Growing up in ― and leaving ― a cult is something from which a person never fully recovers.
My parents met in Spain shortly after they both had joined the Children of God cult in 1978. Mom said she joined because Father David, the charismatic leader of the religious doomsday cult, offered the youth of her generation a purpose in life and a way to serve God without joining a church. One day, when my mother was in Sweden and on her way to buy a ticket to Tunisia in search of some new adventure, she met a man sitting on a street corner strumming a guitar. He told her about Jesus and Father David and living with a group of other followers. The man invited her over for dinner; she joined the Children of God that night.
My dad, although also adventurous, was more known for his sense of daring achievement and insatiable curiosity. Dad, a geology student at the top of his class at the University of California, Davis, quit his studies just weeks before graduating. He followed his five older siblings in joining the Children of God, which had swept through California in the late ’70s, and moved to Spain soon after.
Father David lived in hiding and never revealed his face because he was running from the law due to some of his teachings regarding sexual freedom and child discipline. He passed on his visions and edicts to his 12,000 devotees spread out across the United States, Europe, Southeast Asia, Africa and South America.
Father David believed he needed a large army to prepare the world for the Great Apocalypse, which he claimed would come in 1993. In 1985, he ordered all of his followers to flee Western nations and head for developing countries in the East because he thought the West would be the first to burn in the fires of hell. I spent most of my childhood in Thailand, never knowing what was outside the walls of the compound I shared with my family and 30 other members of the Children of God.
By the time I was 12, I could count 24 places I had lived on three continents. In Phuket, Thailand, the gate separating our yard from the dirt road outside was boarded with wood. In the afternoon, when the sun softened its rays, the children were allowed to go outside for one hour as long as we stayed within the perimeters of the walls. When no one was looking, I would press my nose against the metal bars of the gate. I would stare through a tiny crack in the wall where I saw a slow-moving rickshaw, or a shimmering snake, or a mother carrying a child on her back while balancing a bucket on her head.
The children’s wake-up call was at 7 a.m. each day, and our room had to be immaculate by 7:30. We gathered ourselves into neat rows and stood at attention. We filed down the stairs and through the hall just like little soldiers. As we marched, I often heard sounds coming from the narrow, screen-covered windows at the top of the walls. They were the sounds of women moaning, beds creaking and men breathing heavily. We were told the adults, who we were required to call “Uncle” and “Aunty” even if they weren’t related to us, were participating in “God’s love,” and they were encouraged to do so continuously.
It seems like Father David didn’t know he was starting a cult. As a young pastor, he’d been ostracized from the Christian Missionary Alliance after he invited barefoot Native Americans into his Arizona parish and offered them salvation. Father David had wrestled with the constant conflict between his sexual desires and his commitment to follow in the footsteps of his mother, a well-known preacher who spoke to crowds of thousands across the U.S. With the Children of God, he found a way to marry the two.
When the world didn’t end in 1993 as he had predicted, Father David claimed to receive another prophecy that told him it was time to move his followers back to the West. My family of 13 relocated to Illinois and joined a home with 30 other members in the Chicago suburb of Berwyn.
The first difference I noticed about life in America was that the only protection we had from the outside world was a chain-link fence that reached to my waist. The second thing I noticed was how plentiful the food was. When we woke up on our first morning in the U.S., we found a bowl of sweet, thick-skinned oranges on the dining room table. We were allowed to eat even if it wasn’t mealtime ― even if we weren’t hungry ― something I’d never experienced before.
On the morning of Feb. 15, 1995, we gathered in the living room of our compound for the annual birthday celebration of Father David. We were told there would be a special announcement after breakfast. A light snow had begun to fall. I noticed that some of the adults had been acting a bit differently ― both pensive and somber ― over the previous few days. There was a strange sensation of electricity buzzing in the air.
Then the words I never expected to hear echoed through the living room: “Our beloved Father in the Lord has gone to be with Jesus.”
There was a moment of silence so sharp I could almost hear the fresh snow flakes settling on the sidewalk outside. The adults immediately broke into tears.
Uncle Tim, the home leader, said we’d discuss details of how the family would move forward without Father David by utilizing The Charter, a new book of rules that had been issued by Mama Maria, Father David’s wife.
According to The Charter, adults could now live wherever they chose and with whom they wished ― as long as they lived with three other consenting adults, tithed 10 percent of their income to the leadership, continued to witness to non-believers, and stayed updated with the cult by reading monthly mailings sent out by Mama Maria. Because of their newfound freedom, some of the adults opened communication with their families and relatives after years of absence.
My dad found a small, three-bedroom house with cheap rent a few blocks from where we had initially settled. Another couple, Steven and Mary, joined us in our new home. Our parents told my siblings and me that they still wanted to be part of the Children of God and that they intended to follow The Charter. “Our goals might be different now without Father David’s guidance,” Mom said, but she still seemed excited to be following his mission.
