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In Defense of Cults

Bringing us deeper into the group would mean we’d be blindfolded and put in a van and driven to an undisclosed basement in the Valley. No big deal.

Liz Armstrong

Thanks to a couple adamant atheists in my family, I was kept far away from religion growing up. It was supposed to be my choice what kind of God I wanted running my life, if I wanted one at all.

I remember the first time I visited church, when I was seven, with my best friend across the street and her family, all of whom were Mexican. The sermon was in Spanish and I had no idea what was going on, alls I knew was I came home totally freaked out, with some dirt on my forehead. My mother, who converted to Catholicism of her own free will as a teenager, gasped and asked me if I stood in line and ate and drank things too. Yes, I had. “You’re not supposed to do that,” she said.

Apparently I’d fully participated in Ash Wednesday shenanigans without having been baptized, which meant not only was I not one of God’s children, I’d committed sacrilege. That unfair piece of news made me feel very lonely and confused—I had to join some dark group to make God love me? Who the hell was God, anyway?

I started thinking then about who belongs to God and to whom God belongs. I really had such little clue about religion, I went where I thought God lived, in the books in the occult and metaphysical sections of the library, and I devoured them all. Over the years I took detours into some dark corners, including at age eleven making a voodoo doll of a classmate who showed up to school the next day with her leg in a cast. A few years later an uncle stepped in with some super trippy books that brought me into the light, shattering my burgeoning Satanic preteen witch program by introducing me to concepts of wholeness, source, and connection.

What, I thought, there are ancient light beings from outer space that have messages of peace? A lost underwater civilization so technologically advanced it harnessed crystals as a potent source of power? Immortal entities with such important information they could push it through human consciousness and have it come out in words? Like, this is the raddest shit that could possibly enter a kid’s mind. It was all stuff about the loving, expansive, inclusive, unifying nature of God without anything religious clouding it up.

Minus a few blackout periods, it’s been my choice to fully believe in wild, holographic, spaced-out, magical, empowering stuff ever since. I believe that life is half-real, half-fantasy, and that the two are linked by God. And whatever I can possibly do to explore and enrich my understanding of this particular connection, count me in.

Not too long ago I showed up at the Ukrainian Cultural Center of Los Angeles to join a cult. Sort of. I saw this video online that you can watch above, where a shaky-voiced, concerned woman implored viewers to seek emotional healing and protect themselves from pain that’s to come in the uncertain future. Where can we find answers? With her people, at the Ukrainian Cultural Center, on Thursday evenings.

It was total doomsday “chosen ones” kind of sheepspeak, and for a second I was like, “Whoa! This is nuts! Awesome. I’m totally going.” And then I realized it was fake, not because I’m good at detecting bad acting, but largely because when it ended, it linked to videos of something called Sound of My Voice, which has intermittent ads on VICE’s home page.

I knew if I really wanted to, I could’ve clicked on the ad, found the twelve-minute chapter of Sound of My Voice, which is a feature film that received noteworthy attention at Sundance and SXSW, and unraveled the whole thing in about two seconds. I would’ve gone into the Ukrainian Cultural Center all smug, knowing that everything I was to encounter that night was a staged scenario, an extension of the film, and just played along like a goof. But I like mystery and enchantment and any excuse to be curious, even if it's sometimes earned at the expense of my intelligence.

So that video was a heads-up that something was fishy with these three people who met me, super wide-eyed and wearing all white—especially the one dude, who took off his jeans in front of me to expose nearly see-through long johns that had a hole in the crotch—but I wasn’t entirely sure what. Still, I decided to join in on this cult wholeheartedly, to behave exactly how I do when entering any group situation that truly is sacred to its participants. And this combination of me being sincere in an environment manufactured to elicit a specifically vulnerable response temporarily scrambled the magnets in my bullshit detector. These people weren’t the best actors, but they were certainly good at behaving weird. And so am I. Insincerity versus earnestness. The game was on.

They led me up some stairs, into a lobby forgotten circa 1972 with children’s art on the walls, where I was deposited alone and told to “breathe deeply” for a while. About five minutes later, one woman came back and noted that I was drinking bottled water. “Would you like some of our water?” she asked. Yep, totally, give it to me. “Maggie only drinks this,” she said, referencing who I assumed was their guru while uncapping a bottle of Mountain Valley Spring water. I was disappointed—weren’t they going to give me some kind of weird dosed stuff? Something that at least had been filtered through crystals and infused with vibes? Come on cult, cult it up!

