Searching for Elsewhere: Born into a cult. How to survive?

Jul 23, 2023
Open Books

Graeme Johanson’s Searching for Elsewhere (Ginninderra Press, 2023) provides a compelling answer. His memoire, a gripping story from beginning to end, deals with the dangerous manipulation of young lives brought up in an extremely controlling sect with bizarre rules, destroyed families and strict separation from the World.

The way out is painful. Graeme’s powerful story tallies with many studies of the Exclusive Brethren. He writes with no bitterness but is forensic in his analysis of his childhood and powerfully delicate in accounting for his escape.

This story begins with two boys using their younger brother Graeme’s ankles as target practice for their air rifles. This episode sets the scene for the conflictual and destructive life of an eccentric family in a fanatical cult. It is a classic mémoire of escape.

The Plymouth/Exclusive Brethren believe that its members only are chosen for heaven. Life on earth is a struggle against sin and the World, to be endured not enjoyed. They have arcane rules to keep the faithful in line and are vindictive in punishing the least dissent. They shun deviants from within by separating families in a totalitarian environment. Graeme’s youthful mind was filled with all the Evils. Eating with strangers was Evil, as was keeping pets, indoor plants, fax machines and girls wearing slacks. He was isolated physically and socially from “the World”, at school and elsewhere. No sport, no movies, no TV, no radio, no concerts, no Easter, no Christmas, no non-Brethren friends, no prospect of a fulfilling life, no university. More recently, the Exclusive Brethren have established a school system to avoid contamination, a system which abhors the normal academic trajectory. in one school, highly intelligent girls studying personal development knew that achieving excellence was useless: they would be married soon and become mothers: university is not an option.

This cult is dangerous. Graeme powerfully describes the mental anguish, family tragedy, hypocrisy, suicidal and occasionally murderous outcomes of the social torture inflicted upon children. From his birth in 1946 to his escape in 1968, Graeme endured “unwarranted physical, emotional and mental brutality beyond my control.” The Brethren “were quietly obsessive, as much as my brothers with the air rifle, never allowing their religious zealotry to falter…”

The Brethren cultivated ignorance, including a rejection of science so that God’s healing through Homeopathy became popular. After a nightmare, Graeme’s father gave him belladonna pills with a jellybean to counter the bitter taste. His mother used Bates’ Salve infused with lead oxide for skin wounds. A Brethren Sister poisoned her husband by cooking him daffodil bulbs instead of onions. One “backsliding” related family shocked the Johansons because the father listened to the cricket and the mother used lipstick.

In the midst of this peculiar upbringing, Graeme imagines looking up from the bottom of the sea to the surface, avoiding the “top-down disorder” of the sharks above. One shark was an aunt, his mother’s sister who lived in the Johanson home and whose presence incensed his father. These two despised each other and never reconciled. Aunt Bett eventually went to jail for embezzlement within the company she worked for, a story which Graeme tells with a beguiling sense of dismay and fascination. She kept a revolver in her office desk. Graeme described Aunt Bett’s criminality as “a childlike response to wildly improbable religious demands, a deliberate subversion of the atrophied theology of Exclusive Brethren.” She became a criminal. Graeme suffered from the same toxicity but navigated a healthier subversion.

There were tragedies: a daughter and her son conceived out of wedlock. Her father rejected both but was excommunicated for a rude remark about the Elect Vessel, the leader of the sect. His wife remained in the cult but banned her husband from the house. She delivered meals to the backyard caravan every day until he died.

Home life was predictably eccentric, but Graeme’s dawning mindfulness survived a toxic mentality while constantly aware of rule breaking and the difference between familiar strictures and the beckoning but barricaded outside World.

The Johanson family slowly broke apart. Graeme’s brother, Peter was abused by a pedophile in the Brethren community, but embarrassment buried the crime: “Like a meteorite, it departed as fast as it came.” No thought for the victim. The perpetrator was moved on. Sex was unmentionable. Graeme’s sister, Bettina was generally compliant but troubled the community when she wanted to trim the split ends of her hair.

One Brethren man took the bible literally: he pulled one of his eyes out of its socket in response to Mark 9:47: “If thine eye offend the, pluck it out.” Eccentricity created extreme reaction. One woman hanged herself after the Exclusive Brethren took her daughters from her. A Brethren cattle dealer in England murdered his wife and three daughters following his excommunication. Another, Aleister Crowley (1875-1947) read the Bible only but took a liking for God’s enemies such as the Beast and the Scarlet woman. He attended a Brethren boarding school where he was sexually abused. His subversive eccentricity was to invent a new religion, use heroin and produce pro-German propaganda in WW1. He died alone. Even more egregious was the Brethren Acid Bath Murderer in the UK who endured childhood nightmares. He shot 6 people and dissolved their bodies.

Searching for Elsewhere is a powerful and heartfelt journey through repression to maturity. Graeme’s path to adulthood is at its heart: a study of eccentricity, both that of the Brethren and of Graeme who used the concept to subvert the damage and create a sense of self. He reflects on the contradiction between the eccentric nature of Brethren communities and the overwhelming demand for conformity to the weirdness. At School he was deliberately naughty, but an empathetic teacher dealt with him wisely: instead of corporal punishment he caused Graeme to reflect by writing about his misdemeanour. The teacher was calm and reasoned, values not associated with his Brethren context.

For Graeme, a different eccentricity enabled him to assert his individuality as a highly intelligent thinker leading to an academic career. The key was education thus releasing him from Brethren anti-intellectualism. He gradually unravelled the crazy practices of the cult passing through mental breakdown to his eventual escape into personal freedom and flourishing based on research and learning, cultural awakening and personal courage. He read the Bible with a critical eye, discovering errors, omissions, ambiguities, metaphors, symbols and allusions. He determined that the Bible was re-edited over time: it was not a fixed text.

Graeme’s liberation was difficult: “Exclusive Brethren had no taste for education, nor any professed aim to extend themselves. We were ‘born into iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.’ (Psalm 51:5) and we stayed that way until we reached heaven for our transformation.” His Elsewhere embraced “iniquity”: books, movies and theatre. His transformation was prompted by David, the eldest brother, who led discussion around freedom, pacificism, tax, death and suicide. His family was expelled in 1962 because David went to Oxford University.

As cultural awareness dawned, Graeme became conflicted. His departure was triggered by a mental breakdown and his discernment of cultish iniquity: the evil doctrine of Separation. He travelled to experience different cultures. Resolution was painful and depression resulted in a course of ECT. But he was not insane, just mentally conflicted.

His way out embraced defiance followed by self-development through meeting four needs, none of them part of Brethren thinking: physicality, emotionality, creativity (aesthetic) and intellectuality, but the break was costly. He has some nostalgia for the “simple (if controlled) childish lifestyle that I enjoyed at home.” But his current life is far more attractive than what he was born into. He was aware of the consequences of mind control: a Canadian “Brother” Roy Daniels did not complete his escape: he was haunted by catastrophe, the Last Judgment and fears he may fall into an abyss.

Graeme no longer harbours such fears. Where is Elsewhere? It is in “the accumulation of selected experiences that enabled me to function with loving companionship, happiness in mind and body, and resolve to stay beyond the bounds of dogma.” He replaced control and autocracy with “reading, openness, curiosity, adventure …supportive communities, loyal friends and the desire to know…”

Like Barak Obama, who wrote “If you’re lucky, life provided you with a good long arc,” Graeme has been lucky: a fortune based on courage and the desire for intellectual freedom. He followed the path less travelled and it made all the difference.

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