'Heaven's Harlot' looks back on Jesus freak days
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution/1998-7-25
by Gayle White
RUTLEDGE - Miriam Williams is perched on a weathered porch rail at Hard Labor Creek State Park. Sitting in a chair beside her is her friend Sharon Wilson. On a sweltering summer weekend, they are here with the birds singing and the insects buzzing for a family reunion of sorts --- a gathering of people who have left a controversial religious group that began as the Jesus freaks of the hippie era. Now called the Family, it is known more for its almost-anything-goes attitude toward sex (including, former members say, sex with children) than for its end-times theology.
The reunions have been held annually since 1993. "We had considered ourselves family, so this is a family reunion," said Williams, 45, a Cobb County resident who has become something of a celebrity with the publication this summer of her book, "Heaven's Harlots" (Eagle Brook/Morrow, $23). The title of the autobiographical book comes from the practice of offering sex to potential converts, called "flirty fishing." The pastoral setting and communal lifestyle of the park's cabins and campgrounds are appropriate for this get-together. Many of the several dozen participants traveled the country in psychedelic-painted buses and lived together in communes sharing resources during the heyday of granny dresses and bell-bottoms. In those days, they were called the Children of God. "In the beginning were wonderful principles of putting someone else above yourself and loving one another unconditionally," said Wilson, 49, who left her Southern Baptist roots in White Pine, Tenn., for Miami Beach, where she met the Children of God in 1969. Wilson, who now lives in Braselton, stayed with them for nine years. "When I first met the group, I didn't have a long dress. One girl had two. She gave me the pretty one." At first, Williams said, males and females were strictly separated. But over the years, founder David Berg, who called himself Moses David, had a series of doctrinal "revelations" that loosened the rules about sex. Williams had joined the group in 1971 in upstate New York, attracted by original band Fleetwood Mac in its heyday to join them.
Williams says she accepted what she now sees as Berg's authoritarian rule, dictating at times everything from the mates to the reading material of his followers. She says she rationalized his position that sexual sharing among adults and even "sacred prostitution" were acceptable. She shared the beds of many men who were part of the group, brought another woman into her marriage as a second wife for her husband, and had sex with men she met in the hopes of bringing them into the fold.
"Among our first 'fish' were an Italian businessman, an American lawyer, and the son of a famous actress," she writes in her book. "I found it easy to perform my role without any emotional attachment or moral dilemma." The one thing she could not ration-alize was the sexual exploitation of children. When she found anatomically correct sexual pictures drawn by a child who lived in her communal home, she began to fear for her own five children, who now range in age from 11 to 24.
Her involvement in the group spanned 17 years and two marriages --- one of them forced by the group's leaders.
"I ask my daughters periodically whether they remember any abuse," she said. "So far, they have told me no."
After leaving the group in 1988, she divorced her second husband, moved to Cobb County, graduated from Kennesaw State University with a 4.0 grade point average and enrolled in graduate school at Georgia State University, where she is studying psychology.
She has set up a Web page (http://www.excognet.com) for former members of the Family, which she calls "a cult."
While thousands of people such as Wilson and Williams left the Family in disillusionment over the years, others have stayed.
Today the Family functions with an estimated 9,000 members and thousands of other adherents who do not live communally but consider themselve s part of the group, said spokeswoman Claire Borowick, who is based in Washington. Two communal homes, with about 20 people each, are located in metropolitan Atlanta at undisclosed locations. "Missionaries" work around the world and, in the Atlanta area, Family members sing at hospitals, pass out food to the homeless and volunteer at local ministries.
The Family places little emphasis on recruiting new members now, Borowick said, but adds to its membership by reproduction since birth control is strictly prohibited.
Borowick says sex with children under age 16 is forbidden and "flirty fishing" was abandoned in 1987. But the "law of love" still applies. It says any sex between adults --- inside, outside or in spite of marriage --- is fine as long as it is done "in love."
Since Berg died in 1994, his wife and successor, Maria, and other Family members report receiving revelations not only from Berg but, on occasion, from dead celebrities including Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe and Richard Nixon. "Basically what we'd say is that we believe God uses the spirits of departed saints on occasion to deliver messages to his people," said Borowick.
