Annabella Rockwell was thrilled when she learned she had been accepted at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, the oldest women’s college in America.
“I was so excited,” Rockwell said. “I was so eager to learn.”
But the more she learned in her college classes, the more her joyful personality waned, her mother says.
By junior year, a “serious robot came home” from college, Melinda Rockwell says of her daughter.
In gender studies classes, the college student learned about the “patriarchy and the oppression that we experience in this country,” and she adopted these views as her own.
Melinda Rockwell began to seek professional help from cult specialists to learn she could rescue Annabella from the indoctrination she experienced in college.
Mother and daughter join “The Daily Signal Podcast” to explain how Annabella found a way out of the woke cult, and ultimately became development director for PragerU.
Listen to the podcast below or read the lightly edited transcript:
Virginia Allen: Mothers and daughters go through a lot together, and in the case of Annabella Rockwell and her mother, they walked through a journey of being deprogrammed and essentially walking away from a modern-day cult after college. Annabella and her mother, Melinda Rockwell, join us now to tell their story from indoctrination to Annabella’s now working at PragerU. Annabella and Melinda, thank you both so much for being here today.
Melinda Rockwell: Thank you, Virginia.
Annabella Rockwell: Thank you.
Allen: So, Annabella, I want you to just share a little bit of your story. You chose to go to Mount Holyoke in Massachusetts. Mount Holyoke is a very prestigious girls school. It’s one of the original Seven Sisters colleges. Why did you choose to attend Mount Holyoke?
Annabella Rockwell: Mount Holyoke is the oldest women’s college in the country, and I thought it was beautiful in Western Massachusetts, and it is so prestigious, as you said. I was so excited when I got in. I knew that it would be so academically rigorous. I think I was almost surprised I got in, so I had to go there because it was such a good school.
Allen: Of course. What was that first semester like, walking on the campus thinking, ‘Wow, I can’t believe I’m here’”? You’ve worked hard. What were those first couple of months like?
Annabella Rockwell: I was so excited. I was so eager to learn. It was a little bit of a culture shock initially, coming from South Florida, which is where I went to school, to Western Massachusetts.
The style was very different for one. I have spoken about there was this kind of ritualistic haircut in the the first semester, where a lot first years, as they called them, instead of freshmen—we didn’t use the term freshmen because it was a woman’s college. First years, they would sort of shave their hair as a form of rebellion and kind of allegiance to the community, if you will. So the style was just very different.
But I was still excited. Everything was so different, it was so new, and we were going deep into really interesting topics, and I loved it at first.
Allen: When did you start to notice a shift in yourself, or what were some of the things that you started hearing or maybe, whether it was college professors or some of your fellow students, that started to challenge maybe the way that you were raised or your own beliefs?
Annabella Rockwell: My sophomore year was the Obama election, and I remember not agreeing with most of my peers at the time, and that was the first time I think any political views had really been challenged. I very quickly learned if I sort of said anything that I might be shut down, and I really started to question my own beliefs. I was like, maybe I am wrong. Maybe this isn’t right.
When I actually felt myself changing and seeing it and the reflection on my relationships outside of school, so with my family and my friends that I had grown up with, was really my junior year, because I started taking gender study courses and I was made aware of the patriarchy and the oppression that we experience in this country and how toxic it is, and that’s really the root of all of our problems in America, is this toxic white heterosexual male culture.
At the time I was dating a man, I have a white father, and it became such a complex of even though hatred toward the people that I knew, and it made everything very difficult and very tense because it also came up constantly. It was such an expression of, “OK, there’s been oppression now and we really have to fight it,” and like, “Mom, you’re a victim.” But she wouldn’t accept that and that caused contention between the two of us because I was trying to show her what I had learned.
Allen: Well, Melinda, I would love to get your perspective. As Annabella was coming home from college on breaks for the summer, as you were talking with her on the phone, when did you start to pick up on, “Wait, something is different with my daughter”?
Melinda Rockwell: Well, you expect certain things when they go to college and they want to rebel against anything, it doesn’t matter, and that’s natural. But at a certain age it’s a different story.
