TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Faith Jones, is the granddaughter of the founder of the cult group The Children of God, which changed its name to The Family. She was raised in the cult. Joaquin Phoenix, Rose McGowan and Lauren Hough spent part of their childhoods in the cult, too. Among the teachings preached by Jones's grandfather, David Berg - who was known as Moses David or Mo for short or Grandpa - was that the central tenets of Christianity were about love, and therefore men could take multiple wives, and women had to share their bodies with any of the men who wanted to have sex with them. Birth control was taboo. All of the members, known as disciples, had to be full-time missionaries and live together in communes.
The group was founded in 1968 and grew to an average, at any one time, of 10,000 members in 170 countries. Jones says the group's more radical practices led to police raids and negative press in many countries, with accusations of kidnapping, prostitution and child abuse. Her grandfather was on Interpol's wanted list for decades. The group disbanded its communes in 2010. For most of Jones's childhood, she lived on a commune in Macau, an island off the coast of China.
Faith Jones summoned up the courage to leave the group when she was 23. Although she was self-schooled, after moving to America, she got a scholarship to Georgetown University and then went on to University of California, Berkeley Law School. After law school, she worked for the law firm Skadden Arps. She now has her own legal practice and consulting business.
And I just wanted to mention to the parents of young children that since sex figures into this cult group's practices, be advised that we will be talking about sexuality and unconsenting (ph) sex during this interview.
Faith Jones, welcome to FRESH AIR. So your grandfather predicted the rapture would happen in 1993, when Jesus returned after seven years of tribulations and plagues. Where did your grandfather, the founder of Children of God, see himself fitting in? Did he see himself as a form of Messiah? Did he see himself as one of Jesus's messengers?
FAITH JONES: He saw himself as the prophet of the end time. I think when he was younger, his mother, I believe, got a prophecy over him naming him as David of the End. So he saw himself as the reincarnation of King David and the end-time prophet.
GROSS: So what happened when the rapture didn't happen in 1993?
JONES: Well, I think, like most cult leaders, he started to prepare people for that a bit beforehand by, you know, saying that, well, you know, God has given us more time because we're doing such a good job of, you know, winning souls for Jesus. So he's giving us more time. He's delaying the end time. So there's always a rationale to kind of wiggle out of those prophecies (laughter) or predictions.
GROSS: How old were you in 1993, and had you prepared yourself for the second coming?
JONES: I mean, I thought that I wasn't going to live beyond being a teenager, so everything we did was to prepare ourselves. How old was I in 1993? I think maybe I was 15 or 16.
GROSS: Were you relieved when the rapture didn't happen?
JONES: Yes, but it's a little tricky there because we were training our whole lives for this. I mean, I used to lay in bed at night and think about, what would I do if I was in prison for years? What would I do if the Antichrist soldiers came and tried to capture everyone I knew? Would I be able to escape through the woods? Or, you know, I mean, we would - we actively planned for these types of scenarios. And, you know, our training was - everything about our training was to prepare for the end time.
I personally felt - I wasn't relieved the rapture didn't happen. I was relieved that the Great Tribulation hadn't happened yet and that we weren't being chased through the woods and shot and, you know, imprisoned and tortured.
GROSS: What a terrifying childhood.
So, you know, The Children of God, aka The Family, was most famous for its preachings about love and sex. Your grandfather preached that the wife of one man is the wife of God, and therefore the wife of all men. He wrote that sex is a bodily need as great as hunger or shelter. Jesus fed the multitudes with loaves and fishes so they would not be so hungry and could hear his teachings. In the same way, the women have to satisfy a man's sexual desire before they are ready to hear about Jesus. That is quite a leap from what Jesus said.
JONES: I agree, and I think if you do a unbiased review of those verses, I don't think you can make that leap. But my grandfather had a very persuasive way about him in how he interpreted things and how he backed it up, taking bits and pieces of scripture and mashing them together and then creating interpretations around them.
But one of the things specifically with this type of doctrine that he used was to say that it's given to him or to, you know, The Family as his end time army, to understand the true meaning of these scriptures and to have these additional freedoms that perhaps other people didn't understand.
GROSS: So one of the things that this teaching led to was polygamy. Your grandfather had two wives?
