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, celebrities

Repost: A look at Linda Gray’s The Road to Happiness Is Always Under Construction

Here’s an as/is repost of a book review I wrote for my original blog. It appeared on February 6, 2017. I was reminded to repost this review after watching The Love Boat, yesterday. Juliet Prowse was a guest star and they showed off her fabulous legs. I was reminded of Linda Gray, writing about her “stems”.

Lately, I’ve been watching old episodes of Dallas.  They offer a flashback to my youth, a time when I didn’t care about things like politics.  I was very young when Dallas first started airing and a young woman when it finally went off the air.  So, I guess for that reason, Dallas is a comfort.

Many people know that actress Linda Gray played a pivotal role on Dallas.  She was Sue Ellen Ewing, J.R. Ewing’s long suffering alcoholic wife.  Later, Gray starred in Models Inc., an Aaron Spelling spin off of the 90s hit Melrose Place, which was itself a spin off of Beverly Hills 90210.  Models Inc. flopped and was cancelled after one season.  But in 2012, a reboot of Dallas came along and Gray was able to be Sue Ellen again for three seasons.

I like life stories, so that’s probably why I decided to download Gray’s 2015 book, The Road to Happiness is Always Under Construction.  I finally got around to reading it and finished it yesterday while in my sick bed.  It’s basically Linda Gray’s life story mixed with the odd recipe, cute anecdotes, and Gray’s self help philosophies.  I understand the book was written to commemorate Gray’s 75th birthday.  She still looks good.

I learned some new things when I read this book.  I never knew that Gray had polio when she was a child.  She spent several months in bed and almost ended up in an iron lung.  Fortunately, that treatment ultimately wasn’t indicated and Gray eventually recovered.  Gray is also the daughter of an alcoholic.  Her mother, who was apparently a very talented artist with a great sense of style, drank to numb the boredom of simply being a wife and a mother.  I’m sure growing up with an alcoholic mother gave Gray some cues as to how she should play alcoholic Sue Ellen.

There are a few anecdotes about Dallas, as well as a couple of funny stories about Larry Hagman, who was one of Gray’s dearest friends.  Gray also writes about how she came to capture the part of Sue Ellen.  Although she’d been a model and commercial actress for years, at the time she got her big break, she was married, 38 years old, and the mother of two kids rapidly approaching adolescence.  Her husband had not wanted her to work, but Gray was finding life as a housewife unfulfilling and boring.  She went against her husband’s wishes and soon became a star.  The marriage fell apart, but Gray finally found a purpose other than being a mother and a housewife.  She thrived.

I did take notice when California born and bred Gray wrote about learning how to speak like a rich woman from Dallas.  She writes that she met Dolly Parton, who told her to just emulate her.  Gray said Dolly didn’t sound “Texan”.  She asked Dolly where she was from and claims Dolly said “Georgia”.  Um…  Dolly Parton is not from Georgia!  She’s from Tennessee!  I guess Gray isn’t a fan of country music.  Gray ended up finding a voice coach who taught her some tricks.  She also hung out at Neiman-Marcus in Dallas a lot, to see how rich women from Dallas behaved.

I mostly enjoyed Gray’s book.  It looks like she wrote it herself, with no help from a ghost writer.  I think she did a fairly good job, although there are a few small snafus like the one I mentioned in the previous paragraph.  I liked that Gray came across as very normal and approachable. 

On the other hand, toward the end of the book, she offers some advice to her readers that I don’t think she herself takes.  For instance, she writes about how off putting it is when people brag.  She kind of does some bragging herself.  Not that I wouldn’t have expected her to brag somewhat; she is a famous actress who has had an unusual life.  But it does seem disingenuous when an actress tells her readers about how annoying she finds braggarts right after she writes about her “come hither” eyes and “amazing stems” (legs).  Acting is not exactly a profession for people who aren’t a little bit self-absorbed (although I am sure there are exceptions).  Self help advice from a celebrity often rings hollow anyway.  A little bit goes a long way. 

