Forbidden Fruit: Thirty years of oppressive spiritual cultivation at Apple (Part I)

Inside the Church of Apple and the living word of Steve Jobs

Cher Scarlett
Published in
18 min readFeb 13


Apple Together Marketing Poster (Designed by me for AT, 2021)

Welcome to Apple

Become who you are. Do what only you can do. Be the master and the sculptor of yourself.

Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science

I have always been someone that heralds a messy, unbridled honest story to the world… it’s at the center of me. It gives people the freedom to decide who I am; at times to my detriment. But that’s our superpower: fallibility. Alan Turing’s test of the indistinguishability between machine and man is not to look for intelligence, it is to look for humility. If a machine questions its reality, then, it must be conscious. To err is human, after all.

In 2021, I was one of three key whistleblowers at Apple. This year, the federal government has begun to validate us. This has all felt unprecedented in Apple’s history, but I’ve since learned about the sordid past of the most valuable company in the world. At Apple’s core is its sacred silence — hiding their truths from the world. Insidiously, Apple’s authoritarian culture hides a devotion and loyalty to its ‘top secret’ projects that pushes workers past their limits: its zealotry for unchecked confidentiality kills. The ‘employee unrest’ in 2021 was a lot of things, but it should have been least of all surprising.

This short memoir will show you that Apple’s mastery of marketing is not just selling us iPhones. Obscured behind impressive gadgetry, their brilliant, gripping brand identity applies the same expertise to employee relations and damage control. Apple is very good at selling everyone Apple.

Apple’s carefully curated image, including its legendary culture of secrecy, is designed to give a recurrent feeling of surprise. The delight, apparently, is optional.

Writing this was a painful journey for me. What started with a defiant angst to speak my truth in the face of lies and erasure quickly had me following a white rabbit into a wonderland of self-discovery. I wanted to show the world who Apple really is, but in learning how my life became intertwined with a company named for a fruit, I found myself, too. All I can do now is the only thing I know how: give you the treasure trove of truth I unearthed and the freedom that comes with it.

Here’s to the crazy ones.

In 2020, I joined Apple in the middle of a global pandemic, a decade after Steve Jobs had passed on. The only things I knew about Apple were that they made products that valued ‘form over function’, Steve Jobs took LSD, Tim Cook was the new CEO, and they were the good guys. The Apple products I had were for school and work, and on their beautiful packaging read ‘made by Apple in California’. The one time I got to attend Apple’s developer conference, I fell asleep during the keynote. I learned about product launches from my wireless carrier. I was an Apple user, not an Apple fanatic.

In spite of that, I was shocked and overjoyed to get an offer. I cried. That was, as Reed Albergotti put it in The Washington Post, because I was “perhaps the least probable member of Apple’s elite software engineering corps.” It was the first time in my entire career I’d be getting paid what similar peers were making.

In 1985, the same year Steve Jobs went screaming out of the board room at Apple, at just before 4 in the morning the day before Easter, I came screaming into this world at St. Mary’s Hospital in Walla Walla, Washington. I was born to an alcoholic, adopted father and a traumatized mother raised by her impoverished Seventh-Day Adventist, apocalyptic doomsday prepping, Volga German grandparents. When my mom was just 5 years old, right in front of her eyes, her mother had taken her own life. She had a decade earlier narrowly survived a coat-hanger abortion. The ex-husband had already abandoned the situation. My mother, her sisters, and their grandparents were not allowed to grieve. We became very familiar with the hush-hush of keeping our issues ‘in the family’.

By the time my family moved to Redmond when I was six, I’d already lived in several duplexes, apartments, a motel, and a fifth-wheel along the western states. My parents were in an abusive relationship headed for divorce. My mom was struggling to make ends meet and my father couldn’t be bothered to pitch in. I spent over half of that decade going to a new school every year from southwest Lake Sammamish to what would become Woodinville’s wine country. I was a restless, reckless kid — I made things ‘disappear’, fancied myself a parkourist, and experimented with fire and electricity. My mom took me to the emergency room a lot.

From left to right: My older brother, younger sister, mother, and me.

Fables should be taught as fables, myths as myths, and miracles as poetic fancies. To teach superstitions as truths is a most terrible thing.

The child mind accepts and believes them, and only through great pain and perhaps tragedy can he be in after years relieved of them.

