What is it like to escape a cult?
Ahead of her talk at Shoreditch House in London, we chatted to writer and director Bexy Cameron about her memoirs, ‘Cult Following’, which are set for a TV adaptation
Wednesday 10 August 2022 By Anastasiia Fedorova
Bexy Cameron did not choose to join a cult – she was born into one. The writer and director grew up within the Children of God group in various parts of the UK in the 1980s and 1990s. The Children of God was founded in California in 1968 by the self-proclaimed prophet David Berg, but remains prominent across the world. Cameron experienced its notoriously abusive environment for herself: growing up in a world of physical and psychological punishments and strict Biblical teachings. Cameron and her siblings and peers had no access to television or newspapers and never went to school – when she escaped at 15, she had to learn how to navigate an entirely new world.
Cult Following, My Escape And Return To The Children Of God, published in 2021, is Cameron’s reckoning with haunting childhood memories, alongside her experiences of travelling around the US to study the dark underbelly of religious cults. During the journey that spanned several years, Cameron joined 10 cults to understand the motivation of people within them – and what it says about our broader society. Cult Following is a fascinating study of faith, power and self-determination – it’s a book on choices made for you and choices that you make yourself.
Cameron is currently working on Cult Following, the TV adaptation – ahead of her talk at Shoreditch House in London this Wednesday, we sat down to discuss her creative process.
What comes to mind when you think back to your childhood at the Children of God? How would you sum it up for someone who doesn’t know what it’s like?
‘It’s like occupying the same physical space of the world, but being in an entirely different one – their own rules, their own music, their own folklore. Things in the “real world” happen, but they do not penetrate the world you’re in. For example, I found out who Take That were years after they broke up and I didn’t know about the Spice Girls, but also massive world moments that took place in my childhood I’m finding out about now. Cults are their own ecosystem, microclimate, separate world.’
How did you manage to escape a cult at such a young age and what was your life like just after? What kept you going after you just left?
‘I became secret friends with a boy in a village who helped me plan my escape. What kept me going when I left was the need to survive; I felt like I’d been given life and I wanted to live it.’
How did you find your way to creative expression and writing, especially growing up in such a restrictive environment?
‘I think the first story that I ever wrote was when I was still a kid and I was in the group. I remember secretly rewriting Bible stories, but with different endings and different twists, partially fictionalising them. Eventually, I got in trouble for it, because obviously you’re kind of bastardising the Bible, but that would probably be one of my earliest memories of being creative.
‘Once I got out, the first thing I tried to do was survive. You think, “How do I come across as normal? How do I sound like a regular person? How do I blend in? How do I pay rent? What is money?” Because you’ve just joined the real world, which is completely different from your world. Later, in my twenties, is when I started to realise that actually I really needed to express myself in creative ways.’
How did you first get the idea of writing a book?
‘Writing came after I did the whole journey around the States and I realised that the documentary side of things I was doing didn’t really fit with what I was actually trying to express. And really the only way for me to get out how I was feeling inside and all the stuff I was processing was on the page. When I started to write, I fell in love with it. I was in my attic in Margate during the pandemic, and I was writing and I was just like, “I can’t believe how much I love this.” Since the book came out, I’ve been doing a Master’s in creative writing at Goldsmiths, because I want to get into the craft and read all the things that I never got a chance to read when I was a kid.’
How did it feel to share something that was such a personal story?
‘It was terrifying in so many ways, because obviously it’s not just my story, it’s a story of a whole generation of kids. I wanted to do it justice. It was scary, as I didn’t know how people were going to perceive it. I think it wasn’t until 27 that I started being honest about my upbringing. It’s a strange feeling now that it’s out. When I meet people who’ve read the book, there’s almost a comfortability with them knowing. I think one of the things I’ve struggled with, and maybe a lot of people struggle with, is that kind of duality of who you are, who you are inside, and how you present. But when you’ve been that honest on a page and someone’s read it and it’s just out there and you can’t pretend, you kind of just go, “You know what, it’s fine.”’
Cult Following is getting a TV adaptation with Dakota Johnson and Riley Keough – what’s your role in the production?
‘I’m an executive producer on it and a consultant writer. I suppose if you’ve grown up in a cult and you then join 10 more – and I’m still quite heavily involved in that world – I’m interested in how to practically make change for the future within coercive religious groups. I think my role is along the lines of how do we keep this authentic, even if we’re taking it in a crazy direction? How do we make sure it has that North Star of the cultic experience? Because it is a culture. It’s not just my experience. There are actually millions of people worldwide who’ve been affected by joining cults. For example, one person might join, then there’s the brothers, the sisters, the friends they grew up with, the parents. All of those people are victims of that person joining a group.’
How does it feel when your story kind of acquires its own life?
‘My part was putting the story on the page and that part is done. And now with the series team, we’re going into this different, partially fictionalised world. It’s exciting and a bit scary. I kind of tend to see that as a different iteration.’
What are you working on and what’s next for you?
‘I'm working on four books simultaneously at the moment, both non-fiction and fiction. Getting into the fiction side of things has been amazing, because you can just get really dark and weird, and it’s such a joy to be able to write whatever I like. And the non-fiction books are closely related to cults. Throughout my work, I'm looking at a certain side of spirituality, things that kind of teeter on the edge of being a cult. I want to know why people believe the stuff that they do, or what makes people turn from feeling enlightened to just going completely bonkers. When does somebody’s belief go into the realm of unbelievable?’