The author, Lorraine Derocher, is an expert on youth protection in the context of cults (“sectarian groups”). A member of the Centre for Research on Children and Families at McGill University and associate professor at the University of Sherbrooke.
Prologue: This book is intended to shed light on an often overlooked, opaque topic: the children in sectarian groups. The book uses testimony by these former child members to enrich and describe this hidden world.
Introduction: Cults exist around the world. What this author has learned is that the children that come from these cults, who eventually escape and make their way into the world, are not just forgotten, but society itself is not ready to welcome them back. With no social net and services to catch them, some commit suicide. For those who survive, their ability to overcome trauma through resilience and courage is heroic. Because cults are often sensationalized, causing the ex-members further harm, the book is intended to only be a conduit of their experiences and messages, free of lurid voyeurism. The book thus has a wide audience: former cult children, parents in a group or not, grandparents, educators, the general public, people with an interest, professionals, religious group members, and policymakers. The book doesn’t make scholarly references. It conveys the experiences of the people who lived them.
Chapter 1: Meet People Who Change Things
Seven people agreed to talk about their experiences. They, like the author, want change.
- Jean Sébastien Lozeau: born in Montreal. He’s a filmmaker who was a Jehovah’s Witness.
- Annie Pelletier: Born in Montreal, left the Jehovah’s Witnesses at age 19. She was sexually assaulted on a mission trip abroad and got no support. Became active on social media and in the media, including the FB group Ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses International.
- Mose J Gingerich: Born in Greenwood, Wisconsin, in an Amish community in a conservative branch called the Old Order before leaving at age 22. He established a waystation for young people leaving the community to help them transition. He’s been the subject of multiple TV programs, like Amish in the City, and he made two documentaries. He has a blog and a book.
- Rita Swan: Grew up in the US as a Christian Scientist, which believes in faith healing. When her son was 15 months old, he got spinal meningitis and died a month later. She and her husband left the group and started Children’s Healthcare is a Legal Duty, with stories about preventable child deaths caused by religious beliefs. CHILD worked with several states to end legal exemptions to punishments for parents that didn’t give their kids medical treatment for religious reasons.
- Erin Prophet: Daughter of Mark Prophet, the “messenger of the ascended masters” from the I AM movement. Her mother, Elizabeth Claire Prophet, founded Church Universal and Triumphant, whose mission was to usher in the Age of Aquarius. This New Age church had Hindu, Buddhist, and Apocalyptic Christian influences and 25,000 members around the world at its height. Elizabeth predicted nuclear war and natural disasters, sparking a “bunker episode.” The members created one of the largest ever bunkers (in Montana) able to last seven years on its own. In 1990, 700 members moved in. Thousands of others went into makeshift shelters. When war didn’t happen, many members left. Erin was supposed to be a messenger. From age 18, she joined the admin council for the church. Realizing the failure of the prophecies, she tried to reform the church before leaving at age 26. Now she advocates for more understanding of New Age groups through articles and her autobiography.
- Jordan Vilchez: Her oldest sister joined Peoples Temple when Vilchez was 12. Vilchez went to Jonestown in 1977 when she was 20. As Jim Jones became more isolationist and paranoid, he zeroed in on “Apostolic socialism.” She talks about the desire of members to live equally in an autonomous commune, but the project was poorly adapted to its environment, and the mood turned hopeless. While the media called it a mass suicide, per the survivors, Jones and his helpers killed at least some of the 900. Having left the area the day before, Vilchez survived, but her two sisters and two nephews died. She returned to the US at age 23. She didn’t contact other survivors for some 20 years. For the last nine years, she’s written for the Jonestown Report and the website Alternative Considerations of Jonestown and People’s Temple.
- Julia McNeil: Born in Utrecht in the Netherlands, her family was part of the Children of God, which had thousands of members in 70 countries. At its origin, the Apocalyptic Christian group recruited hippies. They traveled around proselytizing by playing music. Free love was taken to the extreme, with sexual relations with children allowed. Physically and sexually abused, McNeil left at age 19. Then penniless and living in Canada, she worked as an escort, then as a programmer. She created MovingOn.org for people who left their groups, then the organization Safe Passage Foundation to help young people leave. She died at age 37 of cancer.
