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"Killing Myself is the Only Way Out of the Cult"
Marie Claire Australia; Lisa Dabscheck, 2005-04-19
Ricky Rodriguez gazes into the lens of his video camera and makes the confession that marks the end of his short and deeply troubled life. "My goal is to bring down my own mother ..." he says. "And then all I need is one bullet for myself." He loads his semiautomatic pistol, which he will ultimately use to eradicate a childhood marred by sexual, physical and psychological abuse.
Ricky was no ordinary young man. He grew up thinking he was a prophet placed on the earth to preach directly from God, revered by thousands of followers who believed he would deliver them from evil come Armageddon. He was heir apparent to the Children of God, a fundamentalist Christian free-love cult formed in California in the late 1960s, which attracted people drawn in by a heady brew of evangelism and sexual liberation. Based in closed communes of up to 200 across the globe, for many years cult members had virtually no contact with the outside world and operated with minimal scrutiny, despite highly questionable beliefs.
Ricky’s stepfather was David "Moses" Berg (aka "Dad"), the group’s founder and leader until his death in 1994. The son of American pentecostal evangelists, Berg was a nymphomaniac who had been sexually abused as a child. He preached the virtues of free-for-all sex, including paedophilia and incest, under the guise of religious observance, and advocated sex with – and between – minors. His only caveat was the assertion "as long as it is done in love".
"I practise what I preach. And I preach sex, boys and girls," he wrote in one of his "Mo Letters", doctrinal writings that governed every aspect of cult members’ lives.
Ricky’s mother, Karen Zerby – known as "Mama Maria" – is the current matriarch and spiritual leader of the group, which has since been renamed The Family and currently operates in an estimated 100 countries.
At the encouragement of Mama Maria and Berg, Ricky was systematically sexually abused throughout the course of his child-hood. Known by the name of "Davidito" within the cult, the infant was immortalised in The Davidito Book, an illustrated child-rearing manual distributed to all cult members.
Written in light-hearted diary style, it chronicles Ricky’s sexual development from the age of 10 months, when he first becomes aware of his penis and is said to develop a fascination with women’s breasts and adults’ lovemaking, to which he is regularly exposed. The book also shows pictures of Ricky with a number of his topless "nannies" accompanied by suggestive captions, such as "he often had a ‘hard’ time at diaper change".
A typical chapter is "The Story Of Lazarus", which describes Ricky at 17 months of age: "Little David stood watching through the pool fence as a couple made love in the water. He imitated every motion ... then he went into the house to show Mommy the story of how to goose a girl!"
Cloistered within this secretive organisation until his late teens, Ricky finally left the cult in 2000, aged 25, determined to seek justice. He found none. So killing his mother – and then himself – was to be his revenge. The night after he made the video, on January 8 this year, Ricky telephoned his wife, Elixcia Munumel, a fellow ex-member, to ask her to commit suicide too. "I don’t want to be by myself," he said. "Please come die with me."
It wasn’t the first time he had contemplated suicide. Like a number of ex-members bearing the scars of a traumatic shared past, he often thought death was the only answer. "He talked about suicide all the time," reveals Elixcia. "Because of his central role in The Family, I think he carried a burden of guilt over what happened to other children."
Elixcia talked to Ricky long into the night, in what she felt instinctively would be their last conversation. "We talked and cried for hours. He kept saying, ‘What have I done?’ and saying he wanted to have a normal life."
What Ricky had done just hours earlier was meet his former "nanny", Angela Smith, 51, to try to ascertain the whereabouts of his mother, who has been in hiding for years. Frustrated that she was not forthcoming with the information, Ricky stabbed her to death. Then he called Elixcia and, later, with a single gunshot to the temple, ended his own life.
This shocking murder-suicide may turn out to be the catalyst for bringing about the justice Ricky so desperately sought. Almost four decades since the cult was formed, his death has refocused global attention on its alleged abuse of hundreds of children.
A war of sorts is being waged. On one side are ex-members – who have formed a web support group, www.movingon.org – many of whom allege to have been subjected to and/or to have witnessed abuse of many kinds within the cult. On the other side are current members of the organisation who say that if these practices did go on, they were isolated; they have never seen or experienced abuse. Their website, www.myconclusion.com, includes numerous testimonies praising the joys of life in The Family and suggesting that former members should get over their issues and, indeed, "move on".
So far, despite investigations and court cases in Australia, the US, UK, Argentina, Brazil, Peru, Venezuela, France, Italy, Spain and Sweden, The Family maintains that no-one has been convicted of any crime in relation to abuse within the organisation. The current worldwide Family membership of 8000 (4000 of whom are children) use this as evidence that allegations by former members are fabricated. But ex-members say it’s too difficult to prove cases based on incidents that occurred under dozens of jurisdictions, years ago, involving people with ever-changing pseudonyms.
Adam*, 24, a university student who now lives in Australia, was born into The Family and left aged 16. He says he was "systematically sexually and physically abused on an almost daily basis". His first sexual experience with an adult was at the age of three.
