“Mum,” said my 15-year-old son as I drove him to school in Surrey a couple of years back. “Were you in a sex cult?”
I froze. He’d found my papers in a box: my teenage diary, court documents, media reports. It was time to tell my children.
It feels like long ago now, but it wasn’t very far away: just 40-odd miles from where I live a normal home counties life with my husband and sons.
Rewind three decades, and I was living on a residential street in north London. Here, inside a large suburban house that looked unremarkable from the outside, something grossly abnormal was happening.
If our neighbours at this address near Holloway ever suspected anything, I was unaware. But by then, aged 16, I knew how unusual our lives were: I was living in a commune, as part of the Children of God cult.
I’d wound up in the north London house in 1989, shortly after my English mother and Costa Rican father – both cult members – had brought me and my siblings over to Britain from Mexico. I’d been born into, and grown up inside, the infamous, supposedly Christian organisation, which I later discovered was a cult, now known as The Family International, and it was the only existence I had ever known. I had witnessed first-hand the child abuse for which it became notorious; I had seen the sexual “sharing” (a grotesque form of polyamory that involved sharing sexual partners openly, in front of others, and often with children present); and the contempt of cult members for the so-called “System” by which normal people lived.
I had been schooled in the cult’s beliefs: we loved Jesus, we were here to save people, and sex with multiple partners, including children, was a way of sharing God’s love. I knew we were different, and I also instinctively knew how wrong it all was. From a young age I shrank away from the cult’s obscene practices and beliefs despite my parents’ insistence this was the right way to live.
Now, finally, we had arrived in my mother’s birthplace, Britain. The cult, which was founded in California by David Berg in the late 1960s, had its tentacles across continents, and I found myself quickly dispatched by my brainwashed parents to the commune in north London, where I’d spend the next two years.
The house was rammed with other cult members. As many as 50 of us were crammed in, sleeping 10 or more to a room. The teenagers and children were made to do chores, such as cleaning, cooking and laundry. The older ones were expected to mind and “teach” the younger ones and participate in what we called “witnessing”: going out and singing and distributing pamphlets to unenlightened “Systemites”, and selling cult-produced videos and cassette tapes, for this was a proselytizing cult.
I didn’t attend school, because school was considered a dangerous place where the devil’s lies were taught. I was desperately bored and longed for books other than the cult publications, some of which were disturbingly pornographic.
By early 1991, the British authorities were becoming aware of this strange group of people living under their noses, not sending their children to school and adhering to a very odd belief system. Some cult members had been coming out and talking about it, and word went around that police raids on our commune were imminent.
We were ordered to burn piles of the books, or rip out incriminating pages, and one day, in the middle of the night, we were told to grab our bags and leave. In the winter darkness, I was bundled into a van with a woman cult member and her sons, and in the morning we arrived at another smaller suburban house.
“Where am I?” I wondered. “Does it matter?” All I knew was I was somewhere else in London, and that I had to go where I was told. The cult had total control over me.
But I was starting to wonder what the rest of my life would be like if I stayed. Would I become a baby factory, like the other women around me? Would I ever learn to drive and be independent? Women weren’t allowed autonomy; they were subordinate to the men in every way. Contraception was banned and abortion was deemed to be murder. At 17, I had the presence of mind to think: “That’s not what I want. I want to be free.”
I was also terrified. I berated myself for being so full of pride and rebellious; for having the temerity to even consider I may be right and they might be wrong. How would I even escape? The Children of God belief system was all I knew.
One evening I sneaked into a room with a phone and called my mum, who was living in a house in South London with my family. I was desperately afraid of being caught, but even more desperate to get out. When my mum answered, I begged her: “Please, I want to leave. I don’t know where I am!”
She replied: “Let me speak to the shepherds and see what they say.” The shepherds were the senior members of the cult, to whom others had to defer. I dreaded the thought of my fate being left in their hands, but the next thing I knew I was told they’d be coming to speak to me.
For two days I felt so scared I could barely sleep or eat. I feared being sent to the Teen Home in Wantage, Oxfordshire, and put on hard labour. There was a department within the Teen Home where rebellious teenagers were exorcised, forced to fast or forbidden to speak.
When the shepherds arrived, they told me “the Lord” had other plans for me. “We want to send you on a pioneering mission to Siberia,” they said. “Or maybe Brazil.”
I was crushed. I called my mum back afterwards and, trembling, begged her again. The next day I was bundled into a van, dumped at Victoria Station in London, and given a ticket back to the house where my family lived. I later learned that for the first time ever, my father had saved me. He’d told the shepherds: “Send my daughter home or I’ll call the police.”
After this I began to find my own way. I started college and experimented with psychedelics and party drugs; anything to help me cope with integrating into normal society as well dealing with my trauma and depression.
I began campaigning against the cult and gave evidence in court cases at home and abroad. My mother got involved too and turned her own life around, apologising to her children for her part in raising us in what she now realised was an evil system. No such luck with my father, who to this day refuses to recant. My parents divorced in the mid-1990s and I am estranged from him, but close to my mum.
I’m lucky I managed to move on and now live a free life and work in a prestigious organisation in a business development role. I told my husband about my past after we’d been dating a while. He was shocked, of course, as were my children when they realised what I’d been subjected to. They also helped me understand it. On learning a 40-year-old male cult member had had sex with me when I was 15, it was my son who told me: “Mum you were groomed and raped.”
I’d never even seen it like that. Paedophilia had been the norm for Children of God.
It was a friend who persuaded me to write Rebel, my new book about my past. My story is as relevant today as ever, as self-indoctrination online can now be just a few clicks away.
I’m not afraid of telling people what happened to me. I’m not ashamed or embarrassed. I’m grateful to have escaped and hopeful about the future. I am also very proud to be British and grateful to my country for supporting us while we picked up the broken pieces of our lives and put them back together again.
As told to Rosa Silverman
Faith Morgan is a pseudonym. Rebel by Faith Morgan is available for £14.99 at books.telegraph.co.uk or call 0844 871 1514