Death in the Family

Once you learn the full story of the mom-and-pop cult known as "The Family," you'll understand an unsettling reality: Any of us might have joined in.

Born in 1964, Campbell was brought up in a conventional Italian-American family. The daughter of a psychiatric hospital orderly and a stay-at-home mom, she went to Catholic Mass every Sunday. As a child, she was accident-prone, bumping into chairs and tables in an attempt to get the attention of her emotionally distant father. But in high school, she threw herself into her role as teen queen, a bubbly sex symbol of sorts, focusing less on studies than on disco dancing. Though intelligent, she wasn't interested in college. At the urging of her mother, she went to what was then considered a tony secretarial school in Manhattan, the Katherine Gibbs School, to "have something to fall back on."

Still, Campbell was a romantic. She wore miniskirts and garter belts to catch men's eyes and dreamed of "getting married, having kids, and being all domestic." When she was 23, her boyfriend of five years suggested they move to San Francisco; she agreed. But the relationship fizzled, and she was left lonely in a new city, farther than she'd ever lived from her close-knit family.

One day in 1988, Carol Bremner struck up a conversation with Campbell at the Ashbury Market, where Campbell was working at the deli counter. The younger woman was more than happy to chat.

Winnfred Wright.
Courtesy of AP Wide World Photos
Winnfred Wright.
Deirdre Wilson.
Courtesy of AP Wide World Photos
Deirdre Wilson.

"Would you like to be part of a women's mural project?" Bremner asked.

In the year that had passed since Wilson had moved in with Wright, their little family had grown. Susan Weber had joined, and both she and Wilson had had babies. When Campbell arrived at Wright's apartment on Noriega Street, an intoxicating scene was spread before her. Wright's three wives -- Bremner, Wilson, and Weber -- sat on the floor, tending to their children. The whole setup of the family seemed "very politically correct," Campbell said in one of several interviews. They seemed like "nice, smart, and good mothers."

Later that evening, Campbell met Wright. "He was the whole package," she said. Attractive, artistic, and best of all, romantic. On Campbell's second visit, he fixed her with a very intense look and said something that, in the back of her mind, she'd always longed to hear.

"Baby," he told her, "you're going to be with me forever." They would, he went on, raise a family together. To prove his point, he refused to use birth control when they made love. Campbell interpreted this to mean "he was really serious about me and really meant what he said about wanting to have babies with me."

Ten weeks after meeting Wright, Campbell discovered she was pregnant. Bremner made her an offer she couldn't refuse: If she moved in with the family, she could quit her job, and the rest of them would financially support her for two years. She could stay home with both her baby and her lover.

"Wow -- I could really do this," Campbell remembered thinking. It was, she felt at the time, a wonderful environment in which to raise her baby.

Life in the family wasn't exactly what it had seemed from the outside. Once they moved in, the women were told that there were certain expectations. For starters, so they would evolve spiritually, things were to be "Spartan" and "pure," as Wilson would later describe it. In the beginning, Wright insisted that the women wear head scarves and even at times nunlike habits.

"Mary, you're going to have to stop dressing so sexy," Wright said when Campbell moved into the apartment. "I don't want other men to see what's mine."

Wright elaborated his philosophy in a letter to SF Weekly: "Matriarchal family/circles like ours naturally promote the empowerment of women to their traditional greatness over that candy-ass, air-headed, Barbie doll, slutted out, sell out, selfish, disempowered Patriarchal female paper doll (that the designs of social conditioning promote)."

Wright saw the world in black and white; people were either with you or against you. Family and friends represented potential obstacles to the women's spiritual evolution and should be used only when needed. Wright told Campbell she was "too good now to mix with others" and stressed over and over again that the women should trust nobody outside the family. They were encouraged to drop all their old friendships and keep new relationships at the surface level only.

When Campbell's childhood friend Dawn Kakimoto came to visit, "members of the household followed at a close distance," never losing sight of the two women as they strolled to a nearby park, according to public records. Campbell remembers her ex-boyfriend coming to the house to try to rescue her; Campbell and the other women cowered in the corner while Wright screamed at him, "Go away, she wants to be here!"

Although Campbell kept up a superficial telephone relationship with her family (a sister once got a letter proudly stating that Wright had "levitated someone"), Wilson, Bremner, and Weber were on rockier terms with theirs. All three families tried on numerous occasions to talk to their daughters reasonably and, when that failed, contacted individuals with experience in rescuing people from cults. The Wilsons tried on at least two occasions to extricate their daughter through a third party, with no success. Wright told the women their parents were selfish "haters" trying to hamper their daughters' personal growth. He insisted that they were racists who wouldn't admit that their objection to him was his black skin.

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