Rebel Lab Rats

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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.