The Family and the Truth
[What follows is a scholar and researcher's confession regarding some of the ethical dilemmas of doing research. Though Jim Chancellor might not use the term "post modern" to define his transparently honest humility of approach, others likely would. One also might simply label it "Christian." And that would be more accurate yet. We believe it to be instructive and fascinating for anyone interested in finding truth or telling the truth. See also the Cornerstonemag interview with Jim. -- jon trott for cornerstonemag.com]
In September of 2000, my book Life in The Family: An Oral History of The Children of God was published by Syracuse University Press. David Bromely, after reading the manuscript, asked me to reflect briefly on my experience of researching The Family and writing the book, as part of this larger effort in “reflexive ethnography.” I was most reluctant. To be honest, I was not sure what “reflexive ethnography” was, to say nothing of my ability to contribute to a broader understanding of it. I am not a sociologist. Life in The Family is my first book. And I do not perceive myself as an expert in the area of New Religious Movements. Now, with those caveats neatly arranged, I will attempt to share the nature of my experience with The Family. For the most part, this story does not appear in the book. Knowing full well that a substantial portion of the book would not be beneficial to The Family, I made a deliberate effort to keep the focus off of myself and on the disciples. But researching The Family proved to be more than an academic exercise, it was a life changing experience. What follows is my attempt to come to terms with that experience.
In the Beginning
I came to the study of New Religious Movements by happenstance. My training is in American History and the History of Religion, with a primary focus on contemporary Islam. I began my academic career teaching those fields at Colorado Christian University. In the fall of 1992 I was appointed as associate professor of World Religions and Christian Missions at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Part of the teaching responsibilities in this new position was eventually to cover the course “Minority Religions in America.”
In the spring of 1993, the sociologist on our faculty received a form letter from The Family inviting interested academics to open lines of communication with the movement. He stopped by my office and casually dropped the letter on my desk, stating it was probably more up my alley than his. I looked it over briefly, and came very near tossing it. I knew almost nothing of The Family. But, the letter seemed interesting, it was a slow day, and the call was free. However, after only a few minutes, my first contact began to hesitate at some of my questions, then suggested I contact the Family home in Washington, D. C., which had primary responsibility for interaction with government, the media, and the academy. It took a few days, but I finally hooked up with Noah, and my journey really began.
Noah proved to be a very pleasant and informative fellow. We chatted for some time, and then it dawned on me. I blurted out over the phone: “I know who you people are, you are The Children of God.” He laughed and said, “Yep, that’s us, or at least who we were.” In some ways, I am a child of the 60's Jesus Revolution myself. I had known of The Children of God, and even encountered some of them once. But I had no knowledge that the movement had lived on, and like many people I thought they had gone the way of the Flower Children and paisley pants. But, there they were.
I had several more phone conversations with Noah. Then my curiosity turned to inquiry. Again by happenstance, the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion was in Washington the fall of 1993. Noah invited me to visit his communal residence. He and another disciple picked me up at the airport and I had my first experience in a Family home. It started a little rocky. After the 1960s, The Family had spread around the world. The movement had gone through radical ideological and lifestyle changes. They had also developed a most unusual sexual ethos. One component of that ethos was Flirty Fishing - the use of sexual allure, up to and including sexual intercourse, as a method of both spreading the message and developing financial and political support. Between 1978 and 1987, virtually all of the adult Family women had participated in this unique “ministry.” By the time of our first meeting, I was aware of this aspect of Family history, but awareness does not equal understanding. As we entered the home, I saw three family portraits hung on the wall, one for each of the individual families occupying this communal home. I looked them over and casually commented, “Oh, I see that you adopt.” Noah replied, “No.” I said, “Sure you do.” There was a rather awkward silence. Then it hit me. The mixed ethnicity of the families had resulted from children born to Flirty Fishing mothers in the home. I was a little chagrined, but they were polite and seemed to take no offence at all. I think it was at that moment that I began to understand how complex this community of people might be, and how difficult it would be to penetrate deeply into the heart of this movement.
