For those who escape the often terrifying world of cults, adjusting to life on the outside can be traumatic, reports Anne Dempsey
It is 12 years since Andrew McMillion left a cult known as The Family, departing secretly with an older brother after spending months isolated in a caravan in Hungary, while their father used every argument he could muster to persuade his teenage sons to stay. Today, in spite of everything he experienced, his subsequent studies of new religious movements and world views, McMillion, now aged 28 and working with a computer company in Cork, is still influenced by the early indoctrination.
“Although I am perfectly normal, there is still a part of my mind that thinks in terms of cult-mindset consequences about the end of the world,” he says.
This enduring legacy demonstrates the strength of the early conditioning experienced by young people who leave the cults they were reared in. Some such adults do badly in the outside world, suffering from depression and problems with alcohol, drugs or self- harm. It also highlights the difficulties facing the newly formed international organisation, Safe Passage Foundation, set up to help the thousands of children still living relatively secret lives in dozens of sects around the world.
The organisation which reared Andrew McMillion was founded by the late David Berg in 1968, during the Californian hippie era, as a fusion of Christian fundamentalism and free love. In its heyday 5,000 children were born into the group, including actor River Phoenix, who died of a drug-related seizure at the age of 23. McMillion, the second of seven children of a Norwegian mother and an American father, spent his early years being moved around the world, as is the nature of many such organisations.
“Not knowing where you belong is hard, but my life was relatively okay when I was young,” he says. “The sect was devoted to peace and love, and belief was not beaten into you. However, there was a lot of corporal punishment, and witnessing or hearing others being beaten is almost as distressing as being beaten yourself.”
The Family is most infamous for alleged sexual acts between adults and minors. McMillion says he was not sexually abused but was privy to evidence that such abuse did occur. At the age of 12 his life took a turn for the worse.
“I was separated from my parents and sent to a military-style camp in the Philippines, where we were trained to be ‘end-time soldiers’,” he says. “We studied the Bible every day and were subjected to a lot of abuse and brainwashing.”
By 14 he was beginning to have theological and more ordinary doubts.
“In some ways it was an exciting time,” he says. “I was daring to have my own thoughts, my own life and independence. I heard of some sick things that David Berg was doing. Losing faith in your leader was a depressing experience, and that was pretty much what happened. Gradually I moved from a having a strong faith to atheism.
“Four of us left together, jumping over the wall of the compound with enough money to get downtown. We contacted our grandparents, who bought tickets for each to return to their country of origin. Five days later I was in high school in Michigan. I’d never been in America before, never in school, didn’t know how to socialise with my peers, and missed my friends and family a lot.
“In the first year outside, I cried myself to sleep night after night. Other kids leave home, but we left our entire lives. Some people can’t handle it. They stick together, drag each other down with stories of the past, get into drugs. They desperately need help to integrate into society.”
In the years since, while he has not not been dragged down, McMillion agrees that he has spent a lot of time suffering from a reaction to the past. When studying in Norway, he was a founding member of a pilot project, Going On, funded by Save the Children, for young people leaving cults. Supporting the aims of the Safe Passage Foundation, he says its task should not be underestimated.
“In my own case, although physically removed from the group, my mindset was still in turmoil,” he says. “I entered a period of prolonged liminality [a state of being in-between] that lasted about three years, during which time I was trying to develop my own perspective on what was going on in this world. You’re like a ghost. You’re in no man’s land. Some kids kill themselves, but others manage to integrate. There is a need for organisations like the Safe Passage Foundation and also for national governments to become more involved, providing funding for national organisations who work with children and young people.”.
Meanwhile, he is putting his past into perspective.
“Today, every one of my siblings is out and we are all very close,” he says. “Looking back, I did get good things from my parents, such as love of nature and art from my mother and intellectual interests from my father. I am still in regular contact with my mother, less so with my father. From the group itself, I got a good picture of how an organisation works and how power corrupts.
“As cults develop and become less open, they impose a mental stranglehold in their attempt to set the world view of their members in stone. My hopes for my future are to spend the rest of my life enjoying nature and trying to live as environmentally friendly a life as I can.”
It was the murder of Angela Smith by Ricky Rodriguez earlier this year which hastened the formal establishment of the Safe Passage Foundation. Rodriguez, son of The Family’s leader, took his own life shortly afterwards. He claimed in a video made before his suicide that his action against his former nanny was vengeance for the continuous sexual abuse and violence suffered by himself, his sister and his peers when they were growing up.
The not-for-profit foundation has been established by three people who grew up in cults: Julia McNeil, Lauren Stevens and Nahchey Storer, now working in management, IT and finance respectively. The organisation, which has its headquarters in New York, has taken the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child as its guiding philosophy. It aims to protect minors within “high-demand organisations” from abuse and exploitation, and to provide resources, support and advocacy for those who choose to leave but are unprepared to face the challenges of the outside world.
Safe Passage’s mission includes encouraging open dialogue with restrictive communities on welfare matters, providing crisis intervention if needed, and helping young people in transition to find safe havens through housing and education programmes. The foundation hopes to involve former childhood cult members who have moved successfully into outside adult society.
Religious cults are characterised by extreme beliefs and practices not generally shared by mainstream churches. Having separated themselves, most have a self-appointed, dogmatic and charismatic leader who, over time, creates a totalitarian society. The effect of such regimes on their members can include loss of free will, inability to make decisions, malnutrition, paranoia, hallucinations, and suicidal tendencies. Recruitment methods may involve “flirty fishing” and “love bombing” – in other words, warmly befriending someone to encourage them to join the group, a particularly effective method among those at a lonely or vulnerable stage of their lives.
Josie, who always felt there was “something missing” from her life, says she was approached in Grafton Street by a young man and invited to attend a Bible study. Gradually she became entangled with the Dublin Church of Christ, part of a worldwide movement founded in Boston. When she finally left the members spat at her and told her she was a tool of Satan. That church has since closed here.
Modern religious groups often classified as cults include Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church (Moonies). Cults which have ended in mass suicide or violence include those presided over by Jim Jones in Jonestown, Guyana, and David Koresh in Waco, Texas. While we hear relatively little about cults in Ireland, all it takes is a single call to a radio phone-in from someone worried about a family member who has become a cult-influenced stranger to unleash dozens of calls from others in similar situations.
Safe Passage Foundation: www.safepassagefoundation.net;
Wellspring Retreat and Resource Centre (which offers a well- regarded residential programme for cult survivors in Albany, Ohio): www.wellspringretreat.org or www.wellspring.albany.oh.us
Dialogue Ireland, 7/8 Lower Abbey Street, Dublin 1 (01- 8309384/087- 2396229; firstname.lastname@example.org; www.esatclear.ie/~dialogueireland)
FECRUS, c/o Dialogue Ireland (see above)