9 Jun 2018

Angie Meiklejohn: 'Centrepoint is a dark stain on New Zealand's landscape'

From Saturday Morning, 8:10 am on 9 June 2018

Auckland's Centrepoint commune was closed down in 2000, and its founder Bert Potter (1926-2012) jailed for drug crimes and sex abuse of minors.

Angie Meiklejohn moved to the commune with her mother and three siblings in the late 1980s when she was 15.

She tells Kim Hill that participating in the upcoming documentary Angie has lifted her shame about what happened there.

Angie Meiklejohn

Angie Meiklejohn Photo: supplied

Bert Potter founded Centrepoint in 1977 with the promise of spiritual growth via drugs and 'sex therapy' sessions, often involving children.

Angie says she was "quite wounded, quite traumatised" when she arrived at Centrepoint as a teenager.

"It was like paradise after living in little wee slummy flats and social welfare homes. It was like a recreation park. It was heavenly."

Angie says Centrepoint had an "open sexualisation policy" in which "you could do whatever you wanted to children as long as you were asking them and they were saying yes".

Although she knew about this philosophy from Potter's Saturday morning talks, she didn't start having sex at Centrepoint herself until "they started giving us ecstasy".

"I had an ecstasy trip with Bert and that kind of began my sexualisation into the community.

"I said [to him] 'Whoa, I'm out of here, man. Look at those trees and the sun outside, I just want to be in the bush.

"He said 'If you leave this room you'll have to leave the community and your mother and your sisters and your brother.

"I was coming off E and I was just like 'No way, I can't do that!' So I stayed there and endured sex therapy for however many hours because I wanted to belong, I wanted to be with my family'."

Angie Meiklejohn in 1986

Angie Meiklejohn in 1986 Photo: Supplied

Angie says after that she made a conscious choice to "stop rebelling".

"I didn't want to be having sex with him. He was old and fat and disgusting. But we did it because… it's just what you do."

The first time Angie heard her sisters Bonnie and Renee talk openly and at length about their sexual experiences at Centrepoint was about five years ago when Angie director Costa Botes filmed a family circle.

Before this, only occasional pieces of information had come out over family dinners at her sisters' place in Whangamata, she says.

On one such night, Angie says one of her sisters mentioned something that happened to her during one of Potter's 'sexual therapy' sessions.

Until that moment Angie had believed she was responsible, but her sisters told her otherwise.

"I was like 'Oh my god, I've been carrying this shame … because I thought I did something to [my sister] sexually under the influence of ecstasy … and yet they both said 'No, that was Bert who did that'.

"When Bert Potter died I felt like I'd stepped out of this long, dark, thick, heavy cloak. And until I stepped out of it, I didn't actually know that I was wearing it."

Angie says she was first sexually abused as a baby by one of her mother's partners and started 'dissociating' as a child.

"When [I dissociate] I can see myself conversing with the person ... and doing whatever I'm doing but I know I'm like way back. There's a fog or a screen.

"From a very young age, people have been coming into my bedroom and interfering with me sexually. As a really small child I cant fight, I can't flee, so what I did is I froze … in the physical animal response of 'freeze' another aspect of myself took over. 'Okay, just let him do it. Just pretend it's okay. It's gonna be over in a moment. Let's just get through this'.

"That has happened every time I'm in a sexual situation, until I've started to do some healing around it.

"I would go out of body. And I'd feel their body and their power and their arousal and I'd identify with that and I would start to get a rush out of the experience."

"For me to flip that around and to work as a prostitute there was such a sense of power in that."

It was a long time before Angie was able to clarify her feelings about what she'd experienced at Centrepoint.

Although she'd read a draft of the North & South article Bert's Labyrinth [written by her friend Anke Richter], Angie says she "went into shock a little bit" after it was published in 2015.

She was further triggered by a phone conversation with another former Centrepoint resident who was mentioned in the article.

"I just felt ["the cult psychology"] surge up when I was in connection with her. We kind of made Anke [Richter] wrong in our minds and made the whole process wrong."

Angie says that for a long time after she left Centrepoint, she maintained that "everything I did there I said yes to".

"I didn't understand why those girls were making those claims [against Bert Potter]. 'Who were they to make those claims against Bert Potter and those amazing people at the community? Those witches, how could they go against the code?' That's how I felt at the time'.

Bert Potter in 2009 after serving nine years in jail for child sex offences and drug charges.

Bert Potter in 2009 after serving nine years in jail for child sex offences and drug charges. Photo: JOHN SEFTON / GETTY IMAGES

The "pact" to not talk about what happened inside the commune with anyone outside of it is what defined Centrepoint as a cult rather than a spiritual community, Angie says.

It is a "dark stain on New Zealand's landscape" and other survivors need support to talk and feel less shame about their experience there, she says.

Counselling and psychotherapy helped Angie realise she'd been indoctrinated and find a sense of self.

She says she's still working on her issues with sex.

"I don't know whether I'm heterosexual, I don't know whether I'm homosexual, I don't know whether I'm asexual.

"All my relationships have begun with someone being attracted to me and inviting me to come on a bit of a ride with them. And I've gone 'Oh, okay' … I've never gone 'Whoa, I really dig that person, I wonder if I'll ask them out'."

Angie says learning to be present in her body and educating herself about sexuality are also part of healing.

She recently completed training as a sexological bodyworker.

"I'm on the threshold of... Do I step into that work? Is that just another form of trying to heal myself? Is that going to serve me? Am I doing this because I want to heal the whole of humanity in the area of sexuality? And am I doing that because I want to heal myself?

"One in three girls are sexually abused, one in five boys that we know about … What is paedophilia? Why is it so prevalent in our society? Those questions are really present for me.

"I just have this desire for humanity to evolve, which is so much of a part of my everyday waking life."

"Part of me feels that's why I'm here, why I've had this whole experience, is so I can then learn from that and be able to give and be of service …

"And then part of me is like… 'I just want to do what i was doing before all of that. I just loved singing and acting and being on stage and performing. That was my whole life before Centrepoint, that's what I loved."

Angie believes a lot of mental illness is the result of early childhood trauma.

Her own mother – who was diagnosed bipolar and suicided in later life – was also sexually abused as a baby and "really damaged", she says.

"She wrote me a letter before she died, listing all the abuse she'd suffered, and it was horrendous.

"I loved her with all of my heart and I hated her."

Angie has two sons she talks openly with about her past and says she's glad she didn't have a daughter.

"I'm so glad that it ended with me. As far as I know, my children weren't sexually abused … I hope it's ended with me, yeah."

She recently started living on her own for the first time in her life and says she now feels calm and happy and peaceful a lot of the time.

"When I was at Centrepoint I was kind of in third person, and I was like 'This is going to make a really interesting story one day'."

Angie premieres at the New Zealand International Film Festival, starting 19 July in Auckland.

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