Juliana Buhring: ‘How I escaped my childhood in a cult

The Times, Australia/May 30, 2016

By Lucy Cavendish

Juliana Buhring is sitting drinking coffee in a central London hotel. She seems relaxed but, Buhring tells me, she is feeling twitchy. “I just want to be on the move, really. I feel uncomfortable staying anywhere too long.” Her restlessness is understandable. Buhring, 34, is a top endurance cyclist and spends her life racing across continents - in 2012 she set a record as the fastest woman to ride around the globe, which she writes about in her new book, This Road I Ride. Her obsession with cycling began only five years ago, and yet she has been on the move for most of her life.

Until the age of 23 Buhring grew up in the notorious cult the Children of God (later known as The Family). It was founded in 1968 in California by David Berg, who under a variety of messianic and paternal pseudonyms - including Moses David and Dear Grandpa - prophesied imminent apocalypse and preached a perverted interpretation of Christianity in which children were sexualised from an early age and ordered to practise free love, both with each other and with adults.

Part of their doctrine was called “one wife”, explains Buhring, who spent her childhood behind high walls in communes whose members shared everything, including their bodies. “It said everyone was married to each other in Christ, as one big family.”

She was separated from her mother at the age of three. “I remember the day vividly. My mother was crying. She waved and blew me a kiss. I was never told they were leaving me. They just never came back.” Berg believed the children of his followers could be made a pure generation. “We were shipped off to military-style training camps, to break our spirits. That could involve having to wear masking tape across the mouth for a month, or being kept in isolation and fed only soup. They would get you to dig ditches and fill them up again. And of course, very hard beatings.”

The abuse was relentless. “The beating room was a bathroom that had been soundproofed so that nobody could hear you scream. Or they would strip you naked and beat you in front of everyone,” says Buhring.

Even such punishment couldn’t quell Buhring’s rebelliousness. “I always questioned the stupid rules. As a teenager I’d pretend I was going out to beg for money, but I’d be meeting friends and getting drunk.” Her inability to be “controlled”, as she puts it, meant she was shipped around the world from one commune to another.

“No one questioned what was happening,” she says. “A ‘guardian’ would take me to a new country. I had a passport. They saw a white child with a white adult and we were just waved through immigration.”

She was surrounded by what she calls “brainwashed” adults. “Some were psychopaths and it is kids like me who bore the brunt of it all. When I finally left, there was no paper trail to actually show I ever existed.”

Leaving Uganda - where she had ended up with the cult - she went to the UK, where two of her half-sisters, Kristina and Celeste, had already started new lives. “I went to get a bank account and I had no national insurance number or anything. Just a passport. People find it hard to believe. It was as if I’d been living in a fantasy world, but it was a horrible fantasy.”

The three sisters later wrote a bestselling book about their lives, Not Without My Sister. They describe the terror, as children, of being expected to lie down next to a grown man, and of how children were made to lie on top of each other, rub themselves up and down and make groaning noises. “I still find it hard to describe, and yet I have been processing what happened for the past decade. I don’t want a stigma to be attached to me. All of us who grew up in cults feel as if we are wearing a mouldy coat we can’t take off, but we can. Many people consider us to be damaged goods, but we are not. Lots of people don’t reveal their past living in a cult. I do because I say, ‘Those who mind don’t matter. Those who don’t mind matter.’ ” She gives me a rather challenging look.

Buhring struggled to adapt to life outside the cult. She didn’t know how to make lasting relationships. “I felt a profound sense of not belonging,” she says. “Everything felt so mundane.”

All that changed after she moved to Naples to work as an English language teacher. One day, a friendly name popped up on her Facebook page - Hendri Coetzee, a South African explorer with whom she had a brief fling before leaving Uganda.

“I loved his attitude to life,” she says. They had spent nights discussing his desire to explore the Congo in a kayak. “He felt every day should be exciting. ‘What good is life if you don’t live it?’ That was his motto.”

