Shuah Jones, 15, stuffed clothes under her bed blankets in the shape of a body, grabbed her diary and Bible, and crept downstairs. Wearing a long blue linen skirt and clunky buckled sandals, she opened the door, slipped outside, and paused to look back at her house: a historic residence in Plymouth, Massachusetts, known as the Blue Blinds, where she lived with other members of her church. Good riddance, she thought. On the street she broke into a run toward the only payphone she knew of, at a gas station near the center of town, half a mile away. She’d never been outside alone at night before. As she sprinted down the main drag, Court Street, men in bars called out and wolf-whistled. She was terrified. When she reached the phone, she called her brother Noah, who told her to wait for him in a parking lot next to the Blue Blinds, so she ran all the way back. He was an hour away. She hid in a bush, heart thumping. When at last he pulled into the lot, she leaped into his car.
“Just breathe,” he told her as they drove away. “Breathe.”
Today the Blue Blinds is a bakery, famous in Plymouth for its eggs-and-cheddar sandwich and its organic pastries. It has earned a loyal fan base by charging a little less than its neighborhood competitors for food that is consistently delicious. But generating a profit isn’t its only objective. Another is winning souls: The bakery is the public face of an otherwise reclusive and controversial religious sect called the Twelve Tribes.
I visited the Blue Blinds one morning last summer. Business was brisk. As I stood at the back of a long line inching toward the entrance, I found myself staring at the employees’ garb. The women all wore long hair and baggy, floor-skimming dresses. The men sported trimmed beards and short ponytails, and rolled up their pants to expose their socks. A customer in front of me referred to the “cool hippie vibe” of the place.
Inside, customers dined at small round tables and on dark leather sofas as peaceful Celtic flute music played. I ordered a coffee and sat under a dramatic three-wall mural depicting stages of the Pilgrims’ harrowing journey to America. I assumed the decor was just another nod to the tourists who flock to the neighborhood to buy their colonial cranberry sauce and take selfies at Plymouth Rock, a mere two blocks away. But the server who brought out my food, a Hoosier formerly known as Jeremy Johnson and who now goes by Yashar (Hebrew for “Upright”), set me straight. A short, earnest man with warm brown eyes, he sat at my table, welcome but unbidden, and seemed eager to talk.
“We see ourselves as direct descendants of the Puritans,” he explained. He pointed to a section of the mural in which Governor William Bradford scowled in the foreground as colonists tended individual gardens behind him. “He’s distraught because everyone’s working their own field,” he said. “They should be working together. That was the goal they had when they came over—to live the life of the early church. And they failed.”
Where the Pilgrims failed, the Twelve Tribes hopes to succeed. Members of the group, who number some 3,000 worldwide, live and work together, homeschool their children, and espouse a very literal interpretation of the Bible. Like the religious separatists who fled England in 1620 and dropped anchor down the street, the Tribes claims to practice a purer form of Christianity than mainstream churches.
After Yashar was called away, I browsed a side table filled with the group’s literature. Tucked among predictable testimonials from members who said they found purpose or “true love” in the group, one brochure stood out. Its cover featured a 1933 Norman Rockwell drawing of an overwhelmed mother pinning her small son facedown on her lap. At her feet lies a hammer, along with evidence that the boy has recently gone on a destructive spree: a shattered mirror, a broken vase, and a disemboweled clock. Unsure how to discipline her child, the mother grips a hairbrush in one hand, and a book on child psychology in the other. To spank or not to spank? That’s the question—and she doesn’t know the answer.
But the Tribes does. When the Spanking Stopped, All Hell Broke Loose is the title of the brochure. It cites Proverbs 13:24 (“He who spares his rod, hates his son, but he who loves him disciplines him promptly”) to make the following argument: “If you love your child you will take the rod and discipline him when he’s disobedient. It’s not optional; it’s a command.” The Tribes argues that progressive childrearing practices such as time-outs or taking away treats or screen time have resulted in a spike in juvenile violence and crime. The only way to reverse this trend, the Tribes contends, is by using the proverbial rod—early, often, and hard enough to leave marks. According to former and current Tribes leaders I spoke with, infants raised in the Tribes are hit with balloon sticks—thin wooden rods used to keep balloons from floating away—for “offenses” as minor as resisting a diaper change or throwing a bottle. Older children are whipped with bamboo canes. “Children are driven by their natural, innate nature to do what is wrong,” the group’s teachings state. “It’s better to go to heaven with welts than to go to hell without welts.”
