She grew up in a cult but escaped. Then she was nearly felled by a fruit salad.
Life outside the cult was much harder to navigate than she’d ever thought possible.
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Erika Bornman escaped a misogynist evangelical cult in South Africa when she was 21. Her life since childhood had been ruled by the cult’s leader, Erlo Stegen, who, with his cohorts, meted out “God’s judgment” for the slightest misdemeanors, often beating the hundreds of children in their care until they were bleeding. Bornman published a book about her story in 2021. Below is an excerpt that served as a prologue, which takes place a few years after her escape from the cult, which is called KwaSizabantu.
The prologue to my book is about the terrifying ordeal of being faced with a malevolent fruit, a pawpaw. It’s about the absolute foreignness of when you’ve left a cult and you have to learn a whole new language in a whole new world among complete strangers. Also, you’ve been broken down so much by the cult that you don’t trust yourself. So, when I was asked at age 25 to make a fruit salad, I broke down because nobody had taught me how to make a fruit salad, and I knew absolutely that I would fuck it up. I had been taught that I was nothing and I could not trust myself and that the cult and its leader were the only people who knew the right way to live. Having turned my back on their way of life, I was completely adrift. And I mimicked actions, dress and the way people spoke, like a mime. Except there was nobody to copy when making a fruit salad.
In 2020, thanks largely to Bornman’s campaigning, South Africa’s premier online media outlet launched an investigation into the cult, which resulted in an award-winning expose, and a concurrent official investigation of KwaSizabantu for the first time. The authorities have said that their report will be released in February. Bornman has no idea whether they will have found that the cult that stripped away her youth is at all culpable for ruining thousands of young lives.
Here is the prologue to her fascinating book.
I’m clutching a large butcher’s knife when my carefully constructed world caves in. Moments ago, the apartment was filled with the chatter and laughter of a group of friends gathered for a potluck lunch. Now the kitchen has fallen silent.
The afternoon starts out happily enough. I accompany my boyfriend, Samuel, and his sister to their friend’s home. Around 15 people mill around, the atmosphere is convivial. Most have gathered in the kitchen to get the meal going. I trail in behind Samuel, hoping to be invisible – I only know two people here and I don’t want to get in the way. Then our host turns to me with a big smile and a bigger knife and cheerily asks, “Hey, Erika, won’t you make the fruit salad?”
My stomach drops as I take the knife and turn to the counter. Deep breath. I can do this. Then I spot a pawpaw and freeze. Oh no. No one has ever taught me how to peel or cut up a pawpaw. I’m going to mess it up and show everyone here that I don’t belong in their world because they’re going to see me cutting the pawpaw the wrong way and they’re going to know that I don’t know what I’m doing and that I don’t belong.
I’ve been fooling myself. I shouldn’t be here.
I’m a misfit. I’m a woman who doesn’t know how to make a simple fruit salad. In this moment I see my whole life mapped out in front of me. I will never fit in. This society I long to be a part of will never be mine. I will constantly find myself in situations where, through my ignorance, I will reveal that I am not one of them.
Tears well up in my eyes and I cannot stop them streaming down my face. “Everything okay, Erika?” No, everything’s not okay. Everything’s bloody terrible. I don’t know how to do this, and I don’t know how to admit to that. My rational mind tells me that any normal 25-year-old would start chopping without a second’s thought, but I know that I am not a normal 25-year-old, and now everyone else knows it, too.
I’m bawling, a full-on ugly cry. I’m making a spectacle of myself and everyone is staring at me. Samuel looks at me with compassion — he has an inkling of what’s going on.
I don’t want to be here. I’m a fraud. I want to be back at the mission, where at least I knew how to act, I knew how to make cheese on toast, I knew my place in a room full of people. Much as I was dying there, I knew who I was. I was Erika, daughter of Esther, sister of Hanna. I was Erika, the girl who always smiled. I was Erika, the girl who never made a fuss.
Now? Now I am the woman who breaks down over something trivial in front of strangers in the kitchen of someone she’s never met before. It’s the biggest challenge of my life. And I’m facing it with an audience of baffled onlookers.
A public humiliation. I always knew this would happen to me. I knew that it was only a matter of time before I was shown to be a fraud. I will never fit in. I’ll never be happy. Isn’t that what Erlo told me when he put God’s curse on my life? He said that I’d never be happy. I’m never going to know how to act. I’m never going to know what to do. I’m never going to know what the right thing is to say, and I’m never going to know how to cut up a bloody pawpaw.
I just want to give up and go back. At least there, a public humiliation and the prescribed apology is followed by acceptance back into the fold. Out here in the world, a humiliation is more likely to lead to a label: “That emotional girl who’s obviously very troubled.” No one will want to invite me ever again. I’ve made a fool of myself and Samuel.
I hate this. Why did I ever think it would be different? Who am I to think that I am strong enough and clever enough to make it in the world? I’ve been out here for more than three years and look at me — I’m an emotional wreck.
But no. I will not give in and I will not go back. Oh, they’re waiting for me, I’m sure of that.
“She’ll be back sooner or later like all the others. Just wait and see.”
I know that’s what they’re all thinking back there, what they’re hoping for. But I will not succumb. I may not know who I am, but I know who I don’t want to be. And I don’t want to be that submissive, smiling, emaciated girl ever again. I don’t want to marry someone I don’t love and bear his children and live a life of quiet desperation. I won’t.
I also won’t give them the satisfaction of killing myself. I won’t have them preach about me for years to come. Use me in their sermons to terrorize children into blind obedience. I will not be one of their “stories” — I’d heard too many of those growing up and I won’t become one. I’ll be a success. I have to be. I want to be. I know I have it in me, somewhere, if only I can breathe through this fear. Most days I think I get it right. I think most people think I’m normal.
What was I thinking coming to this lunch? I’ve totally ruined it. I’ve ruined it for Samuel, I’ve ruined it for everyone, but that’s what I do, isn’t it? I ruin people’s lives. I’ve ruined my mother’s life, I’ve ruined my life, I’ve ruined everyone’s life, and I don’t know how I’m going to live, but I want to live. And I want this life and I want to know how to make a fruit salad.
I know tonight will be the same as every other night, except maybe worse. It’s at night that the day replays in my head and I cringe at the many faux pas I’m sure I made. This lunch isn’t a faux pas, it’s a full-on disaster. The fear that usually visits me in bed at night arrives early: fully blown and overpowering. My chest constricts and I want to die. This fear is as much a part of me as my lungs and my heart, but I can usually keep it at bay during the day. I live with it every day, commune with it at night.
I have no memory of what happens next. I leave my body, dissociating the way I often do. It’s how my 9-year-old self coped. In the coming days, as I watch this incident with the malevolent pawpaw unfold over and over again in my mind’s eye, I know one thing for sure. I have to learn to control my fear and up my game at pretending I’m okay if I’m to succeed in making people believe that I’m normal. Because I desperately want to be normal, even if it’s only an act, don’t I?
You can find Bornman’s book here, on Amazon.
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She articulates what her life was like so vividly you can actually feel her anguish. But I don't think you need to be in a cult to feel how she felt, like she would never fit in, like people were staring at her and judging her.
I also have a question. Why are all cults run by men? I can't think of any started by women.
Thank you for highlighting the devastation that cults inflict on people and kudos to this brave survivors who Got Out. Just listened to another fascinating episode of The Influence Continuum podcast with Steven Hassan where he interviewed another cult-survivor now-therapist about the need for therapists to be trained about cults so they can effectively help survivors regain their authentic self and THEN help them heal from all their trauma. Otherwise the therapists can be doing the absolute wrong thing while trying to help ex-cult members.