Guest Post: How I Composted the Stinky Guck of My Cult Experience into Fertile Soil
I'm so excited to bring you this post from cult survivor, Helen Zendik. I first heard her story on a podcast called Let's Talk Abou Sects - you can hear her riveting episode here. I found Helen on Twitter and asked if she'd like to write something for you about recovery after leaving a cult. I was so excited when she said yes. This thoughtful piece is what she sent over. I hope you enjoy it. - GM
In late October 1999, four and a half months after graduating from Harvard, I moved in with the Zendiks, a band of self-proclaimed revolutionaries homesteading in the backwoods of western North Carolina. By mid-November, I’d given them $13,000 (the lion’s share of a grant I’d received, the previous spring, to explore intentional communities, and all the money I had), and decided to stay for life.
Five years later, in September 2004, I was exiled, with my backpack, ten dollars, and a ride to the highway. Fourteen months after that, in December 2005, I realized Zendik was a cult—and felt more exhilarated than I ever had: finally, I was free to reclaim my birth family and old friends, plan for the future, develop myself as a writer. I didn’t feel ashamed of having entered a cult; rather, I felt awed by twin miracles: I’d joined with a few dozen others to weave, maintain, and seal myself within an all-consuming delusion. And I’d gotten out.
Nonetheless, I had a huge pile of stinky guck to process: five years’ worth of violation, self-abnegation, thwarted desire, bottled-up rage. And I refused to “get over it” or “put it behind me”—I couldn’t let all that black gold go to waste. So, instead, I set out to turn that pile. Aerate it. Muster legions of actinomycetes and earthworms to transform it into soil.
What did I do to turn my pile?
1. I wrote. Shortly after receiving the cult memo, I realized that I needed to tell my Zendik story, in book form. Why? Because it amazed me. Because I’d participated in those twin miracles. And because I knew I needed the length and heft of a book to convey to those who’d never lived at Zendik what I’d experienced, and what it meant. In January 2006, I signed up for my first memoir workshop.
At first, I used my workshop submissions to reflect on what I’d been through, and place it in context; however, by the summer of 2007, I’d realized I just had to write out the whole story, beginning to end, including every event that held emotional resonance. So I did: each day for a few months, I filled three notebook pages; toward the end of the summer, at an artists’ colony in Woodstock, New York, I upped my quota to twenty pages per day and, finally, completed my first draft.
Then I revised—for another eight years. And, in the process, shifted from recounting the wrongs I’d suffered, at the hands of that evil bitch, Arol (Zendik’s leader), to investigating what I’d wanted when I’d found Zendik, what I had and hadn’t gotten, what my soul might have been up to. That is, I claimed my role as protagonist—the one driving the story forward. Yes, as a Zendik, I’d denied my desires countless times—but even those nos had furthered the plot.
In the early years of my book odyssey, I was also writing about Zendik on my blog; in 2008, spurred by anger over a nasty custody battle that Arol had started with a couple ex-members, I composed and posted a Zendik FAQ—a complete rundown of the Farm’s inner workings, intended especially for those who’d interacted with Zendik in the past, those considering visiting or moving in, and those with Zendik loved ones. Finally, with words, I was fighting back—after six years of tongue-biting.
Also in 2008, I wrote, recorded, and shared “The Ballad of Zendik Farm,” in which I told the story of Zendik, with extreme irreverence, and envisioned its demise. Meanwhile, I was recording scads of dreams about the Farm—and noticing that, in some of them, I stuck up for myself (for example, by declaring to the group, “I am not a noodge!”); as the years passed, I gained more and more agency and ease in my Zendik dreamscape.
2. I read. Seeking models for my own book, I read lots and lots of cult memoirs, with an emphasis on those whose authors had entered their groups as adults. In addition, I read books about cult and community dynamics, including Combatting Cult Mind Control by Steven Hassan (which introduced me to the cult pattern); Take Back Your Life by Janja Lalich and Madeleine Landau Tobias; Cults in Our Midst by Margaret Thaler Singer; Commitment and Community by Rosabeth Moss Kanter; and Releasing the Bonds, also by Steven Hassan.
