Into the fringe
FOR most people, the process of discovering their identity occurs during the teenage years. For Thalia, it only truly began after 30.
The Brisbane Christian Fellowship (BCF) meet every Sunday on their large property in Samford Valley, on the outskirts of Brisbane. This Sunday, the congregation consists of around 500, mostly families, many with young children, and several pensioners, all of whom sit in a vast auditorium.
For two hours, the Church leaders preach the word of God, His intentions for His followers, and their essential obedience. Church members open palms wide in prayer. There are no images of the cross.
Thalia was born into the Christian Fellowship. She spent more 1 than 30 years within the group, working externally in education, before leaving her friends and family behind and being partially excommunicated. She refuses to call the group a Church; instead, she calls it a cult. She has never spoken publicly of her experiences.
“When I left the cult, it was like everyone you ever knew died, and you were alone.
“Do you know the movie, The Matrix? The only way to explain how I felt was that scene where Keanu Reeves came out of that cell, and everyone else is explaining to him ‘you’re going to understand later’… That’s how I felt: like my life was inside this world, and life was being sucked out of me,” she said.
Australia has a complex history with cult involvement. Notorious Australian cults The Family and Children of God have both faced criminal charges of child and sexual abuse since the 1970s, and even modern groups, such as Kenja Communications and Scientology, have been wrought with controversy and criminal allegations. BCF has not faced such charges, but has received numerous accusations of psychological manipulation and abuse consistent with cult dynamics.
According to Australian organisation CIFS (Cult Information and Family Support), cults are differentiated from ordinary social or religious groups through a 15-point checklist, including unquestioning commitment to a powerful leader, discouragement of doubt, and mind-altering practises.
Stephen Mutch, former State Senate member and Honorary Fellow in the Department of Modern History, Politics and International Relations at Macquarie University, defines cults as a danger to individuals, communities, and public policy.
“Technically, it would not be difficult to legally differentiate between groups; however, there are philosophical and political impediments. If a line was to be drawn it would be on the basis of tangible harm perpetrated by some groups rather than on eccentric behaviour,” he said.
Thalia’s accounts centre on emotional manipulation and control over members; she claims that members were restricted from surpassing the emotional development of a teenager.
“I learnt to self-harm emotionally, because if no-one’s beating me up, I’m going to beat myself up because I didn’t do good enough, wasn’t perfect enough, wasn’t enough.
“I wasn’t allowed to have normal experiences. I wasn’t allowed to have romantic relationships,” she said.
Helen Pomery, 65, is another vocal critic of the Christian Fellowship and was a member of BCF from 1986 to 2001. She was excommunicated when she contacted her daughter, who was estranged from the group for dating outside of the Church.
“I was married to my husband for 30 years. He sat me down one evening on a Tuesday night, he gave me a letter listing all my sins, and I had a week to leave the house.
“I never saw my children after that. I’ve got 5 grandchildren who don’t even know me,” she said.
Helen believes she was actively recruited and was subject of mind-controlling techniques to embed her family in the Church, and says “the cult is looking for people that they can use that serve their own ends.”
“If you at any stage oppose them, you’re in for it. You’ll be a target,” she said.
Yet, academia on religious groups debates the theory of mind-control and cult status.
Mairead Shanahan, a religious studies academic from Macquarie University, proposes that external perceptions shape the concept of cult.
“It’s about how society shapes those broader patterns of what we see as a normalised ritual.
“If you’re going to argue that you’re manipulated into joining a cult, you can make the argument that all religions are manipulative; all ideologies are manipulative in some way,” she said.
Luke Walker, director of an Australian documentary on Kenja Communications, Beyond Our Ken, says that the manipulation he witnessed in the cult were a combination of both accident and design by leader, Ken Dyers. He alludes to mental health counselor Steven Hassan’s four elements of controlling techniques: behaviour control, information control, thought control, and emotional control.
“If those four elements of control are there, you have a huge hold over a person, whether it happens on purpose or whether it happens as part of the process.
“These are intelligent, middle-class, inquisitive people, who just end up finding the wrong thing, because they’re just not used to questioning information,” he said.
Both Thalia and Helen lament the lack of acknowledgement of cultic abuse in society and the media’s sensational depiction of cult dynamics.
Helen said: “If he had sexually abused me, I would have an avenue to go get help. If I had been financially ruined… I would have grounds to go get help. Because I was psychologically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually abused, there is no protection for me… There’re no laws in Australia that prevent that type of harassment, and yet, it’s just as cruel.”
Helen’s psychologist, who asked not to be identified, has been seeing Helen for all 13 years she has spent outside the cult. She described Helen when she first saw her as “completely brainwashed”.
“I have to work very slowly with what they [ex-cult members] are giving me. They have to make the realisations on their own.
“I don’t think they ever get over it, but they get better from it,” she said.
Thalia agrees that her scars of psychological abuse are as profound.
“You can’t see physically what’s happened to me,” she said. “You can’t see those scars. You can’t see the bleeding, because I look normal, but I’m bleeding. I’m bleeding all the time.”
Helen has spent her time out of the cult educating and acting as an advocate for post-cult support.
She still has hope for her family.
“I might never see my kids again but I journal everything for them,” she said.
“It might not be my kids that get out, and it might not be all my grand kids … it might just be one grandchild that gets out, and I want them to have something of me.”
Not entirely cut off from her family, Thalia is still attempting to connect to her siblings and reconcile her sense of identity. She dreads spending Christmas alone, but remains positive.
“Maybe I should start my own Christmas,” she laughed. “Anyone who’s lonely and hurting, come to my house for Christmas. I’ll put on a feast.”
This post was originally published on Golden-I UQ 2014.