Sep 3, 2023

Cult survivor speaks out on physical and mental abuse

The Herald

By Gabriel McKay Journalist

September 3, 2023


A former member of a controversial religious cult has spoken out about her experiences - and will tell a Glasgow audience how to recognise the red flags themselves.

The Children of God - currently known as The Family International - was founded in 1968 by David Berg, who believed there should be no age or relationship restraints on sex because he viewed it as a divine act, and in the 1970s and 80s operated at sites in Renfrewshire, Lanarkshire, Ayrshire, Glasgow and Edinburgh.

Jeremy Spencer, a founding member of Fleetwood Mac, left the band to live with the cult, which at its height claimed 10,000 full-time members, while actors Rose McGowan, River Phoenix and Joaquin Phoenix were all members in childhood.

The group is controversial and has been accused of sexual abuse of children: Alexander Watt, a former member, was convicted in 2018 of abusing children in Renfrewshire and on the east coast, Derek Lincoln was sentenced to 11-and-a-half years after admitting offences in Ayrshire, Lanarkshire and Renfrewshire between 1989 and 1996.

It has been criticised for its practice of 'Flirty Fishing', wherein female members of the cult would 'fish' men to join - the practice was stopped due to the prevalence of sexually transmitted infections.

Bexy Cameron was born into the Children of God and will speak about her experiences, as well as her research into cults and cult leaders, at Glasgow's CrimeCon on September 16.

As well as her own upbringing, she joined 10 different cults in the U.S as part of the research for a feature filmDearly Beloved, and her book, Cult Following, which is set to be adapted into a television series.

Speaking to The Herald about her life with the Children of God she says: "It’s a weird one, because when you’re as far removed from it as I am now it’s almost like you’re talking about a film you saw.

“At the same time though I’m very much aware that experience shaped me and my siblings. It’s not a movie. It was very real.

"We grew up in places like India, Africa, Mauritius; but then later on we were also in communes in places like Rugby, Coventry, very run-of-the-mill sounding places yet we had these communes that were living among these normal landscapes I could never be a part of.

“Television was happening that I didn’t know about, music was happening that I didn’t know about, because we were in what was essentially an experiment which existed alongside the real world.

“When I left I had no idea about anything that had happened in the entirety of my lifetime, I didn’t know anything about the history of the world or anything that you would have understood from school.

"We had our own version of schooling all the way to a completely fantastical version of the world where we were in the End Days and we were going to be the army in the Armageddon, we were all going to die as teenagers – when I look back on it now and I describe it, which I have many times, I still have to pinch myself because that actually was my normal. That was my world.

"There are good and bad parts to that, the good part is thinking that you’re going to have superpowers, you’re essentially going to be an X-Man and have lasers coming out of your eyes and be able to breathe fire.

“To have adults tell you that as if it’s fact, there’s a kind of specialness that you feel.

“The bad parts of it are things like you’re never going to be an adult, you’re never going to grow up to have your own family, you’re never going to see anything past the age of 14, 15, 16.

“The way that manifests is ‘you don’t need an education’, because why would you need an education? You’re going to die before you’re ever going to need one.

"It’s a mix of fantasy and sci-fi, but then the very real end point is what we children were experiencing which was being extremely controlled, not having an education, being physically, emotionally and psychologically traumatised – all so we could support this bizarre machination of one person’s mind."

It's easy for an outsider to scoff and say they could never be drawn into a cult.

After all, the phrase "drinking the Kool-Aid", a reference to unquestioning and unthinking obedience, is derived from the mass ritual suicide at Jonestown by members of the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project.

However Ms Cameron, having studied the commonalities between her cult and the others she's examined, says it's not that simple.

She says: "I realised that as someone who grew up in a very specific cult, I was kind of laden with my own baggage and trauma. I didn’t want to look at myself, and I definitely didn’t want to look at my parents for any kind of answers and I thought, ‘why don’t I go and look at other groups and I’ll start to see what other groups are like’.

“If I could see what the commonalities were then I could start to understand why you would join, because if you’re someone who grows up in one you can’t really understand that.

