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Jesus Freaks: A True Story of Murder and Madness on the Evangelical Edge
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Jesus Freaks: A True Story of Murder and Madness on the Evangelical Edge

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by Don Lattin

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In the tradition of Jon Krakauer's Under the Banner of Heaven, Don Lattin's Jesus Freaks is the story of a shocking pilgrimage of revenge that left two people dead and shed new light on The Family International, one of the most controversial religious movements to emerge from the spiritual turmoil of the sixties and seventies.

Some say The Family


In the tradition of Jon Krakauer's Under the Banner of Heaven, Don Lattin's Jesus Freaks is the story of a shocking pilgrimage of revenge that left two people dead and shed new light on The Family International, one of the most controversial religious movements to emerge from the spiritual turmoil of the sixties and seventies.

Some say The Family International—previously known as the Children of God—began with the best intentions. But their sexual and spiritual excesses soon forced them to go underground and follow a dark and dangerous path. Their charismatic leader, David "Moses" Berg, preached a radical critique of the piety and hypocrisy of mainstream Christianity. But Berg's message quickly devolved into its own web of lies. He lusted for power and unlimited access to female members of his flock—including young girls and teenagers—and became a drunken tyrant, setting up re-indoctrination camps around the world for rebellious teenagers under his control.

Thousands of children raised in The Family would defect and try to live normal lives, but the prophet's heir apparent, Ricky "Davidito" Rodriguez, was unable to either bear the excesses of the cult or fit into normal society. Sexually and emotionally abused as a child, Ricky left the fold and began a crusade to destroy the only family he ever knew, including a plot to kill his own mother.

Veteran journalist Don Lattin has written a powerful, engrossing book about this uniquely American tragedy. Jesus Freaks is a cautionary tale for those who fail to question the prophesies and proclamations of anyone who claims to speak for God.

Editorial Reviews

“Eminently readable. A treasure trove for those curious about aberrant cultic enterprises.”
“Don Lattin deserves enormous credit for resaerching the story of Berg and The Family.”
Publishers Weekly

In January 2005, Ricky Rodriguez stabbed a woman to death and then fled the scene of the crime, finally shooting himself in the California desert. Rodriguez was a high-profile ex-member of the Children of God, also called the Family, a controversial hippie cult of the 1970s that had spiraled into aberrant sexual behaviors and other disconcerting practices. Rodriguez was seeking revenge for the sexual abuse that his murder victim and others had committed against him when he was a child (the cult had gone so far as to record its crimes in a bizarre book that glibly described-and provided photographic evidence of-sexual relations between adults and children). Lattin, who covered the religion beat for the San Francisco Chronicle, offers an arresting if uneven account of the Family. He begins by arguing that the cult is best understood in the context of American evangelicalism, and does some strong investigation into the founder's ancestry to prove this point. But he does not sustain these threads throughout the book, which becomes a typical true crime tale. Some aspects of the Family, like "flirty fishing" (sacred prostitution), are carefully researched, while others (like a journalistic account of how the cult funded itself so well on a global scale) are underreported. (Oct.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Library Journal

In 2005, Angela Smith was stabbed to death in Arizona. Hours later the killer took his own life. He was Ricky Rodriguez, formerly known as Davidito, the so-called Prince of the religious cult the Children of God (aka the Family). Smith was an influential member of the cult who had helped raise Davidito. Journalist Lattin (Following Our Bliss), who covered the Family for the San Francisco Chronicle, uses interviews with current and former Family members and excerpts from Family publications to describe the activities of "a band of Jesus freaks that went dangerously awry." Founded in the 1960s by David "Moses" Berg, the movement was characterized by free love and rigid discipline. Berg, the End Prophet, was accused by Rodriguez (his adopted son) and others of methodically sexually abusing the Family's children. Marriages between generations were encouraged, and young women were instructed to practice "flirty fishing" to recruit new members. The psychological toll on the second generation of Family members was heavy and resulted in many suicides. Lattin uses Rodriguez's quest for revenge as his focal point but often gets distracted, introducing too many minor figures and overemphasizing the sexual exploits of Berg and other leaders. Nevertheless, this is a valuable exposé, with well-documented sources, of a fringe group that is still active worldwide. Lattin also provides a capsule history of similar countercultural religious movements. The book, which reads like a suspense novel, will be in demand at public libraries but is also recommended for sociology of religion collections in academic libraries.
—Thomas A. Karel

