MIXED MEMORIES OF 'THE FAMILY' SEX:
Ex-member believed abuse ‘normal’
San Francisco Chronicle/2005-02-27
By Don Lattin, Chronicle Religion Writer
Kristi La Mattery was 8 years old when she got her first lesson in flirty fishing,” a practice in which female missionaries in the Children of God were sent out as sacred prostitutes to bring lost and lonely souls into their fellowship of love.
It was 1984. Kristi and her sister were brought into the shower by their mother and given some detailed instructions on feminine hygiene.
Here’s how Kristi recalls their conversation:
“Mommy has to sleep with a lot men, honey, and it’s important that she keep clean.”
“Because God is asking me to.”
“But what if they are all fat and ugly?”
“You just pray to the Lord, dear, and he will give you the strength to do it.”
Kristi’s mother was a devoted member of the Children of God — a religious sect founded in 1968 by Oakland native David “Moses” Berg.
Berg was a radical Southern California street preacher who combined the free love of the sexual revolution with the religious fervor of the American evangelical movement. He died in 1993, but his sect lives on today as the The Family International.
Over the past three decades, thousands of children have been born into the Children of God and the Family.
Kristi is among a growing number of second-generation defectors who blame leaders of the sect for creating a highly sexualized culture that encouraged widespread child abuse during the 1970s and 1980s.
In a series of interviews with The Chronicle, she and her father offered an inside look at life in the Family.
Their story comes on the heels of a bizarre murder-suicide that has rocked the 8,000-member organization to its foundations. On Jan. 8, Ricky “Davidito” Rodriguez, anointed by Berg as the prince and future prophet of the Children of God, killed himself and a woman who helped raise him as a child.
In a videotape shot the night before his crime spree, the 29-year old Rodriguez urged other second generation members to rise up against his estranged mother and other top leaders.
Kristi, now 28, is doing just that. “If you were a pedophile,” Kristi says, “you had no problems in the Children of God.’’
Kristianity La Mattery was born in Laredo, Texas, on April 18, 1976, the second of two children born to Jim and Donna La Mattery.
Kristi didn’t even know she had a father. By the time she was born, Jim La Mattery had been exiled from the cult for questioning some of its unorthodox doctrines. But Donna stayed in the Children of God, taking Kristi and her sister, Kerenina, to Puebla, Mexico, where they lived in a trailer with two other male members of the sect.
Kristi’s first recollections of the Family’s sexual practices were of Donna “sharing” sex with the two men in the trailer — while she and her sister were in the same bed, giggling. “They’d say, ‘Stop being foolish. Go to sleep,’ ” Kristi said.
Kristi recalls first being sexually abused at age 5 or 6: “My first memories are of this one guy who always smelled like milk and honey. It would smell like milk and honey when he kissed you.’’
Growing up, the abuse never seemed like abuse. “If Mommy does it, then it was normal,’’ Kristi said.
When Kristi was around age 7 or 8, her mother moved the two girls back to Texas. Donna was now mated to two different sect members, “Jay” and “Carlos,” and they were all raising money to go to Thailand.
Jay was in the lumber business, Carlos was working in a Mexican restaurant and mom was out “flirty fishing,” Kristi said.
“We had this fish who would lay me on the back couch and molest and rape me,’’ she said. “A lot of the fish weren’t people who’d actually join (the sect). Many fish had things to donate — housing, clothes, food — and got sex in return.’’
Eventually, Donna, the two girls and Jay — whose real name is Phillip Slown — moved to Chiang Mai, in northern Thailand.
During the day, Kristi would go out with singing teams to sell Christian books, posters and tapes. “We never really did any missionary work. We just sold products and begged,’’ she said. “You were placed on teams depending on how pretty and cute you were.
“My sales pitch was, ‘Hi, my name is Kristi and we’re missionaries with a nondenominational organization trying to raise money for a really good cause.’ ’’
At night it was a different story. According to Kristi, Slown would have the girls sleep in bed with him. “He’d lie in bed and masturbate himself,” she said. “When we’d shower with him, he’d have us masturbate him.’’
(Chronicle attempts to locate Slown for comment were unsuccessful.) In 1986, amid rising complaints of child sexual abuse in the Children of God, sect leaders issued new guidelines intended to crack down on such practices.
“They sent visiting shepherds out to talk to the teen girls,” said Kristi, who was in Thailand when the shepherds arrived. “They said if I felt something wasn’t done to me in love, I could tell them about it. I told them.”
