Friday, November 10, 2017

The Power of Ideology

Researchers occasionally contact me for information in their efforts to poke and prod at the bubble of the Children of God/The Family International cult to try to see what held it together and what it was like on the inside.

The other day I was asked, “Did you get paid for your work?”

What a shocking question. Back in my cult days, I certainly didn’t think of my life from the perspective of earning a living. To think of it that way now drops me into the void of loss and regret. I probably could have earned a respectable living and set aside funds for both my retirement and my children's education had I not given thirty years of the prime of my life to the Children of God.

But alas, it was not to be.

My cult days were filled with service. Each morning, I would get out of my bed—or off of my sheet on the floor—put on a smile, and greet my fellow commune members, then sit down to a breakfast of barely yellow eggs, rice, and water. After devotions, which consisted of reading usually the newest Mo Letter from our founder, David Berg, we got ready to spend the day proselytizing.

From morning till night, we would knock on doors, sell cult-produced publications or products, then come home for dinner. After dishes there was more reading, perhaps some united singing, childcare, and bed. The next day, it all began again.

As the years passed, my work changed to caring for other people's children. But still, the ideology was the same. As part of the “body of Christ,” I was facilitating our missionary cause by schooling and looking after children, which was one of the many ministries that in sum furthered The Family's universal goal of bringing God's Kingdom on earth.

How could I have cheerfully gotten up each morning and faced not an iota of personal freedom? To diligently work, even to the point of nervous breakdown, for no money whatsoever? It was the adhesive of the Mo Letters that held the group together and kept us going.

Each day, we spent hours studying Family publications or our Bibles, which we read through the lens of the Mo Letters and Berg's interpretation. Our conviction drove us. Our united cause drove us. We were part of a worldwide group with an exclusive calling, God's Endtime army. We were to be willing to do anything for Jesus, sleep with strangers to “show them God's love,” beg on the streets, care for other people's children 24/7, whatever it took, to promote the cause.

The intensity and strength of a clear belief system should never be underestimated. It can lead to people becoming “new creatures,” completely different from their former selves, with a new set of values, priorities, and goals. Ideology can overcome familial ties, motherly protective instincts, and it can create slaves out of otherwise rational people.

But what is the appeal? What draws people to cults and other controlling groups? The lure of a strong code of belief and a common cause worthy of fighting for, giving a noble purpose and direction to one's life. What keeps them? Camaraderie and a united goal, a sense of purpose, belonging and being part of something of epic proportions. On top of this, there is the myriad of human tendencies: the false valuation of life in the group, the confirmation bias, social norming, loss aversion, sunk cost, and maybe even inertia. One's sense of what is normal becomes completely skewed.

What of conflicting evidence? What if a true believer is shown proof that his faith is unfounded? It is the nature of man when confronted with evidence that contradicts his firmly held beliefs to cling defensively to those beliefs. Faith becomes enmeshed with our personal image. Our beliefs become a part of us and who we are. It would be like tearing out a part of ourselves to give them up.

The only way to “rescue” someone from a firmly held belief is to separate them from the constant input and influence of dogma. To dilute the poison of propaganda by distance and by providing a wide variety of information, some of which will contradict and show other sides to what they have been holding dear. But this must be handled gently, with compassion and understanding, because this is a matter of the will and the psyche, of the very essence of who one is.

Trust must be won. There must be a gradual rebuilding of mental pathways and a growing over of the old habitual ones learned in the cult. This requires time, patience, and the nurturing of a desire to learn.

Sunday, October 22, 2017


After leaving the cult and the initial jolt of horror looking back at the wasted years, as the mist finally started to clear from my mind, I was flooded with paralyzing guilt. Unshakable guilt. Part of this could be due to my Catholic upbringing, but wherever it came from, it was nurtured and grew to overwhelming degrees in the cult. 

I felt I could never apologize enough to my children. Yet even their kindness, understanding, and forgiveness did not make a dent in my self-condemnation.

Each day was filled with self-recriminations. How could I have? I've ruined my life and my kids' lives! It's all my fault! I hate myself!

