When Alba Zari was four years old, she fled the Children of God cult with her mother and grandmother. Now, after many years, she is revisiting her past in an ongoing project, The Occult
Alba Zari was born into the Children of God (COG), a Christian fundamentalist cult where the core principles include free love, tantric sex and prostitution. The cult, which now operates under a different name, The Family International, was founded in 1968 by a former pastor named David Berg. Amassing a following of born-again hippies in Huntington Beach, California, Berg convinced his followers that a major earthquake would hit the region, and took them on the road to spread his mission.
By the mid-1970s, the COG had gained a following of 10,000 full-time members, operating in 130 communities around the world. Berg urged followers to free themselves of sexual taboos, encouraging “sharing” among the adult members. However, as well as reports of alleged child abuse, the cult was notorious for practising a form of religious prostitution, which they called ‘flirty fishing’. Female members were referred to as ‘God’s whores’, and encouraged to have sex with strangers to raise money and recruit new members. This resulted in many second generation births, and children born into the cult were labelled ‘Jesus babies’. One of them was Zari.
Occult is the visual artist’s ongoing project exploring the beliefs and propaganda that the cult used to recruit her grandmother, Rosa, 40 years ago. Rosa was in her early thirties, living in Trieste, Italy, and married with three children when she met an American man called Simon – a member of the COG – and fell in love. Zari’s mother, Ivana, was 13 at the time. She was the only child “of age” to join the cult.
In 1979, Rosa and Ivana boarded a flight to Greece and spent the next 22 years living and working in the cult, moving between India, Nepal and Thailand. Then, in 1991, when Zari was four years old, her family escaped. “I think something was going to happen to me,” says Zari, tentatively. “That scared [my grandmother], and we escaped, but it’s not really clear. That’s why I need to do this project, to try and understand the reasons.”