What it Was Like Growing Up in the 'Children of God' Cult in Thailand
"There was a quiz in a magazine titled 'did you grow up in a cult?' I answered 'yes' to every question and realised the truth."
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The Children of God was a religious movement founded in 1968 in Huntington Beach, California, by a former pastor named David Brandt Berg. At its peak, David managed to amass a following of roughly 150,000 people internationally, which famously included the parents of Joaquin and River Phoenix.
Today, the group is seen primarily in terms of a cult. They’ve been accused of promoting sex between minors and family members, while infamously preaching the phrase: “God loves sex because sex is love, and Satan hates sex because sex is beautiful.”
Flor Edward’s family originally joined the movement while they were living in Los Angeles. But then, when Flor was five, David Brandt Berg announced his followers should leave the “system,” or more specifically the United States, and travel to Thailand.
Flor Edwards then spent her youth with a branch of the doomsday cult in Thailand, which encompassed most of the 1980s.
By 1993, there was still no sign of the apocalypse promised by Father David, who ended up dying the following year. At that point the group began to fragment and Flor moved back to Chicago with her family.
Flor now works as a teacher and has written a haunting memoir about her childhood years, Apocalypse Child: A Life in End Times. VICE spoke to Flor about religion and trauma.
VICE: Hi Flor, who are the Children of God?
Flor Edwards: The Children of God started out under Father David, who came from a long line of evangelist preachers and he wanted nothing more than to follow in his mother’s footsteps. He saw opportunity in the counterculture hippie movement in California. He wanted to start a new religious paradigm. He wanted to give these young people something to live for, a purpose and meaning in life. Over time it turned dark as they had to find a way to control us kids who hadn’t chosen to join.
What was it like growing up in Thailand?
Growing up in Southeast Asia was actually a beautiful experience. Even though we grew up within the confines of compounds, when we were able to see the country and the culture I was always enthralled with the beauty of Thailand.
Was there a particular moment when you realised you were part of a cult?
I think in my gut I always knew something was wrong, but the moment I realised I had grown up in a cult was when I was 15 and took a quiz from Seventeen Magazine. I was walking home from school one day and stopped at the library to look at magazines. In one was a story of a girl who had grown up in a cult. There was a quiz in a magazine titled "did you grow up in a cult?" I answered "yes" to every question and realised the truth.
Was there beauty in such a dark environment?
There was tremendous beauty in my childhood and finding that beauty was a huge part of why I wrote this book. I think great beauty can come from tragedy and the cracks are where the light shines through. I start my book with a little scene of my sister and I catching butterflies in Phuket. We unknowingly killed the butterflies by keeping them in captivity and rubbing the powder off their wings.
This was sort of a metaphor for my life. We were predators destroying the beauty of the butterflies, just like the cult was destroying our innocence. I don’t know if the adults always knew what they were doing, just like we didn’t know we were killing the butterflies. They were duped and manipulated which was the sad part of the whole thing.
What did you imagine heaven looked like?
Heaven was a beautiful place where I would go after the Great Apocalypse would come in 1993. I often spent my nights fantasising about arriving in heaven after my death. I would be given unearthly superpowers and a new heavenly body. I would never grow old and be reunited with my family (who was often split due to the teachings of the cult). There would be lush gardens and tropical fields and we could eat freely from fruit trees. There would be no war and everlasting peace. This was the heaven I was looking forward to my whole life.
Tell us about the leader and what your thoughts were about him?
Father David was a very complex character and part of the reason why I wanted to write this book. I needed to understand this man who had controlled my existence. As a child I was forced to believe that he was God’s prophet. I never saw or knew what he looked like. He was portrayed as a giant, cuddly, lion-headed figure whom I was supposed to love unconditionally.
It turns out he was a deeply disturbed man with many demons. He was a textbook narcissist who hid behind his teachings of God and his love. He was actually quite brilliant (in an intellectual sense) with a high IQ and very charismatic. There was a method to his madness. I don’t know if he knew what he was doing or if he wanted to start a cult. He thought he was fulfilling God’s mission, which is the most disturbing and dangerous part of it all. In his quest for power he hurt many people along the way. I think he in part died from guilt, one year after his predicted apocalypse.
How horrifying did it get?
The worse part for me was the discipline and watching my peers being disciplined, especially my siblings who were very young. They had to find a way to control us so they established rules for disciplining us which sometimes included physical punishment which I talk more about in my book. I remember knowing that some of the punishers didn’t want to do what they did, they were just following orders. Unlike many who were born before me, I never experienced any sexual abuse and I am always sorry to hear the stories of those who did.
How did you manage to escape?
My family’s escape was a slow and gradual one. It took at least two years. When Father David died in 1994, the cult sort of fell apart and the group was given freedom. We were living in Chicago at the time and my family of fourteen was abandoned with no money, education, or social standing. A Thai church in Chicago took us in and helped us. From there we moved to California where my dad and my sisters enrolled in school. After having no education as a child, I managed to earn a master’s degree in creative writing.
Are you still religious? What does "heaven" look like to you now?
I am not religious in the sense that I go to church. I do believe spirituality and religion should be separate and I think that’s a big problem with religion. In an attempt to institutionalise and control, it strips away the very essence of what religion was meant to be: a source of connection to God, nature and community. That’s why cults form in the first place. They offer people a sense of connection, community, purpose and belonging.
I think “heaven” can be found on earth and that “hell” is formed in the mind. Having grown up in a cult I was forced to experience the hell that comes with severe psychological manipulation and control and I’m happy to say that it forced me to create my own peace on earth.
What have you got planned for the future?
I currently work in education and am considering going back to school for another masters or possibly a PhD. I am deeply passionate about learning, probably in part because I was denied an education as a child. I have to say I think the education system, like most institutions in this country, is in a dire state and much needs to be done before everyone can have access to a quality education. I also hope to write more books.
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This article originally appeared on VICE AU.