BBC Radio 4 Woman's Hour: Growing up in a cult

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Growing up in a cult

Press » BBC Radio 4 Woman's Hour » 2008-05-27

Jenni Murray: The controversy in America over the hundreds of children taken into protective custody after the allegations of abuse in their religious community continues. The Texas Court of Appeals has ruled that the authorities acted unlawfully, says there is no danger of abuse to most of the children and they could be returned to their parents this week. But the case highlighted the secrecy under which some religious cults operate and in which the sexual abuse of children can flourish. Celeste and Kristina Jones and Juliana Buhring were raised in the Children of God, the cult led by David Berg, who of course is now dead. The three women are the authors of "Not Without My Sister," which tells of their years of sexual abuse and their eventual escape. What does Celeste remember of her childhood?

Celeste Jones: My earliest memories are in Greece. We lived in a campground by a beach, and the scenery was beautiful. There were about 200 people living in -- we had two houses, and then the rest were in caravans and tents. I have lots of different little snapshots of memories, you know, some of them are very happy with my peers, cause you'd go out and play and there was a lot of my friends to be with. There wasn't much supervision at some times, and other times it was very controlled. We had, every day, a couple of hours of what was called word time in when we had to memorize ... well, it was indoctrination of the cult's beliefs and our leader's beliefs, David Berg. Then there's the, some uncomfortable memories, very confusing for me growing up with these memories of adults being very sexual towards me, there was sex all around, we just grew up with it. There was no inhibitions, you know, naked, and orgies, and us being a part of that or being asked to be a part of it. And just being confused, because all the adults in my world, that was accepted, that they would tell us that that was love, or that was what we should do. It wasn't something that I initiated myself, but was very confusing.

Jenni Murray: How would you have had a consciousness that perhaps it wasn't quite right if all the adults around you seemed to suggest it was?

Celeste Jones: Well, because it would be uncomfortable. Some of them I didn't know very well and, like I said, there was 200 people there, so there would be some people there that took care of me every day but other people who would take me off here or there and I wouldn't know really who they were except that they were part of our group and so that somehow I should trust them. But it was just because it was uncomfortable, you know, some things were just, you don't want to do. I think there's probably a natural revulsion against it, really. It was a little bit later, when I got a little bit older, around 8 or 9 years old that I actually started to be more rebellious about it and say "no" more forcefully against it. And that's when the punishments started in my case.

Jenni Murray: Kristina, you were separated from Celeste --

Kristina Jones: Yes.

Jenni Murray: -- when your mother was in the UK. What happened when you were in the care of your stepfather Joshua?

Kristina Jones: Well, from a very young age, three years old, I remember being abused by him. And it sort of continued, and it wasn't just my stepfather, it was a lot of men within the group. And it was just expected, that was taught as right. And we would obviously hear bad stories and in these stories, child care manuals, photographs of the prophet's stepson in these sexual positions. And so it was kind of, it was one of those things where that was the atmosphere that we lived in.

Jenni Murray: But how much did you share Celeste's confusion that it felt wrong and yet people said it was right?

Kristina Jones: I had an inkling that it was wrong. Obviously, in a cultic environment like that, your own self is suppressed so much that it's very hard to listen to your own voice because they take control of every aspect of you. But yes, there was a part inside of me that just railed against it, that didn't want ... you know, I remember thinking, "I wish I had a dad like that, not -- [audio drops out for 5 seconds] -- early on to see which ones were going to. Because there was just something that didn't feel right. I got my first sort of idea of that when I was in nursery, and I was put there for a couple of weeks, and the grandparents came to visit, and I noticed that it was a different world there that ours, and of course we were told to be very careful not to speak about it to anybody in the outside world. So we knew it was a real big secret, that we couldn't talk about it.

Jenni Murray: So how finally did you escape?

Kristina Jones: Well, I was fortunate, because my mother was, she had to come back to the UK from India. And I was about ten and a half years old, and she had gone to a Christian bookstore to buy herself a Bible, and it was there that she found a book written by David Berg's daughter, who had left the group and she wrote a book exposing him. And just having a different perspective, because obviously everything was very restricted information within a group like that, and so she read it and it kind of turned the light on, it kind of snapped her out of it. And she thought, oh my goodness, and then obviously she was very concerned because she had four children within the group and fortunately we had to come back to the UK for visas, to renew them and everything. So, it was when we came back, on the third night she took us away from our stepfather and the group.