We Americans love our origin story, the notion that a tough band of Pilgrim non-conformists helped birth our nation and our freedoms. We celebrate the First Amendment, which prevents the government from interfering with our religious beliefs and practices. But what if those beliefs and practices make children suffer?
Strange thing to ponder while you’re sitting in a sun-dappled cafe sipping Fair Trade-certified coffee. When I asked Yashar about the brochure, he casually mentioned that he spanks his two boys, ages two and four, several times a day. “In the community, it’s a regular way of life,” he told me, and I thought of Shuah Jones, who’d fled this same place 12 years earlier. “Children who are disciplined grow up to be disciplined adults.”
That’s what the Tribes tells its members. But interviews with dozens of current and former members—along with a review of hundreds of pages of the group’s secret teachings, their public statements to the media, and their website and YouTube channel—tell a somewhat different story.
The Twelve Tribes grew out of a Bible-study group in Chattanooga, Tennessee. In 1972, a former high school teacher and guidance counselor named Gene Spriggs and his fourth wife, Marsha, started a gathering of believers in their home. This was during the heyday of the Jesus Movement, whose adherents viewed Jesus as a counterculture hero. The couple recruited heavily outside of local schools and youth hangouts. Spriggs gave informal Bible lectures in his living room that held audiences rapt for hours, former members say. Many of the young people who turned up seeking enlightenment were runaways and drug addicts, whom the couple invited to move in. To support their growing household, the Spriggses opened a restaurant in 1973 called the Yellow Deli, where members worked for room and board but no paycheck. The restaurant featured booths crafted from reclaimed barn wood, and the menu delivered a subtle come-on. “We serve the fruit of the Spirit,” it read. “Why not ask?”
By 1978, Spriggs had opened six Yellow Delis and unofficially re-branded his Bible study as a church: the Vine Christian Community Church. Then came controversy. The Chattanooga Times published interviews with disenchanted former members. “We worked 16 to 18 hours a day, six days a week, until we were so tired we couldn’t think,” one complained. Those who questioned the leadership were told their doubts were “from Satan.”
By this time, Spriggs’ followers considered him a modern-day apostle. “His teachings were considered fresh revelations from God,” said Joellen Griffin, a former member. And the revelations were extreme. Spriggs told his followers that God wanted them to cut themselves completely off from modern society. This meant no television, radio, books, or anything else that embodied secular culture. “Friendship with the world,” he preached, “is enmity with God.” Members were required to donate all their possessions to the group—homes, cars, money—in exchange, Spriggs told them, for eternal salvation. When concerned relatives raised objections, Spriggs told his followers to cut them off, too.
Several parents hired a cult deprogrammer to forcibly extract their children from the church—with limited success. Besieged by bad press and desperate relatives, Spriggs pulled out of the Bible Belt altogether, relocating to a remote village in Vermont called Island Pond. Two hundred followers joined him, among them David Jones, the elder who had defended Spriggs in the Chattanooga Times; his wife, Patricia; and their infant daughter, Tamar.
In this new setting, the group became increasingly reclusive. Spriggs decided he was destined to restore the ancient Twelve Tribes of Israel and produce an army of 144,000 male virgins, who would prepare the way for Christ’s second coming. To this end, he re-named the group the Twelve Tribes. To differentiate the Tribes from mainstream Christianity, he referred to Jesus as Yahshua, a variant of Jesus’ Hebrew name, and insisted members take Hebrew names as well. He called himself Yoneq—a play on his given name that he translated as “tender shoot or sprig.”
