The smell of Dettol can trigger a traumatic memory. It was kept beside every adult’s bedside in the cult communes that Natacha Tormey grew up in – the cult’s members practised "sharing" their partners with others, and believed that disinfecting themselves afterwards would prevent sexually transmitted disease.
Natacha still has a bag she calls her survival kit, comprising a compass, first aid box and a torch, which she carried everywhere for several years after her escape, convinced that Armageddon, or "End Time" would come and she would need it to hide from the devil.
She believed she was part of an elite childrens’ army that would one day save the world from the Antichrist, when glorious martyrs such as herself would have a golden palace on top of heaven. She would have a "superpower" that would enable her to shoot thunderbolts from her eyes to strike her enemies dead.
Natacha’s French hippy parents Marcel and Genevieve were recruited into The Children of God during the 1970s as teenagers in Paris. Renamed Moonlight and Star, they survived by busking and begging, but the cult only allowed them to keep 10 per cent of what they earned. Three sons Matt, Marc and Joe came before Natacha was born in 1983, the year they were sent to a commune in Thailand.
"We were all very thin," recalls Natacha. "If someone was ill, it was because the parents had ‘sinned’ – everything was designed to instil guilt and fear. Adults were 'uncles' or 'aunties' who could discipline any child. Watched all the time, we learned to arrange our faces into masks of unquestioning submission."
Beatings were regular and severe. One afternoon, during enforced "naptime" four-year-old Natacha was beaten by Uncle Ezekiel, who was in bed in the same room with Aunty Joy. As punishment for fidgeting, he hit her hard with a fly swat. That night, Natacha dreamed of shooting him down with a thunderbolt as he begged for mercy.
The late David Berg, the son of an evangelical preacher from California, founded the Children of God cult in the late 1960s, exploiting the hippy anti-establishment, free-love culture. He ordered his "disciples" to send him videos of their orgies, insisting that Jesus liked sex and that they shouldn’t be ashamed of liking it. He encouraged adults to have sex with children over 12, but it happened to those far younger.
Women were sent out "flirty fishing" to lure in new members. "They were treated like pieces of meat," says Natacha. “My mother complained when my young brother Vincent was viciously beaten. Heavily pregnant, they sent her to Siberia, to freezing cold Chelyabinsk. Dad tried to stop it, but Mum feared further reprisals. Families were torn apart."
Members of the cult included the parents of River and Joaquin Phoenix, and those of the Hollywood actress Rose McGowan. Fleetwood Mac guitarist Jeremy Spencer was recruited after meeting devotees in the audience at one of their concerts.
All over Europe and the USA, idealistic young hippies were being recruited in the belief that the cult represented love, freedom and peace. If only, says Natacha, they could have known that every single aspect of their and their childrens’ lives would be controlled.
Women were totally submissive, and not allowed to take the Pill. Like Natacha’s mother, who had 12 children, many were exhausted by childbirth by the age of 30, and others from having to "share" with other womens’ husbands.
Natacha was four when she was sexually abused by a man she calls Clay in her book. He began touching her in the shower and then started creeping into her bed during "naptime". Natacha became ill with a fever and was put into isolation in a converted shed. Her heart sank when Clay was asked to look after her.
In her book, she writes: "I believe my mind is unable to deal with the horror and has blocked out some of the worst of what happened. I couldn’t say whether Clay had full sex with me. It is a dark place I do not want to return to. But the sensory images are always with me, playing out in nightmarish flashbacks: his unwashed skin, hairy armpits and sweat dripping on my face as he leaned over me, the smell of Dettol, his fingernails grabbing at my skin and his thick Filipino accent as he gave thanks to the Lord for delivering me to him."
Shortly afterwards, there was an "investigation" into child sexual abuse. Natacha instinctively knew that the "right" answer was no, she had never been touched in a "bad way".
A girl who spoke out was made to stand alone for weeks with a sign around her neck saying, "I am on silence restriction for telling lies. Do not speak to me". It was many years later before Natacha told her parents about the abuse.
When Natacha was 12 they were sent to France, where life improved dramatically. "The French wouldn’t tolerate communes, so we lived in a normal house. We played outside for the first time in our lives."
Berg had died and the cult was falling apart. When Natacha was almost 15, the family were moved to Réunion island near Madagascar, where Natasha’s brothers Marc and Matt, disillusioned, announced that they wanted to leave. Marc left when Natacha was 17, but outsiders found him too intense. Miserable, he sought solace in alcohol and drugs with other former members.
Natacha decided to leave when she was 18. The night she left, Natacha got the devastating news that Marc had been killed in a car accident. Grieving, racked with guilt and anxiety, Natacha, with no money, moved in with an an older man she met called Thomas, whom she calls "my ticket out".
She recalls: "I was fearful of the outside world, and I felt out of place, a weirdo. I didn’t know what a CV was, how to open a bank account."
The couple moved to the South of France, where Natacha met a woman who became her mentor. She recalls, "I’d been around all these dull, subservient women. Manon was glamorous and amazing. Slowly I learned that it was OK to say no."
Natacha left Thomas and came to the UK to live with former cult members in Harrow, Middlesex. She met another man who treated her badly. Natacha says: "With Manon’s words ringing in my ears, in front of all his friends, I said, 'How dare you treat me like this? I am a human being' – words I wished I’d been able to say as a child."
Natasha became depressed and began drinking heavily, once contemplating suicide. "I went to Réunion to be with my family. Everything had relaxed and children were no longer beaten. But I was very angry. I couldn’t see my parents were victims."
Natacha returned to the UK and in 2008 met her husband Kevin, and talked her way into an admin job in human resources. "Kevin said I was the bravest person he’d ever met. I slowly began to believe that I must be strong and resilient to have survived. I discovered who I am, that I have a sense of humour."
Natacha and Kevin married in 2011 and live in Buckinghamshire. She is in contact with all her siblings. Her parents live in France, surviving on benefits and seasonal work.
"The cult exploited their youthful idealism," Natacha says, "robbed them of their happiness and freedom and spat them out in middle age. Cults needs to be on the curriculum so young people are aware of the dangers. Second generation cult members, the innocents, had no control over their fate. My book is for us. It’s time we had our say."
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All names have been changed except for Natacha Tormey’s
‘Born Into The Children of God’ by Natacha Tormey (Harper Collins £7.99)Reuse content