Losing my New Religion

To believers they are liberating 'New Religions'. To others they are just dangerous cults. But who is right?

The Telegraph, UK/February 18, 2011

'Just a normal teenage girl, but in the wrong place at the wrong time,' is how Charlotte Wells describes the circumstances in which her daughter, Rachel, then 17, met Wayne, 24, a 'religious missionary' , in a shopping centre in Somerset two years ago.

Within moments of meeting, Wayne was dazzling Rachel with tales of foreign work, and qualifications, ranging from youth counselling and disaster relief to business management and interior design. For the following weeks Rachel and Wayne conducted a sexual relationship, which Rachel hid from her mother; by the time he left for America, citing visa reasons, Rachel had fallen passionately in love.

'I asked Rachel what was wrong, as she seemed down, and she told me she'd met someone, but he'd left. She said there was something I should know about him that I mightn't like.' Wayne, along with his parents and nine siblings, was part of the Family International, a 'Christian' fellowship preaching the Gospel internationally.

Its members live communally, following rules about whom they can marry and with whom they can have children. The Family has had various titles, but was formed in California in 1968 as the Children of God. Its leader, David Berg, encouraged sex between adults and children as the highest expression of God's love. Mired in controversy, it rebranded itself as the Family International, but stuck to its roots: its webpage still includes a tribute to David Berg, and the Family has never renounced his writings.

'I emailed Wayne asking him about this leader and his associations. Wayne replied there was "absolutely nothing wrong with David Berg" . Then I did everything you're not supposed to do when your child becomes interested in a cult, and went completely bananas,' says Wells.

Obtaining exact figures on the number of cults operating in Britain is hard, but Ian Haworth of the Cult Information Centre estimates that there are well over 500 extreme organisations that can be described as cults.

'Lots of organisations, from extreme therapy groups to so-called religious organisations, come under the definition of cult, but they all share similar characteristics,' says Howarth. 'Broadly, a cult is as an elitist, totalitarian society which uses psychological coercion to recruit and retain members, isolating them from their family and society. Cults are led by self-appointed, messianic leaders who are non-accountable but often charismatic, and who also exploit their members.'

The danger of cults is that most of us don't realise how powerful they are, and the effects they can have. 'Part of the problem I faced was convincing other people I wasn't mad, and that Rachel really was in danger,' says Wells.

But Wells' anxiety was well founded, as Celeste Jones, 35, can testify. Jones was born into the Children of God. Her parents separated when she was four, and while her younger sister returned to England with her mother, Jones remained with her father in the cult throughout her childhood and into early adult life.

During this time she had five different names, and lived in 15 different countries - the Family prefers its members not to put down roots and is also keen to avoid the attention of suspicious locals and police.

Sex was a regular part of life, with adults openly having sex in front of children. A weekly dance would include every adult pairing off for sex, including children over the age of 12, and daily prayer sessions incorporated 'Cuddle Time' , or group sex. Jones was regularly assaulted by adult men in the name of God's love and, aged 11, was instructed to have sex with another child as part of the commune's 'date schedules' .

Now working as a family support worker for a children's charity in Bristol, where she lives with her 12-year-old daughter, Jones is composed and articulate. She explains that a cult survives by destabilising the natural order of parent/child relationships.

'In a cult your parents are not your parents, as everyone under the leader is a child who can be punished.' I ask her why she didn't complain to her father. 'I adored my dad, but rarely saw him for more than a few moments at a time past the age of five, as he was working for the group, and was often away. I was looked after by carers,' she says.

'Time with him was precious, so we were prevented from real communication. If I told my peers they might have ratted on me, which we were encouraged to do. I had a deep desire to please God and had been convinced that criticising the group was the devil speaking. If I was negative I'd get in trouble with the leader.'

To an outsider, it is difficult to understand why someone would join, or remain inside, an abusive cult, but Jones likens it to a woman being in a violent relationship she cannot leave.

'As anyone who has experienced domestic abuse will know, leaving that relationship isn't straightforward,' she says. 'I was brainwashed to believe what we were doing was right, and the world was wrong. And, as in an abusive relationship, I sometimes felt that, if I could only alter things from the inside, I could make the group better.'

Dr Alexandra Stein, a lecturer at Birkbeck College in London and a social psychologist specialising in extremist groups, experienced at first hand the emotional complexity of life in a cult. An engaging woman in her late fifties, Stein spent a decade under the control of a radical Marxist group, O, in Minneapolis from the age of 26.

It's hard to imagine Stein being the kind of weak, lost individual one imagines might get sucked into a cult. But Ian Haworth suggests the easiest people to recruit are, in fact, intelligent, educated, idealistic and economically advantaged.

When she joined O, Stein had witnessed the Vietnam War and the rise of feminism, and had a hunger for political activism. 'The group didn't present itself as an organisation that would remove my ability to make personal choices, or control my entire life. Instead, it seemed like a bunch of like-minded, friendly people who impressed me with details of their healthcare clinic and campaigning they'd done for women's rights.'

Gradually, Stein became more involved with the group, and moved into a flat with several members. The group removed all her personal freedoms; she had an arranged marriage and was instructed not to use her diaphragm.

'Right away I was ordered to have kids as a way of controlling me,' says Stein. 'By this time I was isolated from friends and family. I was given a memo about my contraceptive choices on a beige sheet of paper, and obeyed it.

