Belong

Trigger warning: this post discusses abuse in destructive cults, including the mass suicide of Heaven’s Gate members. Proceed at your own discretion.

In spring of 1997, my roommates and I watched a news report about the discovery of 39 people who had helped each other  commit suicide. Members of the group, Heaven’s Gate, believed that the passing Hale-Bopp comet disguised an alien spaceship that, by committing suicide, they could board and finally find their true place in the universe. Videos surfaced, both of the cult’s wide-eyed leader, Marshall Applewhite (who, by the way, used to teach music at The University of Alabama, where I now teach English) and good-bye messages from happy, excited Heaven’s Gate members. It’s the latter that has always surprised me. They did seem legitimately pleased with their choice to dress alike and to help each other leave their “vehicles” in pursuit of a new beginning. They wore playful patches on their uniforms that read “Heaven’s Gate Away Team,” referencing the Star Trek television series. (Strange side note: Nichelle Nichols’ brother was a Heaven’s Gate member and also lost his life with the other suicide victims).

Nichelle Nichols
Nichelle Nichols in the role of Lt. Uruha.

I was stumped on what to think, as most people were at the time. Later, information surfaced on the various ways Marshall Applewhite and the other leader, Bonnie Lu Nettles (who had died in the 80s) had manipulated and isolated members of Heaven’s Gate in the way that all cult leaders do. And yet, the more I learned about its members, the more puzzled I became. Why did so many people who seemed otherwise intelligent and emotionally stable, join a cult that required them to leave everything and everyone in their lives behind and eventually, commit a gruesome act together? 

It’s easy to understand why the girls joined The Manson Family. Charles Manson—a misogynist p.o.s.—learned how to manipulate women from a pimp he met in prison. He preyed upon young runaways, lavished them with the love and attention they had never before received (he was, of course, faking) and then, after they believed that he loved them, abused and manipulated them into prostitution (and for a few—to participate in mass murder). But the Heaven’s Gate members were different. Many of them came from seemingly stable backgrounds.

Hale-Bopp Comet
Hale-Bopp Comet

A friend of mine suggested that perhaps people join cults because they’re lonely, but I think the reason runs deeper. Recently, I watched a documentary about Flat Earthers called, Behind the Curve. While I don’t think that the communities that develop around the belief that the Earth is flat necessarily meets the criteria for a destructive cult, it sure is strange. During the whole documentary, I wondered (among other things) why this group tries so hard to convince others to join. At a Flat Earth conference, one man tells the audience that for his “entire life [he’s] felt kind of separate, like nothing was quite right.” Another man says that, at this conference, he is in a room full of people who will never judge him. Others talk about feeling isolated outside of the conference.

Flat Earth

I wonder if, ironically, feeling like we do not quite belong in this world is something that most people experience, perhaps to different degrees. Certainly cults are not exclusive to the west; however, this part of the globe certainly seems to flail in the face of chronic alienation. In fact, Mother Teresa once claimed that, of all the diseases she has witnessed, “loneliness in the west” is worst one.

Our mainstream culture often seems keen to respond to people’s deep discontent with the suggestion that they’ve merely failed to purchase the correct products, which will then supposedly lead to “success,” which is to say, a higher social status. However, it doesn’t take long to figure out that the famous people around us are no happier (and sometimes, even more miserable) than us “nobodies.”

old ad

Personally, I think that the very normal sense that something isn’t quite right, that we don’t quite fit in, is the main reason that people fall prey to certain cults. While listening to Glynn Washington’s podcast, Heaven’s Gate, it was hard not to look around me and wonder, under the right circumstances, how many normally healthy people could have fallen under Applewhite’s spell. It was hard not to consider if, in a moment of vulnerability, we all could get sucked into the allure of unconditional love from a group that claims it would never leave us, despite the real possibility that, one day, we may desperately wish it would.  

Today, I offer you two poems by James Wright. In both poems, the speaker finds connection with nature. In “Beginning,” the speaker witnesses nature personified. At the end of the poem, he mirrors nature as he “leans toward” darkness. I like that this poem doesn’t suggest that nature heals alienation by wiping off the dirt and shining up the speaker; rather, the connection occurs when darkness is shared.

