Inside the real Handmaid’s Tale – I escaped a religious cult led by my sex offender grandfather

A WOMAN who has fled a cult run by her twisted grandfather has told how young girls were forced into sexual slavery after marrying older men.

Lilia Tarawa, 31, said everyone in the Gloriavale commune in New Zealand is made to share everything from meals to prayers and even breastfeeding.


Lilia Tarawa, 31, shared her 18-year life in the Gloriavale CongregationCredit: Youtube/1news
Lilia pictured during her time in the cult with her family


Lilia pictured during her time in the cult with her familyCredit: Youtube/1news
The costumes in The Handmaid's Tale are inspired by Gloriavale


The costumes in The Handmaid’s Tale are inspired by GloriavaleCredit: HULU

The controversial Christian community, located close to Haupiri on the coast of the country’s South Island, is cut off from the outside world with no internet access and media severely restricted.

The oppressive cult has been hit by several police investigations over the years, investigating allegations of forced marriage, sexual and physical abuse, and forced family separation.

Marriages are arranged in Gloriavale, while clothing and food are tightly controlled – and when people try to leave, they are shunned.

Women have to cover their heads, show no flesh so as not to seduce the men, do all the housework, submit to their husbands and give birth to as many babies as possible.

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Young girls are forced to marry much older men, with a former member revealing how the leader thought “13- or 14-year-old girls are ready to have babies”.

Karen Winder said the men are “groomed” to have sex with underage girls.

The women are forced to wear headscarves with loose, long blue dresses, high necklines and long sleeves – as inspiration for the hit TV series The Handmaid’s Tale.

The show is set in a dystopian United States, where Handmaids, dressed in bright red dresses and white caps that obscure their faces, are forced to bear children.

Costume designer, Ane Crabtree, said she wanted “a glimpse of reality in the clothes” and based the Handmaid’s outfits on Gloriavale.

Australian evangelist Hopeful Christian, born Neville Cooper, founded the Gloriavale Christian Community in 1969.

Lilia – Christian’s granddaughter – was a member of the commune for 18 years and followed its strict, oppressive rules before finally escaping.

Lilia, who is strikingly similar to the women in The Handmaid’s Tale, said her life in Gloriavale as a woman was one of submission, domestic servitude, and fear of eternal damnation and hell.

Children were even lower than women in the cult’s hierarchy — with children being forced to marry older men in arranged marriages.

And birth control was banned — meaning many girls had many children.

Lilia said her ailing grandfather “would have happily married off children aged 10 or 12”.

At the age of 16, she promised her grandfather that she would submit to the men, take care of the house and be “meek, modest and pure”.

She told Femail: “Gloriavale told me I shouldn’t have sex with anyone until I was married.

“Actually, it was only when I later escaped the cult and had sex for the first time that I was finally released from the religious chain.

“I realized I wasn’t going to hell for sex. That was the beginning of my freedom.”


And Lilia claimed she had witnessed brutal corporal punishment meted out to people who broke rules.

She said: “Old-fashioned corporal punishment was encouraged. Those memories are hard.”

Later in her teens, Lilia’s parents moved to a separate house near Gloriavale, where they remained part of the cult – but it meant exposing her to the life of a modern woman.

“I lived two lives, but could see elements of another world there,” she said.

She eventually broke away and when she returned, she said her grandfather treated her “like a stranger”.

She said: “He didn’t want to talk to me. He treated me like an outsider.

Hopeful Christian who founded New Zealand sect in 1969


Hopeful Christian who founded New Zealand sect in 1969Credit: Youtube/1news
Women were considered subordinate to men - forced to wear headscarves


Women were considered subordinate to men – forced to wear headscarvesCredit: Youtube/1news

“It was hard, but I wanted some closure from the world I had left behind. Part of me still wondered what life was like in Gloriavale.

“It’s a hard world here, but it made me grateful to be here — there’s so much here that lights me up.”

Former Gloriavale member Yvette Olsen also broke her silence in 2015 to say Christian sexually assaulted her three times when she was 19.

She called him a man of “unbridled lust”, “lies”, “absolute power” and a “dirty old man”.

Christian – believed to have had 19 children with three women – was eventually jailed on three charges of indecent assault against girls aged 12 to 19.

He died of prostate cancer in 2018, according to the New Zealand Herald.


A police investigation, concluded after two years this year, found that 61 people of different generations were involved in a large number of sex crimes.

A police letter sent to Gloriavale in May revealed a list of places where horrific sexual abuse took place, including inside a dinosaur prop in the dining room, Stuff reports.

The list included an old car by the creek, the chicken coop, under the podium in the main area, a bike shed, and all the communal toilets and bathrooms.

Former member Virginia Courage said she knew the sexual abuse had been going on for more than 20 years.

“More people came out and said that this happened and that you did nothing,” she said.

“It was pretty heartbreaking… it was a big reason why we left. It wasn’t just about the abuse, it was that you couldn’t get the leaders to be honest about it and get something done.”

In a statement released in May, Gloriavale’s leaders said: “Much has changed at Gloriavale since 2018, when the leadership mantle was passed on to a new leader on the death of our founder.

“During this period, we revised our governance and set new directions for our community.

“We are deeply saddened by the harm suffered by members of our community. We apologize for our role in failing to prevent and protect victims of abuse.

“We try to connect with those who are no longer in our community and, along with our current members, encourage them to speak openly with us if they have been harmed in any way.”

It added: “Despite all our efforts to create a safe haven, we too were hurt to discover the magnitude of sex crimes that have taken place within our community.”


Another woman who fled, Connie Ready, said she and her siblings were brutally beaten for years by her father, Clem Ready.

Ultimately, her father pleaded guilty to two charges of assault with a gun.

She told Stuff: “I see my little sister dragged from the table where everyone is, to the next room, and I can hear her screaming, and I’m just sitting there…

“You can make yourself stronger, you can build walls around you to protect you from the pain, but they all come crashing down when you look at someone as defenseless as they are, and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

Connie said the blows were relentless.

She said: “He might just be tired and come home from work, he gets annoyed, so he’ll throw something at you or kick you if he gets really excited, he’ll grab whatever’s around and lay in you with it and knocked you, you know, his belt, a coat hanger, one of his tools out of his work bag.

Connie said she eventually decided to flee the cult to explore her native roots, despite Gloriavale considering Māori “an evil, cannibalistic, and demonic culture”.

She told Māori Television, “It was not something I should be proud of to say or even openly say that I was Māori.

“I had to go away for a while to give myself a chance to make that decision about what I wanted to do.

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“If that’s the choice you make, you know you’re leaving behind all you know, leaving behind all your childhood friends, all your whanau.

“You step into a world you know nothing about and that can be very scary.”

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