Talk to Trisha: Growing up in a cult

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Growing up in a cult

Press » Talk to Trisha » 2008-07-06

Announcer: 105.9

Trisha Goddard: Hi, and welcome. This is Trisha Goddard on City Talk 105.9, the voice of Liverpool, and as you just heard, the show is called "Talk to Trisha", so between now and ten o'clock we'll be tackling some of the issues that matter to you and those close to you, with the help of people with first hand knowledge and experience. Okay, coming up on tonight's show, growing up in a cult: one woman's harrowing tale of surviving the bizarre religious sect that isolated, abused and exploited her. Plus, later...

[unrelated segments redacted]

Trisha Goddard: Now, imagine growing up in a family where you were denied access to formal schooling, forced to beg for money, encouraged to watch adults having sex, and regularly beaten for crimes as unpredictable as reading an encyclopedia. Juliana Buhring and her two younger sisters grew up in a cult called the Children of God. Sharing the same father, but different mothers, the girls were separated from each other, they were placed with different foster families around the world, and sexually and physically abused by their guardians from as early as three years old. Well, happily the three sisters eventually broke free from the community, reunited and rebuilt their lives. Now as adults, they've set up an organization, RISE International, which works to protect children from abuse in cults or high demand organizations and more on that later. Now Juliana has also co-written a memoir with her siblings called "Not Without My Sister", and she joins us live on the phone from Seattle. Now, Juliana, welcome...

Juliana Buhring: Hello

Trisha Goddard: Juliana, let's start at the beginning. When did your parents first become involved with David Berg and the Children of God and then it changed to The Family; do we call it a cult?

Juliana Buhring: Oh, it's definitely what I would consider a cult, it has all of the trademarks of a cult, which is that definitely they were very isolated, they had extremist beliefs, sort of a dictatorship where the cult leader was...[audio cuts out].. there's a lot of brainwashing and psychological manipulation, yeah, I would definitely say it was a harmful cult.

Trisha Goddard: With your parents and just looking at the book, you describe them as, you know, some people think "Oh, these people must be people who are stupid to join a cult," but, in fact, your father seemed to be a very bright guy, he was at university.

Juliana Buhring: Yes

Trisha Goddard: And yet he got involved with the cult fairly early on, didn't he?

Juliana Buhring: That's right. Yes, I think it's a misconception that it's only stupid people or weak people who join these groups; because they usually actually target middle class to upper class young people primarily because they're usually at that time in life where they're searching for what they want to do or they're just coming into university or coming out of the university, they're alone usually without their families for the first time. They feel vulnerable, they feel in a difficult place, or they're emotionally vulnerable. But they like to target intelligent people because they, you know, they need an intelligent work force, to work for them.

Trisha Goddard: And yet, he believed everything although not many people actually saw David Berg because at that stage he was quite paranoid about people out to get him, what have you. But his writings, that was enough for your father to join?

Juliana Buhring: Oh yeah, the cult leader, David Berg, was very charismatic. He initially wrote on subjects of breaking out of the society that they saw as corrupt or dysfunctional, and they wanted to start their own Utopian society outside of, out of.. sorry, outside of society at large. And around that time, it was the hippie era, there was a lot of rebellion against their parents, against, against the Vietnam War, against a lot of things they saw as being wrong so, it was a very promising, very exciting message of "Let's break free, let's start our own great group." and obviously then they didn't think that they were joining a cult. It was only after steadily being brainwashed over the first year that they joined, and the cult leader slowly started to introduce the more heinous doctrines of sharing each other sexually, sharing children sexually, and.. but it took awhile. It's not as if he just told them from one day to the next that they were to do this. It was something that they steadily were acclimatized to. So obviously they weren't thinking, " Oh, we're off joining a cult." They thought they were off joining some great communal group that shared all things, had all things common and it was a promising message in the start and it deteriorated after the first few years.

Trisha Goddard: And I guess people have to remember that in the 70s there wasn't CNN, Internet and everything else, and there weren't cults beforehand. This was something new and exciting.