At the end of the book there are pictures.  Many of them are too small to see, at least on an iPad. 

I probably could have done without the self help sections, with the exception of Gray’s life “principles”, which were cleverly conceived and included funny anecdotes.  She also includes a couple of recipes– one for a conditioner she uses on her hair and another for some kind of meat pie she made for her kids, which doesn’t seem to jibe with her advice to eat clean.

I give this book 3.5 stars on a scale of 5.  It’s not bad, and parts are interesting and enjoyable.  But self help advice usually puts me off, anyway.

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book reviews, celebrities

Repost: What’s it like to be Arnold Jackson’s best friend? Shavar Ross gives us the scoop on being “Dudley”!

Here’s a reposted book review from March 6, 2018. It appears here as/is, as I consider what the subject of today’s fresh content will be. Lately, I’ve been watching tons of 80s era sitcoms. I find them oddly comforting.

Today’s title probably only means something if you were around in the late 70s and early to mid 80s and watched TV.  That period of time happened to be during the prime years of my childhood, when we had no Internet and TV was the thing rotting everyone’s minds.  I was a big fan of the sitcom Diff’rent Strokes, which was an enormously popular and successful show during that time period.  It’s been really sad for me, and for a lot of my peers, to watch the cast of that beloved show die off, one by one.

As of 2018, Conrad Bain, Dana Plato, and Gary Coleman are all dead.  So are Mary Ann Mobley, Nedra Volz, and Dixie Carter.  But we still have Todd Bridges, Janet Jackson, Danny Cooksey, and Shavar Ross, who played Arnold Jackson’s (Gary Coleman’s character) best friend, Dudley Johnson.  To this day, the only other Dudley I know of is Dudley Moore.  I don’t think “Dudley” is a very popular name these days.  According to Shavar Ross, his character “Dudley” was named after someone on the Diff’rent Strokesproduction crew.  I learned that little tidbit and a handful more when I read Ross’s book, On The Set of Diff’rent Strokes.

The theme song for the famous sitcom that Gary Coleman so hated…

Ross published his book in 2007, when Gary Coleman and Conrad Bain were still alive.  Nevertheless, the cast of Diff’rent Strokes did seem to have a bit of a curse.  Dana Plato died of a drug overdose in 1999, having previously fallen into an abyss of drug addiction, porn, and crime.  Nedra Volz, who played housekeeper Adelaide, had died years earlier of old age.  Todd Bridges is still living, but he had some serious problems with drugs and was even tried for the attempted murder of Kenneth “Tex” Clay, a Los Angeles area drug dealer.  And Gary Coleman just plain seemed pissed off at the world.

At the beginning of Ross’s book, he explains that the book isn’t about all of the scandals that plagued the cast of Diff’rent Strokes.  Instead, he focuses on his experience getting cast in the role of Dudley.  He also explains that he likes to write the way he speaks, so the book won’t be as grammatically correct as it could be.  That made me twitch a little, but it’s fair enough, I guess.  I only spent about $3 on the book, anyway.

I managed to read Ross’s book in a couple of hours.  The only reason it took longer than an hour or so, is because I had to take a brief nap while I was reading.  This book is only 36 pages and contains no pictures.  It starts off with a brief history of Ross’s family of origin.  He was born in the Bronx and his parents separated when he was six years old.  His dad was an actor who decided to move to Los Angeles.  His mom took Ross and his half sister to Macon, Georgia so they could be close to family while his mother went to college. 

Ross went on a vacation to California to see his father at Christmas time.  During that visit, he was discovered by a top children’s talent agent named Evelyn Shultz.  Shultz noticed him when he was watching a play starring Kim Fields, who later became famous in her role as “Tootie” on The Facts of Life, which was a highly successful spinoff of Diff’rent Strokes.  Ross writes that he was a fan of Diff’rent Strokes and had watched it in Georgia on a black and white portable TV.  When the opportunity came up for him to audition for a part playing Arnold’s best friend, Dudley, he jumped at it, beating out about 250 kids.

