The Loving Children of an Ungodly Father: Mom, Apple Pie and Incest
Seen from the perspective of psychology, movements championing antinomianism or millenarian social orders create an atmosphere in which previously repressed and subconscious wishes may be permitted public expression. As even historians know, this subconscious material is usually sexual....”
--Dr. Stephen A. Kent, “The Lustful Prophet.”*
What a sick f(*k!
--Susan, comment on previous post.
As I had written earlier, in the series about the International Church of Christ, cult members, through relentless thought reform and indoctrination, find their own identities submerged under that of their founders. They not only parrot the words of the leader, but they internalize what they interpret as his/her opinions or attitudes, and this results in a uniformity of action and belief. In short, joining a coercive cult means making a journey away from who you are, and towards the person you believe the founder to be. Cult leadership usually falls to followers who have most completely internalized the leader’s personality.
So if you want to understand what went on in the minds of the Children of God, you’d first have to get into the head of David Berg. In a 1994 paper titled “The Lustful Prophet: A Psychosexual Historical Study of the Children of God’s Leader, David Berg,” sociologist Dr. Stephen Kent (University of Alberta) offered a psychodynamic portrait of the CoG founder which chronicles the real (and in some instances, perhaps imaginary) sexual horrors he faced in his youth. In this study, Dr. Kent depicted Berg as a tortured soul., under the thumb of a demanding, hypocritical, and hypercritical mother. He could only find his own sense of authority after her death. But without her to whip him into line, he had nothing else to keep him in check. And because of profound psychological damage, Berg didn’t have it in him to channel that angst, anger or betrayal into something positive. Instead, he developed the sexual dogma and policies of his ministry in a neurotic quest to exact vicarious revenge on his mother, not to mention real payback on his ex-wife (Jane Miller Berg, aka Mother Eve), and just about any woman he could get his hands on (literally).
Trouble began early for David Berg when one of his family servants took it upon herself to molest him until the age of three, when his mother happened to walk in on them. Berg’s mother, Virginia, physically attacked the woman, about whom Berg spoke fondly for the remainder of his life.** In a Mo Letter titled “Revolutionary Sex” (GP, 27 March 1973), he wrote:
SO, YOU SAY‚ IF ONANISM IS NOT MASTURBATION, THEN WHAT ABOUT MASTURBATION?—Isn't that one of the prohibited sexual offenses? My mother certainly prohibited it‚ told me it was very naughty and dirty, slapped my hand for doing it when I was little, and even threatened to cut it off if I didn't stop! She even slapped our poor little Mexican maid out of the house in Oklahoma when I was only three years old when she caught her putting me to sleep in this pleasant fashion, a common practice amongst many other more primitive cultures! So I soon learned that you not only weren't supposed to do it in front of other people or even members of your own family, but absolutely not at all, that it was strictly forbidden‚ naughty, nasty, dirty, bad, wicked, sinful and maybe even worse! I was told all those false old horror tales of all the people who got terrible diseases, wrecked their health and went insane by doing it! [emphasis original]
Examining the above passage, Dr. Kent noted not only the molestation, but Virginia Berg’s reaction to it. Rev. Virginia (left) was not just any itinerary preacher. She was a bit of a rock star among clergywomen who, like her contemporary Rev. Aimee Semple McPherson, packed ’em in with a combination of fiery rhetoric and sex appeal. Virginia commanded much more respect on the Bible circuit than her husband and fellow minister, Hjalmer. So through much of his early development, David’s care was left to various relatives and servants, in this case a Mexican woman, whom he called Maria.
While we can certainly understand Virginia’s reaction as a defense against her son’s molestation, David understood something entirely different. This maid was the adult female of his life, an ersatz mother who not only bonded with him emotionally, but gave him physical pleasures to boot. His mother’s violent reaction to her therefore left him with feelings of guilt, for Berg understood that he was somehow the cause of the assault. Most important, he saw it as an act of betrayal. As he wrote in a Mo Letter titled “Real Mothers” (DFO, 18 November 1975):
EVEN THAT POOR LITTLE MEXICAN BABYSITTER MY MOTHER SLAPPED OUT OF THE HOUSE WHEN I WAS THREE FOR PUTTING ME TO SLEEP BY FONDLING MY PENIS, I even felt that was unjust and unfair! I don't think I ever forgave my mother for that, really. I thought that was very very mean and unfair when the poor little girl was only trying to put me to sleep!--Besides, I liked it!
I LIKED IT WHEN SHE PETTED AND SUCKED MY PENIS TO PUT ME TO SLEEP--AT THREE YEARS OF AGE! Well, why shouldn't I?--I still like it! [emphasis original]
Furthermore, if his mother reacted that strongly, David, as a three-year-old, must have felt as though he had done something terribly wrong. As Dr. Kent wrote:
A female adult manipulated his penis and may even have orally copulated him.... He liked the physical sensationm, but he seemed distressed at seeing the maid who had fondled him get violently expelled from the house by his mother, who in turn made him feel fearful and guilty over his sexual urges and sensations.
If he could no longer be with the one he loved (Maria the Mexican maid), Berg would have to settle on loving the one he was with (his hand).*** His masturbatory habits infuriated his mother, who would continuously chastise him when she caught him doing it. The situation came to a head four years after the Maria incident when she caught him yet again. Violently outraged, Virginia went into the kitchen to grab a large butcher knife, then assembled the entire family and all the servants. In front of his father, two elder siblings, and everyone else Virginia gave David a choice. He could either (1) strip naked and masturbate to climax in front of everyone, or (2) she would simply chop off his penis. Reliving the incident in a Mo Letter titled “My Childhood Sex!--Doin’ What Comes Naturally” (DO, 8 November 1978), Berg wrote:
SHE BROUGHT A WASHBASIN, A LITTLE BOWL & A KNIFE, & SHE TOLD ME SHE WAS GOING TO CUT IT OFF! Oh, I was terrified! I was absolutely petrified! I almost never forgave my mother for that, threatening to cut it off & embarrassing me in front of the family! But that didn't stop me. It felt too good to quit! I just kept it up in secret, my terrible secret sin! [emphasis original]
Later that year, while staying with relatives, Berg engaged in sexual intercourse with a cousin about the same age. According to him, she initiated the contact after watching her parents do it the night before. Berg remembered the experience as a little painful, but otherwise quite enjoyable. He became so engrossed in the act, in fact, that he didn’t pay any attention to his surroundings until they had finished--whereupon he discovered, to his terror, that his uncle had watched the whole thing from the door. Despite the fact that he had just witnessed the deflowering of his seven-year-old daughter, this man didn’t think to stop them. Instead, he, like Virginia, invited the household servants to watch with him. Thinking that his uncle would tell his mother, David ran away, seeking refuge at a neighbor’s house for seven hours. To his surprise, no one mentioned the incident again. If the uncle told his mother, she apparently decided to keep the butcher knife in its drawer.
