Carli McConkey with son Hamish in front of the Old Melbourne Gaol. In the background are sons Jacob and Sebastian and husband Michael Greene. In thrall to a cult: how the unwary fall victim to mind control Carli McConkey lost 13 years of her life, and hundreds of thousands of dollars, to a New Age cult. Michael Bachelard investigates.
October 17, 2010
AS SHE left university to make her way in the world, Carli McConkey suffered all the workaday self-doubts. She believed she was overweight, was unsure of her chosen career and was worried about finding Mr Right. She was disillusioned with Catholicism and craved spiritual fulfilment. She was also bright, popular, academically successful. After she organised the 1995 orientation week at her university, a careers adviser wrote: ''Carli is my idea of an outstanding Australian''.
Thirteen years later, McConkey is broke and exhausted. She has been beaten up and has mistreated others. She has spent years estranged from her parents, neglected her children, misled the courts and has worked as a virtual slave. Fixed in her mind is the fear that in December 2012 the world will come to an end and all but a few of us will die. At 35, she is also sterile, having been persuaded to undergo a tubal ligation in the belief that she was an unfit mother to her three sons.
Carli McConkey is not mentally ill. Neither drugs nor alcohol has led her to this point. Instead, in 1996 she joined a New Age personal development group called Universal Knowledge, seeking clarity. Once McConkey converted to its aims, the group's leader, Natasha Lakaev, manipulated her, hit her, took hundreds of thousands of dollars from her, and worked her without pay for up to 22 hours a day, seven days a week. McConkey spent the best years of her life in a cult. She only escaped earlier this year. What's frightening about her story is that this could happen to any of us.
Clinical Professor Doni Whitsett of the University of Southern California has been working with victims of cults and their families for 20 years. Carli's is ''a tragic textbook case'', she says. Cults vary in theology and practice, but all employ similar techniques to recruit the unwary. Scientology uses the free personality test to suggest everyone has deficiencies that Scientology can best address; the Australian cult Kenja uses circus classes and the promise of counselling and personal growth; and the commune-based Australian group Jesus People uses the promise of a purer form of Christianity. Natasha Lakaev used a mish-mash of New Age theories and therapies, an end-times philosophy based on environmental disaster, and a powerful personality.
Lakaev vehemently denies all allegations, saying she does not run a cult and that McConkey is unstable. What she ran was ''just a series of workshops'', she says. But for well over a decade, a growing number of former acolytes have emerged with identical stories of a high-pressure, abusive organisation.
Most of us find it hard to believe that anybody could allow themselves to be brainwashed in the way McConkey claims. But Whitsett says people do not join cults, they are systematically recruited, often by charismatic narcissists whose need for adulation gives them the power to manipulate others. Their victims are not mentally ill or stupid. They are often of higher-than-average intelligence, but they have vulnerabilities that the leader exploits and amplifies using powerful techniques known as ''coercive persuasion'' or ''mind control''. And like religious cults, personal development cults target people looking for guidance.
McConkey was 21 when she encountered a recruiter for Universal Knowledge, then known as Life Integration Programmes, at the 1996 Mind Body Spirit Festival in Sydney. ''I was a bit lost … and I was definitely searching,'' she says. ''I just wanted to have a psychic reading to have a bit of clarity on my direction … and [the reader] said basically, 'This course has everything you need to get over your insecurities, to build your self-esteem, get financial freedom, a great relationship' … The brochure said over 10,000 people have done the course. It all appeared very legitimate.''
According to Whitsett, McConkey was vulnerable to these suggestions in part simply because she was in her early 20s - the transition from adolescence to adulthood. ''When people are 'searching', they are in an existential crisis, looking for answers to the great questions: 'Who am I? What is life all about?' They are … willing to suspend their own worldview and their own ideas for another that seems more promising.''
McConkey took her discovery of Lakaev's northern NSW-based group as a metaphysical ''sign''. She immediately signed up to the course, ''The Next Evolutionary Step''. In person, Lakaev was sexy, powerful, charismatic. She told attendees to keep an open mind, to ''leave your logic at the door'', to avoid ''judgmentalism'' - a technique cults use to silence the internal voice of reason. She introduced the group to a technique called ''accessing'' - beating a black mat and yelling frustrations at parents, friends, teachers. She told them they needed to cleanse their ''cellular memory'' of the impurities of this and past lives, and those of their ancestors. They must live by ''intuition'' alone and if they did, they could ''manifest'' (or make) things happen in the real world. Wealth, happiness, success, relationships could all be ''manifested'' by the truly intuitive or ''super-intelligent''.
To McConkey it was inspiring. And though she had been told that the first course would fix everything, at the end the group was informed that to become fully ''integrated'', there were no fewer than 17 other courses, all at considerable expense, to do. ''It's a bait and switch,'' says Whitsett. People who believe an organisation to be credible and moderate have little fear of it, and can be drawn in further. Only later are they introduced to its more dangerous (and often more expensive) elements.
Melbourne woman Madeline Hardess, a university student and former private school captain, was lured into the Jesus People in 2004 by a man she met on a dating website. He did not initially mention that the three-bedroom house he lived in was actually a commune of up to 25 people, including two families of five.
He also did not reveal that, for food, they begged compost from grocery stores and ate the less putrid scraps. Nor did he say that the women were often beaten and yelled at. Only after a series of revelations over eight months did the truth sink in. By the time it did, Hardess was engaged and was convinced that people on the outside were corrupt or evil. She wore a headscarf to signify her subservience to the men.