We continued to try to keep the daily routine we’d followed when we lived communally in the Children of God’s compound. There were 11 kids in our family, plus Steven and Mary’s three children, and Mom divided up the chores amongst everyone. The women in the family took care of the children while Dad, my older brother and Uncle Steven were responsible for getting the money we needed for food and utilities by selling goods at local swap meets. After spending two very difficult years in Chicago trying to make ends meet with no savings, stable jobs or traditional education to lean on, my family moved to California to live near my dad’s sister. Steven and Mary went to live with relatives in the Philippines.
Dad enrolled me, as well as my sisters Tamar and Mary Ann, in a home-schooling supplemental course called HOPES: Home Opportunity Program for Educational Success. I was 15 years old and had never attended any kind of true schooling program. It was my first step toward a future outside of the Children of God ― something I desperately wanted ― and I was thrilled. It wasn’t long before Tamar, Mary Ann and I decided we wanted to go to public school. More than that, we wanted normal lives. We weren’t exactly sure what that meant but we knew it meant starting over and leaving behind everything we’d known from the moment we were born. So, after the slow disintegration of the cult following Father David’s death, and with no real structure or guidance left in place beyond the mailings of Mama Maria, Mom and Dad decided we would leave the Children of God.
Aside from starting school, which I whole-heartedly took to almost immediately despite finding it incredibly strange due to its sheer newness, I began reading books and magazines and watching movies and TV ― things that had been forbidden while I was growing up in the Children of God. One day, I stopped at the library on my way home from school and picked up an issue of Seventeen Magazine. Flipping through it in my bedroom, I found a feature titled, “Did You Grow Up in a Cult? Take this Quiz and Find Out Now.”
After taking the quiz in what must have been record time, I came to a line that read, “If you have answered ‘yes’ to three or more of these five questions, you may have grown up in a cult.” I had answered yes to all five.
For a moment my world tumbled out of orbit. I knew my upbringing had been unorthodox ― to say the least ― but I had never realized exactly how different my experiences had been compared to those of other kids. As unbelievable as it may seem, it took a silly quiz in a magazine to make me begin to understand what I had been through and who I was because of it. I just kept repeating, “Oh my God! I grew up in a cult. OH MY GOD! I GREW UP IN A CULT!”
An avalanche of thoughts overwhelmed me as I began, for the very first time, to try to unravel the knots of my past. I had never chosen to join the Children of God ― it was a life I was born into and then forced to endure for 15 years. I was a victim and I suddenly saw my parents in a completely new light. At the same time, I knew they were also victims, both of Father David and of the mainstream world they were trying to escape by joining the Children of God. So, who could I blame? Father David was dead. My parents were struggling to make it in a world with which they had a complicated relationship. As hard as I tried, I found I just couldn’t be mad at them.
I knew there was no way to go back and change things in the past, but I was here, alive and finally free. For now, all I could do was cope with the present ― the unbearable now. I realized for me, the worst part about growing up in or joining a cult was actually leaving the cult. When the safety net that the leader carefully wove to manipulate the vulnerabilities and weaknesses of its members was ripped out ― or willingly cut ― it was a long, slow and harsh descent into reality.
As more time passed without the leadership of Father David to anchor the Children of God, more and more members left the church and went to live near their families while taking up the difficult task of attempting to adjust to life in the real world. Others sent their children out into the world while they continued to remain in the Children of God. Stories of kids who had left the cult and died by suicide shortly began to surface. I felt lucky to have the support and love of my parents and siblings ― and to not have been abused, as I knew some of the second-generation members of the cult had been. My family had its share of unique struggles because of our past, but we were together and we began to cope ― and even heal ― in our own ways.
The Children of God slowly disbanded. It still exists under the name The Family International, but it claims to be an independent group of missionaries with a few members scattered in various countries doing what is called “charity work” ― supposedly helping at orphanages, distributing food to those in need and helping with disaster relief.
Having been denied an education for most of my life, my schooling became my top priority as I continued to try to process what I had been through ― the life I had led up until that point. When I was 17, I enrolled in Mt. San Antonio College, a community college nestled in the foothills of Mt. Baldy, even though I had grown up never knowing that colleges even existed.
No one in my family ever returned of the Children of God and none of us have any kind of contact with the community. Some of my siblings went on to pursue their degrees, some are working, while others succumbed to the path of addiction like many children who grew up in the Children of God did. My father earned his masters in mathematics and became a tenured professor while my mother battled and healed from an advanced stage of cancer.
I don’t think I’ll ever be able to fully explain what it’s like to try to adjust to “normal” life after being raised in such abnormal circumstances. I know my childhood is something I can never get back, so instead of focusing on the past, I have spent every day since I left the Children of God choosing to focus on my future. Now, 20 years after finding freedom, I continue to be passionate about education and I am currently pursuing a second graduate degree to become a college professor. Eventually, I want to work with disadvantaged students in colleges and universities in hopes of helping them to find their own voices and think independently. After spending so much time as a prisoner of someone else’s way of seeing the world, I can think of nothing more important.
Flor Edwards is an author and lives in Los Angeles. Her memoir, Apocalypse Child: A Life in End Times, was published in 2018.
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