Book Review - Jesus Freaks A True Story of Murder and Madness on the Evangelical Edge
Cultic Studies Review, Vol. 7, No. 3, 2008
Review by Miriam Williams Boeri, Ph.D.
Two books published in 2007 and written by authors outside academe provide an in-depth understanding of life in The Children of God, a new religious movement started in the 1960s by evangelical preacher David Berg. This group was popularly recognized as a cult. The Children of God were later called The Family and are now known as The Family International.
Both books provide evidence of the group’s leadership encouraging and engaging in sexual activities with children. Such accounts are disputed in scholarly publications and dismissed by some scholars as exceptions or exaggerations. Both books, however, depict much academic research as inadequate, misguided, or misrepresented. Although the authors of these two books provide shocking details about growing up in The Children of God, the honest discussion of respected research is perhaps the greatest impact they will have on the academic field of cultic studies.
The first book in this review, Not Without My Sisters, is a memoir. Popular media reviews of the book focus on the “horrific detail” in the lives of the authors, who were “treated by their 'guardians’ as sexual beings.” Some academics who label appeals to mainstream values as “moral panics” that are beneath the objective perspective of scholarly research dismiss such shock tactics by publishers and marketers. In some corners of academe, these supercilious scholars are regarded as “experts” in their field, but those dark corners are becoming increasingly exposed by books such as this one. In my opinion, the major contribution of Not Without My Sister to the field of cult studies is its insights into the processes and effects of brainwashing (a.k.a. mind control or thought reform), a disputed concept in academia.
There are differences of scholarly opinion regarding memoirs written by former members of such groups as The Children of God/The Family. Although these differences exist on a continuum, the extreme on one side includes the apologist scholars of cults who claim that memoirs are self-accounts distorted by personal biases, and on the other side academics who claim the apologists—those scholars who debunk anti-cult allegations—promote perspectives distorted by hidden agendas. The apologists have labeled these scholars “anti-cultists” because they typically present data, analysis, and findings that are less than favorable to cults and often based on interviews with former members or memoirs by former members.
As a memoir writer and academic, I am familiar with both sides of the debate. As a former member of a cult and researcher, I can identify the blind spots and pretense of scholars who claim to remain objective, as well as those of the individuals who, influenced by their life experiences in a cult, write with righteous indignation. I have tried to maintain neutrality, but I suspect that both sides will challenge some of my views and critiques.
Not Without My Sisters is about growing up in The Children of God. The authors of this book are two biological full sisters, Kristina and Celeste, and their half sister, Juliana. They all have the same father, known in the group as Simon Peter. I mention “biological” because as a sociologist I am amazed at the strong connection between these sisters, who by their own accounts were separated at a young age and continued to be kept apart with very little physical interaction or communication throughout their lives. Also, as a former member of The Children of God, I know that this group not only espoused but also enforced its communal ideal by physically, emotionally, and psychologically dividing families, or what they called “selfish little units.”
The authors’ accounts of sexual, emotional, and physical exploitation and abuse will interest all readers concerned with social justice and human rights. The book will be a compelling read for any parent, instructional material for any student of social sciences, and an informative account for anyone with family members involved in cults or other fanatic religious groups. But my primary recommendation of this book is for scholars of controversial religious and social movements, and professionals working with abuse victims, dysfunctional families, and cult survivors.
I was a member of The Children of God for fifteen years. Based on my insider knowledge, as well as my informed understanding of the academic debates regarding this group, I found Not Without My Sister most effective in its exposure of the way in which sexual and physical abuse was not only encouraged but also practiced by its leaders throughout the group’s history. I have written in my memoir that I did not see child sexual abuse everywhere, but we group members all read reports that indicated it existed in the homes of the cult’s leaders. This book sheds more light on the degree and progression of child abuse in the Children of God, starting with the perspective an abused child.
The book opens with the story of Celeste, the first-born of Simon Peter, a charismatic young disciple of the Children of God who rose to fame and favor with the leaders of the group as a result of his “Music with Meaning” radio shows in Greece. Readers become aware that Simon’s access and unfailing obedience to top leadership resulted in his children’s subsequent exposure to some of the worst child-abuse scenarios in the history of the group. I am not denying that perhaps Celeste’s story chronicles one of the more bizarre and atrocious abuse experiences of children in The Family, but I remain suspicious of scholars who claim that this abuse was isolated, since the extent of such activities is still unknown.
