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14 Heartbreaking Stories From Joaquin Phoenix's Tragic Family

Updated January 14, 2020 4.1m views14 items

Joaquin Phoenix is a wildly controversial actor. He's been simultaneously praised as a master of his craft—winning both a Grammy and a Golden Globe for his work on Walk the Line—and slammed for faking a mental illness in a two-year ruse put on for a fake documentary. However, Joaquin's controversial nature comes as no surprise, considering his shocking family history. From narrowly escaping the Family International Cult (formerly known as the Children of God), to the untimely death of River Phoenix outside the Viper Room in 1993, the Phoenix family is plagued with misfortune.

Joaquin is the middle child in a family of five. His mother Arlyn, a Manhattan divorcee, moved to California in 1968 where she met Joaquin's father, John Lee Bottom, while hitchhiking. After having River, Joaquin's eldest brother, the Phoenix family joined the infamous Children of God cult.

The Phoenix clan escaped the cult and eventually moved to Hollywood, where they launched the careers of all five of their children: Joaquin, Rain, Summer, Liberty, and River, who was the first to find mega-stardom after his role in Stand By Me.

Joaquin's family may have been destined for Hollywood fame, but trouble, heartbreak, and addiction also run deep in their veins.

  • The Children Sang On Street Corners To Afford Food

    The Children of God didn't pay their missionaries, so Joaquin Phoenix's family was never very well off. As the family followed the cult across the United States and South America, money became extremely tight, and the children were forced to become street performers to make ends meet.

    According to River Phoenix's biographer, Joaquin and his siblings would sing on street corners for loose change. 

    “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,” the biographer told NPR.

  • River Famously Regretted Being Forced To 'Make Love' At Four Years Old

    In a heartbreaking confession, River famously said that he had "made love" with other "kids" at four years old. His parents were members of the Children of God, which championed sexual abuse

    "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."

  • The Family Pitched A Tent In Their Backyard So River Could 'Lose His Second Virginity'

    Though the Phoenix family left the Children of God, the family still didn't have a healthy view of sex. The cult's abusive stance on sexuality was only part of the problem, and unhealthy ideas continued to fester well into the Phoenix children's teenage years. 

    Corey Feldman, child actor and River Phoenix's close friend, said the eldest Phoenix son was absolutely obsessed with sex after his experiences in childhood.

    "Sex was all his could think about," he told Rolling Stone.

    River was celibate between the ages of 10 to 14 but decided to lose his "second virginity" (i.e. the one that wasn't tied to the Children of God's practices) when he was 15. He asked his parents' permission, and instead of just nodding and looking the other way, the teen's parents literally pitched a tent in the backyard so their son could get it on. According to Corey Feldman, it was decorated to "enhance the mood."

  • Photo: Mike Dillon / Wikimedia Commons / GFDL

    River Phoenix Struggled With Addiction

    Joaquin Phoenix's older brother had a tragic relationship with drug addiction, which led to his accidental overdose outside of the Viper Room. His drug use started at an early age, when he met Corey Feldman on the set of Stand By Me. Between takes, the pair experimented with marijuana for the first time, and things quickly spiraled out of control for River.

    By the time River passed away, he had a drug routine that included smoking crack and shooting heroin at the same time.

    “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,” said Bob Forrest, Thelonious Monster frontman and River's close confidante. “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.”