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.
The Twelve Tribes have satellites all throughout the Western world. Most are in the U.S., although their numbers in Latin America and Western Europe are decent. If their existence is on your radar, you will see them in the news now and then. Aside from my aunt, I know a fair number of people who have encountered them.
For instance, a friend of mine ran into them once in San Francisco in a decked-out hippie bus, handing out a pamphlet: “Why the 60s movement never got off the ground.”
Then he ran into them again in Southern California, at a Renaissance Fair, selling mead. This time their literature boasted an ambiguous picture of a king, somewhere between King Arthur and Yahshua, clutching a stein and smiling.
Yet again he accidentally encountered them in Washington, D.C., near the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. He had just taken magic mushrooms and wandered onto the National Mall. There he encountered a group of cheerful people wearing homemade-looking clothing, dancing around in a circle. They waved him in. “Come dance with us,” they called, and he joined hands with them and danced. When my friend tells the story, he uses lots of animated gestures to indicate the vigor of the dancing.
When the time came to take a break from the Bacchic whirl, an attractive girl broke off from the group to sit down with him. Where was he from, she wanted to know. And what was his family like? What was his religious background?
“I was raised Jewish,” he answered, and apparently they must have made some kind of secret hand signal because the next thing he knew they trotted out the token Jew to explain their version of Messianic Judaism to him.
The cult in Martha Marcy May Marlene in no way figures itself as Christian. In fact, there is no talk of God whatsoever. In this sense, they resemble the great American cults of the 60s, the Mansons or the later versions of the People’s Temple. The women are trained to drug female initiates so the leader can rape them. Like the Mansons, they begin by breaking inside of strangers’ homes for no clear reason and graduate to murder. For the viewing audience, the moral depravity of the cult is unambiguous. But Marcy May is told, indeed comes to believe, that her rape of initiation was an expression of love and a gift. And after a creepy crawl has gone awry and they kill a man to protect their identities, the leader justifies it to Marcy May on the basis of a Schopenhauerian philosophy that sees fear as an expression of true being and denies the existence of death.
Seeing the morality of cult behavior as a question to be answered is not to propose an unsophisticated relativism for rape and murder; the social code cannot tolerate nihilistic refusals of empathy, such as both rape and murder entail. But when faced with people who place other values above life and individual (women’s) sexual determination, is it possible to argue against them using their own ideas? Or even more urgently: what does groupthink or the suppression of individual reason offer to desperate people? What is it the flipside of?
I never knew Ruth very well while she was still Ruth. She got divorced when I was very young, earning the lifelong disapproval of my Catholic mother. For most of my late childhood and early adolescence, she lived in Alaska, working seasonal jobs in a salmon-packing plant and living with her dog in a tent for the rest of the year. This earned my admiration from a distance: what she was doing seemed like the exact opposite of my restrictive suburban life, but I can’t say I really knew what she was like in this period. It was only after she moved back to Georgia with her infant daughter to be closer to my grandparents that I had the occasion to spend time with her, although I only ever felt like I was seeing snapshots from her life, now consumed by her maternity. Soon thereafter, she joined the Community and became Bekorah. And because the Twelve Tribes discourages too much mingling with outsiders, I probably will never get to know in depth what she’s like now either.
When the outside world must be confronted, the Tribes try to secure a home field advantage. Evangelical missions such as my friend encountered in California and Washington, D.C. are one exception. Another involves the work done in the Community’s many businesses, including bakeries and maid services. It’s hard to get straight numbers about how much Community members are expected to work, but by most accounts the load seems onerous. The pinnacle of the week for the Community, also one of the occasions on which it is possible as an outsider to spend time with them, is Sabbath dinner, held on Friday evening, in which potential converts are invited to share a meal: a vehicle for recruiting new members.
I attended one such dinner in Southern Georgia, the original satellite my aunt joined before being transferred elsewhere, just to visit them. The clothes they wore were simple, probably self-made. The women wore their hair in very long ponytails, with even parts, neatly combed down the center of their heads. The men kept tidy beards. The lighting was dim, and the food was hearty but fairly unspiced (the Community’s culinary ethic rejects spices, along with “hard cheeses”). Somebody had managed to rope in a couple of Japanese tourists, whose very presence in Southern Georgia is already beyond explanation. I had just gotten back from Japan a few months earlier and asked them in my very rudimentary Japanese if they understood what was going on. “No,” they told me. “Zenzen. We don’t understand anything.” They still thought everything was hilarious and took a lot of pictures. Most of the potential converts came from the downtrodden south. Ancient black men on canes. Young white men missing teeth and wearing shirts with axel grease and their names on the front. They looked slightly bewildered, but when the dancing started, they smiled, hesitantly at first, and eventually joined in.