Celeste describes scenes that have become legends among ex-members of this group, such as the beatings at the huge “Combo homes” for teens, the rapes of young girls, and the suicides of young male members. These stories have been exposed in Internet sites and newspaper articles for years, but Celeste’s account supports the stories and offers more detail from a true insider’s perspective—as a young child growing up and viewing the scenes first-hand. Moreover, Celeste herself is not spared these injustices, and while the reader is aghast that her father is not protecting her, Celeste continues to excuse him and hold him on a pedestal. Any pretense that the leadership did not know of adults forcing sex on children is dispelled by Celeste’s account of living in leadership homes where she is forced to have sex with adults. Celeste lived in the homes that most Family members only read about in The Family newsletters. More-concerned parents in the group feared that their teens would be sent to one of these “Combo” homes, which were considered the juvenile detention homes of The Family. Celeste is sent there not because she is bad but because her father is needed in secret homes where she is not needed.
Celeste longs for reunion with her absent mother and sister, who left the group after being separated from the rest of the family. A golden opportunity for escape and justice arises when she is asked to testify in a British court case involving child abuse in the Children of God. Because Celeste is one of the young girls dancing naked and suggestively on a video used as evidence in the case, a reputed religious expert interviews her and asks her to explain her childhood strip dance experience. Celeste repeats exactly what the leaders of The Family prompted her to say, knowing it is not true but unable to decipher lies at that time of her life. The conversation between Celeste and the research expert in the book is a pivotal passage of evidence for the unreliability of research data collected from current cult members. It appears from this account of the interview that Celeste easily convinces the scholarly expert that she (Celeste) was not abused. The expert witness scholar of “new religious movements” seemed to convince the Lord Justice Ward that abuse was not widespread in the group, which may have influenced Ward’s ruling to allow the child to remain in The Family.
Soon after this incident, Celeste, among the hundreds of teens in the group, is singled out to live in the most secret of Family homes and meet the top leaders of the cult after the death of Moses David (Berg)—namely, Maria (Karen Zerby) and her consort, Peter Amsterdam. Celeste is told that Maria received “prophecies” (spiritual messages) from the deceased Berg and the Lord to call this home the “house of the open pussy.” Here Celeste sees firsthand that the sexual activities that had destroyed her childhood happiness were initiated and blessed by these same top leaders. Although no turning point is without preceding doubts, it is here that Celeste has her epiphany that The Family leaders are not the God-sent messengers of love as she had been taught all her life. She leaves The Family after a short visit to her beloved father, who refuses to accept responsibility or hold his leaders accountable for his daughter’s abuse.
The second story is told by Juliana, who is born from a union of Celeste’s father and one of the many Family sisters he “mates” over the years to serve his sexual needs. Juliana suffers immense emotional pain as a result of the separation from both her parents, and she is depicted as the lost child whom nobody loves. She is subjected not only to sexual abuse but also unrestrained emotional and physical abuse that she recounts with chilling detachment. Desperately longing for adults who will love her, she secretly wishes that the strange Indian couple who knock on the door of The Family home one day looking for a child to adopt will take her. Her father, who brags he has fathered more than twenty children, appears not to know of his children’s whereabouts, living conditions, or personal anguish.
Juliana is rarely with any of her siblings as she is shuttled from home to home and suffers under various guardians who appear to care little for her safety or happiness. Despite being taught all her life that “we are all one family,” when Juliana learns of a biological relative, she clings to the idea of a sibling bond. This hope is depicted in the scene in which she fondly remembers a photograph of a little girl in India who her father casually states is one of Juliana’s sisters. In the end, while on a visit with her older siblings in London, after they had already left The Family, Juliana has her epiphany and begins the turning point in her slow journey out of the “bizarre upside-down world that made no sense.”
