A Tale for the Times: The Black Witch by Laurie Forest

One of the perks of being connected to a bookstore is getting access to advanced reader copies of books that haven’t been published yet. I’ve had the pleasure of being able to read The Black Witch by Laurie Forest recently (I believe it’s released in early May).

Now, I’ve talked about a handful of books on my blog in the past, but generally it doesn’t feel too important to talk about what I read unless is makes a significant impact on the topics I like to cover.

This book does that, but I have other reasons for also talking about it.

It’s caught the ire of a small faction of vocal, well-meaning, but ultimately…shall we say, reactive…people on Twitter and Goodreads. The majority of these people are declaring this book racist, homophobic, and all around terrible. Most haven’t even read the book and are going on, from what I can tell, basically one person’s review.

Thus, this is as much a post about how I personally relate to the book as it is a defense of an important read for our time that has fallen prey to what I consider an unfair campaign.

I read the review before I read the book, and I could only think about how everything seemed out of context. If I cherry-picked statements from The Handmaid’s Tale, I could also write an angry review about how sexist that book is…but just because characters say, think, and do prejudicial things doesn’t automatically mean that the author is condoning that.

I’ve read enough theme-driven books to come to expect that problematic attitudes are often portrayed as a form of social commentary. After all, writing fiction has been one of the most time-honored ways of critiquing reality since fiction was invented.

So I decided to read the book and judge for myself.

What I found was a story that I might have written. A story about a character who grows up in a religious cult that has taken over the government and who begins to encounter other worldviews for the first time when she goes to university.

Sound familiar?

Hell, parts of it could have been my autobiography, if you take out the glitter skin (which I would probably consider having cosmetic surgery to achieve) and the mythical peoples and creatures (God, I wish I lived in a world with dragons).

I read a good portion of the book waiting to be offended, ready to throw it across the room and rage about how the author failed to address something. I really really really looked for it.

But I couldn’t find it.

All I could see was the incredibly, poignantly realistic struggle of the main character as she questions first small portions of her beliefs and then larger ones. I could feel her fear of the repercussions of such a controlling culture should her brother’s same-sex attraction be discovered or her best friend’s romantic involvement with a Lupine (wolf shape-shifter) be found out. I could relate to the chasm of doubt that opens up once the foundation of her worldview begins to crumble.

The world is a prejudicial world, yes.

The main character (along with most of the other characters) has her fair share of prejudices and stereotypes, yes.

But the story arc is not one of condoning or overlooking prejudice. It is one of changing, learning, and growing.

From experience, I know that journey is hard.

And that’s why this book is important.

There aren’t enough books that portray the journey out of extremist, isolationist beliefs. In the documentary “Join Us,” I learned that the U.S. is one of the biggest harbors for cults in the world, with millions of people having experience with a cult in some fashion throughout their lives. Yet, little to no attention is given to the invisible survivors.

Stories have always been important in the way that they can offer a kind of map through a struggle.

The Count of Monte Cristo, Harry Potter, 1984, Fahrenheit 451, and Lord of the Rings are just a handful of the ones that were influential in helping me break out of my cult. They stimulated me to think about my own world and the parallels between my world and the problematic aspects of those worlds.

Orwell opened my eyes to the gaslighting and manipulation of the IFB. Harry Potter, Frodo, Edmond Dantes–they showed me that it was possible to resist and that it was worth fighting for freedom and standing up to power abuse, even with little hope of succeeding.

Had I had access to The Black Witch at the time, I think it also would have been one of those that deeply influenced my journey out because it could have shown me a model of someone who leans into the questions and uncertainty rather than retreating from them.

It’s a book I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend to someone who is struggling with leaving an extremist position, and I’d feel confident that the book would in no way reinforce prejudicial thinking.

It’s not that I don’t have complaints about the book. There were times when the writing fell short, got clunky, or succumbed to derivative tropes. I would also encourage the author to think about at least some portrayal of ethical, consensual sexuality that doesn’t involve life-mating or a form of marriage.