In fact, men will fight for a superstition quite as quickly as for a living truth — often more so, since a superstition is so intangible you cannot get at it to refute it, but truth is a point of view, and so is changeable.

If you google this quote, you’ll find it attributed to Hypatia of Alexandria. When I was in the third grade, I was selected to participate in a mini-version of NASA’s junior astronaut program at the Seattle Science Center. All of the astronomers in the presentations were men! I demanded to learn of a woman. They offered up Hypatia.

I was enamored by the stories about this woman. An early mathematician, one of the first female philosophers, and an astronomer. If I had an idol, she was it. I attached myself to her writing like a magnetar. Learning her teachings got me into trouble — once I was relegated to the car while church services finished. She was a pagan; part of the shaping of the neoplatonist movement — viewing life as an unfolding from a single point. An early idea of a creation story that began with a ‘big bang’. Nothing is original; novelty is rearrangement — progressively dividing and rebuilding what’s already there.

I learned that her ‘myths’ quote was probably synthesized by Elbert Hubbard, her first modern biographer. She had been done a disservice when Julius Caesar’s civil war burned all of her written works in the fire at the Library of Alexandria (pausing society’s progress for decades and leading to the rapid rise of Christianity). All that remains is the later works of her pupils. It was painful to learn she’d become just a compendium of second-hand accounts from men. However, learning that this quote wasn’t really hers only encouraged my skepticism.

The school wanted to skip me ahead two grades, but after my mom’s own experience with grade acceleration, she refused. They put me in mixed grade classes instead. Fifth grade, my final year, I boycotted homework after a trip to the principal’s office. I was in a self-paced class with sixth grade materials, so I did all of the math homework during the first week. I got to study Shakespeare alone in my teacher’s office as ‘punishment’.

Despite getting good grades and high test scores, my mom got calls from the school frequently because I was arguing aggressively with my teachers. When she questioned if I was correct, they said, the problem was my attitude and tone, not the verity of my arguments. I viewed the resulting ban from computer games as an affront to science.

My friend Shay and I at the Kingsgate pool in my Kirkland neighborhood. (2002)

At one point I shared a bedroom with my mom and my sister in a small apartment with my brother and a pseudo-uncle. In seventh grade, I’d catch the bus to school and sit behind Matt Tuiasosopo, the Major League Baseball player; son and brother to the NFL’s Manu and Marques. I often didn’t bring anything to school, and once when we had a pop quiz I asked Matt if I could borrow a pencil. He obliged, but when he warned me it didn’t have an eraser, he loudly sneered, “Oh, that’s right, Cher doesn’t make mistakes.”

I convinced one teacher to let me skip out on the homework if got 100% on tests. Weaseling your way out of studying and being blasé about the usefulness of the experience while everyone else is working hard is not a path to popularity. They worked just as hard to ensure I knew I didn’t belong.

For all its 90’s grunge — the dark, angsty counterculture born out of the Pacific Northwest’s music scene — Seattle had something pristine crystalizing just east of Lake Washington. As Brier Dudley put it in The Seattle Times: the region was becoming “a hotbed of software development.” Technology companies — Microsoft and IBM especially — were injecting themselves in schools and businesses around us. We were poor, but surrounded by a technological race to the top of the computing industry.

My mom was an apple-picker turned construction office worker, but she was also a John Philip Sousa award winning clarinetist and her class valedictorian. When there was no one to do the operations of networking: she took Microsoft’s courses on nights and weekends and stepped into the role herself. This also meant she wasn’t really home much; I became very independent and resourceful.

Microsoft’s Redmond campus, Lake Bill (1992)

Thanks in part to the computer parts my mom brought home and David Macaulay’s 1989 witty encyclopedia The Way Things Work, I learned how to build things by taking them apart and putting them back together. I was assembling computers and coding websites before I could solve for the value of x. Someone once asked me how I was so talented at so many things. I told him I read a lot and was just really good at cutting and pasting things into something new. Like Einstein, I don’t have any special talents, I’m just passionately curious.

I took interesting technology classes at school: robotics, architectural engineering, AutoCAD, Photoshop, biotechnology — by the time I was 16, I was primed to become a technologist.

