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.

The children had workbooks that Bremner's parents had sent; occasionally Wright corrected their work.

Other methods of instruction were less conventional. Wright wrote philosophical sayings on little pieces of paper and taped them to the walls at a child's eye level. To teach the toddlers how to be calm in the face of evil, Wright bought ugly reptile masks and instructed the older children to put them on and scare the younger ones. He'd watch television with the two oldest girls and point out all the lascivious male behavior. "Men are dogs," Campbell remembers him telling them.

Though Bremner's oldest daughter was 15 at the time of the family's arrest, there had been no talk of her going to college, getting a job, or dating boys. When asked what the family had envisioned their children would do when they turned 18, Wright responded with a blank look and said, "They'd live with us!"

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

The family's members took great pains to provide what they thought was the healthiest possible diet for their children. It was vegetarian, low-fat, and organic, substituting soy milk for cow's. But like everything else in the kids' lives, how much they ate was tightly controlled. X-rays of the children after the family's arrest showed growth disturbance lines in two of the children's bones, indicating periods of insufficient caloric intake.

The most severe problem with the diet, however, was its lack of vitamin D. Usually absorbed through the intestine from foods, particularly cow's milk, or produced by the skin when it is exposed to sunlight, vitamin D helps regulate people's calcium and phosphate levels. A deficiency can result in a softening or weakening of the bones, a condition known as rickets that can be prevented or reversed by a lifestyle that includes plenty of cow's milk and sunshine -- both of which were in short supply in the family's household.

In the wake of Ndigo's death from malnutrition, nearly all the remaining 12 children were found to be suffering from rickets. Wilson had a 5-year-old son whose legs were so badly knock-kneed they had to be broken and then reset in surgery. Her 2-year-old son was unable to sit, stand, or bear weight. To move, he pushed his head along the ground like a wheelbarrow. Campbell's 4-year-old son's arms and legs were bowed, and when he was asked by doctors to hop on one foot, he appeared to be in pain.

The family didn't see the deformities as reason to subject the children to the "MediCult," their name for evil Western doctors.

"He told us that it was just cosmetic," says Campbell. The children were genetically programmed to look that way and would probably grow out of it, Wright said. If they didn't, what did it matter? There was too much attention in Western culture paid to physical appearance anyway. The important thing was who you were on the inside. When any of the children showed signs of illness, the family would treat them with natural remedies and try to think positive thoughts.

Because, Wright said, bad things happened in the world as a result of people's karma.

"Here's Deirdre, graduated from one of the best universities in the country, intelligent, aware," says Robin Kliger, a UC Berkeley professor of anthropology and a protégé of Margaret Singer hired by the Wilsons to talk to their daughter in the early 1990s. "How did she end up way over here?"

The same could have been asked of any of the women in Wright's family. Bremner had graduated as class salutatorian from her Pasadena high school and had attended UC Berkeley as a regents scholar. Campbell had always been "very bright academically," according to her sister.

The question of how such intelligent women fell under the control of a maniacal crack addict goes to the heart of how cults work. "[I]ntelligence can be more of a liability," says Ford Greene, a San Anselmo attorney who specializes in cases involving cults. "It makes one more open."

Psychologists who study coercion believe that anyone can be taken advantage of, if approached during a low period of his life. "[Cults] go for ... people who are looking for answers, lonely, what you'd call 'normal people,'" wrote cult expert Margaret Singer.

According to psychologists who study mind control, many people are vulnerable to cult recruitment when they leave home for the first time. (This explains why many cults recruit on college campuses.) Older people may feel lonely and confused when going through a divorce, or suffering from the death of a loved one.

Wilson and Campbell met Wright when they were both 23 years old, just after parting ways with lovers, in a new city where they didn't have stable jobs or many friends. "A life transition makes people more vulnerable not just to cults, but getting involved in a shaky business deal or with a bad group of people," says Patrick O'Reilly, a clinical psychologist at UCSF and president of the San Francisco Psychological Association. "That's where the con men come in."

The con man intuits a target's dreams and concerns and presents an apparent solution.

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