''Through that period you're so excited that you've found this new thing that you don't even question that much,'' she said. ''But then … it became a lot more intense and you had to quash thoughts … I used to be a feminist, but then you get to the point where you're not even allowed to shake men's hands.''
For McConkey, the first Life Integration course convinced her she had dozens of ''issues''. She immediately signed up for two more. At the next course, ''The Final Step'', 70 people went to a rural property in a bus with the windows blacked out. They handed over phones, wallets and identification. Their ''self'' was being removed, as was any means of escape. For a week they were yelled at, punished, pressured to complete tasks in a short time. In the attempt to ''cleanse'' themselves, they were made to go hungry, and would often only get two hours of sleep a night. They paraded naked in front of the group, which McConkey found humiliating.
The next course was even more extreme. Called ''Personal Mastery and Metaphysical Counselling'', it cost $10,000 and lasted a year. It featured a punishing daily regime including a strict vegan diet, a daily 10-kilometre run and drinking two litres of fruit juice.
''These techniques appear to be for health reasons but they actually have the effect of debilitation,'' says Whitsett. ''They reduce the person's ability to think critically, to reason, and when people are so weak the 'self' is impaired, they are easier to control and manipulate.''
McConkey recalls seeing visions of ''spirits'' - what Whitsett says were probably hallucinations or ''waking dreams'' caused by lack of sleep. Lakaev disputes these details, saying the vegan diet was only for a short time. One year's program, she admits, became ''quite extreme'' but she had tried to ''settle it down''. Always a conscientious student, McConkey was desperate to succeed. But Lakaev's comments to her and others were 90 per cent negative, convincing them they needed to work harder.
Adrian Norman, a former member of Sydney cult Kenja, said an apparently random reward-punishment system kept him on edge for years. ''You were built up as wonderful … and then a week or two later you are the worst person in the world and disgusting and smelly and no one would ever want to be with you. It's like couples in abusive relationships - you go into a state of hyper-awareness and you can't think critically because you don't know if you're going to be attacked.''
Whitsett says this ''continuous barrage of attacks on the 'self' keeps the person in a continuous state of failure, of low self-esteem, and attached to the cult''. ''They want to improve, to be better people, but they can never live up to the impossible standards set by the leader.''
Cult members are also often deliberately disoriented, and outside influences removed to reduce their ability to distinguish what's normal. McConkey says Lakaev insisted that she renounce her parents and never discuss anything that happened on the courses - claims Lakaev denies. But Carli's mother, Robyn, remembers: ''You'd just talk generally and she couldn't answer any simple questions because it pertained to what was happening up there, and it was all so secret. So there gradually just came a line where you didn't know what to talk about any more.''
A Melbourne family, who wish to remain anonymous, say their son is being recruited by the Jehovah's Witnesses and they are watching him drift away from them as the cult's persuasive techniques prove ''more powerful than the love of the family''. ''To have a heartfelt relationship with one of your children and then to have a superficial, plastic relationship, it's gut-wrenching,'' says the father.
Cults also try to make it hard to find external, verifiable information. Lakaev uses lawyers to vigorously patrol public comment about her. She has legally pressured Google to remove links to websites critical of her and she is suing some former members for defamation over information they published on blogs.
Once Lakaev's disciples were hooked, their critical faculties broken down and their outside support cut off, Lakaev revealed her more extreme theology. McConkey says she claimed to be a reincarnation of Jesus Christ, and one of the 12 members on the Intergalactic Council of the Universe. She came from the ''Bird Tribes'' from a different dimension and she remembered all her past lives. In one of them she had been Queen of Atlantis. McConkey was told by Lakaev she had been a ''lady in waiting'' in Atlantis and she felt she was put on earth to serve her.
Lakaev also claimed ''spirit guides'' who live in the sky told her what to do. This gave her divine authority when she insisted that the planet would soon be destroyed and most people would perish. Lakaev, though, would survive with her followers and become the dominant political figure. Cult leaders often describe their god-like powers, saying that theirs is the power of life and death. A number of sources back up McConkey's claims, but Lakaev concedes only that ''spirit guides'' sometimes give her ''very clear thoughts'', and that, ''from where I sit there are other dimensions that exist''.
Of the other claims, though: ''I do not consider myself the reincarnation of anything … There's no such thing as 12 members on an intergalactic council. These are just stories that we talked about, just stories to describe things and discuss things … They're just metaphors.'' The end of the world, she claims, was not a prophecy. Her ''survival'' course was simply designed to help people cope if the worst did happen. McConkey vehemently stands by her version.
In her 13 years with Lakaev, McConkey completed 15 courses, some more than once, spending $41,395 on fees, much of it begged or borrowed from her parents. She met a man, Michael, and married him. He spent $34,540 on fees. Lakaev insinuated herself into every aspect of McConkey's life. She was maid of honour at Carli and Michael's wedding. McConkey insisted that Lakaev, rather than her own mother, an experienced midwife, assist at the birth of her children.
In December 1999, McConkey began working for Lakaev in the office without wages, and also cleaning and maintaining her properties. She and Michael bought a share in Lakaev's company, Universal Knowledge, for $20,000, believing they were buying equity, securing their future. They received nothing in return. Company documents show $420,000 was raised from investors in this manner, and Lakaev admits none have seen a return.