'I was a committed feminist, but I was brainwashed, so my thought process was confused, allowing the organisation to make highly personal choices for me. This "disorganised attachment" also happens in an abusive relationship, when a woman is confused and intimidated, then isolated to the point that the only person she can turn to is her abuser.'

For Jones and Stein, having children proved the turning-point, and they both escaped from their cults. 'Seeing the organisation with the eyes of a mother protecting her child helped me to distance myself from it,' Stein says. 'I reached breaking-point when I was instructed about the type of toys my kids could play with, as cartoon characters were forbidden. It seemed so absurd.'

Determined to break the conspiracy of silence that surrounds cult membership, both women have since published accounts of their experiences - Jones in Not without My Sister, Stein in Inside Out - and have been instrumental in setting up the Safe Passage Foundation, which provides resources and support for people raised in cults. The Cult Information Centre and the Families Survival Trust are another two organisations offering support to people affected by cults.

These organisations all agree that it's an escalating problem. In addition to the Family, Ian Haworth cites the Moonies as 'a force to be reckoned with' , and is critical of the growing number of therapy cults, 'which can be equally abusive by using psychological coercion to control members' .

Also active in Britain is the Church of Scientology, founded by L Ron Hubbard in New Jersey in 1952, which boasts many high-profile members in Hollywood, including Tom Cruise, Katie Holmes and John Travolta.

The Church of Scientology denies it is a cult - and Scientology is recognised as a religion in a number of countries, including America, but not Britain. ('Is Scientology a cult?' asks the organisation's website. 'No. It is a religion in the fullest sense of the word.')

There are many controversial aspects to Scientology, not least its belief that humans are descended from a race exiled from another planet in the distant past. There is also the issue of 'disconnection', a term used by Scientologists to describe the withdrawal of contact with friends and family who, in the words of the website, '[are] suppressive or who [are] antagonistic to Scientology or its tenets'.

The website continues: 'In order to resolve this situation, one either "handles" the other person's antagonism with true data about Scientology and the Church or, as a last resort, when all attempts to handle have failed, one "disconnects" from or stops communicating with the person.' Opponents of Scientology argue that disconnection is a sinister instrument employed to drive a wedge between members of the organisation and their families. The Church of Scientology rejects these claims.

Silene looks like any other well-heeled middle-aged lady in the leafy English suburb where we meet for coffee. Speaking with a lyrical Brazilian accent, she tells me about her intelligent daughter Natalie, and their once loving relationship.

'Natalie was so close to both me and my husband, and we often got together as a family,' she says. Natalie spent much of her twenties teaching English abroad, before moving back home aged 27 and taking a job in the City. Silene was alarmed to find books on Scientology in Natalie's room. 'I asked her if she was involved and she said she would never be involved with Scientology as she didn't believe in it.'

Yet during 2009 Natalie became distant. 'It was as though she was carrying a terrible burden about with her,' says Silene. 'She became serious and tense.' By the end of last year Natalie moved out to live with other Scientologists, and started seeing Anton, whose stepfather John, sister and mother are all involved with Scientology.

Relations with Natalie became strained, and at Christmas that year she tipped a table of food over her parents when Scientology came up in conversation. 'It was so unlike our daughter, like she'd been taken over.'

Last April Silene and her husband met Anton's family for lunch, unaware of the extent of their involvement with Scientology. Soon afterwards John arrived, uninvited, at Silene's house. 'He shouted that if I didn't accept Scientology, Natalie would disconnect.' Shortly afterwards Natalie stopped communicating with Silene.

The organisation is generally extremely uncommunicative with families who contact them for information about relatives who have joined. Many parents whose children are members report a 'wall of silence' , with letters, emails and phone calls all going unanswered.

But when I contacted it to ask about Natalie someone responded immediately, telling me that Natalie 'has had issues with her mother that go back well before she became a Scientologist. She decided earlier this year to let matters cool off for a period, but she did not disconnect from her. She has been in good communication lately with her mother and is hopeful that they will have good family relations going forward.'

Shortly afterwards Natalie called Silene, and has seen her, although they cannot talk about Scientology. 'I have only seen Natalie a couple of times, and we don't mention it, as it causes huge fights. And I will go on fighting, for as long as it takes, to get her out.'

Charlotte Wells' fight to prevent Rachel joining the Family International came at significant personal cost. She took six months off work, using the time to educate herself about the way a cult works. 'Fighting a group like this is intimidating, and I had to learn fast,' she says.

Her persistence paid off. Rachel started questioning the fact that marriage to Wayne would involve living within an enclosed group. 'When she could look at it calmly Rachel started examining what Wayne had told her. She didn't like the idea that she would have to live communally with other members of his group,' explains Wells.

'She was a teenage girl with romantic notions about living with and marrying Wayne, as she really believed she had fallen in love. When we talked about this and it was clear that it might not just be the two of them, she started to get cold feet. She was upset about the idea that she would have to join the Family in order for them to have a sexual relationship together, and I think that this realisation made it all seem a lot less romantic and exciting.'

Eventually, Rachel dropped her plans to move to America, and today mother and daughter rarely talk about the episode.

'I'm positive that, had she joined Wayne, she would have been coerced into joining the group as soon as her feet hit the runway,' says Wells. 'Then she would've been lost to me, perhaps forever. It frightens me to think what her future might have been like. It's left a scar too, as I know it's something I have to be vigilant about as it could happen again, at any time.'

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