The Guardian: After the 'Family' broke us apart

From XFamily - Children of God

After the 'Family' broke us apart

The Guardian/2005-11-26

by Hester Lacey

In 1971, Fleetwood Mac guitarist Jeremy Spencer left the band to join the Family, a notorious cult. Here, his children reflect on their bizarre upbringing, and their decision to leave and form a band.

Jynxt is a far cry from the standard, manufactured, pop band. Its four members are all proper musicians, with long apprenticeships behind them, for a start, and the vocalist, Tally Spencer can really sing. Perhaps it's not surprising, as Jynxt come from a seriously musical background. Jeremy Spencer, one of the founders of Fleetwood Mac, is the father of three of the band members, Nat, Ben and Jez, while Tally is the daughter of Jeremy Spencer's wife Fiona, from her second marriage.

It sounds as though the band ought to have enjoyed advantages most young musicians can only dream of: a father who is not only a virtuoso on the guitar but well-placed to put in a word for them and set their feet firmly on the path to success. However, it wasn't quite like that. One of the tracks on Jynxt's debut album, Bring Back Tomorrow, is called Don't Believe. "I don't believe in God," sings Tally, with a passion that again isn't surprising, given their extraordinary childhoods.

Fleetwood Mac's first hit, Albatross, established the band as a huge success and in 1971 they were touring the US. The afternoon before a major gig, Jeremy Spencer went out to visit a Los Angeles bookshop. He never came back. He was eventually located five days later, at the headquarters of the notorious Children of God cult, later renamed the Family. His head was shaved and he had been renamed Jonathan (he later changed his name back again). Fiona joined him, bringing Jez, their eldest son, who was then a toddler. And that was the end of his involvement with Fleetwood Mac and the start of a life travelling the world with the Family. He fathered a total of five children and Fiona went on to have three daughters with her new husband, though Nat, Ben, Jez and Tally don't like the term "half-sister": as far as they're concerned, they are all full siblings.

Why Jynxt? "It's because we think we're jinxed," explains Nat. "It started when we were kids. Was it when we arrived in Sri Lanka?"

"No, it was Greece," says Jez. "They had the biggest earthquake in ages, so then we went to Sri Lanka."

"Then there was the revolution and the Tamil Tigers ..." says Nat.

"So we went to the Philippines," resumes Jez, "and Aquino got shot. So we had to move again ..."

"And we'd been living just under the Mayan volcano, which hadn't erupted for about 100 years, till we came on the scene," finishes Nat. "So we went to Japan."

This peripatetic life is a feature of the Family. And as children get older, they travel even further. The Family has a policy of separating families and sending teenagers away from their parents. "The belief is that you need to split up families to create one big Family," explains Jez. The Spencers were farmed out separately to communes as far afield as Macau, Brazil and Italy, changing country every year or two.

"The worst was Siberia in October," recalls Tally, with a shiver.

"But no matter where you were in the world, it was like being in the same place ..." says Jez.

"... like McDonald's," adds Ben.

They also regularly had their names changed, another curious Family practice. The idea is that you take on a Biblical name that reflects a particular theme or lesson: if you want to learn how to fish, for example, you might be renamed Peter. Girls whose behaviour isn't coming up to scratch frequently get renamed for Mary Magdalene.

Despite, or perhaps because of, their shared experience, they are close-knit, finishing each other's sentences and laughing over private jokes. "When we're not working we spend most of our time together," says Nat.

"I didn't know what it meant to be a younger sister and have older brothers when I was growing up," says Tally.

The family element has brought them together professionally as well, says Nat. "If you're in a band with other musicians you don't know so well, the first argument and they're off."

Early musical influences were almost non-existent. "We weren't supposed to listen to the radio or watch TV, except for the news," says Nat. "But we'd always had a thirst for music. We'd have our Walkmans on with music recorded from the radio on one side and their propaganda shit on the other in case anyone came to see what we were listening to."

