'Are we there yet?’ I called out to Mum and Dad. It was my 12th birthday and we were on our way to Christchurch for a holiday. Until now, I’d had an idyllic childhood, camping and enjoying picnics.
Little did I know how things were about to change. That day, my family arrived at a Christian commune. And we never left.
‘We’ve decided to live here!’ Mum said.
At first I loved it, as there were plenty of other children to play with. We went to the community school, where the curriculum was focused on the Bible. The only downside was a man called Neville Cooper, who was the community’s leader. He could be cruel and would bully those people who didn’t go along with his beliefs.
After a few years, Nev took over an isolated farm and insisted we worship there instead of our church. Everyone was forced to wear plain blue uniforms and we were no longer able to buy food from the shops. It all had to be grown.
Finally, Nev built barracks on the farm and ordered that we all move in. Now he had complete control over everything. Women, especially, weren’t allowed a voice or to express an opinion. Nev would hold secret meetings with men where they were taught they were superior.
When I was 17, I started dating a boy called Dan*, 15. Because non-arranged relationships were strictly forbidden, we had to keep our romance a secret.
‘I love you,’ Dan whispered during one of our snatched meetings.
I loved him too, I just wished that we could be together freely. By the time I turned 18, I hated the place.
‘I want to run away,’ I admitted to Dan. ‘I’m coming too,’ he said.
We survived a few weeks before Dan was hospitalised with an asthma attack and I had to call his dad. Back at the commune, Nev was so furious he forced us to get married. But afterwards, we weren’t allowed to live together or even be in the same room. It was devastating.
And Nev went on to make my life even more torturous. One time, he ordered me to attend one of the secret meetings and made the men chant degrading words at me.
For 16 hours straight, I had to stand there, without any food or water, while they hurled abuse at me.
Finally, after two long years, Nev allowed Dan and I to live together, on the condition we had ‘special marriage counselling’.
‘Come to my room tonight,’ he commanded. When I got there, I suddenly felt nervous.
Dan’s not here, I realised in horror. Nev ordered me to lie on his bed and pull up my skirt. Then he sexually abused me.
It was such a painful and humiliating experience. But young and naive, I believed all women had to go through this when they got married, so I didn’t tell anyone.
After that, Nev abused me on two more occasions, including my 21st birthday. He also forced Dan and I to have sex while he watched.
‘I hate him,’ Dan said, as he consoled me afterwards. There was some joy though, when Dan and I discovered we were expecting a baby.
But being pregnant at the commune was hard work.
Even at eight months, I had to get up at 4am to make bread, then work right through, sometimes not finishing until midnight.
When our little girl, Miracle, was born, I made her a solemn promise.
‘You’re not going to grow up in this dreadful place,’ I whispered.
It was hard, as I didn’t know if I’d ever see my parents again, but I had to leave – for good. Three months later, in the middle of the night, Dan and I fled the farm with our baby.
Getting across the fields, Dan squeezed my hand.
‘We made it,’ he smiled.
Setting up a life in the outside world was tough. We barely had any qualifications or proof of who we were. But we contacted other escapees and, amazingly, they helped us find work and a home to live in.
Finally free, I began to realise I’d spent the past 11 years trapped in what I now regard as a cult. I did manage to phone my parents once to let them know where we were.
And eight months later, I was shocked to find my dad had turned up on our doorstep.
‘I’ve left too,’ he said.
Over time, I heard that Nev had called the commune Gloriavale and even changed his name to Hopeful Christian.
Thinking about it, I realised I couldn’t let him get away with what he’d done to me, so I went to the police.
In 1995, Hopeful Christian, also known as Neville Cooper, was found guilty of three counts of indecent assault against me.
He was sentenced to five years in prison, but only served 11 months.
It wasn’t fair that he got to be free when I had to live with those memories forever. Sadly, Dan and I split up. But I was blessed with a granddaughter, and the most important thing was that I was free from the cult and able to lead my own life.
When Nev passed away in May this year, I was so relieved that he couldn’t hurt anyone else.
It was then that I decided to share my story. I’m hoping that by speaking out, other people will feel brave enough to flee abusive situations. There are people out there who can help. It was the best thing I ever did.
If you have been impacted by abuse and need help and support, call 1800 737 732 (Aus) or 0800 842 846 (NZ)
Read more in this week's issue of that's life!, on sale now.