Admit it, cults are fascinating. Documentaries, like “Wild Wild Country” made it big on Netflix and cults even made it as a subtheme on the internet-famous “Tiger King” Netflix documentary. To this day, people still refer to the Peoples Temple cult mass suicide/murder when they use the phrase “drinking the Kool-Aid”.
Why is our culture so completely disturbed, and simultaneously thrilled by cults? At its basis, it is in our human nature to want to understand life in a way that gives it purpose. After all, mythologies, ideologies, and religion all spring from something that is deeply human. However, cults go into a zone of extremity, where they break free from social acceptability. The thing that is most intriguing about cults on the surface is the development of the cult leader because though they are often outlandish, they demonstrate fundamental societal flaws that exist even in the normal world.
So, perhaps it’s actually our own vulnerability and our own susceptibility of falling victim to a cult that makes us both appalled, scared, and wondering just what we would do if we found ourselves in a cult. Without further ado, let us dive into the stories of some of the people who have escaped these very situations.
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10 Seoyeon Lee
When Seoyeon came back to South Korea from a summer spent abroad, her mother made a strange proposition. She said she had cancer but would only get treatment if her daughter went to the Grace Road Church with her. What is the Grace Road Church? The leader of the Grace Road Church, Shin Ok-ju, believed her followers were in grave danger of a famine in Korea, and must move to Fiji. Only members that had donated large sums of money were invited, and Seoyeon’s mother had donated her deceased husband’s fortune. Shin was eventually arrested for ritualistically beating her parishioners, even killing one, and holding others against their will.
Seoyeon had no idea at the time and agreed to go to church with her mom. Seonyeon recalls it being a strange experience, with screaming and talk of the end of the world. She even told her mother that she thought it was a cult, but her mother did not believe her. Seoyeon went back to school abroad, but her mother persuaded her to come back to South Korea, saying that she would only pursue cancer treatment if her daughter came home. Once Seoyeon broke down and did return to South Korea, her mother went through treatment, but then declared that they must go to Fiji to recover for 14 days. Seoyeon eventually agreed.
When they arrived in Fiji, they were picked up by people Seoyeon did not know and were immediately taken to a compound. Seoyeon was scared and felt foolish but clung onto the fact that they had plane tickets back to South Korea in 14 days. After 13 days at the Grace Road Church compound, Seonyeon was preparing to leave and realized that her mother had stolen her laptop and passport. Seonyeon knew at that moment that she would be trapped forever if she did not leave and that she may even become brainwashed like her mother. She took a chance and ran from the compound, her mother screaming and the other cult followers trying to block her.
Seonyeon managed to reach the police and obtain an emergency passport before they could catch her. Seonyeon does not speak to her mother and she has remained in Korea ever since.
9 Guinevere Turner
Guinevere was born into a cult called The Lyman Family. The Lyman Family was founded by musician, Melvin ‘Mel’ James Lyman. Lyman, a charismatic man, moved from California to Boston in the 60s, and became increasingly interested in LSD and fostering a community around him. Eventually, Lyman established The Lyman Family, also called the Fort Hill Community, which he catered to his growing desire to be a spiritual leader of people. The blossoming cult, under the order of Lyman, developed strict rules on dress, and sexual behavior, and all financial resources were drained from the members. Guinevere, recalls the years she spent in the cult (from 1968-1979) in an isolating way. Children and adult cult members were told that the outside world was dangerous, children were homeschooled, and punished severely.
What is so fascinating, however, about Guinevere’s recounting of her cult experience, is that to her, it felt normal. She was used to fishing, singing, and reading, as well as doing the normal chores that everyone does. And daily, it could seem almost normal to an outsider. If that life were all you knew, and you were told that the outside world was mean and dangerous, would you have the courage to leave? Would you even know that leaving was the right choice? And how much does anyone question the state of their current life, and know exactly what isn’t normal or right about something they have always known?
Maybe that’s why, when her mother, a cult member who was separated from her daughter at birth, came to get Guinevere out of The Lyman Family, she was devastated. From the time she left, at eleven, until the time she revisited the cult, at eighteen, Guinevere did not feel normal, and craved the life she had lived as a child. In between those times, Guinevere felt like an outsider, like she belonged with “the Family”. It was not until she revisited The Lyman Family that she realized the staunch sexism, bizarre rituals, and physical punishments that were practiced there were not okay. Guinevere packed her things and left without turning back.
