Pop Culture | Celebrities | 80s | 90s

From Cult Members To Hollywood Stars, The Phoenix Family Has A Tragic Backstory People Don't Know

The Phoenix family has been in the public eye for a very long time. River Phoenix was the first to make it big, but many of his siblings have become famous and successful in their own right.

But even though many of the Phoenix children have found success, they've had to overcome a lot. Their childhood was nothing short of traumatizing, and honestly, they may have one of the most tragic family histories in Hollywood.

The Beginning

Arlyn Dunetz married John Lee Bottom in September 1969, and in 1970 River was born. They continued traveling around the country, and shortly after their second child was born they joined a religious group called The Children Of God. It was this church that led to a lot of the family's issues.

The Children of God

River said that the controversial religious movement (or cult depending on who you ask) known as The Children of God is "ruining people's lives." While he didn't talk about it much, what he did reveal was truly haunting.

The family joined in 1973, and worked as missionaries and fruit gatherers. But that wasn't the upsetting part. The controversial church was known for their "Flirty Fishing" policies where they had their members try to encourage new converts by sleeping with them.

"I blocked it all out"

The Bottom family disagreed with this policy, but years later, River revealed that when he was only four years old he lost his virginity to someone in the cult, but "blocked out" a lot of the details.

"I'm glad I did it when I was young," River said, "But I didn't want... different body parts that were in my face to make me perverse when I was older, so I blocked it all out. I was completely celibate from 10 to 14. You're just born into that reality, and you accept it."

Surviving on no money

The family spent years in Puerto Rico preaching the message of the cult, living in poverty because the cult didn't pay them for their work. The children performed on the street for money, but if they didn't earn enough the kids didn't eat.

When they finally decided to leave the organization, Arlyn spoke out about the group's practices, saying, "The group was being distorted by the leader, David Berg, who was getting powerful and wealthy. He sought to attract rich disciples through sex."

The family came back to America on an ocean freighter and then they moved to Florida to live with Arlyn's parents, leaving behind their former last name as a symbol. The entire family adopted the last name Phoenix at this time, as a way to solidify their new beginning.

However the new beginning didn't go according to plan...

Getting started in Hollywood

The kids were always close, and together they survived their childhood. When they moved back to America, the family lived in Florida for a while before their mother got a job in California. While living in California the kids still liked to sing for change on the street, and that was when a talent agent spotted the four Phoenix siblings and decided to represent them.

River was booking the most out of all of them, and his breakthrough role in Stand By Me really made him a star. But he believed that his time in the cult really affected his sexual behavior.

"Sex was nearly all that River could think about."

He remained celibate until 14, but when River was ready to start having sex again, he told his parents and they set up a tent in the backyard for him to use. His friend and former co-star Corey Feldman said, "Sex was nearly all that River could think about." But after he had his first experience out side of the cult he apparently was very excited about it on set.


River first started experimenting with drugs on the set of Stand By Me. He smoked marijuana with Feldman, but after the filming was over he kept looking for more and more, until he had spiraled completely out of control.

River Phoenix Running on Empty
Warner Bros

By the time he died, he had become addicted to crack, cocaine, and heroin, and would often use all three at the same time.

Musician Bob Forrest, was a good friend of River's, and described their routine. “The drug routine stayed pretty consistent for all of us. First, smoke crack or shoot coke directly into a vein for that ninety-second, electric brain-bell jangle. Then shoot heroin to get a grip and come down enough to be able to carry on a conversation for a few minutes before you start the cycle again.”

This addition would lead to River's death...

River's siblings watched him overdose

River Phoenix Dark Blood
Scala Productions

River's drug habit was getting out of hand, and on October 30, 1993, it would take his life.

He was at The Viper Room when the drugs in his system got to be too much. At only 23 years old, River apparently turned to Forrest and said "I don't feel so good. I think I'm OD'ing" before trying to rally and rejoin the party.

It was only moments later that River started seizing outside of the club where his brother Joaquin and sister Rain watched on in horror. Joaquin called 911 while his sister tried to steady her brother while he seized. River was already in a flatline state, but they tried to resuscitate him, but it was ultimately unsuccessful.

Joaquin quits acting

Joaquin had a hard time dealing with his brother's death. Understandably, he decided to withdraw from the public's eye for a year to grieve.

He obviously came back to Hollywood and managed to establish himself as an acclaimed actor in his own right, starring in movies like Gladiator, which would go on to be nominated for several Oscars.

Joaquin Phoenix Gladiator
DreamWorks Pictures

Joaquin's addictions

Joaquin's own demons started to surface, and after filming Walk The Line he realized that he had become dependent on alcohol. In 2005, Joaquin had to enter rehab because his drinking had started to take over his life.

"It was [while filming Walk the Line] that I became aware of my drinking," he said. "I wasn't an everyday drinker, but didn't have anything else to do, anything to hold me down. I was leaning on alcohol to make me feel OK. That's what it really was."

People started getting concerned for him in 2008 when he started to act as though he was having a breakdown. He claimed he was "retiring from acting to start a career as a rapper" but it was actually all for a movie called I'm Still Here.

He made the movie with his then brother-in-law Casey Affleck, but they kept it secret for two years so everyone thought that his incoherent attitude and shocking behavior was legitimate. When the movie came out it definitely affected his career for a while.  

"There was definitely a period after I’m Still Here when there was a discernable difference in the quality of movies I was being offered," he said. "There was a moment in which, frankly, I was placed in a very dangerous place with my mortgage. I didn’t know what to do. I was nervous because I didn’t know what was going to happen. My accountant was very nervous."

The mockumentary led to his sister's divorce

The movie that nearly destroyed Joaquin's career also led to his sister's divorce. His producer and brother-in-law Casey Affleck was married to Summer Phoenix, but during the process of making the movie two separate women filed sexual harassment charges against him.

Casey Affleck and Summer Phoenix
Terry Schmitt/UPI

One woman said she had been grabbed in a hotel room, while the other said that he climbed into her bed without consent.

Both cases settled out of court, but his 20-year relationship with Summer Phoenix couldn't survive. They separated in 2015 and were officially divorced by 2017.

The family has had a rough time, but at least they have managed to remain close. At least they've always had each other to help them through the tough times.

Sources - Ranker / Daily Mail / DM / DM / Cult Education Institute / Rolling Stone / Wikipedia / Wikipedia / Wikipedia/ Esquire / Wikipedia / The Guardian