How a Cult Stole My Life
By Julia Llewellyn Smith
Author Taylor Stevens was raised in a sect where beatings, starvation and sexual abuse were everyday events.
Forty years later, can she leave the ‘Children of God’ behind her?
Most children would be praised for writing stories. Not Taylor Stevens. Aged 41, Stevens was born and raised in a cult then known as the Children of God, whose members (a term Stevens dislikes since it implies she had a choice) lived communally, usually in squalid poverty, surviving by begging. Children were often beaten, starved, separated from their parents, denied education and sexually abused.
Stevens’s sporadic schooling ended for good when she was 12, but she always had a compulsion to tell stories. “All entertainment – music, television, books – was banned. We were so bored, I used to make up stories to tell the other teenagers when we were sitting for hours in the back of a van being driven to go beg somewhere,” she recalls. “Imagination was my survival mechanism.”
When she was 15, she got her hands on a few notebooks and began writing stories. “I knew my supply was limited, so I wrote really small, squeezing as many words into each line as possible.” Before long, however, they were discovered and the books were confiscated and burned.
“The leaders told me I was a witch and full of devils and performed an exorcism on me. They put me in a room for three days without food. They wanted me to confess my sins. I didn’t know what to say, so I just came out with every doubt about the group I’d ever had. I made strange noises because I thought that’s what they wanted, but I was worrying: ‘What happens if they’re the wrong noises?’ ”
Afterwards, Stevens was isolated from her peers for months. “They thought I’d contaminate them with my evil spirit. They made me read propaganda for hours at a time and then write essays about how it was making me a better person. I just made stuff up to make them happy.” She laughs. “There’s an irony they didn’t want me to write fiction but almost everything I was telling them was fiction – and that gave me the grounding for what I do today.”
Twenty-five years on, Stevens is a bestselling author. Her first novel, The Informationist went into The New York Times top 10, translated into 20 languages and was optioned by James (Titanic) Cameron. Two more, extremely readable, thrillers have been published, another two are in the pipeline.
It’s an extraordinary turnabout for a woman who only escaped the cult aged 29. Today, talking to me from her home in Dallas, Texas, she appears a regular suburban mum, our call’s interrupted by one of her two teenage daughters returning unexpectedly to the accompaniment of frenzied dog barking, then school calls demanding an unexpected pick up for the other. Yet Stevens is far from that stereotype: “I don’t relate to being a PTA mum, where your whole life is, ‘Oh, Susy did this, and then we made cupcakes!’ ” She adds: “No matter how much they love me, no matter how wonderful they are, people can never understand where I came from.”
Founded by David Berg (also known as “King”, “David” or “Moses”) in California in 1968, the cult, today known as The Family or Family International, preached the imminent apocalypse and the shunning of all personal property.
Free love was encouraged within communes (though contraception was banned) and Berg encouraged “flirty fishing”, sending out female members to recruit new members and earn money through prostitution. By the time Berg died, he was wanted by Interpol for inciting sexual abuse against children. In 2005, Berg’s stepson and heir apparent murdered his former nanny and then killed himself, leaving a video claiming she had abused him as a toddler, adding the person he really wanted to kill was his mother – Karen Zerby, still the cult’s leader.
Thanks to its anti-American rhetoric, the cult attracted many hippies and anti-war protesters, as well, Stevens says, as many on the run from the law. Over its 46-year history, it’s boasted 35,000 members, including 13,000 children – today it’s believed to number around 10,000 people. Actress Rose McGowan was born into the cult, her family deciding to leave when leaders began advocating sex with children, while the Phoenix family, including the actor brothers River and Joaquin, were members for a period in the Seventies.
Stevens’s father joined the cult in 1969 aged 23, her mother in 1970 at 18. Leaders “married” them to each other, because, she suspects, both were Jewish. “You’d have to ask them why they joined. My parents were very young, maybe directionless and they were probably approached by a smiley person saying: ‘Why don’t you come and spend the night?’ she says. In her second novel, The Innocent, set in a cult, a character explains the lure: “To release oneself from independence, to follow the Prophet was to be free of responsibility.”
As part of its rejection of property, the cult led itinerant lives, so by the time she was seven, Stevens and her four younger siblings had lived in caravan parks, alongside other members, in five different US states and three European countries. For one brief period, when Berg relaxed the rules, Stevens attended various mainstream schools acquiring a basic education and avidly reading Nancy Drew library books, though she never made friends with “outsiders”. “We led a double life, we just didn’t talk about what went on. We knew we were the chosen ones, superior to them, that they were wrapped up in their worldy ways.”
When she was 12, the family moved to Japan and her education “and my innocence” ceased. In keeping with the cult’s anti-nuclear-family stance – she was removed from her family and sent to various communes where she and the other teenagers cooked, cleaned and did the childcare for hundreds. At one point she was sharing a cupboard-sized room with six people and a bathroom with 20. “They took away our best years, it was full-time child labour.”
