David Berg was a small-time circuit preacher whose flocks ran thin until the late 1960s, when the sexual revolution and the Jesus movement bloomed at once.
He wove the two into a double helix, drawing from the remnants of hippie life – people with nothing to lose, nowhere to go, and no Christian background to serve as a compass while in the thrall of a man who purported to live by Scripture.
His Teens for Christ became the Children of God, with enclaves in California and Texas expanding into a evangelical empire across continents, yielding profit and power for the “end-time prophet” and his inner circle.
But writer Don Lattin is only slightly interested in what makes a self-anointed prophet run. Lattin, whose book Jesus Freaks (HarperOne, $24.95, 236 pages) was released earlier in December, cares more about what happens to children born into authoritarian groups – the offspring of those who voluntarily cast their lot with people such as Berg.
Subtitled A True Story of Murder and Madness on the Evangelical Edge, the book follows the brief, tormented life of Ricky Rodriguez, Berg’s designated prophet prince.
As the longtime religion writer for the San Francisco Chronicle, Lattin plumbed what happens to children in cults, including the Church of Scientology, the Moonies, the Hare Krishnas and the Children of God (which would later be renamed The Family, or Family International).
In each, “The kids didn’t have the chance to grow up and be themselves,” Lattin said in an interview just before the book’s release. “There were hours and hours a day of indoctrination. In that way, the Children of God was the worst.”
The accumulated years of indoctrination exploded for Rodriguez in a murder-suicide in 2005 that shook Lattin and compelled him to write the book.
“I was so taken aback by what drove Ricky, raised by The Family, to kill someone else and take his own life,” Lattin said. “He was the ultimate example of what can happen to kids when they’re raised in an atmosphere of severe indoctrination. It’s a really dark story, a sensational story, I tried to get in the mindsets of these people.”
The Children of God melded apocalyptic Christian evangelism with mind-boggling sexual mores. Lattin stunned readers when he first detailed the unorthodox practices of the Children of God in 2001.
Berg dispatched young, attractive female followers to lure male converts through sex in a practice he called “flirty fishing.” He discouraged them from using birth control.
Rodriguez, the first child conceived through “flirty fishing,” was the natural son of Berg’s common-law wife, Karen Zerby, also called “Maria,” and a waiter she picked up in the Canary Islands. Rodriguez was called “Davidito.”
“Davidito and Maria are going to be the Endtime witnesses,” Berg wrote in 1978. “They are going to have such power they can call down fire from heaven and devour their enemies.”
In fact, Rodriguez did devour his enemies: He left the cult, but tormented by a life of abuse, could not make a life for himself. Driven by rage, he vilified his mother in a videotaped rant, stabbed one of his former nannies to death and shot himself in 2005.
More than 13,000 children were born to followers between 1971 and 2001; “women with six, eight, 10, 13 kids were not uncommon,” Lattin said.
Mothers and caretakers pulled children from their beds at night to engage in sex acts with Berg in a regular “sharing schedule” (which kids called the “scaring schedule”). A poor performance yielded brutal punishment.
“They were made to believe their eternal salvation depended on this,” Lattin said.
The group once enjoyed plenty of good press.
In the waning days of the Summer of Love, parents would say, “at least they’re Christians,” Lattin said.
Berg died in 1994, and Zerby took control of the organization.
Grown survivors of the group have developed a deep suspicion of outsiders and adults, Lattin said. But gradually, they sensed their stories were safe with this blues guitar-playing writer, part-time professor and married stepfather of two girls, and they let it all out.
“I’ve never seen so many problems among kids,” he said, munching Thai food at a Berkeley haunt.
“The Children of God was a machine to spread the ideas of David Berg,” he said. “The children were born to do the same thing. That was the real evil. Then, when they rebelled, as teens do, they would send them off to these re-education camps.”