Penn - A Few Replies

From XFamily - Children of God

DISCLAIMER: The following article is preserved here for educational purposes. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of's editors.

Editor's note: Originally posted on, 2004-08-28.

A Few Replies

By James Penn

For the past few days I've been reading your comments about Take the Money and Run and thinking about the issues you raised.

I understand that my post touched very painful issues for many of you. Although it has been difficult to realize more of how my actions have done harm and caused pain, I appreciate the candor in what you wrote. Thank you to everyone who commented.

It seems like a good idea to reply to some of the points you mention. After this, I don't plan to post any more on here. This is your web site and I apologize for the intrusion.

Somebody said that my apology did seem rather trite -- well, I accept that. I’ve wanted to write something for a while and whenever I’ve thought about it, whatever I say does seem trite in comparison to what you have experienced and the harm I’ve caused you. Trite or not, the essence of what I truly feel comes down to something simple:



As a first generation member of the Family who could have left at any time (lots did), I am guilty of building and maintaining the system that terrorized you. As a senior staff member of World Services, I am guilty of so much more. I actively and energetically served Berg, Zerby, and Smith, carrying out just about any order they gave me. Because I was involved in the Public Relations arm of WS, I created material that among other things, covered up the abuse of minors in the group and demonized many detractors.

(Many of these detractors were members of your generation -- the early leavers -- the really courageous ones who had the guts to leave and then had even more guts to speak out against The Family in venues such as the British Court Case and other inquiries by the authorities. It has taken me awhile, but I have come to understand that they are true heroes.)

I acknowledge that I lived off your hard-earned tithes with more material comfort than most of you probably ever had. I acknowledge that I had a part in the suffering you all have endured in the group. I was one of your oppressors. I acknowledge that I bear a degree of responsibility for those who didn't make it and who are no longer with us. I am guilty of so very much.

I am so very sorry for it all. Any apology I offer will inevitably fall short, as it cannot undo the harm that my actions caused. An apology cannot bring people back to life. An apology cannot give you back your childhoods, or erase the nightmarish abuse you suffered. An apology cannot erase the stigma that so many of you face – the suffering and shame you continue to endure as adults through no fault of your own, by virtue of being raised in an abusive cult. There is so much that my apology will never do.

Someone mentioned that I would probably benefit from my apology more than anyone else – for SGs it was just more empty words. I thought about this a lot and perhaps that's true – I don't know. I hope it isn't. But it is something I can do, and something I should have done a lot sooner.

Related to my apology: Some said that for it to be authentic, it needs to be linked to some sort of restitution. I agree with that. I am acutely aware that it is not enough to say, "I'm sorry" and then walk away. Some also said that I have not / am not doing enough to make restitution for my past and having been on the take for a year. It is absolutely true that I can never do enough to make restitution for the harm I have caused. For various reasons I can't go into details on what I am doing now, but I am trying to do what I can in concrete actions.

A lot of people commented on my statement that I considered that I "deserved" severance money from the cult. The way I worded this was insensitive and I apologize for my unintentional insinuation. Morally, I did not deserve anything. I did not deserve the money because I had been a "good" person. Far from it. There is no comparison between my situation and that of members of your generation. You are morally entitled to millions. Me, just about nothing.

I carelessly used the term "deserved" in a business context of sorts. I had worked for Zerby and Smith for nearly 20 years — worked hard — and because of that I felt I had every "right" to ask for and expect a severance package from them. In my thinking, I had objectified my position and had stripped the morality out of it — if that is possible — I'm not sure it is. As I saw it, I had dutifully followed and obeyed for far too long, and now I was finally standing up to them. In a strictly contractual sense, I felt I "deserved" it. As part of a corrupt and evil organization, morally I did not deserve anything.

Part of this context is that I knew for a fact that there was cash to be had. As I wrote my letter of resignation, I was holding nearly $40,000 in cash and gold coins in my own safety deposit box for WS. Rather than just disappear with this "WS" money, I decided to be up front about what I wanted them to give me and why.

I know that talking about this kind of money is deeply, deeply offensive to those of you who left with literally nothing. But this was the water I swam in. To my shame.

I'd like to explain a little more fully why I originally wrote my post Take the Money and Run. As I said, morally, ethically, I do NOT consider myself entitled to compensation for what I experienced. There is NO comparison between my situation and that of Ricky. When I first heard about Zerby's smear campaign, maligning her own son for the money that she gave him, I was upset. Here she was, publicly beating on him while not saying a word about the severance packages she paid to others — like me. So hypocritical. As I see it, she didn’t say anything about people like me because she doesn’t want THAT payout to be public knowledge. Not quite as easy to explain away.

