At the start of Bexy Cameron’s jaw-dropping memoir, she writes that when strangers hear she grew up in a cult, they say to her, “Tell me everything”. Even having read the book, I have the exact same response.
Cameron (38) lives in London, and we’re on a Zoom call together. Cult Following, My Escape and Return to the Children of God, is her astonishing and disturbing story of being one of 11 siblings who grew up in this cult. It’s also rage-inducing. Consenting adults deciding to join cults and adhere to a particular way of life is one thing. The children that are dragged into cults with their parents, or born into them, as Cameron and her siblings were, have no choice.
Where to begin? The fact that children in the Children of God were treated as slave labour for the adults? Or that they were not educated? Or that they were frequently hungry? Or that sexual abuse was prevalent? Or that they were raised to believe they would die when teenagers, in the End Times of Armageddon?
“Believing we would die in the ‘End Times’ was our ordinary,” Cameron explains. “Knowing that started to happen before I could even speak. It was everywhere, it was our water, our air. You pick it up in your conscious and subconscious at the same time.
“We were the workforce in the cult. We were the structure. We were the foundation of what kept that group going. We were worker bees, at nine, ten, eleven years, running these communes. It definitely makes you wonder why did the adults have so many kids? Was it because we were a gift from God or because we were useful?”
The Children of God cult had more than 10,000 members when Cameron’s family were in it. The family moved around the world with the cult, from India to Africa and Britain. Cameron’s parents, from whom she is estranged, remain in it.
“I think people have this idea that it is vulnerable people who join cults, who are on the spectrum, or are addicts. But it is usually middle-class white people, who tend to be quite well educated who are looking for something else,” she says. “My parents met on a psychiatric ward, but because they were studying medicine, not because they were there as patients.”
The world Cameron describes growing up in sounds fictional, it was so dystopian. The cult was led by an American named David Berg, now dead, who is a distressingly textbook example of a man transfixed with his own power, motivated by absolute control over those who joined him. There were different communes around the world, and he led them remotely.
Berg called himself Moses David, and had many sexual partners in the cult. He encouraged young girls and women to have sex with strangers, in an enterprise he called “flirty fishing”; with the bizarre intention of trying to save these men’s souls. He both glorified and normalised rape. He forbade contraception. Women were inferior beings. Incest was common.
At one point, when the cult was preparing for a visit from a journalist, Cameron writes matter-of-factly: “We had a quiz in a media training session the other day and one of the girls said she had sex with her dad in front of everyone.”
“Sex in the cult is not the focus of the book, but I definitely don’t want to minimize the damaging effect it had on my generation of kids growing up in it,” Cameron tells me. “We grew up with a sexual predator as the leader. We grew up with horrendous imagery and horrendous ideas about women’s place within the sexual world and our own places in it; that we girls should be sacrificial.
“A lot of children who left the Children of God thought that the only thing they had of any worth was to sell themselves. We weren’t educated. We didn’t have anything to fall back on. I am friendly with girls I grew up with, who became sex workers. If that’s a choice you make with an adult mind, that’s absolutely fine, but if you have been told as a child it is the only thing that you have of any worth, it becomes quite a different matter.”
In the cult, Cameron’s protectors were not adults but her fellow siblings. They worked as a pack, the older ones trying to keep the younger ones safe. Even so, there was horrific physical and psychological abuse. They were beaten frequently. Aged 10, Cameron was forced to be silent for an entire year as a punishment: nobody spoke to her, or acknowledged her. They ate horse feed. They worked in the fields. They wore rags.
“How was this cult legal?” I ask
“The group did become outlawed in a few different countries. That is why they ended up changing their name and rebranding a few times,” Cameron says. “It is quite easy to do a rebrand.”
She also says that there are at least 500 different cults operating right now in Britain.
The cult members were always moving around. After living in India and Africa, the Camerons lived in different locations in Britain. They lived in half-derelict houses, in out of season damp holiday camps, moving on when police raided them. They called people not in their cult “Systemites”; those who live within a system, ie, society.
At what point did Cameron realise other children went to school, and they didn’t have to work and pray all day? It turns out, not for a long time.
“Because we didn’t have things like television giving us alternative messages, and we didn’t have friends outside the group to interact with, I don’t ever remember sitting and comparing myself to other kids. The only time I started doing it was when I hit puberty and those teenagers were outside the front door and they were shouting ‘Sex Cult Girl’ at me.”
Cameron looked at her fellow teenagers, who lived in normal homes, and realised they were dressed differently; one of the first realisations that people her own age lived different lives, and were not conditioned to believe they would die imminently.
At 15, she ran away from her family and the cult. Her extraordinary resilience helped her survive, although she doesn’t write about those key years between 15 and 27. She now directs commercials, short documentaries and short films: a testament to the talent of a person who never received any formal education.
“I’ve done a lot of therapy,” she says, wryly. “There will always be some things rattling round some part of my subconscious.” As an adult, she finally confronted her parents about the life they had forced on her and her siblings as children. They have not met since. “My parents being in my realm remind me of everything I don’t want to think about: a reminder of a lot of stuff that is best to not have in my everyday.”
Intercut with Cameron’s gripping story of growing up in the Children of God are equally disturbing chapters where, as an adult, she decides to visit contemporary cults in the US. Her focus is cults with children in them, such as the Twelve Tribes, because she wants to see if children are still vulnerable. She found that they are.
The US trip to visit cults starts out as a possible documentary project – and she gains access due to her own background in cults – but there are too many difficulties around access and filming. It’s also understandably a traumatic experience for Cameron: she longed for rescue as a child, and she can’t now rescue these children she meets.
“We’re not Child Services, and corporal punishment is legal in the States,” her fellow production colleague reminds her, when Cameron confesses to wanting to gather up the abused children they have met and take them away with them on their truck. For the reader, it is yet another dreadful example of the continuing vulnerability of children in cults that continue to exist.
So that documentary won’t be made. But there is going to be a movie about her own life.
"When I wrote the outline of the book, it got sent out to a few production companies and Dakota Johnson and her production company picked it up," she says. So Dakota Johnson will play Bexy Cameron. "How crazy is that?"
Less crazy than the story of Cameron’s own life, frankly.
Cult Following; My Escape and Return to the Children of God, by Bexy Cameron, is published by Manilla Press