I grew up in a cult. It was heaven — and hell. | Lilia Tarawa | TEDxChristchurch

I grew up in a cult. It was heaven — and hell. | Lilia Tarawa | TEDxChristchurch

September 9, 2019 100 By Stanley Isaacs


Translator: Thành H. Châu
Reviewer: Peter van de Ven I grew up in a valley on the West coast
of New Zealand’s South Island. Imagine the wildest,
most beautiful valley you’ve ever seen. Lush bush that merges from foothills
into fertile farmland, cut through by pristine rivers
that snake down from the alps above. And a lake that sparkles
like polished glass while the rainbows write color in the sky. I grew up in the
Gloriavale Christian Community. Five hundred men, women, and children living together and following
the doctrines of Jesus Christ. My grandfather was my hero because he brought us to this land and founded the community I loved. Purchasing the two farms
on either side of the river was a smart move for our group. We’d migrated from the East coast
and needed livelihood. I arrived at six weeks old,
strapped on my papa’s back to what would be home
for the first eighteen years of my life. My cousins and childhood friends
were like brothers and sisters to me. We did everything together. Camping was one of our favorite pastimes. We snuggled in sleeping bags
underneath the stars and cooked damper on campfire ashes. Now, earlier today we were asked to recall
our happiest childhood memory. My favorite is celebration day. Imagine the coolest party
you ever attended as a child. My cousins, my friends, and I would gorge ourselves on pink candy floss
and drink way too much sugary soda. There were clowns on stilts, back-rides behind tractors, three-legged races, and a plane that flew over
to drop lollies from the sky. The men built us a hydro slide
and a flying fox. And on these days, my granddad would decree a day off work
for the entire community. So the women stopped
working in the kitchen, and the men came,
enough to form a festival. And it was all free. We didn’t pay for it,
because we didn’t earn wages. We didn’t work for money, we worked for the lifestyle and for each other. The money we made in our businesses
was kept in a communal bank account. That bank account
built the hostels we lived in, put clothes on our back, and food in our mouths. And I knew every single person
in my community personally. Not only did I know them, but I knew their husband, their wife, their children
and their grandchildren. We lived in communal hostels. We worked together. We went to school together. We prayed together. I was constantly surrounded
by the people I loved the most. And at night, I’d skip
a couple of meters to my cousin’s room to socialize or play a deck of cards. I loved working with the other girls
in the women’s realm. I loved learning the sew,
knit, spin, and cook. Music was one of my favorite hobbies. We were taught music
in the first year of school, so by the time I was 17, I was competent
on five musical instruments. Think for a moment about a time
you achieved something really important. Remember how it felt. Remember how proud you were in the moment. That probably felt similar to the day
I received my first school report. It was the most exciting
day of my life as a six-year-old. I’d scored excellent grades and even better personal comments
from my school teacher. So you can imagine my excitement
when my grandfather took the school report and read it to the 500 members
of my community at dinner. And then he said,
“We don’t want women like you.” My stomach dropped. I turned bright red. There was air being sucked in my nostrils, but I couldn’t breathe. See, my school teacher had written
in my report a sentence that read, “Lilia demonstrates leadership skills, which could be useful
for when she’s older.” And my grandfather
humiliated me for hours. And this would become
a common theme throughout my life. Afterward, I left the dinning room
a changed six-year-old girl. And what changed was my belief I was worth anything more
than what he sees I was. And as a young girl, I spent the majority of my time
with womenfolk. And because we home-birthed big families, the sight of a pregnant belly
made me feel at home. My mum grew up
with 15 brothers and sisters. I have nine siblings. I was seven years old when I saw a newborn baby
for the first time. I took a scissors with both hands
and snipped the umbilical cord. My cousin was born blue
because the cord was strangling him. So after saving him, the midwife did a trauma
assessment with me because I was 10 years old at the time. And I held my aunt’s hand
when her next girl was delivered on a mattress in the back of a van,
on the way to the nearest hospital. Dad was the active manager
for one of the businesses. My mum was the leader of all the women and ran the entire
domestic realm of Gloriavale. I wanted to be just like her
when I grew up. Her job was demanding and because Dad was
often travelling for business, she needed help raising the children. So I changed dirty nappies, potty-trained, climbed out of bed
in the middle of the night to rock them back to sleep, cleaned up spew, knitted them warm clothes, and helped wean them off breast milk. I couldn’t wait to grow up and marry a man and have his babies. My girl cousin and I
talked about it a lot, so it was a really exciting day for me when I turned twelve and got my period. Because I could finally fulfill
my purpose in life. And by the time I was 14, I knew who I wanted to fulfill
that purpose with. His name was Willing. It would be a worthy marriage. I was the granddaughter
of the church founder, and he was the son of Fervent,
one of the church leaders. And one day I was sitting in class, when Fervent bowled in the door,
dragging Willing by the shoulder. Willing had been disobedient. I don’t remember what he’d done, it could have been that he
combed his hair the wrong way, spoke back to his father, listened to music
he wasn’t allowed to listen to, or read a book
he wasn’t allowed to read. That didn’t matter. The punishment was the same. Willing was ordered to bend over
and pull down his pants. And my stomach rolled when Fervent pulled out the leather belt. We were then told to watch as Fervent beat Willing with it, and I refused to look; instead, I stared down at my desk
and whispered, “Please God, make it stop.” Please make it stop. In that moment, my respect for Fervent’s leadership imploded. I knew what he was doing was wrong. They taught us so much
