“Apocalypse Child”: A Journey Out of a Cult

It was called “The Man Who Saves You from Yourself,” and the article begin with the words, “Nobody ever joins a cult.” That had me hooked, and it’s so true! I conducted this interview with Flor Edwards over email. I didn’t want to give readers everything or satisfy them fully, and that was actually a very hard thing to do. But I didn’t write it because I had a particular opinion or judgment on it. That’s when I decided I wanted to become a writer. What we need now is not so much compassion, but resilience. What makes you want to write? I think trying to convince others of the “right way” was the downfall of the Children of God as well as many modern religions. I wanted to tell a good story, and I found it to be the most challenging thing I’ve ever done. I think connection to a higher power and spirit is different from prescribing to a particular form of religion, practice, or belief. It took me 12 years! I know there is something greater than this physical realm. What other motives did you have? Is there anything you would like to add about Apocalypse Child? In the beginning, I just thought it was a good story and I wanted to tell it. I’m sure people will be shocked, but if you want, as one grad student put it, “to see more carnage,” go flip on the TV. I knew how to read and write, but I was not allowed to do either. Violence in the group was sugarcoated with love and compassion, which made it very confusing for us kids. Of course bad things happened and many people suffered, but I didn’t write it as an exposé at all, in fact quite the opposite. I loved the way Laura Ingalls Wilder captured her childhood with such vivid description. What is a question I have not asked that you wish I had asked? FLOR EDWARDS: We had about an hour at night called “Activity Time” when we could do creative things under the supervision of a “shepherd.” Some activities included musical instruments, dancing, singing, drawing, and arts and crafts. I know people will want more and that may frustrate some, but I intended it that way. Simplicity is art. During “Get-Out,” a one-hour time slot in the afternoon when we could play outside, we also sometimes were able to be creative and practice our dance moves, calisthenics, or play with the animals that roamed the yard or that we had as pets. What do you make of the idea that people in mainstream society, reviled as Systemites, were also relied upon to make the donations necessary for the Children of God to survive? 
Now as an adult, I think it was hypocritical of them to judge people for being “evil” since they were not part of the Children of God, and therefore not “chosen,” yet still rely on them for their income and living. I did not write this book to create awareness about cults or the Children of God. Predators don’t always act with outright violence (as we can see with the recent Larry Nassar case). Flor’s story intrigued me then, and a couple of years after I graduated, when I learned her memoir was due to be released in March 2018, I reached out to congratulate her. The adults in the group always exemplified a model of love as a way to groom us kids to believe the teachings of Father David (and I think there was authentic love to some degree — they were, after all, an offshoot of the hippie free love rebellious movement of the 1960s which was all about peace and love, antiwar and nonviolence, which accentuates the paradox of the rules under which we lived). I opted not to include them in the book. I still sometimes wonder what I missed out on in that sense. I don’t think art or poetry will save us, but they sure give a good avenue to make things less messy. Abuse in that sense is complicated. I hated asking for things from outsiders and having to “witness” to them when we did accompany adults on those trips. I find it quite triggering and not fascinating at all. I never read fairy tales growing up, only the Bible and Father David’s letters. Boyle’s The Tortilla Curtain. I wanted the words to be enough. The joy of finding the right word to describe something exactly it is. I wrote to make sense of it and I hope people find meaning from reading it as well. The victim comes back on his or her own terms because the predator makes her feel safe and the predator is not guilty because he was not aggressive; the victim came to them. He didn’t approve. 
Did you have any contact with your paternal biological extended family (I mean those who had joined) during your years as a member of the Children of God? For a long time, I hated anything related to church or God. One thing I think people should know is that I wrote this book with minimal education. They do not interest me, but rather make me uncomfortable. I lived through it and I felt the need to paint the picture, to tell the story. I wrote it to find beauty and meaning in my childhood, to make my childhood matter, otherwise there would be no record. With no money, job, or education, Flor and her family started over in her father’s hometown of California. By the time she was 12, Flor had lived in 24 different areas across three continents. Did you ever witness or hear of violence of adults toward other adults? 
