A Gloriavale reunion years on: ‘She looked lifeless’

A Gloriavale reunion years on: ‘She looked lifeless’

| Stuff | Amberleigh Jack |

RECAP: Fair warning, watch the final episode of Escaping Utopia when you can afford to spend the rest of the day emotionally wrecked.

It’s in part three that a sojourn to India reveals Kiwi Gloriavale members “trapped” in the Indian chapter. They’re forgotten by the outside world and living in a foreign country with sub-par facilities, no access to passports, and the children – in some cases – without birth certificates.

Escaping Utopia– a three-part documentary screening on TVNZ – explores the live within, and the escapes from – the South Island Christian community of Gloriavale. It’s a heartbreaking, fury-inducing insight into years of manipulation, control and abuse behind the walls of the community.

“Women are men’s object for sex,” a voice over commentary kicks off pre-opening credits.

That off-camera woman recalls an ultimatum at 18: To sign a commitment and get married, or leave. She refused. Her mum told her, “you’re going to hell”.

 “Once I’d left I never was going to see my family again.”

Watching Escaping Utopia is an emotionally tough task, but should be seen by every New Zealander.

The viewer again meets Theophila, a former member who recalls her escape to Auckland and having to figure out the real world.

Or, as she said: “I know how to make cheese, but I don’t know who Taylor Swift is.”

There’s also a moment of joy when reintroduced to Boaz – a current member during the first two episodes. Now, he’s made it out of Gloriavale with his family. But that celebration is not without emotion.

Gloriavale, after all, is all he’s known.

He admits he and his wife are, “really scared”.

It’s revealed he’s the son of Joanthan Benjamin who – in 2023 – was found guilty of historical sexual abuse.

Boaz – now – is adamant, “I don’t want those sort of things happening to my kids.”

The “high” of Boaz getting out is short-lived, however, when the documentary takes a disturbing sojourn to the Indian Gloriavale chapter – set up years earlier.

Theo’s sister, Precious, volunteered to be married off and sent to India. Theo guesses it was largely to escape a traumatic upbringing. They’ve not seen each other, and have barely spoken, since.

Shortly after a phone call – a short, stilted and awkward conversation with someone that sounds more like a stranger than family – Theo, together with Rosanna, travel to Southern India to the commune to see her sister and nieces and nephews.

To watch the reunion is nothing short of disturbing. Nervous laughter replaces real emotion. Even without knowing Precious in a previous life, it feels clear she’s nothing more than a shell, now.

“She looked lifeless. Like she was just surviving,” Theo echoes.

Terrifyingly, the leader of the Indian branch is heard questioning the definition of rape – admitting that Indian men are “very forceful” around women.

As for the possibility of escape?

Not all of Precious’ children have birth certificates. There’s no access to passports. They are, it appears, trapped.

Back in New Zealand, Boaz – six months out of Gloriavale – is shown footage of journalist Melanie Reid’s 60 Minutes segments, where both his grandfather and Aunt speak out about the sexual abuse happening decades earlier.

He’s in tears. Angry, frustrated, and most likely echoing the reaction of everyone watching.

“I honestly can’t believe how they can call themselves Christians,” he says.

Still, as disturbing a watch Escaping Utopia is, the overarching theme feels one of hope.

And bravery. And a sense of duty we should all feel to keep our children and women safe.

Or, as Boaz says: “You’ve got to go down fighting. You can’t just give up.”

And that’s what they’re doing. Theo meets with human rights lawyers – determined her sister won’t “be forgotten”.

The women who fought for the right to be recognised as employees are once again celebrated and Pilgrim – the son of former leader, Hopeful Christian – shows an empowered bravery.

Righting the wrongs may not be possible, but he’s determined to be genuine and kind and honest.

And for Sharon, who we met in part two – shunned from the community for speaking out: “The day will come when people will be able to make their own decisions …”

“That day will come.”