The evening went very well. We shared a simple meal and I talked for hours with several disciples, including several young people. Everyone seemed relaxed and confident, fully at ease with sharing some of the more extraordinary aspects of Family life. Some of the children performed a musical number for me. We ended the evening with singing and praying together. By then it was becoming clear to me that I was encountering not simply a “cult” or even a New Religious Movement, but a complex community of very unusual people. At one level, their lives were quite remote from my own experience, but at another level, something resonated.
Connecting With The Family
I awoke the next day, sensing I had really stumbled on to something special. But, I had a full weekend of meetings planed and began to focus on the business at hand. However, Noah tracked me down at the AAR meetings and said that I must come with him that evening to meet someone. He would not say who and he would not say where, but insisted that it was imperative I meet with this person. Early in the evening, a man I had never met picked me up at the hotel and began driving me to the secret location. He would not tell me where we were going. Arriving, I met Noah, who then introduced me to Peter Amsterdam. The Family was and is a rather closed operation. At that time David Berg (known in The Family as Father David) and his wife Maria headed The Family. Their general appearance and location were top secret. Peter Amsterdam was second in command. Even his presence in the United States was kept secret from all but a very few disciples. We met for an evening meal and long discussion. Several other members of Father David’s family and household were there as well. Over the course of the evening, Peter expressed particular interest in my views regarding The Family and potential for The Family to be more accepted, or at least tolerated, by the wider Evangelical Christian body. I was straightforward with him and offered very little hope. We were at table, and I took a cup and placed it several inches from a plate. I explained that the plate represented the broad evangelical Christian tradition and the cup was The Family - quite apart. I then explained that unless radical changes were made in theology and life style, the best they could hope for would be to move the cup toward the plate. But given their current views and practices in a host of areas, they had virtually no chance of getting on the plate.
The evening progressed very well. Peter seemed to appreciate my honesty and sense of humor. And as men of faith, we both spoke the language of faith as an original tongue. To put it simply, at both an intellectual and personal level, we connected. Toward what I thought was the end of the evening, Peter and several others excused themselves, gathered in the kitchen and began a lengthy, whispering conversation. Peter then returned and explained to me that he had brought with him a video recording of Father David teaching a Bible lesson. He brought the video so that a few, selected disciples in North America would be able to see and hear The Prophet, even though they would never get to meet him in person. Peter went on to say that Father David’s location and his appearance were “selah” (Family Secret) and that it is strictly forbidden to reveal his likeness to any outsider. However, they had prayed and decided to invite me to watch the video with them; on the condition that I would not reveal the nature of his appearance to anyone while Father David was still alive. I agreed.
We sat in the dark, watching this very strange looking old man with dazzling eyes and long gray beard ramble on and on about the love of Jesus. My attention was constantly drawn to the faces of the disciples; a mixture of awe and joy, with the occasional soft tear. When it was over, we prayed and they drove me back to my hotel.
Some months later I received a beautiful, hand-printed manuscript on parchment paper. It was the record of a prophecy Father David had received from Jesus regarding my meeting with Peter. In general it was most affirming, assuring The Family that I was a person to be trusted and who would be able to understand the disciples for whom they really are. However, the prophecy also contained an admonition for me, explaining that soon I would see that in fact The Family was at the center of God’s Plate. This experience, perhaps more than any other, open my eyes to the fact that one cannot research a religious movement like The Family without being drawn inward, and at some level becoming part of the ongoing experience of such a living community.
I experienced this connection at many levels. “Joyful” was an older teenager. I lived in her home in Europe for over a week. I had an emotionally powerful interview with her in which she laid open the trauma and tragedy of her teenage years in The Family. At the end of the interview, we were both emotionally drained. She stated that she felt so much better finally being able to talk to someone about it all. We continued to communicate after I returned home. After several months she wrote me that she had joined her father, who had been expelled some time ago, and had decided to remain with her father and leave The Family. She intimated that our time together had really helped her see and understand the nature of her life and what God might hold for her outside The Family. It is simply not possible to interact with people at a deep, personal level and not be mutually affected by that interaction.