Juliana Buhring: It was a very new phenomenon. That's right, yes. Yes. I think it was only coined in the seventies I believe, the term 'cult'.

Trisha Goddard: Oh. What's your earliest memory of life in the cult, then?

Juliana Buhring: Well, my earliest memories, let me see, was definitely a communal lifestyle, and I think but probably my earliest, strong memories were of being abandoned, because my parents left me because the leadership told them to, what they called 'for God's work'. Our father was a celebrity within the group, he was very exalted by David Berg because he had a radio ministry that went out to two thousand stations around the world, and Berg saw this as a way of spreading the cult message and doctrine. So he didn't want our father to settle and have any kind of emotional ties with family, with children, so pretty early on he split up our family and my sisters, who had a different mother, he was married to her and they split them up as well. So, it was sort of a trend that kept carrying on. And so then I became a ward of the group, property of the group by three years old.

Trisha Goddard: How old were you? How old?

Juliana Buhring: I was three when I was completely taken away from my parents.

Trisha Goddard: But who looked after you?

Juliana Buhring: Well, I was passed around to many just different foster parents or put into large...they started these schools for cult kids where all the parents just left their kids in the care of just random members which already was... made it a dangerous environment because none of these people had any kind of background checks and, but there was an explicit trust between membership that if you were a member then you were a brother or sister and no one dared to think that they would harm their children. They had such trust, which was very naive I suppose.

Trisha Goddard: So, were you in the same town or the same country as your father?

Juliana Buhring: Not usually, no. I was sent around to about 20 different countries, and what they did was they signed, my father and mother signed some paper saying that whoever carried this paper had legal guardianship of me. And so in that way I was literally... was able to just be taken from country to country to country with this paper, and just random adults who I was under the guardianship of. I didn't know who I would be taken care of next by, and it was all very confusing, very disorienting for me, and, I mean, I remember showing symptoms of the trauma I was experiencing. I wet my bed till very late in life, I was always very insecure and frightened. I never knew where I'd be whisked off to next, at the drop of a hat. It was, yeah, it was very...

Trisha Goddard: In the book that you write, with your sisters, you talk about, at an early age, watching adults in orgies having sex, and there was no... and the funny part when you play a game and you run up and you pinch people on the bottom and all that, having orgies; but there was no problem with kids sitting around seeing sex and using sex even to beg with Flirty Fishing, which..did your father know that that was going on?

Juliana Buhring: Yes, I believe...well, it was all around, it was part of the doctrine of the group. David Berg came up with the doctrine called the "Law of Love", I already said that. That anything that is done in love is right, and that if we are all to be "One Wife," or one Family, then we have to share each other, including our bodies, with each other.

Trisha Goddard: No matter how young?

Juliana Buhring: Oh no, no matter how young. Well, he believed that children were sexual beings and that, that because they could orgasm that they, they should, they should not have to miss out on what he thought was a pleasurable experience, but what happened then was that that the group became rife with pedophiles, and.. the children suffered tremendously. I mean an entire generation of children suffered serious physical and sexual abuse, because of this.

Trisha Goddard: And even David Berg's family himself, there was, seemed very incestuous, with his children and grandchildren.

Juliana Buhring: That's right, yes. Well, he had incestuous relationships with his own family, and he was a pedophile from the start, so he created this doctrine in order to be able to carry on his, you know, his incestuous and perverted predilections.

Trisha Goddard: But what about your mother, and your sister's mother? Did, where they okay? I mean, a man, especially if they've got leanings towards pedophilia is one thing, but your own mother, a mother and a daughter was, they had chosen to join the cult, you were born into it. Were there no protective instincts on the behalf of, on the part of any of the mothers, seeing their children having to be touched by men at the age of two, three years old?

Juliana Buhring: Well, I think that there was two camps. There were the mothers who were actually quite unaware of it, and this is Kristina's mother who was shocked when she found out later after she left what had happened to her daughters, that she seemed to be quite removed and detached from the whole thing. Whereas, other mothers that I know literally fed their children to the men and were completely a part of it and had relationships with the young boys as well. So, there was the line between the two, there was, obviously there were members who refused to take part in it. But, there was plenty who did, and it was not seen as harmful or as abuse at all. And we were told that it was love, it wasn't abuse. So it was very confusing.