So she came home—the first two years she had a beau that would come visit her, and that kept her a little grounded in the past and in being a little lighter, like not everything is so serious. But by the time junior year came around, this serious robot came home.
The one good thing I had was I had a cousin that was involved with a cult, I think you mentioned it, it was Werner Erhard’s Forum, and I had seen a wonderful bubbly person there turn into a monster, so I recognized this cultish person.
Then the turning point was she had a tennis coach, Scott Williams, who is one of the world-class coaches, but he’s also a heavy-duty Christian minister. He ministered in a way at tennis, like at St. Andrew’s School in Boca Raton. … And he worked with Chris Evert, Andre Agassi, and Tommy Haas. He’s still his coach. He’s a big deal. But he would pull everything together to train kids in Bible study for Old Testament and New Testament.
So she went off as, I would hardly say a holy roller, but she went off that she would never ever say anything against sort of Christ, and she said to me, “Mom, are you still buying into all this Jesus Christ stuff?” And I went, “Whoa.” And she said it with a look on her face that was as if there had been a body snatcher because my daughter, I don’t care if she believed it or not, but she would never voice that opinion, and that’s when I said, “Something is severely wrong.”
The next thing, every Facebook started changing. All her old friends were off the Facebook, and I watched other people that she had introduced to her friends picking up all her friends. I was aghast. And the clothes started changing to a more militant look, not caring so much of how she looked and how she presented herself.
This was a figure skater with competition and solos. She thrived on the applause. She thrived on having her hair look pretty and being a silly girl. She was a very smart girl, very competitive, but she was also a silly girl.
So this monster came home and I knew something was severely wrong and it wasn’t just natural because when you’re 21 years old you don’t change.
Allen: So you’re watching and you’re saying, “Where did my daughter go?”, essentially is what it sounds like.
Melinda Rockwell: She was not present in that body. And my mother and my sister, very, very much involved with this child who had been body-snatched.
Allen: Annabella, for you, were there certain professors or lectures that had sort of become a new mantra for you or that you can look back on and think, “Oh, wow, when this was said I really bought into X, Y and Z”?
Annabella Rockwell: Yes. Actually, I do have a very specific instance and memory. It was for—I can’t remember which class, I think it was maybe gender studies or it was a history course I was taking because I studied history. That was my major. They had a couple come, and this couple, they were trans activists and they came to speak to us. It was a man and a woman, or presentably a man and woman. It actually turned out that this man was a trans man.
This couple had originally been a lesbian couple, so it was two women, and then one of the women transitioned into being a man. And this man spoke about how he started to gain that kind of male privilege and be in the boys club.
This was an auditorium that was filled listening to them, so a lot of students came to this talk, and I remember this lecture, thinking, “Wow, this one lesbian woman is losing her identity because her partner is transitioning into a man, and now a man is telling us that he went from being a woman and discriminated against to now being a part of the boys club and has access to all these things.” And kind of the idea like there’s no room for a woman at the boardroom table, which isn’t true.
It’s not the case, but I was really being told this, and it shifted so much of my view because they started to look at people having an inherent bias and feeling so sympathetic toward any kind of marginalized community, and it was really pushed on us.
Then I really had this idea put on me that, like, I’m a woman. Because I’m a woman I’m different, I’m not just like a man in a man’s world, and that’s so heavy. Like my mom kind of said, I came back really serious and upset because everything did become serious. Everything turned into an issue. And I admitted it, so I couldn’t just be white anymore and be happy. I was constantly in this sort of mental prison of like, “Well, there’s so many things wrong in the world, I have so many things I have to fight.”
Now on the other side, of course, I realize women do have equal rights. I’ve had so many offered to me. I’ve been given everything. And it’s such a shame that I was really trapped in that and so many people are still trapped in that. You miss out on so many opportunities to further yourself, even if it’s in your career, in your family, or in life in general, by thinking that so many things are against you.