about the love of God that as I watched Fervent beat his son, I thought that’s not love. And it wasn’t love even though after Fervent
had finished beating his son, he hugged him and told him he loved him. That’s not love. I became suspicious of the laws
we were being taught. “Spare the rod, spoil the child,”
the leaders said. My blood boiled when one wife
brought her child to me and showed me the blue welt
on the toddler’s back. I gritted my teeth, “How can anyone
call themselves a Christian and treat a child that way?” “How can any parent
treat a child that way?” My friend Jubilant wasn’t spoiled. He was born into one of the least
privileged families in our society with no connection to leadership circles. He was the jokester of our class, always saying witty things
to make us laugh. Imagine your brother, one of your children, your nephew and niece, your daughter, the one who makes everyone laugh, the clown, that was Jubilant. And one day at soccer, Jubilant made one too many jokes. And when our teacher Nathaniel
began to punch and kick him, my stomach rolled again. The game froze, and we looked on horrified, and I thought Nathaniel would stop. But he didn’t. He forced Jubilant to walk from the soccer field
to the main building, all the while punching and kicking him. And Jubilant was sobbing, raising his hands to shield
his head from the blows. And I thought surely Nathaniel would be dismissed
as our school teacher. But the next day, he was back
in the classroom with us. And I thought, “What’s wrong with the people
running this place? I don’t want to have children here.” Not wanting children
was a sin that was forbidden. My best friend Grace
was an unwanted child. Her mother had given her up at birth, and her adoptive parents shipped her
from the U.S to our community, hoping that good influence
would set her straight. Excuse me. She was a chocolate-skinned Mexican girl who arrived in Gloriavale when she was 13, just three years older than me. I loved that girl more than life. She giggled lots and made me fell safe. So we became best friends and spent as many moments
as we could together. And Grace brought personal possessions
from the outside world: music, jewelry, makeup. These were forbidden. And seeing them for the first time made
Grace all the more special in my eyes. Her rebellious spirit inspired me. And over the years, Grace would be punished many times because she refused to be controlled. She was 20 when she came to me and told me the leaders had ordered her
marriage to a man she didn’t love. She was sobbing, trembling, tears were streaming down her cheeks. In desperation, she’d packed her bags, hidden them under a tree, called a friend on the outside
to come rescue her, but she was discovered, taken before an inquisition
of 20 men seated in a small room, condemned, forced to confess she was evil, forced to phone her outside family
and say she didn’t want to leave anymore. And I thought, “Fuck them. No one tells my best friend what to do.” So I wrapped my arms
around her and I said, “Don’t listen to them. You do what you believe is right.” Thankfully, her adoptive parents came through. They phoned Gloriavale and threatened to send in the police
if Grace wasn’t allowed to leave. The next day, she was gone. And she now lives happily in Canada. Excuse me. After the incident with Grace, I knew I had to leave too, or I would be forced
to marry a man I didn’t love. And I knew I had to take
my little sisters with me, or the same thing would happen to them. I had one foot out the door already. When I was 11, my oldest sibling ran away. When I was 13, my next oldest sibling ran away. When I was 17, my younger brother threatened to leave. I didn’t know it at the time,
but my parents were ready to leave too. But they couldn’t bear the thought
of losing another child. They were waiting for me to come around
so we could stay together. After what happened to Grace, I was ready to go. I left Gloriavale with my entire family
less than a year after Grace had. And after I left the cult, I became obsessed with learning
everything I could about human behavior because I thought, “If I can understand
myself and others better, I can protect myself, I can make sure no one ever
takes advantage of me ever again.” And as I wrote the story of my life
in a religious cult, I realized the leaders of Gloriavale used cruel tactics
to control and manipulate me. They began by using shame to degrade me in front of
the people I loved. It started with my grandfather
publicly disgracing me for my six-year-old report card. His action sends a clear message
of who’s in charge. We all knew what would happen
to people who dared Christian authority. But it didn’t end there, they began using guilt
to degrade my self-worth. When I was a child, they told me every day I was a worthless sinner. It was my fault. I was evil. I was the one to blame. When people treated me badly
I thought I deserved it. I struggled to think correct for myself because I was always second-guessing: What if it is my fault? What if I am to blame? Now, they may have beaten me down, but they messed up
when they mistreated the people I loved. My fury towards the injustices
suffered by Grace, Jubilant, and Willing gave me the strength
I hadn’t been able to muster for myself. I couldn’t stand by and watch
someone I loved wrongly suffer. Love for others broke
the chains that shackled me. But why was I willing
to love them and not myself? Eventually, I realized that if … I could learn to love myself the way I loved Willing, the way I love Jubilant and Grace, the way I love my little sisters, then I wouldn’t take anyone’s bullshit. So I asked, What does it mean to love myself? What does it mean to love myself so fully that if anyone ever tries
to shame me again, I am the first to stand up for myself. I don’t have all the answers,
but I’ve come a long way. And I’ve come to realize that my six-year-old
report card was bang-on. (Laughter) (Applause) And my grandfather
was terrified of strong women. (Laughter) I’m a strong woman. I’m a leader. Today I know my leadership skills are priceless. I used them to leave the church and find my own way
in the world that, honestly, still scares the living hell out of me. I used them when I was 23
to run a business and to write a book
that teaches others what’s possible. Now at 27 years old, I’m using them to stand here
with you today. I use them every day
to remind my six-year-old self she can do anything she wants to do and to never let anyone
tell her otherwise. Thank you. (Applause) (Cheers)