Studying The Family
When I returned home from the AAR meeting, I began reading everything I could find on The Family, and the extensive Family literature I was given. In a short time, I began to see a gap. There was a substantive amount of academic inquiry and social scientific research done on The Family, though much of it was dated. The most useful of these sources were Living in the Children of God by David Van Zandt, numerous articles by Roy Wallis, and a number of insightful articles appearing in Sex, Slander, and Salvation: Investigation The Family / The Children of God edited by Gordon Melton and James Lewis. There was considerable literature attacking The Family, either from the anti-cult industry or tell-all books by disgruntled ex-members. The most useful of these is Heaven’s Harlots: My Fifteen Years as a Sacred Prostitute in the Children of God Cult by Miriam Williams. But being a closed and at times secretive organization, The Family had not found a way to tell its own story. I proposed to Peter Amsterdam that I write a history of the movement, from the perspective of those persons who had remained loyal disciples of Father David. But, to do so I would need complete and open access to any Family home or disciple, and access to all Family literature, even literature that had been repudiated and withdrawn from circulation. Peter and Maria gave their blessing and support to the project, and I began a five-year journey into The Family.
By the time I began my “official inquiry,” I already had an extended stay at two Family homes in the Washington, D. C. area; one a “school home” of some 70 persons and the other the public relations home on the east coast. By 1999 I had lived in over 25 Family homes in North America, Europe, and Asia, staying anywhere from 2 to 10 days in each home. In most instances, I tried to live as one of the disciples, participating in as many Family activities as possible. I did fund raising and “provisioning” (direct appeal to the general public for food, clothing and other needs). I went out on witnessing ventures, and tried to do at least part of my share of the mundane duties necessary to keep a home running. I had access to home leadership and planning meetings. I attended fellowships, Word Studies, and worship services. And, I conducted over two hundred in depth interviews of disciples from all over the world. I committed a full year sabbatical leave and most summers to the research, and visited Family homes anytime that I traveled in the United States or abroad. On three occasions teams of disciples stayed in my home. Aware of the ethical issues regarding participant study of New Religious Movements, I completely funded my own travel and research costs. I always left a small donation with each home to cover my meals and incidental expenses. The Family had no financial investment in the project. And we had a clear understanding from the beginning that though the work could not be done without the cooperation and support of Family leadership, the book would be mine alone and not subject to control or review by the Family. I did allow Noah, Peter Amsterdam, and Maria to read the manuscript for historical accuracy, and they offered only two, minor suggested changes.
My initial interviews with Family disciples were relaxed and friendly, but produced little more insight into Family history and life than is now available on their web site. Most of these interviews were at homes either set up for encounters with the outside world, or with disciples who had experience in dealing with inquiring outsiders. But after Peter and Maria put their stamp of approval on my efforts and I began living in field homes, the depth and quality of my interviews and interactions with disciples steadily strengthened. Gradually, closets long shut to even persons within the movement began to open. Certainly a major factor in the steadily increasing access to Family life was my ability to learn and understand both the culture and language. Language was a key. The Family must be one of the most ethnically diverse religious communities on earth. Every home I visited had disciples from various races and nationalities. Marriages across ethnic and national boundaries are more common than not. Though the vast majority of homes use English, they have developed a distinct dialect. This dialect consists of both a novel vocabulary and distinctive, though often subtle, meanings and uses of more familiar religious and secular terms. As I became familiar, then competent in their distinctive vocabulary, the quality of my interaction with disciples increased significantly. Much of my insight into Family life came from casual interaction, doing dishes in the kitchen or playing basketball, or just sitting silently and listening to disciples talk with each other. Here, knowledge of the dialect was imperative.