Ross’s first appearance on Diff’rent Strokes was on a 1980 episode called “Teacher’s Pet”.  His father was one of the extras on that episode, which was about Arnold’s dad, Phillip Drummond, asking out Arnold’s teacher after meeting her at a parent/teacher conference.  The teacher began to dote on Arnold, causing his friends to tease him.  The chemistry was good enough on that episode that Ross was asked to be a recurring character.

Basically, that’s about it for Ross’s story, which I think is a real shame.  I appreciate that he didn’t want to share any dirt on the series.  I imagine it would have been tempting to do that, since the show was so popular.  He does offer a few superficial insights about Gary Coleman and the rest of the cast, but a lot of what he wrote was stuff I already knew.  Like, for instance, Coleman loved trains.  If you watched the show, you’d know that.  He basically says Dana Plato was “nice” and Todd Bridges was “cool”.  Janet Jackson was very “sweet and shy”.  I think he could have gone into more detail without stooping to spreading gossip.

Also, while I think the book is basically well-written, especially for someone who flat out writes that he isn’t concerned with proper grammar, there are a lot of typos and some misspellings.  I understand that editing is a chore, but it really wouldn’t have taken much to polish this book a bit more and give it a more professional air.

A funny rehash of Diff’rent Strokes’ most special episode, ever.

Finally, I can’t believe Ross didn’t write more about the episodes themselves.  Anyone who watched Diff’rent Strokes knows that Ross was featured in a very special two part episode called “The Bicycle Man”.  That episode, in which the late LDS character actor Gordon Jump starred, was about child molestation.  The show handled the subject in a rather G-rated fashion, but it was still pretty shocking material at the time.  It would have been interesting if Ross had dished a bit about that episode.  But maybe it was too traumatic for him. 

I do know that Ross eventually became a pastor, so maybe some subjects are taboo.  He’s also been married for a long time and has two kids.  It would have been nice if he’d written more about his family and his life beyond his acting career.  That would have been interesting reading and he wouldn’t have been guilty of spreading dirt.  He could have written more about how he broke into acting.  The way the book reads now, it sounds like he went on vacation, lucked into meeting an agent, and *poof*, he was an actor.  I think he could have offered more details and a more accurate accounting of his time.  What did his family think of his success?  Did his mom stay in Georgia with his sister?  Did Shavar Ross live with his dad?  He addresses none of this in his very brief book.

Although I appreciate that Shavar Ross took the time to write his book, I think On The Set of Diff’rent Strokes could have been a whole lot better.  I don’t think it’s terrible as much as it is incomplete.  It’s just a very short book and doesn’t reveal much at all.  I think if a person is going to go to the trouble of publishing a book, he or she should make the book worth reading.  This book probably doesn’t reveal anything that a determined researcher can’t find online.  But, on the positive side, it’s cheap, and Ross straight up says he’s not going to dish much.  At least I didn’t spring for the paperback version, which sells for $7.95.

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musings, rants

Repost: Hate my blog? Bite me.

Here’s a repost that was originally written on November 2, 2018. I’m reposting it because I still think it’s relevant, and because I have a stomachache. I’m waiting for my stomach to settle before I write fresh content. The featured photo is actually my very first passport photo, taken when I was two years old. It cause quite a stir when I finally canceled the passport in my 20s and picked up the canceled passport as a Peace Corps Volunteer.

Today’s post is inspired by a blog post I just read entitled “Why I Hate Bloggers“.  It was posted on June 8, 2009 by Lisa Barone.  I don’t actually read a lot of blogs myself because, like Barone, I don’t really find most of them that interesting.  But, because I am myself a blogger, I am aware that a lot of people hate what I do.  I can’t say I really blame them for that, although I maintain that no one is forcing anyone to read a blog post.  If blogs aren’t your cup of tea, find something else to read.  Seems pretty simple to me.

