When Elle Benet looks back on her childhood, the memories are almost unbearable. For 18 years she lived in a world defined by verbal abuse and was part of a church that forced its members to live a life so austere that the outside world was held in disdain.
Benet, 30, grew up in the Faith Tabernacle in Philadelphia, a faith healing church with a long history of deaths among its members because they are denied medical care.
The Philadelphia non-profit Children’s Healthcare Is a Legal Duty, Inc. (CHILD, Inc.) claims to have documented two dozen deaths among children of church members since 1971 because the governing doctrine of the faith depends on prayer in place of medical treatment.
She escaped the church and its practices at the age of 18 and has written a book about her experience.
“It wasn’t until you step back as an adult and you look at the practices, then you recognize exactly what you are in,” Benet told the AFRO.
Not being able to associate with what she called the “outside world,” Benet grew up in a secluded household in Philadelphia with four brothers.
Benet said the decision to leave at 18 years old was “very frustrating.”
“My two eldest brothers left because they couldn’t tolerate the abuse any longer and there was a lack of medical treatment,” she said. “It was difficult seeing my brothers get beaten by my father.”
“My brother was on his deathbed because my parents practiced faith healing, which a lot of children would die from,” she said, referring to a brother who barely survived a condition unknown to her. “His throat was so swelled that he was unable to eat and he had to be given drops of water through a straw.”
Without a second thought, Benet decided to leave her parents’ house.
Travelling just a few miles from her family household, Benet went to live with two of her adult brothers who lived outside the household. She said it was too difficult to live a life that conformed to someone else’s beliefs without understanding why she was living that way.
Her parents told Benet and her brothers that the “outside world” was evil, which made Benet fearful to leave.
“The fear kept me in there, I was taught that the outside world and children weren’t happy and unless they came to my church they weren’t going to make it into heaven,” she said.
Leaving gave Benet a sense of empowerment.
“My curiosity for the outside world was too aroused and I had to see it for myself,” she said. “Even if it meant I might die.”
The escape from the cult lifestyle should have been a happy ending for Benet, but it wasn’t.
At the age of 23, she got married and had two children; a daughter, now 5, and a son, 3. Four years later, she and her husband divorced after she discovered he had been having multiple affairs.
She found herself facing foreclosure while simultaneously working at a stressful job.
To get her through the difficult times, Benet began to keep a journal, putting all of her thoughts on paper. Benet soon turned her entries into a book, “They Made Me Do It.”
The book chronicles her childhood and teen years but, she said, doesn’t dwell on the past “because dwelling on your past prohibits you from moving forward.” She said she wrote the book not to garner sympathy, but to encourage others to overcome adversities in their life.
“There might be somebody that needed someone just like I did,” she said. “Even though I went through it alone, I know first hand how it feels and this could possibly help somebody else.”
Benet said her book teaches not to let an individual’s past hold them back from their dreams and goals. She said she found solace in taking her positive experiences and applying them to something she could change: her future.
Following her escape, Benet said her parents never tried to find her.
“Sometimes my mother—without my father knowing I’m sure—would call me, but my father never did,” she said.
Benet’s mother passed away from an illness in 2006; after the birth of Benet’s daughter in 2008, he father reconnected with her.
“I’ve learned any negative situation I’m presented with, there is always something positive I can take from it to enhance my future,” Benet said.