Appreciating the dark side of life since 1975.

Brightside Biography: I Was Born Into a Cult

Brightside Biography: I Was Born Into a Cult

Julius Schacknow proclaimed himself to be Jesus Christ in 1970.

For almost 3 decades, Brother Julius would lead hundreds of members in “The Work,” a cult which eventually ended with lawsuits, sexual assault charges and murder between cult members. (Fun!)

It was in the midst of this chaos that Kate (not her real name) was born. Her parents were members of the cult and had been set up through an arranged marriage (by Julius, of course). She was named by the cult, which explains her “different” name (I had always wondered where it came from).

But who decides to join a cult, anyway? Don’t people know any better?

It turns out that everyday, normal people are susceptible to cults and some people are just plain old born into them. To my surprise, Kate was one of those people.

I had NO CLUE that she had been in a cult. Granted, we weren’t BFFs or anything. We had mutual friends, but I never got to know her super well. Fast forward to 2017 and the start of this blog.  She messaged me, we started chatting and she spilled the beans. When she told me, I did the whole yell-shut-up-and-push-her-over thing (in my mind, of course).

Here’s her story.

YATB: How did your parents end up joining and where are they from? I’m assuming they joined separately since they had an arranged marriage?

Kate: On arranged marriages – I don’t know how much independence people had on who they married. I believe they were able to show initial interest in each other, but all marriages were approved by Julius and Joann (Julius’s wife). After my dad left, my mother fell in love with a man and Joann didn’t approve, so they were not allowed to marry. This man died from a heroin overdose about 5 yrs later. The leaders also arranged marriages for the children, binding them to each other, though it didn’t go beyond that.

Brother Julius Schacknow, leader of The Work
Brother Julius Schacknow, leader of The Work

YATB: Were there qualities about them that you feel made them susceptible to being “preyed” on?

Kate: My mom is from an East Coast town (where I grew up) and my dad lived in the Southeast for most of his life. I don’t know how my dad ended up there or how he joined. My paternal grandfather, from what I’ve heard was a scam artist, an alcoholic, abusive, and suffered from PTSD. He was on a ship that was hit by a kamikaze pilot in WWII and only survived by chance. My grandfather once moved his family in the middle of the night after some scheme fell apart. He died young from liver failure. I don’t have any memory of either of my paternal grandparents. From what I’ve heard, my paternal grandmother was quiet and passive.

My dad’s a conspiracy truther, who believes the flat earth movement is a government plan to discredit the real truthers. He believes events like Sandy Hook are false flag operations run by crisis actors. Thinking about that concept, I understand it – it’s reassuring. No one dies, everything is a play and nothing is real. He believes he’s being watched by the government, LSD is illegal because it opens your aura and the government doesn’t want that, and he’s a powerful wizard.

My mother is the oldest of 4, when she was about 4 yrs old, her mother was pregnant with her 3rd child, and her sister died at the age of 2 after a lifetime battle with cancer. I think her childhood was hard and the children born after her sister’s death were treated differently than she was. I don’t think she had the support she needed. I was told as a kid that my mom “ran away to Boston” at 18. Not really sure what they expected her to do. She moved with friends. She had lived in Boston for less than a year when she found Brother Julius preaching.

All that said, from research I’ve done, anyone can fall into a cult. There were quite a few members that joined in the 70’s because they didn’t want to be gay, there are members that needed a parental figure, and there are those that just needed the security of knowing a “truth” and higher purpose to their existence. At this point, Julius was allowed to preach IN public high schools. He would travel all over the Northeast and parents would allow their teenaged kids to leave with him and live a life of god. Early on he wasn’t claiming to be THE god. God spoke to him.

YATB: Did they grow up in religious families?

Kate: I don’t know with my paternal grandparents. My aunts, I think they now identify as Jewish and Gypsy. I’m 1/8th Jewish and they would be 1/4th on their father’s side. They read tarot cards and have a lot of magical thinking.

My maternal grandparents both worked for the government and were agnostic Unitarians. Though my grandmother believes she has ESP and a guardian angel.

YATB: How often did you interact with Brother Julius? Do you have many memories of him? Early memories of the cult in general?

Kate: Memories are a funny thing. Growing up I’d have ideas in my head of things that happened in the cult. I honestly thought I made them up. I remembered a family being brought to the front of the group, then bent over bare-bottomed and being publicly spanked. I remember having to sit quietly. I remember being screamed at by members of the church because I was sleeping at their house when my mom was institutionalized. I asked for a pillow once and they said, “Jesus didn’t have a pillow. Who do you think you are?” I remember Brother Julius giving me a piece of candy after being taken to his back office. I remember that I didn’t like the way he smelled (sweat and kosher wine). I remember his wife, who I was scared of. She could yell, but I was supposed to be nice to her. I remember some of the kids and my mom’s various roommates. I remember playing in a fountain in a park after a full day’s meeting. I remember 3 or 4 of the apartments we lived in from age 2 to 5. I remember asking my mom about Jonestown and asking if they were part of our group. I remember that as though we were still in the group, but checking the dates, I’m pretty sure we were out by then.

