Michelle Pfeiffer and More Stars Who Escaped From ‘Cults’

Michelle Pfeiffer says she lived with a couple who believed in ‘breatharianism,’ the idea humans don't need food or water, only sunlight. See stars who had similar experiences.

When Michelle Pfeiffer moved to Hollywood, she was lost. She was taken in, spiritually rather than physically, she says, by a couple who believed in “breatharianism” (say that five times fast), the idea that people don’t need food or water, merely sunlight. Pfeiffer was unable to live on the diet, something she says “nobody can adhere to.” She didn’t even realize that something was wrong until she met her first husband, who was working on a film about Reverend Moon Sung Moon’s Unification Church. "We were talking with an ex-Moonie and he was describing the psychological manipulation, and I just clicked. I was in one — a cult,” she told The Sunday Telegraph’s Stella magazine.

The Phoenixes

Actor Joaquin Phoenix and the late River Phoenix (and sister Summer, who’s married to Casey Affleck, and their less-well-known siblings) were born into the Children of God, an organization which has gone through several names over the decades and is currently known as The Family International. The Children of God were essentially Christian missionaries, though not fitting with any mainstream sect of Christianity. Although the group was notorious for its treatment of sex, Joaquin has said that it wasn’t like that when he was a part of it. ““It might have become a cult, but when we were there it was a really religious community,” Joaquin told UK Uncut Magazine in 2001. “It was a time when people were questioning the nuclear family of the 50s, people were saying they weren’t satisfied with the upbringing their parents had, is there another way? My parents were just searching for an alternative way of raising their children, they didn’t want to raise us in the Bronx. My mom was raised in the Bronx, and she was scared every day coming home from school.” Both he and River sang spirituals on the street trying to raise money for their family. Joaquin said that his portrayal of Freddie Quell in The Master was inspired in part by his childhood experiences.

Rose McGowan

Also in the Children of God was Rose McGowan, although her experience was in the Italian countryside, which was likely much prettier. But even so, it definitely seems scarier. “Like in most cults, you were cut off from your [outside] family,” she told People. “There were no newspapers, no television. You were kept in the dark so you would obey.” McGowan says the role of women was unsettling. “They were basically there to serve the men sexually-you were allowed to have more than one wife,” she said. When she was nine, her father fled to the United States with her and her siblings.

Glenn Close

Glenn Close’s family joined the conservative missionary movement Moral Re-Armament (renamed to Initiatives of Change in 2001) when she was 7, and she stuck with them until leaving for college at age 22. Looking back on it, she was horrified at the way everyone was forced to adhere to the same beliefs. There was no questioning their doctrine, to the point where she lost her own identity upon leaving the group. “Any kind of group-mandated thing, for a child, is quite dire,” Close told The Daily Beast. “It’s cult living where you’re told what to say and how to act. It’s very sexually repressive and yet you’re supposed to be re-making the world, but you re-make the world in someone else’s eyes, so you give up your individuality.”

Musician Christopher Owens

Girls musician Christopher Owens likens his time in Children of God (yes, them again, although they were called “The Family of Love” at the time) to being raised by the Taliban. “Imagine being raised in the Taliban," he told The Guardian. "Being told everybody else in the world is bad, rejecting technology, rejecting medical research, being devoted to God and believing America was evil and the end of the world was coming: all the same principles.” His travels with the group, which rejected outside technology, brought him to Slovenia at the age of 16, at which point his sister, who had fled the group previously, helped him come to Texas. Upon joining the modern world, he was hit with horrendous culture shock (it was the mid-90s and he had never even seen a phone).

Susan Cagle

Like the Phoenix children, Susan Cagle (stage name Susan Justice) got an early start with performance thanks to The Family of Love: She says her family would bring her and her siblings out to street corners in order to sing for passers-by. And they were young. By the time Susan was four, she was already the family hit, and was playing guitar by age seven. But she didn’t like the beliefs or her parents’ constant movies (she had lived in a dozen countries by the time she was a teenager), so she eventually split from them to make a career in New York. “It was so strict that any sort of mythology was—it was Christian based—so we were only allowed to read things that were the bible or teachings from the group that we were in,” Cagle told The Hollywood Sentinel. “We lived in Western society, but meanwhile there were some points where it was like you're living in some communist country. A restrictive environment, you know what I mean? And as a kid, I would sneak and read books, and sneak and listen to music.”