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THIRTY Years IN CAPTIVITY: One woman’s escape from a London cult.

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A curtain hangs across the window of one of the London houses in which Aravindan Balakrishnan lived with his followers.
Photograph by Richard Baker / Alamy

Rosie grew up in a succession of decrepit houses in South London with one man and a rotating cast of women, who claimed that they had found her on the streets as an infant. The man, Aravindan Balakrishnan—Comrade Bala, as he wanted to be called—was the head of the household. He instructed the women to deny Rosie’s existence to outsiders, and forbade them from comforting her when she cried. “Balakrishnan told us that lesbianism was caused when females cuddle female babies,” one of the women, Aisha Wahab, told me recently. “No one dared show affection.” Rosie was not registered with local authorities, health-care providers, or schools. As a child, she often stood by a window, hoping that passersby would notice her. Once, after she exchanged greetings with the granddaughter of an elderly neighbor through a hole in the garden fence, Balakrishnan warned her that the girl intended to lure her away to be held hostage. He regularly lost his temper with Rosie, beating her and threatening to kill her. Sometimes, after an argument, she would retreat to the bathroom, to check whether the toilet still flushed. “When it worked, I kissed the handle,” Rosie, who is now thirty-three, recalled earlier this year. “I told it, ‘Thank you for being on my side.’ ”

One day in 1995, when Rosie was twelve, Balakrishnan showed her an identification card from the hospital where she was born. In a box marked “relationship to child,” Sian Davies, one of the women living in the house, had written “mother.” The revelation sat strangely in Rosie’s mind; at the time, she explained, she “didn’t have a concept of parents.” One night the following December, she was asleep in her bedroom when she heard shouting below. She ran downstairs to see Davies, whom Balakrishnan had caught trying to visit her family for Christmas, bound and gagged by the front door. The next day, Christmas Eve, the women found Davies in the back yard; she had fallen from a window on the second floor of the house and broken her neck on the concrete below. She was taken to King’s College Hospital. “Bala didn’t visit the first day,” Rosie told me. “He said that he wanted Sian to think she was abandoned. That would make her pull up her socks and start to think about what she’d done.” Later, Balakrishnan began making weekly visits, bringing Rosie with him. One day in the spring, as they stood to leave, she ventured, “Bye-bye, mummy.” Davies replied, “Bye-bye, baby.”

Rosie remembers being wary of wrongly reading the moment. “Sometimes you can call somebody ‘baby’ and it doesn’t mean they have to be your actual child,” she told me. Having spent three decades of her life in the commune, she has a way of talking that can seem startlingly literal. She escaped in 2013, at the age of thirty, with the assistance of Yvonne Hall and Gerard Stocks, the husband-and-wife founders of the Palm Cove Society, which provides support for victims of human trafficking and domestic abuse. Jenny Cutler, a consultant forensic psychologist for the United Kingdom’s National Crime Agency, was one of the first people to interview her after her escape. “She had an excellent vocabulary and was able to articulate interesting perspectives on the world,” Cutler told me. “But she also had a scarily underdeveloped understanding of the kinds of social behaviors people tend to acquire from early childhood—almost a pre-pubescent level.” According to Hall, Rosie was largely unable to function outside the house. She didn’t know how to cross roads safely, or to ask for change in shops. She’d misjudge social cues, flinging her arms around new people she met, occasionally telling strangers how attractive she found them.

Still, Rosie learned quickly. “We expected her to live with us for no more than two years,” Hall said. “She moved out in fourteen months.” In that time, she changed her name from Rosie to Katherine and adopted her mother’s family names. Now Katy Morgan-Davies has her own apartment in Leeds and takes classes in English and mathematics at a local college. She seems a cheerful sort of person, with a friendly, open face framed with riotous curls. Balakrishnan, meanwhile, is serving a twenty-three-year prison sentence, having been found guilty, late last year, of child cruelty, false imprisonment, and sexual assault against two women. (Several calls to Balakrishnan’s attorney went unreturned.)