Among the post-Berg variations on the sex theme is the idea of fantasizing a sexual relationship with Jesus while engaged in a sex act, whether alone or with someone else. Borowick says the "Loving Jesus Revelation," published in 1996, is based on "bridal theology," which sees the church as the bride of Christ.
Family leaders "see nothing sinful or blasphemous about including the creator of sex as a participant during their times of sexual loving and enjoyment," she said. She stressed that the practice is not required of members.
The hippie days David Brandt Berg, born in Oakland, Calif., in 1919, was the son of two Christian evangelists who became an itinerant preacher. He revealed many of his feelings about his background to his followers in regular dispatches known as Mo Letters.
In one letter, full of capital letters and partial sentences, he described himself as "A VERY LONESOME LITTLE BOY," who was "frail, shy, and very reticent, a veritable bookworm and recluse." Berg moved to Miami with his mother when she founded a church affiliated with the Christian and Missionary Alliance, a conservative movement, but the church closed in the midst of the Depression. Berg was ordained by the group in 1941, according to Stephen A. Kent, a University of Alberta professor who has studied Berg's group extensively.
He met Jane Miller and married her in 1944, but continued to travel with his mother on the revival circuit. The couple had four children.
Berg held various pulpits and positions within the denomination over the next 23 years. He returned to California with his family at his mother's request in 1967 to help her with a coffeehouse ministry on Huntington Beach in Southern California to the "poorest of the poor --- the poor hippies of Huntington Beach."
Berg had about 100 regular followers in 1969 when Sam Ajemian, an Armenian born in Greece, met him in Los Angeles.
Ajemian, now 52 and a participant in the reunion, was living in Berkeley "trying to be part of the hippie scene," he said, when he fell under Berg's spell.
"I thought I was joining a normal, dedicated Christian missionary group," he said. "I really believed we were the chosen, elect of God, and David Berg was the greatest prophet who ever lived after Jesus Christ --- more important than St. Paul and St. Peter."
Berg and his followers began traveling from coast to coast and up and down the country, and eventually set up a commune on a Texas ranch. Along the way, they absorbed a Georgia commune called the House of Judah.
Their lifestyle was documented on NBC television in 1971 on a program called "The Ultimate Trip."
"We were 20 years old and it was great," Wilson recalled. "We slept in buses in layers with boards across the seats. It was so much fun back then; we didn't know what the future would bring."
Berg often traveled in a motor home with his wife and two other women --- eventually abandoning his first wife --- but followers never considered that anything untoward might be going on with their leader, Wilson said. "We were serving God. That would be filthy to think."
Over the next few years, Berg began to describe himself as "the voice of God" and his followers as the Children of God. In the early 1970s, he urged them to scatter around the world about the time a New York crime commission began investigating allegations of fraud and child molestation. No one was indicted.
For several years, many of Berg's disciples remained abroad and kept a low profile. Controversial doctrine, along with investigations in several countries --- regarded by the Family as persecution --- eventually brought many back to the United States.
Berg communicated with his diaspora through his Mo Letters, offering advice on everything from hygiene to seduction. As early as 1971 he wrote about sex in "Love-Making in the Spirit," a letter whose cover bore a drawing of a bare-breasted woman being fondled by a bearded man. But over the years, the letters about sex and marriage became more radical.
First he introduced the idea of "sharing," which meant women should have sex upon request with men in the group. But he forbade birth control. "I had four children before the age of 25," said Marina S., 37, an Italian woman in town for the former members' reunion. "You had to have sex because God wants you to do that. You had to have children because God wants you to do that. . . . Women had to submit to men. Who was I to question God?"
Berg's next step was the doctrine of "flirty fishing," or "FFing" --- using sex for conversion. He compared it to Jesus' crucifixion. If the son of God could give up his life for the cause, surely women could give their bodies.
In a 1978 letter called "You Are the Love o! f God," he told women to "lie down on the bed and open your arms, naked...and say...I was made for you because God loved you.'" A husband who didn't approve of his wife's participation was weak in the faith, according to Berg. Family spokeswoman Borowick said she did "a small amount" of flirty fishing in the 1980s. "It didn't bother me," she said. "I felt like I was reaching out and witnessing to lost souls." Even more controversial were Berg's writings about children and sex. A 1977 letter suggested marriage at about age 12 or 13 because of the need for sex at that age. A 1979 letter showed naked women in various sex poses with a small boy, and a book of advice on child-rearing suggested interesting children in reading with sex words such as "nipple" and "breast." Former members said they tried to deny the true meaning and impact of the writings. In the midst of controversy and an epidemic of venereal disease, according to [missing text]
"Just because you don't practice something doesn't mean you don't believe the general principles behind it," he wrote.
