AS SHE left university to make her way in the world, Carli McConkey suffered all the workaday self-doubts. She believed she was overweight, was unsure of her chosen career and was worried about finding Mr Right. She was disillusioned with Catholicism and craved spiritual fulfilment. She was also bright, popular, academically successful. After she organised the 1995 orientation week at her university, a careers adviser wrote: "Carli is my idea of an outstanding Australian".
Thirteen years later, McConkey is broke and exhausted. She has been beaten up and has mistreated others. She has spent years estranged from her parents, neglected her children, misled the courts and has worked as a virtual slave. Fixed in her mind is the fear that in December 2012 the world will come to an end and all but a few of us will die. At 35, she is also sterile, having been persuaded to undergo a tubal ligation in the belief that she was an unfit mother to her three sons.
Carli McConkey is not mentally ill. Neither drugs nor alcohol has led her to this point. Instead, in 1996 she joined a New Age personal development group called Universal Knowledge, seeking clarity. Once McConkey converted to its aims, the group's leader, Natasha Lakaev, manipulated her, hit her, took hundreds of thousands of dollars from her, and worked her without pay for up to 22 hours a day, seven days a week.
McConkey spent the best years of her life in a cult. She only escaped earlier this year. What's frightening about her story is that this could happen to any of us.
Clinical Professor Doni Whitsett of the University of Southern California has been working with victims of cults and their families for 20 years. Carli's is "a tragic textbook case", she says.
Cults vary in theology and practice, but all employ similar techniques to recruit the unwary. Scientology uses the free personality test to suggest everyone has deficiencies that Scientology can best address; the Australian cult Kenja uses circus classes and the promise of counselling and personal growth; and the commune-based Australian group Jesus People uses the promise of a purer form of Christianity. Natasha Lakaev used a mish-mash of New Age theories and therapies, an end-times philosophy based on environmental disaster, and a powerful personality.
Lakaev vehemently denies all allegations, saying she does not run a cult and that McConkey is unstable. What she ran was "just a series of workshops", she says. But for well over a decade, a growing number of former acolytes have emerged with identical stories of a high-pressure, abusive organisation.
Most of us find it hard to believe that anybody could allow themselves to be brainwashed in the way McConkey claims. But Whitsett says people do not join cults, they are systematically recruited, often by charismatic narcissists whose need for adulation gives them the power to manipulate others. Their victims are not mentally ill or stupid. They are often of higher-than-average intelligence, but they have vulnerabilities that the leader exploits and amplifies using powerful techniques known as "coercive persuasion" or "mind control". And like religious cults, personal development cults target people looking for guidance.
McConkey was 21 when she encountered a recruiter for Universal Knowledge, then known as Life Integration Programmes, at the 1996 Mind Body Spirit Festival in Sydney. "I was a bit lost ... and I was definitely searching," she says. "I just wanted to have a psychic reading to have a bit of clarity on my direction ... and [the reader] said basically, 'This course has everything you need to get over your insecurities, to build your self-esteem, get financial freedom, a great relationship' ... The brochure said over 10,000 people have done the course. It all appeared very legitimate."
According to Whitsett, McConkey was vulnerable to these suggestions in part simply because she was in her early 20s - the transition from adolescence to adulthood. "When people are 'searching', they are in an existential crisis, looking for answers to the great questions: 'Who am I? What is life all about?' They are ... willing to suspend their own worldview and their own ideas for another that seems more promising."
McConkey took her discovery of Lakaev's northern NSW-based group as a metaphysical "sign". She immediately signed up to the course, "The Next Evolutionary Step".
In person, Lakaev was sexy, powerful, charismatic. She told attendees to keep an open mind, to "leave your logic at the door", to avoid "judgmentalism" - a technique cults use to silence the internal voice of reason. She introduced the group to a technique called "accessing" - beating a black mat and yelling frustrations at parents, friends, teachers. She told them they needed to cleanse their "cellular memory" of the impurities of this and past lives, and those of their ancestors. They must live by "intuition" alone and if they did, they could "manifest" (or make) things happen in the real world. Wealth, happiness, success, relationships could all be "manifested" by the truly intuitive or "super-intelligent".
To McConkey it was inspiring. And though she had been told that the first course would fix everything, at the end the group was informed that to become fully "integrated", there were no fewer than 17 other courses, all at considerable expense, to do.
"It's a bait and switch," says Whitsett. People who believe an organisation to be credible and moderate have little fear of it, and can be drawn in further. Only later are they introduced to its more dangerous (and often more expensive) elements.
Melbourne woman Madeline Hardess, a university student and former private school captain, was lured into the Jesus People in 2004 by a man she met on a dating website. He did not initially mention that the three-bedroom house he lived in was actually a commune of up to 25 people, including two families of five.
