Experience: I was abandoned by my cult

There are parts of that day I was left on the roadside that I cannot recall

The Guardian, UK/December 16, 2016

All I remember of the day I was left on a roadside in Pennsylvania, in 1963, was a hand pulling $20 from his pocket, and my small suitcase. I can’t remember who drove me away from the Bruderhof church community I had been shut in since I was a five-year-old girl; now, aged 24, I had been excluded. I was abandoned, but I could breathe again.

My Methodist parents had packed up our Gloucestershire home in 1943 and moved us to a two-room cottage, without hot water or a toilet, in Shropshire. Daddy used to deliver grain from his mill to the Cotswolds Bruderhof – a Christian movement originating in Germany. He was a pacifist and liked this international community of Christians all living together in wartime; eventually he persuaded my mother to join them.

I watched, confused, as two men with beards (“the brothers”) put my mattress on the back of a truck, packed up my beautiful dolls’ house to give away and took us to the closed religious commune. Its men and women, in their matching dress, felt like giants and witches to me. I became extremely insecure.

The church was dogmatic and fanatical. Its members did not use birth control and our family grew from three children to 12. I felt our parents had been brainwashed. They still loved us, but they withdrew; it was as if we children had become the property of the brotherhood.

When I was 14, we were sent to a commune in the jungle in Paraguay, where we lived, alongside other families, in a simple home with a straw roof and clay floor. When I turned 15, I worked all day in the kindergarten and was schooled in the evening. The heat and way of life were oppressive. I suffered panic attacks.

There was one happiness, though: a young man called Jörg who worked as a night watchman. I would wait at my window to see him on horseback. I didn’t know, then, that this was being attracted to someone.

The rules did not allow us to hold hands or kiss, and feelings could be communicated only via a minister. We knew we wanted to marry but when Jörg asked the ministers’ permission, he was refused. They said my spirit was bad. No one ever told me this and I was left to assume he no longer cared for me.

In 1961, I watched my family return to England on the back of a dusty lorry; they would later be moved back and forth between communes in the US and UK, but it had been decided by the brotherhood that, at 22, I was old enough to stay on my own. My heart was in my mouth as I tried to catch Mummy’s attention to wave goodbye. I saw them only a few more times, at the Bruderhof’s behest.

After my family left I was sent to Pennsylvania. I was alone and my spirit was crushed. Two years later, without explanation, I was excluded.

When you experience shock, your mind blanks things out and there are parts of that day I was left on the roadside that I cannot recall. I remember the little house where I rented a room, and the hospital where I asked for a job. And I know that the minute I was left alone, it was as if all my aches and pains left me. I was so relieved to start living. I made friends, but never married.

I heard Jörg’s name again 16 years later, living in London, through a couple who had also been excluded. They said he’d been forced to leave the commune and was living in America. I wrote to him at once.

When his reply arrived, it was as if I had shed a dead skin. I had longed so much for a husband and children, and now, at 40, all my seeking was over. We pieced together how the brotherhood had prevented us from marrying and what had happened to us since. He moved to England and we married six weeks later; soon after, we adopted three children.

I am 78 now and we live four miles from where I was born. I still have private spiritual belief but institutional Christianity isn’t for me.

I always loved my parents, and only when I trained as a counsellor did I feel anger towards them for their complicity in what happened. Part of me is brought to tears when I share my story, but the stronger feeling is one of fulfilment and victory at how life turned out.

• As told to Deborah Linton

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