Oct 26, 2015

My life in the cult: How "serving God" unraveled into sex abuse, child neglect and a waking nightmare

October 25, 2015

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Photo of Author
I was a naive teenager, desperate for belonging. But my "home" for 30 years turned out to be a house of horrors

I left the Children of God in the early 2000s. It took a long time to come out of the haze of those 30 years, but when I did, I was appalled by my former self. One of the most common questions people ask is: How could you be part of such a thing? And how could you stay? For years — as I came to grips with my own guilt, remorse and shame — I asked myself the same things. In 2003, my eldest son, then an adult, sent me a link to a thorough three-year investigation into the COG as part of a child custody case filed with the High Court in England in the early 1990s, and I learned that, according to these court records, I was not alone in the horrors I’d experienced.

I grew up in suburban Washington, D.C., the youngest of seven children in a comfortably middle-class Catholic home. We must have looked like the perfect family. My parents were leaders of the Charismatic group at their large church. Our house was clean – almost sterile. “Rake the rug after you walk through the living room to clear your footprints. Put a sheet on the sofa before you sit down,” my mother would chime. After my older siblings left home, I felt lost and alone. At 16, I fell into anorexia and depression. I spent my summer lifeguarding, swimming and dabbling in drugs.

Perhaps that’s why I began my spiritual quest, or perhaps it was just a symptom of the times. I was looking for meaning to life, to belong to something larger than myself. In my junior year of high school, I saw a friend reading a Bible at school. She had recently met the COG, and gave me one of their publications to read. I found it a bit strange, but it touched something in me. I went with her to meet the COG after school that day.

I was trying to find my path in life, and I thought this might be it. Here was a group of dedicated Christian young people determined to return to the pure roots of Christianity by living communally and sharing all things. I felt loved and accepted, and was welcomed into the fold as a new “babe” in Christ. Born again. I didn’t see this as a “cult”; I saw it as a chance to live an honorable life of service to God and others. And I was so young. What did I know about how the world worked? It would be another nine years before my frontal lobe was completely developed, the portion of the brain involved in decision-making that allows us to envision long-term consequences. I had no idea I was walking into a nightmare. I couldn’t see past the utter joy of the overwhelming love and acceptance I felt.

I took a new name. I cast off my belongings. If this abrupt change hurt my friends, I was blind to it. I lost contact with them. I was completely swept up in my zeal. In the atmosphere of the ’60s and early ’70s, when hippie communes were popular, shucking off your conventional life was an appealing idea. My mother took a hard stand: “Do NOT visit the COG commune.” But teens have a way of doing what they want to do. On my 18th birthday, I moved in to the local commune. What could they do?

I had no idea what a costly decision it would be — to burn bridges with everyone I’d been close to, to give up the only world I had known. Like St. Francis of old, I saw myself as a committed follower of Christ. I saw this as my “new family.” A lot of what happened next could probably be explained by my need to justify this stunning, impulsive first move — once I jumped into the deep end, I had to prove to myself that I could swim.

Life in the commune was tightly scheduled. Proselytizing took up most of our time, but I still fulfilled the daily requirement of reading two to three hours from the Bible as well as the group’s publications. As Daniel Kahneman wrote in his book on the mind, “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” “A reliable way to make people believe in falsehoods is frequent repetition, because familiarity is not easily distinguished from truth.” Back then, I only knew it as my daily routine. We read thousands of Mo Letters, rambling talks written by the group’s founder, David Berg, and named after his pseudonym, Moses David.

Life was said to be “fair” and God “just.” Therefore if anything bad happened, we were to search for the reason it occurred. “Nothing happens by accident to one of God’s children,” we were taught. “Caught a cold? Seek the Lord and see why he is dealing with you,” we were admonished. “Then write a confession and ask for united prayer for deliverance.” The natural extension of this belief in a “just world” is conspiracy theories, of which COG publications were rife. The Illuminati were pulling the strings of world events behind the scenes, and evil persecutors were always after Berg and us, so we must be constantly vigilant about our security and he and his top leaders must live in utter secrecy.

We were taught that anything we heard had to be measured against “the Word” before we could accept it. Doubting was considered sinful, so if we ever had suspicions about anything in the group, we dared not mention them.

Take, for instance, the time David Berg prophesied the end of life as we know it in the U.S. He warned, “You in the U.S. have only until January [1974] to get out of the States before some kind of disaster, destruction or judgment of God is to fall because of America’s wickedness!”

