By Blaine Zuckerman
September 05, 2011 12:00 PM

Rose McGowan recalls being warned as a child never to wear nail polish because “God could see the filth under my nails,” says the actress, 38, who gained fame on the TV series Charmed and as the onetime flame of goth rocker Marilyn Manson. “God could see you’re bad, you’re evil.” McGowan was raised in Italy by American parents Daniel and Terry, members of the Children of God-a polygamous cult that blended free-love attitudes with Christian proselytizing (see box, page 108). At age 9, she fled with her father, who feared she would be sexually abused. Now appearing in the film Conan the Barbarian 3D, McGowan opens up in detail for the first time to PEOPLE’s Blaine Zuckerman about her harrowing childhood.

My mother is brilliant; she graduated Phi Beta Kappa and speaks three languages. And my dad was an incredibly talented artist. He became really passionate about Jesus and fell into this group [the Children of God]. I guess it strangely made sense to them. I was born right outside of Florence. We were living on this duke’s property-they needed a place where they could house 50 to 60 hippies. The children were kept very separate from the parents. I learned how to read at 3, and I was reading Edgar Allan Poe at 6. But I don’t think anyone taught me to tie my shoes for a very long time. The group encouraged you to have a lot of kids as fast as you could. Then if you made plans to leave, they would lean on you. You know … maybe your kids would disappear.

Like in most cults, you were cut off from your [outside] family. There were no newspapers, no television. You were kept in the dark so you would obey. It was not a wealthy existence. I remember being very angry when an adult [in the group] had taken all of my lira that I had earned singing Jesus songs with my banjo. You weren’t allowed to have imperfections. I had a little wart on my thumb, and I remember walking down this hallway-a door opened and some adult grabbed me and just cut it off with a razor blade and stuck me back out in the hallway with it still bleeding.

I was always in trouble. They would say, “Have you let God into your heart?” and I would say, “No.” I did believe in God, but I didn’t believe in their god. I was pissed off. I lit a wall of Bibles on fire-took a candle to it. At 5, I was drawing monsters and sharks and stabbing holes through paper. My father was pretty much a lifelong hippie, and I just came out so differently. When I was little and there were all these women with hairy legs, even though I had no reference point for non-hairy legs, I was disgusted by it. I basically just came out of the womb waving red lipstick. When I first came to the U.S., Dynasty was on, and I remember seeing Joan Collins and thinking, “My people!”

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. [McGowan’s father had two wives: Terry, mother to Rose and her siblings Nat and Daisy; and Rebecca.] Women would bring people into the group however they could. The women would go to bars as lures [and pick up recruits]-they called it Flirty Fishing.

My father, who did the illustrations for these little comic books called tracts [used by the cult to disseminate information], got wind that the group was starting to advocate child-adult sex. They were telling him to draw cartoons about it. Their whole thing was that children are very sexual beings. "God made children able to enjoy sex, so he must’ve expected them to!" the group’s founder, David Berg, proclaimed in a book. I was not molested because my dad was strong enough to realize that this hippie love had gone south.

We had to leave on the sly. My dad, Nat, Daisy and I escaped with my dad’s other wife in the middle of the night. 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. We hid in an old stone house and had to boil pots of hot water to take baths. [The cult] sent people to find us. I remember a man trying to break in with a hammer.

We moved again and again, and then we went to Colorado. It was not an easy assimilation. The supermarkets were brightly lit, and the music that was piped in freaked us out. My mom [by then divorced from Rose’s father] had stayed behind a while longer but eventually made her way back to the U.S. I got sent to live with her in Oregon, but I ran away when I was 13 because I had a mean stepdad. After about a year of living on the street, I met up with my dad [who officially married his "other wife," Rebecca, in the U.S.] and we lived together in Washington. We did a lot of repair work on our relationship. We became really close when he was diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis at age 60. [He died in 2008.] He realized that believing he could change the world with hippie love had taken a bad turn. He took the blinders off. That takes a lot of bravery.

[In 1997] I met Marilyn Manson, who is one of the sweetest people you could ever meet, and I ran away with the circus. That’s what I needed for 3½ years. I just needed to not be responsible, to have fun. Then eventually I kind of grew up.

Today my brothers and sisters are my favorite people on the planet. They are the most together, offbeat, funny, regular-ish people. My mom is now happily married. She won’t talk about [the past].

But it still shocks me. For example, when my house fell out of escrow recently, I thought, “It must be a sign; God must not want me to sell my house.” Two seconds later there was a huge offer on it and I thought, “God must want me to sell it.” I realized, “Oh, this is completely programmed.” So much of my career and even relationships are completely based on, “God must want me to do this.” It horrifies me. There’s a trail of some very damaged children that were in this group. As strong as I like to think I’ve always been, I’m sure I could have been broken. I know I got out by the skin of my teeth.