The Family, like any close knit community, has developed a culture, a set of explicit and implicit assumptions of proper modes of behavior and attitudes. Learning the culture allowed me to blend in quickly into the normal life of the home. As I learned to function less and less as an outsider, I was more and more accepted and trusted. I am confident that on many occasions the disciples completely lost track of me as an outside observer. This not only enhanced the level of direct communication I had with the disciples during the interviews, but also allowed me to function as a “fly on the wall.” Certainly one of the most memorable of such occasions was a three-day extended stay with Peter Amsterdam and several of his assistants. Over the course of the long weekend we had approximately fifteen hours of recorded interviews. One of Peter’s female assistants handled the recording and was present to take care of any other needs. Late in the second afternoon, as we had been discussing aspects of the Family’s more unusual and provocative sexual beliefs and practices, Peter suggested we take a break. He looked over to the assistant and asked her if this was a good time, and she responded: “Oh yes, I could really use a masturbation break right now.” By this time, I was prepared to hear almost anything, and did not react in any way. Several weeks later this woman was transcribing the taped interviews and realized what she had said. She wrote me a very touching letter of apology in which she stated, “I just forgot you were not one of us.”
In some ways, my deepening relationship with the disciples developed an internal momentum. Increasingly, as I visited a new home, I would already have known, interviewed, and lived with friends and relatives of disciples who were residents in the new home. These growing personal connections not only enhanced my entry into the local community, but also provided a foundation for deeper and deeper penetration into the memories and life experiences of new people I would meet. Though The Family is an extremely close knit and highly mobile group, they are none the less spread throughout the world. After several years of research, I would often hear comments to the effect that: “You know more Family members than I do.”
The Family has an unwritten but firm policy. Members are not to be alone outside the home, but are to travel with a minimum of two. By and large, the disciples are very rarely, if ever, alone with outsiders. I insisted that all my interviews be done in private. I assured all subjects that their identity would be protected, and that I would not discuss specifics of their testimony with anyone in The Family. This approach freed many disciples. This was most evident in the interview with “Anna”, a 22 year-old young woman who had been raised in The Family. Charges of the sexual exploitation and the sexual abuse of children remains a dark cloud hanging over Family life. The official public position of Family leadership was that sexual contact between adults and children was never sanctioned, was rare, and any such events that did occur were an anomaly. After over an hour of conversation on a host of other issues, Anna opened up to me. She spoke about her rather extensive experience of sexual abuse as a child, the wide awareness of “every Family kid” on this issue, and the general acceptance of such conduct in the homes and communities in which she was raised. It was a difficult time for her, but we made it through fine. At the end of our interview, she commented, “Man, this sure was different.” She then informed me that she had been interviewed the previous year by a social scientist doing research on The Family, and had told that person nothing of the experiences she related to me. When asked why, she offered several reasons, the primary one was that the previous interview was in a group of other young people, and she didn’t feel free to talk about such personal or negative things in that setting.
During the course of my journey with The Family, I went down some very dark streets. Disciples shared with me experiences of harassment, intimidation, and occasionally brutal persecution from the outside. They also shared times of serious abuse from within, both as victims and perpetrators. For some, I was the first person they ever felt free to talk with about very difficult and painful events in their lives. Many of these interviews were profoundly emotional experiences. One young woman told me of a secret pregnancy and abortion, something “absolutely no one else knows about.” I heard confessions of incest and prostitution. A mother painfully recounted how she had turned over her own pre-teen daughter to fulfill the sexual desires of adult men in her community. A leader spoke of his complicity in the physical and emotional abuse of young people. And a woman told me how her absolute obedience to her “shepherd” had literally cost the life of her infant daughter. She had never spoken with anyone about this event, not even her other children or new husband. I wept with her through the trauma of recounting the whole episode, then prayed with her as she sought forgiveness and assurance of the welfare of her lost child in heaven.
Through the years, my relationship with the disciples ebbed and flowed from participant observer to friend, to sounding board, counselor, and confessor. But my self understanding remained focused as researcher, with the final purpose of coming to know, understand, and then communicate the nature of these extraordinary people to an outside world.