What you have at this point is a child, who, after undergoing a daily regimen of sexual assaults, acts out in a way that many other abused children do: compulsive self-gratification. Instead of realizing that her son had a real problem, one that he was in no way responsible for, Virginia Berg threatened him with a choice of castration or intense humiliation as if he could really control himself. By that point, he could not, for he saw the activity as immensely pleasurable, and could not genuinely see anything wrong with it. The only thing he could do, according to the above quote, was to stay mum on his “terrible secret sin.”
Berg’s relationship to his mother might have also been complicated by a factor that Dr. Kent didn’t discuss. While we might see Virginia’s reaction to Maria the maid as one originating from the maternal instinct to protect, one could also speculate that she might have reacted more out of jealousy. In resenting Maria for having a closer relationship to her son than she, it’s possible Virginia might have also envied their sexual intimacy. In a Mo Letter titled “Sex with Grandma” (DFO, 11 June 1982), Berg candidly discussed the erotic tension within their relationship.**** And he strongly suspected that his mother had a deeply rooted desire to have sex with him, as evidenced when, by necessity, they had to sleep a night in the same bed:
I REMEMBER MY HEART WAS POUNDING & I WAS ACTUALLY SO EMBARRASSED THAT I DON’T RECALL SAYING A WORD! I think I was almost stunned speechless & even horrified that maybe my Mother was having sexual thoughts about me!—Which she may have been for all I know, & I wouldn’t blame her! Her husband had not been living with her for a long time & she was a woman with a lot of drive, of Jewish background—& Jewesses are notoriously very sexy—& here she was sleeping in bed with a strong virile young man, right next to him on a cold night, & now wrapped around him trying to get warm! She surely must have had some small sensation, if not more, even as I was having! [capitalization original]
AND PERHAPS IF I HAD NOT BEEN SO CONSERVATIVE & EXTREMELY NARROW-MINDED IN MY THEOLOGY & RELIGION AT THAT TIME & so absolutely frightened by my Mother’s seeming abandon at the moment, I might have reacted a little more responsively & perhaps have satisfied both of us & our tremendous sexual needs, & it could have developed into a beautiful sexual relationship! “*****
As mentioned earlier, Berg had a rather checkered career as an evangelist. One ministry kicked him out, ostensibly for his affair with an underage church secretary. And Rev. Fred Jordan, his main mentor, eventually fired him too. Family life became an economic and emotional struggle. In short, during his twenties, thirties, and forties, Berg floundered. His mother never let him forget it, either. She professionally regarded him as a third-rate Fred-Jordan clone, telling him that he would never amount to anything.
Rev. Virginia Berg wasn’t alone in her assessment. David’s wife shared her mother-in-law’s opinion. As Berg wrote in Mo Letter “Real Love Never Fails” (DFO, 31 October 1977):
I THINK IN MY LAST DAYS WITH MOTHER [his wife, Jane Berg], BEFORE I MET MARIA [Karen Zerby], I'D ALMOST GIVEN UP ON MYSELF. Mother had practically won me over to where I agreed with her that I was no good, of no account and could never accomplish anything, would never get anywhere, and I wasn't a man of God. I wasn't spiritual, I didn't pray enough or read my Bible enough, and I didn't get down on my knees and moan and groan like she did. I have sometimes, especially over her. [emphasis original]
From Berg’s language (e.g., he called Jane “Mother” and Zerby simply “Maria”) and his depiction of their relationship here and elsewhere, one could gather that he saw his wife and mother as quite similar in function, particularly in regards to their criticism of him (which he obviously saw as so much ball-breaking). Moreover, both women frustrated him to a significant extent: mother because of her lack of professional approval, and personal disapproval over his sexual proclivities; and wife because of her lack of professional approval, and because of her sexual rejection of him. Curiously, he regarded the sexuality of both women as intimidating, especially in their putative desire for him. As Dr. Kent explained:
Berg himself admitted to being 'so bashful and so holy that I was afraid to touch her [Jane] to loosen her up,'… and he could not touch his wife's breasts for perhaps a year…. For the first years of their marriage, David and Jane were too inhibited even to talk about sex… although somehow they were able to work things out sufficiently well enough that she allegedly was able to have multiple orgasms at some point in their relationship…. He remained irritated, however, about his wife's persistent habit of getting hungry or having to go to the bathroom "RIGHT IN THE MIDDLE OF IT all"….
Considered together, David and Jane's sexual life seems to have had deeply-seated problems--problems that afflicted them individually and as a couple. Jane, too, must have felt dissatisfaction with aspects of the marriage, since apparently she ran off with another man in 1960, after which 'David quickly went to retrieve her' (Hill, 1981, p.23).
Jane and Rev. Virginia Berg did differ in a couple of key respects. For starters David had a much longer personal history with his mother than he did with his wife. Most important, David Berg had always stood in the shadow of his mother, and would continue to do so until the late 1960s. After all, Berg came to Huntington Beach, CA at the request of his mother, whose last ministry serviced a growing number of Jesus Freaks, flower children and hippies. So, even then, as an evangelist, he took a back seat to his mother. Even his kids’ Christian rock band, Teens for Christ, upstaged him, as young people crammed into coffeehouses primarily to see them, not him.
