Death in the Family

Once you learn the full story of the mom-and-pop cult known as "The Family," you'll understand an unsettling reality: Any of us might have joined in.

"If [Wright] had gone up to [the women] and said, 'Hey, want to join my family, and I'll abuse you, and we'll have children and starve them to death,' they would have run the other direction," O'Reilly says. "He tailored his message to what they wanted to hear. That's very typical of cults."

For both Bremner and Wilson, who had been passionate anti-apartheid activists and scholars, Wright framed the idea of serving him as an intellectual form of social protest. By "marrying" a black man and being part of a "matriarchal" family, they would be forging an alternative lifestyle. He backed his arguments by citing writers such as Malcolm X and Maya Angelou, encouraging the women to read and study books on Eastern religion and New Age philosophies.

"[Bremner] came out of this very radical left and bought into the whole concept that he represented underclass liberation," says Bremner's former boss, Robert Hanfling. "It was a fervent thing for her. It was a mission she was on. It was how she lived out her political, social passion."

Winnfred Wright.
Courtesy of AP Wide World Photos
Winnfred Wright.
Deirdre Wilson.
Courtesy of AP Wide World Photos
Deirdre Wilson.

Campbell, a romantic former teen queen, was looking for Mr. Right, but instead got Mr. Wright. He offered her what she'd dreamed of -- a husband and babies -- and focused his affections on her, often at the expense of his other wives, so that she believed she was, as Campbell says, "his favorite."

After seducing a person, a skilled manipulator can employ -- without necessarily viewing the process as manipulation -- a variety of methods to break down that person's critical thinking skills. He erodes the person's individuality by encouraging him to abandon old habits, friends, and even musical and fashion tastes. Alienating people from their support networks is also common practice. Other tactics of mind control used by Wright included exhaustion, abuse, and humiliation.

The process of manipulation is a gradual one, and that gradual nature helps explain why the women felt they couldn't leave Wright. Campbell's psychological report describes how her relationship with Wright began unconventionally, and then slowly progressed toward deviant sexual practices she wouldn't have initially accepted. As is often the case with spousal abuse, Wright made the women feel that they had brought about their own batterings and humiliations, then encouraged their loyalty by rewarding them with tenderness and praise. To stimulate the all-too-human dread of the unknown, Wright stressed that if the women left, there would be nowhere for them to go. The racist world would not accept their "nigger kids."

He adopted a system of circular reasoning and opaque language that defied rationality, labeling sex hunts as "actions" and the family as a "circle of seers."

"[In cults] the most far-reaching and complex of human problems are compressed into brief, highly reductive, definitive-sounding phrases, easily memorized and easily expressed," writes Robert J. Lifton, a psychologist and a leading expert on coercion. "These become the start and finish of any ideological analysis."

Though the women weren't locked up in a prison camp, these methods of control were as effective as if they had been. They went to work every day and interacted with people who might have helped them, but they remained loyal to Wright, separating their public and private lives. This separation, too, is not atypical of cults.

"It's OK for people in cults to work, because they're only away for the day," says Patrick O'Reilly. "The Heaven's Gate people did computer consulting outside the home and had superficial relationships with their clients, too."

Perhaps most important, Wright made the women feel that, far from living a pitiful existence of scarcity and conformity, they were truly doing something to better society. From the communal, spiritual way they were raising their children, to their organic diet, to their interracial relationships, they were on the vanguard of something wonderful and radical. This altruistic belief was what sustained the women through hard moments and motivated them to ignore the ugliness and evil.

"People pick up causes all the time," muses Bremner's former co-worker Arianna Husband. "It was a good cause, but somehow this distortion happened. ... She created her own sort of little world to sustain that belief system."

But the little world was, ultimately, uninhabitable.

By the fall of 2001, the family was in a state of chaos. Bremner had been sick for months with a mysterious illness that had left bruises on her pale face. At first she'd tried to heal herself with herbal remedies, but when her vision became blurry and her gums began to bleed, she finally asked Wright if she could go see a doctor. He refused until one evening when she couldn't catch her breath. Wilson took Bremner to the hospital; the diagnosis was bad. Bremner had advanced leukemia. Back home, Wright told her she'd "brought it on herself." When she was in the hospital undergoing chemotherapy, he visited only once.

"He said that the doctors would give her less good care because he was black," says Campbell.

Meanwhile, Wright grew paranoid. He required the children to wear earplugs and sunglasses when they went to the farmers' market. He'd become a devotee of conspiracy theorists Anna Hayes and David Icke, who believed that the fate of the universe lay in the hands of warring tribes of aliens. Wright philosophized that his family was battling the evil "Draco/Zeta Alliance," composed of reptilian aliens, and awaited the dawning of a new age in which they would become leaders. He referred to this coming time as "Millennium Shift/Earth Changes" and theorized it might happen in 2012.

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