No, I did not. Writing my story gave me clarity of my life and helped me make sense and meaning of it. I also believe in angels. The night you wrote the poem, knowing you could be punished for being creative, you hid the poem and sketches in a secret place under your bed only for them to disappear by the next morning. Growing up in the Children of God cult, Flor was not allowed to read, write, or have a traditional education. I had no formal training in reading or writing and didn’t graduate high school. I was always told everything was done “in the name of love.” That is the most confusing type of abuse, especially for children, because it eats away at their psyche and distorts their early constructs of what love is and what love means. If you want to get published, you have to take it seriously. I think that’s a big reason why we write: to leave a part of history, to say, “This happened, I lived through it, and I’m here to tell it.” I’m sure most people will see this as a “survivor story,” and that’s fine. I think readers will like the visual complement. I think some people don’t take me seriously as a writer — maybe I don’t fit into a “box” or “niche genre,” or I’m not intellectual enough — but that doesn’t matter. Following Father David’s instructions to move back to the West right before his death, Flor and her family moved to California after a long, cold winter in Chicago, where they had spent two years. As a child, I was embarrassed and also shy. I also once created a book for my little sister to read on visa trips so she didn’t have to watch the Chinese horror films they would play on the bus (those things scared the life out of me). They learn to associate love with abuse, and it can carry on into later adult relationships. ¤
KRISTA LUKAS: When you were seven years old, your immediate biological family (not to be confused with the Children of God, called “the Family”) moved from Northern Thailand to Phuket Island, where you and others lived in the grand estate of a high-ranking Thai army colonel. You describe unconscionable acts of violence by the adults toward children, sometimes for no discernible reason, although justified as discipline. It was a very exotic setting in Thailand with lots of nature. My paternal grandmother died before I was born. Publishing your memoir is a way of encouraging greater awareness about cults. However, after March 13 you can go to my website, www.floredwards.com, and on my About page you will see a gallery of photos that correspond to the book along with captions from the book. I came across an interesting article in Harper’s by Nathaniel Rich on a cult expert David Sullivan, who is since deceased. It’s a lot of dedication, and it’s a lot of sweat, blood, and tears. As Alice Sebold said, “You must save yourself or you remain unsaved.” That points again to the downfall of many religions — looking outside to the “other” to save oneself. Also, the documentary on Scientology Going Clear was quite fascinating. I have seen some of them from time to time over the years. Essentially, I survived to tell it, and that’s a beautiful thing. People who may enjoy it are anyone interested in a well-written story and who want to take the time to slow down and experience a world different from their own. What resources would you recommend to readers who want to gain more knowledge about the Children of God and cults in general? 
Because I lived through it, I’m not fascinated by cult stories or stories of captivity. I find the real world, the world I was sheltered from, far more fascinating. Flor attended high school, and it was in an English class in college at the age of 17 when she discovered she had a voice and decided to pursue a career as a writer, in part so she could share her remarkable story with others. I took a very complicated story and wrote it in the simplest way I could, and that was not easy. There’s a reason it’s spare. But ultimately, I think I sat down to write for the reason most people do: because I felt misunderstood. I don’t know if writing can save anyone. Always on the move to escape the Antichrist and in preparation for the Apocalypse in 1993, her family relocated every few months. I’ll never know what it was like to have grown up “normal.” I want to hear about a “normal” childhood. I take myself seriously as a writer — I know where I come from and what I’m capable of — and that’s what counts. Perhaps the thousands of children who grew up in the Children of God will find it helpful as a way to articulate their experience. The first real novel I read was in college, T. (Although I did enjoy the delicious food when they did donate it to us — it was such a treat after the boring food we ate in the compound!) As I started to come of age and after we moved to the United States at around age 12 or 13, I felt an increasing sense of shame and guilt for asking for things for free. They “groom” their victims and make them feel safe so the victim learns to trust them. Do you know how your paternal grandparents felt about this? It seemed a nearly impossible task to tell this story and I often wanted to give up, but I had to tell it. As I began to write it, I realized I wanted it to be something people could experience and interpret for themselves, to experience a world they hadn’t yet and to find meaning through it as I found meaning by writing it. What books were special to you as a young adult, once you left the Children of God? I think any type of spiritual practice is very personal and should remain that way. Unable to communicate with anyone outside the group, she spent most of her days in compounds in Southeast Asia caring for younger children in the group, tending