book reviews, religion

A review of Sex Cult Nun, by Faith Jones…

Happy Saturday, everybody! I woke up early this morning, determined to finally finish my latest reading project. It’s not that the book I just finished, Sex Cult Nun (2021), by Faith Jones, wasn’t interesting. It definitely was. I just find it hard to read as fast as I used to. I tend to read when I’m lying in bed, and I drift off to sleep. I definitely need naps more than I used to. It’s probably because Bill wakes me up at 5:00am, most mornings.

I think I discovered Sex Cult Nun when I saw it recommended in the Duggar Family News group. I am fascinated by books about religious cults, so when someone recommends a new one– especially one that is highly regarded– I usually take notice. However, when I realized that Faith Jones was raised in The Family, which used to be known as the Children of God, and is now known as The Family International, I almost didn’t read the book. I’ve now read several books about the Children of God cult, and I always find it difficult to get through them because books about that particular cult are often rife with stories of child sexual abuse. I don’t enjoy reading about children being sexually violated.

As of this morning, I have already reviewed three other books about the Children of God/ The Family. Sex Cult Nun is number four. And although I do find The Family disturbing to read about, there are some aspects of that particular religious group that really are interesting. I’m glad that I did finish Faith Jones’ story, because ultimately, it ends with triumph. Also, although Jones endured a lot of abuse on all levels, her book doesn’t include graphic stories about children being horrifically abused. Make no mistake– Jones was abused and severely neglected when she was growing up, and she does share stories about that abuse. But she manages to share her story without causing the shock and horror I’ve encountered in other books about this particular cult.

Background about David Berg and his cult

Faith Jones comes from a long line of evangelists and proselytizers, which she details in the first chapter of Sex Cult Nun. But the most famous/infamous of her ancestors is her paternal grandfather, David Brandt Berg, founder of the Children of God. Jones explains that Berg’s religious convictions were cemented, in part, because he believed that he had experienced a miracle. Berg was drafted into the Army in 1941, when he was 22 years old. Berg’s mother, Virginia, was a famous preacher who had been miraculously healed, due to her religious convictions. She was a very charismatic traveling evangelist who held tent revivals. Virginia had three children, but only her son, David, was interested in pursuing a life in the ministry. She took him with her on her travels as her assistant and driver.

But then Berg was summoned to military service. Although he could have gotten out of being drafted because he was pursuing a life in the ministry, he decided not to try to get out of military service. He had gotten tired of working with his mother and craved adventure. But then when he was in boot camp, he contracted double pneumonia, and was not expected to recover. Berg prayed to God, promising that if was healed, he would devote his life to God’s service. And, just like that, he was “miraculously healed”, just like his mother was. Berg was medically discharged from the Army, and he went back to work with his mother. However, Berg was not happy with his modest role as his mother’s assistant. He wanted to preach, too. He would have to wait awhile before that would happen.

While he was working with his mother, David met a pretty brunette woman named Jane Miller. She was a devout Baptist from Kentucky who had moved to California. Jane worked as a secretary at The Little Church of Sherman Oaks. David and Jane eloped in 1944, and the couple had four children, including Faith Jones’s father, Jonathan “Hosea” Emmanuel. Berg became ordained as a minister of the Christian and Missionary Alliance. He began to preach about integration and sharing one’s wealth with the less fortunate. Jones writes that her grandfather was formulating his ideas about “Christian communism”, which is essentially what his cult, the Children of God, would become while he was still living. Berg was unhappy with his lot in life, and engaged in a number of “antics” that would infuriate local religious leaders, who would call law enforcement. The situation got so bad that Berg decided to go on the road. Faith Jones’s father was in the eighth grade at the time. He was pulled out of school, and that was the end of Hosea’s formal education.

In 1968, David Brandt Berg, finally started a religious movement in California. The group originally consisted of “hippie types”, young people and troubled teenagers– drifters attracted to the counterculture movements of the that era. He originally called his cult “Teens for Christ”, but later changed the name to Children of God.

David Berg was charismatic and enigmatic, and he brought together young, attractive, and talented people and convinced them that his brand of evangelical Christianity was the right way to live. In reality, the Children of God was historically a group with extremely abusive and misogynistic teachings. Young people were sent all over the world to beg on the street, sell religious reading materials, and “flirty fish” new converts, who would live in poverty in diverse locations. The children raised in that cult, at least when Berg was still living, were horrifically abused on all levels. Faith Jones, one of David Berg’s many grandchildren, was no exception.