In spite of my niggling self-talk, I studied and listened to audio courses and did what needed to be done each day. I had a lot of kids and responsibilities, so much of the day I was too busy to think. Finally, some light broke through.

First of all came the dawn. This guilt only shows that I am kind-hearted. Psychopaths do not feel guilt.

With that foot in the door, knowledge and realization started to trickle in. Guilt is a waste of time. It does no one any good. It is not productive. I am paralyzed and wallowing. 

Then came the hunger to learn and the resultant study to find out why I had joined and stayed. I worked to build new pathways for my brain. I had to make a conscious effort to not walk down the well-worn path of self-loathing and recrimination, to deliberately work to change the self-flagellation after any perceived mistake into the more productive, I can learn from this and do better next time. And I had to forbid myself from saying, I hate myself.

That may sound childish and silly, but through all those years in the cult I believe I remained a child in many significant ways. Just like an alcoholic tuning to the bottle in times of discomfort or confrontation, I turned to the magic of prayer. No facing down problems, no dealing with issues, just "give it all to Jesus" and keep on. There can be little maturity in such an approach.

Finally, I faced the obvious fact that I will need to live with myself for the rest of my life, so it behooves me to get along with myself. To be kind. To treat myself as I would a friend.

As the Dalai Lama has said, self-compassion is closely connected to self-acceptance. More than acceptance, it is actually having compassion for our human frailties and recognizing we are vulnerable and limited like all people. Understanding and accepting ourselves is fundamental in having compassion for others.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Luck or Merit? More thoughts on the Just World

Human nature is a funny thing.

"My son is attending his dream school," said the mother.

"What a lucky boy!" I said a little too soon.

"He worked very hard and is passionate about his art," she coolly replied.

Of course he worked hard. But not everyone that works hard gets into their dream school. Good things don't necessarily come to people who work hard. Nevertheless, working hard is important.

Taken in reverse, would that mean that kids who do not attend their dream schools just didn't work hard enough? 

This woman's son is the only child of wealthy parents whose grandparents are footing the bill for his university education. This, imho, makes him lucky. What of the son who is accepted to his dream school, but whose parents, for whatever reason, cannot afford the tuition? Did he just not work hard enough?

There are many reasons that kids have to settle for second or third best, or whatever they can manage. Granted, ex-cult members like myself are outliers, who often have many children, minimal higher education, and are playing catch-up financially after making no provisions for their old age nor their children's education. We obediently, "took no thought for the morrow," and "considered the lilies of the field."* 

Highest praise should go to the less-fortunate who struggle to overcome poverty, hardship, and lack of education, like so many second-generation cult members are doing. Let us never fall into the thinking that the world is just and life is fairBad things happen to "good" people, and good things happen to "bad" people.

And plenty of good things happen to rich people.


*Matthew 6:28-34, "Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: And yet I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. 
"Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which to day is, and to morrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith? 
"Therefore take no thought, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed? (For after all these things do the Gentiles seek:) for your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things. 
"But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you."
"Therefore take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof."

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Wise Words

"It is not materialism that is the chief curse of the world, as pastors teach, but idealism. Men get into trouble by taking their visions and hallucinations too seriously."

H.L. Mencken

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Wasted Years, Really?

"Do you really think your years in the cult were wasted?" a friend asked.

My knee-jerk reaction is to say, "Yes! Of course they were." But on reflection, I find I need to qualify that.

From my years in the cult came:

  • The children born to me. I surely would not have had so many children had I not been in TFI. 
  • An appreciation for the little things in life. Having gone without such things as fresh food, clothes that fit, daily vigorous exercise, I am now deeply thankful for them.
  • The ability to live on a shoestring and to feel real empathy for those who live in poverty.
  • An appreciation for freedom, most of all, freedom of the mind - to read, study, learn, or waste time, as I choose. 
  • The ability to speak with confidence in front of a crowd. It is possible I could have learned this elsewhere and with more proficiency, but I learned it through experience in the cult.
  • Similarly, I learned how to teach children and developed the ability to make learning fun.
  • Again, I could have learned this without having joined a cult, but as a result of my years living abroad, I now have a sensitivity and understanding of culture and cultural differences. I have learned, as the Japanese say, "to read the air."
So, although I would have preferred to have made wiser decisions in my youth, I guess I must conclude that not "everything" was a complete waste.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Post-cult Experiences

