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Woman Born Into The Family International Cult Shares Her Story

Woman Born Into The Family International Cult Shares Her Story

Sharen Seitz has shared her experiences of life in the Family International cult.

Joanna Freedman

Joanna Freedman

A woman who was born into the Family International commune has shared the horrific abuse and bizarre practices she was subjected to in her time there.

Sharen Seitz, 33, of Boulder, Colorado, has recalled painful memories of child abuse at the hands of the cult, and looked back on the hours she spent locked in a closet and forced to memorise bible passages, for disobeying simple orders.

The cult - which celebrities Joaquin Phoenix and Rose McGowan were also once part of - was first founded in 1968 by preacher David Brandt Berg and was originally known as Teens of Christ, and later, Children of God.

Looking back on her time there, Sharen said she wasn't even aware who her parents were at first, as the cult encouraged her to view all members as family.She lived within a group of communes, known as 'colonies,' consisting of runaway hippies looking for spiritual salvation and happiness with a total distrust of the outside world.

Sharen left the cult after her father realised the sexual abuse that was going on (

One memory she has is visiting old people's homes, restaurants and fire stations with other cult children dressed in identical outfits and performing feel-good songs in order to gather donations to fund their practices - something known as 'witnessing.'

Sharen explains: "This particular cult was an abusive take on Christian evangelism.

"It started out as missionary work which reeled a lot of people in."

The society quickly grew using a technique that Berg termed "flirty fishing" where he would order females in the group to recruit men by engaging in sexual activities with them.

In 1974, the New York attorney general's office described the group as a 'cult' for the first time.During her time in the cult, Sharen remembers the cruel treatment she endured for being 'disobedient'.

For instance, the aspiring writer and former model says she experienced frequent beatings and was once battered with a wooden board for tripping another girl up.

"When I was about five, I was tying up my shoes and I accidentally tripped someone up," she says.

"I was taken into a laundry room and a man got a very large wooden board and hit me five times on my back and on my butt.

"We would have to have mass baths with multiple kids and I remember not sitting down.

"I turned around and my sister saw that I was black and blue from my mid thighs to my back.

"As a punishment, we would be locked in a closet and forced to memorise the Bible. By the time I was nine, I knew most of the Bible."

She also details how the communes were extremely sexually liberal, and most men had more than one wife. But beyond this, there was much darker issues at play.

The FBI investigated the communes for allegations of incest, child abuse and rape.

Famously, in 2005 the cult made headlines when Berg's son Ricky Rodriguez recorded a video detailing the childhood sex abuse he suffered within the Family International.

The next day he murdered his former nanny Angela Smith, whom he claimed had abused him as a child inside the cult, before dying by suicide.

Sharen reflects: "We were taught that sex was sharing God's love with people. Jeremy Spencer joined the cult and he became a big deal.

"He wrote songs for the cult and they were taught to us. We would sit on 'the cloud' - a big fluffy blanket - and learn songs.

"They had colouring books with pictures of Jesus and then as you got older there were pictures of older men in bed with children with talk bubbles that said 'God loves you, let me show you that'."

Although Sharen says she endured physical abuse at the hands of cult members, fortunately she cannot recall being sexually abused.

"There was a lot of physical abuse and a lot of emotional abuse," she said. "There is a chunk of my memories from the age of three to five that are missing.

"My sister says she was aware that I would see naked people having sex.

Rose McGowan and Joaquin Phoenix both also fled the cult in their childhood (

"But it's pretty common to block these things out."Sharen's parents - who were given the names David and Mary Psalms by the cult - apparently got involved at first because they "wanted to spread the word of God".

She, her parents and her eight siblings travelled the world with Family International, moving from safe house to safe house - a tactic, Sharen believes, was implemented to keep them dependent on the organisation.

She was born in the cult's base in Osaka, Japan, before traveling to a ranch in Dallas, Texas, and then another base in Colorado.

"We would be fully clothed in bed with a bag next to us with everything we needed, we would know the car we would have to get to, the safe house we would have to go to," she says.

"There was constant panic about law enforcers. I remember on the ranch in Dallas there was a group of people ready to put on an act for anyone who came to the door.

"It was a very nervous way of living."

Seeing as David and Mary had been a part of the commune for over half a decade before she was born, it was a big move, then, when they decided to flee with her and her siblings when she turned six years old.

It's a story which the likes of Rose McGowan and Joaquin Phoenix also echo. Rose was born into the cult's commune in Florence, Italy, before her family fled when she was nine.

Meanwhile, Joaquin and River Phoenix likewise were part of the Children of God's branch in Venezuela before the family escaped, aboard a cargo ship to Miami.

Looking back on the moment she left the commune, Sharen said that her family fled their Colorado Springs base when her father became concerned about the physical abuse of his children.

"We got into our motor home in the middle of the night and we left the gated area in a quiet fashion.

"It was an escape."

Sharen's family moved to Arizona and stayed with another family who had escaped The Family International.

"Then we started to become more normal," she recalls. "We were finally treated like we were cared about and seen for the first time."

Despite being freed, Sharen still faced the mental health impact of what she had been subjected to, and in the wake of her escape, she attempted suicide four times and developed an eating disorder.

Thankfully, she is now in a better place, but she acknowledges the struggles will never leave her.

Sharen is now prioritising herself and her mental health (

"I've had to work really hard to create a life for myself where I can even start to heal from all I have experienced," she explains.

"I now have a house in Colorado with a stunning view of the mountains where my puppy can roam and with a man that loves me.

"My full-time job is me: I can either grow or decay in my opinion."

Featured Image Credit: SWNS

Topics: Really?, Real, Life, Real Life