A Response to Perry Bulwer’s Evaluation of Life in the Family

Cultic Studies Review, Vol. 6, No. 2, 2007.

A Response to Perry Bulwer’s Evaluation of Life in the Family

James D. Chancellor, M. Div., Ph. D.

Southern Baptist Theological Seminary

It is always troubling when one’s work, to say nothing of one’s good sense, comes under attack. The natural tendency is defense, and I must admit to feeling rather defensive on my first reading of Mr. Bulwer’s article. But as I read it carefully for the second and then third time, I began to relax a little. I hope my response is a reasoned one, and can help both to shed further light on the nature of The Family and my work on this unusual religious community. I will not attempt a point-by-point response to Mr. Bulwer, but will try to address the key issues.

Mr. Bulwer begins with a rather scathing attack on William Sims Bainbridge and G. Gordon Melton. In some sense, this is not my business. I probably would not be so concerned about the attacks on Bainbridge and Melton, except that Mr. Bulwer, very skillfully and by innuendo, attempts to tar me with the same brush. “The Family considers Melton, as well as Chancellor, experts on the group, and in 2000 Melton received USD 10,065.83 from the Family.” It is not the first time a former member has either directly or indirectly accused me of being ‘on the take’ from The Family. I suspect that Mr. Bulwer knows the truth, but for the record, I have never received a dime from The Family. I funded all of my own research. Even on the many occasions that I stayed in Family homes, I did my share of household duties and left a small amount of money to cover my food costs. [I can almost see it on the web now, “Chancellor admits to funding The Family.”]

Mr. Bulwer is a skillful writer, and his subtle turn of a phrase here and there sets a clear tone in the article. In the sixth full paragraph that begins “As for Melton’s 2004 book,” where he castigates Melton for ignoring the fact that Family leadership advocated adult-child sex, he states that Melton ‘had the benefit of Chancellor’s research, which does admit that fact” [emphasis mine]. The use of the word “admit” is curious, somehow implying that I did not want to reveal this information, or attempted to minimize it. Anyone who has given an honest reading of my work would never use the term “admit”—I emphasize it and document it fully [see “Little Girl Dream” in my index]. Little words mean a lot.

Mr. Bulwer’s main criticism is with my chosen method of an oral history of the ordinary disciples, and not giving much more attention to Family leadership or to the experiences of former members. He states that this leads to an incomplete picture of the Family. Of course it does. I “admit” this, and have done so from the beginning. As I have stated many times elsewhere, the story will not be complete until someone is able to do work similar to mine with former members, and someone produces a critical biography of David Berg. It seems ironic now, but after I completed writing the book in 1998, I gave very serious thought to doing just that, to attempting to do the same kind of research with former members and tell the whole story again from a very different perspective. But I could not possibly have done that in my first book on The Family. My original manuscript sent to Syracuse University Press was near 350 pages. I had to edit out nearly 100 pages to meet their publishing standards. Mr. Bulwer’s call for a more complete picture is a legitimate concern. Obviously, I am not the person to finish this story. And that is partly my own fault. Here Mr. Bulwer’s criticism is on target and well received. I was wrong to write about former members in any way in the book, and I regret doing that. I did no research on former members, and should have left any comments or observations about them in the voice of Family disciples.

I would like to respond more fully to the issue of “Deceivers Yet True.” Of course The Family tries to deceive the outside world and to downplay as fully as possible the darker aspects of Family life. That is certainly not unique to The Family. And I certainly experienced the deceiving in my initial forays into Family life. But I found my way through that. I was initially told that divorce was rare, and then discovered that few first generation disciples were still with their first spouse. I was told that the sexual abuse of children was rare and never sanctioned by The Family, and then discovered that neither of those things was true. I was initially told that the Family had a high retention rate of their youth, hardly the case at all. I was told that Flirty Fishing was not prostitution, and then discovered that in many cases it was, and in the end even Peter Amsterdam admitted as much to me. There were many other instances, but I think this makes the point. What I do find interesting is that Mr. Bulwer makes a great deal of “Deceivers Yet True,” yet he does not point to a single statement made by a disciple in my book that is not true.