Lakaev later came up with spurious excuses to make McConkey and her husband pay her a further $140,000, claiming they were debts they owed. Both worked second and third jobs to pay this back. McConkey estimates that Lakaev owes them another $440,000 for their free labour over nine years.
Lakaev also convinced McConkey to seek an apprehended violence order against her parents and her brother. The court rejected the applications after McConkey gave misleading evidence. Lakaev claims instead that she had tried to help McConkey reconcile with her parents.
McConkey and her husband had more than one period apart as they dealt with the psychological and financial pressures imposed by Lakaev. In the meantime, McConkey says she was psychologically abused and physically assaulted by Lakaev, and was separated from her sons because Lakaev convinced her she was a ''human f--- up''. Lakaev also once beat McConkey's young son with a wooden spoon, she says.
Lakaev denies any physical abuse, saying McConkey was the violent one, who had ''done some very strange things with her kids''. ''She's going to end up in court herself … Carli's one of these girls who goes to psychics 24/7; she's not really that stable.''
Lakaev's supporters, who phoned The Sunday Age after my interview with her last week, said Lakaev was the victim of jealousy because she was a strong, independent businesswoman. They said they had seen McConkey leaving her young children home alone when she went to work. McConkey admits neglecting her children at times, but says she was forced to in the attempt to fulfil Lakaev's demands.
For 13 years she stayed in thrall to the cult, living on or near Lakaev's northern NSW property, Omaroo. The promise of ''survival'', the hope of financial reward (from her shareholding in Universal Knowledge), and the occasional compliment was enough to keep her loyal. But in March 2009, in a state of exhaustion, McConkey agreed to something she will regret forever.
''After the birth of my first son, from age 27, Natasha would tell me I was abusive, a liar and a manipulator and I shouldn't look after any children. She started saying, 'You should get sterilised','' McConkey recalls.
''After eight years, two more children and being repeatedly told to get sterilised, I gave in. I was separated from my husband at that time and I just knew I wouldn't be able to cope with another child in that environment and I thought, 'Well, I'll just do it now'.''
McConkey is strong. Many former cult members can never speak about their experiences. But after just nine months away from Lakaev, she held her nerve throughout her account to me. When she tells me about the sterilisation though, the tears flow. ''The doctor said, 'Are you sure you want to do this? You've still got 10 years of fertility left'. I said, 'No, it's what I want'. But it wasn't. Someone else had placed that idea in my head. I did it purely for her, to be able to focus more on her and her needs … 'After I left this year, I was in the girls' clothing section at Big W and I just had to really grieve that I wasn't able to have a little girl.''
McConkey says the process of cult indoctrination had led her, inch by inch, to a place she could never have imagined. But Lakaev denies having any role in McConkey's decision. ''I was a friend of Carli's … We had a symbiotic relationship,'' Lakaev says.
Finally, in January this year, McConkey could handle no more. She picked up her children and drove away into what she believed was certain death at doomsday. ''I was exhausted, had been beaten up again and was unable to cope with any more psychological and emotional pressure. I just said to myself, 'I don't care if I die in two years' time, I would prefer to be free and enjoy my children'.''
The feeling of freedom was almost immediate. But McConkey deals with shame and guilt over things she has done to her children, her family, her husband and other cult members. Some family members still will not talk to her. And she finds it difficult to plan for anything after armageddon, which Lakaev prophesied would be December 12, 2012.
''I believe about 50 per cent that 'Survival' is going to happen and I just hope that it's not going to,'' McConkey says. ''If I wake up on the 13th [of December] and nothing has happened I'm just going to celebrate and hope to God that whoever is still caught up with that woman is just going to get up and leave.''
People sometimes ask why cult members do not simply exercise their free will and run away. But Kenja escapee Adrian Norman says his free will was reduced to a ''pilot light'' while in the cult. Mind control techniques are subtle and powerful. They turn your own mind against you. ''Prison walls and chains are not necessary when one believes these things,'' says Whitsett.
The good news is people can escape and recover, and McConkey is determined to do so. ''I go through bouts of feeling really down but I know I can get out of them because I don't want to be depressed any more … I still feel angry, but I don't feel as much fear.''
End of the world for French cult couple
BUYEKEZWA MAKWABE and ANTON FERREIRA
Jan 22, 2011
"How many of us could survive for 48 hours away from prepared food, shelter and a tarred road?" The answer was six days, in the case of French fugitives Dr Philippe Meniere and his partner Agnes Jardel, who died at their Karoo hide-out this week. Among the reclusive couple's belongings was Don't Die in the Bundu, an ex-Rhodesian army survival guide published in 1967, which opens with the question about survival.
Meniere, 60, and Jardel, 55, evaded capture by nearly 100 police with tracker dogs and helicopters on a 3000ha farm in the Northern Cape in a six-day drama which gripped the country. They covered the soles of their hiking boots with cloth to disguise their tracks and carried a small arsenal of weapons. Rough terrain and windy conditions contributed to the length of time it took to find the couple, said the man who headed the search, Colonel Tip Brink. In the end it was thermal imaging equipment fitted to a helicopter and a tip-off from a resident which led police to their hide-out - a building just 500m from the farm house where they had lived rent free for a decade, and prepared for the end of the world.
