March 27, 2023 | Samantha Henman

The Phoenix Brothers Went From Cult To Celebrity

If any of these faces look familiar, it’s because two of them went on to be huge stars. Third from left is Joaquin Phoenix and on the far right is his older brother, River. Though their family was incredibly tight-knit, their childhood was far from idyllic. 

Phoenix Brothers EditorialGetty Images

River was born River Jude Bottom, the eldest of five siblings to Arlyn Dunetz and John Lee Bottom. His parents were what he called “hippie-ish”, and often struggled to make ends meet. River never attended school and would perform music on street corners to help make enough to feed his siblings. Unfortunately, this situation left the whole family vulnerable to sinister influences. 

The Children Of God

When River was three, his parents joined the infamous “Children of God” cult, who sent them to work in Caracas, Venezuela. The group’s philosophy was what you’d expect from a cult: a mix of Christian worship and risque behavior, and the belief that the apocalypse was nearly here. While living with the group, River suffered horrific abuse. Eventually, four years later, his parents fled the cult—taking on the surname “Phoenix”, like the bird that rises from its own ashes. 

Though the story of the family’s time with the cult became part of River’s mythology—he occasionally shared details about what he’d endured—his younger brother Joaquin went on to disavow everything River had said. Joaquin claimed that River’s lurid stories were just his own way of messing with the press. Which brother is telling the truth? 

Well, since River died in 1993, there’s no way to know. However, other ex-members of the Children of God have made claims that mirrored River’s experiences. The “church” still exists today—though they’ve walked back their claims that the apocalypse is imminent. 

Sources: 1, 2

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