Mostly I remember life after we left. I remember being scared that we were going to die and go to hell. I remember telling my Kindergarten teacher that I wasn’t allowed to wear makeup. Our class was dressing up as clowns and having a parade through the school. When a parent tried to put it on me I cried and cried. I told them that only whores wore makeup and that if I did I would go to hell (yeah…. I stuck out at school – I was considered really weird….). I didn’t get to go trick or treating for the first time until I was 9 and even then, my mother was scared for my soul. After leaving I only went to church when I spent the night at friend’s houses, but I knew every bible story.

YATB: What kind of manipulation/control tactics did he use?

Kate: In the beginning, his tricks were simple carnival tricks – cold reading a crowd. Saying things and waiting to see a look across someone’s face that shows he struck a nerve.

Everyone was renamed – with names like Love, Justice, Temperance, Tolerance, Calmness, Grace, Faith, Innocence – to name a few.
Marriages where only on consent of the leader and his wife. The leader and his wife named any and all children born into the cult. Joann named me.

I have a stuffed animal duck that I found in a basement when I was 2 or 3 and named him “Evidence” short for “Evidence of Things Not Seen”
The words “I” and “me” were not allowed we were “the vessel.”
Hours and hours of meetings. Tithing of 10% along with free labor.

The cult ran a Century21 office (those mustard colored coats always freaked me out after we left but I didn’t realize why until about 10 yrs ago). They also ran a construction company. The cult would build and sell the houses for free, while the people doing all the work were collecting unemployment or welfare and then give 10% of that back to the cult.

There was a constant threat while in the cult. If members left, they were (told) they were going to die of AIDS, drug overdoses or other diseases. Not only would they lose their place in heaven, but life on earth would be torture.

YATB: So it sounds like a typical day in the life of a cult member would be attending meetings and working for free, basically. What did the meetings consist of? Did the children in the cult attend any sort of school?

Kate: Meetings were long… Meetings were every day for hours, with longer ones on the weekend. Everything you did in a day revolved around the cult. Every action, every thought. Simple things like how you put your clothes on, the order of your clothes in your dresser, saying, “Peace be on this house/car/building” when you walked in, your first thought when you woke up and your last thought before you went to sleep.

Meetings included lots of preaching by Julius, his wife Joanne and the apostles. There was speaking in tongues, songs. I don’t have a lot of memories of the meetings.

There were lots of children, from younger ages to high school age. Many of the high school aged kids had left home, with their parent’s permission to join and live with the cult. They went to public school. At that time Julius was allowed into the public schools to preach, too.

YATB: Did everyone live separately in their own house (like “regular” people) or did they somewhat live together? I would imagine there would be some sort of strict rules regarding being out in the community (go shopping, engaging with people outside of the cult)?

Kate: Another way Julius made money was that Tampco owned some of the apartment buildings everyone lived in. Other places were houses owned by members who rented out parts of their house. That was income, so most of it went back to Julius and Joanne. Almost everyone had roommates that were other cult members – mostly because everyone was so poor they couldn’t live alone.

Some people worked in the community, we shopped in the community, but it was always an Us vs Them kind of situation. We maintained a protective bubble around ourselves from the outside world. If we showed signs of that bubble breaking down, we were punished.

YATB: What sort of promises did the the cult make to it’s members? Would you say that it’s members felt that Brother Julius fulfilled the promises that he made?

Kate: The promise was simply knowing god, knowing the Truth, and salvation. None of which was fulfilled. Julius died – he didn’t rise again, but that didn’t stop die hard members from believing. It’s still active.

If he didn’t fulfill a promise, there was always a reason and it was the word of god, so who could argue?

YATB: What do you feel like the cult took from you, if anything? What have you done to rectify this with yourself?

Kate: We got out while I was so young, that I feel like it just is. I don’t know what I’d be without it, except I know what I wouldn’t be. It’s as much a part of me as any of my other experiences.

But I had a really hard time in elementary and middle school. My mom took a long time to recover and couldn’t take the best care of me. Though we lived with my grandparents I was alone most of the time. I’d go to school as a little kid dirty with uncombed hair, in stressful situations I’d pee my pants (figure I’ll be radically honest, haha). I had undiagnosed dyslexia (figured it out in college) and major issues with authority. These days, someone would have noticed  – my behaviors would have been reported with concern.

I’ll tell you a funny story from college that kinda formed my opinion about my life and my experiences. I met this super awkward guy one day and ended up hanging out with him for a night. I’m guessing he’d never spent that much time with a girl in his life. So, he decides to open up to me and tell me the most painful story of his life. The story ended up being about him being a boy scout leader and being so sure his troop was going to win an award that he stood up and started walking up to the stage. He’s telling me this story in intense detail, practically with tears in his eyes, and his voice shaking. The only thing I could think was, “You fucking asshole… I’m going to replace that story with a better one. The one where you tell your most painful story to a girl for the first time and she beats the shit out of you.” Instead I just left, pissed off as hell, and never talked to him again.

