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Religious cults in young adult literature…

May 18, 2012

In an analysis of cults in young adult literature (Linda Crew’s Brides of Eden and Armageddon Summer by Jane Yolen and Bruce Coville, specifically), Susan Stewart makes a few points that could be relevant to Fleur Beale’s I am not Esther, and Mandy Hager’s Blood of the Lamb series… among other texts…

While religious cults have a long history, there were relatively few adolescent and young adult novels dealing with religious cults and sects published prior to Jonestown [the mass suicide-murder of the Peoples Temple in Jonestown, Guyana, lead by Jim Jones in 1978]. Several factors contributed to the appearance of young adult cult novels, including the rise of the new realism and problem novels—signs of attitudes in transition and a new cultural landscape. As Karen Adams observes in her discussion of religion and children’s literature, the new realism encouraged a “much more open discussion of such previously taboo subjects as sex, puberty, homosexuality, death, drinking, and drugs. Second, the ‘born again’ phenomenon in the 1970s and ‘80s has afforded religion an increasingly visible role, especially the religion of fundamentalist groups….” (318)

According to Adams, “the key difference in religious content between these contemporary children’s books and older, traditional ones is that religion is now [portrayed] more often and more realistically—complete with its failures, flaws, and hucksters” (5).” (319)  After the media sensationalised a number of stories about cult, perpetuating fears in the public, Stewart writes, “the connections between ideology and religion became evident, for the narratives frequently poured a heavy-handed dose of criticism of cults, cult leaders, and the characters who were seemingly willing participants.” (319)

Stewart goes on to acknowledge: “Discussing religion and ideology together is a potentially troubling notion; as Naomi Wood indicates, “Understanding religion as ideology presumes that religion is a human construct, one that supports a given social structure and a specific status quo” (2). To say that religion is a “human construct” suggests that it might have less to do with divine guidance and more to do with human needs. Nevertheless, authors frequently depict charismatic religious groups—particularly those subscribing to apocalyptic messages and believing that Armageddon is fast approaching—as situated on an ideological landscape reated by numerous binaries: insiders/outsiders, saved/doomed, right/wrong, male/female, and so on. While religious doctrine—and dogma—and a belief in God are frequently at the center of these belief systems, an economy of fear, punishment, violence, and contradictions becomes prominent. Notably, these elements frequently foreground issues of power. As Roberta Seelinger Trites theorizes, “YA novels rely on adolescent protagonists who strive to understand their own power by struggling with the various institutions in their lives” (8). Not surprisingly, in young adult narratives depicting apocalyptic or doomsday cults, the most prominent institutions are generally religion and family, for “Adolescent novels that deal with religion as an institution demonstrate how [. . .] inseparable religion is from adolescents’ affiliation with their parents’ identity politics” (38). However, when a parent becomes a cult member, religion and family assume a more sinister role because of the power associated with both. Adolescents, t least in part, are supposed to obey their parents, and when the parents are part of a religious cult, adolescents must also obey the cult leader and the other adults or family-as-cult. If not, their souls are at risk, and they are in danger of being left behind when the apocalypse occurs. Further, considering Eve’s history in the Christian tradition, it should not be surprising that women’s weakness remains inscribed in and the central tension of the narratives.” (319)

“While any number of young adult novels offer troubled depictions of females, mothers, and family, as I will demonstrate, the combination of fear, power, violence, and religion in young adult cult novels has the potential to create a particularly troubling formula wherein females and mothers are demonized in even more profound ways than usual, fathers become more irrelevant, and notions of family become the basis of destruction.” (320)

“Dawson defines cults as: ‘on a continuum with sects, and compared to churches they share much in common with sectarian forms of religion. But cults are more concerned with the satisfaction of individual needs and desires. They usually lay claim to some esoteric knowledge that has been lost, repressed, or newly discovered, and they offer their believers some more direct kind of ecstatic or transfiguring experience than traditional modes of religious life. [. . .] They are almost always centered on a charismatic leader and are subject to disintegration when the leader dies or is discredited. [. . .] Not surprisingly, then, the vast majority of cults are short-lived and small. (31)” (320)

Motive, in part, defines the apocalyptic narrative and is thus central to plot development. The cult leader uses fear of Armageddon to inspire devotion and more fear, as I will later address in this essay. Motive defines other forms of cult novels as well. Motive in the rescue or reconversion narrative, for example, is clearly identifiable. Reconversion narratives frequently rely on the infiltration of a cult by a family member, friend, or deprogrammer with the intent of returning the individual, who supposedly has been brainwashed, to a more moderate approach to religious practice. The imperative to rescue the individual (and sometimes to avoid being brainwashed as well) serves as the motive and advances the plot. … Motive in the disillusionment narrative—probably the most basic form of cult narratives—seems to be more internalized. In the disillusionment narrative, the protagonist searches for answers and a sense of belonging, finds them in the cult, becomes addicted to the group, identifies profound problems, and leaves. While a variation of this description actually fits all of the other types identified, the disillusionment narrative is defined by what is absent—fear inspired by an apocalyptic message, and outside deprogramming. The cult serves as a way for the protagonist to engage with internal struggles.” (321)

