Friday, May 7th, 2010

The Margaret Mead of the North American Weirdo: Christopher Owens and the Children of God

HOW YOUNG IS TOO YOUNG FOR JESUS?Given the passion expressed for girl music on this site, I suppose it's not too much an affront to my masculinity to confess my obsession with the admittedly unmanly band Girls. Their debut record "Album" is forty minutes of melancholy bliss, late night break-up songs that will make you feel like a teenager suffering from a his first encounter with heartbreak. My introduction to the band's back-story came through Pitchfork (shut up!) whose review featured a little biographical information on the band's leader, Christopher Owens: "Christopher Owens grew up in the Children of God. His older brother died as a baby because the cult didn't believe in medical attention. His dad left. He and his mother lived around the world, and the cult sometimes forced his mother to prostitute herself."

Forced his mother to prostitute herself? Christ. After reading this, the darkness of Owens' music began to make sense. Lyrics like "I'm just crazy, I'm fucked in the head," after all, don't come from a happy place.

Calling the Children of God cult "one of the craziest groups that came out of sixties," Owens acknowledges that his experience growing up among these religious extremists greatly informs his music. It shows. There's something off-kilter and ominous to his music whose hooks are as sundrenched as they are depressing.

Obsessed with Owens' record and with all things pertaining to weird cults I decided to read more about the Children of God, if only to find out more about Owens' experience.

In their original incarnation, the Children of God wackos were essentially a bunch of deranged hippies who re-envisioned Jesus as a silk robe-wearing swinger in order to justify their own disturbing sexual perversions. Under the leadership of a maniacal, anti-Semitic, crazy-man named David Berg-also known to members as Moses-they set up communes all over the world, had orgies (heterosexual and girl-on-girl bisexual only though!) and basically began acting like a bunch of Jesus-loving halfwits who enjoyed freebasing aphrodisiacs.

But their Jesus wasn't just some lady-lovin' swinger promoting free love for his disciples. He was a pimp. The group was involved in a practice known as Flirty Fishing, where women in the cult were encouraged to meet men, bring them home, and have sex with them-proselytizing to them in the afterglow. From

Flirty Fishing… involved the use of sexual attraction and intercourse to win converts and favors. Female members were told to be "God's whores" and "hookers for Jesus", and soon after its launch as a method of witnessing, sex was given to complete strangers in combination with a request for a "donation", or for a required fee in line with Escort Servicing (ESing) or freelance ESing. FFing and prostitution was widely used as a way to raise money for the cult and resulted in many of the second generation births (known as "Jesus Babies"). Internal Family records from 1988 indicate that over 223,000 "fish" were loved sexually between 1978 and 1988.

Of course all this would be fine and good, people are free to make their own choices, but things get more fucked up. Berg also promoted sex-sometimes incestuous sex-with children, sometimes as young as three. Critics say that molestation was commonplace, and accepted as God's will, within the cult. Infamously, COG published a child-rearing manual called "The Story of Davidito"-Davidito was the nickname for Ricky Rodriguez, one of Berg's adopted children-which detailed sexual activity between adults and the book's prepubescent victim. The shit hit the fan in 2005 when Rodriguez, then a disgruntled 29-year-old, murdered his former nanny before killing himself. The nanny had been pictured in "The Story of Davidito" engaged in sexual conduct with the underage Rodriguez. In a video taped just prior to the murder-suicide, Rodriguez claimed the cult had ruined his life.

Look up "The Story of Davido" at your own risk. It's disturbing and definitely NSFW, or for anywhere. Only slightly more palatable is the artwork produced by the cult promoting childhood sexuality and flirty fishing. Some of it actually makes Jack Chick look like a cool, progressive dude.

IDKAmazingly, Christopher Owens wasn't the only celebrity who grew up among the Children of God. Rose McGowan was a member.

"Like many things, I'm sure they started out with good intentions," McGowan told The Face. "Meanwhile they're all having sex with each other and going out and getting men drunk and luring them into the cult. They call it Flirty Fishing. Gross. A lot of kids disappeared. I could be sweeping Ghadaffi's doorstep right now."

Joaquin and River Phoenix were also members. River Phoenix once told Details that he'd lost his virginity to cult members when he was four: "I've blocked it out. I was completely celibate from 10 to 14."