Readers might be astounded that it takes so long after her revelation for Juliana to physically leave the group, but it’s important to bear in mind that she endured a most intense socialization and isolation from the rest of the world. In her story we see the long-term processes and effects of such extreme indoctrination. In the end, even while Juliana appears free to travel, leave, and marry according to her own desires, she is tied by strings we cannot distinguish in shorter versions of these lives, such as those presented in scholarly publications. Although some scholars hotly debate and debunk the “brainwashing” process, evidence of the mind-control tactics groups such as the Children of God use is seen in Juliana’s extended withdrawal from the group. Apologist scholars for cults often use the fact that members are free to leave when they want as proof that brainwashing or mind control does not exist. However, Juliana’s account, and other stories about leaving cults, reveals the superficial level of such an argument.
The third story is told by Kristina, the younger of the two sisters born to Simon Peter and his first wife. Kristina is separated from Celeste and her father soon after her birth in India. She lives her childhood with a malicious stepfather who enforces strict rules on his new stepchildren and seems eager to follow Berg’s and Zerby’s directives on sexual activities with children. While her mother is often bedridden with difficult pregnancies, Kristina is sexually abused by her stepfather. The abuse began when she was three years old and he performed oral sex on her as she lay on her top bunk bed. As he continued with similar sexual behaviors along with increased physical abuse, other men in the group forced Kristina to engage in sexual activities she detested but endured in silence. Kristina’s molestation is conducted mostly in private. She is forced to have sex in secret with relative strangers as she travels among small missionary homes in India and other Eastern countries. For example, her stepfather hides his sexual exploitation of Kristina from her mother. Kristina describes her mother as living in a trance while in The Family, and it appears that her mother is not cognizant of her children’s abuse until she is finally out of the group.
Kristina’s accounts of sexual activities with adults appear to be more hidden that those of her sisters, yet one might wonder why she does not inform anyone of this behavior. Recall that Kristina has read The Family literature in which the group’s leader and prophet endorses adult sex with children, so she has no reason to report this behavior as abuse to her mother or other group members who should have protected her. She also knows that whatever occurs in The Family is not to be revealed to those outside the group, and she learns to live a “double life” when she is around “systemites” (those living outside the Family). Yet the most redeeming characters in Kristina’s story are in fact those systemites she comes in contact with throughout her travels. It is by observing the differences between the behaviors of systemites and the behaviors of adults in The Family that Kristina is encouraged to testify with her mother in a court case involving child-abuse accusations. Unfortunately, their testimony appears to garner less respect than that produced by the scholarly experts with their theoretical alleged insights. It is two other systemites, her grandparents on her stepfather’s side, who defend her when a teenaged Kristina is trying to force an apology from her stepfather (their son) for the sexual abuse she suffered as a child. Overhearing the girl’s plea, the elderly couple storm into the room, condemning their son for the accusations they were loathe toaccept previously.
In my mind, the support by Kristina’s grandparents represents a dilemma we find in academia. This incident is symbolic of how academics seem to find it difficult to accept stories of abuse as valid until the stories hit home in a personal way. This may be why scholarly research, which is biased toward producing findings that support the reigning paradigms, ignores the anecdotal evidence in favor of dissenting theoretical views. Regrettably, the popular theories on cults (new religious movements) have too easily dismissed the stories of child abuse in cults as “atrocity tales.” Only those scholars who listen to stories such as those written in this book have honestly examined the issue of cult abuse. And these scholars are typically not published in the academic journals that would allow their theories to receive attention on a broader scale. Thus, the issue of why, how, and which cults engage in this type of abuse, and how to stop it, is rarely addressed in academic circles.
In Not Without My Sisters, the apologist scholars are subtly exposed as naïve or misguided. In their brave effort to provide an honest account, the sisters reveal how the experts are too easily convinced of The Family’s innocence, the blamelessness of the leaders, and the extent of the abuse. The authors suggest veiled deceit on the part of the academic expert witnesses.
In contrast, in the book Jesus Freaks, Lattin does not engage in subtleties but explicitly and intentionally exposes the apologists’ agenda by devoting an entire chapter to their scholarly misdeeds. Jesus Freaks, written by a renowned newspaper journalist well-versed in new religious movements and fundamentalist religious groups, provides a detailed life account of Ricky Rodriquez. Ricky, known as “Davidito,” is the son of the leader of The Children of God, David Berg. Davidito is also the second-generation member whose suicide/murder in 2005 was broadcast in media around the world. The book is recommended to anyone interested in cultic studies.
