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.

Wilson, too, had her nose broken. During a drug-inspired hallucination, the women said in court records, Wright also hit her on the back of the neck with the blunt end of a hatchet, leaving her bleeding. The next morning, accompanied by a cowed Bremner, Wright took Wilson at gunpoint to the dunes of Fort Funston and told her she was going to die. A moment later, he changed his mind, and they drove home.

According to public records, Wilson said she felt "strangely detached" during these incidents. She "had completely bought the notion of the 'karmic life,' so that whatever befell her was as it was supposed to be," the report says.

The women wore sunglasses to cover black eyes and avoided the probing questions of co-workers. Their Sunset District apartment, usually neat as a pin, now had boards over the windows; the walls were splattered with blood.

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

"We were terrified of him," says Campbell.

Unable to take it anymore, Weber left with her remaining child under cover of night. None of the other women followed. Wright told them Susan was "weak" and praised them for being "strong." A dire fate awaited Weber as a result of her bad karma, he warned, and because she had "nigger kids," nobody would help her. Deathly afraid that Wright might track her down, Weber changed her name and moved out of state. She could not be reached for comment for this article.

"This brief period ... seemed to test and/or strengthen the white mothers' love and commitment to our family/circle somehow," wrote Wright in a recent letter to SF Weekly. "This was indicated by the fact that Susan could not hang with us, and the other mothers could."

He told the women to wait and be patient, that the phase he was going through would end. After a year and a half, the physical violence stopped, just as he'd promised.

Douglas Horngrad, Wilson's attorney, would later posit a theory as to why: "[You] don't have to get your nose broken every morning to understand who's running things in that household."

When Ndigo died in 2001, the family had 12 other children, ranging in age from 8 months to 15 years. Following the example of "tribal cultures," all the children had been delivered at home by Bremner, and few had ever seen a doctor. They were home schooled.

In Marinwood, where the family last lived, the children slept on bedrolls spread out across the floor, making the house by night look like a slumber party. The neighbors had no idea there were so many children living there; the kids spent most of their lives indoors. Wright believed that if they spent much time outside, the children would, Campbell remembers him saying, "soak up the corruption of the world, because they are like sponges."

A San Francisco public health nurse visited the family's apartment once in 1991, following the death of Weber's baby, but at that time found no evidence of child abuse or neglect. No city agency, either in San Francisco or Marin County, checked up on the children after that.

The older kids spent most of their day taking care of the little children and doing housework. They washed and hung laundry, cooked, changed diapers, and acted as disciplinarians. Their daily outing consisted of Wright taking them to play basketball. On the weekends they visited the farmers' market. They never went to movies and had no friends. The youngest children, who were, in Wright's opinion, "most vulnerable to negative vibrations," were allowed outside most infrequently. The windows of the house were often covered in dark curtains.

Like the adults, the children were taught to strive for perfection as if they were military cadets. The family attempted to resolve disputes by having sit-down "processing" discussions, during which each child would get to speak his piece. But immaturity was not tolerated. If processing and warnings failed, the children were subject to a Byzantine system of punishments, often meted out by the older children when adults were unavailable. One of the punishments was "the board," a weight bench to which an offending child would be strapped and then hit with a belt by other members of the family.

If a child made too much noise, he had his mouth covered with athletic tape. The inspiration for this popular family punishment came from Native Americans, who supposedly put their hands over their children's mouths to keep them silent from enemies. Other punishments included short fasts, or restricted diets that included only raw foods or juices. "When delegating work, make sure the person does it whether or not you have to threaten them with punishment, and if they don't do what you tell them to, you give them punishment," read one entry in the family's "Book of Rules" notebook.

Campbell's 8-year-old daughter was high-spirited, so Bremner wrote an entire page of rules, mapping out her "Route to Ascension." The little girl must fast for a week, wear a cap made from the wrappers of energy bars she had stolen from the kitchen because she was hungry, and "get tape" at all times. Household chores would be timed, and at night, she was to be tied to a playpen with soft twine. If she had to pee, she'd be forced to do it in a portable potty next to the playpen.

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