The cult that stole my childhoodShe grew up in an outwardly normal suburban home. But behind closed doors, Laura's life was ruled by a tyrannical guru who banned all trappings of modern life
23:48 GMT, 23 May 2012
When Laura Wilson conjures up memories of her teenage years, one clear image stands out. She is dressed in a heavy floor-length skirt, her hair scraped back in an unflattering bun, as she scrubs coal dust from around the fireplace of a grand country house.
It sounds like a snapshot from Victorian times, not Seventies London, the decade which formed the backdrop to Laura’s adolescence. But then hers was no ordinary childhood — for Laura’s parents were committed members of the School Of Economic Science, an organisation critics describe as a cult, with strict rules, whose devotees were taken, by and large, from the genteel middle classes.
But while the group’s members may have been well-heeled, the organisation demanded its members lead a spartan existence, isolating themselves from the modern world. It was an upbringing which left Laura, now in her early 50s, with terrible emotional scars — despite the fact she turned her back on the organisation nearly 30 years ago.
Freedom: Laura managed to leave the cult after attending university
Growing up, she was told the outside world was a terrifying, aggressive place, full of people who had not ‘seen the light’. Her access to television, music that post-dated Mozart and even cooked food was restricted.
It was a surreal existence that, even as a child, created enormous angst.
‘I knew that I was unhappy for a long time, but had nowhere to turn,’ she says now. ‘The organisation believed they had the answers, and told you endlessly that the outside world was a threat.
‘That was very hard to process, because I was still mixing with the world outside and knew that other people were living differently.’
Founded in 1937 by barrister Leon MacLaren — known as ‘the leader’ to his followers — the School Of Economic Science started as an eclectic ‘think tank’ focused on economic reform. But over time — partly as a result of MacLaren’s meetings with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, known as ‘guru’ to the Beatles — it became a self-styled philosophical organisation.
'The organisation believed they had the answers, and told you endlessly that the outside world was a threat'
It claims to have modernised in recent years, and still boasts 2,500 members, but in the Sixties, when Laura was born, its members followed a strict code of practice which effectively segregated them from the modern world.
Her parents, George and June, were converts who met at a group in the late Fifties while in their late 20s and married shortly afterwards. A mechanical engineer and doctor respectively, Laura believes that they had been left disillusioned by the materialism of the consumer age.
‘They never really talked about why they had joined, but I think, like many, they had asked themselves: “What is it all about” And for them, the group provided the answers.’
And so, while from the outside, their terrace home in a North London suburb looked perfectly ordinary, inside it was a different story. Mystical writings permitted by ‘the leader’ lined the walls, while day-to-day life was dictated by the organisation’s draconian rules.
The family spent a minimum of 30 minutes meditating twice a day, were banned from watching television or listening to music written after the 18th century, and followed a series of bizarre rules about food.
Born into a controlled life: Laura aged 18 months with her cult member mother
‘When I was about four it was decreed that nobody should have any cooked food or meat, or any breakfast. I remember coming down the stairs one morning asking where all the food had gone. From then on it was raw fruit and vegetables and cheese,’ she recalls. ‘The reason was never explained — you were just told and had to accept it.’
While members, who paid the organisation a modest monthly fee, were permitted to work, their leisure time was almost entirely spoken for. There were meetings and countless extra-curricular activities and duties, from learning the ancient Indian language of Sanskrit to tending the organisation’s huge property portfolio.
‘It had a huge number of properties, some donated by members, and followers were responsible for looking after them,’ Laura recalls. ‘They had to clean each one every week, without any modern appliances, so it would take hours doing it all by hand.
‘The idea was that you focused your mind entirely on the task in hand, and that this was somehow purifying. I spent hours as a teenager scrubbing floors and sweeping carpets with a dustpan and brush.’
'There was zero tolerance of homosexuality, and an underlying feeling that disabled or disadvantaged people had done something to deserve their plight'
Initially, like most very young children, Laura didn’t question her upbringing.
‘I didn’t have anything to compare it to — this was my normality,’ she says, ‘But when I got to primary school it was a different story, as I would go to my friends’ houses for tea.
'They had television, they ate meat . . . it all seemed impossible, exotic and alien. From early on I was developing a sense of two very different worlds.’
/05/24/article-2149044-133EC048000005DC-226_468x286.jpg” width=”468″ height=”286″ alt=”Primitive: Laura didn't become aware that her childhood wasn't normal until she started primary school and started going to her friends' houses” class=”blkBorder” />
Primitive: Laura didn't become aware that her childhood wasn't normal until she started primary school and started going to her friends' houses
It was, Laura says, pointless trying to discuss her unhappiness with her parents. ‘They meant well and loved me very much, but they were absolutely committed to the organisation,’ she says ‘They had the zeal of the convert.’
The result, as she entered adolescence, was a growing sense of confusion. Her sense of isolation was compounded when, at 13, she was transferred from her mainstream comprehensive to one of the new, independent day schools established by the organisation in the early Seventies.
