Cults & Conspiracies seeks to understand the evil that we do to each other and the psychological drives that inform those actions. Inspired by season 2 of Hulu's #ThePath, Cults & Conspiracies investigates how cults and radical ideologies work their dangerous magic on the unsuspecting.
MP Super News's dark-leaning, inquisitive show has looked at the Jonestown Massacre and de-programming techniques, but this episode we're talking to Flor Edwards, a survivor of the Children of God cult (a.k.a. The Family International).
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The Children of God cult became famous for the bizarre teachings of leader David Berg, particularly those encouraging the sexual abuse of children and forced prostitution of young women (a technique to recruit new members known as 'Flirty Fishing'). Several celebrities escape the cult, including Joaquin Phoenix and Rose McGowan.
Cults & Conspiracies' guest for episode 5 is cult survivor Flor Edwards, who left the cult with her family at the age of 13.
Life in the Children of God Cult
Edwards explained that CoG leader David Berg never set out to make a cult: he was "a very interesting character" who was "responding to the political climate of the time." Berg's family were kicked out of the mainstream Christian church when his mother claimed a divine miracle saved her from her deathbed. Berg set up the Children of God to "give people a way to follow God without having to adhere to the traditional practices of the church," although his practices soon became much darker as he exerted complete control over his followers.
What Did the Children of God Believe?
Berg encouraged his followers to move away from "corrupted" Western society to South East Asia and South America. They were poor, idealistic, and convinced by their leader that the world would end in 1993.
When the foretold apocalypse didn't happen, Edwards says, Berg made a public apology to his flock, but said that God had granted them an extension for being good. Berg "believed that he was God's middle-man," which he used to promote his strange teachings:
He had these free sexual beliefs, people had to have a sexual revolution and it needed to happen very young, believed adulthood began from 12... He had absolute power.
Fortunately for Flor Edwards, the bad publicity from the cult's sexual abuse of minors meant that there were stricter rules in place when she was a child: she wasn't witness to sexual abuse but did see a lot of physical abuse: "they would punish us a lot."
Was it a Shock for Ex-Members to Re-Join Society?
The cult partially disbanded when Berg died in 1994, when the cult dispersed and abandoned the families with many children. Flor's parents didn't send the kids out into the world to fend for themselves, as many members did, following the kids' wishes to go to regular school. Despite the abuse, there was a sense of belonging and normalcy that felt good: the cult had its faults, but it was home for her whole life until that point.
"Most of the adults had been outside of that culture for 25 years, they had no money, no education, no experience, and they had a lot of children.
Edwards states that it was very difficult to re-adjust to a normal life after leaving the Children of God, stating that it was:
"A little bit like dealing with a disability... it doesn't stop, even when time passes. There are always things you gotta keep re-learning"
Edwards is remarkably forgiving of her experience, noting that her story is easier to for her to accept when life is going well, but becomes really hard when life gets harder. She is currently a writer, and has written a great deal on her life during and after the Children of God. Her writing has been a great help to other cult survivors.
Next week we’ll be joined by a former member of the Buddhafield sect, the sexually motivated "alternative" community featured in the Oscar nominated documentary Holy Hell. Through our discussion we'll aim to gain a different perspective on the dramatic process involved in escaping the clutches of a cult.
If you've enjoyed today's discussion of Cults and Conspiracies, check out Hulu's original series, The Path, streaming now.