Lindy Jacomb was raised in in New Zealand in the Exclusive Brethren (now rebranded as Plymouth Brethren Christian Church). She left the church 15 years ago and has an interest in the area of support for people after they have left high-demand religious groups. Lindy is a guest writer who has written the following article for a wide audience, which may appeal to those with experiences of Centrepoint:
In reading this book, many readers will find a world that at times is foreign and confronting and yet is also at times disturbingly familiar. Not many people have grown up in a conservative religious sect like Gloriavale, or have experimented with polyamorous alternative spirituality groups, but many of us have either experienced or witnessed coercive control or manipulative relationships. In "Cult Trip", author Anke Richter explores these dynamics and lays open a web of stories from years of investigating real-life experiences of those in cultic groups.
Self-confessed “semi-professional sex cult tourist” Richter immerses herself in the stories, blurring the lines between participant and journalist as she researches cultic experiences and dynamics from as many perspectives as possible. Unlike memoirs of former cult members, a valuable contribution of the book is that Richter not only shares perspectives from those who have left such groups, but she also interviews current “cult apologists”, including the leader of Gloriavale and long-standing, unrepentant proponents of Centrepoint’s open sexual practices. Documentary style, this leaves the reader with an array of narratives to take in, adding to the overall portrayal of the complexities of such groups and their place in a society that allows freedom of religion, belief and expression.
Part One of the book focusses on Centrepoint, an alternative holistic well-being commune in Albany, Auckland (New Zealand). Founded in 1977 by Bert Potter and a group of others, Centrepoint encouraged members to share all aspects of living, including sexual relationships, finances and lifestyle. As the decades went on and membership increased, so did abuses of the environment – Centrepoint was closed down in 2000 by New Zealand authorities for sexual abuse and drug crimes, with one of the greatest tragedies being the sexual abuse of minors and vulnerable persons within the community, including by Potter himself. Richter does a fantastic job of exploring the complexities of Centrepoint, showcasing the challenges of profiling just one Centrepoint narrative – there are former members who have had the trajectory of their lives and well-being destroyed by their involvement with the cult, and others (usually those who were in leadership) who still have nothing bad to say about their Centrepoint years.
Part Two, ‘Toxic Tantra’ dives into cult-like dynamics and abuses of relationships within Agama, a tantric yoga school in Thailand, and other (in)famous yoga movements such as Osho’s ashram, where positively (even therapeutically) portrayed alternative or open sexual practices have come with a dark underbelly. Allegations and convictions of abuse, coercion, sexual misconduct and rape are investigated by Richter, again exposing multiple narratives. Proponents of such groups (usually leaders) share their rosy perspectives, at times ducking and diving from responsibility or from acknowledging the veracity of victim’s stories. The cries of those abused from within tantric yoga groups have become a groundswell in recent years, with calls to boycott the Agama school and to provide far greater training on consent, coercion and sexual safety within such groups.
Part Three focusses on the controversial conservative Christian commune on the West Coast of New Zealand, which has frequently found itself in the public and media spotlight due to a range of controversies, including allegations of physical, spiritual, psychological and sexual abuse. Despite constant portrayal by Gloriavale themselves of having a puritanical environment and values, among other members convicted of sexual abuses, the now deceased founder, Neville Cooper, was a convicted pedophile. Richter continues her style of sharing from multiple angles, interviewing wounded former members, authorities from local towns and even managing to secure a rare interview with the current leader, Howard Temple. The pain in the stories of former members is palpable and heart-breaking, as they share of divided marriages, parents and children torn apart, and other experiences of brutal and bizarre coercion and control. As a former member of the Plymouth Brethren Christian Church (Exclusive Brethren), another high-demand religious group which also practices excommunication and the separation of families due to doctrine, this chapter was very raw for me to read. Several times it brought me to tears as the former Gloriavale people shared experiences of grief, fear and pain that I know only too well.
To conclude this review, there are two interesting points that Richter makes, that warrant further thinking about. The first is that in her prologue, she makes the point that it is central to being human that people want to find a ‘tribe’; a people to belong to and to give them meaning and a shared sense of connection and purpose. She writes that in an increasingly secular and pluralistic world, this means not that we will have less cultic type groups but more of them, as there are more options available to choose from. It will continue to be a challenge for modern democracies to navigate this territory as we allow freedom of religion and belief on one hand and yet on the other, also need to be able to regulate groups with harmful or abusive beliefs and practices.
The second interesting point that Richter makes is that all three of these groups she researched, while very different in their ideologies, were all ‘obsessed’ with sex. While Gloriavale purports to value purity and sexual conservatism, the community still has a high focus on, and level of control of, sex and sexual experiences in the group. Centrepoint and the Agama school, while purporting to value freedom of sexual expression as a positive experience and as only one aspect of their ideologies, have also come to be defined by frighteningly abusive sexual practices within their groups. Richter does not draw strong conclusions about these phenomena, but the reader is left with this (rather disturbing) material to think about.
Why is it that cult-type groups, while often beginning with positive ideologies, seem to so frequently descend into abusive and even criminal activity – and so often in the area of human sexuality? What is it about the human psyche that is drawn to the abuse of others? Richter’s German heritage gives her a more somber reason than most New Zealanders to dare to face these uncomfortable questions.
Richter also asks questions about what the role of governing authorities and regulating bodies should be when it comes to cult-like groups, especially where there are allegations and/or convictions of harm and abuse. She points out that the onus always seems to be on victims themselves to expose leaders and groups, adding fear of repercussion and retribution on top of existing trauma. She questions the Kiwi ‘she’ll be right’ attitude, suggesting that all too often New Zealanders don’t have the gumption to face the hard truths and hard questions that need to be asked of cults.
Richter calls for a government-endorsed, nationwide agency that specializes in exit counselling and cult recovery and awareness training, ending the book with the disturbing reminder that the abused victims in her book are not alone.
Hard-hitting, relevant and disturbing; a must-read for New Zealanders and all those who are interested in the dynamics and abuses of religious, spiritual and well-being groups across society.