Forager: Field Notes for Surviving a Family Cult: a Memoir
“a triumph for its riveting storytelling, and for Dowd's ability to occupy the consciousness of the girl she was, striving to survive an extraordinarily oppressive and dangerous environment.”
Michelle Dowd's memoir of growing up in a strict religious sect, a "cult" in her words, is both harrowing and hopeful. Following the vision of her maternal grandfather, who fashioned himself a prophet, Dowd's parents raised their four children on a remote mountain camp, where they are deprived—by belief—of formal education, of standard healthcare, and often of basic needs like food and appropriate clothing. Their primitive lifestyle necessitated Dowd to endure extraordinary physical hardships in service to their survivalist and fundamentalist ideology. Once, Dowd was sent to gather rocks on a blazingly hot summer day, but she was not given water. Get tough, learn to survive, and trust God to provide. Her grandfather, the group's leader, was a brutal man, once kicking Dowd's three-year-old brother in the head because the child was falling asleep during a service.
Such forbidding religious doctrines inform every aspect of Dowd's life. They must eschew desire, "repudiating pleasure in all forms," she writes. "This includes tobacco, liquor, tasty foods, worldly music, entertainment for entertainment's sake, reading (other than the Bible), and anything that inspires laughter or affection. We aren't allowed to hug one another."
But this life is filled with confusion and hypocrisy, which Dowd increasingly questions as she matures. The children have enormous physical freedom to wander in nature, yet their community's beliefs create a mental prison, with tenets that position girls as second-class citizens, whose main purpose is to serve men.
Dowd's mother furnishes her daughter with botanical and entomological facts necessary for foraging and surviving in the wilderness. Her mother is an autodidact, knowledgeable enough to serve as president of the San Gabriel Mountains Interpretive Association. But her faith contradicts the rationality of science. When Dowd questions Biblical passages, like the story of Noah's ark, her mother says, "Trusting science is like Eve eating from the tree of knowledge, and look where that got us."
Each chapter opens with a line drawing and brief description of a wild plant, how it can be used for sustenance, and how to harvest and prepare it for consumption: yerba santa, yucca, prickly pear, elderberry, several different species of pines. Their survivalist lifestyle is meant to protect them from the dangers of the outside world, yet danger exists inside their circumscribed realm, especially for girls, whose lesser standing leaves them prey to sexual abuse.
The lessons Dowd learns from her mother about surviving in the wild are practical and can save Dowd's life, but the lessons her mother and others teach her about how to exist in the cult will nearly kill Dowd. Keeping quiet, becoming invisible, and erasing herself are key strategies. "I know how to make myself small and listen without speaking," Dowd writes. Relent, and never speak out, for "Blessed are the meek." Dowd quotes scripture throughout the narrative, the Biblical tenets her grandfather and his followers interpret literally.
Fortunately for Dowd, before her family moved to the mountain camp, she was able to attend secular school for a few years, and was selected for a program called Mentally Gifted Minors. This foundation in traditional education allows Dowd to self-educate, though in secret, after her family moves to the remote camp. Her intermittent exposure to a great aunt and a few others outside of the cult provides Dowd with glimpses of the larger world. This aunt gifts Dowd a dictionary, which becomes a source of knowledge vastly different from the other book she must study and memorize, the Bible.
As a teenager, Dowd strays, writing letters to a boy who has been admiring her, and while he initiates the contact, it is she who is shamed and shunned, and eventually excommunicated. This ostracization creates severe hardships for Dowd and leads to her suicide attempt, but it is also the catalyst for her eventual freedom. By her wits, her strength, and the endurance she has learned during her childhood, she manages to find her way into the secular world.
Dowd's writing brings the reader close to the events of her childhood; the sensibility and voice on the page are those of a child, of a teenager. There is little narrative distance from the day-by-day accounts, often rendered in present tense as if they were just unfolding, which provides an immediacy and intensity to the story. "I know I am not a baby anymore, because I have passed the age of accountability," Dowd writes. "Grandpa says eight is the age of accountability, which means you are old enough to go to hell."
But that narrative adjacency means that the world the reader understands is the world the girl understands, which is limited. Stepping back from the presentness of the story for moments of reflection might have allowed Dowd to provide more background and context, which readers may long for as they are propelled forward in the chronology.
Even so, the book is a triumph for its riveting storytelling, and for Dowd's ability to occupy the consciousness of the girl she was, striving to survive an extraordinarily oppressive and dangerous environment. She masterfully shows how the steady beat of restrictive dogma, of silencing dissent or any questioning of authorities, can smother the human spirit nearly to death. But she shows, too, how a young woman's determination, that pulse of inner strength, can overcome even the direst circumstances of her upbringing.