Obvious History: Rose McGowan’s childhood in a polygamous cult

Published March 1, 2018

In collaboration with @velvetcokeObvious History is a weekly series which unearths forgotten moments in pop culture’s past, where the famous and the fascinating collided.

Rose McGowan’s childhood was spent on a former duke’s property, just outside of Florence, Italy, living under the oppressive thumb of 50 to 60 other hippies who belonged to the polygamous Children of God sect. It was the same cult that River Phoenix grew up in. As the adults were busy preparing for the Second Coming of Christ, the children were kept separately from their parents and mostly left to their own devices. “I have no memory of [my parents] almost until we got out of it,” McGowan recalled in Interview’s March 1997 issue, “Although I learned to read when I was three, and I’ve clear memories from that time on.”

“My father ran the Italian chapter, and from the outside it would be considered strange, but if you grow up in it, it’s normal,” she continues. “I suppose all children are at the mercy of their parents, and whatever trip they happen to be on, and my parents were tripping pretty hard.” [laughs]

Though she was a child with no parental guidance, her moral compass told her that what was happening around her was wrong. “I remember watching how the [cult’s] men were with the women, and at a very early age I decided I did not want to be like those women. They were basically there to serve the men sexually—you were allowed to have more than one wife,” she told People. She wasn’t allowed to paint her nails, as “God could see the filth under my nails.”

McGowan rebelled by burning a wall of Bibles and responding in the negative whenever anyone would ask if she had “let God into her heart.”

At age nine, she escaped the cult together with her father once it was made clear that sexual relations between adults and children were encouraged. “My dad, Nat, Daisy and I escaped with my dad’s other wife in the middle of the night,” she told People. “I remember running through a cornfield in thunder and lightning, holding my dad’s hand and running as fast as I could to keep up with him … [The cult] sent people to find us. I remember a man trying to break in with a hammer.”

The cult—still in existence—now destroys lives under the name The Family International. McGowan went on to live in Oregon with her mother before she ran away from home and met Marilyn Manson, whom she dated for four years.