Trisha Goddard: I was gonna say, was that confusing, when it felt, did it feel wrong? Did it feel out of...

Juliana Buhring: Yeah, I mean, what happens, at least with me, is that I always sort of looked at things, and, because you don't have the words to explain what you're feeling as a child and you're told that it's right, you don't know what it is you're feeling when you feel dirty or you feel, you don't want to do it, you know, and you put up a protest about it, you would get in trouble for that. So what happens, at least to me is, is, whenever I felt like questioning I would be beaten for it, or punished for it or put in isolation for it, so you learn not to question, or what they call 'doubt' or you would suffer the consequences. So as a result of this I began to internalize things as, there was something wrong with me, not being able to accept the doctrine as opposed to something wrong with the doctrine itself.

Trisha Goddard: And you were cut off from the outside world, but when your sisters and yourself going through this physical, this psychological, this sexual abuse, when did you start realizing that your parents and those people around you, your guardians, where actually crossing boundaries, that, no, this was wrong. Or did you ever go through that?

Juliana Buhring: Well, because we had no knowledge of the outside to compare our lives with, we didn't know ever, I didn't ever know it was wrong, even though I felt something was wrong I didn't understand what it was. But, in the early 90s is when the cult began to change this doctrine and to say that, even though the doctrine is not wrong, the outside world is going, is bothering us about it, or there was a lot of media attention coming onto them, a lot of, you know, there began being raids on different homes where they had reports that children were being abused, and because of that they were forced to change their policies, even though they still believe the doctrine. So, that was confusing too, because they're saying "You can't do it anymore", and they see it as being wrong, and that the first time I heard, "Oh, it's wrong", even though they said, "Well, we don't believe it's wrong, but the outside believes it wrong". So, I always understood then that, there was a great divide between our beliefs and what was normal, what was considered normal on the outside, and because of that we were told, you know, that we had to lie to protect our group or we would be taken away from our families; and from the time we were born we were instilled with a great fear of the outside. The outside was where you know, the devil's people were...

Trisha Goddard: This was bad and evil...

Juliana Buhring: Oh yeah, the government and the police were, were the Anti-Christ, agents of the devil and, you know, they would come and take us away. And we were always hearing stories of martyrs, Christian martyrs being tortured, being killed, and so, that was the kind of fear that we held in our minds of the outside, of what would happen to us if we were taken away. And because we believe the end of the world was coming any day...

Trisha Goddard: It was in 1993, it was meant to happen?

Juliana Buhring: Yeah, in 1993 Berg said that, that the world would end, so we were living, sort of, for the end; believing we would soon die. Which meant that's something terrible psychologically for a child never to think that they have to grow up.

Trisha Goddard: I was gonna say, what happened in 1994 then?

Juliana Buhring: Well, the cult leader died in 1994, and around that time there was a lot of, well, there was court cases going on against the Family members, that's right.

Trisha Goddard: Just to tell the people, You're listening to CityTalk 105.9 "Talk to Trisha." I'm talking to Juliana Buhring about her life as a child within the "Children of God" which then became "The Family" cult. Juliana, just coming back to you, researching on you and your sisters put together an organization called RISE International to alert people and going on to another website, [[Safe Passage Foundation], with which you have links; they talk about HDOs, which are, what are HDOs, high demand organizations? That's what we call cults these days?

Juliana Buhring: That is what we call..well, okay. There's a bit of a confusion in the academic world, half the academics don't want to term them cults anymore and the cults themselves are all fighting against the term 'cult'. And I think primarily, in my opinion this is because it would be much harder to prosecute them in court if they are not called a cult. And also because it's gotten a negative connotation over time primarily because their practices have been very harmful, especially as in our experience was, to children who don't have the rights to education, free information, to medical care, to just grow up in a safe and loving environment with their own families. And so, we.., they're called high demand organizations, this is what the cults now like to be called, because it sounds better, because it's more 'PC'; and unfortunately we live in a world where everything must be 'PC'. But it is a cult.

