Growing Up As Des Ford’s Son

I don’t remember my first year of life. From all accounts, my parents loved each other and my home was a happy place. I know I’ve drawn tremendous strength from that first year, completely lost to my memories.

Over the course of my life, I’ve never doubted that my family loved me, that I could accomplish great things just as my father did, and that my family would be there for me if I needed them.

On my first birthday, my mom got sick and was diagnosed with terminal bone cancer. Over the next three years, I lived in many different homes while my father cared for my mother and for his job. I had only intermittent contact with my family.

I have few memories of this time. I remember mom crawling out of her sick bed to protect me from my sister’s blows after I broke into her perfume collection and mixed it with toothpaste and smeared it around the bathroom. I remember mom making me scrambled eggs. I remember having an older brother and sister.

Before I turned four, my mom died. Eight months later, my dad remarried and in early 1971 we all arrived in Manchester, UK, so dad could get his second PhD. I spent much more time with my step-mother over the next two years than with my dad. He was a tower of strength and stability. He loved the fresh air, even in winter. Home was cold and sad. My sister left for boarding school as soon as she could. My brother got beat up at school.

Every day after lunch, I got put down for a nap, and I’d scream and cry my eyes out and thrash around in my bed until I fell asleep. I’m guessing that the naps felt like a return to an earlier abandonment.

I don’t remember thinking during these years that my dad was an important man. He just seemed set on accomplishing something that the rest of the world appeared oblivious to.

I enthusiastically took to washing the dishes after every meal in Manchester because I could soak my arms in the hot water and my whole body would warm up.

My brother bought me toy soldiers and they were a tremendous source of joy. I could play with them for hours. I didn’t have a lot of friends. I did go to kindergarten but I had to be careful about getting close to other kids, because if I ever started acting like them, such as eating cookies or snacking, I’d get hit by my step-mom, who suffered from raging PMS two weeks of the month. Eating between meals was a big sin in my Seventh-Day Adventist church and as the preacher’s son, I had to be a particularly good boy.

Navigating social interactions with those who didn’t follow the Adventist rules according to the way my parents decreed was complicated and frightening. I couldn’t get too close.

My father was the ultimate arbiter of right and wrong in our home but it was my mother who did most of the enforcing to me.

We didn’t have much of an Adventist community in Manchester and it was nice to get back to Avondale College in Australia where everyone I knew well was an Adventist.

I’m looking through the early pictures of my family in Milton Hook’s biography of my dad to try to recapture my early feelings and thoughts.

Over the next five years, I began to clearly understand that I was Desmond Ford’s son and that anything I said or did that broke the rules would get reported back to my parents. I understood that my father had an important role in the community. I understood that people were always wanting to talk to my dad and he was always trying to get away. We never had a phone in our home until the end of 1977 when circumstances forced its installation. Without a phone, people would drive up to our community and hunt my dad down for theological chats.

I remember my father saying, “Hell is other people.”

The primary way my father related to me was meeting his responsibilities. He made sure I had everything I needed. He instructed me about right and wrong. He told me how to conduct myself in the world. He pointed out my virtues and my character defects. He was a traditional father. He was the head of the home. His work was primary to him but family was second.

My parents are WASPs and like good WASPs, they don’t try to live through their children. They didn’t try to push me too hard into any particular career path (though they said I was well-suited to the law). They gave me as much freedom as religious people could. I’d often take off all day to visit friends or explore the bush or traverse the city (when we lived in Washington D.C.) and they didn’t worry.

Dad was always stirring up theological controversy but I never thought about it much until the end of 1979 when he went too far in the Church’s opinion and I saw that my life in the church was going to get turned upside down and that we would have to leave town.

In Sabbath school and in my Adventist school, I was expected to know things that my father specialized in such as Apocalyptic but this just made me feel special.

As a child, after my father’s sermons, I would stand in the pew and imitate his gestures for my step-mom’s amusement. The content of dad’s sermons however rarely moved me. There would be good stories here and there, but the chief idea that faith in Christ gives you salvation got boring fast. And now what? My interests were located on this earth.

For third, fourth and fifth grade, as a punishment for telling lies, my dad decreed that I had to read 30-40 pages of dense works of Christian apologetics every day, type a one-page summary and then hand it in to him (and sometimes discuss it). This gave me a good intellectual understanding of my religion and an emotional hatred of it.

My father and step-mother sometimes told me the story that when my mother was carrying me in her stomach, she had this great conviction that “This one would do something special for the Lord.” I felt like I was born to greatness but wanted to do it in this world, not the next.

I was never strongly committed to my father’s teachings but I took them for granted as divine truth until about age 18, when I graduated high school and left home to live with my brother for a year. Then I took up atheism.

Other kids didn’t care who my dad was. His successes and failures in theological combat didn’t seem to make much difference to my life until late 1979. My parents schooled me in what dad was fighting for but it never made up the core of my life. It was just another rule I had to accept, except it was called grace.

The great thing about being Des Ford’s son and growing up on Seventh-Day Adventist college campuses from ages six to fourteen is that we were all close to many Adventist intellectuals who not only had a good secular education but loved and feared God and strove to do what was right. It never occurred to me to get close with non-Adventists. They didn’t seem safe.