I have given more than a little thought as to how and why I was granted such privileged access into such a closed community. For one thing, it was clearly a case of being at the right place at the right time. A constellation of external and internal forces was at work to “open” The Family. From their very beginning on the beaches of Southern California, The Children of God lived in high tension with the outside world, “The System.” Throughout the world and through their entire history, the disciples have been subject to various levels of harassment, oppression, and outright persecution. In general, they responded as Father David had directed, taking their lumps, going underground, or moving on to safer and more receptive fields. But beginning in the early 1990s, the rules of engagement changed dramatically, the target shifted to the children. All over the world, Family homes were subjected to brutal, commando style raids by various law enforcement authorities. Disciples were imprisoned without charge, and in many cases the children were seized and held for extended periods in “protective custody.” At the orders of Father David, The Family decided to stand and fight for their children. One element of their defensive strategy was to identify sympathetic, or at least neutral, academics whom would conduct fair and legitimate study. The worst components of sexual exploitation of children had long since been abandoned and repudiated, and Family leadership was confident that honest inquiry would be to their benefit.
The tragedy of the Branch Davidians was a sobering event for The Family. Though they are committed to non-violence and do not allow firearms in their homes, they saw in Waco the potential harm that can come to unconventional and misunderstood religious communities. Decades earlier, Father David had responded to the Jonestown tragedy by predicting a “cult hysteria” and taking his movement further underground. The response to Waco was to attempt to ensure that potential law enforcement raiders would at least understand who they are not.
There were also a number of internal forces at work that conditioned The Family to be open to my inquiry. In the early 1990s, a young female disciple went through an extended child custody case in England. The wealthy grandmother tried to take custody of her infant grandchild, because he was in a “dangerous cult.” The judge conducted an extensive judicial review of the sexual and disciplinary conduct of The Family. Numerous former members came forward and bore testimony of serious abuse as children of The Children of God.
Throughout this process, Family leadership was forced to confront extremely negative experiences of some former disciples, and to come face to face with the extent to which Father David was responsible for this sordid dimension of Family life. And in the midst of that painful process of self-reflection, Father David died.
Though Father David died in October of 1994, he had been seriously ill for some time and the effective leadership of The Family had shifted to Maria and Peter some years before. Only a very few, highly placed disciples were aware of the extent of this transition. But the consequences were evident well before the death of The Prophet. The Love Charter was released in 1994, totally reorganizing The Family into a far more democratic, kinder, and gentler organization. This change in leadership clearly marked a shift toward a more open attitude to outsiders.
But none of these factors addresses the question of “why me?” I was a virtual unknown in the discipline of New Religious Movements and had produced nothing in that field of research. Certainly my enthusiasm and willingness to commit the necessary time and energy to do the project right was a factor, but the movement had already opened to me before that was evident. I am confident the primary forces at work the paved my way into The Family were not professional, but personal. The first of these factors is trust. The Family came to trust me. I did not achieve this level of trust by telling them they could trust me. I demonstrated it to them from the beginning by being completely honest and open about who I was, what I thought, and what I hoped to accomplish. When asked my opinion of Family doctrine or practice, I gave it straight and direct. Early in my relationship with Noah, he asked me what I thought of Father David. I replied that I did not know him personally and it was probably unfair to judge on such limited knowledge, but based on what I knew at this point he struck me as a person with, at the very lest, some very serious emotional or psychological problems. I then smiled and asked him, “What did you think I would say?” He responded, “Well, not that!” After a considerable pause, he smiled back and said, “But, I guess to outsiders he could possibly give that impression. I mean he is a very unusual person. I am sure that once you get to know us and who Father David really is, you will change your mind.” My approach of absolute honesty and openness was at times stressful, but in the end in went a great way in establishing a trust relationship that allowed the community as a whole and the individual disciples to open their lives to me.
