“Sex Cult Nun”Faith Jones Interrogates the Abusive Community Her Grandfather Created

a photo of the author Faith Jones in a black jacket next to the cover of her novel, Sex Cult Nun.

Faith Jones, author of "Sex Cult Nun" (Photo credit: Mariusz Jeglinski)

Growing up in an isolated commune in rural Macau, Faith Jones was enmeshed in a group where “sexual freedom was not just encouraged, it was enforced.” Now an attorney, her debut memoir, Sex Cult Nun: Breaking Away from the Children of God, a Wild, Radical Religious Cult, offers an unflinching look into the world of her childhood, where violations of bodily, spiritual, financial, and psychological autonomy were all too common.

In The Children of God, the cult founded by her grandfather David Berg, free love was the norm — multiple partners, multiple spouses, and a cultural openness about sex. Many radical movements of the time shared these core beliefs, but in The Children of God, those beliefs were intensified and made toxic. The concept of “free love” was weaponized.

They were, in fact, not free. Women were expected to share “God’s love” by allowing men to sleep with them whenever they wanted. Queer members were punished. And the molestation of and rape of children was encouraged. Toddlers were molested, and at the age of twelve — until Berg discouraged followers from violating their respective countries’ age of consent laws — young girls were expected to have sex with older men. Jones writes that at the age of ten, she was anxious at the thought of having to do this in a couple years, so her grandfather’s decree was a source of relief.

The Children of God were — and still are, in the places where they operate — a group with international communities, an intentional choice to spread gospel and to avoid the legal consequences that awaited members in the States. After they were globally condemned for their embrace of child sexual abuse, their name was changed. “Let’s also try to get away from being called the ‘Children of God’ where that name is hated, and simply call ourselves the new Family of Love,” Berg wrote to his followers in a 1978 “Mo Letter,” which is how the secluded leader — Jones never met her grandfather — communicated his decrees, opinions, and graphic details of his own sex life and predation. The name of the group went through several iterations until it became simply, The Family.

“As the first kids born into The Family, we are the guinea pigs for everything,” Jones writes of her and her siblings, all of whom were subjected to some variation of the abuse she endured.

It was Jones’ experiences that led her to create a framework for understanding bodily autonomy through the lens of property rights. Considering that the law regards property as “anything that has value,” Jones set out to inscribe her own rights to herself, and everything she produces. “Unlike other types of ‘property,’ such as inanimate objects, we can never give up our fundamental right of ownership in our body as long as we are alive. It is an inalienable right, meaning we cannot be separated from it, it cannot be taken from us, and we cannot give it away,” Jones writes.

“I want to give people the tools to put themselves in that position of economic independence, of mental and emotional freedom,” she tells Bitch. Sex Cult Nun is a startling memoir of child abuse, but those who have had their rights to their bodies and minds infringed upon will identify with Jones’ frank re-telling of her story and how she came to embark upon a journey of healing.

This must have been a very hard book to write. How was the experience of writing this book for you?
 
Even when you’ve done the healing work on it, which I did a lot of before I wrote the book, it’s still difficult to write about those experiences and have to keep going back and editing them and keep putting yourself in that space. That’s why I think it’s especially important to do the healing work on yourself because otherwise I think it can be too much.
 
I see you have the “I Own Me” framework [from the book] behind you. Have you heard from people who have been helped when they saw this framework? Did it help them to understand their own experiences?
 
Women see it as a sense of freedom. When I teach this, it’s really interesting that there’s kind of a distinction in how people perceive the framework — whether it’s a freedom or a restriction. I find that for many people — especially women — when they understand this, it’s like a sense of freedom and release. Like “Oh, I can let go of this like thing that I thought I had to do or be.” And I have seen that for men who are African-American. They watched my TedX talk, and they perceive it to be about freedom too. And then I’ve seen certain types of particularly macho white males where when I teach this, they see it as a restriction.
 
Interesting.
 
They see it as rules, something to restrict them. But when I talk to women, it’s about freedom but I’m teaching the exact same thing, right? That gave me kind of a clear picture of the subtle biases that we have in our society where to one group, it’s an attack on their entitlement and ability to kind of do what they want and take what they want and touch what they want, right? And for another group, it’s a freedom to say no and not feel bad about it. It’s a freedom to say no to other people imposing on their will as to what they need to do or be in life and how they spend their time or that it needs to be spent in sacrifice or work for others rather than in pursuing your own goals.
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The way we discuss cults is often sensationalized. Several times throughout the book, you say that the abuse that existed within The Family are also very much present in our larger society. Children are abused. It’s incredibly common to experience financial abuse and I would even go so far as to say it’s normalized for people to go through financial abuse. None of this stuff that was happening in the family — not to diminish the unique experience — but none of this stuff was something that you could only find there.
 
One hundred percent. As I started to be in this healing world, talking to people and even just started sharing my experiences with friends, so many of them had been physically and sexually abused as children. Some were still experiencing abuse as adults, in the working world.
 
Statistics tell us that a third of the women just in America have been sexually abused, so that was why I wrote the book. It wasn’t that I felt the need to talk about very intimate, personal details of my life, which I never thought in a million years that I would share, but I realized it was a vehicle to help people to understand what happens when we don’t have an objective standard of conduct to live by.
 
