Scholastic Scope

March 9, 1998

Natasha was born into what most people would consider a cult, but what she came to call the "community." " She grew up moving from town to town and house to home with her parents, living with dozens of other adults and kids who weren't part of her family. In the community houses, Natasha says, children were beaten with bamboo sticks and forbidden to play games, read library books and have opinions. The community, which began as a small religious group now has about 3, 000 members living in neighborhoods around the world. It supports itself by operating small businesses- such as pottery stores and cleaning services- where members work for little or no pay.

At 15, a defiant Natasha left and struck out on her own. Her new found freedom thrilled her; though it sometimes left her feeling scared and confused. Here is her story. Because Natasha is afraid of retribution for speaking out against the cult, she asked us not to use her real name or the real name of the organization.

For a long time I thought my life was normal and everyone else's life was weird. That started to change when I was 7. That year, my family and I moved into a new house owned by the community. We shared the house with 30 other people. From my window, I noticed the girl next door. She was around my age but not part of the community. She lived with her parents, two brothers, and a sister. I was fascinated by her, her name was Jamie, and she offered me a glimpse of the outside world that changed me forever.

I wasn't allowed to play with Jamie, but sometimes I'd sneak over and just watch her play. She invited me to feed her rabbits and pet her kittens. Before long, we were listening to music and looking at magazines. It was a blast! But I had to keep it a secret because the community considered those things sins. Children weren't allowed to have pets, play games, or use their imaginations. We could only listen to music and read books made by the community.

Over the next few years, my life became even more different from Jamie's. She wore stylish clothes and walked to a bus stop every day. I wore homely, extremely loose dresses that dropped to my ankles. And when I turned 11, I was pulled out of school to cook and clean. Around that time, Jamie started asking me questions that made me feel weird. Why wasn't I allowed to cut my hair? Why couldn't I play with dolls? She started noticing how strange I was. She was this cool teenager and I was a weirdo. So she stayed away from me.

The community wasn't always as strict as it later became. It started as a Christian group that: helped troubled kids. My dad was one of the founders. But it got stranger as time went on. The leader took a little from every religion he liked and basically created his own. He said he spoke to God. The leaders started to control everything members did and forced people to work almost all the time. Friday and Saturday nights were the only times we didn't have to work. We'd eat big meals, then sing and dance. The steps were very controlled, nothing you could shake your groove to. And we couldn't dance with boys, only in groups. Having crushes was strictly forbidden. A friend of mine once confessed to holding a boys hand, and she wasn't allowed out of her room for a month.

Children were disciplined from the day they were born. Crying babies were hit. I thought that was normal because I'd always been spanked. Kids weren't allowed to have their own minds. Even certain thoughts were considered sins. And we had to get permission to do anything, even simple things like eating a raisin.

Rebellious kids were sent away. That is what happened to me. I was 12, and this lady told me to carry two pitchers of ice water upstairs. I was almost to the top when I fell. The glass cut through my wrist and into a main artery I had eight hours of microsurgery. Then I was punished. It was so unfair, I didn't do anything wrong and I almost died. But people in the community believe everything happens for a reason. They said the accident happened because I was "rebellious." If I had been good the angels would have protected me. So I was taken away from my parents and sent to England. There, for nine months, I was raised by a family I didn't even know. The woman in charge had no motherly instincts. I felt like her slave. I got in trouble and was beaten a lot. She made me sleep in the same room with her and her husband. I was so angry, but I had to just swallow it.

I really missed my family. My mother was sweet and nice- even though she was afraid to stand up for me. And my father was always sympathetic. When I came back, my father secretly admitted to me he didn't like the way the community had changed. A year after that he told me he was leaving and would return for me later. I spent two years without him and I was so lonely. The one person I could confide in was gone. I started to think he wasn't coming back.

Then, one day, he pulled up in a van. He snuck me and my brother and sister out of the house and brought us to my grandmother's house. I had so much fun. He took us to Civil War sites and bought us ice cream- normal stiff to most people. My sister, who was 9 years old, was scared the whole time. She freaked out when she saw TV. She thought everything on the screen was real.

After a week I had to go back, but that visit was a turning point for me. I was 15, and I realized that I could leave the community and nothing horrible would happen. I had always been taught that the rest of the world was an evil place where you'd be killed. Six months later, I told the elders I wanted to leave. They couldn't believe it. It was such a big deal. They tried to scare me into staying. But for once in my life I was controlling my own thoughts. They said they'd let me go, but then they confined me to a room for two weeks. They sent people in to preach to me, but there was no way I'd listen. I'd had enough. On the last day, a community member brought me to my grandmother's house.

I was free! But having so many choices scared me. Even when my grandmother asked me if I wanted a sandwich, I couldn't decide. No one had ever asked me what I wanted, I was always told. Around other kids my age I felt totally clueless. I had no idea how to relate to them. They'd just make references to TV shows or crack jokes, and I just didn't get it. It took me about a year before I was able to make friends, and even then I couldn't tell them my past.

Now, five years later, I'm starting to adjust. I live with my dad and my little brother. I love to buy clothes in different colors and styles. And I love to sing and dance. Movies are great, and I'm a major bookworm. My Favorite books are the Flowers in the Attic series by V.C. Andrews. It's been hard too. In the community, I was so dependent. I never had to worry about getting a job, a place to live, or buying clothes or food. It was all just there.

I'm trying to lead a normal life and I'm excited about my future. I've just signed a modeling contract and I'm hoping to launch a career in fashion. As for my own childhood, I see it as a bad dream that happened a long, long time ago. My mom and my little sister still live in the community, and that depressed me.. I'm allowed to talk to them once in awhile on the phone but we really don't have much to say. Even though its probably not likely, I still hope that someday they will leave.

To see more documents/articles regarding this group/organization/subject click here.