Yesterday I spoke with author and speaker Claire Ashman, a victor (not victim) of two Australian cults which sucked up most of her life, from her childhood to the age of 36 when she finally escaped with her 9 kids.
It was a fascinating, eye-opening discussion for me, and a brilliant step in my research journey to better understand cults, sects, and NRMs (New Religious Movements – which Claire explained). I’m grateful both to Claire for being so generous with her time and her life story, as well as to my good friend Rob Nugen, who introduced us.
The introduction happened on Thursday 3rd Jan, and we arranged to chat on Friday night 11pm for me (9:30am for Claire in Australia). I jumped online to research Claire and figure out what I most wanted to ask her – she has recently completed and self-published her first memoir, Lessons From a Cult Survivor, which details her cult experience up to the escape.
I picked up the book and started reading – whizzing through her early life in the excommunicated Catholic sect The Society of St. Pius X, in which modernity and the modern world were pretty much eschewed, information was tightly controlled, and socialization outside the sect was strongly discouraged.
At 15, the 27-year-old man who would become Claire’s first husband came knocking on her family’s door – a man from the community, claiming he was looking for a good pious girl. Little beknownst to them – as Claire told me she found out much later – he’d already tried this same trick on several other families in the sect.
Claire’s folks went for it. Not knowing any other kind of life, she went for it too. Her husband soon wanted something stricter, and pulled them both, along with her growing family, into The Order of St. Charbel, run by William Kamm, the Little Pebble, also known as Australia’s largest Doomsday cult.
OK. So that’s a lot to take in at once.
I sidetracked onto TED Talks. Claire’s done FOUR of them. Here’s one:
Since getting out of the cult, and away from her first husband, she’s been really pushing to spread the word about the terrible impacts cults can have, and how genuinely prevalent they are. With 600,000 people in cults in Australia (overall population 24 million – so approx 1 in 50 people in cults), they’re everywhere.
Soon the appointed time rolled around. We got on the call – Claire was gracious, generous, and insightful. Here are my perceived highlights of our conversation, grouped broadly by the questions I asked.
Cults are bad. But there has to be something good about them, to draw people in. What drew you in, and what ultimately pushed you out?
This opened up a fascinating seam – Claire’s backstory, her studies into cults and sects since she left St. Charbel, and her own reflections on what was happening in her cult.
She talked about ‘seekers’ – terminology for someone looking for something they felt was missing in their lives – in this case spiritually, in the specific teachings of a given sect or cult. Her mother was a seeker (she’d been a nun and missed the convent), and her first husband was a seeker too (of the white nationalist kind, fearing an Asian Army overtaking Australia). They were both looking for something, and their respective sect/cult fulfilled it.
That was the deal, and what they got out of it. A hole filled in, bringing a certain satisfaction. Claire however wasn’t a seeker. She went along with her family and then with her husband, as many of us would and do every day. We only have one life, I figure, and only see the life around us. That is our normal. We talked a little about this – how wider experiences allow you to make better judgments about the life you’re living – whether it’s good or bad or weird or whatever…
Of course the cult wants to control your experience – maybe the first thing it does is control your information intake by banning TV, discouraging interaction with the outside world, attempting to cut existing family and friendship ties. So the cult leader only allows one frame of reference. There is no way to have the thought – ‘this is weird’ – because it’s not weird. It’s normal, the only normal you know.
Financial and behavioural controls follow. Followers must work constantly and pay a tithe to the leader. They are kept on the bread line, too occupied to brew up discontent. They are constantly tested in faith – with circles within circles all centred on the leader. Naturally, you want to be in the inner ring – in the same way most people want to make more money, rise up the ziggurat of their job, achieve success in myriad ways. We all want to achieve success and put some points on the board. In a cult, those points involve getting in with the leader.
Kamm called his inner circle of adult women the Queens and the girls the Princesses. At this point, even if you don’t know the story of William Kamm, you’re probably thinking what I was thinking, based on all our supsicions about cults as brought to us through TV and movies. He was having sex with them, right?
Right. He called these unions ‘mystical marriages’. Teen girls started getting pregnant. It was all kept very quiet. Claire described how every single person was living in their own tailored liescape, their own bubble of misinformation. In later years, one of her daughters told her how she was made to feel like the family slave, which led her to believe she was adopted. Another of her children described how they were warned never to go near the compund’s fence (ie -near the outsdie world) as strange men might snatch them up. Claire had never known that. Each person was on their own, kept isolated as a means of control.
