No one joins a “cult”
Cult leader supervillains! Can you get any more evil than that? Not in comics, you can’t. But their cults are strangely vague.Religious nuts, ritualists, Nazis, terrorists … whatever it is someone’s up to, they’re all made ten times worse when organized into communities with their funny clothes, their leader, their weird beliefs, their repeated phrases, and their goals. It’s the otherness of it all, the flocking-together, the attentiveness, the willingness to act collectively – always with an undertone of abnegating individuality and judgment, and always, ultimately directed toward some combination of murder and suicide. I’m trying to think of a single counter-example in comics, anything which suggests that this very common human social behavior – observance and community, with distinctive life-style and stated values – is anything but the rankest pathology and serves anything but evil.
A helpful thread at G+ and some twittering yielded a preliminary list for these guys. Not all of them fit my topic; I’m not including merely socially-organized violence or mind-controlled hordes, but intentional communities which people join and through which they adopt a new lifestyle. Check out the link and if you think of any others, add’em in the comments. I’ll focus on one especially from a very specific historical moment: the Mandrill from his first appearance in 1972 through his “settling into” the concretized Marvel ‘Verse in 1980 or so.
But first, let’s take look at some reality, specifically for the people in the group, not the leader or elites.
- Dissent or marginalizing by general society
- Need for help with specific problem
- Commitment to community, ritual action, collective action
What about the brainwashing? Well, all these things have to occur before it kicks in through participation, so if the point of the brainwashing is to make these occur, then we have a little conundrum. Trying to reconcile this logical difficulty has led to a whole narrative which has to draw on ancient models of demonic possession and soul-stealing to work, to explain how a person can be “sucked in” or “tempted” or “dabbles and then can’t get out,” as well as social/body cleanliness concepts, the idea that the merest touch by the “soiling” agents taints you and makes you think wrong thoughts. A whole generation of Americans questioned the validity of these concepts regarding communism, but then adopted them wholeheartedly about intentional communities. The comics show some of this weird transference in action.
Intentional communities is the phrase I just used. That’s what you say now instead of “commune.” Maybe co-op (short for cooperative, for non-native English speakers). During the 1970s and trickling into the 1980s, there were thousands, maybe dozens of thousands of them, across the United States. Some simply meant a group of people bought into a mortgage together and committed to living there as a chosen extended family. Others were almost completely separatist and considered themselves to be an exiled mini-nation, a chosen reservation-in-reverse. You could find almost anything in the spectrum between these extremes.
My own home was a mild version. My parents rented rooms in our house to local grad students and part of the deal was that they really lived there, becoming part of our family activities and general routines of life. For most of my childhood, I effectively had a rotating cast of older siblings, who stayed the same age. Some stayed with us more than once, or for many years. Any particular holiday might feature a couple of former boarders.
My summers were mainly spent at a radical camp which had begun as a Quaker retreat/summer camp in the 50s, but by the late 60s was about as close to the feared dangerous-hippie naked black-people-too stereotype as you can get. President Nixon even sent goons to investigate it while I was there. I was a staff brat there during the late 60s, then a camper and eventually a counselor through my teens in the late 70s and early 80s. It was very much its own intentional community and rugged as hell by modern standards: no plumbing, electricity, or gas tech, and we cooked over fires. Life at camp was organized by tribes, each including at least one male and one female counselor, each with the full age range of campers from 10 to 17. The kids always included a fair proportion of group home and street kids, mixed in with the rest of us. It’s still there, albeit mellower I’m sure. (As of this writing, the director is Sarah Camp, whose mother I knew well and whom I remember as a 5-year-old. She looks a lot like her father James, one of my childhood mentors.)
My mom taught pregnancy and childbirth classes all the time, and sometimes would travel to various communes around California to teach people how not to die. This branch of activism was nearly unique in that the perceived radical material did in fact get adopted into mainstream medical practice on legitimate scientific grounds, after a couple of decades of political strife (i.e. my childhood). When my wife and I had kids less than a decade ago, I was amused to see that the prenatal classes at the hospital featured the same material that I’d mimeographed and collated for my mom thirty-five years earlier, considered at the time to be fringe and scary. I went with Mom on these trips and stayed in all sorts of places, including the famous Black Bear Ranch, as it happens at the same time that Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn were living there, as he and I found later when we sat down to figure out where-all each of us had been. It was a nice place, including details such as every single person being buck naked.
One of my family members was a former Weatherman and general dissident, and by the early 70s had decided that he could simply not live any kind of ordinary life in the U.S. (his mother actually defected to Cuba). He was very skilled mechanically and was therefore solid gold to any rural commune, as he could keep the sump pump running and similar stuff. He joined Synanon sometime in the early 70s, and we visited him there pretty regularly, including and right through its infamous media period and its eventual decline in numbers and effectiveness. I’d stay there for a weekend or a week, once a year or so, for let’s see … about age 12 through age 17.