But the story isn’t ruined by those shortcomings. The strengths of the plot and the importance of the message far outweigh the weaknesses.

Some are saying a book like this shouldn’t exist in 2017, but I think this is exactly the kind of story we need in 2017. I can only hope that the current backlash against it will spur those who most need to read it into picking up the book.

And to those who think that the change in the main character is too slow, I’d just like to say, “Check your privilege.”

I say it cheekily because I legitimately hate that phrase and the weaponized way that it is typically used, but it is indeed a privilege to never have had to question the very foundations of your worldview—to never grapple with the fear that you might actually be damning yourself to hell for rejecting a doctrine that has been taught to you as the absolute truth of God.

Until you go through that kind of existential crisis, you can’t understand how terrifying and difficult it is….or maybe you could if you opened yourself up to empathizing with the main character. 😉

Because of the backlash against this book, I feel the need to make a note about comments on this post. If you’re not respectful, I won’t approve the comment, no matter what you have to say. If you’re unsure of my comment policy, you can check it out here.  

The Resurrection of my Normal Sunday

Apparently tomorrow is Easter. I did not realize that until someone told me yesterday. I was actually kind of pleased that it has slipped my consciousness so thoroughly.

Unlike Christmas, Easter has never been a favorite holiday and not one that I’ve been desperate to reclaim after the cult. Underneath all the itchy frilly dresses, white gloves, and hats that my parents would dress me in as a toddler, it was a mildly terrifying holiday.

They said it was a day to celebrate Christ’s victory over the grave…but really it was one more opportunity when visitors would be in the church and they could be scared with the idea that the whole point of Easter was because we were all going to hell if we didn’t repent.

It was a holiday of guilt, when those of us who believed were shamed for the fact that we were so evil that Jesus had to die a horribly painful death in order for us to have a shot at forgiveness.

We celebrated the resurrection while thoroughly blaming ourselves for making it necessary.

How dare we be sinful?

How dare we continue to sin even after salvation?

I was taught that every time I sinned, I was crucifying Jesus all over again—that he felt the pain of dying afresh with each new prideful thought or delay in obedience. And yet, I was also taught it was impossible to be sinless. The very assumption that I hadn’t sinned in a day was a sin itself.

There was no escaping that guilt.

The story of Jesus’ death no longer carries that same weight. I see it as one of several life/death/life stories of gods across different traditions. In fact, the concept of resurrection, on its own, is a beautiful one. It’s the seed of the phoenix symbolism, the hope that even after destruction new life can come.

I have come to appreciate resurrection stories.  In fact, they become my focus at Winter Solstice.

But while the story no longer seems threatening, the day of Easter always has been, up until this year. For the first time, I don’t feel that internal dread as Easter approaches. To me, finally, it’s just another Sunday.

 

Springing into the Future

I can feel the stirrings of spring. There’s that certain smell of the earth re-awakening, the energy of plants getting ready to burst forth into growth and bloom, even the mud seems to hold the promise of transitions.

I wonder if the earth feels as apprehensive and excited as I do on the cusp of my own transition of graduation.

In my last tarot reading, “The World” came up as my card moving into the future, and it feels so fitting—the end of a journey, the beginning of another, the promise of the fulfillment of having everything as it should be.

There are days when I can feel the promise of new things to come, and it fills me with joy. I want to jump into the unknown and discover what’s on the other side, certain that there is something wonderful to discover on this crazy-assed path I’ve chosen.

I wish I could just hang on to the good feelings: the hope, anticipation, joy, and confidence.

But with “The World” there also comes the fear of becoming the fool once again. I have completed a phase of my journey, and with that end comes a new beginning where I am no longer the “seasoned” student but the new professional.

I have to balance the doubt that is in that. With hope comes the possibility of failure, and I can’t entirely say I know what I’m doing. Can anyone starting on a new phase of life?

