My Story in the News

Autism Psychologist once ran New Age Cult. By Rick Morton, Social Affairs Writer, The Australian.

October 26, 2018

A Queensland psychologist ­accused of once leading a New Age cult which promised paying clients the ability to “move between ­dimensions” has been working as an approved provider of a federal autism program since 2015.

Natasha Lakaev — who ran courses through a program called Universal Knowledge from a Northern NSW property known as Omaroo in the early 2000s — once claimed to be a “metaphysician” who could heal HIV and other diseases and later retrained as a psychologist.

Natasha Psychology, which Ms Lakaev runs on the Gold Coast, is listed as an approved provider for autism support under the federal Department of Social Services’ Helping Children with Autism package.

“DSS has established a panel of early intervention service providers to deliver evidence-based services to eligible children as part of the HCWA package,” the website says.

“This site provides a description of available interventions and fees associated with each therapy. The list is updated with new service providers as new applications to the panel are approved.”

Ms Lakaev told The Weekend Australian she never ran a cult. “It was a business with shareholders ... in today’s terminology it would be a coping skills workshop,” she said.

Asked whether she had said HIV could be cured with meditation, she said: “There is evidence for that now in the literature.”

Some functions of the HCWA program are slowly being ­absorbed into the $22 billion ­National Disability Insurance Scheme but providers are still listed under the program because the department continues to fund services for those who do not yet have access to the scheme.

Ms Lakaev said she had “provided services under the (HCWA) umbrella and, yes, I am registered as a clinical psychologist and I am working in that field successfully”.

The psychologist said she had not tried to recruit new clients for Universal Knowledge.

“People have asked me if I would ever go back to the original work we did,” she said.

She also said: “Other lifetimes, past lifetimes are sometimes things people experience in meditation and they explore those things for themselves.”

In a 2010 judgment in the ­Supreme Court of NSW, judge ­Elizabeth Fullerton said Ms Lakaev was “deliberately vague and evasive in her evidence in crucial respects and for those reasons not a witness upon whose evidence I am able to comfortably rely”.

Ms Lakaev, listed on the website of Monash University as completing a PhD on the topic of student stress, promised participants of “the next evolutionary step” that they would develop telepathy and “multidimensionality”.

A spokeswoman for the ­Department of Social Services said: “Psychologists are registered, accredited and regulated by the National Psychology Board of Australia, whose primary role is to protect the public.

“The PBA is supported by the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency.

“AHPRA is the appropriate body where complaints or concerns should be raised in the first instance.”

Medium, Carli’s Story: Exiting a Cult.

January 30, 2018

Photo by James Barr on Unsplash

As told to Sarah Steele for the Let’s Talk About Sects podcast.

Carli McConkey was a 21-year-old university graduate when she decided to attend the Mind Body Spirit Festival in Sydney, Australia, and came across the stand for Life Integration Programmes (LIP). The course they offered sounded like exactly what she needed to get her life on track and realise her potential. Little did she know that this encounter was the start of a 13-year ordeal that would see her estranged from her family, under continued financial stress, a victim and perpetrator of physical assault, working untold hours of unpaid labour, and eventually, medically sterilised.

Carli self-published her memoir ‘The Cult Effect’ in July last year. She spent over a decade with a group that’s been called a cult by many — and a content warning; this article deals with issues such as manipulative behaviours and physical assault (including of minors).

I also need to add that some of the views and opinions expressed in this article include those personal to Carli, which remain her own.

Beginnings

When she first came across Life Integration Programmes, Carli was in that “in-between” period after university and before embarking on a career. She was tired, having worked very hard to get her degree, she’d put on some weight and was feeling a bit stuck, having moved back in with her parents in Sydney after studying in Bathurst, regional New South Wales.

At the Mind Body Spirit Festival she had a psychic reading, and was told about a program called The Next Evolutionary Step. Carli received a four page brochure that “looked extremely professional, said that this particular Managing Director had taught over ten thousand people, and that I’d find my direction, be healthier, more prosperous, all the things you could ever imagine.”

She was intrigued and went right over to the stand to investigate further. The people there she describes as looking “extremely healthy and vibrant and happy, smiling, giving, sort of little healings on the stand, and they were all really motivated, and told me about it, said it’s the best thing you’ll ever do.” At a free seminar at the Hilton hotel, people got up and gave testimonials and said how The Next Evolutionary Step had changed their lives.

The actual course was held at Macquarie University, which again gave Carli a good impression, and she signed up, along with her mother and sister. It was 5 nights and a 2-day weekend, and involved going on a vegan-to-vegetarian diet, meditations, music and dancing, exercise, and rebirthing — a series of breathwork techniques that was devised in the 1970s. Carli found the whole experience joyful and positive, but then: “Right at the end, we were given a manual that told us about another seventeen or so programmes that if we wanted to reach our true potential and enlightenment and such, we needed to complete all of these.”

As she had always been, through school and her tertiary studies, Carli was a perfectionist, and says that from the start she was all-in. From that very first program she was on a trajectory and she knew she had to keep going.

One of the Life Integration Programmes concepts Carli mentioned made me think of the process of detaching ‘spirits’ that certain other groups practise: “The premise of these programmes was that you cleanse your cellular memory; your cells of this lifetime, your ancestors and also your past lives.”

Carli says that she and the other attendees were told:

“It was cutting edge, state of art, no-one else was doing it on the planet.”