Was life there different? Sure. Everyone lived in dorms and ate in the cafeteria. I always stayed with the kids my age, which meant pretty much recovered heroin addicts and street prostitutes. Everyone worked, every day, with people rotating through the more menial tasks. Everyone attended classes (in the kids’ case, perfectly reasonable academic ones). There were scheduled Games, and impromptu ones if someone felt like things had gone to shit in some situation. The Game has a bad rep and its abuses in late-stage Synanon are well-known (it’s the model for the bad guys in Dick’s A Scanner Darkly), but it’s also true that the rehab techniques were incredibly successful and are still alive in most effective drug-rehab and other contexts, with the serial numbers scraped off. A lot of the technique was social, not psychological – people needed something to do. Everyone worked harder and better at these places, day in and day out, then I’ve ever seen in any other voluntary context. “Work” in the professional middle-class sense is a complete joke by comparison.
The important, counter-narrative thing about Synanon and other notorious examples like the Rajneeshpuram is that they had a really high turnover rate. The idea that they refused to let people leave is rooted in a couple of divorce-and-custody cases and to the Jonestown events, not to the ordinary membership. I don’t think Synanon’s current membership was ever more than a few thousand people – but it wouldn’t surprise me if ten times that many had spent a fair amount of time there, say a year for a given person during its run from the late 50s through the late 80s. Anyway, I stress, these communities are the most useful and effective when a lot of people are showing up to join, and a lot of people are simultaneously leaving on good terms.
As a young person whose life brushed against and into these groups without joining them, my take was to cope with the simultaneous insight and bullshit very carefully. That was the primary problem with all 70s culture, commune or not, activist or not: people running numbers on each other all the time, with the presumption that if a person was dumb enough to swallow it, then they didn’t deserve consideration. Very, very hard on the younger members of the community and culture. This became murkier when many such groups declared themselves religions, probably as a tactic to avoid political pressure or (obviously) taxation as businesses, but this backfired on all of them after the sordid custody case at the People’s Temple throughout the 1970s, the public and political ramp-up of the Unification Church (1974/1976) which I fully grant is creepy, ongoing Manson events like Squeaky Fromme’s assassination attempt on President Gerald Ford (1975) and the gaudy TV film Helter Skelter (1976), the hysterical maunderings about brainwashing in the Patty Hearst trial (1976), and of course, the events at Jonestown (1978) which were presented as brainwashed religious-fanatic insanity. Although the Manson family (so-called) bore little if any resemblance to a commune, and the events at Jonestown were badly skewed in their presentation, the concepts were confounded; the derogatory murder/suicide + mindlessness meaning of “cult” emerged during that period and has stuck hard.
So now I’m obviously talking about the ones which fail in scary ways, about which still more mistaken narratives prevail. It’s not about the leader(s) becoming power-drunk mind-controllers, but about them becoming disoriented and isolated while a small clique of intimates “takes care of him” and wields the real power, often compounding their problems and forming a gang by entering into mob and drug connections, then becoming a paranoid clique seeking to preserve their privileges, and turning to force against the community itself. When Diedrich crashed and burned in Synanon, taking the Farmworkers’ Movement with it; when the Farmworkers Movement (technically not an intentional community but with many similar features) itself started brutalizing migrant workers; when Jim Jones went loopy in the years prior to moving to Guyana; when whatsername at the Rajneeshees started bugging everyone’s cabins and poisoning people, it was always this weird little clique of remarkably obvious assholes who really made the decisions, not the “main man,” who nevertheless is always painted as a Svengali.
That said, I have no reason to doubt that Jones was a total asshole, certainly following the move from Indiana to California, and my take even as a kid was that Diedrich was the same, based on how people talked about him, despite whatever literal words they used. Chavez was absolutely no prize either in the later years, a manipulative, guilt-tripping skunk. What interests me is that if they’d acted like that in the early years of their very own movements, their compatriots would have dumped them in a hot second and moved on with the work themselves, and no single person can, for instance, install and enforce a PA system, hidden microphones in living quarters, and armed patrols. There’s a lot to investigate about this, for which I’ll touch on a couple of points.
So you noticed I graded into talking about the People’s Temple, with which I had no personal contact. But weren’t we talking about comics? Yes, and that means the Mandrill, created by Carole Seuling and Ross Andru in 1972, written mostly by Steve Gerber during the 1970s. You may not know that until the Jonestown killings, the People’s Temple was primarily known for its intensive leveling of racism, with Jones himself exemplifying a white child whose primary cultural context was black, and who was married to a black woman. First in Tennessee, then in the Bay Area, the People’s Temple was considered a beacon of civil rights activism – prior to the 70s, it may even have deserved it. You remember the Mandrill and Nekra, do you not? Well …
Which then becomes a militant cult of aggression, sexual domination, violent women, and distinctly misbehaving black people, all due to individual dominance. (You can spend all day debating whether it is racist or criticizes racism, whereas I shrug and say, “That confusion right there is the 70s all over.”)
