Retrieving Youngsters From a Sex-Exalting Cult
The New York Times/1988-07-15
By WALTER GOODMAN
One scene in tonight's edition of "20/20" sparks conflicting emotions that the rest of the program seems determined to douse. The report at 10 o'clock on Channel 7 focuses on a 35-year-old woman named Vivian Shillander, who returned to Thailand last January in hopes of regaining custody of the four children left behind when she fled the country with her youngest, a baby, in 1984. The Shillanders were members of a religious cult that called itself the Children of God and whose leader, Moses David Berg, advocated sex for children. "I practice what I preach, " proclaimed the bearded patriarch. "And I preach sex, boys and girls! Hallelujah!"
With the assistance of a Baptist congregation in Sioux Falls, Iowa, where she had settled, Mrs. Shillander was granted custody of her children, all under 15, and hired a private investigator to fly with her to Bangkok. Also in the party were the investigator's assistant and, naturally, a television crew.
The documentary's most moving scene takes place after the young Shilianders have been found and loaded into a van to begin their journey to the United Slates. Up until then, our sympathies have been all with a mother's attempt to save her children from an exploitative cult. Now three of them are crying bitterly, pleading to be allowed to stay with their father and resisting their mother, who they seem to feel deserted them. "Daddy, will we see you again?" one asks plaintively.
Compared to their father, Richard, who despite the slightly goofy smile that seems pasted on his face does not appear to be at all threatening, the investigators come on like strong-arm types and Mrs. Shillander assumes the role of the wicked witch of the West.
Like a revealing moment in a play that suddenly confronts us with the possibility that we have been identifying with the wrong character, this encounter arouses mixed feelings about who is doing what to the children. The cult may be kooky but the children's reactions seem natural enough. "I really miss my dad and I don't want him to feel lonely in Thailand, " says Tito, and John says of his mother's reappearance, "I feel like it was the worst day in my life."
The program, however, remains undeviatingly loyal to Mrs. Shillander, even though it reports fairly that the children, now in Iowa, still want to return to their father and the cult and, according to the narrator, Tom Jarriel, require "deprogramming" before they can be said to be "adjusted."
Instead of digging into a complex conflict, the producer, Alice Pifer, has chosen to frame the story as a case of mother love versus sexual promiscuity. The script drips with True Confession cliches: "Her life was in shambles; she was an emotional wreck. "Heartbroken, she desperately wanted them back. "Across town, Vivian Shillander prepares for the biggest day of her life."
It's almost enough to make you want to hear more from Moses David Berg.