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Cult Sister: My decade in one of the world's most secretive sects

Cult Sister: My decade in one of the world's most secretive sects

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Cult Sister: My decade in one of the world's most secretive sects

3/5 (4 évaluations)
314 pages
4 heures
Mar 1, 2017


When Lesley Smailes set off from Port Elizabeth for a gap year, her mother joked: "Whatever you do, don't get married. And don't join a cult." But within months, Lesley was part of a notorious American sect, married to a man she hardly knew and allowed only minimal contact with her family. Despite rape, home births and a forced abortion, her belief was unshakeable. Until she was faced with the terrifyingly real threat of losing her children… Harrowing at times, but also funny and wise, this is Lesley's miraculous true story.
Mar 1, 2017

À propos de l'auteur

Lesley Smailes lives in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. She is a qualified and registered reflexologist and meridian therapist. She considers her job more a vocation than just work.

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Cult Sister - Lesley Smailes

Cult Sister

My decade in one of the world’s most secretive sects

Lesley Smailes


To my mother Pat who has taught me more about the love of God than any other. Thank you for your unconditional, enormously extravagant love. Thank you for being my best friend.

‘Etymologically, the word cult comes from the root of the word culture, representing the core system of beliefs and activities at the basis of a culture. Thus, every human being belongs to a cult in its most general sense, because everyone belongs to a culture that is conveyed by the language they speak and the habits they have formed.’

New World Encyclopedia


Stories are the treasures of my heart. I am rich with treasure. This one I took out of my chest with care and trepidation. I had kept it a hidden secret for years. It is complicated and convoluted and not an easy one to tell. For a long time I hesitated to share it for fear that people would think me crazy. It’s the story of the life-changing ten years I spent journeying around the United States as a member of a controversial religious group, living out of a backpack, having home births and surviving in strange and glorious ways.

I have included many letters, mostly the ones I wrote home and asked my mom to save as a diary for me. These letters paint an idyllic picture, leaving out a lot of the unpleasant realities of the difficult life I had chosen. Here is the real story. Although I have changed many of the names, it is as true as I can remember.


I am a people person. I love the sense of belonging that comes from being part of a group, a greater whole. Community. ‘You should have been an impala, you are so gregarious,’ my Granny Precious once told me. She was right. So was my Nanny Goodness. With me tied to her back sitting straddled across her ponderous buttocks, she told my mom: ‘This one – her name is Thandabantu!’ That means ‘the one who loves people’ in isiXhosa.

My friends have always been important to me, especially when I was a teenager. We were rebels, wild and free, smoking joints, gate-crashing parties and getting sozzled at popular drinking spots. Like strands of thread on a poncho fringe, we joined our lives. What we had in common was the ‘jol’. The high. The experience. The strangeness of growing up in our apartheid-censored country of the late Seventies and early Eighties.

Patti Smith, Talking Heads, The Cure, Rodriguez – music helped us define ourselves and make sense of our world. Sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. Are You Experienced? Confused and full of wow-wonder, the lyrics of this Jimi Hendrix song became my personal anthem.

The way I saw it, rules were there to be broken. Even now at age 52, though wiser and more circumspect, I am still an unconventional, boundary-pushing person. This has sometimes landed me in a whole lot of trouble, but it has also opened the door for some incredible adventures, leaving me with my abundance of stories.

This one has been painful to remember. How do I explain that for ten long years I was a member of one of America’s most conservative and secretive cults? That for most of the Eighties I dropped out of the world, changed the way I dressed and spoke, bought into a system of beliefs in which women are completely subservient, married a man I barely knew and had three children with him – all of this while crisscrossing the United States, camping in the woods or squatting in unoccupied buildings that often had no electricity and running water, and eating food from garbage bins. I know it sounds crazy, but I did it. For a whole decade I turned my back on almost everything I knew to be part of a religious group in which adherents spurned almost all modern comforts and behaved as though they lived in olden times.

We did not have an official title, although we referred to ourselves as ‘The Church’ or ‘The Brothers’. Others called us ‘The Bicycle Christians’, ‘The Jim Roberts Group’, ‘The Brethren’ and some ‘The Raincoat People’, probably because of the long garments the brothers wore. The less imaginative called us names like ‘The Dumpster Divers’ and ‘The Garbage Eaters’. Many people would be revolted at the thought of eating ‘rubbish,’ but to be fair the items we procured were generally more than edible and I can’t say I lacked for sustenance. Nor was I made ill by any of it in my years of scavenging for what was freely available. In fact, I reckon I probably ate better than the average American.

One could find anything in dumpsters, it seemed. If a bakery advertised fresh bread, then day-old loaves were thrown away. If cans had even the slightest dent, they were tossed, if fruit was a little bruised or banana skins brown, out they all went. When a bottle of juice in a crate broke, no one cleaned off the broken glass from the remaining sticky bottles – the whole crate just landed up in the dumpster. Anything that reached expiry date was discarded. All goods that were in any way damaged were dumped. There was a cereal factory that threw away hundreds of boxes of All Bran Flakes because they contained too many raisins. We once found almost twenty litres of organic honey turfed out by a health-food distributor because it had crystallised. Huge blocks of cheese were trashed because of a bit of mould. I could go on and on.

If we needed anything we just went to the back of the shop that sold it and there was a good possibility that it could be found in the trash. The Brothers called this ‘checking stores’.

I could go for months with only five dollars in my wallet and not have to spend it. I neither went hungry, nor paid rent, although I lived in many different houses spanning the whole of the States. We ‘checked stores’, found things, traded, bartered and lived by faith. There is a scripture that says ‘out of the waste places of fat ones shall strangers eat.’ This really applied to us. Because we got almost everything for free, we didn’t need jobs and that allowed us to focus on what was really important. Our main aim was to talk others into forsaking everything and joining the Church. We used the scriptures to manipulate them into abandoning their families, their jobs, education and lifestyles, encouraging them to drop out of society and be ‘separate from the world.’

We were ‘fishers of men’. I was really gung-ho about this aspect of my discipleship. I can be a very persuasive saleswoman when I set my mind to it. During my years as an ambassador for the Church I had a profound effect on quite a few lives and was successful in talking a number of people into joining us.

Members of the church were constantly on the move, our locations a secret to keep ourselves from being found by our deprived families and friends. I don’t think we ever put ourselves in the shoes of the traumatised relatives who were being ‘forsaken’. We referred to them as ‘flesh relations’ and arrogantly dismissed their grief at being abandoned as ‘worldly sorrow’.

‘Cult’ sounds like such a harsh word. It instantly conjures up images of weird and dangerous sects such as the Children of God, the Moonies and the Branch Davidians. We weren’t as far-out as these groups. But in many ways, although I would never have admitted it at the time, we were a cult. A fairly benign cult but a cult, nevertheless. A man named Jim Roberts was our leader and we based all our actions on his interpretation of the scriptures in the King James Bible. We referred to him as ‘Brother Evangelist’, or ‘the Elder’. He called the shots. There was to be no questioning, no criticism, no complaints. What he said went.

How could a rebel like me buy into this? Ironically I think it was the rebellious side of me that found the group so fascinating. They were just so darn radical. It felt romantic, like I was joining a gypsy caravan. We crisscrossed America, drifting between towns and cities, setting up home in abandoned buildings. When we arrived in a new city, the brothers would scout out empty houses and apartments, then go to the deeds office to find the owners’ contact details. They would then phone and ask permission for us to occupy their properties. Often landlords were just grateful to have someone living in these buildings rather than having them stand vacant at the risk of being vandalised. So in return for us doing a bit of light maintenance, we were often allowed to live rent free.

It was only years in that disillusionment set in. My rose-tinted glasses slipped and the cracks started to show – but by then there was no turning back. I was married and had three children. Where would I go? The Church was my life. I was Sister Lesley.

We were hardcore, almost militant. Our Church made most others seem wishy-washy. On fire, we burned with zeal, often at the expense of our own compassion. So how does a girl from a small town on the southern tip of Africa get involved in all this? Good question.



I was too stoned to pack my suitcase, so my exasperated mother had to do it for me. It was February 1983. Eighteen years old and fresh out of high school, I was leaving my dinky hometown of Port Elizabeth, or ‘PE’ as it’s known, to head out into the big, wide world on a gap-year holiday.

The plan was for me to go travelling in the United States before flying to meet my boyfriend, Stewart, and friend Ruby in England. From there we were intending to tour Europe. Up until this point Port Elizabeth had been my world – I had spent most of my life there, so it felt scary and strange to be leaving.

Our pastor visited our house to pray for me on the day of my departure. At the station some of my friends were waiting to bid me farewell before I boarded the train to Johannesburg from where I would catch my flight to New York.

On the platform my mother and I hugged awkwardly. She had one final piece of advice for me. Leaning in, she delivered it in her strictest mommy voice: ‘Don’t get married and don’t join a cult.’ I did not know how to respond so I just kissed her, climbed up the metal steps, pushed open the heavy carriage door and found my compartment. I would have hated for her to know just how scared I was so I hid behind a big grin and faked confidence.

Absent from the platform was my beloved father. He had died two years previously. The loss of him had left a gaping hole in my life that was impossible to fill no matter how hard I tried.

After my dad’s death I’d grown especially close to my younger brother, John. Five years my junior, he was affectionately known as Bobs. It was he who I had the hardest time saying goodbye to on the day of my departure. As the train pulled out of PE station he stood there waving his motorcycle crash helmet. It became a dot in the distance as he and my friends and family became smaller and smaller.

The conductor came to collect our tickets. I couldn’t find mine. I scratched around in my suitcase. ‘Could you come back for it? I’m sure it’s here,’ I asked him sheepishly. Eventually, after searching through everything, I found it together with my passport and aeroplane ticket in a pouch my concerned mother had hung around my neck.

The gap-year holiday had been her idea. She was giving it to me in the hope that it would allow me to heal and ‘find myself’. To say that I had a tumultuous adolescence is an understatement. By age eighteen I was so scarred and damaged. It wasn’t only my father’s death – there’d been other traumas. I will tell you more about them later.

My mom thought that time away would give me a new perspective and help me figure out what I wanted to do with my life. As you can probably guess by now things didn’t pan out in quite the way she hoped they would …


Jamie, an old friend, met me at the noisy Joburg station and the following day he took me to Jan Smuts Airport, where we daringly shared a cap of acid as we parted. I went through customs and turned to wave. He kissed the window and his lips smooched flat in a funny, deformed sort of way through the transparent pane. I laughed, and, waving for the last time, turned the corner, my heart thumping in my chest.

In the departure lounge there was a long row of seats in front of a big window overlooking the busy runway. For some strange reason all the seats were empty, except one. Alone, right at the far end, sat a tall, skinny, long-haired man, wearing a pair of purple leather shoes. What cool shoes! I thought to myself. Next thing, to my astonishment, the peculiar man jumped up, and with outstretched arms he passionately chortled, ‘Lesley! Lesley Smailes!’

Desmond. Of all people, Desmond Lloyd! Ten years my senior, he was an architect who lived in Cape Town. I had known him since I was six. I’d often spent long weekends off from boarding school at a commune where he lived. On one of these weekends he had pleasured my virginal body until I was virgin no more. There was no forgetting him. No. I was not hallucinating. It was Desmond.

It turned out he was also heading to New York and both of us were on the same flight. What a synchronized serendipity. Even more surreal was the name of the plane – The Helderberg 209. It was the name of the Seventh Day Adventist boarding school in Somerset West from which we had both been expelled: Helderberg College. It all felt so weird and trippy.

The aircraft was relatively empty, so we found a whole row of seats to ourselves. Pushing the armrests back, we talked and laughed, ate aeroplane food, watched movies, kissed and cuddled. Interesting, clever and witty, Desmond had introduced me not only to great sex, but Tom Waits, Chick Corea, real coffee, brandy snaps, and the smooth, sweet satisfaction that comes from smoking long, tapered joints made from top quality weed. It was strange and exhilarating to see him again. I had never flown before and was glad of his company. Eventually we both took a sleeping pill and passed out in each other’s arms. Arriving in New York, we parted and I boarded my connecting shuttle to Boston.



Grant was waiting to collect me at the bus terminus. My devout Seventh Day Adventist parents had befriended him when they were teachers at Sedaven High School in the town of Heidelberg where I was born.

Sedaven was a Seventh Day Adventist boarding school, mostly for the children of missionaries. Grant was one of these children. At age thirteen he’d contracted mumps and my parents had taken him into their home and lovingly nursed him until he was well. Grant has never forgotten my folks’ kindness. For decades he has flown my mom out to America to spend Christmas with him and his family every other year. He is now a cardiologist and is married to his Sedaven childhood sweetheart, Julia.

It was to their home that I went when I arrived in Boston. They had two small children. Brian was the eldest. He was learning to play the violin. Julia agonised over his off-key rendering of Baa Baa Black Sheep and Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. Squeak, squeak, squeak!

As a dedicated medical professional, Grant worked very long hours. He was usually already doing his rounds at the hospital when I awoke and he often only came home after we had all gone to bed.

I had actually come over to the States just to see my friend Phillipa. She and I had been best friends while I was at Helderberg College. We wrote poetry to each other on our typewriters during lessons, made pineapple beer we hid in my cupboard and shared many secrets. The last time I had seen her was from a teacher’s car. He was taking me to the airport after I’d been expelled.

It was she who I missed the most after being kicked off campus. She did not know that I was in America so Julia helped me to locate her, using the Adventist grapevine. Soon after arriving I wrote this letter home.

1 March 1983

Hello family

I have been away from home for a week and a bit now, seems like longer. Space does something to time? I’ve still got a bit of jet lag in my system which must work itself out.

When I arrived here in Boston it was snowing and it was exactly zero degrees. A nice round number. Snow motioned, slow motioned like lots of tiny white fairies floating groundward. Each snowflake beautifully different – you can see the patterns when they land on your coat. There is so much snow at the moment. All piled up so when you stand on it you sink. So white. So white it hurts your eyes when the sun shines on it.

It is so good to see Phillipa again. She is taller than before and classically elegant.

I got both your letters Mom, and one from Gran. They reduced me to tears. I’m told that this is part of the culture shock that one goes through, realising that one won’t be with one’s own culture for a period of time.

Please tell Ruby to SAVE DESPERATELY. I don’t want to go to England on my own. I think we could have a lot of fun. Please tell her I am missing her. Tell her to keep on encouraging Stewart to continue saving too. I am really missing him. I wish they were with me now.

Every night I dream strange dreams about my SA friends. It is as though my subconscious is telling me to accept the break.

There is such a hot jazz festival in Boston this week. BB King, Chick Corea, Stanley Clarke, Spyro Gyra and Dave Sanborn. Oscar Peterson is also playing. Maybe Phillipa and I will go to it.

Please keep my letters as a sort of diary for me.

Love, Les

After my reunion with Phillipa, Grant and Julia kindly offered to buy me a thirty-day Greyhound bus ticket. This meant I could travel anywhere in the States and get a feel for the country, seeing more than just Massachusetts.


I felt very brave, and a bit lonely the day Julia put me on the big Greyhound bus. From Boston I went to Buffalo, then on to Denver where, to my horror, I discovered the local YMCA was closed. Luckily I befriended a guy named Mike who suggested I go home with him and offered me his couch to sleep on. Later I smoked a joint with him and his flatmate and I got horribly high – their weed was grown hydroponically so it was much stronger than the ganja I’d smoked at home.

I tried to sleep, but as the ceiling swirled my mind raced. On the radio Lou Reed was singing Take a Walk on the Wild Side. I felt a thrill, a rush, in my heightened state. I was doing just that, walking on the wild side.

From Denver I went to Chicago, Salt Lake City and Las Vegas before heading to San Pedro in Los Angeles to catch up with Raymond, a long-time friend who was there doing a dive course.

I spent the weekend with him, reminiscing about our shared childhood. Like me, he’d been raised in a strict Seventh Day Adventist household. Growing up, Saturdays were our Sabbath, our holy day. This meant that from Friday at sunset until Saturday at sunset we weren’t allowed to read secular books or listen to the radio.

We marked the start of Sabbath by singing hymns together while my mom played the piano. On Saturday mornings we went to church and Sabbath school and then afterwards our families often shared lunch and went for beach or park walks.

Raymond had been the first boy to ever kiss me. I was seven and he was nine – we had kissed behind a hedge in his garden during a game of hide and seek. It was comfortable to be with someone from home who knew me and my family so well.

Reluctantly, I left my old friend and made my way to the Grand Canyon aboard a Greyhound. There I was befriended by a travelling Australian named Ross who had a car. He and I explored the canyons, marvelling at the amazing sunsets and panoramic views and kissing a lot.

I left with my new companion, glad to be travelling by car instead of the bus. But by the time we got to Wichita Falls, a town in the top corner of Texas, the second-hand jalopy had started to give trouble. We took it to a mechanic and spent the night in a cheap motel.

It was the eve of

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  • (3/5)
    it's enlightening in that is offers insight into a foreign world of the church/cult in which she spent a decade and found her spiritual awakening but it could have had been more detailed and intense.