I was the perfect target for Apple’s gospel. I was baptized into the Seventh-Day Adventist church as a teenager in a lake at church camp. I was trying desperately to believe in its antiquated cult doctrines — such as the impending apocalypse starring Jesus — as I moved through a chaotic childhood, abusive relationships, drug addiction, and at times, self-inflicted homelessness. I felt a deep desire to connect with something bigger than myself. I was looking for purpose and meaning. The flavor of SDA taught in Prosser, Washington, where my mom grew up, was traditional. So much so that as modernization in the church hit Eastern Washington, some local Adventists followed David Koresh, the leader of the Branch Davidian cult sect who claimed to be the final prophet, to a Waco, Texas compound. It ended in a 51-day siege and 78 deaths. A combination of firearms being discharged and teargas set the compound ablaze.

The Branch Davidian Compound of Waco, TX in flames.

One of the values of traditional Seventh-Day Adventism is a global consciousness and our responsibility to one another. This resonated with my own personal beliefs. I believed — in terms of the church — that our ‘souls’ were pieces of ‘god’ and to surrender to our fallibility and faults gave us the power to survive. By putting those pieces together, we’d right all of society’s great wrongs. As an atheist at heart: we are the universe becoming aware of itself; to overcome our trauma is to develop the strength and wisdom to do great things. It is in our nature to endlessly cut everything in two, but it is our gift and duty to create masterpieces out of the remnants of destruction.

Connection in the church rapidly morphed into assimilation and devout worship. I believed in the theory of a universally shared responsibility of our collective reality. This wasn’t that.

Spirit all-but crushed, I left the church and disavowed religion entirely. In truth, I felt they had shunned me. I am bipolar and often people want me to be something I can never be. I cannot suppress myself for the sake of belonging. While I’d always been buried in books and an early writer, I moved onto nonfiction and philosophy by junior high school. I read Ishmael by Daniel Quinn, a book that introduced me to the idea of cultural superiority and the rhetorical device of a narrator. In high school, I moved onto elevated versions of similar works from Nietzsche, Voltaire, Hippocrates, Descartes, Sartre, Jung, Greene, Sagan, Einstein, and Schrödinger.

I found that narrators outside the society in the story in philosophical fiction — such as in Ishmael — are easily misunderstood or condescending considering the reader knows a gorilla did not write the book. The most egregious example was Nietzsche’s sister butchering his philosophies into a book called ‘The Will To Power’ and the nazis latching onto it like superglue to support their heinous politics. The irony is that Nietzsche’s works are meant to warn of the rise of authoritarianism and fascism.

Me as a Y2K Hooters girl cropped in next to the 1983 Hooters girls: the first five of thousands.

I was lost and spun into the darkest of places, culminating in moving out at seventeen, dropping out of high school, becoming a stripper, getting sex trafficked, and attempting suicide. I woke up in the hospital to a social worker handing me a styrofoam cup of charcoal water. “Drink,” she said. My stomach had been pumped and I was lucky to be alive. I worked at Hooters at the time, called in, but was marked a ‘no-call, no-show’. When I returned six weeks later post-recovery, I was out of a job. I shifted back to seeing myself as a scientist, instead of longing to be the next Lynne Austin, the first Hooters girl and a Playboy Playmate.

I got my GED, and when I got pregnant in 2006, I turned my life around. I was determined to break the cycle of poverty and trauma. I wanted to harness my inner chaos to give birth to a dancing star.

Holding my brand new baby daughter, Lex. (2007)

Soon after, I got my first software engineering job at in Seattle. I left less than a year later because of financial problems. I was only getting paid $37,000 a year. I moved east of the Cascades to the confluence of the Snake and Columbia rivers in Kennewick, where the cost of living was less than half of that in the Seattle area.

A photo I took in Kennewick, WA of someone water skiing on the Columbia River. (2008)

Right before I left, in late 2007, I received an email from our human resources director titled, “Are you okay with me sending out an email announcing that you are leaving the company?”

I really am sorry to hear that you are leaving the company and that you are struggling to survive (finding a place to live, paying for childcare, etc.). I know how difficult and frustrating it is to make this type of decision to move on and how difficult it is to just survive daily in this area.

You need to know that you have many, many strengths so keep your head up things will get better (just later…). You stood out during your interviews from the other candidates and as you go out searching for the best solutions for your family you need to know your strengths.

1. Michael and I have struggled to fill the Web Developer position because the criteria Michael set for the position are very strict. I just went through and counted the number of applicants we received which is over 100 candidates. You were one of the few with true CSS/XHTML/JS experience.

