So this dirty old man gathers up a whole pile of sexy young people in 1968 and starts a cult, instituting practices that would make a bonobo blush—this is not actually too hard to believe, given that sixties culture was notoriously experimental in matters of sex and alternative spirituality. No, what’s hard to believe is that a movement initially based on paedophilia, incest, glorification of rape, and whoredom for Jesus, whose scriptures included a series of pornographic comic books, and which essentially envisioned God as a lip-licking voyeur, could actually settle down into a stable organization over the following half-century.
The messiah in question was the controversial figure David Berg (1919-1994); controversial is an understatement. The son of travelling evangelists, he spent most of his pre-cult life on the road, in the carnival atmosphere of the evangelism circuit. He did the standard thing of raising a family with his legal wife, Jane Miller Berg, but his ideas went well beyond the standard evangelical fare.
Another charismatic individual with a millenarian agenda, he kicked off his career as a messiah by claiming the world would be damaged to the point of collapse by Comet Kohoutek in 1974, and that the moral decay of Western society would leave the door open to the Antichrist. All boiler-plate stuff, but he had a somewhat unusual idea of what constituted moral decay, boiling down to a lack of…love. Love of all kinds, up to and notably including sexual love, with all possible partners and in all possible combinations—except man to man, which he vilified as “sodomy”, and grounds for excommunication. Lesbians were okay, though; in fact, they were positively encouraged, though only if men were included in the mix. Shockingly, children were fair game, and were routinely molested, and encouraged to molest each other. It’s fair to say that we have a syncretism here: evangelical Christianity blending with David Berg’s wet dreams.
Recruiting initially on the beaches of California under the name “Children of God” or “Teens for Christ”, the charismatic Berg (also known as Moses, or Mo) built up a following of young girls, who were in turn sent out to recruit young men or moneyed patrons by means of a technique he called flirty fishing: the girls were sent to pick guys up in bars, flaunt their stuff, take them home to bed, and use their sexual wiles to convert them to Mo Berg’s version of God’s love. I gather the girls made a lot of temporary converts that way—but some of the guys stuck around, and the cult grew. When Comet Kohoutek passed without incident, Berg’s followers were not particularly bothered; perhaps they were otherwise occupied.
As a latter-day prophet on an equal footing with Jesus, Berg had a responsibility to produce scriptures, and this he did amply in the form of the “Mo Letters:” nearly 3,000 rambling screeds of a few pages each, squarely in the tradition of inane literature produced by self-proclaimed messiahs. Many of the Letters, however, were illustrated in comic-book mode by (alleged molester) Hugo Westphal. I know of no other cult with a sacred text entitled anything like True Komix. The letters range widely, from rants in faux-biblical style, to rationalizations for pedophilia; from folksy anecdotes and gossip, to Kama-Sutra-style sex advice:
Perfume is mood inspiring, and a simple lubricant like Vaseline to the sexual organs is sometimes essential to avoid irritation from frequent fiction, aids easier entry of the male organ into the female when she is poorly prepared or not yet aroused, or in the early days of marriage when the opening into her vagina (tube) is still virginal or small and tight. Vaseline on the man will also help delay premature ejaculation, or too-early orgasm, crisis or peak of ecstasy, aiding the woman in attaining a simultaneous orgasm—”going together”.
In 1978, Mo changed the movement’s name to the Family of Love, and engineered a massive reorganization that was more like a purge of inner-circle members he thought were getting too uppity. But over the next couple of decades, while he became increasingly eccentric and necessarily lived in seclusion in undisclosed locations, because paedophilia is illegal, the running of the cult passed progressively into the hands of his chief concubine, Karen Zerby.
Zerby, also known as Mama Maria, or Queen Maria (everybody in the cult took on multiple names), started out as a flirty fisher and Berg’s secretary, but became his de facto common law wife and consort, and the subject of (and occasionally collaborator on) many of the Mo Letters—including, for example, a particularly disturbing one where Mo fantasizes about a threesome with Zerby and her eight-year-old daughter Techi, effectively his stepdaughter:
Then I turn to Techi, and she, too, is dreaming of me—her dear old Grandpa-lover! She had always said that when she grew up, she only wanted to marry me & have my children. Of course, as there are no longer any such thing as Man’s legalistic laws against incest in the loving Kingdom of God, everyone loves everyone and is completely free in his all-encompassing love! So I make wonderful, sweet, precious love to my now beautiful teen-aged Techi! She seems thrilled and delighted with having this wonderful love-dream with Grandpa…(Heaven’s Children, p.391)
When Mo died in 1994, Zerby was already also the de facto head of this NRM, and took it in new directions. For example, in 1995 she added the doctrine she called “Loving Jesus”, Family code for having a sexual relationship with Christ. Taught to all members from the age of 12, this takes the form of fantasizing sex with Jesus during intercourse or masturbation, while saying “love words” to the Son of God—that is, talking dirty. I kid you not. Meantime, the Family had been extending its outreach and spit-washing its public face, to the point where, in 2004, Zerby changed the name to the Family International. Clearly, the cult has put on a ghillie-suit of normality within the evangelical mainstream. [Irresistible note: not long after Berg died, Queen Maria married her long-time lover, King Peter.]
In fact, the Children of God/Family of Love/Family International presents a textbook case of a New Religious Movement’s “routinization” under the leadership of a consort or sidekick, after the death of the original messiah: the process of shifting gradually from the lunatic religious fringe towards a position more in line with the mainstream—though the mainstream in this case is rapture-ready end-times fundamentalism. Still, it’s a form of progress. In the mid-eighties, under pressure (“persecution”) from the outside, sexual contact between adults and children was officially disavowed. In 1991 and 1996, members were instructed to purge their bookshelves of a long list of embarrassing Family publications, and to tear out and burn some pages of certain others. The list of purged scriptures makes interesting reading. In 2005, the cult was rocked by scandal: Zerby’s son, Ricky Rodrigues, bred up to be a messiah, murdered one of his surrogate mothers and then shot himself. In 2010, The Family International “rebooted” into something that resembles, at least on the surface, a run-of-the-mill fundamentalist evangelical church, with standard millenarian beliefs and no doubt potluck suppers in the church basement.
Currently, FI claims to be operating in over 100 countries. Its very professional website, which includes a small selection of expurgated and unillustrated Mo Letters, is smoothly written, vague where it needs to be vague, and chock-full of piety, charity, and the love of spreading the love of God. But the cult’s rosy self-reporting should be read in conjunction with another website, which presents evidence that calls into question the reliability of the Family’s claims, and the sincerity of the mainstream religious sentiments it expresses. It also documents the damage done to, and the continuing bitterness of, the now-grown victims of sexual and other abuse, as well as the demonization of apostates, and a high degree of paranoid secrecy, typical of messianic cults. As a bonus, it provides a stomach-turning but invaluable archive of the Mo Letters and the Maria Monologues, Karen Zerby’s ongoing contribution to the sacred literature. Just don’t look at it too soon after eating.