The Thumbnail Book Reviews

by John Q McDonald --- 18 September 2009

Jesus Freaks

A True Story of Murder and Madness on the Evangelical Edge

by Don Lattin

To a varying degree, all of us are lost. Some of us are fulfilled in career, but unlucky in love. Some of us think we're total losers. Some of us dream of writing a book, but write microscopic book reviews on the web instead. Some of us come from broken homes, or no homes whatsoever. Some of us were brought up in a 1950s prototypical nuclear family. It doesn't matter. We're all missing a little something. It is the nature of the human condition and it is the origin of religion. The decade of the 1960s was, partly, an efflorescence of this need, an insanely public acknowledgment that there was something missing from life in a fundamental way. This, of course, spawned numerous pathologies as well as some enduring legacies of compassion and awareness. Nevertheless, during that time, as at any other time, the world had its seekers, lost children who were in search of something or someone to fill the gap in their lives. We speak of the kind of person who is willing to turn over his or her own decisions to someone else, a new mother or a new father, someone who will assure them of right and wrong, black and white, a world of certainties in which they, of course, are on the side of good, or God. This is still going on, but in the 60s, there seemed to have been a dramatic and highly visible movement of such situations and arrangements. Some turned out dramatically and darkly, like the Manson family or, later, the Branch Davidians, the People's Temple, Heaven's Gate, Synanon. Some just evaporated.

This book tells just one of these stories, and only a part of the story at that. David Brandt Berg, son and grandson of evangelicals was a furtive preacher through most of his life. When he was fifty years old, though, his mother, who had repressed and abused him as a child, called him to California to preach to the wandering hippies who populated the beaches. Within a staggeringly short time, he had founded the Children of God, an organization we'd likely want to brand a cult. At its broadest, it was merely an evangelical Christian group with some rather liberal views on sex. At its heart, however, were the sexual obsessions and psychological damage of David Brandt Berg. Through a misguided sense of childhood sexuality and a supposed goal of encouraging a healthy attitude about that sexuality, Berg channeled his sexual fascination with children into a teaching, sexual abuse justified by the usual cherry-picking from the Bible. The Children of God grew into an organization that still exists today: The Family International. It is led by Karen Zerby, Berg's widow, who was clearly complicit in what appear to be very well documented cases of sexual abuse among the children in the cult. One such child was Zerby's own son (but not by Berg), Ricky. He was groomed by Berg to be some kind of prophet of the coming Apocalypse. But he was also raised in the highly sexualized environment that persisted in the core group of reculsive, elusive and well-hidden cult leaders. They had to be aware of how deranged and, certainly, illegal their activities would appear to the outside world, as they kept their identities well hidden by constant name changes and regular relocations. But, they claimed only to have a doctrine of total love. In the end, they had to sanitize their publications and clean up their image. But not before numerous children of original cult members came forward (and remain so today on many survivor web sites) to accuse the elders of this abuse. Ricky, in particular, weighted with the expectations of his religious prophecy as well as the memory of witnessing or participating in inappropriate sexual practices, left the cult and persued a path of revenge against his mother. In the end, he murdered one of the women who raised him and took his own life in the California desert. The cult has never paid for its transgressions and for its crimes. One wonders how that can be, given the detailed nature of the accusations and evidence.

Cults do occasionally grow into more or less established religions. Joseph Smith was a polygamist and his followers were murderers, but the Mormon religion is one of the biggest in America today. Perhaps the Family International will do the same. But they have a lot to answer for. Lattin suggests there are many in the group who just don't really understand or are unaware of the kind of accusations that plague the leadership cadre. Maybe there are many sincere followers of David Berg today. But there is a vast sea of unexamined grief and criminal behavior that lurks in the past of this evangelical organization. The book is a painful but compelling document to read. Ricky's sadness and confusion comes through on almost every page. Just as pervasive is the deluded teaching of a pretty perverse world view. How could they have ever drawn in so many followers (numbering in the many thousands today)? Perhaps it was the Hookers for Jesus, the Flirty Fishing of Berg's unique recruitment philosophy. Perhaps it was merely their capability of tapping into that fundamentally lost element in many people out there, in search of something greater than themselves.

[Mail John][To List]

[Other books on Counterculture & the 60s]