Chapter 2: They Have So Much to Tell You
Derocher asked 15 former members to write letters. What would they tell their parents or other parents? Whom would you thank and why? What would you say to the authorities like Social Services or the police? Each of the 15 left for their own reasons, and while there were some commonalities, they are not as common as one might think other than deep unhappiness, generally in an excessively controlling environment.
Chapter 3: The Sectarian Phenomenon
Jonestown, like 9/11, revitalized interest in the study and understanding of radicalization. Derocher offers a description of the role of religion for an individual. Brainwashing is not recognized by the scientific community as a theory to explain sects/cults. People who join these groups are not uniformly described. An authoritarian leader or the degree of schism from society can be indicators that the group may be going in a bad direction. Many sectarian movements believe in the idea of threat from the outside world. Yet the word sect itself carries no negative connotations. It’s simply a “cutting-off” from a mainstream belief system. Sociologists define a sect as a community that is in conflict with the values of the mainstream. Thus we may say a sect is an ideological movement, religious or not, that is self-isolating and opposes to some degree or another the values of modern society.
Chapter 4: Being a Parent in a Sectarian Community
Those who grew up in sectarian communities never retaliated or hated. Were angry or wrathful, yes, but not vengeful. Most have had enough of extreme positions. Now they want moderation and peace and a life. Parents in a sectarian group can put their children second to their beliefs and practices. It may seem to the children as though God stole their parents from them. In many sectarian communities, there is no privileging of the nuclear family, no familial structure. Often, the sect leader is the “parent,” and there are individuals to whom “parental responsibilities” are delegated. In totalitarian sects, they’re completely separated from their parents. This separation leaves some of the most painful emotional scars. For one former member, it was Hell to be taken from his parents and raised by cruel, uncompassionate strangers. In a study, 80% of former members were raised by non-family. In some cases, the members didn’t know where their parents even lived.
Children in these circumstances are very vulnerable because in cases of abuse, there’s no one to whom to report it. In totalitarian sects, there is a tendency to use physical violence, including against the very young. Sects also use things like home schooling or parochial schools to control what students are learning and often leave out things like biology, history, etc. Mistreatment in totalitarian sects includes: threat of punishment in Hell, child marriage, child labor, sexual abuse, refusal to provide medical care for children, discrimination against handicapped children, forced missionary work, and threats, isolation, and total control. While abuse isn’t limited to sects, outside of sects, this is normally reported to the authorities. And from the outside, the authorities can’t see well into closed sects to know if abuse is happening.
The religious demands of a sectarian cult on children can be psychologically unbearable. For the civilians, the pressure to obey, to be perfect to go to Heaven and avoid Hell. For the children of founders or those that are considered sinless or pure, a great weight of expectation For some groups, children that are perceived as being rebellious, handicapped, or out of line are demonized. Children often feel compelled to embrace the system because there is no alternative.
Chapter 5: Open Letter to Their Parents
The children don’t reproach their parents for their spiritual quest and seeking. But their beliefs got in the way of their being parents. The children want their parents to have loved them as unconditionally as they loved the group leader, the other members, their god. The parents forgot their own children. And meanwhile, the children had to give up their childhood to become miniature adults. It can be like being an orphan, particularly after leaving a sect. More than half of study participants had no contact with their former group. The parts are more faithful to the group than their own children, ultimately. But these children have an overwhelming message to their parents: they love them. And they believe their parents love them in return. They may believe their parents were misguided or had other faults, but still they want their parents to know that regardless of their experiences, they know their parents wanted to do right by them.
Except in rare cases, the familial bond is never truly cut. There’s always a longing to reestablish it. Often the children who were in the most totalitarian, the most toxic groups have the most understanding and compassion for their parents. These children learn to let go of blame, recognizing that hate will only hurt them. They move on and find the positive side of their experience, recognizing what it taught them.
Chapter 6: Being a “Religio-Responsible” Parent
If we can have “ethical/responsible investing” or “ethical/responsible tourism,” why can’t we have “responsible religion,” in which beliefs are expressed in a way that doesn’t hurt society? (Derocher gives a check-list for the “religio-responsible” parent that reads more like a signposts and indicators list of whether the sect is likely to ruin the development of a child. This seems out of place in the book, given that parents with deeply held beliefs may answer yes to questions like “is there private education?” without it being seen as a red flag.)
