Impacts on Early Members

Author: Liz Gregory

I want to spend this post reflecting on some more recent experiences with a family who was involved in the very early days. It’s their stories of separation, pain & abuse that have touched my heart. I hurts to see how decades later people are still weeping over things they experienced and things that have scarred them.

I’m not going to talk about specific experiences, so much as the generalities, because they apply to many different families who have been involved with the community.

To hear the impact on people’s lives of their early involvement with the Copperites is moving. We must not be dismissive of people’s lived experiences. We must not fall in the trap of the well-worn Gloriavale line’ “they’re just bitter”. The people we have met over the years are rarely bitter or vengeful. They are people who have been hurt and wounded, and who haven’t always had an opportunity to process it. They are people with stories and experiences that made us cry. And we hope that the opportunity to talk about he past, will bring some healing balm for the future.

Different Memories

I was struck by how the memories from different families can be different.

For people who were very transient, it appears the stability of Springbank, and the communal aspect of life was appealing. These people look back on Springbank as a place which enabled them to make great memories and friends and to live in one place and be stable. There was a sense of belonging. … but you did have to follow the rules. The benefits were conditional on you being a compliant person.

For others, the early Rangiora/Springbank days marked the beginning of a life where their family was splintered and separated and in many ways never came back together again. Young girls were sent out to other married couple’s homes to babysit and do chores. 12-year olds might be gone for weeks living in someone else’s home and care. The children and teens were always out building or working for the community, and rarely spent time at home as a family. There was bullying, humiliation, neglect, abuse, violence and more. And then the teenagers started leaving one-by-one. If someone in the family married, it locked the family down to staying. It was always harder to leave after marriage and children. Families were torn apart, and there has been a lot of pain.

How can these two different experiences come from the same small group? Perhaps we need to accept that both are true. There were both good times for some people and bad for others. There was possibly a good vision, but bad practice. There was stability for some, but instability for others.

What’s happening when people go to the outer extremes of memories (it was all good, or it was all bad)? (This applies to people who are still living in there too)

We must not forget the selective memory of children too, who may have blocked out various amount of trauma. We also certainly can’t rule out self-protection mechanisms people use to cover their own sins and crimes that they don’t want uncovered. There is the personality of the person involved to consider – some people are very trusting and they just don’t want to believe that anyone would willingly treat people poorly. There are also the people who have been trained to believe that this was the Christian life as outlined in the Scriptures and that the world is much more wicked. Then there are those who know things were wrong and harm was occurring, but it was easier to look the other way, because they didn’t have a voice. Then there are the willingly blind who can’t accept the full reality of the situation because the implications of that are far too great. For some it’s pride. For others it’s that they have spent 40 years building the place, and to make an admission that things were not good right back at the start, then turns the spotlight on them. What did they do with what they knew? These can all be common thoughts by people still inside unhealthy groups, and those who have left.

It’s complex.

Guilt and Shame

Something that strikes me with the people who left decades ago is that they still carry deep wells of guilt and shame.

Some feel guilty for leaving behind their vulnerable siblings behind. Parents feel guilty for the harm that came to their kids. Those who stayed felt abandoned by family. Some hold grudges against family for things they did and the decisions they made. Some can’t understand why their family didn’t make other choices when there was danger or harm.

But we want to remind people that when you are in the clutches of a cult, you find yourself in survival mode. Everyone has a response which seems natural to them and it’s the one they think will protect them the most. It might be freezing when a threat comes near, or it might be a flying fist.

Survivors have told us that it’s unhelpful when someone asks them why they didn’t respond in a certain way. That just adds more guilt and blame onto their plate. An abuse victim already carries immense shame and when someone asks them, “Why didn’t you cry out?” it reinforces somehow that their natural responses were not good enough; that they somehow failed to save themselves; that somehow it was all their fault after all. This is a very destructive thinking pattern that can alter a person’s progress in life.

All I know from working with many survivors of Gloriavale, is that they don’t need to carry the shame and the guilt associated with living in and leaving such a group. You don’t need to justify your decision to leave the group to anyone else. There were hundreds of good and valid reasons to leave the group. It was good to leave this group. You stopped a cycle for your little sphere of the world, and that was a good thing.

There is power in coming together, to hear each other’s pain and perspectives. You need to realise that you were young and trapped and vulnerable and exploited. You need to remember that more powerful people were in control of your lives and you were too young or too weak or broken to save your family. You need to realise that there is never a perfect ending to these stories, because they always involve trauma and relationship breakdowns. But there can be a road to healing and understanding.

As a Christian, a key is understanding the role of Christ in helping us move towards forgiveness, but this doesn’t mean you don’t want justice. The two are not exclusive. The difficulty is making sure legitimate anger and upset doesn’t turn into a hateful vengeance.

I have seen little vengeful behaviour with Gloriavale Leavers. I have been amazed at their grace towards perpetrators. I have been amazed at their willingness to give others a chance to change. This gives me hope for the future. Listening in love and trying to understand other people’s experiences with an honest heart is so healing.

But there is also a time for reality.

Where some people might want to pursue the dream of restoring the great and glorious Gloriavale, there are others who truly believe in their heart of hearts that Springbank/Gloriavale has left such a trail of destruction, that they would see it as an answer to prayer and a relief if the people were liberated and it ceased to exist. They don’t want to see another generation impacted in the way they have been.

Who are we to be critical of these viewpoints?


(The personal thoughts expressed in this blog post are those of Liz Gregory, Manager of the Gloriavale Leavers’ Support Trust. Not all thoughts and ideas will be representative of all members of the Trust, staff or all ex-members.)