Allen: Melinda, when did you say, “OK, I need to get my daughter help”? And what did that look like?
Melinda Rockwell: My mother was very much involved with this because she could not believe what had happened and my sister, who was—my mother lived in the area and my sister was in New York. I said, “I’ve got to do something,” so I started researching every sort of cult sort of program there was in the book, people who had written books, people who charged a fortune, people who didn’t charge a fortune.
I remember finding a case in Connecticut where there was something to do with a brainwashing and I followed the case. I went up to the courthouse. I found out who the lawyers were. I found out who the deprogrammers were. I read everything about every cult in history, whether it was the Moonies or the Children of God. And I was not going to tolerate this because my daughter did not grow and change naturally, organically.
I had saw the classes. I had sat in a couple years for the parents’ open house, and even the German class, the German teacher was babbling on about some gender thing.
So having been a single mother, and her father was very much in her life, but I was a single mother who picked up and moved to Nassau, Bahamas, got a job, worked supporting her, put her in private school, paid for all her lessons. For this to come out of my daughter’s mouth was so insane, it was completely wrong.
So the research I did was only about getting professional help, what could I do? Ross Perot had … a team once that would actually take the children out of these cults and put them in a motel. I never thought about doing this, but I talked to people to deprogram them because it was no different than—if your child was on the street with drugs, would you leave your child there to be a drug addict or would you try to get them off the street and help them? It was the same thing for me, for her family.
Allen: What did you find out about what you needed to do and what actually started to work as you were talking with individuals and they were giving you advice?
Melinda Rockwell: Sadly, all the advice was very, very—it wasn’t the advice, the specifics were … it’s almost impossible to get them out. It’s almost never. And if you do, it takes seven years for them to get reprogrammed, if you’re lucky. They all said, pretty much, to go with the flow.
I’ve sent emails now to another mother who was going through this at the same school and I said, “I’m going to try and do what you’re doing. I’m going to try and appease and tell her what she wants to hear, what the interventionists”—they really call themselves interventionists—”tell me to do.”
But I ended up not doing that. I had my mother playing the, “Oh, whatever you want. Oh, really, it’s a man’s world? Oh, I didn’t know that. Oh, really? I couldn’t have a bank account until the 1970s? Oh, I didn’t know that.” I see there’s a note, I said, “I don’t care. Don’t you dare speak to me this way. You can have your brainwashing friends support you.” So that was sort of—I went the opposite.
I did have one man that was—and I gave the price of $300 a day to show that he was not a charlatan. He would charge $300 a day to move in with you for five days or two weeks or whatever, plus food, to help realign your child with the original thoughts of what they were from. I did not ultimately have him move in because a miracle happened and a friend called and said, “We can have Annabella on a boat to the South of France for two weeks,” and of course I was ecstatic.
But Annabella was so out of her mind with this roboticness, she wouldn’t respond to any of the notes or the phone calls about getting on this beautiful boat. She did not pick up her ticket until the very last moment, so nobody knew she was going to get on. Her friends were telling her not to go. I had not heard anything. I sent a bag packed for her and a ticket and at the last moment … something happened and she got on the boat.
So at least I got her out of the situation for a little bit. And I got a phone call in the middle of the night, crying from a discotheque, “Mommy, I love you so much, I love you so much. Thank you.”
Then it didn’t just go back to normal after that. We had to send her away from the situation. We had to send her to business school, which is another quickie thing. Within a month she was in Spain. But it was, I would say, a delicate dance with everything, what did the interventionists say, what’s working, what’s failing.
The other people that did exactly what they were told, they don’t have their children back. They’re grown children, but they don’t have them in their family.
Allen: It sounds like you kind of drew a line in the sand and said, “I’m not going to lie to my child. I’m going to be really clear, really straightforward.” Annabella, how did you receive that from your mom, as your mom was saying, “Hey, you’re wrong here”?