Trisha Goddard: But it is a cult. Now, they actually talk about the global population living within cults or high, you know, high demand organizations, it's estimated at several million!

Juliana Buhring: Oh yes, Oh. I mean, in the U.S. alone there's over three thousand cults, and I know there's a few hundred

Trisha Goddard: What?!

Juliana Buhring: in the U.K. Cults are thriving more than ever because, I mean, they're now trying to gain credibility in the public and people are becoming more desensitized to the idea of it, and so, at least for us, we..obviously the cults though, a lot of them can't... when they try and.. children, or people who are harmed by them try and take them to court or prosecute them; they are able to get away with literally murder by crying, "Oh, our right to religious freedom..." and "we can do what we like because this is our religion and this is our belief." What I believe is that there's gotta be a balance found between protecting the right to religious freedom but at the same time protecting children from damaging or criminal behavior that is justified by religious doctrine.

Trisha Goddard: And also that's covered by the United Nations as well, anyways...

Juliana Buhring: Yes, the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, and while I recognize that parents and guardians have certain rights, including the rights of religious freedom, those rights cannot be exercised in a manner that violates the inherent rights of children. And children do have rights, and more and more, this is... I think it's only in the last twenty years that children's rights have really become such an issue.

Trisha Goddard: Absolutely. But how did you get away? How did you and your sisters get away, and why get away? I mean, what spurred you, for instance, to make a break for it? How old were you?

Juliana Buhring: Right. Well, I was in my early twenties when I left and, I actually stayed long as I did. People always asked us, " Why did you stay as long as you did?". There were various reasons that makes it difficult for second generation children born and raised in these groups to leave. And, of course, one of them, is fear of the outside world; when you leave you are cut off from all your family and friends on the inside and you are basically thrown out into this world that you have no preparation for, and you don't know anything, you don't have an adequate education, you so often don't..

Trisha Goddard: You don't have any boundaries, do you?

Juliana Buhring: You don't know boundaries, you don't even know yourself yet, as a personality, what is your beliefs, or what do you like and dislike, because you're so, you've, you know, you've only ever espoused what the cult believes, or the group believes, and then all...

Trisha Goddard: But then that would make you very, very vulnerable to being ...

Juliana Buhring: Very vulnerable

Trisha Goddard: ..abused, because you don't know who to have sex with, who not to have sex with, you believe anything that's told to you; that makes you very vulnerable, doesn't it?

Juliana Buhring: Very much so, and I've seen it makes all the difference when these kids leave, is if they find just one good person who helps them walk them through just the basic steps of how to get themselves set up, how to write the check, how to get a bank account, how to register for a social identity number, all of that.

Trisha Goddard: Did you have that? Did you have that?

Juliana Buhring: I found, when I left, I came across two very good people who helped me out, and who basically saved me, because, I mean, there are so many predators who are just waiting to catch those kind of prey when they leave and so I've seen that the kids who survive and make it and become successful are those who have just one good person they meet outside or a family member on the outside; but those who don't survive, who fall into deep depression or suffer post traumatic stress disorder or can't cope on the outside and very often commit suicide, these are the kids who immediately are caught up by some predator as soon they leave and they fall into bad situations instantly so it's a make or break in the first year when they leave, whether they survive or not...

Trisha Goddard: Do you have family members, do you still have family members, within the cult?

Juliana Buhring: Oh yes. Well, both my parents are still in the group. And I have...

Trisha Goddard: So, you've had no contact?

Juliana Buhring: Well, I did try and keep contact. When I first left I left in Africa, and I got myself a job and an apartment nearby because I have five young brothers and sisters still living there with my father, and I wanted to be nearby, and keep contact with them, and I wanted them to know that, I'm there for them on the outside if they ever need me or they ever want to leave. But then, obviously, after we wrote the book, our father has tried to sever all contact with our family, our brothers and sisters, and, well, early this year actually, I just flew over there, because he was hanging up the phone when I tried to call them, so I just flew over there, and it was my little brother's birthday and I set up with a friend there to take them all out for dinner. I just showed up; and so, I was able to see them then.

