Rebel Lab Rats
American psychologist John Watson famously said, “Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in and I’ll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select…regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations and race of his ancestors.”
If Watson’s theory holds, then children born into an isolated environment, outside of social norms and stigmas, conditioned and indoctrinated to believe and behave a certain way from the time they were born, should for all intents and purposes, grow into the perfect cult adherents. This was undoubtedly the plan when members of the Children of God started having babies. Here were fresh, empty slates to write upon, with no prior knowledge of life outside the group, right and wrong, good and evil. All thought processes, impulses and inclinations could be manipulated and molded to create the ideal followers of their twisted dogma.
Group members took to the business of child-rearing with the same mindless proclivity displayed in our random conceptions from multiple sexual partners. For the purpose of this great experiment, their home-grown guinea pigs, covering the full spectrum of race and colour, were dutifully shipped off to child training camps to be ‘educated’.
I was nearly six when I arrived in the first and largest of its time, fittingly called ‘The Jumbo’, and herded into a group of 35 other kids my age. This was the first of many such centres to sprout around the world, using food and sleep deprivation, beatings, exorcisms, silence restriction and public humiliation, to mold their army of marching clones. I learned to shout ‘revolution for Jesus’ at the top of my lungs, never question instruction or doctrine, never form attachments to my fellow inmates, family, or possessions and lastly to embrace the idea of death through martyrdom. Living to my 30s was as fictitious an idea as living forever. We were born old, waiting to die, reconciled to the idea that life was just a commercial break of sacrifice and suffering, here and gone like a bad idea, in the eternal paradise of the afterlife.
I was one of the blessed generation of Heaven’s Children, born to witness the end of this world, chosen to rule and reign with Christ in the next. Jesus, depicted in a strapless gold and white dress with a speech bubble sprouting from his bearded mouth shouting, ‘Come!’, was due to make his trumpeted appearance any day, hoovering his loyal followers off the earth and destroying the remainder of unbelievers in a worldwide genocide called Armagedon. When we received our post-earth super human bodies, they’d naturally come equipped with all the knowledge of the universe pre-installed, and a flame throwing feature just in case anyone disagreed with the new dictatorship’s version of events.
I was later surprised to discover that this belief is actually shared by millions. In 2011!
When the 90s rolled around, allegations of child abuse within these training centres triggered international raids on The Family communes. Hundreds of kids were taken by social services, then promptly returned again following arduous court trials in which the charges appeared to be a lot of trumped up lies by embittered detractors out to discredit the group. The psychologists who examined the children found nothing untoward. We were well mannered, well educated and well behaved. To any clueless outsider, we made a striking impression.
Unlike other kids my age, I could already read, write and solve math equations at two years old. My mother had been one of the first entrepreneurs of early learning, before it snowballed into common Family practice and flashing math dots to a line-up of pottied toddlers became all the rage. We were a generation of singing, dancing, reciting wind-up dolls with marionette smiles and auto-hugs whipped out on demand whenever the superiority of our home education was called into question. That genius-in-nappies Johnny knew the names of 50 exotic birds and could recite reams of scripture, chapter and verse, was their first defense against accusations of child abuse, labour and trafficking; as if reading the King James Bible fluently negated the hidden stripes and bruises and even less obvious psychological abuse.
To this day, I am suspicious of any children who are too well-behaved. If it seems too good to be true, it probably is. Did we lie to the courts and social services? Of course, without skipping a smile! The problem was not that the officials weren’t doing their job, but rather that nobody was asking the right questions.
The idea was to get us reading and writing early, the better to read cult material and write reports on ourselves and our peers. If any social services had bothered assessing our education in other respects, they’d have found it sorely lacking. Our knowledge of science followed Biblical creationism along the lines of, in the beginning, God created the world, and in the end, He’ll destroy it, while in Berg’s version of world history, the holocaust never happened, America was a filthy whore whose destruction was pending, Africa was cursed since Ham date raped his wino father Noah, and the Jews, Wagner and Michael Jackson were incurably demon possessed.
They wanted us smart, but not too smart. Besides, an education beyond 8th grade was evidently unnecessary since the apocalypse was imminent. I was 11 when I finished their acceptable level of education, and considered too advanced, my learning was quickly wrapped up. Then slowly, year by passing year, I dropped behind my secular peers. But the hunger for knowledge and curiosity did not diminish because you cannot over-stimulate a brain, then remove all stimulus and expect them to dumb down, cold-turkey style, into instant mediocrity. I gobbled down information on the sly, reading everything I could get my hands on, stashing contraband books and magazines under my mattress. It’s the well-known fact of human nature, the more I was told I didn’t need to know, the more determined I became to find out what mysteries were being kept from me.
