Faith Morgan ’s memoir opens in her attic, where her teenage son has stumbled on a cache of newspaper cuttings about the Children of God, forcing her to confront memories she’s spent most of her adult life trying to evade. The Children of God was founded in America in 1968 by a man called David Berg. Former members include River and Joaquim Phoenix, Rose McGowan and the writer Lauren Hough, who described Berg as a ‘failed Pentecostal preacher and wildly successful alcoholic’. Ostensibly a Christian movement, it had its roots in the counterculture. Berg pushed free love principles to extremes: members were encouraged to sleep with (or ‘share with’, as he put it) whomever they liked. Accusations of incest, rape, coercion and child abuse circulated from the beginning, but by the mid-1970s the sect had ten thousand members in 120 communes all over the world. During the next three decades (Berg died in 1994 and his wife took over as leader of the group), the Children of God called themselves several different things: the Family of Love, the Family, the Family International. These name changes suggest something of a branding problem. Indeed, by the time Morgan’s story begins, in the late 1970s, both the FBI and Interpol had Berg in their sights, and he spends the duration of her book in hiding. Morgan portrays him as an absent menace, as all-seeing and powerful as God.
Although he believed the world would end in 1993, Berg was very keen for his disciples to breed. Contraception wasn’t permitted, and the cult was full of exhausted single mothers whose partners had cleared off to the other side of the world. Conditions were cramped, with four or five families packed into one house, and children grew up semi-feral. Most didn’t go to school: there was no point, with the end times just around the corner. Instead they had a nomadic existence, trailing from one commune to another. Morgan lived in Costa Rica, Spain, India, Mexico and England, all before she was sixteen. Female members were supposed to recruit new converts, either by having sex with them, or by dangling the promise of sex, a process Berg called ‘flirty fishing’. His daughter, Deborah Davis, had a different name for it. In her memoir she describes the cult as a ‘worldwide prostitution network’. Not that Berg would have disagreed exactly. He called these women ‘hookers for Jesus’.
Morgan was the first child in her family to be born into the cult. Her father, Arturo, was an amiable con man, forever slipping off on mysterious cult business. Thanks to his wealthy family he enjoyed certain privileges. Although Berg railed against systemite evils (‘systemites’ were part of the ‘system’, the outside world), he wasn’t above working connections when it suited him. Most members were expected to divest themselves of their worldly goods. Morgan’s father was allowed to hang onto his house and his job, though he still had to tithe 10 per cent of his earnings. He cuts a faintly ridiculous figure, a man who converted after seeing the Holy Spirit in the form of a gold cord, and keeps a Pooterish ‘book of souls’ listing the names of strangers who have shared a prayer with him.
Morgan’s mother, Elizabeth, is a more ambiguous character. Morgan dedicates the book to her, calling her the ‘bravest woman I know’, but Elizabeth comes across as a bit of a drip, prevaricating and dithering, taking lovers she doesn’t much like and failing to protect her children. This disconnect might be a flaw in Morgan’s writing, or simply repressed rage leaching into the text. I suspect the latter. Early on, Morgan establishes herself as the family’s stroppy refusenik. At one point, a senior cult member castigates her for her ‘haughty and rebellious spirit’ and threatens to rename her ‘Dove’ (perhaps hoping nominative determinism would kick in).
She has plenty to be angry about. Life in the Family was a banana republic of arbitrary justice and rapidly squashed revolt. Her household played host to a roster of visitors, some of whom were sexually and physically abusive. Her eldest sister, Shiloh, died at seventeen from lupus, after being advised by a family friend to stop taking her medicine and rely on the power of prayer. After her death, Berg – or Grandpa, as he called himself – gave her a special mention in one of his ‘Mo letters’ (he also sometimes called himself Moses David), the pamphlets he distributed to his flock. He claimed that they met up on the astral plane and had sex.