“You hear it your whole childhood: ‘oh my God, my moment of enlightenment, it was like falling in love, I found my place’.

“If you don’t get that choice, and you’re just born into it, that doesn’t really have any meaning for you.

“I saw people who were of the first generation who’d had that moment, experiencing something that was so akin to falling in love that it just completely changed everything for them.

Read More: Derek Lincoln, 74, admits raping two young girls in 'Children of God' cult after five-year investigation

“And I can understand that, I can understand why you’d join if you felt that certain sense of purpose, the fact that everything in your life all made sense all of a sudden, you wouldn’t have to worry about all the shit that you grew up worrying about: what am I going to do with my life? How am I going to be successful? How am I going to pay my rent?

“All of that shit goes away in an instant, and you’re given this completely new life. I think if you’re given the choice of that, for a lot of people it would be really intoxicating.

“It negates so much of what we as human beings are raised to worry about and the only thing you have to do to get all of that is be willing to relinquish your identity, relinquish your individual thought and everything that you own – as well as the people you care about."

Of course, the choices are rarely presented in such stark terms. However, Ms Cameron says the descent into cult-dom isn't as gradual as many might expect.

She explains: "My mum went to rescue my dad because they knew each other at university.

“My dad was training to be a psychiatric nurse and my mum was training to be a psychologist, so you would think they would have a bit more of an understanding of the mechanisms that were in place.

“My mum went to rescue my dad because she’d heard he’d joined a cult – 12 hours later she was in it.

“She was a vegan and the first test they made her do was to cook a pig’s head- that was within day one.

"A lot of groups put a construct in place of how quickly they seed out specific ideas to make sure that by the time the person is fully within the boiling pan of water, to use the frog analogy, they’ve been there long enough.

“If you join the Children of God – and this is creepy – you’re considered a babe. When you’re a babe you’re only allowed to ‘drink the milk’ – again, creepy – which is just the very watered down version of what their preachings are.

“When you go on to full status you’re allowed ‘the meat’."

As its membership grew Berg and the Children of God began to attract significant media attention.

That led to followers moving around between compounds and going to extraordinary lengths to keep its younger members in the dark.

Ms Cameron says: "There wasn’t barbed wire or guard dogs around us, but we would live in quite remote locations.

“We would move into dilapidated barns and farm houses and fix them up, we’d have like 100 people living in a home in the countryside.

“There were certain parts when the press was really clamping down on the Children of God because of all the allegations of abuse and prostitution, which I think was really closer to human trafficking.

"We weren’t allowed to fraternise with people on the outside world, we weren’t allowed to have relationships with people from the outside, we were very rarely allowed to see any kind of relative, the only time you were really allowed to see relatives would be if our parents were trying to get money out of them to support the group.

“It was all very structured. For example, there was a point where the press were really hounding the Children of God and if we were travelling from place to place they would black out the windows of the vans we were in with bin liners so we never knew where we were going.

Read More: Children of God... bred to take over the world

“We never knew what our addresses were, a lot of the time we didn’t even know where we were living because they’d codified everything. The names of certain communes were given names of other cities to confuse the people within them as to where we were.

“If got stopped, if we got captured, you might say ‘I live in the Rugby home’ but the Rugby home might actually have been in Scotland.

“It was all done with these codes and this vernacular they invented to, as they told us, keep us safe.”

Even if they can't see it at the time, life in a cult can be pretty miserable for its members.

For the leaders though adulation, wealth, sexual gratification or all three are often baked in. The question becomes then - do they really believe it?

Ms Cameron says: "You’re getting into quite an interesting and complicated landscape with that question, and it’s something I ask myself a lot.

“When you look at the psychological make-up of cults and cult leaders, there’s the chicken and egg thing.

"Did David Berg, for example, come up with his cult and then become a twisted man, or did he become a twisted man because of the cult?

"If you start a cult which encourages the abuse of children, then you will probably attract paedophiles. David Berg was somebody who was a paedophile before he started the Children of God.

“He was a sexual deviant, essentially, and that happened way before he started (the cult), with his own children.