And about the organisation’s Managing Director? “She was extremely charismatic, and she held the room, so well, and was able to talk off the cuff for hours and hours.”

At the time Carli came across LIP, in 1996, the programmes were very successful. There were around 80–90 people on each course, and courses were being held in Sydney, Lismore, Coffs Harbour, Gold Coast, Brisbane and even South Africa.

Carli soon moved on to the second and then the third course, which is one of the most contentious. This course, called The Final Step, was later featured on the Australian television program A Current Affair and in an article in Brisbane’s The Sunday Mail newspaper called “Camp Hell”, though the latter is no longer available on their website.

Apart from items on a proscribed list, everything else was taken from the attendees including wallets and identification. Then they were asked about the patterns each of them was looking to break, and had to stand up in front of the roomful of strangers and talk about alcoholism, sex addiction, weight issues, or whatever their own motivation was for taking the course.

Carli describes further:

“We were led eventually to a blackened out coach bus that had black curtains all over it, and we were taken to a completely isolated property, we didn’t know where we were… We had to stand in lines, in groups, we had support team members at the front of each group and they were yelling and screaming at us, telling us to do push ups, sit ups… it was all about bringing up your fears, and moving through your fears, and becoming unlimited.”

To me, this brings up elements of a US Marines-style boot camp. I understand that process to be about physical conditioning, but also about psychologically training people to act in very specific ways, as a unit, and against some of their most natural instincts including self-preservation in order to do what their job requires of them. I’m unsure of what would make this beneficial in a self-help course.

Carli continues: “So, there was lots of horrible things that happened on there. Just a couple of examples: we watched hardcore pornography, which I hadn’t been exposed to. We were sleep deprived, we only had about 2 hours sleep per night, we were told at the end that I think, I think it was only about 17 hours over the seven nights and eight days or something like that. And food deprived, we weren’t given meals for a while and then there were some cans of tomato soup left out, and some people went and had some of the tomato soup and then for those who had not eaten the soup, they made a really nutritious, nourishing meal for them and gave it to them and the rest had to just keep starving… Throughout the night we were in this tarpaulin marquee and being lectured to about different things, and if you were tired and falling asleep you had to hold a big rock over your head and stand at the side of the room. There was lots of meditations, chanting, things like that.”

The hardest thing for Carli, however, was standing up nude before the other attendees.

“We were told to get up on a stage, naked, and I was standing in front of 80 people, I was already very self-conscious about my body and we had to tell the group what we liked and didn’t like about ourselves and then other people had to comment about our bodies.”

It was some time after the bad press of the late 1990s that Life Integration Programmes changed its name to Survivor Principles, and soon after became Universal Knowledge.

Life in Universal Knowledge

Carli ended up going on to do all but two of the courses offered, and she and her husband Michael gave tens of thousands of dollars to the organisation. There was “about $44,000 or something we spent on courses,” then more was added in supposed debts by the Managing Director. “The Australian Tax Office came in to investigate her, and I was doing her accounts at the time and she made me sign a contract that I would pay her back $50,000 and said that I was responsible and that it was all my fault — it was after A Current Affair and her courses were only having about five people on them but she blamed me for all of the derision of her whole business, and blamed me for the derision of all of the future people who wouldn’t be doing The Next Evolutionary Step and evolving, so you can imagine how I felt about that. And so that $50,000 she ended up adding $20,000 to that for very ridiculous reasons, so it became $70,000.”

In another instance, Carli says: “I organised a ski trip for her and her family and she said that I didn’t book breakfasts or I didn’t book transfers so I should pay for the whole trip. So I had to pay another $10,000. I’d just separated from my husband, he’d run away by that point, and I was on the Single Mothers’ Pension, had three children, and I had to pay her $500 a week, to give her $10,000 for a ski trip she just went on.”

Carli ended up working for the group both in the office and on the property undertaking manual labour like building maintenance and gardening. This would be on top of whatever day job she had at the time, or while she was on government benefits, and she says that in a decade of work, at times 7 days a week with only Christmas Day, New Year’s Eve and Easter Sunday off, she was paid on a single occasion, $5,000 in total.

On top of the financial strain, things also often got physical. “When this cult leader was bashing me up, I was feeling like I deserved this and that because I didn’t have any strong discipline when I was growing up, then now it was time for me to have it. It was like my payback and all that type of thing. So, yeah, they’re the types of things that were going on in my head. That I deserved it and that, I had a really bad personality and I needed to change, and she was the one helping me do that.”

Carli relates the ways in which the group operated to some techniques utilised in other cults: “They use these coercive persuasion techniques, like sleep deprivation, food deprivation, group intimidation, isolation, so you’ve got all of these things that are creating the situation where, you know, I was on adrenaline the whole time, and all of those around me. And you don’t have time to think, so it’s a group mentality that is hard for normal people to fathom, but once you’re in there, you’re not going to go against the whole group because you know you’re going to get hurt, and my cult leader had the whole group around her supporting her. If anyone ever gave their own opinion or something contrary to what she believed she would just cut them down on the spot. And it was like the group would be sicking onto that person.”

Because of her schedule, Carli already had a pretty diminished relationship with her parents during this whole period of her life, but she also says that members were actively encouraged to distance themselves from family. Looking over some of her old course records, she found a note:

“‘Cut off from your parents.’ I wrote that on the back of the course folder.”

