real life

At 21, Carli thought she was going on a wellness retreat. She ended up in a cult for 13 years.

In 1996, Carli McConkey was a 21-year-old university graduate interested in spirituality.

So a visit to Sydney’s Mind Body Spirit Festival for a psychic reading sounded like a lovely way to spend a day.

What Carli didn’t know that within the confines of a conference about wellness lurked an insidious threat that would soon absorb her and gradually take away her freedom, her family and her free will.

The person performing Carli’s psychic reading was a member of an Australia-based cult who was recruiting new followers in the guise of convincing them to sign up to a personal development course.

LISTEN: Carli tells her story…

To Carli, someone who was desperate for direction in her life, this seemed like just the kind of boost she needed in her life. So she signed up.

She was told that the course would involve breaking her down to build her back up again, teaching her skills she could use for life.

Which is why when the first five-day course ended in “everyone screaming and crying” she didn’t immediately realise something was wrong and agreed to take part in a second program.

“The aim was to cleanse your cellular memory from this lifetime, past lifetimes and your ancestors, and the way that they did that was a process called ‘accessing’,” Carli told Mamamia.

“It was actually very confronting. It was a lot of screaming and biting pillows and kicking black gymnastic mats. So there was about 80 people in the room, everyone screaming, crying, going through all of this stuff.

“So at the end, you’re feeling lighter, but also more fearful and know there’s a hell of a lot more stuff that you actually want to get rid of, that baggage that we all talk about.”

But despite how “confronting” Carli’s introduction to the group had been, it was nothing compared to the physical and mental torture that was her second outing.

Carli wrote a book about her experience after she left the cult in 2010. Image: Facebook

After being screamed at by the cult's female leader about the rules of the trip, Carli and others hopped aboard a blacked out bus and travelled for about 10 hours, with no bathroom breaks, to an isolated property.

For the next seven days, Carli and the unsuspecting new recruits were screamed at and subjected to a resistance-wearing and exhausting regime.

"We had to run every morning, jump into ponds naked, were punished in different ways with situps and pushups.

"We only got about 17 hours sleep that whole week, went through all night lectures, were shown hardcore porn. We had to stand up on a stage naked and everyone had to say what they thought about your body and you had to say what you thought about yours."

Carli can identify now that this was the beginning of the mind control process, but at the time still viewed what was happening to her as part of the process of breaking her down to rebuild her.

"What people need to know about these cults is that it's not like you know you're going to get into this. You don't go and join a group that you already know what they do and how they damage people.

"You go in thinking you're going into a professional personal development course."

Believing that in the end, this course would help make her a better, more successful person, she continued participating in "course after course" until she had become so brainwashed and sucked into the world of the cult that she believed the outrageous claims the leader made.

Carli said the leader claimed to be the reincarnation of Jesus Christ, the Queen of Atlantis and to know when the world would end - in December 2012.

"A lot of the premise of why we stayed was that she told us there was going to be some type of Armageddon, where the world would end, the axis of the earth would shift and there'd be a time of destruction," she told Mamamia.

"And that the only way that we would survive would be if we followed her. She made out that she had all the tools to survive, she was a healer, that she knew all about growing food and that we'd all be on her property and we'd be safe."

After years of working long hours day and night, unpaid, on the leader's property, in January 2010 Carli decided to leave. She packed up her three young sons and drove to see her ex-husband, who had already left the cult a few years earlier.

Carli said that within minutes of leaving the cult and being in a safe place, her reason and logic began to return and she began to see the cult and its leader for what they were.

"My brain just started filtering down the message 'that woman was a cult leader, that was a cult'."

Reflecting on her experience, which she wrote her memoir The Cult Effect about, Carli told Mamamia that she believed anyone could be sucked into the world of a cult.

"Everyone can get caught up in a cult if you're in the wrong place at the wrong time."