iot was a simple question to a child, one routinely asked by adults: what do you want to be when you grow up? But for 11-year-old Bexy Cameron, who had never known anything but the strict religious cult she was born into, it was life-changing.
Her brief encounter with the Guardian journalist Walter Schwarz in the 1990s led to her escaping the Children of God cult all'età di 15, leaving behind her parents and siblings. Now she has written a memoir, Cult Following, about growing up in a movement founded by a controlling sexual predator. The last line of her acknowledgments reads: “Eternal gratitude to Walter Schwarz (RIP). Who knows what would have happened without that ‘one simple question’?"
Cameron, 38, and her 11 siblings knew only a life dominated by Bible readings, exorcisms, physical and psychological punishments when Schwarz became the first journalist to be permitted access to the cult. Children of God had been founded in California in 1968 by the self-proclaimed prophet David Berg, who was known as Moses.
At its peak, Children of God had 10,000 adherents across the world who followed Berg’s strict instructions. It was a highly sexualised and abusive environment; women were sent out to entice men into the cult and daughters were sometimes forced to “marry” their fathers. By the time Berg died in 1994, he was wanted for questioning by the FBI and Interpol over allegations of rape, incest, incarceration and kidnapping.
Cameron remembers Schwarz’s arrival at the commune in Leicestershire where the family lived at the time as “a really big moment”. The cult had decided to “open our doors, to reveal ourselves a little more. But unknown to Walter, we [bambini] were trained for his visit to say certain things and not say other things.”
Cameron and her siblings and peers had no access to television or newspapers and never went to school. “We had no idea what was going on in the outside world, but we were told that the media was evil and people were out to get us.”
Schwarz’s stay at the commune came just after Cameron had ended a year of “silence restriction” when she was forbidden from speaking to anyone except her assigned leader.
“I was excited that I’d been chosen to speak to Walter. I was completely intrigued by him – he was tall and had white hair and a gentle manner. He looked us in the eye. He didn’t ask any of the questions I’d been prepped for, just this mundane ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?'
“It was the first time I’d ever thought about the concept of being grown up or becoming something. We were raised to believe that we were going to die in the ‘End Time’ wars, that we were going to be martyrs. So when he asked me that, it was an epiphany – that’s the best way that I can describe it. All of a sudden, there was a crack in the wall, potentially an escape route.”
A few years later, Cameron took that route, but it was more than a decade before she reached “the point where I needed to confront my past – and the first thing I wanted to do was to track down the man who had started the change in me”.
She had no idea of the journalist’s name, but knew he had worked for the Guardian. After digging around she concluded that Schwarz, the Guardian’s then retired religious affairs correspondent, was likely to be her interviewer.
In an extraordinary twist, it turned out that a friend of hers was Schwarz’s son. Cameron emailed Schwarz to say thank you for “opening a door to another world”. Within an hour he had replied, inviting her to visit.
“It was a really wonderful experience to meet him again, but there were complicated emotions on both sides.” Schwarz pressed her to write about her childhood, and showed her his original article about the Children of God. “He was a bit upset as he’d written quite a positive piece based on what he’d seen during his visit.”
She kept in contact with Schwarz until his death aged 88 nel 2018. “I spent many weekends at his home. They made me feel like part of the family. He was such an insightful, beautiful man, and he has a wonderful place in my heart.”