The tenor of the sect changed now, too. Spriggs began to preach that blacks were destined to be slaves, homosexuals “deserved the death penalty,” and women—who weren’t allowed to use birth control—had to atone for Eve’s original sin by giving birth without painkillers. He drafted rules regulating everything from fingernail length to how married couples should engage in intercourse.
A large portion of Spriggs’ teachings concerned children, though he never actually raised a child in the group. (He and Marsha have no children. He has one son, by his first wife, but he left them when the boy was young.) “If one is overly concerned about his son receiving blue marks,” he wrote to David Jones, “you know that he hates his son and hates the word of God.”
“Blue marks” are bruises, of course, which members of the Tribes consider evidence of exemplary parenting. “I remember constant welts on my hands, thighs, and butt,” a woman who was raised in the Tribes told me. Children are expected to obey “on the first command,” without talking back or complaining. They are not allowed toys or bikes, and cannot engage in fantasy play. They read only the Bible and the group’s dogma. The former members I spoke to claimed most children were beaten multiple times a day, for transgressions as innocuous as forgetting to raise their hands at the dinner table and “dissipation”—the group’s term for horseplay. Responding to these descriptions, a current leader of their California communities, Wade Skinner, echoed the brochure I read in Blue Blinds. “That wouldn’t be how we portray our life,” he said, “but we do believe if you love your child, you will be diligent to discipline them, and if you hate them, you will withhold the rod.”
That’s the philosophy that guided an elder named Eddie Wiseman. In 1983, according to a former Tribes member named Darlynn Church, Wiseman whipped her with a balloon stick from her shoulders to her ankles for kissing a boy, leaving a ladder of bloody stripes. She was 13. Her father reported Wiseman to Vermont authorities, who charged him with simple assault. But then the father recanted, saying he had been pressured by “anti-cult” activists to exaggerate his claims, and the state was forced to drop the case. (Wiseman maintains the accusations were “greatly exaggerated.”)
But the investigation continued. Because the Tribes children were so isolated, investigators couldn’t verify the abuse allegations through teachers and doctors, the usual third parties. They didn’t know the number of children living in the community, much less their names. So the district attorney’s office summoned seven Tribes leaders, including David Jones, who now had four children, to a county courthouse, to try to compel them to disclose this information. The men refused and were briefly jailed for civil contempt, then released. The state continued to marshal its forces. Three days after their release, 90 state troopers and 50 social workers descended on the group’s homes shortly after dawn. Under orders to do “whatever was necessary” to identify the children, police rousted members from bed and retrieved 112 minors, among them the Jones children. As police escorted the children to waiting buses, neighbors cheered. The families waited at an armory, while prosecutors sought a court order to have the children examined for signs of physical abuse. But the case fell apart when a district judge rejected the request, stating that the warrant was too broad—it failed to identify the children by name.
The state prosecutor, Philip White, vented his frustration to the Burlington Free Press. “The first lesson is that it is still OK to beat their children,” he said, “especially if they have a religious justification for it. The second lesson is that we still have not found a satisfactory approach to preventing and addressing child abuse issues when they occur in closed religious communities.”
The Twelve Tribes hailed the decision as a victory for religious freedom. God had delivered His people.
Corporal punishment—which the United Nations defines as “any punishment in which physical force is used and intended to cause some degree of pain or discomfort”—has been banned in 46 nations. The general consensus within the medical-research establishment, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, is that physical punishment, especially of children, can lead to increased aggression and psychological problems. Hitting a child in the home in the United States, however, is legal in every state as long as it doesn’t leave a mark.
Religious and political conservatives have often thwarted efforts to advance children’s rights in this country. Consider the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which aims to protect minors from abuse and exploitation, ensure access to secondary education, and guarantee a child’s freedom of “thought, conscience, and religion.” The CRC is the most widely ratified international human rights treaty in history, but it has one holdout: the U.S. Although Madeleine Albright signed the convention in 1995, President Clinton never bothered sending it to the Senate for ratification because Jesse Helms, a conservative Republican, had galvanized opposition against it, declaring it to be “incompatible with the God-given right and responsibility of parents to raise their children.” More recently, a group called ParentalRights.org, led by evangelical Christians, has spearheaded resistance to the treaty while at the same time lobbying for an amendment that would protect parents’ ability to spank their children.
