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2016-03-24

What is life really like when you leave a cult?

Three cult survivors share their stories of escape – and what life was like on the outside

For all that cults are a part of our popular culture, they remain steeped in myth: sticky plastic cups filled with Kool-Aid; charismatic Svengali leaders; Sharon Tate lying eight-months pregnant in a pool of her own blood.

Cults are defined as ideological organisations, typically held together by a strong leader or leaders that demand high levels of commitment. Psychological experts point to high incidences of exploitation and emotional manipulation, even abuse, which prevents members from leaving and often lead them to surrender their entire lives to the organisation.

It takes enormous amounts of strength – an almost imaginable degree of resolve – to leave a cult, particularly when you may have been born into one and have no friends or connections on the outside world. Cult survivors are often ostracised by friends and relatives remaining within the organisation, threatened with legal action, harassed and in some extreme cases, may be the victims of physical or sexual violence. Adjustment to the outside world can be incredibly hard. Survivors have been known to suffer from PTSD, and finding employment outside a cult, when you might have no formal qualifications or experience makes you extremely vulnerable.

To find out more about what it’s like to escape a cult – and how you adapt to life on the outside, Dazed spoke to three young cult survivors. These are their stories.

BRIELLE DECKER, FUNDAMENTALIST CHURCH OF JESUS CHRIST OF LATTER-DAY SAINTS 

I was one of Warren Jeffs’ wives [Jeffs is currently serving a sentence of life plus 20 years for child sexual assault in a maximum security prison]. He was really mean. We’d normally communicate by letter, and I’d write to him and he’d get mad at me for something I’d said, and eventually I lost my faith. 

I’m thirty now, and I left the cult when I was 26. I’d wanted to leave for about five years before I managed to get out. I tried escaping several times but they always managed to get me back. They had these guard towers and big gates and I didn’t have a phone or a car. When I finally managed to escape they’d actually been keeping me locked up in this room. There were a few screws loose in the window and I unscrewed them, broke the glass and ran away to this family I knew on the outside. 

There’s one experience for me that really stands out in terms of how traumatic it was. The FLDS had this network of safe houses and they used to send us to them when they were scared of the police raiding them. There was this raid in Texas and I was living in South Dakota at the time. They sent us to this to this safe house in Wyoming. 

At this point Jeffs had been arrested, and he’d sent people after me to harass me and follow me everywhere. I couldn’t function. The caretaker of this safe house would follow me everywhere. It’s like, you get out of bed and you’re being watched all the time. The people in the safe house were telling me there was no way out of there, I wasn’t going to survive. I still had hope that something, somehow would change, but they kept telling me there was no way out.

“There was this reservoir nearby, and they told me that I should just drown myself, and that if I didn’t they would kill me and tell everyone else I’d committed suicide. I didn’t know if they meant it, so I tried to test them. I asked, “should I actually go and get in that reservoir?”, and they said, “yeah”” – Brielle

They took the family out of the house and left me to it. So I ran to the reservoir, and I sat there and waited by it for a really long time and I realised they weren’t coming after me.

Then I thought, maybe they’ll say they didn’t come after me because they knew I was okay, so I got into the reservoir. I actually got into it up to my neck, and I kind of sat there. I was in there for about an hour, but they never came. No one came to rescue me. 

I believed in God – I still do ­– and I didn’t want to disappoint God by killing myself, so I got out of the reservoir and ran all the way back to the house. After that they sent me to Arizona. I think that’s when I realised the lengths people would go to to please the church. How could they not come after somebody when they were in that state of mind?

Even after I escaped, it was so hard. My family kept fighting to bring me back. I went to a domestic violence shelter in Salt Lake City, and they told my parents where I was. They were searching the roads for me in Salt Lake City. It took me two years until my paperwork was all done and I was finally free of them. My adoptive mum, Kristyn, literally rescued me by getting me taken off the missing persons list and fighting for me, even when I didn’t know it. I was so sick at first when I left; it took me months before I got clarity. Knowing that there were people on the outside like her who cared, who would help you, was such a help. You can’t replace what your birth parents were, but you can create a support system of people who will treat you right. 

