I MET FLOR EDWARDS when we were both students at the University of California, Riverside’s Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing Program. Over meals out and gatherings with other friends, we celebrated our successes, talked about our common interests (such as yoga), our writing projects, and the unexpected challenges we faced in the program. Flor’s story intrigued me then, and a couple of years after I graduated, when I learned her memoir was due to be released in March 2018, I reached out to congratulate her.
Growing up in the Children of God cult, Flor was not allowed to read, write, or have a traditional education. Unable to communicate with anyone outside the group, she spent most of her days in compounds in Southeast Asia caring for younger children in the group, tending to chores, and memorizing scripture. Always on the move to escape the Antichrist and in preparation for the Apocalypse in 1993, her family relocated every few months. By the time she was 12, Flor had lived in 24 different areas across three continents.
After Father David, the cult’s leader, died in 1994, many of his 12,000 followers were abandoned in a world for which they were unprepared and struggled to adjust to life outside the group. Following Father David’s instructions to move back to the West right before his death, Flor and her family moved to California after a long, cold winter in Chicago, where they had spent two years. The cult slowly disbanded. With no money, job, or education, Flor and her family started over in her father’s hometown of California.
Flor attended high school, and it was in an English class in college at the age of 17 when she discovered she had a voice and decided to pursue a career as a writer, in part so she could share her remarkable story with others. Flor completed Apocalypse Child in 2014 and landed an agent who found her a publisher in January 2017. In her debut memoir, Flor movingly describes her early life growing up with her family and 11 siblings as a member of Children of God.
I conducted this interview with Flor Edwards over email. We talked about her life during the years in the Children of God, her writing process, and the challenges of adjusting to life outside the cult.
KRISTA LUKAS: When you were seven years old, your immediate biological family (not to be confused with the Children of God, called “the Family”) moved from Northern Thailand to Phuket Island, where you and others lived in the grand estate of a high-ranking Thai army colonel. There you practiced sketching, learned some ballet, and began writing, including your first poem. The night you wrote the poem, knowing you could be punished for being creative, you hid the poem and sketches in a secret place under your bed only for them to disappear by the next morning. You continued creative writing — what about dancing and sketching? And how did you manage to do any sort of creative work given the environment in which you lived during your time in the Children of God?
FLOR EDWARDS: We had about an hour at night called “Activity Time” when we could do creative things under the supervision of a “shepherd.” Some activities included musical instruments, dancing, singing, drawing, and arts and crafts. The other things like writing a poem or dancing ballet I sometimes did on my own volition, when I felt I was not being watched. I also once created a book for my little sister to read on visa trips so she didn’t have to watch the Chinese horror films they would play on the bus (those things scared the life out of me). During “Get-Out,” a one-hour time slot in the afternoon when we could play outside, we also sometimes were able to be creative and practice our dance moves, calisthenics, or play with the animals that roamed the yard or that we had as pets. It was a very exotic setting in Thailand with lots of nature. That’s also when we started catching butterflies for fun and then accidentally killing them and hosting elaborate funerals for our innocent victims, which I write about in my opening prologue.
What do you make of the idea that people in mainstream society, reviled as Systemites, were also relied upon to make the donations necessary for the Children of God to survive?
Now as an adult, I think it was hypocritical of them to judge people for being “evil” since they were not part of the Children of God, and therefore not “chosen,” yet still rely on them for their income and living. As a child, I was embarrassed and also shy. I hated asking for things from outsiders and having to “witness” to them when we did accompany adults on those trips. (Although I did enjoy the delicious food when they did donate it to us — it was such a treat after the boring food we ate in the compound!) As I started to come of age and after we moved to the United States at around age 12 or 13, I felt an increasing sense of shame and guilt for asking for things for free. On some level I knew it was wrong, but I understand that it was their means of living and how they survived, although it would never be my choice for income now as an adult, or then.
You describe unconscionable acts of violence by the adults toward children, sometimes for no discernible reason, although justified as discipline. Did you ever witness or hear of violence of adults toward other adults?
