Real Life

What is it like in the Twelve Tribes cult?

In the Twelve Tribes community, members dance, sing, work hard and bake great cookies. But Beverley Hadgraft meets the former members and investigators who believe the community is a cult that's also abusing its youngest and most vulnerable members.
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Tessa Klein was four when she picked up a glass jar and carefully wrapped it in a tea towel. Denied proper toys to play with, she cradled it in her arms, pretending it was a doll.

Suddenly she heard a noise outside the family’s room. “My heart was racing,” she recalls. “I hid that jar as fast as I could. I was so scared I’d be caught.”

Playing was banned

If little Tessa had been spotted with her pretend doll, the consequences would have been severe: at least six lashes on her hand or bare bottom with a thin, whippy cane.

In the Twelve Tribes religious community, where she lived in Picton, NSW, fantasy play – like pretending to be an aeroplane or nursing a doll – was banned. Nor could Tessa play with her brother, Bryson, or any of the other children, without strict adult supervision.

But then, it seemed, there wasn’t much children could do that didn’t result in punishment. Tessa became abnormally quiet, hardly daring to speak to or look at any of the other children in case it resulted in a caning.

Scenes from the Twelve Tribes’ base in Chattanooga, Tennessee. (Image: Shelton Brown)

Working in the community’s kitchen or beeswax candle factory, she was careful never to do anything to annoy the women working alongside her. She felt permanently frightened. Even now, at 22, there is a sense of anxiety about her, as she carefully considers every one of The Weekly’s questions.

Tessa’s brother, at two, was beaten almost daily.

“I have one very specific memory of two or three guys taking Bryson into a room,” she continues. “I knew exactly why and I sat next to the closed door listening to his screams and thinking: ‘What can I do?’ But as a kid you can’t do anything to make it stop.”

“They just beat children into submission”

Twelve Tribes, which has 3,000 members and communities worldwide, including three in Australia, makes a big deal about loving the community’s children, but Tessa can’t remember any gesture of affection.

“Not really. It’s a pretty weird place.” Their claims that beating children is an expression of love are beyond comprehension, she says. “It’s like they just beat children into submission at an early age so they don’t question things when they get older.”

Tessa was four when her parents joined Twelve Tribes. Her father, Matthew, a former high school teacher and warm, loving father who realised his mistake and fled with his children after two horrible years, doesn’t mince his words. “I’d like to see Twelve Tribes shut down. I want them made accountable for the destruction of kids’ lives.”

Matthew has reported Twelve Tribes to the Department of Family and Community Services and to the police. No action was taken.

“The physical abuse is one thing,” he says.

“That’s the easy story. It’s the psychological abuse that’s the killer. The kids feel they’re inherently bad because they’re spanked all the time. They grow up fearing the outside world because they’re told it’s evil and if they do end up liking it, they think they’re evil too.”

Although she had loving grandparents and the help of a psychologist to readjust after her two years in the cult, Tessa has endured a lifetime of repercussions. At primary school, she found it hard to make friends, bewildered by how carefree other children were. “They weren’t freaking out all the time about the reactions of adults if they said something wrong.”

“My mum didn’t want anything to do with me”

Even more heartbreaking has been the loss of her mother, Tysha, who remains on a community property, Peppercorn Farm, with Twelve Tribes and has remarried and had two more children. Tessa hasn’t seen her since she left. She has tried writing and phoning and even recently organised a face-to-face meeting. She drove the two-and-a-half hours from her home in Port Kembla, NSW, only to have it cancelled.

“I’m not trying again,” she says. “I had one day in school when we were making Mother’s Day cards and I just broke down crying because there were all these other kids whose mums would do anything for them and I couldn’t understand why my mum didn’t want anything to do with me.”

Children put to work

The Twelve Tribes cult was formed in the US in the early 1970s by a former high school guidance counsellor and carnival showman, Eugene Spriggs. He is now known as Yoneq.

It promotes a hybrid of Christian fundamentalism, Hebrew roots and Messianic Judaism. Most of its followers are in the US and Canada, and there are about 120 members in its Australian communities, which were founded in the 1990s.

Members focus on spirituality, communal living, Bible study and – from the age of five or seven – constant hard work. Their aim is to recreate the 12 tribes of Israel and prepare for the return of Jesus or Yashua.

On the surface, to outsiders, it may look like they lead an idyllic life away from the concrete jungle, but what happens behind closed doors in the Twelve Tribes communities can be a lot more sinister. (Image: Shelton Brown)

Their Common Ground wholemeal bakery stalls are at many popular farmers’ markets, Sydney’s Royal Easter Show and the Woodford Folk Festival, while visitors to the Blue Mountains flock to their Yellow Deli café in Katoomba.

Members wear simple, Amish-style attire. The women forsake make-up and are covered from head to toe to preserve their modesty. They appear courteous and kindly, opening their doors to anyone who cares to visit their Peppercorn Creek farm.

