17 Mar 2011

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

The Huffington Post - March 11, 2011

On Writing 'The Informationist' and Coming from a Cult Background

by Taylor Stevens

I'm often asked which came first, plot or character. The answer should hint toward how clueless I was when I first set out to write: I had no plot, or characters--not even an idea of the story--only the place.

I'd spent four years living in Africa--over two of them in Equatorial Guinea--and when I made the decision to "write a book," all I knew was that it was going to be fiction, and I would set a good portion of it on Bioko Island, off the west coast of Africa. At the time, I didn't quite understand the concept of genre, but I figured my book should be something like what Robert Ludlum wrote. Turns out, Robert Ludlum wrote thrillers, and now, so do I.

It might be easy to think that I'm self-deprecating and attempting to be funny, and while I would happily settle for funny, the truth is, I really was that clueless.

My life, up until that point, had been anything but traditional. Born and raised in the Children of God, an apocalyptic religious cult that believed education beyond 6th grade was a waste of time, I'd lived on four continents and knew how to cook for a hundred people at a go, but only had a splotchy grade-school education that left me unfamiliar with a few fundamental concepts. Like the parts of speech, for example, and proper punctuation, and math beyond decimals: on the whole, not very helpful for entering the real world as a mother of two babies, and trying to forge a career.

One of the few upsides to coming from nowhere and knowing little, is being acutely mindful of your own ignorance. That was me: determined to write, fully aware that I knew absolutely zero about publishing or for that matter, about writing fiction. But I did know how to use a search engine. The Internet was my lifeline to knowledge, and a used writing guide my trusty Bible.

I wrote more--and re-wrote a lot. I was halfway through the first draft of THE INFORMATIONISTby the time I finally began to grasp what my writing guide had taught; half-way through, I'd found my voice, but more triumphant it seemed at the time, I finally understood what the heck they meant when they kept going on and on about that thing called "voice."

And then, two years into the writing process, one day to the next, THE INFORMATIONIST was finished. If I'd plotted the story ahead of time, maybe I would have seen the end looming, but I was winging it.

Having worked so long on learning to write, on learning the industry, and on writing the book, finishing was rather frightening. I expect it might be a bit of what life feels like after spending four years in college and being thrust out of the womb of academia with the need for a real job--although, I really wouldn't know much about that.

I scoured blogs from agents, editors and professional writers in order to understand the publishing industry, and quickly realized that, like everything else, I would be forced to go the hard road. I wasn't in a position to attend writers' conferences to meet agents in person to pitch a book. Neither was I well read enough to track down the agents or editors of authors whose books I liked. I didn't know anyone who knew anyone even remotely connected to publishing: I had no referrals, and no foot in the door. My only option, really, was to cold query agents by email, which, if you believe the naysayers, is impossible.

People ask what compels me to write, and this always makes me smile, because although the reasons are many--some of them even sappy, ultimately it boils down to this: I have no plan B.

Taylor Stevens is the author of THE INFORMATIONIST (Crown, on-sale March 8, 2011).

This article was found at:

New York Times  -  March 12, 2011

An Unorthodox Life Yields a Novelist of Promise


Unlike a lot of other headline-grabbing debut novelists, Taylor Stevens did not graduate from a prestigious creative-writing program. In fact, she attended school only sporadically until sixth grade, when she stopped going entirely.

Ms. Stevens does not pepper her conversations with literary references or philosophical musings about her “craft.” She estimated that she had read only about 30 novels in her life. She cited Robert Ludlum’s “Bourne Identity” as the primary influence on her new novel, “The Informationist.”

What this Dallas-based divorced mother does have, however, is the sort of bizarre, twist-filled back story that makes everyone who hears it pay attention. She was born into and raised as a member of the cult Children of God (now called the Family International), founded by David Berg. Growing up, she bounced from city to city, often living in cramped and impoverished conditions, rarely spending more than a few months at a stretch at one of the cult’s dozens of communes around the world.

She said she repeatedly saw physical beatings as well as a practice called “flirty fishing,” in which female members would be prostituted to earn money for the cult. (She prefers not to talk about whether she experienced such abuse herself.)

After Mr. Berg’s death, in 1994, the cult changed its rules, allowing members newfound independence. Ms. Stevens and her husband at the time moved to Africa, where they set up a small commune in Equatorial Guinea. They remained there until the late 1990s, when they left the cult. In 2001, they moved to Texas, figuring it would be an inexpensive place to try to build a new life.

All of this sounds like ripe material for a lurid, confessional memoir, yet Ms. Stevens — who took to writing because it was something she could do while at home with her two young children — ended up going in an entirely different direction.

“The Informationist,” which was published this week by Crown, is a globe-trotting thriller centered on Vanessa Munroe, a multilingual expert in information gathering who is hired by a Houston businessman to track down his missing daughter in Africa. Ms. Stevens drew on her experience in Equatorial Guinea, where much of the novel takes place. But otherwise it contains no references to her experiences in Children of God.

“People are always like, ‘Don’t you want to write about your story?’ ” Ms. Stevens, 38, said recently over breakfast at a cafe in Grapevine. “I tell them no. Because as exotic as it seems to you, it pales in comparison to what some of my friends had to go through when they left the cult.”

Despite the author’s lack of formal education, “The Informationist” is an accessible, crisply told tale. Ms. Stevens has a knack for both evocative details, especially in her depictions of village life in Equatorial Guinea, and strangely compelling character traits (the androgynous Munroe sometimes appears in public dressed as a man).

A second book featuring the same character, titled “The Innocent,” has been finished and is set for publication next year. Crown felt confident enough in the first two books in the series that it recently signed Ms. Stevens for a third.

“You can never predict what talent comes from,” said John A. Glusman, Ms. Stevens’s editor at Crown. “You can find people with pedigree educations and advanced degrees, and they can’t write their way out of a paper bag.”

“The Informationist” has already secured gushy blurbs from brand-name thriller writers like Tess Gerritsen and Vince Flynn and the inevitable comparisons to Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy, which also features an offbeat, spunky heroine and — in the first novel in the series — a plot involving a missing heiress.

Yet in a publishing industry struggling with declining sales and easily distracted audiences, Ms. Stevens’s dark personal history is proving to be her most useful marketing tool. Vogue published a nearly 3,000-word profile of the author in its March issue — something virtually unheard of for a debut novelist.

“It is very difficult to publicize fiction,” said Anne Hawkins, Ms. Stevens’s literary agent. “If the author went and got their M.F.A. and has been writing and editing, is anyone really interested in reading about that?”

For her part, Ms. Stevens is struggling to strike a balance. She is eager to speak out about her past, especially after many years of cult superiors’ deriding her individual achievements. But she also remains nervously guarded. While being interviewed, she made frequent requests to go off the record. She is especially adamant that none of her family members be contacted or written about in the process of promoting “The Informationist.”

(Asked about concerns that any part of Ms. Stevens’s difficult-to-verify story might be fabricated, Mr. Glusman said, “I don’t think any publisher goes through the kind of background check that an intelligence agency will, but when I talked to Taylor and heard her speak, it left absolutely no doubt in my mind that this was a very painful chapter of her past.”)

Ms. Stevens said: “If writing doesn’t work out for me, I’m still back at the bottom of the heap as far as education goes. So right now, I’m putting a lot of pressure on myself, to be good enough and to keep people coming back.”

Christopher Kelly is a film critic for The Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

This article was found at:



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

Fugitive leaders of The Family International found hiding in Mexico after former members sought psychological help



  1. Rose McGowan: How She Survived and Escaped a Cult

    Rose McGowan's first nine years were anything but traditional. They were spent in the Children of God sect, a group that extolled the virtues of free love and prepared for the second coming of Jesus.

    Although it proved a harrowing experience – she fled with her family, she says, once the cult began advocating child-adult sexual relations – as the setting at first "was really idyllic," remembers the actress, 38, who rose to fame on TV's Charmed and now stars in Conan the Barbarian 3D.

    "I grew up in pastoral settings" – specifically, the Italian countryside, where her parents were members of the local branch of the Children of God. But McGowan, who was born in Florence, knew instinctively that she didn't belong in such a place.

    "I've always been who I am," she says, explaining that while she did believe in God, she wasn't in accord with the hippie lifestyle, and certainly not with their aesthetic or the subservient role of females in the sect.

    Even at her tender age, McGowan rebelled. "I did not want to be like those women. There were basically there to serve the men sexually," she says.

    When her father began to fear that Rose might be molested, she says, "My dad was strong enough to realize that this hippie love had gone south."

    She fled the Children of God with her father and siblings and moved to the U.S. McGowan recalls that "it was not an easy assimilation" into the mainstream way of life. "My brothers and sisters, we thought everyone was boring."

    Many years later, she returned to the small town in Italy with her then-boyfriend, rocker Marilyn Manson. "We created quite a stir," she admits.

    Looking back at her early experiences, McGowan deflects with humor some of the dangers and difficulties she faced. In contrast to the dressed-down hippie look of the cult, she says, "I came out of the womb waving red lipstick."

    Still, the remembrances left quite an impression. While expressing gratitude to her father, who died in 2008, McGowan tears up. Mostly, though, she realizes the experience is all she ever knew and made her who she is.

    "There are people who will read this story and think I had a strange existence," she says. "I think they've had a strange existence!"

    For more on McGowan's time in the cult and photos of her childhood, pick up the new issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday

  2. Cult wonder

    By marke, San Francisco Bay Guardian 12/06/2011

    ... [Stevens is] back with the same series character (Vanessa Michael Munroe), the same edgy but brilliant prose, and a plot that takes us into the real — and chillingly autobiographical — world of an abusive apocalyptic cult.

    That's where Stevens grew up: she was born into the Children of God, where nobody was allowed more than a fifth-grade education, adults took sexual advantage of teenagers, young women were forced into prostitution (all in the name of recruiting new members), and adults were almost as frightened to leave as to stay.

    There's a bit of a J.K. Rowling story here: Stevens started writing The Informationist when she arrived in Houston with her then-husband and two kids. With no job skills, just out of the cult, her family was living on minimum-wage jobs, barely scraping by — and after buying a Robert Ludlum book at a garage sale, she decided to write a thriller. "I was really, really just scraping by, it was horrible," she told me in a recent phone interview.

    "Selling The Informationist changed everything." Although the money from the bestseller hasn't fully trickled down to her, "if I want to buy something for the kids, It's actually possible now."

    The Informationist introduced the world to Monroe, who is slight, sexy, and moves back and forth easily between male and female appearance. She kicks serious ass, speaks 22 languages and peddles black market information. Her childhood was harsh; she spent her teens living with a violent gunrunner in Africa, but the wildness and the pain were the only elements of Stevens that made it into the first book.

    Yet Stevens told me she had to write about the cult world at some point. "People keep asking me what my life was like," she said. "So I can tell them — if you want to know what it was like growing up, read this book, that's what it was like."

    The characters, she said, are fictional, "but everything that happens in the book happened to someone."

    The Innocent is set in Buenos Aires. A five-year-old girl named Hannah is snatched and brought into the world of The Chosen, led by a charismatic figure known as The Prophet who refers to the world outside the cult at The Void.

    Hannah's father has been searching the world for her, and discovers that the cult is hiding her in Argentina. He convinces Munroe to go in and get her. That involves slipping into the world of the cult herself — and in the process, Stevens shows us a life that very few people have ever experienced. Among the most painful elements: Once Hannah is rescued, she isn't sure she whether she wants to go back.

    Along the way, of course, is vintage Michael Monroe action, including an escape from four armed men in a locked warehouse. (Munroe is better with a knife than most mob thugs.)

    The Innocent, for whatever reason, isn't as raw as The Informationist. There's less blood and less intense violence. And Monroe is developing as a character — the cold face that she showed us last time is mellowing a bit, and in The Innocent, she even kinda, sorta falls in love. Maybe.

    There's always a challenge in continuing-series characters, and writers have struggled with it since the advent of the modern pop-culture novel. Ian Fleming got bored of James Bond after a few books, and you could tell. John D. MacDonald let Travis McGee get old before his time. Robert. B. Parker never let Spenser change much, but he was Spencer, and that was always enough. Lee Child is struggling to keep Jack Reacher from becoming a caricature of himself.

    Stevens is still in the early stages; she told me she's not even sure where Monroe is going next. Which is why, I think, The Innocent works, and the next one will work, too — you really sense that the writer is growing with her protagonist in this, the best thriller series in a long time.


  3. Susan Justice: From Cult Escapee and Subway Busker to Major-Label Artist

    by Dave Steinfeld, Spinner Canada March 20th 2012

    Every musician has a unique story, but Susan Justice's is more interesting than most. The singer-songwriter's parents are members of a religious sect called The Family -- sometimes known as Children of God -- and Susan, the second oldest of 10 kids, was born into this group.

    Her childhood was spent moving from place to place, not only in the States but also Europe and South America. During their travels, Susan and her siblings often performed music on the streets of whatever city they were in. The good news is that she was encouraged to be musical at a young age. The bad news is that she was only allowed to listen to music that was sanctioned by The Family. As she entered adolescence, Susan felt increasingly stifled by the limitations that were imposed on her. "Any time you have this sort of group-think mentality, where it's like 'us vs. them,' it's very dangerous," she explains. "[The Family] is Christian but they think that they're fighting against the established Christianity of the day."

    In 2001, Susan worked up the courage to run away from both her family and The Family. She traveled from Europe to New York, where she began performing music in subway stations with only a guitar. Despite being "kind of homeless," as she put it in her bio, she made both a decent living and some impressive contacts. In 2007, under her given name of Susan Cagle, she released 'The Subway Recordings,' which was compiled from two sets she performed in the stations at Times Square and Grand Central. A year later, she caught the attention of Spin Doctors drummer Aaron Comess. He introduced Susan to manager David Sonenberg who in turn introduced her to veteran producer Toby Gad (Alicia Keys, Fergie, etc.). Together, Susan and Toby crafted her studio debut, 'Eat Dirt,' which arrives March 26 on Capitol Records.

    Despite having such a unique and potentially scary background, Susan comes across as quite personable and grounded, and her music is radio-friendly. "I was such an emo teenager," she says. "I was listening to Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins. Those were my favorites [but] I also liked Tracy Chapman. And Whitney, obviously. Her voice and her attitude, I felt, translated beyond race. She wasn't a hip-hop R&B black girl. She just did good music, and that's what I wanted to do."

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    Then there's Bob Dylan, the prototypical singer-songwriter, who inspired one of 'Eat Dirt''s best tracks, 'Born Bob Dylan.' "I had a huge Bob Dylan phase," Justice admits. "I just love people who go against the grain. Dylan has such an intricate and amazing vocabulary, the way he expresses himself."

    As for the title track, which is also the album's first single and video, Susan explains, "I wanted to write something about [how] what doesn't kill you makes you stronger but I didn't wanna use those words. So instead, I said, 'What doesn't kill you makes you sick'/And if you're sick you learn a lesson/And with every lesson, you get wiser/So I figured that it pays to cross the line/And eat a little dirt sometimes.' It's about how, in my case, curiosity is a good thing and curiosity saved the cat. You have to be curious, be the one who goes out and experiences life for yourself if you want to be happy. So many of us have jobs that we hate or [are] trapped in, situations with our families that we hate. And we feel like we have to just take it but we don't. We can do whatever we want. It's not like we're in a physical pen, you know? Although in my case, I was kind of like in a physical pen!" she adds with a laugh.

    And how does Justice feel about religion these days? "I love religion," she says. "I consider myself to be gnostic -- not agnostic but gnostic, gnosis, the teaching of knowledge. I'm fascinated by that. I wish I could study theology just because I've been so close to it. I can see the effects of it. So it's more of an intellectual fulfillment rather than practicing any type of religion. I just want to find the truth in all things."

    view music video at:

  5. Lead Us Not Into Temptation: Inside the Secret World of Cults

    by LUKE MCKENNA, Bullet Magazine CULTURE / SPRING 2012 March 02nd, 2012

    Across the world, millions of everyday people subscribe to the teachings of magnetic cult leaders, many of whom spread the gospels extolling the virtues of incest, child abuse, and rape. Luke McKenna meets some of the victims who eventually escaped-and one cult enthusiast who's just getting started.

    Peter Frouman was only 10 years old when, on December 31, 1985, in a small, run-down house in Corrientes, Argentina, he sat naked among 25 members of the Children of God, waiting to become a man. He watched as a candle and a worn-out green T-shirt, a totem meant to represent truth, were passed from person to person, each of them unclothed and confessing their sins to the group. It was the first time Peter had been invited to take part in the adults-only ritual, his first taste of the sect's twisted take on coming of age. He could barely contain himself.

    Children of God, the apocalyptic sex cult that famously raised Rose McGowan and River Phoenix, is just one of countless high-intensity religious factions hiding in the shadows of conventional society. Rise International, a nonprofit organization that specializes in helping children raised in "restrictive, isolated, or high-demand communities," puts the global population living as part of these groups in the millions. In America alone, there are said to be more than 3,000 functioning cults, ranging from the quaint and quirky to possibly destructive, each with its own rites and rituals to mark transitions from passive observer to active participant, outsider to insider, and youth to adult.

    "The idea was to break me down with nudity and confessions," Frouman, now 36, says of that fateful night in Argentina. When it finally came time for him to wear the T-shirt, which was steeped in sin and reeking of sweat, the young boy admitted to pride and independence-vices, according to COG. "I considered it an honor to be allowed to participate considering I was still 10 years old," Frouman says of a time when he didn't know life any other way. "I have never forgotten this warm moment from my childhood."

    Frouman currently runs xFamily.org, a Wikipedia-like online resource that documents the lives and experiences of former child members of COG, since renamed The Family International, which has had up to 35,000 members pass through colonies in 15 countries. Formed in California in the 1960s, the cult and its deceased founder, David Berg, capitalized on the blossoming hippie movement with its promises of spiritual revolution and sexual freedom. Beneath the group's quiet, communal exterior, however, hid a particularly bawdy brand of evangelical Christianity.

    Alongside entries about Family music and art, xFamily carries graphic descriptions of pedophilia, incest, and violent beatings. Frouman watched while sexual boundaries were abandoned within immediate families. Once members reached the age of consent, considered to be 12 years old until well into the 1980s, they were encouraged to share their bodies with the group, imagining they were having sex with Jesus as they did it. (Males were instructed to visualize themselves as females while engaging with the Lord, since homosexuality was a no-no.) Young women were prostituted, luring outsiders into the group via the bedroom, a practice that became colloquially known as Flirty Fishing or FFing. Christian notions of sexual guilt and repression were bent over and defiled. This was sex for salvation.

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    The Family, whose numbers have sagged dramatically over the past decade, was forced to publicly sanitize its teachings after a series of raids, investigations, and testimonies by escapees exposed the cult's more sordid practices. Most communes have been disbanded and members are now permitted to make decisions for themselves. But these changes came too late for Frouman, who escaped the cult around the time of his 14th birthday, after he'd already endured years of sexual and mental abuse.

    Months after Frouman's New Year's Eve awakening, the boy's virginity was put to a Family vote. It was decided that a 28-year-old mother of five, who was visiting from Brazil, would deflower him. The encounter took place in a darkened room, next to the woman's sleeping children and the boy's own mother. "At the time it seemed fairly normal to me," says Frouman, who had seen kids younger than him with adults older than she was.

    Juliana Buhring, who also grew up in COG, works with Rise International to help children escape similar cults. "All these groups have almost identical dogmas or ways of operating," she says. Charismatic cult leaders are deified, their ideas treated as gospel, while the outside world and nonmembers are portrayed as evil and dangerous. "Cults are naturally secretive, so society at large has no idea," Buhring says. "But there is a very large group of ex-cult kids who all struggle with the same problem: trying to reformulate an identity outside what they believed, or what they felt, or how they thought about things."

    Donna Collins was the first Western child to be born into the Unification Church, an international Christian sect headed by charismatic Korean businessman Sun Myung Moon. A "blessed child," as she was labeled, Collins became a powerful, white poster child for the predominantly Asian religion, which seeks to unite all religions under Moon. They said she'd been born without sin. They said she was perfect.

    Moon, the self-anointed Second Coming of Christ, separated Collins from her family when she was 11 years old, moving her from home to home. Her travels took her to Korea, where she studied the language and UC teachings at the church's Little Angels School. Collins was instructed to devote herself entirely to God, Moon, and the UC. "There weren't a lot of boundaries," says Collins, who, as an 8-year- old girl, doled out relationship advice to followers who would also confess to her intimate details about their sex lives. "They would come and say, 'My marriage isn't working, what do I do?' In one case, I remember telling a man, 'I don't think you'll ever be happy with your wife-she's not a very nice person."

    Collins, who left the church in her early 20s, was always skeptical of the Moonies, as Unificationists are unhappily known to the outside world. "I saw through the church from a very young age, but I also wanted to be a good Moonie, and to be loved and accepted like any other person," she says. "It took me a very long time to leave because I was afraid. It was all I knew."

    While the young Collins was struggling with questions about her faith and her leader, he was matching her peers-some as young as 16-for marriage. Unificationists believe that Moon has divine insight into their spiritual compatibility, and so they submit to his decisions with the understanding that they are, quite literally, matches made in heaven. Early on, there was talk of Collins being betrothed to one of Moon's supposedly sacred sons, perhaps in one of the giant ceremonies that join masses of Moonies in a single afternoon. The biggest even in the West, at which Moon blessed 2,075 couples, took place in New York's Madison Square Garden in July 1982; some ceremonies blessed as many as 30,000 couples.)

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    The ritual, which participants consider to be as much a commitment to Moon as it is to each other, is a vital part of growing up in the church. Ahead of the ceremony, couples strike each other with sticks to rid themselves of sin, before vowing to live their lives for others and to create a family that contributes to world peace. A commitment to "sexual purity" precedes a "separation period," where couples are directed to go without sex for 40 days following the ceremony. You can sweep the rose petals off the bed -there's nothing hot about a honey-Moonie.

    Collins observed the dissolution of many Unificationist marriages, but she says some do prosper. Either way, she doesn't fault the followers. She says that unlike their leader, the Unificationists who support Moon's religious and business empire, which was valued at more than $100 million at its peak in the late '90s, are some of the kindest people she has met. "They're very idealistic," she says. "They genuinely want the world to be a better place."

    According to the International Cultic Studies Association, the majority of people who devote themselves to these fringe groups are as well-adjusted as they are educated; most of them come from stable families and have college degrees, a statistic that's not lost on many sects, such as Scientology, whose disciples notoriously target university campuses. The UC even went so far as to make a formal investment in Connecticut's University of Bridgeport in 1992. (The institute regained financial independence in 2003, but a number of Moonies still hold administrative positions there, and followers are urged to attend the school to be educated among their own kind.)

    Leaders want people who are intelligent enough to contribute to the group and, in the future, to win over the minds of others. Curious youths, living away from home and searching for answers in those tender years, are ripe for the plucking. It's Cult Recruitment 101.

    Daniel Maldonado was first introduced to Rael, leader of the Raelian Movement, as a teenager growing up in the grimy housing projects of New York's Upper West Side. The atheistic extraterrestrial sect, which believes that every prophet from Moses to Mohammed was a visitor from a superior alien race called Elohim, first attracted the boy because it filled in so many of the mystic gaps in his Catholic education.

    Raelians argue that Elohim, through science, created life on Earth about 25,000 years ago. The group believes in using similar technology to revolutionize the human existence, including cloning for immortality and the betterment of mankind. The science behind the teachings fit with Maldonado's own rigorous education about the universe, physics, and humanity. "Little by little, it all added up to the Raelian philosophy," he says.

    Elohim officially acknowledged Maldonado, now 21, on a sunny autumn day in New York last year, at an intimate gathering in a gay support center downtown. The date, December 13, was significant: It marked the anniversary of Rael's first encounter with the extraterrestrial race at a volcano in France in 1973. The 4-foot-tall green creatures reportedly told the sportswriter and racecar driver, then named Claude Vorilhon, that he must change his name to Rael and prepare the world for their imminent return. So far he has reached roughly 55,000 people, according to the group's own estimates.

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    Ten Raelians watched as a trained bishop, or "guide," baptized Maldonado and another convert in a ceremony called "the transmission of the cellular plan." At exactly 3pm, when the Elohim were said to have their antennae facing the east coast of the United States, the regional leader dipped his hands into a plastic bowl of water and placed them on the front and back of Maldonado's head, which then became a conductor to beam the boy's unique genetic code to the all-seeing beings above. "Elohim has recognized you," the guide whispered, leaning in for a charged hug from the newest member of the group.

    After the ceremony, the endearing assortment of New Age sensualists and Trekkie types discussed "paradism," their belief that in the near future a new class of clones and robots will perform all labor. According to Raelians, not only will this harmonize society, but it will also leave plenty of time for some of their more hedonistic pursuits, such as the Cosmic Orgasm, a kind of sexual nirvana achieved through meditation and erotic massage, and Go Topless Day, which is exactly what it sounds like. Nothing is taboo, so long as all parties are satisfied-and Raelians strive for universal satisfaction.

    "It wasn't no normal day," Maldonado says of the baptism, which could only happen once he was deemed mature enough to choose the religion for himself, and to sign an Act of Apostasy renouncing all others. "I've been thinking a little different, a little less selfish, like I need to fix things."

    Maldonado's situation is different than most in that his group membership was voluntary. "People who join cults can go home to their families and friends, and live like they did before," says Collins, who was born into the UC. "Those of us who grew up in cults, we had no other life. When I left, there were none of these online support groups. You were out on our own, you would lose the majority of your friends, and the cult would often demonize you."

    At first, Collins relied on a handful of friends she met while attending an independent college. It wasn't until she married outside of the church, in a Methodist ceremony to a man she loved, that the fallen Moonie truly found herself. It was the first step toward creating her very own stable family. "And there was no beating the sins out of each other," she says, laughing.

    Buhring, of COG, spent her formative years away from her parents, surrounded by sex. After a childhood of enduring the worst kinds of adult encounters, she discovered what it really meant to be a grown-up in the simple splendor of outside life: opening a bank account, renting an apartment, savoring a warm cup of coffee alone in a cafe, free from the regimented schedule of the cult that stole her innocence. "I felt this incredible sense of maturity and freedom," Buhring says of the first year following her willful excommunication. "It's like being blind your whole life, and suddenly you see. At first you don't understand what it is you are seeing, but as you start to understand, the beauty of it all becomes overwhelming. You can sit for hours and just smile, taking it all in. That, I think, was my coming of age. That's when I finally became an adult."


  9. To hell and back: a cult escapee's new challenge

    How do you face up to a past full of unimaginable horror? If you’re Juliana Buhring, survivor of one of the world’s most notorious cults, you get on your bike

    By Cole Moreton, The Telegraph UK July 10, 2012

    You can hit me with anything and I can handle it,” says Juliana Buhring, as a matter of fact. Hiding behind wraparound sunglasses, as we sit at a roadside café table in Naples, she says it as if it bores her. Maybe it does. This is a woman who has lived in many countries, sometimes on the run. Aged just 31, she has already endured horrors that have broken others. Yet here she is, drinking café macchiato and wanting more danger.

    “People say, ‘You must be damaged by what has happened to you.’ I think I’m much stronger, much tougher, much more able to cope with life than the average person.” She looks away, briefly. “We’ll soon find out if that’s true, won’t we?” The truth is that surviving is not enough for Juliana, however hard it has been.

    Neither her suffering nor her strength is obvious at first.She is a feisty-looking young woman with a swirling crop of black hair and a long tattoo down her spine, revealed by a backless T-shirt. She is the daughter of an Englishman but her accent is almost American, giving a clue to her upbringing. But it is only when she takes off the shades that you see the depths of experience, and defiance, in her eyes.

    She rarely tells people this, but Juliana was born into a cult. It was one of the most notorious of modern times: the Family of Love, or Children of God as they had been. She spent her childhood in secure compounds behind high walls, in communes whose members shared everything they had, including their bodies.

    Children were sexualised from an early age and ordered to practise free love, not just with each other, but also with the adults. She was separated from her parents, terrorised and beaten. But she broke free, at last, and with her sisters wrote a book, Not Without My Sister, that helped bring down the cult. It’s a powerful, inspirational story. Just to have got this far – running an English language school in a vibrant Italian city – is an extraordinary achievement. But Juliana needs more. “I would like to see what I am capable of, mentally and physically. I would like to push myself to the limits. I seem to thrive on pain. Call me a masochist. I have been through experiences that some people wouldn’t survive, but I know I’m capable of going further. I want to see how far.”

    To this end, she is about to begin an epic journey, attempting to become the first woman to cycle around the world alone. Every day she takes the white bike she calls Pegasus on to the road out of Naples and cycles north, up towards Rome, completing a circuit of 125 miles in heat that is, more often than not, fierce.

    On July 14 she will set off for real, heading east through Portugal, Spain and France before catching a plane to Boston and crossing the United States. This is a serious attempt at setting a first female record, according to the strict rules. “I’ve got to pedal 29,000 kilometres [18,000 miles] in the same direction, on the same bicycle, getting signatures at the places I pass,” she says. “I’m aiming to cycle 200k or so a day, and do it in 140 days or less. Get home in time for Christmas.”

    She laughs, but she’s not taking this lightly. For the past year, Juliana has been training under the supervision of an Italian sports scientist who prepares professional riders. The actress Maria Grazia Cucinotta, best known for the 1994 film Il Postino, has become her patron, helping attract sponsorship, although as I write this there is a last-minute crisis, with one of the sponsors having pulled out. More money is urgently needed, but Juliana is unrelenting.

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    “Adversity only strengthens my determination. Sink or swim, right?” She’ll be travelling light, looking for places to stay along the way.

    Her friend Antonio will act as logistics manager from Naples but she will be on her own in a succession of strange lands, with little protection. “I might take a Taser. But I’ll probably end up using it more on crazy dogs than humans.”

    Why is she doing this? “Why not?” The deeper answer lies in the story of her life so far. Juliana’s father was the son of a British Army officer. Educated at a public school in Cheltenham, he went to drama school in Kent before dropping out. “My father was a military brat who met the Children of God in London, through a girlfriend,” says Juliana. The cult gave him a means of expression, as a talented actor, and he became well known within it. He adored the leader, David Berg.”

    Her father married an English woman and fellow cult member in 1974 and they had three children but were then ordered to separate by the leader who, Juliana says, wanted to monopolise his friendship. The Children of God leaders were from the US, which explains Juliana’s strange accent, but the members came from all over the world. Her father then married a German woman and they had four children together, including Juliana, who was born in 1981 in a Children of God commune in Greece. But, once again, Juliana’s father was told he had to leave his wife.

    “The doctrine was called ‘One Wife’. It said everyone was married to each other in Christ, as one big family,” says Juliana, who was in turn separated from her mother at the age of three. “I remember the day vividly. I heard the car start up and ran downstairs to see it backing out of the drive with my mother, my brother and my sister inside. I thought they had forgotten me, so I was shouting, ‘Wait! I’m coming.’ My mother was crying. She waved, and blew me a kiss. My half-sister Celeste, who was with me, pulled me back and said, ‘No, they just have to go somewhere for a while.’ I was never told they were leaving me. They just never came back.”

    David 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 physical abuse was relentless, for those who rebelled. “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.” Some broke. She didn’t. “All it did was teach the children to have an iron will. If you could take everything they dished out, they couldn’t break you.”

    The Children of God had become infamous during the Seventies for “Flirty Fishing”, in which women were encouraged to have sex with men in order to recruit them. The “Law of Love” proclaimed that everything you did in love was fine in the eyes of God. By default, that included adultery, incest and sex between adults and children.

    “They encouraged sexual behaviour in the youngest of us,” Juliana explains. “Aged two or three, they would pair us up, give us some baby lotion and send us off to the beds for what they called date naps. We’d seen the adults doing it all over the place so we knew what it involved – at least in theory – so we’d get on top of each other and go, ‘Ooh! Ah!’ We didn’t think anything of it.”

    As they grew, the children began having sex with each other, and with adults. “People were joining because they knew they had that liberty and that is when serious abuse started for the children,” she says. By eight years old, some would have to go on dates with adult men and if one cried “I don’t want to!” the women would pray with her, then send her along.

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    Just as she was coming into puberty in the early Nineties, there were a series of raids on Family compounds in different countries. “That was when the leaders officially stated that they no longer sanctioned children having sex with adults. They told us, ‘We have to stop this, not because we think it’s wrong, but because the Systemites, the government, will take our children away if we don’t.’ ”

    The abuse had created a generation of highly sexualised children, who were suddenly told to stop having sex. “Most of us teenagers did not believe a word of the cult dogma by then, but when you’re young the fear of the unknown keeps you inside. You would have to leave with no money, no education, no credentials, nothing.”

    Their names were changed or never registered, and sometimes children were moved around in secret to evade the authorities or aggrieved relatives. They were taught to be dependent on their leaders. “A lot of the physical and sexual abuse stopped after the raids. However, the psychological abuse was very strong. Everything bad that happened was down to you. Everything good was from the group, or from God. By the time I was an adolescent, I was very angry, full of self-hatred and convinced that it must all be my fault.”

    Juliana did not break free until the age of 23, by which time she was living in Uganda and effectively mothering her father’s youngest children. (He has 15 with seven women.) “I stayed that long because I did not want to leave my little brothers and sisters.” Then came a scandal that rocked the Family: Davidito, the adopted son of the founder, shot his nanny and then himself. He had made a video explaining that this was revenge for the abuse inflicted upon him and on behalf of all those who had suffered the same.

    “His mother said he had been taken by demons and was better off dead. I got so mad. I said to our leaders, ‘Why are you trying to pretend that none of this happened? It happened to me, it happened to all of us.’ I couldn’t take one day more of that b-------. So I packed my bags and walked out.” That meant leaving her siblings behind. “I remember crying all night, feeling I had abandoned them. But I knew I could help them more from the outside.” First, she had to learn to live independently. “When you first leave you experience a euphoria like being released from prison. Before you realise you’re screwed.”

    Juliana came to England to join two of her half-sisters, Kristina and Celeste, who had already started new lives. One is now a chef in Nottingham, the other works with children as a “play therapist” in Bristol. Together they began work on a book. “It was therapy at first. I needed to discover who I was and work out what had happened to me. First, there was rage. You realise that your parents have screwed you over, big time, then that they’ve been screwed over by the group leaders. The fault really lies at the head.”

    To help herself understand what had happened, she studied psychology and philosophy through the Open University. “I know who I am. I’m a fighter. I worked out my own neuroses. I know I find it difficult to make relationships with people on a deeper level, because after seeing the extremes of human emotion and behaviour, the things most people talk about seem so banal. But I have learnt in the last few years to form human attachments. I’m very choosy, of course, but I stay close to them.”

    Not Without My Sister was published in 2007 and became a bestseller. Other former children of the cult, encouraged to act by the Davidito saga, produced documentaries about what they had been through. “The leaders couldn’t deny any of it,” says Juliana.

    The sisters set up a charity called Safe Passage Foundation, which helps those struggling to escape their cult upbringing. “There are thousands of children in that position, but nobody speaks for them. We help them become functioning citizens.”

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    The Family International, as it now is, went through what it calls a “reboot” in 2010. This involved a move away from communal living and strict rules. The leaders apologised for past actions and a spokeswoman said: “Any previous writings that contain sexually explicit applications have been removed from circulation.” Juliana believes the changes are sincere. “Now if you’re part of The Family International you’re just part of a loosely based Christian group. All of the kids are getting educated and living normally.”

    When she first left, the members of her family still in the group turned against her and said she was possessed by a demon. She was not allowed to see her younger siblings, despite having raised them. “They heard horrible things about me. I saw that in their faces when I was eventually allowed to see them a few years later.” This is the only time in our conversation when emotion breaks her voice. “They are slowly coming around to me.”

    Her father still lives in Africa. “Dad pretends like nothing ever happened. He’s never talked about it.” She reflects for a moment, then says: “He never took care of me as a kid, never cared about me as an adult and I don’t have any emotional ties to him at all. I only care about my siblings. They now have a great life and will grow up to be who they want to be. All the negative things that came out of the book are compensated by that.” What does she mean? “The stigma. Being cut off from my family. Old friends hating me. The cult slandering my name, saying I did it for the fame and the money. There wasn’t much money. Who wants that kind of fame? The media just went off on all the sex and missed the point.”

    She found it difficult to get work as a result. “Any potential employer could Google my name and see ‘Juliana’ come up with ‘sex cult’.” A teaching job in Naples was a chance to get away. “I wanted to live somewhere where nobody knew me.” Now she runs her own school, in partnership with Antonio. And there, you might think, the story ends. But no.

    “A friend of mine used to say that the greatest characters are forged in fire,” Juliana says. “So I intend to go through fire.” The friend’s name was Hendri, and she met him in Africa just after leaving the cult. They were due to meet up again in late 2010, but he was killed by a crocodile on a river expedition in the Congo. Grieving for him, and inspired by his daring, she came up with the idea of cycling the world.

    There are other reasons. She wants people to notice the Safe Passage Foundation, to remove society’s stigma about ex-cult children, and to prove that, no matter how horrific your past, “You can still do great things.” She’s restless again, after a lifetime of moving on.

    Maybe she is addicted to pain, or wants a distraction from it. But isn’t she scared? “I was hit by a truck when I was training, right at the beginning. Honestly, in that moment I thought, ‘What’s the worse thing that can happen? I die.’ ”

    There is a terrible bleakness about Juliana sometimes, as if she has been so hurt she no longer cares about living. But then, with a flash in her eyes, the fighter returns. “I have one fear in life, which is that my life passes and I have achieved nothing.” Surely she has achieved plenty already? “I don’t see it that way.”

    For details of Juliana’s record attempt see julianabuhring.com


  13. James Cameron to Direct The Informationist After Avatar Sequels

    by Sandy Schaefer, Screen Rant October 24, 2012

    James Cameron is currently wrapped up in the task of assembling two sequels to his 3D monster hit Avatar, but his future beyond that sci-fi franchise has remained open for speculation. The filmmaker has touted such projects as Avatar 4 – which, if it happens, would take on the form of a prequel – and an adaptation of the Battle Angel manga/anime, as possible ventures he could undertake sometime over the next decade (once he’s finished exploring Pandora).

    However, reports are in that Cameron’s next non-Avatar directorial effort is poised to assume the form of a motion picture based on The Informationist, the first novel in a planned series about “information specialist” Vanessa ‘Michael’ Munroe from author Taylor Stevens.

    The Informationist revolves around Munroe, a character who begs comparison to Lisbeth Salander from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Cameron, of course, is well-renowned for making films with captivating female protagonists, ranging from ass-kickers with a pronounced maternal sense – Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) in Aliens and Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) in Terminator 2: Judgement Day – to more traditionally-effeminate leads such as Rose DeWitt Bukater (Kate Winslet) in Titanic. Hence, his involvement with the Informationist adaptation makes sense; all the more so when you consider the globe-trotting thriller narrative (which is summarized below):

    Vanessa “Michael” Munroe deals in information—expensive information—working for corporations, heads of state, private clients, and anyone else who can pay for her unique brand of expertise. Born to missionary parents in lawless central Africa, Munroe took up with an infamous gunrunner and his mercenary crew when she was just fourteen. As his protégé, she earned the respect of the jungle’s most dangerous men, cultivating her own reputation for years until something sent her running. After almost a decade building a new life and lucrative career from her home base in Dallas, she’s never looked back.

    Until now.

    A Texas oil billionaire has hired her to find his daughter who vanished in Africa four years ago. It’s not her usual line of work, but she can’t resist the challenge. Pulled deep into the mystery of the missing girl, Munroe finds herself back in the lands of her childhood, betrayed, cut off from civilization, and left for dead. If she has any hope of escaping the jungle and the demons that drive her, she must come face-to-face with the past that she’s tried for so long to forget.

    Cameron has expressed his excitement for the project, describing Munroe as “an intriguing and compelling heroine with an agile mind.” It is worth noting, however, that although Cameron and fellow Lightstorm head Jon Landau are producing The Informationist, it is expected to be scripted by a third party – making it the first time Cameron directs from a script he did not serve as the sole writer on since True Lies in 1994.

    Stevens, as it were, is as equally-fascinating a person as her literature creation, seeing how she served an apocalyptic cult known as the Children of God (a branch-off from the Jesus Movement of the 1960s) up until her twenties. Much of her real-life experiences – serving cult leaders when she was a teenager by working as a street-begger and serving as a mother-figure to children in her commune – are reflected in Stevens’ debut novel and lend the Monroe character a strong sense of authenticity.

    In other words, there’s very much potential for a film version of The Informant to be something special – more than just a Jason Bourne-esque thriller with a female lead character, that is. Not to mention, it should make for a refreshing change-of-pace to have Cameron take a break from motion-capture/CGI spectacle for a film more rooted in realism (especially following hot on the heels of two back-to-back, environmentally-conscious, Avatar installments).


  14. Cults: "People underestimate how powerful they are"

    Voice of Russia July 9, 2014

    Academics estimate that there are tens of thousands of new religious movements - often referred to as cults - worldwide. The majority are said to be in Africa and Asia. Here in Britain, it's thought there are between 500 and 1,000 new religious movements, or cults - though some say that figure is a conservative estimate. VoR’s Juliet Spare is joined by three guests - two of them former cult members - for this in-depth discussion.

    Juliet is joined by:

    Ian Haworth, founder and current general secretary of the Cult Information Centre, a non-sectarian educational charity based in London, England. He has worked full-time as a specialist in cults since 1979 and is a former cult member.

    Lynne Wallis, who has written extensively for newspapers on cults and families affected by new religious movements – cults – including an article for the Times Educational Supplement in 2008 called 'Cult Watch' detailing the danger cults pose to young people.

    Natacha Tormey, author of ‘Born into the Children of God: My Life in a Religious Sex Cult’ and ‘Cults: The Bloodstained History of Organised Religion’. Natacha Tormey was born and raised within The Children of God, a religious cult that became infamous for its bizarre sexual practices and religious doctrines. Natacha escaped at 18.

    How did you leave?

    NT: “It was quite a long process, so the doubt started when I was 14 years of age when most teenagers are starting their rebellious years, so to speak. Obviously, on top of the usual teenage angst I had that additional circumstance of being, living in a cult… At that time we were in France – it was very difficult because we had to, kind of, hide everything we did all the time. Live, but in secrecy, and never talk about what was going on at home or that we were part of a cult. That’s really when all of my doubts started.”

    “As I got older, going on to 16 – 17, I started to have a little bit more interaction with the outside world and slowly I began to realise just how strange my living situation was. By the time I reached 18, that was it…”

    Did you have interaction with the outside world at any point in your time there?

    NT: “Up until the age of 13 almost none. So, in Thailand and the Asian countries that we lived in, we lived in very big communes, sometimes of 100 – 150 people. Very much your typical compound community – you’ve got very high walls, big security gates… It was a very well-run operation in the sense that they managed to go unnoticed with these huge communes living together. They didn’t actually attract that much attention, but obviously, children weren’t allowed to leave the compound. When we did, it was very rare and we would always be supervised by adults either to go fundraising by doing shows or things like that.”

    “So, it [contact with the outside world] was very minimal for the first 13 years. And then when we moved to France. Obviously there you couldn’t have those kinds of big communes – they would have been noticed straight away. It was very small – usually just my family and then one or two other people, so there was obviously more freedom. They couldn’t watch us all the time… We had very small interactions and then by the time I reached 16, I was kind of jumping out my window at night…”

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  15. What were the questions you were asking yourself when you were there? You started questioning your existence within this cult at 13 to 18 and at 18 you were jumping out the window, wanting to leave – was there a catalyst for this?

    NT: “Well, a very key moment, obviously the doubt started slowly, was in 2000 when they predicted, I think it was the third or the fourth prediction of the end of the world… And it didn’t happen. We were all extremely afraid on New Year’s Eve. We had a stash of food, we were prepared for Armageddon basically, and yet again it didn’t happen. That, for me, was kind of the final straw. That’s when I really realised that this is just all lies and none of it is true.”

    You’d wake up in the morning, and what would be expected of you?

    NT: “It would depend on which period we’re talking about. In Thailand, where it was much stricter in those kinds of communes, all the children were separated into groups and we all had very strict schedules. So it was – you wake up, you’ve got ten minutes to make your bed and get dressed. All the kids wore uniforms and whoever was looking after us we would call auntie or uncle. It was just very-very regimented. Everyone was marched downstairs in single file for breakfast. You had a certain amount of time to eat and then everyone was marched back upstairs. Many hours had been spent reading – either the stories from the Bible or publications from the leader Berg [David Brandt Berg] or Zerby [Karen Zerby]. In some homes you had school time which again is not really school. Apart from learning how to read and write it was all based around the cult leader’s theology and his beliefs. All of our education about history and science was all according to the cult leader’s version, with a lot of religion mixed in.”

    Ian Haworth, what made you set up the Cult Information Centre and would you say it’s very widely used and known?

    IH: “It is known internationally and it’s very easy to find in the UK just by going online. What provoked me to set up the centre is that I came back to the UK in 1987 from Canada where I’d been doing this – I set up the first charity of this kind there. So what really provoked me to get into the field is what provoked me to set up the first charity in Canada, which was called COMA – Council on Mind Abuse. And it was just that I’d gone through a nightmare experience in a group. I’d only been in a group for two and a half weeks and I managed to escape, thanks to a journalist. It took me eleven months to recover and in that recovery time the tragic deaths in Jonestown, Guyana occurred where 913 people died following the orders of Jim Jones. I realised that that could have happened to me. I could relate to those people...”

    “When the Canadian media started to ask – is this a problem in our country? I went forward and said – yes it is… That led to a lot of media coverage and then my desire to try and be involved in an educational process to try and warn people. That’s how it all started.”

    You called it mind abuse. Is this something that we don’t really understand?

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  16. IH: “Most people have no idea what constitutes psychological coercion or mind control, or radicalisation. I’m using my terms carefully because radicalisation, although it’s usually used in connection with terrorist groups, it’s the same thing as what we’ve been describing as mind control or psychological coercion or thought reform for many years.”

    “People are processed to become terrorists. People are processed to become cult victims.”

    “In my case, I was 31 when I was recruited into a group. I was theirs… I was completely under their control by the third day. I mention this because I want to emphasise how quick this process is. After just two evenings and one morning on a course in Toronto – I was theirs. I gave them all the money I had, dedicated my life to it and resigned from my job. As you know, I fortunately managed to escape very quickly thanks to a journalist helping me.”

    Do you think in Britain, there is a lack of understanding of the techniques used in mind abuse?

    IH: “Well of course ‘it’s never going to happen to me’ is normally the attitude. I think people that do consider what a cult might be assume that it’s probably some kind of strange organisation that will be visually identifiable, that a cult recruiter will therefore be obvious when he or she approaches you, that probably the people that are recruited are not very intelligent, they’re probably on drugs anyway and people make all kinds of excuses as to why someone would join. What we’re saying is that people don’t join, they are recruited instead. And they’re recruited through subtle techniques and the techniques work and work very effectively.”

    “The easiest people to recruit tend to be well-educated people. People with average to above average intelligence and they think it would never happen to them. The safest seem to be the very seriously mentally ill which isn’t very comforting.”

    Lynne Wallis, what made you write about cults?

    LW: “It was a long time ago when I started actually – probably more than 15 years. I think I met somebody who lost her daughter to a group, probably better not mention their name. Her daughter had been working in a West End department store, she’d just left university, she was new to London… I think this is a very common time for people to be recruited, when they’re in a new city and they’re vulnerable, sometimes when they just start university. She came one evening and said she’d been invited to a women’s meeting at Wembley and it turned out to be a recruitment fair for this particular group and very-very quickly she was sucked in. This woman Betty, her daughter was receiving messages on her mobile, she was being loved. She was being told she was awesome and within about a month she’d lost weight, she wasn’t eating properly, she lost her sense of humour… In other words, she’d undergone a complete personality transformation. She’d really had her own personality sucked out of her and everything had been replaced by values of this group.”

    “Then I met Ian Haworth and he put stories my way sometimes and I’ve written and interviewed probably scores, not hundreds, but scores of ex-members of groups, but also families who’ve lost sons and daughters.”

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  17. As a journalist what would you say is the legacy you’ve witnessed that these cults have had on individuals and families you mention? You’re highlighting an issue – do you think it needs to be highlighted further?

    LW: “I think it does. I think awareness is very-very low. I think Ian is absolutely right that everyone says it could never happen to me. It could happen to anyone at a particular time in their lives when they’re vulnerable. I think it should probably be on the curriculum – kids going off to university, their parents warn them about STDs, drugs and alcohol but whoever thinks to tell them about the damage these groups can do? Even the parents think it can’t happen to their children.”

    “I think it really is high-time that something should be done because this has being going on too long…”

    IH: “This is one of the things that we do. We go out and give lectures. I’m spending an entire day this week at a school that has this on the curriculum but as Lynne has suggested that’s not necessarily the norm. But I do go around various schools and colleges and sometimes universities to talk about this phenomenon. I sometimes speak to professional groups as well because they’re losing people to the cults. A lot of people imagine that the typical recruit is young but it happens at all ages. Captains of industries are being recruited into cults as well.”

    It sounds like a very aggressive style of recruitment. Could you tell me more about that?

    IH: “Everyone that’s recruited is programmed to understand that this is the greatest thing since sliced bread. Your critical abilities are now severely impaired and so if the group says that two and two is seven, it is and you excitedly share that with people.”

    “The two main goals seem to be to bring in money and to bring in people. It’s quite normal to be sent out to recruit others. Now, if you were in a cult that we would call a therapy cult where you stay in your job, then you’d be doing that after hours and on weekends. If you’re in your typical religious cult where you’re working for the group full-time then you’re doing that [recruiting] full-time. You’re constantly going out there and trying to recruit people usually by, unfortunately, lying to them and misrepresenting what it is that you stand for. If people that you’re talking to ask questions then you’ll be very vague all of a sudden about what’s really going on because they just want you to cross the threshold and then a psychological door closes behind you.”

    “As Lynne was saying, you become someone else… It’s interesting we’re doing Voice of Russia because I often compare this with Russian dolls. The real you is now covered over by a new personality. That’s the outer doll, if you will, and that’s the one that interacts with family and friends and the world. The real you, however, the good news is, is inside. Getting that real you out is another matter altogether and there’s no guarantee that that will ever happen…”

    LW: “…And in this recruitment process I think quite early on anyone who dares to challenge anything that is said by any of the leaders in one of their brainwashing mind control obsessions, punishment and reward is introduced. Someone will be shunned, maybe ostracised if they’d dare to disagree. Obviously in any kind of healthy environment, perhaps in an actual proper cosier religion, questioning is encouraged, but within these groups it’s quashed very early on.”

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  18. Natacha, having heard from both Ian and Lynne, why do you think people don’t understand cults or are scared to talk about them?

    NT: “I think what Ian is saying is completely correct. I think people underestimate how powerful cults are when it comes to recruitment. So, if we take the Children of God for example, who still exist today or even back when I was a teenager, they operated in African countries under fake names. They had humanitarian organisations with completely different names to the Children of God or Family International which they are now called. They’d be out there – these homes with all these young couples with kids, aged 20 to 30, all living together, having a great time, doing all this humanitarian work.”