Faith Jones never met her paternal grandfather, who went into hiding in 1971. David Berg divorced Jane Miller (known as Mother Eve) in 1970 and that same year, he married a cult follower named Karen Zerby, who had worked as his secretary. Karen Zerby now leads The Family, as the Children of God cult is now called. She is known as “Mother Maria”.

Karen had a son named Ricky Rodriguez in 1975, while she was living in Tenerife, Spain. Ricky was fathered by a “flirty fish”– a man Karen had been trying to lure into the cult by having sex with him. David Berg “adopted” Ricky, whose childhood was recorded in a book called The Story of Davidito. The book was supposed to be a guide to cult followers on how to raise their children. However, the book strongly encouraged child sexual abuse, which Karen Zerby allegedly participated in against her son.

Ricky Rodriguez endured horrific abuse, and in 2005, invited his mother and his former nanny to lunch. After lunch, he murdered his nanny by stabbing her to death. He had meant to murder his mother, too, but she hadn’t accepted his invitation to lunch. Rodriguez then committed suicide. It’s my understanding that a lot of the really abusive practices that took place while Berg was still alive no longer happen. “Flirty fishing”– using sex to lure new converts– went out in the 1980s, supposedly due to the AIDS epidemic.

Who is Faith Jones?

Jones was born to David Berg’s son, Hosea, around 1977. At the time of Faith’s birth, Hosea had two wives, Ruthie and Esther. Ruthie is Faith’s mother. Like many people who were born into the Children of God cult, Faith wasn’t always raised with her family of origin. She spent her growing up years living in different religious communes around the world, mostly in Asia. The communes, which were called “homes”, were led by shepherds– usually married couples– who kept the members accountable to the cult’s teachings and doled out punishments for infractions of the rules. Jones mostly grew up in Macau and Hong Kong, but she also spent time in Taiwan, mainland China, Thailand, and Russia.

Children were “homeschooled”. They were not allowed to read any books that weren’t approved by the cult’s leadership. They were forced to read “Mo Letters”– these were letters David Berg, who had taken to calling himself “Moses David” (hence the “Mo”), wrote to his followers. When members were punished, they were often required to read and reread the Mo Letters, over and over again, even if they had already memorized them. Jones did get a couple of tastes of formal education, and that ignited a thirst for knowledge within her. But children were severely punished for seeking information, reading unapproved books, or breaking other rules, such as eating sugar without permission. Children were also trained to “share” with other members. “Sharing” is a euphemism for having sex. The cult members were not to work with “Systemites”– normal people who weren’t in the cult.

Faith Jones was taught that she owned nothing. She had to share EVERYTHING with the group… and that included her body. She was told that her body didn’t belong to her; it belonged to God. God wanted her to share her body with anyone who wanted access to it. And using birth control was forbidden, as was refusing sex.

Faith breaks out at age 23

Eventually, Faith realized that she wanted a college education. But cult members were forbidden from studying at a university. They were also forbidden from working at jobs for money. They got all of their money by begging, performing in the street, or selling religious materials or music productions. Once she’d made up her mind, she told the leaders of the commune, who promptly did all they could to force her to stay. Jones was told that if she left the cult, she would end up on drugs or homeless. This is the same threat repeated by other cult leaders, who try to make their victims believe that they can’t make it through life on their own. It was a threat my husband heard, when he decided to quit Mormonism.

But Faith was determined, and fortunately, her mother’s parents were not in the cult. They were able to help her a little bit. Faith also had to rely on her own resources to raise enough money to buy a plane ticket to the United States from China. Living outside of the cult caused Faith Jones significant culture shocks at times. At one point, she lived with a Chinese woman who became enraged with her when she tried to borrow a fan without asking permission. Faith was raised in an environment where people lived communally. She didn’t have a concept of privacy or people not using things without permission.

When she moved to California and looked into attending college, she found that none of the big schools would accept her, because she didn’t have any credentials. Her solution was to attend community college, where she made excellent grades. But she couldn’t relate to other people, since she’d spent her life outside of the United States. She didn’t get pop culture references, and didn’t know how to be “normal” with “Systemites”.