The book chronicles the history of The Children of God. As a former member of this cult, I found the details of the group’s history and life inside the group accurate and revealing. There were occasional inconsistencies with the names of characters, or perhaps the author was asked to change some names and not others. However, in a group that required new members to change their names on joining, encouraged name changes of members to disguise identity, and enforced frequent name changes of the top leaders where Ricky lived, it is remarkable that Lattin was able to keep pace with identities to the extent that he did.
More importantly, he unravels the intricate processes involved in constructing a worldview that is as bizarre as it is hidden from all public scrutiny. Whereas lawyers and expert witnesses have persuaded esteemed judges around the world to deny justice to its exploited and abused members, Lattin exposes not only the moral atrocities but also the criminal acts committed by its leaders. He does this through investigative research into every aspect of Ricky’s life. Some scholars claim that it is not an academic’s responsibility to expose or judge morality issues in his or her objective research. As noted earlier, it appears that the scholars who have dominated in academic publications largely overlook or discount abuse issues in these groups, especially in The Children of God. In a chapter devoted to these scholars, called “Expert Witness,” Lattin provides specific details of how much of their research ignores or distorts the facts.
Lattin writes in primarily chronological order with occasional flashbacks that might be difficult for a reader to follow. For example, when a new character is introduced, Lattin revisits earlier history of the group that allows the reader to gain a more in-depth understanding of the communal environment in which Ricky was raised. Lattin briefly recounts the histories of some of the other young adults he interviews—most have horrific stories of abuse.
The author acknowledges that not all children born and raised in The Family had childhood experiences as damaging as did Ricky, who lived in the house of the leader, David Berg. For example, near the end of the book, after having recounted story after story of unimaginable abuse, Lattin informs the reader that all members and former members “lived in the shadow of David Berg”; but of the 13,000 new members who were born into this group between 1971 and 2001, “when they were born and where they were raised determine the darkness of that shadow” (p. 207).
Despite remarking that some children fared better than others, Lattin states a few pages later that he could not find one former member from the second generation who "rose above it all and found justice and redemption” (p. 210). Such statements offer apologists fodder for their arguments.I first edited this sentence, but then realized that it probably should be deleted, for its point is opaque. I think you’re trying to say that the lack of successful cases of justice sought provides fodder. However, this point seems to be a digression from the main point of the paragraph. I would delete the sentence. Without much effort, members of the second generation can be found who were able to live well-adjusted lives after leaving the cult and who may not think they needed to pursue justice and redemption. Although Ricky and most of the second-generation ex-members interviewed in this book were indeed seriously abused by adult members, deserted by their own parents, and suffered lasting effects, it is possible to find second-generation members who left the group and who were able to live relatively well-adjusted, happy, and fulfilled lives. I mention this one criticism of this excellent and well-researched book to preempt further criticism by other scholars who might dismiss this work as an “atrocity tale.” Lattin does focus on some of the worst cases, but in his defense, the topic of the book is about the worst case of cult abuse in at least the past decade.
I recognize that in academic writing both sides of the cult debate tend to focus on accounts that favor their own perspectives. Apologists will use Lattin’s book to show how the news media presents only the sensational stories. The so-called anti-cultists (where I am categorized) will promote the book to show how the group commits atrocities that must be acknowledged and analyzed in the literature. I will return to this point later. First I provide an overview of the main themes of the book.
Lattin writes a detailed history of the group and Ricky’s heritage. Long before Ricky is conceived, his mother, Karen Zerby, joins the newly formed group and soon becomes a personal secretary and mistress of its leader, David Berg. Berg is known in the group as Moses David or “Mo,” and Zerby was called Maria for many years, although she later became known as “the Queen,” and members were encouraged to call her “Mamma.” Although Zerby was officially the mother to all members and authorized the sexualized childhood instructional material of the group, Lattin provides enough evidence to show that she lacks any motherly traits common to most cultures, such as compassion, love, and patience. Together with Berg, she has absolute power over the entire worldwide group and communicates with them through letters (printed material) sent to members only. Periodically, she and Berg order the systematic public ridicule and oftentimes physical torture of any members who question their authority. If such members are not repentant, they are excommunicated. Over the years, Berg’s entire biological family is excommunicated or publicly denounced and stripped of any leadership roles, leaving Zerby with absolute power over a prophet who appears to be drunk and crazed for most of his life as leader of an estimated 12,000 dedicated disciples. This is the woman who conceives Ricky in a sexual encounter with a restaurant waiter during the period of the group’s practice of “Flirty Fishing,” essentially using sex to proselytize, recruit, and fundraise for the group. Berg receives a “prophecy” that Ricky is the end-time prophet who will lead the true believers during the impending end of the world. Ricky’s childhood training is meticulously recorded and sent to members as a guidebook for Family childcare. This is the role that Ricky must fulfill as he grows up in the “King’s house,” typically located in mansions in the most beautiful places in the world.
