Saturday, March 1, 2014

Nonfiction: Heaven's Harlots by Miriam Williams

Subtitle: My Fifteen Years as a Sacred Prostitute in the Children of God Cult
Publisher: Eagle Brook
Date: 1998
Format: hardback
Source: purchased used
Read: for a paper in New Religious Movements
Pages: 292

From GoodReads: In 1971, when a Jesus person invited her to live with "God's Family" in upstate New York, seventeen-year-old Miriam got on a bus, left her home in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and never looked back. What began as a regimented but benign communal life quickly became diabolical under the leadership of Moses David, the founder of the Children of God, a cult born in California that boasted nineteen thousand members around the world at the height of its popularity, including ex-Fleetwood Mac guitarist Jeremy Spencer and the family of River Phoenix. Programmed by the cult to believe that too much thinking was dangerous, Miriam accepted an arranged marriage that produced a son, the first of five children. By now, she was a committed sacred prostitute, offering herself to strange men around the world, including rich jet-setters and Arabs in Paris and Monte Carlo.

My review: The title and description for Heaven's Harlots make it sound like a sensational expose of an abusive cult, but for a memoir written by an ex-member, it's not all that lurid. Obviously Williams casts a poor light on the group, but she focuses mostly on her own issues and the corruption of individual leaders, rather than the overall character of the Family, in terms of her negative experiences. The book is almost as much a story of the author's journey of self-discovery as it is a description of her life in the Children of God (COG).

It's a very personal book in terms of describing Williams' mental and emotional states, though not so much in terms of her religious beliefs. She states her devotion to the basic ideals of the Family, yet I never got a good feel with her actually believing them wholeheartedly, perhaps because she's no longer involved in organized religion and has thus lost the evangelical drive. The information on COG is fantastic; I read this book right after Life in the Family: An Oral History of the Children of God by James D. Chancellor, an academic work, and found that it complemented Chancellor's book very nicely. They're both out-of-date in terms of describing the last twenty or so years of the group, but excellent for the time up to then. With Heaven's Harlots, one gets a good feel for the life of an average female member in the group over a prolonged period of time, through several of the Family's major changes, and for why someone might have stayed in COG for that long. Clearly Williams' internal desires and needs didn't fit very well within the Family's organization, and I think it's amazing that she stuck with it as long as she did.

Note on content: It's pretty clean in terms of descriptive content, though, given the nature of the subject, mature topics are discussed.

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