religion, videos

Repost: The Children of God cult…

Here’s another repost from the original blog. I wrote this in January 2019, just before the old blog went “poof”. I am reposting it as/is here, since I recently reviewed Not Without My Sister, a book about sisters who were raised in the Children of God cult. This was the first post I wrote about this cult; I first heard about it on the A&E series mentioned below.

Having now exhausted Leah Remini’s Scientology episodes, at least for now, I moved on to another A&E series hosted by Elizabeth Vargas, called Cults and Extreme Belief.  Since yesterday afternoon, I’ve seen three episodes.  The first two, about NXIVM and the Jehovah’s Witnesses, were disturbing enough.  But the third one, about the Children of God (now known as The Family International), made me stop and blog.

Before I watched the show, I had heard a little bit about this religious cult, founded in California in the 1960s by a charismatic preacher named David Berg.  Originally called “Teens for Christ”, this group mostly consisted of runaways and hippies, and preached to each other about salvation, happiness, and a coming apocalypse.  Creepy founder, David Berg, was frequently known by the alias Moses David, and gave himself the titles of “King”, “The Last Endtime Prophet”, “Moses”, and “David”.  His first wife, Jane Miller, married him in 1944 and divorced him in 1970, two years after he started his cult.  Berg married his second wife, Karen Zerby, in 1970.  She is currently leading The Family International, since Berg died in October 1994.

One thing that struck me about this cult is that it was full of musically talented people, children in particular.  One of the children involved was Berg’s granddaughter, Merry, who was also known as Mene.  Merry, who died in her sleep in December 2017, was fifteen days older than I am.  She was musically talented and very ethereal looking, with beautiful blonde hair.  Merry was featured on musical recordings done by Children of God, as well as videos. 

Merry Berg…

Other talented children were also used to make songs about love and sex, and some were also forced to do strip teases.  Aside from that, there was rampant sexual abuse.  Merry was one of the most victimized of the bunch, having endured multiple forced exorcisms as well as extreme abuse on all levels.  She was forced to live in different places, locked in a closet for six months, whipped, tied up, and screamed at by her grandfather, who claimed she was possessed by the devil.

The whole story was very disturbing to me, but I think what really captured my attention was the way these kids looked.  Here they were, maybe ten or eleven years old on these videos from the 70s… a lot of them are probably my contemporaries.  Most of them were attractive and musically gifted, singing so beautifully songs about love.  But the love they sang about was inappropriate and forbidden because it involved sex.  Indeed, these children were commanded to go “flirty fishing” to entice new people to join the cult.  The flirty fishing was more than just flirtation; in fact, it included sex.  David Berg preached sex.

Creepy!

As I watched the above video, I was eerily reminded of the beauty pageants that used to be so popular in the 1980s.  The lyrics sound so wholesome, yet all of the singers look like they’re in a trance.  These teens in the video were likely born into the cult and knew nothing else.  It’s all about worshiping their sick leader, who was supposedly an alcoholic and may have also suffered from mental illnesses.

This clip is from 20/20… a young girl is very upset and repeatedly insists that there’s nothing wrong with sex.

As a child of the 70s and 80s myself, I am also aware of the late actor, River Phoenix, who was extremely famous and much beloved by people of my generation.  Phoenix died in 1993, having overdosed on drugs at The Viper Room in Los Angeles.  He and his similarly talented siblings were raised in this cult when they were very young.  Phoenix once claimed that he lost his virginity at age four, but later said he was kidding.

And A Current Affair also covered this group, explaining “flirty fishing” more.  Imagine the kind of people who were enticed into this group by watching young girls behave sexually.  It sounds like a nightmare.
A 20/20 episode about Children of God.  Not the same one I watched this morning, but also worth viewing.

David Berg unofficially adopted Ricky Rodriguez, nicknaming him Davidito.  He was born in the Canary Islands, the son of Berg’s second wife, Karen Zerby, and a man she “flirty fished”.  In 2005, when Rodriguez was 29 years old, he murdered a woman who had been his nanny and sexually abused him.  Then he killed himself.  Rodriguez was forced into inappropriate sexual relationships when he was a child and developed deep seated resentment toward Berg and Zerby because of the abuse he suffered.

Megyn Kelly speaks to Children of God cult survivor, Christina Babin, who speaks about how difficult it was to be in the cult and how most of the children never got more than a sixth grade education.

I know I heard of this cult before I watched Elizabeth Vargas discuss it this morning.  I remember hearing about River Phoenix and his siblings being in a religious cult when they were young.  It’s tragic how many youngsters were affected by this cult, which was considered a “religion” and granted special privileges.  Many who were raised in The Children of God later committed suicide because they had no foundation from which to launch their lives beyond the cult.

It’s amazing how many cults there are out there and how people get caught up in them.  It’s tragic that children grow up in these organizations and are left with nothing when they come of age.  I may have to find something a little lighter to watch later.

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book reviews, religion

Reviewing Not Without My Sister– an absolutely appalling book on many levels…

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.

Interview about a Children of God Survivor. This lady is also very graphic about what she went through.

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.

A 1972 documentary about the Children of God.

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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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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