Related studies reveal that the odds of nursery stimulation producing an adult with above average intelligence are pretty high. All that early learning coupled with a healthy hippy diet of unprocessed foods, whole-grains and vegetables, very likely stimulated our growing mental muscles and accelerated brain growth. By the time they realized that they’d raised a generation of highly intelligent children who could beat them at their own psychological games, it was too late.
As much as we hate to admit that our successes are in any way to The Family’s credit, our generally high average IQs, and practical intelligence manifested in the ability to learn quickly and negotiate any situation or character we come across with practiced alacrity is, in some respects, to their merit for the unwitting kick-start. I have to chuckle at the irony. If they’d wanted pliable zombies, they certainly went about it all wrong.
Like Frankenstein’s monster, The Family’s experiment produced the opposite effect of its original intention. Born into our parents’ one-size-fits-all solution, over time we naturally came to question their version of ‘truth’ fed to us from infancy. The more they tried to pound us into their molds, the more we rebelled against the confinement. There is something about human nature which rises up in the face of suppression.
It began with a few brave youth busting out, escaping over the barbed wire walls, to really get the ball rolling. Within a decade 95% of my generation had done the same. This mass exodus of the second-generation spelled the beginning of the end for the infamous Children of God. Many had tried to bring about their downfall, yet the cult had always proved resilient, changing names, locations and practices to stay one step ahead of their detractors. No one could have predicted that their demise would come at the hands of their only future insurance policy- their children. In essence, the cult birthed its own antidote.
The children they discarded when they wanted the freedom to think for themselves, turned into the enemy who the cult would come to fear most. My generation who were destined to become prophets and saviors of mankind, heirs to a kingdom our parents fought and sacrificed to create, Jesus’ little soldiers grew into the force that would destroy them.
Does this contradict Watson’s claim? If we are not entirely the products of the environment we were raised in, then what tips the scale towards individuality? Is it IQ, genetics, character, a common education, the variety of international experiences? Is it indeed possible, despite the most intense levels of pre-conditioning and indoctrination in the perfect isolated laboratory that is a cult, to find one’s own mind and individuality?
The children of the Children of God did. We appear to contradict a lot of claims over the role we could or should have played in the micro-society we were born into. In all my research of other 20th century cults, I can find none other whose entire second generation not only turned their backs on their culture and left it for good, but also rose up in unison against it and actively fought to bring about its end.
The sociologists and academics who studied our cult, who sympathized with its doctrines and condoned its methods of child-rearing proclaimed in numerous scholarly publications that ‘The Family International were one of the most successful modern cults at raising the next generation to carry on their legacy’. Yet much sooner than anticipated, the disillusioned, silent kids who had fooled these outside observers for so long, decided one day they’d had enough.
Maybe you don’t become a rebel. Maybe you are born one. The idea occurred to me as my eldest sister, Celeste, was discussing the case of an 8 year-old girl in Iran, who ran to a court house to protest her pending marriage to an old man.
‘Hundreds, thousands of little girls her age are forced into similar arranged marriages every year. Most either resign themselves to this living death, or find an escape through suicide, but out of thousands, this one decided to fight back. When her parents and family refused to help her, she escaped from home, got herself in that taxi and made her way alone to the court to appeal to the law. What gave that one little girl the courage to do what none of the others had done?’ Celeste was in her element, passionate about a subject that occupied her professional life as a project worker for Action for Children, helping underprivileged mothers and children in dire situations.
‘Maybe it’s genetic.’ It suddenly came to me. ‘Is it possible that there is a fighter gene, a gene that decides whether you rebel against the status quo or not?’
Celeste agreed. ‘Look at The Family International for case in point. 95% of our generation, born and raised into the group without any knowledge of an alternative society, or social norms, all of us turned against something we knew instinctively to be wrong. Why?’
‘Yes, why?’ I parroted. ‘If you look at other cults, a much higher percentage of kids choose to stay inside the only structure they know, and don’t even question it, much less fight it. Why did we? I doubt we were educated much more than the rest.’