Lattin provides a remarkable account of life in Berg’s secret homes. But he does very little to give the reader a sense of what typical Family children experienced in homes around the world. In many Family homes, parents struggled to provide food and shelter while reaching “the lost souls” with God’s word and sending ample tithes for the King’s home and service outposts. Few in The Family ever meet their leader or the members of their leader’s home in person, but all read how the leaders raised their prophet child (Ricky) and were encouraged to emulate this lifestyle. Readers should know that, in most Family homes, emulating such a lifestyle was difficult, in terms of either following or enforcing it. This disparity of voices leaves readers without the knowledge that many members of the group were too busy “serving the Lord” to follow Zerby’s directives on how to raise their children. Ricky was supplied with multiple nannies to take care of him, but most regular Family mothers had multiple babies to take care of alone, while they were servicing men in the group and flirty-fishing men outside the group for financial support. For many mothers, especially those who were separated from their husbands, the abuse of their children occurred while they were out doing the Lord’s work. Whether these mothers were cognizant of the abuse, ignored it, disbelieved it, were naively ignorant, or were otherwise negligent of any emotional, physical, or sexual abuse of their children is research that remains to be explored; but what Lattin does in this book is give a vivid account of how the abuse occurred.
Jesus Freaks chronicles Ricky’s story very well, but readers should be aware that not all of the Jesus Freaks in The Children of God are represented by Ricky’s story and the stories of the former members he came in contact with after he left the group. This acknowledgement, however, does not in any way excuse what occurred to these children. We know that children were exposed to various forms and levels of abuse in The Family, such as harsh discipline and lack of education and healthcare; however, those parents who left the cult with their children before the Combos were widely implemented usually spared their children many of the cruelties described in this book. Lattin’s book provides valid exposure of some of the worst cases of abuse, as well as evidence of some of the worst cases of unsubstantiated scholarly research on cults.
Apologist scholars claim that members of cults cannot be brainwashed, and these apologists then attempt to debunk any theory of brainwashing or mind control. Yet they themselves continue to ignore or dismiss the multiple stories of abuse and criminal atrocities committed by the very same leaders who have assisted these scholars in their research by providing what they call “open access” to Family homes. My experience in communicating with these scholars over the years since I have conducted research in this area leads me to conclude that many of them refuse to adequately address the stories of abuse. Furthermore they refuse to acknowledge that the people responsible for the abuse are the current leaders of the group. After Ricky’s story made it perfectly clear that the leaders of The Family International instigated sexual abuse with children, the apologist scholars kept a low profile. These scholars have condemned themselves with their own theories. With the access to Family homes the leaders allowed them, they might have been brainwashed by the same processes that affect members. However, if, as they claim, brainwashing is not a valid process, then these scholars have no excuse for their apologies for this cult.
Not Without My Sister and Jesus Freaks leave no doubt in my mind that the abuse committed on these children can be linked to identifiable perpetrators, including current leaders of The Family International. More accounts of abuse can be found on the Website referenced in Lattin’s book, movingon.com. As noted, some scholars have expressed doubt that all of the stories former member children have told are true; yet if only a few are true, those few are enough reason to seek justice. Sadly, the apologists’ research appears too often to stand in the way of justice. Despite these scholars’ claims that abuse was isolated and occurred in the past, the architects and executors of the abuse still can be brought to justice so that at least some of the second-generation young adults who have been unable to “move on” with their lives can find redemption. Unfortunately, journalistic works and memoirs do not appear to sway courts of law, but academic experts do. Until we can find more effective ways to counteract the “experts” and scholars of religion who refuse to acknowledge this evidence, hope for redemption and justice is as unattainable as the utopian ideal Berg proposed.