Morgan-Davies’s visit to the hospital in the spring of 1997 was her last. Four months later, her mother died, at the age of forty-four. Sian Davies had been a vengeful chaperone, regularly reporting her daughter’s misbehavior, however slight, to Balakrishnan. “It sounds horrible to say, but I almost felt relieved,” Morgan-Davies recalled. “I actually got a lot more freedom.” But, ultimately, her situation did not improve. Denied real autonomy, she began, in the next seventeen years, to see herself as an “unperson,” trapped by the man who, shortly after his arrest, was confirmed by a police DNA test to be her father. Cutler often works with victims of modern slavery, a legal category that includes many forms of exploitation—sex trafficking, forced labor, organ harvesting—but is largely defined by imprisonment. Morgan-Davies’s case, she said, is unique. “It was phenomenal damage to do to a child,” Cutler told me.

When Balakrishnan was growing up, in Kerala, in southern India, his mother often warned him not to curse people when he was angry. According to Morgan-Davies, she believed that her eldest son possessed occult powers, and nicknamed him Black Tongue; later, as an adult, Balakrishnan would boast that he could set people aflame by looking at them. He was a good student, and won a British Council scholarship, at the age of twenty-three, to study at the London School of Economics. When he arrived in England’s capital, in 1963, dozens of far-left organizations were seeking recruits from among London’s poorer, immigrant-heavy neighborhoods, attempting to rally them in the face of a nationalistic right wing. By 1967, Balakrishnan had suspended his studies at the university and joined the Communist Party of England. He was later expelled for pursuing “conspiratorial and splittish activities.”

Balakrishnan persuaded a small group of people—including Chanda Pattni, a classmate from Tanzania, whom he later married—to follow him. Together, they founded their own party, the Workers’ Institute of Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought. It was headquartered on Acre Lane, in South London’s Brixton neighborhood, at a bookshop that Balakrishnan dubbed the Mao Memorial Centre. The place was spacious, its shelves packed with red-jacketed revolutionary literature, its windows covered with Chinese flags. Balakrishnan’s followers wore Mao jackets and caps studded with Mao badges, and they once held a celebration on the Chairman’s birthday. Eventually, they moved in to a communal house in Clapham, South London. “All the people who were there were vulnerable in different ways,” Morgan-Davies said. “They were at the end of their rope, and they came to him. He was like their savior.”

Pattni lived in the Clapham house, as did Sian Davies, who had studied law in Wales before moving to London, and Wahab, who was originally from Malaysia. There was also Josie Herivel, the well-off daughter of John Herivel, one of the Bletchley Park scientists who helped to break the Nazis’ Enigma code during the Second World War. A wunderkind violinist, she had abandoned her career in 1976, after attending one of Balakrishnan’s lectures. “I grew up with my father, who was supposed to have one of the best brains in Britain, but my mind was not excited,” Herivel, who was not available for comment for this article, told the Guardian earlier this year. “Aravindan really excited my mind.” Balakrishnan’s sister-in-law, Shobna, gave the commune social cover. She was confined to a wheelchair, and when outsiders invited the women over, Morgan-Davies told me, caring for Shobna was their excuse to stay home.

Inside the house, Balakrishnan enforced control by encouraging rivalries among the women and keeping them financially dependent. He warned them that if they strayed, an invisible machine would punish them. He called it jackie, an acronym of Jehovah, Allah, Christ, Krishna, and the Immortal Easwaran—the last of these being a scholar and spiritual teacher from Kerala. If any of the women tried to flee, Balakrishnan said, jackie would zap them with lasers. If they had disloyal thoughts, jackie would make the household appliances go haywire.

In 1979, Pattni fell into a diabetic coma and was hospitalized for several weeks. Balakrishnan turned his attention on some of the other women. Two of them, whom he was later convicted of sexually abusing, fled. A third, Davies, became pregnant with Katy. When Pattni recovered from her coma, Balakrishnan told her that the conception was the result not of an affair but of “electronic warfare.”

Morgan-Davies’s childhood was defined by isolation. One reprieve, however, came in the form of Balakrishnan’s personal library. “There were books about psychology, books about philosophy, books about politics,” she told me. “But he never used to read them. He just used to put them there for show.” The women taught Morgan-Davies to read and write, and the books gave her characters with whom to populate her imagination. When she cooked, she would pretend that she was feeding sick luminaries. “I’d read about how poorly Churchill had been after he had his stroke,” she recalled. “So I imagined that I was helping him to get well.”