He also did not reveal that, for food, they begged compost from grocery stores and ate the less putrid scraps. Nor did he say that the women were often beaten and yelled at. Only after a series of revelations over eight months did the truth sink in. By the time it did, Hardess was engaged and was convinced that people on the outside were corrupt or evil. She wore a headscarf to signify her subservience to the men.
"Through that period you're so excited that you've found this new thing that you don't even question that much," she said.
"But then ... it became a lot more intense and you had to quash thoughts ... I used to be a feminist, but then you get to the point where you're not even allowed to shake men's hands."
For McConkey, the first Life Integration course convinced her she had dozens of "issues". She immediately signed up for two more. At the next course, "The Final Step", 70 people went to a rural property in a bus with the windows blacked out. They handed over phones, wallets and identification. Their "self" was being removed, as was any means of escape. For a week they were yelled at, punished, pressured to complete tasks in a short time. In the attempt to "cleanse" themselves, they were made to go hungry, and would often only get two hours of sleep a night. They paraded naked in front of the group, which McConkey found humiliating.
The next course was even more extreme. Called "Personal Mastery and Metaphysical Counselling", it cost $10,000 and lasted a year. It featured a punishing daily regime including a strict vegan diet, a daily 10-kilometre run and drinking two litres of fruit juice.
"These techniques appear to be for health reasons but they actually have the effect of debilitation," says Whitsett. "They reduce the person's ability to think critically, to reason, and when people are so weak the 'self' is impaired, they are easier to control and manipulate."
McConkey recalls seeing visions of "spirits" - what Whitsett says were probably hallucinations or "waking dreams" caused by lack of sleep. Lakaev disputes these details, saying the vegan diet was only for a short time. One year's program, she admits, became "quite extreme" but she had tried to "settle it down".
Always a conscientious student, McConkey was desperate to succeed. But Lakaev's comments to her and others were 90 per cent negative, convincing them they needed to work harder.
Adrian Norman, a former member of Sydney cult Kenja, said an apparently random reward-punishment system kept him on edge for years. "You were built up as wonderful ... and then a week or two later you are the worst person in the world and disgusting and smelly and no one would ever want to be with you. It's like couples in abusive relationships - you go into a state of hyper-awareness and you can't think critically because you don't know if you're going to be attacked."
Whitsett says this "continuous barrage of attacks on the 'self' keeps the person in a continuous state of failure, of low self-esteem, and attached to the cult".
"They want to improve, to be better people, but they can never live up to the impossible standards set by the leader."
Cult members are also often deliberately disoriented, and outside influences removed to reduce their ability to distinguish what's normal. McConkey says Lakaev insisted that she renounce her parents and never discuss anything that happened on the courses - claims Lakaev denies. But Carli's mother, Robyn, remembers: "You'd just talk generally and she couldn't answer any simple questions because it pertained to what was happening up there, and it was all so secret. So there gradually just came a line where you didn't know what to talk about any more."
A Melbourne family, who wish to remain anonymous, say their son is being recruited by the Jehovah's Witnesses and they are watching him drift away from them as the cult's persuasive techniques prove "more powerful than the love of the family".
"To have a heartfelt relationship with one of your children and then to have a superficial, plastic relationship, it's gut-wrenching," says the father.
Cults also try to make it hard to find external, verifiable information. Lakaev uses lawyers to vigorously patrol public comment about her. She has legally pressured Google to remove links to websites critical of her and she is suing some former members for defamation over information they published on blogs.
Once Lakaev's disciples were hooked, their critical faculties broken down and their outside support cut off, Lakaev revealed her more extreme theology. McConkey says she claimed to be a reincarnation of Jesus Christ, and one of the 12 members on the Intergalactic Council of the Universe. She came from the "Bird Tribes" from a different dimension and she remembered all her past lives. In one of them she had been Queen of Atlantis. McConkey was told by Lakaev she had been a "lady in waiting" in Atlantis and she felt she was put on earth to serve her.
Lakaev also claimed "spirit guides" who live in the sky told her what to do. This gave her divine authority when she insisted that the planet would soon be destroyed and most people would perish. Lakaev, though, would survive with her followers and become the dominant political figure. Cult leaders often describe their god-like powers, saying that theirs is the power of life and death. A number of sources back up McConkey's claims, but Lakaev concedes only that "spirit guides" sometimes give her "very clear thoughts", and that, "from where I sit there are other dimensions that exist".
Of the other claims, though: "I do not consider myself the reincarnation of anything ... There's no such thing as 12 members on an intergalactic council. These are just stories that we talked about, just stories to describe things and discuss things ... They're just metaphors."
The end of the world, she claims, was not a prophecy. Her "survival" course was simply designed to help people cope if the worst did happen. McConkey vehemently stands by her version.