Here are a few things I never knew until leaving the cult:

  • There is such a thing as face soap and using it is better than using whatever bar soap is laying around.
  • Face moisturizer is a thing. I should use it. 
  • People actually put sunscreen on their faces everyday, and I should, too.
  • Hair conditioner and/or treatment, when used, will make my hair look like hair, rather than Einstein's frizzy fro.
  • It's possible to buy clothes that fit and flatter. I no longer need to wear donated, cast-off, or men's clothing and shoes.
  • Makeup has expiration dates.

Things I can now do without feeling guilty:

  • Read books
  • Surf the internet
  • Watch TV
  • Not feel I must be busy every single second of the day
  • Buy good quality food
  • Drink a glass of wine with dinner
  • Get my hair cut by a professional
  • Not pray

Things that other people do, but I have not been able to do yet. Either such things are not options for me, or I am not courageous enough:

  • Spa day (I hear that's a thing.)
  • Get a massage 
  • Shop for fun and buy stuff for myself
  • Eat at a restaurant or coffeeshop by myself
  • Go to a movie by myself
  • Hang out with friends
  • Go to a bar or other drinking venue
  • Girls' night out
  • Go on vacation by myself or with someone for whom I am not acting as a tour guide
  • Stop worrying about money

Sunday, June 25, 2017

The Travesty of Being a "Bible Women"

Before, I surmised that abusive parents must have a disconnect with their future selves. They must be blind to the fact that the children they treat so harshly will soon be adults who remember. That seemed to me the only way to explain the abuse of vulnerable children.

What I hadn't considered was the quieter damage done by mothers in their striving to be "Bible women." That sickeningly self-abasing behavior implanted destructive mores in the psyches of the girls in the cult, and also likely taught the boys a Scriptural type of misogyny. Good "Bible women" were supposed to "submit to their husbands, as unto the Lord." Females were taught that it was their God-given duty never to refuse a man.

Girls were not taught a thing about boundaries. They never heard that it is OK to say "no," nor that their body was theirs. They learned these wrong ideas from the Mo Letters and, sadly, from observing their own weak, beaten-down, often exhausted, mothers.

Women, like myself, felt unworthy, "deserving of nothing but hell," as Berg wrote. "The only thing good about us is Jesus." There was no room for self-confidence, self-respect, strength, or growth. Submission was the rule. No need to question or try to get out of a bad situation. Just endure. We deserved nothing better.

Step out of that cult, and besides the myriad of other shocks and changes, we were faced with the challenge of overcoming that behavior. But first we had to notice it. It was part of our thinking, our unquestionable "normal" - the water we "fish" swam in - and thus, pretty hard to see. People continued to walk all over us. It took hard experience for us to, hopefully, learn that our concept of normalcy needs serious alteration and that it was all right, even necessary, to stand up for ourselves.

Monday, June 12, 2017

The Experience Machine*

Imagine you are given the opportunity to plug into a virtual reality machine that would be preprogrammed with all your dreams, creating for you an imaginary life where you can be and do whatever you want. If you have noble ideals, perhaps your world would be programmed so that you, through trial and error, much work and research, discover the cure for cancer. Maybe you would write the greatest novel ever written. Maybe you would go full-hedonism and just lay around on a beach, drinking pina coladas. That would be your entire reality.

You would have no idea that your body was really floating in a vat of liquid with electrodes attached to your brain. Your reality was what you were experiencing in your brain.

Would you do it?

Or what if you woke up today and found out that your life has been lived in an experience machine, and nothing is real? How would you feel?

Is there value in living an authentic life, striving to be honest with oneself? Or is a pretend life better if it means one can be "happy"?

* The Experience Machine is a thought experiment developed by American philosopher, Robert Nozick.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

The Endless Road of Loss

Lost opportunities. Lost years.

The list of missed experiences has no end: college, friends, my own apartment, lunch out with girlfriends, dinner and drinks, vacations, travel, unconditional love, dating, a wedding, freedom, books....