Hawks spokesman McIntosh Polela said yesterday that a postmortem would take place in Kimberley this week. Officials from the French Embassy were tracing people in Paris - where Meniere practised before registering as a general practitioner in South Africa in 1983 - to help identify the bodies. Investigations are under way to determine whether the couple committed suicide or were killed by police.
When Meniere and Jardel moved to Sutherland, they were heeding the word of Ramtha, a man they believed lived 35000 years ago. They stockpiled food and had a collection of guns, ammunition, survival books and literature from the Ramtha School of Enlightenment. They joined the school in 1997 and attended seminars held in Johannesburg in 2004. A US woman, JZ Knight, has claimed that Ramtha channels his wisdom through her; she has persuaded thousands of people around the world to join the school. Knight this week scrambled to distance herself from Meniere and Jardel, saying they had had no contact with her school since 2004. "To link the two is preposterous," she said. "RSE is not a survival doomsday cult."
But the school's website tells a different story. Teachings from Ramtha on the site include:
* "One should not live in the cities ... in the days to come not only are the plagues to run rampant ... there will be murderers on the street who will rob your cupboards and slay you for only a sliver of bread";
* "You should learn to plant seeds, grow and harvest your own food without chemicals, and then prepare food storage for at least two years and more";
* "You will find storms that unleash a violence that you have never seen before ... seek dry ground, higher ground, away from that which is called the oceans"; and
* "Put up food and become sovereign and have lots of water ... work towards a point that regardless of what would happen with the world, you could continue to sustain yourself".
The school is advertising retreats in Rustenburg in North West in May and October, at a cost of up to $1350 a head.
Sutherland residents toasted news of the couple's death on Thursday at the local hotel, which ran a special on French shooters - two for R15. The couple went on the run after police arrived at the farm Hardie, owned by Gerhardus du Plessis, to look for his tenants' illegal firearms last Friday. Meniere opened fire, killing policeman Jacob Boleme and wounding his colleague, Glenwall du Toit. The Ramtha school sent the policeman flowers as he lay recovering in a Cape Town hospital on Friday.
Du Plessis's daughter-in-law, Jolene du Plessis, said Jardel had once been a "warm and bubbly lady", but the couple had become withdrawn. Gerhardus du Plessis had delivered a home-cooked lunch to the couple on Christmas day. Over the years, the grocery list they gave him when he collected supplies in town had dwindled to a few items. "Where they used to buy a loaf of bread, they were now buying flour and using the old farm house sun oven," said Jolene. "We thought they were poor or they needed money, that they'd perhaps lost money through investments."
Farm workers said the couple were eccentric and that Jardel used to talk to the chickens on the farm.
'Awesome, it's the end of the world': Doomsday campers travel the country preaching the Apocalypse...on May 21
8th March 2011
Most people like to push thoughts about the end of the world to the back of their minds, hoping that the apocalypse, if it ever comes, will be a long way off. But for one group of not-so happy campers, doomsday is a lot sooner...May 21 to be precise.
According to the predictions of the Family Radio ministry, on that date a massive earthquake will shake the world apart, littering the ground with 'many dead bodies'. Those who believe in Jesus will be carried into heaven, while the rest of humanity will endure 153 days of 'death and horror' before the world ends on October 21.
The group of 10 Christians from Oakland have set out across the country in a convoy of caravans to bring the 'awesome' message of impending doom to as many people as possible. 'Project Caravan', as it has become known, is made up of members of the Family Radio network all of who have given up jobs, families and all their possessions to join this final mission. Calling themselves 'ambassadors', the church members point to baffling biblical codes to demonstrate their reasoning.
Speaking to CNN the group's leader, 89-year-old Harold Camping, is adamant that the date is accurate. He said: 'I know it's absolutely true, because the Bible is always absolutely true. If I were not faithful that would mean that I'm a hypocrite.'
Despite his conviction, Camping has predicted the world would end before - on September 4 1994. That, he says, was a mistake, a misreading of the biblical codes used to decipher the exact date of the 'rapture'. In order to get the warning out in time he fudged his calculations, a mistake he maintains he did not make this time.
According to the Church's website, there are two 'proofs' that May 21 2011 is the judgement day. According to them, Noah's great flood occurred in the year 4990 B.C., 'exactly' 7000 years ago. At the time, God said to Noah he had seven days before the flood would begin. Taking a passage from 2 Peter 3:8, in which it is said a day for God is like a thousand human years, the church reasoned that seven 'days' equals 7000 human years from the time of the flood, making 2011 the year of the apocalypse.
In its second 'proof' the exact date is revealed by working forward from the exact date of the of the crucifixion - April 1, 33 AD. According to their reasoning, there are exactly 722,500 days from April 1, 33 A.D. until May 21, 2011 - the alleged day of judgement. This number can be represented as follows: 5 x 10 x 17 x 5 x 10 x 17 = 722,500. The church then argues that numbers in the bible have special meanings, with the number 5 signifying atonement or redemption, the number 10 signifying 'completeness' and the number 17 equalling heaven.
'Ambassador' Sheila Jonas, another of the Family Radio faithful, spoke of her joy at joining the not-so merry band of travellers. She said: 'I'm in it until the end.This is so serious, I can't believe I'm here. She will not however talk about her past because: 'There is no other story. ... we are to warn the people. Nothing else matters.'
