TCR Talks with Michelle Dowd, Author of Forager: Field Notes for Surviving a Family Cult
By Tamara MC
For fans of Educated by Tara Westover, Maid by Stephanie Land, and Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer, Michelle Dowd’s debut coming-of-age memoir Forager: Field Notes for Surviving a Family Cult contains echoes of all three, yet it is wholly unique unto itself.
Dowd was born in the 1970s into a survivalist cult called the Field, governed by her grandfather, who was seen as God’s prophet. Much of the memoir is set in the Angeles National Forest at a place Dowd calls the Mountain, as the family prepares for the world’s end. Education became her liberation, and plants played a role in her survival. Dowd’s mother, a self-taught botanist, revealed the secrets of the wild to her daughter. Each chapter is written as a field note dedicated to one plant species, including the plant’s physical resemblance, its healing qualities, and its uses.
I spoke to Dowd about the choices she made in depicting parental neglect, narrating from the child’s voice, and avoiding trauma porn.
Your subtitle includes the words “family cult.” Can you tell me what a family cult is?
I titled it Forager: Field Notes on Survival, but the publishers wanted the word cult in there, so the marketing team chose the subtitle. I can say it’s a family cult to the extent that my family started it. It’s like the mafia. You must be part of the inner circle to know how things run. It’s a high-control group that my grandfather created, where everyone had to answer to him. Nobody could work outside the organization.
Endogamy was mandated. Everyone had to marry somebody who’d been raised within [the cult], which is still true today. My sister now runs the cult and is married to a boy she grew up with. The only way the group still exists is by not allowing divorce and because of endogamy.
My group fits every definition of a cult, but I was told it wasn’t one. I knew the word would hurt my family, which was why I didn’t want to use it, but also, I didn’t think of it as a cult as a child, and since that’s the book’s perspective, it seemed that wasn’t the point. The point is anybody who’s had an experience of someone trying to control them can relate to this [family] structure.
Have you always wanted to write this book?
This is the book I never wanted to write. I have been avoiding writing it my whole life. But in early 2020, I had a Modern Love column that came out, and it got a fair amount of attention. Multiple agents contacted me, and the weight of COVID hit right then, so I had a little bit of extra time. I was still teaching, but I started teaching online.
One particular agent was very patient with me, even though I [delayed] signing with her. She kept saying, “I really think you have a book inside of you. Write a chapter and send it to me.” I did, and then she said, “I can’t continue to talk to you unless you’re willing to sign with me. You have to make a commitment.” So I signed the contract saying she had the right to sell my story. Then she helped me craft an official proposal. The book sold within one week of going to market, and it moved quickly. It almost felt like I tricked myself into writing it.
Once I got paid for it, I was given a nine-month contract that I needed to complete by August 2021. I sat down, put myself in the child’s head, and wrote the whole thing in four months cover-to-cover, because I was there, just experiencing it. And then, of course, it went through the editing process, and it’s taken some time to get through legal and other publishing aspects. But the basic story is still there. We didn’t cut chapters, and I had all the plants in the first draft.
I would love to learn about your choice to use the present tense.
It was a very deliberate choice. Since I’ve been in the cult, it’s affected every aspect of my life. And because it’s affected my life, I’ve spent a lot of time processing it. Trying to tell the story from an adult vantage point, it carried the weight of decades of analysis. So when I tried to approach the story that way, it felt very distant and removed. The only way to explain something bizarre was to explain it the way I experienced it. To do that, I inhabited my child-self and wrote it chronologically. As I got older, the voice changed. I also framed it by the ten years we spent on the Mountain, even though I was in the Field since birth. It felt like a good container because when you’re doing a memoir, you’re doing a slice of life.
The character [of you] and narrator were both the same age. Is this true?
Yes, that’s what I was trying to do. The first chapter [contains a childhood car] crash scene. When I originally wrote it, I had it listed as three years earlier because the crash is its own scene. So I’m ten. And then the second chapter is when we first get to the Mountain, so [the crash was] a little bit of flashback. The editor ultimately said, “No, I don’t want you to keep naming dates, because that’s less important than people being lost in the story. So we’re not going to keep updating people and saying, for example, it’s May 1977.” She said the whole book should be in the child’s voice.
The cult was timeless; I wasn’t in grades in traditional ways. When I was in the hospital, it was very fluid and nebulous too, and also, being on the Mountain, I didn’t even know what day it was. Trying to make it linear was different from my thinking as a child. That takes you out of the child’s perspective. You feel lost, and, you know, the child feels lost, like I don’t understand what’s happening. Why are these people doing this? Those are questions that I don’t answer from an adult perspective. I show the reader what the characters are doing, but I don’t analyze anything happening.
Can you speak about breaking the fourth wall?
The narrator is me at each age. I make a bigger statement right near the end before the epilogue that I am every girl I’ve ever been. They live inside me like a choir. The narrator is the girl I was when I was experiencing what I was writing. Sometimes I break the fourth wall intentionally. In a few instances, maybe five times in the book, I say something the reader will later find out [was written] to give a little bit of foreshadowing, but also to show that I am aware that there’s not enough information here for the reader to understand the context.
Another craft choice was there was so little backstory. Can you explain this more?