I have to balance the fear because I can’t get rid of it…but also because I shouldn’t. Those fears want to protect me. They’re meant to help me.

Yes, sometimes they also try to hold me back, convince me I’m not good enough to be a professional, I’m not experienced enough to graduate, and I’m a damn fool for thinking I can make it on my own.

I try to see the good even in those messages.

As I watch the seasons war it out, with winter dumping snow in defiance of spring, I realize I must allow the hope and fear to war within me. I must be willing to embrace each as they present, trusting that the fears are not working against the hope so much as against careless naiveté. I can trust my path even while questioning my steps.

The spring always wins in the end, and that is where its strength lies. No matter how many times a warmer week is followed by a weekend of whiteout snow and ice, the trees, the grass, the flowers—they know they will succeed.

Just as I know that somehow I will find my way to where I need to be.

 

 

The Art of Intentional Imperfection

As I’ve been getting acquainted with my creativity again, I’ve been thinking about my own perfectionism. Somewhere along the way, I picked up this silly little idea that creativity is about making art…and art needs to be perfect.

Perhaps it’s related to my own personality.

Perhaps it’s related to something in society that conveys the idea that only good art is worth our attention.

Perhaps it’s related to something I learned from my brother or parents about how to get affirmation and praise.

Perhaps it’s related to the cult, where I was taught that anything less than perfection is a sin.

Where it comes from matters less than how it’s affected my life. For almost a decade, I refused to sing in public, even for things like celebrating a birthday. I’ve shied away from playing my violin if others are around to hear, especially if I am trying to learn a new song. I’ve avoided trying out new hobbies that I am interested in for fear that I’ll be unable to do them well enough to warrant the time, money, and effort put in.

And I’ve come to this realization—perfection is the death of creativity.

An artist friend of mine once told me that if I’m freezing up in front of a canvas, I should intentionally make a mark on the canvas because it will free me from the pressure of making my painting perfect. I don’t know if that is a universal idea that beginning artists learn or if that was her version of overcoming the “blank page” syndrome, but it works!

There’s something about setting out to intentionally be imperfect that holds a special (magical) power.

When I approach music, writing, painting—basically anything that requires a modicum of creativity—with the intention to “create art,” I find myself blinded by the pressure to make good art.

Not just good art—great art! Gallery-worthy, publishing-worthy, concert-worthy art.

And it’s downright debilitating because I usually can’t hope to be that good, especially not the first time I attempt something.

However, when I set out to be intentionally imperfect, something frees up in me. Suddenly the music or writing or whatnot becomes an avenue of play…and that’s really what creativity is about.

Creativity came effortlessly to me (and most others) as a child because I had permission to have fun, make mistakes, and explore without needing to have a finished project that measured up to some standard.

My first poem consisted of rhyming nonsense words that I put together because I liked the sound and rhythm even though it didn’t “make sense.” I was thrilled with that poem even though when I showed it to others they didn’t understand.

There is a small-scale effort to glorify imperfection. The whole “it’s the flaws that make it beautiful, special, etc. etc.”

And sometimes that is very true. I have stumbled upon some happy accidents by making what seemed to be a mistake into something that added character and uniqueness to what I was creating.

But trying to rewrite imperfection as a quirky form of perfection misses the point, I think.

When I’ve been playing with my watercolors lately, there have certainly been times when I was thrilled with what came out of an unplanned action…but there have also been times when I groaned, crumpled up my painting, and started over.

And that was okay!

Because the magic of intentional imperfection is that even if it turns out to be “trash,” that’s not failure. If I’m having fun, learning more about the medium of creativity I’m using, and allowing myself to play—I’m getting exactly the “product” I need.

The Melancholy Post

I’m not sure where to begin today. I feel the urge to write, my creativity sparking in a way that it hasn’t in a while…but about what?