‘They did cover a core basic curriculum but there was also a philosophy group once a week, there was a lot of Sanskrit chanting, meditation and singing of songs composed by the leader,’ she recalls. ‘Initially, there were no modern languages taught — just Sanskrit and ancient Greek. Moreover, at 16, the age at which the organisation believed that a woman’s sexuality emerged, she was ordered to wear a floor-length skirt and tie her hair back in a bun.
‘The overriding message that was constantly reiterated was that women’s sexuality had to be repressed, that it was a dangerous thing. And this was one way of doing it. I hated it,’ she says.
'They felt too much sleep dulled the mind. You had to go to bed around midnight, and were woken at 4.30am to start your duties'
‘I remember around the age of 17 going to school on the Tube in this terrible outfit, feeling horribly self-conscious among all the other teenagers. I had this terrible realisation of what was happening to me. I could feel the trap closing.
‘Everything was bound up together: this was the life my parents had chosen and I loved them very much. At the same time, I knew it was making me unhappy.’
Her escape route was university: higher education was encouraged by the group, albeit with restrictions. After discussions with her group leader, Laura was permitted to apply for a place at Somerville, an Oxford college which at the time was women-only. ‘That was deemed acceptable. The prevailing sense though was that it was an orgy out there and it was their duty to protect me from it.’
Her arrival at university in 1982 was revelatory. ‘Given the world I’d been living in I might as well have been arriving from 1900. I felt like I was discovering the world for the first time. Having the freedom to do as I pleased, just being normal, it was exhilarating.’
Not that she was entirely free: Laura was still expected to travel back to London once a week for meetings, as well as attending weekend retreats. ‘I remember I’d board the train to London in my jeans and T-shirt, then dash down the basement steps at home to get changed into my long skirt. Of course, as time went on I became less inclined to attend anything.’
Laura was also plagued by an overwhelming sense that she was being watched — a conviction which was confirmed by one of the ‘tutors’.
‘He would say he had seen me out late, with a mixed group, wearing jeans, and ask me what I was doing. It was horribly unsettling,’ she says.
Moved on: Today she is happily married and has overcome her troubled past
When, in her final year at university, Laura started a romantic relationship with a fellow student, it led to furious clashes, with the organisation’s leaders and her parents.
‘There were lots of shouting matches, but I was the angry one really, they were more resigned. They knew they couldn’t keep you ‘in’ as it were. But they didn’t want me to leave. They didn’t understand it. They believed they were right, so there was bafflement about why everyone else couldn’t see the light.’
So she continued to be a formal member, but maintained her parallel life outside at the same time. When she was 22 and she had moved back to London to set up home with her boyfriend, events came to a head, sparked by two tragic incidents. A female contemporary from the group attempted suicide, while another tragically succeeded. Her death haunts Laura to this day.
‘It happened when I was in my third year at university, when she was around 20. I believe she had a nervous breakdown. She walked in to a tunnel and was hit by a Tube train. It was incredibly upsetting, but for something so monumental it was talked about very little.
‘I remember one adult in the group telling me how people were bound to “fall by the wayside’’. I was hugely affected by it.’
There are currently more than 500 cults in the UK, according to the Cult Information Centre
Laura believes that, like her, they felt terribly confused and constrained by the group’s bizarre rituals and punishing regimes. That, and her growing scepticism about the group’s teachings, led her to finally break away.
‘It wasn’t easy — and meant setting myself against my parents. But at the same time I knew I couldn’t go on. It caused lots of anguish.’
Finally, she plucked up the courage to express her views openly. ‘I remember meeting with one of the senior tutors and saying: “I can’t accept any of this, it’s not for me.” He said something like: “Then you have no leader, you have no teacher,” and I said: “No, I don’t, thank you and good night.” I felt the most enormous sense of relief.’
As she had feared, however, her decision meant she became estranged from her parents. Her father was a member of the group until his death in 2010, while her mother, who left conventional medicine to study homeopathy, remains a member to this day.
‘It wasn’t easy for them. The organisation did not encourage fraternisation with people who had left, but at the same time I was their daughter.
'Meanwhile, I was nursing a lot of anger. I had a period of not seeing them very much.’
For a time she saw them only a couple of times a year, and it took a decade for them to be fully reconciled.
‘We had to agree to differ for a long time, but by the time I reached my mid-30s things were much easier, and I am glad we made our peace.’
Today, Laura is happily married and insists she has overcome the issues caused by her troubled past, though she admits memories of that time still make her feel vulnerable.
‘A few years ago I came across an internet forum in which ex-members shared their experiences,’ she says. ‘‘I felt this huge sense of relief, partly because I’d buried a lot of the past, then here were other people saying how terrible it was, too, and you think: “It wasn’t just me.”
‘More than anything now it just seems absolutely surreal.’
Laura’s latest novel, A Willing Victim, which centres on a murder in a cult in East Anglia, is available now (18.99, Quercus).