The biggest hurdle to the treaty’s ratification is our own legal system. In the past four decades, believers have lobbied for, and won, a host of religious exemptions and shield laws that have steadily chipped away at the basic rights of children. The CRC mandates, for example, that governments take steps to abolish “practices prejudicial to the health of children.” But in 1972, the Amish won a case before the Supreme Court that allowed them to pull their kids from school after eighth grade so that they could do farm work. In 1974, the Christian Science Church persuaded the federal government to compel states to enact a religious exemption to child-abuse laws, so that parents would not be adjudicated as negligent when they deprived their children of medical care on religious grounds. Rita Swan was one of those parents, and she now finds religious shield laws indefensible. A former Christian Scientist whose 16-month-old son Matthew died from a treatable bacterial infection despite prayer treatments, she now directs Children’s Healthcare Is a Legal Duty, which tracks cases of faith-based child abuse. “Religious shield laws discriminate against children, depriving them of protections the state extends to others,” she told me. “They should be repealed.”
Since the 1970s, the number of religious exemptions to generally applicable laws has skyrocketed. In 1993, Congress passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act to circumvent laws that “substantially burden” a person’s free exercise of religion. Twenty-one states have subsequently passed their own versions, in effect granting an unprecedented license to discriminate against homosexuals, jeopardize women’s health, and deny housing to unmarried couples.
Under the guise of freely exercising their religion, the constitutional-law expert Marci Hamilton writes in her book God vs. The Gavel: The Perils of Extreme Religious Liberty, an increasing number of believers are finding ways to deprive their children of education, force them to work without pay, refuse them medical care, and even let them die as a testament to their faith. (Since 1975, Rita Swan has tallied more than 400 children who died from what she terms “religious medical neglect.”) Church pedophiles sometimes claim religious privilege to try to avoid prosecution, Hamilton writes, and they all too often succeed.
Children are defenseless against abuse. They don’t vote. They don’t organize. They don’t have money to hire lobbyists or spin media campaigns to protect their interests. They don’t have a voice. They rely on adults for protection—and sometimes it’s those same adults who violate their rights.
On June 15th, 1987, in Vermont, Patricia Jones gave birth to a fifth child, a daughter whom she and David named Shuah. These were what former members would later recall as the “glory days.” The Tribes owned property along the Saxtons River, and the Jones family would spend weekends camping beside it, swimming in the wide shallow stream and roasting hot dogs over a campfire. Little by little, however, Spriggs denied his followers such simple pleasures. He banned the celebration of holidays, even birthdays. Shuah was spanked for pretending that a rolled-up towel was a doll. The rod, she says, became a constant in her life—a claim corroborated by her siblings, other former Tribes members, and, eventually, a Massachusetts Department of Children and Families investigation. She was whacked for opening the fridge without permission, for leaving food on her plate, for talking too much—and not just by her parents, but by any adult who had authority. (The Joneses declined to address any specific claims for this article.)
“You need to be cleansed,” she was told. At communal suppers, parents were pressured to spank kids by other adults. “Spriggs was fond of saying we should be proud of these wounds our children bore,” a former member named Roger Griffin told me. “If you loved your children, you were not swayed by their screams.”
Some adults did balk at the severity of these teachings. Mary Wiseman, the wife of Spriggs’ second-in-command, was one of them. She became furious when Spriggs paddled her six-year-old daughter, Kate, and threatened to leave the community with her children. She didn’t, though, and when she died, at 39, of cervical cancer, Spriggs declared that her “unconfessed sin”—criticizing his authority—had killed her. “Guilt and unconfessed sin is how you get sick,” Spriggs wrote in a teaching on the immune system. “This is why people die young.”
