A woman who was born into the same religious cult as Joaquin Phoenix and Rose McGowan has revealed the vile abuse and bizarre practices of The Family International commune.
Sharen Seitz, now 33, recalled being beaten for disobeying trivial orders and spending hours locked in a closet where she was forced to memorize Bible passages as a punishment for her supposed misbehavior.
The Boulder, Colorado woman told DailyMail.com she did not even know who her parents were for ‘a long time’ because she had been taught to view all cult members as family.
The Family International was founded in 1968 in Huntington Beach, California by preacher David Brandt Berg and was called Teens of Christ, later known as the Children of God.
Sharen Seitz, 33, of Boulder, Colorado, was born into The Family International cult – formerly known as The Children of God
Sharen, pictured far right with her brothers, recalled the vile abuse and bizarre practices she experienced while growing up in the religious group
Sharen’s parents, who were given names David (left) and Mary (second right) Psalms, joined the cult five to six years before she was born
The group was made up of communes, known as ‘colonies,’ consisting of runaway hippies looking for spiritual salvation and happiness with a total distrust of the outside world.
The society quickly grew using a practice that Berg termed ‘flirty fishing’, where he would order females in the group to recruit men by engaging in sexual activities with them.
Cult members were taught to spread ‘God’s love’ through sex and men were allowed to have more than one wife.
By the 1970s the organization began to face allegations of incest, child abuse, and rape and was reported to the FBI. It was labeled a cult in 1974 by the New York attorney general’s office.
Several celebrities are known to be former members including Rose McGowan, who was born into the cult’s commune in Florence, Italy, before her family fled when she was nine.
Joaquin and River Phoenix likewise were part of the Children of God’s branch in Venezuela before the family escaped, aboard a cargo ship to Miami.
Sharen said she was raised in the Family International until her family finally fled when she was six years old.
She claimed she and other kids in the cult were taught that sex was a way of sharing God’s love with people.
Sharen (bottom left) says her parents (top left) were passionate evangelicals who enjoyed travel and thought they were joining a missionary organization when they joined the cult years before she born
Among the group’s bizarre practices was learning songs written by Fleetwood Mac guitarist Jeremy Spencer, while sitting on a fluffy blanket called ‘the cloud’ (pictured)
She also revealed how they were taught songs written by Fleetwood Mac guitarist Jeremy Spencer, who joined the group in 1971, while sitting on a fluffy blanket called ‘the cloud.’
‘This particular cult was an abusive take on Christian evangelism,’ Sharen told DailyMail.com. ‘It started out as missionary work which reeled a lot of people in.
‘We were taught that sex was sharing God’s love with people.
Jeremy Spencer famously left the band in 1971 to join The Children of God
‘Jeremy Spencer joined the cult and he became a big deal. He wrote songs for the cult and they were taught to us.
‘We would sit on “the cloud” – a big fluffy blanket – and learn songs.
‘They had coloring books with pictures of Jesus and then as you got older there were pictures of older men in bed with children with talk bubbles that said “God loves you, let me show you that”.’
Although Sharen says she endured physical abuse at the hands of cult members, fortunately, she cannot recall being sexually abused.
‘There was a lot of physical abuse and a lot of emotional abuse,’ she said. ‘There is a chunk of my memories from the age of three to five that are missing.
‘My sister says she was aware that I would see naked people having sex.
‘But it’s pretty common to block these things out.’
Sharen recalled that she and her siblings and other cult children would be dressed in identical outfits and taken to old people’s homes to perform feel-good songs and gather donations to fund the cult – a practice known as ‘witnessing.’
Sharen, her parents and her eight siblings travelled the world with the cult, moving from safe house to safe house and slept in a room full of bunk beds, she said
Sharen recalled how she was once battered with a wooden board for accidentally causing another girl to trip. She is pictured cleaning a bedroom at the Texas ranch
Cult children were dressed in identical outfits and taken to old people’s homes to perform feel-good songs and gather donations to fund the cult – a practice known as ‘witnessing’
‘We went to old people’s homes, police headquarters, fire departments and restaurants.
‘They always dressed us the same and we would sing songs that Jeremy Spencer had written or songs like Lean On Me.
‘The aim was to get donations and get people interested in the cult.’
Sharen, who works as a dog trainer and is a former model, says she experienced frequent beatings and was once battered with a wooden board for tripping another girl up.
She claimed that one cruel punishment doled out to kids who misbehaved was locking them in a closet and forcing them to learn Bible passages.
‘I was beaten a lot,’ she said. ‘When I was about five, I was tying up my shoes and I accidentally tripped someone up.
‘I was taken into a laundry room and a man got a very large wooden board and hit me five times on my back and on my butt.
‘We would have to have mass baths with multiple kids and I remember not sitting down.
‘I turned around and my sister saw that I was black and blue from my mid thighs to my back.
Sharen with microphone singing with cult kids in old people’s home in Texas
Sharen (on right in striped shirt) is seen at the Texas ranch with cult members and her grandparents
‘As a punishment, we would be locked in a closet and forced to memorize the Bible.
‘By the time I was nine, I knew most of the Bible.’
