Living in a Cult with Helen Cruickshank
I was 12 years old when I started to realise that my environment and the circumstances in which I was growing up were far removed from the experiences of my school friends.
Before then, I thought I was special - hand picked by god. Sounds crazy right? I didn’t know what the word ‘elite’ meant, but if I had, we were elite.
The “born again Christian” cult/sect I was taken to from the age of 2 was my life. My mother was separated from my dad and went along to one of the meetings with a friend. I can’t remember any part of my childhood outwith the group. It was everything I knew. Service on Sunday, children’s “church”, prayer meetings on a Tuesday evening, a youth group was slotted in at some point. Wednesday evening services became a weekly event. We were all like one big family. Outwith this I had friends in primary school and my granny who wasn’t a member. But apart from that I spent the majority of my time with other children and families from the group.
To be honest, in the early years it was no different to the churches you see now who are a little more edgy; I’ve been to baptist church services in adulthood which reminded me of how it was early on. I’m sure there were questionable things happening when I was aged 5-9. I know other churches believe that speaking in tongues is a normal and essential part of being a Christian. I remember quite vividly being filled with the spirit, or what I thought that was around the age of 6 and I started to pray in tongues. I can almost remember the made up, child-like babble 30 years on.
I remember the leader calling me to the front to lay my hands on other children and pray for them. When people were prayed for they usually fell back onto the floor, so they would have ushers placed behind them ready so they wouldn’t hurt themselves. I felt a huge sense of responsibility and had been told several times that the other children in the group should take their lead from me. At the age of 9, being given this power to pray for others was an amazing boost for me at the time. But I had no idea what all of this was.
Services started getting longer. Wednesday night services started at 7pm, So many of those services would be dragged on till 2am. I remember when I was around 6 or 7, the children were allowed to sleep under the seats or on their parents lap. But that didn’t last.
I remember things started to change dramatically in 1990, although there were subtle changes long before that. We were taught that the pastor heard directly from God and 99% of the members feared this man, and the other so-called ministers. None of whom had studied or were qualified in any way to be ministers like you get when you go to a Church of Scotland or Church of England.
I’m reluctant to mention names, but I will mention that in 1990 there was a conference held in a small Scottish town and a few leaders were invited to preach from another cult (not that any of us knew it was a cult at the time) in North Carolina called Word of Faith Fellowship. I especially remember seeing and hearing Jane Whaley screaming and screeching for the first time at this conference. Alongside her “daughter in the spirit” Brooke Covington. I was terrified. I had seen deliverance before, I’ll explain more about that as I go on. But what she claimed to be doing is what they called and still call ‘blasting’. Blasting is used to try and cast demons out of people, essentially us, the congregation.
Word of Faith is unfortunately still running over in NC, despite many ex-members reporting child abuse, ongoing investigations, court cases and footage from Inside Edition where a reporter went undercover and recorded deliverance and blasting sessions. A simple Google search or a search for Word of Faith, inside edition on YouTube will show you exactly what blasting is, and exactly what we had to do and take part in. I was terrified the first time. But after a while you become desensitised, you’re already sleep deprived, there’s already been years of mind control. I was 10 years old, I didn’t know any different and would never dare to question whether this was acceptable.
That’s one of the fundamental characteristics of a cult, if you question something you think is wrong and go against leadership you’re called out publicly in front of the whole congregation; shamed and humiliated. That was something that became a regular occurrence. The pastor would walk in to the meeting with the rest of the leadership behind him, usually when the praise and worship would start. I became part of the praise and worship/music when I was 10 and was given the responsibility of taking the lead for this as well. He would often start screaming “stop the music” and either scream at whoever was leading the music that day, he would claim that the song was wrong, that we didn’t listen to the spirit. Other times he would blame the guy who did the sound. Which meant he would go “off on one” for ages, that could then lead to a deliverance session straight after.
Trying to explain deliverance is tricky. Basically everyone would be told to start crying out to God. Which meant everyone would roar and scream from the top of their lungs and then people would get into small groups around one person. That person would then have screaming all around them, in their ears, in their face, all the way around like a small circle. In the middle was a bucket and tissues and the person having demons cast out of them would be encouraged to cough up the demons. We all had to take part in this, from pre-school age onwards. There wasn’t anything in place to keep children away from that like there might have been in the past. Some of us as older children or young teens had to help cast out the demons or we were the ones being given the deliverance. I remember wondering why I didn’t feel any demons coming out of me, and I remember being really worried anytime I started to question if this was normal.
I used to talk to some of the friends I had grown up with about our doubts, we had many. But we were scared that somehow God would tell the pastor and we would be found out. We were paranoid, terrified children. We believed wholeheartedly that if we didn’t follow Gods (the pastors orders and teachings) that we would go to hell.
We weren’t allowed to listen to music unless it was Christian music that they approved of. By age 13 I was listening to the radio with my headphones in while my mum was at work, I had always loved music and singing. When I first started high school I had no idea about pop culture, I started learning new songs through friends who would take their Walkmans to school. Myself and another girl who was in the group used to secretly listen to Take That, we were trying to keep up with our peers.