Children have died because of the Tribes’ rejection of modern medicine. During a whooping-cough epidemic that swept the community in the late 1980s, Bruce Whittenburg grew alarmed when his 15-month-old became sick. He and more than a half-dozen former and current members say he consulted the elders, who told him, “If God wants her to live, He’ll save her.” She died a few hours later. “It was the worst thing that happened to us,” said Whittenburg, who left the Tribes in 2001.
During her second pregnancy, another former member, Ruth Williams, developed placenta previa—a dangerous condition in which the placenta blocks the birth canal. She was told that if she prayed hard enough God would move the placenta out of the way. Despite beseeching God on her hands and knees, Williams started hemorrhaging when she went into labor and lost consciousness—at which point she was driven to a hospital, she says, and dumped on the sidewalk outside the emergency room. She woke to the news that her son had been stillborn. Another woman who labored for days was only brought to a hospital after her child died inside her.
After Mary Wiseman’s death, Tribes elders began to judge parents’ ability to raise their children. When they judged parents inadequate, they split families up, often with devastating consequences, as the Jones family would learn.
Their son Noah tells a distressing story from 1992, when he was nine and the Joneses were living in a community in St. Joseph, Missouri. One day, Noah says, he and his two brothers, Yoshiyah, 12, and Ezra, seven, were rappelling out of a tree when an elder’s wife told them to stop. The boys told her that their dad allowed them to do it and kept playing. So the elder separated them and locked Noah in the furnace room of an adjacent house—with David and Patricia’s support. The elder gave Noah a piece of paper and told him to write down his sins. Noah wrote down past peccadilloes, such as stealing a penny from his dad’s dresser, but the elder told him to think harder. This went on for a week. He slept on the cement floor, used a bucket as a toilet, and was fed one meal a day. When he cried and asked to see his father, he was told his father didn’t want to see him. Finally, the elder accused him of engaging in a homosexual encounter—with his brothers. Noah didn’t know what “homosexual” meant, so the leader described gay sex to him in graphic detail. (When reached for comment, Yoshiyah refused to discuss any details but said, “My siblings exaggerate these stories.”)
The ordeal ended with the three brothers sent away to three different homes in Vermont. Shuah, who was four at the time, remembers a van driving off with her brothers as the other kids clapped, happy the “corrupters” were gone. Noah lived with a succession of single “brothers” who beat him and forbade him from socializing with other kids. “I kept hoping my parents would come rescue me,” he told me.
By the time he was finally allowed to re-join his parents a year later, his trust in them and the Tribes was shattered.
The Tribes now has communities at 12 locations around the globe, most of them in New England, together intended to represent the original 12 tribes of Israel. The group owns not only restaurants but also businesses in construction, landscaping, body-care products, and tea. According to tax documents given to me by a former leader, the group’s sales were $26 million in 2012. These earnings are tax exempt and fueled by members’ free labor—including that of children. Like the Amish, the Tribes stops homeschooling children after eighth grade so that they can work, a practice they call “apprenticeship.” Younger kids are tapped if there is a push to fulfill a contract. “We make no apology,” Wade Skinner, the elder, said when asked about this. “It’s the age-old practice of families.”
The Jones children were put to work at an early age. For several weeks when she was seven, for example, Shuah boarded a 15-passenger van at dawn with other grade-schoolers and drove to the Tribes’ Common Sense factory in Rutland, an hour away. One of the Tribes’ biggest clients was Estee Lauder, which contracted the group to make its popular Origins salt scrub. Shuah spent 10 hours a day labeling and packaging the scrub and other products. At a certain point, she told me, the elders passed out sleeping bags so the kids could sleep on the factory floor. “We’d take little breaks and run around and play and get spanked for it,” recalled Alicia Gonyaw, who worked at the factory when she was 12. “We weren’t allowed to be kids.”
By the time he was 10, the youngest of the Jones siblings, Kepha, was working for the Tribes’ tree-trimming service in Cape Cod. He wore no safety gear, and one day a large pine fell on him, gashing his head and knocking him out. Instead of being rushed to a nearby hospital, Kepha was driven to a Tribes community in New Hampshire, four hours away, where a member who was an EMT used 60 stitches to close the wound. Now 25, Kepha has a scar and suffers from vertigo and blackouts.
