Book author reveals (almost) all
She has a habit of sitting back and closing her eyes while she thinks, a tiny worry line creasing her forehead as she recalls the cult that dominated her life for a decade.
For all the pain those memories clearly dredge up, Lesley Smailes will not give away all of her secrets, which is somewhat strange for a woman whose tell-all book Cult Sister was launched earlier this week in Port Elizabeth.
But Smailes, 52, who ran off with a small band of reclusive “brothers and sisters” at 18 when visiting the US, has her reasons.
She says she believes in forgiveness and protecting people’s privacy, not least of all her children, all of whom were born into the cult that doesn’t really have a name.
It was 1983 when Smailes left Port Elizabeth on what should have been a gap year.
In 1992 she returned, still a young woman but with three children in tow, bringing with her a lifetime of memories and far too many nightmares.
Told largely through a series of letters between Smailes and her mother, the book tells of a remarkable life focused largely on her 10 years in the cult, also giving personal peeks into a tragic childhood.
When it comes to the cult, it all started in a park in New York when Smailes chatted to a man about Christ, morals and being a better person.
The very next day Smailes, who admits to promiscuity and other vices, moved in with the group who have been referred to as the Garbage Eaters, the Raincoat People and The Bicycle Christians.
What followed was a decade crisscrossing the US, surviving on food found in dumpsters, hitchhiking, sewing, cleaning and living in abandoned buildings – searching for redemption.
Twenty years Smailes’s book has been published.
Writing it had been traumatic, she said. Remembering, reliving, opening old wounds that had scabbed over, is how she explains it.
The trauma was a result of the isolation she felt and the rigidity of a group where she “could not honour my gut [and] was subject to those in authority”.
The strict rules and discipline meted out to children and the constant fear of losing them to social services all exacerbated the trauma.
The group did not work, surviving by finding food in dumpsters, selling goods they found and fixing broken items.
In between they “witnessed” to people, often bringing them home to join a later, finally group where antiquated clothing was worn, women were subservient and men grew beards. Smailes submitted to it all. It was when she had children that she really found the going tough.
“It’s traumatic living out of a backpack and having children,” she said.
All three of her children were born at home with no medical assistance bar a “sister midwife”.
The Church, as the group sometimes called itself, eschewed modern medicine, trusting only in God.
The book highlights Smailes’s marriage to a man she barely knew, the few visits from her family – something of an oddity for a cult that fervently hid from most members’ families – and relationships forged.
Smailes said she tried to live without regret but as she said this, tears were rolling down her cheeks.
“I regret hurting people,” she said, explaining that she cries easily as “when you have been broken it’s easy to cry”.
Many who left the cult, started by Jim Roberts, write scathingly of the man called Brother Evangelist. Smailes does not. She says she believes his true intention was to be a good shepherd.
“I wouldn’t want people to magnify my faults,” she said, explaining she went through far more pain than the book describes but she deliberately chose not to malign others.
On religion, Smailes admits that for some time after returning to Port Elizabeth she struggled with Christianity, leading a hedonistic life after her divorce.
“I grew up with my children. I knew all the bouncers at the clubs. I love to dance and many of my friends are fringe people. I guess that’s who I am,” she said.
“I became disillusioned with the church world. I didn’t feel accepted.”
That changed somewhat when Smailes joined Father’s House Church, but even now you can see the internal struggle she has with mainstream churches, as she calls them.
“I would never have dreamt I would belong. It’s very mainstream but I love the ministry for what they do with the poor, hungry and homeless,” she said.
Smailes hopes her book will encourage people, making them realise much can be overcome.
She has overcome many tribulations but when she leans back against the wall, closes her eyes and sorrowfully rubs her fingers along the ridge of her nose, it’s easy to see the tragic teen who joined a cult.
It’s that pain that helps her help others as a reflexologist and meridian healer. “I call myself the unlocker of the cry. As a therapist I can access people’s pain,” she said.