Travelling in a convoy of five caravans, the doom-mongers are adamant that Jesus is coming in three months. And for anyone harbouring doubts over the accuracy of the prediction, the group has a cast iron answer - 'the Bible guarantees it'. With T-shirts and banners declaring the 'Awesome News' that Judgement Day is coming, the first convoy of five caravans set off in October last year. They have now been joined by two other convoys, all travelling to different parts of the country spreading their message.
The oldest believer on the convoy, 75-year-old Gallegos from Utah, is similar to the rest of the church members. In order to join the trip he had to leave behind a wife of 53 years and be away from his 10 children and their families. Others have left empty houses, sold antiques, disposed of art collections or given up cars and other expensive items to join the road trip of doom.
And as if the end of the world is not bad enough, there is one final bitter pill as we approach the apocalypse. Apparently no one from Family Radio is sure what to do to guarantee a place in heaven. God, they say, has already predetermined the roughly two to three percent of those who will be saved come May 21. Sadly for the rest of us all we can do is wait until the end comes. Again.
Roch "Moses" Theriault Prisoner charged in cult leader's death was serving time for two other deaths
The Canadian Press
7th May 2011
MONCTON, N.B. — A 60-year-old man serving time for two deaths in British Columbia — including that of a fellow inmate — has been charged with murder in the slaying of a former cult leader inside a New Brunswick prison. Matthew MacDonald of Port au Port, N.L., is charged with first-degree murder in the death of Roch "Moses" Theriault. Investigators say Theriault was found dead near his cell at a penitentiary in Dorchester, N.B., on Feb. 26. Police say Theriault, 63, was involved in an altercation with another inmate and died from his injuries.
Theriault founded and led a notorious sect in the 1980s. It was first established in two Quebec towns, Sainte-Marie-de-Beauce and Saint-Jogues, then finally in Burnt River, Ont. Theriault, who wanted to be called Moses, was sentenced to life in prison in 1993 for the gruesome murder of his wife Solange Boilard, whom he disembowelled with a kitchen knife as part of a cult ritual.
Theriault was engaged in physical and sexual abuse of members of the cult, including the amputation of the hand of one woman, Gabrielle Lavallee. Lavallee wrote a book about her experience. The cult leader had 22 children with women he held under his sway.
A man who is believed to be a follower of a cult group ran amok, slashed his nephew and took his wife and five children along to rob a petrol station in Permas Jaya. The 49-year-old taxi driver assaulted his 25-year-old nephew at his home on Friday, requiring him to receive four stitches on his head.
A team of policemen who went to investigate the 1.30pm incident on Saturday saw the man “forcing” his family into his taxi and waving a parang at them. Johor Baru (South) OCPD Asst Comm Zainuddin Yaakob said the policemen trailed the suspect's taxi to a nearby petrol station where the man and his two parang-wielding teenage sons robbed the station's convenience store of four packets of cigarette and a chocolate bar while his eight-year-old son, also holding a parang, stood guard outside.
He said policemen tried to persuade the suspect and his sons to surrender but they refused and tried to attack the law enforcers before escaping in the taxi. The policemen continued to trail the family and the drama ended about 40 minutes later when the suspect surrendered at Jalan Pasir Pelangi.
“We arrested all the family members, including the 37-year-old wife, a 12-year-old daughter and a 16-month-old baby,” he said, adding that investigations revealed that the family members had followed the man voluntarily. He said police also found six parangs, a vegetable knife and a wooden chota in the taxi and cult-related books at the man's home.
ACP Zainuddin said the suspect was sent to the Permai Hospital for a mental evaluation while the rest of the family members were detained for questioning. “We found that the suspect had also robbed the same petrol station with his two teenage sons twice on Monday,” he added.
He's let himself down, he's let his family down - and what's worse, he's let down the whole X Factor aspect of being in a cult down! Rubbish!
Former Neighbours actor writes of his cult experience
22 May 11
AUTHOR Benjamin Grant Mitchell is no longer ashamed to tell people he was born into a doomsday cult. The writer and former Neighbours actor has self-published his debut novel, The Last Great Day, a fictionalised retelling of his family’s life in the infamous Worldwide Church of God.
Now 42 and living happily in a sprawling Warrandyte home with his wife, Pauli, and their nine-month-old daughter, Honey Rose, Mitchell speaks without bitterness about the atmosphere of deceit and oppression that shaped his early years. “We left when I was 10 and I had a hard time as a teenager and in my 20s,” he said. “So for a lot of years I didn’t talk about it and felt shameful and thought ‘What will people think?’ but I’m happy to be honest and talk about it now because we didn’t do anything wrong.”
Co-founded in America’s north-west by former advertising executive Herbert W. Armstrong and Mad magazine comic artist Basil Wolverton, the cult prophesised the world would end in 1975, but was loose on the details of how things would go. Contact with non-members was discouraged, the sect forbade celebration of birthdays or medical intervention and members were required to give 30 per cent of their income to the church. Armstrong became so wealthy he purchased his own Gulfstream jet.
“If they told you everything at the start, you wouldn’t have joined,” Mitchell said.
Mitchell’s father was a minister in the church in Manchester, England, when Mitchell was born but the family was ordered to move to Australia to spread the word in 1970. Despite his young age, Mitchell’s memories are still vivid of the terrible consequences of the church’s ban on hospital treatment. First his aunt died in labour and then his mother lost newborn twin boys. “Obviously Mum chose to comply but she was bullied by a very oppressive atmosphere,” he said. “Everyone was afraid of being told they were going against the church.”