Annabella Rockwell: I remember at the time just being so angry, but also really sad, because I had this idea, like, “Mom, you don’t know. You don’t understand me,” and also feeling so conflicted because we had had such a close relationship growing up. I couldn’t really understand why it had taken such a turn so negatively. And it was very hard for me to see my part in it at the time when I was still so in this mindset because I had such a strong identity in feminism and my mom would not affirm it. She wouldn’t buy into it.
The example of the credit card, like, I really felt that—I was told women couldn’t have credit cards and that we were second-class citizens up until a certain point, and she wouldn’t acknowledge that. She would actually fight it and give me other information and other real-life scenarios, and I just sort of disregarded it. Because she’s my mom, she’s going to tell me that regardless.
It was very, very scary. I was very anxious. Of course it’s so bad, not having a relationship with your family when you’ve been so close with them. But I also was very untethered to who I was and because of that, I felt a little bit like I was drowning. I was trying to find sort of meaning again and I was finding it in all the wrong places. I was finding it in these ideals.
I remember even when I went to live abroad, which, part of that was to remove myself from the scenario, and again, I was searching for who I was before, I became really obsessed with environmentalism and it totally took over my entire diet and everything, using paper towels, like, the most simple thing became a really big deal because saving the environment was now the cause du jour and it had to be my entire purpose. So it was really isolating. I was very alone and I thought I had the burden of the entire world on me.
Allen: So then how did you go from that place to reconnecting with your family and reconnecting with really who you were, and your core values, and the values that you were raised with?
Annabella Rockwell: Over time, you know, after business school, coming back I actually worked on some political campaigns. I worked on a Clinton campaign. After she lost, I ended up going to New York, working on Wall Street, and started supporting myself. Well, I had been supporting myself, but I think that in 2018 I really looked at myself and made lifestyle changes, like, “Fighting with my family isn’t working. Maybe I’m not making the best health choices. Am I avoiding my feelings or am I just kind of drowning them?” Because that culture leads very normal to, like, just drink if you’re feeling anything.
So I looked at it and, like, “I think I need to go home for a bit and really kind of get better.” So I ended up moving home to Florida with my family and just sort of putting the work in to make some changes. I think part of it is I did open up to the idea of God again and sort stopped trying to control every situation. I thought maybe there is something bigger than me and I don’t have to deal with all of that.
I think that my mom speaking to people that told her, “Don’t affirm Annabella’s new identity,” was very crucial because had she, who knows where I would be and what I would be doing? I certainly wouldn’t see myself in the person I’ve always been and meant to be.
Then what really flipped everything was in 2020, finally seeing the Black Lives Matter riots and just waking up to the hypocrisy of burning down businesses in the name of empowerment isn’t good for people. This isn’t helping people. Maybe they’re saying the intention is there, but it’s not. This isn’t helping. Defying the police isn’t going to help anyone.
In that is where the curiosity of conservatism kind of started to evolve and I started seeking other outlets, a little less Rachel Maddow, a little more Tucker Carlson, and asking questions. That’s actually when PragerU videos found me on my newsfeed in Instagram, and then I just started a self-educated kind of reprogramming, and basically unlearn and disprove all of these ideas that I had been so beholding to.
Allen: And now you’re the development director for PragerU. As you’ve started to open up and share your story and work in that space at PragerU, have you met other young people that went through what you went through and have you met other families that have journeyed through a similar situation?
Annabella Rockwell: Yes. We actually have our personality Amala Ekpunobi who had a very similar story. She was a progressive organizer. And it’s funny because she was a progressive organizer at the same time that I was and she had an experience where she too kind of saw the light. For her it was very race-centered, for me it was very gender-centered, because she’s half-black, half-white. She has amazing stories. Her story is incredible, about how she kind of saw the light as well. Again, it was tied into the riots.
One thing I realized as I started to become conservative is I would start questioning people that I knew, my peers at work, and it turned out that so many young people who are successful and fun, they love this country. They think that it’s the best place to live. They are conservative. They are traditional. They believe in having families.
I started to realize, like, wow, I was in such a silo of hating myself, hating the United States, hating our society. There are actually so many people that really love it and it’s very cool. It’s cool to be conservative. It’s not something of the past anymore.
