Book Review - Something Somebody Stole

International Journal of Cultic Studies, 3, 2012, 76-78

Book Review - Something Somebody Stole: A Personal Journey to Soul Recovery After 20 Years in a Controversial Religious Cult

By Ray Connolly

Reviewed by Joseph Szimhart

Charleston, SC: CreateSpace. 2011. ISBN-10: 1460922549; ISBN-13: 9781460922545 (paperback), $12.95 ( 223 pages.

The title of this book comes from a line in the Billy Joel song “River of Dreams”: “I’ve been searching for something, taken out of my soul, something I’d never lose, something somebody stole.”

Ray Connolly, the author, sent me a copy of his memoir to review. He self-published the book through CreateSpace, a member of the Amazon group of companies. The book is actually more than a memoir; it offers practical and applicable advice regarding recovery from any aberrant religious group or controversial cult. In the early 1970s, the author encountered and became a zealous member of a new religious group commonly called The Children of God, or CoG. Much later, the group called itself The Family International in an effort not only to reflect its energetic childbearing practices, but also to distance itself from the aggressive sex-cult image that CoG had earned. CoG was founded by David Brandt “Moses” Berg (1919–1994), a charismatic but deranged Christian preacher who attracted thousands of followers during the early years of a burgeoning Jesus revival movement that emerged in the late 1960s. After Connolly was recruited in 1970, he was saddled with the group name Kenaz taken from an Old Testament passage. He would remain deeply involved with CoG, rising to a leadership role during the next 20 years.

CoG was among the most notorious cults mentioned in the press in the 1970s, cults that attracted intervention efforts of various kinds to get members out. CoG was also a prime concern to emerging, so-called anticult organizations, the most significant of which was FREECOG, later reorganized as the Citizens Freedom Foundation. Moses Berg founded the group in 1968 after having been expelled from Christian and Missionary Alliance for aggressive proselytizing and sexual misconduct with a minor. The group spread quickly via communal homes and aggressive proselytizing. By 1982, the group retained 10,000 members; and, according to researcher Bill Bainbridge, from 1974 until 1987, members had sexual contact with 223,989 people while practicing Flirty Fishing (see Family International in Wikipedia). Berg died and was buried in Portugal in 1994; and his wife Karen Zerby, a.k.a. Mama Maria, Queen Maria, or Maria Fontaine, took over the The Family International (TFI). TFI became less radical, with established bylaws forbidding sex with minors. TFI remains fundamentalist in approach to the Bible, with belief in the Last Days as imminent, when Satan will reign through a one-world government, and the faithful will be “raptured” at the end of a period of “tribulation.” Under Zerby’s leadership, TFI practices a form of prophesying that resembles New Age channeling.

Connolly’s narrative begins in the spring of 1970 when he was a student at Holy Cross, a liberal-arts Jesuit college in Massachusetts. The Catholic Connolly was a young man affected by the so-called Age of Aquarius and the sixties’ be-here-now narcissism. His Catholic upbringing hurtled him further into introspection as Catholics worldwide struggled to make personal sense out of the recent changes initiated by the historic Second Vatican Council. Many American Catholic theologians (much to the chagrin of the Vatican) interpreted the new attitude as a church that swung from anti-Modernist, authoritarian rule to promotion of individual conscience in matters of sin, morals, and other religions. Non-Catholics were no longer destined for hell as some hardliners in the church used to believe. Concurrently, the sixties promoted another revolution that some of my hipper friends summarized as We can change the world; all you need is love. Connolly and the hippie generation were into the cults of peace, love, and tie-dye and Who am I really anyway? Many, far too many enhanced the inner quest, as Connolly says, “with various herbal sacraments” thrown in while searching for “clues” to the secrets of life.

David Berg and his fanatical followers of a hip Jesus tapped into this veritable social maelstrom, attracting-recruiting thousands of yearning-for-answers seekers like Connolly. Berg’s cult adapted the tried and effective born-again formula called “the sinner’s prayer” (coupling it with the old King James Bible, of course) to the hippie spirit of free love, and, voilà, Jesus became the ultimate, sexy revolutionary! Who in his righteous hippie mind could resist?

