Trapped in an apocalyptic sex cult
DRESSED head to toe in black and wielding broomsticks like guns, a band of assailants in helmets burst through the doors shouting and screaming like terrorists.
As instructed, 5-year-old Flor Edwards hid under the stairs with the other children before the invaders hunted them down and pretended to shoot them dead.
After remaining still for a few minutes, the kids rose, trancelike, from the floor - lifting their arms as they mimed flying up to meet Jesus at heaven's gates.
"[The drill] was to prepare us for the apocalypse," Edwards, now 36, told The Post. The routine "practice raids" were staged by adults in the notorious Children of God sect, of which her family were members, living in a compound hidden behind an 8-foot-tall fence in remote Thailand.
"I was terrified," she recalled.
Now a teacher at a community college, Edwards left the scandal-ridden doomsday cult in her early teens and has written about her unconventional childhood in the memoir "Apocalypse Child: A Life in End Times" (Turner Publishing), out Tuesday.
Like Hollywood celebrities Rose McGowan and Joaquin and River Phoenix, who were also raised in the Children of God, Edwards lived in poverty and was programmed to believe that her existence would be snuffed out in 1993 by followers of the Antichrist. "[Up to the age of] 12 was as long as I was supposed to live," she said.
Devotees were taught that, following their inevitable death, they were destined for a blissful afterlife in the Garden of Eden while the rest of the world rotted in hell.
Growing up, Edwards recalled, "Death was heavy on my mind. I'd think about it constantly ... and imagine my future in heaven. I'd think about [how] I'd never become a woman."
It was in the mid-'70s that her father, a geology student, dropped out of University of California, Davis, to follow his five older siblings into the Children of God, which had been gaining traction among young hippies since 1968. The John Lennon-esque philosophy of peace, sharing and free love captured the mood of a generation. Possessions and other material things were considered unnecessary. The cult's leader, David Berg, known as "Father David," lived in seclusion and claimed to be the mouthpiece of God.
"It started out very innocent. A bunch of young hippies joining together ... and trying to do good things," Edwards said.
But over time, things turned dark. Writing to his followers in rambling letters, Berg espoused that America and the West were satanic influences and predicted that a warmongering global government would destroy Earth. Birth control was banned among the Children of God so the members could produce as many "end-time soldiers" as possible to assist in the fight against evil.
"He was this obscure image that we had in our minds. I never saw him, my parents never met him," Edwards said of Father David. "He was very much like a monarch. I remember being scared that if I said anything against him it would be blasphemous."
Edwards' father met her Swedish mother in 1978, at one of the group's communes in Spain. The couple went on to have 12 children, with Edwards and her twin sister, Tamar, the third and fourth of the brood, born in 1981.
Edwards never experienced the cult's reported worst practices - including incest and sex between adults and children. But in the shabby commune houses, where as many as 50 people would live at once, there was little privacy. Even at a tender age, she knew group sex was going on.
"I am fully aware that all the adults are inside engaging in sexual congregation," writes Edwards of one of her earliest memories, from age 3. "I don't know how I know, but I'm certain an orgy is taking place inside."
Edwards also experienced a bit of the group's infamous "Flirty Fishing," which encouraged female followers to recruit new members by "show[ing] God's love" through sex. In one passage, Edwards describes being sent out in a frilly dress to a fishing town near the Thai-Malaysian border. She was nine years old.
At the harbour, where the sailors they saw as potential converts were loading supplies, Edwards, her pregnant mother and her sisters sang Christian songs to them.
"In unison, we gestured open palm to heart and then out to the audience of mostly men, as if to spread God's love generously to anyone who was willing to receive it," she writes. "Sometimes the sailors gifted us with souvenirs from their native lands, and we would accept them, allowing the men to wrap their arms around us and pull us in for a hug or a kiss on the cheek."
The family lived a nomadic existence, moving between compounds on the mysterious, mailed instructions of Father David. He transferred his disciples - which, at one point, numbered 144,000 people around the world - at his whim. Edwards lived in 24 different homes by the time she was 12, experiencing over and over the heartbreak of leaving new friends.
