Star-Telegram Texas March 7, 2011
Taylor Stevens, author of 'The Informationist,' has intriguing story to tell
BY DAVID MARTINDALE | Special to the Star-Telegram
Taylor Stevens, a promising first-time novelist from Dallas, always had a fertile imagination.
She just wasn't allowed to use it.
She was 14 when she wrote her first short stories. Instead of being encouraged and praised for her precociousness, she says, her notebooks were confiscated and burned. She was told she was a witch and "full of devils," and she recalls being put in solitary confinement and held without food.
Then she was admonished never to write again -- "or it's going to be much worse next time."
Stevens, who was born into a religious group known as the Children of God, didn't write anything for the next two decades.
Which is a shame, because the voice of a talented storyteller was suppressed for a very long time.
Stevens' debut novel, The Informationist, goes on sale Tuesday (Crown Publishers, $23). It's an international thriller featuring a most unusual hero.
Vanessa "Michael" Munroe deals in information. She travels around the globe, immersing herself in different cultures for months at a time, and comes back with info that no one else is capable of gathering, info that government agencies, powerful corporations and private clients pay dearly to possess.
Munroe is fluent in dozens of languages. Skilled in a variety of martial-arts techniques and handy with a knife, she's like a finely tuned weapon. And thanks to her androgynous physique, she's a master of disguise, a chameleon who can become a bewitching femme fatale one day, yet pass as a man the next.
In The Informationist, the first in a series of at least three books, Munroe is hired by a millionaire businessman to find his daughter. The girl went missing four years earlier in central Africa, a corner of the world that Munroe knows well from her tortured childhood there.
Stevens' remarkable life story is like something out of the pages of a thriller.
As a child in the Children of God, now known as The Family International, she lived all over the world, spending time in Germany, Mexico, France, Japan and Africa. [see Related Articles links below]
She was separated from her parents and siblings for months at a time, she says, and forced to end her education at age 12. In lieu of schooling, she was put to work caring for the other children, cleaning and cooking for commune members, and begging for money on the street.
It was a life, she says, "that I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy."
She was 29 and married, with one child and a baby on the way, when she and her husband, still living in Africa, finally found the courage to break free from the only life she had ever known.
They chose to come to America, she says, "because at least there our lack of money and education and job skills might be surmountable if we had the drive and determination to do something about it."
They settled in the north Dallas area because she was vaguely familiar with the city from having lived here briefly years earlier, "whereas the rest of the United States was just a big question mark."
Breaking away from the Children of God, Stevens says, is something much easier said than done.
"The cult went through many phases in its history," she says. "There was a time when, if you said you wanted to leave, they would literally lock you in a closet and try to cast the demons out of you. I have friends who escaped in the middle of the night with their passports and 20 bucks and that was it.
"By the time my cutting ties came around, it wasn't quite as bad. You could leave. But if you did, they cut you off immediately. You became the enemy, essentially. So it was like you knew that by leaving, you were leaving everything. Also, your entire life you were told that if you do leave, horrible things are going to happen to you, that 'God will spit you out of his mouth,' that you're going to become the equivalent of his vomit, because you've turned your back on God.
"So leaving is much more than just moving to another city. You're basically violating everything you've ever been told because you believe in your heart that there has to be something better than this."
Stevens has lived in North Texas, raising her two children, for the past eight years.
Her passion for writing was reawakened while reading Robert Ludlum's Jason Bourne trilogy.
"I had tried reading more 'literary' books, like The Bonfire of the Vanities, but I found I was just naturally drawn to the thriller genre," she says. "And I was just blown away by the way Robert Ludlum would take me away to all these foreign locations, like Hong Kong and China in The Bourne Supremacy. I loved soaking up everything about these foreign cultures and I thought, 'I wish I could do that.'
"Then it occurred to me. 'Wait a minute. I've lived in places even more exotic than this. I could write about them. And, besides, I always wanted to write.'"
So she started, knowing at first only that she wanted to write something about Africa. Michael Munroe and the mission to find the missing girl came later.
It certainly wasn't always easy. With only a sixth-grade education and having grown up with no access to books other than what the Children of God approved, Stevens had a number of literary obstacles to overcome. She sometimes wondered whether she was trying to reach for something beyond her grasp.
Then again, given the changes she already had made in her life, fear of failing as a novelist wasn't the least bit scary.
"The fact that I couldn't punctuate when I started writing, the fact that I relied heavily on spell check to be able to form coherent sentences, the fact that I really had no idea what I was doing, none of that seemed to be much of an issue," she says. "I was like, 'Yeah, well, I've been through worse.'"