We were allowed to celebrate Christmas but a few years before I left my mother stopped putting up the Christmas tree. I don’t remember this rule being laid down. But there was talk about Christmas being a pagan festival. I can’t remember exactly when but I was never allowed to believe in Santa and at some point in Primary School I wasn’t allowed to see the Santa that would come to the school Christmas party.
Halloween was always a no go. It was of the devil, I wasn’t even allowed to read Meg and Mog - stories about a Witch and her cat.
It wasn’t long after that first conference, after Jane Whaley got involved that the pastor decided to move from a small fishing town to a city in Scotland to start a Bible School. He talked about God showing him a vision. Some members stayed in the original group, and some moved to be part of the bible school.
My mother decided to apply to go to the bible school just before it entered its second year.
At first it had been held in the pastors home, and then in hotel function rooms.
But they were recruiting people from all over the UK and there was even a few international students who came over to Scotland from India, Norway, America and Africa.
After we moved, we shared a house with 3 other people, and the group managed to get an old hotel building. As far as I was aware and still to this day members of the group were told that the building was bought over by us. That turned out to be a lie, when the group eventually dissolved years after I had left there was outstanding rent arrears reported to be around £160,000. There were a lot of things that went on behind the scenes that many of the members didn’t know about. The pastor and a few leaders were driving flashy cars and wearing designer clothes whilst some of the congregation were attending bible school from 8am-12pm, working as many hours as they could to pay their school fees and living expenses and also tithing (giving 10% of their wages) and offerings on a Wednesday and a Sunday.
There were other rules; we weren’t supposed to go to the toilet during the services, especially whilst someone was preaching. Bearing in mind we could be there for hours and hours. If there was a special seminar week or conference meetings began around 10.30pm, there was supposed to be breaks but if the word of God was being preached they didn’t stop. I would say there were countless times a meeting went on for over 6 hours. I saw people being shouted at for going out to use the toilet, another example of humiliation. I started my period at 10 years old and bled through pads and skirts many times because I was too frightened to go to the bathroom, it’s a basic human right. In my personal opinion that was abuse. There was sleep deprivation because meetings went on for so long, you couldn’t eat, people were hungry. If you deprive humans of their basic needs it’s easier to control them.
No matter how intelligent some of these people were, once they had been recruited and shown some form of acceptance and belonging, the brain washing crept in easily. Love bombing is a common tactic used by cults. No one joins because of the bad stuff, you don’t see any of that at first. Some of us were either born there or, like me, went along with a parent from such a young age we didn’t have a choice. The stuff I experienced from the age of 2-14 shaped who I became as a young adult, the trauma wasn’t just happening while I was in a meeting, it continued at home too; my mother was abusive to myself and other children. And there was also the three years we lived with other members. Specifically the second year when things within the group seemed at its most intense and that spilled over into our home life.
There is so much more I could add, my early teens were spent mainly in meetings. Tuesday evenings, Wednesday evenings, sometimes Fridays. I would sing with a few other members and someone would preach every Saturday outside M&S right in the middle of town, as you can imagine lots of kids from school thought this was hilarious and took great pleasure in teasing me about it every Monday. There were many more examples of weird subjects that would be talked about in services or at weddings that as a child and a young teen myself and others didn’t need to hear.
I finally left in June 1996, I was 14 years old. A few other long term members had already left before me, some of them I had known all my life.
I had been meeting up with a few of them in secret because once a member left you weren’t allowed to talk to them. It didn’t matter that you had grown up with these people and spent time with them like you would your own family. Once you left you were worldly and of the devil.
The third and final time I tried to leave I ran away to my dad’s on the Friday instead of going to school. He was shocked when I showed up at his door but made sure my mother knew where I was. When I arrived back home on the Sunday two of the leaders came to the house to try and convince me not to leave, they tried to guilt trip me by saying things like “look what this is doing to your mum” I was told I would go to hell and I was told I would lose everyone I grew up with.
But I stood my ground and I left.
The freedom I felt was immense. I have a vivid memory of being with school Friends on a Wednesday evening. I should have been sitting in a meeting. Instead I looked around and felt genuinely happy and free. Those feelings didn’t last though, it took me many years to learn how to heal from all of it. I was very unwell mentally, I don’t think anyone can grow up in that type of environment and come out unscathed.
The group had already been in the local news and at that time they were on a cult watch list in the UK. Shortly after I left, I spoke to the local press about what was going on and they ran the story. My mother was furious, but our relationship was already deteriorating and I was thrown out just over a month after I turned 16. That’s a whole other story.
I spoke to the media locally and nationally several times after that during my late teens and twenties. Not just about the cult, but also my lived experience with mental illness. I decided in 2009 I would never talk to the media about what I grew up in every again. And if I was ever going to talk about it, it would be my words and not sensationalised by a tabloid.
I realised as well that there are other people to consider and that’s why I’ve chosen not to name the group or anyone involved. At the same time it’s part of who I am, this is my story, and it’s not something you hear or read about very often.
When I look back now it feels surreal. It’s like a whole lifetime ago, like it happened to someone else. I’m relieved that it no longer exists. But I will never, ever forget.
You can keep up to date with Helen on her Instagram @helen.cruickshank