Monday, April 20, 2009

Jesus Freaks: a true story of murder and madness on the evangelical edge

by Don Lattin

After I read this book, which I think was back in fall of 2007, I made a blog entry with just the title and author, thinking I'd get around to finishing it in a few days. Yeah, right. So here I am a year and a half later finally getting around to it. Knowing there's some kind of subtitle, I just did a quick keyword search, only to find that there are not one, not two, but three other books called Jesus Freaks. Subtitle indeed.

In this case, the word "freaks" refers not only to the fact that these people are really into Jesus, but also to the fact that the organization (sometimes known as Children of God, or Family of God) grew out of the hippies for Jesus movement dating back to the free-love, anti-war '60s counter culture — in other words, they're freaks because they're hippies, as in "freaking out the straights, man." (And that's "straights" as in straitlaced non-hippies, probably but not necessarily heterosexuals.)

So, the Family of God is basically a cult, complete with tyrannical leader, shady finances, questionable "religious" practices, brainwashing, the whole nine. Some female followers reportedly engaged in "fishing for Jesus," which was having sex for money or to convert, and there was something sort of like polygamy going on, for the leader at least. There also have been allegations of child molestation and/or incest. (The family of River and Joaquin Phoenix was apparently involved in the cult at one point; a friend told me she read in an interview that River Phoenix said he'd lost his virginity at age 4 with an adult woman.)

What about the murder, then? A boy who was born into the cult and raised as if he were going to inherit leadership of the cult (and at times treated like or portrayed as the new messiah) becomes disillusioned as a teenager and leaves the cult, but can't escape it's influence and winds up murdering the leader's second (third?) "wife" and then kills himself not long after. He may have been hoping to kill more people, but it's hard to tell for sure. Either way, it's a rather anti-climactic ending, for him at least.

Ultimately, it was an OK book, a little bit of a guilty, voyeuristic pleasure. Not quite tabloid levels of sensationalism, but definitely meant to be shocking. It seems well-researched enough, and there isn't any apparent reason to question the author's motivation, but it somehow falls just shy of proper journalism. I had a couple of friends at the time who were reading a lot of I-escaped-a-Mormon-cult books, and I recommended this to them. I've never read an Ann Rule book (she's the queen of true crime, if you didn't know), but I imagine they're a lot like this.

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