Cults are commonly known as organizations or movements prompted by an ideology. They’re rendered powerless without the charm of a treacherous leader. And with every deceitful leader comes a group of willing followers seeking fulfillment.
Cults have been portrayed in countless books, movies, songs, and documentaries. They’ve been a subject of interest for years, but not many people know of the true horrors and atrocities that have occurred and are still happening.
To leave a cult takes a massive amount of strength and resolve. The person runs the risk of being ostracized, threatened, or physically and sexually abused. In this list, 10 brave survivors tell their stories and reflect on their personal experiences. It doesn’t get any more real than this.
10 The Children Of God (Now Known As The Family International)
Natacha Tormey was born into The Children of God cult, which was an evangelical Christian group with fundamental beliefs. They believed that all Christians should live their lives exactly like the first disciples of Christ did. The cult leader, David Berg, allegedly encouraged the members to “share sexually” with each other and also wanted the women to use sex as a recruitment tool.
Natacha recalls witnessing her brother being physically “disciplined” by another cult member when she was a child. Her brother was strangled in front of her until he turned blue and couldn’t breathe. She states that she felt helpless, and it has scarred her for life.
Just after her 18th birthday, she escaped and moved in with her boyfriend from the outside world. Things were tough, but she eventually found peace. In total, 50 members from her cult have committed suicide.
9 Fundamentalist Church Of Jesus Christ Of Latter-Day Saints
The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS) is one of the largest Mormon fundamentalist extremist groups. They are known for pushing homophobia, racism, sexism, and totalitarian views on their members and are still actively practicing polygamy. Brielle Decker was one of Warren Jeffs’s wives. (Warren was an FLDS “prophet” now serving a life sentence for child sexual assault.)
FLDS had a network of “safe houses” where the members would go to avoid police raids. After a raid in Texas following the arrest of Warren Jeffs, Brielle and other members were sent to a safe house in Wyoming, which she recalls as a very traumatic time.
Jeffs had ordered people to follow her and harass her, and she never had a moment’s peace. People in the safe house told her that she should drown herself in the reservoir outside. If she didn’t, they said, they would kill her and make it look like suicide.
Brielle decided to test if they were serious and asked if she should really go to the reservoir. They responded, “Yes.” Even after an hour of Brielle being neck-deep in the reservoir, nobody came to check on her.
She was shocked that the members would let her kill herself to please the church. At age 26, Brielle eventually escaped from a locked room by unscrewing the window and breaking through. She has since been adopted.
8 Christian Assemblies International
A religious group and registered charity, Christian Assemblies International (CAI) is a Pentecostal church that is seemingly rooted in innocent Christian values and beliefs as advertised. Former member Emily Wassmann’s personal reflections would tell you otherwise, however.
Wassmann was born into CAI and grew up witnessing all kinds of horrors in this twisted religious cult. She claims that the women were treated like slaves and suffered physical and verbal abuse from the men.
The leader, Pastor Scott Williams, was apparently “authorized by God to override biblical rules against homosexuality” and teach sexual obedience to his male members using bizarre sex rituals. There was a large exodus in 2006, and the leader now lives with his wife in Coffs Harbour in a house he bought using church donations.
7 Word Of Life Christian Church
Supposedly, former member Nathan Ames was not surprised to learn that there was a fatal beating of a member of the Word of Life Christian Church on October 11, 2015. Nine members of this church, including the parents of the victims, beat 17-year-old Christopher Leonard and his 19-year-old brother, Lucas, for a merciless 12 hours.
Lucas later succumbed to his injuries. Ames refers to the church as a “house of torment” where mental abuse and urban isolation ran amok. If members were watching TV and a commercial came on, the TV would be shut off so that there were no “external influences.”
Ames states that the church used manipulation and mind games to control members and that he left the church when its integrity started to decline.
6 The Family
Molly Hollenbach was a free soul in the 1960s with a penchant for exploration and adventure. More than anything, she wanted to find herself. That’s when she discovered “The Family,” a commune in New Mexico that was based on Gestalt therapy.
After begging them to take her in, she was placed in a five-room adobe house with 55 other tenants. Members were expected to give up their names and personal belongings. The cult upheld the belief that they must transform themselves to revolutionize the world.
It didn’t take long for Molly to realize that the cult was sexist and warped. The elder leader, Lord Byron, insisted on sexual access to all female members and deemed himself the messiah and superior over the other members.
Molly reports that the group’s beliefs also went directly against feminist principles. The women had to work in the kitchen wearing skirts. She eventually fled and went to see a psychiatrist shortly afterward.
5 Commonwealth Covenant Church
Two former Commonwealth Covenant Church (CCC) members, whose identities remain hidden, report that the church was a cult because of the multiple abuses that occurred there. One of the girls states that she made sexual abuse allegations in the 1990s that led to the cult bullying her and her mother out of the church.
The detective on the sexual abuse case claimed that it was one of the most disturbing on which he had worked because of the things done by the abuser and how long it went on. The girls blame the initial lack of justice on the church’s “secrecy and patriarchal ways,” which protected the abuser.
In general, the church was extreme. Boys and girls could not interact, girls could not cut their hair, and the women were taught that their place was to make babies. There was no radio or TV. Abuser Jonathan John Edward Belcher, who now lives in Masterton, New Zealand, was found guilty on 10 counts of sexual offenses against one girl when she was 8 to 16 years old.
4 Westboro Baptist Church
Lauren Drain quickly became the black sheep of the family when she was ostracized from the Westboro Baptist Church. This banishment was reportedly due to her “questioning elements of church doctrine.”
Lauren reported in a reddit AMA that she spoke up about inconsistencies in the doctrine to her parents and was met with extreme opposition. She was called a divisive and a liar. Lauren also revealed that the Westboro Baptist Church used scare tactics to prevent members from leaving by telling them that God would kill them if they left.
3 River Road Fellowship
In the 1990s, Victor Barnard founded the River Road Fellowship, an offbeat Christian sect. His 150 followers sold their homes and went to live in a commune on an 85-acre campground in Minnesota. Telling his followers that he represented Jesus, Barnard wore robes and carried a staff.
In 2000, he made exemplar virgins of 10 firstborn young maidens who would devote their lives to serving him. In between cooking meals and cleaning, these young girls would have scheduled “sex days” with Barnard. One of the victims remembers marking an “X” on her calendar every time Barnard raped her.
This evidence led to Barnard being charged with 59 counts of sexual assault. Upon learning this, he fled the country and was found a year later in Brazil. He is now serving a 30-year sentence in Minnesota.
2 The Peoples Temple
Jim Jones made history as the notorious leader of the Peoples Temple cult when he led a mass murder-suicide of almost 1,000 Americans in Guyana on November 18, 1978. However, there are still survivors. One lives in Duluth and spoke out about the cult over 30 years later.
Leslie Wagner-Wilson reported that a voice came to her and said that she must leave or she wouldn’t see her child again. This is what prompted her to escape the cult, along with 10 others. She reflected on the experience of being in the cult, stating that Jim Jones separated families as he pushed the idea that the only priorities should be him and the cause.
Followers were forced to work all day. They were also starved and beaten. Any follower who threatened to leave was thrown into Jim’s “care unit” and given Thorazine.
When Leslie escaped, she didn’t know about the mass suicide plan. She currently struggles with survivor’s guilt and grieves over the tragedy to this day. But she wants to make sure that nobody ever forgets what happened that day.
1 The Family (2)
Yep, there is a second cult called “The Family,” and they are definitely creepier. Regarded as Australia’s most insidious cult, it was the host of a long series of horrific abuses and traumatic events from the 1960s to the 1990s. The leader, Anne Hamilton-Byrne, founded the polytheistic group with the help of her husband and a renowned physicist.
Anne stole children through adoption scams and brainwashing and pushed her doomsday sect to conform to one “master race” by bleaching their hair and dressing the same. She convinced her followers that she was truly the reincarnation of Jesus Christ. Anouree Treena-Byrne (circled far right in image above) reflected on how she and other children were always forced to take drugs like Mogadon and Valium to keep them calm and controlled.
However, the abuse got much worse. The children and other followers were forced to take LSD for “clearings” and were isolated in dark rooms. Anouree claimed that punishments would sometimes include fasting for three days or longer.
Serious beltings and beatings occurred, and the children’s heads were held in buckets of water long enough for them to think they were going to die. The cult property was finally raided in 1987, even though there had been suspicions for more than a decade.
Two members of the cult had left the property and reached out to police. All members received psychiatric help as most of them are still plagued with PTSD, anxiety, and depression. Some members have committed suicide.
Due to extradition laws, both Anne and her husband were only fined $5,000 for minor fraud charges. Afterward, they went on to live freely.
Bella is a freelance writer with a passion for theater, art, and cooking.