Most childhoods are filled with bike riding, eating pizza or going to the movies, but twins Flor and Tamar Edwards, both 34, have been discovering many of these things for the first time as adults.
That’s because for the first 13 years of their lives, these twins lived in what some ex-members call an apocalyptic cult.
“I didn’t know what a movie theater was,” Flor said. “We saw a drinking fountain for the first time, and we all just kind of like saw it, and we, like, huddled around it like it was some ...“
“... novelty,” Tamar said, finishing her sister's sentence.
Flor and Tamar were raised in a controversial religious sect called “The Children of God,” which formed in Huntington Beach, California, in the late 1960s out of the “free love” hippie era. The twins said the group lived as nomads and were shut out from mainstream society, believing that they were among God's chosen people who would be saved when the apocalypse came.
As children, Flor and Tamar said they were taught they were “going to be God’s Martyrs” when they were 12 years old -- because they said members believed the apocalypse was coming in 1993 -- and the twins lived in constant fear of that approaching year.
“I was terrified because of the this ‘end time’ that was coming up so I had to deal with a lot of, as a child, very real fear,” Flor said. “I thought a lot about my death that was supposedly coming when I was going to be 12 years old.”
Flor said she has watched “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” a popular Netflix show about a group of young women who are freed after years of being held captive by a cult leader in an underground bunker. It’s a storyline she said she can relate to. In the first episode, the character Kimmy Schmidt “sees water in the bathroom for the first time,” Flor said, a moment that really resonated with her.
Within The Children of God, the twins said they and other families lived in tight quarters. They said they were prevented from going to school, and they said they didn’t learn to read until age 9.
“Everything was evil. You know, education,” Flor said.
“Politics was evil,” Tamar added.
“Music,” Flor continued. “Anything. Anything outside of the group was evil.”
They missed the 1980s entirely, they said, and are still catching up on a those lost years of pop culture references.
“If I watched all the movies from the '80s and got a whole collection of music from the '80s, I just -- there's no context there,” Flor said. “We knew that there was someone out there named Madonna and Michael Jackson. That's about it.”
All of this, they said, was determined by one man, David Berg, known to them as “Father David.”
“Father David taught us that churches were evil,” Flor said.
“And money was evil,” Tamar added.
Flor said Berg actually came from a “long ancestral line of evangelists,” and that he was “very familiar” with the established Christian church, but rejected it.
“He wanted to break away from that and he came out to California,” Flor said. “He had some sexual experiences when he was very young and he was living in a constant conflict between his desire and his commitment to God.”
The Edwards family was living in Los Angeles when they joined The Children of God, and then, in 1985, when the twins were 5 years old, Flor and Tamar said Berg decided his followers should leave the United States. So the family packed up and left for Thailand, where the twins said they lived until they were 12 years old, when Berg decided it was safe for his followers to come back to the states.
The group moved to Chicago in 1994, where the twins said they were confided to a house with dozens of other families.
“Once you're inside the house, it was kind of like our own little community,” Flor said. “You know, we did what we did inside the walls.”
Some called The Children of God a sex-charged cult. At its peak, the group claimed to have tens of thousands of members around the world, and that 13,000 children had been born into the sect. Among those children raised in the group were actress Rose McGowan and a young Joaquin Phoenix, both of whose families eventually left.
Ex-followers say they were taught to believe that love for God was expressed through having sex or exposing others to sex, including children.
“Sex was the thing that drove people,” Tamar said. “They didn’t do any drugs, no alcohol. ... So sex was the way to freedom, they saw sex as God’s creation of love and beauty, which was one of the teachings but also within that there was abuse that happened. ... Children were having experiences that surely [they] didn’t want to have.”
The twins said it was common for adults in the house to have sex in front of children.
“We've talked to some of the adults. ... They believed in what [Berg] said,” Tamar said. “So they don't have regret over it. They don't say, like, ‘Oh no, that was bad.’ They still believe that Father David had something, like, that's how charismatic he was.”
The Children of God has since reorganized and is now known as The Family International. In the 1980s, the group formally prohibited sexual contact between adults and minors and renounced its previous endorsement of sharing sexual partners and polygamy.
"TFI reorganized four years ago (May 2010) and currently exists mainly as a small virtual community, so there is little relation of controversies and allegations from the distant past to the current membership, or alignment to its history of the past 10 years," a spokesperson for the organization told ABC News via email in November. "TFI has expressed its apologies on a number of occasions to any members who feel that they were hurt in any way during their membership, which are also posted online. For all intents and purposes, TFI no longer exists as a structured entity or communal movement."
Flor and Tamar said they were never sexually abused, but they said they were physically abused as children.
“[Children] would be getting spanked really young,” Flor said. “My little sister she was like 6 months old which, you know, you don’t get spanked at that age.”
Some former members of The Children of God have committed suicide. One member named Ricky Rodriguez, who was deemed a prophet inside the sect, made headlines in 2005 when he murdered his alleged abuser, who had also been a former Children of God member, and then committed suicide at age 29.
Tamar said she wanted to take her own life when she was just 7 years old.
“I wanted to take my life and it really came from a place of first of all... there wasn’t room for play and fun and that’s what every kid wants,” Tamar Edwards said. “I wanted to escape what was going on and second of all, I really didn't want to go through the apocalypse.”
“The apocalypse seemed really scary,” she continued. “The whole Earth burning in the lake of fire, they had a whole agenda of what was going to happen like a lot of religions do, so it was terrifying.”
The group disbanded after David Berg died in 1994, and suddenly the twins said they were forced into a life they had never lived before.
“We wake up in the morning, and I just remember looking outside, and looking on the lawn, and everyone was outside with their things packed up,” Flor recalled. “We walked around the house, like, the house was empty.”
Days after the group disbanded, Flor and Tamar said the Rev. Pongsak Limthongviratn, a Thai pastor, came to their family’s aid, counseled them and helped them navigate life outside of the religious sect.
Flor and Tamar said they still struggle to live normal lives as adults today. They both live in California now. Flor is a freelance writer and office coordinator. Tamar teaches yoga in San Francisco.
“It’s hard to go out and have a drink at the bar like normal social things that people do,” Flor said. “Meeting someone at a party when they ask where you’re from I almost want to go run away and hide.”
The hardest part, she said, is not being prepared for the real world and not being taught how to live outside the walls that had long surrounded them.
“It’s the hardest thing to have lived a life where you weren’t prepared for what was on the other side and then be on the other side,” Flor said. “That’s definitely been the hardest part for most of the kids. I don’t even think the upbringing was that difficult as much as being told a lie your whole life.”
Both Flor and Tamar admit that although they still have questions about their past, they want to move forward.
“Who are we supposed to be mad at?” Flor asked. “Father David's dead. I already said I'm not blaming my parents because of what we've been through together. I can't blame all the other adults. ... Should I blame God? Should I blame religion? I don't even know who to direct my anger at. And already that becomes very exhausting for me. So instead, I just do what I can with what I have.”