Suffer little children
Press » Bristol Evening Post » 2007-07-18
By Susie Weldon
A new book has lifted the lid on one of the most secretive and abusive religious cults of recent decades. Susie Weldon talks to sisters Celeste Jones and Juliana Buhring, who live in Bristol, about their traumatic upbringing in the Children of God.
The girl smiled and blew kisses at the video camera as she swayed her hips and wriggled seductively, allowing the white veil that covered her naked body to fall to the ground.
This sexy striptease is meant to "glorify God", although most people would consider it a blasphemy. But what's even worse is that it's being performed by a six-year-old child.
The video, one of many made on the orders of David Berg, controversial founder of the Children of God sect, still exists and its star, Celeste Jones, now aged 32 and living in Bristol, says what's striking is the "knowing-innocent" look in her eyes.
For Celeste, like other children born in the sect, was systematically abused - physically, mentally, emotionally and sexually - from the earliest age.
She said: "I was innocent - but I was learning what turned men on. The only positive attention we received from adults was when we did what they wanted, acted flirtatiously or were sexy.
"We would be rewarded for being 'yielded' and showing God's love. Being stubborn, saying no or being prudish was of the Devil and bad, and would get us in trouble."
Now Celeste and two of her sisters, Juliana Buhring and Kristina Jones, have written a book about their traumatic childhood and their eventual escape from the Children of God.
Not Without My Sister is the devastating account of what happens when one man's beliefs, obsessions and sexual perversions are allowed to dominate an entire community of people.
It offers an extraordinary insight into one of the 20th century's most notorious cults, whose "Law of Love" (God equals love and love equals sex) not only made it mandatory to "share yourself" with everyone else in the community, but also led to "flirty fishing", the practice whereby women were sent out to prostitute themselves in order to attract more followers.
The book is hard to read at times because it's difficult to understand how loving parents could collude in such abuse.
It's also hard to appreciate how intelligent, rational people could fall under the spell of an obsessive such as Berg; but he exerted an extraordinary control over thousands of people.
As Juliana, 26, explained: "It's difficult to wake up and realise your entire life has been spent living someone else's lie; that you've been kept from living your own dreams in order to keep the manic delusions of one man alive. It's like believing you were born blind because you have spent your whole life blindfolded. Then when you suddenly do see, you cannot understand what it is you are seeing."
This is also a story of immense courage and hope, as each sister fought her own battle to leave the cult.
Although they share the same father, they have different mothers and were not brought up as a family.
Their father, Christopher Jones (who uses the biblical name Simon Peter), was the son of a British military officer and educated at private school in Cheltenham.
Celeste and Kristina's mother, Rebecca Jones, became a member aged 16 but left in 1984; Juliana's mother, Serena Buhring, joined while travelling as a hippy in India, and is still an associate member.
I met up with Celeste and Juliana to discuss their book. The sisters share a home in Kingswood, with Celeste's daughter Cherie, who will be nine next month, while Kristina lives in Nottingham.
Living together is in many ways the fulfilment of a dream. As children they longed to be together as a family and the title of their book refers to their determination to rescue each other (and their other siblings) from the cult.
But there's a tragic poignancy about it. The book is dedicated to the one sister who will never join them. Davida died in 2005 after years of severe depression and drug addiction.
In person Celeste and Juliana show no outward trace of their traumatic childhood but both have been terribly scarred and feel they have a responsibility to tell the story of what went on.
Juliana's childhood was full of beatings, starting from the age of three when she used to wet her bed.
When she was six, she was sent to the Jumbo, a huge boarding school for cult children, in the Philippines.
It was a brutal place where "speaking out of turn" was viciously punished: you could always tell who'd just been beaten by the bloody purple welts on their bottoms in the shower, she said.
Other children were punished by "silence restriction". They had to walk around with a notice around their neck banning people from talking to them; some had their mouths taped up.
She is haunted by the memory of one eight-year-old boy. "He had expressed a desire to leave The Family and so was imprisoned in a tiny room with an adult guarding him at all times," she recalled.
"They fed him only liquids and read him Mo Letters [missives from the leader] all hours of the day and night for nearly a year. As he was close in age to me, I often found myself thinking about him and wondering what I would do if I were in his place."
Meanwhile, Celeste suffered years of sexual abuse, having been taught to fondle men and being forced to accept their caresses from the age of five or six.
"It was hard to access those childhood memories and feelings for the book," she said, adding that she did not know if she would ever be able to accept that a man truly loves her.
But writing the book was enormously cathartic for both sisters: "I feel quite light and relieved now that it's all out of me," said Juliana.
Today, both find enormous solace in Celeste's daughter Cherie: "She's so outgoing that she makes friends with everyone," said Celeste, who begins a job as a family project worker in September and hopes to become a clinical psychologist
"I do feel I kind of live my childhood through her, because mine was stolen from me. I'm so happy when she gets things and perhaps I'm a bit self-indulgent," she smiled.
It was Celeste's daughter who gave her the impetus to leave the cult: "I couldn't have her abused as I was."
Meanwhile, Juliana, who is studying philosophy and psychology and pursuing a career as a writer, finally could not suppress her sense that something was terribly wrong with the way she was brought up.
Both said leaving the cult was "absolutely terrifying" because it was all they knew, but it helped that their sister Kristina, who was kidnapped from the cult at the age of 12, was already on the outside.
They've now set up an organisation, Rise International, which works to protect children from all forms of abuse in isolated or extremist cults.
"The Catholic Church has just made a formal apology and paid restitution for the sexual abuse which took place in Los Angeles but The Family has never done that and the former abusers who are paedophiles are now in leadership positions," said Celeste.
Not Without My Sister, published by HarperElement, is available now priced £12.99.