No, I did not. The adults in the group always exemplified a model of love as a way to groom us kids to believe the teachings of Father David (and I think there was authentic love to some degree — they were, after all, an offshoot of the hippie free love rebellious movement of the 1960s which was all about peace and love, antiwar and nonviolence, which accentuates the paradox of the rules under which we lived). Violence in the group was sugarcoated with love and compassion, which made it very confusing for us kids. Predators don’t always act with outright violence (as we can see with the recent Larry Nassar case). They “groom” their victims and make them feel safe so the victim learns to trust them. The victim comes back on his or her own terms because the predator makes her feel safe and the predator is not guilty because he was not aggressive; the victim came to them. Abuse in that sense is complicated. There’s a psychological component, which is the worst type of abuse and takes the longest to heal from. I was always told everything was done “in the name of love.” That is the most confusing type of abuse, especially for children, because it eats away at their psyche and distorts their early constructs of what love is and what love means. They learn to associate love with abuse, and it can carry on into later adult relationships.
You mention early in the memoir that your mother’s family disapproved of her joining the Children of God, and that Father David had ordered any potential members to defy parents or others who took this position. Your father, on the other hand, joined after several of his siblings had joined. Do you know how your paternal grandparents felt about this?
My paternal grandmother died before I was born. My grandfather on my dad’s side was a sarcastic man and thought the Children of God was a freak show. He didn’t approve.
Did you have any contact with your paternal biological extended family (I mean those who had joined) during your years as a member of the Children of God?
I have seen some of them from time to time over the years.
Since leaving the Children of God, have you practiced any religion, and what can you tell about it?
I do not practice any organized religion, but I do believe in faith and prayer. I also believe in angels. I think connection to a higher power and spirit is different from prescribing to a particular form of religion, practice, or belief. I think religion ultimately is about worship, community, and connection — connection to nature, connection to others, connection to God — and that is very important and can be practiced within or without church walls. I think any type of spiritual practice is very personal and should remain that way. I think trying to convince others of the “right way” was the downfall of the Children of God as well as many modern religions. For a long time, I hated anything related to church or God. I couldn’t even utter the word “God.” But I’ve lived through and seen miracles, so I know they happen. I know there is something greater than this physical realm. I know there is some form of a higher power, although how we define it may be different.
What resources would you recommend to readers who want to gain more knowledge about the Children of God and cults in general?
Because I lived through it, I’m not fascinated by cult stories or stories of captivity. They do not interest me, but rather make me uncomfortable. I did do some research when writing this book, so I read literature on the Children of God. I probably read more and know more about Father David than some of his followers. I came across an interesting article in Harper’s by Nathaniel Rich on a cult expert David Sullivan, who is since deceased. It was called “The Man Who Saves You from Yourself,” and the article begin with the words, “Nobody ever joins a cult.” That had me hooked, and it’s so true! Also, the documentary on Scientology Going Clear was quite fascinating. Other than telling my story, I really don’t like to talk about cults at all. I find it quite triggering and not fascinating at all. I didn’t so much see my story as a “cult” story as much as my story. It’s everyone else who likes to sensationalize the cult stuff. I could probably write a whole book using only two words: sex and cult. I find the real world, the world I was sheltered from, far more fascinating. I’ll never know what it was like to have grown up “normal.” I want to hear about a “normal” childhood. I want to hear about boring lives. While the media goes abuzz over the word “cult,” it’s the ordinary in life that fascinates me — the rest is just sensational and short-lived.
Publishing your memoir is a way of encouraging greater awareness about cults. Was this one reason you wanted to write and publish it? What other motives did you have?
There are many reasons to write a book. I did not write this book to create awareness about cults or the Children of God. In the beginning, I just thought it was a good story and I wanted to tell it. I didn’t even know there was a genre called “memoir.” I was writing a book. As I began to write it, I realized I wanted it to be something people could experience and interpret for themselves, to experience a world they hadn’t yet and to find meaning through it as I found meaning by writing it. I lived through it and I felt the need to paint the picture, to tell the story. But I didn’t write it because I had a particular opinion or judgment on it. Of course bad things happened and many people suffered, but I didn’t write it as an exposé at all, in fact quite the opposite. I wrote it to find beauty and meaning in my childhood, to make my childhood matter, otherwise there would be no record. I think that’s a big reason why we write: to leave a part of history, to say, “This happened, I lived through it, and I’m here to tell it.” I’m sure most people will see this as a “survivor story,” and that’s fine. Essentially, I survived to tell it, and that’s a beautiful thing. I wrote to make sense of it and I hope people find meaning from reading it as well. The simple language was intentional. There’s a reason it’s spare.