Noah Jones worked full-time from the age of 12, doing commercial millwork and building furniture, including handcrafted roll-top desks that were sold through Robert Redford’s Sundance catalogue. The work so exhausted him that he often fell asleep during the hour-long religious services he was required to attend twice a day. At 14, a supervisor beat him with a two-by-four at a construction site. When he turned 18, Noah left, vowing to do whatever he could to pry his younger siblings away from the Tribes. Helped by former members and sympathetic strangers, he found a place to live and work. He then sought out a former priest and critic of the Tribes who urged him to contact the press; outlets from the New York Post to CNN soon ran stories on the Tribes’ child-labor practices, prompting Sundance and Estee Lauder to cancel contracts.
Shuah, who was 12 at the time, was deeply worried for Noah’s safety. Spriggs tells his followers that God will strike them down if they leave or speak out. Stories of defectors who died violent deaths circulate as warnings among members. (Indeed, several former members I contacted refused to speak on the record because they still feared divine revenge.)
Shuah’s diary reflects her inner turmoil. On one page, she describes the world as “dark, cold and empty.” On another, she fantasizes about running away. Plagued by nightmares about adults hitting children, she often wet her bed. Her jaw locked up for days, leaving her unable to speak or chew. To solve that problem, Shuah says, an elder hooked her up to a transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation unit, a device that uses currents to treat joint and muscle pain. although the Food and Drug Administration explicitly warns against using such devices on the head, the elder applied two electrodes to Shuah’s jawline and two to her wrist. The pain was excruciating, she says—her head vibrated, and an acid taste filled her mouth. She ripped the leads off and noticed burn marks on her wrist. Her jaw remained locked until the following day, when it unlocked on its own.
At 14, Shuah was working full-time at the Common Grounds restaurant in Hyannis, Massachusetts, in a downstairs kitchen with other underage girls. If anyone asked, they were instructed to say they were 18. Although she was working adult hours, she was still treated as a child. One day, an older woman accused her of stealing food. In the interrogation that followed, which lasted hours, Shuah realized she would only be released if she confessed. So she did. “You must be cleansed,” the woman said—and then ordered Shuah to lie face- down on a bed so she could whip her bare buttocks with a bamboo cane.
Noah, meanwhile, had saved up enough to buy a car. He had the windows tinted so he could drive by the communal houses unnoticed, hoping to catch a glimpse of his siblings. One afternoon he saw Shuah walking alone between houses and rolled down the window. “Hey, how are you?” he asked. Shuah, overjoyed, jumped into the passenger seat. He slipped a CD into the player. “Listen to this,” he said, putting on Faith Hill’s “There You’ll Be.” He knew better than to pressure her to leave. He let the lyrics speak for him: “In my heart there’ll always be a place for you / For all my life, I’ll keep a part of you with me / And everywhere I am, there you’ll be.”
“Isn’t her voice amazing?” he asked. He wanted her to know that there was beauty in the outside world.
Before Noah dropped Shuah off, he made her memorize two numbers: an untraceable AT&T calling card ID and his cell phone number. He knew that members’ belongings were routinely searched for contraband, such as money, chocolate, or bikini-cut “harlot” underwear, and that she could get in trouble for possessing his number.
Shuah was torn. As a woman in the Tribes, a bleak future awaited her: She would be expected to marry young, be subservient to her husband, and produce as many babies as possible. But she was also terrified of the unknown.
At about that time, Shuah was given permission to live with her older sister, Tamar, then pregnant with her first child. The two lived in the large commune the Tribes owned in Plymouth: a 9,000-square-foot mansion with 12 bedrooms and sweeping views of Plymouth Bay. The sisters had rarely lived in the same community and didn’t know each other well. Shuah looked forward to spending time with Tamar, who was married and possessed more freedom than rank-and-file members. Tamar bought Shuah ice cream, a forbidden treat, and took her to the library, a forbidden activity. Sitting in a hushed corner, Shuah learned about the country she was living in for the first time.