She said that one of the most demeaning aspects of life in the cult was begging for groceries. "I was never hungry but the food we ate was quite bland, as everything we got was for free and we didn't have money for sugar or oil," said Edwards, who would be sent out on food-scouting missions with the other children. "I always felt embarrassed for having to ask for things for free."
"There's something inherently humiliating about needing something from another human being, especially when it was not your choice to be in that position."
Edwards recalled once seeing the movie "Annie" - in which the main character is whisked from an orphanage to a mansion and given a fancy wardrobe and toys - and "wondering what it was like to have everything." Instead, she was ordered by Father David to give up her few possessions, including a beloved doll. "It wasn't my choice to give up my dolly," she said.
As for education, it was practically non-existent. Chores, babysitting and performing marching routines like soldiers took up most of the children's time. But they were occasionally homeschooled in math and geography in between reading and reciting portions of the King James Bible. Outside books, movies and music were largely forbidden. "It was an off-the-grid existence," she said. "And we weren't allowed to be children."
Discipline was left to the strictest and strongest "uncles" in the communes, who would beat the children with paddle boards.
One day, "I was told after lunch that I was scheduled for a date with Uncle Paul at 2pm to receive the dreaded board," Edwards writes of punishment after a perceived infraction she can't even recall. It could have been for something as innocuous as laughing at the "wrong" moment. She continued: "Each of the seven strikes sent me into a deeper state of delirium. 'Please stop,' I begged."
The one time Edwards was confronted with the issue of sexual abuse was when her mother told her that an uncle at the commune had been banished for crimes against his stepdaughter. "Personally, I always felt safe and protected by my parents," she said, revealing that her family usually all shared one bedroom. "Some kids got it a lot worse than me. Some kids were abused, some kids were sexually abused."
When 1993 came and went without the world ending, Father David announced that God had given them an "extension" of their apocalypse deadline. But when he passed away in 1994, members of the cult began leaving in droves. "Once he was gone, the group started to disintegrate," said Edwards.
That same year, when she was 13, the Edwards family was told Father David had had a "revelation" and that it was time for the cult members to return to the West. They would be moving to Chicago.
Leaving Thailand for America was immediately eye-opening. Edwards recalled seeing a water fountain for the first time at the airport. "My brother was there, touching the button, and the water was coming out in an arch," she said. "All of us crowded around it because we had seen nothing like it before ... the fact that this clean water was coming out of this spout was amazing."
Shortly after settling in Chicago, the family moved to California, where Edwards and her sisters lobbied to finally abandon Children of God. "We wanted to go to school," she said. Other children also wanted to leave, but "a lot of parents stayed in the group and said, 'You're on your own.' My parents did what was best for us - take us all out, and stay a family. They left the group for us."
But the adjustment wasn't always smooth. Edwards recalled trying to make friends and "being rejected" and admits to abusing alcohol and running with the "wrong crowd" in high school. She did find her path, however, first earning admission to California State University, Fullerton and then later, the University of California, Riverside.
She later went on to become a writer and educator, coaching underprivileged kids in Los Angeles. Her father also got his degree and became a tenured professor in mathematics, although Edwards chooses not to reveal where her parents are today or what their lives are like, other than to confirm she is still close to them and that they both "loved" the book.
Edwards, who is single, never met Joaquin or River Phoenix or Rose McGowan during her time in the cult, but she did run into the boys' father, John Bottom, when she worked as a yoga teacher in Costa Rica.
"We shared memories of the Children of God and he told me he tried to write a book," she said. "Then he looked at me in a [funny] way and said: 'The book has not yet been written.' I took that as meaning I was supposed to do it."
Edwards said that "my childhood was taken away from me" and that she finds the world to be "an intense place." But, she added, "because the world was always a mystery to me, I want to understand it." She doesn't hold a grudge against her parents for raising her in a cult, either.
"I read memoirs and there's always really horrible parents who beat and abuse the children," said Edwards. "Mine didn't do that. They just made one big mistake - joining the church."
This story was originally published in the New York Post and is republished with permission.