Peggy Riley's debut novel Amity & Sorrow is a fierce but compassionate look at nature vs. nurture through the lens of a polygamous cult. Riley, who took inspiration from a photograph of a burning wooden church, walks us through the history of the American cult.
My 1970s California childhood was filled with violent faiths and death cults in a decade feeling the hangover of the Summer of Love and suffering the fallout of the nuclear family. I was five when Charles Manson was sentenced to life for the murders committed by his Family of former hippies, pretty girls whose minds had been opened and broken. I was in Junior High when the bodies were discovered in Jonestown, the jungle commune in Guyana where Reverend Jim Jones had hoped to build a new Eden. I will never forget the shape of them, lying flat and embracing, all having drunk poison punch at his command. I wondered how it was possible to have such faith, such all-consuming, passionate awful faith that you would follow such a leader, however charismatic he was.
The history of American faith is filled with charismatic leaders, eager to change the world and to destroy it. In a nation founded by religious radicals in search of freedom, we are raised to believe and raised to protect the right to believe at all costs. The faithful pushed their wagons into the empty west, missionaries and prophets spreading the word, building utopian societies with a violent certainty. The Mormon pioneers irrigated and settled an uninhabitable land of salt lakes. Their communal, utopian church would split over the practice of polygamy, which stood in opposition to the government and statehood. The recent raids on the fundamentalist Mormon Yearning for Zion Ranch of Warren Jeffs in Texas reminds us of the history of secret societies, with young women in pioneer dresses, trapped in cycles generations old, of men who must have multiple wives to attain the highest levels of heaven, a tenet of faith revealed by the founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, Joseph Smith.
In a post-war world, our faiths have turned darker and deadlier. We have grabbed hold of our freedom with both hands. Urbanization has led to isolation, to a rootless people in search of connection, estranged from the families that might have cautioned them or saved them. New cults formed in cities with followers drawn to a range of new gurus, Sun Myung Moon, Mahareshi Mahesh Yogi, “Fathers” Yod and David “Moses” Berg. All have been accused of a range of abuses, sexual, physical, mental, financial. Groups were made through abduction and maintained through brainwashing. New Age communes developed on the fringes, where charismatic men gathered harems and drugs provided the only escape.
A new Millennium brought more fears, of outsiders, of technology, of cities and terrorism. A post 9/11 world inspired a new generation of people to seek Eden in the wilderness, one that was isolationist and survivalist, anti-city and anti-government, armed to the teeth. New communities have sprung up, in secret, and new gurus continue to emerge with a romantic message that reminds followers of their American roots, their right to worship, and their history of standing and fighting for their freedom. Meanwhile, new Americans fill up the empty cities again, making churches in Main Street shop fronts, worshipping saints of death like La Santa Muerta, currently packing them in in my old hometown. Modern cults rise and fall, from Lord Our Righteousness Church in rural New Mexico to The Citadel in Idaho. More false gurus emerge, year on year.
I began to write my first novel, Amity & Sorrow, when I saw a newspaper image of a wooden church on fire. I didn’t know if the church was old or new. I didn’t know its history. I lost the clipping long ago, so I can’t find the true story of the church, but I remember the tall, dry grass. I remember the church’s isolation. I began to wonder how the fire had started and what the worshippers wanted, inside the church. I wondered what they were praying for. A story began to emerge of the church and its people, the church created from the handmade faiths of America: utopian, communal, ecstatic and violent. It has drawn away from the world, living off the grid and eschewing the government, as so many faiths have. It waits for the end of the world, as the Branch Davidians did in Waco.
The church at the center of the novel is a fundamentalist rural compound of one man and his fifty wives. The women are drawn from a modern world that has forgotten them or rejected them, women abandoned in divorce or estranged from their families due to addiction, women who have cared for their parents and had run out of time for their own lives. When the faith’s leader tells them that there is a family waiting for them, that they need never be alone again, they are eager to join it. It is how faiths like Manson’s, like Jones’s, like David Koresh’s, like Smith’s were formed, by leaders who believe they are commanded by God, who have special access to his teachings, men who want to be godlike for their followers and who, sometimes, come to believe that they are gods. And this is always the beginning of the end.
When a leader comes to identify with God and to see himself as the next Messiah, as did Sun Myong Moon, as did Jim Jones and David Koresh, as do any number of men who come to believe that their urges, however selfish, are divine, the cult moves into its final phase and the followers must prepare for the end that will come – or summon the courage and the resources to escape. This is where Amity & Sorrow begins.
It is a uniquely American impulse, this desire to build utopia, the self-belief that it can be done and the ability to forget how the first Eden ended. It is our humanness - our jealousy and lust, our envy and greed - that makes our utopias fail every time.
Note from the author: After my essay An American Cult: A History was published online in PW on April 12, 2013, I received a letter from Werner Erhard's attorney alerting me that "Dr. Margaret Singer, the most prominent cult expert of the Est time period, when asked if Est was a cult stated unequivocally and under oath: 'It is my opinion that it is not a cult.'" As a result, I've withdrawn the reference to Werner Erhard and Est from my essay and it has been corrected in PW's online posting. There was no intent to make any false statement and it is unfortunate that there was a misunderstanding.
-Peggy Riley, author of Amity & Sorrow