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Am I in a Religious Cult? Excerpt from my novel - Escape From Eden

Helen was persistent. She made some enquiries and eventually Jacob and I agreed to see the counselor she found. Dr Peterson is a psychologist. He's supposed to be the best at this sort of thing and apparently he's a Christian too, so that should make it easier for you.'

I wasn't so sure about that. As far as I could tell, there seemed to be many different kinds of Christians in the World and they all disagreed with each other. Jacob was uncertain as well, but in the end we agreed to give it a try and we prayed that God would give the counselor the words we needed to hear. I think Jacob was willing to try anything if it made me marry him! Grandma offered to baby-sit Phillip and Emily, and Helen made us an appointment.

Dr Peterson was a short man with a kind face. He must have been about forty years old and the things I noticed when we first saw him were his bright blue eyes behind round glasses, his gentle smile, and the stack of books on his desk. One of the books was a Bible.

Both Jacob and I were very nervous. It didn't matter how much we had told ourselves that the Elders were wrong, we could still hear the Elder's voices clamouring in our heads, warning us in their sermons of the dangers of talking to Worldly people about God's matters. They don't understand. They are like wolves in sheep's clothing hunting out the weak in order to trap them into backsliding. They twist the Word of God for their own ends. Even the Devil knows the Scripture and he trembles.

Dr Peterson' Jacob hesitantly reached out a hand.

Please, call me David. Doctor sounds far too formal.' He smiled and waved dismissively at the degrees on the wall behind his desk. I always feel like I should be carrying a stethoscope when people call me doctor. I'm actually a Psychologist with a doctorate in Theology, but you'd be amazed how many people ask me about their sore throats and tummy aches. Please, sit down.'

Very gently, David put us at our ease. We sat on low armchairs and he put a tray of tea and biscuits in front of us. To start with, conversation was awkward and Jacob was clearly defensive at the beginning, but slowly David made us relax. We told him about Eden and he listened intently, making only the occasional comment or query. Then he asked us what we wanted from him.

Jacob and I exchanged surprised glances. We we thought you could tell us if we were brainwashed or not.'

David smiled. Well, to some extent the whole of society is brainwashed in one way or another. Our parents teach us what they believe is right or wrong and we generally believe them. The Law does the same. Every society has rules of conduct that they put upon us and expect us to follow. Most people believe those rules are good and they believe it strongly enough to accept it when people are punished for breaking those rules. We even have countries going to war with each other over differences in belief and people on both sides are convinced their actions are right.'

I felt dismayed. Was David going to tell us there was nothing wrong with Eden? Had running away been sinful after all? Well, how do we know then if what we believe is right or not?'

It's not my job to tell you what to believe,' David said gently. What I will do is try and help you to understand what you have been taught and then you can decide whether or not you want to continue to believe it.'

It wasn't quite what I had expected, but I nodded, and Jacob, after a short hesitation, nodded as well.

Then David explained in general terms about how cults operated. He asked us if anything sounded familiar. Then he asked questions specifically related to Eden. Does Eden have any authority figure who holds absolute power and isn't accountable to anyone?'

There's the Elders,' I said.

But they are accountable to God,' interposed Jacob.

Does anybody in the community question their decisions?' David asked.

I thought of Ruth questioning my father. We shook our heads. Questioning the Elders resulted in punishment or at worst, excommunication. David's questions continued.

Was information about the outside world filtered through the leaders? Was there an "us against them" kind of teaching? Was contact with the outside discouraged? What happened to those who left? Were they shunned or berated?

Do you see your families? Do they visit you?'

Jacob linked his hands between his knees and studied his shoes. I went to the Friday Market once and my father asked me if I was coming back to Eden. When I said no, he wouldn't speak to me again. They wouldn't even sell me anything. I don't go there any more.'

I went there too, but I was too scared to go and talk to them. My friend asked my brother if he would meet me, but he said he he didn't have a sister' The pain of that rejection still had the power to cut me. I broke off and Jacob took my hand and squeezed.

Lastly, David asked us, if the Elder's claims from the Bible ultimately led to their personal wealth and power?

They may control the people, but they aren't rich,' argued Jacob.

Yes, they are,' I interrupted. Eden is extremely wealthy. You don't know Jacob, because you left before they bought the second farm, but I saw some of the cars and machinery. Joshua told me about the Trust and how the Elders do business in the city. Where do you think all the money goes from the people who join Eden? Daniel was very wealthy before he joined and gave his money to the Trust.'

Jacob opened his mouth and then shut it tightly. I could tell he didn't like hearing Daniel's name. I gave a sigh as Jacob folded his arms. Even though he disagreed with much of what went on there, I think it was harder for him to accept that Eden was a cult than it was for me. After all, he hadn't personally been locked in the Room or beaten. He had been an obedient child for the most part and also he had had the advantage of parents who were gentler in their discipline.

Calling a group a cult seemed a lot harsher than saying that they were a bit strict, or controlling. I think it made him feel as if everyone we knew in Eden was not even following God at all! Did belonging to a cult mean you didn't go to heaven?

David showed us a video on cults and I think that was the turning point for Jacob. He was far more attentive and less argumentative after that. Then David opened the Bible and showed us how the Elders had manipulated verses to suit their own ends. When he had finished, he gave us a list of the verses he had used. Take these home with you and read them over for yourselves. In context. Think about what you've seen and heard today, and write down any thoughts or questions you might have. As I said before, I'm not going to tell you what to believe. That has to be your own choice. But it needs to be an informed choice. I will see you again in' he checked a diary on his desk, in three days time.'

(c) Michelle MacKinnon

Escape From Eden was written by Michelle MacKinnon and published in November 2008 by Margaret Street Publishing. It is currently in its second print run.

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Michelle MacKinnon was born in New Zealand, in 1957 and she lives with her husband in Palmerston North. In 2008 she published a double award winning novel called Escape from Eden and in 2009 she published an award winning children's picture book called Bluebell Mary. Michelle has seven children, three adopted and four by birth. Since her training as a General and Obstetric nurse, Michelle has been involved in many different vocations from beekeeping, alternative medicine, and hobby farming, to accounting, marketing, and voluntary counselling. Writing has been a lifelong passion and in 2008 she completed a Graduate Diploma in Creative Writing at the Whitireia Polytechnic in Wellington, New Zealand.