"My dad put me in bed with a woman in her late 20s," he recalls. "I’ve got very clear memories because I was claustrophobic and they tucked the sheet in over me ... a number of sexual acts were performed."
Despite his lucid memory, Adam would find his allegations difficult to sustain in court. "I lived in 12 different countries while I was in The Family, and each of those is a different jurisdiction. The onus of proof demands more than what I can say, and a lot of courts don’t recognise that a child has the capacity to remember those things. Also, as soon as you go into the cult you’re assigned a Bible name, and these change all the time."
Sarah Martin, a 31-year-old manager of a sporting company who lives in the US and was raised in the cult together with her 10 siblings, concurs: "I didn’t even know my last name was Martin until I left. It was definitely deliberate. They said from the beginning it was for ‘security reasons’."
The cult leaders were aware that their practices contravened the laws of the real world and made provisions as such, accord-ing to Adam. "I lived my whole life with what was called the ‘flee bag’; it had in it some cash, a change of clothes and a passport, and it sat under the bed of every member of the cult. If there was ever going to be a raid, everybody would grab their flee bag and leave."
A number of nations have expelled entire Family communes, and both France and Argentina have banned the group – which calls the outside world "The System" – from operating within their borders.
The Family is infamous around the world for "flirty fishing", an endorsed form of prostitution that has attracted the ire of authorities in many countries. Advocated by Berg and undertaken by many first-generation wives, the practice sends so-called "hookers for Jesus" to lure money in exchange for sex. As a closed society, Family members are not permitted to work. As such, all funds are derived from donations. Flirty fishing was for many years a primary source of income for the cult, but it is said to have been abandoned in 1987 when at least one woman involved contracted AIDS and died.
Ricky’s biological father was a hotel clerk who was "flirty fished" by Mama Maria in Tenerife, Africa, an event that was celebrated within the cult. Although Mama Maria and David Berg were his "official" parents, he was raised by a rota of "nannies". In 2002, Ricky posted a memoir on the Moving On website claiming that Berg had sexually abused his daughters and granddaughters and that his mother was cold and violent.
Mama Maria, who together with her current husband, Peter Amsterdam ("King Peter"), issues regular missives to her congregation via email from her hiding place, has distanced The Family from her son’s actions in the aftermath of his death. A memo sent on January 14 this year to Family members includes advice from deceased leader and prophet Berg – purported to be from beyond the grave – on how to "educate" the younger generation when they ask difficult questions about Ricky’s death: "You can either avoid answering, or say that he got hurt very badly. This is not lying. This is telling the truth, but not going into details that are unnecessary."
King Peter added: "Some people are exploiting this tragedy and trying to use it to hurt The Family", and asked followers to pray that "our vindictive former members will realise they have played a part in this sad situation through their negative influence [on Ricky]".
Claire Borowik, international spokesperson for The Family, refutes Ricky’s assertions of abuse. "He was never taken advantage of," she insists. "Rather, he was allowed to explore his sexuality freely. He was allowed to explore as a young boy what comes naturally."
One of the main grievances of ex-members who say they have been abused is what they feel is a lack of genuine accountability from The Family. Despite a general apology that refers to "instances in which some individuals did not always strictly follow the principles and guidelines of the ‘Laws of Love’", no internal investigation to find and punish the perpetrators has been set up. And, despite repeated requests, the real names of suspects have never been provided to ex-members.
"They keep saying, ‘We don’t keep track of all that,’" complains Sarah. "It’s bullshit ... it doesn’t matter where you were, the leaders could know about any incident within a day. That’s how close-knit that organisation is."
The Family has undergone some changes since its early days. In 1986, in response to mounting scrutiny, the group renounced its past practices and says it "enforced stringent policies to ensure the safety and protection of our children". Then, in the early 1990s, it conducted what was known internally as "the publications purge", where incriminating literature was destroyed. It has repackaged itself as a legitimate missionary operation involved in benevolent ventures around the globe and, according to Borowik, has had 32,000 adherents over the past 37 years.
But questions remain as to the real extent to which the sins of the past have been eradicated. "The banning [of sexual misconduct] was for the public," alleges Sarah. "There were [internal] messages to the homes saying privately this is OK to do, but publicly this is our stance. So it just continued in some homes."
Whatever the progress, the fact is, suicide has figured prominently in The Family’s history. It has acknowledged 10 suicides over the past 13 years, which leaders say is below the US national average per capita, but ex-members believe that the real figure is closer to 35.
When Ben Farnsworth – a teenager inculcated into the cult – jumped to his death in 1992, Mama Maria sent a letter to his bereaved family, saying, "Even in his death, Ben is going to have a very good effect on the Family. I think it’s going to have wonderful repercussions with our teens being very greatly strengthened by this."
Around 200 people live in Family homes in Australia, spread across most states, with the majority in Sydney and Melbourne. Paul and Joy Hartingdon, Family members for the past 30 years, both here and overseas, live communally, in a historic sandstone home in the north-western Sydney suburb of Baulkham Hills, with 15 children aged from 10 to 24. These include eight of their own 10 kids, while others are the offspring of other cult members, all of whom are home-schooled in accordance with cult doctrines.