I have never spoken or written of this before, but perhaps now is the time. Teaching is my second career. For some time prior, I served as a field investigator with the U.S. Office of Federal Investigations. I had years of training and experience in locating people and getting them to tell me things about themselves and others, often things they did not want anyone to know. That training and those skills were of considerable use as I conducted private and confidential interviews of Family disciples. Now, did I get everything right—of course not? Was Family leadership able to conceal some very incriminating documents from me—yes? But my focus was on the life of the ordinary disciple, the actual life experience of those people. I still believe I came close to getting it right.

The major issue here is sexual abuse. Flirty Fishing has ended, though never repudiated. Sexual sharing among adult disciples continues, but with less intensity than in the extreme period of 1978 to 1990. I continue to believe that the sexual abuse of the children, which was widespread, flagrant and frequent, has generally come to an end. I am not saying that it never occurs, but my impression is that it is now relatively rare, which of course is no consolation to past or current victims. The hundreds of children taken into custody over the last 15 years and given thorough physical and psychological examinations, with no evidence of current sexual abuse, seem to support my understanding. If Mr. Bulwer or anyone else has evidence that such abuse is systemic in The Family today, then I will certainly repent of my current understanding.

Mr. Bulwer states that I leave the impression that most of the abuses in The Family took place prior to the RNR in 1978. I make no such assertion, and virtually all of the disciple testimony of abuse within The Family references events that occurred between 1976 and 1994.

At this point, I begin to ask if Mr. Bulwer has actually read my book. Was the woman who was so obedient to her “shepherd” that it cost the life of her infant son lying to me? Were the women who admitted that their Flirty Fishing did amount to prostitution lying to me? Was it a falsehood when a man admitted he was so bound by authority that he followed his leader’s orders, even though he knew it would mean being thrown in an Egyptian jail? Was the young man who spoke of his extreme emotional and psychological abuse at a teen training camp lying to me? Was the young woman who told of being sexually abused as a child lying? Was she lying when she said that it was common in those years, that all Family kids know about these things, and that Family leadership was lying to cover it up? Was the woman who told me she surrendered up her own young daughter for the sexual pleasure of adult men lying to me? Was the leader of a teen training center lying to me when he admitted to harsh psychological and physical abuse of young people? I could go on and on.

I think it is important to make a few observations regarding Mr. Bulwer’s approach to my work. He states that I refer “only briefly” to the British child-custody case, when in fact the testimony of the principle figure in the case is the longest single testimony in the entire book. In that testimony [pages 133 – 138], it is clear that Family leadership sanctioned sex between minors and adults, that it occurred on a consistent basis, that David Berg both taught and modeled this behavior, and that he abused his granddaughter and subjected her to “terrifying ordeals of exorcisms.” How more clearly could it be stated? However, in keeping with the basic format and methodology of the book, the emphasis was focused on the experience of the disciple involved, not the leadership.

Mr. Bulwer repeatedly states that I portray David Berg as a “consistently contrite leader”. That is simply absurd—read the book, particularly pages 64–74. Nowhere do I come anywhere close to using that term, or any term remotely similar to “consistently contrite.” The two examples of confession of error were inserted to demonstrate that Berg did not claim to be GOD—hardly the same thing as being “consistently contrite”.

There is little question that many innocent persons suffered serious abuse as members of The Family. Their anger toward the Family is more than understandable, and it is just and right that their stories be told. Their anger and frustration over the inability to hold the Family or members of the Family accountable for this abuse is also very understandable. But I think it is very important that this community of people understand that their story is harmed, not enhanced, when they make unjust and in some cases malicious attacks on persons who view the Family through a different lens. On certain web sites, I have been openly and publicly accused of being on the Family payroll and of receiving sexual favors from Family women. I have been accused of not holding a real academic position [W. O. Carver Professor of World Religions at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary 1992- present], and of not having a legitimate academic degree [B.A. Bellevue University, M. Div. The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, M. A. The University of Nebraska, Ph. D. Duke University]. It has been asserted publicly that my wife was raised in The Family [humorous, in that my wife was raised in a small Mennonite community in Canada, about as far from The Family as possible.] In my initial contacts with former members, I attempted to open a dialogue with one of the leaders of that community. I was assured our correspondence would remain confidential, but portions of my very first letter were taken from their context and put up on the World Wide Web. I think the point is made.