Their critics include academics and former members, but many people who encounter them at cafes and markets are enchanted by their dancing and singing, their wholesome home-cooking, their tech-free rural idyll and their polite, obedient children who display none of the usual parental nightmares such as toddler tantrums or teenage boundary pushing.

“But they make the best cheesecake,” admirers protest. “They say hello when I meet them on the street.”

“Big deal!” says Matthew, who now lives in the Blue Mountains. “Just because they’re nice to you doesn’t mean they don’t think you’re the devil’s work.”

Mind you, he thought they were nice too when he joined. At the time, Tysha was pregnant with their third child, Peter and the Kleins were already struggling with sleep deprivation and the demands of two small children.

Matthew had been reading Raising Boys by Steve Biddulph and agreed with his view that it took a community to raise a child. He still believes that – he just doesn’t believe that community is Twelve Tribes.

The abuse happens over time

Matthew says he initially enjoyed his new life. He liked working with and being part of a community and not having to worry about money. He was even happy to have got rid of all his possessions. Like most Twelve Tribe recruits, he sold his home and car and handed over the profits to the cult.

“But it’s like an abusive relationship,” he explains. “You don’t fall in love with an abuser, you fall in love with a wonderful person. The abuse happens over time and there’s always an excuse for it.”

“Abuse happens over time and there is always an excuse for it.” (Image: Shelton Brown)

60 lashes

His first misgivings arose after he returned from a delivery run for the community, having left Bryson in the care of a male member of the group whom the toddler didn’t know.

When Matthew returned, Asher revealed he’d had to discipline the two-year-old for not coming to him when told. In all, this had happened at least 10 times, with the toddler receiving six lashes each time.

WATCH: Woman describes how she was recruited into the Twelve Tribes cult in Australia

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“That’s more than 60 strikes!” Matthew says. “I should’ve left then. I knew they were striking kids but not to that extent and it’s totally different when it’s in the hands of another man. In that guy’s defence, he was doing what he’d been told. We live in a society where you don’t contemplate hitting other people’s kids but with Twelve Tribes, you leave this society and enter another, so if you don’t do it, you become abnormal. Your whole mindset is changed.”

Spanking starts at six months old

After that, says Matthew, “whenever Bryson didn’t do what he was asked, immediately and without argument, he was spanked…It starts at six months. If a baby wriggles when their nappy’s being changed, they’re punished. It’s in their child-training manual.”

Despite the dogma, Matthew refused to discipline other people’s kids and stopped caning his own. He’d simply take Bryson into a room and pretend.

It was only later that he discovered Tysha was getting other male members to fill in for him.

Before entering the Twelve Tribes, Matthew had read his children bedtime stories. Now, children’s classics such as Cuddlepot and Snugglepie and Possum Magic were forbidden, replaced by stories based on the Old Testament.

Before Twelve Tribes, if his children were sick, he’d head straight to the doctor. Now prayers and homeopathy were the preferred treatments – which also meant whip-striped bottoms never came under a doctor’s scrutiny.

As a teacher, he had encouraged independent thinking and homework, and the ability to rationalise, research and exercise critical thought. Now, teaching within the community, he had to follow a syllabus written by Twelve Tribes and abandon those basics.

“No outside books were allowed, only the leaders’ kids were allowed to visit the library.”

Tertiary education is considered a waste of time so even ‘obedient’ children were totally unmotivated. Work was far more important and it wasn’t unusual for lessons to be cancelled so children could help out at one of the community’s many industries.

Matthew has made reports to the unions on illegal child labour, including those working on building sites. Again, no action was taken, even though concern is well documented. In America, cosmetics giant Estee Lauder is one of several businesses to sever ties with Twelve Tribes amid questions of under-age workers producing the cosmetic company’s Origins range.

Reporter, Shelton Brown, has spent the past 18 months investigating Twelve Tribes for a new podcast series due for release in December. Like Matthew, he is frustrated by the intransigence of government agencies. Based in Chatanooga in America, where Twelve Tribes first emerged, Shelton and his team have interviewed dozens of former members, along with law enforcement agencies.

“How are Twelve Tribes still operating?”

“The central question to our investigation,” he says, “is how are Twelve Tribes still operating? How have law enforcement agencies turned a blind eye to the plethora of allegations that we’ve looked at?

“I’ve talked to the FBI and they’re well aware of what’s going on. Local law enforcement know what’s going on. I could 99 per cent guarantee your Australian police know who they are but this also brings into play the question of religious freedom. We are in support of that but what are the consequences?”

Shelton is particularly horrified by the trauma suffered by women and children in the group.

“I’ve been rebuked for stepping on a minority but this minority is a monster. When you join, you give up everything – including yourself.”

Sydney child psychologist, Beverley Thirkell is similarly concerned.