In her 13 years with Lakaev, McConkey completed 15 courses, some more than once, spending $41,395 on fees, much of it begged or borrowed from her parents. She met a man, Michael, and married him. He spent $34,540 on fees. Lakaev insinuated herself into every aspect of McConkey's life. She was maid of honour at Carli and Michael's wedding. McConkey insisted that Lakaev, rather than her own mother, an experienced midwife, assist at the birth of her children.
In December 1999, McConkey began working for Lakaev in the office without wages, and also cleaning and maintaining her properties. She and Michael bought a share in Lakaev's company, Universal Knowledge, for $20,000, believing they were buying equity, securing their future. They received nothing in return. Company documents show $420,000 was raised from investors in this manner, and Lakaev admits none have seen a return.
Lakaev later came up with spurious excuses to make McConkey and her husband pay her a further $140,000, claiming they were debts they owed. Both worked second and third jobs to pay this back. McConkey estimates that Lakaev owes them another $440,000 for their free labour over nine years.
Lakaev also convinced McConkey to seek an apprehended violence order against her parents and her brother. The court rejected the applications after McConkey gave misleading evidence. Lakaev claims instead
that she had tried to help McConkey reconcile with her parents.
McConkey and her husband had more than one period apart as they dealt with the psychological and financial pressures imposed by Lakaev. In the meantime, McConkey says she was psychologically abused and physically assaulted by Lakaev, and was separated from her sons because Lakaev convinced her she was a "human f--- up". Lakaev also once beat McConkey's young son with a wooden spoon, she says.
Lakaev denies any physical abuse, saying McConkey was the violent one, who had "done some very strange things with her kids". "She's going to end up in court herself ... Carli's one of these girls who goes to psychics 24/7; she's not really that stable."
Lakaev's supporters, who phoned The Sunday Age after my interview with her last week, said Lakaev was the victim of jealousy because she was a strong, independent businesswoman. They said they had seen McConkey leaving her young children home alone when she went to work. McConkey admits neglecting her children at times, but says she was forced to in the attempt to fulfil Lakaev's demands.
For 13 years she stayed in thrall to the cult, living on or near Lakaev's northern NSW property, Omaroo. The promise of "survival", the hope of financial reward (from her shareholding in Universal Knowledge), and the occasional compliment was enough to keep her loyal. But in March 2009, in a state of exhaustion, McConkey agreed to something she will regret forever.
"After the birth of my first son, from age 27, Natasha would tell me I was abusive, a liar and a manipulator and I shouldn't look after any children. She started saying, 'You should get sterilised'," McConkey recalls.
"After eight years, two more children and being repeatedly told to get sterilised, I gave in. I was separated from my husband at that time and I just knew I wouldn't be able to cope with another child in that environment and I thought, 'Well, I'll just do it now'."
McConkey is strong. Many former cult members can never speak about their experiences. But after just nine months away from Lakaev, she held her nerve throughout her account to me. When she tells me about the sterilisation though, the tears flow.
"The doctor said, 'Are you sure you want to do this? You've still got 10 years of fertility left'. I said, 'No, it's what I want'. But it wasn't. Someone else had placed that idea in my head. I did it purely for her, to be able to focus more on her and her needs ...
"After I left this year, I was in the girls' clothing section at Big W and I just had to really grieve that I wasn't able to have a little girl."
McConkey says the process of cult indoctrination had led her, inch by inch, to a place she could never have imagined. But Lakaev denies having any role in McConkey's decision. "I was a friend of Carli's ... We had a symbiotic relationship," Lakaev says.
Finally, in January this year, McConkey could handle no more. She picked up her children and drove away into what she believed was certain death at doomsday. "I was exhausted, had been beaten up again and was unable to cope with any more psychological and emotional pressure. I just said to myself, 'I don't care if I die in two years' time, I would prefer to be free and enjoy my children'."
The feeling of freedom was almost immediate. But McConkey deals with shame and guilt over things she has done to her children, her family, her husband and other cult members. Some family members still will not talk to her. And she finds it difficult to plan for anything after armageddon, which Lakaev prophesied would be December 12, 2012.
"I believe about 50 per cent that 'Survival' is going to happen and I just hope that it's not going to," McConkey says. "If I wake up on the 13th [of December] and nothing has happened I'm just going to celebrate and hope to God that whoever is still caught up with that woman is just going to get up and leave."
People sometimes ask why cult members do not simply exercise their free will and run away. But Kenja escapee Adrian Norman says his free will was reduced to a "pilot light" while in the cult. Mind control techniques are subtle and powerful. They turn your own mind against you.
"Prison walls and chains are not necessary when one believes these things," says Whitsett.
The good news is people can escape and recover, and McConkey is determined to do so. "I go through bouts of feeling really down but I know I can get out of them because I don't want to be depressed any more ... I still feel angry, but I don't feel as much fear."