BBC Radio 4 Woman's Hour: Life after living in a sect

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Life after living in a sect

Press » BBC Radio 4 Woman's Hour » 2008-04-16

Jenni Murray: 400 children and nearly 140 women have been taken into protective custody after allegations of child abuse at a breakaway section of the Mormon Church in Texas. It’s likely to be the largest child-welfare investigation in the history of the state. Earlier this year, Jane Garvey spoke to Carolyn Jessop, who escaped from the sect five years ago to make a new start for herself and her eight children. She described what her life had been like.

Carolyn Jessop: The only way to really have protection in that family or that society is to please your husband. And so it’s like you do whatever you have to do to survive. Violence was a big part of the society because when you need this level of control, that the society demands, then people go to violence to achieve that. Violence was as much a part of life as the sun coming up, and extreme violence towards children; and it still is that way. It’s just a very acceptable way to live; it’s the norm.

Jane Garvey You haven’t entirely escaped though have you, not least because your daughter is still there?

Carolyn Jessop: That’s true. It’s not just my daughter; I mean I’m related to 80 percent of the community. When you have a close society that intermarries from one generation to the next, pretty soon the community is like a very large extended family. And then, you know, my father had 36 children, so I have 35 siblings, most of them are still there.

Jenni Murray: So how easy is it to escape from a sect which controls every aspect of your life and begin to live a normal life with no prior experience? Ian Haworth is general secretary of the Cult Information Center and a former cult member. Juliana Buhring escaped when she was 23 from a sect now known as the Family International; she’s written about it in “Not Without My Sister.” Juliana, what do you suppose those women and children who’ve just been taken into protective custody are going through at the moment?

Juliana Buhring: Well I imagine, at least for the children, absolute terror because, their whole lives, they’ve had it drilled into them fear of the outside world. No matter how horrific they had it inside the group, it’s better the enemy you know than you don’t know. So, for them, they’ve been told their whole lives the police, the government, social workers are evil, are agents of the devil, so you can imagine right now that they’re in custody surrounded by those people and they’re without their parents as well, that it’s almost a self-fulfilling prophecy that probably that fear is foremost in their minds.

Jenni Murray: So how do you suppose those agencies can work with them? I mean, they’re away from their mothers, obviously, because nobody wants them to be coerced into saying anything; how on earth will they be managing?

Juliana Buhring: I think it will take quite a while for them to gain their trust. I imagine that the more that they can see of their parents the better because, that in itself is – I don’t agree with that, that they’re completely taken away from their parents. I know when I was a kid, we had the same raids on our communes and we were taken from our parents in much the same way, and, yeah, it takes a while to establish that trust. I don’t know how much time they have to spend with the children, but they’re going to need a lot of one-on-one, good people who know what trauma the children probably are experiencing and going through, that can sort through their issues.

Jenni Murray: We’ve seen the women wearing absolutely identical old-fashioned clothes and the most extraordinarily elaborate hairstyles. How would they begin to form an individual identity when they’ve been so uniform?

Juliana Buhring: That’s probably the biggest challenge, I think, is for them once they leave, to form their own identity because the questions immediately are: Who am I? What’s real? Their whole lives they’ve been told what to do, how to dress, how to think, how to act, even what to eat, it’s that controlled and isolated of an environment. I think that sorting through those issues is probably the biggest problem. I know for myself and my friends who also left the group we came from, sometimes some of them can’t cope at all and they end up suffering very severe psychological problems or post-traumatic stress disorders. So they’re going to need a lot of help and counseling, and I am concerned that they have people there on the ground who know exactly what they’re going through or maybe have been there themselves that can help them.

Jenni Murray: Ian, what for you defines a cult?

Ian Haworth: Well, at the Cult Information Center, we define a cult as being a group that has five characteristics. The most important characteristic is the use of techniques of psychological coercion to recruit people. These techniques are often called “mind control techniques” and today the latest term is “radicalization”, because the techniques employed to process someone to turn them into a terrorist are the same techniques that are employed to turn someone into a cult member. So what we’re saying is that people are forced mentally into an association with these groups; they don’t choose it. No one sort of wakes up and thinks, “Hmm, I’ll join a cult today.” Instead, you’re going to be recruited by someone or, of course, born into the group, as Juliana was.

Jenni Murray: But how do you force somebody to think the way you want them to think?

