Woodstock woman combats cults, heals survivors of spiritual abuse
A week before Oregon's COVID-19 lockdown began, nearly a year ago, Ashlen Hilliard moved to Inner Southeast Portland. She brought with her a husband, a new job title, a dangerous past, and a personal story about escaping spiritual abuse. She also brought hope for survivors of cults.
Hilliard works from her Woodstock home as one of only three paid employees of the "International Cultic Studies Association" (ICSA), which aims to help people adversely affected by cults and other high-control groups. This includes survivors who have left these organizations, and their families.
"I'm finding ways to establish a presence out here," she says. "It's so hard to find support for cult survivors. And that's where I get a lot of my joy."
Hilliard grew up in a sect of the Church of Christ referred to as the "non-institutional church." In her upbringing, there was no room for any deviation in beliefs. "This is how you interpret the Bible. You have to interpret the Bible this way."
She felt her education was being aimed toward matrimony rather than a career, and that intention became more apparent at the church-affiliated college she attended in Florida. "I was essentially being trained to be the submissive wife, for whomever I was going to be married to."
As she began to imagine a different path for herself, tensions arose. "When I first was questioning the group, there were some major fights – horrible, horrible fights, with me and my family."
She and her husband decided to leave the church together shortly after marrying. They moved to her home state of Utah. There, she was surprised to find herself now feeling "unmoored".
"Once I had left that particular church, I had to figure out who I was, because I put so much identity in that group. And so having to find out who is Ashlen really is, you know, was quite difficult. Outside of the group and its influence, it was very dark," she recalls. "But then, I actually started to look for ways in which I could help other women in my community who had perhaps been through similar things."
She found that niche helping women escape polygamist groups. It turned out to be difficult and harrowing work, which often put her danger.
Hilliard recalls helping a polygamist's wife move into a safe house. Unbeknownst to her, church leaders had apparently listened in on her phone calls, and knew about a nighttime restaurant rendezvous where the women would plan the escape. While Hilliard and her new friend ate and talked, two men hid in the shadows outside, trying to attach tracking devices to their cars so they could follow the women home. They didn't succeed, but the risks sank in. Still, Hilliard didn't hesitate.
"It was dangerous; but to me, it was just so worth it," Hilliard says now. "I absolutely loved my job."
Hilliard began speaking about her efforts at conferences that focused on cults, and the recovery process of those who escape them. At one event, she left surprised and changed.
"I was going to present, but I ended up walking away with so much knowledge, and just a wealth of information [about how] to help survivors of these groups, including myself," she says. "I had found a lot of healing in helping others who were leaving traumatic, spiritually-abusive situations. But I also realized, wow, there's so much that I still haven't done for myself that I needed to kind of sit back and examine." She would later go on to work for the organization that presented the conference, ICSA.
Her path to Portland began in September 2019 when she met Ken and Sharon Garrett. The couple hosted local support groups called the "Spiritual Abuse Forum for Education" (SAFE) for people who had suffered mind control and manipulation by religious leaders. Meetings are currently paused, due to COVID-19, but the organization still keeps a presence online and on Facebook.
When the Garretts' Woodstock rental home opened up, Hilliard and her husband decided to move in, and try out a new city where she could further her work. They arrived in March of last year, just before the pandemic took hold.
"We got to Portland, and it was just a week before everything went…well, we had no idea what was coming! People kept telling us there's this whole other side to Portland that we'll be witnessing once everything is, quote, unquote, back to normal," Hilliard remarks. "But I really love this city! It's quirky, incredibly weird, and I love everything about it. It's just such a wonderful place. I also really love that people really care here. You know, we have such wonderful social justice. There are a lot of movements here, and I love that. I'm really grateful to be here."
It's not just the city that appeals to her, but also the uniquely crucial timing of the work she's doing here.
"It's been a really, really tough time for those who have left cultic groups, in terms of recovery. We realized that people, during lockdown, who were cult survivors, needed help – like, extreme amounts of help."In lockdown, you almost feel a sense of isolation – perhaps as if you 'did in the group'. And so, that can be incredibly difficult." She adds that finding mental health resources during the pandemic has proven challenging, which has exacerbated survivors' trauma.
In addition to the online resources and e-mail support she and ICSA offer to survivors, Hilliard likes to remind people that cults and coercive groups remain prevalent – especially now that they can influence people online.
"I think it's just really important for people to know it [can happen] even here in Woodstock – in Portland, Oregon. Perhaps your neighbor isn't in a cult, so to speak; but it's important to look out for each other, like if you notice they're struggling," Hilliard reflects.
She urges people to listen carefully if a friend or loved one expresses concerns about their partner, workplace, or church making unreasonable demands on their behavior. Also, she says, watch for warning signs such as when an organization ties up all your friend's time, or puts restrictions on their interactions with others outside their group. A cult follower may display unquestioning or zealous commitment to a charismatic leader, and a belief that they or the group are above the law, Hilliard adds.
When these red flags appear, though, she recommends being careful in your approach.
"The urge is always there to ask, you know, 'Why are you doing this? Why would you believe in that?' At the end of the day, maintaining contact is so important, so that you can be a safe space," she cautions. "As much as you just want to take their shoulders and say, 'Why can't you see what I'm saying?', they have to come to that conclusion. And so it's just about being there for them, while they go on that journey."
Hilliard also endorses building trust by simply interacting with that person, without discussing their beliefs. "Even if it's something that seems really superficial – like going bowling – find ways to spend time with that person," she suggests, mentioning that the pandemic can limit such options, but her point is for loved ones to maintain contact without judgment. She urges families and friends to reach out to organizations like ICSA for support and resources.
Hilliard hopes her work through ICSA will help people locally and across the globe escape cultic organizations and recover from the spiritual and emotional wounds those groups cause. After the pandemic, she hopes to assist with SAFE recovery meetings when they resume in person, and to organize a cultic studies conference in Portland when group gatherings can again be held without health concerns.
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