Laura McConnell was 19 when she finally escaped the highly secretive Christian sect with no name, church or freedom for its members.
Up until that point the sect – which is known as The Truth, the Two by Twos or Friends and Workers – had controlled every aspect of her life.
She couldn’t play with kids outside the group or have a haircut – and was brainwashed into believing death awaited her should she ever decide to leave.
Ms McConnell, now 40 and with a two-year-old son, opened up to Daily Mail Australia about growing up inside the sect in the hopes her story will inspire others to leave.
‘I had a wonderful childhood … until i was about eight and realised how different I really was and how difficult it would be to grow up as a girl and woman inside this group,’ she said.
Laura McConnell (pictured right) grew up in the Christian sect known as The Truth, Two by Twos and Friends and Workers. The group has no official name and no churches
Ms McConnell grew up in from Coolabah, in western New South Wales, on a farm with her family.
While she went to standard schools, her life was different from her classmates in every way.
Sport, television, radio, magazines, jewellery and even haircuts were banned.
All girls wore long skirts and dresses while boys had to keep their hair short.
‘We were taught to keep ourselves distant and apart from the rest of the world. I didn’t really know anyone except for those in my family,’ Ms MsConnell said.
‘I did think until I was in my very late teens that when you left you died. Leaving didn’t ever occur to me as an option.’
Ms McConnell’s family had been part of the sect for four generations – about 100 years – and never had the opportunity to leave.
Children were forced to labour on the sect’s farms from a very young age.
‘They expect a lot from the children in terms of behaviour – you’re not allowed to sit around and say that you’re bored,’ the mother said.
Members of The Truth would meet every Wednesday night and Sunday morning at homes where senior leaders in the group, or ‘workers’ as they’re referred to, would read chapters from the bible.
Occasionally on a Sunday afternoon a public hall would be rented out for bigger congregations.
Ms McConnell’s family had been living in the sect for four generations with the thought of leaving never an option
Ms McConnell grew up in the small town of Coolabah in western New South Wales
Ms McConnell said there were never any churches as the sect believed they were a sign of a ‘false religion’, and the group mainly operated in complete secrecy.
Every morning members would read prayers, say grace after meals, and read the bible before bed.
‘There was a lot of fear mongering. They would use (bible) passages to make people afraid of the world outside,’ Ms McConnell said.
‘There was a lot of (false) storytelling about people who’ve left and died or people who left and were horribly unhappy and came back.
‘I did think until I was in my very late teens that when you left you died. It didn’t ever occur to me as an option.’
The former member said she didn’t know anyone who had left the sect because they completely ‘disappeared’ from their lives.
But there was a dark side to the group – both emotional and sexual abuse at the hands of the male workers.
Ms McConnell said she was groomed by Chris Chandler (pictured), a worker in The Truth who was later convicted of child sex abuse charges before he died in April this year
‘I don’t think there is really any woman in my family who hasn’t experienced some kind of inappropriate behaviour,’ she said.
‘Only a handful of women who haven’t experienced some kind of sexual abuse.’
Somehow she escaped abuse – despite being groomed by a member called Chris Chandler.
In 2014, Chandler pleaded guilty to a number of child sex abuse charges – including the indecent assault of three underage girls – and was jailed for a year.
The charges dated back to the 1970s and involved some children aged under 12.
He died in April.
‘Countless’ other workers in the group were also charged with child sex crimes, while Ms McConnell said most of it was ‘swept under the carpet’.
Ernie Barry, a worker in Tasmania and Victoria was convicted of five indecent assault charges on a girl in 2011, dating back to the 70s.
Barry pleaded guilty and was sentenced to jail – but was given a suspended sentence after appealing the case.
Ms McConnell now is a mum to a two-year-old son and runs her own business. She left the sect at 19-years-old after becoming increasingly uncomfortable with some of the practices being taught
Traditionally those in The Truth would finish school, get married and have children, often from as young as 16.
But the mother said she instead moved to Melbourne for university after school, something that was frowned upon for girls, and joined another Truth sect.
‘They (group in Melbourne) just didn’t really want me. I wasn’t following the normal behaviour of leaving school and getting married. I just started feeling more and more like I didn’t belong.’ she said.
She said the moment she ‘snapped’ was when nobody offered to drive her home after a group meeting while she stood in the pouring rain.
‘They were all just driving past me pretending they didn’t see me. I thought I don’t like these people anymore, I don’t feel like I belong here and I’m not going to come back,’ she said.
After leaving the group, Ms McConnell built a life for herself outside, getting a job and making new friends.
The 40-year-old now works to help other people who are considering leaving groups similar to the one she grew up in
Occasionally she would visit her family but it was clear she was no longer wanted.
‘I would go home to my own community and they would ignore me and pretend I didn’t exist. I went to the post office and someone I’d grown up with saw me and I said ”hello” and she turned and looked at me blankly and walked out,’ she said.
WHO IS ‘THE TRUTH’
The secretive Christian group has no formal name but is often referred to as The Truth, the Two by Twos and Friends and Workers
Families live on farms and have twice weekly meetings
Girls must wear long dresses and skirts and aren’t allowed to cut their hair
Women usually finish school and then marry and have children
The leaders of the group are referred to as Workers and run the bible sessions
Those inside the group are taught they are the only ones that will get into heaven
There are around 200,000 members around the world
Ms McConnell had two younger sisters living in the sect who didn’t leave until much later.
She now rarely speaks to anyone from her family.
Even now, two decades after leaving, Ms McConnell still finds it difficult to live and socialise.
Leaving also left her with PTSD and at time she suffered stints of depression.
‘I’ve been out 21 years now and I feel 21-years-old. I feel I know as much about the way the world works as someone that age,’ she said.
She wasn’t really interested in going out and partying when she left and met her now husband, who is Italian, when she was in her mid-20s.
She now is a proud mother to a two-year-old boy and runs her own profit-for-purpose startup called #GoKindly that sells pillows and duvets with the proceeds going towards ending homelessness in Melbourne.
She also works to raise awareness of the sect in which she found herself trapped for years, and speaks to people who are looking to escape.
‘I don’t think you ever really heal, but you find a meaningful way through it,’ Ms McConnell said.
‘It’s very rewarding to feel that you can help people find information to get out.
‘You can be the help that you wish you had.’
There are still an estimated 200,000 members of The Truth across the world.
Ms McConnell (pictured with husband) said that while she has never fully healed from her time in the sect, she was able to find a meaningful way through it