Kamm had many other means of control. Maybe the cult membership ‘deal’ wouldn’t work if there was only carrot (fulfilment of the seekers’ needs) and control. There had to be a stick, too.
Doomsday, Rapture and the prison of belief
Kamm was a proponent that Y2K would end the world. Everything his cult did was to prepare to survive that day, while also preparing for the possibility that the Rapture might happen at any moment.
You wouldn’t want to get caught short when the Rapture hit, would you? You also wouldn’t want to take a risk – like going off the commune or disconnecting from the cult – and then have your daughter get hit by a car. God can get angry. He could get vengeful.
“You’re free to leave whenever you want,” Claire said Kamm would often say in sermons, and leave it hanging. People would start to think they were really free. Then he’d finish up – “but if your son dies, or your husband breaks his leg, you should know that it’s because you left. It’s your decision.”
So Kamm made a prison of belief. Every negative thing could be explained as a failure of the flock to belief enough. Maybe good things were attributable to their piety and complete submission to him. Once he had control of their frame of reference, with being close to himself the pinnacle of their aspirations, he could do anything.
So it’s brainwashing?
Claire said brainwashing is not a thing, debunked by research. Call it indoctrination instead. Call it countless little manipulations that steer you in a certain direction. All your choices are then influenced by an outside force. You’re unable to act in your own best interests, because the pressure is always there.
This is perhaps what fascinates me most about cults – the way leaders compel their followers to act against their own interests. The ultimate expression of this has to be through mass suicide events, like the Jonestown cult. Drinking the Kool Aid.
Claire brought up many other examples of people in the cult acting deeply against their own interests – so trapped were they in Kamm’s prison of belief, his inner circles, his line in doomsday ‘shit’ and cobbled together religious doctrine.
He had his Queens so dedicated to serving him that they sought out the young teen girls to serve as his Princesses. In this they aided and abetted a pedophile. He was ultimately convicted and served 9 years of a 10-year sentence, largely in solitary confinement. Claire couldn’t believe he hadn’t been killed in prison.
Isn’t that what they do to pedophiles in prison? It’s what we all hear. But not in Kamm’s case. Maybe he used his conman skills to get out of it – to spin a new line of BS that worked for the other convicts.
He clearly was good at it. He had the parents of girls helping him bring their daughters to him. King David had concubines, after all, so Kamm should too – Claire pointed out how he commandeered useful bits of the Bible like this to strengthen his case. He was going to be the next Pope, after all. Everybody knew that in the cult. When the real Pope died, of course the scuttlebutt was that Kamm was being groomed for ascension. The call was coming any day.
He served 9 years in jail for being a pedophile. When he got out, his cult were waiting for him. Not all of them. But plenty, still. Enough to reconstitute and keep on going.
Yes. That was my reaction. Even after the world judged him guilty, people stayed. We talked more about this. Claire said people who join a cult in their teens are more likely to try it for a few years then leave. But if you join a cult in your 30s, you’re committed. You’re not going to leave. You’ve made your bed and you won’t consider new evidence – in essence you’ve had enough of critical thinking and you’re glad to have an authority figure lead you.
It didn’t matter to him that he went to jail. It didn’t matter that the Y2K Doomsday event, baked right into their doctrine, didn’t happen. It didn’t matter that he was inconsistent in multiple ways on his own doctrine – ways that Claire pointed out to him directly, that ended up with him allowing their hom eto be foreclosed on.
Bailiffs came to kick Claire and her 9 children out. By that point, at age 36, she was ready to go. She went, got a new place, and put the cult firmly in her rearview mirror – if such a thing were at all possible.
I asked Claire about the long-lasting effects of being in a cult. The character in my thrillers was in a cult as a child, and I have him suffering pretty extreme PTSD, panic attacks, nightmares, social dislocation, well into his 30s. Was that realistic?
It seems, yes. Claire herself for a long time didn’t know how to do things. It’s the question of experience again – knowing what to wear to a BBQ party, how to do your hair, what to speak about – we all know these things because we’ve done them, we’ve seen them on TV, we’ve absorbed these ‘scripts’ over many years, and we know the unwritten rules of our society.
Claire and her kids didn’t. I can’t imagine how hard that must have been. Counseling followed. Her kids who were older when they came out of the cult had a more tumultuous time of it. Depression. Multiple challenges in adapting. Generally unsettled lives.
I came back around to Kamm. The leader, the Little Pebble. Was he smart? How did he do these things? How did he control so many people?