But two days after Tamar’s daughter was born, the elders abruptly moved Shuah to the Blue Blinds, and her life became an endless loop of mind-numbing work and rote religious ceremony. She was put to work packaging boxes from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day. Her jaw locked up again.
These people can do whatever they want to me, she thought.
It was the last straw. A few days later, Shuah ran out into the street clutching her Bible and diary, called Noah, and made her escape.
Although Gene Spriggs didn’t respond to repeated interview requests, I did wrangle an invitation to the Tribes’ commune in Plymouth—the mansion where Shuah spent several happy days with her sister and niece in 2002. As evening settled in, members gathered on a stone patio to sing and perform dances to acoustic guitar. A dozen or so children, all dressed in the same faintly Biblical garb as their parents, peered at me shyly. Afterward, individuals stepped forward to share whatever was on their minds.
“The world is the fruit of Satan’s reign,” one man said, looking directly at me.
“I’m just thankful we have a cause to live for,” said another man.
“Deliver us from the schemes of the evil one,” a young woman added.
A small boy fidgeted, swinging his hands back and forth, until his brother tapped him sharply on the shoulder.
The sole African-American resident—a woman named Aisha Woodman, who has a degree in Film Studies from Columbia and teaches the children in a three-room schoolhouse at the front of the property—gave me a tour of the grounds. When I remarked on the balloon sticks I saw jammed into pencil holders in a classroom and resting on a wall-mounted coat rack in a bedroom, she nodded. “We strive for perfect obedience,” she said. Earlier that day, I’d asked a big-boned, blonde leader named Nehemiah Jayne to strike me with one. He obliged, whipping the palm of my hand. It stung; I fought the urge to curl my hand into a fist. As I took notes, he joked, “See, you can still write—you’re fine.”
At dinner, I sat with Nehemiah and his silent three-year-old son at a table separated from the rest of the residents, on the veranda, overlooking the sparkling bay. Although members use chopsticks to eat—to appeal to potential Asian recruits, Jayne said—I was handed a fork to eat our simple yet tasty meal: steamed broccoli and cheese over brown rice. For an hour, we discussed the group’s more controversial teachings. As we wrapped up, Nehemiah sighed deeply and rubbed his face with his hands before giving me a tired smile. “We’re not even afraid of bad publicity,” he said. “We’ve had several people move in after they’ve read negative articles about us.”
As our plates were cleared, a quiet game of tag was staged on the lawn directly in front of me. The children’s play seemed tentative, nothing like the rowdy versions of tag I’d witnessed my own kids play. Perhaps, as the Tribes contends, this is because its kids are more disciplined. Or perhaps, as former members contend, it’s because their children have never been given the freedom to act like kids. I thought of Sammie Brosseau, who broke with the group at 18, put herself through college, and now lives in Manhattan. “I was robbed of my childhood,” she told me.
I gave Aisha Woodman a ride back to Plymouth, where she lives above the Blue Blinds bakery. Before opening the door to get out, she turned and said, “Be careful. There’s a lot of nightlife around here.”
It was July 31—the same date Shuah escaped. I decided to re-trace the route she took down Court Street 12 years earlier. The night was warm; dance music wafted from pubs and restaurants; young people in shorts and boat shoes swarmed the sidewalks. The atmosphere felt anything but menacing.
When Noah brought Shuah back to the house where he was living, his roommate was watching a concert on television. She stared at the scandalous blonde prancing half-naked across the stage, but she had no idea who it was— Britney Spears, then at the height of her popularity.
The next morning, Noah drove his sister to the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families, where Shuah told investigators she’d been systematically beaten, denied an education, and forced to work without pay. She was sent to live with relatives in Tennessee, where she enrolled in high school and for a time went by a more mainstream name—Monica. She went to her first movie, wore jeans for the first time, idled an afternoon away. Noah didn’t criticize her when she caked on make-up or gained weight from gorging on mac-and-cheese; she’d been raised by domineering men, and he wanted his sister to figure things out for herself.
