Gloriavale: "Complete unity of thought, no self-will, no argument or strife..." Photo: A World Apart documentary/TVNZ

A brief history of NZ vileness

In his 1980 book Black and White, Shiva Naipaul describes entering the compound of a cult: “The rain had stopped. A ferocious midday sun was beating down again. Insects whirred in our faces. The bush steamed, releasing yeasty vapours…Banana trees gave way to rows of feathery cassava plants, interspersed with sugar cane, citrus and pineapple.”

In her new book, Cult Trip, investigative journalist Anke Richter enters the compounds of New Zealand’s two most well-known cults or (this is sometimes more accurate) communities – Centrepoint in Albany, Gloriavale on the West Coast – and takes the reader on a tour of the kinds of hell you expect and already know. We rightly think of Centrepoint as essentially and enduringly vile. We vaguely think of Gloriavale as weird, repressive, criminal. She also includes a section on an ashram in India and a tantric yoga school in Thailand. Everywhere basically sucks. Awful people, awful ideas, awful practises. But not entirely so; Richter tries to allow for the possibility that each place also actually has a goodness and a decency, and writes about “grey areas”. It gives the book balance and common sense. We classify cult members as zombies or victims but it’s not as simple as that. Her section on Gloriavale concludes when Richter encounters its leader Howard Smitherman, who acknowledges “there was wrongdoing” in the community but that now “we will be a little bit more thorough”. Richter gives him the benefit of the doubt.

Naipaul, the younger brother of VS Naipaul, goes further into the compound. “We passed a trailer, loaded with firewood, parked at an angle beside the track. It was a reminder that the life of an entire community had been abruptly arrested; that the summons late in the afternoon must have interrupted the routines of many engaged on what had been become everyday tasks – like the hauling of firewood from the forest.”

Daily community life at Centrepoint was more than ceaseless sexual abuse and degradation but not much more. Yes, kids playing on trampolines, adults in gumboots on working bees, lots of baking. And Bert Potter, bullshitting for all he was worth. Its dark and demonic vortex, though, was sex. A community noticeboard announces that the “best bum” belonged to a 10-year-old girl. Richter interviews the girl, now grown up as a damaged adult. “Once, when she walked past a window, she saw a mother giving oral sex to her son. He was maybe nine or 10. The curtains were not drawn – they never were at Centrepoint – and both the parent and the boy looked ashamed.” Oral sex was like a core belief; maybe the worst sentence in Richter’s catalogue of filth concerns Potter: “His face would smell of the last woman he had been with.”

Naipaul died in 1986. He was 40. The visit to the compound didn’t kill him – he smoke and drank to excess, and had a heart attack – but it clearly haunted him, perhaps broke his spirit. “I saw a cardboard box of full of rotten oranges, a rack of dusty spice bottles, jars of preserved peppers…Smoke billowed out of the incinerator pit. We were walking on planks laid across the ooze surrounding the main pavilion.”

Richter’s work is thorough and compassionate. In  her Acknowledgements, she thanks the great names of New Zealand investigate journalism for their help – Nicky Hager, Lynley Hood, Jared Savage, David Fisher. She puts herself in the story for the best reason: she belongs in the story. She describes herself as a “semi-professional sex cult tourist” and she’s wary of farming survivors for their stories. Cult Trip is a brittle, sensitive book.

The “ooze” that Naipaul describes, and which he steps into (“Despite the planks, our feet sank ankle-deep into the ooze”), is the remains of the 900 dead at the ultimate cult, the Jonestown compound in Guyana. He visited two months after the mass suicide. His book examines the ideology formed by Jim Jones, the maddest socialist of all times, who took away the pressures and terrors of individual choice in favour of the greater pressures and terrors of collective thought. If he was a benevolent dictator as a church leader in the patrolled streets of San Francisco, he shed all caution in the lawless Guyana jungle, where he turned into Kurtz, an emperor operating in a heart of darkness. “The cloying stench became enveloping. It was here most of the bodies had lain, piled three or four deep, bursting in the tropical heat, leaking away into the Guyanese soil.”

Okay. So it’s sensationalist and misleading and possibly just not all that helpful to invoke Jonestown, with its 900 oozing corpses, in the context of Richter writing about two cults or communities in New Zealand. No one drank the Kool-Aid at Centrepoint or Gloriavale. Both offered working alternatives to the narrow regimes of ordinary society, and as such both were asking for trouble. Look at Gloriavale’s mission statement on its own site: “We seek to live a practical Christian life that mirrors life in Heaven, where there is perfect obedience to God, complete unity of thought, no self-will, no argument or strife, and no sin.” That’s a good working definition of totalitarianism. Still, no one died at Centrepoint or Gloriavale – well, not in situ.  Richter writes about former members of Centrepoint who later committed suicide, and talks to other former members who have wanted to die and attempted to do it. The whole enterprise was doomed. Little girls, always little girls, ripe for Potter’s picking. To enter his compound was to abandon inhibition but it was also to abandon reason, care, mercy. Richter meets several former members of Centrepoint who only had wonderful memories – it was liberating, there was real togetherness, lots of orgasms. Sex, always with the sex, the accelerator of every cult, always crashing in the same car of power and lust – there’s a particularly disgusting mention in the Gloriavale section about a wooden dildo. In her opening chapter, Richter attends a tantric sex festival in Byron Bay, and witnesses a sexual healer move his hands above the prone body of a woman lying nude on a table, making no physical contact but bringing her to orgasm. Yeah, yeah. Where is the appealing transgression, the exciting revolutionary act of having sex with whoever at whatever time (who can be bothered with the whole palaver of hands-off “sexual healing” when you just want to fuck) that is at the heart or loin of sex cults? Richter approves of what she saw: “It feels dignified, not dodgy. What makes sex sacred is not the incense, soft background music, or candles. It’s your full attention.” Oh spare us from the moral approval. Potter didn’t bother with incense or candles either. The problem was that he gave his full attention. Paedo, rapist, in languid and entitled pursuit of little girls, always little girls. The woman voted “best bum” when she was 10 tells Richter how she used to sit in a lookout spot above Centrepoint and fantasise about being a sniper, taking out the men one by one, or shooting a flaming arrow into the gas tank. “Boom – the whole place gone.” So deeply, bitterly satisfying to imagine everyone turned to ooze.

Cult Trip: Inside the world of coercion and control by Anke Richter (HarperCollins, $37.99) is available in bookstores nationwide.

Steve Braunias is the literary editor of Newsroom's books section ReadingRoom, a noted writer at the NZ Herald, and the author of 10 books.

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