Although Barone’s title is provocative, I could sort of identify with what she writes in her post.  She writes of a New York Times news article about people who were once fervent bloggers and eventually abandoned them due to lack of interest.  A lot of people put their stuff out there and expect to get a lot of comments and interaction.  When it doesn’t happen, they get discouraged and quit writing.  Sometimes people get busy in their offline lives and the blog falls by the wayside.

Other people find their blogs becoming too successful and it unnerves them when someone recognizes them in public.  I have been recognized in our local community, thanks to my travel blog.  Although everyone around here has been really nice, at least in person, some people can be total assholes, especially on the Internet.  When drama erupts, you learn that writing stuff for the masses has a significant downside.  (edited to add– since we moved to Wiesbaden, I’ve made an effort to stay out of the local social media and now mostly let people find my stuff. I no longer get recognized where we live now, and I prefer it that way.)

Barone writes that blogs fail because most bloggers are “boring”.  She resents bloggers who are boring because they give her “profession” a bad name.  She maintains that most bloggers write the equivalent of “their Christmas letter to Aunt Millie”, which not even Millie wants to read.  So, for that reason, Lisa Barone (at least in 2009), says she “hates” bloggers, even though she apparently is (or was) one herself.

According to the New York Times piece I linked, a lot of bloggers apparently thought they’d someday end up famous.  We’ve all heard the legends of people like Heather B. Armstrong, who writes Dooce.  I first read about Dooce on Recovery from Mormonism, otherwise known as RfM.  Armstrong is an ex Mormon who grew up in Bartlett, Tennessee, interesting to me because that’s where some of my husband’s family members live.  I don’t regularly read Heather Armstrong’s blog, although I can understand why some people do.  She’s wickedly funny and profane.  Dooce became a very popular blog and Armstrong was evidently able to make money from her writing.  Advertisers began to notice and she started selling shit on her blog, which generated more money.

I must not be like a lot of other bloggers.  Although I mostly like it when people read my blog, especially when they enjoy what I write, I have never had any visions of it someday turning into a book deal.  I have a friend who knows me offline and reads this blog who thinks I should write a book.  He’s often nagged me to write one, and has even told me he’d market it for me.  But I feel like a book should be about something of substance.  Also, I don’t like dealing with most other editors.  I know they’re a necessary evil, but sometimes editors don’t quite capture the gist of what I’m trying to communicate.  As long as I don’t have to write to survive, I’d rather not deal with them.

In spite of accusations to the contrary, this blog is not just about my husband’s ex wife.  It has a pretty broad focus.  How could I turn it into a book?  And why would I want to?  What if I wrote a book and it failed?  Or… what if I wrote a book and it became really successful, and then I had to deal with people like “Wondering Why” all the time, criticizing me for writing about subjects they think are “inappropriate”?  I do wonder who made those people the judge of what’s considered “appropriate” subject matter for a personal blog or a book.  Seems like “appropriate” is a subjective term. (edited to add– “Wondering Why” left me a very negative and critical comment about how “inappropriate” she thought it was that I blogged about my husband’s ex wife. I vented about her a couple of times and, if you look, you can find those reposts in this blog.)

Blogging, to me, is kind of like keeping an open diary.  Exciting things don’t happen every day, but writing is something I do almost daily to keep my mind active and kill time.  I’ll read something in the news and decide I have an opinion about it, but I don’t want to post my opinions on social media.  It’s mainly because when you post on social media, you invite people who want to debate.  A little of that is fine, but some people are really tenacious and don’t know when to stop arguing.  Or they get into fights with other people and it turns into a flame war, which quickly becomes annoying.