A woman named Mel came in with her angular bobbed haircut, and she dismissed the water bearer. “Tell me about yourself,” she said. I answered in complete honesty: where I’m from, what I do, how I am interested in exploring the absolute edges of faith and spirituality, and that it’s something I do for fun and also take very seriously. I told her I come from an environment that has tendencies toward insincerity, but that I don’t operate like that at all.

She asked if I was scared, and I said I was apprehensive because I had no idea what was going to happen to me, or what I was there for. Was I going to do yoga? Psychic exercises? Would this be a lecture? Some sort of devotional practice? “All your questions will be answered,” Mel assured me.

As the meeting went along, I had a very strange realization that apparently I must have considerable experience in cult-like situations because this was all a piece of cake. Sure, I’ll listen to weird spiritual music and stretch and do fake yoga and then “shake it out” with a bunch of strangers. Why not? Who cares! I’m involved in communities where we’d do this for fun anyway.

The freaky churches and spiritual communities I've visited want new people to join, so they don’t test or alienate them or put them on the spot. They don’t make a newcomer sit on cold linoleum floor tiles and silently look a stranger in the eye for a full five minutes. But I did it, I looked this dude right in the pupil, ignoring the issues with the long johns, beaming acceptance at him the entire time. Afterward, when Mel asked me to explain to the group how that felt for me, I said, “It felt like love.” If I’m gonna go there, I’m gonna seriously go there.

The more we all talked stuff out as a group about “the future,” the more I realized these people were in spiritual Pampers.

“But if there is no water available,” said the dude with the hole in his pants, “do I just close my eyes and tell myself I am not thirsty, and then I won’t be?”

“That’s a really good question,” Mel said. And then looked lost.

They were clearly playing Scared of Things to Come, talking about scarcity of food and water, and I countered all of their fear-mongering with theories of abundance. I told them I’m not scared of the future, that I’ve been getting psychically prepped for shit to go down since I was a kid. The stuff coming out of my mouth was way crazier than anything they were coming up with, only I actually believed myself and they knew they were full of it.

Mel continuously asked me what I was seeking, and I continuously told her the truth: Nothing. These actors were operating under the assumption that a cult must prey on weak people looking for answers outside themselves, thinking the cult will fix their lives. Cults don't always try to suck your brain or your wallet, it's just the dangerous ones that make the news, like Heaven's Gate or Pat Robertson's followers. And this is why performative spirituality is so much more reductionist than real life, people dressed all new-agey trying to preach a "message." If you just actually live the path the art is trying to communicate, you get a much richer experience.

They never broke character, and neither did I. Needless to say, I left there feeling pretty fucked up. At home, I did all the research necessary (it wasn’t much) to discover that all the people I’d just interfaced with were playing their exact roles in Sound of My Voice.

This was all really just play-acting for a movie? It was unintentionally so deep, and stirred up some stuff inside me that made me angry. Who were these people, trying to trick strangers into joining some cult that had no real backbone, no tenets, no faith? That’s like the worst thing you could do to someone who is truly seeking answers to bigger questions, is lure them in with promises and then deliver absolutely nothing. Which—aha! meta alert—is what a lot of cults and religions do, right? Except in this case, it’s even more emptily spacious than nothing, it’s like a hole, because the people themselves delivering the blankness are actors operating from a script.

I went back the next week and took three friends with me, all of whom have equally sincere spiritual practices and considerable experience with fringe communities. This time around, different cult members showed up, two good-looking men who seemed about age 30. There were no breathing or trust exercises, we all simply sat at a table and talked.

The guy leading the discussion, who introduced himself as Zeke, quickly noticed we weren’t fazed in the least about the cult stuff, and said we seemed like good candidates to meet their leader. When he told us that bringing us deeper into the group would mean we’d be blindfolded and put in a van and driven to an undisclosed basement in the Valley, one friend’s response was, “Oh yeah, when I went to the O.T.O. in New York, that’s pretty much what they made me do.” No big deal, go ahead and kidnap us and take us to a secret cave with a bunch of people who believe in freaky stuff—been there, done that!