As they communicated remotely, they realised that they wanted to spend their lives together. Buhring booked a ticket to meet Coetzee in Uganda. “He was doing a trip with two Americans,” she says, “taking them down a new bit of the Congo.” He told her he’d see her on his return. A week before she was about to fly, she logged on to Facebook to find it was full of tributes to him. “He’d been killed by a crocodile. I couldn’t believe it. He was always terrified of crocodiles. They were the only thing on earth that scared him.”

A month later Buhring went to say her goodbyes. “I sat by the river with all Hendri’s friends and I missed him terribly. I thought I could survive anything. There were times in my life when I thought no one cared about me, that I meant nothing, no one looked after me or protected me and I thought it couldn’t get any worse. But then it did. All I wanted to do when Hendri died was to jump into the river after him.” She looks suddenly tearful. “It was a terrible time. I wanted to die.”

Given these desperate feelings, why didn’t she follow him? “These two dragonflies suddenly settled on my arm and it was as if Hendri was giving me a hug. I knew that he wouldn’t just give up. He believed we should live life to the full. Every day should count.”

Some months later, the idea came to her to cycle round the world. “I had barely cycled and I was turning 30. Everyone thought I was mad but I knew it was the right thing to do. I wasn’t that fit. I drank like a fish, but I was in grief and I couldn’t think of any other way to get rid of it than to try and outrun it.”

So in 2011, with only a bike, little money, no real route or even the right footwear, Buhring set off to cycle 18,000 miles. It took 152 days, during which she was chased by dogs, attacked by magpies and nearly buzzed off the road by huge trucks, while living off the kindness of strangers. It was an act of sheer madness, she admits, “but I had nothing to live for, so it didn’t bother me that I might die.

“Hendri was with me the whole way, but my emotional journey did progress from feeling raw and unhinged to seeing that life is great and humanity is wonderful. I got my faith back little by little.”

Still, Buhring says, she finds it hard to feel she belongs anywhere. “I am never sure where home is.” So she has filled her life by competing in challenging races, the next of which will be the Race Across America.

I ask her whether or not to partake in such gruelling events is a way of escaping the past. Is she a sort of cycling Forrest Gump, needing to keep pushing herself to prove that she, Juliana Buhring, actually exists?

“There is some truth in that. It’s a way of escaping everything. It is the one place where I am in the moment and everything is still. There are no worries, no concerns. I can’t even feel the physical pain. I am amazed how my brain can override my body. My brain is the computer and it tells my body to keep on going, so on I go!”

I ask her if she sees her parents at all, both of whom were in the cult. Maybe she might find a sense of belonging with family members?

“This is very difficult,” says Buhring. “The cult has now been disbanded, partially after our book came out and exposed what was going on. My mother has come full circle and she is now so sorry about everything.”

Buhring says she has spent a long time puzzling over why her parents didn’t seem able to do anything to help her. “My mother was just almost reprogrammed,” she says. “They told her I was fine and she believed them. They sent her letters from me that were fake. They told her I was with my father when I wasn’t. They love-bomb you, then destroy you, then build you back up, until you cease to have any control or belief in your own thoughts. This is what happened to my mother. She knows that now and we are rebuilding our relationship.”

It’s a different story with her father. He lives in the Far East with his present wife and some of Juliana’s other half-siblings. “I’d rather have nothing to do with him, but I care about my siblings, so I have to keep in touch.” She is scathing about her father. “He reneged on every role a father should do. He didn’t protect me or care about me. He just left me, and I don’t care if he was brainwashed. It is over now and the cult has been exposed, yet he refuses to believe any of it, any of the stories I have told him. He would not read the book. He thinks I am evil, possessed by devils, that sort of thing.”

Part of her motivation to cycle is that she is raising money for Safe Passage, a charity that helps escapees from cults to adjust to the world outside. “Lots of ex-cult kids find it hard to adjust and this charity helps them ease back in to the outside world,” Buhring says.

So now she needs to go back to Italy to train for her next race - and to see her boyfriend, Vito.

“Yes,” she says, blushing. “I have met someone. It was unexpected and it was right and deep and everything to me.” Is he, I ask, a cyclist?

“Oh yes!” she says, rolling her eyes. “How could he not be?"- This Road I Ride by Juliana Buhring is published by Piaktus.

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