Via Vanity Fair, by Joe Hagan | Photos by Ethan James Green.


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It was October 28, 1977, his third birthday, and Phoenix and his family were aboard a cargo ship bound for Miami from Venezuela. His parents had just abandoned their lives as followers of a notorious religious cult, the Children of God, which was led by a charismatic former preacher named David Berg, who called himself Moses. Phoenix’s parents, who spent much of the late 1960s wandering the West Coast in a VW microbus, had become missionaries, traveling around the southern U.S., Venezuela, and Puerto Rico, and giving birth to Rain, Joaquin, and Liberty along the way. To sing about God, Rain and first-born River went busking on the street. The organization made Phoenix’s parents “the archbishops” of Venezuela and Trinidad.

In those years, Children of God had not descended fully into the darkness and perversion for which it became infamous, including the use of sex for recruitment and allegedly introducing children to sex at a young age. The family was far from Berg’s orbit. When they realized what was happening, the Phoenixes, whose last name was then Bottom, left the cult, disillusioned, penniless, and expecting a fifth child, Summer.

The freighter was carrying a container with Tonka toys, and the crew gave Phoenix a truck and made him a birthday cake. “I vividly remember this cake, and I think it was probably the first cake that I ever had, like a proper cake,” Phoenix says. “I remember the toys. I had never gotten a new toy before, and really the most jarring and intense memory was what led to our veganism.”

He and his older siblings, River and Rain, were watching flying fish leap out of the water when Joaquin observed some fishermen pulling their catches off their rods and throwing them violently against nails that had been pounded into the wall of the vessel. At that moment, he says, it dawned on him that the fish his parents had been feeding him back in Venezuela, where they lived in a beach house and sang praise songs to God on the streets, were actually these helpless, flapping creatures being tortured to death on deck.

“It was so violent, it was just so intense,” he recalls. “I have a vivid memory of my mom’s face, which—I have seen that same face maybe one other time, where she was completely speechless because we yelled at her. ‘How come you didn’t tell us that’s what fish was?’ I remember tears streaming down her face.… She didn’t know what to say.”

Two months later, after moving to Winter Park, Florida, the entire family converted to veganism. In 1979 they piled into a station wagon—with a new last name, Phoenix—and drove to Hollywood, where they reinvented themselves as an unlikely troupe of child actors and singers who appeared in TV shows like Family Ties and Hill Street Blues, espoused veganism and animal rights, and featured a beautiful eldest son, the shooting star River Phoenix.

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