Claire Ashman on her first Communion day. Image: supplied

Claire Ashman on her first Communion day. Image: supplied

How a UQ student gained liberation through education

Claire Ashman spent 36 years cut off from the outside world in two repressive religious sects, following a strict form of Tridentine Catholicism. It was only by interrogating the status quo that she was able forge a new life for herself and her eight children.

By Lucy Turner

Claire Ashman was exhausted. Exhausted from the constant surveillance, the daily sacrifices and hypocrisy she endured in the doomsday cult, which claimed to be part of the Catholic Church, her then-husband had forced her to join. 

‘This is no way to live,’ she told herself over and over – even though she knew the leader publicly admonished any group members who went against his teachings, accusing them of disobeying the church.

But deep down, Ashman knew that the leader’s actions betrayed both Catholic doctrines and morals.

In a series of letters, Ashman confronted him about his immoral behaviour, and challenged the group’s repressive lifestyle.

She was branded a 'troublemaker'.

Claire with two of her children standing beneath an autumn tree.

Claire with two of her children. Image: Claire Ashman

Claire with two of her children. Image: Claire Ashman

Yet, determined to find a better life, Ashman sought intellectual and physical independence by reading and making friends outside the group. 

“I taught myself the truth because I thought it was logical,” she said.

In the year 2000, her courage allowed her to seek freedom by opening her own bank accounts (something she had never had) and moving out of the community with her children.

An image of Claire Ashman holding one of her children at a baptism.

Ashman’s story – one marked by curiosity, determination, and a conviction to break the rules – exemplifies the value of education and its power to uncover new truths. 

“It’s been a long journey,” Ashman said of her path to studying at UQ.

Initially, she worried that her upbringing – being home-schooled in a conservative, strictly religious family which discouraged tertiary education – precluded her from university. 

But Ashman has been invested in learning and developing her own life philosophy for a long time.

“I consider myself somewhat of an archaeologist of knowledge – my quest for the truth allows me to rethink the indoctrination of my upbringing.” 

Ashman grew up in the Victorian country town of Lal Lal, in the Moorabool Shire. Her parents rejected the post-Vatican II attempt to modernise the church by following the Tridentine teachings of the Society of Saint Pius X, a sect which was a breakaway from the Catholic Church.

Ashman and her siblings spent their days caring for the land and animals, praying, and preparing for the end of days.

Claire has spent most of her youth in religious doomsday cults. Image: Claire Ashman

At 18, Claire married a man 12 years her senior with whom she had eight children.

Her then-husband later moved the family to another doomsday cult – the Order of Saint Charbel – based in Nowra, on the New South Wales south coast. She was forced to join the religious order, take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, and live under strict rules – including no television or outside media.

Suspicions later arose over sexual assaults at the hands of the sect's leader. It was a concern for the safety of her young children that eventually saw her flee.

Now remarried and living happily in Brisbane, Ashman has embarked on a new educational journey, studying a Bachelor of Arts with majors in Studies in Religion and Sociology. 

She said her formal studies at university have introduced frameworks that help to describe and articulate ideas she’s been pondering for a long time. 

An image of Claire Ashman as a child.
Two images of Claire Ashman in her youth.

Claire has spent most of her youth in religious doomsday cults. Image: Claire Ashman

Claire has spent most of her youth in religious doomsday cults. Image: Claire Ashman

Claire Ashman on her first wedding day.

On top of this, Ashman was recently named the 2021 recipient of the Robertson Family Scholarship.

Established in 2013, the scholarship assists an exceptional student pursuing Studies in Religion later in life.

It was created by Margaret Robertson, Cathy Tweedie and Joanne Russell in honour of their parents, A.K. (Bill) and Violet Marie (Molly) Robertson.

Bill and Molly were mature-aged UQ students, who both graduated with Bachelor of Arts degrees – Bill in 1950, and Molly in 1972.

The scholarship recognises the enormous burdens mature-aged students can face while trying to balance their studies with work and caring for children. 

“Being awarded the scholarship means so much to me,” Ashman said.

“The financial support has enabled me to decrease my working hours and devote myself to full-time study. It will also allow me to graduate alongside my daughter Beth, a student of archaeology and history who similarly shares a passion for the humanities.”

But for Ashman, university is about more than a degree.

This is a portrait of Claire Ashman today.

Claire Ashman

Claire Ashman

This semester alone, the scholarship has allowed her more free time to immerse herself in social events and learning opportunities beyond the classroom. 

“I want to actually learn from those around me,” Ashman said.

“I’m relishing the opportunity to navigate the islands of insight offered by classmates from diverse walks of life.” 

Participation in multi-faceted and thought-provoking discussions has been key to enjoyment of her Bachelor of Arts degree, and Ashman’s scholarship recognises the unique contributions she makes to such conversations and the broader academic community. 

Like Bill and Molly Robertson before her, Ashman typifies what mature-age students can offer.

Attending university later in life enables her to share extensive life experiences with classmates.

Listen to Claire's talk at TEDxMelbourne about finding freedom as a cult survivor.

Aside from an in-depth knowledge of Catholicism (endlessly useful in Studies of Religion classes) and strong critical-thinking skills, she said she continues to learn from lively family dinner-table discussions with her husband and beloved children, who are aged between 17 and 31.

Ashman’s natural curiosity of the world around her has been nurtured since commencing her Bachelor of Arts degree, as has her desire to ask difficult questions.

Most recently, an anthropology elective has enabled her to explore a new side to Australian colonial history that challenges the whitewashed half-truths learned during years of home-schooling.

By fully appreciating Australia’s Indigenous history, Ashman has fostered an understanding of how Indigenous landcare practices have modelled solutions to the climate crisis.

“The humanities and social sciences provide an understanding of ourselves, our histories and our communities, without which we couldn’t peel back the layers of dominant doctrines like colonialism, capitalism and patriarchy to envision better futures,” she said.

So, what does Ashman’s future hold?

She intends to pursue interdisciplinary postgraduate research into the rise of Tridentine Catholicism in Australia, with a longer-term goal of entering academia.

“I want to join a new generation of thinkers in pushing the boundaries further for humanity to be the best it can be,” she said. 

“I believe that canonical theorists have had their time, and that we must find new, accessible ways to communicate academic knowledge to a wider audience. This knowledge might similarly liberate other individuals from repressive upbringings.” 

She also hopes to become a bridge between academia and the real world.

“Ultimately, I want my knowledge to help empower women wishing to reclaim their lives from repressive religious organisations, who may lack the resources or confidence to pursue education and realise their untapped talent.” 

Yet, Ashman has already had an impact on the lives of women worldwide.

As a passionate advocate for women’s rights, having presented four TEDx Talks and penned a memoir, Lessons from a Cult Survivor, her courage and honesty have helped countless women overcome their shame and find support after leaving extreme religious groups. 

“I have broken through those barriers, but now I want to learn more at university and be able to help other women, like myself.”

The Robertson Family Scholarship recognises the contributions she is already making to the lives of others, while enabling Ashman to take this vision to new heights. 

Ultimately, Ashman wants to see a future where everyone, through education, can ask the difficult, life-changing questions. 

Image: Arek Rainczuk / Fifth Castle Media

An image of Claire Ashman presenting a Tedx Talk.

Support students, like Claire, by donating to the HASS Scholarship Fund this Giving Day.