"We believed we could use the mass media to help change the world and River would be our missionary," eulogized Heart Phoenix, formerly Arlyn Sharon Dunetz from the Bronx, at her son's funeral following his...overdose from cocaine, heroin, Valium, ephedrine, and marijuana on Halloween in 1993.
The media...turned a blind eye to River's drug problems because they loved what he represented. If River Phoenix was ever in peril during his meteoric rise, which he clearly was, the...press was not predisposed to tell.
"We never treated them like children but like extra added friends," Heart reportedly said. "And they have always held up their part of the deal. It was never like 'We know better because we are the parents.' It was more like 'This is the first time we've ever done this too. What do you think?' And the children were so wise. If we made a mistake, we made it together. But if you open yourself up, a way presents itself. You find the right path."
John met Heart in 1968 at the commencement of the Summer of Love when the sometime gardener picked up the 23-year-old former secretary hitchhiking. Heart was kicking off a "spiritual journey" soon after renouncing her background as a "clone" and divorcing...back in New York. "We just knew we had similar desires," Heart recalled.
One of the paths Heart and John took on the back roads to enlightenment was jumping from commune to commune, Oregon to Colorado to Texas, mostly under the influence of intense drugs.
John and Heart soon became "missionaries" for the Children of God, a cult founded by David Berg... Though not compensated for the work, John was given the lofty title Archbishop of Venezuela and the Caribbean. The family settled outside Caracas where 5-year-old River and his 3-year-old sister, Rain, distributed cult pamphlets while performing music on the streets for handouts.
River's memory painted a bleaker picture of the early years. "It was disgusting," he said of a "shack" he once called home. "It had no toilet and was rat-infested."
According to sociologist David Van Zandt [Children of God] encouraged sex among its underage members.
River...claimed to have lost his virginity at the age of 4..."I'm glad I did it when I was young," River once said, perhaps trying to justify the unjustifiable. "But I didn't want those & 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."
Mother Heart maintained her faith. "We had a vision that our kids could captivate the world," the Phoenix family matriarch remembered, repetitively conveying a messianic obsession to use her children to reach the Promised Land - Hollywood.
Bumming a free ride back to America on an ocean freighter in 1978, the destitute Phoenix family took refuge at Heart's mother's place in Florida...
Like God speaking to Moses, Heart heeded the calling and again uprooted the family. Forty places in 20 years, she once boasted. With John's inability to work due to a recurring back problem...the Phoenixes of Caracas by way of Florida headed to Los Angeles.
"I figured I'd play guitar and sing with my sister, and we would be on television the next day," River said. "We were really naive."
Soon the kids found their way into one banal acting role after another: "Space Camp" for Leaf, "Growing Pains" for Summer, "Kate's Secret" for Liberty, "Maid to Order" for Rain. And glory be, Heart Phoenix, vegan activist, nomad without peer, and advanced human spirit, became her kids' manager - an earth stage mother...
Hollywood is the one place, save Marin County, where the Phoenix clan blended right in. "We were in competition, at the same auditions," recovering heroin addict and River's "Stand By Me" costar Corey Feldman once said. "We got to know each other's families. He was a normal kid. We were both normal kids who were in the business."
Rob Reiner, who directed River in "Stand By Me," noted without irony, "It's clear he's been loved by his parents, who are people who have been able to maintain what was good and pure about the 1960s - morality without the garbage."
At 23...River Phoenix reached a dead end on the wayward path his family had led him. Brother Joaquin...who along with sister Rain was with River the night he died, placed the fateful call to 911. "I'm thinking he had Valium or something," he told the dispatcher.