“I think he saw that as a way to get what he wanted, but I have joined other groups where it seemed like it might have happened the other way round.

"If you look at something like the OSHO, for example, I think they started out with good intentions. I think they started out to be about enlightenment and mindfulness and somewhere on the way they bought AK-47s and started poisoning people.

"If you look at my parents, you have two people with very different personality makeups who joined the group, I believe, for quite different reasons.

“My mum was a straight-A student, quite passive in some ways, very intelligent. My dad, on the other hand, I could see him as somebody who saw the group and thought ‘there’s a way for me to excel, to gain control, and to be someone who has a level of power’.”

Being born into a cult may not give you the zealotry of the convert, but it is the only life, the only reality you've ever known - how does one go about leaving?

Ms Cameron says: "There kind of two parts to it. The first was when I was about 11 years old and they allowed the very first ever journalist into the Children of God.

“His name was Walter Schwartz, he was from The Guardian and they allowed him in because they had to stop running, we were literally fleeing our communes one after the other and it got to a point where it just wasn’t sustainable.

“So they decided to put on a PR face and my parents were chosen to be the public face of the Children of God.

“We created this fake home for this journalist to come and stay and we were trained for ages in how to step around all the issues that were coming up in the press.

“But when I was interviewed by him he just asked me one really simple question that completely changed everything for me: ‘what do you want to be when you grow up?’.

“He asked it in a way that was very real and without agenda and it gave me this moment of thinking: ‘is that a possibility? Can I grow up? Is this the person who isn’t lying to me? Because someone is lying…’

"How I actually left was more complicated, I was 15 years old and I ended up meeting somebody who was one of the kids in the village outside the commune.

“He started trying to help me plot my escape, and my thought was I was going to wait until my 16th birthday because I’d figured out a plan and had a little money – but essentially I got found out.

“Instead of it being on my terms I got kicked out, excommunicated. The whole home got together and they voted unanimously that I needed to go.

"They basically just decided I was too far gone and they needed to get rid of me before I influenced anyone else.”

While they may not be cults in the sense of living on a compound and being cut off from the outside world, the radicalisation of people online around certain culture war issues can take on some similar traits - their own in-language, monomania, dogmatic beliefs.

Ms Cameron says: "I think we’re talking more about cultic attributes if you like. For example, having your own vernacular, behaving in an elitist way, behaving in a way where there’s and us and you mentality: all of that is part of the mechanisms of cultic behaviour. Dogmaticness too, absolutely.

“So those are things I would say are in the realm of a cult, but until it starts to become absolutely deviant, or causing harm, or coercively controlling I would say it isn’t an out-and-out cult.

“But cultish behaviour absolutely exists. I probably shouldn’t say this, but certain companies are a bit of a cult – they have offices where you can do your laundry there, sleep there, eat there, the vernacular they have.

"I would describe Qanon, in some ways, as a cult. I don’t think they’re necessarily controlling people’s movements and funds, but the way in which the messages are spread and the hierarchy of their belief systems and how massively involved in people’s lives you could describe that as a new wave of how cults will exist."

Given her experience one might expect a former cult member to want to distance herself from it as much as possible but, as attendees at CrimeCon will discover, nothing could be further from the truth.

She says: "It’s actually f*****g disturbing what I relax to, my boyfriend comes in and is like ‘what are you listening to?!’

"I grew up in a cult and you’d think I’d be shutting the door on that – I’m still obsessed with them. Why do people do what they do? What makes human beings want to do all this insane stuff? Why would you want to raise your kids in an experiment? Why would you think this is a good idea?

“It’s the ‘why?’ I find more interesting than anything else.

“I’ll be showing photographs from some of the different groups I joined, talking about stories of people I met, belief systems, all of that.

“It’s basically going to be a real tapestry of the world of cults – it’s not like ‘I just grew up in one and that was that’, I’ve spent the last nearly 10 years now really immersed in this topic. So I think it’s really going to go everywhere.”

CrimeCon will take place at Glasgow's Hilton on September 16. You can get tickets here


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