Vivian Shillander

From XFamily - Children of God
Vivian Shillander on ABC News 20/20: To Bring Her Children Home — 1988-07-15

Vivian Lynn Shillander was born in Amamosa, Iowa where her father was a student pastor at a Methodist church.[1] After her father completed his education, her family, including her three older siblings, moved to South Dakota, the home state of both her parents.[1] She was 15 years old when her mother died.[1] After completing her first year of college, she went to Arizona to work and spend the summer with her aunt.[1] During a 1972 hitch-hiking trip to California, she met members of the Children of God and decided to join as a full-time member.[1] After joining the cult,[1] she married Richard Harold Shillander on January 24, 1974 in Thurston County, Washington.[2] Their first child was born in November 1974 and they had four more children together, the youngest being born in September 1983.[2]

By her own account her marriage to Richard Shillander was troubled from the start:

Richard was certainly not the type of man that I would have married had I been in my right mind. You have to take into account that I was already a person under the control of a cult... From the very beginning our marriage was not good. There was no equality and he did not respect me at all... as the children came along, I'm sure you can understand that if he didn't have any respect for their mother that he did not have much consideration for their individuality or worth as individuals. They were treated just as harshly as their mother—only even more so—being fragile little individuals. He had been violent with me from the very beginning from which I learned not to argue with him.

In court documents, Mrs. Shillander also alleged that Mr. Shillander was physically abusive[3] not only to her but also to their children:

When our oldest child was eighteen months of age his father spanked him so hard that it left spots all over his face, like blood blisters, from him crying so hard and so long with his head hanging down over his father's lap...Another one of his favorite disciplinary tactics was to knock his children on the head with his knuckles—not just one knuckle, but a full-fisted knock. Richard spanked so hard with the bare hand as to draw blood on the children's bottoms. This happened repeatedly...He was very hard on our little children and I cannot begin to explain to you the terrors of having to watch him "discipline" them.

In September 1978, the Shillander family moved to Europe where they lived in Family Homes in Belgium, France and Spain.[1] In 1984, the Shillander family moved to Thailand.[1]

Although, by her own account, Mrs. Shillander was initially optimistic about the family's move to Thailand, the situation soon became intolerable:

I can't explain how sick it made me and how discouraged I was after arriving in Thailand...I was really excited about the move. I thought, "Wow, now we're going to see things get done the way they're supposed to get done. Here's where all of the older leadership are who surely know how to do things right by now. They'll be a really good example for my husband and he'll see how he should really be. No more getting away with this violence stuff. After all, our name is 'The Family of Love' now. That is supposed to be our main emphasis and people are supposed to be treated with love."

It was the custom that before a family moved into a home they went and visited it with their children to decide for sure that they wanted to move there. This particular home happened to be one of the nicest homes that any of the members of the organization had in Bangkok, and therefore, my husband was very impressed that we should get to move into such a home—that it was surely the blessings of God. But the thing that I noticed immediately was that their children hid behind their parents and were apparently afraid of us and were not happy.

This was the beginning of the end, as far as I'm concerned, because upon leaving their home and my husband all hyped up on how beautiful the house was, and the place must have been saved just for us, he noticed that I wasn't excited at all. Having seen these moods in me before when he was excited and I wasn't, he immediately knew that I was not in agreement and he became violently angry. I knew that my best bet was to keep my mouth shut, because if I said anything when he was so excited about something, I would have been beaten severely. With all of our little children there, I didn't want them to see him beating me.

Shortly after moving into the home in a joint session in which we were supposed to be deciding on together the rules for the children in the home, I decided I wasn't going to keep my peace any longer. All I did was mention that I didn't agree with one of the rules that they had decided on. How do you explain it when there has already been a concerted effort against you? When you've been voted out of your own position as mother to your children? You have no say in their upbringing? ...

Feeling that I had lost total control in anything that I thought would be right for my children - I decided to just return home until I could figure out what the problem was and a solution. I have now come to realize that the organization is an eccentric cult, headed by a dangerous and perverted leader. My husband is under the total control of this leader and is capable of submitting our children to sexual abuse as well as general physical and psychological abuse in order to please the leadership and win praise for himself. The children must be rescued from that environment as soon as possible.