Connolly is careful not to emphasize the sensational sexual aspect of his journey into CoG leadership—too much voyeuristic, anticult ink has been spilled on this lurid topic already. He describes a devotional route, immersing himself in Bible study and missionary work, traveling internationally, and following Berg’s orders. He did, however, fulfill “family” obligations by marrying a member and producing as many kids with her as they could—he includes a picture of him and his wife with 17 children, many of whom I suspect were grandchildren. He mentions in a later chapter that he took on a second wife and had children with her in accord with CoG polygamous doctrine—all biblically blessed, mind you, but they later separated. Also in a later chapter, Connolly directly if gingerly treats the touchy mating activity—that of Flirty Fishing, a practice promoted by Berg to allow women in the cult, married or not, to court and have sex with non-CoG men for purposes of both recruitment and donations.

Berg had a powerful charismatic appeal, but only if you believed in him as a prophet. His primary means of prophecy came through a barrage of some 3,000 “Mo Letters” (he was Moses David) that served as directives to leaders and members. These missives soon became gospel for The Family, so much so that Connolly recalls one of Berg’s personal aids saying after 1978, “I would have been a great Jonestowner. If Mo says, ‘Drink the Kool-Aid,’ I drink the Kool-Aid!”

With 20 years of recovery behind him, Connolly writes of his cult experience with a witty sense of humor and mature humility. For example, in chapter 6 (“Hotel California”), the author has a crisis when he learns that a close friend in the group, who had been ranked third in position behind the “king and queen” (Mo and partner Maria), has been kicked out. Connolly had to fly from India to France for a leadership meeting as a result. Berg at the time was hiding in France to avoid potential prosecution—in his narcissistic view, persecution. Connolly writes,

As it turned out, I was to share a by-the-week apartment with Mo’s daughter Faithy [sic] and Peruvian Juan, her mate at the time. They were just returning from a visit with Colonel Mu’ammar Gaddafi in Libya. (Mo had attempted to flatter his way into Gaddafi’s good graces, with some temporary success. He seemed to have felt a certain maverick camaraderie with the colonel, and related to his bombastic, anti-Western approach to politics. It has a sort of Alice in Wonderland meets Salvador Dali feel to it, doesn’t it?) (p. 50)

The value of this book beyond a good insider’s view of Berg’s cult is in how Connolly treats his awakening to just how delusional his entire religious experience had become. He offers good descriptions about his effort to unravel the mess, with insights from various scholars and therapists. The latter chapters serve as a manual for recovery, especially for ex-members of aberrant Bible cults. Connolly, his wife, and children by that wife somehow emerged from the cult relatively intact. His family’s adjustment was not without serious problems or tragedy. But I found it remarkable that his family survived as well as it did—testament to the day-to-day goodness in their core human spirit, an identity Connolly and his wife never lost despite having served a false prophet for so long in unstable circumstances.

The obvious weakness of such a book for the social scientist is its nature—an honest story organized from memory by one witness. Honesty is not necessarily truth or fact. When some of the events happened is vague. There is no index, so cross-referencing can be tedious unless the reader takes copious notes along the way. But the strength of the book goes beyond mere honesty because it is strength of perspective gained from 20 years of reflection and hard work. Connolly hooked up with the small but intense program at MeadowHaven in Massachusetts, founded by cult specialists Bob Pardon and Judy Pardon, whose reputations in the cult-recovery field are solid. Connelly offers several chapters that examine how cults twist scriptures from the Bible to augment selfish agendas. Chapter 17, “This is Your Brain on Pain,” does a credible job to bring basics of neurological science into the recovery picture. His effort to learn gave Connolly a very real and sophisticated advantage over the average ex-member who merely moves on with his life, or tries to (as if divorce after 20 years of marriage resolves itself without psychological struggle).

Connolly dedicates the book to daughters Aimee and Rebecca. Aimee was on the Dean’s list at a college when she died tragically at age 19 in a traffic accident in 1997. Connolly and his wife had been out of the group a mere 6 years when her death seriously rocked them emotionally, but they held on for their family. Their third daughter Rebecca struggled with severe behavior problems resulting from a mood disorder during her teens and into young adulthood. Her parents supported her through several hospitalizations and her runaway behaviors. “Bec” passed away under tragic circumstances at age 23. Through it all, Connolly never lost his faith in Christ; but he did mature in that faith as he came to terms with the support that modern science and psychology offer to augment a healthy spirituality. After shopping around for many years, Connolly and his wife settled into a small, mainline denominational church with a liturgical tradition, the kind we might characterize as gracefully normal compared to the hyperactive religiosity of many new religious movements, one that allows for plenty of freedom in one’s silent and personal devotion within a solid and more democratic teaching tradition.

International Journal of Cultic Studies ■ Vol. 3, 2012