Nevertheless, Faith Jones was an extraordinary student, and she eventually managed to win acceptance to Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. That would have been an exceptional feat regardless, but she made it in as a transfer student, which is a very rare achievement. She graduated Summa Cum Laude, having learned to speak Russian and Mandarin fluently. Then she went to law school at the University of California- Berkeley. Jones writes that she wasn’t particularly attracted to the law, but decided it was a profession in which she would always be able to make a good living. She would not be impoverished again, nor would she ever be beholden to other people. She is now a very successful attorney with her own practice. But she still has many hang ups and complexes that stem from her upbringing in a cult.

Faith Jones has a TED Talk. This is worth listening to, if you don’t want to read the book.

My thoughts

I didn’t really enjoy this book to its fullest until I got to the end. In fact, I really wish that Faith Jones had spent a little more time writing about her life outside of the cult. It was during that time that she “awakened”, and I found that part of the book fascinating and exciting. For instance, she writes about meeting a military officer who was also studying law when she was at Georgetown. He became her boyfriend for a time, and he helped her to overcome some falsehoods that she learned while she was in the cult.

Faith had never learned that sex is not supposed to be painful. When she was in the cult, she was forced to have sex with men she wasn’t attracted to, so she wasn’t prepared to have normal sex. Faith was also raped a couple of times. Her ex boyfriend taught her that sex shouldn’t hurt. He also defined rape to her, which caused Faith to realize that, actually, all of the sexual experiences she’d had before they dated were basically rapes. She hadn’t actually wanted to have sex with those men; she was pressured, coerced, and a couple of times, actually forced to have sex with them. I’m sure that realization was very traumatic for her, but I suspect that in a way, it was also liberating. She learned that she could and should say “no”, and that consent is necessary before sex.

Unfortunately, Faith’s relationship with her boyfriend ultimately couldn’t work out, as he and his parents were members of a different controlling religious cult–the Seventh Day Adventists. Their religion was not as toxic as Faith’s was, but there were too many dynamics within it that were like the Children of God/The Family. Moreover, because of the religion her boyfriend was in, she was asked to lie to his parents, who were not aware that their son had strayed somewhat from the religion’s teachings– no meat, no alcohol, and no sex before marriage.

I was a little surprised when Faith wrote that she hadn’t necessarily been attracted to studying law; she had just wanted to be able to get a good job and make plenty of money on her own. For one thing, I know that not everyone who goes to law school is successful in launching a legal career. For another thing, Faith Jones is obviously very intellectual and has a gift for making cases. She once got a professor at Georgetown to change an A- to an A, when he told her he’d never been convinced to do that before. She laboriously went through all of her work to make her case and managed to change his mind. And she’d done it because she had her heart set on graduating from Georgetown with straight As so she could get the distinction of Summa Cum Laude. I doubt many students are that single-minded and dedicated. To me, it seemed natural that she would become a lawyer. I thought that even before I knew that is, in fact, what she had done after she graduated from college.

I also liked that this book ends on a good note. While I’m not so naive to think that Faith is completely recovered from her traumatic childhood, I do think she’s made great strides toward overcoming some very significant challenges. She does point out that not everyone who was in the cult was that lucky. Her father, for instance, is still impoverished, although she has a good relationship with him and her mother. Her mother was able to pick up the pieces post cult life and start a career in her 50s. That gave me hope, as I will be 50 soon myself, and sometimes I worry about potentially having to support myself. ūüėČ

Finally, I want to comment that this book reminded me a lot of Tara Westover’s book, Educated, which I have also read and reviewed. I think Jones and Westover have a lot in common, although Westover was raised as a fundie Mormon. Personally, I think Educated was a bit easier and more entertaining to read, but both books are worthwhile and gratifying reading. They’re both books about young women who overcome tremendous odds and severe handicaps to achieve great success and greatness in the world. Ultimately, both books are “feel good” stories when all is said and done, but readers have to wade through some disturbing and upsetting passages to get there. Likewise, Tara Westover’s book reminded me of The Glass Castle, by Jeannette Walls.

Anyway… I am amazed by Faith Jones’s determination, tenacity, resilience, and brilliance. She is a very unusual person and her story is worth reading, if you can stomach the parts about the abuse she and other members of The Family endured. I recommend Sex Cult Nun, but be prepared for some unpleasant shocks– though not as many as I’ve read in other books about the Children of God/The Family.

