As the number of UK cults continue to rise, young people are more at risk than ever of being recruited, warns the author and alleged former Christian cult member, Rhys Hagan. Here, Hagan speaks for the first time about surviving “hell” and how his experience helped him to write a critically-acclaimed novel. His book, Sovereignty, is out now.

Rhys Hagan

Rhys Hagan

The American author, Kurt Vonnegut, once said, “Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.”

It is the best advice I received as a young author about to undertake the arduous journey of writing a novel for the first time. Everyone wants to please the critics, but which critic? Everyone wants to please their family and friends, but they’ve never unanimously agreed that any one thing was any good! So, the first step in writing a novel is figuring out who to please.

For me, the answer came easily—myself.

When I sat down to write, it was an act of rebellion against the doctrine forced upon me—the doctrine which detested any fiction. Typing that first word was an assassination of my mental captors and typing the last was a triumph over the congregation which censored my creativity.

I make it sound dramatic, but when I say ‘congregation’ I mean a small Pentecostal Christian church of no more than thirty on a good day. Tucked away in a remote part of town it wasn’t worth any suspicion. It was that lack of suspicion that allowed psychological and physical abuse to develop. The Pastor, growing increasingly thirsty for control, manipulated the church’s members to turn on each other—distancing us from one another while ensuring the only relationships we had were with fellow members.

It wasn’t until I began writing my novel, Sovereignty, that I realised just how much the people within my former church had inspired me. Being a novel about a Roman banker manipulating Christ to begin a religious movement, it’s easy to see how anyone with a Christian background could be inspired to write it. But when it came to transforming characters into power-hungry bureaucrats and identifying what drives people to manipulate others—well that’s something you have to experience to write.

And it’s something I had the displeasure of experiencing.

When we joined the church, we began a cathartic journey as a family who was going through a divorce. That slowly turned into a demanding. . .well, cult, which tested, and in some cases broke, our relationships.

We, like the other members, were subjected to public humiliation and required to meet a strict, often impossible, standard which the Pastors and their family were exempt from. Subtly and intelligently, additional measures were added to monitor and disrupt our lives.

But when we caught wind of the Pastor sending some members to spy on others and we heard stories of violence at a sister church, my family and I grew suspicious. In a confrontation that was a long time coming, we parted ways with the church due to the Pastor assaulting a boy from our congregation and ripping off his shirt because it had a skull on it.

Needless to say, it was traumatic. But therein lies the value.

Years later, my family has largely recovered and taken away an invaluable lesson: embrace your trauma. You may have heard the expression ‘art is pain’. Well, as I returned to my childhood love of writing, I found my pain to be my greatest weapon against the enemies I found in organised religion and domineering authority figures. Without that pain, without those experiences, I’d have little inspiration to call upon and little art to create.

My advice to anyone undertaking any artistic pursuit, be it writing, painting or music, is the same: do it for yourself. Embrace your pain. In fact, make it unforgettable.

Sovereignty by Rhys Hagan is out now in print and as an eBook priced £11.97 and £4.79. It is available from today on Amazon UK. For more information about Rhys’ story, go to