The Truth, Decades in the Making

I thought I’d be eighty when I’d write this. After most were far gone, their deaths allowing me to dodge emotional consequences. But the story gnawed, and silence became unbearable. The truth has now met the daylight with vigor. The gaslights have been extinguished, and the weight has finally shifted.

To the people in this book who committed abuse, I don’t believe in a punishing God, but I know most of you do. That’s all the satisfaction I need. To the reader, So many of us didn't have a voice for so long. Thank you for listening. Zero First is dedicated to those who didn't survive to tell their stories of institutional abuse. Buy the book.

starr house meaghan thomas working christian cult dr

When's the Book Available?

Surviving Two "Save Your Kid" Cults Across Three Countries

Idaho (Ascent), Dominican Republic, Canada & Indiana (New Horizons)

Excerpts from the Book

Age 12 | Wilderness Cult: Ascent Bootcamp in Idaho

We hit Naples an hour after leaving town. Our rental car passed a sign reading “Population 354” standing next to a beat-up gas station and grocery store. A mile later we turned down a dirt road that took us deeper into the wilderness.

A bumpy ride later, we arrived at a wood cabin with a green sign that read “Ascent”.

When we got out of the car Mom and Aunt Missy were greeted by another woman who took them to the side. I would later learn they were brought for a quick tour of basecamp.

A man escorted me to what they called the intake cabin.

It was more than 90 degrees out and I complained there was no air conditioning in the stuffy cabin.

“Ha, say goodbye to AC,” the female intake staff member huffed as she nodded to the man he could leave.

She wore military fatigue pants with a tattered white T-shirt stained yellow around the neck and armpits.

Over the next few minutes we went through a series of questions as she took down notes. Where did I just come from, how old was I, how do I spell my name, do I know what kind of insurance I had.. I remember thinking it was odd my mom hadn’t already given them that information.

She then carefully searched through the bag mom had packed, with me peeking over to see what was packed in. She checked every pocket and rang her fingers along every shirt collar to make sure I wasn’t hiding contraband, she said.

When she was done she handed me new jeans, a T-shirt, a belt and the boots. She pointed toward a dressing room where she walked in behind me.

“Get undressed. I want everything off,” she ordered.

At twelve, this was my first strip search. I held my breath, bit the inside of my cheek and got undressed.

“Turn around, bend over.”

I stared at her frozen, unable to move.

“Do it. I need to check for contraband.”

I obliged. I knew when you’re at places like these, your body is not yours.

“Don’t get dressed,” she ordered as I lunged toward my clothes. “Sit here.” She pointed to an old chair next to her. I sat my bare ass on the wood chair and wondered how many butts had submitted to their fate before me.

“Nice cut,” she murmured as she ran her hands through my hair, checking for contraband or maybe lice.

I had recently let my friend chop my hair off. It was summer and my hair was thick, plus I knew it would annoy mom. The result was a head full of short choppy bits, with some longer chunks in the front.

When she was satisfied with the surprisingly long and in-depth hair search, I was allowed to unstick my ass from the chair and get dressed.

Mom brought the worst clothes for me. The jeans fit high, almost to my navel, and I was told to tuck in my nondescript army green T-shirt. I looked like a total square. The other kids were going to think I was dork.

The belt she brought was too small.

“You would think this’d fit,” intake lady grumbled. “A small should fit your frame, but your hips are just so wide.” She spent a minute tugging at the belt, telling me to suck in. The belt just wasn’t going to fit my apparently rhino-sized hips, which I hadn’t been aware of until that moment.

“Don’t move,” she hissed as she walked behind a curtain and shuffled around.

“Here’s a men’s medium, God help us if this don’t fit.” She aggressively slapped it through each loop.

“Now it’s too loose. They’re not going to like that,” she murmured, tsk tsking to herself.

She fell to her knees and began whipping me back and forth, trying to force the prong through the leather to form a tighter new hole. She let out an annoyed sigh, grabbing a pocket knife off the side of her pants to finish the job

I started at the ceiling hoping she wouldn’t accidentally stab me. She was really worked up.

A few seconds later, I had a new custom belt and she was huffing, pushing herself off the ground and telling me to follow her.

As she escorted me out of the dressing room, she pointed to a grungy yellow utility sink.

“Wash off all that makeup.”

I wasn’t wearing any, but I didn’t want to argue with this brute of a woman, so I did.

I patted my face dry with the towel she handed me. She squinted looking at my eyes. “You still have eyeliner on, scrub harder”.

“I’m not wearing eyeliner.”

“She is,” Mom said, popping from around the corner. I guess she was back from wherever they brought her. “Meaghan, listen to her and wipe it off.”