In July 1984, Mrs. Shillander returned to the United States with her youngest child. Her four other children remained in the cult in Thailand with their father. Before she left, she was taken to the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok where, according to her account, her husband (with support from Family leadership) forced her to sign a one page document stating that her husband would have "full custody" of her four other children during her absence.[4]

In court filings, Mrs. Shillander stated the following about the document she signed in June 1984:

...the affidavit attached to the Defendant's affidavit and identified as Exhibit #1 is a document that the Plaintiff was compelled to sign and which further indicates that the grant of custody was only for the period of time for which the Plaintiff was absent. Your affiant made a deliberate effort to leave the cult as peaceably as possible so that the children would not be hidden from me.

  • Source: State of South Dakoka, County of Minnehaha, Second Judicial Circuit, DIV. 87-721, Vivian Lynn Shillander v. Richard Harold Shillander. PDF IconREBUTTAL AFFIDAVIT (6 pages, 988k) – 1988-11-22

In a March 1991 court filing, Richard Shillander made the claim, apparently based on the document Mrs. Shillander signed under duress, that he was "awarded custody of the four oldest minor children of the parties at the time {Vivian Shillander] moved from Thailand to the United States.[5]

In court filings, Mrs. Shillander further described the circumstances of her departure from the organization:

That in response to Defendant's paragraph 12, your affiant states that she was forced out after voicing discontentment. Your affiant was not allowed to take any of the children initially and was simply told to "rebuke the devil and get right with God". Thereafter, the Defendant demanded that your affiant call her father to obtain money to return to the United States. The Defendant made further arrangements with your affiant's sister for my return to the United States. Your affiant was allowed to take the youngest child with her to the United States only due to the fact that the child was still nursing. The cult places great importance on keeping children in the cult.

  • Source: State of South Dakoka, County of Minnehaha, Second Judicial Circuit, DIV. 87-721, Vivian Lynn Shillander v. Richard Harold Shillander. PDF IconREBUTTAL AFFIDAVIT (6 pages, 988k) – 1988-11-22

Despite leaving the cult, Mrs. Shillander never gave up hope that one day she would be reunited with her other four children. After recovering from the emotional toll of her years in the cult, she began trying to find and recover her children. She eventually was able to obtain help from various organizations and individuals including U.S. Senator Larry Pressler, Child Find, Inc., the U.S. Department of State and Pastor Chuck Landon of the First Baptist Church in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Landon's congregation helped raised the money needed to hire a private investigator, Michael Intravia of Allied Intelligence, to find and recover her children. In November 1987, Circuit Court Judge Gene Paul Kean signed temporary orders granting her full custody of all her children.

In January 1988, she travelled to Thailand where she was finally reunited with her other four children and was able to return with them to the United States. In July 1988, the story of her mission to bring her children home was broadcast on the ABC News program "20/20."

In a 1990 Christian Research Journal article, former member Dalva Lynch and co-author Paul Carden partially summarized later developments:

Rescue — and Retribution

One ex-COG disciple, Vivian Shillander, succeeded in rescuing her children from the cult in Thailand against incredible odds.[10] Moses David reacted by writing a harsh letter to the Family cursing Vivian and advising members to be prepared to give their lives to defend the group's "rights" and its children from "the Devil's system." He counselled Vivian's husband -- still a member of the cult -- to move near his ex-wife's residence in South Dakota, infiltrate her home, convince her that he had repented, and then steal the children and disappear with them. The letter's content is extremely violent, and it specifically instructs members not to give in to law-enforcement officials who knock on their doors -- and to be willing to die in defense of their homes.[11]

In a June 1991 court filing, Mrs. Shillander quoted from one of the publications descibed above:

