nonfiction

Book Review: The Cult of Trump: A Leading Cult Expert Explains How the President Uses Mind Control by Steve Hassan

If you’ve read my blog for any length of time, you know I’m fascinated by cults. Not just the cults themselves, though; I’m also fascinated by the mindset that it takes to join and stay in a cult: the beliefs and ties to reality that followers must suspend, the excuses they need to make, and the misbehavior that must be dismissed in order to continue to defend and remain within the group. What makes all that happen? What kind of perfect storm has to take place in order for a single person to convince themselves that this group above all others has it right, despite glaring evidence to the contrary? In the past few years, we’ve been able to watch- and still watch- this play out on a massive scale in real time, and when I learned about The Cult of Trump: A Leading Cult Expert Explains How the President Uses Mind Control by Steve Hassan (Free Press, 2019), I was interested. I’d heard interviews with Steve Hassan before on the topic of cults, and I had long before made the connection between the many, many cults I’ve read about and the behavior of Donald Trump’s most ardent followers. Onto my list it went.

Steve Hassan had once been a member of the Moonies, the colloquial name for members of Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church. His family recognized early on that he had been pressured into a cult; it took him several years to leave (with the help of his family, who were not members; it’s obviously much, much harder for people raised in these movements to extract themselves), and he went on to become a mental health expert who specializes in treating people who leave high-control groups. He’s well aware now of the tactics that the Moonies and other groups use in order to pressure people to join and stay in their movements, and he recognized early on that Donald Trump and his entourage have engaged in all of the same tactics in order to build their own movement.

Step by step, Steve Hassan breaks down how Donald Trump engages in the same mind control techniques that cults use, using specific examples not just from Trump and his entourage, but showing how those same techniques played out in other high-control groups (such as NXIVM, Jonestown, Waco, etc). (And this isn’t mind control like in cartoons, where people’s eyes spin around; these are psychological tactics designed to manipulate how a person thinks, to break ties with a person’s prior life and beliefs and instill new, mostly fear-based beliefs that encourage the potential convert to join the group, because the group or the group’s leader alone can fix this. Sound familiar?). The parallels are disturbing.

I enjoyed a lot of the content here. Seeing the tactics used by various cults and the Trump campaign broken down step-by-step is definitely eerie, especially seeing it all in one place. Mr. Hassan isn’t the only one to notice this; the podcast Behind the Bastards has noted this in multiple episodes, and if you’ve ever listened to the podcast Cults on Parcast, you’ll recognize the same patterns of behavior and control over and over again, used throughout all the various groups. There’s no doubt that the Trump campaign used and continues to use these unfortunately effective tactics. They work, yes, but they work by manipulation and fear. If you can’t convince people of your message without manipulation and fear, your message isn’t worth propagating.

The book did get a little dry for me at times, and there were several instances where the text veered into speculation. “Many people believe…” “Some people think…” I didn’t care for that and felt that it weakened his argument. In a book that is making such big claims (claims which I think are unfortunately accurate), I want every claim to be backed up with hard evidence. There’s no room for conjecture when you’re penning nonfiction about a presidential administration that engaged in devastating acts, and God knows there’s enough hard material to base these claims on. The speculation turned me off quite a bit, and I felt that it lessened the effectiveness of the rest of the book. It also strayed into straight-up political discussion more than I expected; I was looking for more of hard look at the Trump administration’s cult-like tactics in engaging its followers and keeping them coming back for more despite this often not being in their best interests (something we’re still seeing today throughout this pandemic, though there are definitely signs that the monster he created is beyond his control, what with his encouraging his rallygoers to get vaccinated, only to have them boo him). While it did contain some of that, it wasn’t as much as I had expected when I put this book on my list.

It’s definitely an interesting perspective, but not as in-depth of an examination as I had hoped for.

Visit Steve Hassan’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

nonfiction · true crime

Book Review: The Family Next Door: The Heartbreaking Imprisonment of the Thirteen Turpin Siblings and Their Extraordinary Rescue by John Glatt

Do you ever look back and wonder how you missed out on major news stories? I’m old enough to remember the Challenger explosion, but I have no memories of it. I’m not sure if that’s because my parents shielded me from the awfulness of it, or because it wasn’t much on their radar, but nope, I don’t remember it at all. The more recent story of the Turpin family is similar for me. I vaguely knew who they were- a mega-family who had at least some sort of Christian trappings who ended up abusing the kids terribly- but somehow the details of this story remained off my radar. But someone on a messageboard where I lurk suggested The Family Next Door: The Heartbreaking Imprisonment of the Thirteen Turpin Siblings and Their Extraordinary Rescue by John Glatt (St. Martin’s Press, 2019), and I knew I needed to read it in order to fill in the gaps (I think things were so crazy politically at the time that all my attention was going to other things, and that’s how this one slipped by me. We can’t pay attention to everything…)

