Stories of People Who Joined and Then Escaped Cults

Religious cults project a sinister aura of mystery that engenders intense, morbid curiosity in the public. Scientology's dominance modern cult culture occasionally obscures the countless other cults just like it in the world. Yet make no mistake, they exist, and they're every bit as terrifying as you might believe, as per the stories of those people who joined, and then escaped, cults. 

Manipulation and fear mongering are the keys to driving a successful cult. You may find it hard to believe that someone would believe what some crackpot claiming to be god has to say. But many cult members are born into them, or have an incredibly vulnerable state-of-mind; in both cases, these individuals prove easy to manipulate for cult leaders work under the guise of a religious purpose, or make up their own doctrines and rules. 

Some are lucky enough to escape cults, which comes with consequences. Escapees are cut off from family and friends, thrown into a hostile world they know little about. Stories from ex-cult members detail dark, disturbing subcultures. Thanks to Redditors who came forward, we have an insider's look into what goes on in some of the world's eeriest cults. Here are stories of people who joined, and then escaped, cults.

  • Teen Rehab Camp Forces Slave Labor on Young Addicts

    "My younger brother was in [Teen Challenger] and they kicked him out for arguing with the leaders about religion and science and making people think too much and was preventing what the leaders were trying to do to the people there to make them 'productive members of society'.

    From what I can tell it was really a slave labor camp where they would work long hours all day and get almost no sleep and would be pretty much brainwashed into believing some really weird form of Christianity. Very close to Pentecostal. Most of the people there were court ordered and if they didn't finish or left they broke their probation and went to prison.

    They ate rotten or expired food and when any food was donated the counselors and leaders took what they wanted and left everything else for the 'students'. If you were obedient and bowed down like a dog they'd let you do the easy jobs like work in the kitchen or clean or whatever. If you were rebellious like my brother they would put you on hard labor. They would work for like 18 hours a day making these crosses out of wood from lumber companies where they would sell them cheap lumber they couldn't sell and sell the crosses outside supermarkets and malls.

    They made him work at a car wash one day for 12 hours straight in the middle of the summer in Mississippi. He has pretty bad scars from the sunburns. No sunscreen, no soothing lotion after, no tylenol. God will heal your pain and illness. A man cut his thumb off working in the wood shop making those crosses and they wouldn't let him have any medication. Just pray your pain away. A man died of complications related to liver cancer because they wouldn't let him go to his chemo treatments or take any of the drugs he was prescribed.

    The guy who was at the top drove a brand new Ford F150 and his wife drove a brand new Cadillac Escalade. His job at Teen Challenge was the only one he had and his wife didn't work. It is a corrupt organization that takes advantage of people that."
  • Parents Hire Reform School to Kidnap Kids in Night

    "Not exactly what most people would see as a cult, but it's what it was.

    The Family Foundation School was based off of the East Ridge Cult. Many of the teachers and staff had been part of East Ridge. East Ridge was based off of the concepts of All Addicts Anonymous, which was essentially the beliefs used by Synanon in the 70s/80s I think. Essentially, this was a 'recovery' cult that made use of the twelve steps to brainwash people.

    I was 15 when I was sent to the 'school'. Most kids who went there had an escort service, essentially their parents paid people to kidnap them. I wish I was exaggerating, but escorts of this nature snuck into the kid's rooms in the middle of the night, woke them up, and if they don't cooperate, put them in chains and dragged them off to the school. I went willingly with my parents. I wasn't a particularly bad kid, but I was suicidal and depressed, and it badly affected my grades and ability to do school work. I had been hospitalized three times, so my parents were desperate and willing to try anything to get me help.

    So I went willingly. I didn't think it was going to be bad or abusive. I thought I was just going to get some intensive therapy on a longer term basis than my stays at the mental hospital. I realized pretty early on that there were a lot of techniques that were used that were not okay. I ran away after two weeks, and was found in about 10 hours

    I refused to submit to life there in the beginning. They verbally abused kids in front of each other, used exercise and deprived kids of food as a means of punishment and coercion, and the religious aspects were pretty horrifying. They used tactics such as 'exile' and shunning to get people to submit. I recall in my life skills class there, hearing about how brainwashing isn't bad, how it's good that they were reprogramming us to be model, productive citizens.

    Phone calls with family were always monitored and if you tried to say something about how you were being treated, they would tell your family that you're being manipulative and not to believe you. I only had alone time with my family once in the eight months I was there. I was allowed to go to dinner with them once. I remember the entire time thinking that I should tell them, but I knew they wouldn't believe me. Even to this day 13 years later, I don't think they believe me. I know they do, but there is still something that nags at me about how no one should trust me, since it was drilled into me there that I'm a liar and manipulative, and that no one should trust me.

    I got out because I got kicked out. I had a mental breakdown. I had been cooperating and following the program. But my aunt had been diagnosed with cancer at some point along the line, and it took her quickly. My parents wanted me to go to the funeral, school said no, so parents said that I couldn't go. I went silent for a few days and then I just started flipping out. Every day. I mean, I had anger problems, but I lost my shit and I flipped out on everyone. I don't remember it too well, but I spent a lot of time in isolation and I would literally just attack anyone who tried to touch me. I had no control and it was horrifying. I am honestly not an angry or violent person. The idea that I acted like this still haunts me.