The blogging platform is better for me, because I can organize my thoughts into text.  I may or may not get any comments on what I post, but I’m able to put it down in a format rather than keep it in my head.  Sometimes my posts are like a letter to “Aunt Millie”, but sometimes they’re thought provoking and even helpful.  I have a few posts that are “evergreen” and continue to attract hits even years after I wrote them.  I get satisfaction out of seeing those posts succeed.  My travel blog, in particular, has quite a few posts within it that make me proud and are legitimately useful.  This blog, by contrast, is more where I dump my spew, some of which is “toxic”.  Some people come away with the idea that I’m nuts.  That’s nothing new.  Many people offline think I’m nuts, too.

I enjoy the process of writing and editing.  It’s like a puzzle.  I like to write a paragraph and find ways to edit it creatively.  I might find words or phrases I can omit, or come up with synonyms to words that might fit better or offer a different shade of meaning.  It’s almost like creating art.  I’m not necessarily a very disciplined person in most areas, but when it comes to writing, I can be disciplined.  I cut out unnecessary words and remind myself that readers appreciate brevity.

When I find readers who like what I do, it’s a bonus.  I’ve “met” some nice people through my blog.  I’ve also run into some real assholes.  The assholes tend to be people who read one or two posts and leave me scathing comments about how I’m a “bigot” or “crazy”.  I’ve even had someone accuse me of being a racist because I once used the word “savage” to describe uncivilized behavior.  My response was to post Dictionary.com’s definition of “savage”.  There’s a difference between calling someone “a savage” and using the word savage to describe certain behaviors.

I fully admit that a lot of people dislike blogs and some people assume bloggers are “vapid”, “whiny”, and “self-absorbed”. I can’t necessarily disagree with that characterization. Nevertheless, I’m one of the five percent of bloggers who continues to update regularly and has done so for over eleven years. Why? Because it’s something to do, and something that brings me satisfaction. I like to write stories and don’t have anyone to share them with, other than Bill. Bill works hard all day, so there’s limited time to share these things in my head with him. He’s heard most of the stories before, anyway. And… even my “crazy” posts about Ex are somewhat constructive if they keep me from mailing her Fecalgrams.

To find Barone’s post about why she hates bloggers, I Googled “People hate my blog”.  I found a lot of blog posts about things people hate about bloggers.  I understand why people “hate” blogs and bloggers, but what can I say?  Meh… hate me and my blog if you want to.  You’d probably feel the same way about me if I didn’t blog.  What you think of me is none of my business, anyway.  This is my way to make a mark on the world.  Maybe it’s more like a shitstain, but it’s all I’ve got for now.  I’m going to embrace the stench.

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book reviews

Repost of my review of Escape from Camp 14…

Here’s a repost of a book review I wrote for Epinions.com on July 12, 2012, and reposted on Blogspot version of this blog. It appears as/is.

From October 28, 2014:

I went through a phase a few years ago and read a bunch of books about North Korea.  This morning, I read an article on CNN written by Shin Dong-hyuk, the only known person to grow up in and escape a North Korean prison camp.  He has been labeled “human scum” by North Korea’s leaders.  They claim that his description of what life is like in a North Korean prison camp is a pack of lies. 

I found Escape from Camp 14, Shin Dong-hyuk’s book, extremely fascinating.  Aside from having an amazing story to tell, Shin Dong-hyuk is a talented artist.  You can see some of his drawings on the CNN article, though I must warn that they are basically artistic depictions of how prisoners are treated in North Korea.  Some people may find them disturbing.  I did find them a bit graphic, yet I also marveled at Shin Dong-hyuk’s talents and I’m glad he is now free to share them with the rest of the world. 

From 2012:

For the past few years, I’ve been fascinated with stories about North Korea, one of the world’s most opaque countries. That’s why I felt compelled to read journalist Blaine Harden’s new book, Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West(2012). This book is the true story of a young man named Shin Dong-hyuk, who was born and raised in Camp 14, an oppressive North Korean political prison and later managed to escape. Though I had a feeling that parts of Escape from Camp 14 would probably depress me, I figured that ultimately the story would end on a somewhat triumphant note. And again, I think oppressive regimes are oddly fascinating.

Who is Shin Dong-hyuk and why was he raised in prison?