I have undoubtedly been dry this semester. I couldn’t even bother figuring out how long my break from writing needed to be or what a feasible schedule for posting might look like since weekly seemed so out of reach.

I’ve been struggling with how orphaned I feel lately. I knew that cutting off my parents would come with its own version of existential abandonment, but the way that is expressing itself hasn’t been in the way I expected.

I realize I long for a place to put roots down—a place to belong. I don’t want my family back, but I want to be part of something that I can truly invest in.

Graduate school has been that for me for three years. I’ve felt accepted and valued by the faculty and students. I’ve found in them an organization that truly feels like a healthy system and people who have my back.

But I’m getting ready to graduate, and I am taken aback by how painful that thought is.

I want to graduate. I want to get my degree and start my career.

But I don’t want to lose what I found there. I’ve had a glimpse of being part of something where my autonomy is respected, my mind stimulated, my safety maintained, and my whole self truly loved. To have that and then lose access to it, in some ways, is more painful than letting go of a biological family where I didn’t have that.

My school has come to feel like my family, but I know I can’t belong there forever.

I’m afraid that I won’t find it again.

There’s a wounded part of me that feels like I will always be “moving on” and never quite settling down, that I’ll always be a temporary fit but never able to quite stay where I want to and unwilling to stay in other places.

I know there are other ways of looking at my life’s trajectory, but currently the one I am feeling strongest is the series of “walking away.”

It makes me wonder if there’s ever a sense of family that can come for us “emotional orphans.” If we don’t find it with the people who raised us…can we ever really find it? Or do we just go through life feeling a perpetual outsider?

I’m beginning to crawl my way out of this dark hole. Give me a few weeks, and I’ll probably feel differently. Nevertheless, I’m coming to realize that perhaps the sense of displacement never fully goes away.

Incidentally, this song from Evita perfectly captures my current mood.

 

Surviving 1984: Understanding Mystical Manipulation

Picture this: You walk into a room full of people waiting to see a magician. The loud speakers are pumping with a dub-step based song with voiced-over inspirational statements from the upcoming presenter interspersed. The crowd is excited, and it’s hard for you not to feed off that excitement.

When the magician finally comes out, there are flashes of lights and a puff of smoke. He seems to appear out of nowhere. The crowd goes wild. With a wave of his hand, he quiets them down and as the show progresses, he demonstrates a seeming psychic clairvoyance about people in the audience and playfully induces a few to cluck like a chicken on stage for him.

You leave the venue awed by the magician’s seeming omniscience and omnipotence.

This scenario would be an illustration of the second criteria that Lifton identified in working with survivors of thought control: mystical manipulation. It can take many forms, but it generally has to do with the manipulation of consciousness or experience to produce a certain effect.

Within the illustration above, there are several techniques. The music before the performance was designed to pump up the audience emotionally, getting them excited. The beat of the music could induce a slight trance-like state, decreasing the critical thinking components of the attendees and increasing the suspension of disbelief.

Even the energy of the crowd was a manipulation in itself, encouraging your body and emotions to sync up with theirs.

During the performance, various things from knowing information about others (whether it was pre-gathered or they were actors in the audience is hard to say) and hypnotizing and manipulating the behavior of some (again, real or acted?) increased the sense that the performer was godlike or at least had powers beyond the audience.

Was this man an entertainer or conman?

To some extent it probably depends on the context.

Mystical manipulation is not, in and of itself, exclusive to cults, but consent plays a big part in the ethicality of how it’s used.

When you know that you’re going for that, you probably don’t mind. Buying tickets to see a magic show, for instance, involves a certain amount of consent and expectation and a willing suspension of disbelief. You expect to be wowed—for the magician to seem all-powerful/all-knowing—while also realizing that the magician is just working a fancy trick on you.

If you go to a church service and this is happening, you’re not warned about how it will affect you, and the person on stage is using this to gain your allegiance or to actually convince you that he is as magical as he claims, the manipulation becomes nonconsensual and potentially dangerous as demands are made on you to commit to something or give money towards something while your critical thinking skills are impaired.