Then nothing happened. But Berg, like all the other self-proclaimed prophets whose prophecies inevitably failed, found a way to both rationalize it and inflate his group’s importance. Comparing himself to Jonah in the Bible, he said nothing happened because the people repented. Since God’s children had done such a good job of warning the world to turn from their wickedness, God didn’t have to destroy America – yet. That was still to come.

It’s an awkward moment when a prophet has to explain his failed doomsday prophecy. I remember glancing around the room thinking, “Are you guys all OK with this?” But when everyone else seemed to accept the reasoning, I figured it must be all right.

I’ve since learned about the principle of social proof, in which people surreptitiously check to see what others are doing and then align their behavior accordingly, figuring those people know more about correct behavior than we do. That was the modus operandi in the cult. The sad truth is that in many cases, those other people were just as clueless as I was.

In 1976, I was taking care of the children of COG “Archbishops” in a secret Commune in Pennsylvania. In response to yet another one of Berg’s frightening prophecies of soon-coming nuclear holocaust and antichrist world takeover, we moved to “safer” third-world countries. I ended up in a country in the tropics. The heat, the poverty, the grime, the roaches – what a shock it was to me.

After a year of constant fundraising and childcare, the green light was given to all COG members to begin to “live the Law of Love,” which until then was only practiced in secret by the top echelons of COG leaders. This stated, “Anything done in love is perfectly lawful in God’s eyes.” Free sex was now the norm in Communes (as long as it was done with “sacrificial love” as its motive), and sex with outsiders – Flirty Fishing (ahem, prostitution) – was now the preeminent “witnessing tool.”

When I joined the COG, there was a strict rule against sex before marriage; suddenly that was turned upside down. But I swallowed my “old bottle” ways (COG term for those who don’t embrace the new teachings) and soldiered on. At 20 I lost my virginity Flirty Fishing a Middle-Eastern gentleman – all for the cause of Christ, of course.

Not long after, I was invited to help care for another leader’s children, this time in a secret Commune. These leaders were unlike anyone I had met before in the group. Gone was the veneer of righteousness and spirituality. These people were funny, good-natured and kind. Since their Commune was secret, they had little contact with other COG members – a safe haven from the rampant sexual promiscuity.

I stayed with this family for over four years, caring for and schooling their children, cooking, cleaning and falling in love with all of them.

To fulfill the duty of “caring for the [sexual] needs” of the people in his home, the man of the house spent time with me every few months – with his wife’s blessing. When I got pregnant with his child, I wondered if God was telling us I was now part of their family. (“Everything happens for a reason,” you know.) A man with two wives was not at all unusual in the COG – Berg had a harem.

When my son was a toddler, though, the family was abruptly whisked away to live with Berg, and I was left to join the mainstream group, emotionally shattered and never to see my son’s father again.

In contrast to my former quiet room with peaceful, well-behaved children, I now found myself sharing a large bedroom with many children and a newly “mated” couple. (“Mate” was the preferred COG nomenclature for “marry.”) Their big double-bed can be referred to as nothing if not the centerpiece of the room, with the children’s and my beds arranged around the sides. This couple thought nothing of having uninhibited sex daily during our mandatory “quiet time” (two hours of rest after lunch), and I wanted nothing more than to escape the cringe-worthy awkwardness of the situation.

I would take my son for walks around the neighborhood as much as I could to get away from that overcrowded, oversexed home. Hopeless, deserted and alone, that was my time to cry.

Should I have left then? But what would I have done? In the COG, we were not permitted to hold jobs. We were told any future planning was taboo and considered a lack of faith in God’s power of provision. What would my skills be? Where could I go? My parents had both died of cancer shortly after I left for the commune. I felt alone in the world — but I was still not going to “turn my back on God’s work.”

By the following year, desperate for companionship and desperate to have a father-figure for my son, I met a rare single man in the group, and within six weeks we were “mated.” After the initial two months of newlywed bliss, I felt he had lost all attraction for me. Clinging desperately to what we initially had, I persevered for years, hoping in vain he would be the man I believed him to be. (I can only imagine the stress he must have felt living with me.) We never outright fought, but rather played passive-aggressive games. Our poor children.

