When she was just 4 years old, Alba Zari fled the infamous Christian fundamentalist cult the Children of God along with her mother and her grandmother. Having been born into the cult, Zari had never known any differently, but from that day onwards these three generations of women embarked upon new lives out in the world together.
Beyond the initial relief of freedom, though, this assimilation into society would turn out to be anything but easy for them and their individual paths would go on to fracture in all sorts of ways in the years to come. So much so, in fact, that after they escaped, they never spoke of the cult again. This left Zari growing up with the intergenerational trauma hanging over her like a storm cloud, with no outlet or way of processing it all.
Now 35 and based in London, Zari is a visual artist. Since 2019 she has been working on a moving, feminist photo series called The Occult, which she is using to explore this sealed-over family history and the beliefs cults like the COG promote to recruit new members. A deeply personal project, The Occult is centred primarily on the experiences of Zari’s beloved mother, who was 13 when she was whisked away to join the COG — a crucially formative age for her life to change as drastically as it did.
Zari’s family’s involvement with the Children of God began with her grandmother, Rosa, around 40 years ago. “In her early 30s, she met some of its members in Trieste, Italy, and she thought they could offer her an escape from her unhappiness, so she decided to take my mother, Ivana, and leave with them,” Zari explains. She adds that what these cults offer, in part, is a change of life. “They even change recruits’ names, so it's like being baptised in the sense that the person you were before is washed away.” Essentially, then, it's a ticket to completely start again, but it’s also a social and spiritual abyss near-impossible to escape once inside.
The Children of God was founded by David Berg (who went by Moses David) in California in 1968, and built on a set of warped principles including free love and female prostitution. “Former members have been accused of encouraging sex with minors and prostituting women in the group to outsiders as a means to recruit new members and birth a ‘second generation’,” Zari explains, going on to describe how this practice is cultivated under the name ‘Flirty Fishing’. Women in the cult were referred to as ‘God’s whores’ and expected to use their bodies as a way to attract more followers in the cult by offering sex in return. “What's more,” Zari continues, “all of the money they received as missionaries had to go to the cult, leaving them with nothing. And in addition to this, their babies were also taken away from them. I can’t imagine anything more painful.” The fathers of children born in these circumstances were therefore unknown most of the time, and so they were dubbed ‘Jesus Babies’, as if they were immaculate blessings. Zari herself was one of these babies.
Zari started The Occult just after finishing another project, The Y, through which she tried to research the identity of her biological father. “It gave me the strength to face what happened to my mother and have a deeper understanding of the past too,” she says. Beginning with images from her own family archive, she also started collecting cult-related “images, documents and articles from a website of ex-members of the cult.” She says she was looking for information she never had in her family.
Some of the pictures she came across in her family archive had been altered by her mother, who had roughly removed her grandmother from group shots with scissors. “To me, these showed how she was amending the past because she had never wanted to join the cult,” Zari explains. In piecing these and the found material together, she says, “I wanted to compare my personal archive with the ones of the other members of the cult to have a complete picture of the events in this story. I wanted to show how the destiny of one family can be part of a bigger story, one where a lot of other people have been through trauma and abuse.”
During her research, Zari also decided to take her own photographs and so she set off on an odyssey to retrace her mother's footsteps across India, Nepal and Thailand — all places she had lived with the COG before baby Zari came along. Throughout her travels, the artist met a lot of Westerners on spiritual pilgrimages and people dreaming of new micro-communities. It made her think about the reasons why. “I looked at how they immerse themselves in different cultures without a deeper understanding of the culture they are appropriating,” she says. Lots of the people Zari encountered had been suffering personal problems like drug addiction or grief and they seemed to be seeking an escape from all the hurt. More than anything, this showed her how easily vulnerable people can be manipulated. It offered some understanding of what happened with her family, too.
After 22 years of living and working in the cult, Zari’s grandmother finally summoned the strength to escape with her daughter and grandchildren, and never go back. Zari isn’t so sure on the reasons why — and why then, specifically — but she thinks something was going to happen to her, so her grandmother got her out in an act of matriarchal protection. From there, the family lived in Thailand for the next four years before heading back to Trieste.
Since then, Zari has moved around, her grandmother has settled on the Amalfi Coast and her mother resides in a psychiatric hospital back in Trieste. “Once outside the cult my mother did not adapt to mainstream society and now has schizophrenia, so this project is a way of not letting the pain she lived be in vain,” she says. You can almost hear the ache in her words. “She always felt guilty for what happened, like so many women that have been through abuse, so this is my way to have justice and to honour her.”
David Berg died in 1994 and the Children of God now goes by a new name: The Family International. Many have broken away from it in search of free lives but it still maintains a network of members across 75 different countries. Zari, meanwhile, continues to probe the nature of cults, considering which human needs compel some of us to join them and what happens to women once inside. “By exposing this very personal story that carries a lot of trauma, I hope that women who have been through abuse can also find the strength to speak about what happened to them and not feel guilt or shame,” she says, “because the guilt here is only on those who normalise the exploitation of women.”