As well as being continually sexualised, the children were worked into the ground. They did jobs around the house, looked after younger children and sold Children of God merchandise on street corners. Morgan spent a large part of her childhood ‘witnessing’ (begging, with some religious hectoring on the side). She and her sisters were musical, and would go round restaurants, playing the guitar and serenading diners like a sub-tropical Family von Trapp. The money they made was handed over to the cult, while they subsisted on scraps: food and clothing were donated; they shared a Walkman, playing tapes with religious songs on one side and banned systemite pop on the other. As the cult came under increased scrutiny, they were forced to keep moving, living more like fugitives than missionaries. Morgan kept a canvas ‘flee bag’ packed at all times. She describes one moonlight flit, somewhere in London:
The last few weeks had been odd. I had been bundled (along with Ruth and her boys) into a van one night, from the larger family home we had been in for months. It had happened suddenly, after a night of burning Mo letters in the home on the instructions of the shepherds, who were convinced we were about to get raided. Ruth, three preteen girls and I had been tasked with the Mo letters locked in the ‘Word Trunk’, ripping out pictures or passages that the systemites might use as proof against our beliefs. We threw them on a bonfire in the garden. ‘The world does not understand the radical teachings of the Prophet,’ Uncle Andrew admonished us as we ripped out pages from the books, filled with Berg’s sexualised teachings and pictures of naked children. I tried not to look at them. As we shredded the pages and threw them into our makeshift incinerator – an old washing machine drum – Uncle Andrew preached at us. ‘What does The Word say?’ he asked. ‘The Word says in Revelation, chapter three, verse sixteen: “So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew thee out of my mouth.” We are not ashamed of being “hot” … And if that makes us extremists, so be it. That is why the world hates us.’
Rebel is based on Morgan’s childhood diaries, and is written in a self-consciously naive style. In the childhood chapters (the action pings back and forth between her new life in London and her old life in the cult) she refers to her parents as ‘mummy’ and ‘daddy’. The effect is disquieting. As the book goes on, the two timelines start to converge, but because Morgan moves about so much – no sooner has she got to London than she’s off to Argentina to help police there build a case against the cult, before flying to the Philippines to denounce them on television – it can be hard to keep track of where she is, and why. Memoirs of abuse often feel repetitive: Morgan’s location might change, but her situation remains the same.
This choppy structure means that the moments of real drama – a court case where Morgan testifies against the cult, and her Philippines trip, where she comes face to face with scandalised Family elders – get lost in the shuffle. She talks of her ‘escape’, which evokes a single, high-stakes break for freedom, but it was really an incremental process. Her family became less committed to the cult, before leaving for good. After moving to England, they were given a council house in Crystal Palace, and although the cult attempted to split them up, having deployed this tactic successfully in the past, they stuck together. Morgan’s London feels almost as foreign as Costa Rica. Here, a family of six can turn up and be housed instantly (in fact, her mother rejects the first place they’re offered, on the grounds that Brixton is too rough), and a young woman on an average income can afford to rent a decent flat by herself. Morgan flourishes, getting a job in sales. She turns out to be very good at it, having spent years flogging Family tat.
It’s at this point that Rebel peels off at an unexpected angle. Unlike other former members – River Phoenix is the most famous example – Morgan doesn’t plunge destructively into drink and drugs. She takes her fair share of Class As, but frames it as part of the healing process, listing ‘experimenting with psychedelics’ in the epilogue as a sort of therapy, alongside yoga and the Emotional Freedom Technique. She takes to ecstasy like a duck to water, describing a ‘lovely moment of innocence’ when a strange girl pulls her in for a hug, then lifts her hair and blows on the back of her neck. Having been sexualised from an early age, and forced to witness her parents’ entanglements, she must have found the ecstasy scene, with its asexual tactility, revelatory.
She returns to Christianity, choosing a church that is evangelical but not fundamentalist, and gets a nice boyfriend, who treats her well and remains a friend long after they break up. Cults have a lot in common with abusive relationships and survivors often have to be deprogrammed. But if we worry that Morgan might be liable to other forms of exploitation, then we are doing her a disservice.