I would like to add one more observation, one that I think is extraordinarily significant for our discussion here. Some very dark and terrible things went on in The Family, particularly in the years 1976 to 1990. Those that involve the focus of my research, the ordinary field disciple, are fully chronicled in my book. These abuses were so ubiquitous and severe that almost all the first wave of children left the movement, many as soon as possible. This mass exodus is also made very clear in my book. I know these awful things occurred because people in The Family told me these things happened to them. Former members also affirm these terrible things happened to them. But I also know these terrible things occurred because active disciples within The Family confessed to me that they did these things to their fellow disciples, that they were responsible agents who abused other people. Such evidence from former members would add greatly to the overall picture of The Family, and we are now presented with a perfect opportunity for just that.

Mr. Bulwer states that I fail “to adequately inform readers of the powerful, controlling influence the leadership has over regular disciples”. That is nonsense. Read the book. The authoritarian nature of The Family is clearly described as experienced by any number of disciples. My book demonstrates that this “controlling influence” did not have the same force on every disciple, and has moderated somewhat since 1994. Family disciples now have more choice and more control over their own lives, but the Family remains at base an autocratic institution under the rule of Queen Maria and King Peter. I do not believe such “powerful, controlling influence” absolves individual disciples from at least partial responsibility for their own actions and own choices. Perhaps Mr. Bulwer does, but if so, the only persons he would hold accountable are leaders such as Father David, Queen Maria, and King Peter.

When I was first contacted asking for a response to Mr. Bulwer’s article, I was informed that he had spent nearly 20 years in The Family, had left in 1991, and was an attorney. As I read through his article, I naturally assumed he had been born into the movement, and left at age 19 to pursue his life in the world. But when I read his bio at the end of the article, I was surprised to discover that he joined at age 16 in 1972 and left in 1991. This means that Mr. Bulwer was an active adult male in The Family, age 20 to 34, during the very worst years of sexual, physical, emotional, and psychological abuse of the disciples and their children. He served as a Family disciple in Japan, the Philippines, and Malaysia—places where some of the worst abuses were common. I have no idea what level of leadership Mr. Bulwer attained. Perhaps I am being naive here, but it seems to me his credibility would be enormously enhanced if he detailed for us the level of his own involvement in what he describes as typical Family life during these times, or if he directed us to where this information is available.

I do not believe Mr. Bulwer’s attack on my work is malicious. Though I do not know him and have not spoken with him, I would suspect he is most troubled not by what I leave out, but what I put in, that I include anything that reflects positively about the Family experience. Does he believe that there is absolutely nothing positive to say about the Family? Or does he believe that the Family is so evil that whatever might be positive is best ignored? These are important questions, the answers to which may shed light on why some former Family members see me as an “apologist,” yet I think that in my book I exposed a great deal of the darker side of the Family.

Well, I think I have said enough. After re-reading Mr. Bulwer’s article one more time, I am convinced that he has made some good points. Information that he provides does shed further light on The Family and in some places adds appropriate balance to the story. My book is not perfect, and the claims about the book that he disputes are not claims that I have made. Perhaps after I hear Mr. Bulwer’s own story of his Life in The Family, I will better understand this very unusual community of people.

About the Author

James Chancellor, Ph.D., is W. O. Carver Associate Professor of Christian Missions and World Religions at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. He has a rich background in the studies of world religions and religious pluralism. His areas of specialization are Islamic culture and New Religious Movements. He is the author of Life in The Family: An Oral History of the Children of God. Prior to coming to Southern, he served as Dean of Colorado Christian University. He was a Visiting Scholar at the University of Manitoba and has taught at the Nigerian Baptist Theological Seminary, the Malaysian Baptist Theological Seminary, The Baptist Seminary of Singapore, and The Philippine Baptist Theological Seminary. His professional memberships include the Conference of Faith and History and the American Academy of Religion.