JONES: Yes, although he had many other women that he would deem to be married to him or, you know, crown as a queen and say that they were his wife. But really, he had initially my grandmother, who was known as Mother Eve within the group, and then Karen Zerby, who became known as Maria or Mama Maria. But I don't think that they were even legally married, actually.
GROSS: And what about your father? How many wives did he have?
JONES: My father had two wives - his first wife, Esther, and his second wife was my mother, Ruthie, in the book.
GROSS: Do you know how your mother felt about having another wife in the family?
JONES: Well, my mother was the second wife, so as she describes it to me - and as I saw as a child - they actually had a very peaceful and happy marriage. She was grateful to his first wife for being very accepting of her, and I think his first wife was grateful to have someone else to help with the kids and the home and taking care of my father and kind of have - my father was a very - how would I put it? - difficult man in some ways. He was very strong-willed. So I think, as they've described it to me, she was happy to have somebody else on her side (laughter).
GROSS: As radical as polygamy may sound to people, what was far more radical was the idea of sharing. Would you explain what sharing meant?
JONES: Sharing meant that you were supposed to have sex with people who were not your spouse, specifically, as you said before, with the doctrine of the law of love that grandpa considered sex to be a bodily need, it was deemed that, you know, within the group, the women were supposed to share with men, even men they didn't like, in order to make sure that everybody's needs was "taken care of," quote-unquote.
GROSS: Everybody meaning men (laughter).
JONES: Men (laughter) yes, I mean men. And this was even put on schedules on the wall. So you would have a sharing schedule on the wall, which would have, say, you know, which woman was supposed to have sex with which man on the schedule.
GROSS: Wow, it sounds like the way housework is divided in some homes.
JONES: Well, housework was divided the same way.
GROSS: So women and housework were divided the same way.
JONES: Yeah. So we also had a schedule for that, for all of our daily chores - cooking, cleaning, taking care of the kids, et cetera.
GROSS: At what age was this explained to you and how was it initially explained to you?
JONES: Well, I can't remember not knowing about it because, as children, we sat in on devotions, which it was called when we read the - from my grandpa's letters, the Mo Letters that you described. But even the Mo Letters themselves were taken and put into comic form to teach these principles to us children. So I always knew about it. It was just something I grew up with. I can't remember not knowing about sex, not hearing about the law of love, sexual sharing. It was prevalent.
GROSS: Let's take a break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Faith Jones. Her new memoir is called "Sex Cult Nun." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF JOAN JEANRENAUD'S "AXIS")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Faith Jones. Her new memoir is called "Sex Cult Nun: Breaking Away From The Children Of God, A Wild, Radical Religious Cult." The cult was founded by her grandfather.
You write that your first coloring book had pretty explicit sexual images in it that you had a color in, and you complained that there was too much flesh tone (laughter) - you needed too many flesh tone crayons because the characters were naked that you were coloring in. So the whole idea, I think, was to bring up children - to raise children in such a way that they thought this radical notion of sexual sharing was, like, perfectly normal...
GROSS: ...And to prepare you from the very start that, like, this is what life is about. This is the way it works.
JONES: Yes. Yeah, I think that's accurate. I mean, there's two sides to this, right? And one is to say, OK, we want our children to grow up and have a healthy attitude towards sex, not be repressed or have guilt or shame or, you know, anxiety around sex, to approve of your body. And then there is the other side of that, which takes it into another realm, which is - could be called grooming - right? - which is, like, oversexualization of children or sexualization at far too young an age. So I think - and part of what I talk about and part of what I think we have to really think about is what is the right balance there? How do you raise children to feel good about themselves and their bodies and, at the same time, not put them in a situation where they're being exposed to it at too young an age, where they're being inundated in it - right? - and being hypersexualized? I think that's a question a lot of thinking parents may have.
GROSS: Absolutely. But in the case of this cult group, it was about grooming you for coerced sex, for what many people would just describe as out-and-out rape because no consent on the part of the girl or the woman was required. If a man wants you, you know, you had to give up your body. So that's - that - I don't think anybody would think that that's really, like, a healthy attitude for men or women to have about sex.