To hear the Community members talk about each other, one gets the same uneasy feeling one gets with Mormons, that they’re all too sincere. They discuss one another in positive, supportive terms. As an outsider, one constantly has to ask whom they’re referring to, so accustomed are they to a community (a Community?) in which you take for granted that everyone knows everyone. They marshal a great number of names with ease, not only of people living in their own house, but also of those living in nearby Communities as well. Various individuals mention that they joined because biological family members of theirs had joined before them; they say that in the Twelve Tribes, they’ve grown closer. They have to spend all of their time together, so there’s no more procrastinating about making a phone call or visiting. Don’t they ever fight? I wondered.
Just as I was about to ask, a member of the Community who had introduced himself as Jeremiah asked what had brought me there.
“I’m in town visiting family. My aunt Ruth,” I said, “I mean, uh, Bekorah lives in the Community.”
“Where do you live?”
“Boston?” the man replied with a sly smile. “A lot of Jews up there, huh?”
“Um. I guess.”
“What do you think of the Jews?” He stressed the word Jews, as though he were savoring something briny in his mouth.
“Pretty strange people, huh?”
In a speech to a satellite in Brazil, Spriggs once said, “We should drink enough water so that our urine is not yellow and smelly. This will save us great amounts of money and we will not have to flush the toilet so much.” My eyes focused on the people behind Jeremiah, his people, dancing around in a circle, in the cramped dining room of the small wood-paneled house, in cloth that looked like burlap. This was the United States in the 21st century. My eyes returned to Jeremiah. Pretty strange people, indeed.
In the Fall of 2006, a brother-sister crime duo, dubbed “hipster bankrobbers” in the press, were arrested by the NYPD outside of a Methadone clinic in Midtown Manhattan. They had pulled three heists the day before. The brother, 23, was homeless and had been prostituting himself to support a heroin habit. The sister, 20, was living in a foster home and had given birth to a child that circumstance had forced her to give up for adoption. A few days after the quirky story appeared, it emerged that they had escaped from a Twelve Tribes facility in the Catskills in their mid-teens. A friend reported some of the punishments to which the male had been subjected, including “being locked in a closet or forced to stand naked in front of a group of adults.”
“Nothing sexual,” the friend clarified, “just humiliation.”
At least one woman raised in the Community has reported abuse of less ambiguously sexual nature. It is unlikely that any abuse occurring in the Twelve Tribes involves the kind of artful orchestration shown in Martha Marcy May Marlene. Rather, the Community teaches the subservience of women, that women should learn to serve men, that the natural role of women is subordination. And just as women are meant to serve men, Community subordinates are meant to serve those in positions of authority. Sexual abuse is of course not explicitly condoned—but in the Community, it is difficult for a woman to speak out about rape, both for psychological reasons and on account of the Community hierarchy.
In the Twelve Tribes, there is no disagreement. Everyone agrees with everyone; everyone agrees with Spriggs.
They are taught to beat children, and to make their children love their beatings as a manifestation of God’s authority. By some accounts, he advocates hitting infants to keep them from “wiggling.” My cousin Hannah, who is now 13, has spent more than half of her life in this environment. Their penchant for corporal punishment (along with an insistence upon home schooling their children) have led to some rather high profile stand-offs with the German government.
They also used to have an essay on their website written by a token black member. It espoused the view that, just as women should submit to men, black people should submit to white people. It also did not fail to note that Jesus had not chastised slaveholders. After extensive negative media coverage, the Community took the article down.
Are cults in Martha Marcy May Marlene shown as evil? Are they merely one more ominous force to use in a “psychological thriller”? Or are they depicted in a more complicated way? My parents more or less took the line that cults were evil in the movie—a view they found to be correct.
But I see things differently. One night, Martha comes into her sister’s bedroom and crawls into her sister’s bed while her sister and brother-in-law are having sex. In her cult, Martha often slept next to couples having sex, so she thinks nothing of it. When Martha’s sister hears Martha rustle under the sheets, she jumps to her feet, turns on the light, and begins screaming. “What is wrong with you?” “I didn’t want to sleep alone,” replies a bleary-eyed Martha. “This isn’t normal. I need you to understand why you can’t do this. Do you understand why you can’t behave like this?” “Because it isn’t normal,” says Martha, as though she doesn’t believe what she’s saying.
However, she also reaps their scorn for far more minor offenses, such as for putting her feet on the counter in the kitchen or going swimming naked. “What is wrong with you?” her sister shouts at her again and again.
Discussions about money (namely, the necessity of), childrearing, and family structure all produce results where Martha delivers romantic platitudes that’s she’s only partially digested in a calm tone. Her sister and brother-in-law inevitably react with yelling and the withholding of affection. It is no coincidence that questions about lifestyle, about the most basic forms of relating to one another, co-habitation, caring for one another, are simply not permitted. The sister and her husband are proxies for the mainstream audience members within the movie. They react to the intrusion of “cultish” behavior more or less in the same way we would. And it must be said that Martha is not an easy case for them to handle. They don’t know what has happened to her. They’re not equipped to take care of her. And the clearly demarcated distances among them create a space.It is a space that a psychotic cult leader can fill because nobody else is filling it. Nobody else cares to.