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book reviews, Duggars, education, religion

A review of Lovingly Abused: A true story of overcoming cults, gaslighting, and legal educational neglect, by Heather Grace Heath

ETA: December 30, 2021- Heather Heath has reached out to me in the comments and explained that she was not actually interviewed by the Preacher Boys. My apologies! I often get sucked into videos about fundies and obviously got confused. Anyway, Heather was NOT interviewed by The Preacher Boys, and I still can’t find the video I watched that introduced me to Heather Heath’s story. It might have been Dr. Oz whose video I saw. Heather did tell me that he interviewed her. And now, I’ve seen Dr. Oz’s clip, and I think it was his show that I watched.

Interesting video, and you can hear Heather Heath’s interview. It’s too bad they focused on Josh instead of her book.

A few weeks ago, I was watching YouTube videos when I came across the Preacher Boys podcast, hosted by Eric Skwarczynski. I have watched the Preacher Boys’ channel a few times. It mostly focuses on videos about fundamentalist Christians and the abuses that come from that belief system. There’s a treasure trove of information about abuse within the Independent Fundamental Baptist movement on the Preacher Boys’ podcasts, so I highly recommend that channel to those who want to learn more about it. I am probably just moderately interested in fundies, so I only watch that channel when the mood strikes or when I am especially bored. I originally thought The Preacher Boys interviewed Heather Heath, but it turns out I’m mistaken.

In any case, I swear I saw an interview done with Heather Grace Heath, who, along with her editor, Lorna Oppedisano, just published the book Lovingly Abused: A true story of overcoming cults, gaslighting, and legal educational neglect. I see on Amazon.com, it first became available on October 21, 2021, so it’s a brand new book. I just looked for the interview I watched about this book, but I can’t find it. Otherwise, I would post it here for your perusal.

Anyway, it’s too bad I can’t find the video I watched, because it did influence me to buy and read Heather’s book. I do think it’s a book worth reading if you’re at all interested in what it’s like to grow up in a religious cult. And since Josh Duggar, a famous Gothardite, is currently on trial, this topic is very timely. As you can see from my recent posts, I’ve been thinking and writing about fundie Christians a lot lately.

As I was reading Heather’s story on the Kindle app, I found myself doing something that I don’t often do. I made a lot notes, mainly so I that I could refer back to certain passages in this review. I also shared some passages with my friends on social media, again so I could easily find them. I’ve read a lot of books about people– especially women– who have left religious cults. I’ve read some very shocking things. It’s not even so much that Heather’s anecdotes are necessarily more shocking than other people’s anecdotes are. It’s just that she has a real knack for describing what she’s gone through in a way that is relatable and compelling. A number of my female friends who are interested in religion– particularly the ex Mormons– were responding to the passages I posted. I suspect Heather might get a few sales from them, too.

So… what is Heather Grace Heath’s story?

Heather Grace Heath is a thirtysomething cisgender woman* from Connecticut who grew up in Bill Gothard’s Advanced Training Institute (ATI) homeschool cult. Bill Gothard is an eightysomething American Christian minister whose teachings are very conservative. Gothard founded the Institute in Basic Life Principles. He encourages his followers to have many children and homeschool them. His focus is on teaching children to respect authority, memorize Bible passages, and adhere to strict gender roles. They are to stay under the “umbrella of protection”, pictured below.

A screenshot of a familiar diagram that explains the “umbrella of protection”. As we know, not all women have the personality for such a plan…

Under Gothard’s rules, women are to dress modestly, always wearing dresses or skirts and clothes that emphasize the “countenance” rather than the figure. Men are to aspire to be ministers or missionaries. Both men and women are to get married young, eschewing any beliefs that aren’t Biblical. It doesn’t seem to matter too much whether or not the couples are compatible, only that they are Bible believing Christians who follow Gothard’s strict rules.

*In her book, Heather writes that she doesn’t feel comfortable being called a “woman”. She refers to herself as a “girl” who is cisgendered and uses feminine pronouns. But, for the sake of simplicity, I’m going to refer to her as a woman and hope it doesn’t offend.

Heather explains that her mother grew up in a pretty screwed up family system. Her mother’s mom was the youngest in a very large family and she had a half brother who was also one of her cousins. Heather’s grandmother’s father was abusive. Consequently, Heather’s grandmother married an abusive man, and her mother also grew up in a “fucked up” situation. That was what had led her to Gothard’s cult.

