Cults offer a closed bubble of love, faith

01:43, Jan 31 2009
TELLING HER STORY: Palmerston North writer Michelle MacKinnon who has written about life after religious cults.

People believe in and love God. What happens when that love and belief gets turned into a religious cult to control people? Palmerston North author Michelle MacKinnon explores this, and what happens when people leave cults, in her newly published book Escape from Eden.

Michelle MacKinnon: Soft curly dark hair, well-worn jeans, no-nonsense black T-shirt. Hard to believe at first glance that this woman was wooed by a closed religious cult when she was 14, as potential new blood to breed babies.

The Palmerston North writer has just published Escape from Eden, a fictionalised account of what it is like to grow up in a closed religious cult, then escape, and have to learn to live in the World.

In her book, the capital W throbs with threat. Imagine growing up told that because you are a woman, your role in life is to have babies, produce food and clothing and, overarching everything, to submit to the group's Elders, who are men. They know best. You don't, because you're a woman. You don't even get to choose your husband - you just get to have lots and lots of babies. Underpinning this is loving God, worshipping God, glorying in God and the Spirit and the Word.

You never leave the community's farm, you don't know your grandparents or extended family members who aren't in the community, and every question that starts with the word: "Why" is disrespectful and not submissive enough.

In the book, MacKinnon's lead character escapes, and is brought back, has her hair forcibly chopped off as a punishment, is locked up and married to a man she doesn't want to marry. She escapes again - but her lack of knowledge about the World - how to use a phone, how to use money or buy things - is a huge hurdle to overcome. Never seeing her family and friends still living in the religious community is another penalty for rebelling and leaving.


What sustains her is what has sustained MacKinnon through her life - hope and love for her children. Not religious dogma and rules set up to control people, but love.

"When you look at the Christian religions, they're based on the most beautiful concepts - loving God, loving your neighbour, service to others, don't hurt others.

"It's when people try to control others through this concept that people get hurt."

MacKinnon says she personally experienced religious cult leaders when she was 14. Because her family was incurably hospitable, and the men were stuck without anywhere to stay, they came to her family home.

"They were evangelist preachers. I was 14. They preached that night, prayed for me. The message was the forgiveness of sins and becoming a new person through God.

"As they prayed, I had this amazing, beautiful feeling of this . . . this . . . thing lifting off me. I woke up the next morning feeling wonderful, scrubbed clean, inside and out."

She was invited to visit their isolated farm during the school holidays. The unstated intention was to see if she liked it enough to join.

"I did go for a fortnight. I made a long skirt, to the ground, because the group had decided that that was modest dress for women."

She remembered the group as being warm and supportive, but she went home and back to school, joining school religious groups and finding warm support and good friends through the Pentecostal Christian movement.

She trained as a nurse, and went through difficult times. She had trouble conforming to the church's ideology about wifely submission in marriage.

"I guess I never fitted with the church. If you question too much, it makes it hard. I've never been able to keep quiet or be submissive when I think something is wrong or unjust, or not logical."

She's talked with a number of escapees from closed religious cults, and says much of her book is based on how hard they found it living in the real world after they left.

"They go from a place of perfect serenity and safety, no decisions to make, no bills to pay, to a world where they have to be responsible for every aspect of their own lives."

MacKinnon believes every human has a deep desire for approval and acceptance, for love and support and friends. Cults offered a closed bubble of love and faith.

MacKinnon wrote the book as part of a creative writing graduate diploma course, through Whitireia Polytechnic. She has more books to publish, including a series of children's stories in poetry form.

 * Michelle MacKinnon will launch Escape from Eden at 7pm on November 13 at Feilding's Take Note Post Shop, and she was assisted by in publishing her novel. It will retail for $29.95.


Manawatu Standard