“Collector: Field Notes on Surviving a Family Cult: A Memoir”
By Michelle Dowd
Algonquin: 288 pages, $28
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To get a sense of the strangeness, and often horror, of Michelle Dowd’s teenage years, you can check out the words she capitalizes in her new memoir: “Forager.” She is a member of a family cult called the Field, which is committed to saving the Outsiders. To do this, she goes on trips that include stops to revive tents. In this way, she and her family will be prepared “in case the Apocalypse rains down on us, and blood rushes to the bridles of the horses.”
In 1976, when Dowd was 7 years old, his family moved to a 16-acre piece of land in the Angeles National Forest rented by his grandfather, who claimed to be a Christian prophet who would live to be 500 years old. (Spoiler: He didn’t.) At the Field’s main compound in Arcadia, Dowd’s father and grandfather prepared the youngsters for the latter days through army-style training and rounds of scriptural tests called Bible Basketball. . Meanwhile, the girls received training in forest survival skills, including identifying native flora and fending off bears. Her mother is a skilled naturalist, and her axioms recur in Dowd’s head throughout the book: “Don’t be afraid. Be competent.” “Survive fear. Survive with faith.”
Dowd points out some quirks of her pre-teen existence early on. The girls’ day clothes are repurposed pillowcases; in Trips, she wears a full body robe called a djellaba “to keep men from looking at our bodies”. On one trip, the motorhome catches fire, killing a dog inside, an incident Field so casually attributes to the will of God that Dowd’s sister draws a picture of him, which the driver frames. (“It will hang in her house for many years, and I will look at it every time I take care of her children.”) But Dowd deliberately keeps the narrative at a low boiling point, evoking the way this severely antisocial existence felt. for years as normal
Until, inevitably, he stopped feeling that way. Dowd’s change is partly a function of simple curiosity. She was constantly instructed in Bible verses, but as she approached adolescence she began to notice contradictions in the Bible and hypocrisy in the proselytizers. She records them, along with other observations, in a Sears catalogue, the only secular book she owns; she hides it under her mattress.
But the limitations and abuses are as physical as they are psychological, and at its halfway point, “Forager” fully becomes the traumatic memories only hinted at in the opening pages. The Campo structure is patriarchal and aggressive, and women are expected to be chaste and subservient. When the guys arrive at Campo, she identifies which is which “by the way he twists my arm, pulls my hair or rubs his sideburns on the inside of my thighs, in the softest places on my body.”
Barely a teenager, Dowd has been denied the language and socialization to name this rape, making the impact of the story on the page all the more brutal. All he has is survival language: “I don’t know what’s appropriate for humans. When it comes to humans, I only know the identifying characteristics of apex predators and how to appease them.”
“Forager” contains more than a faint echo of Tara Westover’s 2018 blockbuster memoir “Educated,” which recalls a childhood in a separatist family before Westover is released to become a PhD minted at Cambridge. Dowd also broke up: she hooked up with former Field members (“Quitters”), was excommunicated, attended college, and of course, wrote this book. But the “Forager” arc isn’t nearly as triumphant. It is not, like Westover’s, a story of reclusiveness replaced by secularism. Dowd shares just enough information about her life after her to Field to suggest that her escape in 1986 was successful and that, in fact, “escape” is the correct word for what happened.
Because the book focuses so much on the 10 years during which she was a full member of the Camp, an atmosphere of ambivalence hangs over the narrative. Unquestionably, it was a time of abuse and rape, made even worse because God became a curtain that everyone hid behind. “Silence is conspiracy, as is consent,” she writes. “In our family, we shut up when we’re lost, and we’ve been trained to look up, not at each other.”
However, Dowd’s story reveals a bitter irony. The wisdom and resolve she needed to leave the field, his survival skills, were taught through lessons. designed to keep it there. The book is stronger in some ways not to mention that irony; it is a stimulus for the reader to consider our own adolescence. The risk of Dowd’s approach is that she neglects those who didn’t or couldn’t leave, who lacked Dowd’s determination, intelligence, or luck. She notes that the Camp still exists, but is now a “radically different organization.” For better or worse? Knowing how and why it changed could offer some lessons about what makes family cults and what might stop them.
Without that overview, Dowd gives the impression that she is grateful for the knowledge she has acquired, even though she wishes she had acquired it in a different way. She has left the field, but she “is still my mother’s daughter.”
Each chapter of “Gatherer” begins with a brief description of a native plant she knew well in the woods: pinecones, succulents, berries, weeds, lichens. Though short, they do serious metaphorical work, trained on issues of resistance and sustenance. California black oak, for example, is “strong, resilient and self-supporting” and, by extension, so is Dowd. She delivers this information dispassionately but with a certain sense of pride, her suggestion being that she thrives just as these plants do, that her traits and nature are intertwined and that her knowledge of both is a blessing. Self-sufficiency is a virtue. But it is not the way to run a society.
Athitakis is a writer in Phoenix and author of “The New Midwest.”