Heather’s paternal grandfather died young. Her paternal grandmother was a first grade teacher who was horrified that Heather and her sister, Hope, were homeschooled. But Heather’s father was all in to Gothard’s teachings. Heather grew up being taught that there were certain things that girls weren’t supposed to do. She was taught that she would remain under her father’s care until she got married. And then she was expected to be a housewife, help meet, and mom to many children.

If this sounds familiar, it should, as this is the very same cult the Duggar family is in. Heather explains that not all people in the ATI belief system are Baptists, but they all subscribe to Bill Gothard’s ideas on how people should live, and children should be raised. In fact, Heather alludes to her mother running into Jim Bob Duggar before he was the stalwart Gothard poster child he is today.

They were at an Advanced Training Institute conference and Jim Bob complimented Heather’s mother on how well “blanket trained” Heather’s little sister was. Heather writes that her mom didn’t actually blanket train her two daughters; Heather’s sister just happened to like playing on her blanket. If you want to know what blanket training is, click here. I shared the passage below on Facebook and at least one person wanted to know what blanket training is, and was horrified when he read up about it.

She doesn’t mention Boob by name, but I think we all know who she’s referring to in this passage.

Heather Grace Heath explains some of the rules of the ATI and how people within it are supposed to behave. Young people growing up in the ATI cult are expected to be involved in certain gender specific activities. The boys go to the ALERT Academy (Air Land Emergency Resource Team), which is a program in which boys are taught rescue and medical techniques in a military style. The Duggar boys all attend ALERT, as it’s considered a rite of passage. Girls attend EXCEL, where they were expected to learn how to be godly women and make crafts. Heather was much more interested in what the boys were doing; she was, and still is, very attracted to medical and rescue work. But, because she was a girl, she was not allowed to attend ALERT. I suspect that might have been the first chink in the armor when it came to her decision to leave the cult.

A good example of the mind control that went on in the ATI.

Heather includes some pretty shocking details about her experiences in one of ATI’s training centers. The center she attended at age 17 was in Oklahoma City. She writes that the Oklahoma City center was supposedly one of the less oppressive of the ATI training centers, which was why she chose it. The actual center had once been a hotel, so it was somewhat “nice”, besides being more lenient. Nevertheless, Heather was repeatedly given “heart checks”, which meant she was locked in her room with just water and a Bible. A staff member would be posted outside her door to prevent her escape. This was so she would have time to think about her behavior and examine her heart for the sources of “sinful behavior”.

What’s an example of a behavior that would earn a “heart check”? Heather writes that the girls were all on the eighth floor of the former hotel. Boys were on the third floor. This was done deliberately, so that there would be no reason for boys to pass the girls’ floor or go to a higher level in the building. Heather got a “heart check” because she allowed males to share the elevator with her. She also got a “heart check” when staff members discovered that she had tampons, which were considered “Satan’s fingers”. She was ordered to repent for any enjoyment she got from removing them– (ugh, I can’t even imagine). She got another “heart check” for knowing lyrics to a Broadway song. There are other examples.

As Heather got older, she realized that she was very attracted to the healthcare profession. But working in healthcare went against Bill Gothard’s teachings for girls. Instead, Heather was encouraged to pursue more womanly pursuits– jobs in which she could wear skirts and dresses and be subservient to men. It was pretty clear to me as I read this book that Heather Heath does not have a particularly submissive personality. She’s very bright, naturally assertive (although Gothardites would probably call her rebellious), and courageous. Nevertheless, it’s difficult to overcome cult programming. She also had the misfortune of being homeschooled in a way that left her incredibly underschooled. I was impressed when Heather wrote about the experience of homeschooling her twins last year, because the pandemic required it. She wrote she was shocked by things that she didn’t know that little kids who went to school knew. Not surprisingly, that left her with what seems to be some pretty serious resentment.

The frustration of growing up in the Gothard cult, wanting something the system told her she could never have, left Heather with some pretty serious psychological problems. She also suffered from some “female” physical issues that made her miserable. She did attempt suicide a couple of times, and was at one point, hospitalized. Her father tried to dictate her care. Heather found the courage to tell her medical providers that she would not be able to give them honest answers while her dad was around…

She was definitely starting to find her way out of the cult.

