‘The first part of the cult is they take away your name, they shave your head … They change the nature of who you are and you don’t develop like a normal kid would.’
Jesse wasn’t yet a teenager when his parents sent him to live at an alternative community. He arrived at one of the smaller camps where he was treated like an adult from day one, forced to do hard physical labour 13 hours a day. There was no school and rarely enough food to eat. Jesse stayed there for six months, then they moved him down to the main centre.
Life was different at the centre. For starters there were other kids around and there was school too, in a way. It was by correspondence and Jesse didn’t take it very seriously. Mostly he did his chores and roamed the bush, playing with the other kids and having fun.
As Jesse got older and reached puberty, things changed. He and some of the other kids started to experiment with sex. Then some of the adult women took an interest in him. By his early teens he was involved in sexual relationships with two girls his own age and several of the adults who lived at the centre.
At this time the centre was run by a woman named Lena and a man they called ‘the Leader’. One day Lena overheard Jesse talking to one of the girls about sex. Later she called him into her office and asked about his relationship. Jesse told her about the sex and the urges he’d been feeling.
‘She said to me, “Well look, you know, if you’re feel that way again, come and talk to me about it and I’ll sort you out”, kind of thing. So it was pretty obvious at that point. After that she’d start doing things like flashing her vagina at me.’
Word of Jesse’s relationships with the girls also got back to the Leader, and as a result, Jesse’s life took a sudden and brutal turn. ‘He saw me as a threat because he was trying to have sex with the young girls … All of sudden, because of my relationships with the young girls, and his desire to have relationships with those same young girls, he had every piece of power over me.’
As Jesse put it, the Leader set out to ‘break’ him. He cut Jesse off from school and put him to work doing long days of hard physical labour. He would intersperse this with onerous and disgusting tasks such as cleaning out the waste water tanks. On top of this he gave Jesse the job of looking after Frank, a resident of the centre who had been ostracised by the others because of his behaviour.
Every day Jesse had to visit Frank’s caravan to make sure he cleaned himself. When he got there, Frank would often masturbate in front of him.
Eventually, Jesse couldn’t take any more. He ran away and ended up at his grandmother’s house. She rang his dad who rang the Leader and Jesse was sent back to the centre. This time, he said, ‘shit got real’.
‘They would dump a semitrailer load full of tyres at the bottom of a hill. I’d be 12 hours a day carrying those tyres up a hill. Then it was chicken shit. Dropping a semitrailer load of chicken shit – by myself, 12 hours a day carrying that shit up. If I was late, I’d be beaten by another warden.’
Jesse hit rock bottom. ‘It got to me. He pushed me so close. So I got a rope. I went up to the kitchen. I tied the fucking rope around a beam, and put a noose around my neck and that was it. I stood there on that rock, and a couple of people walked past me, and were laughing at me. Kept walking.
'I thought, "Well this is as bad as it fucking gets. Can’t get much worse than this … It can only get better from here so I’ve got to start making some decisions which are positive".’
He went back to work, enduring the beatings and the constant fear while in secret he set a plan in motion. He started stealing and hiding things – a sleeping bag, a backpack. He waited for his moment, gathered his stash and ran.
After a long time living on the streets he found his way to a youth refuge, re-enrolled in school and graduated. From there Jesse went on to build a successful career. But memories of the community stuck with him. He tried to block them out with alcohol and drugs, one time nearly killing himself with an overdose. After that he managed to pick himself up and get some control in his life, doing what he could to look after his partner and kids.
Recently he decided to take some action against his abusers. He contacted the leaders at the community. At first they were helpful but, as the dialogue continued, they started to distance themselves from responsibility, saying it was the Leader and Lena who were responsible for the abuse and not the community itself.
Jesse remains angry and baffled by their response, and by all the things he suffered as a child.
‘I remember when I was homeless, I’d sit there on the side of the highway. I’d be in the middle of nowhere, I’d be sleeping in drains, tears in my eyes and I used to wonder, “What in the fuck did I do to anybody to have this shit happen to me?” And that was 15 or 16. And I still don’t know what I did to anyone.’