It’s a tale of isolation, insulation and alleged abuse. Growing up in what she describes as a restrictive “cult” for the first 25 years of her life, author Elizabeth Esther knew little of the outside world.
She was a member of The Assembly, a fundamentalist Christian group started by her grandparents, George and Betty Geftakys.
Esther eventually abandoned the only world she ever knew, assimilating into a mainstream culture that was foreign, confusing and filled with new people, perspectives and sights; the journey wasn’t an easy one and she’s hoping her experience will inspire others, while shedding light on fundamentalism.
In her new memoir, “Girl at the End of the World,” Esther says that she was “in love with Jesus but in fear of daily spankings” during her childhood years as a member of The Assembly.
The book tackles the “spiritual abuse” she says she experienced at the hands of her own family members, while delving into numerous questions of theological importance.
Esther, who left the church in 2003, told TheBlaze that The Assembly, based in Fullerton, Calif., was a nondenominational Christian church founded by George Geftakys in the late 1960s.
What started as a Bible study group eventually grew into a denomination of sorts, spreading around the nation and the world. At its peak, Esther said that there were at least 50 churches throughout the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Africa and the U.K., with several thousand members in totality.
“I would say our belief system was most similar to Baptists. That would be the theological framework,” she said. “We identified as nondenominational Christians.”
But Esther, who was born into The Assembly, said that the group was anything but a normal church and that teachings led to both physical abuse and an incredibly insular culture.
“Because we were so enmeshed in each others’ lives and there was no accountability structure and my grandfather had a final say on everything, it became an environment that was conducive for abuse,” she said. “The experience for the children was a lot different than for the adults. There were daily spankings from the time I was 6 months old until I was 13.” She went on to describe them as “beatings.”
As a result, she said, she spent a great deal of her childhood with welts and bruises and regularly found it difficult to sit down as a result of the physical pain.
“Children needed to have their wills broken in order to ensure that they would follow God for their whole lives,” Esther said. “It took me a long time to say the word ‘abuse.’ I truly believed what they told me — that it was for my own good to save my soul from hell.”
Esther said that members of The Assembly lived communally and that her parents ran a “training home” — a place where future missionaries would be prepared to go out into the world and share their faith.
“There were other homes nearby. Homes for men, homes for women,” she said, adding that she had six to 12 people living at her house at any given time. “Anyone who really wanted to go to the next level in our church would move into a training home.”
Esther was homeschooled during her early years as well, as her mother ran an education facility for kids from the church. She didn’t have much contact with anyone outside of The Assembly.
“I did end up going to public high school, because my parents believed by the time you were 14 you were ready to evangelize,” she said. “My mission was to go convert all the teens at my public high school.”
Considering how disconnected she was from the outside world before arriving at high school, it’s no surprise Esther felt like an “alien” when she started there, though she said she did her best to learn how teenagers talked and acted.
Esther said she quickly realized that people outside The Assembly were much nicer than she had been told.
“The people who were the most helpful and kind were the non-Christians,” she added.
Esther eventually began to see that The Assembly wasn’t the place for her, but she felt trapped, realizing that she’d never be able to leave the church without her family’s blessing.
“I would be shunned and excommunicated,” she said. “When you’re in a church like this, it’s not just your family — it’s your whole life.”
So, Esther decided to stay — a decision that took a major toll on her.
“I just ended up going deeper and deeper into a very dark and depressed place — had a couple of breakdowns,” she said. “I was 25 when we finally left. By that point I had been married and had [three] children.”
It was in 2003 when Esther left amid controversy at the church. She said her grandfather was excommunicated and accused of having multiple affairs, leading to disruptions in the congregation. The local church continued for a number years after her departure (other affiliated churches reportedly still remain).
Since her husband had a “normal job,” she said her immediate family had a lifeline that allowed them to move away from The Assembly and start fresh. Just as staying had its challenges, so did leaving.
Esther is completely estranged from her grandparents, whom she called “abusive.” Her sister and cousins left around the same time she did and scattered around as well.
“It was a very painful time. For years I just really couldn’t talk about it,” she said. “My grandfather has never taken accountability.”
Upon leaving, Esther said she abandoned religion entirely and experimented with atheism, but that didn’t last very long. She soon realized it was important to keep consistency for her kids and, considering her inability to abandon faith, she started visiting a Calvary Chapel.
“I think I was an atheist for a week. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t not believe in God,” she said. “I kept it very impersonal for a while, because I needed the space, then I found myself being drawn to liturgical churches.”
Esther eventually landed in the Catholic Church, where she took comfort in the fact that it could be “traced back thousands of years.” And that’s where she remains today.
Was It a ‘Cult’?
Defining a cult can be a difficult task. According to the Christian Research Institute, a cult is defined through two lenses. First, there’s the way secular media frames cults.
In this sense, “a cult is a religious or semi-religious sect whose members are controlled almost entirely by a single individual or by an organization.”
The group is typically manipulative, demanding total commitment and loyalty for anyone involved. And members are sometimes cut off from former associations, including their families, the Christian Research Institute notes.
And in Christian circles, cults are viewed as “any group that deviates from the orthodox teachings of the historic Christian faith being derived from the Bible and confirmed through the ancient ecumenical creeds.”
Esther, among others, believe that The Assembly fits this description. Websites have been assembled to share experiences from those who have left the denomination, as many seek healing from what they claim were abusive practices.
TheBlaze was unsuccessful in reaching George and Betty Geftakys to hear their side of the story.
Read more about Esther’s intriguing story here.