real life

Erina wrote a book about cults. It led to a shocking realisation.

There are certain times in Erina Reddan's life where she now asks herself, "Was I in a cult?"

For a long time, Reddan - like many - figured that only a certain type of person could 'fall prey' to a cult, someone who was susceptible to a heavily controlled and coercive environment centred upon belief.

Only through writing a crime thriller did Reddan uncover the hallmarks of a cult. Reddan then connected the dots between her newfound understanding and her life experiences.

"I started out thinking vulnerable people would end up in a cult. I assumed those who had been through trauma were the only ones susceptible to the kind of coercive powers practiced in a cult. Now I feel completely differently," she tells Mamamia.

Watch one person's experience in a cult. Post continues below. 

Video via Mamamia. 

It all took place just before COVID.

Throughout her life, Reddan has seen herself as a seeker - someone searching for a deeper, richer life. She'll give lots of things a go, like yoga, meditation or any sort of body process movement.


Around 2019, Reddan came across a kinesiology retreat of sorts and it piqued her interest.

The first step was learning a new body technique that relaxes the mind, body and spirit one by one. But the next step was training in a room with hundreds of other people. She thought it would it would be a few hours of self-discovery.

It was anything but. 

"I was just completely shocked, because it had some big red flags. The leader obviously found his power by yelling at the participants and publicly humiliating them, and love bombing others. He used a certain term with one particular participant, telling them they were a 'dark energy'," explains Reddan.

"The idea was that it was their own good. It would help them grow. But it just seemed like humiliation to me."

What had been marketed as a personal development course, was really if anything a cult. 

The red flags didn't stop there. 

They were suggested specific food items based on what would "equalise energy". 

They were invited into rooms where there were millions of dollars worth of jewellery sitting on display, all there to incentivise the participants to aspire to wealth. And the path to gaining wealth was to keep taking part in this specific group.

There were levels too. Hierarchies. Men were predominantly the leaders, whereas women did all the background volunteer work setting up the courses.


Ultimately, the group displayed a number of hallmarks of a cult. 

Fortunately, Reddan caught on rather quickly, and after the retreat, she cut off all contact with the group. That's not to say those who stayed with the group (or rather cult) weren't perceptive enough. It's no reflection on them. It just so happened that Reddan had the relevant context and understanding of cults to know the signs to look out for.

"I think we were all looking for connection and community. I think we were looking for less pain, and more satisfaction in life. I just caught on quickly that yelling at somebody to break them down in order to build them up again wasn't a positive environment. It wasn't normal," says Reddan.

Erina Reddan. Image: Supplied/Jacqui Henshaw.


Reddan's first encounter with a cult-like environment happened in her childhood. 

She was raised in the country, was close to her family, and had been surrounded by a strong community. But looking back on her early years, something now feels a little off, she tells Mamamia

"I grew up on an isolated farm with my large Catholic family. We had lots of family friends around us and all of them were Catholics. There were one or two non-Catholics who were very nice but they weren't going to heaven like us," says Reddan.

Not every person's connection with Catholicism would leave them comparing it to a cult-like setting. Nor are we suggesting the religion is a cult. 

But for Reddan, she can't help but notice the similarities in her personal experience. 

She vividly remembers the language used, the hierarchy, the gender norms. The rules about when she ate, who she interacted with (never non-Catholics), having little access to other ways of thinking, and the secrets that were kept hidden. It wasn't until decades later that the Royal Commission revealed her nearby town was one of the hot spots for paedophilia in Victoria, directly in relation to convicted priests. 


When Reddan was in her late teens, she ended up living in a church youth commune, where she was a youth leader.

Overall it was a very positive experience for her, where the teachings were focused mostly on self-esteem and leadership. It was also helping young people through a spiritual search for meaning, something Reddan herself could strongly relate to. 

But sometimes Reddan can't help but wonder whether her authority within that structure - a structure that was auspiced by the Catholic Church - was similar to that of a cult leader?

Questions like these often pop into Reddan's mind, as she tells Mamamia: "It's like I have a hyperawareness for all things cults."

This hyperawareness has come about more recently, especially since Reddan wrote her book Deep In The Forest.

"I started my research for my novel thinking I was immune. I've ended the book knowing that none of us are immune. It can happen to anyone, no one joins a cult out of choice. For many, they feel they're entering a space where they will learn new ideas and ways to make their life more meaningful or peaceful. And it provides a sense of community too."


Deep in the Forest is set in a rural community, which doesn't know there's anything sinister happening behind the locked gates of the local closed community. The Sanctuary, with its organic produce, artisanal furniture and its successful drug rehabilitation program looks really good from the outside, much like the cults that Reddan researched. But there are dark secrets lurking with a shocking end that shows just how dangerous a cult can be.

The impact that a cult setting can have on a person is extensive.

"It takes away your power and replaces it with somebody else's. You lose your ability to believe in your own sense of self and who you are and the decisions you can make in the world. I think it can often traumatise people."

What Reddan wants people to know is this - coercive power operates at every level, from within romantic relationships, to group situations right up to a cult-like environment. 

"If you're in a relationship or environment where you can't ask questions, there's a problem. We all want to feel like we belong. But what cults do is abuse that desire and trust - and that's what we all need to be on alert for."

You can find Erina Reddan's book Deep In The Forest here

Feature Image: Supplied/Jacqui Henshaw.