The shepherds talked to Slown. Then they told me he was all better, and that I had to talk to him about it,’’ Kristi said. “He said, ‘You feel like I’ve done things that haven’t been in love. But I love you, sweetie. Let’s pray.’ ”
The abuse, Kristi said, did not end.
Donna separated from Slown in 1990. Two years later, when Kristi was 16, Donna and her children settled down in Galva, a small town in Illinois. Donna was no longer a full-time missionary with the Family.
Kristi was finally getting a taste of life in the real world. Her mom let her take a job in the local convenience store, where she met Alan, the store’s 18-year-old assistant manager.
“He really liked me, and I started witnessing to him. He was a fundamentalist Christian, so we got along great. We were all gung-ho for the Bible and the Lord,’’ Kristi said. “My mom’s thing was to get him hooked. I started having sex with him and he freaked. He was a regular fundamentalist Christian.’’
That’s when Alan realized that his new girlfriend had grown up in the notorious cult called the Children of God.
Alan’s shocked family urged Kristi to leave the sect. “That was the first time I ever heard anyone talk that way about the group I’d grown up in,” she said. “They explained what rape was, and I realized that was what had happened and why I felt so horrible about it.’’
Alan and Kristi moved to Chicago to live with Alan’s sister, who encouraged her to find her biological father.
“It wasn’t until I was about 12 years old that I realized I even had a father out there,” she said. “I didn’t know his last name — or my last name — for a long time.
All my mother would say is he was ‘of the devil.’ ”
Working through other relatives, Kristi tracked down her father, Jim La Mattery, in San Diego — and discovered that he had been looking for her for 15 years.
Jim sent Kristi a plane ticket and told her he’d be carrying roses at the airport.
“It was really busy coming out of the plane,” she said. “When I saw him, everything else around me disappeared. It was the first moment in my life that I remember feeling anything.’’
For Jim La Mattery, reuniting with his long-lost daughter was “like winning the California state lottery.”
“It was phenomenal,” he said. “Somehow, I always knew she would come of age, rebel against her mother and find me.’’
Soon after that 1993 reunion, Jim also reconnected with his older daughter, Kerenina, who was born two years before Kristi. Then, in 1997, one of Kristi’s younger sisters, 16-year-old Miriam, went to San Diego to stay with Kristi.
Kerenina, Kristi and Miriam are three of nine children born to Donna by seven different fathers between 1974 and 1992.
Miriam turned out to be too much for her sister Kristi to handle. The 16-year-old wound up living in several teen shelters in downtown San Diego, one of which brought her to the attention of child welfare workers with the San Diego County Department of Social Services.
After interviewing family members, county social workers concluded that Miriam had been sexually abused by Phillip Slown from 1986 to 1990.
In a March 3, 1998, report, a copy of which was obtained by The Chronicle, investigators also concluded that Miriam’s mother sexually abused her by “having sex in front of the child” and telling her that she should “show men God’s love” by having sex with them.
In her interview with child protective services in San Diego, Donna Slown denied that she knew of any sexual abuse of her children. But she admitted that “there was a lot of sexual freedom among the adults” in Children of God communes, and that “some people will make mistakes in large groups.’’
Donna Slown, now known as Donna Marchbank, declined to speak to The Chronicle.
According to Kristi and Jim La Mattery, Donna still has close ties with the sect.
Her current husband, Tom Marchbank, said his wife did not want to talk about the past. “She is so hurt and has been through all that so much,’’ he said. “The story is so slanted their way. Half of that stuff is exaggerated.”
After serving in the Army Reserves, Kristi moved to England and came to the realization that she was gay.
Returning to the United States, she met a woman and moved to Minneapolis. Then, in January 2002, her brother Jeremy, 16, died of a drug overdose. Her sister, Miriam, had attempted suicide several times.
Kristi decided to do something about it.
She got a job with a support group for survivors of child abuse. She also met another woman, Lacey, and knew she was the one. Last Christmas, they went to Vermont and got “civil-unionized,” then went to New York for a New Year’s Eve honeymoon.
Eight days later, on Jan. 8, Ricky Rodriguez, the poster child for second- generation members of the Children of God, murdered a woman who’d helped raise him and shot himself in the head. The Family was back in the news, and Kristi decided it was time to tell her story.
“I’ve now got another 16-year old brother, and I want to get him out,” she said. “He’s the same age as Jeremy was when he died. I couldn’t live with myself if something happened to him.”
E-mail Don Lattin at firstname.lastname@example.org.