Before our interview, Paul sends me an email detailing the benevolent ventures carried out in Australia on behalf of the Family. Later, he shows me boxes filled with supplies that the household is preparing to send to victims of the recent tsunami.
His response to allegations of abuse is: "It’s hard to make a blanket statement of ‘I was in the Family and the Family is like this’. There are going to be idiosyncracies." As to specific claims of systematic abuse, he says he thinks it’s "highly exaggerated" but admits there may have been some isolated instances of what he calls "harm to children".
While he insists the practices of the past have been curtailed, he concedes that sexual liberality exists in present-day communities. "We do have a ‘freer lifestyle’. In theory, there is open sexuality within our communities, þ but that is dependent upon relationships. We understand people have sexual needs."
Paul won’t be pressed on whether he and Joy engage in extra-marital sex, but Joy says sex is sometimes offered to members of the community "who might be lonely or in need".
In the case of Ricky, Paul emailed me, attaching "a file with a few references to Ricky written by sociologists and psychologists. It is noteworthy that those who interviewed him at that time saw him as ‘well adjusted’."
Sarah says this is nonsense. "First of all, we didn’t even know what molestation or abuse was. We were taught from day one that this was normal and that people [in the outside world] were evil and were trying to destroy us. Secondly, we were specifically trained in what to say in those circumstances. For example, when I got out, I was interviewed by a therapist and a psychiatrist. After speaking with me, they said, ‘She’s so stable, she’s so well balanced.’ But I knew I wasn’t. I just knew what to say to appear that way. I was just scared and wanted them to get out of the house, so I calmly told them what they wanted to hear."
Australian authorities have been con-cerned with The Family in the past. Faith Hellyer, 24, a member who currently lives with Paul and Joy, cries as she describes how in 1992, when she was 11, Department of Community Services (DOCS) workers appeared early one morning at the communal Family home where she lived in Sydney’s Glenhaven. "We were taken away from our parents for six days," recalls Faith. "There were people running all over our house. They were expecting extremely sheltered, abused children, which we weren’t at all. It was shocking. I was never abused. There are so many people who are so angry, and they try to destroy lives that are actually beautiful."
All the children were eventually returned to their parents after no evidence of sexual abuse was found and, after monthly visits by DOCS staff over the following year, the investigation was abandoned.
Faith, who left The Family for two years before returning to the fold, was surprised when she heard of Ricky’s death. "I hope the mistakes of the past can be put behind us. Anger destroys people; I hope it can be resolved and these people can move on." Sam Jinadasa, 24, another of Paul and Joy’s "children", adds, "Maybe there’s no big conspiracy. Some antagonistic former members don’t give you the benefit of the doubt."
But there are some who sit on the fence. John*, 26, an ex-member who resides in east-coast Australia and works as a web designer, is one of a contingent of former Children of God who say they didn’t suffer any abuse, but left simply to experience life in the outside world. Even so, he acknowledges that wrongdoing may have occurred – "I wouldn’t argue with somebody who claimed they were abused" – and says that both of his parents were involved in flirty fishing.
"I remember my folks talking about that having a strain on their relationship. I think it was pretty twisted. But that’s something The Family stopped doing some time ago."
John’s mother has left The Family, but his father is still a devotee. "I think a lot of the members are genuinely trying to help people, but I hope that if it does continue to exist, it’s less controlled by potentially unstable people at the top." He later continues, "I think it’s a strange organisation. I wouldn’t be sad to see it disappear."
In the few years before his death, Ricky found solace in the company of Sarah Martin. The two met through the Moving On website and formed a firm friendship, with Sarah giving Ricky some of the love and compassion he felt had been denied him by his mother.
"He was very angry with his mum," explains Sarah. "He was determined to pursue justice; he lived and breathed it. It’s hard to listen to someone when they tell you they want to die, but I understood. He didn’t have time to heal before he pursued his quest for justice. When you first leave, you have a huge amount of anger when you start realising how much damage they’ve done. I wanted to show him that life can be beautiful."
Ricky phoned Sarah in the middle of the night on Friday, January 7, and she returned the call the following day. He told her he had made a video that he was sending her in the post. "He said, ‘I had some things I wanted to get off my chest and I wanted to answer some questions people had.’ That was the last time I spoke with him. That was the night he killed himself," says Sarah through tears.
She received the tape the following Tuesday and was horrified. "I’d never seen him talk so angrily; he was ... the most caring person you could ever meet. I just didn’t understand how deep his anger was.
"None of us condones what happened," she says on behalf of other former Family members affiliated with Ricky. "But at the same time, I feel that I understand him."
Sarah, along with a group of other US-based ex-members, is currently working on a legal case in the hope that Ricky’s tragic death may spark some real justice.
In Ricky’s final words: "Anger does not even begin to describe how I feel about these people and what they have done ... how can you do things like that to little kids?"
Marie Claire, Australia