    I thought I was going to go to a mental institution for the rest of my life because that's what they said would happen if I left. My mother sent a letter saying that if I was kicked out, that I wouldn't go home and they would send me someplace where I would be locked up 24/7. None of it mattered to me. One day, I saw my stuff was packed and I was terrified. I thought I was going to be sent to a mental institution. But my dad was there, and he took me home, and I cried.

    The effects of it, and what really happened there. Well. I didn't realize how fucked up it actually was, and that it was actually a cult that focused on 'You will die without us' until I was 19. I'm in touch with a few survivors. We're all at least still a little bit f*cked up. Sometimes the only thing I can do is laugh at how f*cked up it was. The good news is that the school announced that they were closing this past August."
  • Girl Tells Cult About Her Abortion to Get Kicked Out

    "I was forced into a cult around age 8 by my extended family, after my parents were pretty much convinced to let them partially raise me....

    We'd attend a group for girls once or twice a week, where we learnt to be good wives, were forced into very strict gender roles, and had to make snacks or put on Bible skits for the boy's group. We were told that they'd end up our husbands, and to little kids we didn't really question it much. We were pretty tame, and going to a hippie school, my life had this big rift between what I was taught there, and what I was taught at church. I remember getting into an argument with my teacher on an assignment about world religions about how Christianity was fact, and spouted off a bunch of my beliefs, and everyone looked at me like I was f*cking crazy except a few girls who were in the group as well. We discussed it at the group, about how I stood up for the church in the face of scorn, etc etc.

    My parents probably thought it was just normal Christianity, but as my parents got deeper into poverty and drugs, my extended family tried to take me from their custody to further indoctrinate me into it. It was not normal religion, and I sort of knew it on some level. I said no to going to live with them, as they scared me, a bunch of family bullsh*t ensued, it happened again, I said no, but eventually I was just given to them unofficially because it was 'good money' to do so. My in-laws were rich. They were not.

    I was given to a boy my age, at the Age of Mary, which is when I went to live with him, and he raped me for four years. I still attended school, sporadically. I lived an entire double life. Young '80s/'90s teen, and the woman to birth an effigy of Jesus, a reincarnation of the Lord. 

    I mean, imagine sitting on your best friend's bed, who is clueless, thinks you live with your parents (you only stay with them for a few days at a time, rarely), and is blasting Metallica while drinking cokes on a hot summer day, and not being able to tell her that you are being raped, abused, and threatened daily by a boy we both went to school with, because no way in f*ck would she believe you. I did tell her eventually, when we dated in the late '90s/early 2000s for six years. She said it made sense in terms of the weirdness that was my cluelessness about things like fast food or pop culture.

    I did get pregnant
    , at 16, and ended up enlisting a friend to help me get an abortion, as it was legal to have me married to my rapist due to the pregnancy, with court permission (or so I was told). I was kicked out immediately after informing them of it. I walked home to begrudging parents and a little brother who had no clue. I never saw anyone from that place again, besides my aunt, and it's dissolved since."
  • Father Convinces Family and Followers He's a Powerful Priest

    "I was born into it. My dad is, or was, a priest for an East Asian religion. He claimed to be the only one authorized by the temple association to teach outside of China, and attracted a large following of students. These students are doctors/lawyers and aimless drifters, male and female, Christian/Jewish/etc. - and are all head over heels in love with him. As I grew up, I was surrounded by his students, who all proclaimed their undying love for their master's wife and children.

    I grew up extremely conservatively, never dated, never made friends with guys, barely had sleepovers, etc. Even now, I have a huge inferiority and anxiety complex, even beyond what is considered part of the normal experience for Asian children. When I was younger, around ten years old, all of my best friends were my dad's students, usually middle-aged women, and I relied on them hugely, especially when my father divorced three times and remarried twice. I idolized my father even though he was gone for 75% of the year, and barely present at home for the other 25%. I fully believed his story of growing up in the temple and mystical origins.

    When my dad remarried for the third time, it was to a Caucasian woman who didn't fully buy into his whole story. She thought there was something off, but she didn't pry into it right away. She ended up staying for us children (my sister and I, and later, my brother), for which I'm forever grateful. The next ten years were...tumultuous, to say the least. My father's following grew and grew, mostly in part [sic] to my new stepmother's business acumen. We went from barely scraping by on $30,000 a year to netting over $400k a year. The more successful my father became, the more arrogant, narcissistic, and emotionally abusive. He would claim powers of seeing people's auras, and told one girl that he could see the color of her panties. He broke couples apart to suit his own power games, and 'counselled' troubled children, despite the fact that he barely knew his own. There was physical violence, too, which I had to break up at the age of fourteen, when he struck my mother while she was holding my infant brother. Somehow she was the one who went to jail.

    Despite all this, I clung to the image of the man, the master, that all of his students saw, and thought that all of the fault was with us kids. If only we could be better children, more loving, more understanding, more patient, maybe we would see the master. It was only three years ago that I found out the truth from my biological mother. He never grew up in the temple. He never studied with his master.

    His entire origin story is just that - a story. That's when my eyes cleared and I knew better. Despite a huge number of texts and emails between me and him, condemning me and calling me a traitor, I severed the ties and left.

    All those students with whom I grew up? They cut me off. My family in China? They cut me off. That's fine by me. Now I have a burning desire to find a way to bring down his entire so-called temple."