Literary Hub

Why Are So Many Fictional Teens Entering Cults?

In 1978, more than 900 members of the Peoples Temple, the cult founded by Jim Jones, died by poisoning in a mass murder-suicide in Guyana that eventually became known as the Jonestown Massacre. The vector, reportedly, was a grape-flavored instant beverage mixed with cyanide and a cocktail of sedatives; though disputing accounts have attributed the drink to be Kool-Aid or, alternately, its lesser-known counterpart Flavor Aid, the phrase drinking the Kool-Aid entered the cultural lexicon as a troubling shorthand for unquestioning adherence to a cause—for cult-like behavior, even in un-cult-like contexts.

The Peoples Temple disciples were not the first cult followers whose experiments ended in tragedy, though, nor were they, by some accounts, unusually credulous; one survivor described the “tyrannical hold” Jones had over the congregation. Preceding Jonestown, there was the Manson family; after them, the Branch Davidians. And cults have permeated pop culture, the subjects of documentary series like Wild Wild Country, an entire season of American Horror Story, nearly Brit Marling’s whole canon, Ari Aster’s upcoming Midsommar and last year’s Mandy, and novels like The Girls.

More recently, a series of new novels features young women who submit to the thrall of cults and their dynamic, charismatic leaders before those relationships turn malignant. Cults, and the forces at play within them, are not new—but their presence in these books reflects a desire to engage with an increasingly polarized sociopolitical landscape. These stories hold a disquieting mirror up to gendered discrimination, and violence, that exists in other arenas, and they put pressure on the ways in which the most extreme cultish tendencies—the absolute faith in a singular leader, the subjugation of women, the stoking fear of alternate perspectives—exist well beyond cults themselves.

In The Ash Family, Molly Dektar’s forthcoming debut novel, a teenager en route to college encounters a member of the titular off-the-grid commune at a Greyhound station in North Carolina. She’s seduced by the Ash Family’s environmentalist ethos and climate activism. “I wanted to write about a cult that I would join,” Dektar told me recently. “The community in the book is really, really extreme, but I also think that the status quo that we are living right now is extreme. It’s hard to reconcile these two things, the enormity of our climate-related challenges and the way we continue life as usual.”

Shades of the same ethical questions permeate Evgenia Citkowitz’s The Shades, in which a school-aged boy is drawn into a radical eco-terrorist group. Given the stakes, it’s not altogether surprising that some of these teens are drawn towards drastic measures. But the Ash Family commune slowly reveals its more insidious underbelly—while it’s not an especially functional activist community, it’s very, very good at gaslighting. (Dektar said the book was also inspired by a “very difficult friendship” from when she was younger; often, cults use the language of family, hinting at how this might play out within individual relationships as well as institutions.)

“I think that in times of unrest, absolute answers become particularly appealing.”

Recounted from inside the cult itself, The Ash Family sets up a particular empathy for the young woman who aligns herself with this radical group, exploring what might have brought her there and why. It’s not that she was abnormally receptive to the cult’s messaging—similarly, in Rebecca Makkai’s The Great Believers, a mother describes her daughter, who disappeared into a cult several years prior, as “always a rebel,” not one to “latch onto different religions”—and instead, her trajectory starts to look more understandable, almost logical.

The teen narrator of Claudia Dey’s Heartbreaker, 15-year-old Pony Darlene Fontaine, was born into a cult, a group of 80s hair metal fans who live in a retro compound called “the Territory” and sell the blood of young people for gas money. This existence is status quo; immersed in Pony Darlene’s perspective, you might not even realize anything is especially amiss. Like The Ash Family, in which the cult leader describes the commune as the “real world” and everything else as the “fake world”—just one of myriad methods of controlling his followers—Heartbreaker rests on an inversion. The Territory is real; everything beyond is shrouded in dark. The cult stokes a fear of the unknown—of the other, of that which lurks beyond the bounds of its strictly defined existence.

