Claire Ashman on growing up in a doomsday cult and how she got out Austraila/March 1, 2017

By Rebecca Sullivan

Claire Ashman didn’t own a pair of jeans or wear a bikini until she was 38.

For most of her adult life she’s never had her own bank account — she didn’t even know how to use an ATM. She grew up in the ’80s but had no idea who Madonna was. She’d never even heard a pop song.

But she can milk a cow, grind wheat and make bread and butter from scratch. She could survive for weeks on end with no electricity or running water. And she’s given birth to nine children, one of whom died as a newborn.
For the past 10 years she has been learning how the outside world works.

As a child she was brainwashed and lived most of her life trapped in two separate religious, doomsday cults.

She was raised in an ultrareligious Catholic sect based in Melbourne. At age 18 she married a 31-year-old man and moved to Nowra, NSW, to form part of the Order of St Charbel cult run by William “Little Pebble” Kamm.
In 2007, Kamm was sentenced to 15 years jail for a string of sexual attacks on young women. He was released in 2014. spoke to Claire, now 47, ahead of her TEDTalk in Sydney next week, about her experience and how on earth she managed to get herself, and her children, out of there.

How did you first come to be part of a cult?

I was born in a little town in Victoria and we were just normal Catholics who attended church on Sundays.

When I was four, there was this priest who didn’t like some of the changes in the church. He would come and say mass in our lounge room and then more and more people were invited and eventually we stopped going to the local church and this group flourished in our home very quickly. He told us about this Archbishop who flew all around the country holding mass, and he bought a church in Hampton in Melbourne.

So we used to travel two hours there and two hours back on Sundays. Eventually we moved down there ... and that’s all we knew.

What was life like?

We were home schooled. We didn’t have a TV, any access to newspapers or magazines. The only friends we had were the kids we saw at church on Sundays

There were not to be any outside influences, so that we wouldn’t be tempted to live like the outside world.

There were no jeans, no shorts or T-shirts. We were only allowed to wear sleeves down to our elbows and high necks. We had to have skirts below our knees, because this was the purity of the Catholic religion.

I didn’t own my first pair of jeans or wear a bikini until I was 38. I just didn’t own one because that was considered completely immodest ... you just didn’t do that.

What were some of these “end of the world” theories they’d talk about?

They told us that the whole world has been on the way to hell for years and it was seriously supposed to end about every six months, for almost a decade while I was in there.

There was a comet that was supposed to burn the whole earth, but only our communities would be saved. Another one was supposed to end in 2000 on New Year’s Day because of the Y2K bug.

How would you have to “prepare” for that?

We stockpiled food, clothes and farming tools because they said there would be no electricity or running water, because the world would be burned in hell. They said the earth would open up, there would be devils that would walk the earth.

We needed to have water, so my husband went a bought half a dozen 44-gallon steel drums and we stored wheat, corn and rye in there.

I used to grind the gains every week to make bread. I can make milk, corn, butter, jam, bread, you name it.

And what explanation was given when the world didn’t actually end like they told you it would?

They said it was a test of our faith and all those who “truly believe” would stay. They said certain people in the world had prayed and sacrificed hard and that’s why we were spared.

Or that Little Pebble had told God to have Mercy on us all. But that we always needed to be prepared.

Why did you get married so young?

I just married young because I was lost and insecure, I was directionless. I thought I was in love with him, but really I didn’t know what love was. We did end up having nine children together.

You’re constantly told ‘This is what Catholic women do’. They just have children, there is no contraception.

I didn’t know anything about sex and Mum was trying to explain it to me. She would get out her medical books and explain it the way they do in medical school. It was all beyond me. Then all of a sudden she said ‘It’s like how the cows and bulls do it in the backyard’. I was horrified.

When I got married I had no idea what sex entailed and I thought it was only to have children. I just didn’t know.

I didn’t want to have any more. I love all of my kids so I don’t want any of them to think that they weren’t wanted. Once they were born they were my babies and I love them dearly. But I did struggle mentally.

Did you have any independence at all? Was there ever a time where you could have escaped?

We never shared a bank account. I was brought up so strictly and told that the man is the head of the house — he works and you’re at home bringing up the children. That was how it worked.

I was brainwashed ... it’s total brainwashing. You just don’t know any different.

I was always told that when a woman goes out to work or she puts the kids in child care, that’s really bad for the children. It’s dreadful. Now I think, ‘How dare you?’

But I thought I was being a good wife and a good mother. He used to draw out enough money for me to get the groceries, and that’s it. I didn’t even know how to use an ATM. So I never had any access to money.

It also comes down to how you feel about yourself. I was taught ‘Women are under men, because men are the representation of God on earth. Women were always under that, because women were considered temptresses to men. We are unworthy.’
We women and girls were not even allowed inside the inner sanctum of the church. I didn’t value myself. I couldn’t stand up for myself.

So how did you eventually get out?

My husband was a big gambler and he’d often be away for a week or so at a time. I’d started to write letters to the head priest complaining about our situation, so eventually they stopped paying the mortgage on the house we were in.

So the town sheriff shows up with mortgage possession papers and says ‘You’ve got 12 days to get out’. I said ‘Do you know how long I have wanted to get out of here? I will do exactly what you tell me do to. I won’t give you any trouble’.

He came back 12 days later and I’d started to sell all of our stuff while my husband was away, so we’d have some money. We had stockpiled all of this stuff for the supposed ‘end of the world’ and I started selling it all.

I found a house while he was away working and got divorce papers. When he came back I said ‘You need to sign these papers’ and eventually he did. And we left.

Is there anything about your old life that you miss?

Oh God no, there’s nothing that I miss. I don’t have anything to do with the followers now. From their perspective I’m awful — I’m divorced and I had sex outside of marriage.

Some of them are still going, some have dropped religion altogether. It’s just toxic, you can’t reason with those people who have been brainwashed.

How did you meet your current husband and how does he feel about your past life?
I met him on Facebook because I was adamant I needed someone outside of all this. I think it was a bit mind-blowing for him to learn about, but I’ve been honest about it from the start, and I’m a completely different person now.

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