While love—of God, of the cult leader, and of each other—plays a role in young adult apocalyptic novels, it takes a backseat to fear and its result: violence. Indeed, fear and its effect on narrative outcomes make young adult apocalyptic novels perhaps the richest source for contemplating the cultural landscape in terms of mothers, fathers, and family.” (322)

Violence and trauma have become accepted elements of young adult literature; intimidation, rape, and death are common occurrences. However, a more profound violence and sense of fear loom large with the addition of the most frightening apocalyptic text, the Book of Revelation, which serves as the basis for Brides of Eden and Armageddon Summer. The fear of everlasting hell can be extremely compelling.” (323)

Both males and females, then, have their roles in Brides of Eden and Armageddon Summer. In stereotypical fashion, males are the cult leaders, and females are easily seduced by the message the charismatic leader offers.” (329)

Family, too, serves a purpose in these apocalyptic cult narratives, but one which has the potential to become extremely distorted. Brides of Eden begins in 1903, a period in which the traditional family would consist of a mother, a father, and children—a family triad. And presently, regardless of the number of one-parent families, same-sex parents, or alternative family systems that exist, the triad lingers as an ideal. However, many doomsday cult narratives complicate the ideal triad, for frequently one of the parents is missing. Lita Linzer Schwartz and Florence W. Kaslow explain in their discussion of actual [-p330] cults that “There is a strong authoritarian father-figure in the leader of the cult to replace the weak or absent father in the family” (19).” (329-330)

“Thus, because of the powerful—and frightening—nature of the apocalyptic message, who the protagonists are and the condition of their souls become intimately bound to their obedience and submission to the cult leader (and by extension, God). Said differently, their sense of self relies almost entirely on external sources that use fear and violence as a way to manipulate and control. This fear, however, is not simply a fear of the future, but a fear of no future at all, of no life beyond death. For an individual who embraces the messages offered by the cult leader, nothing could be worse. And, even if the character is not entirely convinced of the impending doom, uncertainty still frequently lingers. Thus, the power the cult leader holds is far greater than that of a parent or friends. This power, along with an imperative to be obedient and submissive— traits not usually associated with teenagers—are characteristics which potentially set doomsday cult novels apart from other young adult cult narratives and young adult literature in general.  Rather than protagonists dealing with earthbound institutions, they must contend with the condition of their soul and with God, all while mourning the potential loss of family, friends, and humanity in general when the world ends. Nothing could be more challenging, intimidating, or frightening.

Not that long ago, positive depictions of family and religion were the rule, not the exception. The narratives underscored love and religion as ideals that unified families. However, the violence, fear, and paranoia—not love—inspired by doomsday prophecies in novels such as Brides of Eden and Armageddon Summer simultaneously unify and destroy the family. They also distort our culture’s ideals of the family and demonstrate how monstrous those ideals can easily become. As a result, the genre is particularly well placed to reveal the potential for monstrosity that lies in all families. Authors who want to offer nuanced depictions of young adult apocalyptic cult narratives face a daunting task. Several cults—Heaven’s Gate, the Branch Davidians, and of course Jonestown—have received a great deal of media attention and have thus become synonymous with fear, violence, death, and [-p333] mind control. They also frequently represent the worse possible characteristics associated with cults—doomsday and otherwise. While conflict is frequently the heart of a compelling narrative, ultimately, the more sensational and titillating elements of cults, which consist of violence and a biblically-inspired discourse of “be afraid or fried,” create a deadly combination of bad mothers, irrelevant fathers, and monstrous families.” (332-333)

Ref: Susan Louise Stewart (2011)  “Be Afraid or Fried”: Cults and Young Adult Apocalyptic Narratives’ Children’s Literature Association Quarterly pp.318–335.

Referring to:

Adams, Karen I. “The ‘Born Again’ Phenomenon and Children’s Books.” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 14.1 (1989): 5–9.

Boyer, Paul. When Time Shall Be No More: Prophecy Belief in Modern American Culture.Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1992.

Hannigan, James A. “Social Movement Theory and the Sociology of Religion: Toward a New Synthesis.” Sociological Analysis 52 (1991): 311–32.

Pasulka, Diana. “A Somber Pedagogy: A History of the Child Death Bed Scene in Early American Children’s Religious Literature, 1674–1840.” Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth 2.2 (2009): 171–97.

Schwartz, Lita Linzer, and Florence W. Kaslow. “The Cult Phenomenon: Historical,

Sociological, and Familial Factors Contributing to Their Development and Appeal.” Cults and the Family. Ed. Florence W. Kaslow and Marvin B. Sussman. Binghamton, NY: Haworth, 1982. 3–30.

Singer, Margaret. Cults in Our Midst: The Hidden Menace in Our Everyday Lives. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1995.

Trites, Roberta Seelinger. Waking Sleeping Beauty: Feminist Voices in Children’s Novels. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 1997.

Wood, Naomi. “Introduction: Children’s Literature and Religion.” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 24.1 (1999): 1–3.

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