Berg, in fact would never be free of his mother’s specter until 15 March 1968. On that date, Rev. Virginia died--a few months shy of her eighty-second birthday. As they say, with death comes rebirth. Born on that day, or shortly after, were David’s true colors. After forty-nine years of stifling himself, and fearing his mother’s wrath, her death uncorked five decades worth of piss and vinegar against the woman, and everything she stood for. As his elder daughter, Linda Berg Davis (who now goes by the name Deborah), told Dr. Kent in a 1988 interview:
[Davis]--Well, it was down at the Light Club [Teens for Christ‘s major venue]. He went down and spoke publicly, which he usually never did. Well, up to that time I don't think he ever had. He went down to the Light Club, and he got up, and the press was all invited to come and everything to hear . . . ; the press was there and all my grandmother's old friends.... And there he just blows them all away. He just damns the system and damns the church system . . ., damns the war [in Vietnam], damns the political system, damns parents for raising their kids wrong--I mean, oh, everything.... [A]ll of my grandmother's friends just . . ., you know, turned and didn't have anything to do with us after that. So it was kind of like all this vehemence of [sic: against] everything that he was disgusted with or mad about or--he just came out against it after she died. And [he] just began to practice what he really wanted to and how he really wanted to be.
[Kent]--So it sounded like he was not only damning the system, but also damning his own upbringing.
[Davis]--Yeah, his own--of course he was. He was damning his own upbringing, and it was too traditional, and it was oppressive. But he--like he never did it while my grandmother was alive. It was after . . . she was gone that he came out . . ., you know, when he came out with all of that.
In Freudian psychology, the id is the psyche’s wild child, the unbridled lust and desire that the human has for food, sex, power and everything pleasurable. The superego, on the other hand, is the law and order cop, the moralistic, authoritarian part of the psyche that tells us what we shouldn’t, mustn’t, or can’t do in order to stay within the boundaries society sets for us. Freud saw these two as forever in conflict with each other. The ego constantly has to mediate between these extremes to balance the desires of the individual with the needs of the community that supports him.
That’s why I think Dr. Kent was most astute in noting that Berg’s subsequent deviance towards authoritarianism and perversion came from having a weak, almost non-existent ego. While in pop-psychology terms it might seem impossible that someone so hideously narcissistic, self-righteous and self-centered as David could have a weak ego, in the true psychological sense this is exactly what happened to him. Virginia, in many ways, served as both David’s superego and ego. He never mediated between desire and responsibility. He just did what his mother told him to do--with the exception of gratifying his perpetual horniness; even then his mother‘s influence kept it from blowing up into what it would become. Consequently, his ego never developed. With the superego gone, the only thing Berg had left was pure, unadulterated id in concentrated form.
While Freudian psychoanalytic theory offers a satisfying explanation for that aspect of Berg’s being, Dr. Kent wisely noted that many aspects of David’s personality and psychology had little to do with Sigmund’s teachings. In fact, Berg had a real tendency to turn Freudian theory on its keyster.
*'Antinomianism' refers to the tendency among religious sects to break with previously established rules, customs or traditions in deference to some new enlightenment or knowledge.
**Berg’s sister, also named Virginia, never really play a large role in the development of the Children of God, so I won’t distinguish between the two. All references to Virginia Berg here are to his mother.
***According to many sources, Berg began masturbating at the age of seven, after a Sunday School classmate recommended it. But Berg’s account here strongly suggests he simply took up where Maria left off.
****Because CoG members usually referred to Berg as “Dad,“ they considered Virginia Berg ‘Grandma.’
*****Despite his virulent anti-Semitism, Berg took pride in having distant Jewish ancestors. Whether or not he actually had Jewish ancestors, I’m not sure. Still, one can see in this, and in previous quotes, that Berg wasn’t the least bit politically correct.
The Loving Children of an Ungodly Father: Bait in Training
In some ways, David Berg’s grooming of women for the task of literally giving their all for the cause reminds me of rumored Soviet-era KGB training of swallows (female sex spies). An early exercise would consist of forcing the novice spy to engage in public nudity. The purpose of this was to habituate her to humiliation, chipping away at her ego and self-esteem until there was nothing left of either.
Although he instituted the policy after the advent of FF-ing, Berg strongly encouraged female members to perform videotaped or filmed stripteases for him (NSFW link). At the time (early-1980s), he would often lay low in undisclosed locations while various law enforcement agencies hunted for him. Thus members all over the world would communicate with him by videotaping or filming messages to send him. In such Mo Letters as “Glorify God in the Dance” (DO, dated 24 July 1981) he praised the women who submitted to this call:
IN FACT, WE HAVE BEEN AMAZED AT THE TALENT ALONG THIS LINE that we have discovered amongst you girls in the Family, & it has been quite an attractive addition to our repertoire of thrilling Family tapes, we have personally enjoyed them immensely, most of them, that is.
EVEN SOME OF THE LITTLE INDIVIDUAL ONES which you included with the video of your own personal family in which some of you dear brave girls volunteered courageously to go all the way for us & the Lord & to give your all & your best to Jesus & his ever-loving Family, & we really love them & love you for making them & thank you with all our hearts…. [emphasis original]
As mentioned earlier, children born into the cult were essentially parentless, because of the group’s disdain for the “selfishness” of biological families, and because they often separated families. It should therefore come as no surprise that many of the sexual aspects of cult life filtered down to the kids as well. The stripteases asked of adult women were also encouraged among young girls as well (NSFW: strong warning*). In this sense, we see leadership of the CoG/FoL indoctrinating these girls into the roles the cult wanted them to play, specifically as future (or perhaps not-so-future) sex sirens.
In 1982, the cult published a DO-rated True Komix issue based on a January 1974 Mo Letter titled “The Little Flirty Fish” (NSFW link). By editing and reissuing this ML as a comic strip, the cult hoped to explain the practice of FF-ing to their children, especially the girls. In such DO-rated publications as “My Little Fish” (NSFW: read warning below), the cult gave instructions, both to kids and adults, for how to sexually relate to each other.
Simply put, leadership intended these publication for children, and children certainly read them. As ABC News producers found out:
Figure 1. 20/20 interview with Children of God/Family of Love children
As much as the CoG were known for free sex and religious prostitution, sexual activity among its children would become its biggest source of notoriety, corroborated by many second generation members, among them River Phoenix. While one might think that a sex cult wouldn’t necessarily coerce children into sexual activity, this one did. While the cult justified this (and many other things) by the twisted interpretation of scripture, the preoccupation with pedophilia actually came from the darkest part of Berg’s psyche.
*This link will take you to the opening frames of Children of God: Lost & Found, a 2007 documentary produced by former second-generation CoG member Noah H. Thompson for Home Box Office (HBO). Because this has been carefully edited, and aired multiple times on national television, it’s safe to say that this clip depicting the stripteases of young girls (one of them Berg’s biological granddaughter), is legal to watch in the US. This might not be the case in all countries. To be safe, I suggest you check the child pornography laws of your country before clicking that link.