The Mitchells eventually left the cult after the prophesised 1975 armageddon failed to eventuate and as the church was being investigated for tax evasion and child sexual abuse. “Armstrong was always talking about us all going to Petra, the place of safety and salvation,” Mitchell said. “But it was all so ambiguous and we started asking: How are we getting there? Who’s paying? When? And there were no answers.” The cult effectively ended with Armstrong’s death in 1986 but the church has continued around the world in other less sinister incarnations.
Director of Cult Counselling Australia, Raphael Aron, said it was important to shed light on common cult experiences. “Cults manipulate the human condition and that desire to be accepted and belong,” he said. “It is important for people to be aware of this because once you’re in the position, it becomes much more difficult to extricate yourself.”
Australian Psychological Society clinical and health psychologist Louise Samways applauded Mitchell for speaking out. “For some people it’s a very helpful thing to talk about it and tell their story,” she said.
It is clear Mitchell’s experience has left him with a profound understanding of his own beliefs and moral codes. He is adamant his own daughter, Honey Rose, will be able to believe in and question whatever she wants.
IN telling his family’s story as a work of fiction, Benjamin Grant Mitchell said it allowed him to combine his first novel, an autobiography and a family history. The Last Great Day follows Henry Conroy, a minister in the doomsday cult The Worldwide Church, his family and their struggle to reconcile their belief in and involvement with an increasingly oppressive and erratic organisation.
“It was cathartic writing it as a fiction based in that world I knew very well,” Mitchell said. “When there’s something you haven’t embraced about yourself, you can’t be relaxed or sincere so I’d always wanted to write and this let me put it all out.”
Mitchell said honest communication was the key to his family’s freedom.
Leader of cult detained in Fiji
June 27, 2011
FUGITIVE doomsday cult leader Rocco Leo may never return to Australia, having been detained by Fijian authorities for overstaying his visa. The Agape Ministries leader, who claims to have been anointed by God to save his people from Armageddon next year, is wanted in South Australia and faces 126 fraud charges, tax office debts of up to $4 million and an assault count.
South Australian detective superintendent Jim Jeffery said yesterday no extradition treaty with Fiji existed and police could not force his return. "It is not our intention at this point in time to extradite Rocco Leo from Fiji but we will reconsider that if necessary at a later date," Superintendent Jeffery said.
In March, Customs officers uncovered ingredients for making weapons, instruction manuals, batons and throwing stars in a shipping container bound for Mr Leo in Fiji. The cult leader, 53, fled to Fiji in May last year after raids on 12 Agape Ministries properties uncovered 20 illegal guns, assault batons, detonators, fuses and more than 65,000 rounds of ammunition. Mr Leo had allegedly stockpiled weapons and told members they would be used to defend themselves if needed.
The cult attracted up to 200 people at its peak but now numbers less than 30, including families living in Agape properties. Last week, Fijian police raided the compound where Mr Leo had been staying with 17 followers, including his girlfriend, Mari Antoinette Veneziano, and her brother Joseph. Mr Leo remains in immigration detention in Fiji with the Venezianos.
Independent senator Nick Xenophon, who has campaigned against Scientology, said laws were needed to protect people from cults. Former Agape members who have lost hundreds of thousands of dollars have also contacted Senator Xenophon for help.
Scientologists threaten to sue cult victim group
July 10, 2011
THE Church of Scientology has threatened to sue and claim punitive damages against a volunteer organisation that helps the victims of cults and their families. The legal threat from the US-based religion accuses the group, Cult Information and Family Support, of religious vilification over statements made in a brochure advertising their conference later this year. But the volunteer organisation has refused to bow to the demands of the Scientologists, saying instead that they will continue their ''humanitarian support work''.
The brochure advertising the support group's national conference in Brisbane next month quotes one of their speakers, independent MP Nick Xenophon, from a Senate speech in 2009, in which he labelled Scientology a criminal organisation. The brochure includes allegations from that speech that members of Scientology had experienced ''blackmail, torture and violence, labour camps and forced imprisonment and coerced abortions'' at the hands of the religion.
But in the legal letter, Scientology lawyer Kevin Rodgers of Sydney firm Brock Partners, said the brochure was ''grossly defamatory of [the church of Scientology], its officers and parishioners''. ''The Church considers the brochure conveys defamatory imputations that it … 'is a cult' is an 'abusive and destructive group', that it 'psychologically manipulates persons under coercive controlling circumstances and runs a 'labour camp','' the legal letter said. The church also accused CIFS Queensland of breaching the state's religious vilification law by inciting hatred, severe ridicule or serious contempt of it.
Scientology spokeswoman Virginia Stewart told The Sunday Age that in the most offensive parts of the brochure, CIFS had compared its practices to ''the tragic and extreme beliefs and actions of David Koresh and Jim Jones''. The legal letter said the church and its officers ''strenuously deny these unfounded basely [sic] accusations'', and demanded CIFS withdraw mention of Scientology and provide a written apology. Failure to do so would ''be used in any additional action our client Church is advised to take to claim punitive damages''.
Ms Stewart said the church ''shares none of the characteristics of a cult''. ''We do not have a messianic leader, we do not predict the end of the world, our members are urged to think for themselves and are not subject to 'coercive persuasion or mind control'. And we most certainly do not promote suicide or murder as solutions to human unhappiness. Quite the opposite,'' she said.
CIFS president John McAlpin, a former member of the Exclusive Brethren, told The Sunday Age that all the references to Scientology in the brochure were already in the public domain, and the legal threats were an attempt to stop victims speaking freely.
The conference at Brisbane Parliament House is designed to offer support to former cult victims and their families, and to help train health professionals in how to deal with the after effects of involvement with a cult. Former Scientology member Paul Schofield said Senator Xenophon's statements about the religion ''certainly fit with my personal experience - and if they want to sue me they can go ahead''.
Ms Stewart asked why Mr Schofield had not been charged with conspiracy to pervert the course of justice and/or perjury for his claims.
Before there was Paris, Lindsay and Britney there was an American beauty queen named Joyce McKinney whose wild and weird ways led her to become the ultimate tabloid "it girl." It all started in the late 1970s when the former Miss Wyoming (who claimed to have an IQ of 168) moved to Utah, fell in love and became engaged to Kirk Anderson, a devoted Mormon. In 1977, he suddenly "vanished into thin air," prompting McKinney to hire private investigators, from Los Angeles bodybuilding hub Golds Gym, no less.
The twentysomething blonde learned Anderson had been deployed to a missionary in England, thus she and her team crossed the pond, where she allegedly abducted, imprisoned and chained her lover (complete with a phony gun and bottle of chloroform) to a bed in a cottage, attempting to seduce and rape him. This juicy tale and others are revived in Oscar-winning filmmaker Errol Morris's new documentary, "Tabloid," which captures McKinney's stranger-than-fiction adventures and unwilling rise to celebrity status.
"The first time I approached Joyce, she wasn't interested [in doing a film]. Six or seven months later I came back and she was interested. And then she was one of the best interview subjects I've ever had," Morris told FOX411's Pop Tarts. "She was amazing – part performance, part interview, part theatrical event."
“Tabloid" addresses McKinney's "manacled Mormon" as she paints a picture of a "powerful cult" that had "done something" to extract all life and personality from the man she loved. "They had me think they were a church, they made me think they were family-orientated and I was so happy to go to this place where I would have my pick of all-American people, husband material," McKinney said in the movie. "Kirk was sexually impotent because of this brain-washing. I knew there was only one way to get him out of that cult. He was not supposed to be turned on. He was not supposed to fall in love."
Continuing the eccentric style of the Morris documentary, former missionary Troy Williams also gives his thoughts on the faith. "We sing songs like 'I Hope They Call Me on a Mission.' You leave as a boy and come back as a man," explained Williams. "For Kirk when he reaches the age of 19, he's just fulfilling his religious responsibilities."
Morris said his attempts to have the Mormon Church officially share their side of the story were rejected. "I tried to interview some elders of the church. We tried to interview Kirk Anderson, who Joyce has been following for many, many years," Morris said. "We couldn't get those interviews, so there you go." The Church of the Latter Day Saints declined to comment for this story.
But what caught Morris's attention even more than memories of the salacious McKinney sex saga decades ago, was her random reappearance in the media three years ago. In 2008, photographs of a heavy-set, middle-aged woman calling herself Bermann McKinney hit international headlines, poised along scientists in South Korea, as the proud owner of the first cloned pet dog. Reporters soon noted a similarity in features to Bermann and the "sex & chains" kidnapper of the 1970s, and although she initially denied the connection, the truth was soon unveiled. "The cloning story is what first attracted my interest. I read a newspaper article about the cloning of the dog, they mentioned at the bottom of the article that (Joyce) may have been involved in the 'sex and chains' story," Morris continued. "So it was a combination of dog cloning and 'sex in chains' that got me interested. A winning combination."
Not to mention beauty queen, bondage, bad behavior, escort ads and an infamous southern gal who found herself partying with everyone from John Travolta to the Bee Gees on the London social circuit. Yet what's possibly the most fascinating aspect of the film is the level to which each person's interpretation of the McKinney scandal differed.
"It's amazing how many different ways people see the same story. Take any three or four people witnessing an event, and they will have three or four different descriptions of that event," Morris said. "The task of trying to ferret out, in this morass of conflicting stories, where the truth lies."
I don't often post stuff from Fox, but I've never heard of this story and sounds like it will be a good watch.
Ismael and the Holy Thugs answer prayers of Venezuela's poor
Gun-toting 'saint' of María Lionza cult finds devotees on both sides of the law in Caracas's murderous streets
Virginia Lopez in Caracas
30 September 2011
In a country that wakes up every Monday morning to a dismal tally of weekend murders, it is no surprise that people have turned to the saints for help. But the holy men invoked in Venezuela are anything but virtuous. In a nation with one of the highest murder rates in the world – a staggering 14,000 a year on average – where locals often joke that they would be safer if they lived in Baghdad, even the beatified carry guns.
Welcome to the cult of Ismael and the Holy Thugs, a curious blend of spiritualism and hero worship that comes with its own quirky iconography: chiefly garish figurines with baseball caps on back to front, cigarettes dangling from their mouths and guns stuffed into their belts. Ismael and his posse are the latest addition to the María Lionza cult, a religion that believes the dead coexist with the living and can be channelled through medium-like people. Take Freddy Castro. When he was thrown in jail his mother was desperate with worry and hired a lawyer. More tellingly, however, she prayed to Ismael for help. To this day she credits Freddy's release not to the Venezuelan judicial system but to the holy thughood.