What I described is probably a bit over-the-top when, in actuality, milder forms of manipulation are all over society.

Advertisements are notorious for using “peripheral” persuasion, subtle ways of using association and emotional induction to convince people that certain products will produce happiness, create beauty, provide sex, and do a bunch of other things that the company could never explicitly claim for its product.

You’re walking through a store and you suddenly think you NEED such-and-such a product and you don’t know why. The idea seems to come from you. No one is standing there telling you to buy it.

But in reality, you’ve been primed to think of that particular brand first and to associate that product with desires and drives beyond what the product does.

Mystical manipulation can also be used through more common spiritual or cultural practices. Margaret Singer describes the way that chanting or panting (or any exercise that decreases oxygen supply sufficiently) can induce a physiological reaction in a person which can later be interpreted by a group to indicate a spiritual experience that verifies their beliefs.

In reality, it’s a physiological trick akin to pressing the backs of your hands against the door jamb for thirty seconds and then feeling them involuntarily rise when you stop.

Other types of manipulation can be more subtle but just as effective. I mentioned priming earlier in regard to advertisements, but there is also prophetic priming whereby a person such as a fortune teller, preacher, or some other figure claiming to have knowledge beyond others will declare something along the lines of, “Something tragic will happen in the coming weeks. And when it does, you will remember my words and know that what I am saying is true.”

The trick is that it’s vague enough that it’s impossible for it not to come true; when it does, the speaker has already primed the person to associate the incident with a prophecy, once again lending that sense of omniscience and omnipotence to the “prophet” or their message.

Mystical or unusual experiences can be an important part of connection and meaning making, but they can also become weapons used to convince a person to join a cause without sufficient information or surrender their autonomy to someone else.

Being aware of how mystical manipulation can play out is a major component of not being blindly influenced.

If you walk into a venue with the scene described above and you know that the pumping music and emotional crowd will likely affect you, you’re prepared for and informed about the changes that may happen. You don’t suddenly think it’s because the person coming on stage is so damn wonderful, powerful, and all-knowing.

Being aware that you’re feeling the way the environment is designed to make you feel frees you to think critically about whether you consent to that environment and what the agenda of the people involved might be.

For further reading:

Robert Lifton: Though Reform and the Psychology of Totalism

Margaret Singer: Cults in our Midst

Videos on the effects of music in regard to cults/recovery

Compliance Psychology

 

Surviving 1984: Resisting Milieu Control

I have written in the past about some of the red flags that might alert someone to a toxic group, with the presumption that the person hasn’t been hooked into the Matrix just yet.

But what if you find yourself in a situation where you start to suspect that you might be already part of a totalistic group? What can you do?

Invariably, one of the strongest controls of the group is the control of the environment and information. Some groups actively isolate people on compounds separated from the rest of the world. Others merely create a cage of fear that prevents members from fully participating with society even as they live and interact in it.

Thus, for me, one of the most important steps to take in breaking out of a cultic group—or even merely testing whether you might be really in one—is diversifying access to information and knowledge.

Some cult specialists like Steve Hassan talk about isolation and information control as somewhat separate concepts. That’s helpful to an extent because isolation doesn’t always look like physical isolation. Within the IFB, I never lived separate from the world, but my schooling, textbooks, social interactions, and all were strictly controlled by the IFB, which was as effective as if I had been physically isolated.

But Robert Lifton’s criteria seems truer to the relationship of how the two interact.

Milieu control is what Lifton uses to refer to the control of the environment—which includes control of the external environment such as who people can contact and what kind of information is allowed to infiltrate as well as control of the internal environment, referring to the sense in which people will start to police themselves and control what they talk about or think about, who they talk to, and what information they seek—which is a perfect description of how I could have access to the Internet but obediently stay within the confines of expectations about what I read and researched.

