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.
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.
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.”
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).