Carli had “borrowed” money from her parents along the way for various courses when she couldn’t afford them herself, and so wasn’t completely cut off from her family for her first decade in the group, but says that her contact with them was pretty limited because she couldn’t really talk about her life in any great depth with them, so it was difficult to connect.

“Yeah, my parents learnt after a long time just to stop giving money to me, because they realised that it was going straight to her.”

Once the money had stopped coming from that avenue, one year on a visit to Sydney Carli found out that her mother had been receiving information from Cult Information and Family Support meetings. She immediately relayed this information back to the leader who then told Carli that it was time to break off all contact with her parents. During this time, she missed the end of her beloved grandmother’s life as well as her funeral. She sent flowers along in her stead, hating that she couldn’t be there herself.

Carli had three sons with her partner Michael during their time with LIP and then Universal Knowledge, and she gushes about them when you ask. They’re something she’s most proud of in her life, and she’s clearly a devoted mother. But when they were little, she had to stop breastfeeding them far too soon and hand them over to others to care for just so that she could get all the work done that was required of her around the property or in the office of the organisation. And while she wouldn’t swap her sons for anything, she had always wanted a daughter as well. But it wasn’t to be.

Carli says that she and some of the other women were told that “we were bad mothers, terrible mothers, abusive mothers, we should never have been mothers, et cetera, and that we should get sterilised. And it got to towards the end, where it was about 2009, so almost a year before I eventually escaped, that I thought, ‘OK well it’s time,’ I was in a situation where I felt like I couldn’t bring another child into the world and be in this environment, it was too hard. And I wanted to get her approval, so I decided to actually do it.

“The doctor said to me, ‘Are you sure you want to do this, you’ve still got ten years of fertility left,’ and I said, ‘No it’s fine.’”

This decision would later prove extremely upsetting for Carli, as she realised her chance at having a daughter had been taken away.

Escape

With 13 years of devotion behind her, it’s almost hard to believe Carli did in the end manage to find a way to disengage. It took a lot to push her over the edge.

“At the time of escape, whether it happened on the day I escaped or just after, it’s that realisation that what you’re experiencing at this point in time is worse than death… I’d been physically bashed up by my cult leader again, I was so weak and fragile that I knew I couldn’t go through all of this trauma anymore, and she was calling me a con artist and telling me that I should be paying her even more money than I already was, and I’d been whipper-snipping for four hours that morning out on the property, and when she told me to get back to work I just physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually couldn’t do it.

“Somehow I managed to make the decision to leave and pack my car and go and pick up my children. When I got to my ex-husband’s work, I was still in the sort of frame of mind oh, you know, maybe I’ll just be able to tell my cult leader ‘No I’m gonna work just during the day, not during the night,’ those kind of things. I was playing over these arguments in my head, and actions I would take. But as soon as I saw my ex-husband, within five minutes, when I was in a safe environment, my brain just started filtering everything. It was like a light bulb moment where within 5–10 minutes, all of a sudden I realised, ‘Oh my God that was a cult, she is a cult leader,’ and, that was that.”

To those who ask why she didn’t leave sooner, Carli says there are many reasons, including a belief in the impending Apocalypse, a generally diminished state of critical thinking, and also: “My cult leader now as a registered psychologist, threatened that if I did leave, that she would report me to DOCS, Department of Child Safety, and have my children taken away from me ’cos she was going to say that I was an abusive mother and sign off on it as a psychologist.”

Resilience

Carli says that once she was out, she was lucky to have parents to go back to who had learned about cults, particularly her mother who had been attending Cult Information and Family Support meetings for a few years, and so didn’t blame her for what she’d been through. At first she thought she’d treated them so poorly over the years that they wouldn’t want to hear from her, but her now ex-husband convinced her to pick up the phone.

“They were thrilled, they were crying on the phone, they were so happy.”

Carli also attended a conference at Brisbane Parliament House: “There was sixty other cults represented there, so two months after I left this destructive situation I’m amongst people who have gone through very similar experiences, you know, the cult leaders all seemed to work from the same handbook, and that really helped me.”

She met the Fairfax journalist Michael Bachelard at this conference, when she found herself sitting next to him at a dinner. In speaking about her experiences, Michael told her that if she ever felt up to it, he’d be very happy to cover her story in the high profile newspapers he wrote for.

Carli decided to go for it, and in preparing Michael for the story with copious notes, she found a sense of catharsis: “Within the next month, I sat down for about four days and I just purged out every single thing that happened to me. It was a completely raw and probably horrible manuscript to read for Michael, but you know, that even helped me.”

The resulting article was published in The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, and subsequently Fairfax Media was sued alongside News Corp, for another article in the Gold Coast Bulletin, as well as Carli and her ex-husband Michael, and the two journalists Michael Bachelard and Anne-Louise Brown personally. Carli was fully prepared to defend the truth of everything in the article, and had to again relive her experiences over and over to ready herself for the court case. She thinks that this again helped her to work through all of the difficult things she’d been through over the preceding decade.

While Carli feels that digging into her experiences and making the vow to herself to “feel everything” has helped her get to the point she’s at today, it’s hasn’t been an easy road: “It takes so much time, from once you leave a cult to actually recover. You know, I would say that I only started feeling normal literally about seven years after I left and it’s only been about eight years now.”