Eventually, she did. In 2013, she graduated magna cum laude from the University of South Florida, and is now married with two children. She calls herself Shuah again.
Last June, I flew to Clearwater, Florida, to spend four days with Shuah and her siblings. Now a statuesque 28-year-old with long hair, Shuah projects a calm yet intense air. She chooses her words carefully. Her left shoulder bears a tattoo of a lotus flower—a symbol of re-birth that’s popular among survivors of tough times. We were joined by Noah, Kepha, and Tamar, all of whom have left the Tribes, as has their brother Ezra. Only their parents and their oldest brother remain in the group.
Over cups of coffee throughout the day, and bottles of beer in the evenings, the siblings discussed what it was like to grow up in the Tribes. Their conversations were often angry. Shuah, who still has nightmares about the group, takes medication for anxiety. She cried freely as she recounted the beatings she endured. She spent several hours in my hotel room one afternoon piecing together the story of her harrowing escape, then abruptly rose and locked herself in the bathroom. After a few minutes, I heard the shower running. “Phew,” she said when she emerged, smiling. “I feel much better now.”
Kepha, who wasn’t allowed to ride bikes as a kid, recently graduated from the University of Florida, where he was a member of the cycling team. He credits Noah with starting a mass exodus of teenagers from the Tribes. Noah has employed dozens of them in his construction business, but they are the lucky ones. Others, without high school diplomas, work experience, savings, or a safety net, have resorted to prostitution, drug dealing, and, in one notorious case, robbing banks.
The Jones siblings’ relationship with their parents continues to be strained. When David and Patricia heard their kids were talking to me, they threatened to stop communicating with them. One evening, I returned to the hotel with Noah and Kepha and found them waiting; they’d driven two hours from a Tribes commune in Arcadia, Florida. As the brothers headed to the bar to order beer—“to take the edge off,” Noah later told me—I sat down with their parents on the lobby’s small sofas. During a short, tense meeting, they questioned me about my intentions and deflected most questions. “The entire media is under the sway of the Evil One,” Patricia told me.
I turned to her husband, a tall, angular man with piercing blue eyes.
“Do you really think it’s fair to spank an infant?” I asked. Kepha and Noah returned, beers in hand.
“When a baby understands the word ‘no,’ they’re ready to begin their training,” he said, without missing a beat. “When the spanking stopped,” he said, quoting the title of the pamphlet I’d seen at the Blue Blinds, “all hell broke loose.” Of his broken family, he observed, “Our one mistake was not spanking our children enough.”
This sparked a heated exchange between parents and sons. Patricia ran a hand through Kepha’s hair.
“You were never abused,” she murmured. “Our life is full of love.”
“You’re in denial, mom,” he shot back, leaning away from her.
Noah pulled out his iPhone to show them photos of the granddaughter they’ve never seen. It was excruciating to watch.
The Tribes continues to be dogged by negative press in England, Spain, and Australia, but the biggest blow to the group came in Germany, where corporal punishment is illegal. In 2013, a reporter for RTL Television infiltrated one of the sect’s communes and, over a two-day period, secretly filmed 50 instances of adults spanking children, including one small girl whose offense was refusing to say, “I’m tired.” After the footage aired, police seized 40 children and placed them in foster care, where most of them remain today. In France, a few months ago, a police raid of a Tribes community led to social workers rescuing four small children whose bodies bore evidence of recent beatings.
Shuah and her siblings are bewildered that the authorities have not taken similar action in this country. Despite the media exposés that Noah triggered, Tribes members who have left the group in the years since have claimed that the Tribes continues to beat children, exploit them as free workers, and deny them access to education and modern medicine. “Where do our human rights as children begin and their religious rights end?” Shuah asked me during our time together.
It’s not an easy question to answer. But Shuah plans to try. She’s been studying for the Law School Admissions Test and hopes to take it in December. She plans to become a legal advocate for children.
“Someone,” she says, “has to speak out for us.”
To see more documents/articles regarding this group/organization/subject click here.