SEPTEMBER 2, 2018
THE UGLY HISTORY of the Children of God broke into wide public view in 2005, when Ricky Rodriguez — groomed from infancy to lead the cult known for sexual sharing in their communal homes — murdered his former nanny before committing suicide. Apocalypse Child, an enlightening but narrowly focused memoir by Flor Edwards, paints a more complicated picture of the group than do the lurid headlines.
Born in 1981 to rank-and-file disciples, Edwards lived far from the inner circle. Neither she nor her parents ever met David Berg, the group’s prophet and leader. Yet by Edwards’s account, Father David was ever-present through his revelations, his teachings, and his practices.
Edwards describes an unusual, fascinating, and demanding childhood — full of love and affection, but also full of disruption and uncertainty. Her family lived a peripatetic existence, moving from Spain to Sweden (where she and her twin sister were born) to Mexico to California, and on to several places in Thailand for a number of years, before returning to the United States and settling in the Chicago area.
Because memoirs must focus on the experiences of a single individual, we lose the backdrop. In Edwards’s book, that would be the larger picture of life and times in the 1970s, when Southern California was the epicenter of a religious counterculture, and when the majority of first-generation members like her parents joined in. The charismatic Lonnie Frisbee brought the Jesus People from San Francisco to Los Angeles; Chuck Smith baptized hippies on the beach near Costa Mesa, where he started Calvary Chapel; and John Wimber, a consultant to Fuller Seminary in Pasadena, established the Vineyard Fellowship in a break with Smith over exorcism and healing. (Both Wimber and Smith expelled Frisbee from their groups when they learned that he was gay, and they wrote him out of their church histories.)
The most famous, or perhaps infamous, of the Jesus Freak movements, however, was the Children of God. Renamed the Family of Love in 1978, and the Family International in 2004, most members knew it simply as the Family. The group was founded in 1968 by David Brandt Berg, a one-time minister in the mainstream Christian and Missionary Alliance. From his new pulpit on the streets in Huntington Beach, “Father David” channeled the spirit of the counterculture with his condemnation of “The System” and his promise of a coming apocalypse led by Jesus, the one true revolutionary. He was also fascinated by sex in all its forms and developed a theology that justified promiscuity — the “Law of Love.”
As a child, Flor Edwards clearly resented her parents’ religious commitment and their rejection of The System. Their decision to live communally, rather than as a nuclear family, particularly seemed to gall her. “As members of The Family, we were expected to ‘share’ our relatives with each other,” she writes, noting that some “uncles” and “aunties” were quite nice, and others were harsh disciplinarians. Her parents’ decision to “go for the gold,” and have as many children as possible, was simply additional evidence that “Mom and Dad’s loyalty was to Father David rather than to us kids.” Frequent training sessions that her parents attended as home leaders helped them focus on service to Jesus apart from the distraction of children, who “continued to take a backseat in their priorities.”
Edwards has no idea what motivated her parents to forsake the world and join Berg’s End Time army. They were trying to follow Jesus and prepare for his return in what seemed to them to be the biblical way: living hand-to-mouth, evangelizing on street corners, praying, and working in anticipation of the coming apocalypse. “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me,” said Jesus (Matthew 19:21). Adults in the Family took this injunction literally. But there was a cost to the children, as Edwards observes.
The author escaped many of the antinomian and abusive sexual conventions that existed in the Family throughout the 1980s, although she recalls seeing and, more often, hearing adults coupling in a vacant bedroom (by 1990 the group had repudiated adult-minor sexual contact and abandoned the practice of bringing in new converts via sex, which they called “flirty fishing”). She did not escape occasional discipline, however, including a memorable occasion where she was given seven hard whacks with a paddle for “disorderly conduct,” which included the “vices” of disobedience, foolishness, defiance, and pride. With the adults distracted, she and her sisters had run wild, relatively speaking — playing instead of raking leaves, wearing outside shoes inside the house, laughing through mealtime, and staying up past bedtime. She was nine years old.
But Edwards also relates warm memories of going on fun walks with her mother, creating a swimming pool in one of the family homes, and living an exotic, if challenging, life abroad. Somewhat unexpectedly, she found life trying in the United States, where she experienced bullying, ostracism, and poverty for the first time. “I had never felt shame living in Thailand,” she admits, “even though it was a third-world country and we had no money.” Her isolation from modern American life, and growing disenchantment with the Family as a teenager, led her into a hard-drinking crowd and culminated in a suicide attempt. A year in alternative high school, however, and a teacher who encouraged her to go to college set her back on track.
By the end of the memoir, Flor Edwards is a bit more forgiving and understanding of her parents, seeing children and adults alike as victims of an abusive cult. It is clear that her parents did not share this victim mentality, although they gradually drifted away from the group when they sought medical care for her mother, who was diagnosed with cervical cancer. Serious abnormalities had first appeared in 1981 while pregnant with Flor and Tamar, but her mother thought nothing about it “since the world was going to end anyway.”
Just as it is difficult today to imagine a Los Angeles teeming with Jesus Freaks, it is hard to envision the dedication required to give up everything in the belief that time on earth was short. Although Edwards does not actually use ironic quotes when writing about being “God’s End Time soldier,” they are nonetheless present.
The 1960s and 1970s lacked the pervasive sense of irony that marks our own century. Devotion, loyalty, perseverance, and ardor were not considered pathologies in that era. A counterculture had arisen that rejected the values of the 1950s — the parents’ values — in a quest for a life of meaning. One of the most self-revealing statements to appear in the book is when Edwards declares that as a child she had been “burdened with saving the world.”
Fortunately, Edwards did not suffer the molestation a few children experienced in other communal homes or the cruelties inflicted on adolescents in some of the teen homes. Indeed, her book noticeably indicates that each home had its unique culture and practices, despite the edicts that came from on high. This undermines any attempt to make vast generalizations about the Family, even though former members tend to paint the past in broad strokes on critical websites. The mistreatment that occurred in one household was absent from another, and national differences made everyone’s experience different.
Children swelled the ranks of the movement because members of the Family did not believe in using artificial contraception. As early as 1982, children made up the majority of full-time members, and this imbalance continued for several decades. As a result, leadership shifted the focus of activities from street ministry and evangelization to education and homeschooling of children.
The educational background provided in the Family appears to have been exceptional for Edwards. She reports completing the Family-created fourth-grade workbook when she was seven, but not finishing the fifth-grade book because she was busy with chores in the communal home where her family lived. Even when she began attending public school as a teenager, she and her sisters were responsible for cooking and child care. Nevertheless, Edwards managed to maintain a 4.0 grade point average in high school and gained acceptance to UC Berkeley when she was 18, as did her twin sister.
Her separation from the Family began when she graduated from high school — at least mentally and emotionally — so the memoir does not cover institutional developments that have occurred in the last two decades. These would include the 2010 “Reboot,” which abandoned the communal-home model and, in effect, dismantled the last vestige of the group’s notorious past. The Family International exists today primarily as a virtual religion. A visitor to its website would find a completely traditional evangelical Christian message.
Apocalypse Child thus presents an absorbing snapshot of one individual’s experiences in a radically alternative movement, even though it lacks the sociological backdrop and wider lens that would have put her experience into its historical context. A reader would need to view a bigger photo album to gain a complete understanding of how that one snapshot fits.