‘If it is genetic, then look at it this way. Our parents were rebels against their generation of parents, against the society they were born into, against the injustices of the Vietnam war. They were all intelligent, middle class, educated kids from different backgrounds and ethnicities, but what they shared was a common rebellion. Did they inadvertently pass on this inclination to us, their children?’
‘It’s an interesting theory.’ I agreed. ‘If you look back through our genetic line, our family is full of rebels. Our great-grandfather was a lieutenant colonel in the Polish army before the WWII German invasion, when he became a leader in the Polish underground resistance.’ As a child, I often pressed dad for information about this particular ancestor, a rebel, a freedom fighter against tyranny. When he was eventually captured and thrown in prison, he wrote a book dedicated to his unborn grandson, my father.
Dad never met his grandfather, his mother died before she could take her baby son to meet him. It became clear as he grew older that his grandfather’s fighting blood flowed through his veins.
Dad was rebel without a cause. He staged a strike in his boarding school against the institutionalized brutality of students by the prefects. When he went on to university, his rebellion simply broadened to include society at large. Dad needed a cause to get behind, and when the Children of God invaded London Hyde Park openly declaring “war against the system”, he found one.
‘So you’re saying, regardless of all the mental programming, we were genetic time bombs inevitably set to social-destruct.’ I mused.
‘I don’t know, but it’s the best theory I’ve come up with to explain it. Aren’t rebels naturally genetic dead ends? In a society like the one this little girl was born into, if you go against the accepted modus operandi, you don’t last long. In this way, they’ve managed to kill off the genetic lines of potential rebels long ago. In the interests of self-preservation, social conformity and a lack of interest in asking questions or raising one’s head would be the surest and safest route to a long and quiet life. ‘
I subconsciously shiver. ‘What a frightening idea.’ Celeste looks at me, and we laugh.
‘Yes sis,’ she says, ‘you were always considered a rebel by the cult leaders. Obviously they guessed your potential fairly early on.’
She was right. I was labeled a rebel without ever stepping out of line, as if they could sniff out the makings of dissenters and objectors. There was something about me which brought out their need to crush whatever rebellion lay dormant within my character. No matter where I went or was sent across the world, the ignominious title of ‘rebel’ followed me. In an Orwellian world where rebellion was as the sin of witchcraft, such a label held devastating consequences.
My sister still tears up at the memories of her defenseless baby sister being dragged off for another ‘breaking’ session, another beating, another punishment for the nameless crime of too much self-awareness. My curiosity was my curse, and my anger over its suppression made for a potentially inflammatory combination.
‘I wanted to rescue you, but how could I when I was in the same position?’ Celeste’s survival tactic was silence. There was a time when she stopped speaking altogether, the consequences for a single spoken thought too weighty to risk. Her silence was her rebellion. It took me much longer to understand the wisdom in this. Sometimes silence too can be a weapon. But once on the outside, it was our words which held inconceivable power. The suppressed words of a generation of children were the pointed blades which brought down a cult. It brings to mind that song by T-Rex,
But you won’t fool the children of the revolution.
No you won’t fool the children of the revolution. No no no.
September 11, 2011 @ 07:54
This article is right on! Summed it all perfectly!
October 3, 2011 @ 22:48
Too bad you keep on switching from personal experience to generalizations. For the latter you might need a base of information broader than just your own viewpoint.
The mass exodus of your generation… isn’t that rather an indication that your generation got the kind of training that would enable them to stand on their own? (Especially since comparative cults did not show any similar movement.)
And then you attribute the collapse of TFI to your mass exodus… I would be much more pragmatical: the shedding of dead weight started with your generation and then continued with the older ones. After all, there is more money in a business that caters to the world rather than to a band of so-called rebels. I think the transition was gentle enough to put everyone on their own feet. It’s time to grow up…
October 4, 2011 @ 13:40
Julia (or is that Jules?), might I start by pointing out that this is a blog, ergo, my opinion and viewpoint, not an academic paper with empirical findings. However, a mass exodus of my generation and whether or not my generation got the kind of ‘training’ that would enable them to stand alone in the world do not necessarily bleed into each other and were not the point of my hypothesis to begin with. I do not think my generation were given any help or adequate education/training to stand alone in the world, but to be sure and supply you with a broader base of information for this, I will start a poll here to ask SGA kids from TFI whether or not they feel their time growing up in TFI adequately prepared them for life on the ‘outside’.