I highly recommend Thompson’s film, because it’s made from the point of view of a thoughtful insider. If you watch it from beginning to end, you will find later footage of two adult women reviewing the striptease videos they made as children. Their commentary is quite enlightening.
The Loving Children of an Ungodly Father: Down to FF-ing Business
Flirty Fishing required substantial organization. First of all, the Children of God had to prepare the “bait” (FF-ing female members) to go out, hook, and keep on hooking perspective fish. They had to find the fish to begin with. They also had to keep track of each transaction on a daily basis.
The King Arthur series of Mo Letters, and myriad issues of True Komix, strongly encouraged more attractive members to engage in the practice. For example, in issues #505 and #506 of TX, based on a DFO King Arthur Letter dated 6 April 1975, we find Berg personally chastising Mama Maria (Karen Zerby) for her hesitation to comply with the new dictate, telling her:
You really failed me tonight! You are the stubbornest piece of bait I ever tried to fish with! Jesus help us! You won’t cast in the direction I cast you, you won’t try to lure the fish I’m after….
Which showed the most love?--that you obey me or you don’t obey me? Because of some stupid idea about your wanting to be loyal to the fisherman, you don’t want to give him the lineand the hook!…
The bait is out there to entice the fish! Lord help us catch men! You’re to go out there angling, procuring, pandering, whatever you like to call it, for fish! [emphasis original]
This passage (and others) show some of the dynamics of the group at that time. A theme stressed many times over in David Berg’s writings is the hierarchy that placed the welfare and concern of the group above its members in general, and men over women in the specific. Not even Mama Maria was beyond reproach in this regard. Moreover, Berg specifically stressed blind obedience in deference to loyalty. And here, it’s not as though she’s disobeying the dictate. Berg’s ragging on her because she isn’t complying enthusiastically enough. She’s holding back. Then again, one has to think that if the Queen Bee herself is doing it, any protestation by a rank and file member might sound (especially within the group) like the whining of a prima dona. Berg also exerted pressure by using the Bible to justify FF-ing. In “The FF-ing Patriarchs” (DFO, True Komix 533, based on Mo Letters written in April 1982), he claimed that such figures as Sarah, Esther, and Ruth had, at one time, done exactly the same thing.
Once they had enough women willing to sacrifice themselves as bait, leadership’s next task would be to cast them upon the water to see what bites. They sometimes used nightclubs to meet fish and witnesses to them. The problem with that is when plying one’s ministry to the population at large, even the most enthusiastic blue-collar fish can only “donate” so much, if anything. And if he doesn’t have much in terms of possessions, there’s not much he or his parents could give the cult should he join. So the question quickly became how to get a bigger bang for their buck--or more accurately, how to get bigger bucks for their bangs.
It didn’t take long for the witnessing aspect of flirty fishing to diminish as making money became a major concern. Quoting “The FF-er’s Handbook” (above left), “You’ve got to catch a few [fish] to make the fun pay for itself. So don’t do it for nothing.“ In a Mo Letter titled “Does FF-ing Pay? Who Foots the Bills” (DO, dated 6 September 1977), David Berg wrote:
IT’S ABOUT TIME THE MEN START FOOTING THE BILL in more ways than one!…Those guys who are practically living in, they’re old enough now in the Lord that they ought to see the responsibilities in supporting the work. They’ve go good jobs and businesses and they have the money and it’s time we told them (Some of them have already offered their support, God bless ‘em!)….
So don’t be afraid to let ‘em foot the bills, girls. Happy Hookin’!--But make it pay! The Gospel is free--but it costs, something to pipe it to ‘em. [emphasis and punctuation original]
Berg was clever enough to realize the usefulness of other types of “donations.” In the above Mo Letter, he went on to suggest that the women ask fish who were reluctant to fork over cash (because it seemed like out-and-out prostitution) to purchase goods and services as gifts. Yet, there existed an even more powerful type of donation, one actually worth more than money: favors, many of the political type. As the cult’s notoriety spread internationally, and because they were visible all over the world, Berg sought political alliances that could thwart investigations, raids and deportation hearings in host countries. As one member, identifying himself only by the name Simon, stated in an undated videotaped communication from Osaka:
With FF-ing being such an important ministry, and something we really need to attack on, it was decided it would be good to have a couple to oversee and coordinate things. And so Esther and myself were asked to do that. So, what the vision is is to be able to coordinate any upcoming events at hotels, or social events--places that we could meet some of these city fathers that would really be able to help keep us in the country. And what we discussed was how important it is to make sure we’re reaching the top. We start off by the letter, Esther the Queen of FF-ers, was read, and was really convicting about how we need to make sure that we’re reaching people that will be able to help us in our ministry.
Figure 1. Visa and Escort Report
In order to influence fish with potential clout, the CoG began to rely on run-of-the-mill escort agencies. In the above report, which also serves as a guide, you can see how they broke down the agencies into different types, and outlined the expectations, pros and cons of each. It didn’t take long for various colonies to form their own escort agencies. As mentioned in the article below (Fig. 2)
Figure 2. News of a CoG-run agency
Figure 3. Flirty Fishing report form (long)*
As with any business enterprise, it becomes necessary to keep track of transactions. Aptly illustrating its commitment to FF-ing, the cult issued forms (Fig. 3) that detailed, among other things, the depth of witnessing, the number of witnessing attempts, the occupations (which would imply social or class status) of the fish, and the total number of fish. With a preamble penned by Duchess Barbara Canevaro (then known to the cult as Queen Rachel), the instructions reiterated Berg’s admonition to “make it pay,” and counseled prospective bait to include both men and women fish in their report totals statistics, but only if the lovebombing entailed hardcore sex:
Q: Does ‘Loved Sexuality’ also include kissing and light petting?
A: We suggest you only include masturbation, sucking, and actual intercourse in the figures of fish, mate. brother or sister loved sexually [sic]. It’s all, or nothing at all! Hallelujah!
By 1987, the AIDS epidemic--not to mention the backlash against the “sexual revolution” that originated from it--led the Children of God (now the Family of Love) to abandon the practice of Flirty Fishing. As stated on their official website:
In 1987 the Family discontinued FFing to emphasize other means of ministering the Word of God to others, as well as to take advantage of opportunities to reach more people than the very personalized ministry of FFing allowed. At that time as well, the plague of AIDS had begun its rampage through the world—another indication that it was time to reconsider Family policy of allowing sexual interaction outside our communities.