I find Carli to be remarkably brave in having self-published a book about her experiences. She has already had to face the leader of this group in court once, where she and her ex-husband Michael represented themselves in the case. That matter was settled with judgement eventually being made in favour of Carli and the other defendants, and while Fairfax and News Limited agreed to take down the articles in question “to get the settlement done”, they did not have to agree to any retractions. In that case, Justice Jean Dalton said of the plaintiff, quote, “I found her evidence deliberately prevaricating and at times demonstrably untrue”.

Carli is now a woman on a mission, and has found amazing strength within herself:

“Pretty much from the time I came out, I realised I had hit rock bottom, there was only one way and that was up. I had no money, no career. I was rebuilding my whole life and that of my three children, and I guess the phrase that keeps coming to me is ‘the truth hurts’, and I don’t have to do anything to her other than tell the truth. And I’m able to do that because of the judgement in our favour. I am absolutely not fearful of her in any respect because what I’ve got in my book is the complete truth, and you know, no matter what happens I’ve got that. And truth does bring you freedom. I know that going through the courts and bringing evidence to the table, and the truth, that’s ultimately what will win and bring justice.”

Carli McConkey’s book ‘The Cult Effect’, is available via Amazon and Booktopia, and you can find the links to both on her website carlimcconkey.com.

If you’d like to hear more of Carli’s story, you can do so in Universal Knowledge, episode 5 of Let’s Talk About Sects — below, on all of the major podcasting apps and via www.ltaspod.com.

If you’ve been personally affected by involvement in a cult, or would like to support those who have been, you can find support or donate to Cult Information and Family Support if you’re in Australia (via www.cifs.org.au), and you can find resources outside of Australia with the International Cultic Studies Association (via www.icsahome.com).

In thrall to a cult: how the unwary fall victim to mind control. By Michael Bachelard, The Sunday Age and SMH online.

October 16, 2010

Carli McConkey lost 13 years of her life, and hundreds of thousands of dollars, to a New Age cult. Michael Bachelard investigates.

AS SHE left university to make her way in the world, Carli McConkey suffered all the workaday self-doubts. She believed she was overweight, was unsure of her chosen career and was worried about finding Mr Right. She was disillusioned with Catholicism and craved spiritual fulfilment. She was also bright, popular, academically successful. After she organised the 1995 orientation week at her university, a careers adviser wrote: "Carli is my idea of an outstanding Australian".

Thirteen years later, McConkey is broke and exhausted. She has been beaten up and has mistreated others. She has spent years estranged from her parents, neglected her children, misled the courts and has worked as a virtual slave. Fixed in her mind is the fear that in December 2012 the world will come to an end and all but a few of us will die. At 35, she is also sterile, having been persuaded to undergo a tubal ligation in the belief that she was an unfit mother to her three sons.

Carli McConkey is not mentally ill. Neither drugs nor alcohol has led her to this point. Instead, in 1996 she joined a New Age personal development group called Universal Knowledge, seeking clarity. Once McConkey converted to its aims, the group's leader, Natasha Lakaev, manipulated her, hit her, took hundreds of thousands of dollars from her, and worked her without pay for up to 22 hours a day, seven days a week.

McConkey spent the best years of her life in a cult. She only escaped earlier this year. What's frightening about her story is that this could happen to any of us.

Clinical Professor Doni Whitsett of the University of Southern California has been working with victims of cults and their families for 20 years. Carli's is "a tragic textbook case", she says.

Cults vary in theology and practice, but all employ similar techniques to recruit the unwary.

 

Scientology uses the free personality test to suggest everyone has deficiencies that Scientology can best address; the Australian cult Kenja uses circus classes and the promise of counselling and personal growth; and the commune-based Australian group Jesus People uses the promise of a purer form of Christianity. Natasha Lakaev used a mish-mash of New Age theories and therapies, an end-times philosophy based on environmental disaster, and a powerful personality.

Lakaev vehemently denies all allegations, saying she does not run a cult and that McConkey is unstable. What she ran was "just a series of workshops", she says. But for well over a decade, a growing number of former acolytes have emerged with identical stories of a high-pressure, abusive organisation.

Most of us find it hard to believe that anybody could allow themselves to be brainwashed in the way McConkey claims. But Whitsett says people do not join cults, they are systematically recruited, often by charismatic narcissists whose need for adulation gives them the power to manipulate others. Their victims are not mentally ill or stupid. They are often of higher-than-average intelligence, but they have vulnerabilities that the leader exploits and amplifies using powerful techniques known as "coercive persuasion" or "mind control". And like religious cults, personal development cults target people looking for guidance.

McConkey was 21 when she encountered a recruiter for Universal Knowledge, then known as Life Integration Programmes, at the 1996 Mind Body Spirit Festival in Sydney. "I was a bit lost . . . and I was definitely searching," she says. "I just wanted to have a psychic reading to have a bit of clarity on my direction . . . and [the reader] said basically, 'This course has everything you need to get over your insecurities, to build your self-esteem, get financial freedom, a great relationship' . . . The brochure said over 10,000 people have done the course. It all appeared very legitimate."

According to Whitsett, McConkey was vulnerable to these suggestions in part simply because she was in her early 20s the transition from adolescence to adulthood. "When people are 'searching', they are in an existential crisis, looking for answers to the great questions: 'Who am I? What is life all about?' They are . . . willing to suspend their own worldview and their own ideas for another that seems more promising."

