The Independent: `We were always afraid. Silly things like frowning were punished'

From XFamily - Children of God

Real Lives

`We were always afraid. Silly things like frowning were punished'

The Independent/1999-04-18


It's a common story: wayward teenager joins cult. But what if the religious commune is your parents' idea? BEVERLY KEMP reports

Twenty-two years ago, Christina Jones was born in a commune in Bombay to parents who were both members of the religious sect, the Children of God (now called The Family). For the first 12 years of her life the group was the only home she knew.

Today, Christina lives with her six-year-old son in a terraced house on a well-maintained estate in Beeston, Nottinghamshire. Her home is cluttered but cosy, her clothes (grey combats, navy fleece) fashionable and she seems friendly and open. But mention the Children of God - established in 1969 by Californian hippie David Berg - and her face darkens. In little more than a whisper, her eyes deadpan, she talks of her disturbing early childhood.

"Most of the members were middle-class hippies who just wanted to drop out of life," she says of the sect. "Mum joined when she was 16, after the group gave a talk at her school, and my dad joined at 21, straight from university. Mum was only 18 when she had my sister and I arrived two years later." By the time she left the Children of God, her mother had seven children by two different fathers (Christina has four brothers aged 12 to 21 and two sisters aged 14 and 24.)

Christina's earliest memories are of people clapping and singing, but her overwhelming emotion was fear. "It was a very strict regime with a strong emphasis on disciplining children," she recalls. "We were always afraid of doing something wrong. You could be punished for silly little things like frowning or looking bored. Then we'd either be spanked with a belt or sent into a corner to learn Bible studies. Any adult who caught you being naughty had the right to punish you."

None of the children in the group attended school but were taught to read and write by older members. From the age of five, children had to help with the chores, which included scrubbing floors and cleaning the kitchens and bathrooms. Childcare was split between all the women and girls so that, by the time Christina was nine, she was reponsible for looking after nine children under the age of five. Living conditions were highly unusual, with four or five families staying in a large house, and each family sharing one bedroom.

Only those children who had reached puberty were allowed a separate space - for the strangest reason. "The group believed that sex was a gift from God and nothing to be ashamed of," recalls Christina. "Monogamy was not encouraged and you were invited to have have sex with anyone in the group who asked you." Children as young as two were approached for sex, and the assaults only stopped at puberty for the practical consideration of avoiding young pregnancies. (Contraception was strictly prohibited.) From 16 onwards, sexual relations could once again occur.

Like the other children, Christina was repeatedly sexually abused by members of the group, from the age of two-and-a-half until she left Children of God ten years later. Fortunately for Christina, her mother, who had begun to voice complaints about the lifestyle, provided an unlikely lifeline. The group, worried by her mother's outspokenness, asked her to leave in 1989. "By then she already had six children and another on the way," says Christina. "She was constantly ill due to malnutrition and desperately needed medical care." Returning to England destitute with five children in tow - Christina's father and elder sister chose to remain with the group in India - Christina's grandmother stepped in to buy them the Nottingham house in where they now live.

Christina had been brought up to believe the outside world was an evil and intimidating place. But there were a few pleasant surprises. The first time she tasted chocolate was "absolute heaven". Fruit yoghurt was another wonderful discovery. Having never seen an escalator before, she became fascinated by them. A clean and flushing toilet was the height of luxury after years of using holes in the ground in India. "Suddenly I was allowed to make choices for the first time in my life" explains Christina. "I remember visiting a friend who asked me whether I wanted tea or coffee. The question confused me as we were only allowed two cups of coffee a day in the group."

Other adjustments were more difficult. Starting school for the first time was a nightmare. "Everyone wanted to beat me up because I was so weird," admits Christina. "My clothes were all hand-me-downs because Mum had no money. For the first year I was teased mercilessly. Then I got a Saturday job - a paper round - so I could buy decent clothes. The only way I could learn about fashion was to look in magazines and at what other girls were wearing." Nine years on, she still has the first pair of jeans she ever bought.

Other gaps in her knowledge made her a figure of fun. One day the other girls in her class were talking about Michael Jackson and Christina asked "Who's he?" Everyone fell about laughing. She had no idea who the Prime Minister or the President of the United States was but asking her teachers for help wasn't an option - Christina's mother was so ashamed about their past that she gave her children strict instructions never to tell anyone about it.

In an attempt to fit in, Christina started smoking and gradually became more accepted, only to discover that she had little in common with girls of her own age. "They seemed immature to me," recalls Christina. "I understood the dynamics of adult relationships because I had experienced them. I knew far more about sex than most girls of 14. Having a boyfriend was terribly important to them but my own attitude towards dating was more like an adult woman of 30 than a teenager. I wasn't looking to discover sex or lose my virginity. I would only consider going out with a boy if he was really special." Nevertheless, at 15 she became pregnant by her then-boyfriend (they split up a year later) and left school without any qualifications.

"Looking back, my teenage years were awful," she says. "I had no one to turn to for support. The only person who helped me was myself. If I tried to talk to Mum she would either start crying or become defensive. But I'd heard all the arguments so many times before. Deep down I felt hurt because the child inside still believed that she should have protected me from all that because she was my mother."

Despite her past, Jones has managed in the last few years to sit her GSCEs and score straight A grades in three A levels. She is now studying law at Nottingham University. There have been a few men in her life but the right one has so far eluded her. "Unfortunately most of the men so far have turned out to be womanisers so I've dumped them," she says.

Her main focus in life is her son Jordan, and she has made a conscious effort to create the stable home life for him that she was denied. As well as studying, Christina works part-time in a pub so Jordan doesn't go without a thing. The house and garden are strewn with toys. As her son grows older she will answer any questions he asks about her early life, but for the time being all he knows is that Mum once lived in India.

In many ways Christina has become the matriarch of her family. Although there was a period during her teens when she felt very resentful towards her mother, their relationship today is close again - and reversed.

"My mother asks my opinion about most things and I'm forever giving her advice," she admits. "I buy her clothes and make sure she is OK for money. I see her as a victim and I forgave her a long time ago." Christina's brothers frequently come round to her house and she happily feeds them and does their washing and ironing. In return she enjoys "the security of never being lonely".

But the past has taken its toll. By her own admission, she has a depressive and introspective personality. She suffers from insomnia and occasional horrific nightmares. Even so, her experience has made her very strong and self-reliant - a woman without fear. "I have a very menacing gaze that tells people not to mess with me," she says. "So they don't."