2. You bring a genuine desire to learn new techniques and an open mind to listening to the ideas and thoughts of others. I generally do not see many candidates or employees who have this ability. This genuine desire to learn is one of your strengths that will help you become a very valuable, highly sought out employee. As our work environments change, everything suggests that the only way most tech companies will be able to survive the chaotic, constant changes will be to hire employees who are willing to constantly learn about new approaches and ways of doing things. This desire and enthusiasm pours out of you. Don’t lose it.

3. You have a great attitude and the ability to work with others on a team. You make your teammates feel inspired and valued. You are a natural leader. Huge strength!

4. I have not heard any complaints about you, but have heard that you are very fast, precise, and thorough. I know that Michael is very upset to no longer have you be a part of his team.

5. You express a worldview that is simultaneously refreshing, captivating, and impactful. You are very creative. There is something unique about your relentless drive to learn from your mistakes and help everyone along the way. Hone this. This could be your money maker and way of connecting with people who are worth surrounding yourself with.

13 years and $133,000 later, I got an email from Apple titled, “So glad you’re (almost) here.”

There’s work and there’s your life’s work. The kind of work that has your fingerprints all over it. The kind of work that you’d never compromise on. That you’d sacrifice a weekend for. You can do that kind of work at apple. People don’t come here to play it safe. They come here to swim in the deep end. They want their work to add up to something. Something big. Something that couldn’t happen anywhere else.  Welcome to Apple.
 Welcome to Apple.

I knew about Apple’s legendary secrecy and the surprise and delight, but I’d worked in the journalism and video games industries. I thought they were just really good at embargoes! My first year on the job was mostly uneventful. I had a strange moment where my discussing my mental health became the topic of a coaching session with my manager, but I’d also gotten to give a talk to an internal organization about security best practices. I didn’t have much exposure outside of my team, but I liked the work I was doing. The concerns I had seemed like they would be minor tweaks to a pretty great company.

In May of 2021, I got involved in workplace activism in Slack. I was told not to speak to the press (later retracted). I spent nearly the entirety of the next three months trying to get leadership to create a forum to hear employee concerns. I was repeatedly met with a wall that centered around my lack of ‘network’; institutional changes I was looking for would take years and I’d need to make the ‘right’ people like me first. What?

Originally, I worked remotely from Saint Louis, Missouri, a ‘low living cost area’. When I moved cross-country to my hometown of Kirkland, Washington, a ‘high living cost area’, I received a wage increase that was less than 5%. It did not even cover the increase in the cost of living. I had asked ahead of time what to expect, but no one would tell me. Instead, my pay became unavailable for viewing until the day after I moved. I crowdsourced estimates so I could get a rental and plan my finances and budget. The data suggested a 10% raise.

Ashley, another activist who I met while organizing in support of flexible remote work options, suggested I start a wage survey. I had done some research to see that my pay seemed to be low for the Seattle area amongst Apple’s engineers and she didn’t seem surprised. I asked in Slack if anyone was interested in doing one. They had started one just hours earlier. It was shut down. It happened again a few days later and it had happened 5 months earlier, too. They were all shut down by the People team citing security concerns around personally identifying information for gathering gender and racial information, which, they said, was against Apple’s policies for employee surveys.

I thought that what they were doing was illegal, so I started my own wage transparency survey off Apple’s servers while I was on vacation for my move. Afterward, people were told not to participate, not to discuss their pay, not to engage with me at all, and I was told it was off-topic in several channels (including a women’s affinity channel where it was deleted without notice). Most notably, I got into a rare argument in a Slack channel called ‘allies-4-change’ in which I was referred to as a ‘disgruntled worker’ by a manager who said the post was ‘off-topic’ to the channel’s purpose: issues facing our Black colleagues. The manager is white.

We were denied a Slack channel and told the topic of ‘pay equity’ was unrelated to the business needs. Never mind the foosball channel they approved the same day. (A few days later that channel was archived, they said it was approved by mistake.)

In the ‘benefits’ Slack channel, I suggested those that were told not to discuss their pay or not to participate in the survey — and those whose surveys were shut down — report it to the NLRB early in the afternoon on August 26, 2021. I gave all of the instructions to do so — including the information they had given me to which laws were likely being broken. No one felt safe to file a charge about the pay issues. I took my meticulous notes, turned it into a cover letter (my creative way to ensure Apple never learned the identities of the 26 anonymous whistleblowers unless they chose to come forward on the record), and filed the charge on behalf of all Apple employees a few days later, writing that Apple had “engaged in coercive and suppressive activity that has enabled abuse and harassment of organizers of protected concerted activity”.

