30 Oct 2008

Not Without My Sister [book review]

Seven Magazine - UK October 30, 2008

book review by Miranda Marcus

In the late 1960s, hippie-dom took control of the world with its message of flower-power, peace and love. The Christian angle, the ‘Jesus Movement’, soon broke down into various groups, such as The Children of God. Founded in California and lead by their now deceased prophet David Berg, it quickly earned its reputation as a cult. Now called the International Family, it is a global religious movement that boasts full-time and fellow members at just over 11,200 in over 100 countries (around 4,000 adult full-time members and 4,000 children).
Based on a message of salvation, apocolipticism and ‘spiritual revolution’, and organised into communes of up to 200 people, their basic belief structure relies on the premise that it is every Christian’s duty to try and convert the world armed with the ‘spiritual weapons’ such as spirit channelling – using the aid of ‘helpers’ which consist of the dead, demons, and even mythical figures such as Aphrodite – ‘Keys of the Kingdom’ which not only power spiritual spacecraft, but also turn into spiritual swords, from the Gospel of Matthew: “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (16:19). And last but not least, we have ‘Jesus Loving’.

The latter weapon concedes that all followers of Christ are his brides and therefore should fulfill all the roles of a wife, showing him their love and adoration through sexual acts. Homosexuality being banned, men are encouraged to envisage themselves as women during intercourse, therefore denying homosexual relationships with Jesus. Jesus Loving also lead to a method called flirty fishing, which uses the sexual appeal of the female members to generate funds and recruits: essentially religious evangelic prostitution.

Central to their beliefs is the ‘law of love’, which claims that providing one’s actions are motivated by unselfish, sacrificial love, and are not intentionally hurtful, the said act it is in accordance with scripture and therefore God’s law. Underage sexual activities were encouraged, and it was only in 1986 that sex between minors and adults was forbidden. Adult members may have sex with other adult members of the opposite sex, and are encouraged to do so, regardless of marital status, as a way to foster unity and combat loneliness of those ‘in need’. This is commonly called ‘sharing’ or ‘sacrificial sex’. However, numerous former members have alleged being coerced to ‘share’, and were cast as selfish or unloving when they did not comply. The cult received considerable media attention following allegations of incest and child sex abuse supposedly encouraged by David Berg.

Liberal sexual attitudes are stereotypically seen as a defining feature of hippie culture, free love for all, but the recently published Not Without My Sister (Harpercollins, 2008), gives the harrowing accounts of three sisters growing up in this cult. This book contains the memories and explicit insights of Kristina and Celeste Jones and Juliana Buhring on their ‘journey to freedom’ from the clutches of the organisation which, in their own words “practised physical and mental abuse, thought control, pornography, prostitution and sexual exploitation of children”, starting with background on Berg and his beliefs, and then on to how their parents became involved, severing their ties with all family and the trappings of their previous lives.

The British-born sisters give their respective stories, detailing the mental, physical and sexual abuse carried out upon them, ranging from accounts of three and four year olds being put together for ‘gypsy naps’ where they would be clothed in transparent scarves, paired up and encouraged to behave sexually to a soundtrack of a the story of Abraham and his gypsies, to witnessing from ages as early as five, their father and others making ‘love-videos’ involving speaking in tongues, masturbation, and strip dancing, along with penetrative sex. These tapes would be circulated to all the communes; not as porn, but as ‘glorifying God’s creation’. Aside from sexual abuse, there are recollections of the sound-proofed ‘spanking room’ where children were given ‘Lashings of Love’ until they stopped begging for mercy, and being used as ‘sexual bait’ on the end of The Family’s ever-dangling financial lines, seducing rich businessmen into large donations.

Kristina left at the age of 12, rescued by her mother, and Juliana shortly after, while Celeste, the eldest, took the longest to extricate herself, only when she herself became a mother. Each sister describes post-Family life and adjusting to the outside world, with complete ignorance of the systems of western society, having no proof of existence other than a passport, no formal education and completely different social boundaries. The book also details their reactions and emotions – extreme insomnia, anorexia and depression.

The authors state that the purpose of their memoirs is to raise awareness and garner support for those whose lives have been affected and damaged by the secrecy and mass manipulation of cults. Ex-Family members have established a website in support of those who have left – MovingOn.org. As of 1990, the International Family has been deemed a legally safe environment for children, and all the official policies which regard child abuse have been withdrawn. However, they have admitted to a certain amount of abuse between 1976-1978, whilst those who claim any further abuse are deemed mentally unstable by the organization.

