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Interview With Eli Brown

  1. What 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.

  1. 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 malignant.

  1. How 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.

  1. Is 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.

  1. Many 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.

  1. Your 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.

  1. Power 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!’

  1. The 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.

  1. Your 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 cults?

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.

  1. The 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.

  1. Some 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.