Trauma transformed: Pitzer grad releases memoir of childhood in a family cult

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When Michelle Dowd first started writing as a young girl, it was during stolen moments in the margins of a Sears catalog. The only larger book she owned was her childhood Bible, and in her family the catalog was akin to contraband.

She surreptitiously scribbled in its pages — verse-like stories about the man in the moon, curious words from the Old and New Testaments, and lyrical descriptions of her own experience, which she refrained from speaking aloud, lest she be reprimanded for the “sin” of fabrication.

More than 30 years later, this catalog became a valuable resource, helping her to recount the story of a traumatic upbringing she barely survived. On Tuesday, March 7, “Forager: Field Notes for Surviving a Family Cult,” Dowd’s raw, heart-wrenching, and beautifully crafted memoir, will be released into the world by Algonquin Books.

“It’s very unnerving,” she said. “It’s something I truly feel like I avoided most of my life.” And with good reason. Dowd grew up in the San Gabriel Valley in an intensely religious, apocalyptic cult called the Field, created by her grandfather in the 1930s. His contingent of mostly young, male followers believed him to be God’s prophet, and he preached fundamentalist ideologies and fire and brimstone tirades with “mercurial tyranny.”

When Dowd was 10, he sent her family to “the mountain,” acreage he had leased in the Angeles National Forest. She lived with her parents and three siblings in a one-room mess hall on the property; their sole purpose was to prepare for the end times. It was here, under the tutelage of her naturalist mother, that Dowd learned to live off the land. In fact, she had no choice. It wasn’t unusual for her mother to drop her in the wild for hours or days at a time, without so much as a canteen of water.

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1 comment

  1. There have been many family cults reported about and the book “Cults Inside Out” has a chapter devoted to this subject. Personal stories like this one offer hope and a pathway for recovery.

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