Although we no longer practice FFing, we believe the scriptural principles behind the ministry remain sound.
Below, are the statistics on Flirty Fishing from 1978-1988 as compiled by the CoG/FoL.
The Loving Children of an Ungodly Father: Fishy Flirting
Nowadays, Dr. Miriam Williams Boeri (left) is a respected Asst. Professor of Sociology (Kennesaw State), where she researches such topics as methamphetamine use in suburbia. But I first learned of her (and the Children of God, for that matter) back in 1999 after picking up a copy of her 1998 memoir, Heaven’s Harlots: My Fifteen Years as a Sacred Prostitute in the Children of God Cult,* in which she candidly chronicled her induction, work, and ultimate defection from the Children of God. With the insight that can only come from insiders, Dr. Boeri described not only the lightning brief introduction to the cult, but the slowly developing indoctrination process that began with reasonable fundamentalists beliefs, and ended through the looking glass.
Her story starts in Greenwich Village--1971--where she watched The Ultimate Trip, a documentary about the CoG, at a local church. The cult came across as utopian, and that positively impressed her:
Here was pure communism, but these people were happy, not severe, like that [Maoist] boy in Washington. These people were Christians, yet they looked like hippies in long skirts and flowing hair. And they had a vision--to change the world! Leaving the church as soon as the film was over, I tried to hide the tears in my eyes. I felt I had just seen the living purity of Jesus’ words. I wanted to be like these people--to love everyone; to give my life for others; to be part of a true community.
She by chance met a CoG follower the next day, and, on the spot, he invited her to visit a local compound. She accepted. The process of indoctrination began immediately on the bus ride up, with members telling her that her baptism, her beliefs, and her previous practices of faith weren‘t enough for salvation. A few days later, they told her that her clothes (jeans and army jacket) weren’t “feminine enough, and that she should exchange clothes at their “Forsake All.” They kept her under constant surveillance, lovebombed her, and repetitively, relentlessly quoted scriptures to her. Before she knew it, she was committing more and more to the cult until she was in over her head:
Although I don’t remember making any verbal decision to join or signing anything, I handed over to the group all my belongings, including my driver’s license, which was never returned. In my purse, I’d had only the few dollars we had panhandled [busked, actually] in New York, which was also handed over, and I never held money again for years.
At the time she entered the CoG, the cult still disallowed sex outside of marriage. She noticed how the prospect of betrothal consequently preoccupied the thoughts of many of her peers, “since no physical contact was allowed between boys and girls unless they were married to each other.“
Like many others, she was betrothed to another cult member she had limited contact with beforehand. Former Fleetwood Mac guitarist Jeremy Spencer conned her into performing a skit, which in reality was a wedding proposal to the drummer of his new band.** At the time (1972), David Berg had issued a Mo Letter mandating three-to-six month courtships for all betrothals. Despite the bonding time, she realized on her wedding night that they had no chemistry:
I lay awake most of the night wondering what I had done and why. Cal [Caleb, her husband] was a very nice person, much better looking and better groomed than most of the boys at the camp, but I did not think I loved him. Romantic love was one of the lies of the devil, I had been told by an older sister.***
Dr. Boeri assumed that she would travel with her husband, who would travel with the band. And, for awhile, her assumptions played out as expected. But leadership saw fit to send them to a colony in Essen, Germany, where “The colony leaders were Samson and Naomi, who together ruled the home with Gestapo-like authority.”
She and her husband subsequently spent most of her time trying to augment the revenues of the CoG through literature witnessing (or “litnessing”): selling copies of GP-rated Mo Letters and other materials, in the hopes of raising money. If lucky, a litnesser could also induct others, who would then forfeit their worldly possessions and collect donations from family members. Needless to say, this was a pretty grueling existence. Litnessers had a daily quota, which could easily take them twelve to fourteen hours to meet.
The cult then ordered Cal to Paris, leaving Miriam alone with their son. A sympathetic cult member with considerable clout in the organization, managed to reunite the family in France, during which time, they received word of the new wife-swapping doctrine. She quickly noticed that the new sexual liberty granted by Berg seemed to become an obsession with those who were previously sexually conservative, those with “more religious fundamentalist backgrounds.”
While in Paris, her mission was to set up a nursery. After she finished that, it was back to the litnessing salt mines. This time, however, she and Cal decided to busk to make quota. This group became quite popular, even making an appearance of national television.**** While hard work, it probably beat sweating bullets to see if you could make quota. But one CoG officer, specifically Berg’s daughter Faith, found a shortcut to surpassing that quota, when sent to Libya in 1973 as Berg‘s personal envoy to Muammar Qaddafi.
Figure 1. Faith and Jonathan Berg with Col. Qaddafi
As she explained in the 1998 documentary The Love Prophet, Faith had attempted to convert a male Muslim when, for some unexplained reason, they wound up having sex. Ashamed, she immediately called her father to confess the indiscretion. But if she expected something on the order of excommunication at worst, or a strong rebuke in the least, her father‘s response would surprise her:
’Cause I had never, ever, had sex with anybody that I wasn’t married to. And I had never had sex with anybody that was--what I would consider--a heathen…
And then my father said, ‘Why it’s exactly the same day we got this prophecy called the Flirty Fish.’ And he said, ‘Why it’s amazing,‘ and, ‘This is exactly what God is revealing to us; that there would be instances, in which we would have to portray God’s love in a physical way, and that there was nothing wrong with it.
The fish metaphor came from the Gospels: the story of how Christ told Simon Peter to be a “fisher of men.“ In other words, the fish were souls who needed saving. Flirting, in a literal sense, might make many males (and some females--Berg rigorously defended female homosexuality) more receptive to the message. But what Berg now instructed of his female disciples went considerably beyond batting pretty eyelashes, or whispering sweet nothing into the ears of potential recruits. He wanted them to go all the way.
Initially, Flirty Fishing (or FF-ing, for short) served as a way of recruiting (mostly) males into the cult. It paid big dividends early on when one of Berg’s earliest followers landed a barracuda. In 1973, Barbara Kaliher (right) hooked, inducted, and then married, Victor Emanuele Canevaro, the Italian Duke of Zoagli and Castelvari, thus making her a real-life duchess. According to a Time magazine article dated 22 August 1977, Duke Canevero owned a rather large estate and mansion near Florence, of which Berg and the CoG took immediate advantage.