“I’m not wearing any!” I seethed

I wasn’t wearing eyeliner, but this lady was convinced and now mom was backing her story.

“Scrub your face again. I wanna see you scrub yer eyes.”

I stuck my head over the sink again, using a washcloth to scrub off the imaginary makeup.

I showed her the gleaming white washcloth. “See, no makeup.”

She grabbed the washcloth, dipping it in an unsanitary looking tub of Vaseline, then thrust it in my face, scrubbing it over my eyes for a good minute or two.

“There,” she smirked to my mom. “I told ya she had some on”.

As she threw the washcloth to the floor, I opened my goobey eyes fast enough to see there were still no black marks. I had almost believed I had eyeliner on.

The lady guided me against a wall lined with a cream sheet, and snapped a mugshot. I sheepishly half smiled out of habit.

As she blew on the Polaroid, we walked outside to meet Missy, who was waiting on the porch. Intake lady told me to say my goodbyes.

I looked at Missy and my eyes instantly welled up. I gave her a hug and asked her to call me every day.

I quickly glared at mom, then turned to the intake lady and said I was ready to go.

She grabbed my papers, handed me the army bag and we marched away. I refused to look back...

_____________________

Note: a lot of time has passed since these events happened. Some names have been changed to respect people's privacy.

Age 14 | Being Forced to the Dominican Republic

Amy and mom were trying to keep it light hearted, but I could see their jaws grinding behind their smiles. Their eyes checked in with each other frequently, as if to say “We’re doing ok, right? This is going ok?”.

As we arrived at the gate, mom announced she was getting her Diet Coke with light ice at the McDonald’s a few shops down.

“Cool, I’m going to run to the bathroom,” I casually responded.

The first part of that statement was true.

I walked toward the bathrooms. As as soon as mom turned toward the golden arches and Amy put her head in her book, I took off running back through O’hare.

I think of it now like a reverse “Home Alone” scene. Instead of sprinting and pushing past slow walkers to catch a holiday plane, I was clawing my way backward through the crowds to gain my freedom.

I had friends who’d help me disappear. It was pretty easy to go missing in the 90s rave scene in Chicago. For now, I just needed to get as far away from this airport as possible.

I made it down the long terminal hallways and flew down the escalator to the baggage claim, smack into the gaze of two airport cops who instantly locked eyes onto me.

They were standing in front of the first exit. The only way out was to bull-rush them and hope I’d make it to the other side. I opted against the police assault charge and bolted further down the baggage claim, looking for the next closest exit.

The cops were slow on their feet, more focused on whatever was being broadcast on their walkie-talkies. I was sure I’d lose them once I got outside, but as soon as that thought crossed my mind, I ran flat into a sturdy man with an enormous roller bag.

I tried to collect my bearings, but there was something about his stunned eyes and gaping mouth that set me into a strange slow motion time warp. I momentarily lost perspective.

Panicked, I took a sharp right into the women’s bathroom.

It was my fateful error, one I would replay for years to come.

Instead of sprinting another 40 yards and exiting the doors that led to the cab stand, I had backed myself into a corner.

“We know you’re in there. Come out,” boomed a firm voice.

I stayed silent as I frantically searched for another way out - a janitorial door or a large vent I could crawl through, like in the movies.

“If anyone else is in the bathroom, exit immediately,” yelled the voice.

A woman jutted out of one of the stalls, looking down and rolling her bag as quickly as possible past me.

I was out of time.

I retreated into a stall, locked the door and stared at the toilet. They were coming and I was stuck.

10 seconds later, there were boots in front of my door. “Don’t make me take the door down.”

I unlocked the stall door. A woman cop had come to grab me.

By the look on her face, I think she was expecting a hardened criminal. Instead, she saw a resigned 14-year-old with tears welling in her eyes.

“Why did you run?” she asked as she gently handcuffed me.

“They’re sending me away to another country, and they won’t tell me what’s going on,” I replied.

“I’m sure it’s OK. Your mother was very worried about you,” she said as she patted me down, checking for weapons.

I was escorted back through the airport handcuffed with two male officers holding each of my arms. They didn’t speak to me except to instruct me that we were cutting through the security line and I didn’t need to go through the metal detector again.

I felt like Hannibal Lecter when he was wheeled to his plane on a dolly in his hockey mask and straight jacket.

As we walked through the airport, adults looked at me with confusion and disgust. Children looked at me wide-eyed and a few backed behind their parents. Kids my age stared in shock. I sank into myself. I felt the shame coat me. My eyes resigned to the parting of people’s feet in front of me as the officers yelled “clear the path” every 15 feet or so.

