The Horrors of Growing Up in a Pedophilic Sex Cult
The Discovery+ docuseries ‘Children of the Cult’ centers on those that left the Children of God, a hellish pro-pedophilia cult founded by David Berg that ensnared several celebs.
Cults are terrible, but few have been quite as monstrous as the Children of God, whose founder David Berg not only espoused the usual drivel about an impending apocalypse and his own status as God’s prophet, but also preached a doctrine of pedophilic sex abuse. In the audio recordings and cartoon-decorated literature (known as “Mo Letters”) that he sent to his communes around the world, Berg promoted the belief that sex was love, that love was God, and thus that children should have carnal relations with each other, and with adults. The result was an environment of horrific rape and exploitation whose details are nothing short of stomach-churning.
Discovery+’s five-part docuseries Children of the Cult (Aug. 21) pulls back the curtain on this nefarious organization (currently known as The Family International), which was founded in 1968 California by Berg, a former Christian missionary whose evangelical-pastor mom instilled in him a shame about sex that he’d later rebel against, twistedly, via his free-love-with-kids creed. In the few photos and videos that exist of him, Berg—with his big white beard and lunatic eyes—comes across as a veritable caricature of a deranged cult leader. To his acolytes, however, he was “father” and “grandpa,” and his regular Mo Letters and audio tapes were diligently and hungrily consumed by the faithful, given that they dispensed instructions about the latest and greatest guidelines on which devotees should base their every waking moment.
Children of the Cult affords a platform for the stories of many Children of God victims, with three—Hope, Verity and Celeste—taking center stage throughout. Their narratives are the stuff of nightmares, since unlike their parents, who willingly bought into Berg’s New Age-y bullshit, they were born into the cult, and were thus from the start cut off from most knowledge of, or interaction with, the larger world. Theirs was an isolated existence in which outsiders were viewed as enemies intent on opposing God, and doomed to perish during the inevitable rapture. As they recount, their upbringing involved being bombarded with warnings about straying from the path by having contact with secular society—a fact that was hammered home by cult-produced music videos like “Kathy Don’t Go to the Supermarket” (which has to be seen to believed), and was underscored by the 1993 drug-overdose death of former Children of God member River Phoenix, whose fate was treated as a cautionary tale for those thinking about leaving.
Through the recollections of Hope, Verity and Celeste (as well as other survivors, albeit not Rose McGowan or Joaquin Phoenix, who were also born into the Children of God), Children of the Cult details the systems of control and propaganda employed by Berg. Chief among his methods was a practice known as “Flirty Fishing,” in which young female cult members were ordered to entice men to join a commune by having sex with them—thereby making them de facto cult prostitutes. All women were expected to partake in such business, and to agree to “family sharing” schedules that laid out who was supposed to sleep with who on a given night. This naturally created quite a bit of tension in certain communes; as former member Sandy recalls, it led to the worst year of her life, when she was just 19 and her husband was forced to watch her have sex with others. Yet it was part and parcel of a Berg ethos that condemned individuality and demanded conformity (to the group, and himself) at every turn.
Hope, Verity and Celeste’s commentary is brutally candid, revealing the numerous horrors they suffered at the hands of their elder tormentors, be it Hope’s stepfather David Lincoln (who raped her from a young age) or Celeste’s father Simon (who made her one of the stars of his Music with Meaning propaganda media apparatus). Such accounts are unbelievably tough to take, as are the cult videos and literature presented by Children of the Cult. From unnerving movies of kids singing about, and marching in, “the Lord’s Army” at a detention camp—where rebellious teens were taught to toe the cult line or endure corporal punishment—to excerpts from a comic known as “The Story of Heaven’s Girl” that included a chapter titled “She Can Gang-Bang’m” (which celebrated its heroine’s sexual ability to win the hearts of new followers), the material on display is shocking enough to frequently elicit gasps.
Nothing in Children of the Cult’s first three episodes (which were all that was provided to press) is more nauseating than passages from a book disseminated by Berg about the lifelong sexual training of his adopted son Ricky “Davidito” Rodriguez, which served as a manual for how to carry out pedophilic sex abuse beginning at infancy. Bolstered by ample archival audio, video and printed evidence, the series paints a damningly comprehensive portrait of a cult infatuated with sharing child pornography and carrying out the rape of minors. Authorities knew about the Children of God’s despicable conduct as early as 1971, when Berg was compelled to go on the run from the FBI and Interpol, who sought him on child abuse and kidnapping charges. Yet bringing his more heinous behavior to light proved, in the ensuing decades, difficult to achieve, as evidenced by Sandy’s early-1990s ordeal trying to expose the cult’s secretive deviance, which made headlines but hit a legal roadblock when cult members refused to stray from Berg’s deceptive talking points.
In discussions about the terminology concocted by Berg to foster an insular culture; in videos of a young Celeste dancing provocatively, and explicitly, for the camera (part of a repugnant VHS series that Berg commissioned for his own private use, although he also passed it around to various communes); and in anecdotes about the orgiastic environment in which young members were raised, Children of the Cult censures this ugly outfit from multiple, equally outraged angles. While its form is somewhat standard-issue, it’s a lucid and heartbreaking overview of cult structures and procedures, scary personal ordeals, and courageous fights for justice—the last of which is implied from the outset, via shots of Hope walking angrily, and defiantly, into a Scotland police station.