At the age of 70, Jerry Golland is delving into a dark chapter of his life. Most people know him as a former English teacher and musician. When he worked for the Ottawa Catholic School Board, his classes often involved music, and he still carries his guitar everywhere. He’s long been known around Ottawa for his annual Leonard Cohen performances. Golland’s younger years are less well known.For the years between 1971 and 1991, he has no record of official employment. In those missing years, he was a member of Children of God (COG), a bizarre and shocking religious movement. Founded in 1968, COG is now seen as an outgrowth of the counterculture movement of the time. Members of the group, mostly young and idealistic, were sometimes erroneously called Jesus People. The philosophy was a bizarre mix of Christian doctrine, predictions of doom, and bizarre concepts of sex. Some of the group’s publications would qualify as pornography by today’s standards.
David Berg, the founder and leader who was also known as Moses David, was a self-styled prophet who interpreted the concept of free love in a rather literal way. Female members engaged in “flirty fishing” — sex with men to bring them God’s love, in hopes of money or a new convert or both. Berg led a shadowy lifestyle, ruling from a distance with absolute authority. Very few members of the cult ever laid eyes on him.
The COG flourished into a movement with tens of thousands of devoted members and 130 chapters around the world, including Ottawa and Hull.
Golland is set to self-publish a book sometime this year, which looks back at his COG time — the working title is Only One Man: A Memoir — but he is still very much struggling to come to grips with this period of his life.
What attracted you to the Children of God?
I just ended up at the age of 24 very, very lost. I suffered from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder [ADHD]. [Back then] people tended to call you lazy, crazy, or stupid. I was laughed at all through school. You get labelled a weirdo and a little bit stupid. When they [COG] picked me up off the street, I was at the end of my rope. I had no money, nothing, no passport, nothing. They are saying, “Hey, we love you, brother. We want to take you home.” How could I refuse? I was starving. And then it was just the sense of belonging to something. There was some structure.
So you had no trouble suddenly living in religious communes and preaching the gospel of David Berg?
From a secular, middle-class Jewish guy to becoming a fundamentalist Christian who is on the street with a Bible in his hand telling people to receive Jesus into their hearts if they want to go to heaven — the transformation was scary-quick. It wasn’t this sacred devotion to the group — it was wanting to be accepted by the group.
The Children of God has a lurid reputation as a sex cult. Female members have come forward describing the practice of “flirty fishing.” What did you see?
Members, in particular the women, would use sexual attraction to meet people and use this to attract people to supposedly bring them to the Lord and bring them into the group. The women would go out to bars, meet men, and often have sex with them — sometimes in exchange for money. Like, if they wanted to fork over a few bucks, nobody was turning them down — even if they didn’t want to believe in Jesus or join.
Was it easier being a man than a woman in the Children of God?
Oh, my God, yes. We got some verbal abuse, but these women were abused. I saw a woman with seven kids, all different races, seven different husbands. And they are holding her up like a role model.
You never met David Berg, but did you believe in his message?
Anything he wrote — it was like it was from the mouth of God. The expression of any doubt — even the most minor — and you were thrown out. And thrown out into what? It was an abyss. There was nowhere to go. So you had to pretend.
Why did you decide now to write a book?
Self-discovery. “What caused me to make these decisions?” So I can either blame myself or realize what was out of my control. You know, it’s a very fine line.
Your musical ability played a big role while you were a member of the Children of God. Were you well known?
When I went to Puerto Rico, and in Greece as well, I wrote radio dramas and recorded some songs. These tapes were taken to radio stations. They had airtime, plus they were just sent out in mailings to every member so they could hear these things — little interviews and stuff. I worked with Jeremy Spencer of Fleetwood Mac. He produced some of the stuff for COG. [Spencer is a former member of COG. Other notable members included actors Rose McGowan, Joaquin Phoenix, and his brother, the late River Phoenix.]
Did anything positive come out of belonging to the COG?
We can live with anything. Take everything away; we’re on the street; we can manage. I’ve had nothing. I’ve had three kids, infants, and no food after breakfast. We had to find food for lunch — and we’ve been there many times, especially in Puerto Rico. You ended up begging, singing on the street. Holding my daughter on a bus and playing guitar and getting a few coins so we could get some sandwiches. I’m not proud of it, and the kids say, “How could you do this?” Mortifying for the kids, mortifying! “My dad was a beggar with a baby in his arms.” It’s very hard to face. And why did I do it? Crazy desperation — I don’t know. Living moment to moment, unable to think of the future. I don’t know. Now I can look back. My five kids aren’t too thrilled to talk about it. “Who was your dad? Oh, we were beggars.”