Ajemian left the group in 1979 after a moment of epiphany standing in front of the Acropolis. He had already contracted venereal disease.
Marina left in 1990 after learning that her two daughters, 8 and 6, had been molested by a 35-year-old man in her communal home.
They and other former members say they have spent the time since their departure attempting to come to terms with their life in what they now consider an abusive cult. Some gave up opportunities for education to spend their developmental years in the group and found themselves on the outside with no training, no money and no friends. "A lot of us, we didn't have an identity," said Wilson. "When we got out, we were trying to create one." "We were idealistic," said Williams. "We wanted to change the world. Instead, we were duped and manipulated." Some, like Ajemian, are strong Christians. Others, like Wilson, have rejected any church affiliation. "All the God words are like knives that just cut to parts of your heart, because they were so used to abuse us," she said.
The next generation Williams, Wilson and some of their friends now express concern about the second generation of Berg followers, the children who were raised in the group. "These children did not choose this life. They were born into it," Williams said. "I feel some responsibility for them. If it wasn't for people like me making money so Mo could continue his perverted lifestyle, this group would have fallen."
Unlike Marina, Ajemian, Williams and Wilson, who are trying to publicize what they see as the dangers of the group, Jackie Roberts says she is content to stay in. Roberts, 46, lives with about 20 other people, including her husband, two other couples, some young single adults preparing to go abroad as missionaries, and several children in a nine-bedroom rented Fulton County home where they share household chores. Roberts does not say explicitly whether they also share sex, but says, "We believe that consensual sex between consenting adults, if it is done in real love, is not a sin." Roberts, the mother of eight children, said she finds it "sad that our sexual beliefs, which are an internal affair, have been so expounded on publicly."
Letters to the Editor
Defending the Family
Editor: As a member of the Family, I feel compelled to express how upset I was by the unfounded allegations against our Christian fellowship in a recent article (Faith & Values, July 25).
Inferences are made throughout this article that the Family condones, permits or finds acceptable "free sex" or sexual relations between adults and minors. The author further attributes to myself a comment that "sex with children under age 16 is forbidden" (inferring that it is acceptable with minors over 16 years of age).
This is an absolutely false statement, which does not reflect Family policies. Sexual relations between adults and minors (minors referring to persons under 21 years of age) are totally forbidden; an infraction of this rule will result in expulsion from our fellowship. (The only exception to this rule is for young adults aged 18-20, who are permitted to interact with persons up to seven years their elder, taking into consideration the laws of the country in which they reside.) Although it is true that the Family holds to more liberal views on heterosexual sexual relations between consenting adult persons, we do not condone or permit any inappropriate behavior with our children, whom we consider a precious gift from God, to be protected and nurtured. The Family's success in protecting our children and ensuring their well-being has been documented by court-appointed and independent investigations of almost 700 children living in Family communities (approximately 10 percent of all our children). After extensive physical, psychological and educational testing, all of the children were found to be healthy with no sign of abuse of any kind in a single case.
The courts in Argentina, Spain, Australia, France and England concluded that Family communities are safe and healthy environments, thoroughly vindicating the Family in each investigation.
The statement that "thousands have left our group in disillusionment" is highly exaggerated, as of the 38,000 people who once belonged to our group, only a small minority are represented by the former members in this article. We lament any negative experience anyone could have incurred while in the Family, and as such over 10 years ago, policies were implemented to ensure that the rights of our members could not be infringed upon.
Claire Borowik, Washington
Borowik is a spokeswoman for the Family.
Editor: The story on the Children of God "cult" has all the markings for a made-for-TV movie. Your article presents a cult's position of open sexual relations with anyone . . . child molestation, communal living, and the twisting of the Gospel to justify their lifestyle. Why do you waste your time presenting this information? It does little to present helpful information. . . . If your goal is to present the sensational, you are successful. I ask you, whose "Faith & Values" are you presenting?
Dale Maloney, Suwanee