Meanwhile, outside the cult, it’s often left to those closest to them—a romantic partner, a mother—to figure out what happened. This, as Makkai pointed out recently, is “the way that most of us experience cults”—from the outside, often helplessly observing people who seem totally unwilling or unable to extricate themselves. It’s a more extreme version of the confusion, frustration, and disconnect bred by confronting any perspective that doesn’t align with your own. “It can feel like you’re the one awake and you’re trying to wake up a sleepwalker,” Makkai said. The sensation of living in the real world, trying to reach someone living in the fake world.

But this measure of distance from the cult can offer some clarity. As an apostate Evangelical in R.O. Kwon’s The Incendiaries, Will is especially skeptical of organized religion—but because of his lapsed faith, he also sort of understands Jejah, the conservative terrorist group with which his girlfriend, Phoebe, gets involved. He might even envy their moral certainty. “If I were convinced that abortion killed, I, too, might think I had to stop the licit holocaust,” he thinks. Kwon previously told me she wanted to write a novel that evoked “how incredible it felt when I did believe” and how it felt to lose her faith, at the same time—once a devout Christian herself, she externalized some of her own biography in Will, allowing herself to write more candidly about her experiences by giving them to a character who was, as she put it, “so demographically unlike me.”

These novels underline how cults replicate the most toxic elements of established institutions, and vice versa. This is especially obvious when the cult is juxtaposed against a real organized religion, as in The Incendiaries or in Meghan MacLean Weir’s The Book of Essie, in which Liberty Bell, a young journalist who escaped the grip of a cult as a girl, reckons with the aftermath of the trauma it wrought. The novel teases out parallels between her childhood experiences and those of the titular Essie Hicks, the cloistered daughter of a reality-television-famous Evangelical family. “When does it become wrong?” Weir asked. “When does it become twisted and toxic?” The cult captures both ends of a spectrum: What initially appears almost utopic quickly sours. The fiction of the cult, in these novels, is porous; it brushes up against and bleeds into reality, so that what goes on within its borders can be extrapolated outwards.

And at the center of it all is the cult leader. Celebrity, fortune, or “a dynamic personality” are frequently “equated with competence and goodness,” whether it comes to cults, contemporary politics, or celebrity activism, Weir said. (In her book, an especially odious member of the Hicks family mounts a campaign for public office.) There’s some comfort in submitting to a singular power outside of oneself, but as the most extreme cases underline, that power, in the hands of a singular authority figure, can easily be exploited. In Kwon’s novel, the leader of Jejah takes Phoebe’s bag at a dinner party and rifles through her things. “He dipped his fingers into the bag’s opal slit,” Will observes, in unnerving detail—a transgression that creates an uncomfortable foreshadow of a horrific, and far more extreme, act of sexual violence that comes later.

But this power imbalance ripens at the core of all these novels: the ways that women like Essie are marginalized within mainstream religious institutions are not so far removed from what goes on in cults in these novels, whether it’s a woman who’s denied perinatal medical care, as in The Great Believers, or who’s subject to a public shaming ritual, as in The Ash Family.

“It’s not just in works of fiction that this is happening. People drink the Kool-Aid,” Weir said—that is, the kind of absolute commitment required by the cult exists in other realms, too. “These inclinations to create a worldview that’s not entirely based in reality, we all have those. They’re self-protective in some ways.”

That inclination has recently come into sharp focus. “The times are frightening. I think that to open the news at any point these days is to feel real fear,” Kwon told me. “And I think that in times of unrest, absolute answers become particularly appealing.”

Still, the answers these novels offer are anything but absolute. Their cults offer a means of exploring contemporary anxieties by pushing them to their farthest extreme, pulling at them to see what the tensions and breaking points might be, where they hold together and where they start to fracture under pressure. They replicate, and exaggerate, the worst elements of people’s adherence to certain sets of beliefs, to institutions, power structures, and leaders. But they also provide fertile ground for imagining how it might look to rebel against them. Sometimes, the girl gets out of the house; other times, the house crumbles in a volley of violence. It’s often messy, but the crisp contours of faith have already lost their comfort.

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