autobiography · nonfiction

Escape: My Lifelong War Against Cults- Paul Morantz with Hal Lancaster

Paul Morantz, author (along with Hal Lancaster) of Escape: My Lifelong War Against Cults, has led an intriguing life. A lawyer by trade, early on in his career, he became the go-to man when it came to litigation against cults and abusive, insular groups. This led to an attempt on his life by Synanon members, via a rattlesnake (de-rattled for stealthiness) placed in his mailbox.

Among the groups Morantz litigated against were the aforementioned Synanon (whom I had never heard of before I listened to the Let’s Talk About Sects podcast a few weeks ago; if you’re interested in cults, sects, and insular groups, this is a fabulous podcast. Synanon then showed up in this book, and, thumbing through the book I picked up from the library yesterday, it’s mentioned in there as well. Funny how that happens), the Center for Feeling Therapy, the Unification Church (more commonly referred to as the Moonies), Rajneeshpuram (another one I’d never heard of), Scientology, the creepy, rapey preacher-psychotherapist John Gottuso, and he was the lawyer for a father whose son had been kidnapped by (and was later murdered at) Jonestown . He helped to turn the tide for Patty Hearst‘s appeal, had a brief fling with a woman who practiced Nichiren Shoshu, and exchanged emails with members of Anonymous. His career has been jam-packed with death threats and forays into the depths of groups who engage in brainwashing as a primary tactic in order to entice people to join. A movie about his life definitely wouldn’t lack for drama.

I struggled a little reading this book, and I’m not certain as to why. The material is certainly fascinating, but something about the writing style just didn’t appeal to me. The end chapter edges into a slippery slope argument about some ACA legislation in regards to those boogeyman death panels that never materialized (I mean, more than they already exist in insurance companies that deny treatments), and which seemed a little out of place for the book in general- I feel like a better editor would have cleaned a lot of that up. Part of the blame might also be on me; it’s a difficult time of year to try to focus on a heavier read, so it may be that my brain just wasn’t cooperating like I wanted it to.

While reading through this book’s explanation of brainwashing techniques, its history, and how it’s used by these groups in order to control their members, I was struck by how similar some of the tactics are that I’ve seen used by multi-level marketing companies (and there’s even a bit in this Wikipedia article about how the use of cult-like tactics by MLM companies is a common complaint against them, so I’m not alone in thinking this). The constant scripted social media posts (chock-full of emoticons throughout!), the monthly or yearly conventions where the sellers are pushed harder to achieve the goals the organization has taught them to have (goals which will, of course, benefit the top of the organization more than they benefit the individual sellers), it fits right in with what Morantz writes about in this book. Yikes.

This is a worthy read if you’re into cults and insular groups, and I’ll be waiting for that movie about Mr. Morantz’s life!

Visit Paul Morantz’s website here.

memoir · nonfiction

This Is Not a Love Story: A Memoir- Judy Brown

This Is Not a Love Story by Judy Brown is a painful memoir about the author’s childhood, growing up with a brother that no one understood.

Brown, who also penned the phenomenal YA novel Hush under the pen name Eishes Chayil (which was seriously so good that I sat up until 2 or 3 am, reading it on the bathroom floor with the door closed so the light wouldn’t bother my sleeping husband, because it was winter and the downstairs was far too cold to be comfortable in, and so I made do and it was entirely worth it), grew up in a Hasidic Jewish family in the Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn. She’s the third of six children, and she’s aware from an early age that her younger brother Nachum isn’t like everyone else. He doesn’t talk, he seems to stare through everything and everyone without seeing any of it, he bangs his head and rocks, he can’t tolerate touch or loud noises, he has public meltdowns.

Most readers today probably recognize those characteristics as falling on the more severe end of the autism spectrum, but back in the early 80’s, no one seemed to know what was wrong with Nachum. ‘Crazy’ was the word most frequently used to describe him and his behavior, and her insular community assigned many reasons as to why Nachum acted the way he did, including the rumor that Brown’s parents, disregarding Hasidic tradition, fell in love before they were married. The entire family is deeply stressed by Nachum’s mysterious behavior, each family member showing it in different ways. Their mother never stops searching for answers, dragging her son from doctor to doctor. Their father alternately shuts and explodes with anger. Brown makes deals with God to help her brother, prays for his death, and feels nothing but relief the two times Nachum is shipped off to live with relatives in Israel. Her behavior seems harsh until you remember that no one understood what was wrong, and she was only eight years old and extremely frightened (to the point where she worried that Nachum was contagious, and that her future marriage prospects- something incredibly important among the Hasidic community- would be compromised, because no one would want to marry someone with such a brother, which wasn’t an unfounded fear if you know anything about Hasidic matchmaking).

In 1993, when Nachum is sent to Israel for the second time, a specialist finally diagnoses him with autism, something Brown’s mother had never heard before, and his life starts to change. When Brown reluctantly visits him four years later, she finds a brother who can talk- differently than her, haltingly, but he’s a brother she finally starts to understand, because he’s able to participate in the world around him.

