book reviews

Repost: A review of Born into the Children of God by Natacha Tormey

I am experiencing a touch of writer’s block right now, so I figure it’s a good time to repost another book review. This one appeared on my former blog on January 19, 2019. I am reposting it as is. Maybe later, I’ll think of something fresh. The Children of God religious cult is totally creepy. Rose McGowan and River Phoenix were both members at certain times in their lives.

Recently, I posted about the Children of God religious cult, which I saw profiled on a series about cults on the A&E network.  I was so fascinated by that particular episode of Elizabeth Vargas’ series about cults, that I went looking for books written by survivors.  I easily found Natacha Tormey’s book, Born into the Children of God, on Amazon.  I just finished reading her story this morning, so it’s time to review it before I forget the details.

I mentioned in my previous post about the Children of God, now known as “The Family”, that it’s a cult that was founded in California back in 1968 by the late David Berg.  Berg had been a non-conformist preacher who didn’t like mainstream Christianity.  He originally called his group “Teens for Christ”.  Early members included the late River Phoenix and his family.  They were basically very religious hippies.

Natacha Tormey talks about her experiences.

Into the 70s, the cult expanded internationally.  Members were spread into other nations in an effort to gain more cult members.  The men would canvas the streets trying to sell religious pamphlets while the women would “flirty fish”, using their sexuality to lure new recruits.  Although David Berg was himself an alcoholic, he did not allow members to drink alcohol.  However, sex was encouraged and celebrated.  In fact, sex was really what the cult seemed to be about more than anything, even though it was also very religious and members were supposedly living for Jesus Christ and trying to save souls from eternal damnation.  Unfortunately, child sexual abuse was also not uncommon. 

The cult members were very poor.  Whatever money they managed to rustle up, they had to give 90% of it to the cult.  The other 10% was theirs.  Since a lot of their money came from either selling religious propaganda from a cult leader or begging, you can imagine how that went.  However, one thing the Children of God did have going for them was musical talent.  The members, especially the children, were accustomed to performing.  In the 1970s, there was even a television special aired featuring the cult members.  It was broadcasted in several European countries.

Natacha Tormey’s parents, Marcel and Genevieve, are French.  Natacha, who was born in 1983, is their oldest daughter, although she is their fourth child out of a total of twelve children together.  Additionally, Marcel had a daughter named Therese with Leah, another cult member.  Tormey and her siblings’ earliest memories are of their lives in religious compounds among many “aunts” and “uncles” from countries around the world.  The very first lines of the book describe an incident Natacha had with one of her “uncles”, when she was living in Malaysia.  He had forced the children in the compound to collect ants, which he then cooked and forced them to eat.  After they ate the bitter, charred ants, they were forced to collect and eat fried grasshoppers.  Tormey writes that the grasshoppers weren’t bad.  In fact, they tasted kind of “nutty”.  I suppose eating fried grasshoppers was among the least “nutty” things Natacha and her siblings were forced to do when they were children.

In surprisingly lucid prose, Tormey writes about what it was like to grow up watching adults having sex in the open, being beaten for the slightest disciplinary infractions, getting schooling from whatever adult happened to be available, even if he or she was completely unqualified to teach, and being forced to wear rags and live in poverty in whatever country the cult deemed to send them to.  Tormey was born in France and is, in fact, a French citizen.  But she grew up speaking North American English and, aside from a few words her parents taught her, did not speak the language of her official country.  This became a problem when Tormey’s family was deported to France after having lived in Thailand, Malaysia, and the Island of Reunion for years.  Not only had she not lived in France and never learned the language, she also never really experienced her host countries.  She was basically kept on a compound, so she doesn’t even really have that much of a feel for the places she’s lived.  She wouldn’t know what neighborhood in Bangkok she lived in; she was not allowed to explore beyond the cult compound.

Natacha Tormey writes that the smell of Dettol, a disinfectant, triggers traumatic memories.  When she was growing up on the compounds, adults would “share” their partners.  Afterwards, they would spray themselves with the disinfectant, believing that it would prevent sexually transmitted diseases.  To this day, she has a bag that contains a “survival kit”.  It includes a compass, first aid kit, and a flashlight.  She carried it with her for several years after she escaped the cult at age 18. 

To be sure, Tormey’s stories of what it was like to be a child in the Children of God are interesting, but what was even more interesting to me was reading about what it was like trying to break away from the cult.  Although Tormey’s parents seemed to be basically loving and reasonable, they had many children and very little money.  The children were not raised in what cult members referred to as “the system”.  Consequently, they had very little schooling, no official documents, and no concept of how to live life independently.  Tormey writes of getting a job in Cannes, France while she was living with an abusive boyfriend.  Fortune smiled on her, and her boss was a kind hearted woman who took her under her wing and helped her become more independent.  But the process was difficult.  Tormey had been raised to believe she was in an army that would save the world from the Antichrist.  She was never taught how to function like a regular person does.

A Current Affair report on the Children of God.

I found Tormey’s book hard to put down.  She’s a good writer and her story is extremely compelling, if not very disturbing.  I was amazed by how many children her mother had.  After awhile, it got hard to keep them all straight.  This cult kind of puts the Duggar family to shame, though.  If you are interested in reading about cults or an anecdotal account of what it’s like to grow up in the Children of God cult, I would highly recommend her book. I see now there are two more parts to it. Maybe I’ll get around to reading them.

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