In “A Blessing,” there is a similar theme of finding connection to one’s self through nature, as well as contrast in nature itself. While the horses “can hardly contain their happiness,” the speaker claims that there is also “no loneliness like theirs.” In the end, the speaker realizes how close he is, through nature, to transcending his own human experience.

Beginning

The moon drops one or two feathers into the field.
The dark wheat listens.
Be still.
Now.
There they are, the moon’s young, trying
Their wings.
Between trees, a slender woman lifts up the lovely shadow
Of her face, and now she steps into the air, now she is gone
Wholly, into the air.
I stand alone by an elder tree, I do not dare breathe
Or move.
I listen.
The wheat leans back toward its own darkness,
And I lean toward mine.

—James Wright

A Blessing

Just off the highway to Rochester, Minnesota,
Twilight bounds softly forth on the grass.
And the eyes of those two Indian ponies
Darken with kindness.
They have come gladly out of the willows
To welcome my friend and me.
We step over the barbed wire into the pasture
Where they have been grazing all day, alone.
They ripple tensely, they can hardly contain their happiness
That we have come.
They bow shyly as wet swans. They love each other.
There is no loneliness like theirs.
At home once more,
They begin munching the young tufts of spring in the darkness.
I would like to hold the slenderer one in my arms,
For she has walked over to me
And nuzzled my left hand.
She is black and white,
Her mane falls wild on her forehead,
And the light breeze moves me to caress her long ear
That is delicate as the skin over a girl’s wrist.
Suddenly I realize
That if I stepped out of my body I would break
Into blossom.

—James Wright

Banner Photo Credit:

https://www.wmagazine.com/gallery/cult-classics-irina-shayk-joan-smalls#8

It’s the End of These Worlds as We Know Them, and I Don’t Feel Fine

SPOILERS AHEAD FOR THE DEADWOOD MOVIE AND THE SERIES FINALE OF GAME OF THRONES

This past weekend, the Deadwood movie came out on HBO. My wife had invited our friend over to see the movie, so I watched a few episodes beforehand and read a summary of the three seasons. Despite the fact that I was born and raised in the west, I’ve just never been into westerns. Nevertheless, I thought the series was well-written and provided complex characters. 

When the movie ended, I was interested to hear what my wife and our friend thought of it. The sentiment from both was that they enjoyed it, but that the movie, which takes place ten years after the series ends, pretty much left everyone and everything the way it had been. There were no surprises. “I’m not sure we needed the movie,” my wife said, thoughtfully. 

Initially, I believed that I didn’t care about Deadwood, but as the weekend progressed, I found myself bothered by its ending. I remember when the series first came out, a female friend of mine proclaimed that no one should be upset by the way women are treated in Deadwood because “that’s the way it was back then.” I’ve always thought that response is far more complicated than its simplistic facade. Why do we want to watch a show where women are treated in a way that supposedly ended long ago? I propose it’s because it actually hasn’t ended. We often identify with characters. But with whom are women identifying when they watch abused hookers from the 1800s (or the lovable, yet miserable, alcoholic, Calamity Jane)? Even more disturbing, with whom are contemporary men identifying? Of course, one doesn’t need to identify with characters to enjoy a story, but that still leaves me with the question: then why are we watching men abuse women in television shows meant to entertain?

Good storytelling is powerful, though. Even I felt myself sympathizing with the brothel’s pimp, and main character, Al Swearengen, played by the talented Ian McShane. Swearengen is dying of alcoholism, in the movie, and wills his establishment to his favorite prostitute, Trixie. However, the first episode of the tv series was still fresh in my mind, and I couldn’t help but recall that Al beats Trixie for shooting a customer, who wouldn’t stop beating her. He tells Trixie she’s “bad for…business” and then steps on her throat until she squeaks out “I’ll be good.” At the end of the movie, though, due to convincing writing and good acting, I felt as though Al loved her and that Trixie (who earlier urges a young prostitute to consider that she’s been gaslighted into turning tricks) has just won by inheriting an establishment that will no longer “run girls,” as Al puts it. 