He was ugly, Claire said. Short, fat, hairy, ugly. ‘An incel?’ I suggested. An involuntary celibate male. It sounded like it. But more than that. A true beta, who wanted more than anything to be up there with the big boys. Respected. Admired.
A narcissist? A psychopath?
Absolutely, Claire said.
Here I depart a bit into my own observation of human nature. Obviously he was more than ‘just’ an incel, because of the pedophilia. The fact is, most incels and most pedophiles won’t go to the enormous lengths that Kamm did. Incels bitch on the Internet. I expect pedophiles lurk and skulk in large part.
Few act on this scale. Few will go to such lengths to serve the dark whims of their fancy. Kamm did, and used every trick at his disposal to achieve it.
But how? How did he get from nothing to so far along a strange, horrible path, and with such success?
I haven’t interviewed Kamm. I put the thoughts that occured to me to Claire. In many ways, Kamm seems like any other pedophile priest operating within the Catholic religion – of which there must be thousands. Also like Jimmy Saville – the British entertainer who had carte blanche to go into childrens’ hospitals, because he was famous, and do just as he willed.
The authority of fame goes a long way. The authority of the cloth probably goes further. Most pedophile priests don’t invent their own religion, but they use and abuse the power it affords them constantly.
I imagine Kamm saw that. Perhaps he experienced it as a child himself. I personally have never experienced the power of that world. I wasn’t raised in any real faith, certainly not an extreme one or one that I believed. Kamm probably was, and he saw that power, and he wanted it for himself. He figured out a niche in the faith market, where certain people weren’t getting served, and he served up what they wanted to hear.
Probably his ideology was basic at first. I’m sure he refined it – extending the con, building in more bullshit, scouring the Bible for things to spin. When his schtick got challenged, he found ways to overawe, double down, explicate. He explained the failure of his doomsday predictions, after all. People stayed. He learned on the job and got better at it.
His needs grew as they were increasingly served. His ambitions grew too. 12 Queens, now. 72 Princesses. Many impregnated via ‘mystical marriages’. And why not? There was nobody there to stop him. Once he’d stepped off the moral map, what did he care for normal morality? He was the voice of God in the minds of his cult. He dictated good and evil. When God does it, it isn’t a sin.
And people believed, and they stayed. Even after prison, after it all came out. They believed so much, and had invested so much of themselves in Kamm, that they couldn’t leave, not without tearing themselves apart. So they stayed. They doubled down too.
That’s a dark, depressing place to leave it. It’s not how my conversation with Claire ended though. She obviously left the cult. She got her kids out. She is a victor, not a victim, and now she speaks out against Kamm and cults in general. That must take enormous bravery.
In closing I brought up one of the key questions for my thrillers – how could a vigilante, acting outside of normal legal restraints and morality, truly break a cult? That’s what my hero does, in his fictional world. How might it happen?
Claire said there would be no way to do it through persuasion. If such a person came in to the cult and started talking up dissent, they’d be considered the crazy one. They’d have no standing in that place. So I suggested more extreme. It’s fiction, it’s a novel after all.
How many people in a cult would you have to ‘take out’, either kill or put into prison, to actually kill the cult? Not just put it on pause, but kill it stone dead?
Not just the leader, Claire said. Kamm had a second-in-command who was blindly devoted to him and everything he taught. Followers would stay and await his return all their lives. He’d done such a good job on them.
So all the leadership, maybe? All the inner circle?
Some followers would leave, but the hard-core would remain. They’d form a new inner circle. A new leader would rise up. And Claire pointed out that those leaders already exist. Kamm’s organization is multinational. There are pockets of St. Charbel around the world. Kamm would tour them, picking out the young girls who were most appealing to him to be brought to Australia. That really happened.
So how would you cut off the heads of all those parts of the organization? How would you deal with all the wrong thinking trapped in so many peoples’ heads?
It’s the question my hero answers in the books, and that he will have to answer going forward. It opens the question out to one of extremism in general. We see so much extremism these days. Maybe it was always there, but the Internet brings it to the surface like scum in a broth. People radicalize themselves, and the deprogramming can take a lifetime. My hat is off to the people doing that hard work – helping others escape from prisons of belief.
I’d like to thank Claire again for giving her time for this conversation with me. I learned a great deal, and it gave me lots to think about and ponder going forward. If you found this interesting too, please consider picking up her book ‘Lessons From a Cult Survivor’ – what I’ve read so far of it is raw and real and fascinating.