So I’ve heard also a lot of stories of people feeling like they’re silenced and they can’t speak their opinion. And on the journey of working for PragerU I have met a lot of families that are supporters and they have situations where they’re dealing with similar things, like maybe their kids are very progressive and they don’t have the relationship they had with them anymore, but they’re finding some answers now in organizations like PragerU.
Allen: Melinda, what advice would you give to parents who are listening or watching this and might think, “Oh, gosh, I’m going through the same thing with my child and I don’t know what to do”? What would you say to them?
Melinda Rockwell: Virginia, first of all, I’m right now in that position because so many people reached out to Annabella, parents, and she sends them to me. My advice is, No. 1, I say, “I cannot advise you.” I’m not an adviser, nor am I a lawyer. But I do say, “You need a team.” You need a team and you need to get into the little tiny mustard seed of a hole that you still can remind the child about the past.
In some cases there are—so, we had the coach, and her doctor was so excited, I brought her in the post yesterday. I said, “Look, here’s Annabella.” He said, “I was telling her about life. I was telling her. I’m involved. I approached her.” I go, “Yes, you did. Yes, you did.” He was so happy.
So you have a team because they’re not going to listen to the mom and you’ve got to find, so one person. The breakthroughs are if they leave a Facebook open or something, or if they unblock you, one mother is so happy that out of the blue the child suddenly unblocked them.
You need a team. You need a team of the past to get through because the present, the people, the mob, the mob being whether it’s a professor, the parents of the students, and the students, completely encompass you. They would not let Annabella alone. They sent her home with a handler her senior year. You need a team and you need a team of old familiar people to get through your child when they’re not listening to the parents.
Allen: That’s so critical. Annabella, for you, what was something that your mom did that was so helpful that you would say would be advice for parents? And what advice would you give for young people who are in that season of wrestling, who’ve maybe gone off to college and they’re sort of exploring and they’re pushing back maybe against some of the things that they were raised with? Some of that might be healthy, but there’s a fine line there. What would you say to them?
Annabella Rockwell: To parents, first, I would really drive home the idea of, you know your child best and if they are starting to act in a way that you don’t recognize them anymore, don’t accept it. Fight them back on it a little bit and at the risk of maybe losing communication with them for a bit. It’s very painful, but it’s worth it because our relationship now is better than ever. I think there’s something to be said also of families keeping close, having lots of people check in on your child if you feel that they’re starting to stray.
And to current students I would say, if you’re convicted, raise your hand. You have to challenge. Part of the problems with schools now, universities, there is no room for discourse.
Of course there are people who are already very progressive and they believe and they have these ideas and they go to school and that gets nurtured, and that’s fair. Not everyone is going to agree. But for those that don’t agree, getting bullied into submission and then you’re so bullied that you don’t know yourself anymore because you’re just agreeing with things, then all of a sudden you’re agreeing and that becomes your truth, don’t allow it to happen to you. Don’t make the mistake I did.
Also, self-educated, I really, really cannot stress that enough. Keep reading things. Keep talking to people, watching things. Watch The Daily Signal. Just stay educated, stay plugged in, and speak up. Converse with your family as well. Ask them questions or reach out to me even. You can message me on Instagram. I’ve been talking to a lot of people, a lot of current students who said, “Thank you.”
I also think the power of prayer and just asking God for guidance even if you don’t believe, because I really didn’t believe in God for a while, and part of that humbling process of admitting I was wrong was, like, “Maybe I’m going to try this out. Maybe I’m going to ask God for help.” Then down the road it’s totally—it’s the truth now.
Allen: Annabella and Melinda, thank you both so much for your time. We really appreciate your willingness to share your story and be honest. It’s so powerful.
Annabella Rockwell: Thank you, Virginia.
Melinda Rockwell: Thank you so much, Virginia.
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Virginia Allen is a senior news producer and podcast host for The Daily Signal. She is the co-host of The Daily Signal Podcast and Problematic Women. Reproduced with permission. Original here.