Literary Hub

A Cult Can Be You and Your Weird Charismatic Friend

For a period of time after college, I lived with a shaman in Norway. He was an energetic, balding man with a stained yellow beard, and had a business card that said he was 5,000 years old. It was my job to take care of his animals: his long-haired ponies—curry-combing them while they stood serenely in the snow—his chickens, his ducks, and his geese. The best thing I can say about the shaman is that all his animals were very happy.

He believed he could change the weather with his mind, which was awkward, because he’d lie on the couch focusing on changing the weather, and then two days later it would start to snow and he’d say “See? I changed it.” I’d nod supportively. He had a group of friends—followers—who believed in his powers, and would come to the farm to drum and chant. He was a shaman of no particular tradition, but he certainly appropriated many of them freely.

I was living with the shaman because I’d wanted to go live on farms for reasons that are hard to articulate—“a utopian pulse that was embodied rather than thought,” as Janferie Stone writes about the 1970s back-to-the-land movement. In my debut novel, The Ash Family, the main character, Berie, runs away from home for the same unreasonable reason. She wants a more vivid life. And the off-the-grid community she joins tests her over and over on how much she’s willing to give up for that life.

For a while, the shaman and I continued in mutual politeness. I felt alienated from his belief system—but maybe lots of early religions feel like this to outsiders. I was glad to be so far away from the world in my tiny cabin where every night I’d get to view the shocking stars and then settle down under a blanket that, as I later wrote in my novel, “warmed me like fire.” Then I got extremely sick with something like the flu, and that interrupted our placid incompatibility.

I wanted an establishment doctor, or possibly a hospital. He, on the other hand, believed that he could cure me by taking me to an ancient cabin on his property in Finnskogen and ringing bells around my head while I lay on a sheepskin. What is strange to me now is that he won. I didn’t even mention my opposition, actually. Though I never believed, to the core of me, in his cure, I could not even begin to disobey. There I was: alone in rural Norway, and too polite (and sick) to ask to see a doctor, and doing my best to act as though I believed in this man, the shaman. And so, effectively, I was in his thrall.

Though I never believed, to the core of me, in his cure, I could not even begin to disobey.

Later, when I began writing my novel, I thought about the choice I’d made to stay. It hadn’t felt like a choice. I’d been hemmed in by my desire to keep in touch with the beautiful nature in that part of Norway, and by habit—I wanted to be consistent—and by my inherent eagerness to let someone else set the rules. “If you say it, you think it, and if you think it, you’ll believe it,” I have the narrator in my novel say. It is also true for me. The confusion about why I had stayed led me into reading about means of persuasion—and to the natural culmination of this line of inquiry: cults.

Why do people join cults? What does it feel like to be in a cult? I didn’t want to read about violent cults, the stories we all know—“pig” written in blood, 900 corpses in Guyana, fresh Nike Decades. I wanted to read more generally, about cults’ quotidian functioning. I learned that a cult may make use of the whole range of tactics for convincing people to do things. They’ll use courtesy, and habit, and kindness. They’ll use isolation, and illness (some cults intentionally make the members ill, by restricting their diets or drugging them), and mind-bending activities like meditation or hyperventilation. They’ll use criticism and punishment too.

My experience with the shaman had a few of these elements. Cult-like, in a way, but not quite a cult. But I was reminded of another experience, in college, a friendship that it seems was cult-like. The friendship was thrilling at first, and then turned extractive. While I had always held the shaman at arm’s length, I had just let myself fall into this friendship completely. My friend was dark-haired, wildly energetic, and cruelly hilarious. When I reread my journal from that time, pages and pages transcribe his thoughts, and there’s nothing at all about me. I was studying Dante with him and I took Dante’s descriptions of the saints in Paradiso to heart. I truly thought it was holy to humble myself, to give myself entirely over to “service.”

It had been so beautiful at the start, indubitably so, to live in a profoundly intense partnership with someone—I was always on call for him, I did his schoolwork, I patched things over with people he’d hurt, I ran his errands and, at the end of the year, while he lay on the bed, I packed up his dorm room for him. The friend would tell me things like, for example, that he was the only person left who would be nice to me, because I was a tiresome, demanding person who had worn out all the patience of our friends. And I found this motivating! It took years for me to understand how much of myself I’d given away to try to please someone who was fundamentally exploitative. If you’ve ever wept while reading Google results on narcissism, you know the feeling.

The key element is an autocratic, extractive leader, but many political movements and businesses and activist groups have those, too.

Cults take a certain kind of human interaction to the extreme, but any person can be brought into a cult. At times, we all need to persuade others to agree with us; we all need to encourage cooperation and unity. Defining a group as a cult is not black or white—it’s a family resemblance. In her classic 1995 book on cults, psychologist Margaret Thaler Singer writes, “What is labeled a cult by one research may not be identified as such by another . . . cults are not uniform nor are they static.” The key element is an autocratic, extractive leader, but many political movements and businesses and activist groups have those, too. The family resemblance can be found in co-ops, in start-ups, in political followings, even in friendships.

When I was writing The Ash Family, it was important to me that, seen from a certain angle, the family be admirable. It was important to me on the level of craft, of literary empathy, because when you’re entering into a cult dynamic, it usually feels like you’re getting involved in something admirable. As I researched and wrote my book, as I reflected on my time with the shaman and my bad friend, I began to understand that what baffled me about them, and cults in general—murderous cults, and suicide cults—has lifted. I find them frightening to read about because I recognize in myself how effective they are in making vivid the desire they exploit—the desire for connection and truth.

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