After litnessing all day, Dr. Boeri would then Flirty Fish all night. She soon found herself doing it in parties and clubs populated by such glitterati as Andy Warhol and Catherine Deneuve, and by such infamous figures as Adnan Khashoggi. By that time, the church had separated her from both her son and husband, who now had an approved mistress, who more or less took her place. These things emotionally took its toll on her.
She might have suspected that in regards to FF-ing the CoG had something other than winning souls in mind. After ff-ing a man she referred to as Salim, she was somewhat dismayed when the fish, instead of converting like it said so in the King Arthur Letters, gave her money instead.***** She called into leadership to report the incident. Her superiors told her that even though she failed to land the fish, accepting the monetary “gift” on behalf of the organization was also fine.
It’s one thing for your spiritual leader to tell you to go and have indiscriminate sex in order to comfort them, make them feel less lonely, or to save their soul. It’s another thing for a spiritual leader to tell you to have indiscriminate sex in order to collect money--which you will then turn over to said spiritual leader, who will thus provide for you, albeit not very well.
Under those circumstances, you might have difficulty separating the role of CoG leaders from that of a garden-variety pimp. And like a pimp, the cult ran this enterprise like a business. It didn’t take very long for them to thoroughly organize the practice.
*A subsequent edition of this book is titled Heaven’s Harlots: My Fifteen Years in a Sex Cult.
**Spencer joined the CoG after leaving Fleetwood Mac. Afterwards, he starred in the cult’s musical ensembles, thus giving them an air of legitimacy.
***CoG members referred to each other as brother and sister, the collective children of Berg (whom they addressed as ‘Dad’) and Karen Zerby (Mama ‘Maria’).
****In Heaven’s Harlots, she simply refers to the program as The Guy Lux Show. It would seem that she’s really talking about Samedi est à vous (Saturday is with You), a teen/young adult show hosted by Guy Lux.
The Loving Children of an Ungodly Father: Sects! Sects! Sects!
Although to some they might epitomize the stereotypical crazy sect, things didn’t start out that way for the Children of God. One can see their transformation from a band of countercultural Bible-thumpers into a sex cult as a result of a number of factors: (1) isolation; (2) a leadership with severe emotional and psychological problems; (3) the re-evaluation of mores that occurred throughout Western society, the so-called ‘Sexual Revolution;’ (4) the increasing micromanagement of personal life as the sect became more coercive; and (5) the need for steady revenue and increased numbers in order to maintain the group‘s hierarchical structure.
Over a period of time, David Berg instituted a number of policies, which might have sounded a tad unreasonable. Of course, many people are willing to cut a guru some slack. After all, if his requests sound unreasonable, then the follower can easily imagine that this will lead to the very enlightenment she or he had envisioned. And they were only slightly unreasonable, given the relative sexual liberty of contemporary mainstream culture. More slightly unreasonable requests would follow previous ones, until they all sounded perfectly logical. By separating themselves from mainstream society, and biological families, the CoG members had no meaningful support that would allow them to reject, question or even modify their leader’s dicta. Moreover, pressure from the outside world united the group in a overall feeling of persecution, as if others were condemning them simply because they were different and dedicated. As James Chancellor wrote in his 2000 book Life in the Family: An Oral History of the Children of God:
Through out the 1970s and 1980s, the disciples were battered and harassed by the anticult movement and the media. Almost everyone has some tale of the injustice of anticult or media ’persecution.’ Only on rare occasions did they attempt any kind of counterattack.
All of these things together resulted in a step-by-step redefinition of love, marriage and family, while at the same time replacing those concepts with something else. Moreover, they engendered an ever-growing distrust of those outside the movement, which gave Berg even more credibility in their eyes.
When Berg symbolically cast off the shackles of marriage, he obviously meant to justify his infidelity to his attractive but older wife (Jane) in deference to an attractive but much younger mistress (Karen Zerby, aka Mama Maria). Yet treatment of marriage as anything but sacrosanct spread among the rank and file members. Berg encouraged this by depicting what most people would understand as marital fidelity as infidelity to God. After all, if one has emotional difficulties committing carnality with anyone other than his or her spouse, even if ordered by God (or Berg), that meant a couple was more devoted to each other than to the Almighty (or Berg). As he wrote in a Mo Letter titled “One Wife” ( GP, dated 28 October 1972):
GOD WILL HAVE NO OTHER GODS BEFORE HIM, NOT EVEN THE SANCTITY OF THE MARRIAGE GOD! The System proclaims and brags about the sanctity of the home and marriage‚ and marriage being the building block of the home and family, and yet the way they live belies the whole hypocrisy of their lying self-righteousness. They only promote marriage on the surface: "Oh, you're not married?—You don't have a marriage license?—You're just living together?"—But it's perfectly all right for them to have licenses and then still be running around with other people! God is the God of marriage, too, and the main thing is to be married to Him and His Work, and when a marriage is not according to His Will, He doesn't hesitate to break it up and form other unions to further His work!
THE FAMILY MARRIAGE, THE SPIRITUAL REALITY BEHIND SO CALLED GROUP MARRIAGE, IS THAT OF PUTTING THE LARGER FAMILY, THE WHOLE FAMILY‚ FIRST, even above the last remaining vestige of private property, your husband or your wife! That's why Paul says, "nevertheless," to avoid fornication (or going wild with too much liberty), let every one have his own husband or wife. You can see a lot of situations Paul was running into which the weaker brethren just couldn't handle.
WHAT THE WORLD THINKS ARE OUR WEAKNESSES ARE ACTUALLY OUR STRENGTHS. We do not minimise the marriage ties, as such. We just consider our ties to the Lord and the larger Family greater and more important.—And when the private marriage ties interfere with our Family and God ties, they can be readily abandoned for the glory of God and the good of The Family! We are not forsaking the marital unit.—We are adopting a greater and more important and far larger concept of marriage: The totality of the Bride and her marriage to the Bridegroom is The Family! We are adopting the larger Family as The Family unit: The Family of God and His Bride and Children!” [emphasis, punctuation and capitalization original]
Berg didn’t disapprove of marriage, in and of itself. And he seemed to have realized that some folks were uncomfortable having indiscriminate sex outside of the traditional paradigm of marriage. What followed was a new practice of ‘prophetic’ marriage, one that he (and/or appointed surrogates) could manage from start to finish. It wouldn’t even matter that one or both partners had already married someone else and hadn’t yet divorced him/her. As an unnamed minister (I’m guessing Fred Jordan, or someone under him) told the New York State Attorney General’s office in 1974:
Richard Labrille was one of the elders who was ‘married’ to Leilah who told me that she was married and her husband was living in Miami and she had a four year old son by her first husband….
