For her first 27 years, Jemima Farris knew life only as it existed for her within the Children of God religious cult.
Her mother, living in the early 1970’s with a group of devotees in Seattle, Washington, had joined before Jemima was born. “I believe that she thought it would be a good environment to raise a child, because of the possibility of positive Christian influence,” Farris says in the second-season premiere of People Magazine Investigates: Cults, which airs on Investigation Discovery on Monday, June 3, at 9 p.m. ET.
But the group’s emphasis on communal living took on a dark side — one that came to include sexual abuse of minors.
Those traumatized by the cult included the actor River Phoenix, whose parents joined when he was 3 and who later said he remembered losing his virginity at age 4. Phoenix and his family had left the cult by the time he died at age 23 in 1993 from a drug overdose.
Children in the sect spent years separated from parents, to be raised by the collective under the leadership of former evangelical preacher David Berg, who grew the Children of God from its Huntington Beach, California, origins into a worldwide outreach. Behaviors were rigidly dictated.
“We never really had any opportunity to choose anything,” Farris tells PEOPLE. “I was told where to go, what to wear, what makeup to put on, how to cut my hair, down to how many pieces of toilet paper I was allowed to use.”
She says she grew to fear one particularly horrific edict: that young children must share their bodies with anyone who desired them. “As long as it’s done in love, it’s not wrong,” Farris and others were told.
“They taught us that it was a privilege,” she says on the episode. “As a 12-year-old we were placed on sharing schedules, which was a rotation with different men. … One time we had a dress-up night, and we had a little tent with a fortune teller and a crystal ball — you were told your sexual partner for the night, and you were not allowed to say no.”
Yet she remained devout. “I was terrified to leave,” says Farris. “They told us that if you leave, you’re going to be drug addicts and prostitutes on the street. I believed 100 percent that God would punish me if I left.”
When she finally did leave the cult, it was against her will: She was exiled in 2000 at age 27 after a friend reported her for smoking marijuana. By then a young mother herself, Farris, now 44, began a lengthy period of addiction, searching and finally counseling that led her to re-examine her past and the behavior by other cult members that she learned to recognize as abuse.
“I try not to blame them. We were all victims, really,” she says today. “I was victimized, most definitely. … I try to think of myself as a survivor.”
Not everyone survived.
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