January 2008

Rosette Royale

nonfiction

Jesus Freaks: A True Story of Murder and Madness on the Evangelical Edge by Don Lattin

Think back over the years and you’re sure to recall their names, a coterie of spiritual leaders who wound up ushering their followers straight to hell: there’s Jim Jones, who shepherded the disciples of his People’s Temple to Guyana, where 900 of them were either forced to drink cyanide-laced Flavor-Aid or were murdered; then there’s David Koresh, who, with his flock of Branch Davidians outside of Waco got in a power struggle with the FBI, leading then Attorney General Janet Reno into a bungled assault on their compound that resulted in 76 people being burned alive as the world tuned in; and don’t forget that cherub-faced Marshall Applewhite, co-leader of the Heaven’s Gate cult, who instructed his black-clad, Nike-shod lambs that heaven could be found in a spaceship following the comet trail of Hale-Bopp, causing 40 people to take their lives. Being such charismatic chameleons, they’ve become part of our collective consciousness. But they’re not alone. There are others, though not as deadly, who are part of this fold. Falling in this category is David Berg.

The son of a preacher man and woman, Berg, as described in Jesus Freaks, was a second-rate evangelist. His momma, however, had the gift, though, try as he might, he couldn’t quite match her fervor on the pulpit. But perhaps God -- or Lucifer, depending upon your viewpoint -- smiled upon him because when his mother died, he stepped fully into the evangelical light. A few potential church scandals notwithstanding, he began collecting worshippers, many of them young. Which fully prepared him for Haight-Ashbury and its Summer of Love.

That might seem a strange place for an evangelical Christian preacher to testify. But, as Lattin tells us, “in the late sixties and early seventies, a growing cadre of avant-garde evangelicals found a receptive audience among the hippies, whose rejection of materialism and search for spiritual experience provided common ground.” And from this common ground rose The Family, a movement of twentysomethings, led by Berg, who took to traipsing around the country in rented buses and bedding down in flop houses. Surrounded by so much youthful flesh, the married Berg couldn’t resist the temptations: he started sleeping with a few of female disciples, encouraging polygamy and polyamory.

But the authorities weren’t too keen on all those sexually active young people and their bearded leader. So Berg did what anyone in his robes would have done: he hopscotched the globe, staying one step ahead of the cops. Touching down in London, “Berg was to become God’s pimp… and the rest of his female disciples would be heaven’s harlots.” He called this practice, where he got female followers to seduce men, all in the name of the Savior, “flirty fishing.”

Unfortunately, the Savior wasn’t preaching planned parenthood, because all this fornicating led to a flock of little lambs being born. With kids in their midst, The Family, on Berg’s instruction, took to introducing the wee ones to the world of nonconsensual sex play, both youngster-to-youngster and youngster-to-adult.

Descriptions of some of these instances, a number of which are graphic, arise roughly a third of the way through the book and they present you with a choice: do you continue reading, feeling like a sleaze ball for doing so, or do you close the cover and say, “No thanks, too much information for me?” Either path is a valid road. But if you choose to stay the course, you’ll at least be prepared for the arrival of the Prophet Prince, David “Davidito” Rodriguez.

The son of one of Berg’s polygamous wives (though not one of Berg’s own children,) David was encouraged to be sexually precocious at a young age by Berg and several nannies. One of these nannies authored a book called The Story of Davidito, a picture-heavy manual detailing the (apparently happy) boy’s sexual acts with adults and other young people. But the prophet seems to have paid a heavy price for his youthful indoctrination: he grew to resent the adults for how he, and other young Family members, were treated. Left to simmer, that resentment bubbled over into rage and ultimately into violence.

At this point, it must be said: Don Lattin deserves enormous credit for researching the story of Berg and The Family. He’s pored over documents, talked to Family defectors and delved headfirst into the seedy realm of child exploitation. Most people wouldn’t have the stomach to go as far as he did.

But, as slimy as this may sound: the book’s best parts of the ones touching on the group’s sexual proclivities. This could be explained away by suggesting that prurient interest makes for rapid page turning. And while that may be true, what begins to happen, by the time Davidito matures, entering his teens and then his twenties, is that the story lags and never regains speed. This is surprising, given that the Prophet Prince is so enraged, he embarks on a mission to find his mother, all the while, becoming more and more consumed with revenge. By the time he takes up a knife and meets one of his nannies, you know the end will be bloody. But nearly all the narrative oomph is gone by then. Even though the words recount bloodshed, it reads as anti-climax.

What does strike you while reading Jesus Freaks is how destructive messianic leaders can be. In its heyday, The Family had nearly 8,000 members worldwide. That’s a bigger swath than Jones, Koresh or Applewhite enjoyed. But more members means more chances of people getting abused. And so it was with Berg’s Family, about whom it’s hard not to have a heavy heart for all those souls who got burned in the fire and brimstone of one man’s ego.

Jesus Freaks: A True Story of Murder and Madness on the Evangelical Edge by Don Lattin
HarperOne
ISBN: 0061118044
236 pages