Escape from the cults
The Sunday Mirror/2000-03-26
By Jill Todd
In the forthcoming film Holy Smoke, Harvey Keitel tries to free Kate Winslet from an evil cult. Here two real-life cult victims tell Jill Todd their own distressing stories.
Kristina Jones aged 23
CULT: Children of God
MEMBERS: 9,000 worldwide - two-thirds are thought to be children
BELIEFS: Free love and no morality
Mum became involved in The Family (Children of God) at 15, when the Christian Union at her school invited them to give a talk. She moved to their commune in Bombay and from the moment I was born there, when she was 19, my life was controlled by The Family.
My earliest memories were of busking, begging and handing out religious pamphlets. All the children - I have six brothers and sisters - were treated as slaves. We had to clean, cook, teach and bring up the other children. I never had a proper education, the only things we were allowed to read were the Bible and writings by the late leader David Berg. And yet we thought that was normal.
We'd all been so brainwashed we saw ourselves as missionaries, on the front line helping to save people. Just after I was born, Berg decided the members would benefit from "sexual sharing". He said sex was natural and healthy and should be experienced by everybody, even children.
So people were pressured into sleeping around. Adults had orgies and I grew up knowing my parents were having sex with different people. The earliest I can remember having a sexual experience was when I was three. We were programmed into thinking we loved sex and wanted it.
When I was 11, Mum, who'd become increasingly unhappy, was told she wasn't spiritual enough and sent to England. She left me and two of my brothers with my stepdad and took the other children.
It was then that she read a book written by Berg's eldest daughter telling the truth about The Family. It was a revelation and she finally saw the light. She became depressed, convinced she'd lost the children she'd left in India. But 18 months later, when I was 12, we had our chance to leave when our Indian visas ran out.
We came back to England with my stepdad. Within days of us arriving, mum knew this was her chance. She left my stepdad in the middle of the night and moved us all into a women's refuge. Leaving the cult had a very traumatic effect on me.
I was sent to school for the first time, but I didn't tell the teachers I'd never been before. For two years I kept everything bottled up. I had no one to confide in. I was a complete misfit. We were so poor that I had to wear granny's clothes. I was beaten up and teased.
Even the teachers treated me badly. I didn't know what a Bunsen burner was. They thought I was being difficult. I left school at 15 because I was pregnant. At 16 I left home with my baby son, who is now seven. I was fed up being a father figure to my brothers and sisters.
At 18 I pulled myself together. I did my GCSEs and got four A-levels. Now I'm confident and outgoing and have a good brain. I'm trying to get something positive out of this by writing a book which might help others.
Even so, I get depressed. Each day is a battle to overcome the past. I was ruined emotionally, physically and sexually. I've never been a child and find it impossible to have normal relationships with men.
I came out of the cult on my own, which I wouldn't recommend. Ideally you need a support network and counselling.
I want to advise parents not to reject their children if they join a cult. One day your children will hopefully need you again. Be ready to welcome them back.
[Church of Christ section redacted]
How to get help
There are thought to be 500 cults operating in Britain alone. Escaping from their clutches is far from easy - as thousands of distraught families can testify.
Graham Baldwin (pictured) is one of two exit counsellors in Britain and says his role is a far cry from that portrayed by Harvey Keitel in the movie Holy Smoke. Graham, 47, says that real exit counselling is "a gentle, non-coercive, voluntary process. It is not about power and dominance."
The former university chaplain has successfully retrieved hundreds of children whose families had almost lost hope. He initially helped parents whose children were being targeted by cults at London's Kings College, where he was a student chaplain. Now he is a full-time counsellor, running Catalyst, a registered charity. Ninety per cent of Catalyst's work is for free - and they have a 70 per cent success rate. As well as counselling, Catalyst offers legal advice and a helpline for worried families.
"Catalyst is not anti every new religious movement," Graham insists. Usually it is the family of the cult member who approaches him for help. Occasionally it is the member themselves.
"I will only speak to someone if they want to speak to me. It is never done by force. By asking certain questions I get the person to think about their involvement in the cult.
"Sometimes it only takes one session. Or they might go back into the cult but our talk has made them question themselves.
"Often I cannot see the member and have to teach parents skills to do the job themselves.
"If the child does go back to the cult I tell the parents to keep challenging them, keep making them think and keep asking the right questions. But they mustn't antagonise them so they never see their son or daughter again."
If you need help for yourself or a relative contact Catalyst (0181 949 7877), the Cult Information Centre (01689 833 800), or FAIR - Family Action Information and Resource (01642 898 412).