As we approached the gate, Amy and mom came into view. Mom was pale and Amy seemed embarrassed. They didn’t rise from their seats. The officers sat me down next to them and stood over me until boarding time.

I boarded last. As we approached the jet bridge, the officers removed the cuffs with the warning that I would be met with handcuffs again at our layover in Miami if I gave any more trouble.

Mom and Amy shuffled me down the bridge and onto the plane. People nervously glared at me walking down the aisle, worried the juvenile delinquent would be sat next to them.

We found our seats midplane, with me in the middle and mom on the aisle. Amy looked out the window and grabbed my hand, giving it a squeeze. My hand stayed limp, signaling to her she was a traitor to me now.

Mom opened her Southern Living magazine and stared at pictures of flower and white-wickered adorned sunrooms in renovated plantations.

That magazine made me cringe. While the educated world equated plantations to obvious structures of white supremacy, she looked to them as aspirational living. The South-Side Chicago girl from a kind, working-class family dreamt of a structured, know-your-place Southern Belle life.

I turned the fan full blast on my face. Closing my eyes, I imagined I had parachuted out, landing safely in the woods. I had moved into an abandoned hunting cabin and lived off a small garden. I was safe and free, somewhere dad and mom could never find me.

I woke to the pilot’s tray-tables up announcement. Mom’s magazine was neatly tucked away. Her hands were in her lap and she was leaning forward, her spine unnaturally straight. Her lips were pressed so tight they were speckled white.

The hour layover in Miami was uneventful. I had no cash, not even change for a payphone call for help.

I was stuck in Florida, a state where I didn’t know anyone but my father’s mother, Grandma Elsie. She wouldn’t help me disappear anyways, even if she sometimes felt bad for us kids because she knew how deranged my father was. Besides, we only visited once or twice. I didn’t even know what town she lived in.

Reluctantly, against every bone in my body, I boarded the plane to the Dominican Republic...

_____________________

Note: a lot of time has passed since these events happened. Some names have been changed to respect people's privacy.

Entering the Christian Cult in the Dominican Republic

I scanned my new surroundings. I could tell by the students’ sunken-faces that this was terrible place, but I had no idea how bad things were going to get. There were hints all around though.

“Let’s go,” he barked.

The girl in front of me started jogging, so I followed in step.

As we passed the school, I noticed a boy behind it loudly repeating a bible verse while staring at a rock he was holding out at shoulder level. A staff member was inches from his face, yelling at him to keep the rock steady.

As a newbie to Program, the scene wasn’t quite computing in my head. I kept my eyes down and tried to keep up with the girl in front of me.

The mountain was steep. In some parts my shins nearly scraped the cement road. My calves burned and I began sweating profusely.

A few minutes later, we reached the worksite. The man quickly yelled instructions and we began to repair the old cracked road.

Before he left, he looked at me. “Don’t you talk to anyone yet. Just focus on your work.”

I nodded and wondered if I was ever going to be able to speak again.

As he drove his motorbike across the road to talk to other staff standing under a tree, I snuck a look down the mountain to check in on the boy we had passed.

He was now squatting over what I would later learn the Program called a “support bucket”.

I could see his shorts were around his ankles and I slowly realized I was watching him defecate into the bucket while his outstretched arms shook, still holding his punishment rock. The staff member was standing over him.

Shocked, I looked away and focused back on my assignment, hoping I wouldn’t be the next person publicly shitting in a bucket...

My 15th Birthday: From Biscuits to a Beating

I turned fifteen a week after I arrived in the DR.

My birthday excused me from afternoon work duty to help prepare dinner with my housemother, Fawn, something usually only reserved for high rankers.

On top of being allowed to help with dinner, the easiest of all the afternoon jobs, I also got to pick what meal we were having. I picked baked chicken with biscuits and gravy, a choice Fawn was excited about.

“Reminds me of home,” she chirped as she showed me where the ingredients were for me to grab.

Fawn was the only unmarried housemother on campus. She was a heavyset woman and I don’t remember her wearing anything different than long denim skirts and T-shirts with floral or animal prints. Her fashion choices and her general nondescript look made you unsure what age she was. She could have been in her twenties or forties, it was hard to tell.

She and Derrick (our "housefather" I introduce earlier in the book) had a cordial, formal relationship. The girls and I had the impression she wanted to be a couple with him, but he wasn’t having any of it. She was forever seeking his attention, but he often talked down to her. She seemed fine with that. She was meek, as women were expected to be there. Her job was in the kitchen, as she would cheerfully say. In fact, she said everything in a high pitch cheerful way. If she was talking, she was either singing her words or saying them in baby talk.