Jenni Murray: And, Juliana, you left when you were 23.

Juliana Buhring: Yes.

Jenni Murray: What began your rebellion?

Juliana Buhring: I think I was always very rebellious, from the time I was quite young. I didn't grow up with any parents, I was the property of the group from the time I was three years old. And I was sent around just randomly to many countries all around the world. But I did, because of that, I did see a lot in many different situations. I remember feeling very orphaned, but I grew up very independently because of that in a sense. I started to think for myself, or I started to realize that the only person who could protect me was myself and no one else would. And because of that I think I definitely kept a piece of my mind that was exclusively mine. And as I became a teenager I became very rebellious, very angry, that my parents had been taken from me, and I felt quite lost as well, and because I didn't agree with a lot of what I saw, I kind of took it out on myself, thinking that there was something wrong with me because I didn't agree with it, as opposed to something wrong with the doctrines or the practices. And because of that, I started to harm myself, tried to kill myself a couple of times, became anorexic, became depressed. So I was always sort of considered a basket case or I was always in need of correction or re-training. So I think I always questioned from the time I was young. So by the time I pulled myself out of my depression, I started to get much more vocal as I became a young adult. And I stayed as long as I did because we had five young brothers and sisters and I was in Africa, and I thought somewhat naively that I could somehow change things from within, and also that I thought I was doing good work out in Africa. But eventually I realized that it was all fake, like, we would pretend to do good works, or pretend to be a charitable organization when really most of our money was going towards the leadership. And none of it was really going to the locals, who we were supposed to be helping, and the rest of it we were just trying to survive. And I became quite disillusioned, just with a lot of the things that I saw. And then around that time they started to demonize the children like my sisters Kristina and Celeste, who had left and were speaking out, saying all these children are suffering now from serious abuse as children and now they're grown up but they still suffer psychological damage. And then the family was demonizing them, saying they were possessed, bitter apostates. And I said, "I was there too, and it did happen. They're not lying. They're not exaggerating." So by the time I did leave I think I was pretty well persuaded in my mind that that was what I was going to do.

Jenni Murray: The three of you were pretty much kept apart. I mean, you barely knew each other, really. Why it is important for you to be in touch?

Celeste Jones: It's like a piece of my heart that was missing all these years. There was always something missing and even though I didn't know, especially Kristina, because we were separated when I was just three and a half and she was two, and we didn't grow up together and didn't see each other for many many years, and I always knew that she was there and it was just something about my mom and I wanted to her to see my brother David as well, and then Julie and I, we grew up a little bit more together but then we were separated later on but I always had that connection as well, so when I finally made that step to reconnect, and we did reconnect, it was like it all came together, I guess emotionally or something. It feels right, it feels that we were long-lost and then come back together again. And we are very very different, but we also complement each other in many different ways.

Jenni Murray: And Juliana, what about your ]]Christopher Carruthers|father]]? I know he refused to acknowledge that there was any abuse for many many years. You saw him last year.

Juliana Buhring: Yes.

Jenni Murray: Why did you make contact with him?

Juliana Buhring: Actually, I saw him beginning of this year in February as well. I do not go to see him, in fact this time when I saw him he wouldn't even speak to me more than three words at a time. In fact he pretty much tried to ignore me and I had to arrange with a friend for them to all go out to dinner, and then I turned up, because otherwise they wouldn't have let me in. But I went to go see my brothers and sisters. And as long as I can, I'm trying to maintain that contact with them, because I believe it's really important, so when they get old enough, if they want to leave they'll feel that and they'll know that we're there on the outside for them. And so they know that I'm never far away, and I'm watching, and I'm still around even though they can't see me. So I have tried and I have successfully visited them every single year in Africa. And I hope to continue as long as I can. Obviously, Dad tries to prevent or limit contact between us as much as he can. But as long as I'm physically there, it's very hard for him not to allow it, so that's why I go back.