The much-feared “persecution” of the COG came. The leader I worked with was among those named as cult leaders in a front-page newspaper story. We needed to move immediately. We fled to a new country. Once again, culture shock. Our unvaccinated children came down with whooping cough, and then later measles, rubella and mumps. After months of quarantine to contain the spread, the leader moved her children away. During more than six years with them, she had become my pseudo-mother figure, and overnight she was torn away from me along with her children, whom I dearly loved. More emotional damage.

Berg’s “law of love” had given license for all manner of lechery, as well as abuse of children through severe corporal punishment, which he promoted (“spare the rod, spoil the child”), as well as sexual abuse heaped most abundantly on those nearest to him. The new push of enormous “School Homes” began to perfect the physical punishment of children, especially adolescents, through spankings and “silence restriction,” where a child would be made to wear a sign warning others not to speak to them.

We were to treat the children in the group as all “our children,” according to Berg’s teaching in his Letter “One Wife.” If ever a parent tried to come to the defense of their child, they were labelled as “favoring their children” — a serious sin in the cult. Many teens also lived away from their parents – some lived on opposite sides of the world. I did my best to protect my children, but mainly I lived in denial. I thought abuse happened elsewhere, not where we lived. It was easy to remain in the dark. We lived in a vacuum, after all: No books, no TV, no magazines and of course, no Internet.

Meanwhile, the desperation of the average member brought on by scarcity and poverty drove a constant scramble for survival. Members were either out on the streets selling pamphlets or cult products, approaching businesses for donations of money or goods, or taking care of the ever-growing number of children, as free sex and no birth control were seen as the only way to please the Lord. No time was allowed for thought. If things ever began to ease up, a new “push” would inevitably come in the next directive from Berg, and our “witnessing” hours would increase, putting the children’s already scanty education further onto the back burners and increasing stress all-around.

The stress, the constant submission, the daily struggle, the lack of meaningful mental input – it was as if I had undergone a spiritual lobotomy. I was effectively brain-dead.

Berg died in 1994 and his mistress, Karen Zerby, took over the leadership of the COG. Although Ff’ing was no longer allowed, new strange doctrines arose to take its place. We were to “make love to Jesus,” i.e., pretend Jesus was our partner when we had sex with someone and say words of endearment to him.

Then came the innumerable spirit helpers and guides. These imaginary ghosts provided all sorts of services. Many people received “stories” from them; some even wrote whole novels supposedly channeled from great authors of the past.

This all was getting a little hard to swallow. I don’t know which was more offensive — the poorly written novels, or the bizarre “spiritual truths” that Zerby was proclaiming.

But I’d put so many years into the group. Longing to stay true to my initial commitment to “serve the Lord,” I continued clinging to my delusion. Loss aversion is very powerful. But eventually, even that fear can be overcome.

When my eldest son reached adulthood living far from home, he left the group. He told me he thought Zerby was a lunatic and sent me a link to the custody case with the High Court in England. Reading that opened my eyes. The group I had devoted 30 years of my life to was a house of horrors.

I left immediately.

My mind was in a fog. What a psychological jolt! All the regret and apologies I can muster will never turn back the clock. My older children’s childhoods can never be relived. Since then, I’ve struggled to understand what allowed me to remain so gullible in the first place. The more I read about cults, the more I realize how universal the experience, from Jonestown to ISIS. Isolated and alone, in unfamiliar surroundings, members’ sense of “normal” behavior gradually becomes more bizarre, and even morally repugnant. Stanley Milgram, who conducted famous experiments on obedience in the 1960s, summed it up well when he wrote, ”Often it is not so much the kind of person a man is as the kind of situation in which he finds himself that determines how he will act.”

Now that I am old, it is all-too-easy for me to replay with deep remorse the horrors of those wasted years. Nevertheless, I am heartened by the forgiveness shown to me by my children and other young people whom I taught in the group.

As for me, I still have hope. Having missed out on years of learning, there are not enough hours in the day for all there is to learn. I study all that I can about neurology, psychology and behavioral economics. I listen to courses on history, science, language. I want to keep traveling and learning. I’m interested in most everything – except Christianity and new age groups. I’ve had my fill of those.

Mary Mahoney writes the blog, "Coming to Grips with my 30 Years in a Cult" where she explores the psychology behind cult membership. (Link here: http://comingtogripswith.blogspot.jp/ ) Contact Mary at: M.Comingtogrips@gmail.com


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