McConkey took her discovery of Lakaev's northern NSW-based group as a metaphysical "sign". She immediately signed up to the course, "The Next Evolutionary Step".

In person, Lakaev was sexy, powerful, charismatic. She told attendees to keep an open mind, to "leave your logic at the door", to avoid "judgmentalism"  a technique cults use to silence the internal voice of reason. She introduced the group to a technique called "accessing" beating a black mat and yelling frustrations at parents, friends, teachers. She told them they needed to cleanse their "cellular memory" of the impurities of this and past lives, and those of their ancestors. They must live by "intuition" alone and if they did, they could "manifest" (or make) things happen in the real world. Wealth, happiness, success, relationships could all be "manifested" by the truly intuitive or "super-intelligent".

To McConkey it was inspiring. And though she had been told that the first course would fix everything, at the end the group was informed that to become fully "integrated", there were no fewer than 17 other courses, all at considerable expense, to do.

"It's a bait and switch," says Whitsett. People who believe an organisation to be credible and moderate have little fear of it, and can be drawn in further. Only later are they introduced to its more dangerous (and often more expensive) elements.

Melbourne woman Madeline Hardess, a university student and former private school captain, was lured into the Jesus People in 2004 by a man she met on a dating website. He did not initially mention that the three-bedroom house he lived in was actually a commune of up to 25 people, including two families of five.

He also did not reveal that, for food, they begged compost from grocery stores and ate the less putrid scraps. Nor did he say that the women were often beaten and yelled at. Only after a series of revelations over eight months did the truth sink in. By the time it did, Hardess was engaged and was convinced that people on the outside were corrupt or evil. She wore a headscarf to signify her subservience to the men.

"Through that period you're so excited that you've found this new thing that you don't even question that much," she said.

"But then . . . it became a lot more intense and you had to quash thoughts . . . I used to be a feminist, but then you get to the point where you're not even allowed to shake men's hands."

For McConkey, the first Life Integration course convinced her she had dozens of "issues". She immediately signed up for two more. At the next course, "The Final Step", 70 people went to a rural property in a bus with the windows blacked out. They handed over phones, wallets and identification. Their "self" was being removed, as was any means of escape. For a week they were yelled at, punished, pressured to complete tasks in a short time. In the attempt to "cleanse" themselves, they were made to go hungry, and would often only get two hours of sleep a night. They paraded naked in front of the group, which McConkey found humiliating.

The next course was even more extreme. Called "Personal Mastery and Metaphysical Counselling", it cost $10,000 and lasted a year. It featured a punishing daily regime including a strict vegan diet, a daily 10-kilometre run and drinking two litres of fruit juice.

"These techniques appear to be for health reasons but they actually have the effect of debilitation," says Whitsett. "They reduce the person's ability to think critically, to reason, and when people are so weak the 'self' is impaired, they are easier to control and manipulate."

McConkey recalls seeing visions of "spirits" what Whitsett says were probably hallucinations or "waking dreams" caused by lack of sleep. Lakaev disputes these details, saying the vegan diet was only for a short time. One year's program, she admits, became "quite extreme" but she had tried to "settle it down".

Always a conscientious student, McConkey was desperate to succeed. But Lakaev's comments to her and others were 90 per cent negative, convincing them they needed to work harder.

Adrian Norman, a former member of Sydney cult Kenja, said an apparently random reward-punishment system kept him on edge for years. "You were built up as wonderful . . . and then a week or two later you are the worst person in the world and disgusting and smelly and no one would ever want to be with you. It's like couples in abusive relationships you go into a state of hyper-awareness and you can't think critically because you don't know if you're going to be attacked."

Whitsett says this "continuous barrage of attacks on the 'self' keeps the person in a continuous state of failure, of low self-esteem, and attached to the cult".

"They want to improve, to be better people, but they can never live up to the impossible standards set by the leader."

Cult members are also often deliberately disoriented, and outside influences removed to reduce their ability to distinguish what's normal. McConkey says Lakaev insisted that she renounce her parents and never discuss anything that happened on the courses claims Lakaev denies. But Carli's mother, Robyn, remembers: "You'd just talk generally and she couldn't answer any simple questions because it pertained to what was happening up there, and it was all so secret. So there gradually just came a line where you didn't know what to talk about any more."

A Melbourne family, who wish to remain anonymous, say their son is being recruited by the Jehovah's Witnesses and they are watching him drift away from them as the cult's persuasive techniques prove "more powerful than the love of the family".

"To have a heartfelt relationship with one of your children and then to have a superficial, plastic relationship, it's gut-wrenching," says the father.

Cults also try to make it hard to find external, verifiable information. Lakaev uses lawyers to vigorously patrol public comment about her. She has legally pressured Google to remove links to websites critical of her and she is suing some former members for defamation over information they published on blogs.

Once Lakaev's disciples were hooked, their critical faculties broken down and their outside support cut off, Lakaev revealed her more extreme theology. McConkey says she claimed to be a reincarnation of Jesus Christ, and one of the 12 members on the Intergalactic Council of the Universe. She came from the "Bird Tribes" from a different dimension and she remembered all her past lives. In one of them she had been Queen of Atlantis. McConkey was told by Lakaev she had been a "lady in waiting" in Atlantis and she felt she was put on earth to serve her.

