On a Monday afternoon in 1971, Jeremy Spencer – Fleetwood Mac’s then-lead guitarist – popped out of the band’s Los Angeles hotel to grab some groceries. It was the last time they saw him, reported Rolling Stone, before Spencer disappeared without a trace. No note was left. No baggage taken. When management found him three days later, Spencer was in an industrial downtown building with his hair cut short and clothes swapped for rags, proclaiming strict allegiance to a new evangelical-hippie cult. He hasn’t looked back since, nor is he the token celebrity of the controversial group now known as “The Family International” (TFI); actors Rose McGowan, as well as River and Joaquin Phoenix, were also members of the cult. So what was the draw? Why was this mysterious “Family” pulling up its groovy van at Hollywood and Vine, and how did they “colonise” (their words, not ours) a purported 130 communities in 80 countries?
TFI came onto the scene in Huntington Beach, California, 1968, when the state was a pu pu platter of cults and communes, each with its own flavour of liberation. Charles Manson’s “family” was at its peak, living in an old movie ranch in Los Angeles. The “Source Family” was thriving in the Hollywood Hills. Similarly, Evangelicals started re-branding themselves to appeal to what they saw as an increasingly lost American youth. TFI offered your standard kaftan wearing, guitar playing pacifists singing the same thing as the Beatles: all you need is love…with a side of Jesus.
Members were told to relinquish all of their material possessions before joining, and underwent baptisms by the pier. They often slept wall-to-wall, with 16-people to a room in their steadily growing SoCal communities, or “colonies,” as founder David Berg called them.
They believed they were living in what Berg prophesied as the “Last Days” of Earth, and the goal was to raise new generation, “The Children of God” to colonise the planet with an “army” of little soldiers. So, yeah, along with the peace and love was a whole lot of talk about brimstone and eternal damnnation. The group’s backbone relied on that fear, as well as fear of spiting Berg – but more on that later…
We’ve investigated a number of 1960s cults. At best, they build ‘spaceships’, keep bees, and sew some really great outfits. At their worst, they’re harbingers of drug and child abuse, arms trafficking, and some very questionable prophets. They walk those tropes like landmines, either in complete secrecy or with a very public celebrity figurehead. Which is why it’s tempting to look at TFI’s high profile roster, and simply write it off as another Madonna-Kabbalah–meets-Tom-Cruise-Couch-Jumping cult. The truth is more disturbing: TFI racked up so many celebrities not from targeted solicitation, but thanks to the vigorously wide net it cast for its converts. By TFI’s estimate, female members had unprotected sex with some 200,000 persons in the 1970s-80s to gain followers, and create more ‘Children of God’ for the apocalypse. It was a technique David Berg called “Flirty Fishing”.
Not that anyone ever saw much of Berg, who lived away from the public eye – which was growing more and more suspicious – at locations only known by his most esteemed devotees, and which changed about every six months. (TFI has gone through roughly four rebrandings before landing on its current name). Otherwise, Berg communicated with his followers through his “Mo Letters” of spiritual instruction, and his self-stylised, biblical comic books. Berg’s daughter, Faith (below), was also one of his biggest champions:
In what felt like the blink of an eye, the cult was everywhere – and not just in America. Soon the UK, Europe, and Asia were teeming with new colonies. All you had to do was spot one of their billboards or buses on the horizon line, from the Arc de Triomphe to Upstate New York, where they would literally be crusading in a full suit of armour.
Which brings us to another important aspect of their success: their very eccentric public presence. Nightclubs, cafes, and concerts – no venue was off limits for members to visit in the name of converting you to Jesus.
These ventures were always under the stewardship, of course, of appointed colony leaders. That way, if anything went wrong Berg could never to be blamed – his job was to sit in the wings, and dictate prophecy after prophecy of (repeatedly) failed doomsday dates and spiritual notes…
Berg’s family had been preaching the bible for over 200 years. Born in Oakland, California in 1919, he spent his youth on the gospel trail with his father and mother, Virginia, a famously fiery reverend who claimed to have been resurrected from the dead. Throughout his childhood, both of Berg’s parents sexually abused him – and from the get-go, his stewardship at TFI encouraged followers to perform the same unspeakable acts in his footsteps, through the distribution of his 3,000 letters and comic books. When TFI was in England by the early 1970s, it wasn’t to merely spread its wings – it was to expand in tandem with Berg’s move to the UK to flee authorities.
In fact, in 1971, the concerned parents of the children who had joined TFI started the Cult Awareness Network (which has since proven very valuable in taking down dangerous fringe groups), and in 1974 the New York Attorney General launched an investigation into TFI that called out its “metamorphosis [sic] from [a] religious bible oriented group to a cult subservient to the desires of…Berg.” Draft dodging, obstruction of justice, incest, and anti-Semitism were just a few of the findings in the report. Yet, even though they were subpoenaed, the group simply refused to comply; no records, commune sites, or names were given. In the coming years, they organised a fake disbanding to get the government off its back.
That’s pretty much how TFI continued. Berg stayed slippery, while his loyal followers preached a clean, drug-free brand of hippie-ness. Come 1983, TFI said it had 10,000 full time members, and that its radio club, “The Family’s Music With Meaning” had a purported 20,000 members. In 1992, they made it all the way to Washington, D.C., to perform for First Lady Barbara Bush at the White House.
Meanwhile, hundreds of children were being kept in near-barbed wire boot camps, the largest of which was called “Jumbo” in the Philippines. There, they were made to exercise to the point of passing out, memorise Berg’s version of the gospel, and submit to sexual abuse.
A 2006 documentary by former member Noah Thomson brings together testimonies from other former members of the cult, and helps clarify the timeline of its increasing troubles: 10 members were finally arrested By 1977, 10 more were arrested in Spain on child abuse charges in 1990. Two years later, in Australia, approximately 120 children were taken into protective custody from the various “colonies” and “clinics”.
When Berg died in 1994, the second generation of TFI – which included Rose McGowan, as well as the Phoenix children, who were all born into the cult – started to speak out and give others the courage to leave. At the same time, Berg’s equally-horrendous widow, Karen Zerby, took over and tried to keep up the peaceful facade. A slew of international court cases arrived in the 1990s, but it always seems as if the judges – like Rt. Hon. Lord Justice Alan Ward in ’95 – changed their mind and let them off easy at the last minute.
There have been numerous documentaries, prominent investigative pieces, and survivor testimonies since. Yet, each time the cult stands before a judge it appears to leaves with nothing more than an acquittal, or a slap on the wrist. When Messy Nessy reached out to TFI for an interview, they politely declined. “In 2010, the Family International disassembled its previous framework,” said spokesperson Carol Cunningham, “which resulted in the closure of its cooperative centers and its transition to a small virtual network. At this point [TFI] exists only as a small online network of some 1,6000 people spread out in 80 countries, and has virtually no formal structure other than its websites.”
They do have a website, which they’ve translated in English, French, Portuguese, Spanish, Chinese, and Japanese. They also have a Facebook page with almost 4,000 followers, various feel-good mission photos, and not a trace of Berg. It’s clear in Cunningham’s response, which is quite long and thorough, that attempts are being made (once again) to distance current members from what she calls the old “organizational framework.” They even have a blog of sorts, and continue to publish their digital magazine, Activated (est. 2001). But, according to Cunningham, TFI has not participated in a media interview in some 15 years. “In any event,” she says, “our experience in the latter years has been that there is frankly no benefit to [media interviews], which invariably tend to focus entirely on allegations from 30 years ago or highly sensationalised narratives…”
We’ll let you be the judge.