I like to think it’s a writer’s job to do one of two things: take something ordinary and make it extraordinary, or take something extraordinary and make it seem ordinary. I took a very complicated story and wrote it in the simplest way I could, and that was not easy. I want people to read between the lines, to see what I didn’t write, what I left out and to create their own narrative with it, add their own story to it. Writing should be interactive in that way, I think. I know people will want more and that may frustrate some, but I intended it that way. There’s an ancient saying: “To be content is to be a little bit hungry all the time”; and I think that applies to art as well. Leave people wanting more. I didn’t want to give readers everything or satisfy them fully, and that was actually a very hard thing to do. Simplicity is art. That’s all I knew when I sat down to write: simplicity and clarity. Never say more than you need to. The rest sorts itself out.
What audience do you think your memoir can help the most?
I wasn’t looking to “help” people when I wrote this memoir. I don’t know if writing can save anyone. As Alice Sebold said, “You must save yourself or you remain unsaved.” That points again to the downfall of many religions — looking outside to the “other” to save oneself. I don’t think art or poetry will save us, but they sure give a good avenue to make things less messy. Mine was probably one of the more complicated childhoods one could have lived through, and it was confusing for sure, but we live in a complicated world. What we need now is not so much compassion, but resilience. I wanted to tell a good story, and I found it to be the most challenging thing I’ve ever done. Perhaps the thousands of children who grew up in the Children of God will find it helpful as a way to articulate their experience. It seemed a nearly impossible task to tell this story and I often wanted to give up, but I had to tell it. People who may enjoy it are anyone interested in a well-written story and who want to take the time to slow down and experience a world different from their own. If you’re looking for a “misery memoir” or to wallow in the woes of the past, or find shock and instant gratification in some sensational aspect of a “cult” story, this might not be for you. I’m sure people will be shocked, but if you want, as one grad student put it, “to see more carnage,” go flip on the TV.
What makes you want to write?
The joy of finding the right word to describe something exactly it is. Also, as Joan Didion says, I don’t know what I am thinking (or feeling) until I sit down to write it. Writing my story gave me clarity of my life and helped me make sense and meaning of it. But ultimately, I think I sat down to write for the reason most people do: because I felt misunderstood.
What books were special to you as a young adult, once you left the Children of God?
The first books I read were the Little House on the Prairie series when I was around 12, shortly after Father David died and the Children of God started to disband. I loved the way Laura Ingalls Wilder captured her childhood with such vivid description. The first real novel I read was in college, T. C. Boyle’s The Tortilla Curtain. That’s when I decided I wanted to become a writer.
Is there anything you would like to add about Apocalypse Child?
One thing I think people should know is that I wrote this book with minimal education. It took me 12 years! I had no formal training in reading or writing and didn’t graduate high school. I knew how to read and write, but I was not allowed to do either. I never read fairy tales growing up, only the Bible and Father David’s letters. I still sometimes wonder what I missed out on in that sense. K–12 is an eternal mystery to me.
Also, a lot of people wanted photos. I opted not to include them in the book. I wanted the words to be enough. However, after March 13 you can go to my website, www.floredwards.com, and on my About page you will see a gallery of photos that correspond to the book along with captions from the book. I think readers will like the visual complement.
What is a question I have not asked that you wish I had asked?
A question would be, what is one thing you wish you knew before you started writing Apocalypse Child? The love-hate relationship you have with your writing will continue on to publication. There are some days when you are over the moon and it feels like all your dreams are coming true, and others I want to go hide in a cave and not come out until it’s all over. If you want to get published, you have to take it seriously. It’s a lot of dedication, and it’s a lot of sweat, blood, and tears. Know what you’re writing and who your audience is. I think some people don’t take me seriously as a writer — maybe I don’t fit into a “box” or “niche genre,” or I’m not intellectual enough — but that doesn’t matter. I take myself seriously as a writer — I know where I come from and what I’m capable of — and that’s what counts.