There weren’t any grocery stores around our remote part of town, so we got our food from local farmers. If it didn’t fall under the meat, bean, veggie or fruit category, we had to make it from scratch. Pasta, bread, granola, even yoghurt were all things we’d learn to create ourselves. It wasn’t an easy feat when you had to make enough to feed eleven hungry girls and two houseparents three times a day. I had grown up with an pantry full of ready-to-eat food. Making something truly from scratch with simple base ingredients seemed like magic.

As I watched the other girls machete outside the window, Fawn taught me how to make biscuits.

I was nervous and spilled a few cups of flour as I was moving around the kitchen.

“Get the broom,” Fawn sang in her high pitch tone, stretching out the “oo”. “Sweep that up before Derrick sees it, we don’t want you getting in trouble for wasting food.”

I ran out back and grabbed a broom and dustpan, running back in to hurriedly sweep it up and dump the evidence into the garbage.

“You forgot to ask me permission to leave the kitchen and enter the back porch,” Fawn said quietly.

“Oh, I’m sorry, I was just…” I began to plead my case when she put her hand up and gently interrupted me.

“Just please don’t let it happen again,” she replied, barely moving her mouth through the toothy smile she was throwing me. “I get in trouble for letting you girls get away with stuff like that.”

I asked her permission to exit the kitchen, then exit to the porch to return the broom. After I asked my way back into the kitchen, she gave me a hug. “I know it’s a lot to adjust to, but you’ll learn,” she whispered as I began to cry. “Now let’s make some dinner for those hard working girls out there, shall we?”

Her hug was the first act of kindness I had received since I got there. I didn’t realize how much I needed some compassion. I felt a glimmer of hope rush through me. I hoped there were more people like Fawn here.

After my biscuits came out of the oven half burnt, we placed them in a tray, with Fawn turning the worst ones upside down to hide the burnt parts.

“Let’s take a picture of your first culinary masterpiece,” she sang as she got my disposable camera out from under the bed in her locked bedroom, where all our cameras were stashed. We were only allowed to use them during approved times so we could send happy pictures home to our parents.

I posed in the kitchen, smiling ear to ear proudly holding my semi-burnt biscuits up over the yellow linoleum countertops.

“Your mom will be happy to see you’re learning how to cook,” she quipped as she skipped back to lock my camera in her room. “See, you’ll be a proper lady in no time!”

...

SPOILER: Right after my birthday dinner, I was paddled twice by two male staff with leather whips because on my birthday call to mom -- a big deal because you only got 2-4 calls home a year -- I asked her if she knew they practiced corporal punishment there. They didn't like me asking her about it (they monitored and recorded calls, just like mail), so I was punished by whip.

_____________________

Note: a lot of time has passed since these events happened. Some names have been changed to respect people's privacy.

 

Others Exposing the Christian Cult, New Horizons

I'm grateful to those who've shared their stories about New Horizons, the cult that imprisoned me. Check out their riveting accounts to learn more about institutional abuse and for powerful, moving stories that prove we can triumph over trauma.

Jesus Land

Julia Scheeres' New York Times bestseller (originally published in 2005), tells her story of growing up in a racist town with her beloved, adoptive brother, and being sent to the same Christian cult in the Dominican Republic that Meaghan would attend a decade later.

"What makes Jesus Land unique and easy to relate to is its unadorned, dark humor... Many of us could have had the misfortune of stumbling into Jesus Land but few would have the spirit to survive." --Los Angeles Times

2005 book about escuela caribe

Kidnapped for Christ

When missionary Kate Logan hears about Escuela Caribe (New Horizons), which bills itself as a rehab center for troubled teens, she sees an opportunity to make a difference. Hoping to document the positive effects, she's allowed to stay and film. Once there, she discovers the shocking truth of what's really going on. She hears stories of kids being taken by force in the middle of the night, rumors of physical abuse and witnesses staff imposing arbitrary and degrading punishments on the young students. Directed By Kate Logan.

Escuela caribe cult documentary

Bethany's Story (aka "Beern")

"Beern" was imprisoned alongside Meaghan in the New Horizons cult in the Dominican Republic and Indiana. They became very close and still are to this day. Read about her experience and how the program has impacted her life.

The story behind her nickname: Her real name is Bethany Beerhorst, but we weren’t allowed to shorten her last name to “Beer”, since alcohol was a sin, so we slapped an “n” on. It's pronounced: B + "ear" (like the body part) + n.

Bern from DR Indiana New Horizons

Zero First, A Memoir (coming soon)