Interview With Eli Brown
is a cult?
The definition of a cult, like the
definition of a church, is necessarily fuzzy. Being bizarre or new is not
enough; Jesus and his rag tag followers drew scoffs and outrage. I would say a
cult is an organization which intentionally disempowers its members to benefit
an elite few. Cults are everywhere and as old as society. In this way, they
could be said to be natural. That’s not to say inevitable. Violence may be
natural, but with knowledge and a willingness to look closely at ourselves we
can live without it.
- Why do
you think people join cults?
No one ever joins a cult. They join
churches, support groups, meditation centers, workshops, militias, movements, schools,
clinics and yoga studios. They join because they haven’t yet lost hope. There
are rare exceptions, but most cults begin very benignly. One of my motivations
for writing The Great Days was to explore how these good intentions turn
does this malignancy happen?
I’m still don’t understand it
completely but I think, basically, increasing power isolates leaders from the
healthy feedback the rest of us receive from our peers. Without this feedback,
which is often humbling, it would be easy to drift into a solipsistic realm,
without ramifications. The world becomes a kind of dream. In my dreams I may
act erratic or cruel. In a dream of absolute power I might throw a city into
the ocean or cavort in an endless orgy, or treat people as dolls.
there a specific type of person that is more susceptible to being lured
into a cult?
We have all been so lonely, so
tired, so ill, so frightened that we would have followed charisma and hope to
extremes. Societies that foster these depressed states will have more cults. The
way cults recruit and maintain their membership is not mysterious. It is
practically a science. It shares a lot with how the military, or brand-name
products maintain their followings. We must recognize ourselves in both the
victims of cults and the perpetrators. If we don’t, we continue to pretend
these are mysterious events we have no control over.
people believe that we are nearing the end days. What’s your opinion on the subject? Do you think that believing in the last
days makes people act rashly?
Every age has believed they were
witnessing the end. Maybe they were all right. We are all within 80 years of
death. My first boogieman was the very real threat of nuclear annihilation. It
might be true, though, that it ends with a whimper. I think we would rather
things all came crashing down at once, a trumpet blast, horsemen, forty days of
rain. But our world ends slowly and we must watch our children occupied with
activities we can’t really understand, our communities disintegrate; we watch
our parents wither then we watch our own bodies do the same. In my lifetime
I’ve witnessed a manmade global extinction that rivals the one that took out
the dinosaurs. The creeping dissolution is nearly unbearable. Fire-from-the-sky
scenarios are a kind of wishful thinking.
main character is young and na´ve when he becomes a member of a cult and
slowly realizes that he has made a mistake. Why do people hold on so
tightly to their belief systems?
Changing our core beliefs may be
one of the most difficult things we can do. People who are able to do it are
very brave. They face, essentially, personality death. They risk everything. To
get a sense of it, imagine a heinous crime, then imagine becoming an advocate
for that crime, then imagine telling your friends and family that you will
spend your life as a proponent of that crime. It’s hard enough to imagine that
kind of a transformation, let alone pull it off.
can be intoxicating. How does a
cult leader gain his flock’s trust and what techniques does he use to keep
them faithful and in line?
There are techniques which are
present in every cult and have been well documented, studied by psychologists
and the CIA and applied to advertisement, propaganda and political governance.
We’ve gotten quite good at it and it’s a subtle and detailed art. In a
nutshell, you must keep your followers tired, isolated and afraid. You must
manipulate language to your ends and have an imaginary outside threat which you
can wage an endless war with. Periodically shout “Threat Level Orange!’
nation was shocked earlier this year by allegations of child abuse and
child marriages in some of the nation’s closed communities. Are these issues commonplace in cults?
When you posit yourself as the
voice of ultimate authority, you must assert your dominance in every aspect of
life, including those considered taboo, mysterious or confounding to most of
us. God-on-earth cannot shy way from any subject. The demonstration of mastery
must take place on all fronts, including that of sexuality, if it is to be
credible. The prevalence of sexual abuse in cults is striking but then it tends
to stand out against the less titillating psychological, emotional, spiritual,
financial and physical abuses which are just as common and often inseparable.
novel is also a love story about a man who falls for a woman who isn’t
free to have a relationship with him. Are women particularly victimized in
It’s not surprising that most cults
are patriarchies; our dominant culture is a violent patriarchy. Cults are about
disempowerment, and we accept disempowerment of women as the norm. If we really
want to take on abusive cults we have to look closely at our own biases and the
ways we give away our own power and discernment. It’s rare to hear people
outraged at the sequestering, shaving and restricted activity of catholic nuns.
idea of faith is central to your novel.
Do you we live in a faithful society? Are people living according
to their faith?
I think people have hope, and
certainly they are obedient. I’m not sure I know what faith means. We don’t
have faith about things which are unequivocally true. Could it mean believing
something fantastic despite all evidence to the contrary? Many Christians don’t
behave as Christ advised. The same can be said about Buddhists. To me, the most
profound demonstration of faith I see is our unquestioning acceptance of
capitalism, which is so fundamental to our culture that to question it immediately
renders the speaker a threatening outsider. We can imagine a secular nation,
but we cannot imagine an alternative to our current money culture.
people who join cults are running from their troubles. Does joining a
cult, even an abusive one, provide a certain kind of security?
Absolutely. The mysteries of life
can be so disquieting; it’s easier to think that someone has all the answers.
We’re willing to pay a huge price to live in a world with concrete rules and
black and white guidelines. Also, self reliance and responsibility are very
difficult to manage, much easier to give those things to someone else. I often
wish, earnestly, that I was some kind of true believer. To give my body and my
mind to someone else, it would be such a relief.