Stevens already has completed the second book in the series and is working on a third.
Her personal saga of reinventing herself, of overcoming the myriad obstacles laid before her, is nothing short of inspiring.
Yet all she really hopes to accomplish with The Informationist is to entertain readers.
"I hope that people feel it is worth their money and their time, which is even more valuable than money," she says. "I have no desire to make a political statement or to educate. It's like, if you enjoy it, that's awesome. That's enough for me."
In fact, Stevens was tempted when preparing her author bio not to be so forthcoming about her anguished past. If people fixated on her personal life, she reasoned, they might not focus enough on the book.
"I could have invented a past for myself," she says. "But growing up, we lied to the outside world about us all the time and I vowed I was never going to do that again. I hated it so much. So the idea of making something up was just repugnant to me. This is who I am and this is where I came from.
"But what I hope ultimately matters most to people is the fact that I can tell a good story."
This article was found at:
Vogue Magazine - March 2011 edition, page 272
by Rebecca Johnson
Have you ever noticed how similar most writers’ biographies sound? “Author X lives in Boston with her husband and two children.” Or Brooklyn. Or Seattle. When Taylor Stevens’s first novel, The Informationist, a fast-paced thriller partly set in Africa, with best-seller written all over it, is published this month, the back flap will read, “Taylor Stevens was born into a religious cult and raised all over the world before breaking free of the movement.” It has been almost ten years since Stevens, a 38-year-old mother of two living in Texas, escaped that life, but whenever she looks at that sentence, a feeling of dread comes over her. “We never called it a cult when I was growing up,” she explains. “We were told that we were chosen by God to be special.”
God, at least according to the cult’s founder, David Berg, did not want his followers to have jobs, maintain a nuclear family, or stay too long in one place. His philosophy, developed in Huntington Beach, California, in the late sixties, blended apocalyptic Christianity with a hippie-inspired “If it feels good, do it” ethos. Members were encouraged to change sexual partners whenever they liked and eschew birth control. In the 40-odd years of the cult’s existence, approximately 35,000 people have filtered though its network; over 13,000 of those were children who, like Stevens, were born into it. Allegations of adult sexual contact with children in the early years were rampant, and by the time of Berg’s death, in 1994, he was wanted by Interpol for inciting sexual abuse against children.
For Stevens, growing up in the Children of God (as the cult was initially known) meant a nomadic existence. By the time she was three, she had lived in California, Florida, Georgia, Colorado, and Texas. By fourteen, she had lived in Mexico, Germany, Austria, France, Switzerland, Japan, and South Korea. It may sound like a cosmopolitan life, but “home” was often a trailer parked in a camp with fellow disciples. The younger members of the Children of God rarely mixed with the local populace, except to solicit donations on the street, and attended school only sporadically. When they did, they were carefully counseled on what to say. “We lived a double life,” says Stevens. “Even as a child, I knew not to talk about what went on.”
Within the communes, children were required to do the bulk of the work—cooking, cleaning, and taking care of children not much younger than themselves. Privacy and personal property did not exist. At one point, in Osaka, Japan, Stevens remembers, she shared a closet-size bedroom with six people and a bathroom with 20. Her “most prized possession” as a child was a tiny microcassette recorder she would hold to her ears at night, listening to a tape of Greek classical music when she craved some diversion.
In order to create the “family” of the cult, Berg believed it was necessary to obliterate the parent-child bonds that most of us take for granted. Stevens was twelve when she was first separated from her parents and four siblings. “That was when my education and what little childhood I’d had ended completely,” she says. “Like a pawn, I was moved from place to place by the leaders’ whims, sometimes living in the same location as one of my parents or a sibling, other times not. At fifteen I went an entire winter begging on the streets of Osaka, walking through the snow with the only pair of shoes I owned: summer sandals. No one cared. I belonged to the cult, and I was nobody’s child.” Stevens had no idea that the parent-child relationship should be any other way. “That was all that I knew,” she says.
Like the other children in the cult, Stevens was taught the rudiments of reading, but books, dictionaries, encyclopedias, music, and movies were forbidden—she kept the volume on her recorder as low as possible. (In the beginning, Children of God practiced an extreme version of Christianity that still allowed children books like The Chronicles of Narnia, by C. S. Lewis, which Stevens read and loved. As Berg became more paranoid and autocratic, all books were banned, except a few that probably should have been, like Linda Goodman’s Sun Signs.“We were a Christian cult,” Stevens notes wryly, “but everywhere you went, people were constantly asking, ‘What’s your sign?’ ”) To this day she has only a scattershot sixth-grade-level education. “If we stayed anywhere long enough for compulsory-education laws to catch up with us, we’d go to school,” she says. “Our prophet’s words were the only education we needed, he said.”
