The Children of God cult is known ubiquitously for "Flirty Fishing," or carnal recruitment and prostitution for Christ. It's a sex-based Christian sect on the outside with a controlling circle of Satanists on the inside, but the congregation - represented by a chorale of children who sang for GHW Bush at the White House during the Christmas season on two occasions - doesn't know whose hands are tied to their puppet strings...
Christopher Owens sings and writes for Girls, an indie band from San Francisco compared by the New York Times, in a review of the band's debut album, Album, to Elvis Costello with a harmonal element of Buddy Holly doo-wop. Owens cut his rock teeth as a teenager who knew nothing of the world outside the cult ...
" ... Owens' story is that he grew up in the Children of God cult, which he fled as a teenager. There's a tale of a infant brother who died from lack of medical attention and other stories of his mother being pushed into prostitution. If it sounds a little reminiscent of hoax writer J.T. LeRoy, the Village Voice ran a November story that suggested many of Owens' facts seemed to check out -- as much as they could be given a cult's insular nature.
In a Fag Magazine interview, Owens' discussed his formative years in the CoG cult:
Where are you from?
Um, that’s a difficult question to answer. I was born in Miami, Florida, but I didn’t spend any time there. My mom moved a lot.
What did she do?
Well, before she ever met my dad or had any kids, she joined a religious cult called the Children of God. And they were just not very normal people.
Did you grow up in that community?
What was that like for you?
I didn’t know anything else, and we weren’t exposed to people that – I didn’t know any kids who weren’t also growing up the same way. To me it was totally normal until I started to become a teenager, and I just started to know that I was growing up in some very weird, different way. But it wasn’t until I left when I was sixteen years old and moved to the United States –
Where were you outside of the United States?
Like, everywhere. I moved by myself from Slovenia to Texas when I was sixteen. My older sister was living in Amarillo so I moved in with her.
How did you decide to leave, or have the courage to go out on your own?
Um – it was a very extreme situation. It’s not like being a Mormon or a Seventh-Day Adventist. Like, you read about Michael Jackson’s upbringing and he talks about how weird it was to be a Jehovah’s Witness. And it’s like that times sixty percent.
What were some of the beliefs of the group?
Just that everybody else besides us were all completely confused and bad. It was an extremely separatist group. And all literature and music and everything that we as the children that were born and raised in the group were exposed to was all stuff that was produced within the group. So the whole idea was to try to raise a generation of kids that were not spoiled at all by the world.
They had some ideal that they could raise us and we’d be these perfect little Children of God. But it’s like horrible – it’s also beautiful, like – they meant well, I guess, even though a lot of things that they did were completely crazy. You can research and find out the details. It’s just a crazy, crazy group, maybe one of the craziest groups that came out of sixties’ American cults. Super extreme.
But the great thing – the great lesson, the great story for me, is there was only one generation – there were hippies that joined as teenagers, and then their kids. And as soon as we became adults, they were destroyed, because you can’t really tell people how to live their life, no matter how ideal, or even if you’re right, you can’t say to somebody, “You will not listen to this, you will not act like this.” And so, as soon as everybody my age, or even starting before, like my oldest sister, became teenagers, the first thing we did is say, “I wanna be my own person.”
And now it’s just – it went from being something like thirteen thousand people at one time, to being – it’s not even the same group anymore. They’ve changed their name, they’ve changed their beliefs, and there’s only a few thousand of them now, living in a completely different way. It’s basically been totally destroyed.
Were you reading any literature or listening to music made by people outside of the group when you were growing up?
No, I wasn’t. I was in like, performing group with other kids.
Yeah. Cos they didn’t believe in working, so as soon as there were kids they realized the goldmine of children performing in public. So we did that growing up, my sisters and I both, all of us.
What would you sing?
Songs that were written within the group. Like, nice little Christian songs.
Had you been exposed to other music outside?
