Losing my New Religion - Telegraph.co.uk17 February 2011, 7:45 am
Just a normal teenage girl, but in the wrong place at the wrong time,' is how Charlotte Wells describes the circumstances in which her daughter, Rachel, then 17, met Wayne, 24, a 'religious missionary' , in a shopping centre in Somerset two years ago.
Within moments of meeting, Wayne was dazzling Rachel with tales of foreign work, and qualifications, ranging from youth counselling and disaster relief to business management and interior design. For the following weeks Rachel and Wayne conducted a sexual relationship, which Rachel hid from her mother; by the time he left for America, citing visa reasons, Rachel had fallen passionately in love.
'I asked Rachel what was wrong, as she seemed down, and she told me she'd met someone, but he'd left. She said there was something I should know about him that I mightn't like.' Wayne, along with his parents and nine siblings, was part of the Family International, a 'Christian' fellowship preaching the Gospel internationally.
Its members live communally, following rules about whom they can marry and with whom they can have children. The Family has had various titles, but was formed in California in 1968 as the Children of God. Its leader, David Berg, encouraged sex between adults and children as the highest expression of God's love. Mired in controversy, it rebranded itself as the Family International, but stuck to its roots: its webpage still includes a tribute to David Berg, and the Family has never renounced his writings.
'I emailed Wayne asking him about this leader and his associations. Wayne replied there was "absolutely nothing wrong with David Berg" . Then I did everything you're not supposed to do when your child becomes interested in a cult, and went completely bananas,' says Wells.
Obtaining exact figures on the number of cults operating in Britain is hard, but Ian Haworth of the Cult Information Centre estimates that there are well over 500 extreme organisations that can be described as cults.
'Lots of organisations, from extreme therapy groups to so-called religious organisations, come under the definition of cult, but they all share similar characteristics,' says Howarth. 'Broadly, a cult is as an elitist, totalitarian society which uses psychological coercion to recruit and retain members, isolating them from their family and society. Cults are led by self-appointed, messianic leaders who are non-accountable but often charismatic, and who also exploit their members.'
The danger of cults is that most of us don't realise how powerful they are, and the effects they can have. 'Part of the problem I faced was convincing other people I wasn't mad, and that Rachel really was in danger,' says Wells.
But Wells' anxiety was well founded, as Celeste Jones, 35, can testify. Jones was born into the Children of God. Her parents separated when she was four, and while her younger sister returned to England with her mother, Jones remained with her father in the cult throughout her childhood and into early adult life.
During this time she had five different names, and lived in 15 different countries – the Family prefers its members not to put down roots and is also keen to avoid the attention of suspicious locals and police.
Sex was a regular part of life, with adults openly having sex in front of children. A weekly dance would include every adult pairing off for sex, including children over the age of 12, and daily prayer sessions incorporated 'Cuddle Time' , or group sex. Jones was regularly assaulted by adult men in the name of God's love and, aged 11, was instructed to have sex with another child as part of the commune's 'date schedules' .
Now working as a family support worker for a children's charity in Bristol, where she lives with her 12-year-old daughter, Jones is composed and articulate. She explains that a cult survives by destabilising the natural order of parent/child relationships.
'In a cult your parents are not your parents, as everyone under the leader is a child who can be punished.' I ask her why she didn't complain to her father. 'I adored my dad, but rarely saw him for more than a few moments at a time past the age of five, as he was working for the group, and was often away. I was looked after by carers,' she says.
'Time with him was precious, so we were prevented from real communication. If I told my peers they might have ratted on me, which we were encouraged to do. I had a deep desire to please God and had been convinced that criticising the group was the devil speaking. If I was negative I'd get in trouble with the leader.'
To an outsider, it is difficult to understand why someone would join, or remain inside, an abusive cult, but Jones likens it to a woman being in a violent relationship she cannot leave.
'As anyone who has experienced domestic abuse will know, leaving that relationship isn't straightforward,' she says. 'I was brainwashed to believe what we were doing was right, and the world was wrong. And, as in an abusive relationship, I sometimes felt that, if I could only alter things from the inside, I could make the group better.'
Dr Alexandra Stein, a lecturer at Birkbeck College in London and a social psychologist specialising in extremist groups, experienced at first hand the emotional complexity of life in a cult. An engaging woman in her late fifties, Stein spent a decade under the control of a radical Marxist group, O, in Minneapolis from the age of 26.
It's hard to imagine Stein being the kind of weak, lost individual one imagines might get sucked into a cult. But Ian Haworth suggests the easiest people to recruit are, in fact, intelligent, educated, idealistic and economically advantaged.
When she joined O, Stein had witnessed the Vietnam War and the rise of feminism, and had a hunger for political activism. 'The group didn't present itself as an organisation that would remove my ability to make personal choices, or control my entire life. Instead, it seemed like a bunch of like-minded, friendly people who impressed me with details of their healthcare clinic and campaigning they'd done for women's rights.'
Gradually, Stein became more involved with the group, and moved into a flat with several members. The group removed all her personal freedoms; she had an arranged marriage and was instructed not to use her diaphragm.
'Right away I was ordered to have kids as a way of controlling me,' says Stein. 'By this time I was isolated from friends and family. I was given a memo about my contraceptive choices on a beige sheet of paper, and obeyed it.
'I was a committed feminist, but I was brainwashed, so my thought process was confused, allowing the organisation to make highly personal choices for me. This "disorganised attachment" also happens in an abusive relationship, when a woman is confused and intimidated, then isolated to the point that the only person she can turn to is her abuser.'
For Jones and Stein, having children proved the turning-point, and they both escaped from their cults. 'Seeing the organisation with the eyes of a mother protecting her child helped me to distance myself from it,' Stein says. 'I reached breaking-point when I was instructed about the type of toys my kids could play with, as cartoon characters were forbidden. It seemed so absurd.'
Determined to break the conspiracy of silence that surrounds cult membership, both women have since published accounts of their experiences – Jones in Not without My Sister
, Stein in Inside Out
– and have been instrumental in setting up the Safe Passage Foundation, which provides resources and support for people raised in cults. The Cult Information Centre and the Families Survival Trust are another two organisations offering support to people affected by cults.
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