Former Neighbours actor pens cult book

Manningham Leader, Australia/May 22, 2011

Author Benjamin Grant Mitchell is no longer ashamed to tell people he was born into a doomsday cult.

The writer and former Neighbours actor has self-published his debut novel, The Last Great Day, a fictionalised retelling of his family's life in the infamous Worldwide Church of God.

Now 42 and living happily in a sprawling Warrandyte home with his wife, Pauli, and their nine-month-old daughter, Honey Rose, Mitchell speaks without bitterness about the atmosphere of deceit and oppression that shaped his early years.

"We left when I was 10 and I had a hard time as a teenager and in my 20s," he said.

"So for a lot of years I didn't talk about it and felt shameful and thought 'What will people think?' but I'm happy to be honest and talk about it now because we didn't do anything wrong."

Co-founded in America's north-west by former advertising executive Herbert W. Armstrong and Mad magazine comic artist Basil Wolverton, the cult prophesised the world would end in 1975, but was loose on the details of how things would go.

Contact with non-members was discouraged, the sect forbade celebration of birthdays or medical intervention and members were required to give 30 per cent of their income to the church.

Armstrong became so wealthy he purchased his own Gulfstream jet.

"If they told you everything at the start, you wouldn't have joined," Mitchell said.

Mitchell's father was a minister in the church in Manchester, England, when Mitchell was born but the family was ordered to move to Australia to spread the word in 1970.

Despite his young age, Mitchell's memories are still vivid of the terrible consequences of the church's ban on hospital treatment.

First his aunt died in labour and then his mother lost newborn twin boys.

"Obviously Mum chose to comply but she was bullied by a very oppressive atmosphere," he said.

"Everyone was afraid of being told they were going against the church."

The Mitchells eventually left the cult after the prophesised 1975 armageddon failed to eventuate and as the church was being investigated for tax evasion and child sexual abuse.

"Armstrong was always talking about us all going to Petra, the place of safety and salvation," Mitchell said.

"But it was all so ambiguous and we started asking: How are we getting there? Who's paying? When? And there were no answers."

The cult effectively ended with Armstrong's death in 1986 but the church has continued around the world in other less sinister incarnations.

Director of Cult Counselling Australia, Raphael Aron, said it was important to shed light on common cult experiences.

"Cults manipulate the human condition and that desire to be accepted and belong," he said.

"It is important for people to be aware of this because once you're in the position, it becomes much more difficult to extricate yourself."

Australian Psychological Society clinical and health psychologist Louise Samways applauded Mitchell for speaking out.

"For some people it's a very helpful thing to talk about it and tell their story," she said.

It is clear Mitchell's experience has left him with a profound understanding of his own beliefs and moral codes.

He is adamant his own daughter, Honey Rose, will be able to believe in and question whatever she wants.

Author's novel approach

IN telling his family's story as a work of fiction, Benjamin Grant Mitchell said it allowed him to combine his first novel, an autobiography and a family history.

The Last Great Day follows Henry Conroy, a minister in the doomsday cult The Worldwide Church, his family and their struggle to reconcile their belief in and involvement with an increasingly oppressive and erratic organisation.

"It was cathartic writing it as a fiction based in that world I knew very well," Mitchell said.

"When there's something you haven't embraced about yourself, you can't be relaxed or sincere so I'd always wanted to write and this let me put it all out."

Mitchell said honest communication was the key to his family's freedom.

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