A woman who escaped from a cult as a teenager is sharing her story to help encourage other victims to come forward.
Dawn Watson grew up in the notorious and international sex cult The Children of God. As a child, she dreamed of escaping from the realities and abuses of cult life.
Age 13, she was able to escape for real from the Children of God – now known as Family International – but her journey to recovery has been a long one, marked with painful memories that have taken far longer to heal from.
“As you learned to brush your teeth as children, we learned to have sex: ‘This is what you have to do, this is how it happens,'" Dawn says.
“We learnt God is love and the way to express God’s love is through sexuality. I never knew anything different from that.
“I think that no one will truly understand unless you have lived it, what abuse is. And abuse I say in all forms. Abused sexually, abused emotionally and abuse spiritually."
Bizarrely, despite being born and raised in Brazil, Dawn never learned to speak Portuguese – the country's official language. Instead
Dawn says her only comfort throughout her harrowing upbringing was the company of her pet dog, Midnight.
“My alone time was something I cherished a lot. I think that was my escape," she explains.
“I used to have a dog called Midnight and he was the cutest thing and he had a big doghouse and I would sit down in that doghouse for hours and hours and just look at him.
"And he seemed to understand everything that was going on and it was a therapy for me. Because I could talk to him about anything and I knew he wasn’t going to judge me. He wasn’t going to punish me.”
The Children of God began in 1968, started by a man called David Brandt Berg in Huntington California. By 1972, there were 130 communities of full-time members scattered throughout the world – including Brazil, where Dawn was born and raised.
Purporting himself to be a man of God who wanted to start up a network of global communities of likeminded individuals, in fact Berg had a troubled history.
Hollywood actors Rose McGowan and Joaquin Phoenix have both shared details of their own early childhood experiences in the sect.
"David Brandt Berg had a lot of darkness inside him," Dawn says.
"Before he even began this community he had problems with his own children. He used to abuse his own children. He was kicked out of the church before starting this community because he wanted to have many wives. He didn’t know how to have one woman.“
By the time Dawn was born into the cult, Berg was a shadowy figure who existed to the members through his teachings and status as ‘’Father David.”
But the culture of abuse and hypersexuality was still rife. Dawn recalls as a child being exposed to images of naked women nailed to crucifixes, and posters captioned "Hookers for Jesus", produced by the Children of God.
She explained that women and children were encouraged to have alone-time with their "uncles" and the cult brainwashed its members into believing that being part of sex acts – even if they were at a young age and didn’t understand what they were doing – was all part of God’s expression of love.
"I never had any father figure growing up in the community," Dawn explains.
"Not someone that I could relate to and... was protective of me. I always looked at men and uncles of the community as danger and I wanted to be as far away as I could from them."
Known as "flirty fishing", young women were sent outside of the community to prostitute themselves, to raise money for the commune.
“He convinced the women so much that this was part of a cause and that if you didn’t want to do it, if you didn’t have the faith to do it, it was because you were weak spiritually," Dawn explains.
“Flirty fishing was from teenagers up. I understood that maybe one day I would have to do it and that, it was something natural and normal and kind of like you should think yourself as a hero.”
Questioning the ways of the community was frowned upon – and those who did were punished.
“A lot of the kids would get Scotch tape on their mouth, as in, You don’t talk about things that are not of this culture or our belief systems," Dawn explains. We had a spanking room that I was always in and out of.
“I remember one day, we were just kids being kids, and we ended up getting a punishment and I remember I got so many spankings that my whole leg was bruised and I remember going to my mom and saying, ‘Is this love?’"
Dawn, who was born into the cult, lived there with her mother and brother. Perhaps worst of all, she says, is the fact that her own mother was oblivious to much of the abuse.
“My mom definitely did not know many of the things that were happening; they always put her to go and sing and always gave her so many jobs to do," Dawn says.
“A lot of times women were not taking care of their own children. They were always with uncles and aunties.”
The children in the community weren’t given a real education, further trapping them in the cycle of abuse and brainwashing.
“We weren’t permitted a lot to study or read books or anything that was gonna take our mind away from the education that they were giving us,” Dawn explains.
Frustrated with the lack of answers to her questions, Dawn started to sneak out some nights, bringing back with her cigars and music.
One of the first songs she ever heard – other than one of Children of God’s own – was by Eminem.
Dawn couldn’t get rid of the unshakeable feeling that the so-called expressions of love in the community were not right, so she decided, aged 13, to leave.
“I finally got to a point in my life where I needed a way out," Dawn tells.
"I desperately said, You know what? If the outside world is a terrible place, if God is going to judge me and kill me and I am going to hell. I really don’t care.
“Leaving the community and having to figure out life in the outside world was really difficult, exciting, scary, bunch of different emotions.”
Dawn left behind her mother and brother and spent over three years staying at the homes of various ex-members.
“I jumped from house to house, especially ex-members, people that I had left already and then had the little homes. They would accept me and I would jump from place to place that where people that had left the community,” she says.
"So, it felt familiar but at the same time I still had to interact with people from the outside world."
Believing she had closed the door on the darkest chapter of her life, Dawn was then raped when she was 15.
“I experienced rape in one of the houses that I was staying at," she says.
“It was one of my darkest moments and it was at that moment I called up my mum and finally she found the strength to get out of the community.
"She was able to leave and I was able to come home. It was that feeling of, Okay now we can start again and begin to construct a new life and I am not alone in this.”
Reunited with her family, Dawn studied psychology – a considerable feat given that despite being born in Brazil, she knew no Portuguese when she left Children of God.
However, she still struggled to feel part of the world she’d been shut off from for so long.
“I still wasn’t comfortable talking about where I had come from," Dawn explains. "There was a lot of gaps that people couldn’t understand. ‘Why do you have an accent?’ I was born in Brazil, but Portuguese was never my first language.
"Or they would talk about a television series or just normal things that were happening in Brazil. I had no idea. I felt like an alien in this world that I couldn’t connect to anything that people were talking about.
“I ended up having to make up a story. Make up different background of where I came from. So that I can feel like I would fit in. But that began to really make me feel terrible inside, like I can never be me.”
In 2014, Dawn sold up most of her possessions to pay for a ticket to Date with Destiny, a self-help event led by entrepreneur and life coach Tony Robbins. There she publicly shared her story for the first time.
“At that moment for me it was, ‘I’ve been through so much pain, I’ve so much baggage’ I just need to liberate that within me," Dawn says.
"It was a very scary moment of my life but I started to receive emails and messages from men and women saying, ’Your story helped me deal with a pain that I was going through.’”
Dawn has been able to rebuild not only her own life but those of others, too. In 2016 she started her own non-profit, Dawn Watson’s Institute.
"I take people that have gone through extreme amounts of pain and I help them go through the process that I’ve gone through in my life of forgiveness of emptying, of owning what they have," she explains.
“Helping people start to break the silence within themselves, what they went through. And then they can begin the process of healing.
“I think the way that I relate to my past, it really defines how people will relate to me. I felt like the more I am ashamed of my past, didn’t wan to talk about it.
“But now I talk about it as ‘this is me and I am not ashamed of it. This is where I came from.”
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