A courageous man who broke free from a “hipster Christian cult” has used his experience to become one of the UK’s only ‘exit counsellors’ – working with families of victims and fellow survivors.
Lured into the cult in 2013, Richard Turner, 38, who is autistic, which can make it difficult to interact with people, says he was “love-bombed” by its controlling leaders, who took advantage of his low self-esteem by “buttering him up” and showering him with praise.
Ironically, his rigid sense of justice, which he also attributes to his autism, then helped him to escape their clutches and reclaim his life.
Richard, of York, said: “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.
“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 the University of Salford in Greater Manchester – the only such course in the country.
And he has made it his mission to help others whose lives have been decimated 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.”
Back in 2013, Richard first came across the cult he was drawn into when he was looking for a job working with the victims of human trafficking and what he thought was a “hipster church” working in this field turned out to be a 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.
Personality change - they may begin to behave differently and lose their 'spark'.
Devoting time - they give excessive time to the group at the expense of old friendships.
Losing interest - hobbies and activities they used to love no longer interest them.
One size fits all - they see the group/leadership/ideology as the only answer to life's problems.
Financial commitment - they have given away large sums of money to the group, or bought expensive courses or resources offered by the group.
“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.”
And while his first church event gave him a gut feeling that all was not well, he was sucked in 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 started interfering with his relationship with a fellow member, when he stopped being brainwashed and started questioning the way things were run.
He had invited the woman for coffee after meeting her at an event in a different town – although their ‘courtship’ was heavily policed by cult leaders. Without his knowledge, they had assigned him an ‘accountability partner’ – who checked that the couple were not breaking the strict ‘no sex or kissing before marriage’ rules.
Richard said: “This man started laying down the law for the relationship.
“I was 32 and she was 29, but we were not allowed to stay in the same building, yet alone the same room.
They seem to want to be friends with you immediately.
They offer a definitive answer to all life's problems.
They ask for money or for you to enrol on expensive courses.
Members you speak to struggle to spot weaknesses in the group.
They are often preoccupied with bringing in new members.
They may talk about the leader as if they are a prophet or a divine figure.
They discuss those who have left the group in negative terms.
Everything seems 'too good to be true'.
“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 overnighted.
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 manager, 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.”
It was now 2016 and Richard’s mental health started to spiral downhill, as other members of 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 were causing the situation,” he said.
Rather than quitting, desperate to claw back the love and respect he had felt when he first joined, Richard started devoting himself even more to the cult -donating more money and moving into shared accommodation with other members to demonstrate his commitment.
He said: “Despite all this, I was being isolated.”
He continued: “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.”
Eventually, later that year Richard had an emotional breakdown, left his job on sick leave and moved back in with his parents Phil, 67, a hospital chaplain and Ruth 65, in Widnes, Cheshire – 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.
And, as he began to heal, he also realised he had been the victim of a controlling cult.
When he later he saw a report on TV into the coercive methods of the group he had been involved with and 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.”
But, not only does Richard now counsel individuals who have manged to leave cults, but he has also started to field requests from 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'”
Richard says this approach could push the victim further into the clutches of the group. The best way 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 you 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