When Ricky resurfaced again recently, I decided that it might be a good idea to relate my experience, with the hopes that it would expose Zerby's utter hypocrisy, and encourage Family members to consider asking for money. When people are thinking of leaving the group, it can frequently be traumatic and difficult to think clearly and strategize. I just wanted to give them some ideas and let them know that getting some sort of compensation can be done.

Someone commented: "You wrote a letter of resignation to them blasting them for their beliefs/crimes and obviously disagreeing with their beliefs/crimes, and yet you accepted a salary from them while you still continued to help them perpetrate their beliefs/crimes. If you were so appalled by them, why would you continue to help them in any way??? Even if it was only a year, even if you had contempt for them?"

I'll try and explain my state of mind during the time I left, and that first year or so. I think some other ex-members, particularly of my generation, have probably had similar experiences. It basically involves the concept of doublethink and the detox process as I have experienced it.

When I left, I was glad to leave the pressure-cooker environment of a WS Home and move way far away and live on a farm with my friends and their kids. The hatred of the beliefs and crimes that I articulated in my resignation letter was authentic. However, psychologically I still had strong ties to the group. I had joined at 19 and now I was 46. It had been my life, my cause, my reason for existence. I had friends there. For most of my adult life The Family had represented God's service to me. It was hard to decisively break all ties and acknowledge how terribly terribly wrong I had been.

Then there was the "Will-God-strike-me-dead?" factor. I did a lot of looking over my shoulder those first few months, half-expecting car wrecks and the like. Had I made a terrible mistake?

Looking back on it, I feel that I was still practicing the doublethink that was essential if one was to live in the Family and not go crazy. I hated the group — especially Zerby and Smith — and was ashamed of my connection to it, yet I was reluctant to let go of many aspects of it. I agreed to edit Mo Letters — like Diamonds of Dust — for the general public during this time because I actually thought that somewhere someone might read it and benefit from it. I cringe when I think of that now.

The last part of No Regrets, where I quote at length from my letter of resignation, shows a bit of my confusion. I was ranting in one place, and then saying that I liked the Family etc. With every year that passes out of The Family I see more and more how I allowed my thought processes to be perverted by the toxic environment I was in for so long. I've been out for six years, but I still find that things I thought a year or two ago embarrass and shame me now. It has been an ongoing process.

So this is some of what was going on in my mind. Convoluted? — yes. Questionable morality? — Definitely, a great deal of it. I hated them, but I was willing to keep some association with them and take money from them. Although it was very empowering for me to stand up to them and take a severance package, when I read of some of the terrible circumstances in which many of you left, I am ashamed.

Essentially, during that first year I began to detox, to get away from all the BS and start to try to sort things out. It was painful — after decades of flying on autopilot, to take stock of my life and begin to realize how much I had really screwed up. During this time I had almost no contact with ex-members, apart from those I lived with. We just wanted to be left alone.

As far as money was concerned, I came to view Zerby and Smith as clients – nothing more. I worked for them on a "work-for-hire" basis during this time, and then it was over. I owed them nothing. They of course, saw it differently, and hoped that the money would leave me with warm and fuzzy feelings, and that I would fade away peacefully.

When I first decided to leave, I wrote a long, detailed resignation letter to Zerby and Smith for several reasons. First of all, it was incredibly liberating and empowering to tell them at length exactly what I felt about them, beginning to understand for the first time that they had no power over me.

Secondly, I wanted to send a clear signal not to f___ with us, that I was willing to play hardball. I knew that as soon as our intentions became apparent, they would pull out the knives and do everything they could to demonize us in the eyes of Family members. I had seen them do this first hand many times to other people who left. They were deathly afraid of four of us from WS leaving at once — united. They did not see this coming.

Thirdly, I had thought about one day speaking out publicly. Therefore, my letter of resignation was setting the foundation for that. If I wrote nothing and just slipped away into the night, then surfaced a few years later and gave all sorts of reasons why I left, Zerby and Smith could always reply that I had been deprogrammed and made it all up. But I was saying these things, on the record, while I was still in the group.

It is true, to my shame, that the money brought with it a temporary silence on my part. However as I began to understand more of my own complicity, it also brought with it — for me — a definite obligation to speak out. It became one of many reasons. I had to prove that I had not been silenced. Zerby and Smith thought and hoped that they could extend their control over me even out of the group. God knows they had done it successfully many times to others before. As I realized this, I had to show, if only to myself, that this was not the case.