I feel like that’s kind of why cults get so sensationalized. I think that we like to think that we have an objective code of conduct in the outside world and we like to see people who we don’t see as abiding by that code of conduct as The Other, so it helps us to feel really great about ourselves and our conduct. But the principles that you laid out are violated on a day-to-day basis.
 
I think you nailed it on the head. People love to live in “Them and Us” and “This and Other,” right? Also, I think one of the main things that happens in cults is when what we would consider a violation is a standard of behavior that is accepted as good [in the cult.] So in society, everyone says child abuse is bad, rape is bad, this is bad. We say that, but it’s still practiced everywhere. Whereas in cults, that behavior might be glorified or nobleized or accepted as something that’s good.
 
The manner of living is also very different. Living communally, not going to school, all of this sort of makes the way that you live secretive, and having a completely different standard for how you live and operate in the world. What I wanted to express was that all of these beliefs came into the group from somewhere else in regular society. Even beliefs about the age when children should start having sex. If you go look at other communes that existed at that time period, they had very similar sexual freedom — is what they considered it — for children, so it wasn’t like it just came out of nowhere.
 
Obviously, the concept that women were supposed to give of themselves in a more extensive way than men, that’s been around forever. So has the whole concept of women as property. I wanted to show that these things already existed in society at the time and they were intensified, normalized, and approved of in The Family. Not everyone in the group were child abusers and molesters, and there were plenty of people in the group who did not participate in that kind of thing, but having that approval for it definitely created an environment where those who were that way could affect a lot of people.
 
One thing that I find really interesting is that almost all cults are apocalyptic movements. Why do you think that’s such an important feature?
 
Psychologically, to get people to act, you have to have a sense of urgency. An imminent threat. Any time we have that — even when we start wars in order to shift things for the economy or whatever — it’s that imminent threat of danger, attack, and catastrophe that gets people to act, oftentimes against their best interests. Also, in a cult, you give over your possessions, you give over your entire life. You give everything you have to the group. It’s kind of one of the measurements of a cult. If people are like “Well, I’m going to live to be 80,” nobody is going to give their possessions away. You would be taking away their economic power, control, and the ability to support themselves. They have to believe that they’re not going to need to have money to support themselves when they’re 80, that they’re going to die in five years anyway, so they might as well give everything up now. That’s the kind of mentality that you can get out of people when you make them believe that they don’t have a future, or that their future is otherworldly, that they’re not planning and preparing for a future on earth. Why should you keep your property? Why should you keep your money? That’s a way to take economic control as well as personal control. Once you have economic control of somebody, it is so much harder to get out. I saw that with my own mother and myself.

You don’t have to stay broken…it does take work. But you don’t have to stay in a place where you’re still constantly living those patterns…You really can heal and be in a place where you’re just genuinely happy. I want to give people that hope.

Speaking of your mother, what made it possible for you to get that healing in your relationship with your mother, or understand your mother after you came to this awareness yourself? Because I think that’s a place that a lot of people do have a hard time getting to.
 
You know, from the time I was very young, I stopped seeing my parents as parents. I just started seeing them as human beings and I had compassion for them. I understood that they were flawed and suffering and trying to figure things out. They made a lot of mistakes, out of perhaps a sense of purposeful blindness and being naive, but I don’t think there was intention to harm. That’s why I believe in this so strongly. People have to have a clear framework and understanding because otherwise you can get sucked into these beliefs that cause you to do terrible, harmful things which later you recognize and regret. But that’s what you believed at the time.
 
I think when my mother left, it took her some time to really appreciate that certain things were wrong or to identify what was wrong about it. When I created the framework and we talked about these principles, that really helped her to clearly identify what had gone wrong. We were able to have these honest conversations about it. She apologized to all of us and her viewpoint has radically changed, as has the rest of my family, to a large degree, I think.
 
And I understand because I genuinely believed it, too, right? There were things I certainly would not have done, ways of disciplining and all kinds of stuff like that — which my mother didn’t really do either. But we have to look back on the mistakes of our previous generation and do better, right?
 
When you give someone the clarity and they get it, do they try to still hold onto and maintain their position or do they change and transform and go in a completely different direction? That’s really all I care about.
 
You don’t have to stay broken. It’s not like it happens right away, it does take work. But you don’t have to stay in a place where you’re still constantly living those patterns and afraid and upset and feeling broken. You can get past all of that. You really can heal and be in a place where you’re just genuinely happy. I want to give people that hope.
 
I think yes, we don’t have to stay in that crisis place. But healing isn’t linear, so how have you dealt with resurfacing trauma? Personally, I know I find myself struggling with that.
 
We heal in layers. Like you said, stuff is going to come up. We deal with it, we go through it, we heal it, and then something else comes up. I had my own ways of dealing with things, which often involved wine and Netflix or romance novels or something to just take me out of myself and the emotion that I was in. Those can be helpful in the moment if you’re in crisis mode and you need to pull yourself out of that emotion. But unless you go back and actually heal those core wounds, they will keep being triggered, so having a process to heal those core wounds is critical. That’s the most important thing. Healing doesn’t just make you feel better. Healing is a shift that changes your behavior.

 

by Nylah Burton
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Nylah Burton is a writer and sexual assault prevention specialist based in Washington, D.C. She covers topics related to mental health, health, climate justice, social justice, and identity. Nylah also has bylines in New York Magazine, Zora, ESSENCE, The Nation, Jewish Currnts, Lilith Magazine, and Alma, among others. You can follow Nylah on Twitter @yumcoconutmilk.