Not Without My Sister is essentially the crystalline capturing of three women’s mass emotional trauma. It could be written off as typical American hyperbole but that is just what it is; the affect of David Berg’s magnification that extended to all areas of the sisters’ life, and stands as a testament and warning against it.

This article was found at:



Links to news and blog articles concerning The Family International, formerly known as the Children of God.   

For insider information on The Family International from former members visit these two websites:





Secret letter claims Family International leader caused deadliest air crash in history

Who is the Real Anti-Christian: the Atheist or the Fundamentalist Christian?

Family International a.k.a. Children of God: Once dismissed as 'sex cult,' tiny church launches image makeover

Denied an education in The Family International abuse survivor explains how she wrote her first novel

Novelist describes how she survived childhood of abuse and neglect growing up in The Family International, aka, Children of God

Author's debut novel draws on personal experiences growing up in abusive Children of God cult, a.k.a. The Family International

UK survivor confirms mother's fears about abusive cult The Family International that tried to recruit her teen daughter

Folie a deux: the insane prophets of the Seventh-day Adventists and The Family International


  1. How Cyclist Juliana Buhring Learned to Keep Going After Surviving a Cult and Losing the Love of Her Life

    By Helen Rumbelow, Glamour May 13, 2016

    The mountains of Praiano, Italy, tumble spectacularly into the Mediterranean Sea. If you look closely on any given day, you might see a tall tattooed woman jogging the 2,000 stone steps that go almost vertically up those cliffs. It’s like a scene from Rocky: Juliana Buhring, 34, is the underdog, outsider, and rebel, working to win the distinction of fastest female ultradistance cyclist on earth.

    Training this hard and this long is about a relationship with pain: facing it, pushing through it, leaving it in the dust. It’s safe to say Buhring knows how to do all that. Her lessons started early, when she was born into one of the most infamous cults of the time, the Children of God. The group, which later changed its name to The Family International and at its peak had thousands of members (including a young Joaquin Phoenix and Rose McGowan), was started in the 1960s by David Berg, an ex-pastor who espoused free sex. The women were sent to bars to go “flirty fishing” and seduce new recruits, and children were encouraged to be sexual. (Responding to accusations of child abuse, the Family has acknowledged that from the late 1970s to the mid-1980s the group “wasn’t as safe an environment for children and young teens as it should have been.”)

    Early on Buhring was separated from her family: Her father was off working closely with Berg, and the leaders scattered her 17 siblings among the cult’s numerous communes around the world. “I had just turned four when I heard our group’s green car start up,” she says. “I ran to the window and saw my mom getting in with my brother and sister, and thought, Wait! I raced to the front door, but they were pulling out of the gate. I remember my mom waving to me out of the window, crying. I was distraught. I thought they were going on a shopping trip. I didn’t understand they weren’t coming back.”

    Buhring saw one sister occasionally, but otherwise she was on her own, moving from country to country and living in communes with 20 or 30 kids. “We often just slept on mattresses spread across the floor and were cared for by random adults,” she says. “A lot of them were very violent. We got beatings, hard labor, constant ‘spankings’ with things like coat hangers and cricket bats. They’d even duct-tape our mouths shut.”

    A self-described defiant child, Buhring first thought about escaping at 13. She’d even sneak away at night to make friends outside of the commune. But it took hearing that one of her half sisters had died of a drug overdose to give her the push she needed to leave for good. “By then I was 23,” Buhring says. “We were in Uganda, and the leaders were happy to see me go.” She got a job in Kampala, and later moved to England and decided to tell her story. The memoir Not Without My Sister, which she wrote with two of her siblings, exposes the sexual abuse and neglect they suffered and became a best-seller in the U.K. They also started a charity to support other young people leaving extreme religious groups.

    continued below

  2. Then in 2009 Buhring reconnected on Facebook with an adventure guide named Hendri Coetzee. They’d first met in Uganda, where they’d had a short, intense affair, but this time they couldn’t let go. “There was not a day when we didn’t chat, Skype, or call,” recalls Buhring. “We finally reached a point where we were like, ‘Let’s give this a go. There’s something happening here.’” They decided to meet up for New Year’s 2011 in Uganda. Buhring booked her ticket and counted the days, as Coetzee kayaked in the Congo. But on December 8 she logged on to Facebook to see her feed flooded with tributes to him. A crocodile had lunged out of the river and dragged him underwater to his death. His body has never been found.

    Despite all that she’d been through, losing Coetzee “was the one blow I didn’t want to come up from,” Buhring says. Reckless with grief, she signed up for a race to cycle around the world to raise money and awareness for her charity, which had merged with the Safe Passage Foundation. She had no training, no teammates—she’d be on the road completely alone. Everyone told her she was insane. “This wasn’t about being strong,” she says. “It was about escaping.” On July 23, 2012, after working with a coach for only six months, she took off from Naples, never expecting to make it back. At times she was miserable. She rode through a cyclone in India “covered in mud and human dung—I was sick, constantly wet, and mobbed by men,” she says. “But it never occurred to me, Oh, you could just stop. I’m too proud.”

    And in those 144 days of punishing cycling over 18,000 miles, something unexpected happened. Buhring, who had always felt so alone in life, found herself forced to rely on the kindness of strangers, and they came through. “People were amazing,” she says. “I stopped feeling like everyone had it out for me.” By the time she pedaled around the globe—the journey she describes in her new book, This Road I Ride, out in May—she knew she had to keep going. “I had been such a stunted child in a tiny world; I just wanted to make up for all of that lost time,” she says. “I wanted to do everything.”

    She’s certainly on her way. In 2013 she became the only woman to attempt the first transcontinental race from London to Istanbul and finished ninth overall. The next year she took first place for women in the Trans Am Bike Race, although she needed a wheelchair to board her flight home. (“I was f---ing winning that race,” she says.) “The last three days,” says her coach, ultradistance rider Billy Rice, “she went without sleep. That’s huge. She is the most determined person I’ve ever met.”

    So far Buhring has raised more than $20,000 for Safe Passage: The money will cover things like travel for those trying to leave cults and college tuition to help start a new life. “They need advice on how to set up a bank account, pay rent—things you don’t learn when you’re growing up in a cult,” she says. She’d also like to erase the stigma that “ex-kids” are damaged: “Many are ashamed about their pasts, but I’ve seen people who come out superstrong.”

    As she hunkers down, dead set on smashing a new record in the Race Across America in June, Buhring pauses to consider her own tough history. “Hendri would often say, ‘The strongest metals have gone through the hottest fires.’ And I now know that’s true,” she says. “When you think you can’t go any further, you always can.”

    Helen Rumbelow is a feature writer at The Times in London.


  3. This Road I Ride


    Juliana Buhring (Author)

    This Road I Ride is the remarkable story of one woman’s solo journey around the world by bicycle.

    Juliana Buhring had been mired in a dark hole of depression after the death of a man she loved, and when an acquaintance suggested they honor his memory by biking across Canada, she thought, “Canada? Why not the world?” And why not alone.

    She had never seriously ridden a bicycle before. She had no athletic experience or corporate sponsorship, but with just eight months of preparation, Juliana Buhring departed from Naples, Italy, in July 2012 aiming to become the first woman to circumnavigate the globe. She set out believing she might not ever return, but that she had nothing to lose. Over 152 days, Juliana’s ride spanned four continents and 18,060 miles. She traversed small-town and big-mountain America, Australian desert expanses, South Asian rainforests and villages, and Turkish plains. She suffered innumerable breakdowns, severe food poisoning, hostile pursuers, and the international longing for a good Italian espresso. When she crossed the finish line into Naples before the end of the year, she officially became the fastest woman to cycle the world (beating prior men’s records, to boot).

    Accomplishing what she never thought she could, buoyed by the outpouring of support from friends and strangers, Juliana rediscovered herself. In the process she proved that there are no extraordinary people—there are only people who decide to do extraordinary things.

    May 2016
    ISBN 978-0-393-29255-8
    5.9 × 8.6 in / 240 pages
    Sales Territory: Worldwide including Canada, Singapore and Malaysia, but excluding the British Commonwealth and the European Union.


    “Now this is feminism!. . . Buhring is in a class with Amelia Earhart and Kathrine Switzer; brave, strong, and a little crazy in the best possible way.” — Douglas Lord, Library Journal

    “Vivid…Buhring insists she is…just an ordinary person pushing outside her comfort zone. That is exactly what makes her story so amazing.” — Booklist

    “[A] testament to the human will to overcome and survive as well as a moving portrait of a woman on a deeply personal quest to define the meaning of her life. A searching, engaging memoir from an author who "can be at home no matter where I am in the world."” — Kirkus Reviews

    “This is an inspirational memoir about the power of one's undefeatable determination that will appeal to adrenaline seekers.” — Publisher's Weekly

    “An incredible journey that is awe inspiring and completely captivating. I couldn’t put the book down, couldn’t wait to find out how Buhring would overcome the next barrier! She makes one realize that great dreams are possible to achieve. One of my all-time favorites!” — Lynne Cox, author of Swimming to Antarctica and Grayson

    “Juliana Buhring endured fear, doubt, and pain to achieve a truly remarkable feat. But Buhring is more than an athlete—she’s a phoenix, who rose from the ashes of a horrific childhood and a devastating personal loss to test herself against the unknown. You’ll be amazed and inspired by this book.” — Daniel H. Pink, author of Drive

    “I read this book in a single sitting, transfixed by Juliana's incredible story… The physical achievement of riding around the world pales in comparison to the mental achievement of holding herself together and staying the course through such hardship. This is one of those stories that just pulls you along for the ride. Once I embarked, it just whisked me along until the end.” — Alex Honnold, author of Alone on the Wall


  4. Juliana Buhring - How I escaped my childhood in a cult


    Juliana Buhring is sitting drinking coffee in a central London hotel. She seems relaxed but, Buhring tells me, she is feeling twitchy. “I just want to be on the move, really. I feel uncomfortable staying anywhere too long.” Her restlessness is understandable. Buhring, 34, is a top endurance cyclist and spends her life racing across continents - in 2012 she set a record as the fastest woman to ride around the globe, which she writes about in her new book, This Road I Ride. Her obsession with cycling began only five years ago, and yet she has been on the move for most of her life.

    Until the age of 23 Buhring grew up in the notorious cult the Children of God (later known as The Family). It was founded in 1968 in California by David Berg, who under a variety of messianic and paternal pseudonyms - including Moses David and Dear Grandpa - prophesied imminent apocalypse and preached a perverted interpretation of Christianity in which children were sexualised from an early age and ordered to practise free love, both with each other and with adults.

    Part of their doctrine was called “one wife”, explains Buhring, who spent her childhood behind high walls in communes whose members shared everything, including their bodies. “It said everyone was married to each other in Christ, as one big family.”

    She was separated from her mother at the age of three. “I remember the day vividly. My mother was crying. She waved and blew me a kiss. I was never told they were leaving me. They just never came back.” Berg believed the children of his followers could be made a pure generation. “We were shipped off to military-style training camps, to break our spirits. That could involve having to wear masking tape across the mouth for a month, or being kept in isolation and fed only soup. They would get you to dig ditches and fill them up again. And of course, very hard beatings.”

    The abuse was relentless. “The beating room was a bathroom that had been soundproofed so that nobody could hear you scream. Or they would strip you naked and beat you in front of everyone,” says Buhring.

    Even such punishment couldn’t quell Buhring’s rebelliousness. “I always questioned the stupid rules. As a teenager I’d pretend I was going out to beg for money, but I’d be meeting friends and getting drunk.” Her inability to be “controlled”, as she puts it, meant she was shipped around the world from one commune to another.

    “No one questioned what was happening,” she says. “A ‘guardian’ would take me to a new country. I had a passport. They saw a white child with a white adult and we were just waved through immigration.”

    She was surrounded by what she calls “brainwashed” adults. “Some were psychopaths and it is kids like me who bore the brunt of it all. When I finally left, there was no paper trail to actually show I ever existed.”

    Leaving Uganda - where she had ended up with the cult - she went to the UK, where two of her half-sisters, Kristina and Celeste, had already started new lives. “I went to get a bank account and I had no national insurance number or anything. Just a passport. People find it hard to believe. It was as if I’d been living in a fantasy world, but it was a horrible fantasy.”

    continued below

  5. The three sisters later wrote a bestselling book about their lives, Not Without My Sister. They describe the terror, as children, of being expected to lie down next to a grown man, and of how children were made to lie on top of each other, rub themselves up and down and make groaning noises. “I still find it hard to describe, and yet I have been processing what happened for the past decade. I don’t want a stigma to be attached to me. All of us who grew up in cults feel as if we are wearing a mouldy coat we can’t take off, but we can. Many people consider us to be damaged goods, but we are not. Lots of people don’t reveal their past living in a cult. I do because I say, ‘Those who mind don’t matter. Those who don’t mind matter.’ ” She gives me a rather challenging look.

    Buhring struggled to adapt to life outside the cult. She didn’t know how to make lasting relationships. “I felt a profound sense of not belonging,” she says. “Everything felt so mundane.”

    All that changed after she moved to Naples to work as an English language teacher. One day, a friendly name popped up on her Facebook page - Hendri Coetzee, a South African explorer with whom she had a brief fling before leaving Uganda.

    “I loved his attitude to life,” she says. They had spent nights discussing his desire to explore the Congo in a kayak. “He felt every day should be exciting. ‘What good is life if you don’t live it?’ That was his motto.”

    As they communicated remotely, they realised that they wanted to spend their lives together. Buhring booked a ticket to meet Coetzee in Uganda. “He was doing a trip with two Americans,” she says, “taking them down a new bit of the Congo.” He told her he’d see her on his return. A week before she was about to fly, she logged on to Facebook to find it was full of tributes to him. “He’d been killed by a crocodile. I couldn’t believe it. He was always terrified of crocodiles. They were the only thing on earth that scared him.”

    A month later Buhring went to say her goodbyes. “I sat by the river with all Hendri’s friends and I missed him terribly. I thought I could survive anything. There were times in my life when I thought no one cared about me, that I meant nothing, no one looked after me or protected me and I thought it couldn’t get any worse. But then it did. All I wanted to do when Hendri died was to jump into the river after him.” She looks suddenly tearful. “It was a terrible time. I wanted to die.”

    Given these desperate feelings, why didn’t she follow him? “These two dragonflies suddenly settled on my arm and it was as if Hendri was giving me a hug. I knew that he wouldn’t just give up. He believed we should live life to the full. Every day should count.”

    Some months later, the idea came to her to cycle round the world. “I had barely cycled and I was turning 30. Everyone thought I was mad but I knew it was the right thing to do. I wasn’t that fit. I drank like a fish, but I was in grief and I couldn’t think of any other way to get rid of it than to try and outrun it.”

    continued below

  6. So in 2011 with only a bike little money no real route or even the right footwear, Buhring set off to cycle 18,000 miles. It took 152 days, during which she was chased by dogs, attacked by magpies and nearly buzzed off the road by huge trucks, while living off the kindness of strangers. It was an act of sheer madness, she admits, “but I had nothing to live for, so it didn’t bother me that I might die.

    “Hendri was with me the whole way, but my emotional journey did progress from feeling raw and unhinged to seeing that life is great and humanity is wonderful. I got my faith back little by little.”

    Still, Buhring says, she finds it hard to feel she belongs anywhere. “I am never sure where home is.” So she has filled her life by competing in challenging races, the next of which will be the Race Across America.

    I ask her whether or not to partake in such gruelling events is a way of escaping the past. Is she a sort of cycling Forrest Gump, needing to keep pushing herself to prove that she, Juliana Buhring, actually exists?

    “There is some truth in that. It’s a way of escaping everything. It is the one place where I am in the moment and everything is still. There are no worries, no concerns. I can’t even feel the physical pain. I am amazed how my brain can override my body. My brain is the computer and it tells my body to keep on going, so on I go!”

    I ask her if she sees her parents at all, both of whom were in the cult. Maybe she might find a sense of belonging with family members?

    “This is very difficult,” says Buhring. “The cult has now been disbanded, partially after our book came out and exposed what was going on. My mother has come full circle and she is now so sorry about everything.”

    Buhring says she has spent a long time puzzling over why her parents didn’t seem able to do anything to help her. “My mother was just almost reprogrammed,” she says. “They told her I was fine and she believed them. They sent her letters from me that were fake. They told her I was with my father when I wasn’t. They love-bomb you, then destroy you, then build you back up, until you cease to have any control or belief in your own thoughts. This is what happened to my mother. She knows that now and we are rebuilding our relationship.”

    It’s a different story with her father. He lives in the Far East with his present wife and some of Juliana’s other half-siblings. “I’d rather have nothing to do with him, but I care about my siblings, so I have to keep in touch.” She is scathing about her father. “He reneged on every role a father should do. He didn’t protect me or care about me. He just left me, and I don’t care if he was brainwashed. It is over now and the cult has been exposed, yet he refuses to believe any of it, any of the stories I have told him. He would not read the book. He thinks I am evil, possessed by devils, that sort of thing.”

    Part of her motivation to cycle is that she is raising money for Safe Passage, a charity that helps escapees from cults to adjust to the world outside. “Lots of ex-cult kids find it hard to adjust and this charity helps them ease back in to the outside world,” Buhring says.

    So now she needs to go back to Italy to train for her next race - and to see her boyfriend, Vito.

    “Yes,” she says, blushing. “I have met someone. It was unexpected and it was right and deep and everything to me.” Is he, I ask, a cyclist?

    “Oh yes!” she says, rolling her eyes. “How could he not be?"- This Road I Ride by Juliana Buhring is published by Piaktus.