Years before his 1993 drug overdose, the actor spent his formative years in the controversial religious sect

By Steve Helling
May 29, 2019 08:01 AM

Years before he became an acclaimed child star, actor River Phoenix spent several years in a controversial religious cult — and those close to him say that he carried the trauma for the rest of his life.
Phoenix’s parents, John and Arlyn, joined the Children of God when he was just 3. They stayed in the group for about six years in the 1970s.

“They wanted to make a good life for their kids that wasn’t the typical ‘white picket fence’ kind of life,” Phoenix’s friend Joshua Greenbaum says in the second-season premiere of People Magazine Investigates: Cults, which airs on Investigation Discovery on Monday, June 3, at 9 p.m. ET. “Obviously, they were searching for something.”

To raise money for the cult, the Phoenix family traveled and often busked on the street for money. They moved around constantly until landing in California, where the family launched entertainment careers for all five of their children: River, Joaquin, Rain, Summer and Liberty.

The Phoenix Family in 1985. From Left: River, Arlyn, Rain, Joaquin, Summer, John and Liberty
Dianna Whitley

River, who starred in 24 movies, first gained critical and popular acclaim when he starred in the 1986 film Stand by Me. Two years later, he costarred in Running on Empty, which landed him his first and only Oscar nomination.

Ramona Rosales

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As his star rose, he rarely spoke about his time in the Children of God. In 1991, he told Details magazine that he lost his virginity at age 4, but he didn’t elaborate. “I’ve blocked it out,” he told the magazine.

On October 31, 1993, Phoenix died of a drug overdose outside a West Hollywood Club. He was 23.
Those close to him wonder if his involvement in the Children of God might have played a part in his untimely death. “It was not a healthy situation,” says Greenbaum. “You can’t go through that trauma at such a young age and not be affected by it for the rest of your life.”

People Magazine Investigates: Cults airs on Investigation Discovery on Monday, June 3, at 9 p.m ET.