River Phoenix was one of those promising stars who passed at a young age and was on the cusp of a promising career, like James Dean. His fellow '80s and ‘90s peers, like Brad Pitt and Johnny Depp, all went on to have impressive careers. River was destined for similar greatness. He was already nominated for an Oscar by the age of 18 for his role in Running On Empty.
But an Oscar never happened for the young actor. River Phoenix’s passing was shocking and tragic. His passing was not the only tragic part of his life. Like many stars who have died young, River's life was full of misfortune and tribulations, including severe trauma within the Hollywood system, drug abuse, and a childhood spent traveling in a cult.
On October 31, 1993, River had done a speedball — a mixture of a couple of drugs — and became violently ill while at The Viper Room. The Viper Room was a club owned by actor and friend, Johnny Depp. River’s siblings, Rain and Joaquin, were at the club when he began having a seizure. River was taken outside, and Joaquin called 911. Rain threw herself on top of River’s body to try to stop his seizure. He lost consciousness and passed shortly thereafter. He was 23 years old.
River’s parents were missionaries for the cult Children of God. The cult later became infamous for its seedy practices, and its abuse of children. The family left the cult while River was still young.
“The Children of God was a Christian [pleasure] cult. They believed that [sleeping with someone] was a sacrament, and that sort of everyone should be engaged in it. And this, you know, extended to sort of partner swapping, and it also extended to encouraging children to, you know, engage with each other,” Gavin Edwards said, author of Last Night at the Viper Room. Edwards went on to say that children were encouraged to play with their parents and stimulate each other.
The actor himself said that he first “made love” when he was 4 years old, in an interview with Details magazine. “But, I’ve blocked it out,” he added. “I was completely celibate from 10 to 14.”
River’s parents belonged to the Children of God, a cult that became notorious for several reasons. His parents, Arlyn and John Bottom, were strapped for money as they traveled across the United States and South America with the cult. For a while, the family settled in Venezuela where the cult set up camp. The children sang on the streets for extra money.
“At an early age, River was busking on street corners, trying to spread the word and proselytize for the cult. But if he didn't bring home enough loose change that day, the family wasn't going to eat,” said Gavin Edwards, author of Last Night at the Viper Room: River Phoenix and the Hollywood He Left Behind, in an interview with NPR. “So, it was a lot of weight in a lot of different ways, on a very young child.”
When the family resettled in LA, the children kept up their street performing and that is how River was discovered.
Maybe because of River’s childhood in The Children of God, he developed a strange obsession with hooking up.
“[Sleeping with someone] was nearly all that River could think about,” Corey Feldman said. "He decided it was time to lose his self-imposed 'second-virginity,' and get on with his first teen encounter." River decided to lose it to this older girl he knew, and strangely enough, he asked his parents for permission. Instead of just saying yes, his parents put a tent in the backyard for their son to get it on in, and they decorated it to enhance the mood. River was 15 years old at the time.