“Where are DOCS?” (the Department of Community Services, now known as the department of Family and Community Services or FACS) she exclaims. Play, she says, develops everything we value in society – creativity, imagination and problem solving. Playing with other children teaches communication skills, conflict resolution, emotional regulation and self-esteem.

The fear factor

“These children are controlled by fear. When the only way of having a secure relationship is to follow strict rules and if you don’t, you’re hit… that’s textbook how to form an Attachment Disorder. It’s scary,” says Thirkell.

“This is heartbreaking because it’s in plain sight – it’s not behind closed doors – so we, as a society, allow it to continue because these well-behaved children are regarded as a marvellous thing.”

FACS was unable to make a comment for this feature and Australian Twelve Tribes declined – although they very politely thanked The Weekly for the opportunity.

Tessa wonders all the time what would happen if she still remained in Twelve Tribes. (Image: Shelton Brown)

A safe, healthy, educational environment?

Their official websites, however, make no secret of their approach to child-rearing and defend it robustly.

They ban kids from playing together because they believe they have no self-judgement and could influence each other. They see nothing wrong with sending children to work alongside their parents instead of playing or studying. “It is a safe, healthy, educational environment. It is not child labour.” Letting them waste their free time on “empty amusements only leads to bad behaviour”.

They defend spanking, quoting endless passages from the Bible to support their cruelty.

Whoever spares the rod hates his child, but the one who loves his child is careful to discipline him (Proverbs 13:24), is a particular favourite.

They write long articles quoting academics who commend corporal punishment and cite crime figures of countries that have banned it, ignoring any other factors that contribute to the statistics.

Spanking equals love

Spanking equals love, they insist over and over.

“The rod removes guilt from children’s souls and trains them to do good…We know some people consider this controversial but we have seen from experience that discipline keeps a child from becoming mean-spirited and disrespectful of authority.”

History, they insist, has shown that spanking results in “responsible, diligent, respectful human beings with strong moral fibre”.

Even a recent ruling by the European Court of Human Rights has not dissuaded them. That came about after an undercover journalist in Germany obtained horrific video evidence of children aged between three and 12 being whipped.

As a result, the community’s children were removed and taken into care. Eight families appealed the judgement but in March this year the court agreed that, although splitting up a family constituted a very serious interference and should only be used as a last resort, “the decisions had been based on a risk of inhuman… or degrading treatment”.

The court added that retraining the parents to dissuade them from spanking would not have worked as it was part of their “unshakeable dogma”.

Twelve Tribes responded with fury, posting letters from the children to the parents they had been taken from. One read: “I already miss you. There is not so much to do, only play but that’s no fun.”

Understandably, Tessa’s grandparents were frantic about the wellbeing of their precious grandchildren and also made official complaints about Twelve Tribes, but again these weren’t acted on. Instead, the Tribes sent the Kleins away to live in their community in Winnipeg, Canada. It was there that Matthew had his final epiphany.

Finding himself working in toxic conditions to build an aluminium trailer, he looked at the kids working alongside him, unprotected, and declared: “We’re not loving each other. We’re killing each other!”

Tessa knows of contemporaries who are still members of the Twelve Tribes, denied contraception and producing more children for the cult to add to its workforce. (Image: Shelton Brown)

“I got to wear a dress that was a bit shorter”

Matthew started disputing the dogma, stirring up dissent among other members until he was eventually told to leave and given permission to take his three children with him. Tysha, though, refused to leave with them.

Tessa can still remember her first Christmas back with her grandparents. “It was bewildering,” she says. Having been deprived of make believe during a crucial stage in her development, she couldn’t even watch a Disney movie without feeling frightened and overwhelmed. Then she smiles.

“But I got to wear a dress that was a bit shorter and I loved it. I’d always loved make-up and nail polish and clothes and all those things.”

Bryson got to reach the pinnacle of competitive sport, something that would have been denied in the community – becoming an Australian rock climbing champion and this year’s youngest ever finalist in Channel 9‘s Ninja Warrior.

Does Tessa ever wonder what would have happened if she had remained in Twelve Tribes?

“All the time,” she admits. She knows of contemporaries who are still in there, denied contraception, producing more children for the cult to add to its workforce and forced to become obedient servants.

“I had never felt such anger”

Even Tessa wasn’t aware how upset she still was until a Twelve Tribes bakery stall set up outside her university. After one member tried to grab her arm, she marched over and started picking up their teas, pouring them onto the ground.

“I had never felt such anger,” she recalls. “The woman serving wouldn’t talk to me so I kept throwing their stuff on the ground until she asked: ‘What are you doing here?’ I said, ‘What are you doing here? Trying to find more people to coerce?'”

It’s been tough, raking through these painful memories, but Tessa does it for a reason.

“Not everyone knows they’re a cult but everyone can sense there’s something weird about them. I feel they’re so secretive about their intentions and I want people to know what’s really going on, not just randomly in the world, but 20 minutes up the road.”

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