JONES: No, it's absolutely not a healthy attitude. And these are the distinctions that I'm drawing in the book because I think that a lot of people in the cult didn't see it as that, right? They didn't see it as grooming or as child abuse. And that's why I think it's so important to describe exactly what is and isn't. And that's why I'm creating those distinctions. And within the group even, and as I talk about, the woman was supposed to consent, you see? Like, rape, out-and-out rape - like, we weren't - nobody was going to hold you down and force you, right? But the concept was you're being prepared to have to yield your body. So you're being psychologically coerced into believing that you had to say yes. We were taught we had to say yes. We weren't taught that we could say no. Because if we said no, then what did that mean? We were not being yielded to God.
GROSS: When you wanted to say no, you had to keep telling yourself God wants me to do this. You know, basically, I'll just, like, hold my nose and submit because I am supposed to yield to God. God wants me to yield to this command.
JONES: And the psychological manipulation was very strong and also - and as I talk about it - combined with the fear of punishment.
GROSS: Yes. What was the punishment if you didn't yield?
JONES: So, you know, first, we're talking about kids that are brought up being - experiencing quite harsh corporal punishment, right? - so very harsh spankings and things like that, which already are trying to get a child into a position where they are afraid of saying no or displeasing the adults.
GROSS: Yeah, I'll just put in parentheses here, your sister was given 100 blows by what was called the God rod.
JONES: The rod of God.
GROSS: The rod of God, yeah. So your father administered 100 swats on her. That is a lot, and she was screaming in pain.
JONES: Yeah. So the coercive element of this is that when you're taught, this is what God wants you to do - right? - and at the same time, you were taught that if you don't do that - right? - so there were Mo Letters written called "The Girl Who Wouldn't," for instance, which blasted - like, public humiliation for this woman who wouldn't submit to a particular type of sex with one of the leaders. And so it was just in our face. If you were not submitting to this, if you were not willing to do this, that meant you were unyielded to God.
Now, if you were being unyielded to God, then you needed to be broken. Your pride, your independence, your ego needed to be broken so that you would become more submissive and yielded to God and willing to do whatever God/the group leaders told you to do. And this was justified using scriptures from the Bible and things like, you know, 1 Corinthians for ye are not your own. You are bought with a price. Therefore, glorify God in your body and in your spirit, which are God's. And that was used to say, you're not your own. Your body does not belong to you. Your body belongs to God, and you need to use it for whatever God asks. But of course, it wasn't God asking, right? It was the leadership.
GROSS: Was there an age threshold for girls that once they cross that age, they were expected to submit to sex? And did that age change over time?
JONES: So there was a period of time in the early '80s, I guess you could say - maybe late '70s, early '80s - when an adult-child sexual conduct was condoned. And kids were, you know, supposed to engage in that with adults. Now, that became banned, but I had my own experiences of that, you know, as young as 6 years old, 10 years old. And then - but there was an age where, for - I mean, women, it was, you know, not supposed to be till, you know, after you're probably around 12 years old. That was when you were deemed to be becoming an adult. Sometimes the boys engaged in it at younger ages. There was a different - sort of a different standard, I guess you could say.
And, you know, I was very grateful that I missed out on that 'cause the rules changed when I was around 10 years old and then it banned sexual contact between adults and children for a variety of reasons, which I talk about in the book. But yeah, there - I mean, there was a time it was - I don't know that there was a hard-and-fast rule about it, about the age, but, you know, there was sort of a general idea that, you know, 12 years old, you would become an adult, so you would engage in adult activities. And then over time, as the kids got older, that age range kept going up to 15, 16, 18, so...
GROSS: Birth control was considered pretty much taboo. What about, like, young teenagers, like, 13-year-old girls who became pregnant? What happened to them? Did you know girls who were in that position?
JONES: I didn't know of anybody who became pregnant that young. Definitely girls at 15 became pregnant. I'm not saying there weren't any. I'm just saying I didn't - I never heard of any. I definitely knew girls who got pregnant at 15 and who were then expected to marry. Usually if it was a young man who had gotten them pregnant - right? - another teenager, they would be expected to marry. So, I mean, that was initially sort of the rule, so ended up creating - we had all these young teens that were having sex with each other and, you know, then certain of them were pressured into getting married to people that they perhaps didn't want to at that time because they got pregnant.
GROSS: What if they got pregnant with an adult, with an older man, not a teenager?
JONES: I didn't see that happen myself, so I can't really speak to that. We would - you know, that would be something you might hear about through the grapevine. It wasn't really talked about that much, so that wasn't a personal experience that I saw.