It’s hard to imagine a worse childhood. Indeed, many of the children born into the Children of God eventually crashed and burned. The actor River Phoenix, who died of a drug overdose at 23, was brought up in the cult (though his family later left). And it was a national story a few years ago when Berg’s stepson and heir apparent killed his former nanny and himself in revenge for the sexual abuse he suffered.
By contrast, Taylor Stevens seems a model of mental health. Now divorced from the husband she met in the cult, she is raising her two daughters outside Dallas and is at work on the third volume of the Informationist series. In person, she is mature, emotionally open, and even capable of cracking the occasional joke about her bizarre earlier life. Indeed, as awful as the cult experience was, Stevens believes it did somehow give her the kind of ambition that made it possible for her to flourish in spite of her past. “From the day we were born,” she says, “we were told that we were special and that we were better than other people. If you believe you’re going to rule the world and then you get out there and find out that you are just a nobody, you think, No! This can’t be! It drives you to succeed. Or it drives you to failure. There’s not a lot of in between among us survivors.”
With her natural warmth and intelligence, Stevens was adept at raising money by begging on the streets. “I’m not proud of it,” she says. “But I have always had the ability to interact with people. I am hypersensitive to facial expressions, body language. That’s what a lot of sales is—having a rapport, making a connection. If people like you, they will give you money.” She never said the money would support “the Family,” as the cult was then known, and lying to people on a daily basis was killing her. “It was humiliating,” she says. “I am not a dishonest person. But I felt I had no choice. If I didn’t do it, I wouldn’t have had a roof over my head.” Even what they called the organization kept changing. “One year we might be called Helping Hands; the next year it might be Family Focus or Family Missionaries,” she says. “If the word family appeared in it, you could be pretty certain it was part of the Family.”
In the late nineties “the Family” went through one of its periodic upheavals. In order to keep too many members from defecting (turnover was always high), people were given a choice about where to go. Yearning to actually make a difference in the world, Stevens, who was 24 at the time, chose Africa. She started out in Kenya but, partly to put herself at a greater remove from cult leaders, ended up in Equatorial Guinea, where she and other cult members set up a nonprofit, brought in educational and medical supplies, and—in a country where “a fresh-felled tree was the equivalent of Home Depot”—built school desks for thousands of children.
By then, she was married to a European man with whom she worked well but didn’t necessarily have the greatest romantic chemistry. “We were the only two members of a similar age in the area,” she observes. “As I like to say, did Adam really have a choice about Eve?” Equatorial Guinea turned out to be one of the least hospitable places in the world to work. “I think I was almost as traumatized by Africa as I was by being raised in a cult. Everything that could go wrong there was guaranteed to go wrong. It was two and a half years of banging my head against the wall, fighting gossip, corruption, the elements.” Unless you wanted to go to prison, complaining publicly was not an option.
Stevens estimates that during her 20s, when most writers are reading voraciously and puzzling out their own voice, she read fewer than ten books. But she also experienced firsthand what it’s like to live under a corrupt military dictatorship, details that raise her book from a typical girl-extraordinaire thriller (it’s easy to imagine Angelina Jolie in the title role) to an authentic tale of life inside a dysfunctional African nation. Her writing about the daily petty corruption that wears a society down rings true because it is. “All I really had to do was change the names,” she admits. Most writers would kill for that kind of material, but Stevens’s initial motivation for going to Africa was simply to get herself off the streets.
Being far away from the cult did, however, give Stevens enough distance to realize that she did not have to live the rest of her life in its shadow. She had one daughter and another one on the way when she decided that her children would never experience the kind of degradation she had lived through. Once they made their decision, Stevens and her husband spent the next year and a half secretly plotting their exit, well aware that entering the real world at the age of nearly 30 would not be easy. Stevens had been working since the age of seven, when her parents sent her out on the street, but she had no work history and had never paid taxes, applied for credit, or owned or rented any real estate. They officially left the cult in Germany, where her husband was able to get a job, and they found their own place to live. “I will never forget how elated I felt the first morning I woke up in our own small apartment, finally free of the eyes that had been watching and judging me my entire life,” Stevens says. “Going to the grocery store, buying clothes, scheduling a doctor’s appointment—all the ordinary things most adults take for granted—were frightening and novel experiences for me.” Even worse was the fear that dogged her every move. “I spent my whole life being told that something awful would happen to me if I ever left the cult,” she says. “Every day I waited for that disaster to happen.” It would take years before the fear eventually went away.