My dad was like the rock star of the Seventh-Day Adventist church. Adventists are Protestants and Protestants have few rituals. The center of their church service is the well-argued sermon, and my dad with his PhD in Rhetoric, could argue a good sermon.

People who hated my dad were extra nice to me to show what good Christians they were, and people who loved my dad were often particularly nice to me, so this was a good dynamic for me, but it didn’t go far. After initial meetings, people pretty much treated me on my own terms.

As a child, I primarily thought about my dad in terms of what he could do to and for me. I didn’t much think about him as an autonomous person in his own right. I didn’t think about his mission, except when I was forced to. Dad was the rule-giver and the provider in my home. He often liked to joke around and he sometimes played games with me when I asked, but as I approached my teens, I asked less and less often because I knew it wasn’t his thing and he was very busy.

It never occurred to me until my late teens that dad could be significantly wrong about something and until I was 22 and away at UCLA, I thought of him as a great man.

When I came home at age 23 in June of 1989, I thought of him as fatally flawed and I knew that I had all of his flaws (without all of his strengths) and that they might kill me and that I should probably convert to Judaism and create a very different life from his.

As a kid, I don’t think I had much awareness that I love stirring people up as my father did, that I had a knack for pushing on sensitive points like my father did, and that I was skilled at manipulating situations to gain the maximum of attention for myself, as I saw my father do. I loved arguing as a kid, just as my father did, but I was not as emotionally controlled as him. I’d get upset while my father kept his cool. I’d raise my voice while my father didn’t. I’d take things personally while my father appeared above it all.

I remember as a kid people would often ask me about my dad and it was not a topic that particularly interested me. I learned to recite family legends about his discipline (two PhDs in 18-months each), strength (he walks and runs 10 miles a day!), drive (he rises at 4 a.m. almost every day), commitment and righteousness (I never saw him do anything wrong!).

My father seemed like a simple man to me. He was 100% dedicated to God and everything else was commentary. That didn’t make him a lot of fun but it did make him reliable and admirable. I figured that people who didn’t love and admire my dad were ignorant. It didn’t occur to me until I got to UCLA (at age 22) that my father might’ve been wrong in important matters. I wasn’t able to distinguish God and the Bible from what my father said about them until I discovered Dennis Prager (at age 22).

I started reading regularly at age seven and I found myself particularly interested in the stories of great men (in this world, not those pious souls who lived primarily for the next world). It was important to me that my father be great. My home was not happy and I often wished to live elsewhere, but I kept coming back to the belief that it was better to be Des Ford’s son than to be happy. It was better to live in my cold home than the warm ones I visited. It was better to be significant than at peace.

I grew up seeing my older brother and sister distancing themselves from my home. I saw my dad putting his work ahead of his family. And I experienced myself as happier when I was in homes other than my own. By late 1979, when I was 13, and my parents moved to Washington D.C. and allowed me to stay behind at Pacific Union College and finish eighth grade with my friends, I thought about my life with little reference to my family (I had moved with my parents to California in 1977 and my older siblings had stayed behind in Australia and I would see them rarely). I desperately wanted to become a great person. I didn’t think about perpetuating the values of my home. I was more attracted to rebelling against the values of my home through a more whole-hearted dedication to this worldly ambition.

As dad flamed out of the Church at the 1980 Glacier View conference, my primary interest (aside from its impact on where we would live, the closer to PUC the better in my view) was in how famous this would make dad. We’d just bought a TV and dad was predicting he’d be interviewed on the Phil Donahue Show (which never happened). I wanted to be a journalist when I grew up and so I was interested in the people who’d interview dad and how they’d write about him. I felt that by virtue of being Des Ford’s son, I caught some of his reflected glory.

From the time I started reading books, my greatest conscious need has been for glory. When National Film Board of Canada director Paul Cowan followed me around from 1998-1999 for the documentary Give Me Your Soul, he noted that I thirsted for glory.

My yearning for significance, for distinguishing myself from others and for trying to show myself as better than them, has consistently caused me more trouble, strife and dislocation than all my other strivings put together.

I moved to Los Angeles in March 1994 and in 1997, I worked for three months at Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center, where I ran into a black doctor who knew my dad. Other than that, I’ve never run into anyone in Los Angeles who knew my dad. My brother lives in Tannum Sands, QLD, and he never runs into anyone who knows our dad.

I used to tell a therapist that I feared I was recreating my dad’s life (by creating controversy and getting myself kicked out of places) and she asked me why would I want to do that? “I wouldn’t want your dad’s life for all the tea in China,” she said.

I’m writing now on July 4, 2013. When my father was my exact age now, it was March 8, 1976. He was 14 months away from leaving Avondale and moving to PUC. I was nine years old.

I’m rereading Milton Hook’s biography of my dad. On page eight, he writes: “Their concern was just as focused on the man as it was on his theology, because he had attracted a significant following of devotees enthusiastic about his gospel preaching. They wondered, “What was to be the fate of Professor Ford…?”