GROSS: Let me reintroduce you again. If you're just joining us, my guest is Faith Jones. Her new memoir, "Sex Cult Nun," is about growing up in the cult the Children of God, which changed its name to The Family. It was founded by her grandfather. We'll talk more after a break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Faith Jones, author of the new memoir "Sex Cult Nun." It's about growing up in the cult group The Children of God, which changed its name to The Family. It was founded by her grandfather, David Berg, who changed his name to Moses David, or Mo for short. He taught that Christianity was about love, and the wife of one man is the wife of God, and therefore the wife of all men. That meant that men could practice polygamy. Berg also came up with the principle of sharing, that God wanted women to share their bodies, and therefore any male in the group had the right to have sex with any woman in the group.
Why do you use the word nun in the title?
JONES: (Laughter) That was actually kind of a - sort of tongue-in-cheek, I guess you could say. I had been - this would have been many years. Like, after I worked for Skadden, I took a little hiatus. I went on a vacation. And I went to Sri Lanka to do a meditation retreat. I wanted to learn meditation. I saw that this could possibly, you know, be good for my health and recovery, you know, from trauma and things like that. And so I did this little meditation retreat up in the mountains in Kandy, in Sri Lanka. And it was - there's very few people there. And it was a small, remote little monastery, just a few sets of buildings with my - with an older monk who spoke English. And he had, you know, maybe 15 young monks in training, all different ages. And there was a couple of older Buddhist nuns and two, like, little nuns, maybe 12 or 13 years old in training.
And I was watching them, you know, the young nuns go about their daily chores. And, you know, they would sit down and do their home study on their desk. And they would have their, you know, religious time where they would chant their Buddhist prayers and stuff for hours and do their little cleaning jobs. And I'm watching them. And I was like, wow, this looks really familiar. Why does this whole thing just feel very familiar to me?
And then it hit me. I was like, oh, my God, I grew up like this. And if you read, like, the description, you know, of how we grew up very isolated in a remote village, doing, you know, sort of sporadic home study stuff and a lot of chores and working and many hours in, you know, religious reading and memorizing scriptures and chanting and praying and so on. I just immediately identified with this life that these little nuns were living. And I was like, I grew up kind of like a nun, like this, except there was a lot of sex involved.
JONES: So I was like - someday I'm going to write a book, and I'm going to call it my life as a sex cult nun.
GROSS: So describe what flirty fishing was.
JONES: Flirty fishing was a doctrine that grew out of this concept of the law of love, where the saying, OK, we're going to extend this to people. In fact, actually, it really got extended to people outside the group almost before internally as a mechanism to win disciples. So basically, the women would go to bars, sometimes even escort services, and they would flirt with men, businessmen and oftentimes have sex with them, not always, but oftentimes have sex with them as a way to recruit them - and not necessarily always to recruit them into The Family, as a way to get them to be willing to pray and receive Jesus, and also to donate or to help support the group or help support the women and their families. Because these groups of people were - we were not allowed to have jobs. That was considered working for the system or working for man. And so we had to support ourselves through donations. And oftentimes, you know, these are - became quite large families living in very poor countries without a real means of support. So a lot of the homes were very, very poor. And so this was seen as a way to help support them.
GROSS: So in some ways, it was almost like a form of idealistic prostitution.
GROSS: Like prostitution for the greater good, you know, giving your body in return, hopefully for a donation, and if it was a wealthy businessman, a large donation that will go to support the group.
JONES: Yes. But also, as part of that, you know, you were supposed to get them to pray with you and receive Jesus. So that was kind of the justification for it.
GROSS: Were there people in your family who were the children that resulted from flirty fishing?
JONES: Yes. I think many families had a child that resulted from fishing, a kid who, you know, maybe doesn't look like the rest of the family. But these children were always accepted by their families. They were considered a blessing from God. But I think they themselves perhaps had their own difficulties and traumas around that and around their parentage. I can't speak to that personally. But I do know that many families had kids like this, including ours.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Faith Jones. Her new memoir is called "Sex Cult Nun." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Faith Jones. Her new memoir is called "Sex Cult Nun: Breaking Away From The Children Of God, A Wild, Radical Religious Cult." The cult was founded by her grandfather.