Even though her husband was European, the two eventually chose to settle in America. “This country is still the land of opportunity,” she says. “Especially if you haven’t followed a traditional path.” Financially, however, it was a struggle to survive, and Stevens began to look for ways to make money that would not require her to put her children in day care. For a while, she sold Mary Kay products at the mall. She was a natural. “If anybody got close to me, they were going to hear from me,” she says. But soliciting strangers to buy mascara was a little too close to her past for comfort.
Stevens began browsing neighborhood garage sales looking for things to buy and sell on eBay. One thing people like to sell cheap is books. Especially paperback thrillers. One day, Stevens was reading one of the books she was reselling. It was something by Robert Ludlum. Her life would never be the same. “When I first read it, I thought, Oh, my God,” she says. “I got so pulled into these worlds. I thought it was the most amazing story I had ever read. Most of the reading I had done in the cult was so simplistic and condescending, but here was this complex story that felt so deep by comparison.” She went from being somebody who read barely anything to a voracious reader of entire series. John Sandford, Iris Johansen. Anybody but Stephen King—too gruesome. Or Tom Wolfe. “Where’s the story?” Somewhere along the way, she realized that writing a thriller was something she wanted to do.
“I didn’t care about publication,” she says. “I just wanted to say that I had written a book. I was 35 years old at the time, and I really felt like a nobody who was home alone with the kids all day and had no education.” By then, she had lived in the world long enough to realize how things worked. If you had the will, the discipline, and an Internet connection, you could make almost anything happen. People often ask if Vanessa Munroe, the main character in The Informationist, who can get whatever information she needs from anyone or anything, is based on her. Not really, she answers, except that they both know what it’s like to be an outsider, and they both know how to teach themselves things. Stevens took courses in marketing, accounting, and business law. How hard could it be to write a thriller? While the kids napped or slept at night, she wrote.
She was halfway through the book when she realized that writing was actually kind of hard. She threw out everything she had written, bought a few books on how to write, and started again. “It didn’t matter how hard it was,” she says. “I knew if I wanted to do it, I could.”
As she readies herself for publication of the book this month, Stevens knows that people are going to be asking questions about her past. A few months ago, when her publisher held a lunch at a midtown Manhattan restaurant for Stevens to meet with members of the media, she was so busy answering questions about the cult, she never got a chance to eat a bite. Inevitably, the questions seem to revolve around her relationship with her family now and the sexual aspects of the cult. Both questions pain her.
Stevens’s mother was eighteen when she joined, her father 23, and they were matched, Stevens believes, for the simple reason that they were both Jewish. Whenever she asked her parents why they had made the decision, their answers were maddeningly vague: “ ‘I don’t know,’ my mother would shrug. ‘They were just there, and I went with them.’ ” She currently has no relationship with her father, partly because he continues to identify with the cult, but she and her mother (her parents are divorced) have been slowly working to rebuild their bond. “I still crave the love any child feels for her mother,” Stevens says, “and I do feel that she has worked hard to make up for the decisions of her youth. The family ties were severed at a young age, but those were ties I always wanted and reached toward, and even though the past can’t be undone, together we work toward establishing the relationship we could have had.”
Becoming a mother changed things for Stevens. “It wasn’t until I started having children of my own, comparing their growth and development . . . to what I had experienced comparatively at those ages, that I grasped the true horrors of what I had lived through,” she says. While she is not averse to giving hugs and kisses, Stevens, who grew up for the most part without that kind of parental affection, admits she is not “a ‘let’s get down on the floor and play,’ ‘Oh, you skinned your knee; you poor thing’ kind of mom.” She takes pride in the fact that she has fostered independence in her daughters. “My girls are extremely self-sufficient within their little worlds,” she says. At the same time, she finds the contrast between her experience as a parent and her experience as a child nothing short of baffling. As she says, “I can’t comprehend how so many of the parents in the cult could have set aside such a powerful instinct.”
Her response to questions about the sexual aspects of the cult is always the same: No comment. “I am not in denial about what happened,” she says, “but I don’t think it’s anyone’s business. Just because people want to know doesn’t mean they have a right to know. Ultimately, if I answered, people would have their curiosity satisfied, but my children and I would have to live with the fallout for the rest of our lives.” (In other words, her maternal instinct seems to be working just fine.) Anybody who wants to know more about life in the cult will have to wait for the second volume of The Informationist, which deals exclusively with the topic. Writing that book put many of Stevens’s demons to bed, hopefully forever. “I could get all the revenge I wanted and not have to worry about how things really worked out for people,” she says. “It was great.”
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