Balakrishnan was an avid watcher of films and TV. In 2001, when Morgan-Davies was nineteen, he saw a trailer for the first “Harry Potter” movie and decided that the boy wizard’s story reflected his own. “I think that he thought he’d let me read the book so that I’d come to understand him better,” Morgan-Davies told me. Later, Balakrishnan saw the final installment of Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. According to Morgan-Davies, he immediately identified with the character of Aragorn, the long-lost heir to the throne of Gondor. “He let me read that as well, because it was part of his self-promotion,” Morgan-Davies said. But she drew her own conclusions about the texts. “I started to see that the way Bala was behaving, the way he was talking, doesn’t sound like Harry and Aragorn at all. It sounds like Voldemort and Sauron. Once I got that idea in my head, I just couldn’t get it out.”

In 2005, when Morgan-Davies was twenty-two, she made her first attempt at escape, slipping out the back door while Balakrishnan was taking one of his long baths and making her way to the local police station. She told the reception officer that she had run away from home. “I didn’t mention the violence, because I didn’t want any trouble for anybody,” she told me; two decades of punishment had instilled in Morgan-Davies a distaste for any kind of retribution. The police, believing the problem to be little more than a family dispute, phoned Balakrishnan and told him to come and collect Morgan-Davies. When they followed up, a few days later, she was forced to take the call from the living room, as the eavesdropping commune stood in a semicircle around her. (Had she been a minor, Hall told me, the police might have asked more questions.)

The cult moved to a new apartment, three miles to the north. There, Morgan-Davies fell into a depression. By New Year’s Day of 2008, she had given up hope. The following August, however, the dynamics in the house changed. Balakrishnan’s sister-in-law was diagnosed with cancer, and Herivel, by then in her late fifties, was required to do more and more work around the house. Morgan-Davies spied an opportunity, and began the three-year process of turning Herivel into an ally. “I used to console her,” she said. “I was just weakening, weakening, working on her. She started getting soft toward me, bit by bit.” Meanwhile, Morgan-Davies’s own health deteriorated. Having carefully watched Pattni’s experience with diabetes, she began to suspect that she was suffering from the same disease. There was no chance of receiving medical treatment, because Balakrishnan forbade it; in 2004, he had allowed another of his followers, Oh Kareng, to die of a head injury she sustained in the house rather than call her an ambulance. “I remember telling Josie in early 2013 that, one way or another, I am going to be out of this cult by the end of 2014,” Morgan-Davies said. “Either as a free person or in a coffin.”

It was Herivel who ultimately arranged for Morgan-Davies’s rescue, using a mobile phone that she secretly bought with the change left over from her grocery allowance. One night in October of 2013, she and Morgan-Davies saw a report on the BBC’s six-o’clock news about forced marriages, which ended with a help-line number flashing onscreen. The women memorized it, and eventually made contact with the Palm Cove Society. A few weeks later, Morgan-Davies and Herivel fled the house while Balakrishnan and his wife were out shopping. Hall and Stocks, who were waiting with a police officer in a parked car near the house, removed them to safety.

Although Herivel’s concern for Morgan-Davies’s health drove her to plan the escape, by the time that Balakrishnan’s trial concluded, in January of this year, she had come to regret her decision. When the guilty verdicts were read out in court, she shouted, “You’re sending an innocent man to prison! Shame on you!” That day, Detective Chief Superintendent Tom Manson of the Metropolitan Police spoke of his hope that the judgment would bring Balakrishnan’s victims “some comfort and, perhaps, closure.” Stocks has a different take. “For me, all of the adults that were in that house from the moment Katy was born are culpable,” she said. “They’re all perpetrators. They are victims as well, of course. Only one went to prison, but to my mind there should have been others.”

Certainly damage has been inflicted that, in Cutler’s estimation, cannot be undone. “There are aspects of Katy’s development that will always impact her,” she said. Yet, when it comes to the appropriate punishment for Balakrishnan’s crimes, Morgan-Davies is magnanimous. She knows that he had to be convicted, she told me, but she doesn’t want him to spend so long in prison. “I was not treated as a human being, so I’m passionate that no one else should ever be treated that way,” Morgan-Davies said. “Even Bala himself.”

By

The Newyorker.

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