September 15, 2008

Book review: "The Heart of a Cult," by Lena Phoenix

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The Heart of a Cult
Lena Phoenix
Garuda / ISBN: 0-978-54830-2

As anyone who's ever looked into the subject can tell you, our collective societal idea of the kind of person most susceptible to cults is actually quite a bit off from the usual reality; that instead of the uneducated, drugged, dazed, easily brainwashed minions we usually picture (an image that comes almost exclusively from the notorious Manson Family cult of the '60s and '70s), in actuality most modern cult members are more like those people from the Heavens Gate group in the '90s, highly intelligent and otherwise very functional members of society, clean and conservative and usually with some very bankable job skills as well. So how is it, then, that such people can also be so easily influenced by the groupthink and manipulation of a cultlike organization? How can such an otherwise rational person somehow also think that little space aliens live inside their body, or that they should donate 90 percent of their income to some con artist in a towel who claims to be a reincarnated Egyptian god? How is it that you can seemingly snap your fingers one day in front of these otherwise very normal-seeming people, and suddenly without question they're downing cyanide tablets and waiting for the Great Mothership to come whisk them away?

The Heart of a Cult, by Lena Phoenix

Author and New Age veteran Lena Phoenix asked this herself recently; a self-described active participant of various alternative communities for over a dozen years, she admits right in her bio that she has had "both positive and negative experiences," New Age code for "Jiminy Cricket, have I met some dangerous nutjobs along my travels." And thus do we have Phoenix's first novel, The Heart of a Cult, a look at the exact kind of intelligent, troubled person I'm talking about, of why a person like this is so surprisingly susceptible to a cult despite seeming at first to be the opposite, and of exactly how a cult can take advantage of a person like this for their own personal gain. It's a bit rambling, a bit unfocused, and for sure suffers the exact problems you would expect a self-published first novel to have; but for what it is, it's a pretty fascinating read, a look at the subject from the actual crystal-lined trenches, showing systematically just what kinds of hypocrisy always lay at the heart of all cultlike situations, whether violent and evangelical in nature or merely greedy and passive-aggressive.

Because let's face facts, the main character on display here seems suspiciously similar to the author herself; a youngish web designer and New Age enthusiast in the Denver/Boulder region of Colorado, our frazzled hero Michelle is like many independent American women in the 2000s -- unemployed, loveless, frustrated about life, continually let down by all the traditional religious structures around her, as well as all the other traditional institutions that are supposed to help a person in these situations. She is a woman desperately receptive to a good message coming her way; and thus enters the gibberish-spouting hocus-pocus shamanesque antics of a woman known only as "Ma," just one example of the thousands of merely minor quasi-legal cultlike organizations that currently actually exist in the western half of the United States, little semi-mystical New Age "study groups" all bunched up in places like Boulder and Vail and Taos and San Jose, who definitely succeed because of cultlike activities and behavior but with the whole operation small-potatoes enough to not attract much attention.

For example, Phoenix does a great job of detailing the bizarre upper-class consumerist Zen mishmash known as Ma's home and the group's headquarters; it's essentially a tricked-out suburban McMansion, full of indoor running waterfalls and rooms full of white linens and all the other cheesy decorator tricks that can so easily impress a room full of Oprah-obsessed New Age soccer moms. And this is a big part of how the group stays successful in the first place, precisely through such easy visual "Extreme Makeover Home Edition" trickery, paid for through the outrageous fees being charged (thousands of dollars a day) for the intensely personal "weekend sessions" and whatnot between members and Ma. It's all part of a system that feeds on itself, and Phoenix does a good job of showing the mechanisms behind it all; of how a residential headquarters like this can quickly become a cocoon-like emotional fortress against the "real world," which then tightens one's circle of friends to just fellow members, which then invariably brings the person to actually working professionally for the group, which in turn reinforces more and more the idea that they should be turning right around and donating all that pay back to the group, in the form of "workshop fees" and the like. For people who have never really thought about the subject -- for people who have never known a "New Age burnout," one of the ones spun around the Empowerment Ringer for a few years then ingloriously spit out at the end -- this will be an eye-opening book, an acknowledgment of just how many people out there in picturesque semi-rural environments are so easily being manipulated and brainwashed into lives of virtual servitude.

Now, like I said, the book also has its problems, sometimes major ones that belie the circumstances behind its creation; for example, Phoenix assumes that her readers have as much interest as her in the detailed minutiae of actual New Age theory, an assumption she shouldn't make and that adds a good 30 or 40 unneeded pages of manuscript. Also, she has a bad habit of mistaking good dialogue for the exact kinds of conversations two friends might have over drinks at a pub on a Friday evening, when in fact these are two very different things; good narrative dialogue skips over all the boring trivialities of such real conversations, assumes that readers already understand certain things without needing to be explicitly told. It's a hugely common problem among all beginning writers, of writing dialogue that doesn't exactly sparkle, but is a problem nonetheless. Like I said, though, I'm certainly glad I read The Heart of a Cult, and learned by the end all kinds of interesting things about a section of society I don't know that much about. For those with a specific interest in cults, the radical fringe of the west-coast New Age community, and of how intelligent and independent people can still be easily manipulated in such circumstances, this is a book you'll definitely want to pick up.

Out of 10:
Story: 8.1
Characters: 7.4
Style: 6.8
Overall: 7.5

Read even more about The Heart of a Cult: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari

Filed by Jason Pettus at 4:12 PM, September 15, 2008. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |