• New Zealand 'Camp David' cult former child member Serafina Tané pictured in centre. (Supplied)
Almost 25 years after the notorious New Zealand 'Camp David' cult disbanded, former child member Serafina Tané,now 41, reflects on rebuilding her life after a childhood spent petrified of putting a foot wrong.
Serafina Tané, Presented by
Kimberly Gillan

9 Jul 2019 - 8:34 AM  UPDATED 8 Nov 2019 - 9:46 AM

As told to Kimberly Gillan

"My family moved to the 100-acre Camp David commune when I was three years old and I spent the rest of my childhood there, living in tents then a bus and following the commands of the leaders.

There were around 100 members of the 'God Squad' who lived under the doctrine of the charismatic leader Douglas Metcalfe. He and the other leaders lived in large houses with running water while the rest of us lived in sub-standard conditions, always being promised that new housing would be available soon.

We were taught that women were inferior and shouldn't be educated because their only purpose was to be mothers or housewives. We had to wear headscarves and long skirts and were forbidden from cutting our hair or wearing certain colours. It seems strange that anyone could be convinced to live this way but my parents have told me that they were lured in over time, with Camp David providing a sense of belonging and religious connection.

We were told that aliens could come to earth at any time and that we had to ask specific questions to confirm which ones were from the real Jesus Christ and which ones were imposters. We were also told that the end of the world was imminent and that we would have to run to the hills with weapons to try protect ourselves. We genuinely believed we would be in mortal danger if we weren't part of Camp David and my parents had cut off contact with their extended family, so leaving wasn't an option.

The leaders were very controlling of the way members parented their kids and I never learnt to express myself to my parents. My overwhelming childhood memories are of fear of doing something 'wrong' – like listening to rock'n'roll or taking off my headscarf – and going to hell. I would cry for the rest of the world, worrying that everyone was making deadly mistakes – it was such a burden to carry for a child.

The cult fell apart in 1995 when sexual abuse of women by the pastors came to light. We were in shock and suddenly being thrust into the "real" world made me feel like a baby bird who had been kicked out of the nest without learning to fly.

When I took my headscarf off and wore trousers I genuinely expected to be struck down by lightning. After losing the rigid structure of my life, I had no direction. I moved into a share house and started drinking, skateboarding and doing previously forbidden things, such as getting my tongue, nose and belly button pierced.

Mum and dad were struggling with their own emotions and trying to get their lives back on track, so weren't really able to help me – we didn't talk about our feelings at Camp David, so we didn't talk when we got out either. For a long time, Dad would avoid me went I visited and I asked Mum if he didn't like me anymore but she said, 'No, he just feels really guilty for raising you there'.

In 2002, Mum got wind that some former members were trying to re-establish a church on the property. She didn't want to see another group fall victim to a cult and rallied other former members together to put a stop to it, plus fight for compensation.

It took eight years until the case ended up in the New Zealand High Court and it was decided the property would be sold and the profits would be given to charity and distributed amongst the former members.

Mum doesn't realise that she's a hero for this. It brought about healing and closure for a lot of people. It's particularly monumental for a woman who had been conditioned to believe women should be submissive and obedient to stand up to well-educated male lawyers. If it wasn't for her, nobody would have done it and now when life throws curveballs at me, I remind myself, 'Mum never gave up'.

As I've gotten older and become a mum myself, I've realised that my parents did what they thought was best. They raised my younger brother and my niece completely differently – they're really open and talk a lot more. It's been good for me to see that because I know that if they had their time again, that's how they would have raised me.

The silver lining of my upbringing is that I'm really confident now. When the rug is pulled out from under you and you get through it, it builds strength and you think 'I can do anything'."

Serafina Tané is the Adelaide representative of Cult Information and Family Support Network, providing support and raising awareness for those affected by cult groups.

Why are we so fascinated with stories of cults?
Cult leaders often share certain traits like narcissism or sociopathic behaviour. Many, haunted by their past, are trying to prove something.