A version of this article originally appeared on VICE Netherlands.
In November 2021, a 72-year-old Dutch man named René L. was sentenced to 30 months in prison. The former kung fu teacher was convicted of assault, threatening behaviour and possession of illegal weapons. For over 25 years, he’d kept his students on a short leash in a so-called “kung fu sect”. He recruited sect members by offering them in-depth martial arts classes that promised to go beyond what they’d pick up in more traditional learning environments.
Former students reported being sexually abused, taken advantage of financially and being intentionally isolated from friends and family. Many of the kung fu students lived with their teacher – in a house they had paid for.
René couldn’t make money from kung fu classes forever. When that became apparent, he changed tack and turned his attention to other schemes and scams. First came a weed farm. Then there was a rehab clinic.
Elsje and Jeppe – both of whom wanted to keep their full names private – met and fell in love at the clinic. Elsje was 33 years old at the time.
“I graduated as a psychologist in February, 2013. A few months later, someone I’d studied with approached me on Facebook to say that a new rehab clinic was looking for staff,” Elsje said. The clinic had been formed by a group of friends who “had a strong belief that the care provided for addicts in the Netherlands could be done differently,” as she put it.
Run in a seemingly ad hoc manner, the clinic was built atop an isolated old farm close to the German border, 30 kilometres from the Dutch city of Nijmegen. It was remote enough that commuting to work via public transport wasn’t an option. Getting there involved hoping another member of staff could offer Elsje a lift.
“I worked there for two years. It wasn’t until I left the clinic that I found out it had been run by a sect all along. Once I discovered that, things started to make sense.” It was Elsje’s first job after completing her training and she went into it unsure of her own abilities. She says she worked hard to prove herself, worried that her colleagues looked down on her.
“The atmosphere at the clinic was strange,” she said. “On the one hand, it felt very intimate. It was immediately obvious that a lot of my colleagues had a strong bond. On the other hand, it was also clear that an outsider would always find it difficult to become part of things.” When she tried to communicate with her colleagues, she was often ignored. The message was clear: They weren’t open to strangers.
Her team leader Jeppe was part of the in-crowd and often gave Elsje a lift to work. Their friendship blossomed during those journeys. “I liked Jeppe, but I was in a relationship at the time,” she said. Even when that relationship ended, Jeppe held off. “He told me that friendship was enough.”
What she didn’t know yet, is that like a lot of people involved in the story, he was a kung fu student in thrall, and in debt, to René. Jeppe and his co-workers were happy talk spirituality with Elsje. She said that her colleagues believed in karma and reincarnation and that they also often spoke about the philosophies that underpinned kung fu. They were also strongly against having children “because it would be bad for the planet”, and that no one in the group “had the need for a relationship”.
With hindsight, it was bizarre that everyone seemed to share the exact same opinions. “At the time, though, I wasn’t suspicious at all,” she admitted. “In fact, I found their version of the world inspiring.”
René was the clinic’s director. “There’d be change in atmosphere whenever anyone spoke about him,” Elsje, said. “I actually only saw him once. He was unexpectedly in the living room. It is a moment I won’t forget. Everyone was so tense and nervous around him.”
Elsje learned from Jeppe that René had “enormous power” over his followers. He even managed to convince Jeppe that he was gay. “If Jeppe denied being gay, other members of the sect had to spend hours discussing the matter with him. In the end, he was so worn out by it all that he ‘admitted’ to being gay,” Elsje said. “I think the reason René did that was to prevent men from trying to get into relationships with the women in the sect – because he was sexually abusing them.”
Despite Jeppe’s tortured relationship with his sexuality, he and Elsje fell in love. “It wasn’t until then that he realised that he really wasn’t into men, and that René was wrong all along,” she said. “Meanwhile, my colleagues felt sorry for me, because they were still convinced that Jeppe didn't like women and that he was only pretending whilst being with me.”
Bit by bit, Jeppe told Elsje about everything going on behind the scenes at the sect. “Members were regularly beaten up by René. Women were not only beaten but also sexually assaulted,” Elsje said. “He saw the female members of the sect as ‘sluts’, and they had to spend the rest of their lives trying to get rid of that label.”
Jeppe ended up giving a substantial amount of money to René, who managed the group’s finances, claiming it was necessary to ensure they could buy their house. He also encouraged the group to think of money as only having relative value, ending up with some members spending far beyond their means, often on gifts for their master.
After 15 years, Jeppe owed the bank €100,000. Leaving the sect meant he was temporarily homeless, and Elsje was shocked. Despite all this, she says, Jeppe wouldn’t hear a bad word about René – he’d just decided it was time to leave his friends behind. It was only two years later, after watching a documentary about cults, that he realised the true extent of his experiences with René had been.
Even after they got together, Elsje says that Jeppe held onto René’s misogynistic, slut-shaming ideology for a long time: “That black and white thinking was present in our relationship.” Jeppe was judgemental with everything and everyone, but was afraid of being judged himself. He was jealous of Elsje’s relationships; he’d often overspend and argue with her about money despite being broke.
Elsje contemplated ending the relationship but felt too connected to Jeppe to do so: “There were a lot of things broken in him and his life.” Eventually, he started going to therapy and began rebuilding his life. Jeppe and Elsje have two children together and got married earlier this year. Despite the occasional nightmare about his time in the kung fu cult, Elsje says, he’s doing much better.
“Despite all the trauma he went through, we’re able to talk about everything really well,” she said. “He’s been there for me when I wasn’t doing so well. When I was depressed, he helped me through it. When I started having panic attacks, he was there to listen to me. Ultimately, being with him has enriched my life.”