LEAH-GEORGINA TAYLOR, APOSTOLIC UNITES BRETHREN 

My parents joined the Apostolic Unites Brethren (AUB) when I was about ten years old. The main purpose of the AUB was to marry multiple women and have as many children as possible in order to gain access to the ‘Kingdom of Heaven’.

I’d been raised around multiple different religions up to that point, and I was always open-minded, but there was something different about this one to me. And not good different either.

My main memory is of never really fitting in. I was always the black sheep; I had these views on gay and trans people that were considered unacceptable by everyone else. I got bullied a lot by the children of the leaders, and the leaders were constantly reprimanding me. 

I started doing things to try and get kicked out. I knew the AUB had firm rules against premarital sex so I told everyone I had sex with some boy who lived down the street. The leaders reacted by trying to force us to get married, even though we were only fourteen! When I refused my parents essentially took me hostage for two years, I was basically a prisoner – no access to phones, the Internet, I couldn’t even see my friends.

I think I’d always known there was something really wrong with the AUB, but for years I was too scared to question it. I’d tell myself, I don’t know anything about the world – how am I meant to tell right from wrong?

“But then I realised that was exactly what they wanted me to think. They wanted me to blindly follow something ridiculous – they didn’t want me to have a curious mind. That’s how they keep their hold over you” – Leah-Georgina

When I turned sixteen my parents tried to marry me off to my twenty-three year old boyfriend. I freaked out. I wasn’t ready to get married, to spend the rest of my life in a cult I’d never wanted to be a part of to start with. I called my best friend who’d escaped and she came to my house to collect me. I just walked right out.

The hardest thing for me was the knowledge that my siblings hated me for leaving for so long. They wouldn’t trust me based on the lies my parents and other members of the cult had told them. Things are different now, but it was rough for a long time. It broke my heart.

Adjusting to life on the outside was hard. Being sixteen, on your own in an adult world…I had to learn quickly. I had some guidance from my best friend, but nothing prepared me for the culture shock of the outside world. I don’t miss anything about the AUB, though. It was like living in my own personal hell.

NATACHA TORMEY, THE CHILDREN OF GOD 

I was born into the Children of God cult, which is now known as The Family International. They were initially an evangelical Christian group who believed all Christians should live like the first Disciples of Christ did. Things got more bizarre, especially around their teachings on sex. David Berg (the cult leader) believed that all members should share sexually with each other, and told the women that they should use sex as a recruitment and fundraising tool.

What I remember most about the cult was feeling very lonely, all the time. Even though you were surrounded by people, living in communes with hundreds of others, it was impossible to form meaningful relationships. Your first loyalty always had to be to the cult. Even when I was little, I knew something wasn’t right, but the cult was all I knew – I had no way of knowing what life could be like.

“My worst memory is of watching my brother being physically ‘disciplined’ by another cult member. They throttled him in front of me until he couldn’t breathe and turned blue. I was only a kid myself, and I just remember feeling so helpless. It scarred me for life.” – Natacha

I started thinking about leaving as a teenager, but I was scared. I didn’t know anything about the practicalities of life in the real world. It was just after my 18th birthday when I finally escaped. I was dating a guy on the outside and he let me move in with him and looked after me financially for the first few months. I wouldn’t have been able to leave if it wasn’t for him.

Life on the outside was so incredibly difficult. Like many other ex-members, I suffered severe depression and even considered suicide on a few occasions. It’s difficult to explain how isolated you feel when you leave a cult. You feel like you’ll never belong in normal society, like no one will ever understand you. I was also naïve, and the men I dated took advantage of that.

I’d say to anyone thinking of leaving a cult that they shouldn’t give up. You can find the strength to rebuild a life that you’re in control of. Even when it seems like there’s no hope left, it will get better.

I’m so grateful I found the strength to pull myself through the worst of it and I’m in a happy place in my life. Many didn’t. Over fifty members of my old cult have committed suicide. Their deaths should be on the conscience of the cult's leaders. 

Natacha is the author of two books about her experience: 'Born into the Children of God' and 'Cults: A Bloodstained History'.