You describe in the book how you were forced, you know, many times to have sex with men when you didn't want to. But you thought that God wanted you to yield because that was the teaching within the cult. At what point in your life did you decide you weren't going to do that anymore, and that, in fact, you were going to leave the cult altogether? Was there a turning point for you?
JONES: You know, I didn't leave because of that actually. You know, when you're raised all your life believing that this is godly and this is God's will and all of that, it's, you know, that shapes how you see the world. For me, I left because I actually became depressed in the group. I couldn't see a life that I wanted for myself. This endless round of, you know, dishes and child care and service and having sex with men I didn't want to have and, you know what I mean? It just - it was so distressing, I think. And I had been exposed to school through different experiences in my life, which I talk about, including, you know, coming to America for a semester. My first experience is a culture shock. And I was 12.
But those had opened me up and exposed me to learning and to education. And I have always loved reading, loved learning. That was a passion in my life. And because we weren't supposed to read publications or books or novels or things outside of the group outside of the Mo letters, I was just so bored, I mean, desperate to expand my mind and to learn other things and to have a sense of independence. I mean, here I was at this point a young adult, 21, 22 years old. And I was like, I can't have someone have to go with me every time I need to - if I need to pop out to the store, to the 7-Eleven, I have to have a buddy. I'm, you know, you're supervised. Your whole life is just delineated for you from everything when you wake up in the morning and what you do.
And, you know, I needed independence. I needed - I wanted to learn. I wanted to expand my life, to expand what I did. So that was what really drove me to leave the group. And it wasn't until after I left and was able to, you know, was in society for some years that I was able to build a new framework of the world so that I could even look back on those experiences and say, oh, wait. That's what that was. This was wrong. This is what a violation was. So when I left, I didn't see it as that. I just knew that I had to get out and I had to expand my world.
GROSS: When you started thinking of what you experienced sexually as rape, how did that affect how you saw your life and how you saw your body?
JONES: So that happened when I was in college, actually. I was dating somebody who was a lawyer. And I had kept my experiences, I had kept the fact that I had been in this group a complete secret because I didn't want people to see me as, you know, this cult kid. I wanted them to see me as, you know, who I was making myself. So eventually, my boyfriend found out and kind of dragged the truth out of me. And when I described to him some of these experiences, his kind of shock and horror and anger, and he expressed to me, he's like, you know that's rape. If you are coerced into having sex with someone you don't want to, that's actually rape. And it was just like, whoa. A light bulb kind of went on.
So I realized, you know, it's not - the fact that I felt so bad about it, that I was repulsed by it and that I had such a difficult time doing it wasn't my fault. It wasn't that I was unyielded to God, right? This was actually rape. So, you know, it just completely shifted how I saw and viewed things and viewed the world and my experiences. And yeah, that was difficult. That was difficult trying to make sense of it in this new way.
And - but it wasn't till later in life when I created the framework, which I talk about in my TEDx Talk and I talk about at the end of the book, that I was able to clearly identify what those lines were, what had been violated, both with the child sexual abuse and with the coercion and abuse that had gone on in the group around sex and around women's bodies and - but not just that, spiritual manipulation as well.
GROSS: You came up with this almost legal way of explaining to yourself how you were brought up versus what was right and real. And you came up with describing it to yourself as like self-ownership, that you don't belong to God, I mean, that your body belongs to you, that you have ownership of your body. And it sounds like being a lawyer helped you redefine your relationship to your body and your ability to control your body and who you had a physical relationship with.
JONES: Yes, absolutely. So as happens with a lot of women - and, you know, the stories of abuse and rape and stuff that I describe in the book actually are prevalent in society at large. They happen everywhere. When I talk to my friends, I hear the same kind of stories. The difference is is that it's not legitimized like it was in the group. But this - being a lawyer definitely helped. I think all of these things came together in a way where, you know, having had these experiences when I was younger of not owning myself, of not having a sense of self-ownership, and then becoming a lawyer and learning to understand these principles, I was able to bring it all together in a simplified version of what are our core principles of rights and our core ethics or obligations of not - of how to not violate each other. And it begins with this principle of self-ownership, which is that I own my body and that nobody has any right over it.
