Family Ties

Ex-members of a cult that once advocated sex between adults and children want the group's leaders exposed and punished

In late September, a group of middle-aged and young adults walked into Reliant Center to minister to Hurricane Katrina evacuees.

They were part of an organization called The Family International, which, in the 1980s, advocated sex between adults and children. The evacuees didn't know it. The Red Cross didn't know it. And the younger members of the group probably didn't know it, either.

The Family claims a membership of 12,000 people in 100 different countries. Members mix Christian fundamentalism with the words of their own prophet, founder David Berg, who died in 1994. Today's members say they establish schools in impoverished countries, rehabilitate drug addicts and gang members, and raise money for families uprooted by natural disasters.

David Berg's sexual obsessions became Family 
David Berg's sexual obsessions became Family doctrine.
Berg's daughter, Faith Berg Fischer, was a longtime 
Family leader.
Berg's daughter, Faith Berg Fischer, was a longtime Family leader.

This was the group known in the 1970s for "Flirty Fishing," where young women were told to prostitute themselves for converts and cash. Their leader later preached the virtues of pedophilia.

While present-day Family members say the Family abolished Flirty Fishing and purged illicit literature in the 1980s, ex-members say the group's leaders are responsible for the physical and sexual abuse they suffered as kids. Several key members live in Texas.

"This is way beyond my personal vendetta against any one person who beat the crap out of me," ex-member Andrew Stone says from his home in Austin. "This is essentially an organization that to this day is still composed of people who committed crimes against children. And is still living in the lap of luxury, is still taking in money from other sources…and using it to live with impunity until the day they die. And that's just fucking wrong."

Stone, 30, is part of the "second generation" -- those born into the Family. This population, now in their twenties and thirties, is speaking out against the first generation. In many instances, they are speaking out against parents and siblings they left behind.

With the help of leaked internal documents, these ex-members are attempting to show that the Family's core beliefs are different from its public face.

Based in San Diego, but with publishing and video arms throughout the world, the Family is good at keeping secrets. It has had decades of practice. Members shun secular media, and what happens in the System (the Family's name for the outside world) is explained in an us-versus-them manner. According to internal Family documents, America is a "whore," and Katrina was God's vengeance upon the bacchanalian spirit of New Orleans. That knowledge is selah, meaning it's just for the Family. (This application of selah is different from its use in the Old Testament, the exact translation of which is disputed.)

Last January, Ricky Rodriguez, the former heir to the Family's throne, killed another member and himself. Rodriguez's childhood sexual abuse was documented in a book intended as a Family child-rearing manual (see "Bedtime Stories"). The Story of Davidito described Rodriguez, a.k.a. Davidito, being fellated by his nanny at age three. Other activities at this age included tweaking his nanny's nipples and dry-humping a three-year-old girl. The nanny's last known address is a Family home in Houston.

Rodriguez was once the chosen one, but outside the Family he was a ghost. Years of living a nomadic, insular, brainwashed existence set him up for failure. Haunted by memories of his own abuse and that of so many of his friends, the 29-year-old Rodriguez planned to kill his mother, current Family leader Karen Zerby. But Rodriguez settled for Family member Angela Smith instead. In January, he invited her over to his Tucson apartment for dinner, killed her, then drove to a small California town, where he put a bullet in his head.

The Family says ex-members drove Ricky to madness by filling his mind with false memories.

Unfortunately for the Family, Rodriguez had the warped sense to make a videotape of his crossover from victim to vigilante. Sitting at a table in his Spartan apartment, pointing to a military-grade knife and a .40-caliber Glock on the table before him, Rodriguez talked about the abuse he endured at the hands of Zerby and her second husband, fellow Family leader Peter Amsterdam.

Ricky looked straight into the camera and said, "The goal is to bring down those sick fuckers -- Mama and Peter. My own mother! That evil little cunt. Goddamn! How can you do that to kids? How can you do that to kids and sleep at night?"

He was talking about the second-generation Family members who have complained of sexual and physical abuse in Family-run compounds in the 1980s.

Shortly after Rodriguez's death, a wave of second-generation members who left the Family gathered on Web sites to expose their alleged abusers.

They tracked down names, addresses and photographs of the men and women who they claimed destroyed their childhood. On, they posted dozens of pages of internal Family memos detailing the sadistic treatment allegedly meted out to them. On, which claims more than 3,000 registered users, ex-members talk about how they are trying to put their lives back together. San Francisco Chronicle reporter Don Lattin, who is writing a book about the Family, estimates the number of disgruntled ex-second-generation members in the low thousands. The Houston Press conducted phone and e-mail interviews with 11 former first- and second-generation members. Most requested anonymity, for the sake of their spouses and children, or out of fear that they'd be hounded by current members. Several others refused to be interviewed, saying they were still too traumatized to talk about their experiences.

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