Bay Area author and award-winning journalist Don Lattin is creating a stir in some religious circles with his new book, Jesus Freaks: A True Story of Murder and Madness on the Evangelical Edge.
Called “a horrifying picture of what happens when abuse is cloaked in religiosity” by Judy Muller of the USC Annenberg School for Communication, Jesus Freaks was released October 9, 2007, by HarperOne. In the book, Lattin follows the pattern set by Jon Krakauer in Under the Banner of Heaven: He starts with a horrific murder committed in the context of a radical religion and then explores its players and underlying ideology. The book tells the story of Ricky “Davidito” Rodriguez, a child born into the inner sanctum of the sect founded in the heady hippie days of the late 1960s by David “Moses” Berg. In the movement known by various names (including Children of God and the Family International), Lattin writes, Berg embraced an odd mixture of Christian witness, radical politics, apocalyptic doom, and free love. Although the sect keeps much of its practices secret, various groups and researchers have produced what they say is evidence documenting prostitution, polygamy, incest, and open sexual relations between adults and children in the religion.
According to Lattin, Ricky was chosen to be one of two “Endtime Witnesses” whom Berg said would sacrifice themselves and trigger the battles of the apocalypse outlined in Revelations, during which all members of the religion, which calls itself “the Family,” would ascend to heaven. Instead, Ricky (like thousands of other children raised in the sect) defected and tried to live a normal life. But he was unable to either bear the excesses of the cult or fit into normal society. Sexually and emotionally abused as a child, Ricky began a crusade to destroy the only family he ever knew. Two days before the January 2005 killing, Ricky made an eerie video explaining his burden and what he was about to do. You can view this video at www.xfamily.org, an informational site set up by people who have left the cult. That and a number of other websites, including www.exfamily.org, www.movingon.org, and www.rickross.com, post what they claim to be the group’s literature.
Lattin explains that the title, Jesus Freaks, is something of a double entendre, representing not only the radical religious sect that the Family International became but also its origin in the Age of Aquarius. Many people in the late 1960s called themselves “freaks” rather than hippies, Lattin said, and there was a strong Christian movement within that subculture, so “‘Jesus freak’ wasn’t necessarily derogatory.”
The title, however, has drawn attention across the country and landed Lattin in the national news. In October, the author flew to New York City for an interview on ABC’s Nightline, which aired November 1, 2007. He said he has also been contacted by CNN’s Anderson Cooper, who planned to run a segment in mid-November. The San Francisco Chronicle reviewed the book in its Sunday, October 21, 2007, edition. The San Jose Mercury News and the Contra Costa Times ran an author profile (registration required) of Lattin four days later. Lattin appeared on KQED-FM’s talk show Forum on November 8th.
Certain people have essentially accused Lattin of equating all Christians with the cult members depicted in the book. “Some folks are seizing on the title of the book,” says Lattin. He admits that it’s provocative, but he points out that the sect as well as its leader “came out of the evangelical Christian movement.” Others have questioned Lattin’s calling the Family International “Christian” at all, but Lattin notes in the book’s introduction that Berg’s odyssey is deeply rooted in the Christian tradition. Berg himself came from two generations of evangelical Protestants, and many of his teachings were based on the Bible. Lattin says Berg, who died in 1994, was similar to the charismatic self-proclaimed prophets Jim Jones of the People’s Temple and David Koresh of the Branch Davidians. Berg preached a paranoid separatism while warning of the impending apocalypse–a combination that resulted in tragic ends for the cults led by Jones and Koresh.
“These guys believe their own stories,” Lattin said. In a way, “charlatans are less dangerous.” Lattin made contacts with members of the group during his nearly two decades as the religion writer for the Chronicle. A four part Chronicle series in early 2001 called “Children of a Lesser God” explored the Unification Church (commonly referred to as “Moonies”), Scientology, Hare Krishna, and the Children of God. “That’s how I got tipped off to it,” he said. “Otherwise it looked like a typical murder-suicide.”
Lattin says people’s unease also might have something to do with society not wanting to look at its own shadow. He says that while many Americans have no trouble recognizing that radical and destructive sects have grown from mainstream Islam, for example, they can be reluctant to acknowledge the same about Christianity. “We don’t like to look at the dark side of our own religious tradition,” he says. The subject of religion was one that Lattin happened upon, rather than chose, early in his career. “I never expected to do it so long,” he said, but a number of things drew him to it–including dissatisfaction with his initial assignments for the San Francisco Examiner in the late 1970s. “I would do anything to get off the transportation beat–I got tired of writing about BART breaking down,” he said.
On a more serious note, Lattin said, it was a fascinating time and place to write about spiritual movements, including Jones and the People’s Temple, which arose in San Francisco’s Fillmore District. “Part of it was also being in San Francisco,” Lattin said. “There’s basically every religion here.”
Jesus Freaks is Lattin’s third book. He also wrote Following Our Bliss: How the Spiritual Ideals of the Sixties Shape Our Lives Today (HarperSanFrancisco, 2003) and is the co-author with Richard Cimino of Shopping for Faith: American Religion in the New Millennium (Jossey Bass, 1998). His work also has appeared in dozens of U.S. magazines. He has worked as a consultant and commentator for Dateline NBC; PrimeTime Live and Good Morning America on ABC; American Morning on CNN; and Religion and Ethics News Weekly on PBS. Lattin has taught religion writing at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley, where he received a degree in sociology.
During the summer of 2007, Lattin worked as the story editor for News21 at UC Berkeley. Some of the students did a story on polygamy among Muslims that was picked up by NPR’s Weekend Edition. He said he hopes to continue teaching a journalism class at Berkeley every couple of years as part of a proposed lineup of specialty writing courses. More than that, though, he hopes to continue writing books–and he already has his next assignment from HarperOne. Although he’s not at liberty to discuss it at length, he did say it will be a departure from Jesus Freaks–a change he looks forward to, at least in the near term. He said the story of Ricky and his violent end troubled him more than he thought it would. As a career journalist, he said, “I thought I developed a pretty hard shell—but this really got to me.”
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