GROSS: One of the remarkable things about your story is that you were able to go from this cult to Georgetown and then University of California, Berkeley, Law School. You had very little, very, very little formal education. You must - it sounds like you mostly educated yourself. How did you manage to do it, considering books that were considered books from outside of the cult were basically taboo?
JONES: I actually put myself through high school with a correspondence course, a Mennonite correspondence course. My mother helped me get the books. And this was at a period of time when we were kind of very much on the outskirts of The Family. If you read the story, you'll see where, you know, we accidentally get excommunicated and end up in America living in a camper. And, you know, so I had just - I'd seen kind of the other side of the world a bit. And I knew - and my mother's experience of not being able to support us - you know, her and three children left alone in the U.S., I think it really imprinted on both of us the need to have a backup plan (laughter) if things didn't work out in The Family somehow, I think, for her.
But for me, I had had a glimpse of education. I had seen libraries and been able to read books. And I was like 12, 13 at this time, and I really wanted to complete my high school education. So I begged her to get me the books, and we did it not really with the approval of The Family. I just did it on my own. And, you know, then when I left to go to school, to go to college, it was the same thing. It was just - I was very driven and wanted - this was my goal, to get an education. So I went for it with everything I had (laughter).
GROSS: There are some photographs in your book, and I want to end by asking you about one of those photographs. And it's a photograph of when you were - it looks like you were, I don't know, maybe 10 or 11. And you were in a singing group with your siblings. And it looked like, I - I'm trying to remember, like, four or five boys and two girls. And you're all, like, in size place order standing in a row. One of the boys has a guitar. All the boys are dressed the same. The two girls are dressed the same. And it looks like, oh, it's the cult group version of the von Trapp family (laughter). And...
GROSS: ...You used to sing, you know, to raise money. You used to, like, perform in whatever country you were living in at the time or traveling through at the time. Did you get to see the "Sound Of Music" as a child?
JONES: Oh, I had the movie memorized. So there were certain movies that we were allowed to watch, you know, after being carefully vetted, usually musicals or stuff like that, which they deemed didn't have too much worldly influence or bad behavior. So we had a sort of very select diet of movies and other things like that that we could - that we were allowed to watch. We got to watch one movie a week. But ones that they thought had, you know, particularly good lessons, like "Pollyanna" and "Sound Of Music," we could see more often. And we definitely - I mean, we really kind of were the von Trapp family of Asia (laughter). We sang all their songs.
GROSS: Oh, really?
JONES: Oh, yeah. No, we performed all their songs, "Do-Re-Mi," everything (laughter). So yeah, we did see ourselves as that - you know, seven kids in one family performing.
GROSS: When you were emerging from your years in the cult, what were some of the new experiences that were exciting to you, including, like, movies, music, TV and books that you weren't allowed access to when you were in the group?
JONES: (Laughter) Oh, definitely - reading novels all the time, TV, movies - just travel, doing something for fun, going out to a club, going to a bar, going out with friends, partying, vacations - we didn't have those - shopping, going and buying new clothes, you know, so there was a lot of stuff (laughter) that I had to learn.
GROSS: Faith Jones, thank you so much for talking with us.
JONES: Thank you so much for having me.
GROSS: Faith Jones' new memoir is called "Sex Cult Nun." After we take a short break, John Powers will review the new BBC series "Vigil" about the investigation into a murder aboard a nuclear submarine. It broke BBC records when it aired this summer in the U.K. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MILES DAVIS' "BYE BYE BLACKBIRD")
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Our critic-at-large, John Powers, has a review of the crime series "Vigil," set aboard a nuclear submarine. The show was a smash hit in the U.K. and is now premiering here on the Peacock streaming service. John says that "Vigil" has its flaws but will keep you watching from start to finish.
JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: If we leave aside the Beatles' yellow one, submarines have a pretty dim reputation in popular culture. They get attacked by a giant squid in "20,000 Leagues Under The Sea," become a wartime hellhole in "Das Boot," and, to judge from "Crimson Tide" and "The Hunt For Red October," they're nearly always on the verge of triggering World War III. Their image doesn't get any brighter in "Vigil," a new police procedural about a murder aboard a nuclear submarine. The show broke BBC ratings records when it aired this summer in the U.K. and is now premiering here on the Peacock streaming service. Filled with well-known TV actors, this six-part series is a weird hybrid. It marries the bingeably implausible plotting of shows like "The Bodyguard" and "Line Of Duty" - the Brits really love their thrillers - to a story of psychological healing.
