From Stolen Youth: Inside the Cult at Sarah Lawrence to The Vow, tales of real-life cult survivors are taking over streaming platforms right now.
Like America’s true crime obsession, for many, cult documentaries are a guilty pleasure. A chance to experience something sinister and strange, but from the comfort of your living room.
Although these documentaries allow survivors to share their stories, they also risk turning their pain into entertainment. This is especially troubling considering that many survivors struggle to be believed, compounding the trauma they already face.
Cheryl Rainfield was 17 when she ran away from home. Born into several multi-generational cults that included elements of Nazism, satanism and the KKK, the award-winning author of Scars uses her books to help others dealing with trauma, torture and abuse.
She shares her harrowing story on her TikTok account (@cherylrainfield), while her website is filled with resources to support other survivors.
“What makes me want to be here is my books, and helping other people,” Rainfield told Newsweek. “I want things to change. I want other survivors to know they’re not alone.”
Although only the most sensational stories make the news, Bethany Burum—Lecturer on Psychology and Human Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University—said cults are “more common” than people think.
Burum said a wide range of belief systems fall under the term “cult,” from religious zealots to “sex cults.”
The tactics may vary, but Burum said that cults exert the same patterns of control, isolation and abuse to keep members in line.
“Cult leaders make it very difficult to leave,” she told Newsweek. “Some members might fear violent retaliation. They might track them down and try to bring them back.”
Even if a member physically manages to escape, years of mind control can make it difficult for survivors to adapt.
Some continue to believe the cult’s messages, while others struggle with intense trauma. This is especially true for victims such as Rainfield, who were born into a cult rather than inducted.
“I think many people fail to realize the power and extent of the influence tactics that cult leaders use,” Burum said. “I imagine that this could make it quite difficult for cult members to be believed.”
‘If You Talk, You Die’
The cult Rainfield grew up in had many overlapping belief systems, such as white supremacy, antisemitism, homophobia and misogyny, and used threats, mind control techniques, rape, torture and murder to keep victims in line.
The abuse was broken down into categories. There was formal abuse, which involved rituals, torture and specific ceremonies, and the ongoing, daily abuse designed to reinforce the cult’s “messages.”
Rainfield describes these as mind control techniques, designed to maintain the cult’s hold over its victims and ensure they didn’t reach out for help.
“Things like, ‘if you talk, you die,’” she said. “They teach this in so many ways.”
Rainfield recalls a traumatic memory as a young child, in which she was tricked into believing the cult had inserted a bomb into her chest.
“They take you in [to a fake operating room], they freeze you with drugs, and the people are wearing scrubs,” she said.
“They put you on a [gurney], they show you a scalpel and they cut down the chest and there’s blood. It’s fake blood, but it looks real to a kid, and there’s pain.
“And they say ‘look, we’re putting this little tiny bomb in you, and this will go off if you talk.’”
Cult members told the children that if they reported the abuse, they would “blow up.” She was also taught that the cult could hear her at all times, which they “demonstrated” with a test of her loyalty.
They put Rainfield in a room with a “nice, friendly” adult who would ask questions about her well-being. If she talked about the abuse, the cult would take her away and repeat everything she’d said “word for word.”
“Then I would know they could hear me. There would then be torture because I had talked,” she said. “Now I can see through it, but as a kid I thought they were all-powerful.”
Since the cult members regularly tortured and killed both animals and people, Rainfield had cause to believe her life was in danger.
Many of the perpetrators were born into the cult, including Rainfield’s parents, and were abused themselves.
Rainfield refused to hurt others. She agreed to participate only after being physically forced to, or made to watch other victims be hurt. Sadly, most fellow victims grew up to become cult abusers, continuing the cycle.
“Some child victims chose to hurt others the way the cult wanted them to, which meant they were abused less themselves,” she said. “Many cult abusers got pleasure from inflicting pain and abuse on their victims, but they were also tortured and had mind control used on them as children.”
Despite the environment she was raised in, Rainfield doesn’t understand why her abusers—or anyone—would enjoy inflicting pain on others.
“When I was about 5 or 6 and being raped and tortured on an altar, I made the conscious choice that I would never be like them. I chose to be the opposite of them,” she said.
Still, escaping wasn’t easy, and it would take years for Rainfield to fully break away from her parents and the cult.
Growing up, Rainfield’s day followed a shocking schedule.
“My mother would usually wake me up with rape in the really early hours,” she said. “Then I’d fall back asleep and then she’d wake me up for school.”
Everywhere Rainfield went, her family ensured there was a cult member nearby to watch her, and there were teachers who were involved with the cult at her school.
“My parents had to know where I was all the time,” she said. “But to other people, it just seemed as though they were overprotective.”
Her parents wouldn’t allow her to participate in most extracurricular activities, engage with pop culture or enjoy hobbies like other kids. As cell phones weren’t mainstream at the time, she also had no way to ask for help without being caught.
Rainfield showed signs of the trauma physically and emotionally. She was shy, introverted and scared. Loud noises, and even being touched unexpectedly would terrify her, which made her a target for bullies.
Despite the horrific abuse Rainfield endured, the cult and its behavior went under the radar for her entire childhood. From the outside, Rainfield, her parents and her brother looked like a normal—albeit conservative—Canadian family.
Her parents’ relationship was an arranged marriage, decided by senior leaders in the cult.
They had friends both inside and outside of the cult, and her mother volunteered at Rainfield’s school, madke cookies for the bake sale and sang in the church choir. Her father taught Sunday School and was part of the local neighborhood watch.
“That’s a huge part of how they continue,” she said. “They are very skilled at masking socially.”
Her mother and father would act like doting parents whenever Rainfield’s teachers would express concerns about her introverted behavior, but when she wrote a story about a child rape victim, a worried teacher called Child Protective Services.
The detective she met was sensitive and kind, and kept asking questions, but understandably, Rainfield was too scared to talk, knowing the punishment that would face her if she did.
Once she turned 17, Rainfield ran away from home. She started working with a therapist who believed her story, and she was diagnosed with Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID).
Although she couldn’t have survived the abuse without dissociating, she would initially forget that the group knew where she lived and was continuing to abuse her.
“I’ve worked hard in therapy to have co-conscious DID, where every part of me is aware of each other [and] to not lose time,” she said. “It’s a huge part of what helped me get safe.”
Rainfield has also found solace in her writing. Focusing on young adult suspense and fantasy, her books are drawn from her own trauma and healing experience.
Her novel Scars deals with a lesbian teen who’s a survivor of incest, who must stop self-harming and remember her repressed abuse memories to get safe. The book has Rainfield’s own scarred arm on the cover, and has been repeatedly banned at schools by far-right extremists.
She regularly receives messages from young people telling her that her books helped them to stop cutting themselves, get into therapy, talk to someone about their struggles, and even stopped them from taking their own lives.
Rainfield also has a chosen family that love and support her, but there are people out there who don’t believe survivors.
“I want to help more people to realize that it happens, that there are so many people hurting,” she said. “The more survivors hear about other survivors, they realize that maybe they can get safe and heal too.”
Specialists from the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN) sexual assault hotline are available 24/7 via phone (1 (800) 656-4673) and online chat. Additional support from the group is also accessible via the mobile app.