An autistic man has described how he was ‘sucked into’ a cult which took over his entire life.
Richard Turner considered cult leaders to be ‘prophets of God’ until he was able to escape, and now he his using his experience to help other victims who have become trapped.
Richard, from Cheshire, was convinced to hand over part of his wages to the cult, which forbid him to kiss or have sex with a girlfriend and assigned an “accountability partner” to keep watch over him.
He said he was enticed into the group by its ‘hipster’ image and technique of ‘love bombing’, where representatives ‘butter up’ possible new members by lavishing they with praise.
“Like a lot of autistic people, I had been on the receiving end of bullying in high school and my self-esteem was quite low, so I responded very well to the love bombing,” he said.
“But a lot of autistic people also have a strong sense of justice, of right and wrong, and in the end that overrode the cult rules.”
Despite still dealing with the mental fall out of his ordeal, he has now completed a Masters degree in the psychology of coercive control at Salford University – the only such course in the country.
And he has made it his mission to help others whose lives have been destroyed by cults.
He said: “I didn’t want anyone to go through what I did. I didn’t want anyone to feel so isolated. I wanted to become a person they could talk to – which was someone I didn’t have.”
Richard first came across the cult back in 2013, when he was looking for a job working with victims of human trafficking.
What he at first thought was a “hipster church” working in this field turned out to be a fringe sect.
“Part of the reason I got sucked in so quickly was because they were doing a thing called ‘love bombing’ that’s common in cults,” he said.
“The leaders kept saying, ‘Oh Richard you’re amazing, you’re great.’
“When you struggle to fit in with people, as I do, because autism means you see the world differently and your self-esteem can be quite low, this is very effective, and it really sucked me in.
“People would say, ‘You’re great. I can see great things for you.’
“I would be on the verge of crying. No one had ever spoken about me like this before. It was really powerful.”
Despite having a gut feeling that all was not well during his first church event, he was dazzled by the razzamatazz – with lights, music and the rockstar-style charisma of the speakers.
He said: “You go in and it’s dead loud, you can feel the music vibrate, they’re trying to make you feel good – to get you to have a good time.
“You come away from the services and you’re sky-high because you’ve been singing for an hour. You think, ‘Because I feel so good, it must be God. God must be here, so it must be OK and it must be safe.’
“Looking back, it was almost like being hypnotised.
“And while you’re feeling like that, they’re asking you for money. So, you’re not even on your guard.”
Earning just £13,000 a year at this point managing a hostel for the victims of people trafficking, Richard was persuaded to give more than he was able to. He would sometimes give up to 35 per cent of his salary to the cult, which he says was controlling every aspect of his life.
Alarm bells finally rang when cult leaders began interfering with his relationship with a fellow member. He finally started questioning the way things were run.
Richard had invited the woman for coffee after meeting her at an event in a different town, however their ‘courtship’ was heavily policed by cult leaders.
Without Richard’s knowledge, they had assigned him an ‘accountability partner’ – who checked that the pair were not breaking the strict ‘no sex or kissing before marriage’ rules.
“This man started laying down the law for the relationship,” Richard said.
“I was 32 and she was 29, but we were not allowed to stay in the same building, yet alone the same room.
“He said, ‘You need to learn to submit to the leadership of the church,’ and also started explaining how women need to submit to men.”
Not only did Richard disagree with this level of control, but he felt his partner was being manipulated by her superiors.
When he visited her and stayed in her house, while she stayed with friends, so that they followed the rules, word of his visit got out and his accountability partner started looking into where he had stayed.
And when Richard argued with his girlfriend at a Christmas party over the fact that every aspect of their private lives was being reported to the cult leaders, he was ordered never to see her again.
Recalling his subsequent meeting with his ‘accountability partner’, he said: “He told me, ‘You’re never allowed to talk to her again. Don’t contact her. Don’t talk about her. Don’t pray for her. That’s it. It’s done,’ and this was an order.”
At this point, three years had passed and Richard’s mental health had gone on a downward spiral.
Other members in the cult turned against him, treating him as if he was ‘mad’ for questioning the leadership.
“At this point, my mind was getting really scrambled, because I was being treated as if I’d gone mad but it was them that was causing the situation,” he said.
But instead of quitting, Richard was desperate to claw back the love and respect he felt when he first joined the cult, and started devoting himself even more – donating more money and moving into shared accommodation with other members to demonstrate his commitment.
He said: “Despite all this, I was being isolated.”
“You can imagine my state of mind at this point. Earlier on I’d thought these leaders were prophets, that they heard from God, so when they started turning on me, I thought there was something wrong with me that everyone else could see and I couldn’t.
“They really drove me to the edge.”
Later that year in 2016, Richard had an emotional breakdown. He left his job on sick leave and moved back in with his parents Phil, 67, a hospital chaplain and Ruth 65, in Widnes – the town where he was brought up.
“I was completely humiliated,” he said.
“I reached a place where I thought everything the leaders had said was true. I couldn’t think critically anymore.
“I even spoke to someone who performed exorcisms, believing I’d brought all this suffering into my life because I had supernatural books and Harry Potter DVDs in my bedroom.’”
Thankfully, with support from his family, Richard approached his old counselling teacher for help.
As he began to heal, he realised he had been the victim of a controlling cult.
When he later saw a report on TV into the coercive methods of the group he had been involved with, he broke down in tears when he finally saw that he was not alone.
“All of a sudden there was national recognition for my trauma. The power of that was unreal,” he said.
Desperate to make a difference, despite his own trauma, in 2018 Richard enrolled for his Masters in the Psychology of Coercive Control, so he could start using his experience for the greater good.
He said: “I still have moments – and especially felt this in lockdown when I’d been on my own a lot – when I doubt the whole thing and think it was me.”
He now counsels individuals who have managed to escape cults, as well as families of people who are still involved with sects, wanting advice on how to get through to them.
Families contact him when they are concerned about loved ones, Richard then researches the group they are anxious about, and advises the family on how they should approach the issue.
“The worst thing you can do is say, ‘You’re in a cult get out’,” he said.
Richard argues this approach could push the victim further into the clutches of the group.
The best way, he believes, is to offer unconditional love and support and turn a blind eye to their behavioural changes, as eventually they may realise that unconditional love is stronger than the controlling ‘conditional’ love of the group.
But the majority of his clients are people like himself, who have experienced cults first hand – anything from an unfortunate brief encounter to growing up in a cult that warps every aspect of reality.
He said: “Cults work by controlling and isolating you. To recover, you need to find people who get it.
“I’m so inspired by the people I work with’s grit and determination and by seeing them start their whole life anew.”
Despite his bravery in facing his fears and trying to help other victims, Richard fears his own mental trauma as a result of his ordeal may haunt him until his dying day.
He said: “I’m not 100 per cent sure if I’ll ever fully recover, but it’s such a lonely, isolated experience, I am determined to help others, as I don’t want anyone to feel like I did.”
If you think someone you know has been affected by a cult, visit The International Cultic Studies Association’s website for resources and guidance at www.icsahome.com