When I visited my parents for Thanksgiving, we went to our favorite movie theater. It plays art house movies, features an organ player before the show, and is decorated with very whimsical stars and angel statues on the ceiling. It hasn’t changed much since it opened in the 1920s. If it were in New York, it would be packed. But in Tampa, it has to survive off of municipal subsidies. Usually, there are only a handful of other people there. The last time we went, there was an older gentleman canoodling a few rows in front of us with what I’m certain was a hustler; I wanted badly to tell my parents that these people weren’t representative of all gay people. The night after Thanksgiving (to my relief, with no sign of gay hustlers), we saw Sean Durkin’s indie thriller about a woman leaving a cult, Martha Marcy May Marlene.
Elizabeth Olson (little sister of Mary Kate and Ashley) plays a character who can’t find a place in the world. Or should I say, she plays characters who can’t find a place in the world? Martha Marcy May Marlene is so titled because Olson has three different names on screen. While living with a group of people, led by “Patrick,” in a farmhouse in the Catskills, she answers the phone as Marlene. Patrick has rebaptized her Marcy May—this is the name her cult knows her by. But her sister knows her as Martha, the name on her birth certificate. So who is she? Much is left unanswered when the movie is over. What exactly led her to join the cult; what her relationship had been like with her sister; what will become of her, of them. Perhaps this is why in his review A.O. Scott calls the movie “too coy, too clever and too diffident to believe in.” Yet it wasn’t too hard for my mother and I to believe in as we got in a shouting match in the parking lot outside of the movie theater.
See how over-the-top my family can get sometimes:
“Her sister was trying to help her,” my mother screamed at me, referring to Martha Marcy May Marlene’s sister in the film.
“Her sister didn’t understand her,” I screamed back.
“Well,” mom said, with a pause for dramatic effect, “if you thought the cult was so cool, why don’t you just go live with Ruth.”
You see, when my dad’s sister Ruth answers the phone, she goes by Bekorah.
Before they all drink poisoned Kool-Aid, how do you know when a cult is a cult?
Like most of what we label social diseases, there exists a set of diagnostic criteria that authorize the use of the term “cult.” For example, when you join a cult, you have to adopt a new identity as part of the transition to your new life. This is one identifier that makes your community a “cult,” at least from the outside. Fairly obviously, most of what we call “cults” find the word a little nasty. Certainly the community Ruth lives in refuses it; they refer to themselves instead as, well, “the Community” (capital “C”). Although “cult” may be a legitimate category for observers to use, you can hardly fall back on its self-evidence if you’re discussing it with somebody who actually lives in a cult. Sometimes, talking to people in cults can even disorient you to the point that you don’t know it’s a cult any more. Talking about cults, as an outsider, with somebody from the inside, you notice that your stories and theirs don’t really fit together. Maybe the facts don’t contradict, but they certainly don’t produce a clear narrative of condemnation (or approbation) either. There is a problem of compatibility, of comprehension—a true value conflict in the sense that it cannot be resolved discursively (the same may be true for political polarization, in our context or in others). Aristotelian logic ceases to be useful as a way to bridge the divide. To know a cult from without is very different than to know it from within.
So then, here are some things I “know” about the “Community.” They are vaguely Christian, although “Christian” is another term they reject. They have their own translation of the Bible and they call Jesus “Yahshua.” They also call themselves the Twelve Tribes and, as is apparent on their website, project themselves as the 144,000 to be saved on judgment day. They haven’t set a date for the judgment, at least not one that they publicize, but once they reach some sort of critical mass the time will be ripe, or so the thinking goes. Upon joining, new members hand their financial assets over and agree not to make unauthorized contact with biological family members outside of the Community. New members also must take Hebrew names. Apparently “Ruth” wasn’t Biblical enough, so they rechristened my aunt “Bekorah” (caveat lector: I’m not actually sure this is how “Bekorah” is spelled; when I called my grandmother to ask her, she paused and admitted she had never thought about it). Their leader’s given name was Elbert Eugene Spriggs, but in the Community he goes by Yoneq. Originally from Tennessee, the patronizing tone and lilting cadence of his voice make him sound more like a self-important schoolmarm than a hypnotizingly charismatic cult leader. He doesn’t give them the revolution of a Jim Jones. He doesn’t even give them the maniacal charisma of a Marshall Applewhite. One wonders what exactly he gives them.
If the primary criticism leveled against Martha Marcy May Marlene is that the eponymous character isn’t very fleshed out for the audience, it doesn’t seem insolent to ask what the audience needs to know. The filmmakers, relatively young NYU grads, say they’ve written her a backstory that they only reveal to the actors on a need-to-know basis. (Incidentally, in the Twelve Tribes, you are only given information on a need-to-know basis.) Is it somehow authoritarian of the filmmakers to subject the audience to this tactic?
Perhaps, but not without reason. Much of their script was inspired by a woman known to the filmmakers who had been in a cult and reported the general inability to tell fact from fiction when she was trying to escape. She reported compulsively lying to her friends during her first months on the outside.
Ultimately, the filmmakers’ was a narrative dilemma. The audience is—we presume—“normal.” They know how to behave in society. They are invested in our world as it is. They don’t really find cults appealing. How are they supposed to relate to somebody who goes off the rails like Martha Marcy May Marlene?
And yet—to frame her in “normal” terms, which are ultimately terms alien to her experience, is to have misunderstood why people join cults in the first place and why it is so difficult to leave, even when it becomes clear that something might be terribly wrong.
We could call it mind control, and this phrase would serve to explain the phenomenon from without. But we might just as well focus on what it looks like from the inside; ultimately, this poses a much thornier problem and is much more interesting.