Lakaev also claimed "spirit guides" who live in the sky told her what to do. This gave her divine authority when she insisted that the planet would soon be destroyed and most people would perish. Lakaev, though, would survive with her followers and become the dominant political figure. Cult leaders often describe their god-like powers, saying that theirs is the power of life and death. A number of sources back up McConkey's claims, but Lakaev concedes only that "spirit guides" sometimes give her "very clear thoughts", and that, "from where I sit there are other dimensions that exist".

Of the other claims, though: "I do not consider myself the reincarnation of anything . . . There's no such thing as 12 members on an intergalactic council. These are just stories that we talked about, just stories to describe things and discuss things . . . They're just metaphors."

The end of the world, she claims, was not a prophecy. Her "survival" course was simply designed to help people cope if the worst did happen. McConkey vehemently stands by her version.

In her 13 years with Lakaev, McConkey completed 15 courses, some more than once, spending $41,395 on fees, much of it begged or borrowed from her parents. She met a man, Michael, and married him. He spent $34,540 on fees. Lakaev insinuated herself into every aspect of McConkey's life. She was maid of honour at Carli and Michael's wedding. McConkey insisted that Lakaev, rather than her own mother, an experienced midwife, assist at the birth of her children.

In December 1999, McConkey began working for Lakaev in the office without wages, and also cleaning and maintaining her properties. She and Michael bought a share in Lakaev's company, Universal Knowledge, for $20,000, believing they were buying equity, securing their future. They received nothing in return. Company documents show $420,000 was raised from investors in this manner, and Lakaev admits none have seen a return.

Lakaev later came up with spurious excuses to make McConkey and her husband pay her a further $140,000, claiming they were debts they owed. Both worked second and third jobs to pay this back.

McConkey estimates that Lakaev owes them another $440,000 for their free labour over nine years.

Lakaev also convinced McConkey to seek an apprehended violence order against her parents and her brother. The court rejected the applications after McConkey gave misleading evidence. Lakaev claims instead that she had tried to help McConkey reconcile with her parents.

McConkey and her husband had more than one period apart as they dealt with the psychological and financial pressures imposed by Lakaev. In the meantime, McConkey says she was psychologically abused and physically assaulted by Lakaev, and was separated from her sons because Lakaev convinced her she was a "human f--- up". Lakaev also once beat McConkey's young son with a wooden spoon, she says.

Lakaev denies any physical abuse, saying McConkey was the violent one, who had "done some very strange things with her kids". "She's going to end up in court herself . . . Carli's one of these girls who goes to psychics 24/7; she's not really that stable."

Lakaev's supporters, who phoned The Sunday Age after my interview with her last week, said Lakaev was the victim of jealousy because she was a strong, independent businesswoman. They said they had seen McConkey leaving her young children home alone when she went to work. McConkey admits neglecting her children at times, but says she was forced to in the attempt to fulfil Lakaev's demands.

For 13 years she stayed in thrall to the cult, living on or near Lakaev's northern NSW property, Omaroo. The promise of "survival", the hope of financial reward (from her shareholding in Universal Knowledge), and the occasional compliment was enough to keep her loyal. But in March 2009, in a state of exhaustion, McConkey agreed to something she will regret forever.

"After the birth of my first son, from age 27, Natasha would tell me I was abusive, a liar and a manipulator and I shouldn't look after any children. She started saying, 'You should get sterilised'," McConkey recalls.

"After eight years, two more children and being repeatedly told to get sterilised, I gave in. I was separated from my husband at that time and I just knew I wouldn't be able to cope with another child in that environment and I thought, 'Well, I'll just do it now'."

McConkey is strong. Many former cult members can never speak about their experiences. But after just nine months away from Lakaev, she held her nerve throughout her account to me. When she tells me about the sterilisation though, the tears flow.

"The doctor said, 'Are you sure you want to do this? You've still got 10 years of fertility left'. I said, 'No, it's what I want'. But it wasn't. Someone else had placed that idea in my head. I did it purely for her, to be able to focus more on her and her needs . . .

"After I left this year, I was in the girls' clothing section at Big W and I just had to really grieve that I wasn't able to have a little girl."

McConkey says the process of cult indoctrination had led her, inch by inch, to a place she could never have imagined. But Lakaev denies having any role in McConkey's decision. "I was a friend of Carli's . . . We had a symbiotic relationship," Lakaev says.

Finally, in January this year, McConkey could handle no more. She picked up her children and drove away into what she believed was certain death at doomsday. "I was exhausted, had been beaten up again and was unable to cope with any more psychological and emotional pressure. I just said to myself, 'I don't care if I die in two years' time, I would prefer to be free and enjoy my children'."

The feeling of freedom was almost immediate. But McConkey deals with shame and guilt over things she has done to her children, her family, her husband and other cult members. Some family members still will not talk to her. And she finds it difficult to plan for anything after armageddon, which Lakaev prophesied would be December 12, 2012.

"I believe about 50 per cent that 'Survival' is going to happen and I just hope that it's not going to," McConkey says. "If I wake up on the 13th [of December] and nothing has happened I'm just going to celebrate and hope to God that whoever is still caught up with that woman is just going to get up and leave."

People sometimes ask why cult members do not simply exercise their free will and run away. But Kenja escapee Adrian Norman says his free will was reduced to a "pilot light" while in the cult. Mind control techniques are subtle and powerful. They turn your own mind against you.

