Last week, Don Lattin spoke with ReligionWriter about the evangelical influences behind the sexual theology of The Family International, a religious sect founded by leader David Berg in the late 1960s. Berg’s spiritual step-son, Ricky Rodriguez, was raised to be the group’s leader — Berg prophesied that Rodriguez would eventually sacrifice his life for the salvation of fellow sect members at the end of time.

In 2005, Ricky did lose his life — he shot himself in the head on a desert road after having stabbed to death one of the many adults who sexually molested him as a child. In the video he made (image left, from before the murder and suicide, Ricky spoke about how hard it was for him to cope with his past as an adult out in the real world, and how he constantly thought about suicide. But the idea that the group’s leaders, including his own mother, who encouraged and allowed the on-going sexual abuse of Ricky and his siblings, were never punished for their actions weighed on Ricky. “Suicide is the quitter’s way out,” he said to the camera. “I’m trying to do something lasting.”

Today ReligionWriter continues the conversation about Ricky and The Family with Lattin, author of the new book Jesus Freaks: A True Story of Murder and Madness on the Evangelical Edge.

RW: These days many journalists, academics and religious leaders are hesitant to use the word “cult,” preferring instead the more neutral term “new religious movements.” But when it comes to The Family, where leader David Berg did apparently control and sexually abuse the group’s children, is it actually helpful to use the word “cult?”

Lattin: There’s a difference of opinion among religion writers if you should ever use the word in newspaper stories, unless you use it in a quote. The Children of God [as The Family was formerly known] was a sect, in the dictionary-definition sense that a sect splits off from something else. The Family was an evangelical sect, part of the Jesus Movement. I know people will take issue with my book title, but I think it’s a good argument that this group came out of the evangelical movement. Cults tends to be a group based around the charism of one leader in an authoritarian or extreme way; we can definitely see The Family was like that.

RW: What sense do you make of The Family — that Berg translated Jesus’ “love of neighbor” to mean free love and ultimately child sexual abuse?

Lattin: It is a cautionary tale of what happens when a self-defined religious prophet goes over the edge. It was not just sexual abuse, but a whole messianic complex that preachers like Berg get caught up in. They exploit people financially, using apocalyptic prophecies to scare people into giving their money away — You can abuse people with Christianity, there’s no doubt about it. Of course I’m not saying all Christians are like that – Berg’s movement was neither a healthy nor a typical expression of Christianity. But if you look at the incredible success of the Left Behind books and movies, you can still see the appeal of apocalyptic teachings. Berg started out, before his “Law of Love” and other sexual teachings, as your standard The-End-Is-Near prophet. Berg said Ricky and mom [Karen Zerby] were going to be the two witnesses of the end-times — that’s right out of the Book of Revelations.

RW: In your book you describe the academic work of sociologists studying the group, who downplayed the adult-child sexual contact and relativized it by pointing to other cultures where children are married in their early teens. Some of this sympathy towards The Family is still visible today. Do you find it alarming?

Lattin: It is alarming, because I think some academics were really compromised by The Family. Some were compromised in nefarious ways [i.e. paid for their research,] but most were compromised because they were more interested in studying The Family and keeping good relations with The Family than they were in blowing the whistle. They didn’t see it as their job to blow the whistle.

What I see in writing about new religious movements are two distinct camps of “experts:” There are the alarmists, who think everything is the next Jonestown, and there are the apologists, who never see anything wrong. A lot of academics, especially sociologists of religion, give groups leeway; it is true that in a lot of culture, kids do marry young, and adults practice polygamy. People who are so horrified by The Family’s child abuse tend to forget that the world is a big place, with a lot of moral questions about what age is proper [for sex] and how many wives are proper. But the fact is we do live in a society where certain taboos and values apply, and these religious groups are part of that society.

RW: Why haven’t children born into The Family, who suffered sexual or other abuses, been successful in prosecuting cases against The Family or individual leaders and members?

Lattin: Second-generation defectors who claim abuse have tried to get lawyers and start investigations, but they never went anywhere. It’s not like no one knew about this stuff; people had accused The Family of child abuse for years. But it mostly happened in ’70s and ’80s, so the statute of limitations had expired, and it mostly happened outside U.S., so it’s difficult to bring a suit, and of course Family members were constantly changing their names, so a lot of kids have no idea who abused them. It’s too bad the second-generation defectors didn’t take advantage recently when California lifted its statute of limitations on civil suits for child molestation. It was just a window of time, and they didn’t get it together. In any case, the abuse itself happened outside of California.