Perhaps the most heartbreaking part of the book for me is when Heather writes about her decision to marry her first husband. Heather had sort of come out of the ATI cult stuff at that point, as she was working as an emergency medical technician and had been a “candy striper” at a local hospital. She had a crush on a guy she met when they were both “candy stripers” at a local hospital (though they aren’t called candy stripers anymore), and then they both became EMTs and worked together at an EMS company. Because of her upbringing, Heather had some difficulty being trained as a medic, even though she clearly had the talent and aptitude. She would answer questions with Biblical responses. So she had to overcome that, but she also had this crush on this guy… and she didn’t really know him before she married him at age 24. The marriage lasted a very short time and he decided to divorce her.

Because she was raised in a cult, she was brought up to believe that now, she was doomed to spend the rest of her life alone, or else be labeled an adulterer. To people who follow Gothard, being an adulterer is considered to be just as “sinful” as engaging in homosexuality (not that I, personally, think either is sinful). Still, even though Heather Heath was taught these things, she exhibits a delightful pluckiness in the passage below…

I loved this!

Heather also writes that she briefly considered attending Hyles-Anderson College, in Hammond, Indiana. I have written about Hyles-Anderson a few times in the blog. It’s definitely not a place for women with “pluck” and an independent spirit. She was going to study a nice “feminine” program at the school, because having been homeschooled through ATI, she would have otherwise had a terrible time attending a secular university where accreditation, grades, and test scores matter. Fortunately, officials at Hyles-Anderson had issues with Heather’s choice to work as a medic. They told her she needed to do more “feminine” work where she could be dressed like a lady (wearing skirts and dresses). So Heather wisely decided to withdraw her application…

Yeah… definitely culty!

And when a woman asked Heather to sell her on the idea of homeschooling, wanting to know all of the advantages Heather got from being taught at home through Bill Gothard’s system…

It’s hard to believe people still think this way in the 21st century. Good on Heather for setting that woman straight!

My thoughts

I took a whole lot of notes on this book, which, as I mentioned up post, I don’t do very often. I highlighted many passages, most of which I didn’t include in this review. I could have included them, but I want people to read the book for themselves. The passages in this review aren’t even necessarily the most shocking. They’re just the ones that fit the best.

In spite of her limited education, Heather Grace Heath is obviously very bright, funny, and articulate. Even with the help of an editor, I could definitely hear her authentic voice in this story. I really admired her strength, courage, and resolve to live her life on her own terms. At the same time, there were times when I could see how her education had limited her, and she often describes how she was cheated by not having access to books, qualified teachers, and broader perspectives. She uses a lot of profanity and sometimes comes across as angry, which could turn off some readers, although personally, it didn’t bother me at all. I don’t blame her for being pissed. She had no control over how she was raised, and she did endure some legitimate abuse and educational neglect that have affected her as an adult.

On the other hand, I loved this passage… It demonstrates some of the biting wit and humor Heather has– and sharp wit is a sign of raw intelligence, which it’s clear that Heather has. She clearly doesn’t belong in Bill Gothard’s cult.

Yeah… I can tell here that she was not destined to stay on the path her parents chose for her. She’s much too strong-willed and intelligent.

It may seem like I have included a lot of passages from the book in this review. But as I mentioned previously, I’ve actually only included a few passages that struck me and fit best. I imagine this book could be quite profound and even triggering to some readers. But I also think a lot of people will find it inspiring and educational. For that reason, I highly recommend Lovingly Abused to anyone who is interested in learning more about about what it’s like to grow up in Bill Gothard’s cult, or even what it’s like to be poorly homeschooled. To be sure, there are many parents who get homeschooling right and do a fantastic job. But there are a lot of other parents who should not be allowed to homeschool their kids. At the very least, there should be much more oversight as to what and how children are taught. I know the conservatives aren’t fans of that idea, since they see it as “government overreach”, but Heather Grace Heath is a living example of why undereducating children is a form of child abuse and neglect.

And… just as an aside, reading Lovingly Abused even gave me some insight into the Duggar family and the situation Anna Duggar is in right now. Anyone who wonders why Anna Keller Duggar hasn’t divorced her clearly deviant husband, Josh Duggar, yet, might have more understanding after reading Lovingly Abused. I didn’t get the sense that Heather Heath’s experiences were nearly as intense as the Duggar kids’ experiences in ATI have been.