But it takes just one thought for all that to evaporate: our children. They had no choice. 

My loss, though painful, pales into insignificance.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Dear FGAs

I am sure, you, like me, joined the COG filled with zeal and enthusiasm. We were going to make the world a better place - to win the world for Jesus. With the best of intentions, we sacrificed, gave up everything. As the years passed, and more and more "strange truths" entered our canon, our "radical prophet" led us down paths that were harmful to ourselves, and more egregiously, to our children. But we didn't notice, so twisted was our sense of normalcy.

Today, our children are grown. Tragically, some have felt they had to take their own lives. Some struggle, not fitting in anywhere. Some have gained a measure of success. Some have been very successful.

If your children have succeeded, perhaps you're tempted to pat yourself on the back, "it's because of the way they were raised, the opportunities the 'faith life' afforded them." Maybe others realize, like myself, that if they succeeded, it was in spite of how they were raised, not because of it.

Maybe you don't want to look back at your life. "It's in the past," you think. "We should 'forget those things which are behind.'"

But, could that just be an excuse for denial? An unwillingness to face the horrible truth? A resistance to dealing with the cognitive dissonance of the truth clashing with your image of yourself as a "good person"?

How much have our decisions affected the lives of our children? Do they still suffer? How have they adjusted to the real world, after being raised in an environment where their "normal" was anything but normal? Imagine the gut-wrenching feelings of abandonment, of being used, of missing out on a normal childhood. They see their peers, and they can't help but compare their upbringing. Do they wonder how their parents - the ones they loved and admired - their first role models - could have raised them so? What can they say when someone asks them innocent questions like, "Where are you from?" or "Where did you go to school?"

Have you talked with your children about their childhoods? Have you asked them how they feel? Have you sincerely apologized to them for the abuse they suffered, whether it be physical, sexual, or psychological? Or for the neglect - educational, medical, financial or otherwise?

Or do you feel you are not to blame, because your "heart was in the right place"? "God looketh on the heart." And besides, it's all in the past? Or perhaps you and your children have put your personal histories away in a box, compartmentalized, and agreed to never open that box, never speak of it.

It's hard to face, terribly hard on the ego to admit we were part of a harmful organization. We were duped. We were exploited, as were our children. The Family was not the best place in the world to raise children. We failed our children by not protecting them. And by continued association with the group, we were complicit in the abuse others suffered.

To realize that the cause we sacrificed for, that we gave years of our lives to, was nonsense that resulted in harm to the ones we love most in the world is shattering. Horrifying. Paralyzing. It shakes us down deep in our hearts. We can lose all equilibrium.

But it must be done. It must be done for our own sake. To face reality. To learn. To grow. To mature.

And more than even for our own benefit, it must be done for our children's sake. They need parents who love them, who support them, who they know will have their back. Who are going to be honest with them. Who they can trust.

Children naturally love their parents. Imagine the difficulties they must face when talking to their parents who still cling to their own righteousness and to the righteousness of The Family.

Our children need parents who are mature, who face their mistakes, apologize, learn from them, and grow. Let's be those parents.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

When "Normal" isn't Normal

It's not just in the isolated life of a cultist where a false sense of normal can be dangerous.

Let's take a look at an incident from the history of medicine. From the Resurrectionists of the 18th century (aka, body snatchers) and the innovative William Burke, to the ongoing illicit cadaver trade of today, the corpses of the poor have been the mainstay used in autopsies for medical training.

(William Burk was a Resurrectionist whose chosen work entailed digging up graves and exhuming corpses to be sold for study, but he tired of that backbreaking work. He and his accomplice, William Hare, found an easier method. They would ply their victims with whisky, suffocate them in their sleep at Hare's lodging house, then deliver the bodies, some still warm, to a generous doctor.)

Nearly exclusive use of poor people's cadavers for medical studies can be problematic. The poor suffer from malnutrition and chronic stress, and these stresses have an effect on the body, namely atrophy (shrinkage) of some organs and hypertrophy (enlargement) of others. Of particular importance to this story is the fact that the thymus can shrink to one-fourth its normal size due to stress. Assuming that these stress-ravaged bodies represented what was normal was a very bad idea.

