‘I would go to bed praying to be shot ...’ Life in an apocalyptic cult

The Los Angeles Times/January 31, 2019

By Ben Brazil

As a child, Flor Edwards prayed for a good death.

A quick and painless end. One that would spare her from the torments of an approaching apocalypse.

Edwards grew up in the Children of God, a cult that emerged in Huntington Beach in the 1960s. The group followed ordinations from “Father” David Berg. Like many cult leaders and false prophets, Berg’s doctrine preached an impending apocalypse — his was slated for 1993.

“I would go to bed praying to be shot if it happened,” said Edwards, now 37, of Long Beach. “I thought that would be the easiest way to go.”

Edwards plans to speak about her childhood trials from 7 to 8:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Newport Beach Public Library, 1000 Avocado Ave., where she will highlight her debut memoir, “Apocalypse Child: A Life in End Times,” detailing her unusual upbringing in an iconic cult of the hippie era.

Berg, who came from a long line of evangelists and preachers, started gathering social castaways on the Huntington Beach Pier in the 1960s. He formed the cult in earnest in 1968. He knew what those who felt unconnected thought they needed. His promises and dicta were prescribed accordingly.

“He was very charismatic in the beginning,” said Jeanette Solano, an associate professor of religious studies at Cal State Fullerton. “He knew how to communicate and motivate. He knew how to write in a simple way that could appeal to the masses and motivate them.

“Martin Luther did the same thing. He was able to write booklets and pamphlets that explained complex ideas in a simple way to gather many followers.”

Edwards’ mother and father met in 1978, shortly after joining the Children of God, where Edwards spent her first 12 years. Her childhood was atypical to say the least. Familial ties were dissolved; every member was part of “The Family.” Berg was the father.

“Everything was broken down so the parents didn’t have control over the raising of the children,” Solano said. “Parental authority was abdicated to the community.”

At its height, the Children of God boasted about 14,000 members. Celebrities Joaquin and River Phoenix and Rose McGowan were raised in the cult.

Days were strictly regimented.

“Every single minute we were being watched,” Edwards said. “We woke at 7 a.m. and had work time. Then we would get information from Father David. We did a lot of chores. We would have some exercise in the afternoon, then some time with our families before going to bed at 8 p.m.”

Congregants were on a perpetual exodus through third-world countries, living in compounds of about 50. By age 12, Edwards had lived in 24 homes in various countries, including Sweden, Mexico and Thailand.

Schooling was minimal. The only important information in the lives of the congregants came from Berg.

Berg’s doctrine centered on his apocalyptic musings, aversion to Western customs, and sexual openness. His teachings and orders were either written or given to the group through an intermediary. Members never saw him.

He was a totalitarian phantom, issuing orders behind a curtain. Photos seen by his adherents were doctored so a head of a lion stood on his shoulders — a lion shepherding sheep.

His “the Western-world-is-sick-because-of-materialism” credo differed little from many of the mid-century cults. What separated the Children of God was its sexually liberal ideology — everybody had sex with everybody.

“Sex and God were joined together,” Edwards said. “Sex was an act of God’s love.”

Edwards remembers as a child hearing moaning of adults throughout the compounds. Some former members claim they were victims of molestation and statutory rape.

Berg ordered the women to use sex to attract new members, a technique he called “flirty fishing.”

“He sent women to prostitute themselves — this was evangelism for him,” Edwards said. “It was a way for them to go out and spread God’s message.”

But the primary tenet was the promise of martyrdom. The world would end in 1993, evil would fall and congregants would be lifted to the heavens. For many, it was something to look forward to. But for children, it was tortuous.

“I would think a lot about the fact that I was going to die as a martyr at 12,” Edwards said. “I grew up my entire childhood never really thinking I would become an adult.”

Edwards became obsessed with death, thinking of the myriad ways she would die. Many of those scenarios were biblical — maybe she’d be crucified or hung.

“For many it was euphoric thinking about the afterlife,” Edwards said. “We earned that spot in heaven — we were the chosen ones. But in my mind, I couldn’t just think about the afterlife but that threshold we had to cross to get there. It plagued me as a child.”

But the biblical harbingers of doomsday didn’t appear. The year 1993 came and went. The seven trumpets didn’t sound, the four horsemen never showed and Father David Berg’s prophecy proved false. The cult began to crumble.

Edwards, along with many other members, left the cult with her family shortly after Berg died in 1994. Today the Children of God is known as the Family International, a shade of its former self.

Leaving the haunted world of a cult wasn’t a seamless transition. Edwards and her fellow expats had trouble connecting with others, always trying to keep the past hidden.

“Once I knew that I had been in a cult, my eyes were opened,” Edwards said. “In the beginning I was confused. I was embarrassed and couldn’t talk to people. My sisters and I started going to school. I realized I had to hide my path. Even now, when people say ‘Where are you from?’ I always shake my head.”

Tragedy devoured many. Suicide, addiction, financial ruin.

“One of the most tragic distinguishing characteristics of Children of God is that there are now thousands of children born into the group who were extremely isolated, minimally educated and, in some cases, sexually abused,” said Solano, who brought Edwards to speak at Cal State Fullerton in December. “The suicide rate is very high for former childhood members, and the loss of parental influence in their lives forever shapes them. Ironically, many who leave turn to drugs and are atheists or agnostics.”

Not Edwards. She attained a bachelor’s degree in print journalism from Fullerton and a master’s in creative writing from UC Riverside. She’s working on her master’s in English at Cal State Long Beach.

Writing became an important tool, helping Edwards uncoil the tangled web of her cult years. It took 12 years to write her memoir, “Apocalypse Child,” which was published last year.

While doing research, Edwards studied the anatomy of cults. While it may be a reasonable assumption that a person whose childhood was stolen by a cult would dislike cults, Edwards concluded that cults are better understood as a commentary on the ills and deficits of general society.

“I think the biggest misunderstanding is that cults are bad,” Edwards said. “The truth is a cult serves a purpose. It’s people coming together to rebel against the status quo. It means they are unhappy with something in larger society.”

Edwards’ writing has helped her come to terms with her traumatic past.

“It was extremely cathartic,” Edwards said. “It was like a weight was lifted off my shoulders. This was something I had to do.”

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