I had similar feminist issues with Game of Thrones, although I was heavily invested in that storyline. Season 8 aside, I felt that most abused female characters (main characters, anyway) eventually found inner strength and exacted terribly satisfying revenge on their antagonists. Here are a few classics: 

Daenerys Resolves Some Family Issues: 

Screenshot 2019-06-03 11.46.38

Arya: The North Remembers

Screenshot 2019-06-05 13.13.37

Dracarys for Stealing My Babies

Screenshot 2019-06-05 13.10.49

Dracarys Down the Patriarch

Screenshot 2019-06-05 13.12.24

And my personal favorite: Doggone, Ms. Sansa!

Screenshot 2019-06-03 13.00.19

Although these women’s situations are worse than I’ve experienced, I can still identify with having to deal with abusive men and the society that enables their behavior. The women on Game of Thrones find justice that the rest of us can only dream of. That’s the appeal of watching them suffer: my inevitable relief when they become empowered and take revenge.

Of course, the narrative does not always show an awareness that women are human but instead, often remains stuck in old notions. For instance, Daenerys gets raped nightly by her husband until she learns how to seduce him through her eyes. (Seriously.) Then, they fall madly in love, and yours truly—despite my inner feminist (or really, inner NORMAL PERSON)—felt sad anyway when Daenerys’ “Sun and Stars” gets cursed by a witch, who, by the way, had previously been gang raped by ol’ Sun and Stars’ men! I can forgive Daenerys’ Stockholm Syndrome, but I can’t forgive the authors for roping me into it nor for implying that if women would just “get on top” they wouldn’t get raped anymore and would be stronger for it. In fact, they’d fall in love.

Similarly, Sansa’s own repeated marital rapes are implied as necessary for her character development and for her own empowerment, as if we’re supposed to forget that, often times, victims of sexual assault become depressed, anxious, and suicidal. Of course, I was relieved when she escapes by jumping off a castle roof, runs through an icy river, and returns home to mobilize troops and win the north’s independence, but I cannot get on board with the sentiment that her strength could not have manifested but for her husband’s abuse. She makes such a comment to the Hound, implying that she would never have grown up without the rapes. To correct the suggestion that the audience should believe that rape, for women, can be good for their personal growth would have been easy. The writers could have had the Hound reply to Sansa’s statement that she had found her strength despite her husband’s abuse. Again, I can’t blame Sansa for trying to make meaning out of her trauma, but I resent the writers for asking me to do it, too. 

I guess that’s how I felt about Trixie in the Deadwood movie. Who can blame her for her response to an abuser, especially when “that’s the way it was back then”? But why end the movie with the focus on comforting the abuser with yet another dominated woman rubbing his feet? I guess the scene’s comedy and sentimentality somehow eases our resistance? 

I don’t need all abusive characters to die by dogs or dragons, but I can’t help observing that, many times, there’s an awful lot of sympathy and comforting and, in the case of Daenerys’ husband, reward for misogynistic violence. I also don’t need sexual assault narratives erased completely. These stories are valid. I’d just like more thought put into the narrative and an acknowledgement that women are not that different from men: we don’t flourish from rape. 

For this month’s post, I’ve chosen Rita Dove’s “Persephone, Falling” for its use of timeless mythology and contemporary sarcasm to illuminate the patriarch’s method for maintaining female captivity.

Until next month: Dracarys Down Misogyny!

Persephone Falling

One narcissus among the ordinary beautiful 
flowers, one unlike all the others! She pulled,
stooped to pull harder—
when, sprung out of the earth
on his glittering terrible
carriage, he claimed his due.
It is finished. No one heard her.
No one! She had strayed from the herd.

(Remember: go straight to school.
This is important, stop fooling around!
Don’t answer to strangers. Stick
with your playmates. Keep your eyes down.)
This is how easily the pit
opens. This is how one foot sinks into the ground.

—from Mother Love by Rita Dove