Jenni Murray: And how do you regard him, Kristina? You were sort of like "Hmm," when Juliana ...

Kristina Jones: He is completely entrenched in his belief system, and group at the moment, and yes, the way he's treated Julie and Celeste is the way I've seen is appalling, and it's hard to look at that and think, how can he do that? How can he? But he doesn't think for himself, he's lost that ability, he's only told what to think, and that's what comes out.

Celeste Jones: Can I just add that his loyalty to the group is greater than his feelings in his heart towards his own family. And he told me straight out, he said that we are foes of his household. And I said to him, "But we are your household." And he said, "No, because you're attacking the people that I love like my family. Therefore you are no longer my family. They are." And so it's sad that that divide is there, but that's what they --

Kristina Jones: It was heartbreaking for me, when I was 12 years old and out of the group and I realized the depth of the situation that I was in -- we were in. He definitely sides with the group over his own family.

Jenni Murray: But Celeste, then, how do you regard him? Because it is curious that the three of you as children all had in the back of your minds, well, this is the way they expect us to behave, but we feel uncomfortable with it. This is wrong. Why can't your father see it that way? Celeste Jones: I don't know. I've had -- I've written him letters over the years pleading with him, I've told him so many times how I felt, even after leaving, and he doesn't answer. What he does is he just goes blank, like he's not there.

Kristina Jones: He disassociates.

Celeste Jones: Yeah, and it's just so frustrating. So I don't know what else I can do. I have no idea. I cannot understand. I believe, though, that he's very very proud. I think that he does realize in the back of his heart, his mind, you know, that what we're saying is true. I don't think -- I don't know, I'm tossed between the two whether it is just his pride holding him back from saying I'm sorry I've spent the last -- [audio drops for 2 seconds] -- or does he really still believe? I don't know.

Jenni Murray: I think two-thirds of your generation, Juliana, are broken free from the cult. How difficult will it be for the next generation for them to get out?

Juliana Buhring: Yes. I think because a lot of our generation have spoken out, they've been forced to change their rules and policies and there has been much more -- it's a much safer environment than it was when we were growing up, as far as the physical side of the abuse. Of course, the psychological and mental abuse continues to go on and that's much harder to prove. But they've changed the way they're trying to keep the generation now in that they're trying to make it fun as opposed to these harsh military camps that we went through. They're now trying to make the family a cool place to be, using a lot of music, a lot of united group activities, and trying to bond them in that way, so I think it'll actually almost be harder for them to leave than it was for us to leave in the sense that they have a much more comfortable lifestyle and why should they leave, they're not under any physical abuse, that it would be harder because the environment is different now and they can't say, "Oh, I'm in an uncomfortable place, I want to escape." The comfort will keep them there longer, I think.

Kristina Jones: I think that's a generalization, though, because I still think there are cases that are more difficult than others, so it would be in whatever situation they're in. But I think that definitely they still restrict young people and there's no choices when you grow up as a teenager. Basically you're just going to become a salesperson for the group or you're going to do child care. So I think young people, just naturally, you want to break away, you want to find, you know, use your gifts, use your talents. And I think that's where they'll lose their generation as well. Especially those who want to do something more than just the mundane, and keeping the cult going.

Celeste Jones: I do think though that they'll have an easier time to leave because of their older brothers and sisters out there to help them get set up. That they won't struggle alone like we did.

Jenni Murray: I was talking to Celeste and Kristina Jones and Juliana Buhring. And you can call the BBC action line at 0-800-044044 if you've been affected by what you heard.

Program description

Three sisters’ struggle to escape the 'Children of God' cult

Kristina, Celeste and Juliana were born into the Children of God, a cult which promised love, forgiveness and kindness. But from the age of three, each of them was subjected to sexual abuse, and when they rebelled - to physical beatings. Continually separated from each other, from their parents and moved across the world each managed to make her escape. They join Jenni to explain how they survived and why they're determiend to help thousands of children trapped in abusive cults today.

Not Without My Sister by Kristina Jones, Celeste Jones and Juliana Buhring is published by Harper Collins, ISBN: 978-0-00-724807-0

Not Without My Sister
Rise International
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