Confidential witness list

I was reported for ‘leaking’ personally identifying information. This was nonsense: the survey was voluntary and anonymous — not even I knew which entry belonged to who. Re-identification attempts came only from leadership through the People team. At an all-hands in August of 2021, they requested a team in AI/ML reverse-engineer the data. The Project Manager refused and left the company. I was accused of ruining the company’s culture (debatable). The siloing and secrecy felt unhinged. I did what I was supposed to do. I went to leadership and the People team. I reported it to the business conduct hotline. N̶o̶t̶h̶i̶n̶g̶ ̶h̶a̶p̶p̶e̶n̶e̶d̶. Things got worse. I immediately retained a lawyer.

Apple’s vow of silence policies extended to discussing certain topics publicly that weren’t strictly working conditions. Where did human rights and civil liberty fall?

I couldn’t comment on Apple’s now-cancelled plans to scan every user’s iCloud photos to check against childhood sexual abuse material databases, could I? Criticize the AirTags, Apple’s tracking devices? Better not. My first publicized concerns were about the hiring of Antonio García Martínez, a well-known former Facebook ad executive who had written a book that berated women in the bay area. I tried to direct everyone to an article he wrote in Wired.

I was upset about his comments about women, obviously, but more than that: I was alarmed at the future of Apple advertising. I thought we had a no jerks rule? Were we on our way to becoming Google (read: evil)? We had just started asking users if they wanted the applications they installed to track them, cutting social media profits by $10 billion. Curiously, Apple’s ad revenue increased wildly after the change. Was this really about protecting user privacy? If it was, why would we hire someone who says this:

Here’s a data point for you: As part of our push to woo Facebook, I had been getting Google Alerts on the company for months. One in particular had caught my attention. In October 2010, a mother in Florida had shaken her baby to death, as the baby would interrupt her FarmVille games with crying. A mother destroyed with her own hands what she’d been programmed over aeons to love, just to keep on responding to Facebook notifications triggered by some idiot game. Products that cause mothers to murder their infants in order to use them more, assuming they’re legal, simply cannot fail in the world. Facebook was legalized crack, and at Internet scale. Such a company could certainly figure out a way to sell shoes. Twitter was cute and all, but it didn’t have a casualty rate yet, no matter how much this Lady Gaga person was tweeting.

Antonio García Martínez

Myself and several Apple employees others wrote an open letter demanding leadership explain why he was hired and how the company would safeguard his colleagues from becoming the subject of his sharp tongue in his inevitable Apple memoir. Further, we wanted to know if this was what to expect moving forward and how Apple’s infrastructure would be updated to ensure that women or other marginalized employees were protected. He was fired the same day the letter was ‘leaked’ to The Verge — within a matter of hours.

It says something about Apple that he and Tony Blevins, the procurement executive who made crude comments about women on TikTok in September of 2022, were so swiftly ushered away, while the union-busting and child labor keep right on. Apple either really cares about how it appears to treat women, or wanted to disappear that news as fast as it landed. Maybe it was both to protect the fortress of secrecy. If the desired effect was that Apple gave the women what they wanted, mission accomplished. The women at Apple didn’t call for their firings, though. That’s not the kind of people Apple hires.

A very cute desk with an Apple badge. It has a mustard yellow Apple logo, and under it reads ‘Cher’. A picture of Cher is below the name.
My Apple badge (2020)

Stay tuned for Part II in this juicy five-part series.

Each day this week, at 5am PST, the next part of this series will be published. The massive bibliography will be posted on Friday with Part V.

Apple folklore would have you believe you could get fired for the wrong kind of eye contact if you stepped into an elevator with the man, leading employees for the decade of his authoritarian rule to look at the floor when unexpectedly sharing a small space with him. By the time an employee uprising erupted a decade after his passing, loud dissent was fabled to be one of the items that could get you “Steve Jobs’d”.

— Thirty years of oppressive spiritual cultivation at Apple: Part II

In Part II, we reminisce on the construction of Apple’s legendary ‘fortress of secrecy’ and how Steve Jobs took a bite out of Apple to cultivate a spiritual fandom. Read it here.