The gurus who fell from grace

The Age (Australia), October 1, 2000
By David Millikan and Murray Mottram

Former members of a secretive Melbourne cult have revealed how their quest for spiritual enlightenment turned into a nightmare of drug abuse, weird ritual and financial exploitation.

Five former cultists agreed to speak out after authorities said they were powerless to act against the group, the remnants of which now occupy a suburban house in Rosanna.

The former members believe young children and teenagers under the group's control are at serious risk.

Mr. and Mrs. B., Peter Taylor, Thelma McLeod and Liz Simpson left the cult about a year ago in the aftermath of the sudden death of their guru Jennifer Trow, who claimed to be a "channel" to the ancient Egyptian goddess Isis.

Scores more devotees have since deserted the cult, disillusioned by the reign of Trow's husband, David. The group is now thought to number no more than 15, but is believed to have three teenagers and as many as six children aged under 10 in its control.

Since the mass seizure of children in 1992 from the religious group known as The Family backfired on the child protection service and police, Victorian authorities have treated alleged cult headquarters as virtual no-go areas.

A Sunday Age investigation of the former members' claims discovered, among other things, that a Brighton drug rehabilitation clinic released patients to the supervision of David Trow, himself a former addict. Dr Michael Kozminsky, of the Genesis Medical Centre, said he was disturbed by the claims made by former cult members. He said Trow told him he was a member of a non-mainstream Christian group.

According to Mr. B., the story began in the comfortable surrounds of Jennifer Trow's home in Auckland's upmarket North Shore in the early 1990s. There she developed such a reputation among the "New Age crystal set" that it was nothing to have 80 people a week, paying $30 a head, at her "channelling" sessions.

By late 1992, Trow tried her luck in the New Age haven of Hawaii. But her push came unstuck amid competition from big-name Californian gurus.

In January 1993, she decided Melbourne would be their new base. Using proven marketing techniques, she soon built up a lucrative following. She set up offices in a Heidelberg shopping centre, called herself a kinesiologist and ran courses titled "In the Presence of the Master".

In 1994 she boasted: "The fact is I am probably one of the greatest seers on the Earth plane at this time." She offered "spiritual counselling" at $80 per hour, intensive weekends for $500 and once charged a couple $25,000 to conduct a wedding.

Yet she had no training and was subject to no professional scrutiny. Ms.B. and the other former members say that until the move to Melbourne, Jennifer Trow's drug use had been limited to ecstasy pills for "therapeutic" purposes.

But gradually the use of heroin and speed worked its way into her teachings as the gateway to a higher state of consciousness.

Liz Simpson says Trow introduced her to heroin, leading her to addiction. "At first they took it by themselves, then they started to pull members of the group in. The ideology changed to: 'Drugs are a good tool to use to lift yourself to a higher spiritual level. The ancient Egyptians used them but society nowadays is too repressed'."

Trow also urged her followers to free themselves from "sexual repression". Simpson says Trow told her she was possessed by demons as a result of previous sexual indiscretions and needed to undergo a "cleansing ritual". Trow professed to believe that demons came from the everlasting lake of fire, mentioned in the Bible, and for this reason she inserted ice blocks into Simpson's vagina as she was forcibly held down on a table.

Surprisingly, perhaps, such treatment did not dent Simpson's faith, which faltered only after Trow's sudden death on a trip to the US in early 1998 to be anointed the Australian leader of the Florida-based Universal Brotherhood Movement, a mail-order ministry.

In the weeks leading up to her trip, Trow had whipped the group into near hysteria. She wanted new clothes, money and drugs. One follower, Louise Coombs, said: "I'll make sure you have enough." Trow demanded $30,000; Coombs borrowed most of it and is still paying it off. In all, the group gave $65,000.

But the trip was the beginning of the end for the couple, whose drug habits were spinning out of control.

By now, Jennifer could not make it anywhere without a hit. According to Peter Taylor, who accompanied her to the US, she took a supply of heroin and speed on the plane but lost her nerve and flushed the stash down the toilet. Back in Melbourne, Liz Simpson was soon to be woken by a call from a screaming, incoherent Jennifer Trow: "Get me drugs, get me drugs. I want it here in 24 hours."

Taylor says he walked in next morning to find David Trow pacing wildly around the room, naked. The Trows did not have the street experience to score in a strange city and had spent the night ringing Orlando brothels trying to make a connection. Taylor says about 9am there was a knock on the door and a prostitute and her pimp handed over a plastic bag with small, brown rocks of heroin.

But the drug was nothing like the quality they were used to and it gave them little relief. David Trow became increasingly violent and Jennifer began to worry. She was frightened that he was about to die. They called an ambulance.

Trow was taken into intensive care and an hour later Jennifer arrived, now unable to hide the ravages of her own withdrawal. She claimed it was tiredness and worry, but collapsed on the floor of the hospital. It was not long before two sheriffs arrived and began to ask questions. Five days later, David Trow called Taylor to collect them. He arrived to find Trow standing with the hospital chaplain, who was saying: "She's gone, she's gone. I'm sorry she's dead." Jennifer, apparently, had simply collapsed and died.

David Trow returned to Melbourne convinced his future lay in taking on Jennifer's mantle: after all, she had convinced him and their followers that he was the reincarnation of Jesus.

Nevertheless, in the months following Jennifer's death the group began to fall apart. By early last year, Trow was seeking admission to the Naltrexone program at the Genesis Medical Centre.

He struggles to maintain a facade of holiness, though he now denies ever claiming to be Christ's reincarnation. He refused to answer questions. The former members have reported their concerns about Trow's teachings and drug use to the Department of Human Services' child protection service, but were told that without hard evidence of abuse nothing could be done. Liz Simpson, though, still bears the scars of her years under the Trow spell.

Jennifer became convinced at one stage that demonic worms were infesting Simpson's body and cut open her face to extract them.

The former members' emotional and psychological scars are healing, though, helped by a professional counsellor, Julie Young, at the Yarra Plenty Christian Centre.

Young says that as bizarre as their experience seems, she has no doubt they are telling the truth. "Each person is of reasonable intelligence, but each had a vulnerability that took them into that space," she says. "Their stories are consistent and the emotional and psychological impact you just can't manufacture."

"What still gets to me is the abuse of my trust," says Mr. B.. "I lost my money, I wasted so much time. I thought I had found the path and was giving myself to something that was true and beautiful."

"You can't really explain to people what you have been doing for the last six or seven years," says Ms.B. "There are very few people who can understand."

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