The Exclusive Brethren is a cult operating in plain sight. For members who escape, leaving their whole life and often family members behind, are mental health and counselling services equipped to deal with such survivors?
Jill Aebi-Mytton was born into the Exclusive Brethren (EB) cult just like her parents and some of her grandparents. As a child, living in the world but not part of it, she didn’t know her life was different. Instead, like those around her, she strove for a sense of belonging and acceptance by the EB.
Unlike today, where there are EB schools, Aebi-Mytton attended mainstream schools. It was only then she began to realise she was being brought-up differently to the other pupils. She felt like an alien, as an ‘other’ and very alone.
“On one occasion, the whole of the upper school went to see the film Scott of the Antarctic,” Aebi-Mytton said. “But I wasn’t allowed to go by the EB so had to stay at school with the only other Brethren girl.”
At home, her parents were considered as good members. Along with others, Aebi-Mytton had a weekly routine of endless, suffocating meetings, and only being able to read the Bible and other carefully selected books.
Men in the EB were allowed to work but for women, they had to be subservient to their husbands and their only ‘job’ was to bring up and serve the family. This was reflected in her own parents’ roles with her father being a preacher, but her mother left to make sandwiches and cakes for the many meetings EB members had to attend each week.
Aebi-Mytton wasn’t under the impression her parents were unhappy with EB life. Yet, when she was 16, her parents made the decision to escape the clutches of the cult, concerned with some of the new teachings, taking with them three of their four children, which included Aebi-Mytton. Her brother John, the eldest, remained in the EB and she has had no contact with him until 2008, and after that time, only limited contact.
So, who are the Exclusive Brethren? It all began in 1828 when a small group of young men met in their lodgings for The Lords Supper. That was the beginning of a movement that broke away from established churches looking for a simpler form of Christianity, which some decades later was led by John Nelson Darby as it began to spread rapidly across the world.
Now, the movement has become one of the world’s most exclusive fundamentalist sects with an approximate membership of 50,000 members in 19 countries worldwide.
The EB are non-sectarian, believing that God doesn’t want divisions in Christianity and the body of Christ should be one. Rather surprisingly then the EB have a hierarchy of officials in each locality, where members can spy on and report other members. These officials all relate to a ‘universal leader’. This punitive system is a long way from the more hopeful ideas of a simpler form of Christianity.
In line with this non-sectarian stance, they didn’t use any corporate name other than referring to themselves as Saints or the Brethren. Early schisms within the Brethren go against this stance. In 2003, they registered the domain theexclusivebrethren.com – finally giving thelves a name. Later, in negotiations with the Charity Commission they rebranded themselves as the Plymouth Brethren Christian Church with a website to match this name. This has created confusion as there was already a Plymouth Brethren Group. This term is usually reserved for the much less strict group Open Brethren, who are not associated with the harm and suffering EB members undergo.
Once she was away from the cult, Aebi-Mytton felt she was in free-fall. Having grown up in a cult that deliberately restricted knowledge about the outside world she and her parents were confronted with having to make their way in a society completely alien to them. This was particularly so as Aebi-Mytton and her parents had been born into the cult so knew no other life than that.
After a long process, she began to discover a network of ex-members, who themselves have become a support to each other. This has become necessary since like any cult the EB are all about control. With thousands worldwide leaving the EB, it has become harder to control them, so instead they have sought to silence ex-members, like Aebi-Mytton, through litigation and other forms of threats. This not only has a chilling impact on free speech but serves as a warning to those still within the EB of treatment they should expect if they ever decided to escape.
In order to come to terms with this, and her time within the Brethren, Aebi-Mytton knew she needed therapy, but finding someone who understood cults and what damage living in a cult can do, with this reverberating through generations, was easier said than done.
“The first therapist I approached had no knowledge of what being born into a cult can do to an individual, let alone knowledge of who the EB were,” said Aebi-Mytton. She didn’t return to this therapist, nor the next one she visited or the next one.
It took some time before she found someone with the necessary knowledge and experience. This therapist had herself once belonged to a cultic group so had the insight Aebi-Mytton required. She helped Aebi-Mytton put together the fragmented story of her life - an understanding of what she had been through.
This enabled Aebi-Mytton to revaluate her childhood: “Looking back, in hindsight It was abusive. I wasn’t encouraged to think or ask questions. I was alone which did nothing for my social development. I still don’t know how to have friends or even what that word means. I watched other children having fun, chattering away and doing normal activities like going to the cinema, which I wasn’t allowed to join in. They didn’t have to attend church meetings three times on a Sunday and sometimes twice on a Saturday as well. My life was in too many ways different.”
Due to her personal experiences of being in EB, suffering from the harm they caused when she was within the group and out of it, and her understanding of the high level of distress linked with the EB, she decided to be a counselling psychologist. She also wanted to further examine, academically, the psychological impact caused by cultic groups like the EB. She took a MSc where she specifically looked at why so much emotional and psychological damage is linked with those who once belonged to EB.
Her patchy experience with counsellors and other mental health professionals encouraged her to take a research doctorate: “One of the goals of my thesis ‘A Narrative Exploration of the Lived Experience of being Born, Raised, and Leaving a Cultic Group: The Case of the Exclusive Brethren’ was to educate the educators.
“Being in a cult can do so much damage, psychologically. With therapy possibly some of that can be undone but it takes years. Social, moral, cognitive, emotional, intellectual development are all impacted. But that phrase ‘with therapy’ belies the fact so little is available on the NHS. Many cannot afford to pay privately and even then; they cannot be sure they get the help they need as so few therapists understand about cultic groups and processes.”
This is something Aebi-Mytton feels strongly about as she says that mental health teams are not geared up for those who have left cultic groups: “There isn’t much knowledge,” she said. “Some former members have told me they are not believed when they tell their stories and most therapists have had no training and have not looked at the cultic studies research themselves.
“We are working to try and build up a list of therapists with the right knowledge and experience. They need to be educated about how cultic groups work. How they enforce control and what being under control feels like. They need to understand the vast difference between those born into cults and those who join later. They also need to know what therapy works best and get some experience working with such groups of people.”
What is even harder is how we as a society can support those who want to leave a cultic group. They may need legal assistance for loss of employment and assets as well as lost contact with children or other family members. Education might be required as the EB, for example, don’t allow members to go to college or university. This is why at EB schools, none of the teachers are members. For those born into a cult, life skills training will be required as they won’t know how to operate such things like a TV remote control or know how to open a bank account.
Above all, they may need long term therapy to overcome the trauma of being in the cult and the leaving process. Aebi-Mytton found in her research that many former members experience psychological problems such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, depression and anxiety.
When Aebi-Mytton thinks back to the young girl who desperately wanted to be accepted by the EB, she can see how far she has come. It has been a journey that, at times, has been treacherous and frightening, where she has been in the dark, trying to feel her way to get the right kind of support. She now asks mental health and therapeutic services to catch -up in order that they are ready to care for those leaving cultic groups like the Exclusive Brethren, so that individuals no longer have to endure what Aebi-Mytton and many other leavers went through in order to thrive and go forward in her life.
Ruth F Hunt is an author and a freelance journalist