This is a tough, sad read, and it’s important to remember that when the author was young, especially in her insular community, there wasn’t quite the understanding we have of autism now. I have to admit, I was surprised by the medical community’s inability to diagnose Nachum- if I read this correctly, Brown is about my age, and thanks to The Babysitters Club book Kristy and the Secret of Susan, I was aware of autism back in 1990/91 when I was just ten or eleven years old. Nachum wasn’t diagnosed until 1993. Were doctors more conservative with that particular diagnosis back then? I’m deeply curious as to how it took him so long to receive the proper diagnosis (and it wasn’t for a lack of trying on Brown’s mother’s part, that’s for sure). This book also made me realize how damaging the societal attitude about people with disabilities was in the past- not just for those with disabilities, but for their families as well. Brown and her siblings suffered deeply (as did the parents, my goodness), and it was only as an adult that Brown was able to connect with her brother, reconcile her childhood attitude towards him, and forgive herself. We still have so far to go in terms of how we treat people with disabilities, but thank goodness we’ve already come so far.

This isn’t an easy read, but it’s a deeply fascinating one.

Visit Judy Brown’s website: http://judybrownhush.com/

memoir · religious memoir

Once You Go In: A Memoir of Radical Faith- Carly Gelsinger

I’m so pleased to start this blog off with a review of Once You Go In: A Memoir of Radical Faith by Carly Gelsinger, an engaging memoir about one young woman’s struggle to adopt a set of religious beliefs and behaviors that never quite match up to who she truly is.
As a young teenager, desperate for a place to fit in, Gelsinger joins Pine Canyon Assemblies of God, a Pentecostal church where the members roll on the floor, speak in tongues, and sob while being prayed over. None of this comes naturally to her and it’s a struggle for Gelsinger to shape herself into the kind of person Pine Canyon has dictated she should be. Don’t reveal even a hint of your feminine body. Don’t question your leaders. Feel the spirit in the way everyone else does, using the correct vocabulary to speak to and about Jesus, and don’t stray off that path, or there will be consequences- not only eternal, but social, too.

Gelsinger’s doubts start early on, maybe immediately, and for the reader, it’s obvious that she’s trying hard to cram herself into a mold that doesn’t fit. ‘I cry because I am frightened for the way my peers pray, and I’m angry I can’t pray like them…I cry because I don’t think I believe in the Holy Spirit,’ she writes, one of the many times she expresses her apprehension over what she’s been taught. I was struck by the following passage, written about an extraordinarily long church sermon:

I cross my arms and decide [the pastor’s] delivery is excessive and tacky. He looks extra reptilian tonight, with his triple chin quaking with every word, long neck outstretched to the heavens, and eyes darting around his congregation. Like a spirit-filled Gila monster.

Later on in the sermon, she observes:

“Isn’t the Lord such a sweet, sweet presence?” he asks, and the group nods and clucks.

 No, I think. No, it’s not sweet. It’s boring and weird.

It’s obvious from the beginning she’s not quite all in.

Pine Canyon is a strange place. Gelsinger struggles to connect with and understand the sermons, and struggles harder to make a place for herself amongst the cliquish youth group. She’s taught to doubt her doubts, as the saying goes, and mistrust her own feelings and instincts from the beginning. She often notes something is creepy or weird, but she forges on, desperate to conform. At one point on a missions trip to Romania, she’s sexually assaulted on a public bus, and the female youth leader is quick to put the blame on Gelsinger. The messages about the absolute need to disregard your own feelings, so dangerous for a young woman, are hammered home again and again, though to Gelsinger’s credit, she’s never able to fully commit to this faulty ideal.

Things start to unravel after her house is destroyed in a wildfire, and Gelsinger finds herself less and less able to act like the person Pine Canyon demands that she be. A later church’s homophobic marriage initiative nearly breaks her, and when her youth pastor (at the time) fiancé is fired for not bringing in the right kind of kids (kids whose parents tithe heavily, of course), the dam bursts and she realizes it’s not about the spirit and never has been- it’s always been about control.

This is a fabulous memoir. Gelsinger portrays her doubts and questions easily, although they must have been hard to quash at the time. Her discomfort- during lengthy services where people speak in tongues, feeling as though she has to witness to her best friend, having a sleepover with her youth pastor’s wife and the wife climbs in bed with her at night and drapes her leg over her- shines through on nearly every page and it’s uncomfortably honest and refreshing to read.

Something that struck me as I read this was the depth of responsibility placed on the shoulders of children and teenagers on mission trips. Gelsinger is told, “Witness to the person next to you on the flight home; if the plane goes down before they’ve had the chance to accept Jesus, you’ll be held accountable.” We don’t hold our youth responsible for the physical survival of another person; why on earth would we heap the responsibility for someone’s soul on them? This isn’t something I’d ever considered before, and now I’m horrified by the stress and fear that must cause some kids. How damaging, and how unnecessary.

Gelsinger’s faith finally lands in a comfortable place and the relief- hers and the reader’s- is nearly palpable at the end. For anyone who’s ever tried to force themselves into a mold that didn’t quite fit, for anyone who’s tried to be or become something that doesn’t quite ring true to their soul, this is your book.

Visit Carly Gelsinger’s website at https://carlygelsingerauthor.com/