This passages strikes me. It makes me wonder, why was my father, the person, at the center of concerns? Why not just the theological beliefs he articulated? Why was the concern so personal? Why was dad the man in the middle of things? What can I learn about myself from this?

Like my father, I’ve been at the center of a number of controversies and much of it has been personal. People really did or didn’t like me and really did or didn’t want me around.

* My dad’s parents died in 1987. He lived in America and did not attend their funerals. The deaths of my grandparents (my maternal grandparents died around 1985) had little effect on me as I hardly knew them when they were alive.

I’m reading page 106: “At one time [in 1968], when Des was visiting Gwen [my mother dying of cancer], John Brinsmead said to him, “If you cast in your lot with the Brinsmead family, accepting our teachings, then God will heal, Gwen.” Des was appalled at the bribe.”

That kind of talk was common in the Adventism I grew up in. My father only said that kind of thing once to me when I was bedridden for years in my 20s. He once said that if I accepted Jesus as my Savior, God might cure me. He didn’t push it. He didn’t try to interfere with my studies of Judaism and eventual conversion.

* I’m reading about my mother’s final days in Milton Hook’s biography. She was down to 60 pounds in 1969. “She said her goodbyes to Luke and he was taken to New Zealand.” I don’t remember my mom saying goodbye to me. I wasn’t yet four.

* “Bete noir” (black beast) is a term applied to my father by old Adventist Walter Scragg. (pg. 138) It was also a term applied to me by the Los Angeles Times in June of 1999 vis-a-vis the industry I covered at the time.

* Old Adventist George Burnside published in the 1970s anonymous pamphlets against my father with titles such as, “Dr Ford DD: Doctor of Doubt” and “Dr. Des Ford’s Dangerous Doctrines.” (pg. 1139)

* The setting was the high altitude (about 7500 feet above sea level) Glacier View Ranch in Colorado. On Thursday, August 14, 1980, the General Conference President of the Seventh-Day Adventist church (aka the leader), Neal Wilson, went after my father from his seat high above the gathering of the Church elite. He got angry. He said to dad, “Why won’t you listen to your peers?” My dad didn’t get much of a chance to reply. He just had to take it. I was sitting in the audience with my step-mom Gill. I got upset watching my dad torn apart by the church administrators. I really didn’t care about dad’s theological positions but I felt defensive about my father like never before. I became upset on his behalf like never before. I felt like he was being bullied and humiliated by Neal Wilson. I was familiar with dad’s constant controversies but nothing like this had happened before. Gill told me to calm down because the emotional way I was acting argued for Neal Wilson’s position that I should not have been come to the conference. I was 14 years old. I would never again consider myself a Seventh-Day Adventist (though I lived around that milieu for another four years).

* A childhood friend (more specifically, the husband of my third and fourth grade teacher and the father of my schoolmate Leighton), the late Arthur Patrick, describes “Glacier View” as “Adventist shorthand for pain, dissension and division,” but that same description could be given for almost every controversy my father and I engender. We cause dissent in every group we join with passion.

* Random thoughts upon re-reading this biography of my dad. His life was tougher than mine. He had more neglectful parents. We both lacked a secure mother’s love in our early years (dad never got this) and this left us both anxious for life and prone to addiction. My father poured himself into work and I did what I did. My father is stronger than I am, he pushed himself more, he achieved more, he was willing to undergo more suffering to do the right thing. My father led a more righteous life than I did. My father never sought out psycho-therapy and 12-step work, while I embraced both, and this might be the biggest difference you’d find in interacting with us. People who know us both say they find me a happier person. My father married, had kids and achieved far more personal and professional success and human bonding than I did. I’ve been a leach on my family financially (particularly over the past six years) and in other ways, while my father was always a giver and I’ve usually been a taker.

* “Being a Seventh-Day Adventist was hard but it was kinda fair. They quickly sorted out the ones they couldn’t trust and branded us with the mark of Cain and sent us wandering, fugitive sinners, through the Land of Nod for all our days.” (The Nostradamus Kid)

* The movie that reminds me most of myself is The Nostradamus Kid. The movie that reminds me most of my father is The Road to Wellville. I feel like the wicked son George in the film. The movie that reminds me most of my family is Terms of Endearment.

* My father’s life as a Seventh-Day Adventist evangelist and intellectual was constant stress, so much so that Milton Hook’s biography says he thought about becoming a postman. This kind of stress is part of the package when you stake out controversial positions in any high intensity religion. There are many benefits to belonging to a high intensity religion such as Adventism or Orthodox Judaism — adherents make greater sacrifices for their faith and for each other than do adherents to mainstream religions, but this intensity comes with a price. People get in your face, get in your business, challenge you, and try to push you out if you don’t follow the rules. This kind of challenges is inherent in high intensity religion. Religion (and any transcendent commitment) binds and blinds (says Jonathan Haidt).

* Unless you’re an original genius, there’s no point in fighting about theology (and nobody in the Adventist church, not even my dad, has ever been an original genius in theology). With few exceptions, it’s not worth fighting period (in inter-personal relations).

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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