Trisha Goddard: How was that then? How was that?

Juliana Buhring: Oh, well, it was lovely for me and for them, I mean, they were screaming, they were so excited, and I had presents for them all, and it was lovely; and our father, he didn't say a single word the entire dinner, he was just white, like a ghost, he was shocked, and he couldn't believe that I had...

Trisha Goddard: Have you seen your mother, did you say?

Juliana Buhring: Yeah, I haven't seen her in years, but she does write me e-mails from time to time and she's much more accepting of my choices in life as opposed to our father who has basically called us demon possessed, and refuses to speak with us at all, so. It's quite a contrast.

Trisha Goddard: But has the sexual abuse stopped within the group, or do you know, is that an open question?

Juliana Buhring: Yes, well because, yes. Well, I believe that it's no longer a accepted policy, they no longer practice it. However, many of the same sexual predators and abusers from, in the past, when they were still practicing it are still in the group and are in fact leaders in the group; and the problem with this is that, pedophilia is a sickness, it doesn't go away just like from one day to the next you decide you no longer have those desires. You know, it's something that you have to be treated for. And so the problem is that the group protects these people, and they haven't turned them over to any authorities, to any police, and so it's inevitable that this is going to happen again, at some point it's going to pop up again and when it does, the group just has a very firm policy against going to authorities, to police, to anybody about any kind of abuse that occurs, and they deal with it internally almost like the Catholic Church used to do. And it's almost a Mafia idea of what happens in the family stays in the family. And so, in this way, still I don't believe it's still not a safe environment for the children because the children are still passed around. There is no background check of the people who care for the kids, they still don't get adequate education, they're not allowed to go to school, and they don't get adequate medical care either, so I still don't believe that it's an entirely safe environment for the kids, even though some of the more extreme practices have discontinued.

Trisha Goddard: Okay, we should tell people that both your organization, RISE International and "Safe Passage", some of the very.. Safe Passage Foundation, some of the very valuable work you do as we've protection agencies, because often their way of approaching things is fairly heavy-handed and sends these cults into there shells, whereas you know probably the more... the Achilles heel and the more subtle ways in which to approach them.

Juliana Buhring: Yes

Trisha Goddard: So if people are concerned, because I'm amazed at how many, how big the population is living within cults around the world; if people are concerned about a family member or a child or somebody who has been indoctrinated into a cult, what should they do? Can they contact RISE or Safe Passage or what do they do?

Juliana Buhring: Yes, they can contact us. They can contact us. They can contact.. there's a couple other cult awareness agencies, there's a great one in the U.K. called FAIR , which informs people about different cults and they can contact them, they can contact us. And, I mean, we do believe that oftentimes when police do come down too heavy-handed, it's simply because there's a lack of information out there. I think it's so important that people become informed of what to expect and also that if these groups want to retain a degree of legitimacy within society that they need to be more transparent and institute internal child protection policies and I think this would go a long way toward easing the mind of the public and law enforcement agencies that they are doing their best to create safe environments for children in the groups.

Trisha Goddard: Okay. Juliana, thank you so much. Would you just tell people again, the book is called, "Not Without My Sister", it's not all doom and gloom because I believe it's a real true story of resilience, and indeed you've gone on to do some amazing work; and it's interesting when a lot of these groups identify with God, and God's work. In reality I'm sure most people listening would realize that those of you who've managed to get away and doing what you do are far more, far closer to God's work than the cults from which you escaped. So more power to you. Thank you so much for talking to us.

Juliana Buhring: Thank you, thanks.

Trisha Goddard: Okay, so as I said before, the book's called, "Not Without My Sister", Juliana Buhring and her sisters wrote that book. You've been listening to City Talk 105.9 "Talk To Trisha". It's been fantastic having you join me and I'm sure you'll agree we've heard from some truly amazing people, so have a fantastic week, and join me same time, next Sunday, at eight o'clock. I'll be looking forward to being with you then. Until then, bye-bye.