No – well, here’s the thing – when I became like, say, thirteen or fourteen years old, and was starting to get into trouble myself and become curious about the outside world, there was already a group of kids that were like my sister’s age, like the first wave of kids. They would have been like, seventeen. And there were guys that would like, record on cassette tapes from the radio, or try to grow their hair out.
Do you remember what songs they recorded?
Yeah, I remember all of them. It was like, Guns N Roses, Michael Jackson’s Dangerous album, Bon Jovi, Lionel Ritchie – like, horribly crappy, but to us that was like amazing, foreign, just crazy, weird shit that we loved. And I learned how to play guitar from these guys. We’d like, learn how to play the songs. And right away, there was a split between everybody our age, like if you were rebellious or not. And everybody cool was obviously rebellious.
And then they did something really stupid when they saw what was happening – like, my older sister left, and a lot of the first, the oldest kids were leaving by the time they were like eighteen years old, and they freaked out. They were like, “Obviously this is what everybody’s gonna do.” So they set up these programs, for the teenagers – they’d send like a hundred of us to these camps, where they’d really focus on trying to make us wanna stay for the rest of our lives.
But it was a huge mistake, because it was like when you send a criminal to prison, and they all just trade secrets and things. Everybody there was interested in being rebellious. So we’d go and it was just like, the coolest place you could be.
Were you guys, like, getting high yet?
No, no, no. Could never even imagine what that was like. There were a couple times when I had drunken wine or something. Even the adults didn’t drink very much. But it turns out that the founder was this like, serious alcoholic. But nobody knew him. He communicated only through like, writing documents.
Did you have a sense of what it was about your mom that drew her to this world?
I can understand it a lot better now, but I knew a lot of things about her growing up, too. The first like, alarm about my mom, is apparently, before I was born, while she was still pregnant with me, there was an older brother. Maybe he was like four years old. And he got pneumonia, which is not that big of a deal. Normally you’d just go to the doctor. But they didn’t believe in going to the hospital – you know, this is how crazy they were. And so he died.
So my dad split – my dad was like, “You guys are fucking crazy.” My mom would not leave. My dad was made out to be a villain. And she would tell me about that in this way, like, “Now Steven’s with Jesus.” And I would just be like, “That is weird.”
And I would watch her behavior in general. She would just do like, things that were obviously not good to be doing. Having breakdowns and crying. Follow these various men around on wild adventures, traveling around the world. And she’d wanna split sometimes – like I can remember us being in a place and her and the guy fighting, and we’d pack our bags and we’d go down the street and then we’d turn around and go straight back, because she didn’t have anywhere to go.
That’s really sad.
Yeah. But at the same time, I think my mom’s great. I don’t wanna pretend like I don’t like my mom. But she just – I don’t think she was thinking very much about what was happening with me and my sisters, you know?
It sounds like she couldn’t afford to, if she didn’t have anywhere else to go.
Yeah. My mom was so nice, and a lot of people take advantage of her. I think most people – there was a hierarchy in the Children of God, all coming down from one guy, and I think it’s just the smartest and most controlling people were just manipulating well-meaning, nice people into doing horrible things. It’s like, the way the world works. And that alone made me sort of a problem child. I think I started being focused on being considered a problem child by the time I was eight or nine years old.
How were you a problem child?
I don’t know. They would just try to talk to me and I wouldn’t talk. I wouldn’t do anything that bad, but they just were like, “You’re a problem child.” I was uncomfortable with things like praying. I just didn’t believe anything they said really. I don’t know, they wanted you to open up all the time and I wouldn’t.
You were trying to protect yourself.
Yeah, yeah. And then of course by the time I was twelve and thirteen years old there were these cool guys that were teenage guys that I could see. They were like idols for me. They were like, rebelling hard-core and just leaving. And by that time I was like, "That’s what I’m gonna do." I knew I was gonna leave as soon as possible.
Was it scary when you left?
It was crazy – I left the United States when I was one so I had no memory – I had no idea what the United States was like.