By Matt Coker
By R. Scott Moxley
By Charles Lam
By Nick Schou
By Gustavo Arellano
By Gustavo Arellano
By Steve Lowery
By R. Scott Moxley
Six years after they first separated, Amy and Nathanael Bril realized that divorce had become inevitable. Too much had changed. Amy Bril says she scarcely recognizes her former self, a mostly homebound mother who home-schooled her three children.
Before she began living apart from her husband, Bril had no driver's license, work history or social life. Once on her own, she dated for the first time, bought her first car and learned to assert herself.
Now 35, in light makeup and a breezy summer shirt over a swimsuit top, Bril still bears striking resemblance to her childhood pictures. Her big brown eyes roam the generic strip mall where she sits, as if this mundane suburban setting still holds some novelty for her.
Her words are steady and measured as she describes her new life. The world has become easier to navigate with each passing season, but Bril fears she hasn't gained enough ground to face the challenge ahead. She must put all of her faith into a system she was raised to believe is the Antichrist incarnate: the law.
Bril was recently laid off from her job as a tax preparer, has no lawyer, and has barely enough money for the frequent trips to the Lamoreaux Justice Center in Orange to file paperwork and gear up for a custody battle with Nathanael.
In April, he filed for sole legal and physical custody of their three children, ages 13, 10 and 8.
Amy fears that if he gets custody, she will never see her children again. She says the threat comes not from Nathanael himself, but from a historically perverse cult known as the Family International, to which he has pledged his life—and in which Amy grew up.
Because of their ages, Amy says she can't fully disclose to her children why she doesn't want their lives to completely revolve around the Family.
"I don't want to fill their minds with that—they're too young," she says. "But some day, when they're teenagers, they're going to know.
"What I'm doing today, they are going to respect me for when they're old enough to understand," she says.
In 1968, Amy Bril's father, a 14-year-old high-school dropout, met a defrocked Evangelical minister named David Berg in Huntington Beach, Bril says. At a seaside Christian café, Berg, preaching virtues like abstinence and salvation through Jesus, found an eager audience among a flock of spiritually starved, post-Summer of Love teens.
Fueled by the adoration of his young followers and a sense of superiority over the mainstream Christianity that rejected him, Berg placed himself next to Jesus Christ as God's chosen prophet, according to former followers. He preached a peculiar mix of communal living and hellfire and brimstone, but soon he saturated his doctrine with sexuality.
Throughout the following decade, Berg and his prophecies led his flock down a path of debauchery, authoritarian rule and child abuse. Some members delved further into the abyss each year, eventually leading to incest and pedophilia with the children they bore, according to court documents, news reports and witness accounts.
Amy Bril, whose legal first name is "Armendria," was born on a communal compound in her mother's native Texas in 1972. Her birth came two years before Berg predicted California would sink into the ocean and the rest of the world would be decimated by a comet. She would spend the next 17 years living in more than 30 countries. She says she was given away by her parents at age 8 to be groomed as Berg's sex slave; locked indoors, sometimes for 6 months at a time; and denied an education.
Instead of an adequate high-school curriculum, Bril and hundreds of other children were force-fed Berg's sometimes-perverse doctrine, she and other former members say.
According to Nathanael Bril, Amy is bringing up the history of the group as a scare tactic. In a telephone interview with the Weekly, Nathanael says Amy knows her children have not suffered any abuse at the hands of the Family and that she's using stories from long ago to manipulate the outcome of the custody hearing.
"Her only card that she can use against me in court are stories from 25 years ago that happened to her," he says.
"She abandoned her family over five years ago," he says. "Now that I've filed for divorce, all of a sudden, she's shown an interest in having the children."
* * *
Inside a ground-level apartment in a Los Angeles suburb, Sam Ajemian keeps one of the only repositories of literature from the Family, formerly known as the Children of God. The 62-year-old Ajemian, of Armenian descent but born and raised in Greece, speaks in a sometimes hard-to-decipher accent, has bushy black eyebrows, silvering hair and big hairy forearms.
In 1969, Ajemian was 24 when he joined the Family as it made its way through Berkeley, he says. He had become a Christian only one month prior to his introduction to Berg.
"You know how churches are very boring and dead? Well, this guy was full of fire," he says. "We were all very young, and he was a 50-year-old man. He was very impressive. He said he spoke to God and he was the Endtime prophet."