Ian Haworth: Sadly, very, very easily. The average cult only needs the average adult for three or four days to completely and radically change them. And the techniques include things like hypnosis. Hypnosis is a very common technique that’s employed by cults. People are put into a trance state without knowing it; it’s disguised as something else, something that sounds helpful. It might be called a new form of meditation or relaxation, something that would sound very interesting and helpful. And it seems the more we’re hypnotized, the deeper we go into trance each time, and the quicker as well, and in a trance state we’re vulnerable to suggestion. There’s tremendous pressure to conform to the wishes of the group at all times, peer group pressure. Food and sleep deprivation is very common. They don’t say, “Oh, by the way, we’re going to deprive you of sleep to break you down.” They say – you may be in a series of lectures - “look, we’re way behind schedule, the staff have agreed to stay until 2:00 in the morning, just so you get your money’s worth, isn’t that marvelous? Let’s have some applause for the staff.” And so it goes on. The techniques, of which there are 26, break someone down physically and mentally.

Jenni Murray: Juliana, how would you have defined your personality when you were in the cult?

Juliana Buhring: Yes, well I always think of it that I had three faces. There was myself, which I probably was the most undiscovered face, which I kept hidden, and that’s the face you don’t show; it’s your own mind, your own thinking mind, but you keep that so submissive to the group that you lose it eventually and that’s what you have to rediscover when you come out. And then there’s the face that you show to the cult members, which is pretty much your usual face, but it’s not you really, it’s your cult personality and what’s been drilled into you, and you act and you react the way that they tell you to; and if you don’t, they’ll give and withdraw their approval or their love in that way so, to keep them happy, you do what they want. And then there’s the face that you show to the outside world in any interactions or contacts with anyone – outside people you’re trying to recruit, or even police or government, or anybody who might be maybe looking into your group. You know, usually it’s a very happy, nice kind of a person and they think “Oh, there’s nothing wrong here.” I like to think they’re like the shiny, happy people; that’s what they look like to the outside world. And sometimes it’s almost so sickly sweet that that, in itself, is suspicious.

Jenni Murray: So there is a consciousness Ian, I mean Juliana very clearly describes being very aware of these three different personalities. So you haven’t completely had your brain washed, have you?

Ian Haworth: Yes, I would suggest that you have, that you are prepared to do those things because you are under the control of the group. Reality is being changed for you; you put on a face for the enemy, because they are the enemy, not because they represent reality. There’s another issue here: we’re looking at what might happen to these children and what are they going to go through. I’m wondering who’s counseling them, because there are very few people capable of understanding this phenomenon, even in the States where most of the specialists are. So I hope they’re getting people from our field to do a lot of the work or at least to guide the other professionals that are trying to help these children. Because with the best will in the world, some professionals can make things worse.

Jenni Murray: How did you sort yourself out when you finally came out?

Juliana Buhring: I think everyone’s path is different, but mine specifically, I left after I had personally made that conscious choice and I looked at everything around me and I saw so many injustices and things that I didn’t agree with. My whole generation of children were severely abused both mentally, physically and sexually, and then the group tried to whitewash that because of police looking in, social workers looking in. They had to pretend to change their policies even though they said, “We don’t disown the belief, we believe the practice is right; but to comply with the outside we will change the rules.” And then what happened is, when my generation started leaving and speaking out that these things did happen, they started to demonize that community, and I thought that was very wrong. My sister, my older sister, left and she started to make a life for herself outside of the group, and she was always our father’s favorite. The minute she left, he completely turned on her, called her demon-possessed, wouldn’t speak to her anymore, and I just saw so many things I didn’t agree with I felt was wrong. And so, from one day to the next, I just decided that’s it and walked out.

Jenni Murray: Did you have help though? I mean, now you seem so totally self-possessed. Have you had help or is it just strength of personality?

Juliana Buhring: I didn’t have much help, no. I left when I was in Africa and Uganda, and I had five little brothers and sisters there in the cult commune who are still there. So I felt that, one, when I left I wanted my father to know it was my conscious choice so he wouldn’t blame it on my sister having coerced me into leaving or anything like that. And also I wanted to prove him and the rest of them wrong, cause they always said “oh you won’t succeed” or “you’ll be a bum” or “you’ll be a whore”, all those scare stories, and I wanted to prove him wrong. So I’d walked out with no money, nothing, and left and, literally, within the first month, I found friends on the outside, I got a job. But it was difficult for me, the most difficult process was the detoxing, finding myself, who I was. But I stayed there just to be a little prick in their side and to keep contact with my brothers and sisters inside, which I felt is so important, cause if they have just the slightest connection to someone on the outside world, it’s more likely that they’ll be able to leave easier.

Jenni Murray: Why are people drawn in in the first place, Ian?

Ian Haworth: Because cult recruiters are programmed to lie to people, whether they’re soliciting funds or recruiting individuals. They will talk to you about you, to find out what makes you tick, and then suggest coming along for a meeting of like-minded people. Once one goes to that meeting, once one’s crossed the threshold, a psychological door begins to close, through the use of the techniques I mentioned earlier. So, again, people are drawn to go to a meeting that is misrepresented in some way, and then forced to stay, if I can put it that way. Jenni Murray: There are cults that are not religious, aren’t there?