Did you feel your head spin there? Kind of a … jarring shift from valid social issues to flatly racist, sex-phobic absurdity? Note a distinct lack of the mention that the Mandrill and Nekra might, without powers, without control, might have a point which people would agree with and organize around, for its own sake? Hush! Quick! Couldn’t be! Must be MCI! But I can understand that reaction perfectly, because by the early 70s, that jarring shift is either what happened to the People’s Temple or is a distorted attempt to explain what did happen, or both. And this is before Jonestown, before even the move to Guyana in 1976-77.
You see, it’s not Jones we should be talking about, but instead the so-called “followers,” the ones always characterized, no, caricatured as unthinking idiots who “blindly” obey whatever they’re told, always pitched as a matter of mass hypnosis coupled with stupidity. This is where the comics and the larger culture in general fell down hard, missing the daily gains and individual friendships in what did seem, without brainwashing, like a radical but decent social endeavor. Maaga’s book rightly focuses on rank-and-file members of the People’s Temple throughout its history, not on government statements, Jonestown elites’ announcements, accounts of the “deprogrammed,” or media accounts that merely purple-up any of the former. She shows that for many people, the People’s Temple provided something they needed – health care subsidy, for instance – and that blind or stupid subjugation of their own will was simply not part of the picture, no more so than for any other identity or values-based social organizing. She shows that many people joined and left without incident. She shows how its mission was falling apart even before the move to Guyana. She also does an excellent job of documenting why – the agency of the inner circle members, especially the women, without falling into easy dismissals of them as either sex-crazed concubines or love-blinded idealists.
Everything you probably think happened at Jonestown was publicized almost moments after the events, without fact-checking and in many cases with no journalistic follow-up at all. Did you know that most of the people (about a thousand) were shot? That the ones who died of poison were mostly forcibly injected? That the tubs of “Kool-Aid” were hardly touched? That (and I know this is trivial, but still) it wasn’t even Kool-Aid, but Flavor-Ade? The entire picture of a thousand people meekly lining up to drink poison because “Jones told them to” is simply false. Tapes of the final days there show that people were speaking up against his rantings and the inner circle’s bullying right up until the end, silenced ultimately only by fear of a perceived external threat, intimidation, and violence.
The crazy thing to me is how perfectly this popular “brainwashing cult” stereotype does apply to the career white-collar workplace, for example the ever-popular Arthur Anderson in the 1980s, which engulfed a considerable number of my friends. How such an entity differs from the Unification Church fully eludes me, because the latter’s creepiness has nothing to do with its churchiness and everything to do with its crass power. Or to many, many other social institutions … I already wrote a whole profile on this matter regarding the CIA and KGB in my book-and-game Spione.
Strangely, gamers will go into paroxysms of outrage when Dungeons & Dragons is accused of or referenced as brainwashing or cult-like, yet they wholly adopt phrases like “drink the Kool-Aid” and in their fictions, routinely depict stereotyped and non-factual commune-cult-brainwashing – oblivious to the fact that the deprogrammers who allegedly saved commune members were the exact same people going after kids playing D&D, and the media play regarding the former lent massive media cover for the latter.
In the mid-70s, the narrative had not yet solidified. The People’s Temple was just then moving to Guyana, and the tension between the anti-racism history and the probably true intimations of political intimidation in the San Francisco area was extremely raw. The idea of participating in something like the Rajneeshees or, more likely, any of a hundred less gaudy or physically centralized endeavors, was not considered too weird – or at least not brainwashing. Public opinion about Synanon was confused or split. The whole sexual harem around the Svengali had not yet become the standard description, not even for the Mansons, although it would before another year passed. I’m not surprised that the writers at Marvel were right on or even ahead of the curve regarding the confusion and tension about the issue.
So many more to talk about! Glorious Godfrey especially. But really, the fundamental point doesn’t change a bit for any of them. To take a slightly more neutral example than the Mandrill, what did this guy’s organization do for anyone who joined it?
That’s right, nothing. Which shifts the entire use of “cult leader” in comics into a superficial, no-ground-contact meme factory rather than what comics are notably good at, dramatic critique of life as we know it, intentional or otherwise. I think the next villain I make up is going to be a cult leader who’s doing at least something interesting.
Links: Henching for the Naja-Naja
Next: Bless me DC, for I have sinned
Posted on June 14, 2015, in Politics dammit, The 70s me, The 80s me, The great ultravillains and tagged Arthur Anderson, Black Bear Commune, Camp Unalayee, Carole Seuling, Cesar Chavez, Charles Manson, Chuck Diedrich, commune, EST, Farmworker's Movement, Glorious Godfrey, Hearing the Voices of Jonestown, intentional community, Jim Jones, Kobra, Mandrill, Mary McCormick Maaga, Mind Control Incident (MCI), Nekra, People's Temple, Rajneeshpuram, Ross Andru, Squeaky Fromme, Steve Gerber, Synanon, Synanon Game, Unification Church. Bookmark the permalink. 18 Comments.