Here’s a very serious trigger warning. This book review is about a story that includes discussion of child abuse on all levels. If you are particularly sensitive to such content, please consider moving to your next Internet station.
Last night, I finally finished a book I’ve been struggling to finish for the past few weeks. The 2012 book is titled Not Without My Sister: The True Story of Three Girls Violated and Betrayed by Those They Trusted. It was written by Celeste Jones, Juliana Buhring, and Kristina Jones (I’m assuming her name was Jones at one point– she is an author, but wasn’t noted on Amazon). Obviously, based on the title, I knew the book wasn’t going to be particularly light and uplifting. I decided to read it because I am fascinated by weird religious cults. The three authors of this book, half-sisters who had the same father, Christopher Jones, grew up in a very sick and abusive sex cult. Their parents were followers of David Berg’s Children of God cult, now known as The Family International.
David Berg founded the Children of God in Huntington Beach, California, back in 1968. He originally called his group Teens for Christ, and it mostly consisted of young “hippie”, “lost youth” types, many of whom were musically talented drifters. The group eventually changed its name to Children of God, and communes were founded all around the world. Members of the cult would busk, sell tapes and literature, and collect donations. The members would build their memberships by engaging in what they called “flirty fishing”, using sex to hook new people. Basically, they would bring in “hormonal converts”, a tried and true way for religious organizations to get more bodies.
By 1972, the Children of God cult had 130 communities around the world. By many yardsticks, that number of communes meant that the movement had achieved great success. However, the members were living in squalor, and the poor children who were born into the cult suffered horrific abuse on every imaginable level. That horrific abuse is basically what Not Without My Sister is about.
Celeste, Juliana, and Kristina were three sisters who were lucky enough to sort of know each other on some level. Celeste’s and Kristina’s mother left the cult when she was very young, so Celeste grew up missing her mom and barely knowing their dad. Juliana, and another half-sister Mariana (by a different dad), were daughters of Christopher Jones’ next wife, a German woman named Serena. Celeste didn’t like Serena, at least at first. As she grew older, she realized Serena wasn’t all that bad. Their father had other children, too. He had a Greek daughter named Davida that he barely knew, and a son named Victor who was passed around to different couples to raise. In fact, all of the children were taken from their parents and shuffled around to different people or training “schools”. They were forced to call their minders “Auntie” and “Uncle”, or if they had new foster parents, they had to call them “Mummy” or “Daddy”. To not do so would result in severe beatings that would leave their backsides bruised and bloodied.
As disturbing as all of that is, I haven’t even gotten to the worst part of the story. (and here’s where you might want to stop reading) I mentioned that this is (or was) a sex cult. That meant that adults were having sex in front of children… sometimes huge crowds of them. And it also meant the children were forced to engage in those relations with each other, even when they were extremely young. And when I say young, I mean barely out of diapers, baby teeth young. But the leaders and other adults did not refer to that act as anything sinister. It was called “making love”. And the children had to do it, whether they wanted to or not. They were often filmed, and the videos were sent to David Berg. In fact, they were even expected, as very small children, to choose “dates” for nap time. One of the authors was very chagrined, because she was almost never chosen for a “date” (keeping in mind that she was a very young child). Sometimes, she had to “make love” with the teacher.
As the children got older, there were unintended pregnancies. However, Berg, who was called Mo by his followers, eventually did make a ruling that there could only be “lovemaking” for girls who were under age 12 or over age 16. There was an emphasis on religion and learning the Bible, and it was coupled with extreme abuse of all kinds. I will warn that the sisters do write about the abuse quite graphically. It was enough to make me very uncomfortable, hence the length of time it took for me to finish this book.
Schooling was haphazard, and discipline was rigidly and violently enforced. The children had very little time to play and were often forced to do hard work, usually as punishment. Sometimes, the children were forced to be silent, and no one was allowed to speak to them. They would wear a sign that said something like “Don’t talk to me. I’m being punished.” At one point, duct tape was used on the mouths of children who were deemed willful. They had few things to call their own, which caused them to want to hang onto things that most people would prefer to discard. The sisters write about how two of them fought over a pair of their father’s underwear and his holey socks, because they missed him so much and thought of anything belonging to him as “novel”.
Anytime cult members were sick, they were assumed to be sinning. They mostly rejected medical care, save for worm medication. The children were lucky if they got one hour with their parent for an hour at a time, one hour a week. Celeste writes that she often missed her hour with her father because she had to make music videos for the cult. The sisters were also forced to change their names on a regular basis. Celeste changed hers at least three times. This was to keep the authorities from finding them.
Celeste got to know a “friend” named Armi. I’m pretty sure Armi was profiled in a televised special about the Children of God cult, which I watched on Apple TV.
Why is this book so appalling?
Obviously, I think it’s appalling because of the subject matter. It blows my mind that so many children were born into this cult, where they were so horribly abused. Cult members got away with it because they lived in places where authorities tended to look the other way. Although there were communes worldwide, the authors of this book lived in the Philippines, Thailand, India, and Japan. On occasion, they would go to Europe. At one point, Kristina’s mother, who lived in England, managed to “kidnap” her daughter and got her out of the cult. The other two authors stayed in the organization for a bit longer. The three of them are about my age, so they’re in their 40s.
Another reason I think this book is appalling is because I think it needs a massive overhaul. There are so many people involved in this story that it’s hard to keep everyone straight. There’s so much disturbing, distressing, and graphic information, that I found myself skimming a lot. And it’s also over 400 pages, which makes it a very long and convoluted read. I was definitely ready for the book to end, and relieved when the end was finally in sight.
And yet… even though I think this book won’t appeal to a whole lot of readers, I am glad I read it. If anything, it proves just how dangerous religious cults can be, and just how many defenseless people are caught up within them. My heart broke for the authors of this book. They are definitely resilient, and I commend them for sharing their story so candidly and bravely. But a lot of what they’ve shared is just shocking and horrifying. I can see by the Amazon reviews that a lot of people had the same impressions I did.
I think if this book had been streamlined a bit, and the more graphic parts toned down somewhat, Not Without My Sister would be a much better read. On the other hand, I do know more about The Family International now, and there’s something to be said for not sugar coating things. This book simply verifies other stories I’ve read about this cult. Some famous people have been members, which is not surprising, since it started out as a musical ministry. The Phoenix family were members in the 70s, as was the actress, Rose McGowan.
David Berg died in 1994, and his second wife, Karen Zerby (aka Queen Maria) is now in charge. I’m not sure if they’re still doing things the way they did them in the 70s. I sure hope the hell not!
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