In the early 1900's, doctors were searching for the cause of SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome), which generally occurred in middle and upper-class families. Why had these healthy babies died in the night? To find out, doctors autopsied babies who had died of SIDS. Lo and behold, they found that these babies had abnormally large thymus glands. Had they found the cause of SIDS? Had the enlarged thymus compressed the trachea in the night, suffocating the babies while they slept?

Preventative measures were needed to thwart this supposed killer disease of enlarged thymuses. In the 1920's a method was found to shrink the dangerously large gland - radiation. Babies were treated with radiation which did indeed shrink their thymuses, with the unintended consequence of irradiating the thyroid gland next door, causing thyroid cancer resulting in over 10,000 deaths.

Help finally came from the bodies of babies who died in car crashes. A doctor autopsying those poor little victims in the 1930's discovered that they also had "enlarged" thymuses. Was the disease more widespread than they realized? Or were doctors seeing the picture backwards? Were the so-called "enlarged" thymus glands actually normal size, and the smaller ones abnormal?

Yes, that was the case. Sadly, much damage had already been done.

What can we take away from this? Perhaps it is that we should be very careful in deciding what "normal" is, because once we do, the confirmation bias keeps those fires stoked, and disconfirming evidence rolls off like water off a duck's back. None of us are immune to developing a false sense of "normal."

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

SS Training

There are some disturbing parallels to life in the COG/TFI to be found in certain political movements and philosophies (and possibly true for other cults that I do not have firsthand experience with).

Karl Wolff, Schutzstaffel General, said of SS soldiers in the documentary series, The World at War, "They were subtly conditioned to see themselves as the sons of light, that they were engaged in a struggle against the powers of darkness. And that it was their duty to feel that they were at all times on duty for the nation, and in a wider sense, for the new order in Europe."

No subtle conditioning for us. It was direct. Berg wrote, "You are the children of God, the children of Light,"* and he told us that we were engaged in a war against the powers of darkness. We were serving God, and preparing to rule the world in the Millennium, when God's children would "run the world."

Hermann Göring wrote, "The people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country" - or cult.

I've written about the "them and us" mindset in the COG, and the stifling of dissent. We were under constant threat of outside attack from "persecutors" and were to always be vigilant and on guard. Paranoid, in other words. (See Lies and Sexual Coercion)

And, to top it off, in spite of all the talk of “love” in the group, true touches of human kindness were very rare. People were too “busy with the Lord's work” to bother with such frivolities. Besides, we were the Lord's Army, and "God and His Family came first." I was even once told by a top leader that "there is no such thing as human kindness."

* "Lovelight," David Berg —Sequel to "Look of Love"— June 24, 1974 NO.307

Sunday, February 12, 2017

“The Family is the best place in the world to raise children.”

Every TFI member heard this line repeated ad nauseam, and it's a line that I find most egregious.

Who was the poster-child for Family children? Zerby's “Jesus baby” and Berg's stepson, Davidito. He was groomed from childhood for his job as one of the “End-time Witnesses” of Revelations, to work leading God's children alongside his mother. His care was set up as the example for all Family members to emulate with their own children. He was raised with strict discipline, his life documented for all, and with plentiful sexual contact by adults - because that was "normal" and "natural."

In the intervening years, his name and viewpoint changed. Now known as Ricky Rodriquez, he and his fiancee left the group in January 2001, and he explained his reasons to his mother in an email. “We cannot continue to condone or be party to what we feel is an abusive, manipulative organization that teaches false doctrine... You have devoured God's sheep, ruining people's lives by propagating false doctrines and advocating harmful practices in the name of God, and as far as I can see, show no regret or remorse.”

He could not easily get over his past. His rage against his mother and The Family grew along with the dawning realization of how much he had been exploited and abused. He fell into depression.

He stated, "There's this need that I have. It's not a want. It's a need for revenge. It's a need for justice, because I can't go on like this."

