A True Story of Murder and Madness on the Evangelical Edge
By Don Lattin
HARPERONE; 236 PAGES; $24.95
You couldn’t beat it for tabloid fodder: Anointed prophet of a secretive evangelical mission-cum-sex cult slits the throat of an ex-nanny, and then kills himself, in protest against the cult leaders, his parents, for years of sex abuse he says he and many other children suffered. And he made a video first.
“My question is, you know, what about these [expletive] perverts? You know – aren’t they the real terrorists?” suggested Richard Peter Rodriguez, 29, methodically loading bullets into the clip of his Glock 23 on a table crowded with other weaponry.
“Terrorizing little kids. Driving them to suicide. Isn’t that like murdering them, basically? You [expletive] with their minds so much that they can’t go on. They really can’t go on.”
Don Lattin, the former religion reporter for The Chronicle and one of the nation’s foremost writers on alternative religion, had already written about this ’60s cult, Children of God, in his Chronicle series “Children of a Lesser God,” and his book about child survivors of cults, “Following Our Bliss.”
But the January 2005 murder-suicide drew him back into the story.
This absorbing, disturbing book is the result. “Jesus Freaks” is an impressive feat of investigative history, bringing to light the warped worldview and abusive sexual and disciplinary practices of a deluded secret society – though Lattin perhaps finds greater meaning in the tale than most readers will. He wants us to see more than the story of another messianic wacko who led a band of impressionable followers to pain and harm. Lattin argues, rather, that these events were “deeply rooted in the Christian tradition.”
The author pointedly mentions the Catholic Church’s priest pedophilia scandals. And he works in a terror link, drawing a dotted line from the cult’s apocalyptic Endtime philosophy to the possible psychological state of the 9/11 hijackers and other terrorists.
“Who can argue against the need to better understand psychologically unbalanced zealots who twist scripture, exploit social unrest and inspire an army of fanatics,” he asks. Rodriguez’s goodbye video even echoes the farewell videos Palestinian suicide bombers make for their families.
But those are heavy theoretical demands to make upon a story that, to a nonspecialist at least, comes across as a familiar tale of a preacher who used his talents of persuasion to draw a coterie of impressionable followers into his alternative reality. His bizarre practices seem to have no more complex justification than that he’s dreamed them up. Behavior then wanders wildly off the grid.
Cult leader David Brandt Berg grew up in the 1920s and 1930s at the apron strings of his mother, the famous Pentecostal preacher Virginia Lee Brandt. He didn’t go to college or to war like other young men his age (he secured conscientious objector status). He was “different.” In a 1964 family photo, Berg, his first wife and three children seem the embodiment of square, the males in dark string ties and clipped hair. But Dad soon grows a long beard and starts his sect in San Francisco around the flower power movement of the late ’60s. It seemed like just another harmless group of free-love-preaching Jesus freaks. “In the end,” Lattin writes, “it wasn’t a great leap from the Age of Aquarius to the Second Coming of Christ.”
Berg soon invents “flirty fishing,” a weirdly erotic twist on Pentecostal witnessing: Female cult members are sent out to pick up men and sleep with them, an act of both recruitment and fundraising. Cult members also freely had sex with one another. But by far the most disturbing practice is the treatment of the children born of all these casual unions: They are sexually abused and subjected to incest from a very young age, under Berg’s bogus theory that God created human beings to enjoy love and sex, so it was his responsibility to introduce them to it early. The simpler truth, some interviewees say, is that Berg was obsessed with sex.
He arranged for girls as young as 5 to make suggestive videos for his enjoyment, and had them watch adults having sex. He also encouraged child sexual molestation by parents, siblings and babysitters. Girls of 12 and up were subject to Berg’s “sharing schedule,” a sexual rotation in which he arranged to sleep with whomever he chose.
A hermetic, on-the-run existence kept these practices alive for years, mostly abroad. Various branches of the group, a.k.a. the Family, camped out in the Spanish islands, in a borrowed Italian villa or in what sounded like fairly comfy digs in France, Australia, Argentina, the Philippines and Ukraine, pulling up stakes whenever authorities snooped. The Family at one point claimed 8,000 members, including ex-Fleetwood Mac guitarist Jeremy Spencer and the parents of actor River Phoenix.
Although children soon began to exhibit signs of extreme distress – Berg’s eldest son committed suicide at 19, and others ran away and denounced the group as they matured – Berg and his second wife by polygamous marriage, Karen Zerby, refused to acknowledge any problems. Berg died in 1994. But one of their sons – Richard Rodriguez, dubbed the Prophet – would reopen this history.
Born on the Spanish island of Tenerife to Zerby and a local waiter who was the cult’s first flirty fishing experiment, the boy was given the alias Davidito and educated to lead the group in the coming Endtime. He starred in a private Family child care manual, The Story of Davidito, which included pictures and descriptions of adults sexually fondling him.
A shy boy, he grew resentful of the role his father decreed for him, particularly after he was matched with daily sex partners, a regime Berg called “teen training.” Some also report that Zerby also had sex with her son.
Rodriguez left the movement as a young adult, and married another Family refugee. But, unable to shake his rage, he vowed to hunt down his mother and kill her.
Some of the book’s most poignant passages are the despairing phrases uttered by these damaged children, who often failed to find satisfactory new lives. Some fell into the sex trade. They cite, especially, an inability to function in the ordinary world. “I have no life. I can’t find the happy ending,” Davida, brought up as Davidito’s sister, tells Lattin. She has ended up as an exotic dancer.
Don Irwin, who grew up in a camp in Thailand, explained: “If you are not with your parents, who is going to help you to go to the States and go to high school? Nobody is. You are at the mercy of whatever random clown Zerby decided to make head of that location.”
Various accounts suggest that the Family renounced adult-child sexual relations and flirty fishing in 1987 because of AIDS fears. But a family Web site claims, rather preposterously, that the practice was discontinued because of “the need to spend more time in other forms of outreach.” The sun had set over Aquarius a long time ago; it was the age of Reagan.
It’s hard to know exactly what lessons to draw from this sordid saga. But perhaps it’s one more reminder of religion’s awesome power, another look at how easily it can be twisted to destructive ends.
Mary D’Ambrosio is a writer who teaches journalism at New York University.