Review: Jesus Freaks

Jesus Freaks: A True Story of Murder and Madness on the Evangelical EdgeJesus Freaks
by Don Lattin

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Jesus Freaks / 978-0-06-111804-3

Sometimes you're walking through the "True Crime" section of the bookstore, and a book leaps out at you, and you realize that it's the true account of that one Law & Order episode you caught that one time that totally wasn't based on a true story or anything, except of course they all are. And because you thought the episode (Season 15, Episode 19, "Sects") was interesting (in a horrifying kind of way), you take the book home and you read it, and you find a gripping tale of horror and sadness. That's what this book is.

I knew I would like "Jesus Freaks" right off the bat, when I saw that the author had thoughtfully included a 'cheat sheet' of important personas as the first page. Having just spent this winter reading through the labyrinthine family trees of the Warren Jeffs' FLDS cult, I appreciated immediately that the author of "Jesus Freaks" recognized how difficult it can be to keep straight all the names when plumbing decades of cult behavior. What I hadn't expected, however, was that the writing and characterization here would be so clear and memorable, that I would rarely have to refer to my cheat sheet.

Although this book deals with some truly horrible human behavior, Lattin does a wonderful job of keeping the material accessible. He has a very careful way of zooming into the terrible history of this cult, but then zooming back out to cover some other, less distasteful history in order to let the reader get their bearings back. It takes a careful hand to write about the history of a cult, and Lattin manages wonderfully - he is careful never to blame the victims, he humanizes the adult members of the cult wherever possible, he carefully outlines the blame on the leaders, and how they gained and maintained control over the others, and he understands how to keep the subject gripping without becoming so heavy that the reader can't go on.

What was most fascinating for me, however, was seeing how closely the cult of the Children of God parallels the Warren Jeffs' FLDS cult, despite the fact that the two seem, superficially, to be so different. Whereas the FLDS cult is ostensibly about 'conservative' polygamous marriage, contracted at a young age (on the part of the women and girls, at least), the Children of God professed to be ostensibly about free love and polyamory. However, in practice, both cults boiled down ultimately to the complete control of the leader over the followers, with the women being ordered to sleep with whomever the leader desired - the Children of God had their 'flirty fishing' and the FLDS have their 'priesthood prostitutes' (due to the Warren Jeffs' habit of "reassigning" wives frequently - and on multiple occasions - when their current husband falls out of favor with the cult leader). And, of course, both cults involved the systematic abuse of the children within their community. (I was surprised, though, to note that both David Berg (founder of the Children of God) and Warren Jeffs were child abusers *prior* to their ascension of power over their respective cults; I had expected the timeline to be otherwise in that regard.)

If you have any interest in true crime and cults, this book is a superb addition to the genre, and is worth a read. Lattin deserves special mention for his ability to present so infuriating, appalling, and horrific a history in such a lucid manner, such that the reader is left stunned and shocked, and yet hopeful that perhaps we can learn from this past and prevent such abuses in the future.

~ Ana Mardoll

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