When I'm on the ramp-up to a new writing project, I often put together some suggested reading to myself, and I'd bet if you were an outsider looking in you wouldn't be able to tell with any degree of accuracy what the book was actually about. Last time around for Vajra that reading list was everything from Thomas Merton to Aung San Suu Kyi. (Those who have read the book will have no trouble understanding how those folks are reflected in the story.)
This time around, with Welcome to the Fold, the list is going to be possibly even more esoteric. To that end, I'm going to enjoy being deliberately vague about the story up until it's put to bed and I start publicizing the details. But one of the first big subjects I started reading up on — maybe better to say re-reading — is the mechanics of cults.
What struck me most about cults was something that I only realized was a point of fascination for me in the first place until someone else came out and said it. Many of the people who join cults — especially when they first started to come to public consciousness in the 1970s — were bright, highly personable, deeply individuated folks. They didn't see themselves as "joiners", which made it all the more shocking when they found out how, under the right circumstances, they could turn into such people.
One of the case studies I read involved a young woman who had spent an entire weekend in what amounted to an indoctrination seminar, bored out of her mind the whole time. She couldn't wait to leave. But something dragged her back in, and before long she was dropping out of college and begging to be taken into the more advanced "courses" offered by the group. "I simply don't know how or why I did this," she insisted.
That case study came my way almost twenty years ago, and I never forgot it, not least of all because of the there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-and-perhaps-also-Ted-Patrick-go-I flavor of the whole thing. Going back and re-reading it now as prep material for Fold made sense, both to refresh my memory and to see how I might understand the issue differently now. Sure enough, I saw something now I hadn't seen then.
What cults offer on an emotional level — I'm leery of saying "spiritual", for reasons I'll go into in another post — is akin to what a lot of industrially-produced foods offer on a taste level. Salt, sugar, and fat go a long way towards being satisfying in a quick-hit way. Likewise, the way cults appear to offer emotional and spiritual satisfaction works just like that: in the long run it's junk food, but in the short run it feels so right it's small wonder many people are so intoxicated by their first hit of it. It's so drastically unlike the conventional experiences of church or synagogue or what have you, and quite deliberately so — all the better to draw you in and cut you off.