Kirkus Reviews
Expose of the Family International cult, aka Children of God, Teens for Christ or Family of Love. Centering his story on a 2005 murder-suicide which punctuated the cult's dysfunction and catapulted it to the prime-time spotlight, religion journalist Lattin provides a chilling look into this secretive society. Essentially a perverted (in more ways than one) expression of the "Jesus freak" movement of the late 1960s, the Family-founded by David "Moses" Berg, whose mother was a radio evangelist and itinerant preacher-eventually grew to several thousand members across the globe. Controlled by Berg and his inner circle, the Family held complete power over its members. The most damning aspect of the cult's theology was its view of sex, which fostered sexual relations between adults and children, as well as "flirty fishing," which encouraged female members to exploit their sexuality to gain converts or material needs for the Family. Due to shady business dealings, accusations of pedophilia and the complaints of angry parents of young people who had joined the cult, the inner core was forced to move from one country to another, escaping authorities along the way. Lattin tells the story of Ricky "Davidito" Rodriguez, an early child of that circle who was molested throughout his childhood and suffered severe emotional abuse through the cult, from which he broke away in his 20s. Unable to cope with his past, he murdered his former nanny and then took his own life-one of 25 suicides attributed to the Family. His story typifies the experiences of many children born to the Family, though Lattin points out that some members of the group have not been tainted by such activities. Some sections of thebook-especially those involving the reprehensible treatment of children-are difficult to read, but the author does a service by making clear the horrible consequences that can result from the influence of one madman. Riveting exploration of one example of religion gone terribly wrong.

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Jesus Freaks

A True Story of Murder and Madness on the Evangelical Edge
By Don Lattin

HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.

Copyright © 2007 Don Lattin
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780061118043

Chapter One

Revenge of the Savior

Near the Arizona/California State Line
January 8, 2005—Westbound on Interstate 10

Prepare to stop! Prepare to Stop! Prepare to Stop! Ricky eased off the accelerator when he saw the flashing yellow signs. He'd been jamming it since he fled Tucson earlier that night and headed out toward California on Interstate 10. Now, approaching the state line, Ricky slowed down at the inspection gate, steering his silver Chevy Cavalier toward two open lanes on the left. It looked like easy passage for regular automobile traffic. Then he glanced down at the bloodied pants crumpled on the floor by the front passenger seat. Should he stop and stash the incriminating evidence? Would his Washington plates make his car more likely to be searched than vehicles returning with California tags? What should he do? Stopping to hide the bloody evidence might attract more attention than going with the flow and taking his chances. None of the cars in the open lanes were being checked. Ricky eased down on the brakes and slowed the four-door sedan into the unmanned gate, stopping just long enough to read a sign telling him there was "No Inspection Today"and to "Proceed with Caution."

It was too late for that—too late for caution. Ricky had already begun his crusade. Earlier that evening, back in Tucson, he'd slashed the throat of his first victim, Sue Kauten, who as a young woman had helped raise the Prophet Prince and was one of several adult women who engaged in sex play with the young boy.

That was decades ago. On this night, Ricky was just a few weeks shy of his thirtieth birthday. He'd been out of the cult for four years, but he couldn't shake his past—the sexual abuse, pressure to be perfect, and all the twisted prophecies of his messianic fate. No one but he could find his mother and bring her to justice. No one but he could make her pay for all the lives she and that other monster, David Brandt Berg, had destroyed over the past three decades. The hard part was finding his mother. Her whereabouts were the most closely guarded secret in The Family. There were recent rumors that his mother was back in the states—hiding out somewhere in New Mexico, or maybe California.

His mother, Karen Elva Zerby, grew up in Tucson and had been back to Arizona a couple times to visit her aging parents. In the past, in her role as his mother's personal secretary, Sue was part of an advance team sent ahead to make sure it was safe for Zerby to visit. Ricky knew his mother would be back someday, so he moved to the Arizona desert to wait for that day. His break came on Christmas Day 2004, when Ricky learned Sue would be visiting Tucson the first weekend in January. Sue would surely know how to find his mother, and Ricky was ready to do whatever it took to extract that information.

Crossing the border into California, Ricky glanced again at the bloodied pants on the floor of his car. It had been harder than he thought to kill another human being. It had been three hours since he left Sue Kauten's body on the floor of his Tucson apartment and ran out to his car. His mind was still racing, but his body was giving out. At least he'd made it to California. It was time to stop, time to polish off that case of Heineken and get up the courage to make his next move.