It’s easy to dismiss as frivolous or crazy questions about why, in our “normal” world, families live in separate houses next to one another, why a spouse must be so jealously guarded as an item of sexual property, why community can only assemble in public space that is defined in contradistinction to the private. If nothing else, to ask such self-evidently pointless questions is a waste of time and energy.
But consider this. The turf on which conservatives have long preferred to fight about queer identity is the turf of “lifestyles.” Until very recently, most all of the Western world, even as it largely resembled our world today, was utterly incapable of posing itself the question of gender non-conformity. Even today, in large swaths of the U.S., people think being gay (to say nothing about being transgender) is about as perverse as sleeping in the same bed as a married couple while they’re boning. To change ideas about what is most intimate in life—how could this not be painful? And yet, how can we excuse ourselves from the obligation to ask questions just like this?
Bekorah’s husband Bekor had convinced a lifelong friend of his, still living in Southern Georgia, to join the Community. This new Community member meant the appropriation of a new bank account, and apparently that earned my aunt and her husband authorization for a trip back to Georgia, with Hannah in tow, and without supervision. Though it only lasted a few hours, their visit to Georgia became the occasion for something like a family reunion.
Not everybody in the Community gets to eat at every meal, so as soon as my Grandmother set out cheese and crackers, Bekorah and Hannah wolfed them down.
When my father took Hannah off to show her Scrabble on his iPad, Bekor and Bekorah were visibly alarmed; and when my grandmother offered to e-mail Bekorah a recipe, Bekorah replied, “You’ll have to e-mail my husband. He controls the e-mail.”
Hannah, though 13, has the mannerisms of a much younger child. She wears dresses down to her ankles and her hair is long and straight.
“This bacon is yummy, Cabo,” she said to my grandmother.
“It’s turkey bacon,” Cabo replied, in a conspiratorial tone.
“You mean, it’s bacon,” corrected Bekorah.
“No, it’s made out of turkey,” responded my grandmother, confused. “It’s turkey bacon.”
“Bacon,” repeated Bekorah. “You only give people the information they need to know.”
I talked to my grandmother afterwards. Although stoic about it, my aunt’s involvement with the Community has been rough on her. “Do you know what Hannah told me?” she asked, shaking her head. “She thinks everybody outside of the Community is on drugs. Why would they tell her that?”
The world of the Twelve Tribes isn’t populated by impossibly beautiful actors like the cult in Martha Marcy May Marlene. Their leader is far from the creepily suave John Hawkes in the movie. The half-logic that governs their universe, a logic that they are forbidden to fully explore, makes theirs the realm of gnosticism, the world the demiurge only baked halfway. The story of their beliefs is a difficult story simply because there is no debate and so there are no rigorous attempts to fit everything together. But is it so bad that you can’t resolve everything? Isn’t that the world we live in anyway? Maybe not—because in our world we’re allowed to disagree. Disagreement is the dialectic that has not (yet) resolved itself, but inherent in it is precisely the promise of resolution and progress, sometime. The refusal to recognize disagreement is what cleaves the two worlds: the content-saturated dialogue system that doesn’t cohere (ours) and an inflexible anti-methodology demanding obedience (the Community’s).
And yet, I think I know what it is that the Community offers people. I’m almost afraid to admit it, for fear of what people might think—that I’m being contrarian like always, or that I’m being flippant towards the real suffering that the Twelve Tribes cause. I don’t know that I can adequately describe it to them. The other night, somebody I met in a bar told me he doesn’t believe in love. Such a confession, which would have provoked either incredulity or annoyance or outrage in me before moving to New York, now no longer fazes me. This wasn’t the first time I had heard such a sentiment expressed here. It wasn’t even the second or the third. Worse still, after a year and half, I think I know where they’re coming from.
What kind of person moves to New York? Some people are here because they’re from here, but what kind of person moves to New York voluntarily to join the unincorporated anonymous masses? One group is here because nothing is as important to them as their career. Another group actively likes the anonymity. This isn’t the whole of New York, but a large part of it is made up of the career-obsessed antisocial. On particularly bad days in New York, I know what the Community provides people. It’s not some unfulfilled romantic promise of utopia. It’s actual coexistence in a community (lower case “c”), where you really listen to your friends’ problems and they really listen to yours, because you share the same damn problems. There, people don’t just get bored with each other (or they do, but they stick it out because they have no choice). There, people don’t leave just because they get on each others’ nerves. There, nobody calls it quits because of some indefinable feeling that tells them not to hang around anymore; people don’t flake out and just never call each other back.
The world of the Twelve Tribes is a balmy world of chafing and sweating in each other’s body heat. But our world is mostly cold and awkwardly parceled out. In New York, Anna Karenina never gets pregnant with Vronsky’s baby. She gets distracted first. Our world is a world of cameos. In a cult, you live with characters. Characters have flaws, and in fact in good stories they tend to have brutal flaws. Would I want that brutality?
When the nights pass one after the next, and I sit in my room with books splayed all over the floor and every surface, thinking about all the people in New York I’ve known for one day, or one week, and then I never see again… Mutual and voluntary human bondage—is it really so crazy?