"They're disgusting; they're ruining people's lives," he said in another interview.

I'm no shrink, but all of the aforementioned celebrities could be classified as "troubled"-which is no surprise.

Thankfully, cult leader Berg died in 1994-I'm not religious but if there's a God he's spending eternity being buggered by Pinhead and the rest of those dudes from "HellRaiser II." Still, I was disturbed to find that Rodriguez's mom, and Berg's former wife, Karen Zerby has rebranded COG and attract new followers under the name The Family International. There's an estimated 15,000 members worldwide today and they recently launched a revamped website where Zerby has been releasing videos with the hopes of attracting new members.

THEY SEEM NICE!This lunatic-who looks like the mutant offspring of Stevie Nicks and Jim Carrey's Fire Marshal Bill- is truly a piece of work. As Alternet points out: "[Zerby] likes to think of herself as a Queen, and believes she was one of Jesus' favourite lovers in heaven before she was sent to earth to be the Endtime Prophetess."

Zerby also believes, or at least has believed, that disciples can literally have sex with Jesus, who loves to supernaturally visit his devoted followers to bump uglies. Jesus appreciates a little dirty talk; the Family distributed a handy list of phrases to use when doing the J-man:

I'm juicy for You.
Come, Jesus! Oh please, come!
My pussy is excited for You, Jesus!
Fuck me long and hard and deep. I want to feel You in the very heart of me. Longer, harder, deeper!
You're beautiful, Jesus, and so sexy–sexier than I ever dreamed–so handsome, so naked and so hard!
Fill me with Your seeds. Flood me with Your seeds. Explode in me!

That's a tad different than what I learned at Baptist Vacation Bible School when I was a kid.

Today, Zerby travels under several different monikers and no one outside her immediate circle, not even other members, often know her whereabouts. Discussing her desire to reinvigorate the movement and attract new members, she came out of hiding to speak at a conference in Salt Lake City (where else?) for the Center for the Study of New Religions conference last year:

"Many desire to see innovation, professionalization and modernization," Karen "Maria" Zerby, one of the Family's spiritual and administrative leaders, said last week in her first-ever public address. "We must determine what elements of our theology, culture and context are rooted in the past and no longer hold relevance."

A spokesperson for the group, Claire Borowik, who was in attendance, gave the closest thing to an apology that was to be offered: "We acknowledge that mistakes were made and that there were excesses," said Borowik. "We've taken stringent measures to right those wrongs and apologized to former members… we find it disheartening for people to focus so much on the past."

This of course, seems about as sincere as the Pope's lame attempts at dealing with the Catholic churches' own child-sex problem.

But back to Girls. At least Christopher Owens was able to rise above the insanity. He's a rising star of the indie music scene and his band's debut topped dozens of best of 2009 lists last year. He got out. Best of all, he seems to have come to terms with the lunacy of his upbringing: "They had some ideal that they could raise us and we'd be these perfect little Children of God. But it's like horrible-it's also beautiful, like-they meant well, I guess, even though a lot of things that they did were completely crazy."

As for me, "Hellhole Ratrace" remains in heavy rotation on my iTunes, even if it will never quite sound the same again.

Robert Lanham is the author of the beach-towel classic The Emerald Beach Trilogy, which includes the titles Pre-Coitus, Coitus, and Afterglow. More recent works include The Hipster Handbook and The Sinner's Guide to the Evangelical Right. He is the founder and editor of

31 Comments / Post A Comment

HiredGoons (#603)

I worked on a documentary on Children of God at WOW (Colonel Mustard where you there then?) and they truly fucked up so many kids lives – rampant instances of drug addicts, runaways, prostitutes and continuing child abuse.

Absolutely horrific.

BadUncle (#153)

What is WOW? (I mean, aside from World of Warcraft, you wisenheimers).

HiredGoons (#603)

What is World of Warcraft?

BadUncle (#153)

It's a multi-player game for which Mr. T is a spokesman:

HiredGoons (#603)

I don't do video games.

I do however enjoy Mr. T!

HiredGoons (#603)

I also enjoy Robert Lanham: this was a good read.

Agreed, good read and yay for Mr. T.

BadUncle (#153)

Who me the man who doesn't love Mr. T and I'll show you the man who doesn't love life.

Also: good read.