Shin Dong-hyuk was born in 1982, the second son of parents who had somehow managed to be allowed to get married. Shin’s parents didn’t marry because they loved each other. They married because they were being rewarded for doing something good. Sex between inmates at Camp 14 was forbidden, except between married couples. After their wedding, the happy couple was allowed five nights together; then they were separated and Shin’s father was allowed to visit periodically. Shin’s older brother was born in 1974 and by the time Shin was old enough to remember much, he had already been sent to live in a boy’s dormitory. When Shin was still a very young boy, he too was sent to live in a dorm. It wasn’t too big of a deal, though, since Shin didn’t have much of a bond with his mother, anyway. They were too busy working to form a bond.

In North Korea, people who commit crimes against the state are severely punished. So are their families. A person who gets caught doing something illegal will go to prison and so will his or her parents, siblings, and any children. The whole family pays for one person’s actions; consequently, there’s a lot of peer pressure to be on one’s best behavior. Shin was born in the prison and never knew any other life, mainly because two uncles tried to escape North Korea back in 1951. Shin’s childhood was spent working, starving, and being beaten and indoctrinated. He spent those years fearing for his life; for the punishment for disobedience was being shot on the spot. When Shin accidentally broke a sewing machine, he paid for it by sacrificing part of a finger. 

When Shin was 13, his mother and brother attempted to escape Camp 14. Shin overheard their plans. Like any good North Korean prisoner, Shin felt compelled to alert the authorities. Not alerting the authorities of an escape attempt meant being shot. The guards were able to stop the escape attempt and Shin was rewarded by being tortured and interrogated. Then, he and his father were forced to watch as his mother and brother were executed. He was not sad to see them die. He thought they were selfish for putting him in the position to have to tell on them.

It took Shin months to recover from the injuries he suffered while he was being tortured. During that time, he met a man who told him about life outside of the camp. Shin was fascinated that there was a world beyond the electrified fence. But he also knew that the fence was deadly and would kill him if he tried to flee. And if he was caught even thinking about escaping, he would be shot. 

Years later, Shin met another man who told him more about the world outside the fence. Shin found himself obsessed with the notion of escaping. With his new friend’s help, Shin hatched an escape plan and successfully escaped the political prison in 2005. Harden relates Shin’s amazing story of breaking out of the North Korean camp and eventually making it to South Korea, then the United States.

My thoughts  

Whenever I start to feel badly about my own life, all I have to do is remember what Shin Dong-hyuk has already endured in his 30 years on the planet. He grew up starving, friendless, and without much of a family, imprisoned for crimes he had nothing to do with. Against all odds, he broke free to go to a new country that for most of his life, he had no idea even existed. Adjusting to that new life in rich, opulent South Korea was extremely difficult. And then when he went to the United States to tell other people about his life in Camp 14, he had a hard time adjusting… and relating to other people. 

Harden’s done a great job with Shin’s story, maintaining an objective yet compassionate tone as he describes the atrocities Shin and other prisoners endured. It makes any problems I face seem trivial. This book took a long time to read and was, at times, a bit depressing. It’s not pleasant to read about innocent people being starved, beaten, and brainwashed. However, I have to admire Shin’s courage for escaping, even as he experienced guilt knowing that his father would certainly be punished for his escape… and the man who came with him on his break for freedom ultimately ended up being killed by the electric fence. Shin used the man’s body to insulate him against the electricity– without that dead body, Shin never would have made it to freedom. He’s paid a price, though, through constant nagging guilt. At this writing, Shin Dong-hyuk is the only person known to have managed to escape prison and defect from North Korea.

At the end of this book, Harden includes drawings Shin did that depict the horrors of Camp 14. I found the crude drawings haunting and horrifying. There are also photos.

Overall

I would definitely recommend Escape from Camp 14 to anyone who is interested in North Korea or likes true stories about overcoming adversity. This is not a happy book, but I found it fascinating to read and I definitely rooted for Shin Dong-hyuk.

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