She was also sent out regularly to beg, once finding herself on the snowy streets of Osaka in her only footwear – open-toed sandals. “The begging just shredded me, I hated the dishonesty, asking people for money they thought was humanitarian projects, when we had no time for anything except just trying to survive.”
She dreamed of escaping, but – with spies everywhere – never confided her unhappiness. In any case, she had no skills to navigate the outside world. “I was terrified God would strike me dead.” The cult regularly read out “Traumatic Testimonies” where members would recount horror stories of life outside. “They’d say: ‘It may look good out there, but believe me I’d be dead if I hadn’t found The Family.’ ” Outsiders – however much they tried to debunk Berg’s teachings – were treated with suspicion. “You couldn’t even begin to hear what they were trying to tell you, you’d been inoculated against it.”
Stevens moved on to Mexico, where the cult was establishing its hardest-core stronghold to date. “The leadership really was sadistic. They were there to teach wayward north-Americans how to be good cult members and they were so abusive. Children suffered horrible physical discipline for the smallest infractions, it wasn’t about punishment, it was about hammering square pegs into round holes. My whole life has been levels of awfulness, so all I could do was keep my head down as usual and just get through it.”
After Berg’s death in 1994, Stevens used the upheaval to seize her chance to move to a commune in Kenya, “as far away as I could get from leaders checking all the time if we were spiritual enough”. She married another cult member and, hoping to actually help others, rather than beg, the pair set up a mission in Equatorial Guinea, which has one of the worst human rights records and levels of poverty in the world.
“It was the land that time forgot, like walking through the doors of hell,” Stevens exclaims. “It was the most inhospitable place you could live: the climate, the culture of paranoia. We had to bribe the government to let us help the people.” Despite this, they built 3,000 school desks and brought in $30,000 of medical and educational supplies.
Empowered by having succeeded against such odds, the couple, now with a toddler and a baby on the way, moved to Germany. Her husband found a job and they were able finally to leave the cult. “I will never forget how elated I felt the first morning I woke up in our own small apartment, finally free of the eyes that had been watching and judging me my entire life,” she says. “Going to the shops, booking a doctor’s appointment – all the ordinary things most adults take for granted – were so novel for me. Walking down the street alone felt extraordinary, we had always gone out in pairs, it was like being naked. I was frightened God would strike me down, I developed all sorts of phobias. It took a long time to adapt.”
The couple (now amicably divorced – “In the cult environment, you think you know someone because you live with them full time, but you only know who the cult expects them to be”) moved on to the United States, where they continued to live in abject poverty. To make extra cash, Stevens began buying books at car boot sales to resell on eBay. Having previously read “maybe 15 novels” in Africa, she became an avid fan of Robert Ludlum’s Bourne novels.
Realising she had lived in equally exotic locations as those Ludlum depicted, she decided, aged 35, to write her own thriller set in bizarre and terrifying Equatorial Guinea. “My spelling and punctuation weren’t much but I could string words together,” she says. As evidence of this, soon after The Informationist was published, to huge acclaim, a stranger accosted her saying there was no way she had only a primary-school education and accusing her of having invented her backstory to boost sales.
In fact, though her background is a publicist’s dream, Stevens was reluctant to dwell on it too much and initially wanted to omit it from her author’s biography. “I could have invented a past for myself,” she says. “But growing up, we lied to the outside world about us all the time and I vowed I was never going to do that again.”
She refuses to discuss details of physical abuse, or the cult’s sexual elements, firstly to protect her daughters but also, as one character explains in The Innocent, because it overshadows the dozens of other indignities that thousands of children endured. “There was sexual abuse… But that’s just one of so many dishes served on the smorgasbord of my childhood… Nobody reports about the extreme discipline, or being separated from our families, or education deprivation, or the lack of medical care… That’s not entertaining enough.”
Was it her desire to focus on these other horrors that led her to write The Innocent? “Other people were using the fact I’d been raised in a cult for their own agendas – to sell books, to show cults are bad – I just wanted to let people see what it was really like,” Stevens says. “I wanted to describe dispassionately, without anger, the sadism I had to live through, how no justice was ever served.”
Today, her parents divorced, she has no relationship with her father, partly because he continues to identify with the cult, but, after some rebuilding, has a “solid, loving” relationship with her mother.
Having her own daughters fully brought home to her the horrors of her own youth. “Through comparing my children’s growth and development… to what I had experienced comparatively at those ages, I grasped the true horrors of what I had lived through,” she says. “I can’t comprehend how so many of the parents in the cult could have set aside such a powerful instinct.”
The Informationist, The Innocent, The Doll are published by Arrow, £7.99 each