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“There’s an irony they didn’t want me to write fiction but almost everything I was telling them was fiction – and that gave me the grounding for what I do today.” Twenty-five years on, Stevens is a bestselling author.
Her first novel, The Informationist went into The New York Times top 10, translated into 20 languages and was optioned by James (Titanic) Cameron.
In any case, she had no skills to navigate the outside world.
“I was terrified God would strike me dead.” The cult regularly read out “Traumatic Testimonies” where members would recount horror stories of life outside.
Thanks to its anti-American rhetoric, the cult attracted many hippies and anti-war protesters, as well, Stevens says, as many on the run from the law.
Over its 46-year history, it’s boasted 35,000 members, including 13,000 children – today it’s believed to number around 10,000 people.
Children suffered horrible physical discipline for the smallest infractions, it wasn’t about punishment, it was about hammering square pegs into round holes.
My whole life has been levels of awfulness, so all I could do was keep my head down as usual and just get through it.” After Berg’s death in 1994, Stevens used the upheaval to seize her chance to move to a commune in Kenya, “as far away as I could get from leaders checking all the time if we were spiritual enough”.
I just made stuff up to make them happy.” She laughs.’ ” Afterwards, Stevens was isolated from her peers for months.“They thought I’d contaminate them with my evil spirit.Today, talking to me from her home in Dallas, Texas, she appears a regular suburban mum, our call’s interrupted by one of her two teenage daughters returning unexpectedly to the accompaniment of frenzied dog barking, then school calls demanding an unexpected pick up for the other.Yet Stevens is far from that stereotype: “I don’t relate to being a PTA mum, where your whole life is, ‘Oh, Susy did this, and then we made cupcakes!