I have no memory of my ancestry or record of my lineage; there is only Father David…When I picture my family tree, I see Mom…Dad…and my siblings – too many to count on two hands. When I envision my ancestors I see faraway Nordic countries where fjords split the land. I see Spain, where my parents met…When people ask me where I’m from I see three continents – Europe to the north, Asia to the east, and North America to the west – and I am in the middle. I have no country; I have no city; I have no ancestral pride; my lineage stops at David Brandt Berg. If it weren’t for him and his prophesies and visions, neither I, nor thousands of others, would ever have been born.
As far as memoirs of religious cults go, this one by Flor Edwards about her experience growing up in David Berg’s Children of God is as compelling as they come. As much as I love reading these, one of my complaints is often that they’re not so well written, which is understandable because it’s someone telling their story, and they’re usually not a trained or experienced writer. Edwards has a gift for crafting smooth, descriptive prose about what her childhood in this group was like, making this a worthwhile read just as a memoir, regardless of topic.
All I knew about the afterlife I had learned from Father David. He was the leader who would guide us, like Moses, into the End Time, a period that was fast approaching and was predicted in the Bible, in the Book of Revelation. He said I was a chosen child of God, and I was to be God’s End Time soldier. He was God’s chosen prophet, preparing us to save the world from the Great Apocalypse, which would come in 1993…Father David claimed to be the mouthpiece of God. He lived in hiding with an entourage of followers, including his wife, Maria, and his son, Davidito, “Little David.” He sat on his throne in his top-secret hideout, predicting our future and deciding our fate – a fate that included possible martyrdom and certain premature death.
Founded in Huntington Beach and spread through the US, Berg called for “missionaries” to spread his beliefs internationally. He also depicted himself as having the head of a lion, hence the cover image. And he encouraged the sex abuse of children. He was a disgusting mess all around.
Edwards’ Swedish mother met her father in Spain, and they went on to raise twelve children in the cult – such big families also being common, encouraged practice to create more “end-time soldiers”, as Edwards explains. Her story follows the meanderings the family took as they spread Berg’s message abroad, first in Thailand, later in Chicago, and finally back to California, her father’s home state. The book isn’t strictly about the cult, rather she tells her story through its lens – this was the path that her and her family’s lives took, and how they were influenced by certain teachings or instructions from Berg. But she’s the focus, and there’s always a hopeful undercurrent running through, often in connection with her twin sister, Tamar.
I think many readers shy from stories like this because, as I mentioned in my review of Jesus Freaks, a more historical account of the murder/suicide by Berg’s son, the specifics of the cult and what people, especially children, were made to endure are sickening. Unlike that book, Apocalypse Child doesn’t focus on the kind of content that’s upsetting to read without anything of value or substance to counter the shock and revulsion of the facts. Edwards is an incredibly strong survivor and her clearheaded writing is something of a wonder if you know anything about the cult and the horrible aftereffects it has on those who leave. I finished the book feeling so impressed by her strength and fortitude. And, not least, her ability to see through bullshit even at an early age.
The beauty I saw, within the walls and without, was enough to turn my heart inside out. If the evil spirits hid in living creatures, like Father David said, I thought they must be beautiful. And surely they mustn’t be as dangerous as he had led us to believe. Maybe it was that year when I began to wonder what it would be like to live outside, among the host of evil spirits, instead of safe and protected within the walls.
I was beginning to see that the adults, Mom and Dad included, would take whatever measures necessary to keep us in line and loyal to Father David’s teachings. I began to withdraw further and further inside myself, unable to handle both the fear of death that was always with me and now my recognition of what the adults were turning into.
This was a fascinating aspect of her story and one that she handled exceptionally well. She doesn’t blame her parents for their decisions, which led to her damaging, frightening, unconventional (to say the least) childhood. She’s thoughtful and understanding in a studied way, able to gracefully analyze the psychology behind their choices and her own. It’s something many people spend lifetimes in or out of therapy trying to figure out about themselves or others. She has such a sensible, empathetic view; stunning considering the confines she’d lived under.
This outlook includes her current thoughts on God and religion, something that’s really disturbed me in other post-cult memoirs: defectors often cling to another, more mainstream branch of religion as fervently as they were involved in the cult. Not here.
Also remarkable is that she says she didn’t read a novel until TC Boyle’s Tortilla Curtain in college, and yet she writes, as I think is evident in what’s excerpted here, like a dream. She acknowledges that writing is part of what saved her, giving her a powerful mental and emotional outlet to tell her story, and, it seems, to process her experience. The book is a wonderful example of the strength of storytelling as healing tool, and the power of being in control of one’s own narrative, finally.
My only qualm is that there wasn’t enough – occasionally an anecdote ended before I’d understood or “seen” enough, or I would’ve loved to see it explored further. But this is her first book, so I hope she keeps writing – I can only imagine where her storytelling could go from here.
The Children of God had a long and complicated history with the media. If I didn’t tell my story, I decided, reporters were going to keep spinning it into a narrative of sensationalism and controversy, victims and villains…I was going to shape the narrative of my life. I was going to take back my childhood, and writing it was the only way I knew how.
Strongly written, sensitive and deeply thoughtful account shedding light on the ways that cult indoctrination shapes thinking over time, with meaningful insight on the beginnings of reentry into the world after a life under authoritarian control.
Apocalypse Child: A Life in End Times
by Flor Edwards
published March 13, 2018 by Turner Publishing Company (Ingram)
I received an advance copy from the publisher for unbiased review.