"Prison walls and chains are not necessary when one believes these things," says Whitsett.

The good news is people can escape and recover, and McConkey is determined to do so. "I go through bouts of feeling really down but I know I can get out of them because I don't want to be depressed any more . . . I still feel angry, but I don't feel as much fear."

Alleged leader of cult works as psychologist. My Michael Bachelard, The Sunday Age, SMH online.

October 16, 2010

A WOMAN accused of leading a cult that has damaged the lives of scores of people is working as a psychologist with vulnerable patients at a community mental health service in Queensland.

Natasha Lakaev’s Universal Knowledge organisation was offering courses until last year that prophesied the world would end in December 2012 and almost everyone except her devotees would die.

A former member of her inner circle, Carli McConkey, has told The Sunday Age that Ms Lakaev was physically violent and psychologically manipulative, and had persuaded her followers that she was the Queen of Atlantis, a reincarnation of Jesus Christ, and one of 12 members of the Intergalactic Council of the Universe.

Ms Lakaev is now working as a government-employed psychologist at the Ashmore Community Mental Health Service near Surfers Paradise.

However, after The Sunday Age raised questions about her history, Queensland Health agreed to investigate the claims against her, and invited ‘‘anyone with concerns’’ to raise them with authorities.

Ms Lakaev denies all the claims of her former followers, saying she did not run a cult, had never been violent, and the theological claims were merely ‘‘metaphors’’, adding, ‘‘this stuff has been taken completely out of context’’.

Complaints against her by former acolytes have been investigated once by Queensland’s health regulator, but no action taken. The national health regulator will not comment except to say Ms Lakaev ‘‘has current registration and is therefore deemed fit to practise’’.

Ms Lakaev’s lawyers wrote last December that she was working as a case manager.

‘‘A large proportion of her clients are often initially highly unstable with disorders such as schizophrenia, delusional disorders, major depression, major anxiety and personality disorders,’’ the letter said. ‘‘Forensic clients with homicidal backgrounds are also present on the clinic client list.’’

Ms Lakaev has faced criticism for more than a decade about the extreme practices on her courses, and accusations that she was a practitioner of ‘‘coercive persuasion’’ or mind control techniques.

Ms McConkey, who spent 13 years under Ms Lakaev’s sway and only escaped in January this year, said Ms Lakaev had hit her and exploited her.

Ms McConkey lived on or near Ms Lakaev’s northern NSW property, Omaroo, near Burringbar, for many years, and during that time handed over $140,000 and spent nine years working without pay in her office.

‘‘Natasha Lakaev should in no way be a registered psychologist,’’ Ms McConkey said.

Ms Lakaev’s business, Universal Knowledge, is styled as a new age personal development course. It has not offered courses since last year, but the program promises to cleanse the ‘‘cellular memory’’ of its participants and help them take the ‘‘next evolutionary step’’ by lifting them into the fourth dimension.

Ms Lakaev told The Sunday Age she had not worked with the business for many years.

However, she founded the business in 1999 and she is listed on the website as ‘‘guiding individuals and groups for over 20 years in cellular memory cleansing’’. It is based at her property and is run by one of her devotees, and she and her children own 75 per cent of the shares.

She begged The Sunday Age not to refer to her work at Ashmore. She said: ‘‘I don’t harm people, I’m really good at my job, my clients are fine, my patients are fine.’’

Alleged cult leader to settle defamation claims out of court. By Chris Calcino, APN.

October 10, 2014

BROKE and faced with having to represent herself in a defamation lawsuit against some of Australia's most powerful media organisations, the leader of alleged Burringbar-based cult Universal Knowledge opted to settle out of court.

 

Natasha Lakaev took to task Fairfax-owned newspaper The Age and News Ltd publication the Gold Coast Bulletin over articles allegedly stating she had led a cult which used mind control techniques to coerce financial gain from vulnerable members.

In ruling in their favour, Justice Jean Dalton accepted the evidence former cult members Carli McConkey and Michael Greene had given.

She said Ms Lakaev's evidence was "deliberately prevaricating and at times demonstrably untrue" in rejecting her application for adjournment so she could muster the funds to hire legal representation.

Ms Lakaev, who gave her occupation as "clinical psychologist", could only afford to secure barrister Peter Travis to seek an adjournment to the case - one Justice Dalton said would likely have lasted up to 18 months.

Mr Travis said Ms Lakaev hoped to sell her Burringbar property "Omaroo" - a 100ha former headquarters for Universal Knowledge at 105 Hunter St - in order to afford adequate legal representation.

The property recently failed to sell at auction and has been on the market continuously since 2009 for prices ranging between $1.2 million and $3.3 million.

Ms Lakaev said a meditation school had shown interest but nothing was set in stone.

Another waterfront unit in a Burleigh Heads high rise is on the market due to Ms Lakaev owing more than $600,000 to the Commonwealth Bank.

The Age journalist Michael Bachelard and former Gold Coast Bulletin reporter Anne-Louise Brown also were named as defendants in the lawsuit. Each also had judgment entered in their favour against Ms Lakaev.

Former Universal Knowledge member Carli McConkey, an interview subject of the articles, and her husband Michael Greene also faced defamation claims over the articles.

Ms McConkey told the court Ms Lakaev's assertion she had only been involved in one prior lawsuit was a lie.

"Before she started Universal Knowledge, she had a company called the Hospitality Training Group… and I know she had court cases to do with that and judgment handed down in the New South Wales Supreme Court," she said.