While those of us who weren’t raised in a religious cult might think it’s obvious that Anna should leave Josh’s ass, it’s not such a cut and dried thing if you’re in a cult and have been taught that divorce is a pathway to Hell. Even though Anna has grounds for a divorce, it’s still an extremely difficult decision to make, as it makes her significantly less attractive to other men in the cult who are looking for godly helpmeets. Anna probably figures that if she divorces Josh, she will be alone. On the other hand, it’s many people’s fervent hope that Anna will be alone anyway, when a jury of his peers soon delivers a “guilty” verdict. But we shall see… sadly, it could turn out that he walks.

Anyway, below is a link to Amazon for those who want to read this book. If you purchase through the link, I will get a small commission from Amazon. Either way, I hope this review encourages some readers, and I hope someone else will interview Heather and leave up the video. She’s got a lot of important things to say.

And here’s a video by a lady on YouTube who also read the book. Sounds like she was as “triggered” as I was.

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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, religion

Reviewing Daughter of Gloriavale: My Life in a Religious Cult, by Lilia Tarawa…

Roughly a month ago, I wrote a post about Gloriavale Christian Community, a religious sect founded by Neville Cooper, otherwise known as Hopeful Christian, and located in New Zealand. That post was prompted by a message I got from a lawyer in New Zealand who is involved in litigation against the community. The lawyer had read my review of I Fired God, by Jocelyn Zichterman. Zichterman was raised in the Independent Fundamentalist Baptist Church, but left the church after many years of abuse. The New Zealand based attorney was hoping I would spread the word about a similar situation in his country. At the time, I didn’t think I’d heard about Gloriavale Christian Community, but then I went on YouTube and, sure enough, found a video of a TED Talk done by Lilia Tarawa that I’d seen a few years ago.

I included this video in my previous post about Gloriavale, but it bears repeating here.

Lilia Tarawa also wrote a book about her experiences growing up in a “religious cult”. In her case, it was a church founded by her grandfather, a charismatic man who was born in Australia and came to New Zealand in 1969 to start his movement. Because Tarawa’s grandfather’s name was Cooper, the group was originally called “Cooperites”. But then one day, Neville Cooper had a revelation that all of the sect’s members should change their names to something more “Christian”. So Neville Cooper became Hopeful Christian. Just about everyone else in the group also abandoned the names given at birth and adopted positive “Christlike” adjectives as their names. For instance, one man changed his named to “Fervent”, while another was called “Stedfast”. Another changed his name to “Willing”. Many of the members also changed their last names, as Cooper did. Lilia writes that her parents were high ranking enough that she and her siblings weren’t forced to change their first names, although they did adopt the surname “Just” for a time… until they eventually fled the group.

A screengrab from Tarawa’s Ted Talk.

In her 2017 book, Daughter of Gloriavale: My Life in a Religious Cult, Lilia Tarawa describes what it was like for her and her siblings to grow up in a very regimented community. Lilia is one of ten children, nine of whom were raised in Gloriavale. Only her youngest sister, Arielle, was not born on the compound. Lilia’s parents were also born in Gloriavale; her mother was named Miracle because Miracle’s mother had been pregnant with her when she, Neville Cooper, and two others were in a plane crash. Truly miraculously, everyone involved in the crash survived with cuts and bruises.

Growing up, Lilia wore long blue dresses and white headdresses. She was not permitted to cut her hair, shave her legs or armpits, or wear makeup. The community had a school and a library, but the books Lilia and her friends and family members were allowed to read were limited and highly censored. Lilia was not allowed to listen to “worldly” music. She and the rest of the females in the community were taught that they were to follow men, specifically Tarawa’s grandfather, who was regarded as a living prophet of sorts.

Once the girls had their first menstrual periods, they were deemed old enough to marry. The marriages were arranged, and the women were expected to have many babies and do what was regarded as “women’s work”– cooking, childcare, teaching, and the like. Females were not encouraged to excel academically or aim for careers outside of the community. The men were expected to work for the many companies owned and operated by the community, or to do manual labor. Everyone read the Bible. The whole community ate meals together, and whole families lived in large, single rooms. When the women had babies, they were mostly delivered on the compound. Childbirth was considered a natural thing, and medical people were not involved unless it was unavoidably necessary. From the age of seven, Lilia was helping women give birth. So were her brothers and sisters.

