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'Sex Cult Nun' says discovering self-ownership helped her break free from The Family

Faith Jones is the granddaughter of David Berg, the founder of the Children of God cult. Jones lived as a member of the group until she was 23.
Mariusz Jeglinski
Harper Collins
Faith Jones is the granddaughter of David Berg, the founder of the Children of God cult. Jones lived as a member of the group until she was 23.

Editor's note: This interview deals with themes that may be disturbing to some readers.

Author Faith Jones was raised in the cult group the Children of God (later known as The Family and The Family International). For most of her childhood, Jones lived in a commune in Macao, an island off the coast of China. She spent hours reading doctrine, memorizing Scripture and chanting and praying.

"We grew up very isolated in a remote village doing sort of sporadic home-study stuff and a lot of chores," she says.

And, she says, there was sex.

In 1968, Jones' grandfather, David Berg, founded the group around the belief that God is love and — taking it a step further — that, therefore, sex is godly. Berg preached that men could practice polygamy and that women must freely "share" their bodies, regardless of whether they wanted to — because sex was their service to God.

"Grandpa considered sex to be a bodily need," Jones says. "It was deemed that within the group, the women were supposed to 'share' with men, even men they didn't like, in order to make sure that [the men's] needs were 'taken care of.' "

At its height, The Family had approximately 10,000 members living in 170 countries. Initially, the cult taught that girls became available for sex around age 12, though the group raised that age slightly over the years. Jones says she was raised to think the sexualization of children was normal.

"I can't remember not knowing about sex, not hearing about the 'law of love' [and] sexual 'sharing,' " she says. "You would have a 'sharing' schedule on the wall which would have, say, which woman was supposed to have sex with which man on the schedule."

When Jones was 23, she summoned up the courage to leave the group. She attended Georgetown University on scholarship and then went on to law school at the University of California, Berkeley. She now has her own legal practice and consulting business.

Jones reflects on her childhood in her new memoir, Sex Cult Nun. The "nun" in her book title is a tongue-in-cheek reference to the life of isolated devotion she experienced as a member of the cult. "I grew up kind of like a nun ... except there was a lot of sex involved," she says.

Jones notes that the patterns of abuse and rape that she describes in the book are not confined just to cults; they are also prevalent in society at large. Stopping the abuse, she says, "begins with this principle of self-ownership, which is that I own my body and that nobody has any right over it."

Interview highlights

<em>Sex Cult Nun: Breaking Away from the Children of God, a Wild, Radical Religious Cult,</em> by Faith Jones
/ William Morrow
William Morrow
Sex Cult Nun: Breaking Away from the Children of God, a Wild, Radical Religious Cult, by Faith Jones

On girls and women being coerced into sex and the threat of punishment looming if they didn't comply

The psychological manipulation was very strong, and all combined with the fear of punishment. ... We're talking about kids that are brought up experiencing quite harsh corporal punishment. So very harsh spankings and things like that, which already are trying to get a child into a position where they are afraid of saying no or displeasing the adults. ... We were taught we had to say yes. We weren't taught that we could say no, because if we said no, then what did that mean? We were not being yielded to God. ...

So the coercive element of this is that when you're taught [that] this is what God wants you to do. ... There were [letters written by David Berg] called "The Girl Who Wouldn't," for instance, which blasted public humiliation for this woman who wouldn't submit to a particular type of sex with one of the leaders. And so it was just in our face if you were not submitting to this, if you were not willing to do this — that meant you were unyielding to God.

Now, if you were being unyielding to God, then you needed to be broken. Your pride, your independence, your ego needed to be broken so that you would become more submissive and yielded to God and willing to do whatever God/the group leaders told you to do. And this was justified using Scriptures from the Bible.

On "flirty fishing," a kind of prostitution to get donations from people outside the group

Basically, the women would go to bars, sometimes even escort services, and they would flirt with men, businessmen, and oftentimes have sex with them, not always, but oftentimes have sex with them as a way to recruit them. And not necessarily always to recruit them into The Family, [but] as a way to get them to be willing to pray and receive Jesus, and also to donate, or to help support the group or help support the women and their families. Because ... we were not allowed to have jobs — that was considered working for the system or working for men. And so we had to support ourselves through donations. And oftentimes [cult members] became quite large families living in very poor countries without a real means of support. So a lot of the homes were very, very poor. And so this was seen as a way to help support them.

On why she decided to leave the cult

I left because I actually became depressed in the group. I couldn't see a life that I wanted for myself. This endless round of dishes and child care and service and having sex with men I didn't want to have [sex with]. It was so distressing, I think, and I had been exposed to school through different experiences in my life ... including, you know, coming to America for a semester. My first experience [was] of culture shock when I was 12, but those had opened me up and exposed me to learning and to education, and I have always loved reading, loved learning. That was a passion in my life. And because we weren't supposed to read publications or books or novels or things outside of the group, outside of [David Berg's] "Mo Letters," I was just so bored. I was desperate to expand my mind and to learn other things and to have a sense of independence. ...

So that was what really drove me to leave the group. And it wasn't till after I left and was in society for some years that I was able to build a new framework of the world so that I could even look back on those experiences and say, "Oh, wait, that's what that was. This was wrong. This is what a violation was." So when I left, I didn't see it as that. I just knew that I had to get out and I had to expand my world.

On coming to terms with her past and that she had been raped

That happened when I was in college, actually. I was dating somebody who was a lawyer and ... I'd kept the fact that I had been in this group a complete secret, because I didn't want people to see me as this cult kid — I wanted them to see me as who I was making myself [to be]. So eventually my boyfriend found out and kind of dragged the truth out of me. And when I described to him some of these experiences, [he responded with] shock and horror and anger, and he expressed to me, he's like, "You know that's rape. If you are coerced into having sex with someone you don't want to, that's actually rape." And it was just like, whoa, a lightbulb kind of went on.

So I realized the fact that I felt so bad about it, that I was repulsed by it and that I had such a difficult time doing it, [it] wasn't my fault. It wasn't that I was unyielded to God. It's that this was actually rape. So it just completely shifted how I saw and viewed things and viewed the world and my experiences. That was difficult. That was difficult trying to make sense of it in this new way. But it wasn't till later in life ... that I was able to clearly identify what those lines were, what had been violated, both with the child sexual abuse and with the coercion and abuse that had gone on in the group around sex and around women's bodies.

Sam Briger and Thea Chaloner produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Meghan Sullivan adapted it for the web.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

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