'When I left The Family, I had sadness and pain and worry. But dad has never acknowledged that what happened to us was ever wrong'
Press » Irish Independent » 2007-08-17
Juliana Buhring is sitting with two of her sisters in a Dublin hotel, as they revisit their often cruel, lonely and highly controlled lives in The Family, the cult also known as the Children of God -- though there is little that is Godlike in its many activities.
Juliana (26), her sisters Celeste (32) and Kristina Jones (31) were born into the cult. While Juliana has a different mother, all are daughters of British-born Christopher Jones, who at age 56 has already fathered 15 children by seven women, his youngest still a toddler.
Each sister has now left the cult. Juliana was the last to go, in 2004.
They have written Not Without My Sister, a harrowing story of betrayal and abandonment by their parents and the many other adults in their lives. The book is dedicated to their sister Davida, who committed suicide in 2005, aged 23.
The organisation was founded in southern California by David Berg in 1968. In its heyday 5,000 children were born into the cult, including actor River Phoenix, who died of a drug-related seizure in 1993, aged 23.
In the initial years after its founding, communities of the cult were opened across the US. In 1972, the cult left America to evade negative publicity and began to to recruit in other countries, starting in Europe and eventually spreading to the Far East.
The Family is most infamous for sex acts between adults and children, revealed in chilling detail by the sisters, who were sexualised from the age of three. 'Sex dates' with men of their grandparents' age were an early fact of life, initially being kissed and touched inappropriately.
Before age 10, many children had to provide oral sex or masturbate the adult, leading all too soon to coerced underage intercourse.
If they resisted, they were accused of being selfish, evil or ungrateful. "David Berg said that children liked sex, so no matter how we felt, they chose to believe we liked it," said Juliana.
The book admirably succeeds in its role to lift the lid on the dark world of The Family, characterised by beatings, manipulation and exploitation. David Berg predicted the world would end in 1993, with Family members destined to become God's Endtime Soldiers, free from the shackles of the System, as life outside was called.
Disparate groups lived in overcrowded conditions in large houses, moving round the world, obeying no laws but the rules of David Berg, which dominated every moment of their lives, and allowed no space for thought, reflection or peace. "The whole atmosphere kept you 'up'," says Juliana, hunching her shoulders, "you were constantly in a state of fight or flight."
In approaching the project, each sister wrote her own story, then came together for an intense time of editing and discussion. Through access to cult documentation, personal details seared into memory and discussions with other former members, they have created a chronicle of the bewildering, oppressive maelstrom that was their lives.
Celeste and Juliana were separated from their mothers by age six. Kristina was taken from her father at age three, but the remaining parent, often physically or emotionally absent, fell far short of providing the loving security that children need. Their positive survival seems a tribute to their own strength of characters.
Sitting together in Dublin, they present an affectionate, easy threesome. "We didn't know about each other, really. Dad liked to keep his families separate. But when we finally met as adults we got on famously. We had a shared background with the same reference points. Meeting people from other cults, they all say exactly the same things about abuse and control," said Celeste.
Juliana lived in Ireland for a year, abandoned by parents, based in a large house behind high walls in Castleconnell, Co Limerick, under the domination of an angry and violent house leader.
Aged 16, she had been raped the previous year by a cult member, and was deeply depressed and anorexic.
One day she ran away, and remembers walking along bog-lined roads while the house was ransacked to find her. Today, healthy and well, Juliana remains in contact with her father as she feels a responsibility towards her five siblings still living with him.
She is also the one who challenges him most. "There was no honesty from dad; he never had pride in me. I never felt love coming from him, probably my love for him died the soonest. I won't play the little scenes with him. I call his bluff and he hates that."
When her father heard about the book, he flew into a rage, and sent her a long text describing his daughters as 'enemies' who are 'slandering and betraying' The Family.
Kristina says because the break was so early, she remained attached to an idealised father. "Then when I left the cult at 12 and began to see it objectively, I had sympathy for him and for many years did not lose hope of him and in him. Later I became very angry towards him but I've learnt to work through that, and more recently I am at peace with it all."
Celeste's feelings are different again. "When I was small, he was a good father, and when I left The Family, I had sadness and pain and worry. But he has never acknowledged that what happened to us was ever wrong. I have now no need to talk to him, and there has been no contact for two years. I'm sad at that."
Equally, there is no close relationship with their mothers; more a feeling of some compassion for the lives they endured. Their take on forgiveness for all they themselves have suffered is equally mature. "You can't forgive unless your abuser wants to be forgiven. You need an admission from them that what they have done is wrong," said Juliana.
"Forgiveness has been a long road for me. Today I don't hold grudges. I've let a lot go for my own peace of mind so that I'm not still caught up in the past," said Kristina.
Today, David Berg is dead, Family membership is greatly diminished and the organisation is globally discredited. Thousands have left over the years, but many children born into the cult do badly in the outside world, turning to alcohol, drugs and self-harm, often leading to an early death.
The sisters, in contrast, are strong, caring and making new lives for themselves. Kristina works voluntarily with the Safe Passage Foundation, which helps ex-cult members, and lives in Nottingham with her 15-year-old son, Jordan, and partner Carl. They plan to marry next year.
Juliana and Celeste live in Bristol -- Juliana paying her way through university studying for a BA in philosophy and psychology. Celeste lives with her nine-year-old daughter Cherie, has a degree in Psychology and Education and recently landed a job as a project worker with a national children's agency.
They have all helped set up RISE International, (Resources, Information, Socialisation, Education), which works to protect children from abuse in cults.
Not surprisingly, their attitude to religion is negative. "I see religion as a method of control and abuse. It'd be difficult to see it as a source of happiness," says Kristina. "My philosophy would be humanist; to be good and kind," says Celeste.
When asked about their greatest regret, they agree it is that they did not feel able to leave the cult sooner and were unable to protect their sister Davida from the despair and abandonment that ended in suicide. Their greatest hope is that their younger siblings will leave the cult soon and begin a life of freedom in the outside world, and that the current leadership of The Family will pay with imprisonment for the abuse they have presided over.
Their good-bye was warm and sincere. As I walked away, I looked back and saw the three young women sitting together, each looking forward to carving out a new life.
'Not Without My Sister -- The True Story of Three Girls Violated and Betrayed' by Kristina Jones, Celeste Jones and Juliana Buhring, HarperElement €12.99.