For most of us, the idea of being trapped in a controlling, manipulative cult seems so outrageous it doesn't even cross your mind. It happens in books, or in movies, or in articles like this that you read on the train while thinking ‘That’s never ever going to happen to me’.”
But according to ex-cult member Claire Ashman, these organisations are much more widespread than we think, with estimates there are over 3000 active cults in Australia.
Claire should know. Having spent decades of her life in not one, but two separate ultra religious and suppressive cults, the Brisbane mum-of-eight was forced to plot her escape when she realised she was putting her young family in danger of a paedophile.
“My parents brought me up in The Society of St Pius X, an ultra religious Catholic sect that had started off with good intentions but has become an open cult,” Claire explains to Be.
“I left home when I was 18 and got married to a much older man – he was 31. I was feeling lost, insecure and directionless. I was very socially na?ve.”
Eight years into her marriage and five children later, Claire was horrified to learn her husband Tony wanted to move to the NSW suburb of Nowra to live in a community run by the infamous William “Little Pebble” Kamm.
Claiming he was able to communicate with God and the Virgin Mary, Little Pebble believed it was his purpose to take 12 queens and 72 princesses to repopulate the Earth with his "holy seed".
Little Pebble would also later go on to be convicted of having sex with two 15-year-old girls, and jailed for nine years.
"I didn’t know it was a cult because I’d never heard that word [but] I didn’t have a good feeling about it, and I didn’t want to go. It was an absolute dump and I hated it on sight,” says Claire, who would go on to live in the community, known as The Order of Saint Charbel, for nearly 10 years.
Kamm had his favourites, he’d have his arms around certain girls. One of the young girls was only 17 and had a baby. I noticed how he worded it in the community notice board, and thought ‘Holy s**t, that’s his baby’. I didn’t realise at the time he was grooming them when they were much younger."
“I wanted to move, but others in the cult said ‘No, he’s got special permission from the Virgin Mary to keep doing this.’”
Disgusted, horrified and terrified for the safety of her children, Claire – whose children now range in age from 26 to 12 - knew she had no choice but to leave when her husband became even more firmly entrenched in the order and decided to become a priest.
“That’s when I knew that the marriage was over,” says Claire. “I spent the next two and a bit years playing along, it was really hard.”
When Tony began to work away from home in 2004, Claire seized her chance. She began purging the family of possessions Tony had collected for the “apocalypse” Little Pebble had told his followers was coming.
“We’d been told that when the apocalypse came, the Earth was going to be burnt and there would be survivors from communities who had obeyed William Kamm, so we had to store food, clothes and farm implements,” she explains.
In 2006, despite having very little experience in the outside world, Claire took the plunge and opened a bank account and changed Centrelink payments so the money went into her account.
She began to scour the rental columns in the local newspaper, and when a Nowra sheriff knocked on her door in August to evict the family from their home, Claire knew this was her chance.
“My kids come first, their stability, their security comes before anything or anyone else,” says Claire. “It didn’t matter about me being on my own, I thought come hell or high water, I’ll make it somehow.”
Now remarried to her British husband Mark and working as a cleaner while pursuing her passion to raise awareness on the issue, Claire has dedicated her life to telling her story and warning others about how easy it is to become influenced and manipulated into joining a cult.
Here are Claire’s tell-tale signs to look out for:
If your loved one has becoming increasingly withdrawn or cagey about who they’re seeing and what they are doing, it could be a warning sign. “If the group is very secretive and tells you that other people won’t understand and you have to keep it a secret, you’ll notice they will be secretive,” says Claire.
“People can get drawn in through a personal development group, a yoga group, or it can be religious. People are curious and everybody has certain beliefs or likes and dislikes, and you hear about a group and you just go and join it,” says Claire. “Sometimes [your loved one] will talk a lot about them. It depends. They will also be excited about meeting other like-minded people.”
If you’ve noticed some suspicious payments your friend or family member is making, it could be sign they are being manipulated by someone else.
“A lot of people think that when William Kamm went to jail for paedophilia, the cult closed down, it didn’t,” explains Claire. “There’s other cults connected to him, and he is getting money from all of that. There is money coming from somewhere and that is how they flourish.”
“People need to understand that you don’t willingly join a cult,” says Claire. For some people, feeling lost or searching for some sort of meaning can lead them to meet someone who can see and exploit that.
“The thing is, it’s easy to join but you’ve got to remember cult leaders are the masters of manipulation, and you’re manipulated against your will but without knowing it,” says Claire.
For anyone who worries someone they love might be involved in a cult, Claire’s advice is simple.
“The biggest thing is don’t judge. Don’t tell them ‘You’re in a cult, you need to get out of it’ because that’s the worst thing you can say,” says Claire.
“It’s very important you still need to be in contact and let them trust you. They may not tell you very much, but at least you’re there because that’s very important.
“Often times people get drawn into these cults and they don’t realise and sometimes a light bulb can go on one day and they think, ‘Holy s**t, I don’t have any contact with any family members or friends, who can I call on?’ and they feel so alone and afraid they can’t take that step out.”