It took me about a week of feeling sorry for myself, but then I realized that the world we know, what we experience is all we know. Therefore, our most painful story is just that, our most painful story and that is okay. I guess that was one of the first times I didn’t feel completely weird for my experiences, if that makes sense.

I’ve also been in and out of therapy since I was 10. I used to have intense anger – my mom and I would fight – fists, biting, pushing, kicking. We found a good therapist that was able to stop that, though I’d still explode every once in awhile. I’ve had a few broken bones thanks to my outbursts (none since reaching adulthood, though).

I’ve been in a few situations that “triggered” reactions from being in the cult (one was a senior women’s study class – I failed the class and didn’t realize until about 5 years ago why I couldn’t handle the class). When I meet people named Julius or Joann, I have a hard time getting passed their names. I find myself automatically seeing them as a liar, a cheat and a thief. I’m sure I come across as moody and strange.

I also know that when I’m in a “fight or flight” situation, I fight without thinking. This has almost gotten me in trouble a few times. I’ve stopped a purse snatcher in his tracks – throwing him to the ground, I’ve rushed a man 10 yrs older and with 100 lbs on me after he attacked a neighbor (I was pregnant at the time, too). And I’ve stood my place in too many confrontations where I should have found safety instead.

I never got over my issues with authority. One other thing I took away from my experiences of my parents and the cult–I’ve always been terrified of a lack of control. That’s why I seldom was drunk and I never tried hard drugs. I was pretty sure I’d lose my mind like both of my parents did and maybe I’d come back like my mom or maybe I wouldn’t.

YATB: Do you think that Brother Julius founded this group because he had strong convictions or was it pure manipulation?

Kate: There is a lot of debate about this with ex-members. Some believe he was delusional – that he really did believe he was God on Earth and was swayed by his power and the evil in the world. Personally, I believe he was purely manipulative – a Charles Manson personality, who found great pleasure in controlling people. I believe he loved making people feel powerful and like complete trash. He liked dictating people’s actions, view of the world, who they were, down to their core.

YATB: You’ve mentioned abuse in the cult, can you speak a little more about that?

Kate: People died because of him. There were multiple suicides, there were multiple psychological breakdowns. There’s maybe one or more murders. One of Julius’ young brainwashed rape victims died from a fall down the stairs when he was the only other person in the house. Within the last few months it has come out the Julius’ son, along with another member, killed Paul because Joann manipulated them into it. The other member is two years younger than me and was born into the cult while I was there. I can’t feel bad for Paul or for Julius’ son–they took full advantage of their ranking and everyone around them. I feel fro the family of the member that helped in the murder. It’s hard not to think this guy was so psychologically damaged he didn’t have any real free will.

Parents were told to harshly punish their children – spare the rod, spoil the child. If you didn’t punish your children physically for missteps and mistakes, you were giving them to Satan.

Julius had “special work” he performed on teenage female members. Sadistic sexual abuse and rape. Multiple charges were brought against him, but he was never found guilty. All of the cases were settled out of court. One of Julius’ sons is currently serving time for raping children in the cult. Julius began teaching his son at an early age to abuse and rape–it was his son’s birth-given right. There were other child molesters in the cult, as well. And as I mentioned, one of Julius’ other sons is currently being held on murder charges.

The psychological abuse was insane. Everything a person did or didn’t do was subject to judgement by Julius, Joanne, and Paul. My mom’s psychotic breakdown started with me putting my coat on backwards (as a 4 yr old will do, because it’s silly). That was a sign that the devil was surrounding me and trying to take me. Everything was a sign, everything was symbolic.

I don’t know if anything happened to me, but I believe it did. Before the internet, I told my mother that I had been brought in for “special work” though I had never heard that term before. My mom said that I asked every question there was to ask about sex by the age of 3, including questions on petting and oral sex. From what I’ve learned as an adult, my thoughts on sex as a young child were more closely related to someone with experience than that of a child. I’m glad I don’t have a memory of it. I don’t know if his son was involved or maybe another boy, but it has that feeling of foggy memory that I’ve learned to trust.

YATB: What would it take to get kicked out?

Kate: Of the people that left – most left on their own, with no warning, and with nothing but the clothes on their backs, not knowing if they’d have any relationship with family members that stayed. A few were kicked out after significant mental breakdowns.  Many were kicked out on the whim of the leaders, many members begged to come back. If one of the leaders didn’t like you, your life was hell on earth until you left or you were broken.

Thank you VERY MUCH to Kate for sharing her story. I know it wasn’t easy.

Does anyone have any questions or comments for Kate?  Do any of you know anyone who was in a cult?

I would love to hear from you!