say, “I just wanna be a normal person.” She satisfies this desire by buying herself the coolest pair of tennis shoes that light up, throwing herself at guys trying to kiss them, and engaging in life with an uncharacteristic optimism that no doubt stems from her years in isolation. On my first day of high school, I wanted nothing more than to be normal. I had never bought clothes in my entire life, but I found a shirt I thought was cool. I was kicked out for showing too much cleavage — an offense I did not know was worthy of expulsion. This was just the first instance in an adolescence (and adulthood) full of misunderstanding and confusing miscalculations.

I resolved at some point that, as Kimmy so aptly puts it, “The worse thing that can happen has already happened.” I was going to have to find my way, like Kimmy, to cope with this world that I was unprepared for. (Sadly, I didn’t have the brilliant writing of Tina Fey or background music during my personal moments of triumph.) Like Kimmy, I learned to cope by learning to understand people. Maybe our backgrounds were different, but deep down, inside, we were all the same. I reasoned, at some point, that nobody really felt normal (in fact, there was no such thing!) and everyone was just trying to fit in.

Growing up in a cult gives you an abnormal zest for life, and Kimmy Schmidt exuberates this confidence fittingly (although being stripped of your identity and being told that you’re “garbage” and a “dum-dum” would lead to a less-than-sunny disposition in real life). But Kimmy’s optimism, coupled with her resilience, is what makes the show relatable and endearing. Her character will be the broad appeal of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt