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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book reviews

Reposted review of Rose McGowan’s BRAVE…

I’ve decided to migrate my review of Rose McGowan’s book, BRAVE, to my new and improved blog. This book review was originally composed for my old blog. It was posted on February 13, 2019. Enjoy! (Edited to add: I had no idea yesterday, when I reposted this review, that Rose McGowan would be in the news and this book would be mentioned.)

Before I read her 2018 book, BRAVE, I wasn’t at all familiar with Rose McGowan’s career.  Rose McGowan now bills herself as a “former actress”.  Now that I’ve read her book, I can see why she’s supposedly left Hollywood. Her book, BRAVE, is mostly a tale about an industry that abuses and exploits women.  As I was reading the last pages of her story, I recognized the crescendo that can come from a person who is gathering steam, telling off someone whose had it coming for a really long time.

Rose McGowan was born September 5, 1973 to her American parents, Daniel and Terri McGowan, in Certaldo, Tuscany, Italy.  Her parents were members of the sex cult, Children of God.  The late actor River Phoenix, and his famous siblings, Summer, Joaquin, Liberty, and Rain, were also in the Children of God.  I was interested in reading more about this cult, which seems to have attracted so many talented people and enticed them to live a life of poverty and exploitation for its charismatic leader, the late David Berg.

McGowan’s family left the cult when she was still a child.  Her parents were abusive and neglectful, and after they left Italy, she had a very troubled upbringing in the Pacific Northwest and Colorado.  She was shuffled between her parents, both of whom were apparently kind of “fucked up”.  Her mother was a writer and her father was an artist.  It was through her father that Rose McGowan got her break into show business, first as a child model when she was still living in Italy.  When her parents divorced, McGowan’s lifestyle became more troubled.  For a time, she was a runaway and associated with drag queens.  At 15, she became emancipated, and moved to Los Angeles.  She had her first credited film role in 1992, playing Nora in the movie Encino Man.

Despite her rather unconventional upbringing, McGowan was able to break into Hollywood.  She modeled and acted, appearing in Scream, and eventually becoming the “face” of the clothing brand Bebe.  She also made music, starting while she was dating Marilyn Manson.  

This sounds like the career of dreams for many ambitious people.  Rose McGowan has led a life of fame and fortune, rubbing elbows with legendary actors and musicians and having her face displayed on the covers of many magazines.  And yet, according to McGowan’s book, BRAVE, the lifestyle apparently makes her miserable.  Actually, apparently, it’s the men in the lifestyle that make her miserable.

Starting in the early 90s, when she was still somewhat unknown, McGowan dated a man who bought her exercise equipment and encouraged her to lose weight.  She writes that she felt like a “failure” when she couldn’t manage to get below 92 pounds.  As she became more famous, she ended up in more abusive relationships with men, including one she refers to as RR (Robert Rodriguez).  She describes him as very possessive and obsessive.  One time, after working very hard all day on a movie set, she came home to find what appeared to be a man in her bed.  RR had put a male dummy in her bed with a cowboy hat, apparently to scare her if she’d come home with another man.

McGowan describes working with the director Quentin Tarantino on the film Death Proof.  She writes that Tarantino hates women.  Apparently, all of the women in his films, particularly the powerful ones, end up dying horrible, violent deaths.  McGowan writes that she tried to give her character, Pam, an “angelic” quality so that audiences would feel something for her when she inevitably dies.  I haven’t seen Death Proof, so I have no idea if McGowan was able to pull off that quality in her character.  But I did find her comments about movie directors interesting.  She says you can tell how a director feels about women by how the female characters in their films are treated.

Rose McGowan also starred in the series Charmed, joining the cast after actress Shannen Doherty departed.  She played the long lost half-sister Paige Matthews.  I only saw a few episodes of Charmed, and I don’t think they were the ones that included McGowan.  Still, I grew up with Aaron Spelling’s television shows, so McGowan’s comments on working on Charmed were interesting to me.  They kind of made me want to watch Charmed.  McGowan was not herself a viewer until she was asked to meet Aaron Spelling.  She writes that she watched the show’s pilot while flying, and she has never seen Charmed offered on any other flight since then.  Apparently, being offered that role was like “kismet”.

BRAVE reads a bit like a manifesto.  McGowan rails against sexism in Hollywood, even comparing it to a cult.  She apparently doesn’t like the constant pressure to be thin, beautiful, and accepting of the way women are treated by the men in charge.  It doesn’t surprise me that Rose McGowan experienced sexism and sexual harassment in Hollywood.  And yet, so many people would trade places with Rose McGowan.  Regular people dream of being stars, even though she makes it sound like a miserable experience.  People don’t realize that stars work very hard.  The hours are long and not that glamorous, and there’s constant pressure to measure up to physical standards that are very difficult to maintain.  McGowan’s disdain for the way her image was marketed to the masses is palpable.  This book is her way of calling out the industry.  She flat out writes that she “despises” Bill Cosby, and claims she faked an orgasm with Harvey Weinstein.  Both of these men have been accused by many women of exploiting them sexually.  For what, though… a career the women wanted in Hollywood?

To be honest, it took me awhile to get into BRAVE.  From the beginning, it’s a very confrontational book to the point of being kind of unpleasant.  McGowan uses raw language and seems very angry, which isn’t the most soothing thing to read before you go to sleep.  I usually read before sleeping, so McGowan’s style was kind of jarring to me.  But then, as I kept reading, I found her book more interesting.  I think she really was brave to write it, given that she’s been in an industry that blackballs people.  In fact, she writes that she was “blacklisted” at least once.  On the other hand, there were times as I read this book that I kind of felt like she had a choice.  Rose McGowan had a choice to leave Hollywood.  It wasn’t like she was forced to be an actress or a model.  Like anyone else, she could choose to go a different way.  I suppose she kind of has with this book… but I won’t be surprised if she eventually stops referring to herself as a “former” actress.

Anyway, if I were rating BRAVE, I’d give it 3.5 stars out of five.  I see that it’s a pretty controversial book on Amazon, with people seeming to love it or hate it.  I thought it was reasonably well-written and interesting, but the writing is very much “in your face”.  Some people will like that and others will not.  My guess is that Rose McGowan is a complicated and, probably, a very troubled woman.  McGowan seems to think all men are the same, which I think is a shame.  Not all men are abusive bastards.

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