In early 2018, a 17 year-old girl, whose physical appearance made her appear closer to ten years of age, secretly dialed 911 to report that her parents were abusing her and her twelve siblings, several of whom had been chained to their beds for months. When the police arrived at the house, what they found was nearly beyond belief. Children from the ages of two to their late twenties who hadn’t bathed or changed clothing in over a year, in various stages of starvation, cachexia, and psychosocial dwarfism.  None of them had ever visited a dentist; doctor visits had rarely happened. Most of them displayed severe signs of abuse. None of the neighbors realized there were that many kids living in the house, because most of the children never left. The oldest had been pulled out of third grade in public school; they had all been ‘homeschooled’ since, but most of them had less than a first-grade education, even the adults (the daughter who had called 911 had even misspelled her own last name).

The kids were taken and hospitalized; the parents were sent to jail to await trial. The children, even the adults, were badly stunted in physical and social development; educationally, they were all years behind (with the exception of the two-year-old, who was, while still not perfect, in better shape than anyone else). The younger children eventually went to (I believe) a foster home; the adult children went to a secret home to begin focusing on all the things they needed to learn to function as adults, since none of them were even remotely able to care for themselves. The parents were eventually convicted and sentenced to twenty-five years to life in prison; the children will be battling the effects of the torture their parents afflicted upon them forever (at least two of the girls are unlikely to be able to have children themselves, so extensive was the damage they’ve suffered).

If you followed the case as it unfolded, there probably isn’t anything new here, but if you’re like me and missed this, it’s a good primer as to what happened. I hadn’t really known any of the details, so it was a worthwhile (if horrifying) read. My heart broke over and over again for the damage these kids have suffered (I refer to them as kids, but the oldest is in her early 30’s by now; the youngest is maybe 5 or 6). Their parents stunted their entire lives; whatever they go on to do, it’ll be in spite of their parents, not because of them, and though they may heal, even in the best-case scenario, there will still be massive, massive scars. I’m so sad for all of them.

There are several fundamentalist mega-families on my radar (not the Duggars; we already know what a mess they’ve made…) that have exhibited strong Turpin-esque qualities. One has stated she’s not worried about her homeschooled kids obtaining ‘worldly knowledge;’ in a recent video the mom posted, her oldest kids (somewhere around 11 or 12) didn’t know what year it was or who the President was (both questions my seven-year-old answered immediately with no help). The other family’s kids are very obviously malnourished and the quality of their ‘homeschooling’ has looked pretty poor as well. (I’m a former homeschooling parent; even when I was actively homeschooling, I wished there were better oversight. If you’re doing what you need to be doing, a yearly check-in to make sure your kid is on track is no big deal, and I made my kiddo WORK. Better oversight would have prevented the Turpins from ruining their kids, and it would keep those other families I’m thinking of from inflicting potentially irreversible damage on their children. It’s incredibly difficult to become a functional adult when you were denied the skills it takes to be one throughout your entire childhood.)

The writing in this book isn’t anything special; it’s a really fast read, though a depressing one. You’ll be horrified and disgusted and heartbroken through the whole thing. I pray those kids are able to repair what their parents worked so hard to destroy, and to create beautiful, functional lives for themselves, and that this world makes a safe, patient space for all of them.

Visit John Glatt’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: Shunned: How I Lost My Religion and Found Myself by Linda A. Curtis

Pretty sure I learned about Shunned: How I Lost My Religon and Found Myself by Linda A. Curtis (She Writes Press, 2018) from a list of books about people leaving various religious groups and sects (Goodreads actually has a bunch of these lists! The number of boxes that say READ for me on these lists is almost a little embarrassing…). It can be a little tricky reading about Jehovah’s Witnesses. So many of the memoirs make its adherents’ lives seem so bleak, what with the no holiday or birthday celebrations. Quite a few of the memoir authors’ lives as children lacked any kind of joy, just slogging through life from meeting to door knocking to school, lather, rinse, repeat. Shunned wasn’t quite that heavy, fortunately.

Linda Curtis grew up a devout Jehovah’s Witness, beginning to knock on doors to bring others into the fold when she was just nine years old. Unable to participate in classroom celebrations with her friends or any of the regular teenage dating rituals in high school, she forgoes college (why bother, when Armageddon is surely around the corner?) and works part-time while full-time knocking on doors, and then marries young to a man about whom she already has serious doubts before the wedding. Career-wise, things take off for her; Linda begins to realize all that she’s capable of, all that she’s good at. When she meets a co-worker, one she likes and respects, on the other side of a door one afternoon, she hears what her practiced Witness speech must sound like to his ears for the very first time, and she begins to question a religion that would so willingly throw such a nice guy away.

The questions and doubts fly fast and furious after this, and before long, Linda has divorced her husband, gone inactive in the church, and moved away. Divorce is unacceptable to the Witnesses, however, and she and her husband are still considered married to them- he’s not allowed to date again unless she admits to finding someone else, thus committing what the church considers adultery (legal divorce doesn’t matter to them). And when she does, that’s grounds for her family to shun her. Linda understands that this is coming and accepts this as a consequence of living an honest life. It’s painful and difficult to create an entirely new life on her own, but she does, one that is beautiful and authentic, though the wounds from her family never truly heal.

This is a well-written memoir. I didn’t necessarily gain any new insights into the JW religion or culture, but it was an interesting look at what a Witness family looked like. (Her father didn’t join until Linda was mostly on the way out, which added an interesting perspective.) I can’t say this endeared me at all to the Jehovah’s Witness sect, though- I understand having faith and it being deeply important to your life. I don’t understand it taking precedence over any kind of a relationship with one’s children. I’m deeply committed to my Judaism, but my kids are free to be whatever it is they need to be, whatever it is they feel is right for them and their outlook on the world. I cannot imagine looking at them and saying, “If you don’t believe exactly like me, I don’t want you in my life.” I’m actually really appalled that there are parents out there who do that, in any group. (That’s not to say I don’t understand why some families cut off contact with each other- it happens; not all relationships are successful or healthy, and sometimes you need to put some distance between each other when things get toxic. This, however, I feel is in an entirely different category, and it breaks my heart that kids are left high and dry because of religious beliefs, or lack thereof.)

It impressed me how Linda didn’t maintain a sense of bitterness or anger at her family (or if she did, it didn’t come through in her writing). I don’t know that I could have been so kind- I feel like if my parents no longer wanted to talk to me, I’d just shrug and be like, “For that? Wow, your loss, then,” and wouldn’t necessarily be open to them reaching out in any capacity. Because if I’m not good enough for you to keep around in your daily life, why would you expect me to come running for…anything? Maybe that’s just me, but I couldn’t live holding out hope that maybe, maybe one day my family would beg me to come crawling back. Nah. If you don’t want me around, that’s fine. Too bad for you, but I’m staying gone, then. I’m curious as to what makes Linda as gracious and forgiving as she was with her family during the brief respite she got upon returning home for her grandmother’s death. I wouldn’t have been so forgiving. (I was also seriously impressed at her career trajectory. She made a place for herself in the finance world with no secondary education and reached seriously impressive levels of success. GO LINDA!)

This book did seem to drag a bit at the end, but otherwise, it’s an enjoyable read and a look at what happens when parents decide that allegiance to a religious group, or religious ideals, trumps any relationship with their children. It’s depressing at times, but ultimately, it’s more of an inspiration, of having the courage to find the path in life that’s authentic to who you are.

Visit Linda A. Curtis’s website here.

nonfiction

Book Review: Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism by Amanda Montell

I was reading over at Hey Alma a few weeks ago when an article leapt out at me: Jews Probably Won’t Join Your Cult by Emily Burack, all about the new book, Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism by Amanda Montell (Harper Wave, 2021). The article was great, the book sounded fascinating, and lo and behold, my library had a copy on order! I put my name on the list, and got the email that my book was in this week- of course when I already had like six books sitting at home waiting for me. As is almost always the case. Everything comes in at once. It’s a good problem to have, isn’t it?

Amanda Montell’s father grew up in Synanon, the addiction-recovery-program-turned-cult of the 1970’s, so she grew up hearing stories of cult life. But it was her background as a linguist that had her considering what makes and keeps these groups- not all of them religious- together, and the answer to that is language. Each group has its own lingo, yet they all use similar linguistic techniques to pull followers in, establish themselves as a moral (or otherwise) authority, maintain said authority and bypass certain followers’ inner warning system, and preserve the control they hold over their followers’ lives. From Scientology to Jonestown to MLMs to CrossFit to the cult of Trump, what these groups have in common is the way they use language as a means of groupthink and control, and Ms. Montell illustrates this beautifully in a book that, while academic, never strays toward the dry. This is fascinating reading.

From group-specific vocabulary to thought-terminating clichés (once you learn what these are, you’ll hear them everywhere, just as Ms. Montell warns), the language techniques used by these groups- some of which are straight-up cults, others which only tap dance on the border of cultish- follow similar patterns. That message you get from that girl you went to high school with (“Hey girl! LOVE your posts! You have such a great energy. I have the BEST opportunity for you, if you want to make some money staying at home with your kids IN YOUR PAJAMAS! Who wouldn’t love that, right???”), the fitness guru yelling at you from the screen of your Peloton, and that all-smiles dude in the suit who wants to have a chat with you about where you’re going to spend eternity all use similar tactics. They may not sound the same, they may not have the same end goal, but they’re cut from the same cloth. Listen closely, and the language they use is all similarly cultish.

