Content warning: This article contains references to child abuse, sexual assault and suicide.
“Based on what I’ve been through, I should be in prison or dead,” Cameron Black ’25 said.
Born into a cult led by his father, who proclaimed himself to be God, Black’s early life in Sedona, Ariz. was anything but ordinary. This familial cult consisted of nine people and operated under unconventional religious and sexual practices, deeply entangled in manipulation and abuse, Black said.
“Don’t try to make sense of it because it doesn’t make sense,” he said as he explained the cult’s philosophy. “It’s like my father combined the Bible, sci-fi books and ‘The Matrix’ into one big ball of crazy.”
Describing his childhood, Black recounts harrowing experiences of physical and psychological torture at the hands of his father.
“Starting at 7 years old, for a few years, I would wake up at 2 a.m. to my father standing over me with a 45 caliber pistol or his machete, and he would ‘fake’ kill me,” Black said.
Black’s childhood was a continuous battle for survival. His father’s abuse included being left outside naked in below freezing temperatures for hours, forced to exclusively eat smoothies made up of food from the trash and being routinely drowned starting at age 4.
During periods of forced starvation and isolation, Black would escape into other worlds through books. He would reread scenes where food was described in vivid detail, imagining himself eating the meals and becoming full.
“I didn’t know any different, but I knew something was wrong,” Black said.
Amid this terrifying chaos, Black recounts fleeting moments of normalcy — mountain biking, Fleetwood Mac playing in the house and large home-cooked family dinners.
“It’s human for us to remember the bad things. Cuts leave scars, but kisses don’t,” Black said.
His father used to read the children bedtime stories and take them to Gap to buy clothes. But after Black turned 5 or 6 years old, he recalls a change in his father that never went away.
After being isolated from the outside world, Black was allowed to attend school for the first time in eighth grade. “I had no social skills, I was failing my classes, getting bullied and became addicted to cigarettes and weed,” Black said.
In the same year, when Black was 13 years old, he and his mother were told to leave the cult amid mounting legal pressures on his father. They signed a contract promising never to return in exchange for a truck and some cash.
Just a few months later, Black’s father committed suicide.
Black had great difficulty adjusting to the outside world. He found himself homeless and involved with men who ended up being part of the international gang MS-13.
“They kept me fed, and they kept me high. Even though they were dangerous, they were really funny and nice to me,” Black said. While with them, he became addicted to heroin. As he was 13 years old and would not arouse suspicion, Black was used by members to transfer powdered heroin for their drug deals.
At 14, Black was placed in a therapeutic boarding school where his therapist repeatedly sexually abused him.
Black was admitted to this facility by his extended family, who had no involvement in the cult, to help him recover from the unhealthy sexual behaviors and violence he was exposed to growing up. However, Black said, “it made me even more confused and brought me a lot of shame.”
After this, Black was shuffled between eight residential treatment centers (RTCs) for youth. He was expelled from each for various reasons, including hypersexuality, involvement in bullying or being bullied and instances of self-harm, including a suicide attempt.
At one RTC in Utah, Black was exposed to equine therapy. “Horses were one of the few things that saved my life. I learned how to groom, rope and train them, and it brought me a sense of calm,” Black said.
Black’s biological uncle, Adam Whizin, and his wife, Kate Maloney, started supporting Black when he was 20 years old. He refers to them as his “chosen father” and “Soul Mama.”
Black never formally graduated high school, but Maloney encouraged him to get his GED and enroll in community college.
“Cameron had been called worthless his entire life, so the biggest challenge was making him believe that an education was possible for him,” Maloney said.
With time and support, Black excelled at Santa Barbara City College (SBCC) both in his academics and extracurriculars. Black found out he was accepted to Stanford as a transfer student right before his SBCC graduation — a moment he said he will remember forever.
At Stanford, Black is a Resident Assistant (RA) for the substance-free Well House, a coordinator for Cardinal Recovery, a driver for 5-SURE and the Executive Director of Transfer Advocacy for the ASSU.
“I am at my best when I am serving others and have healthy structure in my life,” Black said, reflecting on how he manages all his roles on campus.
Black’s commitment to his Well House residents goes beyond official duties, offering support as a caring friend.
“One night, I experienced a panic attack that badly affected the muscles in my back. Cameron offered to draw a bath for me and it helped both physically and mentally,” wrote Lydia Goedert ’24, one of Black’s residents.
“Cameron is shedding the old labels he was repeatedly given: troublemaker, liar, stealer,” Maloney said. “He’s embracing his new identity as a loving person who is passionate about making a difference.”
Black hopes to create a comprehensive program for child abuse prevention and trauma recovery, where every individual, regardless of their circumstances, has access to therapeutic, psychiatric and wellness resources.
“Hurt people hurt people… If we take into account the shame and social stigmatization of being an abuser, it’s almost impossible to reach out for help,” Black said in a TEDxStanford talk.
He aims to break the cycle of intergenerational violence by transforming shame and stigma into a paradigm of education, healing and compassion.
“I’m grateful for the people in my life who have stuck with me and saw something in me that I wasn’t able to see in myself,” Black said.
His message to society is one of understanding and love — to recognize the underlying causes of abuse and to extend support to those who suffer.
Support is available for students through Stanford’s Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) 24/7 at (650) 723-3785. The Graduate Life Office (GLO) is available 24/7 via the Stanford operator at (650) 723-7288, pager 25085 and during office hours at (650) 736-7078. The Bridge Peer Counseling Center offers counseling by trained students 24/7 at (650) 723-3392. The Faculty Staff Help Center, located in Kingscote Gardens, offers confidential help for Stanford faculty and staff.