RW: After reading your book and watching Ricky’s video, it’s hard not to see him as something of a tragic hero. How do you see him?

Lattin: I wouldn’t say he was a hero. I would say he was a misbegotten martyr. It’s so touching and tragic because here’s a guy who was raised to be a martyr for the forces of righteousness in the battles of the End Times — righteousness in that case meant David Berg and Zerby and The Family. Ricky was able to free himself from The Family as a young adult, but he turned that crusade against The Family rather than against “the System,” or the outside world, as he was supposed to. Berg was a horrid master at self-fulfilling prophecy. So Ricky never really escaped his destiny, even when he went against the group. That’s one of the things that’s so compelling about his story.

RW: What is The Family like today? It seems from all their mission work abroad, it must be very international.

Lattin: There are thousands of converts worldwide, but it’s hard to say how many; The Family’s membership figures are notoriously unreliable. But it’s safe to say there probably are between 5,000 and 10,000 active members. They are spread all around the world, in small seemingly independent missionary groups in Africa, Asia, everywhere. According to Family records, 13,000 children were born into The Family between 1971 and 2001, and I think that’s a valid number. A few thousand of that second generation have stayed in — members had such huge families, it was not uncommon to have 5 or ten kids, so if even just two stay in, that adds up.

RW: In the book, you talk with current Family members, even members of the second generation, who claim to have had completely positive experiences in the Family and to have never been abused. How do you make sense of these conflicting testimonies?

Lattin: It’s not that hard to make sense of it. First, hardly anyone in The Family ever met or even saw David Berg. It wasn’t like they had an up-close and personal look at David Berg as Ricky and others in that inner circle, or “The Unit,” did.  You have to differentiate between this “Unit” around Berg and Zerby with their aberrant, bizarre sexual practices, and what filtered out into the wider group.  But the real horrible abuse, in terms of sexual abuse, just happened for a certain period of time. It’s not hard to find someone who was born later, say in the late 1980s or early 1990s, who didn’t have that experience. The Family did try to clean up their act, the farther away you got from Berg, the better off you were.

As far as hearing stories from those who leave the group: When you leave the group, you tend to redefine everything. Leaving a new religious movement is sort of like leaving a marriage. Someone who was once your lover and spouse is now someone you can’t stand, and yet they are the same person. As someone reporting on this, you get used to  hearing wildly differing descriptions of the same movement, and, in some sense, both are true. Most of the parents in The Family were not child molesters, just misguided idealistic young people who thought they were doing something helpful for their children in freeing them from the sexual repression that Berg grew up with. So it’s not simple; it’s not black and white.

» » » » » » »


1 Comment so far

  1. Julia Kelly on October 19, 2007 4:09 pm

    I don’t know if you’ve ever looked at this website,, but its the account of Bethany Kelly, the daughter of Steve Kelly, (aka Peter Amsterdam).

    She was born in 1973, had an up-close and personal look at David Berg (lived in his house for two years), was a close friend of Ricky Rodriguez for years, and has lived in World Services almost all of her life. Her story is pretty contrasted to Mr. Lattin’s statement: “the further you got away from Berg, the better off your (might want to fix that typo, BTW) were”

    It’s also interesting to note the accounts from those who grew up in World Services that tell a very different story, Ricky’s sister Techi included, at I don’t want to make this comment a link-fest but type in “Techi” in the search bar on My Conclusion - something isn’t adding up between their two stories.

    I could go into the inaccuracies in what Mr.
    Lattin has said here, or I could reiterate what I know to be the truth, but it’s already been written better than I can say it (Google “the family dossier” for the official version and go to My Conclusion for the personal touch) and what I feel is more relevant is this: if you’ve never heard of The Family International and you’re interested in finding out more, you’re going to find plenty to chew on from both sides; favorable and unfavorable. But please do yourself the favor of looking at both sides throughly. It’s easy to read one book or article about The Family and let that be the foundation of your perspective on our group, but let your mind stay open for just a little bit longer and poke around a little more before you form an opinion.

Name (required)

Email (required)


Speak your mind

FireStats icon Powered by FireStats
E-mail It