Sharen said that her parents – who were given the names David and Mary Psalms by the cult – were passionate evangelicals who enjoyed travel and thought they were joining a missionary organization.
‘They had probably been in the cult for five or six years when I was born.
‘It was a Christian missionary program initially and they were very Texan, very Christian.
‘They were already travelers. They wanted to spread the word of God.’
Sharen, her parents and her eight siblings travelled the world with the cult, moving from safe house to safe house – a tactic, Sharen believes, to keep them dependent on the organization.
Sharen was born in the cult’s base in Osaka, Japan, before traveling to a ranch in Dallas, Texas, and then another base in Colorado.
‘We moved so much because it was a psychological method for control and it was a way to avoid the authorities.
Joaquin Phoenix and Rose McGowan are among the celebrities counted as former members who were born into the cult
‘We would be fully clothed in bed with a bag next to us with everything we needed, we would know the car we would have to get to, the safe house we would have to go to.
CELEBRITIES RAISED IN THE CHILDREN OF GOD CULT
By the 1970s, the Children of God had cults all over the world – and some of its youngest members would grow up to become famous.
Rose McGowan was born into the cult, growing up in Italian communes before eventually fleeing with her parents when she was 10.
Oscar-winner Joaquin Phoenix and his late brother River were also raised in the cult, but in communes in South America.
In a 2014 interview, the Joker and Gladiator actor said: ‘I think my parents thought they’d found a community that shared their ideals. Cults rarely advertise themselves as such. It’s usually someone saying, “We’re like-minded people. This is a community,” but I think the moment my parents realized there was something more to it, they got out.’
Musicians Christopher Owens and Susan Justice, authors Lauren Hough and Flor Edwards, as well as Julian Buhring, the first woman to bicycle around the world, were all raised in the cult, but left in later life.
Fleetwood Mac founding member Jeremy Spencer quit the band in 1971 to become a member of the cult.
‘There was constant panic about law enforcers.
‘I remember on the ranch in Dallas there was a group of people ready to put on an act for anyone who came to the door.
‘It was a very nervous way of living.’
Sharen added that she lived in communes with several families and was encouraged to see all cult members as her relatives.
‘We would sleep in a room full of bunkbeds.
‘I didn’t know who my parents were for a long time.
‘In The Family that’s what it is – everyone is an aunt, everyone is a cousin.’
Sharen said that her family fled the commune in Colorado Springs when her father became concerned about the physical abuse of his children.
‘We got into our motor home in the middle of the night and we left the gated area in a quiet fashion.
‘It was an escape.’
Sharen’s family fled to Arizona and stayed with another family who had escaped The Family International.
‘Then we started to become more normal.
‘We were finally treated like we were cared about and seen for the first time.’
But Sharen said her time inside the cult left her with mental health issues which led her to attempt suicide four times and develop an eating disorder.
She said: ‘I’ve had to work really hard to create a life for myself where I can even start to heal from all I have experienced.
‘I now have a house in Colorado with a stunning view of the mountains where my puppy can roam and with a man that loves me.
‘My full-time job is me: I can either grow or decay in my opinion.’
In 2005 the cult made headlines when Berg’s son Ricky Rodriguez recorded a video detailing the childhood sex abuse he suffered within the Family International.
The next day he murdered his former nanny Angela Smith, whom he claimed had abused him as a child inside the cult, before committing suicide.
Who are the Children of God?
The Children of God sect was founded in 1968 by minister David Brandt Berg.
Berg spent much of the 1960s traveling to different churches near his home in with his own kids, singing hymns and ‘spreading the word of God’, before the family to Huntington, California, in 1967 where he set up a coffee shop, and began preaching to customers.
Originally known as Teens of Christ, Berg soon changed the name to Children of God in the hopes of appealing to a wider crowd that included vulnerable youths looking for a support and comfort.
By targeting these groups, Berg was able to quickly expand his ‘religion’ and by 1969, he had more than 50 members in his ‘family’.
Soon after, the Children of God left Huntington and began traveling once again, expanding their ranks to include more than 200 people over the following eight months.
Communes were soon set up around the world, with members moving in together to form their own ‘families’ of Children of God converts – and by 1972, there were 130 ‘communities’ of full-time members around the globe.
The Children of God were asked to give up their jobs and devote themselves full time to preaching Berg’s teachings and proselytizing for additional members – while Berg himself lived in seclusion, sharing his prophecies through written letters known as ‘MO’s Letters’.
But while on the outside, the group claimed to be spreading the world of God – and of Berg – internally, members were encouraged to partake in incestuous sexual relationships with minors.
In 1976, female members began being urged to take part in a practice known as ‘flirty fishing’, which saw them forced to ‘show God’s love’ by having sexual relations with potential members in order to lure them into the group as full-time converts.
Following Berg’s death in October 1994, the group – which had, by then, rebranded itself as The Family of Love, then The Family – was taken over by long-time member Karen Zerby.
In 2004, the group’s name was changed to The Family International.
Hollywood actors Rose McGowan and Joaquin Phoenix have both shared details of their own early childhood experiences in the sect.