In spite of what many of us “born worldly” folks might think, Lilia Tarawa grew up thinking she lived in a paradise. Everything was taken care of, and she was surrounded by family and friends, as well as New Zealand’s natural beauty. And everyone wore the same clothes and lived the same lifestyle, so it wasn’t like Lilia missed anything more “normal” kids had. Sometimes, new people would join the community. Lilia’s friend, Graciela, who had been born in Chile and adopted by a white family, came to the group and introduced Lilia to things she had never known about. Lilia couldn’t pronounce Graciela, so she just called her friend “Grace”. Grace and her family eventually left New Zealand for the Elmendorf Christian Community in Minnesota, but Grace eventually returned to Gloriavale. She had a great impact on Lilia’s coming of age. It was through Grace that Lilia first got a taste of the world beyond her grandfather’s artificial utopia.

As she got older, Lilia’s view of the community began to change. She was a smart young woman who did well in school. One day, her grandfather rebuked her in front of the community. He read in her progress report that she had “leadership capabilities”. Hopeful Christian was miffed, since he didn’t think girls should be leaders. Lilia was humiliated as he berated her in front of everyone. Another day, she was in a library and found a romance book. It was forbidden for her to read such a book, since it was considered “worldly”. But she started to read it and became hooked, then smuggled it out of the library. Her brother, Sam, found out that Lilia had taken the book and snitched on her. Musical artists, like Shania Twain, were very attractive to Lilia. But Shania’s music, as well as Justin Timberlake’s, Taylor Swift’s, and Beyonce’s, were forbidden to Lilia. She was still introduced to them by way of friends like Grace, or by chance.

And then there was the shunning. Lilia’s older sister, Sara, and her brothers, Sam and Victor, decided they couldn’t tolerate Gloriavale anymore. They left, and were shunned by the family. Of course, Sara, Sam, and Victor were wholly unprepared for life outside of a religious cult. They had to figure out how to live in the modern world before they were legal adults. There were also other abuses detailed in the book, such as corporal punishment. The group is, not surprisingly, a proponent of not sparing the rod as a way of showing “love” to children.

Naturally, Lilia and her family eventually left Gloriavale, or this book would not exist. I don’t want to give away more of the story, since I do think this book is well worth reading if you’re interested in religious communities. Lilia Tarawa writes well, and has an engaging voice. My one complaint is that the lead up to her “escape” is a bit long. Once you get to the escape and her emergence into the world, the book is pretty much ending. I think this book would have been an even stronger account if she’d spent a little more time writing about adjusting to life outside of Gloriavale. But maybe she’s planning a new book for that part.

I did find it interesting to read about how Lilia went from reading the Bible, waterskiing in long dresses, and birthing babies, to clubbing, wearing tight pants, shaving her legs, and drinking liquor. I see on her official Web site, which I linked above, that Lilia is into yoga, public speaking, and writing. She writes of wearing Tommy Hilfiger sunglasses and typing on an iMac, a far cry from the more luddite existence she had when she was a child. Lilia writes that she found herself embracing her sexuality, but it was a shock to get to that point. Even the act of having her hair trimmed and layered was a bit scary for her, although she enjoyed the results. Again… these were aspects of the book that I found intriguing and would have liked to have read more of, rather than stories from her coming of age. Or, at least I think she should have balanced them out a bit with explaining more about what it was like to become of the world. A lot of her experiences seem to be about discovering pop music, fashion, and being a “normal” young person by attending clubs. But as we all know, plenty of “normal” young folks aren’t obsessed with pop music, fashion, or clubbing.

In any case, I’m glad I read about Gloriavale. It is an interesting community, and Lilia Tarawa has offered the world a fascinating look at a group a lot of people don’t know about. I wasn’t as horrified by her story as I was Jocelyn Zichterman’s, but I am glad she was able to leave the community with her family, and they have been able to find peace and joy outside of the cult. And perhaps most tellingly, when Lilia did go back to visit Gloriavale, she listened to her grandfather speak, and realized he was nothing more than a narcissistic charlatan. The hero image she’d had of him when she was growing up was shattered. I think a lot of us can relate to that experience, as we mature and start seeing the world and the people in it through more experienced eyes. It’s kind of sad when that happens, but I think it eventually does lead to more enlightenment and the chance to live a more authentic life. So… here’s to Lilia Tarawa and her family’s new life of freedom and discovery. May they live long and prosper in this crazy, modern world.

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