8 Sarah Edmondson
Sarah Edmondson, a young actress, had been searching for a newfound purpose in her life when she boarded a cruise designed to explore spirituality. She did not know that it was a front for the infamous cult, NXIVM, nor did she know that it would dictate the next 12 years of her life. During her time in the cult, she climbed the hierarchical ladder into a position that gave her immense wealth. The power she found herself in was exciting, and it was not until she was inducted into the secret subgroup of NXIVM that it did not feel like a positive experience. When she was branded with the letters of the founding members of the cult, she decided she had had enough. She became a whistleblower on the cult, drawing worldwide attention to the famous actors and actresses involved in the pyramid scheme and sex trafficking cult.
Sarah Edmondson went on the write a book, “Scarred”, but it is troubling. She lured many young women into the cult, but her book seems strangely void of guilt or remorse. Instead, her writing is self-indulgent and gossip-filled. Though she was certainly abused within the cult, she was not blameless for her own wrongdoings. Unfortunately, this cult escape story does not seem to highlight a heroic escape, but a moment in time where someone had a ping of conscience, and potentially jumped on it for a strange sense of fame.
7 Verity Carter and Jonathan Watt
As opposed to Sarah Edmondson, Verity and Jonathan’s escape story shows true courage and bravery. The sister-brother duo was born into a situation that must have felt like a living nightmare. The Children of God cult began in the 1960s in the US, but eventually established the communes that Verity and Jonathan endured in Scotland. As young children, both dealt with near-constant physical abuse, and Verity suffered routine sexual abuse. The cult made life feel meaningless, and made the children feel like they had absolutely no power in their lives. At the age of 14, Jonathan had a nervous breakdown, and the cult expelled him. For Verity, it took the courage of attacking a man who was going to administer corporal punishment on her. That was enough for her to be kicked out.
Both children suffered while adjusting to life outside of the draconian cult. Jonathan even continued to follow the cult rules after leaving the cult, because the transition to life outside was so difficult. Jonathan struggled with homelessness and Verity with drug and alcohol abuse. But eventually, both created their own lives and gained freedom from their oppressors. The pair exemplifies strength and resilience, not only in their escape and their ability to continue on but also in the sharing of their experiences, which they do in order to help other survivors find their voices.
6 Briell Decker
Briell is a true hero. Not only did she escape the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (FLDS) cult, she established a refuge at the cult headquarters after the cult leader was arrested. FLDS, a polygamous cult, was led by Warren Jeffs. During his reign, he forced approximately 80 women and children into marriages. Briell, who was born into the FLDS, knew from a young age that she would be forced to marry the middle-aged man. When she turned 18, he prepared their wedding ceremony, and she had no choice but to go along with it.
Around this time, the FBI charged Jeffs for forcing an underage girl into marriage and later conducted a raid on the FLDS compound, where they discovered just how many children Jeffs had forced into marriage. Jeffs was, of course, charged and sentenced to 20 years in prison. The $100 million dollar FLDS fund, which was seized by the government, was partially given to Briell to buy Jeff’s mansion and turn it into a refuge for victims.
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5 Maude Julien
Maude Julien was born into a strange life. Her father, Louis Didier, had bought a child, Jeannine, and decided to make his dream come true. He forced Jeannine into marriage and had a baby with her, Maude, that he wanted to turn into a superhuman.
From a young age, Maude was put into horrific conditions to survive concentration camps, torture, and interrogation. Maude’s memoir, “The Only Girl in the World”, however, does not serve as a gruesome recounting of her suffering. Instead, she hopes it serves as a “jailbreak handbook” full of tips on how to engage in “passive-disobedience”.
Maude escaped when a music teacher (her father believed only musicians were spared in concentration camps, and thus forced his daughter to learn a host of instruments) told Louis that he should send his daughter away to a “tough” music school. He agreed, and Maude took the chance to leave. Her father died a few years later.
4 Anna LeBaron
Anna LeBaron’s dad, Ervil LeBaron, was the leader of a cult that has been linked to over 20 murders. Anna grew up being taught that her father was the prophet of God, and the followers of Ervil were celestial children. Author of “The Polygamist’s Daughter, Anna details the distant relationship she had with her father, who had a total of 13 wives and 50 children. She and her siblings were made to feel isolated and attacked by the outside world, and were forced into 12-hour workdays.
While in the cult, Anna had no idea that her father was wanted by the FBI due to murders he was connected to. Apparently, Ervil ordered his followers to kill his enemies to “allow them to enter heaven”, and he created a master kill-list of those who should be killed. Eventually, Ervil was captured by the police, but the cult continued. Even the kill-list was followed after Ervil was arrested, and 13-year-old Anna decided it was time to escape. Some of her friends and family members were going to be targeted, and she feared for her life. One of her sisters helped her hideout in a motel, and she eventually went on to college and a normal life. By writing her memoir, Anna hopes to help her family members heal.
3 Rebecca Stott
Author of “In the Days of Rain: A Daughter, A Father, A Cult”, Rebecca opens about her upbringing. She and her families were members of a religious cult, the Exclusive Brethren. In an interview with NPR, Rebecca stated that rules were enforced with intense interrogations about your sins, and that punishments would often include isolation that could go for weeks, or until the “sinner” killed themselves.
Rebecca details the anger she was forced to bottle up, and how silent she was forced to be around men. When the cult leader, Jim Taylor Jr., was found sleeping with a young, married member, the entire cult ruptured. 8,000 members left the cult, including Rebecca’s family. But that did not mean her hardships were over. Rebecca described the overwhelmingness of the outside world with a sense of vertigo. All the rules of her old life spun around her as she took more and more steps away from their binds.
It took a very long time for Rebecca to grow less shell-shocked by the world, and to this day she cannot bring herself to open a Bible, which makes a lot of sense. By the time Rebecca was just 6, she had undergone at least 3,000 hours of forced Bible study.
2 Claire Ashman
Claire Ashman grew up in the very traditional Catholic Society of St Pius X (SSPX). When she left her family and started life outside the strictly Latin faith, she was confused and unsure of herself. In many ways, she was clueless and uneducated by her family. That explains why, when she turned 15, she was not aware that it was creepy for a 27-year-old man (William Kamm, AKA “The Little Pebble”) to show interest in her. Unfortunately, without healthy relationships for her to learn from, Claire accepted a marriage proposal from the man. Shortly after their marriage, her husband discovered The Order of St Charbel, and Claire found herself smack in the middle of a Doomsday cult.
Claire was even more confused when she was selected as a Princess of the church and was destined to marry the cult leader. For 6 years, she grappled with the controlling hand of the church and her husband, until one day she got her hands on a book called “The Beautiful Side of Evil”, which first unveiled the term ‘cult’ to Claire. She understood at once that she was in a cult and began learning about how to open a bank account, how to sign a lease on an apartment, and how to be free. After learning more about how to survive outside the cult, Claire escaped. She now hopes her retelling of her experiences can help other women find a better life.
1 Carli McConkey
Carli McConkey, who was having a tough time deciding on a career to pursue, encountered a booth with the words “Life Integration Programs” (LIP) written across it while she was attending an Australian Music Festival. The attendants at the LIP booth were offering exactly what a recent college-graduate might be interested in. The program, which had taught over 10,000 young adults, promised to give its students direction and fulfillment. The attendants at the booth even helped Carli register for a free 5-day seminar at a nearby University.
Carli went to the seminar and found her days filled with mindfulness exercises and health food, which was very refreshing. She didn’t hesitate to sign up for another program, and then another. Eventually, Carli signed up for the advanced program called The Final Step, which seemed more like a boot camp designed to break people down than build them up. Carli recalls severe sleep deprivation at this remote camp, yelling, food deprivation, and chanting.
Carli felt as though she needed to continue the programs. She felt helpless without them and eventually paid over $70,000 to attend most of the training programs offered. Carli was kept so busy by the cult that she even lost connections with her family, and borrowed money from them to pay the cult. Eventually, Carli left when she had been so physically and emotionally beaten down by the cult that she couldn’t handle it anymore. She left, and only once she was out did she really realize that she had spent 13 years abused by a cult.
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About The Author: Anne Taylor is a freelance writer. When she’s not sharing cult escape stories, she loves to talk about all things Disney and Universal Studios, and her helpful articles can be found on tayloredtripsblog.com. You can also find her on Instagram at @tayloredtripsblog.
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