In some corners of America, anything less (or more) than a fundamentalist, Protestant, King-James-Bible-quoting corner church is widely viewed as a “cult.”
But here in Boulder, home to countless adherents of “alternative spiritual groups,” the opposite tends to be true: If you use the “c-word,” you’d better be prepared to back it up with proof of cyanide-laced Kool-Aid.
One of the many achievements of self-published Boulder author Lena Phoenix’s new novel, “The Heart of a Cult” — based on her own experiences with several of what she calls “alternative spiritual groups” — is that it realistically explores the vast gray area between those two poles without ever resorting to sensationalism.
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Cults, Phoenix reveals, are not always easy to define or identify. Most alternative spirituality groups tend to be made up of smart, idealistic, educated people, not wackos. And while such groups can be destructive, they also can offer real benefits to participants.
Phoenix’s quietly compelling, entertaining story of Michelle Thomson, a Denver Web designer who is pulled into a Boulder group headed by the charismatic “Ma,” does a remarkable job of portraying a lower-level cult.
Like many people who find such groups appealing, Michelle is going through major transition. She’s just been laid off from her job and broken up with a boyfriend when a friend invites her to a lecture by Ma.
Though initially skeptical, Michelle is intrigued — and startled — when Ma seems to speak directly to her.
“Watching (Ma) now … and seeing how palpably different she was from anyone I had ever met before, left me with a suddenly powerful curiosity,” Phoenix writes in this first-person narrative.
Michelle overcomes her hesitation about signing up for a $550 weekend seminar — “Wasn’t spiritual teaching supposed to be free?” — and soon relaxes into the welcoming bosom of the community and Ma’s teachings. She moves to Boulder.
Phoenix has the guru’s argot down pat, and Ma’s wisdom — and it is, often, wise — echoes the kind of language used by so many spiritual teachers: “You know … if you want to understand your relationship with the Divine, all you need to do is look at your relationship with the opposite sex,” Ma says.
Michelle seems to experience moments of divine bliss and even finds a new love interest before shadows begin to intrude.
Excited and honored when she’s asked to design Ma’s new Web site, she’s taken aback when she learns she won’t be paid. But rather than cross the master and put her newfound status at risk, she starts maxing out credit cards to get by. And when a member offhandedly mentions “the aliens who are helping humanity to evolve” — shades of Scientology — Michelle begins to doubt.
“It was true that Ma had already opened the door for me to some things that I wouldn’t have believed just a few months ago, but this — well, it all just sounded so weird to me.”
Still, she doesn’t leave, even as glimpses into Ma’s secret world — deftly unveiled by Phoenix — continue to gnaw at her.
Eventually, despite a constant bombardment of manipulation and creepy denial by other group members — “(Y)ou must never forget how tricky the mind is. Given the first opportunity, it will abandon higher truth in favor of the smallness of the ego” — the evidence that Ma is just as human as her followers becomes too strong for Michelle to deny.
“As I watched, the radiant master I adored dissolved, and in her place stood an aging actress fighting hard to be taken seriously,” Phoenix writes.
The story feels refreshingly real, and doesn’t resort to over-the-top plotting to keep the reader turning pages. No poisoned Kool-Aid here.
Phoenix is a smart, clean writer who knows how to create believable characters through dialogue and just a few salient details. There are glitches here and there, but her decision to hire a professional editor pays off in smooth, flowing prose. Although self-published, “The Heart of a Cult” is better written and more readable than half the titles on many major publishers’ front lists.
In choosing to forego a National Enquirer treatment of a fictional Boulder guru and her followers, Lena Phoenix offers a knowing, engaging and deeply human look at a borderline cult that illuminates as much as it entertains.
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