    “For many young people who would bump into them it would be like ‘why, this is amazing, I could do something with my life, I can help others and help save the world!’ But behind all of that is a completely different story. Once you get pulled in through that exciting new world very quickly the trap closes and you find out that actually you only saw the tip of the iceberg here – now you’re going to see the real deal. But by then, it’s usually too late. You’re completely sucked in and it’s very difficult to get out after that.”

    “Like Lynne was saying – voicing doubts… Anyone who dares to voice doubts even at the beginning, either they’ll be completely rejected or punished. In a psychological way it’s a means of control and is a warning to other members that you cannot contradict the leadership. So, often in the Children of God for example, people who were considered severe doubters would be separated from their spouse or their children…”

    “One thing I talk about in my book is when my mother dared to defend one of her children who was being very harshly physically disciplined by other aunties and uncles in the home, and she dared to say something against it and was sent to Chelyabinsk for six months when she was pregnant…”

    “High radiation, minus forty degrees – she was being taught a lesson by the leadership that this is what will happen to you and we can keep you there if we want to and we can send you somewhere else and you may never see your children again. And this was as much a lesson to my father, who was left behind as ‘you better keep your wife in check.’ So it’s all these psychological things, but all done in a very, how do you call it…”

    LW: “It’s for your own good.”

    NT: “Yes, it’s for your own good. This is the Lord trying to teach you a lesson. This is good for you, this is good for your family, it will make you a better disciple, etc.”

    What is like when you speak to the families?

    LW: “They’re devastated… It’s like a living bereavement. If that person is still in the group and there’s all sorts of conflicting advice about whether you should try and get the child out, they normally have an incredibly hard time making contact – someone else will answer the phone or they’re not around. They just don’t know what to do. They are at a loss… Sometimes that child, their green light will come on and they’ll come out and have some counselling or something. But I know several families who have had sons and daughters in for years and I think, I don’t know if this is right Ian, but isn’t it true that the longer they’re in, the less likely it is that they will come out – is that right?”

    IH: “Not as far as I’m concerned. Some people do say that, you’re quite right. I’ve never said that. Some have said in the past that after a particular point in time, that’s it. But I’ve never seen any kind of need for saying that. I’ve known people who have come out of cults after 30 years and have fully recovered…”

    continued below

  19. Is it possible for everyone to recover? Have you found your recovery path through writing a book was therapeutic Natacha?

    NT: “Definitely! Writing the book was the final step in my healing process, but I’ve been out of the cult for twelve years now and it’s taken that long. It’s like Lynne was saying earlier, the process of manipulation for someone who joins a cult is stripping down that personality and replacing it with this cult personality. But when you’re born into a cult, you never have the chance to form that personality at the start. So the road to recovery and the first big question is – who am I? What is my personality? You don’t even know who you are as a person! What kind of clothes do I like to wear? What’s my style? Everything has to be learned from scratch about yourself and then after that you can start properly healing. But it takes years and it’s taken me years to go through that, and finally get to a point where I actually know who I am and I’m comfortable with it. I can move on…”

    If you had a chance to speak to those people who are on the cusp of wanting to change, who are in the same cult you were in, what would you say?

    NT: “…I’d say that I know how scary it is to even contemplate facing a world that you’ve never known or that you’ve lost touch with for many years. But once you get out there you realise that there’s actually nothing to be afraid about and that there’s actually a lot of people who understand. And who won’t judge you! And I think that’s a big thing! Especially people who have joined a cult voluntarily – they feel like somehow no one’s going to understand, they’re going to blame me, they’re going to think I was stupid, that I deserve whatever happens to me. People don’t see it like that. There are plenty of professionals out there and institutes like the Cult Information Centre that are there to help! And they understand and know that you’re victims, you’re not actually thinking in your right mind. So, it’s really not judging yourself and accepting that you are a victim and you need help… I think that’s the biggest difficulty for some.”

    IH:” There is another thing here and that is, it’s not the best thing to put on your CV when you’re looking for a job. That’s one of the problems here because there are a lot of high-profile people who are ex-cult members who would not dare do what Natacha’s bravely doing, and talk about their story.”

    “I know a senior partner in a major law firm in this city who is an ex-cult member. And I know other people in other similar institutions, and there are teachers and there are doctors who are ex-cult members. It’s not something you really want to broadcast because you might lose some clients, if not all of them…”

    “And yet, there are, as Natacha says, lots of people who are aware of the phenomenon and help is available.”

    continued below

  20. Do the right people seem to understand the level of exploitation of this mind abuse?

    IH: “No, I don’t believe they do. The mental health profession is sorely lacking in an understanding of this phenomenon. There used to be one psychiatrist in Britain that was really good and could help just about anybody. Sadly she died about five years ago. There is another psychiatrist now that is up on this, but because she works on the NHS she can only deal with clients in a limited geographic area. There are very-very few mental health professionals that begin to understand the phenomenon but there are a small handful of people that do.”

    “There are a couple of people with a background in psychology that are very good at counselling people and they work inside our field and the academic world as well. There are a couple of other people who specialise in counselling cult victims and they’re trained counsellors and they’re very good. But still, as a country, we’re really lacking in understand this phenomenon and are way behind the rest of Europe, unfortunately.”

    When you said the phenomenon, it is estimated there are five hundred to a thousand cults [operating in Britain], what numbers would you quote?

    IH: “You’re quoting the figures that I would use and I am accused of being conservative and I prefer to be that… But it’s a growing problem and it is getting worse. Hopefully, it’s not as bad as it would be if there weren’t voices like ours – that’s a hard thing to measure.”

    “I think if people started to recognise that cults are here to stay and there’s a tremendous need to be a lot more discerning and just simply question!”

    “People spend a lot more time checking out a new car than they do checking out a group that they may be interested in getting involved with. A new car may break down but if it’s a cult, you’ll be the one breaking down. It’s a completely different ballgame and a very serious one.”

    continued below

  21. Finally, why do you think it might be getting worse?

    LW: “I’m not sure why but I think an awful lot of groups seem to be setting up on the back of these health and wellbeing groups, and yoga groups. Every single newspaper has a massive great health section full of this ‘neo new age’ sort of stuff. I’ve seen within that a growth of abusive one-on-one relationships. Not a situation where a person gets sucked into a group but where one person targets another and usually ends up taking a vast amount of money from them. They usually target people who have a vast amount of wealth.”

    “I’ve interviewed three or four people who have been in that situation. I don’t know… Maybe it is the breakdown of religion and people not going to church anymore, family breakdown but more importantly, there’s nothing really to stop them. It’s unregulated – there isn’t a body that actually has any clue and that can monitor these groups.”

    “We are behind the rest of Europe! Awareness is just incredibly low. I guess politically it’s not a vote winner. It affects a relatively few number of people and politicians don’t take the long-term view do they, they take the next four years…”

    IH: “For me there are two issues here. One is, statistically if each person that’s recruited becomes a recruiter and recruits four or five other people and that’s a minimum, then cults are bound to grow at a tremendous rate, and they do… But the other side of it is that as cults continue they become wealthier and wealthier and they get the best lawyers in the cities and there are lots of stories we give to the media that don’t see the light of day. The journalist gets paid but it’s not published because people don’t want to get sued. So that’s another aspect.”

    “There is a control and there is an influence on the media, and that’s most unfortunate.”

    Is there a real lesson that you’ve learned that you would like to impart or you think society as a whole would benefit from, especially in Britain, where as Ian and Lynne say it’s very beneath the radar, with tightly controlled media that is influenced by highly paid law firms who are able to represent these new religious movements – what would your lasting comments be?

    NT: “I think one of the big issues is people being afraid to trample on religious freedom. There’s a fine line between overanalysing every religious group – is it a cult, is it not, and where we are now – where cults can operate so easily. Lynne was talking about new age groups and I think it is one of the rising areas that cults will take advantage of, to be able to recruit people. And it’s not a new thing! If you look back at the Order of Solar Temple not so long ago who ended with something like seventy suicides… They recruited exactly the same way! So Luc Jouret – one of their two leaders, used to hold these conferences on alternative medicine and new age healing methods and that’s how he recruited a lot of very rich and very powerful people. I think it’s what people need to be very aware of – a group or a person who just seems overly caring, if you’re going through a difficult time or you’re feeling lonely or you just had a loss, and you meet a group or several people where there’s that instant ‘we love you, you are one of us’, and I’m not saying that everyone should be paranoid or wary because the world wouldn’t be a very nice place, but sometimes something that is too good to be true is really too good to be true.”

    “I think awareness is the most important thing. That is what all of us here are trying to do and there’s a long road to go before we get to a place where people are actually aware of these dangers, are looking out for them and not falling into the trap…”


  22. Woman who escaped Children of God cult credits Irishman with helping her get out

    The Independent Ireland July 15, 2014

    A woman born into a cult called the Children of God has revealed that an Irishman helped to get her out.

    Natacha Tormey (30) was one of 12 children born into the notorious cult and spent her entire childhood believing that she was part of an elite children’s army who would one day save the world from the Anti-Christ.

    The cult, which Hollywood star, Rose McGowan, also belonged to, was a very controlling organisation.

    Natacha was denied an education and had barely any knowledge of life outside the communes which she lived in. The followers of the cult were encouraged to believe in total sexual freedom and many members revealed that they suffered appalling sexual and physical abuse.

    Speaking on Ryan Tubridy on 2FM this morning, she revealed that after leaving the cult in 1999, she was in danger of getting sucked back in but she credits an Irishman with helping her escape.

    “I was born into the cult a decade after it started. My parents met in the cult and got married. They had several children in the cult.

    She said that the cult became more bizarre and they began operating in countries where their practices could avoid detection. Born in Asia of French parents, her parents had 12 children all of whom were in the cult.

    Former Fleetwood Mac guitarist Jeremy Spencer was a member of the cult, which was led by David Berg.

    “As I was born into it, I knew very little else. I was brainwashed from birth.”

    continued below

  23. She said that the sexual abuse started from an early age.

    “It started when I was four. When you are that young you don’t really realise what happened to you. In my case, it was one of the so-called uncles – the childcare staff – who abused me.

    She said that the sexual abuse was also coupled with physical abuse.

    “All of the parents thought whoever was looking after the children was doing a good job. There was definitely some cases when the adults knew what was going on and did nothing. My parents say that they didn’t know what was going on and they weren’t aware until I told at the age of 13.

    “The environment was highly sexualised. The leader of the cult – David Berg – put out a letter saying that the children of the cult should explore their sexuality from an early age.

    “As soon as a girl starts having her periods, she is basically an adult. There were no rules in place.”

    Natacha said she started to believe that things were very wrong when she was a child. When she was a teenager she really started to question the doctrines of the cult.

    “I always had a gut feeling something was very wrong and as I grew older, I realised that this wasn’t ‘normal’ no matter what I was being told on a When I was a teenager I really started to question the hold the cult had over my family and the rules that they made us live by. What we thought and how we acted.

    “By the time, I was 16 or 17 years of age, I just had huge doubts. The cult decided that the world would end on New Year’s Eve 1999 and when it didn’t, I realised that it was all a hoax.

    “I had no idea how to get out. I met this guy who helped me get out. I had no clue what the world outside was like. After a couple of years together, I left him and moved to London.”

    She revealed that she almost got sucked back into the cult but her relationship with an Irishman helped save her.

    ““I was finding it very difficult to adapt. I was feeling very suicidal. I was struggling to fit into regular society.

    “I went back to where the cult was based on Reunion Island and over a period of time, I nearly got sucked back into things. The group had changed a lot by then. I needed to reconnect with my parents and talk to them about.”

    However, she credits an Irishman with saving her.

    “I was debating religion on a website and there was an Irish guy who I started speaking to. We fell in love over the course of a few months. Unfortunately it didn’t work out. We broke up.”


  24. I was 4-YEARS-OLD when I was forced to have sex with a cult member from the Children of God

    Malaysia Chronicle July 24, 2014

    ON the night of December 31, 1999, Natacha Tormey stood huddled in her garden with her family, waiting for the world to end.

    But when the clock struck midnight without the expected soldiers of the Antichrist making an appearance, the teenager had a sudden realisation that would change her life.

    Natacha, now 30, told The Sun: “Everything I had ever been told was a lie. And I knew I had to get out.”

    Natacha was brought up in the Children of God cult.

    Founded in California in 1968 by self-proclaimed prophet David Berg, it was active in 15 countries at its height, including the UK.

    Up to 35,000 people are thought to have been members, including the parents of actors Joaquin and River Phoenix and of the actress Rose McGowan — all raised in its sinister clutches by their parents.

    To the outside world the sect presented a wholesome image of a Christian family living in harmony, helping the needy, performing music and praising God.

    But for children like Natacha it was a sick system dedicated to brainwashing and sexual abuse.

    Natacha, now a happily married human resources consultant living in Buckinghamshire, said: “There was a whole sordid world you got pulled into, but the outside facade would have looked quite innocent to people like my parents.”

    Her French parents Marcel and Genevieve had joined the cult, also known as The Family International, as teens in the Seventies.
    Natacha was born in Thailand in 1983, and spent her childhood moving around various sect communes in South Asia, France and later the African island of Reunion.

    From a young age she and her 11 siblings were taught the various ways they might be raped or killed during the coming Apocalypse.

    Children were readied for battle and promised superpowers, like the ability to shoot thunderbolts from their eyes, when the time came.

    They were taught to fear the outside world, known as “the system”, which was “full of non-believers who wanted to kill them”.

    But it was the cult’s teachings on sex that were most disturbing.

    Berg taught that sex was the most glorious way to praise Jesus and members were instructed to “share” their husbands and wives.

    Group sex was common and Berg also taught that children needed to “explore their sexuality”.

    He once wrote that all sex pleased Jesus, no matter if it was between an adult and child or even between family members.

    As a result, child abuse was rife.

    Natacha was one victim. At the age of four, unbeknown to her parents, she suffered days of horrendous abuse in an outhouse at the hands of a middle-aged cult member.

    She recalled: “I felt sick to the stomach and I knew something was very wrong.

    “But we were never told it was wrong for an adult to touch you like that. On the contrary, we were told that you must obey adults, so I just kept quiet.

    “David Berg had basically said that any sex was sanctioned by God, so there was an amazing opportunity for any paedophile.”

    continued below

  25. Bergs own stepson Davidito was another victim.

    In 1982, when he was seven, the cult published a book describing — complete with photos — the “sexy experiences” he had been subjected to, including cult members performing sex acts on him.

    It was meant as a guide for rearing children. Davidito eventually left the cult and changed his name to Ricky Rodriguez.

    But he could not escape his memories and in 2005, at 29, he tracked down one of the women involved in his abuse and stabbed her to death. He then shot himself dead.

    In the communes of 100 to 150 people, physical and emotional abuse was also common.

    Natacha explained: “Many adults would carry fly swatters and just whack you around the head if they felt like it.

    “If you did something really naughty, like telling a lie, you could expect a spanking with a wooden board.

    “There were also psychological punishments such as silence restriction, where you would be forced to wear a sign warning anyone from talking to you. It was torture, really.”

    Kids rarely left the commune, but adults would go out to preach the gospel and fund-raise.

    Sometimes fund-raising took the form of “flirty fishing” — a practise advocated by Berg that involved women having sex with men in return for a “donation”.

    Natacha said: “It was religious prostitution, simple as that.

    “The sad part is that the women genuinely believed that this was the most perfect sacrifice you could make for God.”

    When Natacha was 13, her family moved from Thailand to France, where for the first time she started to mix with the outside world.

    It was then that doubts about her upbringing started to creep in.

    She explained: “I saw that the ‘system’ wasn’t scary and that there were normal people out there. They weren’t evil and they weren’t trying to kill us.”

    Two years after the world failed to end at the turn of the Millennium, Natacha, then aged 18, fled.

    Despite initially struggling to cope in the real world, she eventually did carve out a new life.

    She moved to England and finally managed to find a job, love with husband Kevin and happiness.

    Her whole family has since also left the cult, which has been run by Karen Zerby, now 67 — mother of Davidito — since Berg’s death in 1994 at the age of 75.

    None of the cult’s leaders have ever been brought to justice.

    Natacha said: “I am outraged and disgusted by what happened, and I think a lot of members of my generation feel we were let down by the world a little bit.

    “But for me, I have to let that anger go. I couldn’t let them win.” -Thesun.co.uk

    see photos at:


  26. Brainwashed, torn from her parents and abused from the age of four: Religious sex cult survivor tells her harrowing story

    By NAOMI GREENAWAY, Daily Mail UK July 28, 2014

    Growing up inside The Children of God cult, Natacha Tormey was sexually abused, made to live in a compound and taught to fear the outside world.

    At the age of 18 she escaped and now, eleven years later, she feels strong enough to tell her story.

    'I was sexually abused from the age of four - on several occasions,' the cult survivor revealed as she poured her heart out to Eamonn Holmes and Ruth Langsford on ITV's This Morning.

    'It was a very sexualised environment. It started out innocently with the idea that anything done in love is OK, but it became more bizarre where husband and wives were expected to share their partners with others.

    'Then it went one step further with flirty fishing - where women were told to use their bodies to win men (converts) to God, often in return for a donation.'

    'I often saw adults doing things in the same room as me,' she revealed.

    'I have very few happy childhood memories. The brief moments spent with my family, were few and far between,' said Natacha, who was forced to live in a compound with 150 other members in a variety of communes across South East Asia, East Africa and Europe.

    'I have 12 siblings but we certainly weren't at the beach every day - we were behind high walls in a compound,' she recalled.

    To make money, the cult would send the children out to beg. 'We'd go out fundraising and do shows. But we were taught to fear outside world,' said Natacha, whose parents are French-born.

    'We were told there were two types of people - the nasty people were goats and nice people were sheep.

    'But they told us that the majority had turned away from God and that we were the army of the end time.'

    continued below

  27. The cult's leader, David Berg, predicted that the world would come to an end at the end of the millennium, but died in 1994 before witnessing his prediction fail.

    'They trained us to be elite soldiers who would be fighting the anti-christ. They told us we'd be blessed with lightning bolts from our eyes and have the ability to knock people dead with the touch of our hand. These were all the gifts we were meant to receive,' she said.

    It's been 11 years since Natacha managed to escape from the cult and she's now happily married and been living in the UK for five years.

    'I'm in contact with my parents and siblings,' she said. 'My parents left a couple of years ago.'

    How does she have a normal relationship with them, given so much of her suffering was due to their decisions, she was asked.

    'It's difficult - I went through many years of bitterness and hatred,' she admitted. 'But it's the understanding that they were victims in some sort of way too.

    'That doesn't excuse everything but my main opinion now is that to hate and to be bitter would only make me unhappy and I'm not going to let the cult do that to me anymore so at some point for your own sanity you have to let go.'

    The cult, which has now changed its name to The Family International, has denied any allegations of institutionalised abuse.

    In a statement, read by This Morning's Eamonn Holmes, the cult said it had apolologised on a number of occasions to anyone who felt they were a victim of abuse.

    The statement also expressed a 'zero tolerance' for abuse and said the cult permanently expelled any members who violated the policy.
    Natacha did not comment, but responded to the statement with a wry smile.

    The cult survivor has now documented the full story of her childhood in a book 'Born into the Children of God: My life in a religious sex cult and my struggle for survival on the outside'.

    'It's been amazing and cathartic,' said Natacha. 'It's the final step in my healing process, to not feel I have to hide or feel shame about my past and trying to turn it into something good and encouraging for other people.'

    view photos and videos at:


  28. Born into a sex cult

    Natacha Tormey on how she survived those dark days, escaped, and finally built a new life

    by LYNNE WALLIS, The Independent UK August 11, 2014

    The smell of Dettol can trigger a traumatic memory. It was kept beside every adult’s bedside in the cult communes that Natacha Tormey grew up in – the cult’s members practised "sharing" their partners with others, and believed that disinfecting themselves afterwards would prevent sexually transmitted disease.

    Natacha still has a bag she calls her survival kit, comprising a compass, first aid box and a torch, which she carried everywhere for several years after her escape, convinced that Armageddon, or "End Time" would come and she would need it to hide from the devil.

    She believed she was part of an elite childrens’ army that would one day save the world from the Antichrist, when glorious martyrs such as herself would have a golden palace on top of heaven. She would have a "superpower" that would enable her to shoot thunderbolts from her eyes to strike her enemies dead.

    Natacha’s French hippy parents Marcel and Genevieve were recruited into The Children of God during the 1970s as teenagers in Paris. Renamed Moonlight and Star, they survived by busking and begging, but the cult only allowed them to keep 10 per cent of what they earned. Three sons Matt, Marc and Joe came before Natacha was born in 1983, the year they were sent to a commune in Thailand.

    "We were all very thin," recalls Natacha. "If someone was ill, it was because the parents had ‘sinned’ – everything was designed to instil guilt and fear. Adults were 'uncles' or 'aunties' who could discipline any child. Watched all the time, we learned to arrange our faces into masks of unquestioning submission."

    Beatings were regular and severe. One afternoon, during enforced "naptime" four-year-old Natacha was beaten by Uncle Ezekiel, who was in bed in the same room with Aunty Joy. As punishment for fidgeting, he hit her hard with a fly swat. That night, Natacha dreamed of shooting him down with a thunderbolt as he begged for mercy.

    The late David Berg, the son of an evangelical preacher from California, founded the Children of God cult in the late 1960s, exploiting the hippy anti-establishment, free-love culture. He ordered his "disciples" to send him videos of their orgies, insisting that Jesus liked sex and that they shouldn’t be ashamed of liking it. He encouraged adults to have sex with children over 12, but it happened to those far younger.

    Women were sent out "flirty fishing" to lure in new members. "They were treated like pieces of meat," says Natacha. “My mother complained when my young brother Vincent was viciously beaten. Heavily pregnant, they sent her to Siberia, to freezing cold Chelyabinsk. Dad tried to stop it, but Mum feared further reprisals. Families were torn apart."

    Members of the cult included the parents of River and Joaquin Phoenix, and those of the Hollywood actress Rose McGowan. Fleetwood Mac guitarist Jeremy Spencer was recruited after meeting devotees in the audience at one of their concerts.

    All over Europe and the USA, idealistic young hippies were being recruited in the belief that the cult represented love, freedom and peace. If only, says Natacha, they could have known that every single aspect of their and their childrens’ lives would be controlled.

    Women were totally submissive, and not allowed to take the Pill. Like Natacha’s mother, who had 12 children, many were exhausted by childbirth by the age of 30, and others from having to "share" with other womens’ husbands.

    Natacha was four when she was sexually abused by a man she calls Clay in her book. He began touching her in the shower and then started creeping into her bed during "naptime". Natacha became ill with a fever and was put into isolation in a converted shed. Her heart sank when Clay was asked to look after her.

  29. In her book she writes "I believe my mind is unable to deal with the horror and has blocked out some of the worst of what happened. I couldn’t say whether Clay had full sex with me. It is a dark place I do not want to return to. But the sensory images are always with me, playing out in nightmarish flashbacks: his unwashed skin, hairy armpits and sweat dripping on my face as he leaned over me, the smell of Dettol, his fingernails grabbing at my skin and his thick Filipino accent as he gave thanks to the Lord for delivering me to him."

    Shortly afterwards, there was an "investigation" into child sexual abuse. Natacha instinctively knew that the "right" answer was no, she had never been touched in a "bad way".

    A girl who spoke out was made to stand alone for weeks with a sign around her neck saying, "I am on silence restriction for telling lies. Do not speak to me". It was many years later before Natacha told her parents about the abuse.

    When Natacha was 12 they were sent to France, where life improved dramatically. "The French wouldn’t tolerate communes, so we lived in a normal house. We played outside for the first time in our lives."

    Berg had died and the cult was falling apart. When Natacha was almost 15, the family were moved to Réunion island near Madagascar, where Natasha’s brothers Marc and Matt, disillusioned, announced that they wanted to leave. Marc left when Natacha was 17, but outsiders found him too intense. Miserable, he sought solace in alcohol and drugs with other former members.

    Natacha decided to leave when she was 18. The night she left, Natacha got the devastating news that Marc had been killed in a car accident. Grieving, racked with guilt and anxiety, Natacha, with no money, moved in with an an older man she met called Thomas, whom she calls "my ticket out".

    She recalls: "I was fearful of the outside world, and I felt out of place, a weirdo. I didn’t know what a CV was, how to open a bank account."

    The couple moved to the South of France, where Natacha met a woman who became her mentor. She recalls, "I’d been around all these dull, subservient women. Manon was glamorous and amazing. Slowly I learned that it was OK to say no."

    Natacha left Thomas and came to the UK to live with former cult members in Harrow, Middlesex. She met another man who treated her badly. Natacha says: "With Manon’s words ringing in my ears, in front of all his friends, I said, 'How dare you treat me like this? I am a human being' – words I wished I’d been able to say as a child."

    Natasha became depressed and began drinking heavily, once contemplating suicide. "I went to Réunion to be with my family. Everything had relaxed and children were no longer beaten. But I was very angry. I couldn’t see my parents were victims."

    Natacha returned to the UK and in 2008 met her husband Kevin, and talked her way into an admin job in human resources. "Kevin said I was the bravest person he’d ever met. I slowly began to believe that I must be strong and resilient to have survived. I discovered who I am, that I have a sense of humour."

    Natacha and Kevin married in 2011 and live in Buckinghamshire. She is in contact with all her siblings. Her parents live in France, surviving on benefits and seasonal work.

    "The cult exploited their youthful idealism," Natacha says, "robbed them of their happiness and freedom and spat them out in middle age. Cults needs to be on the curriculum so young people are aware of the dangers. Second generation cult members, the innocents, had no control over their fate. My book is for us. It’s time we had our say."

    All names have been changed except for Natacha Tormey’s


  30. Christopher Owens on the Children of God and His ‘New Testament': “It’s My Own Take on Pop”

    By Shane Barnes, FlavorWire September 26, 2014

    The video for Girls’ “Hellhole Ratrace” was released in June of 2009, throwing the band’s frontman, Christopher Owens, into the indie-rock spotlight. Owens was perhaps too willing to talk about everything in his early days, detailing his time spent in the Children of God cult, his since-kicked opiate habit, and his years spent with the late Amarillo art pioneer Stanley Marsh III. Girls had three excellent, critically acclaimed releases — two full-lengths, one EP — with influences that ranged far and wide: surf music, old-school country, King Crimson, Randy Newman, Felt, the Everly Brothers, and somehow others. And then, citing “heartbreak” from the band’s constant turnover of members, Owens called it quits in 2012.

    But he didn’t stop making music. In 2013 he released Lysandre, an odd, under-appreciated ode to the ’70s that features recurring refrains and instrumentation that brought to mind Donovan rather than the shoegaze fuzz of his early Girls work. Now, with his latest release, A New Testament, Owens has put on his boots and his ten-gallon hat to produce one of the year’s best country and gospel albums, and it’s from a guy who, in his own words, can’t make a country album. Flavorwire spoke to Owens as he was prepping for his current ongoing tour in support of the new album, out September 30 via Turnstile.

    Flavorwire: Did you set out to do anything particular with A New Testament, or did it just kind of veer toward the gospel and country side of things?

    Christopher Owens: Definitely. The idea was to make an album that explored the influence country music had had on me. I love country music — classic, traditional country music — and it’s something I’ve liked for a long, long time. And it’s something I felt was already in my songs already, it wasn’t too far of a stretch. If I just changed a couple of instruments, I can kind of sound like that. I wanted to show the things I love while giving a modern take, you know?

    Yeah, even with Girls, the country was always underneath everything else.

    I’m glad you said that, because I’ve had a lot of people calling me up and telling me it took them by surprise. And I thought, we’ve always done it. We just didn’t do it so explicitly. This is just the first time that I’ve decided, “OK, this is what we’re going to do.” And with the Girls stuff, the first album had to be what it was.

    And the second one, the EP, Broken Dreams Club, was songs that we had been playing live but hadn’t recorded, so we didn’t know exactly what we were trying to do with them, sonically.

    And then, for a band’s second full album — or third record, whatever you want to call it — it’s time for them to make a big statement. So we went big on there. So, for Girls, there wasn’t really time to do a country record. It would’ve been too soon to do it as a second album.

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  31. I feel like now I can kind of get away with.

    Something about this album — the country influence is there, plus the soul stuff, but it’s definitely a pop album. If this were 30 or 40 years ago, it would be all over the radio.

    Yeah. It’s like when the Beatles covered that Buck Owens song, you know? It’s not country, but it’s got that influence. They weren’t even intending to make a country song. They can’t. And in that same way, I can’t. It’s my own take on pop. I really believe that pop is just country, R&B, and Broadway hits all mashed up and made very short and accessible for everybody.

    You listened to that kind of stuff in the Children of God, right? Did that have a direct influence on the sound of this album?

    Well, the country influence you’re hearing on this record — the actual stuff you hear — is all stuff I’ve gotten into later in life. To be honest, the stuff I listened to in the Children of God — when I heard the Everly Brothers and stuff — it was really only about once a month, or once every six months. Typically we didn’t get much of that music at all. We only had our own music, which was very religious music that the adults wrote.

    But every once in a while they’d have a dance night where they would put on a group of cassettes called “My Old Favorites,” which was our leader’s. And it was a bunch of oldies. And I mean from before 1950 in most cases. Those were deemed OK to listen to on special occasions. And those oldies were very close to country.

    Do you remember any of the songs on there?

    Oh, gosh. Stuff like “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” or “Love Me Tender,” a couple mop-top Beatles stuff — definitely not the psychedelic Beatles stuff. Patsy Cline. It couldn’t be too negative. It had to be just right. I’ll always remember those songs from “My Old Favorites,” and I think they did give me a taste for the oldies sound. A very simple sort of a pop song, which I still have a strong place for.

    You tweeted that Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone” is a “touchstone of perfection.” Do you ever worry about proclaiming your love for pop music in such a public way?

    That song to me is just a classic. I don’t think American Idol has really produced another knockout like that. It was just a really special thing. And I was feeling a little nostalgic.

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  32. On the last album you said that if Beyoncé or another huge pop singer had covered “Love Like a River,” it would’ve been a huge hit. Do you feel that way about any of the songs on A New Testament?

    I feel like “Oh My Love” should be a classic. To me it’s one of the best songs I’ve ever written. Somebody should cover that in a couple years and let it be on Top 40 radio, and I would be over the moon.

    I feel really strongly about a lot of our songs. They have a kind of classic quality that I feel like, if they could just enter the sort of general public’s subconscious, it would be part of pop culture — whatever that means, if it were in a movie or if somebody covered it — I think that would happen. They could be hits. Back in the day there would be one radio station or one Ed Sullivan show, and you could play a great song like that and the world would start to sing it. Now, it seems kind of impossible. I would need a little help with that, I think.

    I heard in an interview recently that Randy Newman is one of your lyrical heroes. When did you first get into him?

    Well, like a lot of people my first real exposure to Randy Newman was I think in that movie Antz—

    Toy Story!

    Oh, sorry! Toy Story, that song (singing), “You got a friend in me, you got a friend in me,” and I came away sort of unimpressed. But in 2007, when I really started to write lyrics for my own songs, I heard “I Just Want You To Hurt Like I Do,” and I thought, “This guy is just a fucking genius.” And he helped me realize that when you’re writing a song it doesn’t have to be “Bohemian Rhapsody.” It can be like, “I think it’s gonna rain today,” over and over. It’s just the right balance of being a smart-ass and also being very genuine.

    He sort of opened a door for me, and made me feel like I could do it. You know, that song I wrote, “Jamie Marie,” on the last Girls record was a direct sort of homage to Randy Newman.

    What was your inspiration was for the aesthetic of all the promo materials for this album. It’s a very, uh, distinct look — I don’t even know how to nail it down.

    I don’t work with a stylist or anything like that. I just kind of have a photographer come in and I know exactly what I want. I tell them what to do, I trust myself. I kind of just wanted everything to be warm and have a certain romantic aspect to it. I try to have more specific visions for these albums.

    A lot of people will go through their whole career and do the same thing. You know, James Taylor has been James Taylor for 25 years. I guess that says something about me, I do little looks. I wore a suit for the last album, now I’ve got cowboy hats and boots. There is a side of me that it’s certainly a playful guy. And why not have a good time while you have this opportunity?

    Right. Not everybody gets to come out with an album people pay attention to.

    Exactly. And, as they say, we only live once.

    to see the links and videos embedded in this article go to:


  33. How a cult stole my life

    Author Taylor Stevens was raised in a sect where beatings, starvation and sexual abuse were everyday events. Forty years later, can she leave the ‘Children of God’ behind her?

    By Julia Llewellyn Smith, The Telegraph November 1, 2014

    Most children would be praised for writing stories. Not Taylor Stevens. Aged 41, Stevens was born and raised in a cult then known as the Children of God, whose members (a term Stevens dislikes since it implies she had a choice) lived communally, usually in squalid poverty, surviving by begging. Children were often beaten, starved, separated from their parents, denied education and sexually abused.

    Stevens’s sporadic schooling ended for good when she was 12, but she always had a compulsion to tell stories. “All entertainment – music, television, books – was banned. We were so bored, I used to make up stories to tell the other teenagers when we were sitting for hours in the back of a van being driven to go beg somewhere,” she recalls. “Imagination was my survival mechanism.”

    When she was 15, she got her hands on a few notebooks and began writing stories. “I knew my supply was limited, so I wrote really small, squeezing as many words into each line as possible.” Before long, however, they were discovered and the books were confiscated and burned.

    “The leaders told me I was a witch and full of devils and performed an exorcism on me. They put me in a room for three days without food. They wanted me to confess my sins. I didn’t know what to say, so I just came out with every doubt about the group I’d ever had. I made strange noises because I thought that’s what they wanted, but I was worrying: ‘What happens if they’re the wrong noises?’ ”

    Afterwards, Stevens was isolated from her peers for months. “They thought I’d contaminate them with my evil spirit. They made me read propaganda for hours at a time and then write essays about how it was making me a better person. I just made stuff up to make them happy.” She laughs. “There’s an irony they didn’t want me to write fiction but almost everything I was telling them was fiction – and that gave me the grounding for what I do today.”

    Twenty-five years on, Stevens is a bestselling author. Her first novel, The Informationist went into The New York Times top 10, translated into 20 languages and was optioned by James (Titanic) Cameron. Two more, extremely readable, thrillers have been published, another two are in the pipeline.

    It’s an extraordinary turnabout for a woman who only escaped the cult aged 29. Today, talking to me from her home in Dallas, Texas, she appears a regular suburban mum, our call’s interrupted by one of her two teenage daughters returning unexpectedly to the accompaniment of frenzied dog barking, then school calls demanding an unexpected pick up for the other. Yet Stevens is far from that stereotype: “I don’t relate to being a PTA mum, where your whole life is, ‘Oh,
    Susy did this, and then we made cupcakes!’ ” She adds: “No matter how much they love me, no matter how wonderful they are, people can never understand where I came from.”

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  34. Founded by David Berg also known as “King”, “David” or “Moses”) in California in 1968, the cult, today known as The Family or Family International, preached the imminent apocalypse and the shunning of all personal property.

    Free love was encouraged within communes (though contraception was banned) and Berg encouraged “flirty fishing”, sending out female members to recruit new members and earn money through prostitution. By the time Berg died, he was wanted by Interpol for inciting sexual abuse against children. In 2005, Berg’s stepson and heir apparent murdered his former nanny and then killed himself, leaving a video claiming she had abused him as a toddler, adding the person he really wanted to kill was his mother – Karen Zerby, still the cult’s leader.

    Thanks to its anti-American rhetoric, the cult attracted many hippies and anti-war protesters, as well, Stevens says, as many on the run from the law. Over its 46-year history, it’s boasted 35,000 members, including 13,000 children – today it’s believed to number around 10,000 people. Actress Rose McGowan was born into the cult, her family deciding to leave when leaders began advocating sex with children, while the Phoenix family, including the actor brothers River and Joaquin, were members for a period in the Seventies.

    Stevens’s father joined the cult in 1969 aged 23, her mother in 1970 at 18. Leaders “married” them to each other, because, she suspects, both were Jewish.
    “You’d have to ask them why they joined. My parents were very young, maybe directionless and they were probably approached by a smiley person saying:
    ‘Why don’t you come and spend the night?’ she says. In her second novel, The Innocent, set in a cult, a character explains the lure: “To release oneself from independence, to follow the Prophet was to be free of responsibility.”

    As part of its rejection of property, the cult led itinerant lives, so by the time she was seven, Stevens and her four younger siblings had lived in caravan parks, alongside other members, in five different US states and three European countries. For one brief period, when Berg relaxed the rules, Stevens attended various mainstream schools acquiring a basic education and avidly reading Nancy Drew library books, though she never made friends with “outsiders”. “We led a double life, we just didn’t talk about what went on. We knew we were the chosen ones, superior to them, that they were wrapped up in their worldy ways.”

    When she was 12, the family moved to Japan and her education “and my innocence” ceased. In keeping with the cult’s anti-nuclear-family stance – she was removed from her family and sent to various communes where she and the other teenagers cooked, cleaned and did the childcare for hundreds. At one point she was sharing a cupboard-sized room with six people and a bathroom with 20. “They took away our best years, it was full-time child labour.”

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  35. She was also sent out regularly to beg, once finding herself on the snowy streets of Osaka in her only footwear – open-toed sandals. “The begging just shredded me, I hated the dishonesty, asking people for money they thought was humanitarian projects, when we had no time for anything except just trying to survive.”

    She dreamed of escaping, but – with spies everywhere – never confided her unhappiness. In any case, she had no skills to navigate the outside world. “I was terrified God would strike me dead.” The cult regularly read out “Traumatic Testimonies” where members would recount horror stories of life outside. “They’d say: ‘It may look good out there, but believe me I’d be dead if I hadn’t found The Family.’ ” Outsiders – however much they tried to debunk Berg’s teachings – were treated with suspicion. “You couldn’t even begin to hear what they were trying to tell you, you’d been inoculated against it.”

    Stevens moved on to Mexico, where the cult was establishing its hardest-core stronghold to date. “The leadership really was sadistic. They were there to teach wayward north-Americans how to be good cult members and they were so abusive. Children suffered horrible physical discipline for the smallest infractions, it wasn’t about punishment, it was about hammering square pegs into round holes. My whole life has been levels of awfulness, so all I could do was keep my head down as usual and just get through it.”

    After Berg’s death in 1994, Stevens used the upheaval to seize her chance to move to a commune in Kenya, “as far away as I could get from leaders checking all the time if we were spiritual enough”. She married another cult member and, hoping to actually help others, rather than beg, the pair set up a mission in Equatorial Guinea, which has one of the worst human rights records and levels of poverty in the world.

    “It was the land that time forgot, like walking through the doors of hell,” Stevens exclaims. “It was the most inhospitable place you could live: the climate, the culture of paranoia. We had to bribe the government to let us help the people.” Despite this, they built 3,000 school desks and brought in $30,000 of medical and educational supplies.

    Empowered by having succeeded against such odds, the couple, now with a toddler and a baby on the way, moved to Germany. Her husband found a job and they were able finally to leave the cult. “I will never forget how elated I felt the first morning I woke up in our own small apartment, finally free of the eyes that had been watching and judging me my entire life,” she says. “Going to the shops, booking a doctor’s appointment – all the ordinary things most adults take for granted – were so novel for me. Walking down the street alone felt extraordinary, we had always gone out in pairs, it was like being naked. I was frightened God would strike me down, I developed all sorts of phobias. It took a long time to adapt.”

    The couple (now amicably divorced – “In the cult environment, you think you know someone because you live with them full time, but you only know who the cult expects them to be”) moved on to the United States, where they continued to live in abject poverty. To make extra cash, Stevens began buying books at car boot sales to resell on eBay. Having previously read “maybe 15 novels” in Africa, she became an avid fan of Robert Ludlum’s Bourne novels.

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  36. Realising she had lived in equally exotic locations as those Ludlum depicted, she decided, aged 35, to write her own thriller set in bizarre and terrifying Equatorial Guinea. “My spelling and punctuation weren’t much but I could string words together,” she says. As evidence of this, soon after The Informationist was published, to huge acclaim, a stranger accosted her saying there was no way she had only a primary-school education and accusing her of having invented her backstory to boost sales.

    In fact, though her background is a publicist’s dream, Stevens was reluctant to dwell on it too much and initially wanted to omit it from her author’s biography. “I could have invented a past for myself,” she says. “But growing up, we lied to the outside world about us all the time and I vowed I was never going to do that again.”

    She refuses to discuss details of physical abuse, or the cult’s sexual elements, firstly to protect her daughters but also, as one character explains in The Innocent, because it overshadows the dozens of other indignities that thousands of children endured. “There was sexual abuse… But that’s just one of so many dishes served on the smorgasbord of my childhood… Nobody reports about the extreme discipline, or being separated from our families, or education deprivation, or the lack of medical care… That’s not entertaining enough.”

    Was it her desire to focus on these other horrors that led her to write The Innocent? “Other people were using the fact I’d been raised in a cult for their own agendas – to sell books, to show cults are bad – I just wanted to let people see what it was really like,” Stevens says. “I wanted to describe dispassionately, without anger, the sadism I had to live through, how no justice was ever served.”

    Today, her parents divorced, she has no relationship with her father, partly because he continues to identify with the cult, but, after some rebuilding, has a “solid, loving” relationship with her mother.

    Having her own daughters fully brought home to her the horrors of her own youth. “Through comparing my children’s growth and development… to what I had experienced comparatively at those ages, I grasped the true horrors of what I had lived through,” she says. “I can’t comprehend how so many of the parents in the cult could have set aside such a powerful instinct.”

    The Informationist, The Innocent, The Doll are published by Arrow, £7.99 each


  37. I Grew Up in a Cult. Here’s What Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt Gets Right.

    By Flor Edwards, vulture.com March 2015

    For most viewers who stream the new Netflix show Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, the story line will be an unfamiliar peek into what it’s like to emerge into the world after living in an underground doomsday cult. But for me, having grown up in an apocalyptic cult, which cut me off from the world completely until I was 14, it’s all too familiar. While there may be some plot points that are structurally incongruent, there are important details that are strikingly spot-on.

    Set in rural Indiana in the time of viral YouTube videos, officers raid an underground bunker while four women inside, known as the “mole women,” cheerfully chant, “Apocalypse, apocalypse, we caused it by our dumbness,” to the tune of “Oh, Christmas Tree.” Kimmy Schmidt sees the light of day for the first time in 15 years, and her life goes spinning into a whole new orbit. Savior Rick’s Spooky Church of the Scary-pocalypse, was postapocalyptic. The cult that I grew up in, the Children of God, was preapocalyptic. “Father” David Brandt Berg, the leader of the Children of God, led his 12,000 followers to believe that we lived in preparation for the end-times that would come in 1993.

    Like Kimmy, growing up, my days were tightly regimented, and I was constantly being watched. Unlike Kimmy, I never saw our leader nor knew what he looked like, as he lived in complete hiding. Richard Wayne Gary Wayne (an awesome name for a Netflix cult leader, by the way) is also enigmatic, and we don’t see his face until later in the season. When the mole women emerge from underground, they land a guest spot on theToday show with Matt Lauer, who questions them about their past. It’s in these first five minutes of the pilot episode that the stage is set: One woman sold her hair to Wayne on Craigslist; another was lured into his car to “look at baby rabbits” after he was a regular customer at the steakhouse she worked at. She joined because, as she put it, she didn’t “want to look rude.” These are all lighthearted spoofs that poke fun at the reality behind cult radicalism and religious extremism, but I’m curious to know Richard Wayne Gary Wayne’s motive: Is he just a womanizing pervert who gathers a group of women who believe his every word, or is there some ideology captivating them to stay? I can say from personal experience that no one would stay in a cult without some promise of utopia or change.

    When 29-year-old Kimmy decides to stay in New York instead of going back to Indiana with the rest of her clan, her wide-eyed wonderment is met with all the typical conflicts of living in a big city: She has to find an apartment, a job, and, of course, a flourishing social life. These are the perfect obstacles for someone who has spent 15 years in an underground bunker (unlike me, she was forcibly recruited, i.e. kidnapped, at 14, the youngest member of the cult). These first few minutes of B-roll are spot-on — Kimmy runs alongside a random jogger because she’s just so happy to be outside (cult escapees are unrealistically grateful — for everything!). A quick clip shows her discovering water flowing out of a faucet and then laughing in glee at the hand dryer in a public restroom (a public restroom for an ex-cult-member is a novel idea — functioning toilets and running water are a first-class experience).

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  38. For a 29 year old Kimmys enthusiasm to be at a park and swinging in a swing for the first time might seem questionable, but it’s not. I remember the first time I walked on soft wood chips at a park in the suburb of Berwyn near Chicago. I will never forget the first time we stepped off the plane at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport and my 11 siblings and I discovered a drinking fountain for the first time. We all gathered around and took turns pressing the button that magically spouted a clear fluid arch of drinkable liquid. We probably looked hilarious, but it didn’t matter; we had discovered water like it was life on Mars. Kimmy doesn’t care either if she looks ridiculous; she is discovering the world for the first time, and that is the appeal of the journey of Kimmy Schmidt.

    When you’ve grown up in a cult your whole life (or since your early teens, as in Kimmy’s case), you want nothing more than to be “normal,” although you don’t quite have a grip on what this “normal” is. All you know is that you’re not it. At one point we hear Kimmy explicitly say, “I just wanna be a normal person.” She satisfies this desire by buying herself the coolest pair of tennis shoes that light up, throwing herself at guys trying to kiss them, and engaging in life with an uncharacteristic optimism that no doubt stems from her years in isolation. On my first day of high school, I wanted nothing more than to be normal. I had never bought clothes in my entire life, but I found a shirt I thought was cool. I was kicked out for showing too much cleavage — an offense I did not know was worthy of expulsion. This was just the first instance in an adolescence (and adulthood) full of misunderstanding and confusing miscalculations.

    I resolved at some point that, as Kimmy so aptly puts it, “The worse thing that can happen has already happened.” I was going to have to find my way, like Kimmy, to cope with this world that I was unprepared for. (Sadly, I didn’t have the brilliant writing of Tina Fey or background music during my personal moments of triumph.) Like Kimmy, I learned to cope by learning to understand people. Maybe our backgrounds were different, but deep down, inside, we were all the same. I reasoned, at some point, that nobody really felt normal (in fact, there was no such thing!) and everyone was just trying to fit in.

    Growing up in a cult gives you an abnormal zest for life, and Kimmy Schmidt exuberates this confidence fittingly (although being stripped of your identity and being told that you’re “garbage” and a “dum-dum” would lead to a less-than-sunny disposition in real life). But Kimmy’s optimism, coupled with her resilience, is what makes the show relatable and endearing. Her character will be the broad appeal of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.




  39. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and Americas Long Weird Love Affair With Cults

    Tina Fey’s new Netflix series channels the complicated history of cults in America.

    by JARED KELLER, Pacific Standard MARCH 18, 2015

    All hail Tina Fey.

    The beloved comedian has managed to almost perfectly replicate the success of 30 Rock with Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, her new series that premiered on Netflix earlier this month. Developed with 30 Rock co-creator Robert Carlock and starring the uber-positive Ellie Kemper of The Office fame, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt follows a young woman freed from a doomsday cult after 15 years in an underground bunker. Let loose on New York City with nothing but the clothes on her back and an overwhelmingly sunny disposition, Kemper's Schmidt embarks on a journey of self-discovery in a comedic inversion of the classic young-white- woman-moves-to-New-York yarn. Brisk, cutting, and deliciously irreverent, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt brings the same comedic pacing and sharp writing that made 30 Rock such a success to a decidedly more sinister topic.

    Apart from the snappy, vibrant writing and fine acting on display, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt has garnered praise for its portrayal of cult survivors. Former cult members have commented that Schmidt’s aggressive exuberance isn’t just the lynchpin of the series, but an accurate portrayal of survivors moving forward after lives marred by exploitation and fear. “Growing up in a cult gives you an abnormal zest for life, and Kimmy Schmidt exuberates this confidence fittingly,” explained Flor Edwards in New York magazine. “But Kimmy’s optimism, coupled with her resilience, is what makes the show relatable and endearing.”

    But Schmidt isn’t just charming—she’s also more common than you might think. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt might rely on an absurd caricature of the modern doomsday cults of the past half century, but historians and sociologists of religion suggest that cults are actually as American as apple pie.

    The pop culture pastiches inspired by the “doomsday” variety of the 1970s may suggest that cults are a relatively modern phenomenon. As it turns out, America actually has a long, somewhat positive history with seemingly insane religious beliefs.

    “Extreme and bizarre religious ideas are so commonplace in American history that it is difficult to speak of them as fringe at all,” renowned historian Philip Jenkins wrote in Mystics and Messiahs: Cults and New Religions in American History. After all, the earliest American colonists had traveled to the New World in order to establish congregations independent of the Church of England, bringing a strain of millenarianism—the “apocalyptic expectation” often associated with religious groups. “Perhaps the largest component of the religious spectrum in contemporary history remains what it has been since colonial times: a fundamentalist evangelicalism with powerful millenarian strains,” Jenkins explained. “The doomsday theme has never been far from the center of American religious thought.”

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  40. It was with the Second Great Awakening—the Protestant revival movement of the mid-19th century that led to an explosion of membership in Baptist and Methodist congregations—that America saw the rise of a colorful collection of "new religious movements," as historians call them, complete with traveling ministers and frontier prophets, the spiritual antecedents of modern cults. According to Jenkins, the 1830s and '40s were marked by the idea of “millenarianism, perfectionism, and communitarianism,” while some emerging religious movements “experimented in innovative sexual relationships.”

    Bolstered by the freedom of religion enshrined in the Constitution and the virgin lands of the American frontier, hundreds of new religions sprang up across the country, though few lasted. “Most of the early American shamans and seers made a quick impression, only to disappear into obscurity,” wrote Sean Wilentz, co-author of the book The Kingdom of Matthias: A Story of Sex and Salvation in 19th-Century America, in a 1997 op-ed. “Some—most notably the Shakers [a Quaker sect that emphasized ecstatic jubilation during sermons]—enjoyed spectacular growth through the middle of the 19th century before fading into near-extinction.” The longer sects persisted, the more they justified their strange successors in America's burgeoning new religious landscape.

    Some sects did manage to outgrow their “cult” roots: The Mormon Church, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Christian Scientists—all considered wayward denominations when they first emerged in the 19th century—have since become tolerated and protected as legitimate religions barely 150 years later. These new religious movements are essentially “established cults,” J. Gordon Melton, director of the Institute for the Study of American Religion, argues in his comprehensive Encyclopedic Handbook of Cults. For Melton and other historians, this long history of religious experimentation has made cults a permanent feature of American society.

    “When public opinion is aroused by a particularly disturbing scandal or a mass suicides, legislatures sometimes attempt to regulate cult activities, hoping to control unpopular groups,” Jenkins, the historian, mused. “Any such measures are bound to fail, however, and not just on the obvious constitutional grounds of freedom of religion. It is all but impossible to define cults in a way that does not describe a large share of American religious bodies, including some of the most respectable.” After all, Jenkins notes: Frank Zappa observed that “the only difference between a church and a cult is the amount of real estate it owns.”

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  41. While the cults that emerged during the Second Great Awakening were forces for “religious innovation within a culture,” Melton asserts that the increasing secularization of American culture during the course of the 20th century transformed the term “cult” into a pejorative critique of religious movements that fell outside the pale of mainstream Western religion (For examples, burgeoning Hindu and Buddhist communities in the early 20th century were regarded as cult organizations). What Americans often miss, argue historians like Melton and Jenkins, is that the secular backlash against the milieu of “fringe” religious communities tends to follow consistent historical script:

    The contemporary depiction of the totalistic, all-encompassing doomsday cult is a product of several highly publicized incidents of the last 50 years. There was the Jim Jones People's Temple mass suicide in Guyana in 1970s, the moral panic over sadistic ritual abuse by satanic cults in the 1980s, the bloody Branch Davidian standoff with the ATF in Waco, Texas, and the mass suicides of the Order of the Solar Temples and the Heaven’s Gate group of the 1990s, the latter of which occurred so members could reach an alien spacecraft arriving in the wake of the Hale-Bopp comet. Scientology, with its reputation for alleged brainwashing, disconnection, and conspiracy is self-described as “[not] a turn the other cheek” religion. And they, too, have secret bunkers.

    The rise of the modern doomsday cult in pop culture may have put a dark stain on Melton’s “religious innovators,” and justifiably so: The visceral, horrifying experience of family members who have lost loved ones to fringe groups is so strong that, for many activists and survivors, Melton’s historical thesis is a structural apology for a disgusting act. Groups like the Cult Education Institute and International Cultic Studies Association, which provide support and resources for cult survivors, have accused academics of being “cult apologists.”

    But academics agree that modern cults are comparatively vicious, defined to a greater degree by psychological domination, submission, and exploitation than their traditional predecessors. According to Singer’s pioneering research, cultic organizations form around a person "who claims to have a special mission or knowledge," information shared only when members submit, both willingly and through coercion, to the authority of a self-appointed leader. Even Melton the “cult apologist” distinguishes cults from more unconventional religious sects in that they follow structures of authority and control “foreign and alien” to contemporary religious organizations.


  42. The Cultural Gaps in a Cult Child’s Life

    By Flor Edwards, Vulture March 24, 2015

    I remember the first time I heard Pink Floyd. Not a song. Not a concert. But the actual words Pink Floyd. Two glorious words. And my first introduction to pop music.

    Growing up in the Children of God cult, I was not allowed to listen to music that was not produced by the group. We kids knew well the story of Jeremy Spencer, world-famous slide guitarist of Fleetwood Mac, who one night at a concert met some eccentric people backstage and left his band to join the Children of God. He never looked back. The Children of God attracted many young, talented musicians from the ’60s. Music, songs, and dancing were abundant and common. But any music produced outside of the group was forbidden and shunned.

    I was sitting in the back seat of a Chevrolet Cavalier with my two sisters when Pink Floyd came up. I was 15 years old and had started public high school. We had just made our first “systemite” friend, Chris Huffman. (Father David, our leader, had taught us that anything outside of the cult was evil, people were “systemites,” and for me, this world had become intriguing and mysterious.)

    “Do you guys like Pink Floyd?” Chris Huffman said as he lit up an unfamiliar green substance in a small metal pipe. I had never seen drugs before, nor listened to pop music. Now I was sitting in the back seat of my new friend’s car as he lit up a substance that had to be heroin (all drugs are heroin when you’ve grown up in a cult). What was I becoming? Heroin and Pink Floyd — I was doomed. I was fast becoming a systemite. I was going to have to play it cool, and playing it cool is not something you learn growing up in a cult.

    “No, thank you,” I said to the heroin. The car filled up with a billow of smoke as I racked my brain for an answer to the question: Do I like Pink Floyd? The Dark Side of the Moon blasted from the old stereo system. I was going to have to lie. Yes, I loved Pink Floyd. I was going to have to lie many times when questioned about my knowledge of pop culture. It may well have been a contact high, but listening to systemite music for the first time was a milestone in my emergence into the world I was cut off from.

    “Pink Floyd,” I repeated to myself, and tucked the words away in the section of my brain reserved for categorizing “What Is Cool.”

    Learning to identify “What Is Cool” started a few years earlier, when Father David died and my family was relocated to a house in the South Side of Chicago. That’s when I started reading — books, magazines — and watching TV for the first time. I can count on two hands how many movies I’ve seen growing up. We had a recommended list with all the movies we were allowed to watch; The Ten Commandments and Jesus of Nazareth were top picks, along with 101 Dalmatians and Annie.

    Riverside Library in Cook County now became a safe haven where I could escape into the world that I had been sheltered from. The TV upstairs was our window to the world. We became enthralled with shows like The Love Boat, Full House, and Entertainment Tonight. We watched fast-paced action films starring Will Smith and Martin Lawrence. I saw my first scary movie, The Silence of the Lambs. Like any normal teenage girl, I developed celebrity crushes, top-model envy, and was intrigued by the idea of status and fame. Rich people were a novelty growing up, and now here they were separated only by a thin TV screen and some grey static. The only two celebrities I knew of growing up were Michael Jackson and Madonna. Father David had taught us that they were evil and worldly, vessels of sin and corruption. Their music was of the Devil, and I was never to listen or I would burn in hell for all eternity.

    continued below

  43. The images that struck me most from this new avalanche of media were the stories I saw on the news. I had never watched the news growing up, and when my family arrived in Chicago from Thailand, the ’94 Winter Olympics were on. The Nancy Kerrigan–and–Tonya Harding scandal was making headline news. I watched the clip over and over of Nancy Kerrigan wailing in pain as she held her knee. I couldn’t help but also notice the beauty of the sport. When the skaters glided across the ice, they looked happy and free. They moved effortlessly and wore costumes fit for ballerinas. They were beautiful. I watched as 16-year-old Oksana Baiul collapsed in tears when it was announced that she had won gold. I wanted to rejoice with her. I wanted to be her. I couldn’t help thinking, Sports can’t be evil, even though Father David had led us to believe they were.

    The next year, Timothy McVeigh bombed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma, and O.J. Simpson was acquitted of murder charges in the trial of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson’s stabbing. These stories took center stage on our family’s TV. I was beginning to experience firsthand the enormous impact media can have on the human psyche. I began to have questions and doubts. I began to inquire about morality. The world was becoming a complex myriad of grey — no longer black and white, no longer a simple story of good and evil. I was beginning to wonder where would I fit in. I saw power in how humans communicated through television, books, and magazines. Advertisements became a full-time obsession. I became fascinated with how words were used to manipulate and sell products that I had never heard of.

    In the years since, I’ve had countless instances where I’d hear of a cool band, TV show, or movie from my childhood years that I have no reference for — but I’ve also had an incredibly rich experience with culture. The first album I listened to in its entirety was Björk’s Homogenic. A best friend from high school wanted me to have it, and I listened to it over and over again. It was an almost spiritual experience. Now my tastes are eclectic and broad, ranging from country, folk, and soul (Alison Krauss and Union Station, Brandi Carlile, Alabama Shakes) to pop (Emeli Sande, Sam Smith, FKA Twigs) to hip-hop (the Roots, Outkast) and experimental trip-hop. Classic rock (Simon and Garfunkel; the Beatles; Crosby, Stills and Nash) makes me nostalgic for the quasi-counterculture ’60s environment I grew up in. However, I have absolutely no references to music from the ’80s (sorry, Prince). That decade will always remain as enigmatic and obscure as my complicated childhood.

    When time allows, I binge unapologetically on shallow reality-TV shows, my guilty pleasure. But some things never go away: People are still shocked that I’ve never seen Star Wars, have no recollection of Barney, memories of Sesame Street, or Saturday-morning cartoons. I still have a long list of “make-up movies” that I hope one day will fill the gap for all the things growing up in a cult didn’t teach me. And when the world gets too loud, I put on some headphones and dissolve into a corner of The Dark Side of the Moon.

    Read Flor Edwards's earlier piece for Vulture on what Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt gets right about growing up in a cult. [see above]


  44. How Rose McGowan Escaped From the Depraved Children of God Sex Cult

    by Michelle Siouty ⋅ Movie Pilot, April 10th, 2015

    Rose McGowan is not only known for being a beautiful and sultry woman, but also for being an insanely talented actress as well. She made her acting debut in the dark comedy Encino Man featuring Pauly Shore and is probably most well known for her role as Paige Matthews in WB's Charmed.

    Can we also mention how gorgeous she is? And I must say, she has aged gracefully.

    What many people might not know though, is she actually grew up in the terrifying Children of God cult in Italy.

    The Children of God, also known as The Family International, Family of Love, and The Family started in 1968 in Huntington Beach based off a hippie movement. The founder is David Berg, who is also known as "Moses David."

    Rose's father, Daniel McGowan, ran his own chapter for Children of God, and he and his wife Terri were members until 1978. As was normal in religious practice, Daniel married another woman named Rebecca, whom McGowan considered her step-mother.

    The cult cultivates a highly sexualized environment among its member, encouraging husbands and wives to swap partners and has even been accused of acts of indecency against minors - something that must surely have preyed on the mind of McGowan's parents.

    And those involved were not only encouraged to have sex with each other. A practice known as "flirty fishing" saw women members - called "Jesus' whores" - sent out to bars and clubs to seduce unsuspecting men to join the depraved cult.

    Part of McGowan's father's job was to provide drawings for pamphlets promoting promiscuous sex, as instructed by Berg. But McGowan's father felt he had crossed the line when Berg asked him to draw images depicting pedophilia as something positive.

    This all became too much to bear for McGowan's father, so in the middle of a stormy night, he, Rebecca, and the children escaped the sadistic clutches of Children of God.

    Her family moved back to America when she was ten years old. At the age of fifteen, McGowan emancipated herself from her parents, enrolled herself through beauty school, and pursued her passion for acting all on her own.

    McGowan is incredibly grateful for her father's ability to realize his hippie lifestyle was actually hurtful and for removing the family before anything truly harmful could've happened. This incredibly heartfelt actress spoke with People and looks at her childhood with a positive twist, claiming that

    "There are people who will read this story and think I had a strange existence. I think they've had a strange existence!"

    see photos at:


  45. The Real Life Kimmy Schmidt

    Twin Sisters, Former Children of God Members, Describe Life Inside Controversial Religious Sect

    By REENA NINAN, JACKIE POU, HANA KARAR and LAUREN EFFRON, ABC News Nightline, May 30, 2015

    Most childhoods are filled with bike riding, eating pizza or going to the movies, but twins Flor and Tamar Edwards, both 34, have been discovering many of these things for the first time as adults.

    That’s because for the first 13 years of their lives, these twins lived in what some ex-members call an apocalyptic cult.

    “I didn’t know what a movie theater was,” Flor said. “We saw a drinking fountain for the first time, and we all just kind of like saw it, and we, like, huddled around it like it was some ...“

    “... novelty,” Tamar said, finishing her sister's sentence.

    Flor and Tamar were raised in a controversial religious sect called “The Children of God,” which formed in Huntington Beach, California, in the late 1960s out of the “free love” hippie era. The twins said the group lived as nomads and were shut out from mainstream society, believing that they were among God's chosen people who would be saved when the apocalypse came.

    As children, Flor and Tamar said they were taught they were “going to be God’s Martyrs” when they were 12 years old -- because they said members believed the apocalypse was coming in 1993 -- and the twins lived in constant fear of that approaching year.

    “I was terrified because of the this ‘end time’ that was coming up so I had to deal with a lot of, as a child, very real fear,” Flor said. “I thought a lot about my death that was supposedly coming when I was going to be 12 years old.”

    Flor said she has watched “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” a popular Netflix show about a group of young women who are freed after years of being held captive by a cult leader in an underground bunker. It’s a storyline she said she can relate to. In the first episode, the character Kimmy Schmidt “sees water in the bathroom for the first time,” Flor said, a moment that really resonated with her.

    Within The Children of God, the twins said they and other families lived in tight quarters. They said they were prevented from going to school, and they said they didn’t learn to read until age 9.

    “Everything was evil. You know, education,” Flor said.

    “Politics was evil,” Tamar added.

    “Music,” Flor continued. “Anything. Anything outside of the group was evil.”

    They missed the 1980s entirely, they said, and are still catching up on a those lost years of pop culture references.

    “If I watched all the movies from the '80s and got a whole collection of music from the '80s, I just -- there's no context there,” Flor said. “We knew that there was someone out there named Madonna and Michael Jackson. That's about it.”

    All of this, they said, was determined by one man, David Berg, known to them as “Father David.”

    “Father David taught us that churches were evil,” Flor said.

    “And money was evil,” Tamar added.

    continued below

  46. Flor said Berg actually came from a “long ancestral line of evangelists,” and that he was “very familiar” with the established Christian church, but rejected it.

    “He wanted to break away from that and he came out to California,” Flor said. “He had some sexual experiences when he was very young and he was living in a constant conflict between his desire and his commitment to God.”

    The Edwards family was living in Los Angeles when they joined The Children of God, and then, in 1985, when the twins were 5 years old, Flor and Tamar said Berg decided his followers should leave the United States. So the family packed up and left for Thailand, where the twins said they lived until they were 12 years old, when Berg decided it was safe for his followers to come back to the states.

    The group moved to Chicago in 1994, where the twins said they were confided to a house with dozens of other families.

    “Once you're inside the house, it was kind of like our own little community,” Flor said. “You know, we did what we did inside the walls.”

    Some called The Children of God a sex-charged cult. At its peak, the group claimed to have tens of thousands of members around the world, and that 13,000 children had been born into the sect. Among those children raised in the group were actress Rose McGowan and a young Joaquin Phoenix, both of whose families eventually left.

    Ex-followers say they were taught to believe that love for God was expressed through having sex or exposing others to sex, including children.

    “Sex was the thing that drove people,” Tamar said. “They didn’t do any drugs, no alcohol. ... So sex was the way to freedom, they saw sex as God’s creation of love and beauty, which was one of the teachings but also within that there was abuse that happened. ... Children were having experiences that surely [they] didn’t want to have.”

    The twins said it was common for adults in the house to have sex in front of children.

    “We've talked to some of the adults. ... They believed in what [Berg] said,” Tamar said. “So they don't have regret over it. They don't say, like, ‘Oh no, that was bad.’ They still believe that Father David had something, like, that's how charismatic he was.”

    The Children of God has since reorganized and is now known as The Family International. In the 1980s, the group formally prohibited sexual contact between adults and minors and renounced its previous endorsement of sharing sexual partners and polygamy.

    "TFI reorganized four years ago (May 2010) and currently exists mainly as a small virtual community, so there is little relation of controversies and allegations from the distant past to the current membership, or alignment to its history of the past 10 years," a spokesperson for the organization told ABC News via email in November. "TFI has expressed its apologies on a number of occasions to any members who feel that they were hurt in any way during their membership, which are also posted online. For all intents and purposes, TFI no longer exists as a structured entity or communal movement."

    Flor and Tamar said they were never sexually abused, but they said they were physically abused as children.

    “[Children] would be getting spanked really young,” Flor said. “My little sister she was like 6 months old which, you know, you don’t get spanked at that age.”

    continued below

  47. Some former members of The Children of God have committed suicide. One member named Ricky Rodriguez, who was deemed a prophet inside the sect, made headlines in 2005 when he murdered his alleged abuser, who had also been a former Children of God member, and then committed suicide at age 29.

    Tamar said she wanted to take her own life when she was just 7 years old.

    “I wanted to take my life and it really came from a place of first of all... there wasn’t room for play and fun and that’s what every kid wants,” Tamar Edwards said. “I wanted to escape what was going on and second of all, I really didn't want to go through the apocalypse.”

    “The apocalypse seemed really scary,” she continued. “The whole Earth burning in the lake of fire, they had a whole agenda of what was going to happen like a lot of religions do, so it was terrifying.”

    The group disbanded after David Berg died in 1994, and suddenly the twins said they were forced into a life they had never lived before.

    “We wake up in the morning, and I just remember looking outside, and looking on the lawn, and everyone was outside with their things packed up,” Flor recalled. “We walked around the house, like, the house was empty.”

    Days after the group disbanded, Flor and Tamar said the Rev. Pongsak Limthongviratn, a Thai pastor, came to their family’s aid, counseled them and helped them navigate life outside of the religious sect.

    Flor and Tamar said they still struggle to live normal lives as adults today. They both live in California now. Flor is a freelance writer and office coordinator. Tamar teaches yoga in San Francisco.

    “It’s hard to go out and have a drink at the bar like normal social things that people do,” Flor said. “Meeting someone at a party when they ask where you’re from I almost want to go run away and hide.”

    The hardest part, she said, is not being prepared for the real world and not being taught how to live outside the walls that had long surrounded them.

    “It’s the hardest thing to have lived a life where you weren’t prepared for what was on the other side and then be on the other side,” Flor said. “That’s definitely been the hardest part for most of the kids. I don’t even think the upbringing was that difficult as much as being told a lie your whole life.”

    Both Flor and Tamar admit that although they still have questions about their past, they want to move forward.

    “Who are we supposed to be mad at?” Flor asked. “Father David's dead. I already said I'm not blaming my parents because of what we've been through together. I can't blame all the other adults. ... Should I blame God? Should I blame religion? I don't even know who to direct my anger at. And already that becomes very exhausting for me. So instead, I just do what I can with what I have.”


  48. Physically abused, told they would die at 12 and banned from school: 'Real-life Kimmy Schmidt' twins reveal what life was like inside controversial Children of God sect

    By SOPHIE JANE EVANS, Daily Mail May 30, 2015

    As children growing up in a controversial religious sect, they spent every day 'paralyzed by fear'.

    They were physically abused, banned from school and told they would die as martyrs aged 12.

    But now, twin sisters Flor and Tamar Edwards, 34, have escaped from The Children of God cult and are both living and working in California - one as a freelance writer, the other as a yoga teacher.

    They have opened up to ABC's Nightline about their lives inside the sect - which blended free love attitudes with preparing for the second coming of Jesus - and their transition to the outside world.

    'I didn’t know what a movie theater was,' said Flor, who along with her sister has compared their situation to that of the lead female character in the Netflix show, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.

    In the program, Kimmy Schmidt, 29, struggles to adjust to life in New York City after being rescued from an Indiana cult - and is even shocked when water sprinkles out of a sensor-activated tap.

    Flor, who feels she can relate to that particular scene, continued: 'We saw a drinking fountain for the first time, and we all just kind of like saw it, and we, like, huddled around it like it was some ...'

    '... novelty,' Tamar ended.

    The Children of God cult was founded by former pastor, David Brandt Berg, in Huntington Beach, California, in 1968, and has frequently been at the center of physical and sexual abuse claims.

    Former members include actress Rose McGowan, actor River Phoenix and his brother Joaquin.

    Speaking to Nightline, the twins, who joined the group aged just five with their family while they were living in Los Angeles, said they and their 12 siblings were physically abused as youngsters.

    '[Children] would be getting spanked really young. My little sister was like six months old which, you know, you don’t get spanked at that age,' said Flor, adding that she was never sexually abused.

    They also said they were told they were 'going to be God's Martyrs' aged 12 because members apparently believed the apocalypse would occur in 1992 - something that left them 'terrified'.

    During their childhood, Flor and Tamar were reportedly shut away from mainstream society, banned from going to school (meaning they could not read until aged nine) and kept in tiny living quarters.

    continued below

  49. They said they were taught everything was evil including education, politics, money and music. Indeed, the sisters only heard chart-topping songs for the first time after escaping from the cult.

    'If I watched all the movies from the '80s and got a whole collection of music from the '80s, I just -- there's no context there,' said Flor, who is among thousands of children born into the sect.

    After joining the group in Los Angeles, the Edwards family moved to Thailand on Berg's orders, before returning to Chicago in 1994 when the leader deemed it safe for his followers to come back.

    Upon their return, Flor, Tamar and their family were stuck in a house with dozens of other families.

    The twins confirmed widespread claims that the sect - now known as The Family International - was sex-driven at the time, with many adults having sexual relations in front of children in the property.

    Followers were taught that love for God was expressed through sex, but 'within that there was abuse that happened', said Tamar. This alleged abuse led to some former members committing suicide.

    Tamar herself was also driven to attempt to kill herself at the tender age of seven due to her lack of fun in the shared home - and her pure terror at the thought of going through the apocalypse.

    'The apocalypse seemed really scary,' she said. 'The whole Earth burning in the lake of fire, they had a whole agenda of what was going to happen like a lot of religions do, so it was terrifying.'

    In 1994, Berg's death led to the sect breaking up. Flor and Tamar said they found their new life in the outside world difficult to adapt to - and still struggle to go out drinking or meet someone new.

    They were helped in their efforts by Thai pastor, Reverend Pongsak Limthongviratn.

    And despite the horrors of their childhood, the twins, who regularly post photos of each other on Facebook, said they are not angry at their parents, who 'went through everything' with them.

    During his time as the leader of the Children of God, Berg was known to his followers as Moses David, Mo, King David, Dad, and Grandpa. He instructed new converts to memorize lengthy Bible verses and undertake Bible classes. They were also expected to live the lives of early Christians.

    In 1978, the sect was reorganized by Berg amid abuse claims. The founder dismissed more than 300 of the movement's leaders and formally banned sexual contact between adults and minors.

    The new movement was named The Family Of Love. But during the 1990s, more allegations of child sexual abuse were brought against TFOL, which had acquired the nicknamed The Family.

    In 1994, Berg died and many families left the group. Karen Zerby (known as Mama Maria, Queen Maria, Maria David, or Maria Fontaine) took over leadership, allowing members greater freedom.

    Ten years later, the movement's name was changed to The Family International.

    see photos at:


  50. How Survivors Stories Helped Shape Netflixs Kimmy Schmidt

    Ellie Kemper has revealed the inspiration for her character Kimmy Schmidt on Netflix's comedy series "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt."

    by Lexie Hammesfahr, Newsy June 14, 2015

    Ellie Kemper has revealed the real-life inspiration behind her character, Kimmy Schmidt, in her new Netflix series.

    If you've never seen "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt," Kemper stars as an extremely optimistic doomsday cult survivor, who was rescued from an underground bunker in Indiana after 15 years of captivity.

    "Oh, I'm very normal; I've had everything normal happen to me," her character says.

    As a result, the always upbeat woman is stuck in the '90s while trying to live in present-day New York.

    And while her character is sometimes overly enthusiastic and, quite literally, always looking on the bright side of things, she actually found inspiration for her character after reading two real-life survival stories.

    In a recent interview for The Wrap, Kemper said, "I read Elizabeth Smart's memoir, and every night before she would go to bed, she would think about what she was grateful for that day — and she was in the depths of hell."

    Smart's memoir, "My Story," describes her 2002 abduction. She was kidnapped at 14 years old and rescued nine months later after her captor, Brian David Mitchell, had been recognized while walking with two women in a Salt Lake City suburb.

    Kemper told Deadline she also prepared for the role by reading Michelle Knight's book, "Finding Me," which recounts the more recent rescue of Knight and two other women held captive in Cleveland for almost a decade.

    In a March interview with E!, Kemper had this to say about her character Kimmy: "Bad things will happen. That's what life is, but the ability to overcome that and surmount it and let those experiences define you is, I think, what makes [Kimmy] so inspiring."

    So while Kemper says it was important to have the enthusiasm of a girl trapped in an adult's body, she also wanted to be prepared for the strength she would need to convey on screen.

    She seems to have nailed the part. The first season of the series has a 94 percent critics approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. And though Netflix keeps the ratings of its original programming a secret, Variety exclusively reported that Luth Research estimates the new series premiered to a larger audience than season 3 of "House of Cards."

    Even real escapees of pre- and post-apocalyptic cults have pointed out that Schmidt's actions in the show are, at times, spot-on. In one Vulture op-ed, a writer who escaped from the Children of God cult said, "Growing up in a cult gives you an abnormal zest for life, and Kimmy Schmidt exuberates this confidence fittingly."


  51. Why We Cant Stop Watching TV Shows About Cults

    Long after the communal living experiments of the '60s and '70s, America is still dreaming about dropping out.


    In her bi-weekly column, Social Anxiety, Emilie Friedlander peeks underneath the artifacts of contemporary culture to question what it all really means.

    “Home” is probably the happiest song that’s ever made me cry. I first heard it on the original soundtrack for The Source Family, a 2012, Marie Demopolos and Jodi Wille-directed documentary about the legendary 1970s communal living experiment by the same name, founded by L.A. health food restaurant tycoon Jim Baker, bka Father Yod. Originally released on All or Nothing at All—the fourth and final album by Father Yod and the Spirit of ’76, one of the rock & roll-loving community’s many house bands—it’s just some acoustic guitar strumming and a little playground melody, sung in a smiling tenor by a male band member whose name I’ve never been able to track down. He’s singing about the gentle rhythms of life on the commune, a world so green and sun-dappled and welcoming that even though you’ve never been there, you’ll probably feel a little homesick for it: We’ve got a nice little place we can go/ Where everything flows, and everything goes/ Take a deep breath/ Don’t you just know, it’s home.

    The singer continues with a list of the many wonderful things you’ll have when you drop out of modern Western society and join the Source Family, things that can be surprisingly hard to come by for a young person in 2015, even in a city purported to "have it all”: We’ve got pure water, air, and sun, simple food, room to run/ All for love and love for all. I like to listen to “Home” on headphones while walking along the Brooklyn waterfront in the summer; it lets me indulge in a “back to the land” fantasy whenever life in New York is feeling a little too money and ego-driven, a little too cruel and impossibly fast-paced. It suggests the possibility of doing away with the things that don't matter, and having the things that do matter available to all, simply for the very reason that everybody deserves them: food, shelter, community, spiritual development. More than anything else, though, “Home” is just a comforting song to hear, real-life proof that there are other possible worlds than the one that is getting you down.

    Of course, when it comes to my years-long Source Family obsession, the word “fantasy” is key. The community dispersed about a decade before I was born, and though former member Isis Aquarian remembered it quite fondly when I interviewed her for this magazine, it was, for all intents and purposes, a cult, run by a man who took 14 wives, declared himself to be God, and denied sick community members access to traditional medical care. The Source Family lived primarily on revenue from Sunset Strip vegetarian restaurant The Source, and when they eventually sold the place and moved to Hawaii, they found themselves unwelcome there, haunted by the specter of failed experiments past: “Because when we left LA,” Aquarian recalled to me,” nobody gave us an opportunity to start another restaurant or get grounding anywhere. When we came to Hawaii, they thought we were somewhat like the Manson family. They just weren’t ready for who we were, and we never even thought that anybody would think that about us because we’d lived in L.A. for so long—we were like the darlings of L.A. […] That basically started [Father Yod’s] journey—all he really wanted to do was find some land where we could live by ourselves and be self-sufficient, but that just didn’t work out.”

    continued below

  52. The trope of the power hungry pathologically narcissistic cult leader—one who enacts the same evils and exploitations as the mainstream society to which he’s offering his followers an escape—is one that American history presents us time and time again. And yet, if the shows we consume on television are any indication, we seem to be increasingly obsessed with cults these days. Recently, Velvet Goldmine and Safe director Todd Haynes announced that he was working on a TV mini-series on Father Yod and Source Family, dramatizing some of the real-life events chronicled in the Demopoulos and Wille documentary. Just yesterday, absurdist comedy duo Tim and Eric announced their new book, Zone Theory: 7 East Steps To Achieve A Perfect Life, trolling American new age self-help culture with a promotional video that drew an awful lot on the garish ‘90s aesthetics and nonsense-word lingo of Scientology—which also happens to be the subject of 2015's Going Clear, the most-watched HBO documentary of the past ten years. Then there's Tina Fey’s Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, which derives its comic premise from the question of what would happen if somebody locked in an underground bunker for fifteen years—held captive by an evil doomsday sect leader played by a characteristically smooth-talking John Hamm—was forced to navigate the confusing ins and outs of work and dating in present-day, post-internet New York city. Speaking of John Hamm, Mad Men had its very own cult moment last year, when fans speculated as to whether Roger Sterling’s daughter had gone and joined a kind of upstate New York version of the Mansons.

    And speaking of the Mansons, I’ve spent the past few days trying to slog through Aquarius, the new NBC series that piqued my interest after flooding New York’s subways with an image of David Duchovny sporting a pair of rainbow-colored shades (stream it in full here). Duchovny plays a gruff Los Angeles police officer, tasked with tracking down a 16-year-old girl, Emma, who runs away from her lawyer father and alcoholic housewife mother to join the Manson family after discovering her boyfriend cheating on her at a party. Initially, it’s some well-chosen words from Manson that convince Emma to walk out on her comfortable but stifling bourgeois life: catching her outside the house where the party is being held, he gestures toward a glittering Los Angeles freeway in the distance, and tells her exactly the sort of things that a lost, misunderstood teenager would want to hear: “I know a lot of things about you,” he says. “I know how much it hurts—like your whole body, your soul, screaming to be heard. Nobody’s there listening.” He continues, and the screen cuts back to an image of the highway, as though we are meant to understand it as a symbol for the capitalist America she’s about to escape: “You see, when that snake comes to eat everything up, do you know what will save you? Do you think daddy will save you? Or that boyfriend of yours? No. You'll survive with me. With us. You see, the snake eats the world. We eat the snake. I’ll show you how, then nothing will ever hurt again.” As he speaks, Emma tears up, as though it’s dawning on her that she never truly felt “understood” before that moment.

    continued below

  53. Of course as with many American cult stories things aren’t exactly as they appear: despite his arresting words and delicate way around acoustic guitar (he was, somewhat disturbingly, a talented musician in his own right), Manson turns out to be a serial rapist, murderer, blackmailer, pimp, and petty crook, with a penchant for using his followers’ bodies to further his own agenda. The woman who Emma catches her boyfriend receiving oral sex from at the party is actually one such female cult member, ordered by Manson to distract the young man from Emma so that Manson can home in on his prey. Further thickening the plot, Emma’s buttoned-up attorney father, Ken, is revealed early on to be none other than Manson’s own lawyer—and, by the third episode, also a former lover of Manson’s. Though the one may seem to represent an “alternative” to the other, Manson’s social experiment and the rhetorical “snake” of 1960s corporate America are literally “in bed” together—not just hopelessly entwined, but governed by the same, tyrannical logic.

    Full disclosure: I’m having a hard time getting through Aquarius without falling asleep mid-episode; its plot is way too convoluted, and its acting too flat, to hold my interest for very long, and I keep having to rewind through certain passages to keep track of who is saying what. Still, I think the very existence of a series about Manson on mainstream TV says something about where we’re at as a society: over half a century removed from the failed utopian experiments of the ‘60s and ‘70s, we’re still endlessly fascinated by the idea of dropping out, and that’s probably because dropping out feels less possible than it ever has. We’ve simply seen too many examples of utopianism gone awry, and too many instances of the American counter-cultural impulse being swallowed up by the marketplace and sold back to us.

    When we watch a TV show like Aquarius, we’re transported back to a time before people necessarily “knew better” than to think that other worlds, and other homes, were possible; even in watching Manson’s most sinister moments, we experience the vicarious thrill of living life completely according to one's own, made-up rules—of breaking with consensus reality as we know it, of starting with utopian intentions and going way too far.

    Still, as Alex Frank recently pointed out on this website, the enduring impact of the flower-power era on the present is best encapsulated, not by the looming possibility of a rupture, but by the final, haunting scene of Mad Men: Don Draper goes to find himself at coastal California commune, and mid-meditation, has a vision for how to leverage hippie culture’s peace-and-love ethos to sell Coca Cola. It’s an outcome I think of often whenever I’m walking around my neighborhood on weekend afternoons, marveling at the way in which Greenpoint can sometimes feel like the low-key Laurel Canyon of Brooklyn, with its endless yoga studios and juice bars and new age community centers offering reiki training classes and new age speed dating events. There’s even a vegan restaurant there that sort of reminds me of the Source—it’s called the Jungle Café, and from what I have heard, its owned and operated by an experimental live-in community and shamanic institute called the Golden Drum, self-described as “a cultural center created for the healing, transformation, the expansion of consciousness of humanity.”

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  54. Maybe there are some people even in a city like New York who are actually creating and living out their own real-world alternatives. For the greater majority of us, though, new age ideas—like watching shows about the ‘60s and ‘70s on streaming TV—have become something we turn to when we want to escape for a little while. Taking up tarot, or meditation, or past life regression can feel like dropping out of society for a moment; imagining the existence of other worlds in order to make our existence in this one just a little more bearable.
    Back when I interviewed Isis Aquarian, I asked her about the foundation of Father Yod’s belief system. “We took from everything,” she said. “We took from every religion. We took from past lives. We took from the mystery teachings. We took from the yogis. We took from the Buddha. We took from whatever made sense and worked to us and distilled it into our own uniqueness.” That pick-and-choose, take-what-you-like-and-leave-the-rest eclecticism remains a core facet of new age culture; it’s an idea I’d say that I adhere to in my own spiritual life, only I can’t help noticing how perfectly it dovetails with our behavior as 21st century consumers. We express our view of the world—and even our desire to drop out of it—with the objects and experiences that we choose to spend our money on. But when escape becomes something that you buy, it ceases to be a real escape. Maybe it ensnares us even further in the world that we’re escaping.

    Still, the idea of dropping out is knotted so tightly into the fabric of American culture that I doubt that it’ll be going anywhere anytime soon; in fact, I think we need it to survive, even if that just means carving out a little bit of calm, or a little bit of green, in the midst of a daily commute. Recently, I stumbled upon a website for a mysterious “research clinic”/art collective called the Institute For New Feeling. It’s run by artists Scott Andrew, Agnes Colt, and Nina Sarnelle, and seems to specialize in co-opting the modalities of contemporary self-help and new age culture—trust falls, guided meditations, clairvoyant readings, experimental “wellness treatments”—to remedy problems specific to life in the internet age.

    According to an article on ArtHopper, during a recent book launch event at SPACES in Cleveland, on-site offerings from the IfNf included a “Cure For Loneliness” by artist Lenka Clayton, inviting spectators to fill their pockets with pieces of paper bearing the handwritten names of their friends, as an antidote to our current landscape of digital-based interaction. Another—“Treatment for Hyperactive Electronic Response Syndrome,” by Luke Loeffler—involves receiving a string of spontaneous text messages that you are supposed to resist the compulsion to look at. The idea being that it will help remedy our “instant, habitual response to electronic notifications” and the “loss of productivity” and “increasing need for affirmation” that staying connected engenders. I need to go to the next Institute For New Feeling event and experience these new-fangled remedies for myself, but they feel like a reminder that our capacity to imagine other worlds, and new feelings, doesn’t necessary need to be a retro-gazing one: as we speed into an uncertain, technology-saturated future, it may be the thing we need to hold onto if we’re going to hold on to ourselves.


  55. The cult of my childhood across three continents, life was a whirlwind of uncertainty

    Japan was the worst, for me. Returning 25 years later, with my kids, helped me overwrite the past and set me free

    by TAYLOR STEVENS, Salon July 5 2015

    The cult of my childhood, the Children of God, an apocalyptic, isolationist movement, began in California amid the hippie “free love” era of the ’60s and ’70s, and soon spread across the globe, with communes in up to a hundred countries at any given time.

    When most people think of cults and communes, the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, may first come to mind, but our communes were often houses in middle- or upper-class residential areas with 40 or more people living inside, and neighbors none the wiser. We didn’t believe in owning property or setting down roots, so rarely did anyone stay in one place for long, even if the commune itself lasted for years. Anything a person “owned” didn’t belong to him or her, but to the commune and to the group. This same concept also applied to spouses and children, so even if a family happened to reside under the same roof, it didn’t necessarily mean they lived as a family.

    From my youngest years, life was a whirlwind of uncertainty: a fluid stream of faces, names, accents and personalities. One day to the next, a parent, sibling or friend would be gone. I might know where they went, or I might not. Like a rock around which the eddies swirled, there were also constants: the lifestyle, the beliefs, the top-down control, lack of any individuality and little autonomy, and the daily drudge required to keep so many people fed and clothed.

    By the time I was 14, I’d lived on three continents and in over a dozen countries. Japan was, for me, where the worst occurred.
    My family moved to Asia when I was 12 and for the next five years I bounced between communes in Japan and South Korea. Occasionally I lived in the same commune as my parents, but most of the time I didn’t. My memories of those years are divided between life inside, and life out on the streets. I have only a vague sense of where many of those houses were, partly due to the haze of time, but mostly to the secretive nature of the cult. I often didn’t know my own address—presumably so that, on the off chance I was forced to tell, I simply couldn’t—and I never left the communes unescorted.

    The cult ideology didn’t allow for gainful employment. Money for rent, utilities, and other things requiring cold hard cash came nearly entirely from panhandling and selling cult-produced pamphlets, music, and videos. Most of our food and clothing came from what we called “provisioning:” conning people into giving us what we needed for free.

    Most of the on-the-street begging was done by the children because it’s a lot harder for a person to say no to a kid than to an able-bodied adult. Plus, without birth control or family planning there were a lot of us, and education beyond sixth grade was considered a waste of time, so we made a bountiful supply of free labor.

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  56. The places where I spent the most time on the streets are the ones I remember well enough to name: Tokyo, Osaka, Nara, Kobe, Hiroshima and Fukuoka.

    I had a brief bout with rebellion in Tokyo where, at age 14, I spent eight- to 10-hour days walking store to store, house to house, trying to keep the commune from spiraling deeper into poverty. I was suicidal, and aware for the first time that I no longer believed what I’d grown up believing. I began to act out by disrespecting some of the weaker adults, arguing and back-talking, and turning simple things into drawn-out ordeals. Within the cult’s totalitarian structure, this was shocking and unheard of behavior. The commune leaders believed my attitude stemmed from not getting enough love, and the solution then, was for one of the adult men to have sex with me. They set aside a room with a bed and romantic music. Once in that room, realizing what would happen, I talked, kept on talking, and didn’t shut up until the early morning when the guy suggested maybe we should just get some sleep.

    In my memories, Osaka, Nara and Kobe all blend together. In that jumble was the autumn our landlord decided to tear down the house and we were kicked out. Finding an affordable location to fit more than 40 people on short notice is difficult enough in countries where houses are big, but nearly impossible in Japan. Without a place to live, and with winter approaching, the commune split into chunks. I was put with two men, two preteen boys, and a younger teenage girl. We lived out of a van. I spent weeks tromping through the snow in sandals because they were my only pair of shoes. Every day was a repeat of the one before: panhandling, finding free food and, because we couldn’t all sleep inside the van, finding hotels to put a roof over our head for free. When free didn’t materialize, we’d often find cheap hotels in sleazy parts of town, but could only afford one tiny room because most of our money went to the commune leaders to pay for their long-term hotel stay. The men would take turns between sleeping in the van with the younger ones and checking in alongside me because, at 15, I could pass as an adult and nobody questioned when a couple showed up.

    My memories alternate between gratitude for the luxury of a bed and hot water, and the nausea that follows when I think back on a few of those nights, but that’s just a passing shiver. What haunt me still are the hard cold hours of asking for money, of being told “no” more often than “yes,” the sinking desperation at the end of each day knowing that we never had enough and that tomorrow would bring more of the same.

    Somewhere between Osaka-Nara-Kobe was where leadership exorcised demons out of me. I’d always been a storyteller. Life without access to books, music and movies from the outside was very boring, and telling stories provided entertainment. Eventually, I started writing them down. But when my notebooks were discovered, they were taken and burned, and I was isolated for three days without food.

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  57. They said it was to weaken my body so I’d let go of the demons that controlled me. They accused me of being a witch, wanted me to confess, and so I did. I wrote about anything I’d done that could be considered a sin, and made up what they wanted to hear. The irony of getting punished for writing fiction and then using fiction to appease my tormentors was lost on me at the time.

    I don’t think they were fully convinced the devils were gone, because they soon shipped me off to a commune of much younger children and adults, with no peers I might contaminate. I spent the next seven months assigned to a man who minded me constantly and who was to beat the demons out of me if they manifested in any way. Thankfully, they never showed up.

    I left Japan for good when I was 17. If this was a movie, then this would be the two-minute montage: I moved to other countries and many more communes. The control and abuse that had started in Japan followed, and intensified, and then came to a head. By the time I was in my mid-20s, things had begun to ease up and I found myself in Africa, which was where I made the decision to break free. I got out when I was 29, uneducated, married to a man who’d been born and raised in the cult just like me, with two babies, and with none of the social support that most people take for granted. We left together, eventually made it to the United States, and settled in Texas. My children grew. I dealt with and processed the trauma of the past. I taught myself to write, got divorced, became a published novelist, and realized I was older than my 32 year-old mother had been when she and my father had moved to Japan with their five children.

    Through the years, Japan was always there in the background and I began to wonder what it would be like to revisit the country that had built the framework of who I was and see those experiences through the eyes of a now-free adult. I wondered if it would be possible to return to where the hurt had been the worst and overwrite the past with the present. I wanted my children to see the country where I’d grown up, wanted to show them the streets where I’d begged so they could understand where I’d come from, so they’d never take for granted the blessings that they have in normal, suburban, middle-class life. Most of all, I wanted to retexture those streets with who I had become in spite of them, and maybe in some small part because of them. And I wondered if going back was a bad idea: Maybe returning would be like cutting open a wound that had already scarred over.

    With each novel I wrote, the wondering grew stronger. I write international boots-on-the-ground thrillers featuring badass information hunter Vanessa Michael Munroe, a woman cut from the same cloth as Jason Bourne and Jack Reacher. The locations in which these stories are set are what ground them in reality, and this time I was ready to set her in the land I’d left behind.

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  58. Twenty five years after leaving Japan for good, I returned to Osaka, the epicenter of my ordeal, together with my children who were now the same age I’d been then. We tracked down temples and castles outside of which I’d begged. For the first time, I paid entry fees, walked past the gates, and became a tourist. The power of each moment arrived, not from finally seeing what had been closed off to me before, but from crossing each threshold simply because I could. We ate food that I had smelled for five years but never tasted. Every yen spent became a cherished moment because the spending itself laughed in the face of those years of deprivation and isolation. I experienced more of Japan in three weeks of visiting than I had in nearly five years of living.

    The most emotional moment arrived at Hiroshima Peace Park. Hiroshima hadn’t birthed particularly bad memories; in comparison to everything else they were relatively good. I was 13 when I lived there and, after having spent over a year separated from my parents, was briefly with them again. In Hiroshima we had regularly returned to the same panhandling spot and nearly 30 years later I still knew every turn, every shrine and every monument inside that park. I stood in the middle of a gravel-paved path and looked around. I breathed in what life had been, who I’d been, what returning here represented, and what I had become. I looked at my daughter who was the age I’d been when I’d walked these same paths. The realization fully hit, and I began to cry.

    The trip gave me everything I needed to write my next novel, “The Mask,” but Japan is in my past now. I no longer wonder, no longer care, and no longer have any desire to return—although there are still days when the weather is cold and wet and I look out the window from the warm inside and feel an overwhelming sense of gratitude that I’m not out there, walking one place to the next, achingly desperate to get enough money to stop and go home.

    Taylor Stevens is the New York Times bestselling author of "The Informationist," "The Innocent," "The Doll," "The Catch" and the novella "The Vessel." The series featuring Vanessa Michael Munroe has received critical acclaim and the books are published in 20 languages. "The Informationist" has been optioned for film by James Cameron’s production company, Lightstorm Entertainment. In addition to writing novels, Stevens shares extensively about the mechanics of storytelling, writing, overcoming adversity, and the details of her journey into publishing -- she welcomes you to join her. Her latest novel, "The Mask," is out now.


  59. Film sheds light on Jesus People's dark stories

    by Judith Valente, Special for USA TODAY April 7, 2014

    CHICAGO — When filmmaker Jaime Prater decided to make a documentary exploring the lives of the children he grew up with at the Jesus People USA religious community, he says he never imagined his research would "open the floodgates."

    Stories poured out of sexual and physical abuse. More than a dozen adults who lived as children at Jesus People relate their stories in Prater's film, No Place to Call Home, which has been released on Vimeo on Demand.

    Jesus People is one of the last remnants of the Jesus Movement of the 1970s, which attracted earnest young urban missionaries seeking an alternative to the drug culture and free love communes of the time. Today, Jesus People says it offers adults and families a chance to turn around their lives in an evangelical, Bible-based communal setting.

    Two lawsuits have been filed against Jesus People in Cook County Circuit Court. The suits also name the Evangelical Covenant Church, headquartered outside of Chicago. Jesus People has been a member congregation of that church since 1989.

    In one of the suits, Heather Kool, 38, of Athens, Ga., alleges she was repeatedly sexually abused as a child by a resident of the community while living there with her mother.

    In a separate suit, filed on March 24, Prater, 38, alleges he too was sexually molested as a boy "over a period of years" by a different community resident.

    Both suits say Jesus People and the Evangelical Covenant Church failed to protect minors, adequately supervise adults and minors, and implement policies to protect minors. The suit also cites the two organizations for failing to report allegations to police. Prater and Kool are each seeking $100,000 in damages.

    Ron Brown, one of the current pastors at Jesus People, declined to comment on the suits or film.

    Phil Zisook, the attorney for Jesus People, said he is analyzing the allegations and plans to file responses in court.

    Evangelical Covenant Church spokesman Edward Gilbreath said the church is "continuing to gather information" about the specific allegations against Jesus People. "We take these allegations seriously," he said, "and our hearts ache over news of harm to children and the lingering pain felt by adult survivors of abuse."

    Gilbreath said member organizations operate as separate entities and are responsible for their own governance. However, they are expected to report allegations of abuse to authorities and to permanently "disqualify from ECC ministry" any clergy member found guilty of child molestation or abuse.

    Commune living blamed

    Both lawsuits say the alleged abuse stemmed in part from Jesus People's practice of letting families with minor children share living quarters with non-related adults. Prater, says Jesus People would accept people into the commune with few questions asked. "The leadership engineered this environment of let's accept everyone into our doors. That's what set up this cocktail, this environment of cyclical sexual abuse," he says.

    Jesus People's leadership discouraged them from reporting the abuse to authorities, assuring them instead that they would handle the problems internally, according to the filmmaker.

    "Can you imagine having to report even half of those (cases)? Can you imagine what people would think? What is this place, what is happening to all these children?" Prater says.

    Prater says he could find evidence in only six cases that the leadership reported the abuse to authorities, "and then only under pressure from parents."

    In only one case were charges ever filed. An individual from the community was prosecuted and ultimately jailed. It is unclear whether police found insufficient evidence to press charges in the five other cases, or if the families involved decided not to proceed.

    Residents pool salaries

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  60. Prater moved into Jesus People USA with his parents when he was 2, and lived there until 1998.

    About 450 people still live at Jesus People on Chicago's north side. Families pool their salaries in exchange for food and housing. Jesus People runs several ministries that provide a variety of social services to senior citizens, the poor and homeless.

    Jesus People also operates a roofing supply company in Chicago, where many of its residents work. For decades, it has sponsored the Cornerstone Music Festival, an international Christian rock concert held annually in the Chicago suburbs.

    Andy Young, a licensed clinical professional counselor, says he went to the Chicago police late last year after hearing about the allegations from several former Jesus People residents. Police found that the criminal statute of limitations had expired on the cases brought to their attention.

    Police also found no evidence of current abuse at the commune or that anyone at the commune is currently a threat to minors.

    In Prater's film, three women recount being sexually abused by a current resident. The alleged abuse occurred when the women were teenagers living there in the 1980s. Two of the women are only identified by their first names. A third talks off camera.

    The women declined to be interviewed. Chicago police say they haven't been contacted by them and therefore can't investigate their claims.

    Micki Johnson, of Aitkin, Minn., says parents at the commune were discouraged from speaking about personal problems with anyone but the leadership. This, she says, led to a "veil of silence and secrecy."

    Johnson's son, now 38, says in Prater's film that he was sexually assaulted as a pre-teen by a fellow resident. Johnson says she later learned that her son's alleged attacker was living at Jesus People while on parole for a sex offense. He is currently listed in the Illinois archive of sex offenders.

    Johnson says when she and her husband asked the leadership council to remove the alleged abuser from the community, a council member "began screaming at me that my son was a well-known liar."

    Johnson and her husband eventually agreed to have their son removed from the community and placed in a group home. She says she had "no idea" at the time that other parents were reporting separate instances of abuse. The family left in 1998.

    "I'm speaking out now," Johnson says. "And I know there may be people full of condemnation and judgment for us as parents. But it is nothing compared to the condemnation we have for ourselves," for failing to speak out sooner, Johnson says.

    Spankings were common

    Angel Harold says "getting the rod" was part of commune life. "These weren't sweet little spankings, these were hard rods. And every time you got one, you had to sit on someone's lap and pray to Jesus to forgive you," she says.

    Harold, 43, who appears in Prater's film, asks, "Where do you think God was when ... we were being sexually abused and physically abused, when we were lonely? Where was he?"

    In a 1993 letter obtained by Prater, a Jesus People leader says rod "spankings" were once a practice, but are no longer sanctioned by the community.

    Some former residents say they aren't interested in a long legal battle. They want an apology and a change in leadership.

    "I just want somebody to acknowledge what happened, stop calling us liars and take responsibility," says Maurica Bytnar. She alleges she was sexually assaulted by an adult male resident when she was 7, and later by a teenager.

    Prater's film "is a way for us to stand together and hold hands and say we are not going to let this stay in the dark any longer," says Harold. "We are going to bring this into the light."


  61. Bringing Down Americas Happiest Christian Cult

    NOTE: see related article above. The following article reveals the links between the Children of God and the Jesus People.

    For decades, the freewheeling hippies of Jesus People USA —“God’s forever family” — forged one of the most influential movements in Christianity. They were also Jaime Prater’s family, until he made a documentary exposing the commune’s darkest secrets.

    by Jesse Hyde, BuzzFeed Contributor August 28, 2015

    Usually, Jaime Prater felt excited on the first day of school. He’d get up early, put on the outfit he’d laid out the night before — he liked bow ties and sweater-vests — and hurry down the hall with the other kids in his building. But this morning in September 1989 felt different. This morning he was starting the eighth grade, and he felt something closer to dread.

    For as long as he could remember, Prater had lived here among the Jesus People, about two blocks from the “L” train in Uptown Chicago. At first he had loved it, but things had changed since he turned 10. Lately he would lie awake at night, his window open to the muggy summer air, listening to the rattle of the train,
    and dream of escape.

    Or he’d try to imagine the commune’s early years, back when they caravanned across the Midwest in an old school bus, the word “Jesus” painted in big, loopy letters on the side, winning souls for Christ. He loved hearing the stories from that time: the mass baptisms in the woods, the early members tracting at O’Hare among the Hare Krishnas, everyone strumming their guitars and singing early Christian rock back on the bus, enraptured with the glow of the Holy Spirit.

    By the time Prater was born, the Jesus People had stopped touring and had transformed a dilapidated apartment building on Chicago’s North Side into the Friendly Towers, where all 400 of them lived in communal bliss, sharing meals, clothes, and pretty much everything else. They were God’s forever family, just like the Bible taught.

    Prater’s dad had an Afro back then, and his mom spoke of Jesus, peace, and love to whoever would listen; they had been legit hippies, Prater liked to think. But now they were different, stooped and beaten down by middle age, resigned to their middling status in the commune’s rigid hierarchy: His mom taught in the Jesus People school, and his dad worked as a mechanic. Prater hoped for some other kind of job when he grew up — maybe helping with the Cornerstone Festival — but that wasn’t up to him. The nine-person leadership council, half of them blood-related, decided everything — even whom he’d marry.

    He wanted to believe the council spoke for God, but already he had his doubts. He’d heard dark and ugly rumors about their founder, a bearded Messiah-like figure, and he’d heard stories that horrified him about the Farm, a remote and secluded resort in the Missouri woods. But he knew better than to ask about any of that.

    And yet, for as much as he tried to keep his troubles to himself, something was amiss. For weeks, he’d caught his parents whispering about him. He figured it had something to do with the day one of the men in the commune touched him. Prater had tried to forget that moment, the feeling of terror that washed over him, the searing shame when it was over, but he couldn’t move past it. Since then, he had been acting out in strange ways, desires he couldn’t control aroused inside him. Eventually he told the council, and now he wished he’d never said anything at all.

    He watched his dad in the kitchen, sipping his coffee and listening to the morning news on the radio. Outside, the Chicago morning loomed dark and gray. When it was time to go, his dad motioned for him to follow and they headed past the other Jesus People kids crowding the hallways and stepped into the cool morning air.

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  62. They crossed the street, damp with rain, and walked a few blocks until they came to a towering castle-like building known as Magnolia. This was where new families were sent. His dad nudged him softly toward the door. He wouldn’t look down at his son, who begged him to not make him go inside.

    On that morning, Prater’s isolation began. Over the next two years it would increase until he was forbidden from contact with anyone in the commune outside of his parents and his brother and sister. He took his meals in his parents’ room, but he spent his days alone at Magnolia, tutored in a broom closet and shunned from the other children, who were instructed to never speak with him again.

    “I didn’t understand it at the time, but they were trying to keep me quiet,” Prater says today. “They still are.”

    It’s a warm spring morning in Chicago, and Prater is seated at a Starbucks not far from Friendly Towers. For the first time in years, he’s visiting the neighborhood where he grew up. He’s gone a few days without shaving and his beard is coming in gray in spots, but he appears youthful, his face unlined, his eyes dark and expressive. He adjusts the stocking cap on his head and fiddles with his watch, scanning the window to see who might be passing by. He’s visibly nervous to be here. “I know logically that doesn’t make sense,” he says. “It’s not like someone is going to come attack me. But it almost gives me a panic attack being here.”

    In 2014, Prater self-released No Place To Call Home, a film documenting his years inside Jesus People, one of the strangest and longest-running religious experiments in American history. The church in which Prater grew up, officially called Jesus People USA, is one of the final vestiges of what may be the last great religious revival in America. Known as the Jesus Movement, it swept up as many as 3 million people in the late 1960s, many of them burned-out hippies who felt disillusioned by the free-love and drugs ethos and ached for some kind of spirituality outside the confines of traditional Christianity.

    The movement spawned hundreds of religious communes across the country, including Calvary Chapel, one of the largest and most influential megachurches in America today, as well as the Children of God, the notorious sex cult that once claimed as followers Joaquin Phoenix, Rose McGowan, and Jeremy Spencer, one of the original members of Fleetwood Mac. Most of these communes collapsed within a few years. Jesus People USA, which today has about 300 members, is one of the largest that has survived.

    The influence of the Jesus People movement on evangelical Christianity is profound. “It gave birth to Christian rock,” says David Di Sabatino, who made a documentary about Lonnie Frisbee and the Jesus People movement called Frisbee: The Life and Death of a Hippie Preacher. “The contemporary Christian music industry wouldn’t exist without the Jesus People.”

    For much of its history, Jesus People USA hosted one of the largest Christian rock festivals in America, called Cornerstone, launching Christian bands that would go mainstream in the ’90s, like MxPx and P.O.D. “Nearly every megachurch in America has a youth outreach arm that’s been influenced by the Jesus People movement,” says Larry Eskridge, author ofGod’s Forever Family: The Jesus People Movement in America. “You see it in the way they dress, in the kind of music they use. All of that, you can trace back to the influence of the Jesus Movement.”

    When Prater set out to make his film, he didn’t have any professional experience; he simply wanted to explore what it was like growing up in a religious commune. He raised some money on Kickstarter and set out across the country, reconnecting with kids he’d known growing up, capturing their stories on film.

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  63. What he found shocked him. While the broader Christian community has long been aware of allegations of strange behavior from within the walls of JPUSA, such as adult spankings and group confessionals of masturbation, few outside the commune knew of its darker secrets.

    Of the 120 people Prater reached over two years, 70 said they had suffered some form of sexual abuse growing up in the commune. One woman told him of a trip to the Farm, the 300-acre JPUSA retreat in Doniphan, Missouri, where she said she was sexually assaulted by one of the commune’s leaders. Another said he had been forced to perform oral sex on two men in the Leland Building, the Jesus People dorm for single men. Prater found that the Jesus People leadership had not only been aware of dozens of complaints of abuse, but had conspired to hide those crimes and silence the victims.

    When Prater finished the film and posted it on Vimeo, it went nowhere: Only a few hundred people saw it, and Prater didn’t submit it to any festivals or distributors. “I didn’t want people to think this was about me, or that I was doing this to get famous,” Prater says. But within the walls of JPUSA, and the broader Christian world, it was a bombshell. Prior to the film, no one, other than perhaps JPUSA leadership, had known about allegations of widespread sexual abuse or possible cover-ups. Suddenly, Prater had cast himself into the uncomfortable role of whistleblower.

    The fallout was swift: One of the members of the leadership council, who also functioned as their in-house attorney, left with his family shortly before the film was released. Two more council members, including the son of the founder, would follow. JPUSA seemed to be crumbling from within.

    Today, the remaining members of JPUSA (pronounced juh-POO-za by the faithful) live in the same apartment buildings where Prater grew up. They are officially part of the Evangelical Covenant Church, a prestigious and well-respected Christian denomination based in Chicago that serves as an umbrella organization for 800 churches across the country. Shortly after the film’s release, 18 members, including Prater, filed a lawsuit against JPUSA and the ECC, seeking damages for the abuse they suffered. The lawsuit is in mediation, and several attorneys related to the suit called me and advised me not to speak to their clients. JPUSA leadership declined to speak to me for this article, despite repeated requests, as did their attorney. Only Edward Gilbreath, the executive director of communications for the ECC, would say anything. He stressed that while JPUSA was a member congregation of the ECC, it was an “autonomous self-governing organization” that made its own rules. “We take these matters very seriously,” he told me. “And we’re concerned for all parties involved, but beyond that I can’t comment.”

    Prater says he’s paid a heavy price for what he’s brought to light. It’s cost him a relationship, a job, and lifelong friendships, and severed any remaining ties to where he grew up.

    “It’s almost like I’m attacking my family, the only home I ever knew,” Prater says back at Starbucks. We’ve been talking for more than an hour, but he’s still skittish, looking over my shoulder every few minutes to see if anyone from JPUSA is passing by. “I really struggled with speaking up, with documenting what I found, because it was so disturbing to me, and so painful to relive. But someone had to tell the truth. Someone had to tell the story of what happened there.”

    Everyone who grew up in Friendly Towers knew the whitewashed version of their history, but few knew their real story.

    The Jesus People movement started in Haight-Ashbury, San Francisco, in the late 1960s with a man named Lonnie Frisbee, who liked to read the Bible while tripping on LSD, and David Berg, the sex-crazed madman who led the Huntington Beach, California–based Children of God.

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  64. Frisbee would become one of the most influential members of the movement. Blessed with long golden hair and a face that looked vaguely messianic, he had dabbled in the underground gay scene in Laguna Beach, California, before emerging as a hippie preacher who could speak in tongues. His ministry at Orange County’s Calvary Chapel was an earthy, back-to-basics rebuke of what Christianity had become, an open-arms embrace of the longhairs, the stoned, and the barefoot not welcome at mainline denominations.

    Calvary Chapel, the All Saved Freak Band, and groups like Children of God turned the Jesus Movement into a mass phenomenon, culminating at a Christian rock festival at the Dallas Cotton Bowl in 1972 that drew as many as 200,000 people (including Mike Huckabee) to hear Johnny Cash sing gospel and Billy Graham, the most famous preacher in America, deliver a sermon proclaiming them a special generation.

    “We felt like we were part of this big movement,” says Micki Johnson, who joined JPUSA at the age of 18. “The free love, the drugs, it had left us disillusioned, and we weren’t going to find what we were looking for in the traditional church. Here was this thing that talked about the love of Jesus, but you didn’t have to cut your hair or shave your beard. You could come as you are.”

    In 1969, an early member of the movement named Jim Palosaari left the Haight scene for Seattle, where he fell in with a group that called itself the Jesus People Army. He stayed for a year until he became concerned over the growing influence of the Children of God, which advocated using sex to gain converts. (Its leader, known to his followers as King David, would later encourage incest and pedophilia among members of his cult and would bed dozens of his followers, often in group orgies.)

    Alarmed at the direction the Jesus People Army and the Children of God had taken, Palosaari decamped for Milwaukee. When Palosaari left to evangelize in Europe, a small group of disciples left Milwaukee under the leadership of a man named John Herrin. In time, Herrin would prove a bad fit for the ministry.
    Already kicked out of several churches for sleeping with female members, he had barely passed seminary. Short and skinny, with black chunky glasses and a long beard, he required $10 from the communal pot every day, Micki Johnson recalls, for what members would only later learn was used for a bottle of cheap wine and a trip to the porno theater.

    “He had three sermons he’d rotate,” Johnson says. “If we said we were bored by them, his wife would say we needed to pay closer attention to understand what God was telling us.”

    Yet Johnson and others were only vaguely aware of Herrin’s vices, and the basic appeal of JPUSA remained: Like Jesus and his disciples, they were sacrificing material things to serve the poor and disenfranchised.

    “I felt like this is where the Lord had led me,” Johnson recalls. “Jesus had gone to the cross for me; how could I not forsake all my former life and do what he told me? And I believed these were the last days, so you better be doing what he wants you to do when he returns.”

    In 1971, Herrin’s group, which would eventually call itself Jesus People USA, began traveling throughout the Midwest and South in their converted school bus, stopping at churches and parks to play impromptu Christian rock concerts, which led to Herrin’s sermons, and hopefully baptisms. “I was so stoked by the teaching, the music, the bold street witnessing,” Johnson recalls. “We saw a lot of miracles, lives changed, people healed and delivered from addiction.” When their bus broke down in Chicago in 1973, a preacher took them in and let them stay the night in the basement of a church. Eventually they bought a nearby apartment building and christened it “Friendly Towers.” The Jesus People had finally found a home.

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  65. Mary Prater says she and her husband were attracted to Jesus People for many of the same things that had appealed to Johnson and others. As an interracial couple in the ’70s, they often felt like they didn’t belong anywhere. John Prater had always liked the idea of communal living, and Mary Prater, disillusioned with the formal worship style of the Catholic Church, wanted something that felt more authentic.

    “At the time the Jesus People attracted a lot of kids who were struggling with drugs, kids who came from broken homes, and they were looking for an alternative,” Mary Prater says. “The gospel the Jesus People was preaching was all about God forgiving you and making you whole, and that resonated with me.”

    By the time Prater’s parents joined the commune in 1978, John Herrin had been kicked out of the group for making an advance on a female member, and his wife, Dawn Herrin, had taken charge. A willowy, matronly woman uncomfortable in public, she spoke in a soft and gentle tone, masking a towering force of will and thirst for power that could border on obsessive. Known as Mama Dawn, she dressed like a “forever hippie,” as one former member put it, wearing her hair long and layering her outfits with scarves like Stevie Nicks.

    Early members say that after the ouster of her husband, Mama Dawn feared losing control of the group. She implemented a strict authoritarian structure known as the Shepherding Movement, a form of discipline that became popular among hard-line Christian groups in the 1970s and early ’80s. Inspired by a book called The Master Plan of Evangelism, which reads like something out of Mao’s China, everyone was assigned a shepherd, or a “buddy,” who in turn answered to a “family” head, who took serious matters to the pastors and the leadership council.

    When Prater’s family moved into the Friendly Towers, he was put in a nursery while his parents spent the day out on the streets ministering, handing out pamphlets about grace and forgiveness, or putting on skits about popular Bible stories, like the return of the Prodigal Son.

    Prater’s mom felt guilty about leaving her 6-year-old alone all day in the nursery. One night after dinner, she told one of the leaders she was going to skip evening Bible study. She wanted some time with her three kids, whom she’d only seen at communal meals. The leader relented, but Prater realized she wasn’t free to parent the way she wanted. Over time, she would learn her family wasn’t entirely hers.

    While Prater still called his parents “Mom” and “Dad,” he unofficially belonged to a larger family headed by a man named Ron Brown, the token black man on the leadership council. The title was more than ceremonial: If the council decided a certain couple wasn’t fit to parent, they would “give” their children to another family, and from then on the kids would take that last name, answer to their new mom and dad, and, in some cases, have minimal to no contact with their actual parents.

    “You see this sort of behavior in a lot of authoritarian groups,” says Janja Lalich, who has studied cults for 20 years. “Whether intentional or not, the idea is to break down the family as an autonomous structure to build loyalty. It’s all about loyalty to the leaders. This is textbook cult behavior.”

    Early on, Prater’s mother begged her husband to leave, but in some ways they were stuck: They’d donated all their possessions when they joined. Plus, they didn’t actually make any money. Everyone worked for free at JPUSA. The commune now had a growing business empire — a moving company, a recording studio, and the booming Lakefront Roofing and Siding Supply — all of it built on the backs of its members.

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  66. For Mama Dawn’s family and the rest of the council, life was different. Her daughter and son-in-law (a man named Glenn Kaiser) fronted Resurrection Band (“the most influential band in Christian music history,” according to Christianity Today), and her son Johnny Herrin Jr. played drums and ran all the commune’s businesses. Another daughter and her husband controlled the commune’s finances.

    Mary Prater says she couldn’t share her doubts with anyone other than her husband, who believed they were doing God’s will. If she complained, her “buddy” would eventually catch wind of it and report her to the council. Sometimes, even husbands ratted out wives for “subversive” thoughts. One former member told me that as a teen, she once reported on her mom after finding a romance novel hidden under a bed.

    But typically it didn’t even have to come to that: Members policed themselves. At the weekly worship services, where deacons passed out grape juice and Hawaiian bread for Communion, public confessions were expected.

    “Guys would stand up and confess to masturbation, or a visit to the porn shop,” says Chris Harold, a former member who joined the commune in 1986. “It was so humiliating. You would just sit there and think, I never want to have to do that.”

    How the Jesus People had drifted so far from their stoned West Coast moorings would take early members years to figure out. “A lot of these groups started out really loosey-goosey,” says Di Sabatino, the documentary filmmaker. “And then as the community grows you start to have problems. A member does something out of line and so you start having rules and soon the rules start to calcify and you become this thing you never wanted to be.”

    When Prater was little, the Jesus People had phased out many of its most bizarre practices, and he loved his life at Friendly Towers. He felt like he was part of a big family, with dozens of brothers and sisters. They’d play tag in the alleyways while their moms pinned laundry to the wires running between the buildings, splash through the cold water of the fire hydrant on hot summer afternoons, and stay up late in the common room watching old Alfred Hitchcock films projected onto a big white sheet. They played He-Man and Thundercats, had long discussions about Star Wars, and built elaborate Lego kingdoms in the hallways. It felt like a summer camp that would never end.

    By the mid-’80s, Jesus People USA had staked out a place on the margins of mainstream Christianity, directly at odds with conservative Southern ministries like Pat Robertson’s

    700 Club or the Southern Baptist Convention. Its pastors dressed like they belonged to a biker gang, had little in common with Republican politics, and played what amounted to Christian heavy metal.

    Because of the emphasis JPUSA placed on taking in what they called “the broken” (homeless people, drug addicts, victims of domestic violence), there were always new people around. When Prater was a kid in the late ’70s and ’80s, homeless people lined up outside Friendly Towers every day at lunch for a free meal; sometimes they would stay the night in the same room as children. While Mama Dawn and the leadership council kept tight control over the daily activities of the Jesus People, they paid little attention to visitors, placed few controls over their activities, and rarely performed background checks.

    “Without intending to, they created the perfect environment for someone to prey on children,” Chris Harold says. “The combination of children being an afterthought because parents were so busy, or in some cases being reassigned to parents who didn’t really know them or care about them, and then absolute strangers just coming in and out of the building — it was a situation ripe for abuse.”

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  67. When Prater was 8, two single men were assigned to live in the room he shared with his brother, who was several years older. The boys had decorated it with fish tanks and cages that held rabbits and squirrels. By this point, Prater was used to living with the two men who shared his room and felt as comfortable around them as he did his own brother. One morning when he was 10, he woke up with an erection. Unaware of the concept of masturbation, he pulled his pants down and began innocently exploring his body.

    Across the room, one of the single men who lived there noticed his actions. He stopped getting ready for work and walked over to Prater’s bed. Within the commune, he was one of the favorites. He had dark hair and deep blue eyes. Because of his good looks, he often appeared in the pages of Cornerstone Magazine. He and his brother had both been dropped off at Friendly Towers as children and raised by one of the pastors. Without warning, he began fondling Prater, which went on for several minutes.

    “I sat there, frozen,” Prater says. “I was feeling something I had never felt before, and it was confusing, because it felt good, but it was also terrifying because I had no control over what he’d do next.”

    Prater didn’t know if he had done anything wrong, but the encounter aroused something inside him. Not long after, he started exposing himself to other children in the commune, which caught the attention of the leadership council, and rumors spread that Prater was now molesting other kids. After talking with Prater, a member of the leadership council approached his mom and told her what Prater had said about being molested. “But they dismissed it,” Mary Prater recalls.
    “They told me he was lying.”

    Alarmed, Prater’s mom found him and asked him what happened. “I said, ‘Did this happen, Jaime? Tell me what happened,’” Mary Prater says. “I don’t remember what he said but he was crying. And I said, ‘They say you’re lying. Did you lie?’ And then he said, whispering, ‘Yeah, Mom, I lied.’ But I knew it wasn’t true. I knew he had been pressured into saying it.’”

    When she discussed the matter with her husband, they decided that if their son said he was lying, that was the end of the matter. But over the next few years, Prater continued to expose himself to other children, and to seek the company of older men. Prater’s parents didn’t know what to do. His mom was convinced he was acting out because he’d been molested, and pushed for therapy. But the council said no. They insisted he’d made up the story for attention. The only answer, they said, was to isolate him, which they did when he turned 13 by pulling him out of the commune’s school and making him take his classes in a closet at the Magnolia building several blocks away.

    “The truth is, the person who had molested Jaime was set to marry one of the pastor’s daughters, and if this ever came out, it would create a scandal,” Prater’s mom says. “The right thing would have been to deal with him, but instead they sent Jaime away. They had decided he was the problem.”

    Mary Prater says she deeply regrets the decision and wishes she would have stood up to the council. “It’s hard to describe the pressure and fear we felt,” she says. “They are your landlord, your employer. They have complete control over you, and I knew that no matter what I said, they had already made their decision.”

    Prater says the three and a half years he spent in isolation harmed him far more than any sexual abuse. Kids he had grown up with would no longer talk to him, or even look his way. He desperately craved his dad’s approval, and had always sensed he was a disappointment, but now he had no doubt. Within the hierarchy of the commune, he had cast a dark cloud over the family.

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  68. “I would sit in that little closet where I spent six hours a day, just me and my tutor, and I’d hear kids outside playing, music coming out of people’s rooms, parents talking behind closed doors, the clanking of pans down in the communal kitchen, and I just wanted to be with them. I felt like I was dead, like I’d been buried alive,” he says. “I thought it would be a weeklong thing, but then it turned into a month, and then it turned into years.”

    When Prater was 14, his grandmother (who wasn’t affiliated with the Jesus People) decided she would rescue him, at least for the day. She took him downtown to see The Phantom of the Opera, which had just come to Chicago.

    “I just connected to it right away, it was like someone was singing my song,” Prater says. “I saw myself in the main character, this man who was ugly and unfit for society, and because he believed what they said about him, he lived in the underworld of the opera house. I just felt like, This is me, this is who I am.”

    The musical took over Prater’s life. Back at Friendly Towers he listened to the soundtrack nonstop, painted the walls of his room black, and re-created the entire set of the play complete with a staircase made of papier-mâché, a falling chandelier, and even a metal cage around his bed to replicate the Phantom’s lair. “I felt like I had a friend and someone who understood me,” Prater says. “That music probably saved my life.”

    Prater’s parents, meanwhile, were becoming increasingly concerned about the effects of his isolation, and talked about sending him away to a Christian reform school. His mom broached the subject and Prater told her no. Instead, they compromised and sent him to the Farm, where for three months over two successive winters he helped with chores, like fixing the lodge. To Prater it felt like a labor camp.

    Finally, Prater’s mother had had enough. She worried they were driving her son to madness, or suicide. She went to the council and told them that her son’s isolation had to stop. To her surprise, they agreed, and he was welcomed back in the community.

    “My classmates were like, ‘Where have you been?’ They had no idea what had happened,” Prater says. “To them, I had just disappeared for the last three years.”

    Over time, Prater concluded that his isolation had as much to do with his emerging homosexuality as his allegations of sexual abuse, and so he decided to “butch it up.” He got rid of all his musical soundtracks and became vocally anti-gay. When he asked for a job atCornerstone, Mama Dawn asked to meet with him at the magazine’s offices, just across the street from where he had grown up.

    By this point in the mid-’90s, Jesus People had shed many of its eccentricities. It no longer allowed adult spankings, practiced exorcisms of children, or reassigned kids to other families. It talked about these practices as innocent mistakes, growing pains in the quest to build a fully functioning Christian commune.

    It had also built significant business holdings. Lakefront Roofing was grossing as much as $12 million a year. Cornerstone was one the biggest Christian music festivals in the U.S., drawing 20,000 people a year.

    Mama Dawn began by asking Prater, who was now 21, about his love of Phantom of the Opera. She was warm and patient, but there was something in her eyes, watching him carefully, that made it impossible for Prater to completely relax. He knew what she was getting at. She wanted to know if he was gay.

    He explained that the musical had spoken to him at a time in which he had felt alone and ugly. “I never knew that,” Dawn said, and she seemed moved. Prater made a point of mentioning that he no longer cared for Barbra Streisand and didn’t like musicals generally. It was just a phase. Convinced he wasn’t gay, Mama Dawn gave him a job at Cornerstoneas a graphic artist.

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  69. Over the next few years, Prater wondered if he could stay within the commune and be true to himself. He still believed in Jesus, but he doubted so much of what he had grown up believing, and he was becoming more comfortable with the fact he was gay — he’d known that since he was 4. Slowly, he began to realize something that maybe he should have known all along: He didn’t belong.

    By the time Prater decided to leave in 1999, many of the longtime members had left, including his parents and siblings. Where the council had once made leaving very difficult, it now put up little fight when someone wanted to go, partly because of criticisms from the broader Christian community. In his first few years after leaving the commune in August 1999, Prater cast about, searching for identity and purpose. His entire life, Mama Dawn and the council had made all his decisions for him. He never had to think about money, or paying bills, or what he’d eat. Now that was all up to him, which was both liberating and crippling.

    Eventually, he concluded he couldn’t move forward until he reckoned with his past. At the urging of a film professor at a local college Prater was attending, he decided to make a documentary about growing up in JPUSA. Unaware that anyone else had suffered sexual abuse there, he saw it as nothing more than an exploration of his childhood.

    In March 2013 he created a private Facebook page, inviting 250 former JPUSA members to share their stories with him; he posted a rough cut with initial interviews in the hopes of soliciting more. “It was like I literally opened the floodgates,” Prater says. “People started flooding my email, flooding the (Facebook) group with stories.”

    Almost all of the stories dealt with sexual abuse. In one of the most harrowing, Prater says a man in his early forties told him that as a boy, he was physically and sexually abused so many times by so many people over a 10-year period, he didn’t know where to start. He had been taken from his mother as a baby and raised by a council member. He told Prater he could remember sitting naked in a bathroom with a DCFS investigator, telling her that the bruising and scabs on his body had come from playing sports and bug bites, something he had been coached to say.

    “I hadn’t set out to make a movie about sex abuse,” Prater says, “but that was the catalyst.”

    Prater had never made a documentary, and had only a rudimentary understanding of filmmaking. With no financing, he raised nearly $7,000 on Kickstarter and started flying all over the country to hear the stories that had come in via Facebook. In Minnesota, a girl he’d grown up with told him about the terrifying dreams she’d had as a child of men having sex with her mother while she was made to watch.

    Erik Johnson, a boy who was adopted by Micki Johnson in the late 1970s, said he went to the building where the single brothers lived to get a mountain bike and a 27-year-old lured him into his room show him karate moves. Instead, Johnson said the man performed oral sex on him. In another interview Prater filmed,
    Angel Harold said a teenager began molesting her when she was 9 years old. She later told me that a pastor forced her to perform oral sex on him, and eventually raped her.

    “Here was this leader telling you that you’re beautiful, you’re pretty, you’re not doing anything wrong because you’re doing what you’re told. I actually remember feeling completely safe, like, Ahh, I’m being a good girl,” Angel Harold says. “I remember thinking, So this is what little girls do with their leaders. This is my new role. Mom was made a cook. Dad was made a painter. And this is what I do.”

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  70. Former commune members who had been adults when the alleged abuse occurred were shocked at what Prater had uncovered. “We never knew what was going on with other families,” says Micki Johnson. “You might have known your kid had a certain problem, but that’s it. We had no idea how widespread it was.”

    As Prater gathered more stories, the gravity of what he had unearthed began to descend upon him. For a year he sat on the footage, unsure of what to do, torn between the loyalty he still felt to the community that raised him and anger at what he believed had happened there.

    In December 2013, with the editing of the film nearly over, Prater sunk into a deep depression, even considering suicide. Most disturbing to him was how many times people had gone to the JPUSA council and the Evangelical Covenant Church to report abuse. Again and again, alleged victims were told that the council would handle the matter internally. And almost without exception, that meant finding a way to keep victims silent, while doing nothing to reprimand the accused.

    As soon as the film started making waves, triggering the defections of prominent families and attracting the attention of the national press, JPUSA tried to silence Prater, threatening him twice with a defamation lawsuit. Those threats came and went, but Prater says JPUSA’s attorneys told him they would begin negotiations on a settlement related to his suit against the church only if he changed key parts of his film, excising any abuse allegations against John Herrin Jr., and tracked down every copy of the film. He complied with their request to edit the film, but he refused to take it off the internet.

    “I’ve lost more than I’ve gained for speaking out,” Prater told me. The making of the film consumed his life for two years, eventually causing his partner to leave him. People he’s known since childhood stopped talking to him.

    Friends who still live in the commune were angry about the way the film depicted JPUSA. They didn’t deny that abuse happened, but they questioned the assertion that the leadership council had known about it and covered it up. They also wondered how many of the 70 incidents were committed by children or teenagers. “I’m not saying there weren’t cases of adults with children, I’m not saying that didn’t happen,” an adult child of a member of the leadership council who still lives at JPUSA told me. “But it’s hard for me to believe a grown man could walk into the room of a child of the opposite sex. Everyone would have noticed.”

    Last July, Prater’s lawyers called him with an offer from JPUSA. They would begin to negotiate a settlement if he promised to stop talking to the press.

    “They don’t realize that they’re not going to shut me up with money. That’s not why I’m doing this,” he said. “I want an acknowledgment of what happened, and some kind of accountability. That’s the only way so many people can heal, and it’s the only way I can be assured something like this won’t happen there again.”

    On a cool spring morning last year, Prater and I met not far from Friendly Towers. He showed me the first building he’d called home and the place where he’d been isolated for three years. As we walked, we could hear children outside the JPUSA day care, waiting for their parents to get off work.

    From the outside, it seemed like little had changed, but Prater told me that wasn’t the case. Dozens of families had left. The annual Cornerstone Festival, once the biggest Christian rock festival in America, folded in 2012 due to poor attendance. The commune had also relaxed many of its rules that had grown out of the Shepherding Movement (such as the buddy system), largely to contain a mass exodus that began in the mid-’90s.

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  71. Many who left are still trying to come to grips with their years at Friendly Towers. For the earliest members, the continued existence of JPUSA is a testament to good ideas gone bad.

    “It could have been a utopia,” John Prater says. “It should’ve been an upside-down community, but it’s not. It’s a top-down community like any other business.
    And that’s not the gospel Jesus preached.”

    It’s been more than a decade since Angel Harold and her husband, Chris, left, and Angel says she’s only beginning to understand the extent of the damage wrought by the sexual abuse she suffered, some of which has only recently begun to resurface.

    “It’s taken us both a really long time to rebuild our lives to figure out who we are,” Angel Harold says. “We had to learn to think for ourselves. And in a lot of ways, we’ve been lucky. There are so many people who are worse off who have left.”

    What the Prater and Harold families wonder is how so much abuse, both physical and sexual, went on for so long under the noses of authorities in one of the biggest cities in America. While the Department of Children and Family Services sporadically visited Friendly Towers, and one or two abuse allegations made their way to the police, no formal investigation uncovered what occurred there.

    Longtime members I talked to say they blame themselves for not speaking up. But the victims I talked to blame the structure of the commune itself, and their parents, their “buddies,” and ultimately the leadership council for not doing more to protect them.

    “You can’t complain in an environment like that,” says Lalich. “If you complain, you’re isolated, humiliated, physically punished … and once you’ve been through that a few times, you’re going to learn to keep your mouth shut. It becomes a self-sealing system. It’s an environment that’s absolutely closed in on itself.”

    In the end, one of the alleged victims told me, it came down to power and preservation. Even today, the leadership council sits at the top of a multimillion-dollar business empire, to say nothing of the real estate it owns with the ECC throughout Chicago. Several members told me JPUSA’s affiliation with the ECC has allowed it to buy property with what essentially amounts to ECC financing.

    “It was like, ‘Look at this thing we built. Do we want this to have a tarnished name? Do we want to lose it?’” says Tamzen Trott, whose father remains at JPUSA. “And so instead you cover it up, and the more it happens, the deeper it gets.”

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  72. The day after I met Prater, I visited Friendly Towers one last time. I had already been by several times, but on each visit I was told no one would be available for an interview (JPUSA leadership declined to respond to subsequent requests for comment made in writing and over the phone about the lawsuits and abuse allegations). Once again, the woman at the front desk told me they weren’t giving tours or interviews, but if I hurried I could catch the tail end of a worship service across the street. She pointed to Everybody’s Coffee, owned and operated by JPUSA, and said that if I pushed through the double doors in the back I would find the chapel.

    I followed her instructions and took a seat on a metal folding chair in the back. The room, which looked like an empty warehouse, had a dark, cavernous feel, except for the stage, which was bathed in an amber glow. There were about 200 people in the congregation, and for all that might have changed about JPUSA, one thing hadn’t: They looked nothing like the typical church crowd. There were aging hippies, a mom with elaborate tattoo sleeves running up both arms, and couples with dreads and gauges and nose rings. Most of them lived across the street at Friendly Towers. The pastor, who I would later learn had baptized Prater, wore his graying hair in a ponytail, his jeans loose and baggy. He spoke softly of forgiveness and redemption. It could have been any Sunday at any church in America.

    As the service ended, the congregation filtered into Everybody’s Coffee, and eventually, they started to make their way back to Friendly Towers.
    I watched the children follow their parents and wondered if they would ever learn about the things that happened in the place they called home. Perhaps the pending lawsuits would force some kind of reckoning. Or maybe the Jesus People would simply move forward, as they had always done, trying to forget the past.


  73. My life in the cult

    How “serving God” unraveled into sex abuse, child neglect and a waking nightmare

    I was a naive teenager, desperate for belonging. But my "home" for 30 years turned out to be a house of horrors


    I left the Children of God in the early 2000s. It took a long time to come out of the haze of those 30 years, but when I did, I was appalled by my former self.
    One of the most common questions people ask is: How could you be part of such a thing? And how could you stay? For years — as I came to grips with my own guilt, remorse and shame — I asked myself the same things. In 2003, my eldest son, then an adult, sent me a link to a thorough three-year investigation into the COG as part of a child custody case filed with the High Court in England in the early 1990s, and I learned that, according to these court records, I was not alone in the horrors I’d experienced.

    I grew up in suburban Washington, D.C., the youngest of seven children in a comfortably middle-class Catholic home. We must have looked like the perfect family. My parents were leaders of the Charismatic group at their large church. Our house was clean – almost sterile. “Rake the rug after you walk through the living room to clear your footprints. Put a sheet on the sofa before you sit down,” my mother would chime. After my older siblings left home, I felt lost and alone. At 16, I fell into anorexia and depression. I spent my summer lifeguarding, swimming and dabbling in drugs.

    Perhaps that’s why I began my spiritual quest, or perhaps it was just a symptom of the times. I was looking for meaning to life, to belong to something larger than myself. In my junior year of high school, I saw a friend reading a Bible at school. She had recently met the COG, and gave me one of their publications to read. I found it a bit strange, but it touched something in me. I went with her to meet the COG after school that day.

    I was trying to find my path in life, and I thought this might be it. Here was a group of dedicated Christian young people determined to return to the pure roots of Christianity by living communally and sharing all things. I felt loved and accepted, and was welcomed into the fold as a new “babe” in Christ. Born again. I didn’t see this as a “cult”; I saw it as a chance to live an honorable life of service to God and others. And I was so young. What did I know about how the world worked? It would be another nine years before my frontal lobe was completely developed, the portion of the brain involved in decision-making that allows us to envision long-term consequences. I had no idea I was walking into a nightmare. I couldn’t see past the utter joy of the overwhelming love and acceptance I felt.

    I took a new name. I cast off my belongings. If this abrupt change hurt my friends, I was blind to it. I lost contact with them. I was completely swept up in my zeal. In the atmosphere of the ’60s and early ’70s, when hippie communes were popular, shucking off your conventional life was an appealing idea. My mother took a hard stand: “Do NOT visit the COG commune.” But teens have a way of doing what they want to do. On my 18th birthday, I moved in to the local commune. What could they do?

    I had no idea what a costly decision it would be — to burn bridges with everyone I’d been close to, to give up the only world I had known. Like St. Francis of old, I saw myself as a committed follower of Christ. I saw this as my “new family.” A lot of what happened next could probably be explained by my need to justify this stunning, impulsive first move — once I jumped into the deep end, I had to prove to myself that I could swim.

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  74. Life in the commune was tightly scheduled. Proselytizing took up most of our time, but I still fulfilled the daily requirement of reading two to three hours from the Bible as well as the group’s publications. As Daniel Kahneman wrote in his book on the mind, “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” “A reliable way to make people believe in falsehoods is frequent repetition, because familiarity is not easily distinguished from truth.” Back then, I only knew it as my daily routine. We read thousands of Mo Letters, rambling talks written by the group’s founder, David Berg, and named after his pseudonym, Moses David.

    Life was said to be “fair” and God “just.” Therefore if anything bad happened, we were to search for the reason it occurred. “Nothing happens by accident to one of God’s children,” we were taught. “Caught a cold? Seek the Lord and see why he is dealing with you,” we were admonished. “Then write a confession and ask for united prayer for deliverance.” The natural extension of this belief in a “just world” is conspiracy theories, of which COG publications were rife. The Illuminati were pulling the strings of world events behind the scenes, and evil persecutors were always after Berg and us, so we must be constantly vigilant about our security and he and his top leaders must live in utter secrecy.

    We were taught that anything we heard had to be measured against “the Word” before we could accept it. Doubting was considered sinful, so if we ever had suspicions about anything in the group, we dared not mention them.

    Take, for instance, the time David Berg prophesied the end of life as we know it in the U.S. He warned, “You in the U.S. have only until January [1974] to get out of the States before some kind of disaster, destruction or judgment of God is to fall because of America’s wickedness!”

    Then nothing happened. But Berg, like all the other self-proclaimed prophets whose prophecies inevitably failed, found a way to both rationalize it and inflate his group’s importance. Comparing himself to Jonah in the Bible, he said nothing happened because the people repented. Since God’s children had done such a good job of warning the world to turn from their wickedness, God didn’t have to destroy America – yet. That was still to come.

    It’s an awkward moment when a prophet has to explain his failed doomsday prophecy. I remember glancing around the room thinking, “Are you guys all OK with this?” But when everyone else seemed to accept the reasoning, I figured it must be all right.

    I’ve since learned about the principle of social proof, in which people surreptitiously check to see what others are doing and then align their behavior accordingly, figuring those people know more about correct behavior than we do. That was the modus operandi in the cult. The sad truth is that in many cases, those other people were just as clueless as I was.

    In 1976, I was taking care of the children of COG “Archbishops” in a secret Commune in Pennsylvania. In response to yet another one of Berg’s frightening prophecies of soon-coming nuclear holocaust and antichrist world takeover, we moved to “safer” third-world countries. I ended up in a country in the tropics. The heat, the poverty, the grime, the roaches – what a shock it was to me.

    After a year of constant fundraising and childcare, the green light was given to all COG members to begin to “live the Law of Love,” which until then was only practiced in secret by the top echelons of COG leaders. This stated, “Anything done in love is perfectly lawful in God’s eyes.” Free sex was now the norm in Communes (as long as it was done with “sacrificial love” as its motive), and sex with outsiders – Flirty Fishing (ahem, prostitution) – was now the preeminent “witnessing tool.”

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  75. When I joined the COG there was a strict rule against sex before marriage; suddenly that was turned upside down. But I swallowed my “old bottle” ways (COG term for those who don’t embrace the new teachings) and soldiered on. At 20 I lost my virginity Flirty Fishing a Middle-Eastern gentleman – all for the cause of Christ, of course.

    Not long after, I was invited to help care for another leader’s children, this time in a secret Commune. These leaders were unlike anyone I had met before in the group. Gone was the veneer of righteousness and spirituality. These people were funny, good-natured and kind. Since their Commune was secret, they had little contact with other COG members – a safe haven from the rampant sexual promiscuity.

    I stayed with this family for over four years, caring for and schooling their children, cooking, cleaning and falling in love with all of them.

    To fulfill the duty of “caring for the [sexual] needs” of the people in his home, the man of the house spent time with me every few months – with his wife’s blessing. When I got pregnant with his child, I wondered if God was telling us I was now part of their family. (“Everything happens for a reason,” you know.) A man with two wives was not at all unusual in the COG – Berg had a harem.

    When my son was a toddler, though, the family was abruptly whisked away to live with Berg, and I was left to join the mainstream group, emotionally shattered and never to see my son’s father again.

    In contrast to my former quiet room with peaceful, well-behaved children, I now found myself sharing a large bedroom with many children and a newly “mated” couple. (“Mate” was the preferred COG nomenclature for “marry.”) Their big double-bed can be referred to as nothing if not the centerpiece of the room, with the children’s and my beds arranged around the sides. This couple thought nothing of having uninhibited sex daily during our mandatory “quiet time” (two hours of rest after lunch), and I wanted nothing more than to escape the cringe-worthy awkwardness of the situation.

    I would take my son for walks around the neighborhood as much as I could to get away from that overcrowded, oversexed home. Hopeless, deserted and alone, that was my time to cry.

    Should I have left then? But what would I have done? In the COG, we were not permitted to hold jobs. We were told any future planning was taboo and considered a lack of faith in God’s power of provision. What would my skills be? Where could I go? My parents had both died of cancer shortly after I left for the commune. I felt alone in the world — but I was still not going to “turn my back on God’s work.”

    By the following year, desperate for companionship and desperate to have a father-figure for my son, I met a rare single man in the group, and within six weeks we were “mated.” After the initial two months of newlywed bliss, I felt he had lost all attraction for me. Clinging desperately to what we initially had, I persevered for years, hoping in vain he would be the man I believed him to be. (I can only imagine the stress he must have felt living with me.) We never outright fought, but rather played passive-aggressive games. Our poor children.

    The much-feared “persecution” of the COG came. The leader I worked with was among those named as cult leaders in a front-page newspaper story. We needed to move immediately. We fled to a new country. Once again, culture shock. Our unvaccinated children came down with whooping cough, and then later measles, rubella and mumps. After months of quarantine to contain the spread, the leader moved her children away. During more than six years with them, she had become my pseudo-mother figure, and overnight she was torn away from me along with her children, whom I dearly loved. More emotional damage.

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  76. Berg’s “law of love” had given license for all manner of lechery, as well as abuse of children through severe corporal punishment, which he promoted (“spare the rod, spoil the child”), as well as sexual abuse heaped most abundantly on those nearest to him. The new push of enormous “School Homes” began to perfect the physical punishment of children, especially adolescents, through spankings and “silence restriction,” where a child would be made to wear a sign warning others not to speak to them.

    We were to treat the children in the group as all “our children,” according to Berg’s teaching in his Letter “One Wife.” If ever a parent tried to come to the defense of their child, they were labelled as “favoring their children” — a serious sin in the cult. Many teens also lived away from their parents – some lived on opposite sides of the world. I did my best to protect my children, but mainly I lived in denial. I thought abuse happened elsewhere, not where we lived. It was easy to remain in the dark. We lived in a vacuum, after all: No books, no TV, no magazines and of course, no Internet.

    Meanwhile, the desperation of the average member brought on by scarcity and poverty drove a constant scramble for survival. Members were either out on the streets selling pamphlets or cult products, approaching businesses for donations of money or goods, or taking care of the ever-growing number of children, as free sex and no birth control were seen as the only way to please the Lord. No time was allowed for thought. If things ever began to ease up, a new “push” would inevitably come in the next directive from Berg, and our “witnessing” hours would increase, putting the children’s already scanty education further onto the back burners and increasing stress all-around.

    The stress, the constant submission, the daily struggle, the lack of meaningful mental input – it was as if I had undergone a spiritual lobotomy. I was effectively brain-dead.

    Berg died in 1994 and his mistress, Karen Zerby, took over the leadership of the COG. Although Ff’ing was no longer allowed, new strange doctrines arose to take its place. We were to “make love to Jesus,” i.e., pretend Jesus was our partner when we had sex with someone and say words of endearment to him.

    Then came the innumerable spirit helpers and guides. These imaginary ghosts provided all sorts of services. Many people received “stories” from them; some even wrote whole novels supposedly channeled from great authors of the past.

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  77. This all was getting a little hard to swallow. I don’t know which was more offensive — the poorly written novels, or the bizarre “spiritual truths” that Zerby was proclaiming.

    But I’d put so many years into the group. Longing to stay true to my initial commitment to “serve the Lord,” I continued clinging to my delusion. Loss aversion is very powerful. But eventually, even that fear can be overcome.

    When my eldest son reached adulthood living far from home, he left the group. He told me he thought Zerby was a lunatic and sent me a link to the custody case with the High Court in England. Reading that opened my eyes. The group I had devoted 30 years of my life to was a house of horrors.
    I left immediately.

    My mind was in a fog. What a psychological jolt! All the regret and apologies I can muster will never turn back the clock. My older children’s childhoods can never be relived. Since then, I’ve struggled to understand what allowed me to remain so gullible in the first place. The more I read about cults, the more I realize how universal the experience, from Jonestown to ISIS. Isolated and alone, in unfamiliar surroundings, members’ sense of “normal” behavior gradually becomes more bizarre, and even morally repugnant. Stanley Milgram, who conducted famous experiments on obedience in the 1960s, summed it up well when he wrote, ”Often it is not so much the kind of person a man is as the kind of situation in which he finds himself that determines how he will act.”

    Now that I am old, it is all-too-easy for me to replay with deep remorse the horrors of those wasted years. Nevertheless, I am heartened by the forgiveness shown to me by my children and other young people whom I taught in the group.

    As for me, I still have hope. Having missed out on years of learning, there are not enough hours in the day for all there is to learn. I study all that I can about neurology, psychology and behavioral economics. I listen to courses on history, science, language. I want to keep traveling and learning. I’m interested in most everything – except Christianity and new age groups. I’ve had my fill of those.

    Mary Mahoney writes the blog, "Coming to Grips with my 30 Years in a Cult" where she explores the psychology behind cult membership. (Link here: http://comingtogripswith.blogspot.jp/ ) Contact Mary at: M.Comingtogrips@gmail.com




    The Guardian NOVEMBER 27, 2016

    Q&A with Lauren Hough - Interview by Ursula Kenny

    Hough, 39, was born in West Berlin and brought up in the Family, founded by David Berg in 1968 in California and originally known as the Children of God.

    Where do you live now?
    In Austin, Texas. I’ve only been here a couple of months. I sold my house in Washington DC last year and I’ve been travelling in my camper. A couple of months in Portland, Oregon and Berlin and now I’m here. I’ve enjoyed it tremendously, but I’ve rented a house in Santa Fe and I’m moving there in a couple of weeks.

    You moved around a lot with the Family?
    We travelled around in campers, caravans, lived in tents. We moved to Chile for a couple of years when I was four. Japan for a few years too, then Switzerland and then Germany.

    It must have been quite something when you left.
    Oh God, yes. I was done. I just couldn’t figure out how to leave on my own. I would think about it… do I run to the embassy? How can I get my passport? Then one day Mom just told us to pack. There was absolute relief and absolute terror – we stayed in Munich for a couple of weeks and my brother and I were convinced we were going back in. But we didn’t. My grandmother took us into her little house in west Texas.

    What made your mother decide to leave?
    Mom was worried that we’d had absolutely no education and that she couldn’t protect me. My stepdad was just frustrated that they were never going to make him a leader.

    Why did your parents join the Family?
    My mom was upset about the Vietnam war. She was a hippy, protesting and everything else, and here were people who were actually doing something – dropping out, leaving society, following Jesus. The way she saw it was, yeah, a great, utopian thing. She met my father and he was there for much the same reason. He was travelling around so he wouldn’t get a draft card. My mom doesn’t talk about the Family and I don’t ask her about it. We’re close, but only so much. I only recently talked to my dad about it [Hough’s parents split up when she was 7]. We’re close now. We weren’t always.

    You don’t blame them for what happened?
    Well, I know what an idiot I was when I was 19, the age they were when they joined. It’s kinda hard to hold it against someone.

    How have you felt since coming out? Have you had a lot of therapy?
    Not so much and most of it wasn’t so helpful. I’ve had therapists cry and hug me and it was really strange. They just don’t really know what to do with it. I mean, I still hide things. I still have nightmares, I can’t deal with crowds. I will always feel kind of separate. For a long time, I just didn’t really have friends. In high school, I had no idea how to talk to people. I didn’t understand cultural references. Ninety per cent of conversations are: “Hey, do you remember that episode of Seinfeld?” and shit. And I was weird, I was just awkward. I read everything I could get my hands on. It’s just what I did, I hid in books.

    Which books particularly?
    On the Road: the book that made me want to write. The Liars’ Club by Mary Karr. The Glass Castle [by Jeannette Walls] – reading this, I realised you could take a terrible thing, that bad thing in every memoir, and make it worth reading. There’s no self-pity in it.

    Do you know what has become of the so-called “Shepherds”?
    Oh, God… thank God, no. “Uncle Stephan” – the last anyone saw he was holding a cardboard “The End Is Near” sign in Amsterdam. I mean, some of these people are my friends’ parents. We’ve all reconnected through Facebook. But… I stay away from the subject of whose parents did what to whom and I will meet them but not their parents. There’s a very clear line drawn between who we associate with.

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  79. Second generation people versus the people who joined. We have our secret Facebook groups where we can talk. We kind of provide our own free therapy.

    What’s next?
    I’d like to write more. I don’t know if I can support myself doing this but I’m working on a book – a memoir trying to put it all together.

    The Shepherds by Lauren Hough first appeared in Granta 137 (£12.99). To order a copy for £10.65 go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846

    (Excerpt) by LAUREN HOUGH

    Do you remember me?” she asks, as a hopeful smile spreads on her face, like she’s trying to tease the right answer out of me. We’re not children any more. We’ve left. Some of us left with our families, some with our friends and some alone. Now we’re living in this other world where we keep having to explain – why we lived in so many countries, why our accents change when we talk to strangers, why we didn’t go to school, why we can’t sleep. But to one another, to those of us who grew up like me in the Family, we don’t have to explain.

    Yet on message boards, on Facebook, and now, outside a coffee shop on South Congress in Austin, Texas, this same question – “Do you remember me?” – comes up over and over. It’s usually followed by the volley of questions we’ve tested to figure out who we were then.

    “What was your name? Who were your parents? Were you in Osaka? Switzerland?”

    Part of the problem with growing up in something so secluded as a cult is that our pasts are so unbelievable we need a witness for our own memory. And so we seek out those who remember.

    When I met Ruthie, I was crossing the country in a tiny Winnebago because this is the sort of brilliant idea you get when you can’t sleep.

    My trip stalled in Austin with a broken clutch, so I sent out a message on a board for cult babies: “Anyone here?”

    Ruthie responded and I invited her for coffee. I didn’t need to figure out who this woman was, I knew. She was a frazzled German with an American accent who clutched her coffee, her fingers worn ragged. Those calluses and scars were a by-product of what our parents would call home-schooling, but whose curriculum was heavy on diaper-changing, cooking and the words of our prophet. With its lack of anything that might be considered a real education, some of us have difficulty finding work that doesn’t make our hands bleed.

    We were 13 the last time Ruthie and I saw each other. Her name was Faithy back then and I wasn’t allowed to talk to her. In fact, I wasn’t allowed to talk to anyone, because the last time I saw her we were both still in the Family and we were in serious trouble.

    We lived in a huge, 10-bedroom chalet in Switzerland which had once been a quaint bed and breakfast. If it weren’t for the Family’s avoidance of even basic upkeep, it would have been like something you’d see on a postcard. Our window boxes were filled with rotting memories of carnations, the roof leaked and the floors sagged under the weight of all the people they supported. We’d managed to cram nearly 70 of us into this particular home. Its one virtue was that it was close enough to the American military bases in Germany that we could pick up Armed Forces Radio. That was important, because I had a radio.

    One night, a home shepherd called Auntie Mercy shook my shoulder to wake me. My first thought was that the Romans were at the door. Romans were cops and we practised constantly for when they made their inevitable raid on our home. As Auntie Mercy put a finger to her lips to shush me, I looked around and saw that the other kids were still asleep. This was not a good sign. I followed her out on to the landing in my undershirt and panties because when a home shepherd summons you, you don’t stop to get dressed. She didn’t say a word, only turned, and I followed her down the stairs.

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  80. The other home shepherds were in the dining room along with the shepherd for my age group, Uncle Stephan, who waved his weirdly hairless arm at me and said: “Have a seat, sweetie.” When a word like sweetie, so innocent and saccharine, slips out of the wrong mouth, you’ll wish you were wearing pants. I sat in the chair facing them, and rubbed my eyes, acting sleepy to buy time, like staring down a gun and pleading for a cigarette.

    “Should we pray?” asked Auntie Mercy. We held hands, mine clammy, and we prayed as I flicked a hardened, yellow grain of overboiled rice with my toe. The eels began to turn in my stomach as I waited for the inevitable next line.

    “Do you have anything to tell us?”

    I started small with the confessions. I’d played this game before. “I haven’t been putting my heart into my chores,” I said. If I got it right on the first guess, they’d just keep digging for more. I would give them anything. I would have to. But I wasn’t giving up my radio.

    One thing most cults have in common is that you have to give up everything to join. In that home, and every other home I’d lived in, there was a pile somewhere of random items someone had given up to follow Jesus. If Grandma or Aunt Nancy sends you a package, that goes in the pile too. Occasionally, all this crap is divvied out to those who need the supplies, or those with enough pull to get something they want. When I had been tasked to clean up the pile, I found the radio.

    Faithy caught me listening the first night. She slept below me, in the middle bunk of the triple-decker. I was up top. Wherever we went, the bunks were built out of two-by-four and plywood. The mattresses were bare foam, but weren’t too bad. The foam was easy to cut into if you wanted to hide something – hard-boiled eggs, a book, a corner of a chocolate bar, or even a radio. Faithy and I hadn’t talked much because I had been on silence restriction and not allowed to speak to anyone but a shepherd.

    Silence restriction and sign-wearing were the newest tactics in arbitrarily inflicted punishment. Silence restriction is pretty simple to understand. Then we wore signs around our necks made of cardboard or plywood with catchy slogans like “Silence restriction” or “I need to count my blessings” or “Please remind me to smile” – that last was being worn by an eight-year-old whose desire to smile remained unchanged. Punishments came and went like any other fad in the outside world but favourite methods included writing essays, memorising chapters of the Bible, a paper-clip daisy chain wrapped around your head and then hooked to each cheek to force a smile, running laps around a driveway, pointless manual labour, isolation, public beatings, bread-and-water diets. These, usually in some combination, could last days or months and there was no way to tell which way it would go.

    Faithy was new to our home, louder than the rest of us had learned to be, and she had more than one pair of socks, a sign she’d been living in smaller homes where kids get things like socks. I met her the night I accidentally pulled out the headphone cord from the radio and she heard the static from the little built-in speaker. From that night on, when we were pretty sure no one else would check on us, she’d climb into my bunk. I snapped the plastic band attaching the earpieces, we’d each take one and huddle together under my blanket to listen.

    Since it was my radio, I got to choose between our only two English music stations. And for a few hours each night, we experienced a whole new world.

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  81. The Family produced their own music but their songs weren’t about love or loss or pain. Family songs praised Jesus, or our prophet, or the Family itself. The radio brought music and words that made us feel hope and loss. I could live another life in the radio’s music, another life where I wasn’t so afraid of everyone. Sometimes we’d hear the Cure or the Smiths. I loved the angst-ridden, painful voices I didn’t understand but felt pouring into me. Faithy wasn’t as enthralled. She liked Cyndi Lauper and Michael Jackson. We’d tap our toes against the footboard until we remembered that we weren’t alone, and stopped for fear of waking up the kid in the bottom bunk.

    Our secret created a bond and we started talking during the day.

    We talked about places we’d been and told stories from before, when the cult had been just hippies, travelling in caravans and living in camp grounds, and we remembered being happy. There wasn’t much else to talk about. She saw and did everything I saw and did. She was good at remembering movies and as she’d lived in some of the more liberal homes, she’d seen more than I had. She’d tell me the movies, scene by scene and sometimes line by line, like they were stories.

    I hadn’t made many friends, or at least didn’t keep them. I was in trouble a lot and few of the children around me were stupid or brave enough to be friends with someone on the shepherds’ radar. Friends in the Family were a liability, but now I had a friend, or something close to it, and I liked having someone to talk to.

    Then a few weeks into our nightly listening party, Auntie Mercy caught Faithy in my bed. We’d accidentally fallen asleep. Auntie Mercy didn’t see the radio, but she told us she’d better not catch us again. When she didn’t say anything to us the next day, we thought she’d let the infraction slide. If she had, it would have been the first and last time she’d shown anyone mercy. I didn’t know her well enough yet to fear her as I should have.

    “What else?” asked Uncle Stephan. His eyes were cold and blue and he had this German accent, which was perfect, really.

    I had tried to avoid him, but avoiding him was impossible. I hadn’t seen any Nazi movies or I might have known that he fitted the mould, like a caricature. His eyes terrified me.

    Despite only wearing a thin undershirt, I wasn’t cold. Still, I folded my arms over my chest and shivered.

    “I was foolish. I told some jokes I know,” I said.

    “What else?”

    After the first hour, I ran out of things to confess. I was tired and confused. I stopped talking. I didn’t know what they wanted. I closed my eyes and I was quiet when I heard his boots on the tiled floor.

    Uncle Stephan always wore boots in the house. No one else ever did.

    Grandpa didn’t like wearing shoes indoors because shoes dragged filth inside and evil spirits could hitchhike on shoes and clothing.

    Grandpa was David Berg, the founder of the Family. The adults called him Dad, which was as confusing as it sounds. In another reality, another time, he’d have been locked up in an institution. In my reality and time, he founded a cult.

    I felt Uncle Stephan’s breath on my face for a moment. Then he slapped me hard across the face. I heard the shepherds praying for me again, or maybe they were praying against me. I felt my lip with my tongue and tasted blood. I didn’t know where my parents were or if they knew what was happening. I didn’t dare ask.

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  82. I opened my eyes and met his across from me. I hated him.

    Uncle Stephan had already put me on silence restriction for a month. I’d only recently been allowed to talk again. We hadn’t seen a movie all year because we weren’t “following the spirit”. It’s not like we ever watched anything but musicals anyway, but those were better than the nothing we had now. He liked public punishments. And he used a bamboo cane he carried around with him. Spanking wasn’t anything unusual, but his cane, which broke skin, only happened behind closed doors. Most of the time they just used a belt or a paddle.

    So I stared at his eyes and I didn’t blink and I wanted him to see I wasn’t crying. I knew he’d break me. They hadn’t broken me yet but it was inevitable. All I wanted in that moment was for Uncle Stephan to know that breaking me wouldn’t be easy. I looked above Uncle Stephan’s head and saw a poster of Jesus. This wasn’t the blond, friendly Jesus.

    This Jesus was coming down from heaven on a horse, surrounded by the flames of a burning Earth.

    If the shepherds had watched any cop shows before they dropped out to follow Jesus, they would have known the proper way to do an interrogation. While I sat in the dining room and tried to figure out what the shepherds wanted from me, Faithy was in the shepherds’ office upstairs and probably wondering the same thing. They didn’t know they were supposed to tell me Faithy was upstairs and I should tell them everything before she cut a deal. But then again, there were no deals in the Family. Confession, while possibly good for the soul, was not good for my immediate future.

    I couldn’t think of any more small crimes. So I just started making shit up.

    “I took some apricots from the pantry.”


    “I was hungry and there were lots so I thought it was OK.”

    “What else?”

    “I murmured about having to watch the kids instead of going postering last Saturday.” That was a lie, but a lie that might work in my favour. I liked taking care of the little kids. Plus, my mom was in charge of them so being assigned to help with the little kids meant spending the day with her while most of the home was out raising money by selling posters or knocking on doors and asking for donations.

    “What else?”

    Six hours later, the sun was up and I could hear the home stirring upstairs. The kids assigned to make breakfast walked around the circle of shepherds and me. The kids looked straight ahead as they passed. There was a time when I might have felt humiliated. But we were used to public punishments now so I didn’t mind them seeing me. We’d all been in this chair at some point. Those who hadn’t knew it was only a matter of time.

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  83. The shepherds either had what they wanted from me or gave up trying. Auntie Mercy wanted to pray again. This time I had to hold their hands and the words she prayed told me this was just the beginning of my ordeal.

    A few weeks later, still in the attic where they’d decided to store problem kids like me, where we’d read the insane ramblings of our drunken prophet, where they expected us to report every thought that passed through our heads, where the beatings happened daily, I broke. It sounds more like a sigh than the shattering you feel in your soul. I remembered how it didn’t hurt when I broke, how it was easier after.

    The Romans came that night. But they were too late. Someone tipped off a reporter at the local newspaper, who tipped off the home shepherds. Before the sun rose, we quietly crammed ourselves into vans, kept our heads below the windows, and our shepherds drove us to the next home.

    Faithy didn’t come to the new home and I knew better than to ask where she’d gone. And now, this woman named Ruthie, with Faithy’s face and voice, was asking me about the radio. “Did they ever find it?”

    “You didn’t rat me out,” I say. No, they never found the radio.

    “But then why did you get in so much more trouble than I did?” she asks.

    “I wondered about that for years. But you know how it goes, you just stop thinking about it. Then one day, I was telling my girlfriend about the radio and I finally figured it out. They thought I was gay.”

    “Goddammit,” she says, smacking the table. The pearl snap-shirted Austinites stop to stare at the interruption of their peace. We both smile at the three Family sins she’s just committed – drawing attention, unwomanly loudness, and the greatest and least forgivable, taking the Lord’s name in vain. “How much did that suck?”

    I laugh and shake my head and say: “Fuckers.”

    This is the shorthand we speak because she knows, without me having to tell her, how hard it was to give them that one thing. To know they were right, even if only once. But at 13, I wasn’t yet a lesbian, or anyway I didn’t know it. Back then I was just an awkward tomboy.

    She shows me pictures of her husband, her kids. I show her pictures of my dog. We talk all afternoon. She says she’s doing all right. Maybe we’re both grading on a curve, but I tell her I am too.

    And we don’t have to explain. We remember.

    The Shepherds by Lauren Hough first appeared in Granta 137 (£12.99). To order a copy for £10.65 go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846


  84. Abuse Of Minors and Apocalypse Predictions

    Words From A 'Children of God' Cult Survivor

    Movie Pilot, March 2, 2017

    By Jancy Richardson

    Cults & Conspiracies seeks to understand the evil that we do to each other and the psychological drives that inform those actions. Inspired by season 2 of Hulu's #ThePath, Cults & Conspiracies investigates how cults and radical ideologies work their dangerous magic on the unsuspecting.

    MP Super News's dark-leaning, inquisitive show has looked at the Jonestown Massacre and de-programming techniques, but this episode we're talking to Flor Edwards, a survivor of the Children of God cult (a.k.a. The Family International).

    The Children of God cult became famous for the bizarre teachings of leader David Berg, particularly those encouraging the sexual abuse of children and forced prostitution of young women (a technique to recruit new members known as 'Flirty Fishing'). Several celebrities escape the cult, including Joaquin Phoenix and Rose McGowan.

    Cults & Conspiracies' guest for episode 5 is cult survivor Flor Edwards, who left the cult with her family at the age of 13.

    Life in the Children of God Cult

    Edwards explained that CoG leader David Berg never set out to make a cult: he was "a very interesting character" who was "responding to the political climate of the time." Berg's family were kicked out of the mainstream Christian church when his mother claimed a divine miracle saved her from her deathbed. Berg set up the Children of God to "give people a way to follow God without having to adhere to the traditional practices of the church," although his practices soon became much darker as he exerted complete control over his followers.

    What Did the Children of God Believe?

    Berg encouraged his followers to move away from "corrupted" Western society to South East Asia and South America. They were poor, idealistic, and convinced by their leader that the world would end in 1993.

    continued below

  85. When the foretold apocalypse didnt happen, Edwards says, Berg made a public apology to his flock, but said that God had granted them an extension for being good. Berg "believed that he was God's middle-man," which he used to promote his strange teachings:

    He had these free sexual beliefs, people had to have a sexual revolution and it needed to happen very young, believed adulthood began from 12... He had absolute power.

    Fortunately for Flor Edwards, the bad publicity from the cult's sexual abuse of minors meant that there were stricter rules in place when she was a child: she wasn't witness to sexual abuse but did see a lot of physical abuse: "they would punish us a lot."

    Was it a Shock for Ex-Members to Re-Join Society?

    The cult partially disbanded when Berg died in 1994, when the cult dispersed and abandoned the families with many children. Flor's parents didn't send the kids out into the world to fend for themselves, as many members did, following the kids' wishes to go to regular school. Despite the abuse, there was a sense of belonging and normalcy that felt good: the cult had its faults, but it was home for her whole life until that point.

    "Most of the adults had been outside of that culture for 25 years, they had no money, no education, no experience, and they had a lot of children.

    Edwards states that it was very difficult to re-adjust to a normal life after leaving the Children of God, stating that it was:

    "A little bit like dealing with a disability... it doesn't stop, even when time passes. There are always things you gotta keep re-learning"

    Edwards is remarkably forgiving of her experience, noting that her story is easier to for her to accept when life is going well, but becomes really hard when life gets harder. She is currently a writer, and has written a great deal on her life during and after the Children of God. Her writing has been a great help to other cult survivors.

    Next week we’ll be joined by a former member of the Buddhafield sect, the sexually motivated "alternative" community featured in the Oscar nominated documentary Holy Hell. Through our discussion we'll aim to gain a different perspective on the dramatic process involved in escaping the clutches of a cult.



    A Chance Encounter with a Ludlum Paperback Changed Everything

    BY TAYLOR STEVENS, CrimeReads JANUARY 14, 2019

    Most kids dream of what they’ll be when they’re grown, dreams that cycle with the seasons and adapt with age, and eventually the unicorn catchers, dragon tamers, and pollywog farmers grow into our veterinarians, firefighters and environmental systems managers.

    As a kid, I never dreamed like that. For me, the idea of becoming anything was a blank space.

    I knew doctors and lawyers and accountants and office managers existed, but professions were for people out there.

    The world I was born into was different. We saw what others couldn’t, that these times were the end of days. Our purpose was to warn the world of coming destruction and save as many as would listen. For us, persecution and tribulation were always around the corner, and only by following the prophet ordained by God to lead us through these perilous times would we be strong enough to make it through to eventual martyrdom.

    In a world like that there was no room for long term planning because the only thing to plan for was the life that came after this one.

    I didn’t expect to be anything when I grew up because I didn’t expect to grow up, I expected to die.

    The adults, those who joined of their own free will, certainly never expected to see old age as they have. By their reasoning, as far as their kids were concerned, any education beyond functional reading, writing, and math was a waste of time. So, in lieu of schooling, I spent the bulk of my childhood and adolescence in communes, cooking, cleaning, and caring for younger children, or out on the streets begging for money on behalf of the cult leaders.

    Surprisingly—or not, if you’re familiar with the genre—the apocalypse didn’t come as scheduled. True devotees dug in deeper, the belief system got crazier, I got old enough for logic to start asking uncomfortable questions, and eventually the pain of staying outweighed the fear of the judgement and punishment that awaited those who abandoned God for a world of unbelievers.

    It was hard, those early years of freedom, trying to grab a toehold without an education, or job history, or any of the social support that most suburban families take for granted, and it was within that struggle that a chance encounter with a coverless Robert Ludlum novel at a garage sale sparked a chain of events that led to a spur-of-the-moment decision that compelled me to attempt a novel of my own.

    By odds and expectations, I should have never have finished that book much less been published, but that story, which launched onto the New York Times bestseller list and sold in over twenty languages, completely altered the trajectory of my life. Even now, all these books later, when I think about the tiny twists of fate that led from there to here, I have to stop and catch my breath.

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  87. Publication came with a whirlwind of attention I was wholly unprepared for, most of it good, but also comparisons—assumptions that conflated me with my character and my life with the storylines—and that left me bewildered and increasingly frustrated. How anyone could confuse me with this fantasy baffled me. I was writing fiction after all, and not just fiction, but visceral, violent, boots-on-the-ground action with an over-the-top protagonist fashioned after Jason Bourne who had skills I could, literally, only dream of.

    But as I listened I began to understand. To those who fell into my stories the way I’d fallen into Robert Ludlum’s stories, these characters were so different and felt so real that they had to have come from something tangible. So, if doctors wrote medical thrillers and retired Special Forces wrote military thrillers, it was only natural to look to me and to my different kind of life as the source material for this different kind of thriller.

    The more I thought about it, the more I realized they weren’t wrong. It’s just that the “different” that captured their imagination wasn’t what they thought it was. The furthest thing from my mind was transposing the abuse, trauma, and neglect of my childhood onto characters I loved but what did bleed through was the authentic struggle of a Third Culture Kid trying to fit into a world she was expected to belong to, but didn’t, and never would. That was very present and very real.

    Third Culture Kid is a term used to describe the children of diplomats, missionaries, military, teachers, executives, and such who spend their formative years outside their parents’ original culture. So they have parents from one country (two if the parents are different nationalities), but grow up in a second country (multiple second counties if the family moved a lot), and thus end up neither fully identifying with their parents’ culture nor the culture(s) in which they live, thus essentially becoming their own amalgamated third culture.

    In my case, I was born in the United States to American citizens and carry a United States passport but I didn’t grow up here—didn’t absorb the social norms, have none of the pop culture awareness everyone else my age acquired through osmosis and none of the shared experiences—I grew up in communes, moving often from one to the next, cut off from my parents’ culture in a trek that crisscrossed the globe and I am, essentially, a stranger in my own country. That sense of being a transplant stays with me still. No matter how long I live in any one place, or how adapted I become, there’s a part of me that will always feel like I don’t belong—and I’m okay with that.

    This is part of my identity. I embrace it for what it is.

    It also permeates everything I write.

    continued below

  88. The Informationist the story birthed out of that spur-of-the-moment decision to write a book, introduced Vanessa Michael Munroe, chameleon and information hunter. She’s independent, lethal and not at all what you’d expect from the daughter of missionaries. To some readers, that aspect of her history is a thinly veiled reference to my own and you can still find reviews explaining that character was fashioned after author and that both were born into a religious cult.

    Truthfully, I never identified with Munroe’s religious upbringing. Giving her missionary parents was always a matter of practicality. Here I had a young American woman who’d grown up in Cameroon, a predominately Francophone country on Africa’s west coast, and was now returning to the region, but there isn’t much of an American expat community in Cameroon, or at least there wasn’t at the time I was there. Most of the western foreigners who stayed long enough to bring their families tended to hail from Europe, not the United States and so the most realistic, plausible explanation for why someone her age would have been born in Cameroon and lived there as long as she had was that she had missionary parents.

    The variance between what, to me, seemed obvious and without need of further clarification compared to what those with a different cultural awareness read into it is one small example of the type of disparity that can leave a Third Culture Kid feeling disoriented in their own homeland. This particular instance also happened to be laced with irony because the one thing I actually did identify with was the struggle to adjust to a white bread suburban life.

    It was that clash of culture that threaded through The Informationist and made the story what it was and, more subtly, made subsequent stories what they were. Once you know where to look, you find Third Culture Kid backgrounds in so many of the characters. That always made more sense than not. Hardcore international thrillers deserve a globally diverse cast. But creating characters that veer too off the familiar path also carries a bit of a risk and so, when the time came to start a new series, I considered heading in a more traditional direction.

    I figured at the very least no one would ever confuse me for a coroner or detective.

    But the thing was, all the upheaval and trauma that had made my life such a struggle had also given me the ability to bring totally out there and yet strangely believable characters to life. To turn my back on that would be to turn my back on what made my stories uniquely mine. And so Liars’ Paradox was born, and Jack and Jill came to be, twenty-six-year-old feuding assassin twins raised on the run by a paranoid and possibly delusional mother who may or may not have been a deep cover CIA operative in her former life.

    These two are unlike anything else available in today’s thrillers. And, because they are so different, and because my life has been so different, it’s not surprising that questions about how much of me ended up on the page have resurfaced. This time though, I know exactly where that’s coming from. There are so many brilliant authors, writing incredible pulse-pounding thrillers, but only someone who lived the life I’ve lived could write a story like this.

    I fully embrace that, better or worse, for characters like these there’s no one else but me.


  89. Painting himself out of a corner
    Life inside and out of a cult

    by Millar Hill, The Drive Magazine February 2019

    There are very few times a journalist gets the opportunity to interview someone like Asaph Maurer, gaining insight into what an upbringing is like for a child born into a cult.

    The Children of God is a cult that began in the United States during the late 1960s by its founder, David Berg. Berg’s cult spread like wildfire and he claimed to have 130 religious communities around the world by the 1970s filled with men, women, and children.

    Asaph was one of those children.

    Born in Mexico, Asaph lived there for the first six years of his life before he was uprooted to India. The formative years of his life were sheltered from all influences outside of the cult. There was no access to doctors, public school, music, television, or books. The cult members were raised with the belief that the world was evil and it was run by the devil. Only the Children of God were free of this evil because they were God’s chosen children.

    “I never met the leader of the cult, but he was the one who raised all of us,” Asaph said.

    Members of the cult lived in communes consisting of 30 to 50 people living together under one roof. They were separated into groups by age and homeschooled. Asaph says every spare moment was spent studying the bible and Berg’s teachings. Eventually, they were sent out into the world outside of theirs with the intent to convert others into their way of thinking.

    During his time inside the cult, Asaph got married and had five children.

    “That kind of environment lends itself very easily to abuse and there was a lot of of physical and sexual abuse of children,” he said. “It was a childhood I had no control over but after I became an adult, I realized this is not the way I wanted to raise my family.”

    At the age of 28, Asaph and his wife escaped the cult, fleeing to Toronto from India. Living in total isolation with no exposure to the outside world, they started their lives from scratch.

    “We were out of the daily brainwashing and indoctrination that allowed us, very slowly, to realize what it was that we had been born and raised into,” he said. “So, we never went back to it.”

    Eventually after living together for some time in Toronto, their marriage didn’t work out and Asaph and his wife separated. There was a short period before moving to Windsor where Asaph lost a sense of what he was doing with his life. With his marriage over and his future unclear, he turned to alcohol.

    “Combined with the fact of having such a sheltered upbringing, I defaulted to the most rebellious activities: drugs and alcohol,” he said. “The real problem was that I didn’t have any kind of clear picture that connected with me for my life and since I didn’t, my life became a series of going out and making decisions that could have been replaced by better decisions. It got to a point where my life was in shambles and I couldn’t stop. This lasted for nearly six months. Towards the end, I couldn’t function without alcohol.”

    Asaph took the necessary steps to recovery. He found his own path, providing himself a life from which he no longer needs to escape with booze and drugs.

    “Through my experience, I learned that any step that a person wants to take to recover their lives is a perfectly good one,” he said. “It’s the right thing, it’s the right step. Even if it is going from a very harmful drug to one that is less harmful. The idea is that you can’t get better if you’re dead.”

    continued below

  90. Asaph struggled to find his place in life, but because of his tumultuous childhood that had kept him sheltered from the very world in which he now lived, the path forward was unclear. So he turned to a hobby he’d been chastised for in his youth: visual art.

    Asaph had always harboured a love for art and creating it—getting lost in drawing faces for hours. There were very strict rules for what creativity was allowed inside the cult and that stifled his creative process.

    “In my teens, I had a phase where I drew nudes or semi-nudes and those got collected and were burned for being inappropriate,” he said. “There was always creativity in me but I didn’t have much of an outlet inside of this religious organization. I think once I tasted the standard job offerings of society, I had to look at the path of pursuing education or a different route where I would pursue my own interests.

    “I took the second route,” he added.

    In only a year and a half, Asaph, now 37, has built himself a career working as a full-time artist in Windsor. He bounces back and forth between his studio at home and the Accelerator on Howard Avenue. You can find him spending roughly eight to ten hours painting each and every day. His niche is portraits.

    “I use acrylics on gallery-wrapped canvases,” he said. “I will use mixed-media as well, but primarily acrylics. Most of my art is black and white. I find that there are fewer artists who work in black and white and I find beauty and creativity within the two contrasts with the shades in between. I find it to be a great challenge.”

    Asaph uses techniques such as splatter art and another called piping. Piping is when paint is funnelled through cake piping bags or snipped Ziploc bags with different sizes and shapes of holes in it. It gives the paintings more texture and depth. He says piping is his most dominant technique and a lot of his work has some form of it.

    When I asked Asaph about his creative process, I was surprised to learn that he doesn’t require intense focus on the task at hand. Instead, Asaph will listen to audiobooks while he paints, focusing on not one, but two things at once.

    As reading was banned within the cult, it wasn’t until Asaph escaped nice years ago that he picked up his first non-religious book.

    In the nine years since, he’s become a voracious reader.

    “I have read nearly a thousand books,” he said. “I am very pleased I’ve been able to read that many books. I think it’s the core of any ritual that I have. I’ll put on a good audiobook and I’ll get to work while I listen about the lives of great achievers, which then inspires me to try to achieve greatness.”

    Our time together was wrapping up and I couldn’t help but feel inspired by Asaph. Despite such a sheltered past, he escaped his prison and found himself in a world about which he really knew nothing. Through acknowledging his addiction to alcohol and overcoming it, he braved the decision to pursue his passion.

    “The word addict, I think it’s a beautiful word. It can be applied to anything. The people who are the highest achievers in life have that same tendency. I have always had it. For a while, it was channelled to actual addiction but now I am channelling it towards something better. I wake up, make a painting, and as soon as I’m done—I want to make another one.”


  91. Children of God Cult Survivor Speaks Out

    'We Were Told Sex Was How to Show God's Love'

    Christina Babin is finally ready to talk about the abusive cult that required her to have sex at a young age

    By STEVE HELLING, People.com May 31, 2019

    Christina Babin spent most of her childhood in a controversial religious cult — and is now opening up about the trauma she experienced.

    Babin, now 44, grew up as a member of the Children of God cult: a sect that required its members to shed all earthly possessions and live together in communes.

    For Babin, the indoctrination started at a very young age.

    “We were told we were slaves,” she says in the second-season premiere of People Magazine Investigates: Cults, which airs on Investigation Discovery on Monday, June 3, at 9 p.m. ET. “We didn’t belong to anyone but the cult; we didn’t own anything. We didn’t even own ourselves.”

    But things got worse for Babin when she was 11 years old. After cult leader David Berg decreed that all sex — even with children — was ordained by God, a married couple in the group took Christina into their bedroom and sexually assaulted her.

    After it was over, she went into their bathroom. “I felt bad about myself that I didn’t like it,” she tells the show. “I thought there was something wrong with my heart and my soul. That I wasn’t right with God.”

    But Babin was only reacting to the twisted teachings of the cult. “We were told that sex was how to show God’s love,” she says.

    The Children of God group was formed in 1968 by David Berg, a former evangelical preacher. Based in Huntington Beach, California, the sect grew quickly. Soon, the Children of God boasted hundreds of followers, including the parents of child actor River Phoenix.

    “They wanted to make a good life for their kids that wasn’t the typical ‘white picket fence’ kind of life,” Phoenix’s friend Joshua Greenbaum tells People Magazine Investigates: Cults. “Obviously, they were searching for something.”

    Babin had no choice but to join the cult; she was only a young child when her mother joined in the 1970s. Although Babin left the group in her early 20s, she is still dealing with the aftermath of her oppressive upbringing and sexual abuse.

    “I still think about it,” she tells PEOPLE. “It will always be with me. But there is healing and there is hope. I choose each day to move forward with my life. That’s really the message here: no matter what you’ve been through, you can get through it.”

    People Magazine Investigates: Cults airs on Investigation Discovery on Monday, June 3, at 9 p.m ET.


  92. Former Children of God member responds to new doc on cult, River Phoenix's childhood

    By Stephanie Nolasco | Fox News June 1, 2019

    A former Children of God member doesn’t believe River Phoenix’s childhood with the apocalyptic sex cult was solely to blame for his death at age 23.

    Flor Edwards escaped the same doomsday group that Hollywood celebrities like Rose McGowan and brothers Joaquin and River Phoenix were raised in.

    “I think growing up in such a sheltered and psychologically confusing environment can lead to vulnerabilities and instabilities not experienced by most people, and the temptation to succumb to damaging tendencies such as drugs, alcohol, sex and suicide can be greater, but I can’t say for sure if it may have led to his death,” Edwards -- who has never met the Phoenixes or McGowan -- told Fox News. “There are many more complex factors involved, I’m sure.”

    The Children of God and its history is the subject of a new docu-series titled “People Magazine Investigates: Cults,” which airs on Investigation Discovery (ID) on June 3. The show, which is kicking off its second season, explores how ordinary people “who, lured by promises of eternal life, get caught up in a terrifying web of abuse, deception and manipulation.” It features reporters who’ve covered these harrowing cases, as well as former members.

    Past subjects have included the Jonestown Massacre, Nation of Yahweh and the Tony Alamo Ministries, among others.

    On Wednesday, People magazine reported Phoenix’s friend Joshua Greenbaum revealed that he had wondered if the actor’s involvement in Children of God might have played a part in his shocking demise.

    “It was not a healthy situation,” Greenbaum told the outlet. “You can’t go through that trauma at such a young age and not be affected by it for the rest of your life.”

    Phoenix, who rose to fame with the 1986 film “Stand By Me,” collapsed in front of The Viper Room in West Hollywood, a nightclub then owned by fellow actor Johnny Depp. Phoenix died there of a drug overdose on Oct. 31, 1993. He was 23.

    “Even though River Phoenix’s death was by overdose, having grown up in the same cult he was born into, the Children of God, I talk about my own attempt at suicide in my book,” Edwards, who penned a 2018 memoir about her turbulent childhood titled “Apocalypse Child: A Life in End Times," explained.

    “While it’s hard to ignore the fact that a childhood within the Children of God was indeed damaging for some, it would be a stretch to say that the few years River Phoenix spent in the Children of God may have led to his death," she continued. "It would be a causal fallacy with not enough information to infer that a few formative years were damaging enough to cause a drug overdose as a young adult.

    “There are many factors here at play, including psychological, genetic, social, etc.,” Edwards stated. “Was it the Children of God that caused his death, or the Hollywood industry that led to his demise? I don’t think one can draw a conclusion based on either. And what about the many young artists who die by overdose or suicide who did not grow up in a cult?

    "Although many young people who grew up in the Children of God did die by suicide or a drug overdose, I think there are many more complex factors involved, and it would be a hasty generalization to draw such a conclusion that a childhood in the Children of God caused his death.”

    continued below

  93. According to The Guardian the Children of God started in 1968 by a small group of runaway teens and hippies who, under the orders of self-described prophet David Berg, dedicated their lives to worshipping Jesus Christ and engaging in promiscuous sex.

    Phoenix’s parents joined the Children of God when he was 3 years old. They remained in the group for about six years in the ‘70s.

    “They wanted to make a good life for their kids that wasn’t the typical ‘white picket fence’ kind of life,” Greenbaum shared in the show, per People. “Obviously, they were searching for something.”

    According to the outlet, the Phoenix family often busked on the streets to raise money for the cult. They traveled frequently until they landed in California. It was there where the family launched entertainment careers for all five children: River, Joaquin, Rain, Summer and Liberty.

    After Phoenix found fame in “Stand By Me,” he co-starred in “Running on Empty” two years later, which resulted in his first and only Oscar nomination.

    Phoenix rarely spoke about his time in the Children of God. However, he did tell Details Magazine in 1991 that he was allegedly 4 years old when he first had sex while in the group.

    “I’ve blocked it out,” said Phoenix at the time.

    Back in October 2018, Samantha Mathis opened up about the day her then-boyfriend passed away to The Guardian.

    The now-49-year-old told the UK-based publication she believed they were just dropping off Phoenix’s brother and sister at The Viper Room. However, Phoenix told her he was asked to stay.

    “When we arrived he said to me: ‘Oh, there are some people playing music tonight in the club who want me to play with them — that’s OK, right?’” Mathis recalled.

    The “American Psycho” star said she felt “something was wrong that night.”

    “I knew something was wrong that night, something I didn’t understand. I didn’t see anyone doing drugs but he was high in a way that made me feel uncomfortable — I was in way over my head,” she said.

    “Forty-five minutes later, he was dead," she added.

    Mathis said she had not spoken in detail about what occurred the night of Phoenix’s death because she was traumatized and wanted to respect his family. But she said she felt more comfortable talking about the late actor after she recently watched the 1993 film they starred in together, “The Thing Called Love.”

    On the night of his death, Mathis said she was aware Phoenix was high.

    “I knew he was high that night, but the heroin that killed him didn’t happen until he was in the Viper Room. I have my suspicions about what was going on, but I didn’t see anything,” she said.

    A few moments later she saw the actor being pushed out of the club by a bouncer, then “drop to the ground and go into convulsions on the pavement.”

    “What have you done? What are you on?” Mathis recalled shouting at a man.

    The “Little Women” star said she ran inside the club to find Phoenix’s siblings. Phoenix’s brother, Joaquin, called 911. The star was pronounced dead at the hospital from an overdose of cocaine and heroin.

    Mattis said she and Phoenix met when they were teenagers and remembers him as being “sensitive and obsessive.”

    “We met when we were both 19, and he bummed a cigarette off me in an LA club. This sounds incredibly cheesy but I knew I would be with him one day. It just felt fated between us, and there was such chemistry,” Mathis said.

    She said she thinks if Phoenix were still alive, he would still be in the entertainment industry.

    “I’m looking at a photo of him now, oh, wow …” she said. “I think if River was still here, I think he’d be acting, directing, saving the environment, just living and hanging out. Oh, gosh, wouldn’t that be nice?”

    “People Magazine Investigates: Cults” airs Monday, June 3 at 9 p.m. on ID. Fox News’ Kathleen Joyce contributed to this report.


  94. Who Is Christina Babin? New Details About The 'Children Of God' Cult Survivor Who's Finally Speaking Out

    Samantha Maffucci, Editor, Your Tango Entertainment And News June 4, 2019

    She was raped as early as 11 years old.

    For quite some time, most people have known the dangers of cults. They use fear to exploit its members vulnerabilities, and prey on their spirituality to ultimately rewire brains and exert control. It’s a scary place to be, and while members don’t usually realize they’ve been brainwashed, there are a number of former members who have found the courage to speak up against the atrocities they’ve faced.

    Who is Christina Babin? She’s a former member of the Children of God sect/cult, and is speaking out about the abuse she faced as a child and adult.

    The Children of God cult was founded in 1968 by David Brandt Berg, a minister who spent the 60s traveling to churches in California before opening a coffee shop. By 1969, he had more than 50 members in his “family,” and over eight months, grew to 200 people. He set up communes all over the world.

    The “religion” spread the word of "God" (and Berg), but eventually, female members were encouraged to have sexual relations with potential members to lure them into the group. And it was this shift that changed Babin’s life forever.

    Now 44 years old, Babin was indoctrinated at a young age when her mother joined the cult in the 1970s. Just a baby at that time, her older brother was two, and Babin had six additional siblings who were dragged into the lifestyle. By the time she was 11 years old, she was sexually assaulted by a married couple in the group after Berg said that sex with children was “ordained by God.”

    People Magazine Investigates: Cults interviewed Babin about her experiences. “We were told we were slaves. We didn’t belong to anyone but the cult; we didn’t own anything. We didn’t even own ourselves... I felt bad about myself that I didn’t like it. I thought there was something wrong with my heart and my soul. That I wasn’t right with God... We were told that sex was how to show God’s love,” she revealed.

    She left the cult in her early twenties, but the trauma still haunts her. Because not only was she subject to sexual abuse, she was also physically abused.

    According to her, she and her brother were sent to beg in the streets in an effort by the “church” to give its members an idea of what the outside world was like. At 12 years old, Babin and her brother were sent to Japan for one month without their mother, which eventually turned into two years.

    She was forced to read the bible for hours a day and experienced “punishment exercise regimes.” During this time, she was raped twice and sent to different communes. “We were isolated from the wider world but told they were the ones living the wrong lives — that our way was the right way,” she said of her lifestyle.

    When she was 15, Babin was sent to a “camp” in the Philippines, where she was subject to daily violence. “The minute I got there I was taken into solitary confinement and asked about any worldly thoughts I’d had. I admitted I’d listened to music when out begging and owned a leather jacket. They admonished me and burned the jacket. One of the guards, who called ­herself Mary Malaysia and later Aunty Joan, was vicious. If you so much as smiled she’d beat you,” Babin recalled.

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  95. In an op ed in Marie Claire from April 2018, Babin wrote about what life was like when she was a child, and the extreme violence she faced every single day:

    “Whatever country we lived in, and we moved a lot, the strict routines and degree of violence we experienced were the same. Every night, I fell asleep in the desperate hope of not wetting the bed. Clearly a sign of how disturbed a child is, it was considered by the cult as demon possession and could be beaten out of you. Physical punishment was the only real constant I knew. There was no limit to how far the adults in charge would go; one boy frowned instead of smiling and was thrashed. I saw children thrown through windows, and even babies were beaten.

    Such abuse was followed up by hugs — totally disorientating for a small child. We were told the punishment was because the organisers loved us and it was for the good of our soul. We were made to thank them. I learned to cope by taking whatever ownership I could. I remember staring at an adult abusing a friend and thinking, ‘I’ll remember this’. It was a small thing, but all I had. All this abuse existed behind closed doors, and the conspiracy of silence and our ingrained fear of the outside world stopped the truth about what was going on from being discovered by authorities for decades.”

    In the piece, Babin also described how the church’s policy switched suddenly when she was just eight years old. Soon, young girls went out and slept with men to “convert them,” which Babin referred to as prostitution:

    “And so the sexual abuse began. I was violated in this way from the age of 12 too many times than I care to remember, but sex was encouraged with children who were far younger. Even being isolated from TV or outside contact, deep down, I still knew it was wrong. All the children did. We also knew it wasn’t right to see adults having sex in front of us, yet were powerless to stop it.”

    Eventually, Babin found the courage to leave the Children of God sect:

    “I know it’s hard for people to understand why I didn’t run when I had the chance; why, when I met my husband in the cult at 19 and he begged me to leave with him, I refused. But I was terrified of the outside world. I had taught myself to read but had no education, no idea how to speak to anyone and was scared after a lifetime of propaganda. I was living in mental chains.

    Freedom finally came when I was 20 and he convinced me to visit his family at their home. There I saw them sit and eat, laugh and hug. I remember watching them, waiting for the beatings to start, but they never did.

    Six months later, on our next visit, I made the decision never to return to the Church of God. I was 21. I’m now 43, have four children and my family live normal lives. I’m angry about the years I spent in captivity, but have carved out a bright future. My revenge has been to raise intelligent, independent kids. Through my book, I’m hoping to tell victims that they don’t have to be defined by what’s happened to them. My life filled with joy, hope and love. I am a survivor.”

    And now that she’s speaking up against these atrocities, she has a message for others: “I still think about it. It will always be with me. But there is healing and there is hope. I choose each day to move forward with my life. That’s really the message here: no matter what you’ve been through, you can get through it.”

    see photos and video at:

  96. Cult Survivor Doesnt Blame Other Members Who Molested Her as Child: 'We Were All Victims, Really'

    People Magazine Investigates: Cults takes a look at the Children of God and its edict that minors must submit to the sexual desires of adults

    By JEFF TRUESDELL, People.com June 03, 2019

    For her first 27 years, Jemima Farris knew life only as it existed for her within the Children of God religious cult.

    Her mother, living in the early 1970’s with a group of devotees in Seattle, Washington, had joined before Jemima was born. “I believe that she thought it would be a good environment to raise a child, because of the possibility of positive Christian influence,” Farris says in the second-season premiere of People Magazine Investigates: Cults, which airs on Investigation Discovery on Monday, June 3, at 9 p.m. ET.

    But the group’s emphasis on communal living took on a dark side — one that came to include sexual abuse of minors.

    Those traumatized by the cult included the actor River Phoenix, whose parents joined when he was 3 and who later said he remembered losing his virginity at age 4. Phoenix and his family had left the cult by the time he died at age 23 in 1993 from a drug overdose.

    Children in the sect spent years separated from parents, to be raised by the collective under the leadership of former evangelical preacher David Berg, who grew the Children of God from its Huntington Beach, California, origins into a worldwide outreach. Behaviors were rigidly dictated.

    “We never really had any opportunity to choose anything,” Farris tells PEOPLE. “I was told where to go, what to wear, what makeup to put on, how to cut my hair, down to how many pieces of toilet paper I was allowed to use.”

    She says she grew to fear one particularly horrific edict: that young children must share their bodies with anyone who desired them. “As long as it’s done in love, it’s not wrong,” Farris and others were told.

    “They taught us that it was a privilege,” she says on the episode. “As a 12-year-old we were placed on sharing schedules, which was a rotation with different men. … One time we had a dress-up night, and we had a little tent with a fortune teller and a crystal ball — you were told your sexual partner for the night, and you were not allowed to say no.”

    Yet she remained devout. “I was terrified to leave,” says Farris. “They told us that if you leave, you’re going to be drug addicts and prostitutes on the street. I believed 100 percent that God would punish me if I left.”

    When she finally did leave the cult, it was against her will: She was exiled in 2000 at age 27 after a friend reported her for smoking marijuana. By then a young mother herself, Farris, now 44, began a lengthy period of addiction, searching and finally counseling that led her to re-examine her past and the behavior by other cult members that she learned to recognize as abuse.

    “I try not to blame them. We were all victims, really,” she says today. “I was victimized, most definitely. … I try to think of myself as a survivor.”

    Not everyone survived, however. And the destruction wrought by the cult is detailed in Monday’s episode.

    People Magazine Investigates: Cults airs on Investigation Discovery on Monday, June 3, at 9 p.m. ET


  97. Hollywood sex cults before NXIVM the story of the Children of God

    By Ralph Jones, The Telegraph June 25, 2019

    On Wednesday June 19, Keith Raniere, former IT worker turned founder of the New York-based wellness marketing organisation NXIVM, was sentenced to 15 years in prison for sex trafficking and racketeering after full details emerged about the way he lured in wealthy female customers looking for spiritual self-improvement and used them as sex slaves.

    Beginning in the Nineties, the now 58-year-old promised these women emotional and physical guidance, and eventually 20 of these women were living with him in Albany, near New York, working as life coaches in his company's promotional self-help videos by day, and subject to Raniere's every whim by night. Their money, independence, and their bodies were under his total control. Once recruited, these women were ordered by Raniere to recruit other women, and men, too.

    Smallville actor Allison Mack confessed to the New York Times Magazine in 2018 that she was responsible for introducing the cauterised branding of members (in some cases with her own initials), and in April this year she pleaded guilty to racketeering charges. She also admitted to trying to recruit Emma Watson into the cult.

    But Mack is not the only Hollywood star to have been embroiled in a sex cult. Four decades earlier, the Children of God were recruiting anyone they could get their hands on.

    The Children of God was a Christian cult known variously as Teens for Christ, The Family of Love, The Family, and The Family International. The group's story begins with David Brandt Berg. A non-conformist ex-pastor from Oakland, California, Berg was the son of evangelicals who became pastors at a range of Miami churches. Following his father's path, Berg became a minister, spreading the good word in Arizona until he was expelled for alleged sexual misconduct with an employee.

    Berg – who would later be known to his followers as Moses David – believed that the Antichrist was on its way. In 1968, at the age of 49, he founded a militantly evangelistic organisation whose first iteration was called Teens for Christ. Writing “Mo letters” to his followers, he believed that California would soon fall into the ocean and that Jesus would return in 1993. Like all of his predictions, these didn't happen. Berg was an anti-Semite, a racist, and a critic of paedophilia laws. The form that his particular flavour of Christianity took involved advocating that his followers have sex with non-members in order to convince them of the truth of Christianity. One regret of his, he said, was that he never slept with his mother.

    Hollywood actor Joaquin Phoenix's parents Arlyn Phoenix and John Lee Bottom, hippies based in California, joined the Children of God cult in its infancy after having their first child, River. They moved to Texas to join the cult's main commune, and, according to Gavin Edwards, author of River's biography Last Night at the Viper Room: Phoenix and the Hollywood He Left Behind: “children as young as three were encouraged to 'play' sexually with their parents and other adults... But even greater emphasis was put on the children stimulating each other; they could pair off for sexual exploration at night, after prayers but before bed.”

    Arlyn and John Lee, almost penniless since none of the Children of God missionaries were paid, relying instead on their children to perform on the streets for money, left the cult once River was three years old. Arlyn had become disillusioned with female members of the cult were being coerced into using sex to recruit male members. The effects on the family were permanent, however.

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  98. Corey Feldman, fellow child actor and River's close friend, said River, who had embarked upon a successful Hollywood career with films including Stand By Me and Indiana Jones, was unhealthily obsessed with sex. River then went on to struggle with drug abuse during adulthood, leading to a tragic overdose in 1993, aged just 23.

    Sandra Ellis was 15 when the cult known as the Children of God entered her life. It was 1973 and she was at Lourdes Hill College, a private Catholic girls' school in Brisbane. The cult, in their infancy at this stage, were recruiting Catholics to their cause. Ellis didn't join the Children of God immediately but they returned to her school in 1975. Their message was that the end of the world was at hand and that Jesus was coming back. “There was a real urgency in the recruitment,” Ellis, now 61, tells me. The group were made up of young hippies who told the Brisbane schoolgirls that they loved them and that they were their real family. Ellis thought it was God's will that she join the group. “I felt a real belonging with them,” she says. With little hesitation, she signed up.

    Fifteen years later, Ellis's life had changed beyond recognition. Forbidden to use birth control, she had borne seven children to two men in the cult, one of whom colluded with senior figures to tell her that if she left, she couldn't take her children with her. “The CoG had turned me into a grovelling slave, afraid of my own shadow,” she says. Convinced that the group was harbouring a misogynistic paedophile and that she would have a nervous breakdown if she stayed, she extricated herself, and began the long process of picking up the pieces of her life.

    “There was a lot of apocalyptic, imaginative ferment in the late 60s, early 70s in America, as you can imagine,” says Jeffrey Pugh. Now 67, Pugh joined in 1972 in Virginia after visiting a Children of God commune close to his college. He had had a conversionary moment and was trying to work out what to do with his life. “Because I was 19 and didn't know sh-t, they had all the answers,” he says. “They knew the Bible backwards and forwards. They just seemed so self-assured. So for me it was impressive. And they were radical, which was sort of attractive to me at the time.”

    The day after he joined, the group asked Pugh to cut his long hair. He would go on to become part of four colonies – in Syracuse, Cincinnati, Virginia and Toronto – and was among the first wave who were told to leave the US and "share the love" abroad. In Toronto, he tells me, the group took on a totalitarian nature. “I was beginning to doubt that they had the singular interpretation of the text,” he says. “I kept thinking 'I'm not so sure that these guys are right'.”

    In the Toronto colony, Pugh says, the group's members were monitored; they were not allowed to leave the house without being accompanied; their outgoing and incoming letters were reviewed; and any money that their parents posted to them was taken. Feeling increasingly oppressed, Pugh told the leaders that he was being called back to Virginia. The leaders told him that his wanting to leave meant that he was being “oppressed by demons” and that they would pray for him until he was free. “So I'm thinking to myself, that's some fucked-up shit right there,” he says. “These people are batsh-t crazy.” So at three am one day, stepping over twelve sleeping bodies in the basement, he left, hitchhiking towards Niagara Falls and back to the USA.

    In total, Pugh had only been part of the group for four months. Listening to the testimony of half a dozen ex-members, it is clear that his was a lucky escape.

    By 1973, the movement had gone global. They colonised Europe, Pugh explains, and offered sex in exchange for accommodation. By this stage, the practice of 'flirty fishing' had begun, though Pugh tells me that there were rumours that partner-swapping was going on within the group before that.

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  99. Flirty fishing involved followers using sex as a means to share the love of Jesus and potentially recruit new members. In The Sociology of Religious Movements, using data from the group itself, William Bainbridge wrote that members had had some form of sexual contact with around a quarter of a million people between 1974 and 1987.

    Actor and activist Rose McGowan, who was born into the cult to fervently religious parents Terry and Daniel, told People magazine in 2011, “I remember watching how the cult's men were with the women, and at a very early age I decided I did not want to be like those women. They were basically there to serve the men sexually. The women would go to bars as lures (to pick up recruits) - they called it flirty fishing.” McGowan's family fled the cult in the middle of the night nine years later, once sex between children and their parents was expected of them. “I was not molested because my dad was strong enough to realise that this hippie love had gone south," said McGowan. “You were kept in the dark so you would obey...As strong as I've always been, I'm sure I could have been broken. I know I got out by the skin of my teeth.”

    “Having to engage in flirty fishing – sleeping with men outside the cult so as to convince them to ask Jesus into their heart – was really tough,” Ellis says. “I didn't want to do it but was very pressured by the cult's teachings and the expectations of the leaders. I can't say it was sexual abuse, because in the end I agreed to do it. Because of the pressure, I'd talk myself into it – into being willing to do it. But it was sexually abusive in that the teachings gave me as a woman no real choice on the matter. To refuse was to be selfish and rebellious against God's will, and disobedient to the prophet.”

    In 1978 the group reorganised, losing one-eighth of its members after it was accused of a multitude of sins including abuse of authority and financial mismanagement. At this point it became known as The Family of Love, then The Family. Tina Dupuy was born into the cult several years later. She is willing to talk about her involvement but doesn't want her experience to be interpreted as being representative of second-generation members. “I didn't join,” she says. “My life experience is much more of having two horrible parents who were profoundly abusive in every way.”

    Her parents had joined the Family in the 70s, an era in which there were a lot of “lost souls”, Dupuy says. “There was a lot of fear and social change. This was true in the fall of Rome – there were a bunch of weird cults that popped up.” By the time she was five, her parents had taken her to nine countries. As a young baby she was used by her parents to help them proselytise. “I was a sympathy prop to sell Doomsday literature in Union Square,” she says. “I remember not being safe, I remember being cold and hungry.”

    Dupuy knows that her mother was in a couple of raids in South America, where the Family were arrested for being revolutionaries. Her mother also got arrested south of Sao Paolo for selling what the police called child porn. These were the Mo letters that Berg sent to his followers. One of these – written in 1973 – was called Holy Holes, a kind of “drunken rant about how everything's a hole,” in Dupuy's words. “It is very obvious if you look at it that it is grooming his flock for paedophilia.”

    An extract from Holy Holes reads: “Are you a Holy Hole full of Jesus? Holelujah! HOLE-LELUJAH! Get it? That's a HOLE lotta praise to God! A whole hole soul full a hole-souled praise! Amen? HOLE-lelujah! Are you a hole fulla praise? Are you a whole soul holeful of Jesus? HOLE-lelujah!” As Pugh says of Berg, “He was obviously a sociopath.”

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  100. Tina's uncle Rick Dupuy, who left the group in 1992, was one of the people who spoke out most prominently about the cult, calling David Berg a child molester on Larry King Live! in 1993. On the programme he says that the Family told him to have sex with a 10-year-old – an act he confesses to having carried out (though he says there was no penetration) because the grip of the cult was so strong. For this admission he is called a liar by Promise Rimes, a member of the cult. Michael Hawron, then known as Michael Anthony, sits in the studio and disputes Dupuy's every accusation. Dupuy committed suicide less than three years after the episode aired. Hawron now writes about his time in the group with no reference whatsoever to its name or its sexual practices. In an email to me, he says, “I am afraid that I cannot be of much assistance to you as I have nothing to do with the organisation(s) you mentioned.”

    Another member to have been born into the cult is Belisa Baca, now in her 30s. The oldest of her siblings, she was born in Brazil. By the time she was four her parents had had four children; one wasn't her father's – it was a 'Jesus baby', a baby born as the result of the mother sleeping with another man. Before long, Baca was living in poverty: selling pamphlets and busking in public. She was experiencing constant rejection because she was trying to sell something that people did not want to buy. She remembers being so hungry at the age of eight that she convinced her three-year-old brother to ask for an onion from the pantry. The pair of them then ate the raw vegetable outside.

    David Berg would show Baca and her family news stories of rape and murder about the outside world and tell them that that is what happened in the outside world, not inside the cult, where God protected them. She says that he even told his own granddaughter – who claims that he molested her – that she would end up “a drugged-up diseased whore” if she ever went out into the 'system' (the Family's name for the outside world). “We weren't really allowed to have feelings,” Baca says. “We were there because God had brought us to Earth as slaves, basically.”

    Baca did experience some of the sexual abuse that has been reported widely in the media. When she was around four a member of the cult took his trousers off, asking her several times to suck his penis. She refused and he gave up. He told her not to tell her parents and, because she was taught to obey her elders, she didn't tell them until she was 17. When she was five she was sexually assaulted on the couch by a man who was letting the family use his shower. That same year, a man named Peter Piper gathered the kids together in a room and said to her, “Bel, I'm gonna teach the boys about vaginas, so you need to take off your panties and open your legs and we're gonna show everyone.” She tries to forget these moments.

    Now, she says, “The biggest flaw of the cult was denying basic human rights to children. I think people should be able to do what they want with their lives but when it involves denying human rights to those who cannot choose for themselves, that's where they went wrong.” Among her five full siblings, one is a paediatrician; another founded and operates three preschools that help disadvantaged children; and another studies nuclear medicine. “Despite the insurmountable odds of cult indoctrination, poor education at a young age, and poverty, they're overcome so much. It speaks to the resilience of the human spirit.”

    The youngest second-generation member I speak to is Nathan Geddy (not his real name), who lives in Toronto. He was born into the Family in 1988, a year after the group claimed to have stopped practising flirty fishing. Geddy says that around this time there was a complete U-turn on the subject of sex.

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  101. There were strict rules and structures around whom people were allowed to sleep with; birth control was no longer banned outright; and it was an excommunicable offence to sleep with an outsider. Geddy left the group during a six-month punishment he had been subjected to for smoking half a cigarette and dating a girl in “a lower circle”.

    After he left – to go to Canada to see his grandmother – he was not allowed back into the group. “I was still so angry that they had this power and they exercised it on me and I was so so lost and devastated,” he says. Since then, he says, “I have made concerted effort to make sure there is no other institution or person who has the control of being able to blackmail or threaten me or other people into doing things or saying things.” Though Geddy was not sexually abused, he heard stories of sexual abuse from his friends' siblings. “Maybe not even I or anybody will fully know the extent of the harm that it has done to everybody,” he says.

    The harm that Sandra Ellis suffered is difficult to comprehend. Either pregnant or breastfeeding for her entire 15-year spell in the group, Ellis was always overworked and exhausted. “I ended up being in the cult for many more years than was good for anybody,” she says. She had zero choice over whether or when to have children. She tells me that she was raped in the cult. “I didn't know it was rape at the time because I was always accused of being the 'wrong' one, the selfish, rebellious, unloving, unwilling person in the equation. It's only in recent years that I've been able to process all of this properly and see it for what it was.”

    When she was in India, pregnant with her fifth child and feeling sick, she realised she couldn't carry on any longer. She told her husband that she wanted to return to Australia. He told the leaders, and they made clear that she couldn't leave without sacrificing her children. Her husband had her passport, so she felt forced to stay. Only two years later in Melbourne did she leave for good, taking her oldest child and her twin babies with her. Looking back, she says, she thinks that she was still in the throws of an an undiagnosed hyper-manic episode, brought on by the morphine she had been given after the birth of her twins.

    “As a member of the cult, nothing was your own,” she says. “Not your children, not your marriage, not your life, not your labour, and, in the case of women in particular, not your body. Everything was a resource for the cult. There were times when I would get pregnant and I was like, 'I can't do this. I cannot cope with this pregnancy.' I had no choice. And that wasn't just me – that was all of the women in the cult, having baby after baby after baby after baby.”

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  102. One of the most serious effects of being in a group, says 37-year-old second-generation member Flor Edwards, was the impact it had on her growing older into an adult. Edwards, born in Sweden, is the fourth oldest of twelve children and has written a book called Apocalpyse Child about her experiences. “We grew up without a future,” she says. “I never prepared myself to become older, to become an adult.” They only ever saw old people from a distance. “All the adults were in their 20s and 30s. I realised recently we were never in contact with old age. We just weren't given the tools to cope with it.”

    Having been born in the cult, she says, the prospect of leaving was non-existent. “If we left we would basically be abandoned completely. If we left we were gonna be consumed by evil.” When Berg died in 1994, her family were abandoned and began to leave Chicago, slowly making their way out to California over many years. “This was a very tough childhood,” she says. “I even say this was an impossible childhood. I don't even think the mind could comprehend what happened.”

    25 years after its founder's death, the cult – now operating as The Family International – is a husk of its former self. In an email to me, a spokesperson says, almost sheepishly, “At this point, the Family International exists only as a small online-only network of some 1,700 people spread out in 80 countries, and has virtually no formal structure other than its websites. There are no centres, offices, meetings, or forums. As such, there is little interest in responding to allegations that were addressed nearly 30 years ago, which the media has resurrected in recent times as though it were current news.”

    A generic statement further down the email includes the following sentence, enough of a shock almost to take the breath away: “Although the Family International has apologised on a number of occasions to former members for any hurt, real or perceived, that they may have experienced during their membership, we do not give credence to tales or allegations of institutionalised abuse. There is no basis in fact for such allegations, as evidenced by the findings of courts around the world, which evaluated over 600 children in the early 1990s living in communities of the Family International by means of intrusive court-appointed physical, psychological, and educational testing.”

    Rather than being accused of being old news, this gaslighting of victims couldn't be more relevant in 2019. As Ellis says, “Legally proving the abuse that takes place in a secretive cult like the CoG is not an easy task – but that doesn't mean it didn't happen.”

    see photos included in this article at:

  103. INTERVIEW: Alo Wiza

    August 27, 2019 Vents Magazine

    Q) How have you been?
    A) Great thanks. Wrapping up a lovely summer 😊

    Q) Can you talk to us more about your latest single “Give It To Me Like That”?
    A) I wrote it at the end of last year when I was having voice problems. Started losing my voice because of acid reflux from writing, producing and dancing too much. I didn’t know what was wrong at the time, terrified of going to the doctor I started writing spoken word songs instead of melodic ones. Words are a mix of what I sometimes hear on the radio combined with my own experiences. I’d say it’s in the style of rap-pop.

    Q) Did any event in particular inspire you to write this song?
    A) A great friend producer sent me a hip hop demo track to write on. The words came easily with this track.

    Q) How was the filming process and experience behind the video?
    A) It was a very simple video to make. Was only me and then Ray Rav who filmed and edited the whole video. We shot around The Bushwick Collective on a beautiful sunny day for a few hours.

    Q) How was the recording and writing process?
    A) I wrote it on another demo track first. Then Retnik Beats picked it up and made a new instrumental. Then I recorded the final version using his new beat at Studio Dada in Belgium.

    Q) How your upbringing has influenced your writing?
    A) I was born in a cult called “The Family International”. Home schooled, living in very isolated communities. Lived in 15 different countries then at age 18 left with no idea of how the real world was. Very naive and innocent I fell for every trick in the book and basically experienced everything on my own. Dealing with many negative situations helped me get lost in my music. I also have a lot to write about and see the world from another angle.

    Q) What role does NYC play in your music?
    A) Thats where I feel most at home, I feel like I’m one big melting pot like NYC. And even if I didn’t grow up there I’ve had many crazy experiences over the years which have influenced a lot of my songs.

    Q) How do you go on marrying your fashion aesthetic with your music and the other way around?
    A) Modeling is something I do on the side. 99% of the time I’m doing music. Although I do like taking more creative and artistic shoots for Album covers etc..

    Q) Does the new single mean we can expect a new material – how’s that coming along?
    A) I’m working on 2 new singles. Gravitating towards electro-pop. One was sent two days ago to be mastered. And the second is almost done with mixing.

    Q) Any tentative release date or title in mind?
    A) A video clip from my EP NightBird will be released end of September and my 2 new singles will be released this year in the fall.

    Q) Any plans to hit the road?
    A) Yes, I’ll try to do as many shows/showcases/interviews as possible in Belgium and New York.

    Q) What else is happening next in Alo Wiza’s world?
    A) I’ll be performing at the beauty pageant Belgium’s Most Amazing Woman and also preparing to make video clips for my 2 new singles. Search for labels for next 2 singles, and continue promoting my released tracks however I can.

    Watch Alo Wiza - Give It To Me Like That (feat. Retnik Beats) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uq6wnOZXpg8


  104. I Escaped the Cult. But I Couldn’t Escape the Cult Mentality

    After leaving the Children of God, I was so proud to join the Army. But then I had to ask myself: Was I trading one culture of blind obedience for another?

    by Daniella Young, Narratively September 9, 2019

    It was the first time I’d ever been allowed to watch television. I was 14 years old. Glass exploded, metal shrieked, and red flames shot skyward before being enveloped in a mushroom cloud of thick, black smoke. A tower in New York City had been hit by a plane. America stared transfixed in horror as people leapt to their deaths and two landmark buildings collapsed. Terror enveloped the nation.

    Was the Apocalypse about to start?

    The September 11th terrorist attacks were shocking everywhere, but the most shocking thing in my house was that the adults had turned on the television and images from the outside world were permeating our closed society. Our Prophet had always predicted that America, Babylon the Whore, would feel the wrath of an angry God, and we could see it happening as the buildings collapsed. But worldly television? That was never allowed.

    I was born and raised behind the commune walls of an extreme modern-day religious cult, the Children of God (COG). My mother, who was also raised in the cult, was 15 when she gave birth to me, in the Philippines, where she lived away from her own parents, away from my father, yet always surrounded by her cult family. My father was in another commune, in another country, married to someone else.

    At 14, I had never set foot inside a school and was not allowed to read anything but the King James Bible or COG religious texts. I had never played on a sports team or even had the overwhelmingly “regular” experience of walking down a sidewalk alone.

    COG members believed in Jesus, love, brotherhood and the looming specter of the Apocalypse, when the world would end in fire and brimstone. The group had originally held a unique appeal for American hippies during the late 1960s, but over the course of 40 years the cult’s leader took his unquestioning followers on a very dark journey through religious prostitution, physical and sexual abuse of children, and various forms of religious isolation and extremism, all while convincing them that they were the “true” missionaries of God.

    Four generations of women in my family had been taken in by David Berg, a man who claimed to be the “Endtime Prophet of God.” My great-grandmother donated money and land to this “new religious movement,” and her daughter would eventually go all in, sacrificing her freedom, her daughters, and eventually her granddaughters to build the True Endtime Army of God.

    On 9/11, I was standing stunned in our commune in San Diego — a brief stopover between the mission fields of Brazil and Mexico — watching havoc, destruction and death rain down. Though we were American citizens, the United States was a country that we had always considered too evil to live in, lest we be corrupted. Over the next few weeks, we would be told by our leaders that the 9/11 attacks were God’s punishments on Americans for their history of evil choices and for rejecting God’s Endtime Prophet. I was unsure.

    People called the Children of God a cult, but we rejected that title. They said that we were brainwashed, but I had never believed that either. Second and third-generation members like me were intelligent, fun-loving and lively teenagers, who loved to sing, dance and praise God. We could argue biblical theory with anyone — something we were often called upon to do out on the streets, while hunting for converts or begging for money. People said that we were abused — and yes, we were, but as children we were taught that the beatings we received were an expression of God’s love, and we didn’t question the Prophet when he said that periods of forced isolation were to help us commune with Jesus.

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  105. He taught us that sex was pure — within marriage, between marriages, and even with children — and his followers obeyed. Knowing that the world couldn’t understand our beliefs, we kept ourselves locked up, hidden, isolated.

    After 9/11, the news featured many in-depth reports on the presumed mental states of the terrorists — men radicalized by religion. I recognized in those reports a truth that I had never been able to see in my total isolation: They were no different than us, just another brand of religious extremism carried out on the world stage. I could understand those men perfectly, their complete dedication to an idea, isolating and surrounding themselves with others who thought just like them. I could even understand their willingness to sacrifice their lives.

    As I heard “Christians” around me thanking God for his just anger and punishment of the wicked, I realized that I needed to get away before this extremism destroyed me. By 15, I promised myself that I would escape. It wasn’t going to be easy. As a third-generation cult member, my parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles were all dedicated members, and I barely knew my few relatives who were not. All my life I had been taught that police were out to get me, that schools taught nothing but lies, and that all Americans were evil. Nobody I had contact with worked a paying job, lived alone, or attended school. How could I do all of those things at only 15?

    I had to lay low and bide my time, pray and smile, all the while formulating my plan. I believed I could survive in the outside world. I just needed a way out — and, in the end, the extremism is what saved me. In an autocratic society, with no room for differences of opinion, where no questioning of authority is allowed and there is excommunication for anyone who dares to be different, my escape route soon became clear: I wouldn’t have to run away if I could get them to kick me out. I just had to be willing to forsake everything and everyone I had ever known.

    My heart was pounding and my mind was racing as I contemplated my first major act of rebellion — sneaking out for a cigarette. I needed to do something to declare my independence, to prove to myself that I was capable of choice. When God didn’t immediately punish me, I got bolder. While out proselytizing in a Mexican town, I claimed to speak no Spanish at all (an obvious lie to those in charge). When I was supposed to be watching the younger children, I made plans to meet a local boy in the middle of the night. I quickly developed a reputation for being a “problem teenager.” My biggest offense of all would come when I declared that I wanted to attend high school.

    I knew that the leaders were debating my fate. I could tell by all the young, “cool” 20-year-old cult officers that they were sending to our commune to counsel me. While excommunicating a “problem teenager” was the usual course of action, my parents were famous members and I was the oldest third-generation member still around. They feared a domino effect should word get out that I had left the Family.

    I had never known my mother well, though technically I lived alongside her all my life. While she was working or having babies, I was living in dorms with other kids my age. When we spent time together, we only discussed cult-approved topics. But every once in a while, she would surprise me, somehow teaching me a way to think differently. When I was 3, sitting down with an alphabet book, she taught me that, “the only thing you ever need in life is for someone to teach you to read. Everything else you can teach yourself.” This turned out to be excellent advice, since it’s just about the only education I received.

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  106. One day after I made waves by sneaking out of the commune to meet with regular kids, my mother surprised me again. Out for a walk where we couldn’t be overheard, looking down at my scuffed leather clogs and hand-me-down, too-big clothes, I confessed that I wanted to leave but was afraid of what was waiting for me in the unknown. Should I stay here in Mexico, recommitting to the cult, to God, all of it? It seemed less scary than America, high school and making it on my own. She listened silently, then put her arm around me, her long brown hair brushing my cheek, and said, “I’ve already done all the work to arrange a place and gotten permission to bring you as far as Texas. It’ll be hard, but you’re smart, and you’re ready.” At 30 years old, with seven children and seven stepchildren, no education and no support, not ready to break away herself, she wanted to clear a path for me. It would be up to me to decide what kind of life I wanted.

    Then I was gone, the gates of the compound closing behind me one last time, with everything I knew about life locked behind them. My mother and stepfather, a man she’d married when I was young and who was quite high-ranking in the cult, used their influence to get a little money for the trip. My parents were free to drop me off in the outside world, even to help me get set up, but we all knew that once it was done I couldn’t come back, even to visit. I would lose my family; I would be a “backslider.” As we drove away, I looked back at the concrete walls surrounding the large house on Del Greco Street in Guadalajara, Mexico, knowing I’d never see it again. From the outside, it looked so normal, beautiful bougainvillea flowers camouflaging the truth of what lay within. They called it excommunication. I called it freedom.

    My parents took me to Texas and dropped me off with one of my stepdad’s oldest daughters; she had left the cult a few years earlier. Struggling herself and owing me nothing, we were connected nevertheless — and she’d agreed to give me a place to land. Before they left, I asked my mother for $20, but she had no money of her own to give me. As I watched them drive away, I had zero dollars in my pocket, standing in a country as foreign to me as the moon. I felt free, like the world was full of opportunity, but simultaneously alone, scared and angry that no one had ever taught me a single thing about the real world.

    When I showed up at the local high school, thrilled to enroll, they didn’t know what to do with me. According to them, I simply didn’t exist; though I was standing right in front of them, I had no paperwork to prove I was real. It took weeks of visitation to school district officials who could not wrap their heads around a 15-year-old American citizen with no records to show. They finally found a box to check for me, and I was enrolled into an English-as-a-second-language homeroom — little blonde, white Daniella, the girl “from” Mexico with no parents. Overwhelmed in the hallway on my first day of class, with 4,000 other students rushing by, it took me no time at all to realize that I wasn’t just from another country, I was from another world.

    High school never got easier, but I guess that’s a pretty normal teen experience. In college, I began to come into my own. For the first time, I was in an environment that encouraged questioning, searching for answers, and having tough conversations. I studied literature, logic and history, fascinated by a whole world that I’d never known existed. All the while, I felt like an imposter, like I’d snuck in there and didn’t really belong. Giving the valedictorian speech on graduation day, I encouraged my fellow graduates to embrace their futures, while still not being able to talk about my own past.

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  107. After escaping a cult and crafting a new identity in high school and college, I felt grateful to America. Earning that degree gave me a concrete feeling of having my feet on solid ground, something that no one could take away from me. In the span of six years, I’d gone from confused and penniless to someone with options. My idea of America had changed completely, from “Babylon the Whore” to “Land of Opportunity,” and I wanted to give something back. The images of 9/11 had always stayed with me, and I thought of that day as the day I became an American. So I accepted a commission into the United States Army, thinking that a three-year commitment would be a small price to pay for the education I’d received and the freedom I felt lucky to have.

    Nobody can ever prepare you for what it feels like to get off the bus on the first day of basic training. You have not had a wink of sleep in 72 hours, waiting for hours and hours at airports and bus stations, in transit with other recruits who are just as clueless as you are. You get off the bus in the middle of the night and are greeted by yelling drill sergeants, their broad-brimmed brown hats something that you will learn quickly to fear. It is all a blur of standing in lines, doing push-ups till you fall on your face, and so much yelling. The rigid structure and total control felt so very familiar that a single question rang through my head: “Did I just join another cult?”

    After the initial shock, I easily found my groove. The rigidity and structure of the Army quickly became a comfort — another institution that, like the one I had grown up in, told me what to do, when to do it, and how I should feel about it. The command structure was comforting. The laser focus on ideas and action seemed familiar. There was love and connection to other humans. There were values that drove us and a mission to achieve. We memorized, we chanted, we marched. We called each other brother and sister.

    Officer school was more of the same. There was an easy goal — get through 12 weeks of hazing and hardship and you earn the right to wear the rank. Along the way, we brushed on topics of human psychology: how to motivate, how to lead, how to control. Soon, I shipped off to Afghanistan as an Army lieutenant. Without anyone knowing my history, I had been trained as a military intelligence officer — an expert in studying other groups, communities and cultures, and in switching perspectives to figure out what the other side was thinking and planning.

    I was one in a group of dozens of soldiers crowded around a radio in Kandahar, Afghanistan. Every fiber of our beings was taut with fear and dread as we listened to the sounds of our buddies dying. Over the radio waves, we heard the horrifying mayhem of exploding bombs, frantic commands and high-pitched screams.

    My official role was in a makeshift office, doing intelligence operations — collecting crucial information and getting it to the right people. I’d also been trained for combat missions, part of a new experiment putting women on special teams conducting deliberate ground combat operations. Listening to that radio, images streamed into my mind unbidden, of my friends out there, trapped and scared on that hot sand. That was my patrol team out there in trouble, my colleagues and friends who’d wandered into a death trap.

    We clicked into action, shoving aside feelings as we let our training kick in, automating our responses to the tragedy. There was enemy activity to monitor, an operational response to plan, and body parts to recover and send home.

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  108. We all had a part to play, while waiting to hear the names of the 10 people who had just been slaughtered. I couldn’t let myself think about them — not John, or Osman, or Mills or anyone. I had a job to do. This is what I was trained for. This is how I’d been taught act — no feelings, no questions, just response. This was my new reality.

    Back at my station, running the intelligence operations and the various eyes in the sky that helped us with recovery missions, we heard the names coming in — 10 casualties, names that I knew, and every one of them felt like a punch in the face. I was hit with a profound feeling of loss and the realization that 10 families back home would soon be having the worst days of their lives. Because of the actions of insurgents that day, 10 human beings were never going home. Their lives had been claimed by religion, their families shattered by homemade explosives — bombs powered by an idea.

    In that moment, I suddenly felt trapped. Eight years had passed since I’d left the cult — a community that had controlled my thoughts and actions in a blatant way. Yet here I was, a world away from where I’d started, and again my friends and I were under the complete control of someone else — following in unquestioning obedience. That day, obedience had claimed their lives, and I wasn’t even sure that any of us believed in that mission. Folks around me were calling them heroes, saying that they were part of the greater good, but all I could see through my tears was that they’d died following an order from high above, powerless to make any decisions on their own. Here I was, surrounded by a group of people, so dedicated and so connected to an ideology that they were willing to sacrifice their lives for it. What had made so much sense to me now felt nothing but horrifying. It felt like too much. Once again, it was time to get out.

    Throughout my time in the military and even after I left, fellow soldiers and veterans have asked me time and again, “Why did you escape one cult and then join another?” There’s always a laugh in their voices, hiding the incredulity that they feel. The truth is that it seems strange to me as well, like it was a path that chose me, rather than the other way around. Oftentimes, I have the feeling that I don’t know who I am without some kind of group structure around me. But then again, isn’t that something that we are all searching for?

    Life in the cult was hard, and given the chance, I would definitely have chosen an easier path. But while it’s difficult to explain exactly how abusive and isolating it was, there is also a deep, lasting and important connection that I still have with my fellow survivors — to this day.

    My Army buddies get it, because we’ve experienced that kind of bonding. We all suffered through the painful process of joining up and going through a training regimen so intense that we feel as though it’s changed our souls. Our randomly assigned groups became teams so strong that we were willing to take bullets for each other; we ignored pain and fear of death in pursuit of a higher cause. There’s even a sense of nostalgia for the intense bond that we shared — a camaraderie that is hard to find on the outside.

    These days, I still find myself joining teams and groups; I recognize my own desire for a strong bond with others and a shared ideology. I find drive in running clubs, purpose in volunteer opportunities, and focus in my daughter’s parent-teacher association. I’ve learned to harness my love of community, my sense of safety in a group, and my belief that I can always find a purpose, focus and mission where I will be truly fulfilled.


  109. The siblings who escaped the Children of God cult

    By Mike Farrell, BBC Scotland News, 3 October 2019

    Jonathan Watt and Verity Carter's father was the first man to be convicted of sexual abuse linked to the Children of God cult in Scotland.

    The cult started in the US in the 1960s but Jonathan and Verity were brought up under its strict teachings in "communes" around Scotland in the 80s and early 90s.

    The religious sect, which was also known as The Family, has faced allegations of widespread sexual and physical abuse of children, including sexual violence, incest, and brainwashing.

    Last year, Verity and Jonathan's father Alexander Watt was convicted of four charges of sexually abusing his daughter and another child in Renfrewshire and on the east coast of Scotland when they were part of the cult.

    Following his conviction, Verity, who is now 39, began to speak out about her ordeal but her younger brother has never publicly discussed his upbringing before.

    Jonathan told BBC Scotland's The Nine he was not sexually abused but was the subject of "daily beatings" while growing up in the cult.

    He says: "The only way you can sustain a cult is you've got to have total control. You're living in a world inside a world. You've got no contact with the outside world.

    "The only way to stop contact is to kill curiosity, and the only way to do that is basically to drill into you from when you were born that you're useless, you're worthless, you're ugly. Unfortunately with a cult like that, where you are outside of the law, it's a safe haven for some abusive, violent adults."

    The Children of God began in the United States in the late 1960s and built on the 'free love' philosophy of counter-culture America.

    Its founder, David Berg, told members that God was love and love was sex, so there should be no limits, regardless of age or relationship.

    By the 1970s Berg's cult claimed to have 10,000 full-time members in 130 communities around the world.

    Hollywood stars Rose McGowan and Joaquin Phoenix were born into it.

    In Scotland, it operated at sites in Renfrewshire, Lanarkshire, Ayrshire and Edinburgh.

    Verity says she was abused from the age of four by her father and other cult members and she hopes that by speaking out it will encourage others to come forward to expose the actions of The Family.

    During their upbringing, the siblings say they were frequently moved to different properties where "communes" had been set up.

    These were often in parts of the Scottish countryside with nothing for miles around and the children were deliberately never told of their exact location.

    Verity says the adults in the communes would have "cult names" - often Biblical and frequently unrelated to their true identity - which has presented issues in trying to gather evidence of their abuse.

    While staying in the communes, the pair say there was some contact with the "systemites" in the outside world - especially social workers - but they were well-prepared for them.

    "They were very well scripted [for us]," Verity says. "They even dressed us in nice clothes - I remember I used to wear a dress with ribbons when the school inspector was coming."

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  110. Despite being younger than his sister it was Jonathan who was first to leave the cult.

    Verity was only told that her brother had been "excommunicated for incurable demon possession".

    However, Jonathan says he was ejected from the group after having a "total mental breakdown" at the age of 14.

    "They tried to pray the demons out of me and it didn't work," he says. "Ultimately they had to excommunicate me - but they had to force me out."

    Despite being free from the cult, Jonathan struggled to cope after he left.

    He says: "I basically continued to follow The Family rules inside my own head as I couldn't accept the outside world."

    Eventually, it led to him becoming homeless at the age of 16.

    "I was on the streets three weeks before my 16th birthday, with a change of clothes, a bag and nowhere to sleep that night," he says. "Although it was terrifying, in a way it was what I needed."

    After years of abuse, Verity also wanted to leave.

    "When I hit 15, I had already tried to commit suicide on three occasions and had attempted to run away twice," she says. "I had reached the point where it didn't matter anymore because, however bad the outside world might be, what difference could it possibly make?"

    She says she decided to get herself thrown out by gathering items which were forbidden by The Family such as cigarettes, make-up, jewellery and chewing gum. After being confronted by adults about her stash, Verity was deliberately unrepentant - and started laughing when they tried to perform an "exorcism" on her.

    "One of the adults in the home, his name was Paul, came up to punish me and he had his belt off and he wanted me to drop my trousers," she says. "Then he started chasing me around the room, and as I was running away, I grabbed the belt off him and started hitting him back.

    "I'd never done anything like this, I'd never stuck up for myself in this way. I'd said 'no' before, but I never really felt I had the right to do it. I'd never fought for myself."

    When she left The Family in the early 1990s, Verity struggled with alcohol and drugs in an attempt to block out her childhood experiences.

    She says: "I changed my lifestyle when I had kids but, to be honest, it is probably sheer luck that I survived those first few years out of the cult."

    The pair hope that by raising awareness of what happened to them, it might encourage other survivors to contact the police and other authorities with their stories.

    Verity says: "So many of them (survivors) don't feel like there's any point in speaking up about it.

    "But I know for myself, when I finally did find my voice, it did give me a bit of closure."

    The remnants of the group continue to have a presence online, now known as The Family International.

    A spokeswoman said: "Although the Family International has apologised on a number of occasions to former members for any hurt, real or perceived, that they may have suffered during their time in our membership, we do not give credence to tales of institutionalised abuse."


  111. Daniella Mestyanek Young talks about growing up in the cult "The Children of God"

    Jan 19, 2020

    Daniella Mestyanek Young is an author, International Speaker and combat veteran. She sat down with James and talked about her story going from sex cult to Army Officer.

  112. Marie Palmer Recounts Her Escape From The Children Of God Sex Cult In New Book

    by Richard Enos, Collective Evolution September 12, 2019

    Marie Palmer did not choose to be part of the ‘Children of God’ cult that was founded in California in 1968 by a former Christian pastor named David Brant Berg. She was born into it. And as such, her entire worldview was founded on the inexorable indoctrination and brainwashing that was used. In itself this is even more tragic than the plight of those hippies like her father that had joined the movement as adults, and who believed, ironically, that they had found a path of greater liberation and truth.

    Marie was brought up as a child in an environment that on the one hand promoted an unhealthy lack of boundaries, but in other ways was dangerously restrictive. The toxic and twisted principles that emerged from the mind of founder David Berg were laced with enough pseudo-validation from Christian scripture to convince many lost and downtrodden souls that they were actually on the right path to God and salvation–in fact the ONLY true path, for many of its devotees.

    What has emerged over time, marked by the testimony of ex-members like actress Rose McGowan and the tragic murder-suicide of Ricky Rodriguez, whom Berg dubbed ‘Davidito’ and was grooming as the heir-apparent to his throne, is that the psychological and emotional disorientation and trauma brought upon children born into this cult was so extreme that it was difficult or impossible for many of them to survive in the world, let alone establish a normal life.

    Marie Palmer has written a book entitled ‘The Gift of Will,’ which explores the impact of the brainwashing of the ‘Children of God’ cult on her personally, her escape from the cult, and the long and difficult journey she has been on to overcome the trauma and confusion she had been beset with. It was after reading this book that I felt it would be worthwhile for CE to go down to Oregon to talk to Marie in person so that we could provide a full 4-part interview of her story for our members on CETV. You can watch it when you sign up for a free 7-day trial HERE.

    The ‘Children Of God’ Cult
    Marie was able to escape from the cult as a teen, out of an intense and very real fear of getting pregnant, and an inner rebelliousness that she didn’t really understand or get a handle on until much later. Having now been out of the cult for decades, Marie has been able to see in retrospect how the emergence and rapid popularity of the cult was likely a product of the times founded on some positive intentions, at least initially:

    “Maybe it started as a sincere desire to help the lost hippie generation. Maybe it was his obsession with the Bible and his evangelical background that gave him a platform from which to easily build upon. Maybe it was timing. He believed he could create a new type of hippie culture that still held itself true to the ideals of freedom and free love but in the context of following the representation of Jesus in the Bible. He wanted the security of knowing his ideas were based on something real and true. Free love for the sake of free love was fun but flighty. Free love in the name of Jesus Christ–there was everlasting power in that.”

    “I can see how that era created opportunity for its youth to find peace and solace in the form of spirituality. I can see how being considered an outcast could be enticing, especially one that had purpose, was following the creator. They could be dropouts and still feel a sense of comradery, family, have a place to call home. Mo provided a way for these lonely youth to be crazy, wild and revolutionary, to burn their old ideas along with their bras, to be free from drugs and street life but hold true to their inner rebel against what they called “the system” and he created this utopia in the name of Jesus.”–The Gift of Will, pp 56–57

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  113. However it seems clear that the basic principles that the ‘Children of God’ cult was founded on morphed over time to accommodate greater control and the sexual predispositions of founder David Berg and his inner circle. One particularly effective vehicle for indoctrination was the famed ‘Mo letters,’ (‘Mo’ being short for Berg’s moniker ‘Moses David’) which often used vivid cartoon graphics portraying sexuality to draw one’s attention and drive the message home.

    The way in which sexuality was portrayed certainly had a lot of appeal to adult members of the hippie movement who were convinced that their freedom in relation to sexuality was bringing them closer to God and to their community. In the early years, the technique of ‘Flirty Fishing,’ where women would go out and recruit men into the organization through openly inviting them to have sex, was highly successful, bringing hundreds of thousands of men into them movement. The justification for this, as seen in the Mo Letter illustration below, was that the ends justified the means, and the end was supposedly to bring more people in to experience the ‘Love of God.’

    Ultimately, though, power is the name of the game, and David Berg’s personal motivations were far from ‘unselfish, pure sacrificial love.’ As the cult grew, more and more emphasis was put on the need for people to stay in the cult, and that meant using fear and the wrath of God to dissuade people from considering leaving the organization, with quotations cherry-picked from the Bible to garner legitimacy.

    One method of control was the systematic suppression of worldly knowledge. In fact, a general tenet of the cult was that anything ‘worldly’ was evil. In this clip from our interview, Marie Palmer explains how as a child she really got no formal education, and had no idea about how the outer world worked. She was only ‘schooled’ in the cult’s indoctrination, which preached that children should trust and obey their elders and not ask questions.

    As she mentions, young girls in the cult were expected to share themselves with older men who pursued them, as well as providing for those ‘in need’ of intimacy and comfort, under the guise that the whole community was ‘in this together’ and sex should have no boundaries. It wasn’t as though they were violently forced to have sex within the cult, but the psychological pressures, amid efforts to normalize sex between children and adults, led to countless sexual encounters that were undoubtedly traumatic and a source of complete disorientation for the young members:

    I know that kids experiment with their sexuality when they are young, usually it’s with kids their own age. There are no words to explain how confusing it is when you are a child that’s expected to experiment sexually with adults. They are your role models. They have all the power. The power to shame you. To discipline you. To give you grace. To provide for you. To give you direction. Every child has the innate desire to please those who rule over them. Disappointing our parents and guardians is a hard thing to face. This makes children ideal victims for abusers.” —The Gift of Will, (p. 65)

    Perhaps David Berg did not initially set out to create an organization that actively and openly practiced pedophilia. But the reactions of young members such as Davidito stand as a sobering testament to the volatile and damaging impact of such practices. Davidito had a burning rage against the nannies who were both his guardians and his sexual partners, a rage that was immortalized in this confessional video he made just before his murder/suicide that lays bare his deep resentment and hopelessness.

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  114. If there is any debate remaining as to whether it is healthy for children to have any kind of sexual relationships with adults, which some powerful forces have slowly tried to normalize in society, it is laid to rest with the testimony of brave survivors who were brought up in the ‘Children of God’ cult like Marie Palmer.

    What is remarkable and also most important about Marie Palmer’s story is that she has found a way to heal herself from her past. Going through a long stretch after escaping from the cult in which she had absolutely no sense of self or understanding about how to deal with the rage, confusion, depression or sorrow that followed her around constantly, she eventually developed a great hunger for knowledge and for learning. What was especially exciting for her was to learn about spirituality and the Divine in ways that were liberating rather than restrictive. In this way, she could come to grips with the flaws in the Berg philosophy and let go of its influence. Further, she learned forgiveness as the only true way to reconcile the past:

    Many religions, especially patriarchal ones, teach that we are either good or evil. And, they teach us further that if we aren’t submissive to this strand of teaching – the cross, the blood, and outside source bringing redemption – we are fatally flawed, crippled from the cradle to the grave.

    By understanding and practicing Buddhism, I’ve been able to detach myself from the concept of good versus evil. I’ve been able to study the mechanisms that make my soul tick. I’ve been able to accept that as a human being, I experience light and shadow and it’s all OK.

    Sometimes the light may blind me. Sometimes the shadow may darken my horizon. Regardless I am comprised of both; we all are. So, for me, there is no redemption by blood. There is no sense of retaliation or shame projected onto us by any God. Just as there is no need for retaliation for my experiences as a child. I was a victim of the shadows. But, I was graced with the ability to find and choose the light. —The Gift of Will, (p. 142)

    The Takeaway
    Marie’s journey reminds all of us that only through forgiveness is there liberation from the past. What she has accomplished is inspiring, because she has so much more to forgive than most of us. And she sees that once we are willing to forgive those who had the most power over us, those who caused us the most suffering, something opens up that can change our overall perception forever.

    "Once I decided to forgive my parents, I could see clearly to forgive just about everyone in the world. I began to see the world through the eyes of compassion, mercy, and Grace. I was also able to forgive myself for not being a better sister to my brother, and all the other naïve and ignorant things I have done to others and myself. I was able to begin the journey of loving myself. To have the upmost compassion for myself and respect for my own identity.” —The Gift of Will, (pp. 155-156)"

    To see the photos and videos in this article go to:

  115. BBC Radio 4 - Afterlives

    Two women meet for the first time to share their journeys from brokenness and despair to where both say they can find the good as well as the bad in their past.

    Both were born into the Children of God cult which began as an idealistic movement to change the world, but became known for its sexual exploitation including child abuse and paedophilia.

    Petra Velzeboer is of Dutch extraction but lived in cult missions around the world before leaving the community with alcohol addiction, no formal education and no clear direction of where to go. She lives in London with her two children, while Dawn Watson, who grew up in cults across Brazil, still lives in South America.

    Both are now successful businesswomen. Without glossing over the horrors of the past, they examine with each other what drives them and agree that speaking out has helped them to heal. They also challenge the #MeToo campaign for continuing to see victims as victims rather than empowering them.

    The conversation gets away from binaries of good and bad, looks forward and not back - examining the strength of self-preservation and how vulnerability can become the birthplace of love, trust, intimacy and courage - the very things that bring meaning and joy to life.

    An Overtone production for BBC Radio 4

  116. Children of God rapist nailed after Scots cops spent five years probing secret cult

    Specialist Police Scotland officers mounted a "challenging and complex" investigation as they sought justice for two little girls attacked by Derek Lincoln 30 years ago.

    By Jane Hamilton, Scottish Daily Record, JULY 15, 2020

    Police Scotland spent five years probing a secret cult to nail rapist Derek Lincoln, left, who was a member of the Children of God sect founded by David Berg, right (Image: Police Scotland/Getty)

    A crack team of Scottish police officers spent five years probing a secret cult to help nail a vile pensioner who raped two little girls in Scotland.

    Warped Derek Lincoln sexually abused his victims, who were then aged nine and 10, at various locations across Scotland between 1989 and 1991 while he was carrying out “missionary work” in the country.

    The Children of God sect, which was also known as The Family, has faced allegations of widespread sexual and physical abuse of children – including sexual violence, incest and brainwashing.

    Leader David Berg, who founded the cult in California in the 60s, died in 1994, while on the run from the FBI.

    Lincoln, who was extradited from France, admitted committing the offences at addresses in Ayrshire, Lanarkshire and Renfrewshire.

    Police Scotland launched an investigation in 2014 after they were contacted by Hertfordshire Police in relation to a separate child abuse inquiry involving the cult.

    What followed was a complex, challenging five-year investigation which culminated in Lincoln’s arrest in October last year.

    Officers travelled all over the UK and worked with inter-national forces to track down witnesses of the secretive cult, who often had little or no contact with anyone on the outside world.

    Detective Sergeant Neil Wilson, from Police Scotland’s specialist crime division National Rape Task Force, who led the inquiry, praised the victims for their bravery in coming forward to police and revealed the difficulties officers faced in their investigation.

    He said: “Often we found there would be maybe 10 houses where up to 60 people were living who often didn’t use their real names but were known by first names or other pseudonyms.

    “The victims were only children and they often moved from place to place under the cover of darkness to the middle of nowhere so they could sometimes identify landmarks or buildings but not place names.

    “Thanks to partnerships with other police forces we were able to identify witnesses across the world, including places such as Pakistan and India.

    “It was challenging and complex but I commend the bravery in these women in coming forward and reporting to us.”

    At the High Court in Glasgow, prosecutor Kath Harper said: “The accused was a member of a religious group sometimes known as the Children of God. Many members were known to one another only by names attributed to them by the group, making identification of witnesses difficult.”

    Cult used 'flirty fishing' to lure members

    The Children of God began in the US in 1968 and was founded by David Berg. He told members that God was love and love was sex, so there should be no limits, regardless of age or relationship.

    ● Berg’s cult spread and claimed to have 10,000 full-time members in 130 communities around the world by the 70s. He would order female members to have sex with men to bring them into the cult. He called this “flirty fishing”.

    ● Hollywood stars Rose McGowan and Joaquin Phoenix were born into the cult. McGowan’s parents, Terry and Daniel, were involved with the cult in Italy but left when the sect began openly advocating sexual relations between children and adults. Phoenix’s parents left when flirty fishing became policy.

    ● Berg died in 1994 in Portugal while under investigation from both Interpol and the FBI. One of his wives, Karen Zerby, inherited the group’s leadership and changed its name to The Family and lately The Family International.

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  117. ● In Scotland, it operated at sites in Renfrewshire, Lanarkshire, Ayrshire and Edinburgh. It is not known if the sect is still active in this country.

    ● The organisation claims it is now an online network of about 1900 people in 80 countries.

    The group, who lived communally, performed missionary work in the west of Scotland and had limited interaction with the outside world.

    The first rape victim described Lincoln as “stern and controlling” and said he once put duct tape on her mouth and also put soap in her mouth and beat her with a switch and a belt.

    Ms Harper said he began abusing the girl when she was 11 or 12.

    The first time Lincoln raped her, he pinned her down on the bed and held his hand over her mouth to keep her quiet. She described this as a painful and traumatic experience and said “the light went out inside me”.

    When the girl was 12, Lincoln apologised to her for his behaviour but despite this the abuse continued and became more frequent.

    Scots cult member dodged prison

    The cult first came to attention in Scotland when Alexander Watt (pictured) dodged prison after being found guilty of sexual offences against two youngsters in the 80s.

    Watt, 70, from Dumbarton, was put on probation for three years and ordered to sign the sex offenders’ register following his conviction in 2017.

    The dad-of-10 first attacked a girl aged between four and eight and subjected her to sexual assaults.

    Depraved Watt, below, was also found guilty of assault and lewd, indecent and libidinous behaviour towards a boy aged between seven and nine. His heinous crimes only came to light when his victims went to police many years later.

    Just weeks after that, officers said they were investigating the Children of God for sexual offences against women and children.

    Yesterday, police revealed children were used to beg for money to fund the group’s activities and movements around the world.

    DS Neil Wilson said the kids were cut off from the outside world and often only allowed outside to beg, with adults closely watching them.

    In America, the cult came to the attention of the FBI after victims came forward alleging incest and abuse.

    Cult leader David Berg’s daughter Debbie escaped and told how she had been abused by him.

    The sect was taken over by Berg’s wife Karen Zerby, whose son Ricky murdered his former nanny in 2005 and killed himself after alleging he had been sexually abused as a child.

    Hollywood star Rose McGowan, who spent the first nine years of her life in the group, has said: “Like in most cults, you were cut off. You were kept in the dark so you would obey.”

    On one occasion, he took her out jogging with him and as they ran into a wood, he pulled her to the ground and raped her.

    When she begged him to stop he put his hand over her mouth.

    Ms Harper said: “The abuse continued daily and sometimes after raping her he would say, ‘Thank you’.”

    Lincoln’s second victim was raped when she was nine or 10. After abusing her, he would tell her he was sorry and frequently bought her gifts.

    The abuse came to light when his first victim made a complaint to police in England.

    Lincoln, who is originally from Newcastle, has no previous convictions.

    He was returned from France to Scotland in October 2019, on a European arrest warrant. Judge Lord Matthews deferred sentence on Lincoln, who is in custody at Barlinnie prison, until next month for background reports.

    Wilson added: “My thoughts continue to remain with the victims and those impacted by Lincoln’s actions over many years. Thanks to the bravery of them coming forward and reporting to us, he will now face the consequences of his actions.

    “We remain committed to bringing sexual offenders before the courts and treat all reports of sexual crime with the utmost seriousness.

    “Anyone wishing to report such offences should do so to Police Scotland via 101.”


  118. Scots Children of God rapist urged to help cops find other members of paedophile cult

    By Derek Alexander, Daily Record, July 19, 2020

    A cult member who raped two schoolgirls has been urged to help police track down other abusers in the group.

    Campaigner Ian Haworth said Derek Lincoln should assist detectives in identifying more offenders.

    Ian, who heads the Cult Information Centre (CIC), said it would be “very surprising” if Lincoln, who belonged to the Children of God group, was the only one who had sex with minors.

    Lincoln admitted attacking his victims, aged nine and 11, while a member of the religious sect, which operated at sites across the west of Scotland and Edinburgh.

    The 74-year-old was convicted of the offences in Renfrewshire, Lanarkshire and Ayrshire between 1989 and 1996 before moving to France.

    Leaders of the group encouraged its members to have sex with children.

    Now Ian, who married a former Children of God member after she escaped, said he hopes Lincoln will volunteer information about the cult after admitting his guilt.

    Ian said: “I met my former wife after she managed to leave this group and we were together for 22 years.

    “It is close to my heart in many ways and I know quite a bit about it.

    “It would be very surprising if Lincoln was the only member of his group who was abusing children. If he is reformed, he should be prepared to tell the truth and help police identify other offenders.”

    The group, who lived communally, carried out “mission activities” around the country and had limited interaction with the outside world.

    Ian added: “This is a group that is well known in our field. The definition of a cult includes psychological, coercive mind control and radicalisation.

    Once a person becomes a victim of that, they’ll do whatever they’re told – which includes sexual relations with children.”

    Ian helped set up CIC in 1987 after he escaped from a cult while working in Canada. He has acted as a consultant to police and been called as an expert witness in cult-related trials.

    Children of God is also known as Family International and was last known to be using a postbox in Luton.

    It encouraged sexual relationships with children through a 762-page book, which we are not naming, it produced in the 70s and early 80s. The publication featured a two-year-old boy.

    The sect, which was also known as The Family, has faced allegations of widespread sexual and physical abuse of children, including sexual violence, incest and brainwashing.

    Its leader David Berg, who founded the cult in California in the 60s, died in 1994 while on the run from the FBI.

    Ian added: “I had copies of this literature – it was so sickening.” Lincoln, also known as Derek Birks or John Green, was extradited from France in October 2019 after a five-year police investigation.

    One of his victims described how “the light went out inside her” after the first time she was raped. She told how Lincoln apologised for his behaviour but continued with the abuse. The second victim also said he apologised and bought gifts.

    Ian added: “I was delighted to see the work done by Police Scotland on this case and that they finally brought this guy to court. Having worked with former cult members, I know how hard it can be.

    “It’s very difficult for victims to find the courage to come forward. But, for me, the crime doesn’t stop with the perpetrator – it stops with the group.”

    Detective Sergeant Neil Wilson, from Police Scotland’s Specialist Crime Division National Rape Task Force, said: “Following extensive investigations involving a number of witnesses and victims, a report was submitted to the procurator fiscal detailing the reported sexual offending of Derek Lincoln.

    “We’d encourage anyone who has been the victim of sexual crime to come forward – and know we’ll listen and investigate.”


  119. Children of God cult rapist jailed for horrific offences

    By Paul O'Hare, BBC Scotland August 7, 2020

    A predator who used his senior role in the Children of God cult to rape two girls more than three decades ago has been jailed for 11-and-a-half years.

    Derek Lincoln was extradited to Scotland from the south of France after a complex and harrowing investigation.

    Police discovered Lincoln was a "house shepherd" in the cult, meaning he had unfettered access to children.

    The 74-year-old, who used several aliases, is thought to have more than a dozen victims across the UK.

    Det Sgt Neil Wilson described Lincoln's offences as "horrific" and urged others who were targeted by him to come forward.

    The Children of God cult began in the United States in the late 1960s.

    Its founder, David Berg, told members that God was love and love was sex, so there should be no limits, regardless of age or relationship.

    Berg's sect spread and claimed to have 10,000 full-time members in 130 communities around the world by the 1970s.

    They included Hollywood stars Rose McGowan and Joaquin Phoenix, who were born into the cult.

    Lincoln, who has no previous convictions, appeared at the High Court in Glasgow via video link after admitting his crimes last month.

    The judge, Lord Matthews, told him: "I have no idea if your remorse is genuine or not.

    "You had told your victims that you were sorry, but you continued to abuse them.

    "You say 'it just happened', but it did not just happen.

    "You sacrificed their dreams for your own perverted desires."

    Lincoln has been on remand in HMP Barlinnie in Glasgow since he was extradited on a European Arrest Warrant on 9 October last year.

    But, as part of his plea negotiations, BBC Scotland understands he will be transferred back to France to serve his sentence.

    Police Scotland's National Rape Task Force was first alerted about Lincoln by Hertfordshire Constabulary in late 2014.

    At the time Det Sgt Wilson admitted he had never heard of the Children of God.

    As the investigation progressed officers uncovered evidence of "widespread" sexual abuse.

    The team established that the sect had arrived in Scotland in the 1970s and within a decade had thousands of members.

    Lincoln's first victim, who knew him as John Green, named others but the process of tracking them down was complicated by the fact the cult members had aliases, often biblical names.

    'Boarded up'
    Another major challenge was determining where the offences took place as many communes were based in remote locations.

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  120. Det Sgt Wilson told BBC Scotland: "The children were raised in isolated conditions and moved around a lot, more often than not under the cover of darkness in the back of vans.

    "They were not told where they were and they were not allowed to play outside or mix with other children.

    "The curtains in any houses that they lived in were always closed and doors were boarded up."

    As a result officers faced a significant challenge to map their movements.

    Det Sgt Wilson added: "We were able to work out the various locations from landmarks and the architecture of buildings that victims remembered seeing."

    Prayer classes and chores were a part of everyday life and children, who were mostly born into the cult, were also home-schooled.

    For the majority their only interaction with society was when they were taken into city centres to beg or play instruments.

    They were also well-drilled about keeping secrets from "systemites" in the outside world, especially social workers.

    Some were even put on a plane and sent to cult members in countries such as Pakistan and India.

    The organisation had communes in Edinburgh and Glasgow, where some cult properties had up to 50 residents under one roof.

    The attacks Lincoln admitted occurred at various addresses in Ayrshire, Lanarkshire and Renfrewshire between 1989 and 1996.

    Det Sgt Wilson said: "When the offences took place he held the role of what victims would describe as a house shepherd, which meant he had complete access to people's homes and bedrooms.

    "He was a teacher, he was trusted around people's children and, when the parents weren't there, he used this access as a means to prey on young girls."

    'Light went out'
    Last month, the High Court in Glasgow heard the girls were as young as nine and 10 when they were initially targeted.

    The first victim described Lincoln as "stern and controlling" and said he once put duct tape on her mouth and beat her with a belt.

    Another time he pinned her down on a bed and held his hand over her mouth while he raped her.

    Recalling the traumatic experience, she said: "The light went out inside me."

    When the girl was aged 12 Lincoln apologised to her for his behaviour but, despite this, his offending became more frequent.

    It included a serious sex attack in a wooded area after he took her out jogging.

    Prosecutor Kath Harper said: "The abuse continued daily and sometimes after raping her he would say 'thank you'."

    She added that the victim, who was dubbed "the weird kid" by other youngsters, also tried to take her own life.

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  121. After abusing his second victim Lincoln would tell her he was sorry and frequently bought her gifts.

    Det Sgt Wilson said: "Any concerns that were raised to other senior house members were just ignored and the offending just became commonplace.

    "It was expected and they knew it was coming."

    Nomadic lifestyle
    The cult set up communes in properties that were either gifted by members or rented and financed through benefit claims.

    When cashflow became a problem and eviction orders were served Lincoln was among those tasked with identifying new locations.

    Precisely when the sex offender, who is originally from Newcastle, moved north is unclear.

    But he is thought to have become active in the cult as a missionary in his 20s, never had any formal employment and lived a transient, nomadic lifestyle.

    Lincoln married but, according to detectives, was in a "number of relationships" and fathered "several children".

    The UK-wide probe also involved the National Crime Agency and UK Border Agency.

    And when police were tipped off that he may be abroad they worked with Europol, Interpol and the French authorities.

    Those inquiries led to the city of Pau where Lincoln was found to be "cooperative" and living a quiet life with no apparent links to any cult.

    The case is the second involving the Children of God, following the 2018 conviction of Alexander Watt.

    He admitted four charges of sexually abusing his daughter and another child in Renfrewshire and on the east coast of Scotland.

    His daughter Verity Carter later described life in the cult as "hell on earth".

    And last year her brother Jonathan Watt told BBC Scotland's The Nine the organisation was "a world inside a world."

    Police said they have no evidence to link Watt with Lincoln.

    'Sincere apologies'
    The sect later became known as The Family International.

    In 2010 The Family International disbanded its previous structure and now describes itself as a "small online network" with 1,500 members in 80 countries.

    A spokeswoman told BBC Scotland that, prior to its policy for the protection of minors being adopted in 1986, children were exposed to "sexually inappropriate behaviour".

    Three years later sexual contact between an adult and a child was declared an "excommunicable offence."

    The spokeswoman added: "The Family International has expressed its apologies on numerous occasions to any members or former members who feel that they were hurt in any way during their membership

    "We continue to extend our sincere apologies to anyone who experienced anything negative or hurtful during their childhood or time as members of the Family International."

    Det Sgt Wilson welcomed the sentence and issued a direct appeal to former cult members.

    He said: "Nothing will undo the despicable acts that Lincoln committed and I hope the victims finally have some sense of closure with these convictions.

    "My message to anyone who has been the victim of abuse is that it has become clear that time is no barrier to reporting.

    "Police Scotland will give you a voice and your voice will be heard."


  122. Child abuse victim who was repeatedly raped by beast in God cult says she’s been set free after monster jailed


    A CHILD abuse victim who was repeatedly raped by a member of a the ‘Children of God cult says she’s been “set free” after the fiend was finally jailed 31 years after he first attacked her.

    Hope Bastine, 41, said she had her childhood and adolescence “cruelly stolen” from her as a young girl due to the sex attacks by cult member Derek Lincoln.

    The twisted beast, now 74, has now been caged for 11 and a half years at the High Court in Glasgow for the abuse of Hope and another young girl between 1989 and 1996.

    Hope bravely waived her anonymity to speak out after the sentencing.

    She said: “Words cannot describe how I feel today after the conclusion of my 16-year fight for justice.

    “My childhood and adolescence were cruelly stolen from me by a man who repeatedly abused me within a religious cult which legitimised his actions. By incarcerating my abuser for 11 and a half years, Lord Matthews has set me free.

    “Finally, I can give myself permission to pursue happiness and peace.

    “Now, my greatest wish is that other victims of abuse living in silence and shame will see that justice can be done and seek freedom too.”

    Hope, who was instrumental in bringing her attacker to justice, also thanked those who “gave her the opportunity to speak”.

    Lincoln used his position in the ‘Children of God’ religious cult to prey on the youngsters – who were just nine and 10 when he first struck.

    The pervert OAP committed the crimes at various locations in Ayrshire, Lanarkshire and Renfrewshire between 1989 and 1996.

    The Children of God group lived communally, performing missionary work with little contact with the outside world.

    His first victim was raped, beaten with a belt and also had soap shoved into her mouth. After one attack, she described it as if “the light went out inside me”.

    Lincoln also raped her in a wooded area while out together jogging. When she begged him to stop he put his hand over her mouth.

    Prosecutor Kath Harper said: “The abuse continued daily and sometimes after raping her he would say ‘thank you’”.

    The victim, who suffered in silence, ended up being tagged “the weird kid” by other youngsters – and tragically tried to take her own life.

    He preyed upon his second victim in a similarly horrific way, with Lincoln buying her gifts to keep her quiet.

    But after a victim bravely came forward in 2014, cops launched an investigation.

    Lincoln was arrested in France – where he was retired and living – in 2019, and extradited to Scotland to face trial last month.

    Sentencing today, Lord Matthews told him: “I have no idea if your remorse is genuine or not. You had told your victims that you were sorry, but you continued to abuse them. You say ‘it just happened’, but it did not just happen. You sacrificed their dreams for your own perverted desires.”

    The judge said that if Lincoln had not pleaded guilty, the jail term would have been 13 years.

    Detective Sergeant Neil Wilson from Police Scotland’s National Rape Task Force praised the bravery of victims coming forward.

    He said: “Lincoln used his position within the Children of God to perpetrate violent sexual abuse against two young children.

    “My thoughts continue to remain with the victims and those impacted by Lincoln’s deplorable actions over the many years.”



    Hope Bastine was brought up in a “free love” community where sexual abuse of children was rife. As her abuser Derek Lincoln is finally brought to justice, she speaks to Sharon Hendry for The Sunday Times, UK, August 9, 2020

    For years I have suffered from raging insomnia, and as usual I was pacing the streets of my local town centre fuelled with adrenaline after a poor night’s sleep. I found myself in front of a drab police station and suddenly there was a eureka moment.

    I was ready to break the codes of the deeply secretive religious organisation I had been born into and tell the story of horrific, repeated abuse that has haunted me for more than 40 years. So, just like that, in 2004 I walked into Watford police station and reported to the desk: “I want to talk to somebody about some abuse please.”

    When I sat down with the interviewing officer, he asked me: “Why now? Why has it taken you so long? Why didn’t you come to us before?”

    I told him I had started therapy and was trying to put my life back together. He just pulled back and put his pen down before telling me he often dealt with post-therapy complainants who had memories that were hard to validate. I completely and utterly lost it then and there. It would take another six years before the police finally began investigating my abuser — Derek Lincoln, a member of the Children of God (CoG) cult.

    And now, a further ten years later, Lincoln has faced judgment day: last month he pleaded guilty in a Scottish court to repeatedly raping and sexually abusing me and another woman decades ago when we were young girls.

    At last, after rebuilding my life by studying for a psychology degree and with the help of therapy, I can talk about my ordeal: how I was born into a cult that openly condoned sexual relations with small children within its warped “God is love and love is sex” doctrines.

    It begins with my mum, Peace. As soon as she was able, she left an abusive home in north London to become an au pair in France. She was vulnerable and ripe for grooming, so it’s hardly surprising that when she wandered into a Paris park one day in 1975 she immediately fell for the charms of my dad, Fabien. He was out “witnessing” (trying to win converts) for the local CoG commune after leaving the French navy.

    She remembers him getting down on his knees to get her attention. Mum was smitten and dropped everything to join the sect. She didn’t even say goodbye to her employers.

    It was this sense of immediate belonging that appealed to my broken mum and countless others. You could travel anywhere in the world and land in another CoG commune populated with strangers and instantly be welcomed with open arms. After a greeting with the “holy kiss”, you were immediately part of the community. That sense of belonging was clear manipulation, of course.

    In the early days Mum was just happy to be loved, though, and by the time I came along in 1979 my parents were embracing a hippy lifestyle, hitchhiking through the French Alps and eventually settling in a hut near Pau, a city close to the Spanish border. Mum was only 21.

    I loved my dad and have some happy memories as a toddler of splashing in crystal-clear mountain streams with him. We were dirt poor, but by selling the CoG’s religious tracts my parents just about managed to feed me and my brother, Stephen, who was a year and a half younger.

    Unbeknown to Stephen and me, however, we had another father who was the ultimate decision-maker in our family. His name was David Berg, or “Grandpa” as we were taught to refer to him. He was the CoG’s founder and leader.

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  124. The son of strict Pentecostal evangelist preachers, Berg had taken his own brand of American evangelism to Huntington Beach, California, in the late 1960s and attracted an army of disciples from the hippy counterculture. Drug addicts and dropouts were drawn to his heady mix of Christianity, radical politics, apocalyptic doom and free love.

    By the 1970s there were thousands of CoG members living in 130 communes around the world.

    Berg saw himself as the “Endtime Prophet” — the anointed messenger of the coming apocalypse — and we, his followers, were God’s Elite Endtime Army who would lead a lost world and its “systemites” in need of salvation in their darkest hour.

    In reality Berg was a highly disturbed alcoholic paedophile churning out endless psychotic ramblings, but I was too young to know that at the time. Early on he cleverly used music as bait to snare a younger generation. The doctrines of free love were also appealing and might have seemed harmless to outsiders — but those of us on the inside were living a darker reality.

    We were growing up in a highly sexualised environment where adults openly had intercourse in front of us and sexual play was encouraged among prepubescent youngsters and practised between adults and children.

    Berg communicated his warped so-called prophecies by writing letters. He published nearly 3,000 “Mo Letters” (he liked to call himself Moses David) over a period of 24 years — and they were the only literature we were allowed to read. He was preaching sentiments such as: “I don’t know what the hell age has to do with it when God made ’em able to enjoy it practically from the time they’re born.”

    By 1976 he was encouraging female followers to expand the “law of love” (a euphemism for sexual sharing among members) and to act as prostitutes to bring men into the group. He called this “flirty fishing”, or FF-ing (pronounced eff-eff-ing). Birth control was outlawed, which led to a surge of illegitimate “Jesus babies”.

    We began spending time at an isolated farmhouse commune close to Toulouse, about 100 miles from Pau. It was run by Lincoln, who was originally from Newcastle and had struggled with heroin addiction after leaving the army. He had found salvation in Berg’s teachings and paired up with a fellow CoG member called Lovelight. They had three children.

    Lincoln’s smell was the first thing I remember and I can’t get it out of my head — ever. It was musky but with an acrid, overpowering aspect. He was well-built and covered in tattoos that told stories of lovers and past allegiance to the army. There was the typical sword-through-the-heart type of image.

    He always tried to wear his hair back in a ponytail, but was completely bald on top. And he had these big green eyes that were magnified by very thick glasses. His eyes were always the first thing I saw, and he would use that as a means of control, saying things to me such as: “I can see through walls, I can hear through walls. I’m always watching you.” During any kind of gathering I could always see him looking at me out of the corner of his eye.

    We used to go and visit the farmhouse for what was called “fellowship” with other CoG members. It was really just hanging out on a Sunday, but then Lincoln (his religious name was John) sent a formal invitation to our family to join his commune.

    The atmosphere was always heavy with this toxic free love, but my father was very much in love with my mother and he really struggled with the sharing practices. It wasn’t long before he disappeared from our lives and left me vulnerable to a man who would abuse me and other children multiple times over the coming years.

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  125. Much later someone would ask me: “Why didn’t you tell your mum?” That question is just unbelievable to me because she was always there in the same commune, sometimes even in the same room. But mentally she was in another place and usually pregnant. She would go on to have seven children with Lincoln after his “wife”, Lovelight, fled without trace soon after we moved in.

    The most salient memory of the first abuse is being on the bed furthest away from the door, near the farmhouse window. There were these large rocking beds that had been handmade by Lincoln, who once worked as a carpenter.

    The adults were having “fellowship time” downstairs — basically a mass orgy — along with music and reading the latest literature from Berg. People would be speaking in tongues and allegedly receiving prophecies. It was all very frightening for small children to witness.

    Lincoln would use the excuse of checking to see if we were asleep. I remember him kneeling by my bed on my left side and touching me intimately. I was in that state when you’re just falling asleep and I just froze with fear, my toes curling and my legs stiffening. I knew it was wrong and unpleasant, but I lost my voice. I was trying to open my mouth to scream or to call out, but my voice box was not working. Later he held his hand over my mouth.

    From then on Lincoln remained a dark and looming presence that never went away. Over the next 12 years he abused me almost every week, sometimes twice a week and even during periods of illness, such as the time I was bitten by a spider and developed a fever.

    In the 1980s we lived with him in India, where we moved through communes in Hyderabad, Goa, Cochin (now Kochi) and Delhi. During this time I was forced to perform an erotic striptease that Berg asked to be videoed and dispatched to him.

    The first so-called blessing happened when I was eight years old. An older woman in the commune taught me, my five-year-old sister and our three-year-old friend how to perform a striptease. We had no clothes on except for little scarves. I have this memory of it falling off while being forced to dance with a man in his forties who was the commune’s leader.

    “Oh, it’s fallen off,” I gasped, and he replied, “Oh, that’s OK,” and continued dancing up close to a stark-naked little girl.

    At night I would contort my body in a bid to fall asleep with my arms covering as much flesh as possible. It was the beginning of a lifetime of insomnia. I was always lying awake, waiting for the abuse to begin, because if I wasn’t prepared for it, it was much more traumatic. So I would wait until he was done and then I could fall asleep.

    As the sexual abuse ramped up, so did Lincoln’s control over us. Every hour of the day was scheduled. He would even tell us when to go to the bathroom and he would take us all. For once Mum became very worried about me because I would refuse to go to the bathroom and would hold it all day long. The alternative was him watching me.

    At approximately 7am each day we would have ‘“devotions and inspiration time”, an hour of singing and reading the doctrine before breakfast. Then it was “Jesus job time” — cleaning the house, minding children — followed by witnessing or some sort of weak attempt at an education. As the eldest I was always working.

    Once a week we had a movie night, which was our only exposure to outside media. We were never allowed to watch TV or read any material from the outside world, and our lives were dictated by myriad rules passed down from Berg. Only three sheets of paper allowed when visiting the lavatory, no white sugar, all fruit soaked in salt water.

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  126. We were conditioned to follow the rules and knew no other way. Unlike our parents, who made decisions to leave their former lives behind, my brothers, sisters and I had not chosen this way of life and had no way out. We were controlled by fear of all outside systems, including government, police, doctors and social workers.

    And of course there was constant terror on the inside too. As a former army recruit, Lincoln was suited to the regimented CoG life and his schedule was enforced with the threat of violence if anyone stepped out of line.

    There was no space at all for questioning or freedom of movement — and there was always corporal punishment. It would be spanking and enforced silence. Once I was locked in a room for quite a lot of time, several days at least. These were periods of intense indoctrination listening to Berg’s tapes.

    There was also no sense of having a future or striving for something better because we were being taught to prepare for Armageddon. The CoG published a book called The Survival Handbook with a central character called Survival Sam. We got training and went out into nature reserves to prepare for the End Time.

    We were always on the move because of “persecution” by the authorities. There was a constant state of confusion. We didn’t know people’s real names or those of the places we were living in — a deliberate attempt at avoiding prosecution that would prove problematic during my own quest for justice years later.

    When I was 11 we arrived in Scotland’s first CoG home at Kilwinning, north Ayrshire. There were up to 50 of us living in a six-bedroom farmhouse and it felt like a pressure cooker. Lincoln was the designated disciplinarian and took sadistic pleasure in making us queue up outside the bathroom for our spankings. By now he was out of control, molesting every single girl in sight.

    Lots of things were happening at that home, including underage pregnancies happening in the cult that needed to be covered up. It was hell on earth, but there was always this complete sense of helplessness because we had no contact with the outside world.

    Then in 1994 the cult founder Berg, who had been on the run from the FBI for years, died. And the next year Lord Justice Ward presided over a custody case involving another CoG child that involved intense scrutiny of the cult’s practices. It included testimonies of horrific abuse from Berg’s own granddaughter and painted a damning picture of CoG life in the 1980s. But ultimately Ward said he was satisfied that the sexual abuse of minors had been stamped out by the early 1990s.

    It felt like a betrayal. The one opportunity for thousands of abused children to be rescued had been lost and there was no follow-up. Despite scrutiny in one of the highest courts in the land, CoG leaders still had free rein to use and abuse us.

    Still wary, though, the CoG had excommunicated Lincoln from the commune we were then at in Ledbury, Herefordshire, and Mum had finally found the strength to leave and move to nearby Ross-on-Wye. There we had a short-lived period of happiness before Stephen, my beloved brother, drowned in a freak canoeing accident. Of course Mum saw it as a curse and drifted back into the religious vortex.

    Reeling from my brother’s death, I joined a CoG singing group and hitchhiked around Ireland before joining another commune in Edinburgh, later moving to the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovenia and Germany. In Bosnia I became heavily involved in humanitarian work and began to view Berg’s teachings as hypocritical and abusive.

    continued below

  127. Finally, in 1997 at the age of 18, I could leave the CoG without my mum’s permission. I jumped on a bus from Prague to London one morning in the early hours with just a small bag. Back in the UK I started rebuilding my life from nothing.

    My thirst for knowledge was never-ending and for years I read nonstop until I secured a place in college, first to study psychology and then a PGCE. I was studying by day and working in a care home by night to make ends meet.

    Sadly, one of my brothers, Andrew, who also left the cult, could not escape the trauma it had inflicted and took his own life in 2004. And I too found some patterns of control were harder to break than others — by 2000 I was in a violent relationship with a man who ended up in prison by 2010. It had been six years since I had walked away from Watford police station feeling crushed, and I asked the officers dealing with my ex if they could pick up my case against Lincoln.

    This time I was taken seriously and things escalated. By 2014 lawyers were ready to extradite Lincoln from France, where he was living with a new partner. They told me: “These are horrific crimes. You deserve justice, you are going to get justice and we need to get the best outcome possible.” This meant trying the case in Scotland, where there was the best chance of corroborating evidence.

    Lincoln was arrested in October last year and held on remand in a Scottish prison while awaiting trial. It was very important to me to have my day in court looking into his piercing eyes one last time, but from a position of empowerment. His plea of guilty to multiple rapes of me and another young girl was, I convinced myself, “a win”. I have been vindicated in my fight for justice after all these years.

    I have refused to stay silent because it exacerbates the internalised shame and the mistaken idea that we somehow made our abusers do it to us. CoG leaders gaslighted children into believing that it was our fault for flirting with these men to make them molest us.

    Romantic relations are really hard for me, but I want to connect with the good stuff in life now; I want to have a healthy relationship to prove that I’m OK.

    I’m studying for a PhD in psychology at the University of Nottingham and I intend to become a beacon for other survivors of abuse, to be proof that they don’t have to live in silence and shame. And I want to raise awareness about the lack of child human rights in cults, where fundamentalist faith eclipses the unconditional love and protection that a parent is supposed to provide.

    As a child born into CoG, I did not have the freedom to express my thoughts, feelings and opinions. I didn’t have the right to an education or medical treatment. Our stories are so extreme, few believe us — and that makes our recovery an incredibly lengthy and complex process.

    These days CoG has rebranded itself (see panel) as The Family International: “An online Christian network of individuals in nearly 80 countries, committed to sharing the message of God’s love with others.”

    Who knows what really happens within these so-called networks, but there are still cults operating around the world where children are powerless to speak out.

    I will never be silenced again. These days my phone is my constant companion. After so many years cut off from reality, it gives me the power and confidence to venture out into the world empowered. I know that if anything happens to me, I have this small object in my pocket that can protect me. It helps me to explore the world and remind myself: “I’m OK. I’m safe now. I’m not broken.”

    For information and support, visit mind.org.uk and victimsupport.org.uk


  128. Children of God survivor wants justice for others

    By Mike Farrell, BBC Scotland News, September 8, 2020

    A survivor of childhood sexual abuse in a religious cult has told the BBC there are thousands of other victims who deserve justice.

    Hope Bastine was abused by Derek Lincoln for more than a decade. He was jailed last month.

    He is believed to be the second person convicted of offences in Scotland relating to the Children of God sect.

    Police Scotland told The Nine it is looking at a number of lines of inquiry relating to the group.

    It said this included working with other police forces across the world.

    The Children of God was founded in the counter-culture of 1960s America.

    Founder David Berg combined a "free love" approach to sex with an apocalyptic interpretation of Christianity, which facilitated the exploitation of children in communes across the world - including here in Scotland.

    Berg told members that God was love and love was sex, so there should be no limits, regardless of age or relationship.

    'Justifying paedophilia'
    Hope, 41, who waived her anonymity in her first TV interview with BBC Scotland's The Nine programme, believes there are thousands of other victims out there.

    She said: "It [the cult and its teachings] was justifying paedophilia and it was also an extremely patriarchal society. It was justifying the exploitation of women as a whole.

    "Based on my own experience the authorities, mainstream society, the networks, the infrastructure - didn't even know we existed."

    She added: "At one point they (the Children of God) reported a membership of 25,000 internationally, with just under 15,000 being children. That's a lot of children being mistreated."

    Last month, 74-year-old Lincoln was sentenced to 11-and-a-half years in jail for raping and sexually assaulting Hope and another child.

    On passing sentence, Lord Matthews told Lincoln he had "sacrificed" his victims' dreams "for your own perverted desires."

    Reflecting on this, Hope said: "Justice really does go a long way. I do feel different. I do feel lighter. I do feel some significant healing.

    "For too long victims have suffered in silence and the inappropriate shame that comes with that, impacts every single aspect of your life.

    "You don't realise it is inappropriate shame, you really believe that - it's your fault, that you're wrong, that you're broken…that you caused this somehow.

    "For years I believed that I made him do it."

    She added: "To witness him stand up and say, 'Okay, I did this, I know I did this and I know what I did was wrong,' that meant something. That was big.

    "That was the sentence I wanted. And for the first time in my life I actually really got something I wanted. That was a really powerful moment in my life."

    Lincoln's offences took places at cult homes he ran in Ayrshire, Lanarkshire and Renfrewshire during the late 1980s and early 90s.

    continued below

  129. Hope first reported what happened to her to police in Watford in 2004. After an extensive enquiry - spanning the UK, France and India - it was decided to pursue the case in Scotland as there was no time-bar on historic abuse cases, while there was a high level of corroboration due to the number of witnesses officers had spoken to.

    Lincoln was eventually tracked down to the south of France, before he was extradited to Scotland to face the charges late last year.

    "My first memory of being abused by him is at the age of four, and this became public knowledge to everyone in the commune," she said.

    "It was consistent and regular. I would say in the worst period of my life in Scotland, it was daily.

    When asked what she would have to say to Lincoln about what he did, Hope replied: "The truth will always out. You can't control me anymore.

    "You didn't win. I fought so hard to survive. He blew the candle out and somehow I kept the embers burning."

    Hope is sharing her story as she believes there are others who deserve justice - but they need to contact authorities in order to do so.

    "Come forward. Speak. You don't have to suffer in silence. There are people who 'get it'.

    "And there will be more - by the time I'm done, the world will understand this."

    'Your voice will be heard'
    Det Supt Fil Capaldi, from Police Scotland's National Rape Task Force, reiterated Hope's call for other victims to come forward.

    He said: "Passage of time and international borders are no barrier when reporting or investigating sexual abuse. I want to reassure victims that Police Scotland will give them a voice, and that voice will be heard."

    He said the force was committed to "bringing perpetrators to justice".

    He added: "I would encourage anybody who has been the victim of sexual abuse, either recently or in the past, please come forward and report the matter to us."


  130. Can I Forgive My Dad For Picking A Religious Sex Cult Over Me

    by Angela Orlando Cameli, Two Hawks Quarterly, November 30, 2020

    “What are all those pills you’re taking, honey?” Dad’s voice booms.

    For a second, when I hear the H sound, I think he’s going to call me Heidi, my chosen cult name. The wine bottle shakes in my hand. I haven’t been called Heidi since I left the Children of God almost two decades ago.

    “Shh,” I say, “John’s sleeping upstairs with the girls.” I live with my husband and two daughters who are four and six years old, in a spacious townhouse downtown, no longer crammed into the commune’s bedrooms which were flanked with bunk beds and sleeping bags.

    Dad and I are in my kitchen in Chicago, cleaning up after a family party. In his sixties, he’s wider and grayer. In my thirties, so am I. Dad lives in Spain with my mom and two younger sisters, but he visits Chicago often these days to help care for his ill and aging parents. Our relationship has always been complicated. “Heidi” never could have imagined this normal life for herself. She should’ve died a martyr for her faith years ago, like the prophet predicted.

    The cult began in the late 1960s and members lived communally worldwide. No one held secular jobs or went to school because the second coming of Christ was imminent. They supported themselves by begging and selling cult-produced media. To show God’s love, some sanctioned practices included prostitution for Jesus and sexual interactions with everyone regardless of age, relation, or marital status.

    Thousands of publications printed the teachings of the Children of God’s prophet, David Berg. Like The Story of Davidito, a 762-page manual that educated cult members on how to have the most productive sexual time with children, featuring Berg’s son Davidito watching orgies, engaging in threesomes, and receiving fellatio starting when he was less than two years old.

    The Children of God liked to separate families to maximize control. From the ages of seven to sixteen, my twin brother Michael and I lived in communes all over Europe and the Soviet Union, often with our sisters, but without our parents. At sixteen, Michael decided to renounce the cult, and we lived in Chicago as a family, where the four of us attended school for the first time. After our eighteenth birthdays, our parents returned to the communes in Spain with our sisters. I stayed in Chicago with Michael.

    When Dad is in Spain, we only hear from him on our birthdays and Christmas. In Chicago, he’s attentive and communicates constantly. Dad is a wonderful cook and will spend hours making elaborate meals for my family. He’s also a fun grandpa who never tires of playing hide and seek or doing art projects. However, Dad’s rambling, Bible-thumping, and the many unresolved issues we avoid, leave me drained and reaching for the bottle.

    Dad points to the pile of pills sitting on the kitchen island. In the Children of God, medication and doctors’ visits were prohibited. Heidi, the programmed cultie who yearned to live with her biological family instead of abusive cult members, appears. She wants to please him by keeping the conversation light. But I’m not her anymore. I’ve fought hard to give myself a voice.

    “They are for the nightmares.” My throat hoarse, I take another gulp. Dad’s bloodshot eyes are glued on mine. “Since becoming a mom, it’s my daughters in my dreams, not a younger version of me. For years, I barely slept at night. John would have to shake me awake and tell me I was dreaming. Then, I’d run to the girls’ room to make sure that they were okay.”

    continued below

  131. My ears get hot. There’s so much unacknowledged pain and trauma simmering underneath the surface. As a parent, there are so many things I cannot comprehend. Why did my parents remain in the Children of God after adults began to sexually assault children? One of my earliest cult memories is of Uncle Paul’s enormous sweaty palm clasped over my six-year-old fist as he dragged me to his bedroom to show me God’s Love. Consent was never possible; we were not allowed to say no.

    Why did they deny us access to education and medical attention? I spent plenty of weeks sequestered in quarantine rooms with other sick people, in communes from Argentina to Poland to Siberia, instead of going to the doctor. We had to trust God to cure us, even if that meant winding up dead. Until I was sixteen, my years were spent cooking, cleaning, fundraising, and watching kids barely younger than me, instead of going to school.

    Why did they let the leadership separate our family? Some of the adults we lived with were nice, others weren’t. I can still feel some of the beatings I received for opening my eyes and talking during prayer, instead of quoting Bible verses. My exhausting days entailed begging in extreme heat and frigid temperatures to support the cult, instead of being allowed to listen to music, read secular books, or watch television.

    Why did they leave Michael and me behind, unconcerned with whether we could make it on our own? The second they left us, the rampant drug and alcohol abuse began that nearly destroyed us both. I attempted suicide and put myself in dangerous situations. For example, dancing nude in sleazy strip clubs, until I could obtain a fake ID to strip at classier establishments, in order to put myself through college. Michael broke the law, had trouble keeping jobs, and destroyed his relationship with Dad’s family.

    Dad chugs more wine, his pupils dilate. Not wanting to get emotional in front of him, I swallow tears and clench my fists. “I’ve worked really hard to reduce my meds. This is a sleeping pill and this PTSD treatment stops me from dreaming. The doctor said it’s the best someone with my history can hope for. He thinks it’s remarkable how far I’ve come.”

    I hold my head up high. Dad’s body jerks out of its slump. I refill both glasses, impatient for the fuzzy relief I know the wine will bring. He creases his brow and throws his shoulders back.

    “What PTSD?” Bluish veins pop in his neck. The decibels of his voice skyrocket. In the trash bin, I stack the empty wine bottle on top of all the others. His chapped lips are moving, but it’s the prophet’s words that echo in my ear as Dad regurgitates all the lies cult members were programmed to tell outsiders. Incest wasn’t condoned. We weren’t forced to have sexual interactions. Prostitution for Jesus was misconstrued. Public beatings and exorcisms never happened. We didn’t live in extreme poverty.

    My heart hurts. His denial of the abuse feels worse than having had to go through it. It’s like ripping scabs off mending wounds. For the past to no longer have a hold on me, I must confront Dad’s pattern of lying.

    Through a clenched jaw, Dad drains his glass. “I sacrificed my entire life to serve Jesus. I trusted God and my comrades to look out for my family. You had a wonderful childhood. You saw the world and served God! It’s other kids who were deprived.”

    Dad’s denial keeps the trauma alive because we can’t confront and deal with it. A burning rage takes over as I imagine smashing these wine bottles over his nose. I open another one and swirl the peachy undertows in my glass. “Yup! Begging, eating rotten food, being beaten, molested and being a child laborer was wonderful!”

    continued below

  132. In 2005, the prophet’s son Davidito, who was born Ricky Rodriguez, killed one of his abusers and then killed himself. I was twenty-six years old, going to graduate school, and living with John at the time. Davidito’s suicide video on 20/20 filled the TV screen as he said, “I have this need for revenge. This need for justice. I cannot go on like this.... If there’s a next life, I can look back and see that I did what I could.... How can you do that to kids and sleep at night? Thousands of us were fucked over, literally. Where was our apology?"

    I ran to the bathroom and threw up violently. That night I drank two bottles of wine and sobbed. My heart was broken. The following morning, I promised myself that I would use my voice. For Davidito. For me. For all of us.

    Mom and Dad had just been in town the week before I saw Davidito’s death on TV. They knew, but never breathed a word. Michael and I were livid that they didn’t tell us about our friend’s death. When we confronted them, they denied Davidito’s well-documented abuse. We didn’t speak to our parents for a year.

    That year, like many of the ones that preceded it, I binged on cocaine and couldn’t quit drinking or smoking, no matter how hard I tried. Holding onto the rage desecrated me. My bitterness didn’t impact my parents in the least; they likely didn’t even notice that I stopped answering phone calls and returning emails. Like drinking poison, it hurt only me.

    My parents never asked for forgiveness, and although they might not have deserved it, I forgave anyway, because that’s what I needed in order to move on. Eventually, with the support of my husband, my brother and sisters, and with my hard-won education, I was able to ditch cocaine and cigarettes for good. Numbness had always been my armor, but it kept me stuck instead of moving forward. I had to learn healthier ways to soothe my pain besides abusing drugs and alcohol, even though as a child I was never taught the tools to cope with trauma.

    The vibrant moon glimmers through my open balcony doors. Growing up, windows and doors stayed closed and covered to hide the mangy, overcrowded living conditions. Outside, a flashlight zooms around the midnight air; it’s the security guard checking the perimeter of our gated community. Unlike the high compound walls of my youth that kept me locked in fear with my predators, this fencing has gaps and transparency. There aren’t hordes of parked caravans and motorhomes to hide in, no ravenous and bruised children to conceal.

    Dad pounds on the counter, drunk and angry. “Why do you listen to those liars? It’s all bullshit! No kids were mistreated!”

    The cult disbanded a few years back when the leaders vanished with decades of members’ monthly tithe. Leadership’s families retired, set for life while people like my parents continue to live in squalor, penniless, trying to figure out what comes next. I wonder, even now, why my dad continues to defend them. It may be the shame, or he can’t be deprogrammed.

    “You have a master’s degree from the University of Chicago!” Dad says, pointing his gnarled finger in my face. “None of your cousins or friends who went to school their entire lives have accomplished that!”

    I wring my hands together. “That’s because I busted my ass stripping while going to school full-time and found friends to give me the love and support you never could.”

    continued below

  133. Arguing with him makes me feel helpless again, like Heidi, who wasn’t allowed to speak the truth. But I’m not Heidi anymore. I am Angela. Educated. Resilient. Honest.

    This cannot end like the rest of our arguments, him spewing his version of events and me letting him live with his delusions. The silence of his denial weighs on my chest and suffocates me. After eighteen years in the cult and eighteen years out of it, I’m at the point in my life where I must move forward. My daughters deserve a strong mother who’s not afraid to use her voice or challenge a man.

    “How can you deny that kids were victimized, that I was molested? How do you explain The Story of Davidito that taught culties how to abuse children? If you can’t be honest, I’ll never speak to you again. You will be out of my life forever. You have always chosen them over me, over everything. For once Dad, choose me!”

    Swallowing the tears becomes impossible. And so, I sob. As Heidi, I was never allowed to express emotions. Now that I own my feelings, I no longer need to run, numb, or dissociate.

    Dad puts his arms up in mockery protest. “I guess not everything about the way you were raised was perfect. Everybody makes mistakes…”

    “At least Mom’s made amends.”

    Mom has apologized for not protecting us when we were kids. She lost her mother to breast cancer months before she decided to leave Michael and me. The guilt of disappearing for 20 years to join a cult must have been overwhelming for her. I understand why she wanted to move back to Spain to be near her father for his last remaining years. She told me that splitting up our family is her biggest regret. She’s a wonderful grandmother and mother to our sisters. That is enough for me. Trauma victims haven’t had much, so we expect little.

    Dad rubs the nape of his neck, “I thought The Story of Davidito was just something that the prophet and leadership were experimenting with.” His breathing escalates as he clasps his hands over his face. “I never touched a child and never in a million years thought it would be practiced on you.”

    Seeing the despair in his eyes summons up compliant Heidi. She tries to claw her way back into my skin, pry my lips shut, humble my stance, and make me the good girl again. I’m in awe of this younger version, of all she’ll put herself through, of all she’ll endure.

    “Thank you,” I say, slouched and rubbing my eyes. “One last thing. Did you feel any remorse for abandoning Michael and me?”

    continued below

  134. Dad smacks his palm against his forehead and steps back, “You were eighteen! Adults! Same age as I was when I left home!”

    My great-grandfather deserted his family for months on end to chase women. My grandpa kicked Dad out of the house when he was that age because he was a hippie who refused to cut his hair. Dad abandoned Michael and me because we left the cult. By the age of 18, Michael, Dad, and I were unfathered and unmothered.

    Unlike many kids these days, who live with their parents, with college and health insurance, Dad was thrown into the world just like Michael and me, with no safety net. Tripping on acid, he met the cult’s hippies and boarded a plane to Italy with nothing but a toothbrush and his passport, looking for purpose and adventure. I planted roots in Chicago, searching for love and acceptance. After six years of stripping, where I was beaten, drugged, and nearly raped, I secured a career as a school social worker.

    “I’m exhausted,” I say. “Good night.”

    In bed, waiting for my pills to kick in, I scroll through photos on my phone. One sticks out: Dad animatedly playing the guitar while my daughters are jumping and laughing. I see him as the scared teenager, forced to leave his dysfunctional home. His growth is stunted. He hasn’t mentally progressed past that point.

    I’ve advanced, though. I’ve reclaimed my name. My body. Even though the nightmares persist, they are infrequent. John still shakes me awake and says, “You’re safe baby. You’re safe.” Now, I finally believe him and roll back to sleep.

    The following morning, I’m hungover. My stomach churns while my head pounds. However, baring my soul has brought a subtle peace. I breathe a little easier, my rapid heartbeat slows. Dad doesn’t need to tell me he hasn’t slept. His eyes are bloodshot and his shoulders slump. “I just want you to know that I love you, all my children, with all my heart. I never meant for any of you to get hurt. I really believed I was fulfilling the highest calling in my life by serving Jesus.”

    For the first time, I don’t pull away from his grippy hug. Even though it’s hard to accept that love is often packaged with hurt and abandonment, I realize that forgiveness is not about him. It’s what I need to move on. My forgiveness isn’t complete, it may never be, but it’s a beginning. My compulsion to communicate honestly with him is for my sake, to make me whole.

    Dad walks out of my garage with his guitar strapped to his back. By making him my witness, I see the pain in him. I see his shame and try not to let it break my heart. That’s his cross to bear. I’ve broken my own heart more than anyone ever could. With him sharing my burden, the weight seems lighter. Dad will still live in his version of the truth. I can’t change that. But I’ve been heard, and he loves me just the same.


  135. That Time I Unmasked a Cult Leader Who’d Remained Faceless for 30 Years

    by Steven Levithan, April 11, 2021

    It was 2005, and cult leader Karen Zerby was in hiding, as she had been for decades. Zerby was the head of the Family International, a Christan cult that was paranoid in general, but leaders took secrecy to another level. No one knew where Zerby lived, and her entourage took great effort to keep it that way. Her son Ricky Rodriguez, after becoming disaffected and leaving the cult, had resorted to murder to try to locate her, but failed. Zerby’s real name wasn’t known for much of the cult’s history. Everyone inside called her “Queen Maria” or “Mama Maria.” The only reason her name is known today is that it was forced into the public record during a major court case in England.
    The Undercover Investigators

    A group of people including myself (all of whom were born into the cult and left) wanted to locate Zerby and we were organized on social media. But one problem with trying to find her was that no one knew what she looked like. Her secrecy was so complete that the most recent known photo of her was nearly 30 years old. And all the photos of her were small and low quality.

    But in 2005, we had a new lead. A previously unknown high-resolution close-up of Zerby. The source wanted to be kept secret, so an exclusive, secret cabal of people on MovingOn.org (the online hub for second-generation ex-members at the time) who were known to be working on or interested in gathering information about the cult and its leaders shared the image between ourselves and planned to post it online and share it with the media. The only problem was: that photo—our new best—was from 19-fucking-70.

    You can see the picture above on the left. It was released into the wild on XFamily.org in February 2005. XFamily was a brand new wiki at the time, founded by my friend Robert. A core team of XFamily editors put in countless hours documenting everything we could about the secretive cult, and XFamily quickly became the go-to place for information on the Family. The site’s reputation was further bolstered by a number of drops of internal documents and photos that had never been shared elsewhere. We published any details we could find about known abusers and we didn’t care if anyone threatened to sue us. It was essentially the Wikipedia and WikiLeaks of the Family International rolled into one, and the cult didn’t know where we were getting our material (e.g., in response to this collection of internal documents that I published after acquiring the password and PGP private key for a cult email account, all members were instructed to be wary of letting anyone near their computers, even though I’d lifted the documents from halfway across the world).
    The Breakthrough

    But back to Zerby. Although the photo from the 70s was the best available of her at the time, only two months later a collection of a half dozen very recent photos of Zerby were anonymously added to the XFamily article about her. This marked the first time in nearly 30 years that recent pics of her were available to the public. It was also the first time her photo was available to cult members for more than a brief glimpse.1

    1 It wasn’t the first time for some members to see her because the cult had occasionally sent top leaders to a few communes to hand-deliver photos and videos of Zerby. Members at these locations would line up to briefly view images of Zerby but couldn’t keep copies.

    continued below

  136. This release was a major coup at the time, and it was the result of theft by yours truly. I’d stolen the photos from the computer of someone who’d recently left the inner circle. Through some sleuthing and help from others, I was able to identify Zerby in the photos by matching her features with the 1970s photo. It was in fact a major security breach that this person had kept the photos when they left Zerby’s home in the first place.

    The Aftermath

    Just a few days after the release of the new photos on XFamily, the Family International posted a subset of them (the more attractive ones) on their highly-protected “Members Only” website (which, of course, I had access to). This was an apparent attempt to prevent cult members from venturing onto XFamily in search of them.

    Soon after, the photos were being broadcast in news reports on Fox News, CNN, etc., and reprinted in high-profile magazines. Rolling Stone published an 11-page article about Ricky Rodriguez that prominently included one of the photos of Zerby, along with the following explanation:

    For years, by remaining out of sight and unphotographed, Zerby, like Berg before her, had helped to fuel her mystery and her power. All that changed in March, two months after the violence, when, in an unprecedented breach of security, recent pictures of Zerby were posted on an anti-Family Web site, xfamily.org. The photos were apparently taken by a traitor in her inner circle. Wearing a shimmering purple silk dress with a plunging neckline, smiling a blissful, toothy smile beneath a pair of unstylish eyeglasses, her long silver hair falling past her shoulder blades, Zerby looks like an aging Deadhead, somebody you’d bump into at a co-op in Marin County, California. For many Family Members it was the first picture they had seen of Zerby in more than twenty years.
    Peter Wilkinson, Rolling Stone, June 2005

    It didn’t take too long after that for the Family to change their position on leadership photos altogether. Today, you can find Zerby’s smiling mug on a number of public Family websites, and even a video she recorded for the public on YouTube. But the above photo kickstarted that whole chain of events.
    The Ending

    So that’s the story of how publishing photos of Zerby contributed in its tiny way to the downfall of the cult. In hindsight, the group’s collapse was already well underway. The Family International still technically exists today, but it’s a paltry and deradicalized version of its former self.

    Law & Order did an episode inspired by Zerby and her son Ricky. In the reimagining for television, the Ricky character survives his murder-suicide attempt and Zerby ends up in court. Although the prosecution has trouble making charges stick, in the end, she’s convicted.

    In reality, nothing like that happened. To this day, Zerby is in hiding, living off of what she collected from cult members over decades past. But perhaps the situation is not as much of a downer as that sounds. Although there was no dramatic justice, nearly everyone has left the cult. And as it collapsed, the Family introduced huge reforms, transforming itself from the notorious cult of its past into what’s now perhaps better described as a peculiar church.

    Jesus never did come back to destroy the Antichrist and usher in a new world as members expected. Instead, people had to get jobs and start sending their kids to school. Thousands of old-timers who gave the Family’s leaders the best decades of their lives were forced to rebuild from scratch during what should have been the winddown of their careers.

    The world moved on. That’s a good thing.

    see the photos in this article at:

  137. 'Leaving Isn't The Hardest Thing' Isn't Just A Cult Memoir

    by ILANA MASAD, NPR April 15, 20215

    A couple months after Lauren Hough's essay "I Was a Cable Guy. I Saw the Worst of America" went viral at the tail-end of 2018, I assigned it to my creative writing students in a unit on "character."

    Hough's essay had a distinct narrative voice — and she was capable of giving so much information about the people she encountered through a few quick details, like one of those cartoonists who can sketch out four lines and suddenly you see your face in them.

    Hough's first book, Leaving Isn't the Hardest Thing, includes "Cable Guy" and 10 more essays, each of them more revealing and honest than the next.

    Hough was raised in a cult known alternately as the Family, the Family of Love, the Children of God, or, if you go back far enough, Teens for Christ. I was startled to learn that the whole "Jesus was a socialist hippie" line is not necessarily the progressive talking point I'd believed it was (look, I'm Jewish, I first learned about this kind of Jesus from the Buddy Christ in Dogma). Instead, this version of Jesus (along with the term Jesus Freaks) seems to have originated around the same time as David Berg "tested his new brand of Gospel" on disenchanted youth in Huntington Beach in the late 1960s: "Jesus was a long-haired hippie like them. Jesus was a socialist. Jesus was the biggest radical ever." People wanted to find something to believe in — this was mid-Vietnam War — and they followed him, and his cult grew and changed. Hough's parents joined up separately, met each other, married on a whim, and had Hough and her three siblings.

    "A cult," writes Hough, "is your textbook abusive relationship — love-bomb, isolate, create dependence, and your victim won't have the power to leave, even if staying in the relationship means buying into the new Gospel of David Berg." This theme comes up over and over again throughout the essays, and how could it not? We all want to believe that growing up in a cult must be a particular kind of awful, nearly unfathomable, affecting a person's whole life — and in many ways it was like that for Hough. In "Badlands," she writes about the constant vigilance she had as a child, how she knew to expect violence, and how she learned to enact it on those smaller than her — in particular her little brother — because what other models did she have for how to deal with her anger and hurt and upset at the time? In "Speaking in Tongues," she lists some of the cult's rituals, the fasting and sleep deprivation used in the name of practicing its spirituality according to their leader, but which really served to make everyone too tired and hungry to see clearly what they were doing. The Family was also a sex cult, and in "Boys on the Side," Hough details the encouragement children got to "express themselves sexually," how when "an adult groped a preteen girl, she might freeze; she might be called unloving and told to be more receptive. She'd learn, eventually, to only freeze on the outside."

    But Hough's book isn't really a cult memoir — it's about so much more than that (and it's also quite funny, although you'll have to take my word on that because most of the funny bits include expletives I can't quote here). Slowly, essay after essay, it becomes clear that she's drawing parallels between the Family and good ol' fashioned American Exceptionalism in all its various facets, from rah-rah-'Merica attitudes surrounding freedom to the worship of individualism to the demands of capitalism.

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  138. In "Solitaire," the first essay, she's gaslighted by her superiors in the Air Force after her car is torched in what is clearly a hate crime — Hough is gay, and she'd been getting death threats for some time — and instead of trying to find out who did it, they try to pin it on her. "I knew I wasn't guilty," she writes. "But guilt or innocence had never mattered all that much in my experience." In the Family, after all, she was punished simply for being tired or not being upbeat enough.

    In "The Slide," Hough describes her days living out of her car in Washington, D.C., trying to find work and a room to rent. It was her first time encountering a gayborhood, in the form of Dupont Circle of the early aughts, but that didn't make it home, because "both cultures — the religious cult and the white-teeth gays — share a rule about smiling. Both believe in the power of positive thinking to keep things like homelessness at bay. This way, when you fall, you have only yourself to blame. There has to be a reason because no one wants to think it could happen to them."

    The United States is a nation full of people to whom it has already happened; people who are one paycheck, accident, or unexpected bill away from it happening; and people who are so astronomically far away from it happening to them that they can only imagine that those of us closer to the bottom of the financial safety rungs must be morally bankrupt, stupid, lazy, or all the above. There's less space in between these tiers than we think. At her cable guy job, Hough watched a man get an award for never taking a day off in ten years — not a sick day, a snow day, or even a vacation. He had a wife and kids. "In a sane society, he would be a cautionary tale. In our society, he got a plaque and a fifty-dollar gift card to Best Buy." You can't make this kind of thing up — it's all too common, the praise Americans get for working hard, the way we're obsessed with "efficiency" and "productivity hacking" and even "self-care," that term that originated in Black activist circles and that has become another marketing tactic to sell us things.

    Which is not to say that Hough believes we're all doomed, exactly. In "Everything That's Beautiful Breaks My Heart," she makes the ties between her own upbringing and the cultishness of American ideology explicit, but also opens up room for hope via small acts of resistance. One time she and a bunch of her fellow JETTS (Junior End Time Teens) went out to play in the snow after arriving at a new house in Switzerland after fleeing their last home because it was about to be raided. When a grownup came out to get them, he was ignored — a rarity. "We realized, if only for that one morning, they had no power. The same holds true now," she adds, referring to the systems that surround us, that promise protection and care via personal responsibility and hard work but that fail more of us than not. "They only have power because we believe, because they've taught us to need them."

    Do we believe? There are many reasons we do: The lies are comforting; they give structure to our lives, something to strive for, goals to achieve; they make us feel safer, because they make us feel certain that we can see what's going to happen next. Not knowing is far scarier. Thank goodness that Hough doesn't claim to know either, that she isn't trying to sell us a solution or asking us to join anything. She tells it like it is, and it's heartbreaking — but to find our way out, we have to see things clearly first. Any survivor of a cult or an abusive relationship will tell you that.

    Ilana Masad is an Israeli-American fiction writer, critic, and founder/host of the podcast The Other Stories. Her debut novel is All My Mother's Lovers.


  139. After Growing Up In A Cult Lauren Hough Freed Herself By Writing The Truth

    NPR, Fresh Air April 20, 2021

    Writer Lauren Hough grew up in a nomadic doomsday Christian cult called the Children of God. She says she remembers being taught animals could talk to Noah — that's how he was able to get them on to the ark — and that heaven was located in a pyramid in the moon.

    "I had problems with [the teachings] pretty early on, but I couldn't express those," she says. "Probably the earliest thing I learned is just keep your mouth shut — and I couldn't, which was a problem."

    Hough tells of how she was put in solitary confinement as a kid and suffered rampant sexual abuse from adults in the "Family," as the cult was known (it's gone through several iterations and is now called the Family International). When Hough was 15, her family left the cult for good — but she struggled to connect with other children. She joined the military, but she didn't fit there either: Hough is gay — and it was the 1990s, during the era of "don't ask, don't tell."

    Hough asked for, and received, a discharge from the Air Force, but things didn't get any easier. She became homeless and lived in her car. Eventually she took on a number of jobs, including as a bouncer in a gay club and as a "cable guy" — and she began writing as a way of sorting out her feelings about the past.

    "I spent a long time lying to myself more than, I think, anyone else. Telling myself that my childhood didn't affect me, telling myself that the military didn't affect me," she says. "I think writing, more than anything, brought that out. ... You kind of have to tell the truth, or it's crap and you know it."

    One essay about working as a cable guy went viral. That essay is included in Hough's new collection, Leaving Isn't the Hardest Thing.

    Interview Highlights

    On growing up in the cult and being punished if she wasn't "good"

    I was mostly punished any time I was too loud or not loud enough or too foolish or not smiling enough. ... The balance was just impossible to figure out. So you learn to walk around with this placid little half smile on your face, but I'm unfortunately not very in control of my face. It didn't work out all that well for me. ...

    You'd never really figure it out. You'd get pulled aside and it would start with, "Can I talk to you for a minute?" And your stomach would just drop. And that could be something as simple [as]: Can you help with the kids tonight? Or you were led into ... [a] room and a few hours later, they're still trying to get you to confess to things, but you didn't know what they wanted you to confess to. A lot of times I just made things up: "I took an extra serving of peanut butter," or "I snuck a glass of milk before bed last night." Most of the time that I got in trouble, I don't know what it was for specifically. If you'd been down a lot lately, then you clearly had had a demon, so you could be in trouble for having a demon and the evidence of that was that you were sad.

    On children being sexually abused in the cult

    It really depended on where you were, and how old you were mattered a lot. There are girls who are older than me that had a lot of different stories than I did. They banned sex between kids and adults in '86, and this is the thing that [the cult] will always bring up. And I always have two questions about that: Why would you need to suddenly ban it? And why didn't you tell us? Because they didn't tell the kids. So if the adult supervising you didn't much care for the new rule, I wasn't aware there was anyone to tell, and I still I never told my parents [about the abuse] when I was in [the cult], because I assumed they were fine with everything. ... I don't think I realized until a lot later on how much it had traumatized me.

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  140. On leaving the cult when she was 15

    One of my mom's friends, another woman in a home, saw me being pressed into the wall by an uncle and he was trying to make out with me. And she told my mom, and my mom called me in, and I told her what had been happening and my mom lost her goddamn mind. The home leadership swore they were going to get rid of him and excommunicate him, and when we got to the next home, he was still there, so my mom was done. She was really worried we weren't getting any sort of education. She was livid. So she started planning it long before we left and called my grandmother to gather up the money for plane tickets and made sure she had her passports and all of that and she'd been working on trying to get our sisters out, too, but when she realized that wasn't possible, it was just an emergency to get me and my little brother out. So we just walked out one night. The actual act of leaving — nobody chased us down. We didn't have to sneak out. We just left.

    On starting a new life in Texas

    It was better; it was just very lonely. I didn't really know how to talk to other kids and kept making missteps that I didn't entirely understand. And it's like being in a foreign country and sometimes you get yelled at getting on the bus or getting groceries and you're never quite sure what you did wrong; you just know that you messed up that interaction entirely. And that's what Amarillo was like. Some of [the missteps] I can easily identify: I kept hugging people when I met them, which is not the way you greet perfect strangers. I would say, "God bless you," or "I love you," after a sentence and not realize that it had come out of my mouth. It was a nervous tic, like apologizing too much. And then I just didn't understand pop culture.

    On joining the Air Force at age 18

    Compared to a cult, the military was easy. The rules are really defined, and they don't veer from them very often. You don't have to really make a lot of decisions for yourself once you decide to join. My biggest decision every morning is whether or not I would roll my sleeves up or down, and you can just follow along for the most part and do all right. It was comforting. There's that instant camaraderie that happens with the people around you. And for a while, that felt pretty safe — until I was having to lie again because I had the other secret I was hiding about: I was gay. ...

    The thing about the military is you are generally around people your age, and for the most part, people my age didn't care. They were raised on MTV. We thought being gay was all right, for the most part. The problem with the military is, and the problem with "don't ask, don't tell," is it just took one person to not even have a problem with gay people, but [to] be mad at you enough to want to hurt you. And it was just an easy way to hurt someone. A lot of people who got kicked out of the military were turned in by exes who wanted to hurt them.

    On learning to speak openly in writing

    I think writing, naturally, feels a little bit secretive. You start writing in notebooks under your blanket with a flashlight. So it feels like this secretive thing that's just between you and the page. I have a long history of telling my secrets to a piece of paper. I didn't want to publish any of it until there was a reason to, because who knows what the difference is between trauma porn and writing, but I didn't want to traumatize anybody with my story. ... If I was going to tell any of it, I wanted to have a point and a reason and something I was trying to say.

    Therese Madden and Seth Kelley produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz and Molly Seavy-Nesper adapted it for the Web.


  141. My Story. Not One but Two

    By Naomi Gibson October 18, 2020

    My mission is to tell the world that every single experience of people who were in any cult, high-control group be it NXIVM, or the Children of God matters, whatever form it takes. Most people in cults are either sexually abused, financially enslaved, or emotionally coerced. Whatever our experience was, it takes years to deprogram and unlearn, even if there is no physical mark. Sometimes the indoctrination is embedded so deep, OUR BRAINS WERE BRANDED with their philosophy, and that’s an invisible scar that never goes away.

    I have to be honest it’s not easy to write this and expose myself, and my family. I think people choose to speak out because they need to expose the truth, clear their name and conscience, and for some to help make sure this never happens to anyone else. But the majority don’t speak out, maybe they don’t want to be known as the “cult person”, or believe their voice matters or deserves to be heard. More often than not, it can simply be too painful to relive. There’s a reason why people who’ve been in cults decide to put it all behind them, because facing it sometimes seems impossible. I was not only in NXIVM, I was born into a cult called ‘The Children of God’, known today as The Family International, and yes it is still active..

    I want to provide a brief look at my what my life looked like growing up in a cult. We were living in Los Angeles, CA at the time my parents were invited to go to India. Growing up in a group like ‘The Family’ was all about communal living. There were often a couple or more families living together in the same household. We grew up with an unfettered devotion to God which honestly felt pure and peaceful. We sang for money and food, passed out pamphlets shared and worshipped the lord, and life honestly seemed good. When I was 5 my parents were invited to go to the Philippines. They were moving most everyone out of India and spreading them around the world, some families were in South American and Europe. My family was chosen to be near the leadership.

    We moved to Manila, and the place we lived in was called the ‘Jumbo’. It was unlike anything we had ever experienced and a far cry from our happy home in India with mango trees, wild monkeys and a stones throw from the ocean. There was a gate with a guard who carried heavy artillery. There were many buildings within the compound and 100’s of people lived there. We would end up being separated by age, and I hardly saw my parents or siblings during our time there. It was at the ‘Jumbo’ where the abuse began and my life, that of my family’s and many others would never be the same. Rules and corporal punishment would become part of a daily ritual that seemed to happen for any reason. My caretakers would often punish us for being disobedient by hitting us with these little plastic sticks in the back of our legs, and that was the light punishment. We were not allowed to speak while eating. Once I broke this rule, I had to wear a sign saying I was a sinner and had to help clean the dinning hall. The abuse only got worse. I was just 5 years old when I was sexually abused by one of my male caretakers. I never told anyone, and I wouldn’t fully come to terms with it until I was an adult. Not really sure one can ever fully come to terms with an experience like that. It leaves a mark and has shaped me to the very core of my being.

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  142. The Familys founder and leader, David Berg, had many names: ‘Moses’, ‘Mo’, ‘The Prophet,’ among others. He was a self-proclaimed profit from God, who would instill fear into the followers minds if they themselves did not obey the orders relayed to them. His teachings lead the followers to be abusers. Like many other cult leaders his teachings manipulated his followers to feed his predatory nature. It’s ironic that this cults name is ‘The Family’, because it’s anything but that. They would often times separate families, keeping children away from their parents for months and even years. This was used as a form of control. The abuse ‘The Family’ has inflicted on its members is generational.

    As an adult I would find myself involved in another cult, NXIVM. I honestly think that my experience growing up in a cult lead me to NXIVM, but it also gave me the awareness to question the groups teachings and in short ultimately saved me from going deeper in.

    Someone once asked me, why people joined NXIVM. They said everyone from the organization seemed too smart. My reply was this, think about it this way, picture someone you admire, someone you want to emulate, a personal hero, maybe a friend or family member that you trust. Now say this person tells you about a course something that changed their life, helped them be more successful, happier. Would you sign up?”

    I have found strength in acknowledging my story, and listening to other people who have experienced this type of abuse, be it emotional, mental, and/or physical. There’s a certain strength that comes from no longer calling ourselves victims. We are all survivors. It’s through this experience of telling my story and seeking the truth that I had the opportunity to attend Keith Raniere’s trial in Brooklyn, NY. I say it was an opportunity because it’s so rare that people, especially men, get convicted for these types of crimes. And to be there witnessing the truth of this predator, narcissist, sadistic crime-boss like psychopath, was both painful and powerful. It was an opportunity for the world to see that this type of abuse has a name, and cult leaders around the world should live in fear. Being in the court room helped me understand the evil that I had witnessed, but it also gave me hope, in justice and in the courageous voices of women who came forward and testified. Outside the courtroom right after the guilty verdict, I surprised myself by shouting out a question at the press conference, Do you think this case will change the law on coercion, COERCIVE CONTROL? I heard someone yell, YES!, as I finished the question. It’s my hope that this case does set the precedent for coercive control and creates accountability for the abuse that goes on when staunch loyalty enables people to act on their predatory abusive nature.

    When we step forward and share what we’ve learned, that’s what we’re here for. To teach one another, to share, to learn a better way forward, to keep sharing it, and to walk again into the light.

    Naomi is a writer, actor, producer and activist. Through her experience in choosing to share her story and expose NXIVM, she has discovered the importance and power of finding her voice.


  143. I gave myself a year to decide to live: The mental health leader who escaped a cult

    by Jill Foster, Yahoo News, June 3, 2021

    The happiest day of Petra Velzeboer’s childhood was not a special birthday, a holiday or party; it was the day she got a library card.

    "I was aged about 13 and it was great because suddenly I could sneak in all the books I wasn’t allowed to read," says Petra, now 40, a mental health consultant who lives with her two children aged 17 and 15 in south London.

    "We had contraband music too. When The Bodyguard was released, my friends were passing Whitney Houston tapes to each other in secret.

    "If I’d been caught, I risked anything from corporal punishment to having to wear a sign telling people they were not allowed to talk to me for up to two weeks.

    "Thankfully, I was good at disappearing into the background, so was never found out.

    "But these things happened to people close to me all the time and it made me jumpy.’

    The draconian rules Petra was living under were the result of her growing up in the notorious The Children of God cult.

    Founded in the late 1960s, its founder, David Berg, believed he was the last prophet before Armageddon and advised his followers to abandon all their possessions and live an austere life.

    Horrifyingly, tales of child sexual abuse and exploitation have emerged about the cult and its leader, who was on the run from the FBI until his death in 1994.

    Although Petra herself was never a victim and even remembers ‘happy times’ with her mother, stepfather and four siblings, her unconventional childhood had a devastating impact on her in later life.

    "There was a sense of community but also a sense of loss because we would move quickly from one place to another," says Petra, who was born in The Netherlands.

    "We lived all over Europe, India, Russia, Kenya and often you’d have to go suddenly, leaving toys and friends you’d made behind without ever saying goodbye.

    "Many leaders were manipulative and controlling. Going to school was not an option and we were only allowed to read literature they approved.

    "They said Jesus was coming back and the world was going to end, which sounds terrifying but when you’re a child and you’re told it’s ‘normal’, it doesn’t frighten you, it is what it is.

    "However, it makes you hyper-vigilant, always wondering what is coming next.

    "People ask me how I escaped but there were no physical walls. I could have walked out at any time.

    "But those who did leave – they were called ‘backsliders’ - were ostracised, sometimes by their own family and many struggled with their mental health or took their own lives.’

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  144. Yet like many of its members Petra began to question the cult’s beliefs as she grew up into her teens.

    "One of my older sisters left when I was a teenager so I became aware of a whole different life out there," she says. "I started leading a double life, rising through the ranks of the cult but bending the rules and living ‘on the outside’ too.

    "I started leading a hedonistic life of sex, drugs and alcohol but it completely messed with my mental health.

    "We were not allowed to date non-cult members, but after leading a double life for some years, I ended up pregnant with my son by a man from outside the cult.

    "I was 22 and scared. I had to leave the cult, isolating myself from anyone in my past – including my mother and siblings – and it was the loneliest I’ve ever been in my life.

    "I moved into my boyfriend's flat in London and we even had another baby two years later, but I couldn’t escape the thought that I was a ‘bad person’."

    In fact, Petra says it was only after leaving the ‘security’ of the cult that she felt her life spiral out of control.

    "Before, at least I felt I had a clear purpose and now I was part of nothing," she says. "I was very confused and depressed and was drinking heavily.

    "I began to self-harm and put myself – and my children – in dangerous situations.

    "One day, when my son was four and my daughter was two, I woke up and decided to take my own life. I thought my children would be better off without me.

    "But, for whatever reason that day, another thought came into my head too. I decided I would give myself a year to make myself better, to experiment with all the things people said could make a difference. What did I have to lose? If it didn’t work, I could kill myself then."

    Petra’s first priority was to join Alcoholics Anonymous, to quit drinking.

    Incredibly, for someone who didn’t even have a GCSE, she enrolled on a counselling course and ended up doing a Masters in psychodynamics of human development without having a degree.

    "I had already been working with teenagers in the charity sector and studying part-time but I talked my way onto this course, working full-time and studying at night.

    Read more: Cult member jailed after historical rape and sexual assault of young girls

    "I was falling asleep in lectures and really struggled but I was determined to do whatever I could to lead a ‘normal’ life.

    "I learned a lot about myself. I didn’t know it but I was suffering from post traumatic stress disorder due to my upbringing in the cult and how I then repeatedly allowed myself to be manipulated and put in abusive situations."

    Today, Petra has turned her life around.

    She is back in touch with her family and is a qualified psychotherapist and CEO of a mental health consultancy working with global organisations to help them improve their wellbeing strategies.

    "Growing up in the cult gives me unique insight into companies who are also toxic and controlling on the inside," she says. "There’s a misconception that if we talk about our mental health at work, no one will ever get any work done but the opposite is true.

    "I want to normalise conversations about mental health and show people they can talk when they are struggling - long before they reach rock bottom."

    To find out more contact Petra at petravelzeboer.com

    see the photos in this article at:

  145. My children found out I had been in a sex cult

    by Faith Morgan (pen name) The Telegraph June 14, 2021

    “Mum,” said my 15-year-old son as I drove him to school in Surrey a couple of years back. “Were you in a sex cult?”

    I froze. He’d found my papers in a box: my teenage diary, court documents, media reports. It was time to tell my children.

    It feels like long ago now, but it wasn’t very far away: just 40-odd miles from where I live a normal home counties life with my husband and sons.

    Rewind three decades, and I was living on a residential street in north London. Here, inside a large suburban house that looked unremarkable from the outside, something grossly abnormal was happening.

    If our neighbours at this address near Holloway ever suspected anything, I was unaware. But by then, aged 16, I knew how unusual our lives were: I was living in a commune, as part of the Children of God cult.

    I’d wound up in the north London house in 1989, shortly after my English mother and Costa Rican father – both cult members – had brought me and my siblings over to Britain from Mexico. I’d been born into, and grown up inside, the infamous, supposedly Christian organisation, which I later discovered was a cult, now known as The Family International, and it was the only existence I had ever known. I had witnessed first-hand the child abuse for which it became notorious; I had seen the sexual “sharing” (a grotesque form of polyamory that involved sharing sexual partners openly, in front of others, and often with children present); and the contempt of cult members for the so-called “System” by which normal people lived.

    I had been schooled in the cult’s beliefs: we loved Jesus, we were here to save people, and sex with multiple partners, including children, was a way of sharing God’s love. I knew we were different, and I also instinctively knew how wrong it all was. From a young age I shrank away from the cult’s obscene practices and beliefs despite my parents’ insistence this was the right way to live.

    Now, finally, we had arrived in my mother’s birthplace, Britain. The cult, which was founded in California by David Berg in the late 1960s, had its tentacles across continents, and I found myself quickly dispatched by my brainwashed parents to the commune in north London, where I’d spend the next two years.

    The house was rammed with other cult members. As many as 50 of us were crammed in, sleeping 10 or more to a room. The teenagers and children were made to do chores, such as cleaning, cooking and laundry. The older ones were expected to mind and “teach” the younger ones and participate in what we called “witnessing”: going out and singing and distributing pamphlets to unenlightened “Systemites”, and selling cult-produced videos and cassette tapes, for this was a proselytizing cult.

    I didn’t attend school, because school was considered a dangerous place where the devil’s lies were taught. I was desperately bored and longed for books other than the cult publications, some of which were disturbingly pornographic.

    By early 1991, the British authorities were becoming aware of this strange group of people living under their noses, not sending their children to school and adhering to a very odd belief system. Some cult members had been coming out and talking about it, and word went around that police raids on our commune were imminent.

    We were ordered to burn piles of the books, or rip out incriminating pages, and one day, in the middle of the night, we were told to grab our bags and leave. In the winter darkness, I was bundled into a van with a woman cult member and her sons, and in the morning we arrived at another smaller suburban house.

    “Where am I?” I wondered. “Does it matter?” All I knew was I was somewhere else in London, and that I had to go where I was told. The cult had total control over me.

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  146. But I was starting to wonder what the rest of my life would be like if I stayed. Would I become a baby factory, like the other women around me? Would I ever learn to drive and be independent? Women weren’t allowed autonomy; they were subordinate to the men in every way. Contraception was banned and abortion was deemed to be murder. At 17, I had the presence of mind to think: “That’s not what I want. I want to be free.”

    I was also terrified. I berated myself for being so full of pride and rebellious; for having the temerity to even consider I may be right and they might be wrong. How would I even escape? The Children of God belief system was all I knew.

    One evening I sneaked into a room with a phone and called my mum, who was living in a house in South London with my family. I was desperately afraid of being caught, but even more desperate to get out. When my mum answered, I begged her: “Please, I want to leave. I don’t know where I am!”

    She replied: “Let me speak to the shepherds and see what they say.” The shepherds were the senior members of the cult, to whom others had to defer. I dreaded the thought of my fate being left in their hands, but the next thing I knew I was told they’d be coming to speak to me.

    For two days I felt so scared I could barely sleep or eat. I feared being sent to the Teen Home in Wantage, Oxfordshire, and put on hard labour. There was a department within the Teen Home where rebellious teenagers were exorcised, forced to fast or forbidden to speak.

    When the shepherds arrived, they told me “the Lord” had other plans for me. “We want to send you on a pioneering mission to Siberia,” they said. “Or maybe Brazil.”

    I was crushed. I called my mum back afterwards and, trembling, begged her again. The next day I was bundled into a van, dumped at Victoria Station in London, and given a ticket back to the house where my family lived. I later learned that for the first time ever, my father had saved me. He’d told the shepherds: “Send my daughter home or I’ll call the police.”

    After this I began to find my own way. I started college and experimented with psychedelics and party drugs; anything to help me cope with integrating into normal society as well dealing with my trauma and depression.

    I began campaigning against the cult and gave evidence in court cases at home and abroad. My mother got involved too and turned her own life around, apologising to her children for her part in raising us in what she now realised was an evil system. No such luck with my father, who to this day refuses to recant. My parents divorced in the mid-1990s and I am estranged from him, but close to my mum.

    I’m lucky I managed to move on and now live a free life and work in a prestigious organisation in a business development role. I told my husband about my past after we’d been dating a while. He was shocked, of course, as were my children when they realised what I’d been subjected to. They also helped me understand it. On learning a 40-year-old male cult member had had sex with me when I was 15, it was my son who told me: “Mum you were groomed and raped.”

    I’d never even seen it like that. Paedophilia had been the norm for Children of God.

    It was a friend who persuaded me to write “Rebel:The extraordinary Story of a childhood in the children of God cult”, my new book about my past. My story is as relevant today as ever, as self-indoctrination online can now be just a few clicks away.

    I’m not afraid of telling people what happened to me. I’m not ashamed or embarrassed. I’m grateful to have escaped and hopeful about the future. I am also very proud to be British and grateful to my country for supporting us while we picked up the broken pieces of our lives and put them back together again.

    As told to Rosa Silverman


  147. Sex cults like Nxivm exist in the UK too – I grew up in one and trained for Armageddon before escaping at 15

    By Bexy Cameron, iNews UK July 6, 2021

    The first time we ran from the police, I was eight years old. Our commune took flight, under darkness, fearful that “the law” had found out where we lived.

    We were somewhere about an hour outside of London. Maybe it was Hertfordshire, maybe Kent; our communities were so secretive that we kids were not allowed to know our addresses. But the British countryside, for me, would become the backdrop to atrocities that happened in the name of “new” religion.

    I grew up in a cult. A sex cult, as it’s infamously known – the Children of God, now rebranded as The Family International. When people hear this, they usually imagine it was in the dusty plains of the Nevada desert, a compound in an Alabaman forest, or a Tennessee bunker housing feral children. We tend to think of cults as an American thing, perhaps believing that Britons are less susceptible, maybe more sensible.

    But no, I grew up in communes right here in the UK: in hidden farmhouses on the outskirts of Wales, secluded buildings on the edges of Hampshire, and once in a terraced house in Hendon, north-west London. It was the only world I knew but somehow I understood that what was happening was not right. From the age of 10, I told myself that if I could get out, I would tell people about what happened there.

    I escaped at 15, leaving my parents and my 11 siblings behind, and now live a life that I never dared dream was possible. I’m an adult with free will, I’m a writer and director, and every day I feel grateful for the freedoms that we all have the right to expect.

    It can seem sinister to think of cults hidden in plain sight. But “new religious movements” are more common in this country than most people realise – there have been more than 800 of them operating here in recent decades. They exist in places like Hertfordshire, Inverness, Sussex, Devon and Northampton – a list that sounds more like a series run-down of Escape to the Country than the locations of secretive sects.
    Because of the mystery that surrounds cults, precise numbers are hard to pin down. Lots of movements operate underground, some refuse to reveal their membership numbers or exaggerate them, and many gloss over their high turnover rates.

    There is a broad spectrum of sects and new religious movements, but the one thing that unites them is that they despise the term “cult”. Still, the average Briton is probably a lot closer to “them” – the seekers, the ideologists, the harmless spiritualists and the revolutionaries – than they realise. A few doors down and a simple leap of faith away.

    There are the imported groups like the Iskcon – the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, better known as the Hare Krishnas, a Hindu sect made famous by The Beatles. And there are the homegrown ones, like the Findhorn Foundation, a registered charity based in an ecovillage in northern Scotland, “where everyday life is guided by the inner voice of spirit”.

    Whether Findhorn is a cult or not is open to debate. Ewan Morrison, a writer who stayed there in 2012, concluded that it was “a benign middle-aged spiritual community with an obsessive focus on its own language and rules. But the cult-think and the lack of children made my blood run cold”.

    There are some that sound like a bit of fun (The Raelians, best summed up as the world’s largest UFO religion) and others that tell you to kill your family pets if they get in the way of God’s work (The Exclusive Brethren, an evangelical Protestant Christian church that seeks to separate followers from other people).

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  148. Sometimes horrific stories emerge – like that of Stephen Orchard, a member of the Jesus Army who was found decapitated in 1978, less than a mile away from their Northamptonshire headquarters, after saying that he was considering leaving. The Baptist sect faced allegations of rapes, “brainwashing” and the beating of young children in 2019, and has since closed.

    There was also the Lambeth slavery case of 2013, when three women were rescued from a commune in south London after being imprisoned by The Workers’ Institute of Marxism–Leninism–Mao Zedong Thought. Its leader, Aravindan Balakrishnan – aka Comrade Bala – was sentenced to 23 years in prison.
    Some groups have died out because all the young people have left, after seeing that life was possible “outside”. My cult has dwindled from 25,000 to just 1,000 or so around the world, after an exodus of young people like me.

    But others, such as the International Church of Christ (ICC), seem to be sweeping up the youth of today. Operating on university campuses, the ICC is a family of churches spread across 155 nations that believe in salvation through Christ – although one ex-member once described them as responsible for “mental rape”.
    Fleeing and following

    I grew up in a time when fear of cults was perhaps at its highest. The tragedy of the 1993 siege of a compound in Waco, Texas – resulting in the deaths of 76 Branch Davidians, including 25 children and two pregnant women – had shocked the world. So, too, had the suicides (or were they actually murders?) of 53 members of the Solar Temple in Switzerland. Headlines screamed of bizarre sexual practices, blasphemous beliefs, kidnapping, deception, broken families and child abuse.

    As a result, we were prepared with “flee-bags” – packs of essentials in case the press tracked us down and we had to go to ground. I remember being shoved into the backs of vans, car chases through cities, and winters spent lying low in the Welsh countryside. But then a time came when we had to come out of hiding. Our group couldn’t run any more. So, when I was 12, we moved into a village outside Leicester – all 100 of us. Imagine finally finishing your extension on your terraced house and then the Children of God move into your cul-de-sac. Nothing brings Zoopla ratings down quite like a cult in the neighbourhood.

    By the time we moved to this village, I had spent years in teenage camps across the UK where our group was attempting to turn us kids into an army fit to fight in the Armageddon. Children were being beaten, locked in isolation and exorcised. Aged 10, I was forced to be silent for a whole year. My group was clearly extreme. Most are nothing like this. But where does the leap from religious community to a full-blown cult running a teenage Armageddon army camp happen – and who are the people caught up in them?

    A few years ago I flew to San Francisco, bought a truck and started a journey into the underbelly of religious cults in the US. I wanted not only to find out why people join, but also to hear about the experiences of children who are born into these worlds, just like I was. In hindsight, it was a potentially dangerous and traumatising mission for anyone to take on, but especially for someone with my history and experience.
    This American road trip – which I’ve written about in my new book, Cult Following – taught me something just as relevant in the UK: about what makes people believe in something enough to give up their entire lives to follow it. Sometimes in an instant.

    Many people imagine cult members to be typically unstable, homeless, addicts or on the spectrum. Perhaps this provides comfort that there is a separation between us and them and that we could never do that. It builds a barrier between us and the crazies in white robes singing, chanting or muttering to gods we’ve never heard of.

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  149. The reality is that they are predominantly middle-class, educated people like my parents. Yes, they met on a psychiatric ward, but that’s because they were both studying medicine rather than being under the hospital’s care. My dad joined first. My mum went to “rescue” him. Both of their recruitments happened within hours of meeting the group – decisions that happened so quickly but last until this day. Recruitment happens in so many ways – through literature, through bands and music, on university campuses, on high streets, But the feelings that people describe seem to be universal: of enlightenment, of transformation, or as my parents put it, of “coming home”.

    Membership of alternative groups is rising fast, especially among women and those aged over 35. In 2015, the folk singer Laura Marling opened up about feeling lost and getting into “a fairly odd, specific kind of transcendental yoga”, saying: “I was pretty close to joining a cult.” It struck me at the time that if this 31-year-old woman from Berkshire could be saying this, anyone could. Is it easier to fall under their influence now? New religious movements are moving from geodomes to video calls.

    We live in an online world where our beliefs are expanding and overlapping – where you can spend 20 minutes in meditation channelling aliens, before jumping on to a virtual “past-lives-clearing”, or go from attending a yoga nidra breathwork session to an online seance with one of the many magical occult “WitchTok” groups.
    Look at how many people in the UK believe in conspiracy theories propagated by the baseless US phenomenon of QAnon. A survey in October found that 29 per cent thought there was “a single group of people who secretly control events and rule the world together”. QAnon does not have physical communes and isn’t based in spiritual practice, but take it from me that these are certainly cult-like beliefs.
    Seeking solutions

    After we arrived in that Midlands village when I was 12, we came out of hiding to face the press. News vans and reporters camped outside of our commune for weeks on end. But once the media interest had died down, the local teenagers still sat there smoking rollies, waiting for something “cultie” to happen. They would shout “sex-cult girl” every time I went to our food barn.

    I would look beyond the gate at them in their denim jackets and then back at myself, ashamed. Sometimes scared, mainly intrigued. I would dream of the world beyond those gates even though I feared it. Perhaps those teenagers and I were both looking through the same distorted glass, unable to focus on a true picture of either the outside world or the one I was living in, even though it was close enough to touch.

    I remain fascinated by cults. They can represent so much of what we fear in humankind: the horrors that come when we put beliefs above basic human rights, when we use “God” as an excuse to treat followers like animals, when sex and power corrupt ordinary people, and when children become casualties.

    But within these groups we can also recognise ourselves: our basic human need to find connections, to have purpose, to find “our people”, to have meaning in life.

    Those needs are universal. Joining a group can take away many of the things we worry about, like paying bills, taxes, supporting ourselves and finding a career. It is a pretty intoxicating idea, which is why I can understand elements of why people join a cult. Even with my past, I am open minded to the positives that spirituality can bring. I have seen groups that do it well as well as others that cause damage.

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  150. So when does a group become a cult? For me, it comes down to what is a matter of individual choice and what is exploitative. What is the intention behind a group’s beliefs? Does it come from a place of compassion or of elitism? Is it about being separate from the world or in communion with it? And do the beliefs uphold human rights or batter against them?

    Now I can gladly say that I have joined my last cult. I have packed up my van and returned to the safety of my home in London. My search to resolve the unanswered questions left by my childhood is now over. The solutions, as many people find for their own problems, lay with understanding – and confronting – my parents. They remain in their cult and are no longer in the UK. But the answers I needed were closer to home than I could have imagined.

    ‘Cult Following: My Escape and Return to the Children of God’ by Bexy Cameron is published on Thursday (£14.99, Manilla Press


  151. Guardian journalist helped me see a way out, ex-cult member recalls

    Former Children of God member says simple question put to her by Walter Schwarz was life-changing

    by Harriet Sherwood, The Guardian July 7, 2021

    It was a simple question to a child, one routinely asked by adults: what do you want to be when you grow up? But for 11-year-old Bexy Cameron, who had never known anything but the strict religious cult she was born into, it was life-changing.

    Her brief encounter with the Guardian journalist Walter Schwarz in the 1990s led to her escaping the Children of God cult at the age of 15, leaving behind her parents and siblings. Now she has written a memoir, Cult Following, about growing up in a movement founded by a controlling sexual predator. The last line of her acknowledgments reads: “Eternal gratitude to Walter Schwarz (RIP). Who knows what would have happened without that ‘one simple question’?”

    Cameron, 38, and her 11 siblings knew only a life dominated by Bible readings, exorcisms, physical and psychological punishments when Schwarz became the first journalist to be permitted access to the cult. Children of God had been founded in California in 1968 by the self-proclaimed prophet David Berg, who was known as Moses.

    At its peak, Children of God had 10,000 adherents across the world who followed Berg’s strict instructions. It was a highly sexualised and abusive environment; women were sent out to entice men into the cult and daughters were sometimes forced to “marry” their fathers. By the time Berg died in 1994, he was wanted for questioning by the FBI and Interpol over allegations of rape, incest, incarceration and kidnapping.

    Cameron remembers Schwarz’s arrival at the commune in Leicestershire where the family lived at the time as “a really big moment”. The cult had decided to “open our doors, to reveal ourselves a little more. But unknown to Walter, we [children] were trained for his visit to say certain things and not say other things.”

    Cameron and her siblings and peers had no access to television or newspapers and never went to school. “We had no idea what was going on in the outside world, but we were told that the media was evil and people were out to get us.”

    Schwarz’s stay at the commune came just after Cameron had ended a year of “silence restriction” when she was forbidden from speaking to anyone except her assigned leader.

    “I was excited that I’d been chosen to speak to Walter. I was completely intrigued by him – he was tall and had white hair and a gentle manner. He looked us in the eye. He didn’t ask any of the questions I’d been prepped for, just this mundane ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’

    “It was the first time I’d ever thought about the concept of being grown up or becoming something. We were raised to believe that we were going to die in the ‘End Time’ wars, that we were going to be martyrs. So when he asked me that, it was an epiphany – that’s the best way that I can describe it. All of a sudden, there was a crack in the wall, potentially an escape route.”

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  152. A few years later Cameron took that route, but it was more than a decade before she reached “the point where I needed to confront my past – and the first thing I wanted to do was to track down the man who had started the change in me”.

    She had no idea of the journalist’s name, but knew he had worked for the Guardian. After digging around she concluded that Schwarz, the Guardian’s then retired religious affairs correspondent, was likely to be her interviewer.

    In an extraordinary twist, it turned out that a friend of hers was Schwarz’s son. Cameron emailed Schwarz to say thank you for “opening a door to another world”. Within an hour he had replied, inviting her to visit.

    “It was a really wonderful experience to meet him again, but there were complicated emotions on both sides.” Schwarz pressed her to write about her childhood, and showed her his original article about the Children of God. “He was a bit upset as he’d written quite a positive piece based on what he’d seen during his visit.”

    She kept in contact with Schwarz until his death aged 88 in 2018. “I spent many weekends at his home. They made me feel like part of the family. He was such an insightful, beautiful man, and he has a wonderful place in my heart.”

    "Cult Following: My Escape and Return to the Children of God" by Bexy Cameron


  153. Transforming trauma

    Kamiah's Jemima Farris grew up in a cult. Her new podcast features those who find strength within to overcome difficult circumstances.

    By Norma Staaf for Inland 360 July 29, 2021

    Lifelong friends Jemima Lamb Farris and Whisper Wind James know something about surviving trauma after living nearly three decades in a cult called the Children of God.

    Neither joined by choice; they were born into the group in the early 1970s. Farris’ story begins in Kooskia, where her mother joined the cult while pregnant with her.

    “The early years weren’t so bad. Later though, the cult leaders lost their way and physical, emotional and sexual abuse became commonplace,” Farris said.

    This spring, after completing a course in interpersonal and group coaching, the two women launched the podcast “Butterflies and Bravery” to spotlight the voices of trauma survivors. Both women identify with the butterfly as a symbol.

    “You can’t rush the transformation process,” Farris said.

    The introduction to the podcast promises “real and raw stories from everyday, ordinary people who have faced extraordinary experiences, overcome phenomenal setbacks and accomplished the impossible on their road to purpose and success.”

    “We both got to the point in our lives that we needed to do something to help other people who are struggling,” Farris said about why they decided to create a podcast.

    Every Wednesday, the show features a guest with a story to tell. The focus is on how people survived challenging circumstances and what advice they might offer others. Titles like “Meth and Me,” “Shove that Happy Rainbow up your Ass,” “Paper Clip Smile” and “Jail Bait and Switch” hint at a range of experiences.

    Farris and James share some of their Children of God experiences in the podcast’s first episode, “It’s About to Get Weird,” where Farris explains how her mother came to join the cult.

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  154. The Children of God began in California in 1968, and a friend of Farris’ father came to Kooskia with the intention of recruiting him and others, she said.

    She suspects part of the motivation was that her dad, Jim, was a musician. He played in a band called The Pallbearers, and music was important to the cult, initially. Jim didn’t want to join, but Farris’ mother, Deborah Thompson, did. Pregnant with Farris, she packed up and left Kooskia with the group, later giving birth at the group’s colony for women in Seattle.

    “Jemima’s mother left me the day after she became pregnant, so I never had nothing to do with raising her, so we were never a complete family,” said Jim Farris, who now lives in Maryland but spends summers in Clearwater. “Her mother dumped her in the Children of God, rather than ask me to raise her, so I was never an actual dad.”

    Jemima said she doesn’t blame her mother or hold it against her.

    “Her motives were pure,” she said. “She wanted to get away from drugs. She thought she was serving the Lord.”

    The cult routinely separated children from their parents, including both Farris and James when they were each 12 years old. The women describe this experience in the podcast’s ninth episode, “Given to God at 12.” Farris lived in 21 different countries before she turned 18 and didn’t see her mother again until she was 27. She thinks her mom wanted to believe it was OK, she said.

    Farris and James first met as teenagers in Chiang Mai, the largest city in northern Thailand, at a school organized by the cult. Farris was 16, and James was 15.

    “After we met, we sat by the lake and talked all day. We’re like twins, two bodies and one soul,” said James, who lives in San Diego.

    Although cult leaders discouraged personal friendships and tried to separate them, their friendship has endured for more than 30 years.

    “I could share horrific stories, but the thing that gets forgotten is the evilness of the cult,” James said. “The spiritual, mental and emotional wounds are the hardest to recover from. The real deep wounds that tear up your life are emotional and mental. As teenagers, we were supposed to find who we are; they denied us that.”

    “The emotional and psychological stuff was all day, every day, while the physical and sexual abuse was once in a while,” Farris said.

    “You question your worth, doubt if people want to hear you, grieve over what was done to you,” James said.

    Both left the cult in the early 2000s. Cult leaders excommunicated Farris for smoking marijuana. Before that she was too scared to leave, she said. She didn’t know anything else. Cult members members begged on the streets for money, but turned everything over to the group. They weren’t allowed to earn their own money.

    “The only time you could have money is to proselytize,” said James, who hatched a plan to escape with the man she was married to at the time.

    The couple arranged to travel to Jamaica to volunteer at an orphanage. Although they were expected to buy one-way tickets from New York City to Jamaica, they secretly booked round-trip tickets for themselves and their four children. After working at the orphanage, they flew back to New York with $500 they’d received from the cult. They spent $300 on a taxi to take the six of them to upstate New York, where James’ mother (who had left the cult) lived.

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  155. Farris and James had occasionally kept in touch by mail after meeting in Chiang Mai. After they left the cult, they reconnected by phone with the help of friends. Since then, they have served as a support system for each other.

    “We realized how many lies we were being shovelled,” James said.

    Although they both knew it was wrong, they had no concept of how wrong because they didn’t know anything else.

    “It was terrifying to realize what had been stolen from us, taken from us,” James said. “I think the only reason I’m here today is because I had someone like Jemima in my life. I feel so whole and accepted. I really see my whole healed self when I am with Jemima. In the cult they told us we were bad and wrong.”

    Farris echoed James’ thoughts about their friendship and how important it is to have a friend who understands one’s past.

    “After leaving the cult, I was a single mother with a child. I didn’t have time to deal with emotions,” said Farris, who found a job and a place to live in Seattle. About a year after leaving the cult she met her husband, Tim French.

    “She told me right away about the cult,” French said. “I thought it was OK because I’d been through a lot myself.”

    He admits he was worried about her for a time but thinks she is doing well now.

    “My life after leaving the cult has not been very easy,” Farris said. “We suffered a lot to get to this point where we are today. I had some major drug addiction trying to self-medicate, trying to find some peace inside.”

    Her father invited her to move to Idaho.

    “I’ve only spent a few weeks of my life with him, and I moved here because he wanted me to,” she said. “He gave me an old house in Clearwater.”

    Farris, who now lives in Kamiah with French and her 23-year-old daughter, has worked as a cook at the Kooskia Café for nearly seven years.

    “We moved here (to Idaho) to get her away from drugs,” French said. “I think it’s great that she’s doing the podcast. I told her a long time ago she should do something to help people. … She’s helping people to see that it can be better.”

    Farris’ daughter, Mikayla, said she finds the podcast interesting and encourages her friends to listen to it.

    “It is talking about things that people are uncomfortable talking about,” Mikayla said. “It opens your mind to listening to how other people have overcome their inner demons and become better people from those dark days.”

    She said she admires her mother and is proud of her for getting off alcohol and drugs by herself, with support from family, but without Alcoholics Anonymous or rehab.

    “She’s a very powerful person,” she said. “She can overcome almost any obstacle.”

    Mikayla said she thinks the podcast has helped her mother control her emotions.

    “This is the best that we have ever been as a family,” she said.

    Farris and James welcome other trauma survivors to consider sharing their stories on the podcast. People can contact the women through their website, butterfliesandbravery.com, where all podcast episodes are available.

    Sometimes people ask James: Why share my story if someone else’s is worse?

    “It’s not the suffering Olympics,” she said. “All stories are valid if you are conquering your trauma. If you came through wiser and stronger, that’s who we want to hear from.”


  156. I was forced to marry notorious paedophile cult leader David Berg at age three

    by Serena Kelley - Kate Graham, The Sun July 31, 2021

    BORN into one of the world’s most notorious cults, Serena Kelley, 38, suffered at the hands of its paedophile leader.

    Now a trauma specialist in Houston, Texas, she shares her story of empowerment and hope.

    Wearing a new pretty pink dress, with my mother beaming at my side, I looked up at the 67-year-old man as he slipped a ring on my finger. I was three years old – given as a child bride to David Berg, the leader of apocalyptic sex cult Children of God.

    My parents Sara, now 71, and Alfred, 69, joined Children of God in the early ’70s and met while living in one of its American communes. Founded by Berg in the late ’60s, it began as a Christian group with a message of peace and love.

    But as its numbers grew, Berg became fanatical, claiming the world would end soon and only his followers would be saved. He also declared sex – including with children – was to be celebrated.

    By the time Mum was pregnant with me in 1982, she was in Berg’s inner circle and had moved to the Philippines to live in his compound with my dad and older sister. Even before I was born in February 1983, Berg had plans for me.

    He chose my name and my pseudonym Mary Dear, and chronicled my childhood in the cult’s publications, sent to followers around the world to show what was possible when you raise a child “right.”

    Berg’s followers lived in poverty in communes with limited food and resources. But his private Manila compound where I resided, had a mansion, multiple houses and a pool. Behind the luxurious facade, however, abuse was rife.

    The sexual abuse started when I was only a toddler – I remember being groped by Berg, who I was encouraged to call “Grandpa” when I was two, and learning to swim in his pool while an orgy took place.

    I was beaten and men and boys regularly sexually abused me – it was a part of daily life for me and the other children, and I always felt unsafe.

    In 1986, when I was three, my mum led me to Berg’s home where we were “married”. An adult-sized heart-shaped ring – with tape inside to make it smaller – was put on my tiny finger. My parents were thrilled, but I just saw him as a disgusting old man.

    When I was four, Berg sent me, my mum and sister to a commune in Japan. I lived with two cult members – a man and a woman – who would grope and beat me. I rarely saw my parents – breaking up families was Berg’s way of controlling people.

    In Japan I saw children being trained for God’s Army – made to stand in silence for hours with lights shone into their eyes, some fainting from hunger.

    Occasionally a car was sent to bring me to Berg, who had moved to Japan – but in 1989, when I was six, my mum, sister and I were moved to a commune in Brazil and I never saw him again.

    My ordeal, however, was far from over. I was woken by a whistle blasting, loud singing or guitar playing. Then followed hours of brainwashing about the “evil” world, military-like drills to prepare for the apocalypse, cleaning or being sent to beg for money.

    By now, Mum was so senior in the cult that I rarely saw her. She’d travel to compounds in other countries, and when she did come to see me, there was no bond. She’d take me to the beach to play, but would also tell me that if God asked her, she’d kill me as a sacrifice.

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  157. Berg died in 1994 when I was 11 and I’d been brainwashed so much, I actually felt sad. His wife Karen Zerby took over, and I went to live in various Central and South American countries.

    But the older I got the more broken I felt. I wanted out, but I had no money, phone or internet access.

    I rebelled by cutting my hair and wearing baggy clothes, both of which were forbidden. Mum said I was a disappointment, but I preferred looking “ugly” because it meant less abuse from boys and men around me.

    Aged 18, in 2002 I returned to America with Mum. I lived with her initially, but knew I had to break away. I met some ex-cult members who came to my rescue. One let me stay with her, and another gave me a job in her massage parlour.

    It meant I could save up to rent an apartment of my own. Mum was furious, but I was determined she’d never control me again. Adjusting to life on the outside was hard.

    I didn’t know about CVs or credit cards. I ended up owing thousands in taxes because I had no idea I was supposed to fill in a tax return.

    But I was determined to put my past behind me – if anyone asked, I’d lie that I’d grown up abroad because my parents worked for an NGO.

    In 2013 I enrolled at university in Austin, Texas, to study corporate communications, but although I came across as confident and happy, I was struggling with anxiety, an eating disorder and depression.

    I completed my degree in 2015 and began a career in IT. When I lost my job as an account manager in 2019, it was a watershed moment.

    My career was how I valued myself outside the cult, so I was devastated. I needed to face my past, so I wrote an Instagram post about my life in the cult and cried for two days, overwhelmed at letting the truth out.

    Friends were incredibly supportive, but shocked. They’d say: “But you seem so normal.” Others reached out with their experiences of sexual abuse. I realised even people who hadn’t been in a cult had something to heal from.

    I’ve since researched child trafficking and realise that’s what happened to me. I’m committed to fighting it – writing on social media and highlighting amazing organisations like Operation Underground Railroad.

    Being aware of the signs means we can help stop this appalling trade. Like the other kids Berg married, I carry many scars from my life in the cult, which changed its name to The Family International in 2004, before disbanding in 2010.

    It now operates as an online network with 1,500 members. My mum, dad and sister left too, but I haven’t seen my mum for over a year and I don’t have a relationship with my dad or sister.

    I’ve had therapy to help with my eating disorder and depression – it’s an ongoing process, but today I feel whole, happy and unafraid.

    Last year I took a course in trauma recovery coaching and am certified to help others. I’m single, but open to having a family when the time is right.

    I still have the ring David Berg placed on my finger 35 years ago – while once it was his way of controlling me, now I keep it as proof that this happened to me.

    I share my story not just to help me accept my past, but to give me back my power. I no longer feel ashamed.

    To see the photos in this article go to:

  158. Children of God cult survivor recalls torture at the hands of bizarre religious order

    Sharen Seitz, 33, of Boulder, Colorado in the US grew up inside the Children of God cult. She remembers being beaten and locked in a closet forced to memorise Bible passages

    By Isolde Walters and James Caven, Daily Star UK May 20, 2021

    A 'Children of God' cult survivor has recalled her harrowing torture at the hands of the religious order.

    Sharen Seitz, 33, remembers being beaten and spending hours locked in a closet forced to memorise Bible passages as a punishment for minor misbehaviour.

    For a long time she says she did not even know who her parents were, as she was encouraged to view all members as family.

    Sharen, of Boulder, Colorado in the US, grew up inside the Family International commune until her family fled when she was six.

    The cult, which consisted of runaway hippies, was founded in 1968 by preacher David Brandt Berg and was later known as the Children of God.

    The society quickly grew using a technique Berg termed "flirty fishing", where he would order women to recruit men by engaging in sexual activities.

    Men were allowed to have more than one wife and the cult was reported to the FBI for allegations of incest, child abuse and rape.

    Rose McGowan was born into the commune in Florence, Italy, before her family fled when she was nine.

    Joaquin and River Phoenix were part of the branch in Venezuela before the family escaped.

    Sharen claimed she and other kids in the cult were taught sex was a way of sharing God's love with people.

    Although she says she endured physical abuse, she cannot recall being sexually abused.

    She said: “There was a lot of physical abuse and a lot of emotional abuse.

    "There is a chunk of my memories from the age of three to five that are missing.”

    Children would be dressed in identical outfits and taken to old people's homes to perform songs and gather donations.

    Former model Sharen says she experienced frequent beatings and was once battered with a wooden board for tripping another girl up.

    She said: "I was beaten a lot. When I was about five, I was tying up my shoes and I accidentally tripped someone up.

    "I was taken into a laundry room and a man got a very large wooden board and hit me five times on my back and on my butt.

    "As a punishment, we would be locked in a closet and forced to memorise the Bible.”

    Her parents - who were given the names David and Mary Psalms - were passionate evangelicals who thought they were joining a missionary organisation.

    The family travelled the world with the cult.

    Sharen said: "We moved so much because it was a psychological method for control and it was a way to avoid the authorities.

    "It was a very nervous way of living."

    Her family fled the commune in Colorado Springs for Arizona when her dad became concerned about the physical abuse.

    She said: "Then we started to become more normal.

    But her time inside the cult left her with mental health issues which led her to attempt suicide four times and develop an eating disorder.

    She said: "I've had to work really hard to create a life for myself where I can even start to heal from all I have experienced.”


  159. "Women and cults: what makes smart women get drawn into dangerous cults?"
    by Bexy Cameron, Stylist UK October 2021

    We often think of cults as preying on the vulnerable, but a whole host of intelligent women have joined them in the past. Here, one writer shares the story of how her mother ended up leaving university to join a cult.

    My mum decided in just five hours to join a cult.

    She was studying to be a psychologist at the time. The magnitude of this only really hit me years after I escaped the Children of God, the group that she raised me and my 11 siblings in. How did this intelligent woman, with a high IQ and her whole future ahead of her, join a group led by a sexually depraved mad man?
    Our obsession with cults is on the rise. New series, podcasts and dramatisations are released almost daily and fed to audiences with a rapidity that almost satisfies our hunger for the sensational. I’ve spent many a night stuffing my face with salty snacks watching the Oshoites in Netflix’s Wild Wild Country cathartically bliss out on screen (looking high AF) as if they are at a rave with a dress code of ‘simply red’. Or quaffing a bottle of wine while a reenactment of the last days of the Jonestown massacre plays out in a documentary on my laptop, eyes glued, headphones on, safely in bed, miles (and years) away from where this horrific event took place. Like true crime, we seem to be addicted to the weird, dangerous, fantastical and downright bonkers world of new religious movements.

    But are cults to be romanticized or feared? And are some women closer to joining a cult than we think?

    My mother was just 19 when she stepped into the Children of God HQ in 1972. There on a rescue mission, she heard that her ‘friend from university’ (my dad) had been ‘brainwashed by a cult’. She walked into a huge industrial factory in Bromley, bursting with young radical hippies who hugged and welcomed her ‘home’. As children, we would gather around as she would tell this story – face beaming, eyes wet with joy – recounting the ‘best day of her life’. The day she gave up her friends, two brothers, parents, career trajectory and her dreams.

    My mum was a straight-A student, a champion fencer, the kind of girl that I can imagine having a top drawer exploding with colourful badges she’d collected for achievements. She had been a valedictorian, the first ever woman to receive a scholarship to her university. Not the kind of woman who joins a cult. But she did. And she stayed.

    And she is not alone. If we look at well-known cults, there is evidence of smart women within them. Most people won’t know who these women are, as they are not featured on the enticing covers we scroll through on Netflix. Jane Stork from the Osho movement was a university graduate. Ma Anand Sheela, an Osho movement spokesperson, studied in NYC. In fact, a fifth of the followers in the Osho community had master’s degrees. NXIVM had equestrian grand prix winner Clare Bronfman; Sarah Edmondson was a graduate, actor and playwright; while Nancy Salzman was a nurse.

    But how did softly spoken Jane Stork go from being a university student to a cult assassin who was subsequently convicted of attempted murder? How did Sheela go from the halls of higher education in NYC to conspiring in a bioterror attack that poisoned 751 people? How did Clare Bronfman go from champion equestrian to being indicted on sex trafficking charges? And how did my mother go from studying psychology to becoming the public face of a group that created manuals on how to sexually abuse children?

    Now I am not saying that all cults are packed full of Mensa members, but a common misconception is that cult followers are by and large vulnerable: misfits, addicts, ‘not all there’, ‘whack jobs’. Does it make us feel safe to think that they are so far away from us and that we could never do that?

    The amount of cult content we consume apparently isn’t putting us off alternative religions. Research from the Pew Research Centre shows ... continued below

  160. ...that membership is rising fast, especially among women and those aged over 35. I remember a few years ago in an article with DIY magazine , Laura Marling said in an interview that there was a time when she felt lost and got into “a fairly odd, specific kind of transcendental yoga” and saying, “I was pretty close to joining a cult.” If Laura Marling can get close, could any of us?

    When I was in my late 20s, my past life as a cult-kid caught up with me. I was 15 when I escaped and I did everything I could to get as far away from ‘them’ as possible; gave myself a new name, different hair, changed my accent, a new life. But I was hiding from a past that was demanding to be processed – like a toddler covering their eyes thinking they can’t be seen. In a bid to understand my childhood and parents, I wanted (needed) to explore why people join cults.

    I am a creative director and filmmaker, so on the surface, the idea was to make a documentary series, but the motivation underneath was the unpicking of my history. I flew to America, and in an adventure that felt like Thelma And Louise meets Wild Wild Country, I drove through dozens of states with fellow filmmaker Sofi – from Nevada to Tennessee – and joined cults. I wanted to explore what connected someone in Tucson who was channelling aliens to someone in Illinois who thought they were the bride of Christ. And on this journey, I was struck by how many incredibly intelligent women I met; professors, teachers, nurses, ex-Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. Women who had given up their lives, identities and jobs, just like my mother did.

    So why do smart women join cults? I can understand the need for self-discovery and expansion, clearly, or I wouldn’t have explored the world of cults myself. What I learned on my journey came down to basic human needs. The need for belonging, community, purpose, and meaning. And the search for an answer to the huge question: “What am I doing with my life?”

    It’s dangerous to consider people who join cults as ‘other’ because it means we think it could never happen to us, but I think it could be a case of right time, right (or wrong) headspace.

    As for me, I have packed up my truck and joined my last cult, although I imagine my obsession with them will remain. I will spend many more nights in safety watching other people’s beliefs, catharsis, enlightenment and heartbreak play out from a TV screen. An obsession that I understand, because cults tell us so much about ourselves. They represent some of our deepest fear in mankind; the depths that we can go to when we put beliefs above human rights; the horrors that can happen when we use God as an excuse to exploit; the damage that can come when sex and power corrupt; and, of course, how children can become casualties in the wake of “religious freedom.”

    As a part of my journey, I confronted my mother to ask why she joined the group that she remains in today. She again spoke of enlightenment and of finding her purpose. But the costs for her have been heartbreakingly high. By remaining where she is, she has lost her relationship with all 12 of her children and given over 40 years of her life to a vision of Armageddon that never happened.

    I wonder what she could have achieved if, when she heard that her friend had gone missing, she went to class instead of to Bromley.

    I have a photograph of my mum that I love. It’s taken just before she joined the Children of God. Chic bangs surround a face that seems excited about the future. I would have loved to have met her then – when she had her own identity, when she had free will, when the words coming out of her mouth weren’t scripted. When she was an ideological vegan with political views and a love of floral jumpsuits.

    I think we would have got on.
    To see the photos and links embedded in this article go to: