Book review: Jesus Freaks, by Don Lattin
This was an okay book, but nowhere near a great one, and I’d say there are multiple reasons not to read it. One of them being that Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer” will be stuck in your head nonstop for the duration of reading it. I kid! (that song’s the best) but we need something lighthearted while delving into this.
David Berg (who reminds me of old man Jafar from the beginning of Aladdin) was the cult leader of the hippie-ish Children of God, also known as The Family, although I prefer the former because the latter caused me to confuse them for a long time with the Manson Family. Berg formed the cult in the 1960s, using principles of free love and similar counterculture-type ideas.
Now it’s “The Family International”, a rebranding to try to escape their horrendously negative past. It’s actually amazing, reading some of their practices here, that they even still exist in any form. They’ve been in some news stories lately too, thanks to actress Rose McGowan and her visibility in the Me Too movement, since she grew up in the cult.
Anyway, Jesus Freaks is ostensibly about the murder of Berg follower Sue Kauten by Ricky Rodriguez, Berg’s “spiritual” son and the biological son of his wife Karen Zerby (Zerby eventually took over leadership upon Berg’s death). Ricky, called “Davidito” in the cult, was conceived as part of one of The Family’s many disturbing practices, “flirty fishing”, where female followers were instructed to use their “sex appeal for proselytizing.” Basically, have sex with men in the name of converting them into followers.
Another of the cult’s disturbing practices, this one even more so, was their belief in and even instructions for the sex abuse of children. Berg had a fixation on children as sexual beings, rooted in his own childhood and intertwined with religion, all covered to some extent here too. His mother, Virginia Berg, was a traveling revivalist and they had a decidedly unhealthy relationship. I’m always interested in the background of creepy cult leaders, but there was so much that was incredibly uncomfortable to read and know. I felt queasy often throughout the book. The whole group is very sex-driven, like I guess many cults are, but this one has extra levels of gross, considering children were allowed to see adults having sex and other highly inappropriate things.
In Ricky’s case, unfortunately it makes sense that much of the content focuses on the unimaginable sexual abuse that he suffered as a child in the cult. But, obviously, this doesn’t make for easy reading. I probably wouldn’t have read it if I’d understood how much would address that. Again though, it’s understandable – his abuse was the reason for his actions, period. Kauten was one of his former nannies and abusers, and he hadn’t originally planned on stopping at only killing her. I’m torn between saying it was too much, and just acknowledging that that’s what the story was, and what’s told here is surely not even the half of it.
The main problem with the book is that knowing these deeply disturbing things doesn’t feel like it ultimately serves a purpose, besides to turn your stomach. Of course you sympathize with Ricky and understand his immense anger that festered and grew over the years, culminating in his revenge plot with plans to take out many more figures within the Family organization beyond the one he did. But there’s little that’s solid or revealing about him as an adult, mostly just light impressions and some descriptions of his behavior from family, friends, and a brief employer. It’s not enough to present a clear picture of who he was, who he’d become as he grew into an adult outside of the cult. Maybe it’s all that was available, but it was disappointing.
What I also didn’t get was any sense of why this cult, and Berg as its leader, was able to draw in tens of thousands of people and apparently millions in fundraising. They stay in mansions and villas around the world, explained here or there as belonging to a Family member or the target of one of the women’s “flirty fishing” expeditions, but little beyond that. Lots of stories get told here, but the structure is hectic and all over the place.
Part of the reason I’m so drawn to memoirs by ex-cult members or books about the cults is that I’m so curious about what they saw in it to join it (assuming they weren’t born into it.) I want to know what they saw when it all seems so obviously off to me.
This is pretty much the best we get:
It’s not hard to understand what drew disciples into The Family in the late sixties and seventies. It was an era of political rebellion, sexual liberation, and evangelical revival. Berg’s radical critique of the church’s traditional view of sexuality and the human body was the right message at the right time delivered to the right audience. It was also a time of seeking. Many of those who joined The Family were people in need. They were vulnerable. They were at crossroads in their lives. They were looking for alternatives—for a purpose.
Lattin also covers stories and statistics about the high suicide rate among the second generation members, meaning those born into the cult. I did learn some things from it, I guess, and his research and personal interviews in this area were enlightening albeit painful.
Towards the end, Lattin writes a little about his own exhaustion with researching and writing about the abuses and revolting practices within the cult. He’d grown close to one defected member who seemed to have herself together, only to get a phone call talking about suicide. She got help through ex-Family members, but it disillusioned him further, I suppose regarding the hope of people successfully breaking ties and becoming psychologically freed from the Family.
Flor Edwards, a second generation ex-member who was brought into the cult by her parents along with her twin and many siblings, has written her story in the upcoming Apocalypse Child, a fantastic memoir about her childhood in the cult and the beginnings of her life after leaving it (my review coming March 12.) Her story is intense but she has the most positive, well adjusted and clear-headed outlook I can imagine, considering the circumstances. She writes like a dream and reasons thoughtfully about her experiences. I read Jesus Freaks after reading her memoir because I wanted to get a better idea of the cult, having known nothing about it before picking up her book.
But unlike her and others, Ricky – probably from his proximity to the center of this madness and the nature of the abuses perpetrated on him – never managed to get free.
He made a long video explaining some things about himself and his thought process before committing murder-suicide, and from what’s excerpted here, it’s clear how much pain he was in.
I come from an extremely abusive cult and have tried in the four years I’ve been out to figure out what ‘normal’ life is like, and how I can be a part of it…I guess I haven’t done that bad. But that’s on the surface. Emotionally, it’s gotten harder every day I’ve been out. I’ve become more and more angry at all the sick perverts who to this day are not the least bit sorry for the thousands of little kids that they have repeatedly raped, molested, and methodically tortured for many years. To me, these people are the worst of the worst, and unfortunately, my evil mother is the head of it!
You feel terrible for Ricky, you feel terrible for every other person that suffered thanks to some idiot working out his own issues through acts perpetrated on innocent others, you sympathize with the author’s exhaustion in hearing these sad stories. But unfortunately it comes up short as either journalistic reportage, history of the cult, or even just Ricky’s story.
My rating: 2.5/5
A True Story of Murder and Madness on the Evangelical Edge
by Don Lattin
published October 9, 2007 by Harper Collins
I’ve included affiliate links from Book Depository, a great site offering free worldwide shipping.
It means I get a small commission (at no extra expense to you) if you buy via these links.
I’m never paid to promote or review any title.