In the last few years, books, documentaries and podcasts about cults have proliferated. From HBO's NXIVM-focused "The Vow" and Netflix's "Wild Wild Country" about the Rajneesh movement to podcast "Transmissions from Jonestown" and more, it seems we can't get enough. But there is often a disconnect between our casual consumption of cults as entertainment and the very real trauma, both physical and psychological, that cults inflict on their members.
In "Sex Cult Nun: Breaking Away from the Children of God, a Wild, Radical Religious Cult," (William Morrow, 400 pages, ★★★★ out of four) author Faith Jones bridges entertainment and empathy by penning a page-turning memoir that is not just a fascinating and heartbreaking look at life inside a cult, but ultimately an empowering story of resilience.
Jones' grandfather, David Brandt Berg, founded the Children of God in California in 1968. Later known as the Family of Love and then just the Family, it had unorthodox views for a Christian sect, primarily its views on sex.
Followers lived by the "Law of Love," which encouraged sexual relations among its members, adults and children alike. The group allegedly conducted "Flirty Fishing," a proselytizing method where female disciples used sex as bait to entice men (fish) to "come to Jesus" and also provide donations to support the organization financially. This was a necessity since followers did not own property (this extended to their own bodies.) The only other ways to fund their lifestyle were through provisioning (where followers asked businesses to contribute food and goods) and fundraising.
It is in this world that Jones was born into in 1977 in Hong Kong. Jones spent most of her early years in Asia. Notably in Macau, an island located off the coast of China. Along with her father, Jonathan, his first wife, Esther, her mother, Ruthie, and her siblings, Jones recounts a life of prayer and service. But dispersed throughout are moments that are more sinister. Jones recounts receiving her first sexual lesson at the age of 4 when her mother demonstrated erotic stimulation on her father and notes that one of her first coloring books was on the subject of sex.
Jones would move several times around the world – including Thailand, the U.S., Japan and Kazakhstan – at times with her family but often without. After briefly attending school in America she takes her own self-education seriously. But along with the traditional subjects, she also begins to question the Family and their Law of Love.
At the age of 23, after years of questioning her upbringing, Jones quietly broke away from the Family and traveled to the U.S. She was accepted into Georgetown University and later Berkeley Law school. It is during her university and law school years where Jones begins to truly understand the trauma that she has lived through. Not loving moments among fellow members of the sect – as she was raised to believe – but disturbing moments of sexual abuse and assault.
At first, in describing her childhood, Jones' writing is simple and straightforward, sharing her daily life while educating the reader on the Family's cultish rules such as speaking in code, reporting on each other's activities, distrust of outsiders and authority. But as she ages and becomes more sophisticated, so does her prose.
Jones brilliantly articulates not just the Family's shortcomings in terms of personal freedom but expands on society's as a whole. Are we the true owners of our own bodies and our own selves?
The only critique on "Sex Cult Nun," is wishing for a more in-depth look at Jones' life after she was emancipated from the Family. She touches on some of her college, law school and professional life but just enough for us to want more. Reading more about her life and her struggles post-cult would make for a fascinating and welcome follow-up.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'Sex Cult Nun' is a brutal, empowering tale of Children of God group