To open another sidebar, writing No Regrets was liberating, consuming, but it took a toll on me. I did it very much on my own and I had no real idea of what the consequences would be. I began to gain a small understanding of what the people that I was complicit in demonizing in the group had been through when they took a stand on their own against the evil of the group.

The writing process was painful. It took hundreds of hours and involved peeling back a lot of layers of my life and past and sorting things out. I had so much to say in my effort to expose the evil inner workings of the group, and yet I realized that everything I wrote served to publicly condemn me. The more I wrote, the more I condemned myself. Why could I expose so much? — because I had been there, I had been party to so much incredible evil, and yet I had done next to nothing to stop it — and in some cases less than nothing. In the final analysis, my only claim to fame was and is how guilty I am.

The second article, written several months later, was a major project as well. Again, the more I exposed — Summit Jewels, illegal passports and the like — the more I accentuated my own complicity.

When I left the group, there was initially a sense of exhilaration and, euphoria, tempered by a deep-seated fear and panic of "What the hell am I going to do now?" As I started my detox, I more or less viewed all ex-members, regardless of generation, as victims. Of course your generation suffered more, but to be honest, I had not really grasped my complicity in your suffering.

Initially, my main struggle was coming to grips with how I had wasted my life. That was difficult, but I tried to develop coping strategies. As time went on, and particularly just after the Moving On board opened, I started to grasp the deeper dimensions of my complicity in your suffering, both as a first generation member and as a member of WS.

As I read more and more on Moving On and dialogued with a few of the second generation that wrote me, the scales finally, way too late, came off my eyes. I had been one of your many oppressors. Through the work I did in WS, I directly contributed to so much of your suffering. It became clear that my previous analysis of my time in the group had been wrong. I had not merely wasted my adult life, I had, through my role in The Family, spent a great deal of my life oppressing children.

As I see it, I will have to live with this reality for the rest of my life. No amount of apologies or restitution will alter this fact. It is with me until I die. Sometimes I wish that that death would come sooner than later.

Getting back to your comments, there are a few more points that I’d like to address. One of the replies to Take the Money and Run mentioned a derogatory comment I had made in No Regrets about what I termed the "lunatic fringe."

When I wrote No Regrets, I was not in contact with many ex-members. As I mentioned above, there were many issues about guilt, the suffering of the second generation and other stuff that I had not clued into. I was trying to expose Zerby and Smith and at the same time stake out my position in the spectrum of ex-members. It was obviously a flawed effort. While I was generally targeting FG ex-members with the charges of "lunatic fringe," some of whom seemed motivated by religious zeal, I am now only too aware that my comments unfairly tarred many SGAs with the same brush. SGAs who, at great cost to themselves, had spoken out and taken action against The Family. SGAs who had been horribly abused themselves, and who wanted to help their peers within the group who were powerless.

I am ashamed that I in any way hurt any SGAs with these comments. It was reckless of me and those comments were terribly wrong. I should have taken much more care in what I wrote. To those SGAs who I unfairly accused, I apologize for my actions and those comments. There is no way that any of your generation could be considered as part of a "lunatic fringe." As I mentioned earlier, it took me much too long to get the point, but you are the real heroes. While people like me were doing our best to systemically oppress you and your peers, you were running for your life, paying your way with your flesh and blood, and then being courageous enough to turn around and do something to try and expose the criminals and stop the suffering of your peers. All with very little help from anyone, and truckloads of condemnation and even direct opposition from people like me in the cult. You and others like you who dared to speak out paid a very very high price for your courage. I have nothing but admiration for you, and I am so sorry for the harm I have caused you.

I hope these comments help give a better understanding of some of the circumstances in which I left the group. For better or for worse, it's my story, and in the overall scheme of things, it's not a very important story. It's a flawed story, perhaps characterized by compromise, but it’s my story. I don't see myself as a paragon of virtue and to be honest, I feel so dirty when I read some of your stories. After years of being one of the oppressors, I had it much easier then most of you when I finally left. Nothing about that is fair.

It was not my original intent to draw all this attention to my personal circumstances. I wanted to be supportive of Ricky and make the point that Zerby and Smith have made payouts to other people when they feel they have to. And that Zerby's demonization of her own son for this was very wrong. I also wanted to encourage present Family Members to demand payment when they can. It’s one small way of making the Family accountable and draining their financial resources. The Family literally runs on slave labor.

Thanks for listening. I'm sorry for the pain I have caused by broaching this subject and for my insensitivity. Your generation has paid a terrible terrible price for the sins of my generation.

As concerns stories, yours are by far the most important. I hope you continue to tell them. I, for one, will read and believe them. The horror is that I know only too well how true they are.

— James