Ian Haworth: Yes.

Jenni Murray: How do they operate, the ones that don’t have a religious basis?

Ian Haworth: We call them therapy cults. They would claim to have some kind of marvelous new therapy, marvelous new program for self-help, self-improvement: “You’re going to be a better person if you come along to this meeting.” If you’re going to be recruited when you’re at university or you’re an academic of some other description, then “this is going to help you retain and process information better.” If you’re a politician, “this will help you communicate with the masses.” If you’re a journalist, “you’ll be more creative.” It’s whatever you want to hear. You go on the course, you’re broken down through the use of techniques of psychological coercion. You come out, after the course, on a high, singing the praises and can’t wait to recruit all a sundry back at your place of work.

Jenni Murray: Who’s at risk, though, of being recruited?

Ian Haworth: Well, most people would imagine that there has to be something wrong with someone that goes into a cult, because they imagine people join, and I’ve already suggested they don’t. In fact, the people most likely to be recruited are the ones that feel that they would be the least likely. They’re usually people from an economically-advantaged family background, they have average to above-average intelligence, they’re well-educated people, they’re often caring, idealistic people. This is one of the issues for ex-members. If young people manage to escape, one way or another -- and again, I’m thinking of the children in the States; let’s imagine the best and that they are helped into the real world -- it’s important that they understand what’s happened to their parents in the first place and why they were abused. It’s not because their parents were abusive people from the word go, it’s because they were programmed to abuse. That’s the important thing. Otherwise, it’s very difficult for young people who’ve left to relate.

Jenni Murray: Juliana’s explained how tough it must be at the moment for the children, especially because they’re on their own, and for those social workers and police who are trying to deal with it. How hard is it, Ian, to bring a legal action where there is sexual abuse or coercion?

Ian Haworth: Well, you have to have proof; you have to have evidence. I remember when I lived and worked in Canada in this field, I was very concerned about the activities of the group that Juliana used to be in. And I contacted one of the chief police officers in the area and suggested that he might like to get some evidence against this group that they were abusing children, because we all felt that that was likely to be the case. And he said, “I don’t have the money.” I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “Well, I’d have to station people across the road, hope they can see what’s going on, hope the group leaves the curtains open, and so on and so forth.” He said, “It would cost me a fortune. I just don’t have the money, I’m sorry.”

Jenni Murray: But, as Juliana says, her generation started to question these things.

Ian Haworth: Yes.

Jenni Murray: It seems that’s what’s happened in Texas. Is there a generation of more-aware young people coming up now saying, “hang on, this isn’t right”?

Ian Haworth: I think the Internet helps, for any groups where you can somehow get access to the Internet, there is a tremendous amount of very valuable information there. But again, if you break away from one of these groups, you normally will go through at least a year of withdrawal, and the symptoms are terrible. In that time, it’s very, very difficult to consider, “oh, well I’ll do this and that and the other, in terms of legal action.” And then, afterwards, you might just want to put it behind you. Then, if you decide, “well, no, I want some justice here,” you’ve got be pretty courageous because these groups, you’re programmed to understand that these groups are all-powerful, and they do have a great deal of money and often expensive law firms.

Jenni Murray: What’s the one word of advice that you would give to somebody who had come out, Juliana?

Juliana Buhring: I would say get an education. That’s, I think, so important because, the minute you get an education your eyes are opened to everything, you start to understand things more, you start to understand where you came from, the processes involved. I know a lot of these groups don’t properly educate their children or, if they do, it’s within their group structure and only from a limited point of view, very tunnel vision. So basically education broadens their horizon. I think it’s really important, especially for the kids who, unlike their parents, didn’t join voluntarily; they were born into it and they have no pre-cult life experiences or personality even, so, for them, education is something that opens that, shows them the other side of things.

Jenni Murray: Well, Juliana Buhring and Ian Haworth, thank you very much indeed, both of you. And if you want more information about support groups, they’re on the website. It’s or of course you can call the action line, that’s 0-800-044-044. Now Mike Lee . . .

Program description

What are the challenges facing those who escape the closed and controlled world of sects?

In early April 416 children and 139 women were taken into protective custody from the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, in what is likely to be the largest child welfare investigation in Texas, if not US, history. It is alleged that forced polygamous marriages, and physical and sexual violence were the norm. For many of those taken into custody it will be the first time that they have left the ranch on which they were born. With little knowledge of the outside world what will their future hold? Jenni discusses the complex issues involved with Ian Haworth, General Secretary of the Cult Information Centre, and Julianna Buhring, who escaped from the Children of God cult when she was 23.

Cult Information Centre
Julianna Buhring's website, Not Without My Sister

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