Chapter 7: A Childhood Outside the World
One of the causes of childhood unhappiness in a sect is the social isolation and the excessive control of the leadership. This isolation may put them in situations where abuse or negligence goes unnoticed or unchallenged. Social isolation is the norm among sects, which seek to close themselves off from the world. For children going to school, who themselves barely understand the religion imposed upon them, they hate the feeling of being “different” and having to explain and justify themselves.
Chapter 8: Between God and the Void
When many adolescents leave their sect, they are leaping into a void, with no understanding of what waits on the other side. They risk everything. No more contact with their family and friends. Condemnation to Hell or the loss of their soul. Many are in their twenties or thirties when they leave, and they are vastly unprepared for what awaits them on the other side. Because they’re going to a world they were told is evil, bad, or demonic, many turn to drugs, return to their community, or suicide to cope. On average, it takes 8-10 years to re-socialize into the larger community, to learn new values and norms.
The challenge on departure is great: find an apartment, get a job, and learn things about the world they didn’t know before—escalators, airports, banks, etc. Some who leave live in communities of other former members, and they help those who leave in the future. Without knowing social norms, it’s hard to know how to respond in social situations, and easy to withdraw and self-isolate.
Chapter 9: Acquiring New Know-How
After leaving a sectarian group, former members must learn how to:
- Make decisions on their own
- Reconstruct their identity
- Think freely, humanism, and new truths (they must decide what their new relationship with religious beliefs will be)
Chapter 10: Walking toward Well-Being
Those who leave sectarian groups experience significant psychological distress. Thus, therapy is an important first step. Some former members turn to drugs to cope, others overdose or suicide. Those who grew up in and left sectarian groups are six times more likely to have suicidal ideation than the national average, and are ten times more likely to attempt suicide. On the way to re-socializing, they often make contact with peers, for example, by starting groups for former sect members or writing about their experiences (ex: Alternative Considerations of Jonestown and People’s Temple or the annual Jonestown Report) as a way to understand and give meaning to their experiences. Notably, there is always some silver lining to the experience; there was always something positive despite the negatives. For example, they may have had a sense of greater purpose, of communal engagement.
Chapter 11: Seeing It a Little Clearer
One of the things former members learn the world is not a bad place, as they’d been told. They see that the place where they were raised isn’t a special, unique safe space protecting them from that danger. The us/them mentality of sects can be extremely dangerous. Former members tend to come to the conclusion on the outside that the only way forward for society is when working together. They learn that the world is complex and nuanced, and they come to understand that humans are fallible and weak—themselves, their parents, and the people who led their groups.
Chapter 12: Meeting These Young People
Derocher provides a description of how to work with people who were in sectarian groups. This boils down to three points: 1) Recognize that each situation is unique, 2) each person has to choose their own future, and 3) don’t presume to know what someone is going through.
Chapter 13: Interacting with Young People Who Live in a Sectarian Context
Derocher highlights the positive, supportive role that can be played by classmates, social media, therapists, and relatives.
Chapter 14: Interacting with Those Who Have Left Their Communities
Derocher summarizes six key messages passed on by her interlocutors:
- Open up to the world (helping former members be open to new ideas and ways of thinking is key. You can become a tourist guide to the world for them: libraries, stores, etc.)
- Be present. People leaving these groups need an enormous amount of support, both in terms of time and emotion.
- Find peers. Former members need to reintegrate into society as quickly as possible, and finding a peer group is the fastest way possible.
- Be nice.
- Offer hope.
- Study up.
Chapter 15: Supporting and Protecting These Children
This chapter offers miscellaneous thoughts. For example: it would help if the police were given a training on how to deal with former sect members. It would help if there were better social services for former sect members, who may be penniless and homeless. Derocher believes the primary problem with sects vis-à-vis their treatment of children is that they abrogate the rights of children to be protected. She believes the state should have a greater ability to intervene and protect these rights.
Summary of the main points of the book
(The book is Ces enfants oubliés – Grandir dans une communauté sectaire, by Lorraine Derocher, Montreal: Les Éditions de l’Homme (2022).)