The central component of my depth relationship with the disciples is a shared faith experience. Many of the theological tenants and ethical positions of The Family are quite distant from my own tradition. I never for one moment gave any consideration to becoming a Family disciple. Yet, at the corps of their self-understanding, they are committed followers of Jesus. And that is my self-understanding as well. Beyond all other descriptive categories, The Family is a profoundly religious people. Faith in Jesus is the cornerstone of their communal integrity, life passion, and vision for the future. By directly apprehending the reality, meaning, and significance of that faith commitment, I was able more clearly to observe and understand Family life. And, at a limited level, I was able to enter into that life. On a few occasions, I would only be able to visit a particular home for a day or less. Those visits were always cordial and sometimes informative. But virtually every “break though” moment or interview came after a sustained period of relationship building that was most often fortified by periods of worship, singing, and praying and times of mutual sharing of the life of faith. I never had a “satori” experience of oneness with The Family. But there were a number of times and places where I sensed a level of acceptance that was considerably closer to “insider” than “outsider” status. I am completely confident that the innate bond of shared faith experience was a primary factor in what level of penetration I was able to achieve in the reality that is The Family. There is little doubt in my mind that Family leadership understood the risk they were taking. And I believe that my “kindred spirit” as an evangelical Christian was a primary factor in the decision to let me in, and to let me in so deep. Yet, none of these factors can completely account for what happened between me and the disciples. We just clicked.
What Price Love?
It should be obvious to almost anyone that there is a price to be paid for such intimacy. Those anti-cult activists and members of the scholarly community at war with “cults” like The Family are wise to restrict their research sources to documents and hostile ex-members. It would be far too risky for them to come to know “cultists” as fellow travelers in the land. But, at what price “objectivity?” On several occasions, groups of Family youth have stayed in my home. They know my children. We played basketball together and spent hours of an evening singing “songs of the revolution.” I have friends in The Family, some good friends. Some disciples are joyful, others soulful and pensive. Some are more honest and forthright than others. Some are self-professedly guilty of terrible deeds, others are victims of their brothers and sisters. Others have suffered terribly at the hands of the Torquemadas of our day. Some are persons of deep faith and profound personal investment in the Family Vision. Others are just hanging on the best way they know how. They are a vast array of races and nations and personalities. They are people. Once a researcher grasps that sense of shared humanity, it is no longer possible to deal with any religious community like The Family as simply a “cult” or even a New Religious Movement. Or, at least it should be impossible.
As members of a New Religious Movement, Family disciples are particularly vulnerable people. NRMs constantly struggle against negative and damaging media stereotyping, fueled by the hostility, avarice, and ineptness of “cult experts.” The waves of hostility and oppression toward alternative religious visions in the Islamic world, Israel, Orthodox Eastern Europe, and secularized Western Europe are no where near their crest. Researchers of New Religious Movements, particularly those who have been granted special access, cannot help but experience a tension between scholarly integrity and a sense of responsibility toward the welfare of those who have in essence entrusted their lives, and the lives of their children, into our hands.
As I descended into ever more bleak domains of Family life and history, I became more conscious of the complex response such openness and trust required. On the one hand, there was the clear expectation on the part of The Family that I be fair, understanding, perhaps even gentle as I discovered and then recounted the depths of the “dark side.” On a few occasions I was able to interview parents of long term members. One woman I interviewed is a respected legal professional in Canada whose daughter was one of my primary informants. She stated that her daughter had encouraged her to be completely open and hold nothing back, because “he probably knows everything by now anyway, and besides, Jim would never hurt us.” My relationship with The Family and with particular disciples was not feigned, not a ploy to steal their secrets. It was and is genuine. We have drunk often from the same well. And, as I wrote the book, the echo of “Jim would never hurt us” constantly played in my mind. Because I knew that what I had discovered must be told, and that it would inevitably hurt them.
