A brother lost

2010-12-09 00:00

THIS is the story of a KwaZulu-Natal family whose lives were turned upside down when their son went missing for two months while travelling abroad. He was found, but there was to be no happy reunion. Recruited by a destructive cult, he now wanted nothing to do with his family.

In a Witness article published earlier this year [July 17], it was reported that a concerned parents’ group had identified cultish behaviour in one of the local churches. These parents are justifiably worried about their children who are marrying young and giving up their career aspirations to devote themselves to a religious cause.

I am not sure about this particular group and would not like to pass judgment without more facts. But what the article did for me is urge me to tell my own story.

My family emigrated from Zimbabwe in the sixties to settle into a peaceful life on the Natal north coast. My brother Phillip and I had seen the sea only once before, while on a holiday to Mozambique, and we soon made up for lost time. We spent every spare moment in the sea or on the beach. We caught a bus to school and back every day, then raced off to soak up the last few daylight hours at our special spot on the beach.

My brother excelled academically at our local school, and my parents decided to send him to a private school in Hillcrest for his Grade 7 year. Even though he had not learnt Afrikaans for most of his junior school life, he managed to win an academic scholarship to a prestigious school in the midlands, based on his top marks for maths and Afrikaans. He spent five fruitful years at this wonderful school and by the end of it he felt fully equipped to face life “out there”.

He couldn’t wait to get back to the sea and he went to study accounting at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban.

Towards the end of his degree, he was selected to become part of an international exchange programme where he would gain valuable work experience overseas. He finished his degree and set off, with great excitement, to work in Canada for a year. I visited him during the summer and we spent a happy time together exploring the islands around Vancouver. His time in Canada was coming to an end and he indicated that he would be taking a short holiday in the United States before returning home a few months later. I returned to my nursing job in Pietermaritzburg and looked forward to my brother’s homecoming in October.

The day of his return dawned but he never arrived at the airport. We immediately felt uneasy, as we had had no word from him since his departure for the U.S. a few weeks earlier. We got hold of his last known contact, as we knew he had left most of his belongings there to fetch before he returned home. The contact had no idea where he was and still had all his belongings. My brother had simply vanished.

An agonising two months passed. We got hold of every possible person we could think of who might know of his whereabouts. Days passed: days of fruitless phone calls to various authorities, days of sleepless nights and despair. We imagined that he must be dead as it was so unlike him not to contact us.

Then word came through: he had been seen in San Francisco. He had joined a cult, we were told. We laughed with relief — he was okay! He was not dead, just dabbling in a little religion. How bad could that be?

We began our investigation into this obscure organisation and the more we learnt, the more alarmed we became. We realised we had to get him out.

Most cults use some form of mind control to elicit blind obedience from their followers. This particular cult used techniques identified by Robert Lifton, a man who had worked with former American prisoners of war following the Korean War in the fifties. These Americans had been part of an experiment in mind control.

Cults create a state of dependency by destabilising the person’s sense of self in order to render them powerless. The cult has total control over the person’s environment. Members are initially deprived of sleep, fed a diet low in nutrients and never left alone. They are cut off from the outside world and then bombarded with information and attention (called “love-bombing”) until their intellectual and emotional defences are broken down. It then becomes easier to manipulate them into believing cult doctrine. They develop a new identity within the context of the group and reject their old life.

My brother had been “recruited” in San Francisco and was living in a cult commune. My parents immediately left for the U.S. to try to bring him home. What they encountered left them traumatised and heartbroken. My brother had become someone else. He was extremely fearful and believed they were sent by the devil. My parents did not know what to do or who to turn to for help. They stayed close to him and tried to talk to him every day, but other cult members hampered their efforts by threatening and abusing them. Eventually my brother was put on a bus at night and spirited away to another state. We lost track of him.

Unfortunately, after two trips to the U.S. and resorting to various desperate measures (like trying to get him deported) my parents failed to bring him home. By then they were broke, disillusioned and had no further leads to pursue. They did not hear from him until two years later. He was living in New York with his Brazilian wife who had been chosen for him by the cult leader. He was now making his way up through the ranks of this particular cult and was deemed “secure” enough to make contact with his biological family.

My parents blamed themselves for my brother’s demise. They delved into our past to find some plausible explanation of what had “driven” my brother to give up everything he had. I kept trying to remind them that I (their only other child) was okay, our childhood was perfectly normal and that they had nothing to feel guilty about. However, they were inconsolable. We had many dark days and even had to live with prejudice from people who believed my brother had “made his own choice” and that we should just let him be.

In our search to understand, we learnt so many things. Not only about ourselves, but also about other people.

Those were the days of no Internet, no cellphones (in fact, we were still operating from a party line) and all our research was based on phone calls, interviews, reading and good old-fashioned leg-work. We spoke to quite a few experts in ‘Maritzburg only to find they had no real solutions for us either. My mother even visited a sangoma. That was considered “way out” for a white person to do in those days and we kept it quiet at the time.

We have seen my brother three times since his departure from KwaZulu-Natal 30 years ago, and we have treasured each moment we have had with him. He may not be the same person we knew but we do not love him less. He lives in a totally different reality from our own. We can never accept that his “beautiful mind” was taken away from him. But what we can do is warn others. In the U.S. alone, there are between 3 000 to 5 000 cults in existence today.

An ex-cult member wrote this: “I was a [cult member]. When I regained my mind and could look back at the horror of it, I realised that my freedom was conditional. Now I would be an ex [cult member]. My entire identity was deployed to make liveable the truth that the most intimate workings of my mind had been transformed into the epitome of what I detested the most.

“My innocence would never return. I had to live with the realisation that we could all become Nazis or Manson murderers. I had to live with the ignorance and prejudice of a public that believes I was somehow predisposed to becoming a cult member while they are immune. People think cults are something to laugh at, groups of religious half-wits who would never have made it in life anyway and are better off where they are. I was there.

“The suicide massacre in Jonestown did not surprise us, the survivors of other cults. We know that the ones we left behind may face the same fate but that they are really already dead unless they are set free.”


• The winners of the 2010 True Stories of KZN competition were announced last week. Semi-finalists’ stories will be published over the next few months. Semi-finalists are asked to contact Shelagh McLoughlin about material needed for their article at 033 355 1125 (mornings) orfeatures@witness.co.za

LINDA Nel completed matric at Epworth, then trained as a nurse at the old Grey’s Hospital. She worked in nursing and nursing education for the next 20 years. She then changed direction and completed an honours degree in psychology. She is now working as a school counsellor at Carter High School, where she has been for the past five years.

She is married to Gert Nel, who is a state advocate, and they have two daughters, Michelle and Helen.

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