His attempts to find his mother ended in frustration. She was keeping her location secret from him. He had heard she was hiding in the Tucson area. He met with one of his former nannies and a close associate of his mother, Angela Smith, intending to force her to reveal his mother's location.

When he told her of his feelings, he was appalled at her utter lack of remorse and her sincere beliefs that she had done no wrong. He stabbed her to death.

Although like everyone else, I cannot endorse his actions. Yet, I can certainly imagine his frustration.

He called his wife and asked her to call the police because he had done something very wrong. He had killed his former nanny. Then he drove into the desert and put a bullet in his head.

His wife said of his phone call, "He said the hardest thing for him had been that as she was dying, she didn't understand what she had done wrong."

Denial to the end.

Monday, January 30, 2017

"Just get over it" - Words are Cheap

During my brief time in the US, a new friend, who had left the COG about twenty years prior and had since grown into the most wonderful Christian I had ever met, convinced me to try prayer with her prayer group. 

I sat in a chair in the center of the room. People gathered around and laid hands on me. I'd been through this before. Many times. This was commonplace in the cult. Praying the devil out of me for various sins and my failings and weaknesses. This time was supposed to be different.

I was told to "forgive myself." "Breathe out and let go of all of that."

It was just not so simple.

It is not easy to pull out the tendrils that had grown within me for thirty long years. I couldn't "just get over it" and move on. The effect was too much a part of me. I needed time. And what I didn't know then, I needed knowledge and understanding.

I could have compartmentalized, fallen into blind denial, claiming, "it was all in the past," and "Jesus looks at my heart." But I couldn't. I knew it was a cop-out.

I looked to self-help books, but the advice I got to "love myself" went nowhere. "Stand in front of the mirror, look yourself in the eye, and say, 'I love you.'" Uh. No. It seemed a stupid, childish bandaid - and impossible. I had messed up my life and my kids' lives. That's a lot of guilt with not much room for "self-love."

Aware that I couldn't stay in this cloudy limbo for the rest of my life, I started to study - mainly audio courses when I drove, did housework, or walked, and those became my salvation - really.

The realization of how I had been used and exploited began to dawn. There was a lot of anger that I needed to get out, and I had no one to tell. I wrote it down in a notebook.

As time went on, I gradually was able to understand, and through understanding begin to lay aside the crap that I carried from those years. I finally started to grow and mature - which maturity had been stunted in the cult.

Only through understanding could I begin to find freedom from my past.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Life is Not Fair

Another insidious COG doctrine: "Life is fair."

Karma - in the oft-tossed-around contemporary sense - is not unlike the Biblical doctrine of "you reap what you sow." It seems to come from the idea that the universe (or God) holds the scales of justice in his almighty arms and pours out retribution according to the wrongs one has done. Or conversely, he pours blessings, health, and prosperity upon the righteous.

What if this were true?

Let's say you are rich. Born into a rich family, or perhaps you "pulled yourself up by your own bootstraps" and are now successful. If you embrace the idea of reaping what you sowed, then you can pat yourself on the back for being so good to have reaped such fortune. You "deserved it," after all.

But what if you are in a difficult situation? Some unexpected tragedy occurred. Your life took a turn and you feel at wit's end. Did you reap what you sowed? Did you deserve it? If you believe in this concept of a just world, that what goes around comes around, then you have no one to blame but yourself. Your misdeeds somehow brought this evil upon your house. Woe is you. (And for a cult member, this meant prayer sessions and introspection to discover what lesson "the Lord was trying to teach you.")

But the truth is, shit happens. Bad things happen to good people. Good things happen to bad people. A large part of life is simply determined by random and uncontrollable events.

If people in a good situation believe they have gotten there by their own "goodness," wouldn't they tend towards a smug condescension of those who are having hard times? "They got what was coming to them."

Might these fortunate folks even turn their backs on friends who struggle, because they want to "get rid of the negatives" in their lives? "I don't need that kind of negative energy." Sounds scriptural, "Keep yourselves unspotted from the world." 

"Holier than thou," more like.

Since we cannot walk a mile in another's shoes, and we do not have control of the random events of life, the only rational way to treat others is with kindness. 

"Always be a little kinder than necessary." (James M. Barrie)