On several occasions, Noah (my principle informant) commented that when the book was published, I would emerge as the “leading expert on The Family in the world.” He was quite confident that the image of The Family held by the outside world would, in large part, be shaped by what I said and how I said it. These conversations were always relaxed and informal, and there was no sense that he or Family leadership attempted to exercise any direct control or supervision over either my research or the final product. But, the message was clear. I had been deliberately and graciously allowed in. I was a special guest in their home, even a friend. And friends do not stab each other in the back; or hand the knife over to someone else anxious to do the stabbing.
I took this responsibility seriously. And there was another factor. I had not only invested over five years of my life in this project, I had invested five very critical years of my career as well. I came into the academy late in life, as a second career. I came for my love of teaching, not scholarship. I am a very good teacher, but not a particularly confident scholar. And though “young” in terms of publication and academic reputation, I am far from being a young man. Life in The Family may well be the pinnacle of my scholarly achievement, and the “world’s leading expert on The Family” may well be the only mark of distinction I shall ever carry into a scholarly assembly. But all that would be severely limited, if not completely fractured if The Family were to repudiate what I produced and cut off all contact, and thus terminate any current claim at being “an expert.” And besides, I would lose some friends.
However, the pressures produced by my relationship with the disciples were balanced by other pressures. I am a member of the academy. Bruce Lawrence, my mentor at Duke, invested substantial time and energy into my development as a scholar. And though he remains a close and supportive friend, I never leave a meeting with him without the faint sense that I never quite lived up to his expectations. Though teaching is my first love, I none the less long to be a respected member of the academy. But beyond those personal issues, I share the core values of the academic community: rigorous and impartial research, sound methodology, unbiased analysis. I was therefore committed to producing a work that would somehow be both sympathetic and honest, fair but accurate, good scholarship.
I faced an additional pressure, that of my own faith community. Most of my colleagues at Southern Seminary, and most members of the broader evangelical Christian world hold little sympathy or understanding for aberrant movements like The Family. Any treatment of a such a group that did not denounce the movement in no uncertain terms might well engender serious criticism, with charges of compromise or worse.
In writing the book, I attempted to cobble together a great quantity of written material and so many stories and observations into a coherent whole. In so doing, I found myself constantly playing across several gaps, faced with the constant challenge of what to leave in and what to leave out. And the choices were not simply those of accuracy, reliability, and good story telling. They were moral choices. I had to do the best I could, while doing the right thing.
At this point, I am caught in an Escher loop. To clearly communicate the nature of this struggle, it would be necessary to provide examples of the kind of material I choose to leave out. Having chosen not to include such material in a lengthy work where there would be opportunity to place it in a mediating context, I am certainly not going to do it here. I did not shy away from any substantive issue, but in general I moderated in two basic areas. Family literature is not only replete with sexual explicit language and metaphor, but is also filled with sexually explicit and often highly provocative drawings and photographs. On four occasions, where I felt it necessary to convey the full range of Family sexual ethos, I described drawings or photographs. Though I had permission to do so, I chose not to include the actual drawings or photographs.
The second area of restraint is the treatment of Father David. While the disciples never deified The Prophet, they held him in the highest esteem and now view him as literally sitting at the right hand of Jesus. Father David was gifted with a wild imagination, no inhibitions that I have been able to discover, and seemed to have virtually no unpublished thoughts. I am in possession of sufficient information, both oral testimony and Family literature, to frame The Prophet in extraordinarily black light. To be sure, as the story unfolded it was impossible to prevent some dark shadows from falling across his image. But in hopes of maintaining the focus on the disciples, and in deference to their deep love and dedication to Father David, I choose to minimize, rather than maximize, those aspects of his character and conduct that virtually any outsider might well see as profoundly disturbing, if not evil. Perhaps the full story of The Family will not be complete without a critical biography of The Prophet. But I cannot imagine the disciples cooperating in such an enterprise.