When a sailor is killed aboard HMS Vigil, a Scottish-based nuclear submarine out on patrol, the police hand the case to its top investigator, Detective Chief Inspector Amy Silva. She's played by Suranne Jones, a huge British star who you may know from "Doctor Foster" and "Gentleman Jack." Now, DCI Silva may not be the ideal person for the job given that, owing to an earlier trauma, she's claustrophobic and hates being underwater. No matter. They chopper her out to the Vigil, while the landlubber end of the case is carried out by her lover, Detective Sergeant Kirsten Longacre - that's Rose Leslie, who played Jon Snow's sweetheart on "Game Of Thrones."
Without giving too much away, I can tell you that there are more murders and, as befits a maritime story, a slew of red herrings. Silva's and Longacre's investigation keeps widening to involve MI5, the British admiralty, anti-nuke protesters, skullduggerous Russians, slippery Yank bureaucrats and Scottish VIPs with advanced degrees in shiftiness. As an aggressive alpha cop, Silva expects cooperation from the Vigil's crew, but to them, she's just in the way. So who can she turn to? The friendly-ish coxswain played by Shaun Evans, best known as the young Inspector Morse on "Endeavour"? The disdainful second in command - that's Adam James - who oozes entitlement? Can she even trust the captain, who often appears inept?
Here, early on, we see what Silva is up against when the captain, played by Paterson Joseph, tells her that she can't have the run of the sub for her inquiries.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "VIGIL")
SURANNE JONES: (As Amy Silva) With all due respect, Captain, it isn't my job to persuade you. In my view, this boat is a crime scene. You need to return to port so that we can start proper inquiry. I was promised your cooperation.
PATERSON JOSEPH: (As Newsome) I take my orders from the chiefs of staff and the prime minister. My duty is to mission, boat and crew. While you are on board, you will obey my orders. Now, you're with us for three days? Do you work, but stay out of our way. And if I hear the word murder spoken outside this room, I'll have you confined to quarters.
POWERS: Like too many series these days, "Vigil" is drawn out. The action is padded with allusions to geopolitical risk and the danger of nukes, yet these are half-hearted. They receive nowhere near the attention that "Vigil" gives the flashbacks that explain how Silva, a driven bloodhound of a detective, is tormented by the obligatory personal demons. Jones is a charismatic actor, and if her performance as Silva was a wine, the sommelier would describe it as brisk and flinty, with underlying notes of frenzy.
In truth, Silva's inner crises aren't very interesting, but that's no surprise. If decades of thrillers have taught me anything, it's that almost none are better when they seek to deepen genre formulas by dwelling on their protagonist's personal lives. Call me heartless, but I just don't care about James Bond's childhood or romantic agony. Get back to spying, 007. Each time Kurt Wallander has yet another troubled encounter with his daughter, I start flipping the pages until he's back doing police work.
Although "Vigil's" creator, Tom Edge, may have hoped the series would offer a gripping character study, I can't imagine anyone watching it to see whether DCI Silva will have an emotional breakthrough. We're here to watch her solve the mystery - who did it and why - ideally in a way that keeps us guessing. And by this standard, "Vigil" succeeds, which is why, even though British critics carped at some of its hokiness, the British public ate it up. I mean, a claustrophobic detective chasing a murderer on a submarine - who wouldn't want to see that?
GROSS: John Powers reviewed the new series "Vigil," which begins streaming Thursday on Peacock.
Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be Penelope Cruz. She stars in the new film "Parallel Mothers," which was written and directed by the great Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodovar. She starred or co-starred in several of his other films and won an Oscar for her performance in "Vicky Cristina Barcelona." The new film, about childbirth and motherhood, was so emotional for her, during some of the scenes, it was hard to hold back her tears. I hope you'll join us.
(SOUNDBITE OF PONCHO SANCHEZ'S "HAVE YOURSELF A MERRY LITTLE CHRISTMAS")
GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director is Audrey Bentham. Our engineer today is Adam Staniszewski. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Therese Madden directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF PONCHO SANCHEZ'S "HAVE YOURSELF A MERRY LITTLE CHRISTMAS")
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.