A woman, Petra Velzeboer, has revealed what she and other kids passed through growing up in the notorious ‘Children of God’ cult.
Throughout her childhood, Petra said she lived in Brazil, Belgium, Africa and Russia, under the watchful eye of cult leader David Berg, whom Petra and her siblings were told to call ‘grandpa’, despite never meeting him before his death when Petra was 13 years old.
‘If you think about growing up, pretty much every three years was some deadline for when the world was going to end or Armageddon was going to show up.’ Petra told Metro UK.
Public spanking with paddles or belts were commonplace, she claims, as were enforced silence restrictions, periods of isolation, and propositions by older men for ‘free sex’.
‘By the time I was 10 years old, he had pretty much gone from being on the frontline into hiding,’ she says.
‘The narrative for us was he needed to be able to listen to God’s voice, but the reality is police were investigating certain homes and communities and investigating child abuse allegations.’
While David Berg was investigated for these crimes, he was never charged or convicted with any offences before his death.
Berg’s theory, and the foundations of the cult’s birth in 1968, was that ‘a generation protected from the influences of groupthink would be protected from being moulded into society’s view of what life should be and would be able to think for themselves’.
The cult, which has since rebranded as The Family International, was all that Petra knew for the first 22 years of her life.
The Family International still operates in 70 countries globally, though the organisation said it ‘disassembled [its] previous organisational structure’ in 2010 and ‘currently functions as a small online network of approximately 1,300 people’.
But Petra, now 41, and a mental health advocate is talking about the ‘regular indoctrination’ she and her family experienced.
‘Every song had lyrics that had their messaging in it saying “God’s the truth” and we would read letters or words from the cult leader,’ she says.
‘Every bit of propaganda, everything we read, every bit of literature, comic books, music, story books, was influenced by him and was often his narration, his voice, his prophecy and instruction.
‘So by the time you’re saying “oh I don’t know about this” or “this doesn’t feel right”, you already have the counter argument in your brain, because it’s been there from birth.’
As Petra says in her book, Begin With You, she and her family ‘traded one groupthink for another’ and it’s why, as a mental health practitioner today, she can’t stress enough the importance of independent thinking.
In Petra’s memoir she recalls events from life inside the cult, plus the ‘double-life’ she started leading outside of it, both of which left her with complex PTSD.
In her teens and early twenties she lived what she describes as a ‘hedonistic’ lifestyle of excessive drinking and drug use, getting arrested, experiencing extreme sexual violence and attempting to take her own life at 26, after leaving the cult at 22 due to getting pregnant with her first child.
Petra says: ‘What’s interesting is seeing the parallels between cult life and how we survive toxic behaviour. What I see in the corporate world is people doing similar things like giving up their own values in favour of survival and getting paid.’
Falling pregnant with her son gave her the final push she needed to leave the cult.
‘People often ask, “how did you escape?” As if it were a prison or walls or a compound and it’s nothing like that when it’s these sorts of communities. It’s more the prison of your mind,’ she says.
‘You could leave at any time, and they would tell you so, but then in the messaging you would receive daily, it was people who left, God punished, so if bad things happened to them it’s because they weren’t listening, which would make people afraid of leaving’.
‘For me and my siblings, we didn’t go to school, we didn’t have an education, we thought the world was going to end imminently, so everything out there was painted as other or evil.
‘It was a big leap in your mind to betray it and for many people they were ostracised by their own parents and support networks and would struggle in a big way once they left that safety net.’
When she left at 22, Petra moved in with her partner in London and cut contact with her family for a while. Transitioning to life outside the cult was difficult, which increased her depression and alcohol addiction.
‘You have the shock of “what this isn’t how other people think? My parents lied to me?” and then there’s depression and anger before you get to that acceptance,’ Petra says.
‘I think expression in the right way is key for your mental health,’ says Petra.
‘It can be deeply personal like art which can help you – journaling, writing – all these things can help you go “oh that’s what I think”.