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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.