Claire Ashman's saving grace came in the form of an eviction notice.
She opened the door of her Cambewarra home to the sheriff, eight children in tow, and said "I'll do anything. You tell me what I have to do, and I'll do it".
This was the chance she'd been waiting for, to break free from a nine-year nightmare punctuated by daily sacrifices, prayers, and a hell of a lot of washing.
For nearly a decade, she was one of 180 people living in an ex-caravan park in Cambewarra, preparing for the end of the world. Claire was part of Nowra's doomsday cult, The Order of Saint Charbel, run by convicted child sex offender William Costellia-Kamm, known as "Little Pebble".
Every day, she covered herself from neck to ankle and prayed for an hour-and-a-half. She sewed her own clothes in preparation for the apocalypse and baked from scratch. She prepared lunch and dinner for 180 other followers, while looking after eight children of her own.
On that cold August day in 2006, when Claire was finally handed her ticket to freedom, she was utterly exhausted.
"You could never say enough prayers, never do enough sacrifices. There was just more, more, more, more," she said. "I remember the day when I was hanging out nappies, and I'm working so hard mentally, physically, financially. I just thought, 'Am I ever going to be good enough to get into heaven?'. I thought, 'Whatever is in the outside world, it has to be easier than this'."
Looking back at pictures of herself, Claire barely recognises the girl that went through hell. She's a university student now, remarried and living in Brisbane.
"When I look back on myself now, I cringe, but I also forgive myself because that's all I knew at the time. It's my belief that everybody grows and evolves and changes, and I have changed so much since then. I look at photos and I think who the hell is she."
It was never Claire's plan to join a cult. Home-schooled in a conservative, strictly religious family in country Victoria, Claire's upbringing set her on a path that stole 10 years of her life. She married a man 12 years her senior when she was 18, and he moved the family into Kamm's fervently religious community in 1997.
Like most cult leaders, Kamm put on a show, but it was his ability to find out exactly what someone needed to hear that made him so alluring, Claire said. While she had reservations, her now ex-husband bought in completely, sold by the picture Kamm described of an idyllic village, a community centred around the church.
"Kamm told him everything that he wanted to hear. He had an answer to the end of the world," she said.
I was shit scared. I had spent all that time in the cult, being told don't bother going to churches outside. They will name you and shame you and they'll know you've come from the pulpit.
The reality was far from idyllic. Kamm used his position to prey on women and girls, and while Claire avoided Kamm's advances, many women have stories of his sexual abuse.
For almost a decade, Claire lived a life dominated by rules. The community controlled what she wore, where she went and what she did. With eight children, Claire never had a second of rest. It's a tactic used by groups like Kamm's to keep followers submissive, and stop them from consuming media and ideas from the outside world.
"I did cloth nappies for 16 years straight. Doing washing and all that, every day was a busy day. Knowing what I know now, these groups like to keep you busy so there isn't time to question, there isn't time to watch TV."
After years of exhaustion, Claire finally cracked. She began writing letters to Kamm, challenging him on doctrinal issues and the doomsday beliefs he preached from the pulpit. Meanwhile, Kamm was in the throes of a court case, accused of having sex with underage girls he had taken as his 'mystical wives'.
"We wrote back and forth. He basically said 'you're being an upstart'."
In a moment of defiance and anger, Claire gathered up her eight children and made a decision, one that would embolden her to change the course of her life. She left the community to visit an outside church.
"I was shit scared. I had spent all that time in the cult, being told don't bother going to churches outside. They will name you and shame you and they'll know you've come from the pulpit. Kamm said we'd be isolated. I'd been told that for eight years."
Claire crept into the Nowra Parish and ushered her eight children into the back pew, heart racing. There was no doubt where Claire and her children had come from: if the size of her family hadn't given her away, the girls' distinctive head coverings must have said it all. Claire sat silently, waiting for the priest to turn to her with a finger of shame, to cast her out in front of the congregation. But the moment she feared never came.
The wheels that had been set in motion since Claire sent her first letter to Kamm ended with a knock on the door and an eviction notice. Kamm had been funnelling Claire's mortgage repayments into fees for his court case, so her home was being repossessed. For Claire, the piece of paper was a ticket out, a chance to find a new life for herself and her children.
"I was a child bringing up children. I knew that these kids were looking to me for stability and security, so I had to do whatever the hell I had to do to bring these kids up. I was the leader in the family and I wanted them to not be backward like I was. I wanted them to have choices."
After living in an alternate reality for so long, adjusting to life "outside" was a shock. She was navigating an unfamiliar world, and doing it all as a single mother of eight. She'd never had her own bank account, or used an ATM. Looking back, Claire remembers feeling humiliated often.
"I didn't know how to participate in conversations, I didn't have opinions because I didn't know anything. My reading had been limited because I was home-schooled and I hadn't been exposed to a lot of literature. I started to delve into autobiographies. I liked to people watch. I would listen to peoples' conversation and watch other people's reactions to ascertain what was considered kosher and what wasn't."
After Claire disentangled herself from the cult's grip, she stayed near Nowra, on the NSW South Coast, while her kids were at school. Her oldest was 16 when they left the cult.
"My kids taught me how to set up an email account, they taught me how to use a mobile phone. They've been on the journey with me," she said.
Sixteen years on, Claire's life looks very different. In her 50s, she's now studying alongside one of her daughters.
"I always thought that people like me never went to university," Claire said.
"I had so little self-confidence, so I didn't aim for university. I was contented to keep going and learning where I could. And then one day I received an email from an academic."
When an academic reached out to her, encouraging her to attend a course, she was torn between her desire to challenge the beliefs she'd been indoctrinated with, and her lack of confidence. Despite her initial hesitance, Claire signed up for a course on new religious movements, cults and sects.
"I was doing it and I thought, oh my God, my brain just lit up. It was the first time I'd read academic journals and I understood it, because I'd lived it."
When the course finished, she didn't stop there. Claire got a place at the University of Queensland studying Religion and Sociology. She won a scholarship, too, for an exceptional student pursuing Studies in Religion later in life.
From leading a life so closed off from the outside world, Claire is now pushing boundaries and exploring how religion affects us. Her lived experience is rare, and puts her in a unique position.
As she begins her second year of university, Claire is using her past to empower her, rather than hold her back. She's not afraid to question things, to be curious and to hold people to account. She's a skeptic, but she's not cynical. And she knows when to throw all the rules out the window.
"After spending a lifetime worrying about the rules, whether I've said enough prayers, gone to confession, now I just think 'Oh, f*ck it. I'm not following rules anymore'."
Illawarra Mercury trainee journalist and newest recruit.
Illawarra Mercury trainee journalist and newest recruit.
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