Globe and Mail: Coming to terms with an abusive cult upbringing

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Coming to terms with an abusive cult upbringing

Press » Globe and Mail » 2007-11-02

By R.M. Vaughn

Filmmaker Noah Thomson was raised in the elusive Children of God cult, a Christianity-based communal living society also known as the Family.

Founded in the United States in the 1960s, the Family practised and promoted free love – very free love – as a way toward spiritual enlightenment. It made for a pretty effective recruiting tool as well.

In the past two decades, however, several former members of the cult have come forth and alleged that the cult's sex-fuelled gospel was often a front for the systemic physical and sexual abuse of the children. Since those allegations first emerged, much of the Family has relocated throughout the world, largely, its detractors claim, to avoid the U.S. justice system.

In an attempt to process what happened to him, to his siblings and to the many former Family members he has tracked down and interviewed, Thomson has created the chilling documentary Children of God: Lost and Found (makings its debut Nov. 7 on The Movie Network), a film that is half scathing j'accuse and half bittersweet road movie, with Thomson playing the role of the pensive, sometimes goofy twentysomething trying to find his way in the world.

The film is punctuated by recorded phone calls between you and your mother, who is still in the Family. Did your mother know you were recording her?

I believe she didn't, no.

Did you have any ethical qualms about using her voice?

Well, I asked her if I could do it, and I think because of bureaucracy within the group she couldn't participate. But it was definitely something that I questioned, but at the end of the day I felt it was okay to do it. I still don't know.

The footage from the Family's recruitment films, with the kids performing in choreographed parades, is very Children of the Corn.

I didn't set out to make it scary, but the film took on a life of its own. It just sort of developed, and I didn't think it would be as taxing on me as it was. I knew the group had a lot of skeletons in its closet, but I didn't think they would come out quite so bold.

Are you in any of those promotional films, the kid rallies?

No. I'm in several of their videos, which I couldn't get a hold of. But my older sister is in the marching group you see in the film.

The Family made soft-core child-sex tapes and took inappropriate pictures of kids in sexual situations – some of which you show in your film. How do you show the exploitation of children without re-exploiting the victims?

The one thing I did know when I was making this film is that I didn't want to make it sensational. So I focused on a couple of people who are now adults who did have that happen to them, and interviewed them. Then we compromised in some areas, and I approached showing that sex stuff very gingerly, to say the least. The Children of God believed that their religion was their sex, so it had to be shown.

Are you still a Christian?

You know, I'm not sure. I appreciate all religions, and anybody who lives by “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is a friend of mine.

Have you spoken to your mother since the documentary was finished?

We have not really spoken, to date. We intend to meet in the near future, but I'm not really sure where she is, psychologically or emotionally, about any of this. There were times when I felt she was coming around, having a breakthrough, but she continues with the group.

For many abuse survivors, talking about the abuse is the first big hurdle to overcoming the shame. You've made a whole film about it.

I kept my background a secret for years. But once I made a commitment to talk about it, I became thankful I did. Those circumstances were out of my control. There were times over the course of making this film when I was really torn: ‘Why am I doing this? Why am I putting myself out there with this?' But once I started shooting the interviews, I realized I had a responsibility to tell my story and the stories of people like me. I'm not a crusader by any means, but those stories break my heart.

In the film, you spend almost all of your time with other guys. Is it hard to meet women with your history? Your life story is not exactly first-date material.

Yeah, yeah. I meet women when I can, but I work a lot too, and I don't have time to pick up girls like a lot of young guys do. But I do okay. I don't think my history scares women off, but maybe they haven't been honest with me! Ha! If they're going to judge me on my history, I suppose it would be intimidating. But I'm out there enjoying my life. I have good days and bad days, like everybody else.



In 1976 in Brazil; Thomson and his 10 siblings grew up in different Children of God communes around the world.


At age 18, Thomson moved to Japan to work for the Children of God's video production unit.


Thomson left the cult in 1999, together with two of his brothers and two of his friends, and began assembling footage of the group (which by then was known as The Family). He started working on the film seriously three years later.