Young, who lived among the Dani until he was 6, considered himself more a part of the tribe than of his own family. “My parents were so busy doing the missionary thing, they just didn’t have time,” he says. “I was the first white person to become fluent in the language, so when anthropologists came to study the Dani, I was the translator.” He played war games with Dani kids, sculpted with clay, trapped crayfish. He lived the Dani life in just about every respect. “I don’t know that I actually ever witnessed cannibalism, but it happened right around us,” he says. “We were aware of it going on. And the warfare—there were many times that I was right out in it, without being aware at all of the danger I was in. Warriors would chase each other through our house. It never stopped.”

Still, he felt he belonged. “For decades, even after I left, if you asked me to identify my real family, I would say the Dani,” Young says. “I remember being present at conversations about whether or not my parents should be killed. Didn’t bother me at all—I was part of the tribe.”

He also describes Dani culture as “highly sexualized.” Young men would form circles around kids and coax them into performing intimate acts. “It got to the point, when I was 6 years old, I was already setting up sexual situations with Dani girls,” Young says. “And in that culture, the fundamental greetings are all sexual—you say, ‘Can I eat this part of your body or that part?’ Depending on the closeness of the relationship, it can get to, ‘Hi, can I eat your penis?’” At 6, he went to missionary boarding school elsewhere in New Guinea; it was there, he says, that he first realized he wasn’t black, and there that he suffered sexual abuse by the older boys. (One of the most moving anecdotes Young tells onstage involves reunion—and reconciliation—with one of his childhood abusers, a development brought about by The Shack’s success and notoriety.)

“I was really able to defend myself, and to make sure all my secrets and all my shame stayed where no one else could see them. The shack is just my metaphor for that place.”

When Young was 10, his family moved back to Canada, and his father continued preaching as an itinerant minister. Young says he attended 13 different schools before making it to Portland’s Warner Pacific College, a small Christian school. All along, he says, he questioned the constructs of the Western church. “I think a lot of kids raised outside the culture of their parents have an ability to see the inconsistencies in their parents’ world. For instance, when I came to the West, I thought, ‘Why the repression of women in leadership roles in the church? Why has Scripture been translated and interpreted in this way?’ And those questions take you straight into the nature of God. Is God 51 percent male and 49 percent female, or what? I’ve always been a questioner.”

According to both Young and his wife, Kim, a no-nonsense North Dakotan, for much of his life he came across as more of an answerer. “He always had to be right about everything,” Kim tells me a few days after I meet her husband. “He could argue anyone under the table, and he did. He wasn’t a monster, but that was his identity.”

Young describes this persona as a screen he created to hide the pain of his abusive upbringing and survive in a subculture that prized certainty. “I had a highly developed ability to turn a conversation the way I wanted to go,” he says. “I was really able to defend myself, and to make sure all my secrets and all my shame stayed where no one else could see them. The shack is just my metaphor for that place.”

After college, he worked at East Hill Church in Gresham—not exactly an ideal habitat for an inquiring mind, he says. “There was only so much you could ask about. You could ask certain questions, but not others.” (One upside: He met Kim while he was running discussion groups for college students at a church outside the city. “I walked in,” she recalls, “and he announced that we were going to split into groups of two, and what do you know … ”)