Cult Attraction

By Kloberdanz, Kristin | Book, May 2001 | Go to article overview

Cult Attraction


Kloberdanz, Kristin, Book


Several new novels describe the dangers of religious fanaticism

IN THE LATE '80S, MARGARET Peterson Haddix, then a reporter for the Indianapolis News, was assigned a story on the Indianapolis Church of Christ, which had been accused by its former members of being a cult. Haddix learned that the church was recruiting a staggering number of young people from high school and college campuses. What really captured her attention were the stories of those who had broken away. She interviewed countless people who had left the church, members who initially had been very enthusiastic but had become disillusioned.

"It was interesting to me, the psychology of leaving and how they were dealing with it," Haddix says. "Some people were kind of turned off to faith in general, and others were more of the attitude that it was a really bad experience, but that they really believe in God and just need to find the right way to be religious." Ten years later, Haddix published Leaving Fishers, a novel for teenagers based on these interviews.

Haddix is one of several authors introducing the emerging wave of teenage fictional characters who try to explain what it's like to be part of a cult: how they are at first thrilled by the momentum, and how they later fight to leave when conditions get out of hand. In addition to Haddix, Linda Crew has recently published Brides of Eden, and Jane Yolen and Bruce Coville wrote Armageddon Summer, about a millennial doomsday cult. Like YA books on domestic abuse, drug use and eating disorders, these accounts can be looked at as both cautionary tales and engaging reads.

In Haddix's book, Dorry Stevens moves to a suburb of Indianapolis from a small town and is eager to make friends in a seemingly hostile new environment. She jumps at the chance to join the group of good-looking kids who invite her to eat lunch with them, even going along with their odd praying and rituals in an effort to ward off loneliness. Soon enough, she finds herself questioning her own values and becoming more and more a believer in their evangelical religion.

"I think it's easy, when something like Heaven's Gate happens, to say, `What's wrong with these people? Why would they do that?'" Haddix says. "One of the things I was hoping for with Leaving Fishers was that people could read the book and [realize] that it's not like you just wake up one day and say, `I'm going to get involved in this extremist crazy cult.' It's kind of a gradual thing."

"Cult recruiting is a form of confidence game," adds Margaret Thaler Singer, a clinical psychologist, psychology professor at the University of California, Berkeley and co-author of Cults in Our Midst. …

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