Finally, I read books that placed Zendik—a neo-hippie cult—in context. These included Roger Houriet’s Getting Back Together and Judson Jerome’s Families of Eden (both published in the early 1970s), as well as T.C. Boyle’s novel Drop City, in which intense communal bonding collides with riptides of darkness.
Thus, I began to see Zendik as one thread in a vast fabric of attempts to exploit the basic human desire for meaning and belonging.
3. I talked (and listened). Yes, I mentioned and described my cult experience to strangers at parties (which spurred me to come up with my own sound-bite definition of a cult: a set of interlocking patterns that combine to strip the individual of self-trust) and yes, this was useful, if only because it allowed me to do some cult education and fully own my past. But the deeper composting occurred in occasional conversations with ex-members of other cults, and frequent conversations with fellow ex-Zendiks.
In fact, it was during one of these talks that I got the cult memo, and my first exhilarating taste of freedom: in December 2005, I reconnected with a fellow ex-Zendik, who’d left the Farm about six months after I had. By then, I’d begun questioning my desire to return—since I couldn’t bring myself to call and beg another chance—and realized that, in a universe as vast as ours, there had to be options other than feeling damned forever and going back. Still, I did feel doomed—and it wasn’t until my ex-Zendik friend told me she would never return, and engaged me in an hours-long conversation about Zendik as exploitative hierarchy, that I regained my native joy. Shortly thereafter, per her recommendation, I read Combatting Cult Mind Control—and saw just how perfectly Zendik (which I’d long seen as singular) fit the cult pattern.
Since late 2005, I’ve talked with many other ex-Zendiks, introducing a number of them to the cult concept. And, every time I’ve joined with a former comrade to retell our Zendik stories—complete with the truth of what we were really thinking and feeling—I’ve given my pile another turn. Even better, as our post-cult friendships have developed lives of their own—as we’ve gotten to know each other as free people—we’ve moved into speaking, at length, about things other than Zendik.
4. I published. In May 2018, in partnership with She Writes Press, I published my Zendik memoir, Mating in Captivity—and spurred an ex-Zendik who’d barely spoken of his experience to create a private post-Zendik group on Facebook. I joined. I participated. I engaged with one ex-Zendik who denied it was a cult, and accused me of harming people, just as Arol had. And I learned that, though I would gladly argue with any former Zendik face to face, I did not want to do so on Facebook (in part because I could spend hours obsessing over a single hostile post, comment, or instant message).
Meanwhile, my book’s release inspired me to collaborate with a few fellow ex-Zendiks—three musicians and a dancer—to mount the Zendik Reunion Tour, comprising about a dozen shows in locations throughout the northeastern U.S. I titled the tour “Composting Utopia”; I saw it as a chance to highlight the artistry that had always been in us, and the strides we’d made, post-Zendik, toward developing it. (Though Zendik had billed itself as an artists’ commune, it had only made room for a select few, at the top of the hierarchy, to consistently practice their art.) And, as it happened, the first ever Zendik Reunion Tour coincided with the first ever Zendik Reunion—a gathering of about twenty people who’d lived at the Farm at varying times.
What grew out of my pile, as I turned it?
1. Artistic growth. By the time I got the cult memo in 2005, I’d been dabbling in creative writing for a good long time—but hadn’t yet committed. So I was taking a big leap when I decided to write a book about my time at Zendik—and I have my intense investment in the subject matter to thank for the fact that I persevered in learning writing as a process, and producing a worthy debut.
2. Enduring friendships. As I composted, I grew close, in new ways, to many I’d known at Zendik. In most cases the composting, conducted together, strengthened our bond; occasionally, the composting I’d already done made it possible for me to engage with those who still believed in aspects of Zendik, without doubting my own truth. Eventually, I reached a place of not needing fellow ex-Zendiks to agree that Zendik was a cult.