External control is effective only so much, but if the people themselves will voluntary self-censor out of fear or guilt–well that’s far more effective.

But here’s the thing. Lifton also doesn’t believe that there can ever be a perfect control of the milieu.

There will always be doubts that will float to the surface of consciousness.

There will always be something that can happen in the environment that interrupts or threatens the carefully constructed façade.

That’s important because challenging a reality that is so tightly controlled requires access to information from the self as well as from the outside.

Presumably, if you’re reading this and you suspect you’re in a cultic or totalistic place, you are already beginning to listen to the internal glitch in the milieu control. You have doubts or worries that you’re not ignoring or pushing down.

That’s good!

Listen to those doubts. Actively look for the contradictions that tell you your internal experience doesn’t match up with what the group tells you is happening.

It is important after that to seek out different sources of external information where you can.

There will probably be certain “approved” sources, and the tricky thing is that they may range from outright lies about things that have never happened in the world to biased accounts of documented events. Regardless of which, it’s pretty safe to say that if you feel pressured or forced to stick within the bounds of certain pre-approved sources, they’re probably not giving you the whole picture.

It’s ok to read those and consider them, but they shouldn’t be the sole sources of information. Find ways to seek independent sources with different perspectives. (Don’t just read cult sources that summarize what the “other side” says—actually read the other side). Challenge yourself to truly try to see from the other perspective.

Can you understand how someone might reach a different conclusion?

Does one perspective seem entirely reliant on ignoring certain pieces of information?

Do multiple sources, independent of each other, reach similar conclusions based on their own investigations?

Does the source use so much biased information that you cannot form your own opinion about the evidence alone?

Note: this is also important in the battle against ‘fake news.’ Are reporters reporting on their own investigation of a situation as opposed to merely regurgitating a single source over and over? Are there multiple news sources reporting this happened or one obscure source? Does the language seem impartial or over-the-top and click-baity?

The lack of multiple sources isn’t, in and of itself, indicative that the information is false, but it’s a strong warning to be especially careful to corroborate what that source is claiming or to maintain the understanding that it can’t be corroborated and is, therefore, open to doubt.

Which brings me to an important quality that needs to be developed as you begin to test the boundaries of the milieu control in which you may find yourself—tolerance for ambiguity.

Cults thrive on the desire for certainty.

It’s universally scary and threatening to have one’s worldview challenged. People all over the world react in strange and sometimes violent ways to protect their sense of knowing how the world functions—to feel “right.” (See research on Terror Management Theory for more information about the universality of this)

But cults especially tend to have a low tolerance for deviance, questioning, disagreement, and the like. Part of the reason why people will self-censor is because it’s just downright scary to think, “What if I’m wrong?”

And the fear of that question is notoriously effective at making people ignore information that contradicts their perspective and seek out information that validates it.

Questioning a cult often means questioning deeply held beliefs that carry tons of fear about all sorts of bad things that might happen if you don’t believe the right way. In order to challenge the outer milieu control effectively, you have to be able to tolerate the discomfort of not knowing the truth.

That doesn’t mean complacency with not knowing. There’s a difference between, “God said it; I believe it; that settles it” and “I don’t know the answer yet, but I’m searching.”

The world is seldom as black and white as cultic groups paint it to be; thus, questioning and searching often means coming across different or conflicting perspectives. Being tolerant of ambiguity will strengthen the ability to engage with those perspectives openly and curiously to learn from them.

The more you expose yourself to different perspectives with openness and the more you practice thinking critically about information you come across, the better you’ll get at making informed decisions about what to believe.

Ultimately, if the cult doctrine/party line/whatever-you-want-to-call-it is true, it will be able to stand up to scrutiny, including the scrutiny of those critical to it.

I would strongly recommend that those interested in Orwell’s 1984 also read Lifton’s Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism. Real-life accounts of an Orwellian world and how people recovered.