I’ve read a lot of books that dissect language use over the years, and Cultish is probably at the top of that list in terms of ease of read and enjoyability. Ms. Montell delves into well-known death cults, such as Jonestown and Heaven’s Gate, but she also tackles newer groups such as Peloton, SoulCycle, CrossFit, and various MLMS- groups that, while they aren’t exactly full-on cults, at least make a lot of people vaguely uncomfortable and inspire their devotees to never, ever shut up about them. (Seriously. The MLM people, amirite???)

If you like learning about language usage, you’ll enjoy this book. If you’re interested in cults and groups that inspire their members to near-cultish devotion, you’ll enjoy this book. And if you’re interested in both things, this is definitely one you won’t want to miss. (“Hey girl! I have got a book you’re going to LOVE!”)

Visit Amanda Montell’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · science fiction · YA

Book Review: Chaos on CatNet (CatNet #2) by Naomi Kritzer

Imagine a world that seems pretty normal. It’s mostly like ours, with smart phones and computers and people enjoying coffee in cutesy little cafes…and then a drone whizzes by. And after that, a robot dog trots past you, careful to avoid the driverless taxi as it crosses the street. That robot dog is still new enough to the tech scene that a few people turn to stare. That’s the world Naomi Kritzer has created in her CatNet series and in which we find ourselves again in her second and latest book featuring Steph and friends, Chaos on CatNet (Tor Teen, 2021). I’ve gushed in the past about Naomi’s Catfishing on CatNet and Cat Pictures Please and Other Stories (which I read before I started blogging, but seriously, if you read *one* book I recommend, this is it, and I don’t even normally like short stories!), but man, she just keeps getting better and better.

Full disclosure: I’ve known Naomi since around 2002. We’ve been part of the same small online parenting group since then, but my reviews are entirely independent of that. I enjoyed but didn’t love her Fires of the Faithful, which was a little outside of my normal reading wheelhouse at the time- it’s well-written, but fantasy isn’t usually my thing. I’m telling you this so that you’re confident that my review is impartial enough to be trusted. These CatNet books are amazing.

Steph is back, finally settled down in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area with her mother, after a life on the run from her father. Her father is in prison, awaiting trial; things are going well, albeit long-distance, with her girlfriend Rachel; her friends from the CatNet Clowder, including sentient AI CheshireCat, are still supportive; and she’s starting a new school. There’s another new girl there as well. Nell has just left (somewhat unwillingly) the Christian cult she lived in with her mother, who has disappeared. She now lives with her father and his polyamorous wife and girlfriends- it’s a complicated situation, but Steph and Nell find a lot to bond over with their shared unconventional backgrounds.

Not all is well, though. The social media networks Steph and Nell are using are sending bizarre messages, asking them to complete strange tasks that increasingly cause Steph to suspect that these networks are being run by the other sentient AI out there- the one who isn’t her cat picture-loving friend, CheshireCat. CheshireCat shares her fears, and it’s starting to look like Nell’s former cult group (along with Nell’s mother) and Steph’s mother’s dangerous former business partner Rajiv may be involved as well. When the sentient AI-controlled networks begin causing riots and explosions in Minneapolist-St. Paul, will Steph, CheshireCat, and friends be able to intervene in time to stop the chaos from spreading across the country?

My synopsis doesn’t do this near-future YA thriller-with-excellent-queer-rep justice. This is serious edge-of-your-seat reading, one that I didn’t find stressful like I do most thrillers, just deeply intriguing. I blew through this book in less than twenty-four hours, and given my lack of reading time these days, you *know* that means it’s incredible. Steph is mature for her age- who wouldn’t be, after the life she’s led with her mother?- but she’s still subject to the longings of a teenager’s first experience with love. Nell shares in her awkwardness of having been raised in a deeply unconventional way, but hers is more acute, and she’s more wary than Steph. I really enjoyed watching the dynamics of their new friendship play out.

The Minneapolis-St.Paul area, or at least its weather, is as much of a character here as any human or sentient AI, as it features heavily during many of the book’s scenes. Steph and Nell are often out in brutally cold temperatures and this becomes a factor in a lot of their decisions. Nell’s former cult is also another huge part of the book that you know pulled me right in. I may have gasped when I got to that part (Naomi has a degree in religion, so various forms of this often appear in her stories. I love that I know this).

The sci-fi aspects of this aren’t over-the-top; I’m not a sci-fi person, but this was just straight-up interesting. It’s set in the near-future, where technology is just a little more advanced than what we have right now, and all that plays into the plot. It’s not so tech-y that I (who isn’t the most tech-y person out there) was confused, but the story was based in a reality that even I could imagine as stemming from the technology we have now. I never really saw myself as someone who would enjoy- actually LOVE- a series of books where a sentient AI is a main character, but CheshireCat is an utter delight, as is this book, and its companion.

You don’t need to have read Catfishing on CatNet to enjoy Chaos, but both books are so much fun and so enjoyable, why wouldn’t you? I highly recommend this whole series; you won’t regret it.

Visit Naomi Kritzer’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

memoir · nonfiction

Book Review: Hollywood Park by Mikel Jollett

I first learned of Hollywood Park by Mikel Jollett (Celadon Books, 2020) from my friend Sibyl, who came to my parenting group’s book forum to tell us all about a new memoir written about a man’s aftermath of being raised in a cult. I was intrigued, but kind of forgot about it for a bit (I think there was a lot going on at the time) until I started seeing it pop up on Twitter, and that’s when I added it to my TBR. And since one of the challenges from my parenting group’s reading challenge this year is to read a book recommended by another member, I turned to Hollywood Park. Whew, this is a sad one.

Mikel Jollett and his brother Tony were born into the Synanon cult, which started as a drug rehab and was good until it wasn’t, as everyone in the book said. (Big shout-out here to the podcast Cults, on Parcast; this is where I had learned about Synanon a few years back. I hadn’t heard of it before. If you’re not familiar with Synanon and you want to read this book, I highly suggest you listen to their episodes on this cult before diving in.) His parents, who were no longer together, escaped when Mikkel was five and Tony was about six. You may wonder why the cult affected them so deeply the rest of their lives, since they were so young, and this is because by the time Mikel and Tony were infants, Synanon had a policy of separating children and parents, because in the cult’s way of thinking, children shouldn’t have parents, they should be ‘children of the Universe.’ Thus, Mikel and Tony grew up, like other kids in Synanon, being raised in what seemed like those awful Romanian orphanages of the 1990’s under Nicolae Ceaușescu, unable to form attachments to other people. It gets worse from there.

Their mother has either borderline personality disorder or narcissistic personality disorder and spends their childhood gaslighting them, denying their feelings and experiences, and making everything about herself. Poverty abounds in their household, and their mother brings a parade of men through the house, trying to form the family of her dreams. Both boys turn to substance abuse to cope with the dysfunction; Mikel manages to escape this early on, but Tony falls into full-blown addiction. With a massive amount of hard work and therapy, Mikel and Tony manage to forge healthy lives, but the drama along the way is worthy of a Hollywood blockbuster.

My goodness. This isn’t *quite* at the levels of dysfunction seen in The Glass Castle or Educated, but it’s just as raw and painful. Mikel’s father, though rough around the edges, had his heart in the right place and was an effective parent, and his stepmother Bonnie is an absolute gem, so it’s not all tension and pain, but the chapters with his mother are…they’re rough reads. She’s dismissive of everything Mikel and Tony feel, everything they experience, and won’t anyone think of how hard this (this being anything from leaving Synanon to the death of someone Mikel loves) is on HER??? She’s the kind of person you just want to grab by the shoulders and shake in order to force some sense into her and get her out of her own head. I have a feeling she’s going around these days, talking about how hard the publication of this book has been on her, and I can’t say I have any sympathy.

This is also a story of addiction and the toll it takes, and how it’s passed down the line, how we continue to act out our family traumas so that the next generation repeats them. Both Mikel and his brother have taken the steps to break this chain, but not without some damage already caused. It’s a painful read and may be even more painful if you’re struggling with addiction or you love someone who is or has struggled. It might also be a tough read for anyone who has lived with a narcissistic parent. But it might also be enlightening, seeing what Mikel and Tony go through, and how hard they work to rebuild healthy lives for themselves. Take into account what you’re ready for before you read, and be kind to yourself. Recovery of any sorts is a long, difficult process.

Hollywood Park is a painful story of growing up amongst massive dysfunction coming at the author from nearly every direction, but it’s also one of growth and triumph for those who are willing to put in the work, arduous and challenging and daunting though it may be. I flew through this one, but I’ve heard from others that they didn’t care for Mikel Jollett’s style. It’s not an easy read, emotionally-speaking, but it’s worth it. His life is a fascinating story, and I flew through this book. If you’ve read this, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Follow Mikel Jollett on Twitter.

nonfiction

Book Review: Broken Faith: Broken Faith: Inside the Word of Faith Fellowship, One of America’s Most Dangerous Cults by Mitch Weiss and Holbrook Mohr

Cults! Cults, cults, cults! This is probably my longest-running fascination. I put in for Broken Faith: Inside the Word of Faith Fellowship, One of America’s Most Dangerous Cults by Mitch Weiss and Holbrook Mohr (Hanover Square Press, 2020) on NetGalley but was rejected (no biggie; you win some, you lose some!), but it went onto my TBR anyway. I hadn’t heard of Word of Faith Fellowship before, so immediately I was deeply intrigued and neeeeeeeeeeeeeeded to know more!

Journalist Mitch Weiss has written a stunning exposé on the Word of Faith Fellowship, a church out of Spindale, North Carolina, that consumes every last moment of its members’ lives. You can’t just show up for a church service; you have to be invited (that alone should tip people off). WOFF is run by Jane Whaley, a charismatic, power-hungry woman who seeks to control the lives of her church members and live high on the hog on their tithes, while they struggle to give more and more. Church tactics include screaming in the faces of and beating members, even infants and small children, to release all the demons that plague them, tying them to chairs, locking them away for months at a time in what amounts to prisons on the church property, stealing members’ children, and making it nearly impossible for members to leave.

What’s worse is the local government is fully involved in protecting the church and has, for decades, turned a blind eye to the abuse of the children in the cult. Members have tried for years to get justice for the many, many ways the cult has wronged them, only to be given the runaround by the police and the local court system. Hopefully with the publication of this book, more people will be aware of the shocking manipulations of this cult and the way it controls its members and the county it’s located in.

This is an absolutely shocking book. Mitch Weiss interviewed over 100 former church members to construct this narrative, as well as seeking out court documents, including a 300+ page document that had never before been released prior to his research. Despite damning evidence of the abuse of the members children (including sexual abuse- the mentions are brief, but they’re in here, so be alert if this is a difficult subject for you to read about), the county opted to tie the hands of social services and leave the children there to be further abused. I’m not going to lie; reading this is chilling. It’s yet another account of how cheap life is here in the United States and how little the lives of everyday people matter. The odds are stacked against us all, and if you’ve got money, you’re free to do as much harm as you want to anyone you want, because money is power.

Multiple times, Weiss and Mohr illustrate, usually through the words of authorities, how difficult it is for former cult members to receive justice: cults keep such tight control over their members that when they do manage to escape, they’re often ill-prepared to live in the outside world, plagued with anxiety and PTSD, and they end up homeless and addicted to various substances as a means of coping- rending them, in the eyes of legal authorities and juries, unreliable as witnesses. And thus cults such as WOFF are allowed to carry on their dangerous, abusive tactics. Members of the church have been convicted of various forms of fraud on the church’s behalf (including unemployment fraud and mail fraud), but Jane Whaley has never been brought up on charges herself.

If reading about cults interests you, you won’t want to miss this. Jane Whaley and her sycophants are dangerous and I’m glad the floodlights are being turned onto the church. I hope this helps its victims receive justice and that more people are sympathetic to what they’ve suffered at the hands of this evil, evil institution.

Follow Mitch Weiss on Twitter here.

memoir · nonfiction

Book Review: A River Could Be a Tree by Angela Himsel

Another book right up my alley! Funny story about A River Could Be a Tree by Angela Himsel (Fig Tree Books, 2018). So my library opened up this week to start doing curbside pickups. Cool, cool. (They also, after four years of arguing with our local park district, made the move to purchase an empty grocery store downtown and will be building an entirely new library, but that’s beside the point- but can you FEEL my excitement?!?!?!!????) They have a really great selection of ebooks, including early chapter books for kids (like The Magic Tree House series and the Junie B. Jones series) so we’re managing okay, and thus I figured I’d leave the curbside pickup services to people who don’t have the privilege of checking out ebooks. But on the very first day of curbside pickup, I received an email letting me know that this book, which I’d placed on hold via interlibrary loan in MARCH, was waiting for me (and had been this whole time, but the library had been closed). Woot! Even with their reduced hours, I was able to run over and grab it that day. This is the first paper book I’ve read since the end of March or early April!

Angela Himsel was raised in the basically-a-cult Worldwide Church of God (now Grace Communion International), a bizarre fundamentalist sect which forbade celebrating birthdays and Christian holidays (which they considered pagan) and instead celebrated appropriated versions of Jewish holidays, including observing the Sabbath on Saturdays. The church’s focus on the End Times eclipsed most everything else, and Angela grew up pondering some of the more esoteric points of the Bible, such as which of her ten siblings her parents would eat in the end of days. She believed in the religion of her childhood so fervently; this, coupled with growing up in a very small, very white town in southern Indiana, very much stunted her views on what the rest of the world looked like.

A meeting with her high school guidance counselor put her on the path to college; a single glimpse of a study abroad brochure had her making plans to study in Jerusalem. Once there, Angela fell in love with Israel, but the more she searched, the more difficult it became to find the answers to her many questions about the religion she grew up with. And in Israel, she made the surprising discovery that Jews- those Hebrews of the Bible that had so fascinated her- still existed! (Ahhh, growing up in small Midwestern towns. I so understand this.) Her faith struggles continued well after moving back to the US and setting up a life in New York City, but getting involved with a man raised as the son of an Orthodox Jewish rabbi set her on the path to an eventual conversion and finding a new home for her soul.

There are some content warnings for this book, including the death of a child and a few other deaths (though these occur later on in life), and a few brief mentions of sexual assault and abuse.

Reading about Ms. Himsel’s childhood and about how she didn’t know about the seedy underbelly of her church (including financial scandals, sexual abuse, and more) until long after she reached adulthood made me so, so grateful for the flood of information that is the internet. It’s so much easier these days to check into an organization, and anything we want, a luxury that Ms. Himsel and her family didn’t have during the days before the internet’s existence. I can’t help but wonder how much heartache has been saved simply because people can now look into religious groups before committing their time, their money, and their lives. Ms. Himsel’s parents remained in their whole lives, most likely due to the sunk-cost fallacy or escalation of commitment, essentially doubling down after terrible outcomes instead of admitting one’s losses were for nothing. And their losses here were sizable and painful.

I so enjoy these kinds of memoirs, learning what once drew the author to a certain religion or religious group and what eventually pulled them away, but my one beef is that generally, if/when the author does find a religious home in which he or she is comfortable, that section is usually more rushed and lacks as much depth as the beginning. That’s not just a criticism of this book; most memoirs of this genre seem to follow that same path, so this feels more like a general editing decision for all books of this type, and I wish editors would reevaluate this. I’d love to hear more about what draws the authors down their new paths (if there is one), what appeals to them about their new practices and why. Ms. Himsel’s Orthodox conversion only covered a very small amount of pages in this book, and I would have loved to read more- more about why this was the right decision for her, more about what she loved about living a Jewish life, more about what she found surprising or difficult or especially wonderful (if anything) after her conversion.

I’m counting this book as my choice for the Book Riot’s 2020 Read Harder Challenge prompt of a memoir by someone from a religious tradition (or lack thereof) that is not your own. I’m not sure if I’ll continue on with this challenge (this year has been so weird and reading is so different right now that I’m thinking about completing the PopSugar Challenge and calling it good!), but this book was on my TBR and so I’m thrilled to finally have read it!

A River Could Be a Tree is deeply fascinating. While I wish it would have gone deeper into her conversion and post-conversion life, Ms. Himsel’s story so intrigued me that I flew through this book in two days. If you enjoy religious exit memoirs (seriously, is there a better term for this genre???) the way that I do, this shouldn’t be missed.

Visit Angela Himsel’s website here.

nonfiction

Without a Prayer: The Death of Lucas Leonard and How One Church Became a Cult- Susan Ashline

Cult books! Cult books everywhere!

Without a Prayer: The Death of Lucas Leonard and How One Church Became a Cult by Susan Ashline (Pegasus Books, 2019) was a new one for me. I made a trip to another local branch of the library in order to pick up a DVD for my son’s Oceanography and Meteorology class (seriously, when did high schools get such interesting classes? It was huge deal that my high school got Psychology my senior year. My son is also taking Sports and Entertainment Marketing, and a class called Incubator, which is basically Shark Tank for teenagers, it’s wild), and of course I trucked in with my list of books from my TBR that were on their shelves. This was on the New Books shelf (because you know I had to stop and browse that!), and I grabbed it right away, because, well, cults.

Word of Life Christian Church in upstate New York seemed like a fairly normal church when it first started out, but after a while, neighbors noticed that it had become more secluded, more secretive: a gate went up, church members went in early mornings and didn’t come out until late in the night. What was going on behind those gates and the closed doors was a long, drawn-out indoctrination of its members, over whom control would be passed down from pastor father to pastor daughter, and which would directly lead to the members and leaders beating a teenager to death, along with prison time for many of the members and leaders.

While the recounting of the recordings and texts does occasionally become repetitious and wearying, Ms. Ashline has written a chilling work that shows exactly how people get involved with groups that eventually morph into something entirely different. There’s a LOT of weird stuff going on in this book, including moving a dead body across state lines and attempting to revive it, squalor (some of it involving animals and animal hoarding), demons (SO much talk of demons. I didn’t know I could get sick of hearing about demons, but hooooooboy, can I ever) and the constant verbal abuse of a flock by its pastors. If you’re at all interested in cults and secluded religious (or otherwise!) groups, this strange tale is one you won’t want to miss.

I was really struck by Bruce Leonard, the father of Lucas Leonard, and how weak-willed he was. He’s probably the stereotypical sheep-like cult member that everyone thinks of as being most likely to join a group like Word of Life, as opposed to the more firebrand people who are all in, lock, stock, and barrel from the get-go in a big and vocal way (although no one ever really joins a cult, so to speak; they join a church or a self-help group, something they think is going to meet their needs and improve their life. It’s the manipulation of the leader or leaders that turn it into a cult, and far too often, the members don’t realize the danger they’re in until it’s too late), being entirely unable to make decisions on his own or think for himself, and thus he turned to a stronger, more powerful leader to make those decisions for him, and his wife was only too happy to follow. He’s also an excellent example of people who stay in cults despite the terrible mistreatment they receive from the leaders. Bruce and his wife and children were insulted and ostracized from the small group on a regular basis, and still they stayed, and it’s deeply fascinating to see them constantly come back for more. There’s a bit at the end where another local religious leader talks with Bruce, who eventually figures it out, and the way that religious leader’s help affected Bruce intrigued me.

Content warning: there are quite a few mentions of child molestation. During the ‘counseling’ session that lead to Lucas Leonard’s death, he and his brother Chris admitted to molesting some of the children in the church. Investigations showed no evidence of this, and I believe Chris admitted that he only said it to get the beatings to stop, and because he thought that’s what the other church members wanted to hear. Ms. Ashline also mentions that, as in many cults, some words have definitions peculiar to that particular group, and in this group, it seemed that even changing the diaper of an opposite sex child counted as molestation. So while there’s never anything graphic mentioned that isn’t confessed under extreme duress, beware that this is a topic of frequent mention in the latter parts of this book.

I hadn’t heard of this story before (I seem to miss a LOT of stuff like this!!!), so I’m glad i stumbled across this book. All this constant reading and learning about different cults has made me start feeling like everything has the potential to become a cult (much like listening to Dateline via podcast makes me feel like murder is everywhere! Egads, I need to go read something about fluffy kittens and puppies frolicking in a sunshiny meadow…).

Are you or were you familiar with this story? If you learned about this on the news, I’d love to hear your take on it.

Visit Susan Ashline’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · YA

Gated- Amy Christine Parker

Yikes, I’ve been hitting the cult books kind of hard lately, haven’t I??? I’ve got another one coming up as well. I mean, I guess it’s a great time of year to read creepy things, but yeesh, maybe I should throw a ghost or a demon in there along with all the manipulative cult leaders, eh? Gated by Amy Christine Parker (Random House Books for Young Readers, 2013) ended up on my TBR after I read another book blogger’s review; I was lucky that my library had an ebook copy, and so onto my Kindle it went!

Lyla’s family has been hurting badly ever since the disappearance of her older sister when Lyla was young. One moment the girls were playing together happily; the next moment, Lyla’s sister was gone forever, and just a few days later, the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 pushed the story of the missing girl out of the news. Enter Pioneer, a charismatic young man who convinces the family to leave everything behind and follow him to live in a community where everything will be safe and there will be no more worries.

But the visions Pioneer sees, visions that Lyla’s parents and other adults who make up the community entirely buy into, grow dark, and the community ramps up their preparations for the end of the world, where their community will hunker down in their specially constructed underground bunker. Their reclusive community hasn’t escaped the attention of the local law enforcement community, however, and after a visit from the chief of police and his son, Cody, Lyla, who is promised to her childhood best friend Will, finds herself with a major crush. It’s Cody who prompts Lyla to begin questioning everything she’s ever believed to be true, and after a near-deadly accident, her eyes are fully opened to the reality of Pioneer and the place she lives. But can she convince everyone else before it’s too late?

Gated is a really great example of how easily it is for even fully grown adults to be manipulated. Pioneer is obviously a smooth talker with enough charisma to convince an entire community of families to sell their homes, turn the money over to him, and spend their lives secluded from the rest of the world. He found Lyla’s family via the news about the disappearance of their older daughter, and he absolutely preyed on them during the worst time of their lives. (What is never covered and is something that I wondered throughout the entirety of the book, is if he was responsible for the older daughter’s disappearance. I would have liked to have seen this questioned, because it was entirely in the realm of possibility for his uber-creepiness.)

There’s some insta-love going on between Lyla and Cody, and I found the whole process of Pioneer matching the teenagers up so early on in order to marry them off when they’re adults to be super creepy, along with the parents’ easy acceptance of this! Ms. Parker has really set up a creepy mini-society where the parents have blindly accepted a stranger’s proclamations of what the future will hold and on which they’re willing to bet their children’s entire lives. There’s a good sense of balance, though; she’s also taken great pains to show the best parts of living the way Lyla and her family do: fresh food grown straight from their own gardens, being able to take care of their own needs with building and repairing, a close sense of family and community. There’s a not-too-graphic scene that depicts, off-camera, the death of animals, and while the reader isn’t witness to it (Lyla understands what’s going on when she wakes up in the middle of the night and runs to the commotion at the barns), there’s some description that might be hard to read for younger or more sensitive readers.

There is a sequel and it sounds like something I’d be interested in, but given the reviews, I’m thinking it’ll be better to just leave this series where it is and not continue on. If you’ve read the second book and want to change my mind, i’d love to hear what you have to say in the comments!

Visit Amy Christine Parker’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.