Browsing through NetGalley a while back, I found a book that basically had my name on it in flashing neon signs. It combined multiple interests of mine, and though it took a while, I was finally approved, and I was thrilled. Forager: Field Notes for Surviving a Family Cult by Michelle Dowd (Algonquin Books, 2023) called my name from the moment I read the title, and I was correct: this book was a deeply engaging read, mining into a childhood filled with chaos, dystopian theology, and a love of nature that has remained with its author through her escape from the cult that created her.
Michelle Dowd was raised in California in her grandfather’s group known as The Field (which still exists today, but, under different leadership, is drastically different from the group in which Ms. Dowd grew up). The end of the world was nigh; group members would need to learn how to survive in the coming apocalypse, so Michelle, who received only three years of education at a public school, learned early on how to live off of what the earth could provide. Pine nuts, roots, berries, leaves, needles, bark, Michelle learned how to use them all. This education was the only form of affection her mother gave her; The Field taught that any kind of affection was wrong and unnecessary, and thus Michelle grows up starved for love, attention, food, and education, though her obvious intelligence is never in question.
An autoimmune disorder hospitalizes Michelle for months at a time; The Field states it’s because she’s an unfaithful Jezebel, her father never visits, and her mother blames her, with helpful statements such as, “Why are you doing this to me?” Throughout all of the chaos of her childhood – the physical and sexual abuse, the educational neglect, the lack of affection, the malnutrition, the illness, the anorexia and self-harm, the poverty, the persistent terror of eschatological theology preached by all the adults in her life – nature is her one constant, and it carries Michelle through to her eventual escape into the world she’d been made to fear her entire life.
Forager is a beautifully written memoir, and turning such suffering and fear into beauty is no easy task. It’s Educated-meets-I Want to Be Left Behind, and it’s utterly stunning in not just the depths of depravity in which Ms. Dowd was raised, but the constant unfolding knowledge of how far she had to climb to escape, a process not fully detailed (dare I hope for a second memoir from Ms. Dowd?), but one alluded to have taken years. Deconstruction and rebuilding is a difficult process and one that must’ve been especially challenging for a person raised in The Field. This book left me stunned, grateful for Ms. Dowd’s survival, and deeply concerned for other members – current and former – of this group.
Interspersed between the chapters are field notes on different plants that provide a little insight into the knowledge of the nature around her that Ms. Dowd absorbed as a child. The pictures she paints of the plants and trees that helped her survive and the way she describes the comfort she finds in nature and her ability to navigate it temper the intense descriptions of abuse, neglect, and apathy she grew up with. Like most memoirs that deal with heavy abuse, Forager can be tough to read at times, but ultimately, it’s well-balanced and will leave readers in awe of the strength it takes to survive a childhood like this one.
Huge thanks to NetGalley, Algonquin Books, and Michelle Dowd for allowing me to read and review an early copy. Forager is available for purchase March 7, 2023.
Visit Michelle Dowd’s website here.