Back in Feb. 2021, the TreeIsAlive TikTok account blew up by sharing videos of The Garden — an off-the-grid supposed utopia that appealed to the anti-capitalist and anti-establishment values of many young people.
While the TreeIsAlive account insisted that The Garden is not a cult, another account associated with The Garden, RocknRelMusic, which has since been banned from TikTok, shared with followers that she and other community members skinned and ate a cat. So, what really happened? Distractify spoke exclusively to past and present residents of The Garden to find out.
The Garden began as a commune in 2009 and started posting TikTok videos in 2021.
The Garden began as just a plot of land in Lafayette, Tenn. According to the founder, Patrick Martion, he started The Garden as a way to disconnect from capitalist society without any external resources.
“It wasn’t like a master plan, it was just a 20-something-year-old kid trying to do something... I was very optimistic, I was like, ‘Oh I’ll just buy this land and the right people will show up and it’ll be a positive change in the world,’” he told us.
In the TikTok videos about The Garden, residents show how they boil rainwater to use as hot water, how they live in renovated buses and shacks, and how they use the chicken coop and garden for sustenance.
To live peacefully, everyone votes on decisions affecting the community during council meetings.
For Patrick and The Garden, joining TikTok was a way to show that it’s possible to “create intentional communities, that you can join intentional communities, you can do good with others, you can provide your own food, water, shelter, [and] become more independent of the system.”
However, The Garden has a history of abuse, according to former residents.
One thing that separates The Garden from other intentional living communities is that they were inviting anyone and everyone to live there. This policy allegedly created a safe harbor for abusers, and a few former residents of The Garden are now speaking out.
At one point, The Garden was associated with a larger organization called The Rainbow Family, which is made up of a network of often nomadic individuals who move from commune to commune.
Former resident Tesslamay told Distractify, “I do think Rainbow is a cult… Rainbow always tries to say it’s not a cult, but if we look at all these cults that it harbors like Love Has Won, Twelve Tribes, etc… With The Garden, I feel like it’s a cult that’s trying to pretend not to be a cult.”
For what it’s worth, the TreeIsAlive account, which has since deleted the videos of The Garden, seemed to belong to a newer resident of The Garden who really believed in the power of intentional communities.
Tesslamay explained that “[TreeIsAlive] didn’t really know the deep dark histories of [The Garden]... the leaders aren’t going to tell all the awful things they do and have done.”
There have been accounts of both animal and human abuse at The Garden.
While many TikTok users focused on the animal abuse that was revealed through RocknRelMusic’s videos, former resident Hunter Robinson spoke with Distractify to make sure we didn't overlook the human abuse as well.
Both Tesslamay and Hunter recounted the story of a woman who was physically abused until she was in a fatal coma. "I went there when she was in a coma and we had suspicions that she was murdered and [had] not overdosed," Tesslamay said.
Tesslamay has also come forward on private Facebook groups about her own abuser, who lived at The Garden on and off without repercussions, and is still considered part of the Rainbow Family.
The animal abuse runs deep as well.
"In the time that I stayed there, I witnessed animal abuse and child neglect,” Hunter recounted. “They had a dog tied to a tree for like six months with no shelter whatsoever.”
More recently, residents of the property did kill a feral cat because it went after their chickens. RocknRelMusic shared that they skinned and ate it, all in the name of “no waste.”
When we asked Patrick about this specific incident, he responded, “Cats are eaten in so many different countries. I understand, cats are the internet’s favorite animal, [but] so much real harm comes from everybody loving cats so much… The real cult is sticking to different dogmas that don’t actually make sense.”
He proceeded to explain how the rest of the world is “the cult” for loving cats — making it clear that the ideology that The Garden is a superior lifestyle runs deep within the community.
It’s possible that The Garden on TikTok has changed its ways.
The Garden has been around for 12 years, and in that time, Patrick, who also owns the land, has claimed that it has evolved into a more egalitarian community. Hunter and Tesslamay have not lived on the property or associated with Rainbow in years.
According to Patrick, The Garden is no longer associated with Rainbow.
In addition, after The Garden got so much negative attention from TikTok, it removed its public address and updated the process of how it allows people to live in the community. “It used to be that everyone was welcome to come until they made themselves unwelcome,” Patrick said.
Now, however, visitors can only stay at The Garden for three to 10 days, after which point the community decides whether or not they can live there.
So, is The Garden really a cult?
Distractify also spoke with cult specialist and Indoctrination host, Rachel Bernstein, to weigh in on what was really happening with The Garden on TikTok.
Rachel explained that a cult is about “the power differential between the leader and the follower, the amount of manipulation that exists in that relationship, and the amount of deception that exists in the recruitment process.”
While dictionaries often associate cults with religion, that’s not necessarily the case.
“Within groups like this, there’s a lot that they’re needing to hide so you’re only getting part of the story," Rachel continued. "And because of that, it’s impossible for there to be complete and total equality, like The Garden claims to have."
Although they have a council, Hunter clarified that a few top dogs would need to approve anything for it to go to a vote in the first place. Whether that’s still the case, we cannot confirm.
The Garden is probably not the only cult on TikTok.
Rachel explained that the ideology of many people at The Garden — that they’re the only ones who truly get it — can make communes dangerous because residents are often unwilling to go back out into the world.
However, the biggest red flag, Rachel explained, is how The Garden deceived its TikTok followers.
By using social media, The Garden was able to use what psychologist Robert Cialdini calls “pre-suasion,” which is basically the idea of being groomed.
“There are so many cults doing their recruiting on the internet — it’s because they know how to package themselves,” Rachel warned. “And they know how to use a multi-sensory approach to package themselves.”