When were you there? I was there a few years ago…small world (of wonder)!

deepomega (#1,720)

Whoah, you were at WOW? We've done some titles for them recently. Smallest world in the world.

HiredGoons (#603)

2006-2007 I lived in LA for a year after college and worked there on this and some BRAVO stuff.

I was there in late 2007 to early 2008 on a series. They do some really good doc work there.

Ronit (#1,557)

Surreal. But maybe the logical outcome to be expected when the two dominant trends in American culture over the last 40 years come together. Dear god.

alannaofdoom (#4,512)

This is a fascinating (in a really disturbing way, obviously) essay, but:

"This lunatic-who looks like the mutant offspring of Stevie Nicks and Jim Carrey's Fire Marshal Bill…"

Is it really necessary (or relevant?) to comment on her appearance?

That said, again – excellent essay. And I had not heard anything by Girls until now, so thanks for the new music!

BadUncle (#153)

With all the attention paid to pedo priests, why hasn't the law paid more vigorous attention to cults like this, and the molesty polygamous Morman sects?

Crantastical (#4,127)

They had a bunch of members who performed as singers, as some weird partidge family type of thing, which is the Hollywood connection, and I think the reason a lot of offspring ended up actors.

Heaven's Harlots is a great first hand account of these weirdos:

Maud Newton (#600)

My stepfather was in the Children of God before becoming the co-pastor of my mother's church, and it is some fucked-up shit. What I've been able to watch of Noah Thomson's documentary is excellent.

HiredGoons (#603)

That's the one.

Maud Newton (#600)

My hat's off to you. I watched about half of it before I had to stop.

HiredGoons (#603)

I worked on it in post. You wouldn't believe the shit we didn't put in.

ow that hurt (#3,919)

The documentary was amazing. Everyone must watch it.

(also heartbreaking)

Maud Newton (#600)

As a mild casualty of its teachings, I can only imagine. No one I knew who left The Family — the Coconut Grove branch — emerged unscathed.

Maud Newton (#600)

Some friends of mine worked on a different recent documentary about child abuse — sexual and otherwise — among more mainline Protestant missionaries. Also worth a look.

I remember that in the late 1970's, a friend of my parents had been a member of the Children of God. My mother was very concerned about his past and the fact that he had a daughter my age, and what might have gone on. I'm going to have to ask her about that now that I understand more about them…

j.milly (#4,813)

I grew up in The Family / Children of God. I watched them ruin many a life and leave my brother deaf (for lack of medical attention).

I left at 14 and am now in my late twenties. After much drama, I have become fairly adjusted to my new life and have come to terms with the abuse of my childhood and have been moving forward.

Now, slightly less homicidal, I firmly believe our strongest weapon against Zerby and her minions is awareness hence I highly commend and appreciate your article.

It should be noted that Rose McGowan's comments on the subject have been consistently inaccurate (e.g.: The COG had significant Ghadaffi ties but there is not a lot of evidence of "kids disappear[ing]") as she probably was much too young to understand the context of what was happening around her.

I encourage all those further interested in the subject to visit which maintains what is currently the most objective archive of facts surrounding The Family & The Children of God.


this article is much more interesting than girls' "deep dude in the dorm" music, which has some of the worst lyrics i have ever heard in my life.

sox (#652)

i saw them live recently and was sadly underwhelmed. but i had also just watched the xxx version of their video for lust for life (maybe??) which led me to think they would be much more boisterous and interesting on stage.

they general experience was like kurt kobain shooting up massive amounts of prozac and playing beach boys covers replaced with his own shoegazy lyrics.

Annie K. (#3,563)

I have no experience with this kind of stuff and I could barely read this post, let alone watch any amount of documentary. The older I get, the more pure evil I see, the less of it I can keep looking at. Chicken.

Bittersweet (#765)

Annie, you're not chicken. I have experience with this kind of stuff and could barely read the post. Unfortunately, much of this evil doesn't hang around in cults where it might be a bit more noticeable – it's around and among us.

(This sounds so melodramatic…wish I was exaggerating.)

Carina (#4,319)

Every time this shit comes up people start throwing in the Mormons.


Instead, let's start throwing in other Christian religions. I vote the Methodists are next (they also start with "M" so that's a handy transition.)

(Also: Rose McGowan makes a lot more sense now.)

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