I’m intrigued by cults though I know very little about them. Even the word itself contains vague complexities, etymologically and otherwise, and can be interpreted through both theological and sociological frameworks. One definition is merely any organized group of people with whom you disagree. There are the famous examples (Jonestown, Heaven’s Gate, etc) and the associations we then make with mind control, indoctrination, abuse and violence. Yet my parents and all their friends followed a guru in the 70s and if my yoga studio was a cult I’d totally be a member. So, what is a cult really? What happens in the larger culture to inspire them? How is it possible they sometimes attract hundreds of people? Fictional interpretations have the luxury of using cults as a motif to explore a range of larger ideas, from faith, to power, to free will, to identity and non-fiction gets to use the truly divergent and unbelievably, wildly compelling details of the real thing. What follows are my favorites of both.
Recently I saw the absolutely riveting new documentary, The Source Family, about Jim Baker and his followers in 1970s LA. They owned one of the first health food restaurants, lived together in a bohemian mansion, had a proclivity for home births and played psychedelic rock. There was also some weird sex magic, and Baker got more and more narcissistic until he was a polygamist with underage wives, truly believing himself a god. Interviews with former members reveal some are broken, others crazy, others completely fine. They range from being participants in newer cults, to successful millionaire businessmen, to hippies living in solar-energy houses. One woman is grateful for the stability offered to her as a teenage runaway. Almost all talk about the feeling they had of truly being part of a family. While a lot of the audience snickered at the hokier details (everyone had the last name Aquarian), I found the story heartbreaking as it revealed very relatable needs and psychologies, as well as the somewhat awesome seeming origins of something that went pretty badly awry. The movie got me thinking that cults are not so unfathomable; they represent the dire extreme of something we all do, which is seek meaning and connection in our lives, all the while making bad decisions and not always knowing what we’re getting ourselves into.
Pete Rock, author of the new novel The Shelter Cycle (you can read a fantastic excerpt of it here), which fictionalizes the Church Universal and Triumphant says it well, “[the novel] attempts to humanize and understand, to follow what seems an extreme collection of beliefs to where they make sense.” His wording encourages empathy but also points to the subjectivity of the groups we join, the beliefs we hold and even the minutia of each of our lifestyle choices. In each of our deepest convictions is something that makes sense to us even if it seems crazy to someone else.
In Sound of My Voice, Brit Marling (co-writer and star of the underrated Another Earth), again co-writes and stars, this time as a cult leader who just might also be a time traveler. The movie is creepy and enigmatic, placing us first as firm skeptics and then messing with our heads until we halfway feel we might believe. For days after we saw the movie I kept asking my husband, “Do you think she was for real?” In many ways that’s the wrong question. The questions of the film are about how or in what ways our lifestyles are sustainable, what we can do in order to reconcile our pasts and be ready to face our futures. In making a movie that uses a cult as its center point of suspense, Sound of My Voice is able to ponder these concerns in a context that seems both alien and chillingly relevant. “No one joins a cult,” a woman says at the beginning of Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple and that seems true.
Martha Marcy May Marlene doesn’t use the word cult to describe the farm Martha runs away from in the beginning of the movie. A fractured chronology leads us through Martha’s post-cult time as she acclimates to the real world, a place represented in an unflattering light by her yuppie sister and uptight husband. Though we are relieved she escaped the charismatic leader of the ideal-turned-scary farm commune we see in flashbacks, we don’t feel much more comfortable with the non-cult world that is her alleged haven either. Therein lies more of the twisted allure. Cults sometimes seemingly reject a world many of us might like to reject. But the utopian alternative they offer is short-lived at best, a perverse con or death sentence at worst. The sudden, uncertain conclusion to Martha Marcy May Marlene seems to question if Martha will ever really be free, her individuality and psyche ever intact. Again, this larger concern for freedom, the desire to be a self who isn’t afraid or controlled, seems to be about our freedom too.
It’s interesting to consider if the leaders of these groups believe themselves or not. The Master, directed by the brilliant Paul Thomas Anderson, has us watching the fraught and controlling, but also seemingly sincere, antics of the megalomaniac leader of the Cause. Anderson also refrains from using the word cult to discuss the dynamics in his movie, instead focusing on the larger historical and social realities of the time and why the ideas that Lancaster Dodd espouses might have held an appeal to so many. We assume it’s the vulnerable who are somehow led astray and that must often be true. Yet it’s also important to acknowledge that specific realities often create the reactions to them; in the case of The Master, a disturbed and violent post-World War II aimlessness leads Freddie to The Cause. Yet, despite all his bravado, Dodd seems vulnerable too, dependent on Freddie, if in a different way. Similarly, toward the end of The Source Family we hear Baker’s voice admitting maybe he isn’t actually a god, maybe he has no more to teach. Next we see him jumping from a cliff in a hang gliding attempt that seems an awful lot like a death wish.
I can’t help but feel viscerally drawn to these stories of cults and their members, both fictional and real. Even the leaders, those who seem most culpable, even dangerous at times, are struggling. These questions belong to all of us. What do we do with our disillusionment, with the realization of our limitations? How do we carve out an authentic life we really want to live? Cults, in all their endless variations and representations, point toward a profound human desire, one complicated, dark and endless, one full of a need for connection and meaning, one which so often goes unmet.