Occasionally they went to a local school, but they were mostly tutored at home. They were allowed no books and even National Geographic magazine was eventually banned for its emphasis on evolution, says Nat.

"As you get older you start to see that the Bible doesn't make sense," says Ben. "The Song of Solomon is fine and dandy, but as a basis for science, no way."

Cards were forbidden; they weren't even allowed to sit around and chat. "Idleness is the devil's workshop!" says Tally. "Mostly we were cleaning."

"If you were naughty you had to stand in the corner and you couldn't come out until you'd learned a whole chapter," says Ben. "The Book of Proverbs was best, the verses are very short."

Corporal punishment was regular and thorough. "Foolishness is bound in the heart of a child; but the rod of correction shall drive it far from him," recites Ben.

"I first decided I didn't want to be in when I was about seven," says Jez. "We were in London and I'd had some time in school. Then we had to go out trying to sell literature in the pouring rain. I really wanted to go back to school."

However, getting out of the Family was not an easy business. "When I wanted to leave, they put me in a room for three days to think about it, with no food," says Ben.

"I first asked if I could go when I was 16," says Jez. "I left when I was 18 or 19, with my pregnant wife, who was 18 as well, and our daughter, who was nearly a year old."

"They liked to get people married and dependent," explains Nat.

"I just left," says Tally. "I said I'm going to America with my boyfriend and I'm telling you, not asking you."

The "boys" are all somewhat older than they look: Jez is 37, Ben is 33, Nat's 31, while Tally is just 24. They all have children of their own, though all are now separated from previous Family partners. Of the eight siblings, only one of their sisters is still a part of the Family and she has been promoted to a senior position in the organisation; she writes regularly to tell the others that she's praying for them.

They received surprisingly little musical encouragement from their famous father, when he was around at all. "Dad would just take the guitar off me and play it himself," recalls Ben.

"He would say 'don't do it like that, do it like this,'" agrees Jez.

"I worked with him in Brazil and he was keen on teaching me the technical side of music," says Nat.

Despite their father's notoriously wild persona (he was known for on-stage antics involving condoms filled with beer) they are adamant that this was more of a staged image. "The wild side is more Mum," says Nat. "Her stories of her teen years ... !"

Jeremy and Fiona met at a party when he was 18 and she was just 14, explains Jez, and Fleetwood Mac was just getting under way. "We blame acid on Dad joining, and Mum was just so young."

"There was that whole hippy thing going on at the time, communal living and no possessions," says Nat.

"It's great in theory but it doesn't work," says Jez.

They are pragmatic about their parents' split. "Dad was hardly ever home and this Italian was around, who was the same age that she was, 26," says Nat.

"He was tall, dark and handsome and she was lonely with five kids," chips in Ben.

"And he could cook!" adds Jez. "He could slaughter a cow, I've seen him."

"Dad is the most impractical man in the world," explains Nat. "He can't ride a bike, he can't swim, he can't drive a car. He can play the guitar and that's it. He was my hero until I was about eight and then I realised that he was a bit old-fashioned."

Tally still sees her mother quite regularly. "Our parents have mixed ideas about us, they can't place us."

"They don't agree with what we do, they would prefer us to be in the Family," says Ben.

However, all of them have firmly renounced religion in any form. "I don't believe anyone knows the answers, no religion has it right," says Nat.

"Why ask questions when you know no one has the answers?" asks Ben.

"Dad will be in till he dies," adds Nat thoughtfully.

"He's far too proud to admit he's wrong," says Jez.

"To admit he's been wrong all his life," says Ben.

The Children of God

History: It was set up in 1968 by the former pastor David Berg in Huntington Beach, CA. Later known as the Family of Love, the Family, and currently the Family International.

Teachings: Berg openly advocated sex with outsiders and with children. Women members went "flirty fishing" to draw in potential converts by having sex with them. This practice ended in the 80s.

Current membership: There are now 8,000 cult members worldwide, including 400 in this country.

Famous members: Jeremy Spencer and the late River Phoenix

By Linda MacDonald