Zeke let us in on the group’s big secret: Their leader, this Maggie person, the one who led them in discussions about life? She was clairvoyant to some extent, fairly young, beautiful, and had long wavy blond hair that went down to her waist. When we heard this, my friends and I exchanged odd glances. We’d all met and become more spiritually aware in part due to attendance at lectures delivered by a woman who is a real-life witch and shares this exact description. Her name is strangely similar, too: Maja.

Things felt a bit upended at this point. I couldn’t discern what was fake cult, what might be real cult, and what was acting—not from any of us. To try to get my bearings I asked Zeke point-blank about Sound of My Voice, and if there was anything else to this story than what he was presenting in this room. He said no, and pinkie-swore on it. This was all the truth then? What the hell was going on?

Afterward, my friends and I huddled together and sussed it out. We watched the whole 12-minute chapter of Sound of My Voice, and noted, curiously, that the plot of the film involved a journalist (played by Christopher Denham) infiltrating a cult, and perhaps getting sucked into it. Maggie, the leader (played by Brit Marling), really did look an awful lot like Maja, and had a number tattooed on her ankle that references the numerical address of my house. Was this film really mirroring plot lines of my actual life so closely? I was getting weirded out.

A friend studied Sound of My Voice’s IMDb and discovered “Zeke” was actually Zal Batmanglij, the film’s writer and director, and that we had friends in common on Facebook. I found him and breathed hellfire on his inbox. I hadn’t written something so mean, so automatically assuming of someone’s bad agenda, in a really long time.

To my surprise, he responded immediately, asking if I could call him. So I did.

On the phone, as Zal explained it, this cult thing wasn’t a marketing trap for journalists, it was his way to bring interactivity and fun into cinema. To his knowledge, everyone else who’d come to the Cultural Center totally understood it was an extension of the movie. When we all showed up, he said, he got excited because he thought we were willing to really play along. In fact, Zal said, he was ready to ask the studio to build out a whole set for us in the valley, and have us more or less kidnapped to meet Maggie, because he knew we’d get into it. Apparently it had never crossed his mind that someone might take this at face value.

Oh. Fair enough!

Now, what about those “coincidences” in characters though, Zal? Certainly, at least, as we have friends in common, he’d heard about Maja’s lectures, went to one, and in true Hollywood style, dipped his hand in and broke off some of the imagery and vibe? He truly had no idea what I was talking about. Later, he wrote to me to say he looked up Maja and he, too, was astounded by the physical similarities between her and his cult leader character.

There were other small things, too. One of the actors in the film is named Ron Roggé; one of the friends I brought with me is named Ron Regé. The number tattooed on Maggie’s ankle, which is my home address? It is also the number on my girlfriend’s parking pass (noticed just days before all this) and also the address on a building my friends were talking about as we were on our way to Zal’s fake cult.

So that thing I was talking about at the beginning of the story, where I said “I want to believe that life is half-real, half-fantasy, and that the two are linked by God”? Well, this is exactly what happened: real life and fantasy collided, overlapped, and folded onto themselves. But were these things linked by God, or were they just linked by a movie? Or... in this particular instance, are those two things really one in the same?

Sound of My Voice is designed to get us to refine our ideas about faith via our own internal outlook gradient. Wherever you fall on the optimist/pessimist scale will likely color how you interpret this film. Which is an interesting experiment to pull in a theater, and it definitely works on that level. But faith doesn’t work that way, where optimists believe in God or the universe or whatever you want to call it, and pessimists don’t. There are happy atheists out there, and plenty of dark ‘n’ gloomy God people.

If God really is this movie, it's sure got a weird sense of humor about Itself. While certainly fun to watch throughout—nothing turned out like I thought it might, which was refreshing—it seems to insist that desire for community is weak, and it has slightly privileged views on weirdness. You feel like the main character, the journalist, is a bit of a jerk for pretending to be nice to these people just so he can bust them, but then there’s not much space to empathize with the cult, either, because they’re half-assed at everything they do and make no sense. It’s like there’s no one you’re really rooting for or against here, you’re just rooting for truth, and it’s questionable that you ever get it.

The point of all this does seem to be the uncertainty, that shaky feeling you get when you just really don’t know. When I left the screening, I was just as upset as I was when I left their cult. That is a successful movie for sure. If you look at it from the bigger picture though—which, based on all this experience I can’t help but do—it’s a story about faith that doesn't give you much to believe in.

@lizzyarmstrong
 

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