They have escaped from a bizarre world of polygamous sex – but the girls of the West Texan sect may soon wish they could return to it, writes Tim Guest, who spent his own childhood in a notorious religious commune himself
Last Tuesday in West Texas, 416 shell-shocked children were ushered by police on to a row of yellow school buses. The kids – the girls with identical plaited hair and long, hand-sewn pastel dresses – were driven through a blue farm gate to temporary shelter 40 miles away. For many, it was the first time they had passed through those gates into the outside world.
The investigation began on March 29, when a 16-year-old girl placed a series of calls from a borrowed mobile phone to a counsellor at a family violence shelter.
Her barely audible voice told of a forced marriage at 15 and repeated beatings and rape at the hands of her 49 year-old husband, who already had six wives.
In the ceremony, her “husband” promised to put her in his care; in fact, he put her in hospital with broken ribs. The girl already had an eight-month-old baby, and was six months pregnant.
She was afraid to leave, and wouldn’t name her location outright. “Outsiders would hurt her, force her to cut her hair, to wear make-up and clothes and to have sex with lots of men,” she had been told, according to a later affidavit. She did manage to give enough detail, though, to enable investigators to identify her home: the 1,700-acre Yearning for Zion Ranch, built on scrubland in 2004 by the 10,000-member Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, formed in 1935 as a breakaway sect of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (better known as the Mormons, who have publicly disowned the splinter group). Her phone calls were the start of the largest child welfare investigation in Texas history.
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Last Sunday a judge issued a warrant, and the affidavit and subsequent court documents have been made public. Investigators found a bed inside the sect’s temple, reportedly used for adult men to have sex with girls as young as 12. The girls were “spiritual wives”, a term invented by male members of polygamous sects to circumvent US polygamy law. But these children were wives: there were wedding ceremonies, and in one case a 16-year-old girl was mother to four children.
The latest findings, revealed in an 80-page list by officials, include pregnancy tests, marriage certificates detailing polygamous relationships, and photo albums containing pictures of older men with several younger women. Videos of a birthing room used by young teenage girls have also been seized.
The apparent horror these children have gone through seems to contradict the movement’s intentions: to become perfect and self-sufficient – to “yearn for Zion” – in readiness to begin anew after the coming apocalypse. But, as I know from my own childhood, when we set out to build heaven, we also build hell.
I grew up in communes around the world under the guidance of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, the notorious Indian guru who advocated sex and celebration as a path to enlightenment.
We were children of the commune, not of our mothers and fathers. Although some of the younger girls were introduced to sex by adults, the abuse was nothing like as systematic and widespread as in the case of these Texan girls.
Still, the dream turned sour in our case, too. In 1984, followers of my mother’s guru – whose motto was “Life, Love and Laughter” – poisoned 800 people with salmonella, the biggest bio-terror attack in US history.
There were murder plots, guns were smuggled, and when the FBI raided a secret tunnel under the commune residence, they found HIV-infected mice and CIA guerrilla handbooks.
Our parents’ gaze was turned away from us; more poisonously, the kids from Yearning For Zion had their parents’ gaze turned on them. They were taught that the outside world was evil. After their evacuation, it turns out neither the children nor their mothers know how to use a crayon. Food from the outside world is too rich for them: they can’t hold it down.
Richard Wexler, of the US National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, told the Dallas Star Telegram the girls should be cared for in the same way as refugees from the fall of Saigon. “These children live in a very isolated world of their own and they have no idea of the world they suddenly find themselves in.”
Yet Jill Mytton, principal lecturer in counselling psychology at London Metropolitan University, believes it may be even more traumatic. Mytton has spent time researching cults, and how to leave them. (She was born into the Exclusive Brethren, a restrictive wing of the evangelical Plymouth Brethren.) She thinks what the children are going through will be more complex than the journey of a refugee.
“People born into cults don’t have any previous personality to return to,” she says. “And they don’t have knowledge of the outside world. A refugee is leaving a place they want to leave, but I’m not convinced these children want to leave. So they’re not in control.
“I remember that lack of control very clearly. I was 16 when my parents took me out of a cult. Any structure to your life you’ve ever had is gone.
“You might argue that where these children were was terrible, frightening and horrendous – and it was – but it was a form of security and structure. It’s absolutely right that they’re taken out of it, but it’s going to be a shock.”
The pressures of leaving behind an entire world can take their toll. In his book Deadly Cults: The Crimes of True Believers, Robert Snow tells of a US study of 353 former members from 48 cults. After leaving, 93 per cent reported anxiety attacks, 63 per cent had suicidal thoughts, and 23 per cent attempted suicide.
The girls will move from a life tilling the fields, quilting and hand-sewing their own clothes, to a world where even supermarkets will seem daunting. They will move from a world where the apocalypse is near, to a world where they have a future.
Perhaps they may take heart from others who have been through a similar journey. “If you grow up believing that the world is going to end, you don’t ever learn to have a future, or even think about growing old,” says Juliana Buhring, who escaped, aged 23, from the Children of God cult. “You have to now plan for your future. You will in fact grow old, and that’s hard to imagine.
“The children leaving the compound must be terrified. In one way you’re terrified of the environment you’ve been in, but you’re also terrified of the wider world. They’re probably grateful for being rescued, but traumatised. They need strong, kind people, and counselling. The outside is a dangerous place.”
Juliana draws parallels from her own experiences in leaving the Children of God. “In the first year especially, these people who have been leading such old-fashioned lives will have to learn everything about how to function in society, from making a telephone call or just stepping into a shop.
“The bigger challenge is the mental challenge when you start to realise you’ve been fed a certain view, a kind of tunnel vision. You have to figure out what you actually believe, what you think about things, what your actual mind is – to try to siphon your real personality from your cult personality.
“A lot of my generation still struggle with their identity, with fear of people finding out about their background, that they’ll be labelled ‘cult babies’ and the rest. Then there are the practical issues: lack of education, finding jobs. You don’t have a bank account, you don’t technically exist. You’ve never been to a hospital.
“Some of my contemporaries still have an innate fear of hospitals, police, anyone who represents authority. It was drummed into us: authority represents evil.”
Juliana says that her peers who left the Children of God had to sink or swim. “Either they have become hugely successful to prove the Children of God wrong, or they have become a ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’, as the cult says – a drug addict, a criminal, or they die. Often, because of a lack of education, they are easy prey to predators; they fall into bad situations quickly.”
I had noticed the same thing among the children who emerged from my own religious background. I asked Juliana what she thought made the difference. “One thing I’ve noticed is if they find one good person in the outside world, that makes all the difference in whether they succeed or not.”
In the case of the children from Yearning for Zion, finding someone to trust might be tough: for many, even their grandmothers will have been born into the sect. Now they have been transported in both space and time. “They are like aliens – or we are like aliens to them,” was how Helen Pfluger, a Baptist church volunteer who helped to care for the children, describes them. “It was like talking to people from 1870.”
There is something about the journey from a sect to the wider world that drives people to want to share their story. Pain drives us to narrate, Freud wrote, and pain combined with such a radical world shift perhaps even more so.
My childhood, steered by my mother’s devotion to Bhagwan, had a different kind of sorrow – absence, of my mother, of structure, even of the guru, who we knew mainly through his empty chair – along with its consolation, a wild kind of freedom that still energises and sabotages my adult life.
My own inheritance of abandon took me years to unravel, but writing a memoir, My Life in Orange, was crucial in helping me. After beginning with cynicism, what I found, to my surprise, was compassion, for the dream my mother and her friends tried to bring to life.
Juliana Buhring, who last year published the memoir Not Without My Sister, agrees. “Being able to write it is, in a sense, triumphing over it. You’ve come to terms with it, you’ve created what your past was. It’s out of your system and you don’t have to think about it.”
The children leaving Zion have a long way to go. Texan police are preparing to break open the sect’s vaults, looking for evidence of sexual abuse. They will bring prosecutions, hopefully convictions will be made. But the girls themselves, reportedly not even close to being placed in permanent accommodation, are at the start of a long, difficult journey.
These children will have to forage their own treacherous route to acceptance, to grow into adults and claim ownership over their wounds.
Some journeys, though, are longer and rockier than others. It took me a book to bring to life the boon and curse of my childhood: the oceans of sorrow and the long days of summer delight. That journey helped me to reach my own shakily balanced life, but I never attempted suicide.
Juliana Buhring did, more than once. “One thing that helped me, no matter how bad I had it, is there’s always something worse,” she says. “I do a lot of work in Africa, with ex-child soldiers. It’s a matter of where you’re born, circumstantially, and all you can do is make the best of it.”
I asked what her advice to the girls would be. “Get an education,” she said. “When I started to educate myself was when my eyes were opened to everything. That’s why they don’t let you get an education: because knowledge is power.”