3. Meaningful connections. Sometimes, when I mention my cult experience, I hear that my interlocutor once belonged to a group that others call a cult, or that she knows a current or former cult member. Occasionally—very occasionally (unless I’m at the International Cultic Studies Association conference, where attendees commonly break the ice by asking, “So, which cult did you belong to?”)—someone says she was in a cult too. And, even if the person I’m talking to has no particular connection (that she knows of) with cults, she’s at least watched Wild, Wild Country, or read about Jonestown, or heard a podcast investigation of Waco. That is, most people have some kind of relationship with and some degree of curiosity about cults—which means they’re eager to dive into the can of worms, once I’ve opened it; as a result, I get to explore what truly matters to me, rather than chat about fluff.
That is, when I bring up my cult experience, I open a gate through which people’s deepest yearnings—for meaning, purpose, adventure, a tribe, belonging—can flow. And this makes sense, because cults don’t exist in a vacuum—rather, they respond to cultural deficits. To shortages of things people desperately need. No, they don’t generally provide those things, in healthy form—but the fact that cults continue to proliferate, and that so many people succumb to their allure, indicates far more about the culture these groups come out of than it does about the individuals who “join.”
4. A visceral understanding of the power of stories. In early 2012, at an all-day workshop with Charles Eisenstein, author of Sacred Economics and other books, I heard him make a case for the power of stories: without stories, he said, we wouldn’t be able to get up in the morning, much less make a plan for what to do next. Further, he averred, so much that we accept as bedrock—debt-based currency, two-party politics, an extractive economy—is actually story.
I got this concept immediately: I’d had the experience of living within, and coming out of, an absolutely convincing delusion. So I could readily see these other seemingly solid structures as stories. As options. And imagine letting them go.
5. A cipher for the quest of my life. One thing I learned from my Zendik experience, after I left: heed the wisdom of the body. Your mind can spin stories making sense of—justifying—any fool thing someone suggests. But the body knows better. And it will communicate with you. It will issue warnings.
Shortly after I arrived at Zendik, I had a bodily experience of “NO!”—but I ignored it. After all, I’d already surrendered my money, and made my choice. Looking back, I see that my body was urging me to flee—but I hadn’t yet learned to hear its screams (never mind its whispers). Also at Zendik, I often cried uncontrollably, and, more than once, gained a lot of weight.
After I got the cult memo, I stopped bawling at the least provocation, and lost the compulsion to overeat. And I realized that both these patterns—which had been with me as long as I could remember, but had radically intensified at Zendik—stemmed from a lack of agency. Ever since I’d started preschool, I’d been following someone else’s program, complete with arbitrary rules; now that I was claiming my sovereignty, I no longer needed a numbing agent for my unacknowledged (and unmet) desires, or ways to sublimate my suffocated rage.
Neither sobbing nor overeating is a problem in itself, to be gotten over; rather, it’s a sign that I’ve surrendered my sovereignty—and I had better get it back.
6. A healthier version of what I was seeking all along. In 2016, seventeen years after moving to Zendik, I paid my first visit to Earthaven, an ecovillage in western North Carolina, not far from where the Farm had once been. At that time, I was still dead set against regularly sharing a kitchen or bathroom with anyone outside my immediate family, ever again—and eager to find fault. Instead, I fell in love—and, because I’d so thoroughly composted my Zendik experience, was able to embark on a wonderfully nourishing relationship with a bona fide intentional community, offering most of the good things I’d experienced at Zendik, coercion-free. I haven’t moved in—I just visit when I can—but I may, someday, and even if I don’t I’ll always cherish this second chance at village life.
Helen Zuman is a tree-hugging dirt worshipper devoted to turning waste into food and the stinky guck of experience into fertile, fragrant prose. Mating in Captivity (She Writes Press 2018), her memoir of five years, post-Harvard, in a cult with a radical take on sex and relationships, has received the Communal Studies Association’s 2020 Timothy Miller Outstanding Book Award, among other honors. For a list of questions to ask if you’re concerned about a group’s health, please see “Fifty Shades of Community”; to learn more, get bonuses, and get in touch, visit helenzuman.com.