She further stated Ms Lakaev had filed lawsuits following a 1998 feature on A Current Affair "claiming she was a cult leader and conned people into handing over" large sums of money.

Ms McConkey said another lawsuit from insurance company ING stemmed from dishonest income protection claims Ms Lakaev made about her former partner, referred to as "Nick", "who had run away and come back and was not well at all and was in a mental institution".

She said Ms Lakaev asked her to forge cheques of up to $45,000 "to prove he was getting paid, when he wasn't".

He has since died.

Ms Lakaev said medical issues would make representing herself difficult but did not give any accounts from doctors.

"I had an accident a few years ago and some of my very specific memories from some events aren't there," she said.

Ms Lakaev, who had two of her closest supporters Christopher Wellington and Keicha Adams watching from the public gallery, held her face in her hands as the court denied her application for an adjournment.

Justice Dalton said she should not be rewarded for trying "to avoid anything that might do otherwise than bolster her case" in her evidence, especially since she had initiated the court case and had twice refused the defendants when they applied for an adjournment.

Wednesday morning's sitting lasted only a few minutes, following the previous night's settlement, with Justice Dalton entering judgment in favour of all of the defendants.

- APN NEWSDESK

Natasha Lakaev's evidence 'deliberately untrue', says Judge. By Michael Bachelard, Sydney Morning Herald.

October 12, 2014

Four years ago I wrote a story in The Sunday Age about a brave young woman who had been trapped in a small, northern-NSW new-age cult for 12 years. 

She'd lost that portion of her life, as well as hundreds of thousands of dollars, both buying useless courses and in direct payments to the cult leader, Natasha Lakaev.

She'd been hit, dominated, humiliated, worked without pay for up to 22 hours a day and, when I spoke to her, was still frightened that the end of the world was nigh. She'd had her tubes tied because she believed what Lakaev had told her: that she was a "human f--k up" who could not properly look after her three children. She grieved over the daughter she'd never have.

But, unlike most victims of cults, this young woman - I will not name her because she has been through enough already - was courageous enough to want to tell all this to the world. She wanted to warn others about Lakaev, and to say out loud that she was no longer afraid of her.

I had written already about the Exclusive Brethren so had some knowledge of the subject, and wanted to help her do this. I also wanted to use her case to explain to my readers how cults recruit the young, the clever, the searching, and then proceed to grind them down.

In the research for the story, I found out that Lakaev was working as a registered psychologist for a Queensland government health centre on the Gold Coast, looking after patients she herself had described as vulnerable. I wrote about that, too.

I also found out she was litigious and had sued former cult members for allegedly writing about her on internet forums after she had legally forced a website to reveal the identities of its users. She had also sued A Current Affair for an earlier story. The result was that many adverse stories about her were not available.

She sent a warning letter to Google trying to have adverse mentions of her removed. She was adept, in other words, at cleansing her online image.

You cannot read my stories online any more either. Fairfax Media has removed them as part of a legal settlement with Lakaev reached in the early hours of Wednesday morning that ends the four-year defamation case she launched against Fairfax as well as News Limited -  which wrote wrote a follow-up story to mine - me personally and two of the people quoted in the stories.

After four years of dragging this case through the courts, and hundreds of thousands of dollars in expenses, Lakaev had her day in court this week. It was to argue to the Queensland Supreme Court for yet another delay, after she had failed properly to prepare for a four-week jury trial. It turns out that she'd made little real effort to do anything at all to prepare.

Her tactics, perhaps, were simply to delay so long, piling the emotional pressure on people she had already systematically victimised once, to wring a financial settlement out of Fairfax and the other defendants.

It did not work. In court, applying for the adjournment. The judge said that: "The plaintiff prevaricated, talked in circumlocutions, and otherwise tried to avoid anything that might do otherwise than bolster a case."

And again: "I found her evidence deliberately prevaricating and at times demonstrably untrue during the course of this adjournment application."

The judge refused the adjournment application and told Lakaev to be ready to conduct the trial by herself, starting next week. Confronted with the reality of running the case, Lakaev began negotiating to settle.

Settlement was reached on the basis that nothing of what my stories said, nor what my brave subject was willing and able to prove in court, was retracted. 

Fairfax agreed to take down our articles to get the settlement done, but nothing says we cannot write another account of events. No money changed hands. 

Judgment was entered against Lakaev and for the defendants. According to the law, Fairfax, the brave young woman and her former husband, our other co-defendants and I, won the case.

What do we make of all this?

Defamation law, in the hands of a highly determined and litigious individual, is a powerful deterrent to public-interest journalism. Fairfax and News Limited stood ready to prove every one of the things we wrote about Lakaev, but it took four expensive years even to get to the door of the court. Then, but for the good sense of the judge it might have taken 18 months more. We will receive nothing back from the investment of hundreds of thousands of dollars spent preparing our case. It is unlikely Lakaev could have met our costs, she was hoping she was the one who'd get the payout. Lesser organisations or individuals, once their research revealed how litigious she is, may have pulled back from publishing a story that was clearly in the public interest.

When we talk about the demise of well-funded commercial media, this is one of the potential casualties.

And, finally, to the American ballet school that Lakaev is suing: hang tough. She spends a lot of time shaping up to people through the courts, but under cross-examination she's not much of a witness.

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