Marriages are called ‘betrothals and I personally viewed approximately 12 to 15 such betrothals…the persons would not know beforehand who they were going to be married to. Let me try to give you an accurate example. The usual setting of the betrothal is that the whole colony and all the members within the colony are gathered. Then, there is the excitement that the colony leader tells everyone that theres [sic] going to be a betrothal. The only problem is that there might be four betrothals in the same night, but only one couple knew ahead of time that they were going to be married. The procedure is that during the process of usually what is a very informal and what I would characterize as a gross substitute for a real marriage service held [sic]. Now, what happens is that after the first couple comes forward and all the catcalls come and the colony leader presides over this, then they would state, ‘Is there anyone else who wants to be betrothed?’ At this time, a brother [male member] could stand up and call out just about any girl who is single and ask her to come forward with him. I know for a fact that there is an extreme amount of pressure at these events and it’s pretty hard for the girl who might be asked not to go forward even if she does not love or like the guy.
Of course, this is something that could have attached a lot of men to a cult. If you’re a slovenly sot, who wouldn’t have a chance with even the plainest woman in town, then the thought of choosing among a bevy of lust-inspiring nubile beauties who are indoctrinated to say “yes” to you might seem an attractive prospect. Just as obvious, however, are the indications of how Berg, and by extension the cult, viewed women. While the term “sex object” might be a bit harsh (not to mention cliché) in this case, women were often defined in terms of their sexuality, their attractiveness, their capacity to bear children, their ability to sublimate emotion, and their work in the domestic sphere.
In short, Berg declared that marriage and family had no sovereignty that God (or he) was bound to respect. As he often preached, preoccupation or preference given to one’s husband or wife was selfish. The same held true for biological relatives. Moreover, such vanities were unfair to other children, men and women within the cult who needed their attention or affection. This was emphasized early on in the difficulty that parents and siblings of CoG members had in gaining access to their loved ones. The leadership characterized parents’ attempts to re-establish contact with their children as diabolically possessive, greedy in their attempts to threaten the good of the CoG for their own self-satisfaction (BTW, this after Berg exhorted new followers, or ‘Babes,’ to write said parents for money--large sums of which were turned over to the group).
It would later come into play when the cult expanded into a number of “colonies” located in Africa, Europe and the Americas. Children born into the cult were sometimes separated from one or both parents, and wives were separated from their husbands, with the entire biological family living in two or more countries. One can see how this might coerce someone to stay in the cult, even if he or she wanted to leave. If one spouse decided to leave the cult, it would, in effect, mean leaving behind the partner and their kids, for they would not have access to them.
By encouraging rampant sex with multiple partners, encouraging them to “be fruitful and multiply,” and then reserving the right to separate families to serve God’s purpose, the CoG had the wherewithal to raise a new generation of devotees who had never experienced life outside the cult; devotees who were essentially parentless, thus giving leadership a more direct hand in their indoctrination and development.
The Loving Children of an Ungodly Father: Mo and Mo Letters
From 1970 until his death in 1994, David Moses Berg penned over 3,000 missives, collectively known as Mo Letters. These often served as the main source of communication, especially when pressure from local law enforcement agencies forced Berg to relocate to secret hiding places around the world. In addition to the Mo Letters (ML), the Children of God published a number of other statements, and such other media as music, videos and comic books (True Komix, or TK for short). The Children of God classified texts into several broad categories: those suitable for circulation among the press and public (GP), those targeted to members and friends of the organization but not outsiders (DFO), and those meant for hardcore followers only (DO). They classified the really secret stuff as BAR, which stood for ‘Burn After Reading.’
After poring through these texts--some tedious beyond belief, others too salacious for Penthouse Variations--one can get a rather detailed history of how the cult operated, how they maintained control over a geographically distant flock, how their ideologies and beliefs developed, what their internal politics were like, and how the followers related to Berg, whom many had never seen--either live or in photographs.
Berg, or ‘Dad’ as Children of God affectionately called him, often quoted scripture to justify actions and thoughts that most people would find morally repugnant. As the cult gained notoriety in the late-1980s, Berg sensed how this tonnage of literature might come across to the un-brainwashed. Starting in June 1991, the church embarked on a BAR-rated series of directives called the Pub Purges, in which they censored or rewrote all provocative material from previous writings:
To our ungodly enemies and vengeful false accusers, some of our perfectly pure doctrines and views regarding God's Own natural and beautiful sinless creation are very "defiled" and "impure" in their soiled minds! (See Titus 1:15) In fact, they're so offended by some of our views (or their interpretations and misinterpretations of what they think are our views) and publications and pictures, that they seem bent on using (misusing) them to try to substantiate their very false and malicious accusations against us that we abuse our own dear children! So for this reason, we are now initiating an extensive "purge" of our publications. Thank the Lord, most of our publications will come through this purge with only a few pages missing.*
Obviously, the sheer volume of these publications is far too great to go into any detail here.** But what follows is a general portrait of the organization’s ideological position and polices in the words of its founder.
IT'S TIME FOR THE RAPE OF AMERIKA, but they're [European nations] trying to respect her! She doesn't deserve respect: She's an old Whore! But they're trying to treat her like a lady, instead of socking it to her, and paying her off! A Whore?--You just pay her off, and you leave! You don't try to rescue her!--Just pay her off and take off, and let her sink in her own mire! She's not like a wife that you try to save and take care of! Europe is trying to be married to Amerika, when they should cut her loose like a Whore! [boldface here and in subsequent quotes original]
After a number of investigations, and official accusations of fraud and other crimes, Berg left the United States to escape his legal troubles. His animosity towards his homeland is noteworthy, and he exhorts other nations to exploit the US and her people for all they’re worth.
Thank You Lord for hiding us from our enemies for so many years & frustrating them & even aggravating them, infuriating them that they can't find us! TYL! And Lord, I hope they never do!….
