Since beginning work on my Zendik book, more than ten years ago, I’ve read dozens of cult memoirs. (In 2008, on a train from New York to Seattle, I binge-read maybe seven or eight.) Many are terrible; some are decent; a few kick butt. The terribles fall into two categories: self-published exposés with a side of catharsis (“You wouldn’t believe what happened to me; listen while I spew it all!”) and corporately published exposés of groups in the news (“Ignore my incoherent narrative and jerry-built sentences; I’m the only source of the inside scoop!”). The decents tend to recount experiences with groups notorious enough to attract investment from a major publisher, either in the form of payment to a ghostwriter, or ample support and editorial help for the ex-cultist. The ones that kick butt? They’re written by writers. Meaning, these authors were going to write anyway, and their cult episodes begged to be stories.
When I first turned to cult memoir, I was eager to gobble down any tale I could find that paralleled mine – and I’d yet to get past the “You wouldn’t believe what happened to me!” stage in my own project. This meant I absorbed many emissions from what Chuck Wendig has hilariously termed “the self-publishing shit volcano” (just saying that phrase makes me giggle). By now, my standards have risen (and I’ve read widely enough that works in certain genres – like the Mormoir, in which the heroine stages a daring escape from the Fundamentalist Latter-Day Saints – seem repetitive). Plus, the pool of excellent cult memoirs is growing glacially, if at all. So I’ve resorted to reading cult novels – most recently, Josh Emmons’s Prescription for a Superior Existence and Fiona Maazel’s Woke Up Lonely.
In Prescription for a Superior Existence, Jack Smith gets kidnapped into a cult, and becomes a believer, only to discover that the organization is a scam started by his biological father. In Woke Up Lonely, Helix founder Thurlow Dan, pining for his estranged wife and child, takes hostages in a bid to re-form his family. He’s just as desperate for love as the throngs who’ve come together, under his aegis, to share their loneliness.
In both cases, I found it hard to rejoice with the characters, or grieve for them; neither book hooked me till maybe a third of the way through. (If not for my addiction to completion, I might have finished neither.) What put me off, I think, was a sense that the authors were observing the cult phenomenon from a distance. Using their characters to play out a plot, instead of stepping into their skins.
Do you need to have been in a cult to render one with heart? I think not. Peter Rock never belonged to the Church Universal and Triumphant (or any other cult, as far as I know), yet his novel, The Shelter Cycle, based on CUT’s construction of an epic bunker, in preparation for the apocalypse, reads like he might have. What’s the difference? Rock interviewed, and befriended, ex-members of an actual group, whereas Maazel and Emmons made their cults up. Maybe those ties tethered him to a deeper form of truth.
Yes, the average novel is probably better written than the average memoir. But when novelists fail fully to inhabit the worlds they create – I dive for the nearest true story.