3. In response to the letter from the Court of June 11, 1991, I do wish to present additional information to the Court; and I attach that information and incorporate it into this Affidavit by this reference. I have recently received copies of a publication by the Children of God, from a former member who is now in England. These copies contain references to my bringing our children back from Thailand; and there are also excerpts from letters from the Defendant. The Defendant's name in the Children of God cult was "Barzalli," and he is known in these letters as "Barz." It is true that these publications are dated, since they are from 1988 and 1989. The sentiments expressed in them, however, are feelings that I am able to detect at this time to some degree from my children who are in the custody of the Defendant. Defendant refers to me as "demon-possessed," a "witch," and "God-damned witch." Defendant states in one of his letters that, "I will get those kids or die trying!" There are also some frightening statements in one of the publications against me. In the January, 1989, issue there is this exhortation:

7. Help Barz, Lord! Help him get in there & show those kids that he loves them, that we love them! Destroy that monster, Vivian, Lord! Eat her vitals with cancer! Give her pain, Lord, real pain for all the pain she's caused all of us! In Jesus' name! Rebuke her! Destroy her! Give her pain! May cancers eat at her vitals, Lord! May she die! And give the father back his children. In Jesus' name!
8. Lord, he loves You & he serves You & he helps others, Lord. He's sacrified a lot, forsaken all to a faraway land, Lord, to help the poor, & his help is appreciated & even recognised by their government.
9. What a horrible, horrible sample of the selfishness of rich countries! My God! Destroy Vivian! I want to hear about her death, an agonising death due to cancer eating at her vitals & destroying her! ....[6]

  • Source: State of South Dakoka, County of Minnehaha, Second Judicial Circuit, DIV. 87-721, Vivian Lynn Shillander v. Richard Harold Shillander.
    PDF IconAFFIDAVIT (26 pages, 5.7M) – 1991-06-20


More information

  • Shillander v. Shillander — Information, including court records, about the Shillander divorce and child custody case.
  • Vivian Shillander and children — xFamily Forum topic which includes messages posted by Mrs. Shillander
  • Desperate Measures: The Gripping Drama of a Private Investigator's Dangerous Mission to Free a Mother's Young Children from a Bizarre Religious Cult – by Michael Intravia — ISBN 0849990270


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 1.6 1.7 State of South Dakoka, County of Minnehaha, Second Judicial Circuit, DIV. 87-721, Vivian Lynn Shillander v. Richard Harold Shillander. PDF IconPLAINTIFF'S AFFIDAVIT IN SUPPORT OF EX PARTE MOTION FOR TEMPORARY CUSTODY (17 pages, 2.5M) – 1987-11-16
  2. 2.0 2.1 State of South Dakoka, County of Minnehaha, Second Judicial Circuit, DIV. 87-721, Vivian Lynn Shillander v. Richard Harold Shillander. PDF IconCOMPLAINT (2 pages, 381k) – 1987-11-16
  3. In his response to her complaint, Mr. Shillander denied these allegations stating that "[the Defendant] denies each and every allegation and thing therein contained except those matters hereinafter specifically admitted."
    State of South Dakoka, County of Minnehaha, Second Judicial Circuit, DIV. 87-721,
    Vivian Lynn Shillander v. Richard Harold Shillander. PDF IconANSWER (2 pages, 207k) – 1988-11-21. In response to allegation that he physically abused Mrs. Shillander, Mr. Shillander stated: "The Court should know that Plaintiff got physical with your Affiant long before your Affiant ever did anything physical to Plaintiff.
    PDF IconRESPONDING AFFIDAVIT (11 pages, 1.7M) – 1988-11-21
  4. The document in question can be found on the last page of Mr. Shillander's affidavit filed on 1988-11-21. State of South Dakoka, County of Minnehaha, Second Judicial Circuit, DIV. 87-721, Vivian Lynn Shillander v. Richard Harold Shillander. PDF IconRESPONDING AFFIDAVIT (11 pages, 1.7M) – 1988-11-21
  5. State of South Dakoka, County of Minnehaha, Second Judicial Circuit, DIV. 87-721, Vivian Lynn Shillander v. Richard Harold Shillander.*PDF IconANSWER (3 pages, 357k) – 1991-03-06
  6. These quotes are from the Mo Letter "Prayer Against the Monster System Of The Devil!" DO 2486, 1988-11. A heavily purged version of this publication is at HomeARC ML 2486.