- Jesus Freaks: A True Story of Murder and Madness on the Evangelical Edge
- Publisher: HarperOne
- Year: 2007
- Pages: 256
I distinctly recall reading about the murder/suicide of Ricky Rodriguez in 2005 and thinking “Man, that’s messed up.” I picked up Don Lattin’s Jesus Freaks not it was about the same person, but because it reminded me very much of Jon Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven, which I enjoyed very much. It wasn’t until I turned to the first chapter of Jesus Freaks that I recognized the picture of the desperate-looking Hispanic man wielding a Glock, and the contemporary significance of what I was about to read hit home.
Like Krakauer’s book, Jesus Freaks begins and ends with a grisly murder, but the meat of the book is a careful history of the events (read: cult) that led to it. The cult in question is “The Family” a charismatic Christian organization formed in the 1970s that still exists today, in some form or another, with about 8’000 members1. It was formed by David Berg, the son of an influential female preacher. After a turbulent and somewhat sexually traumatic childhood, Berg by some means formed a cult of personality, reaching out to wayward hippies who managed to be just as comfortable being “high” on Christ as they did on pot or LSD. All the while, Berg was harboring a latent sexual perversion. As his “movement” grew, Berg cemented a sort of inner circle and went coocoo for Cocoa Puffs, replacing his existing wife, Jane Berg, with a 22-year-old Karen Zerby. From then on out, Berg got crazier, and his following grew, though most of them weren’t aware of what went on in the innermost circle.
Like lots of cults, the leadership was shrouded in mystery, which both protected Berg from prosecution and public criticism, and also gave him an aura of power and mystique. Berg and his people globetrotted, jetting from place to place as soon as the local authorities got wind of some of the nasty things that went down. Children born into the inner circle were exposed to sex from an early age (as in, 1 year old—I kid you not), especially the “prince,” Ricky Rodriguez, a child born to Karen Zerby by a waiter on one of the islands they stayed at.
In more ways than one, The Family was a lot like the Fundamental Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, subject to Berg’s whims and perversions. Young children were routinely abused (although the sexual activity of prepubescents surprised me), married as spiritual wives to older men. The new generation of kids, born to the original converts, were indoctrinated, and maybe even spent time at brutal disciplinary camps in Macao or elsewhere.
It’s typical cult fare; the only surprise to me was the disturbing amount of sexual activity that was foisted on extremely young kids—the same abuse that finally led Ricky “Davidito” Rodriguez to stab Sue Kauten (one of his nurses who engaged him sexually) to death in 2005, hoping at some point to find and murder his mother, now the reclusive leader of the church after David Berg finally died in 1994.
Lattin, a veteran reporter on cults and other religious stories, seems to have a great deal of sympathy for Rodriguez, including his eventual murder. I can understand the feeling: despite the immorality of Sue Kauten’s murder, I found myself positively rooting for Ricky to get at his mother, action movie style. But of course the ending is much more sad than that.
A depressing (cautionary?) tale; good if you’ve got the grapes.
- This is Lattin’s figure[↩]