to chores, and memorizing scripture. The love-hate relationship you have with your writing will continue on to publication. Also, a lot of people wanted photos. I know there is some form of a higher power, although how we define it may be different. On some level I knew it was wrong, but I understand that it was their means of living and how they survived, although it would never be my choice for income now as an adult, or then. Over meals out and gatherings with other friends, we celebrated our successes, talked about our common interests (such as yoga), our writing projects, and the unexpected challenges we faced in the program. You continued creative writing — what about dancing and sketching? The other things like writing a poem or dancing ballet I sometimes did on my own volition, when I felt I was not being watched. If you’re looking for a “misery memoir” or to wallow in the woes of the past, or find shock and instant gratification in some sensational aspect of a “cult” story, this might not be for you. I like to think it’s a writer’s job to do one of two things: take something ordinary and make it extraordinary, or take something extraordinary and make it seem ordinary. I do not practice any organized religion, but I do believe in faith and prayer. Also, as Joan Didion says, I don’t know what I am thinking (or feeling) until I sit down to write it. A question would be, what is one thing you wish you knew before you started writing Apocalypse Child? I want to hear about boring lives. You mention early in the memoir that your mother’s family disapproved of her joining the Children of God, and that Father David had ordered any potential members to defy parents or others who took this position. There are many reasons to write a book. And how did you manage to do any sort of creative work given the environment in which you lived during your time in the Children of God? That’s all I knew when I sat down to write: simplicity and clarity. ¤
Krista Lukas is the author of a poetry collection, Fans of My Unconscious. I want people to read between the lines, to see what I didn’t write, what I left out and to create their own narrative with it, add their own story to it. I didn’t so much see my story as a “cult” story as much as my story. Know what you’re writing and who your audience is. There’s an ancient saying: “To be content is to be a little bit hungry all the time”; and I think that applies to art as well. The simple language was intentional. We talked about her life during the years in the Children of God, her writing process, and the challenges of adjusting to life outside the cult. I did do some research when writing this book, so I read literature on the Children of God. That’s also when we started catching butterflies for fun and then accidentally killing them and hosting elaborate funerals for our innocent victims, which I write about in my opening prologue. Was this one reason you wanted to write and publish it? What audience do you think your memoir can help the most? 
I wasn’t looking to “help” people when I wrote this memoir. C. Never say more than you need to. K–12 is an eternal mystery to me. There you practiced sketching, learned some ballet, and began writing, including your first poem. Writing should be interactive in that way, I think. I think religion ultimately is about worship, community, and connection — connection to nature, connection to others, connection to God — and that is very important and can be practiced within or without church walls. Flor completed Apocalypse Child in 2014 and landed an agent who found her a publisher in January 2017. In her debut memoir, Flor movingly describes her early life growing up with her family and 11 siblings as a member of Children of God. There’s a psychological component, which is the worst type of abuse and takes the longest to heal from. Leave people wanting more. The cult slowly disbanded. I couldn’t even utter the word “God.” But I’ve lived through and seen miracles, so I know they happen. Mine was probably one of the more complicated childhoods one could have lived through, and it was confusing for sure, but we live in a complicated world. I probably read more and know more about Father David than some of his followers. The rest sorts itself out. It’s everyone else who likes to sensationalize the cult stuff. Other than telling my story, I really don’t like to talk about cults at all. There are some days when you are over the moon and it feels like all your dreams are coming true, and others I want to go hide in a cave and not come out until it’s all over. Since leaving the Children of God, have you practiced any religion, and what can you tell about it? Your father, on the other hand, joined after several of his siblings had joined. After Father David, the cult’s leader, died in 1994, many of his 12,000 followers were abandoned in a world for which they were unprepared and struggled to adjust to life outside the group. JULY 12, 2018

I MET FLOR EDWARDS when we were both students at the University of California, Riverside’s Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing Program. The first books I read were the Little House on the Prairie series when I was around 12, shortly after Father David died and the Children of God started to disband. I could probably write a whole book using only two words: sex and cult. My grandfather on my dad’s side was a sarcastic man and thought the Children of God was a freak show. I didn’t even know there was a genre called “memoir.” I was writing a book. While the media goes abuzz over the word “cult,” it’s the ordinary in life that fascinates me — the rest is just sensational and short-lived.