According to the anthropologist and cult expert Professor Daisy Barreto from the Universidad Central de Venezuela, the Holy Thugs – or Santos Malandros – started gaining adherents after the Caracazo, three days of rioting that tore through the streets of Caracas in 1989 and threatened to topple the longest standing democracy in the region. "The María Lionza cult, unlike Catholicism, is not static and constantly incorporates new 'saints' who reflect the country's situation," said Barreto. "The mediums started receiving these thug-like figures to reflect the wave of crime that the country has experienced after the Caracazo."
What is perhaps most peculiar about the cult is the diversity – indeed duality – of its devotees. Ismael is sought both by people who want protection from crime, and by criminals who need help carrying out their illegal activities. "In one day I can receive a mother who wants Ismael to turn her child away from drugs or crime, and a boy who wants Ismael to help him find a gun," said Santiago Rondon, a brujo or spiritualist priest from the cult. "Ismael was a thug but he wasn't a bad thug. He stole to give to the people, and not for his own gain, so this gives him the ability to connect with both sides."
Ismael does more than just understand his devotees, however. With countless versions of who exactly he was and how he lived, Ismael reflects Venezuelans' hopes and fears. "He is our mirror," says Berta Carvallo, a teacher in a low-income area of Caracas. At the core of believing is the idea that Ismael, who was killed by a "bad cop", has come back to seek redemption and that by doing well he will finally achieve a peaceful rest, or the justice he was denied in life.
Ricardo Bolivar, a community leader in Guarataro, one of the poorest and most dangerous parts of western Caracas, explained the thinking of those who look to the cult for help. "He can answer our prayers because he has walked down the same streets as we have," he said. "He knows what we live, what we suffer. We didn't inherit him from the Spanish. You find Ismael and the need for alternative faiths here, in the places where formal law doesn't reach, where we have been failed by the formal structures and are forced to develop our own means."
I didn't realise that Venezuela was such a violent place. 14000 murders in a population of about 28.5m is crazy.
Aum Shinrikyo Cult Member Gives Himself Up After 17 Years On The Run
TOKYO — A member of the doomsday cult behind a deadly Tokyo subway gas attack and other crimes turned himself in to police after 17 years on the run, an official said on Sunday. A Tokyo metropolitan police official said Makoto Hirata, a member of Aum Shinrikyo, conspired with several other members in kidnapping a notary official in 1995 and causing his death. The victim, Kiyoshi Kariya, then 68, was the brother of a follower trying to quit the group. Hirata, 46, who had been on the run since the summer of 1995, turned himself in at a Tokyo police station and was detained early Sunday, the police official said on condition of anonymity.
The cult also released sarin nerve gas in Tokyo's subway system in 1995, killing 13 people and injuring more than 6,000 in Japan's deadliest act of domestic terrorism. The cult had amassed an arsenal of chemical, biological and conventional weapons in anticipation of an apocalyptic showdown with the government.
Police say Hirata and other cult members kidnapped Kariya off a Tokyo street and confined him at the group's tightly guarded commune at the foot of Mount Fuji. They allegedly used anesthetics on Kariya to get him to talk about his sister, who escaped from the group after being pressed to donate her land. Kariya died from a drug overdose, police said. According to court testimony, cult members burned Kariya's body in an incinerator inside the commune and disposed of the ashes in a nearby lake to destroy the evidence.
Public broadcaster NHK said Hirata told police he wanted to "put the past behind him." He was carrying a travel pack containing minimal daily necessities and had Japanese currency worth several hundred dollars in his wallet, it said. Hirata told police he only drove Kariya to the cult compound and denied other allegations, NHK said.
Hirata was one of the last three wanted cult members. The two others are still on the run. He is also suspected in the near-fatal shooting of Japan's then top police chief, but the high-profile case was closed last year after the statute of limitations expired.
Nearly 200 members of the cult have been convicted in the gas attack and dozens of other crimes. Thirteen, including cult guru Shoko Asahara, are on death row. No one has been executed. Hirata's arrest could help fill in missing pieces of the cult investigation. "As a member of the victim's family, I just want to know the truth," Kariya's son Minoru said in a televised interview. "I hope the new witness will help bring new revelations."
The cult, now renamed Aleph, once had 10,000 members in Japan and another 30,000 in Russia. It remains under police surveillance.
8 killed in renewed cult war in Benin
January 6, 2012
BENIN – NO fewer than eight persons have been killed in a renewed cult war between rival groups in Benin City, Edo State, in the past six days. The clash is alleged to be between Eiye and the Neo-Black Movement of Africa, aka Black Axe, confraternities. Although the cause of the clashes could not be ascertained, it was, however, gathered that it may be a fall-out from the death of a young man allegedly killed by a rival cult group, recently.
Meanwhile, the Police in Benin, have intensified a crack down on the warring cult groups, arresting no fewer than five suspects, while arms and ammunition were also recovered from the suspects, two of whom were nabbed by men of Ogida Police Station.
It was gathered that Medical Stores Road, New Benin, Second West, Ogida and Sapele Road areas of Benin City have recorded at least one casualty each in the violence. It will be recalled that no fewer than 12 youths, including a set of twin brothers, reportedly died in a similar fight, which engulfed the city last February.
Spokesman of the Command, Mr Peter Ogboi, when contacted, said any cultist caught would be treated as enemy of the state.
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