I think it would be a joy to die in some way to hurt them, defeat them‚ hinder them, expose them! TYJ! Hallelujah! That would be something worth dying for! Why just die in peace & quiet for nothing when you can die in some way to hurt your enemies! (Maria [Karen Zerby, aka Mama Maria]: That's right!)
We will see that one of the most difficult tasks that authorities had in prosecuting various crimes of the Children of God was actually locating them or their leadership. Berg himself traveled internationally to Children of God compounds, which, by the 1970s, had spread to South America, Europe, Africa and Asia. He also changed his physical appearance regularly to disguise these moves.
SO THE LORD & HIS PROPHETS FREQUENTLY USED DECEIT & SOMETIMES OUTRIGHT LIES, believe it or not, to accomplish God's purpose. The law is the standard, but there are always exceptions to the rules, particularly if God's the One Who makes the exceptions! The Lord Himself says that if they reject the Truth—this is in 2 Thessalonians—"I will send them strong delusion that they might believe a lie, that they might all be damned who received not the love of the Truth" (2Th.2:10–12).—He'll send a lie!
The Children of God often saw deceit as a valid tool for preserving Berg’s messianic vision, which they often confused as the will of God. This text, and numerous others reiterate the righteousness of lying in order to service a higher purpose, as articulated by leadership. Naturally, they have been caught lying a number of times over the years.
Poor Hitler. He tried to save the world from the Jews but they were so diabolically clever they persuaded both Capitalism & Communism to fight him & kill him! He was a martyr to the cause because he knew that the Jews were the cause of most of the world’s troubles. He exposed them & tried to get rid of them with the so-called final solution, but that wasn’t the way to do it. [emphasis original]
From “The Troublemakers,” (DO) published October 8, 1980:
The World is absolutely turned upside down by the Devil & his forces & largely through the Goddamned Jews & their stooges, the negroes!--Boom!--Believe it or not! You say, ‘Oh boy, now you really sound like a Fascist, now you're really a Nazi! I always wondered just what was down there! Now it's true, KKK's.’ Well, I can prove it to you & I can show it to you through history & I've written a letter on it.
Although the Mo Letters contain frequent platitudes to Jews and non-whites--and despite the fact that Berg himself proudly claimed Jewish ancestry--diatribes such as the above frequently pepper his writings. Many of these rants appear to have been bowdlerized, perhaps in one or more of the infamous Pub Purges. But what comes across is a clear advocacy for fascist ideology, with themes of racial purity and dominion mixed in, sometimes in a coded way, sometimes more starkly. This really comes through in his writings on South Africa and his support of Apartheid.
Berg’s later writings, in particular, outline a hard-line brand of conservatism (with the exception of sexual policies), perhaps in a an attempt to curry favor among countries where the CoG had compounds. As he wrote in “World Currents--No. 6” (DFO) published in September of 1983:
THE DRAMATIC ASSASSINATION OF SENATOR AQUINO CAUSED MARCOS SO MUCH TROUBLE that I'm inclined to definitely think that it was probably his enemies that shot the guy to try to give him, Marcos, trouble because his enemies have practically rejoiced over the whole thing & made big capital out of it….
THEY’RE PREFERRING A SURE THING TO A VERY UNSURE THING, as obviously Marcos' opposition is very very thoroughly laced with radicals, fanatics, Communists, rebels, Catholic leaders of the rebels & as the pictures of the Aquino funeral clearly demonstrated‚ fist-saluting pro-Communists & Communists. So we can be thankful for [those] who run the U.S. who oppose a change in the Philippine government that might endanger the bases, as opposed to the more liberal bitter [ACs] represented by the Herald Tribune who apparently want to overthrow Marcos at any cost.
In his professed opposition to “communism,” Berg gave kudos to “[those] who run the U.S…..” He’s referring to the neo-con agenda of the Reagan/Bush White House, which obviously had a lot to fear from a new Philippino government, as evidenced by their slow recognition of Aquino’s widow, Corazon, as President in 1986. The Mo Letters leave little doubt as to what kind of leadership they support, and until Berg’s death, didn’t seem to have a problem with the brutality meted out by such regimes. As he stated in “World Currents--No. 44,” (DO) published July 1989:
In the largest action of its kind, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration warned consumers not to eat any fruit at all from Chile. Imagine! They urged that all Chilean fruit be removed from U.S. markets. They started testing the grapes because they received two anonymous phone calls saying that cyanide had been found in the fruit.
It shows you what one little lie about two little grapes in Philadelphia by a couple of unknown scientists can do if it's picked up & blown up by the media. Of course, there was nothing about the identity of these two supposed scientists who discovered the cyanide on the Chilean grapes. If that wasn't a plot by the ACs to try to unseat Pinochet‚ I'd be surprised!
The ACs [anti-Christs] tried to wreck Chile's whole economy by conspiring with the enemies of Pinochet & the California grape–growers to kill the Chilean fruit market, & kill the country along with it! The whole bunch of them together probably cooked up the plot to find traces on two grapes in, of all the wicked cities, Philadelphia! (Maria: How could they find them unless they were told which grapes were poisoned!) Well, they didn't have to find them, they probably injected them themselves!…
The World has gotten so wicked that they can do things like that. They can ruin one poor little Latin country just because the ACs want to destroy Pinochet. It's quite well known that the major enemies of Pinochet are former Communist Jews!
They've decided the only way to oust Pinochet is to wreck the economy of Chile! The ACs have also decided that the only way to oust Garcia, their bitter enemy, is to wreck the economy of Peru. My God! The God–damned ACs are taking over the World! They're sabotaging the whole World! The only countries they're allowing to survive & exist or even prosper, are the countries that they already control!
The above passages give a glimpse of the ideology and practices of the CoG. They believed they had numerous enemies which included bad (i.e., non-Christian) Jews, bad (i.e., politically active, not under his thumb) blacks, the US (unless run by conservatives--he badmouthed the Carter administration something fierce), and duly appointed authorities (especially those investigating him). He wasn’t paranoid. He really did have a lot of external enemies. But as much as he kept an eye on them, he was just as vigilant in watching potential enemies from his own ranks,.
*Titus chapter one, verse fifteen: “Unto the pure all things are pure: but unto them that are defiled and unbelieving is nothing pure; but even their mind and conscience is defiled.”