The collapse of the TFI was from waning membership. The second generation were meant to carry on the mantel, but saw through the bullshit (most of us anyway), called a spade a spade and left. Since no new members were joining thanks to a very very tarnished image that is completely irreparable, this did in fact inadvertently contribute to its collapse since the older generation left are going into their 60s and can no longer continue to raise money to keep the ship afloat and the leader’s bank accounts fat.
Perhaps you were one of those final few who made the ‘gentle transition’ which the mass exodus of your peers enabled? Most of us weren’t put on our own feet, we made a leap into the dark with nothing to catch us. Fortunately, most of us landed upright. There were plenty who didn’t.
October 10, 2011 @ 09:58
Just an update for Julia, I set up a poll on a facebook group for ex-Family kids asking whether they felt they received adequate training/education in The Family International which enabled them to stand on their own after leaving the group and prepared them for life outside the group. The results are as follows:
Of the 37 individuals who participated in the poll, 33 answered ‘no, we did not receive adequate training/education’, 3 answered neither ‘yes or no’ and only 1 answered ‘yes, I received adequate training/education’. I hope this clarifies the aspect you felt was generalized upon.
October 4, 2011 @ 14:51
@Julia I’d find your criticism of this article acceptable if you yourself had something relevant and unbiased to say. But listen to yourself:
“The mass exodus of your generation… isn’t that rather an indication that your generation got the kind of training that would enable them to stand on their own?”
Here you are repeating what Juliana wrote, but twisting the idea in order to make the cult’s training look positive and intentional. As Juliana’s article made clear, The “training” received by second generation members was (blatantly) intended to make them better members, not to help them “stand on their own” and adapt to life outside the cult. The capacity for rebellion may have been an unintended side-effect of the cult’s particular methods of “education”. If TFI meant to train their kids to rebel and leave in droves, would they have published countless missives condemning and threatening “backsliders” with God’s wrath? “Standing on their own” came later, and was something the kids had to do by trial and error without any help from the cult.
As for your second statement, you compare the mass exodus of second-generation members to the “shedding of dead weight”. Could your internal viewpoint as a current member of said cult be any more transparent? At least you realize that money is the prime motivation of TFI’s leaders these days.
But what amuses me most is when you write “I think the transition was gentle enough to put everyone on their own feet.” I wonder how “gentle” it felt to those young people who were thrown into a world that they were completely unprepared for without a basic education. I wonder how “gentle” it feels to all those older members without income or health insurance who are just beginning to realize that they gave over 30 years of their lives to an organization that has essentially ceased to exist and won’t pay them a single years worth of retirement money.
But you’re right, it’s time for them to “grow up”…just like their kids have done.
October 4, 2011 @ 21:57
I enjoyed reading this, Juliana. And I think you (and your sister) might’ve hit the nail on the head with the rebel-gene theory. As an ex TFI kid myself, I have to agree that the cult most certainly did not intend to, nor did it, prepare us to stand on our own two feet outside of the cult; a fact which I feel some, if not many, FGAs have regretfully come to realize far too late (at least for it to be of any significance to their older children) and which has most certainly contributed to its downfall.
October 7, 2011 @ 06:47
I wonder if the SGA suicides’ ever felt as though the “transition was gentle enough to put [them] on their own feet”? They certainly didn’t live long enough (like many of their counterparts who died from the abuses and neglect they suffered) to really grow up…
And, how exactly, shall we analyse the SGA who, with their stellar cult-given life-skills ended up as prostitutes, escorts, porn actors/models, strippers and other sex workers? You know statistically people generally end up in the sex industry when they’ve experienced great trauma and upheaval in their lives, right? NOT because they come from well-adjusted, parentally-supportive and educationally broad backgrounds.
Maybe, as someone so open minded, Poster-Julia, you should do a little growing up yourself and stop playing apologetics for a group of adults who systematically ruined thousands of young lives and damaged so many more. Your arrogance and pontificated idiocy is offensive.
October 7, 2011 @ 07:35
Also, “pragmatical” is just a terrible adjective choice, often replaced these days by either, “pragmatic” or “practical”. //linguistic.shudder//
April 26, 2012 @ 18:56
Wow great stuff, I agree with most of what you have to say. When I first left I knew I was far behind my peers, but then with college and practical application of knowledge,I now feel a bit superior in my understanding of socio-economic and political conditions of the world.