Proceeding west on the darkened freeway, Ricky saw that the next exit was "Lovekin Blvd/Blythe." From the highway, Blythe looks like any other pit stop on the way into southern California. There's a rise in the roadway just before the Lovekin Boulevard off-ramp, a gentle crest that reveals a new horizon. Filling the night sky above the town are the golden arches of McDonald's, the blue and yellow sphere of Motel 6, the red and yellow rectangle of Denny's, the orange and black Union-76 ball, a rotating bucket of the Colonel's chicken, and the latest logo to join this crowded field of corporate totems—the green goddess of Starbucks. These familiar symbols are stuck atop poles five stories tall, two to three times higher than any building in Blythe, a struggling farm town in the Palo Verde Valley, a patch of green on the edge of the Mojave Desert.

All Ricky wanted was a bath and those beers. He took the Lovekin Boulevard off-ramp and pulled into the Holiday Inn Express, which offered an indoor pool and free HBO.

Ricky loved movies, especially action flicks and martial arts films. His favorite movie was Boondock Saints, a notorious box office flop and cult favorite. Ricky's boss back in Tucson had recommended the film but had no idea how Ricky would take its violent, messianic message to heart.

Boondock Saints is the story of Connor and Murphy McManus, two Irish brothers living in a tough South Boston neighborhood. Fed up with a gang of sadistic Russian mobsters muscling into their part of town, the young men embark on a bloody crusade to rid their streets of this imported evil. In the opening scene, the McManus brothers kneel in a back pew of their parish church. It's St. Patrick's Day. While a young visiting priest recites the Lord's Prayer, urging forgiveness against those who trespass against us, the two brothers hear another voice of God, an Old Testament prayer calling out for righteous vengeance.

"Oh Lord, here's my flashing sword which mine hand will take hold in judgment," says the angry voice of God. "I will take vengeance upon mine enemies. Oh, Lord, raise me up to thy right hand and count me among thy saints."

Connor and Murphy (played by Sean Patrick Flanery and Norman Reedus) shock the congregation by marching up to the altar in the middle of the priest's homily. The sermon recounts the demise of a woman stabbed to death in the street nearly thirty years ago. "She cried out for help," the priest recalled, "time and time again, but no person answered her calls. Though many saw, no one so much as called the police. They all just watched as she was stabbed to death in broad daylight. They watched as her assailant walked away."


Excerpted from Jesus Freaks by Don Lattin Copyright © 2007 by Don Lattin. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Don Lattin is one of the nation's leading journalists covering alternative and mainstream religious movements and figures in America. His work has appeared in dozens of U.S. magazines and newspapers, including the San Francisco Chronicle, where he covered the religion beat for nearly two decades. Lattin has also worked as a consultant and commentator for Dateline, Primetime, Good Morning America, Nightline, Anderson Cooper 360, and PBS's Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly. He is the author of Jesus Freaks: A True Story of Murder and Madness on the Evangelical Edge, and Following Our Bliss: How the Spiritual Ideals of the Sixties Shape Our Lives Today, and is the coauthor of Shopping for Faith: American Religion in the New Millennium.

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Jesus Freaks: A True Story of Murder and Madness on the Evangelical Edge 3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
For all of the tremendous following they are purported to have had, I was surprised to learn I never heard of this religious cult-group before picking up the book. I have to agree with Publisher's Weekly's note that there was little information on how the group managed to raise such large sums of money in order for the leadership to live so well. I also would have liked to know a little more about some of the positive things this cult has funded. This would help better explain why so many people worked for and stayed in the organization for so long. Instead, the author chose to focus almost exclusively on the deviant sexual behavior of the group's inner circle. While this makes for titillating reading, it doesn't explain how so many people were so easily sucked in and continued to stay there. My guess is that whenever any organization becomes so widespread, most of the regular soldiers are left out of the loop. Still, it was an interesting read and a very sad tale about the effects of child abuse.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I had originally bought this book because I had read one with the same place, written by a girl raised in this "family".I wanted to see if the two books were similar. The telling about what went on in the family was identicle. It's really odd to know that cults like this exist. I'd sure recommend reading this if looking for a true story about cults. The other book I read was "Not Without My Sister".
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