It was 2005, and cult leader Karen Zerby was in hiding, as she had been for decades. Zerby was the head of the Family International (also known as the Children of God), a Christan cult that was paranoid in general, but leaders took secrecy to another level. No one knew where Zerby lived, and her entourage took great effort to keep it that way. Her son Ricky Rodriguez, after becoming disaffected and leaving the cult, had resorted to murder to try to locate her, but failed. Zerby’s real name wasn’t known for much of the cult’s history. Everyone inside called her “Queen Maria” or “Mama Maria.” The only reason her name is known today is that it was forced into the public record during a major court case in England.
The Undercover Investigators
A group of people including myself (all of whom were born into the cult and left) wanted to locate Zerby and we were organized on social media. But one problem with trying to find her was that no one knew what she looked like. Her secrecy was so complete that the most recent known photo of her was nearly 30 years old. And all the photos of her were small and low quality.
But in 2005, we had a new lead. A previously unknown high-resolution close-up of Zerby. The source wanted to be kept secret, so an exclusive, secret cabal of people on MovingOn.org (the online hub for second-generation ex-members at the time) who were known to be working on or interested in gathering information about the cult and its leaders shared the image between ourselves and planned to post it online and share it with the media. The only problem was: that photo—our new best—was from 19-fucking-70.
You can see the picture above on the left. It was released into the wild on XFamily.org in February 2005. XFamily was a brand new wiki at the time, founded by my friend Robert. A core team of XFamily editors put in countless hours documenting everything we could about the secretive cult, and XFamily quickly became the go-to place for information on the Family. The site’s reputation was further bolstered by a number of drops of internal documents and photos that had never been shared elsewhere. We published any details we could find about known abusers and we didn’t care if anyone threatened to sue us. It was essentially the Wikipedia and WikiLeaks of the Family International rolled into one, and the cult didn’t know where we were getting our material (e.g., in response to this collection of internal documents that I published after acquiring the password and PGP private key for a cult email account, all members were instructed to be wary of letting anyone near their computers, even though I’d lifted the documents from halfway across the world).
But back to Zerby. Although the photo from the 70s was the best available of her at the time, only two months later a collection of a half dozen very recent photos of Zerby were anonymously added to the XFamily article about her. This marked the first time in nearly 30 years that recent pics of her were available to the public. It was also the first time her photo was available to cult members for more than a brief glimpse1.
1 It wasn’t the first time for some members to see her because the cult had occasionally sent top leaders to a few communes to hand-deliver photos and videos of Zerby. Members at these locations would line up to briefly view images of Zerby but couldn’t keep copies.
This release was a major coup at the time, and it was the result of theft by yours truly. I’d stolen the photos from the computer of someone who’d recently left the inner circle. Through some sleuthing and help from others, I was able to identify Zerby in the photos by matching her features with the 1970s photo. It was in fact a major security breach that this person had kept the photos when they left Zerby’s home in the first place.
Just a few days after the release of the new photos on XFamily, the Family International posted a subset of them (the more attractive ones) on their highly-protected “Members Only” website (which, of course, I had access to). This was an apparent attempt to prevent cult members from venturing onto XFamily in search of them.
Soon after, the photos were being broadcast in news reports on Fox News, CNN, etc., and reprinted in high-profile magazines. Rolling Stone published an 11-page article about Ricky Rodriguez that prominently included one of the photos of Zerby, along with the following explanation:
For years, by remaining out of sight and unphotographed, Zerby, like Berg before her, had helped to fuel her mystery and her power. All that changed in March, two months after the violence, when, in an unprecedented breach of security, recent pictures of Zerby were posted on an anti-Family Web site, xfamily.org. The photos were apparently taken by a traitor in her inner circle. Wearing a shimmering purple silk dress with a plunging neckline, smiling a blissful, toothy smile beneath a pair of unstylish eyeglasses, her long silver hair falling past her shoulder blades, Zerby looks like an aging Deadhead, somebody you’d bump into at a co-op in Marin County, California. For many Family Members it was the first picture they had seen of Zerby in more than twenty years.Peter Wilkinson, Rolling Stone, June 2005
It didn’t take too long after that for the Family to change their position on leadership photos altogether. Today, you can find Zerby’s smiling mug on a number of public Family websites, and even a video she recorded for the public on YouTube. But the above photo kickstarted that whole chain of events.
So that’s the story of how publishing photos of Zerby contributed in its tiny way to the downfall of the cult. In hindsight, the group’s collapse was already well underway. The Family International still technically exists today, but it’s a paltry and deradicalized version of its former self.
Law & Order did an episode inspired by Zerby and her son Ricky. In the reimagining for television, the Ricky character survives his murder-suicide attempt and Zerby ends up in court. Although the prosecution has trouble making charges stick, in the end, she’s convicted.
In reality, nothing like that happened. To this day, Zerby is in hiding, living off of what she collected from cult members over decades past. But perhaps the situation is not as much of a downer as that sounds. Although there was no dramatic justice, the cult is maybe one tenth the size it was, if that. And as it collapsed, the Family introduced huge reforms, transforming itself from the notorious cult of its past into what’s now perhaps better described as a peculiar church.
Jesus never did come back to destroy the Antichrist and usher in a new world as members expected. Instead, people had to get jobs and start sending their kids to school. Thousands of old-timers who gave the Family’s leaders the best decades of their lives were forced to rebuild from scratch during what should have been the winddown of their careers.
The world moved on. That’s a good thing.
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