I remain at ease with my decisions with respect to images and The Prophet. Beyond that, I told the story pretty much as I found it. The challenge was to weave the perverse with the noble into a fabric that was representative of the self-understanding and actual experience of The Family. It was no small challenge. The darkest threads were the financial, psychological, and physical abuse of the disciples by their own leaders, and the emotional and sexual abuse of their own children. The story of The Family would be incomplete and inaccurate without full disclosure of these issues. But I also was compelled to convey clearly the remorse and repentance of my informants, and to somehow convey how otherwise decent people could be caught up in such a perverse and self-destructive life.
Telling Family Secrets
The final product of my years of research and intimate relationship with the disciples was shaped by a set of guiding principles. The first was anonymity. It was clear to me well before writing the book that portions of it could and would be used as an indictment against The Family. I felt a responsibility, both as an aid to effect research and in fairness to vulnerable individuals, to offer personal immunity to my informants. I used pseudonyms for the disciples, and to this day have not revealed to anyone, inside or outside The Family, the identity of my informants. The only two exceptions were Peter Amsterdam, for obvious reasons, and Claire, who suffered terribly and publicly in the Argentine raids and insisted her identity be made clear.
The second guiding principle was to tell the whole truth. Now, I am not talking here about Truth with the capital “T.” I believe that one belongs to God alone. So, if not God’s Truth, then whose truth. First of all, I mean the truth of the disciples. I was committed to conveying the reality of their world as they live it and perceive it. This meant, at the very least, balancing the various components and emphases of the book to align as much as possible with the components and priorities of disciple life. From an outsider perspective, Family life is a virtual wonderland of the exotic, erotic, and bizarre. But it troubles them deeply that these aspects are the constant focal point of observation and assessment by outsiders. Peter Amsterdam expressed considerable frustration that “sex is all we ever hear about, when it is actually only 2% of what we are.” I responded to him that this was like the bull saying “Why are people always so concerned about my horns, when they are only 2% of who I am.” My point was well taken, but Peter’s point was also. The more extreme components of Family ethos and lifestyle are a critical and necessary aspect of the whole truth. But these had to be placed in the proper context, the context of the whole life experience of the disciples. For these people, experience with God, absolute commitment to The Prophet and his community, encounters with the Spirit World, the mission of sharing the love of Jesus in the world, and the vision of the End of Times are far more formative and significant components of the totality of life. It was imperative that I give ample attention to this totality, and to place the erotic and bizarre squarely within the context of the caring, the sacrificial, even the noble.
While my commitment was to let the disciples speak the truth as they knew it, I was well aware that the final product would be the truth as I saw it. It would be my name on the cover. The years of close observation, thousands of contacts, hundreds of life stories, and many more casual but informative comments, all had to be knit together into one comprehensive and comprehendible story. And in the final analysis, that story would be the story I saw unfold over the thirty plus years of Family existence all over the globe. I would arrange the music and direct the choir. But I was determined that the disciples must sing their own song. Early in the process, I decided on an oral history format, with the substantial heart of the work in the voices of the disciples. I was determined to make no observation or analysis that was not only supported by, but flowed out of the articulated experience of the disciples. I felt, and still believe, this to be both the most accurate and the most just approach.
In the book itself, I posed what must be the ultimate question. Did the disciples tell me the truth? I believe that with skill and patience and determination and time, I came to hear the truth. The ultimate question for this article is a similar one. Did I succeed in telling the truth of The Family? I suppose that will have to remain an open question. As I stand astride the gap, the people on my left hand think maybe so. When Peter Amsterdam read the first draft of the manuscript, his initial response was, “Well, you got us, didn’t you? To be honest, there are a whole lot of things in the book I wish were not in there. But then again, all of it is things that our own people said, so I guess it is a little hard to complain. Most of all, I just wish those things hadn’t happened.” As to the judgement of those on my right, you folks living out in “The System,” well, I guess time will tell.
Reprinted with written permission from Toward Reflexive Ethnography, (ISBN 0762307919), 1st edition, Bromley and Carter, pp 37-52, "The Family and the Truth," 2004, Elsevier Press.