From Commune to College: One Young Woman’s Road to Independence

Samantha Brosseau was raised in a strict Christian commune. At age 18, she decided to run away to escape her oppressive lifestyle and go to college – but leaving wasn’t nearly as simple as she’d hoped.

Tonic, California/July 19, 2010

By Lisa DeBenedictis

Samantha Brosseau twists her ring around her finger absentmindedly. It consists of a champagne-colored oval stone, reaching nearly to her knuckle in size. It’s quite the accessory.

For most women, wearing such an opulent piece of jewelry (the ring, albeit lovely, is fake) may seem commonplace and lighthearted. But as Brosseau follows my gaze down to her bauble, I watch as she laughs softly to herself.

Brosseau, born Batach Yaqara Brosseau grew up in Island Pond, Vt., in a religious commune known as The Twelve Tribes. When she was 18 years old, she ran away.

“I took everything I wanted. It only fit into a little suitcase, the size of a carry-on,” she tells Tonic. “I took my Social Security card, because I knew I’d need it for a job. I had no other identification. I also took my pillow, some T-shirts, my running sneakers, my journal and my photo album. That’s all I really had.”

Brosseau now attends the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. A Hospitality Management major, she is spending the summer in Boston, where she is working as an intern at the Intercontinental Hotel.

It has taken a lot for her to get here.

The Twelve Tribes, or “the community,” as Brosseau (at left, far right) refers to it, is a Christian religious sect. With nearly 5,000 members worldwide, the organization has communities in the United States, England, Canada, Spain, Australia, Germany, France, Brazil and Argentina. But Brosseau’s commune, Island Pond, is where it all began.

According to their website, Gene and Marsha Spriggs founded the group in the early 1970′s, in Chattanooga, Tenn.

“They were kind of like hippies,” Brosseau explains. “People starting moving in with them, they began having Bible studies on Sundays. To make money, they opened a restaurant called The Yellow Deli, where everyone worked.”

In 1978, the community decided to move to Island Pond, Vt., where some of its members had moved to start another branch. And that’s when Brosseau’s grandparents first joined.

She explains that although for a lot of people, joining a religious community is difficult to understand, much of it comes down to a sense of belonging.

“I think people need to feel like they have something to belong to,” she says. “A purpose in life. I suppose that what they were doing in their own life wasn’t enough.”

To make money, the community owns and operates stores and restaurants that sell homemade wares and natural foods. Everyone works in them, including the children. The children are home schooled, and its members don’t believe in sending them to college. Use of technology is not allowed, except by some of the men in leadership roles.

Members dress in handmade or secondhand clothing, and the women must dress modestly, mostly in long dresses. All of the men grow beards and none of the women are allowed to cut their hair.

With no access to outside books, music, and other forms of entertainment and information, Brosseau got creative – and at times, downright sneaky.

“When I was 14, my mom used to go to the library to get materials for home schooling. I would go with her, and I found history books about the Civil War, which we’d never learned about,” she says. “All of our lessons and curriculum were based on the Bible. I was so interested in history. I thought: why would they not tell me? One day, I talked the librarian into giving me a library card, and I started taking out books without my mom knowing. I would hide them in my pillowcases, and read them late at night under my covers.”

By the time Brosseau turned 17, things were coming to a head. She was sent to work in one of the commune’s restaurants in Hyannis, Mass. She worked 80 hours a week, and was paid nothing, she says. It was during this time that she began planning her escape.

One day, when her father left to run some errands and her mother decided to take a nap, Brosseau (at left, in gray sweatshirt) decided that this was her chance. She unplugged the phones except for the portable one, and dialed 411. The only person that she knew outside of the community was her second cousin, Joanne Dealy, who lived with her husband and three teenage daughters in Pembroke, Mass.

When she called, Joanne’s daughter Catherine picked up the phone, and agreed to drive out and get her.

Brosseau stayed with the Dealys that night, but the next day, her parents showed up at the house. They tried to talk her into coming back, but she refused. Over the next couple of days, she says, they called constantly.

By Sunday of that first weekend away, however, Brosseau’s older sister convinced her to go out to dinner. On the way home, Brosseau noticed that they were taking a different route, and asked her sister what was going on.

Her sister had taken Brosseau back to her parents and, she says, they then brought Brosseau to a secluded house somewhere on Cape Cod, with no computer and no phone, where she remained for two months.

Still, Brosseau refused to give up.

“At the time, I had braces. When I went to an appointment with my doctor, I told her what was going on. She helped me schedule a fake appointment. I called Catherine, and told her I’d be at the train station,” she says. “While I waited, I called my dad and told him that I was okay. He told me it was the end of our relationship and that I shouldn’t expect to hear from him again. And he hung up. I exhaled, but it was a feeling of relief. Freedom. Finally, I didn’t have to fight anymore.”

Brosseau stayed with the Dealys for a week, and then decided to move out to Amherst, Mass., to live with their oldest daughter, at the time a UMass graduate student.

“I knew I wanted to go to college, but I had to get a job first. All I had were the clothes that my cousins had bought and given me. I had to pay rent, too. My first job was substitute teaching. Then I worked at Marshalls, then Target,” said Brosseau.

Brosseau got her GED, and then took the SAT’s. She applied to UMass Amherst, and in December of 2006, was accepted.

“I wanted to do something in business so that I can have a dependable job when I graduate, just because of my background. I chose Hospitality because I love meeting and interacting with people. I’m also really interested in sales. But one day, I’d love to go to law school,” she says.

Today, Brosseau is independent, successful and content, but her relationship with her family is still distant and strained. She hasn’t been allowed to see her younger siblings in over five years, she says.

For Brosseau, being financially independent is crucial, but she also hopes to be able to make enough money to help her siblings and other children in similar situations.

“I’d like to be financially stable enough to send my younger siblings to college – if they want to,” she says. “But most importantly, I want to start an organization that provides a safe haven and smooth transition for children who’ve grown up in communes or other difficult environments that provides education, counseling, and other ways to help them succeed in the world.”

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