I decided to be ruthless about structure. I couldn’t tell the whole history of this organization. It’s so complicated. I couldn’t tell the history of my mother. Nor my grandfather. If I did all that, it would’ve been a lot of information, and the story wouldn’t have heart. I told myself that I would only add extra details if they were relevant to what I was experiencing in real time. I basically tied my hands. Too much information takes away from the emotion of the story.
You stated at the book’s beginning that you wouldn’t share your mother’s secrets. I was curious about your choice of what to include and what not to include.
I intended to say: I am not here to betray you. I’m here to tell my story. The places that your story and my story overlap, I’m going to represent, but the part that may be conjecture from other people are your story. There are things that I suspect about my mom, but the truth is, I found those things out later. I didn’t have access to them when I chose to tell the story from a child’s perspective, which [relieved] me from [the problem of] revealing the secrets she was trying to hide.
My mom never confessed anything to me directly. She certainly never apologized. I was with her when she died and [for] years before. And I never lost touch with her, but my mother never apologized or said she loved me in all those years. Nor could she explain in her own words why she made her choices. She just refused to have those conversations.
Your mother is such an interesting character. I’m torn, because you dedicate the book to her even though she was negligent. Can you explain this dedication?
My mother never loved me. She couldn’t express love even to the end. However, over the decades, I’ve come to believe that my mother was a victim, at least as much as anyone. She was born into this organization. Her life was prescribed to her, and then she rebelled by learning about nature and finding other ways to exercise her intelligence. But one of her things was not being a mother. My siblings and I were raised communally for the first seven years of my life. Mother didn’t have anything to do with us. She handed us over.
My mother’s [act of] resistance [against] the patriarchy was to not be a woman. In the last four years, I’ve had some compassion for what my mother lost by not being a mother. My mothering was in direct opposition to hers. I breastfed my babies forever. I let them all over my body. But that being said, I don’t know that I would have learned the gifts of nature if my mother hadn’t shown me. My mother looked very masculine. She acted masculine. She had a rebellion inside of her.
Much of your book is about wanting to be a boy, and not eating because you didn’t want a womanly body. Did that have anything to do with your mother?
Both of my parents valued masculinity. They thought femininity was weak. The less feminine we were, the better we would survive. Femininity was beaten out of us. My not wanting to be feminine resulted from being taught that it was horrible, like a woman’s life was awful. Why would you like to turn into that? And by not eating, I stopped my periods. At some level, I was protecting myself from pregnancy. I didn’t consciously know that’s what I was doing. But I didn’t want to become a mother when I was young.
Cults are their own little communities, and unless you’ve grown up in them, you don’t understand them. So I feel like I’m writing sci-fi when I’m writing my own memoir, because I have to create a world. In your memoir, you did the same thing. You created a world without telling the rules of the world, but I quickly learned what they were. Can you tell me about that process?
You captured what I was trying to do. I wanted to show what it looked like and felt like to be restricted. All the intricacies of the organization, the ways they dealt with the finances and the ways that they controlled people were really complex, with a lot of minutiae. But to explain all that is like watching The Handmaid’s Tale, in which it takes multiple seasons for the story to [unfold]. I showed that there were adults but that they had their own stories I didn’t understand.
Do you think that you showed your feelings in the text?
Not much, because I was very dissociated from my feelings. Talking about feelings in a situation where I was not allowed to have them would have been a contradiction. You can see that I have feelings, but they’re not explicit.
Can you tell me about your decisions of what to include regarding sexual abuse?
The choice was to live inside of the character, so this meant that I was constantly denying the abuse. But there are also a lot of stories about sexual abuse, and I just didn’t want that to be the only story, because there are so many other forms of abuse. I also didn’t want trauma porn. What somebody else did to me is their story they’re going have to live with for the rest of their lives. Also, I am more than my body.
Can you speak about how affection was withheld in your family?
Even more than the sexual abuse, the neglect felt worse. Of course, it also meant that affection and sex were complicated in my adult life because I’d never been touched with affection, only with aggression. I think the withholding of affection was the way not to attach. And I think my mother and father felt they couldn’t attach to their children. Also, by withholding affection, they felt that we wouldn’t get too close to each other. We would then no longer be bound to the needs of humanity. We could be soldiers and do what God wanted without protecting each other. They understood on some level that affection was attachment. I shouldn’t make too-bold statements, but I imagine many cult survivors have issues with attachment. I do, and have struggled with it a lot. It’s a hard thing to overcome later in life.
Tell me about your weight and your dad weighing you.
Later [on], I became anorexic. But in the beginning, there was just a huge emphasis on control. It might have been an actual military thing that my dad was replicating because he’d been drafted. He wanted us fit by his definition. It was mandatory to weigh in every day. We would have our food measured, like a quarter cup of Raisin Bran, for example, and you’d have a little Dixie cup of grapefruit juice. It was also a way of removing pleasure. If you did gain weight, it meant you were taking an extra serving, or you found some candy. My dad was doing what he had been taught to do, which was to control all forms of pleasure and sustenance, similar to how he withheld affection. Food still confuses me today, because it feels necessary but also forbidden.
Did your dad follow the same rules with weighing food and being weighed?
My dad was very strict with himself. To this day, he knows exactly how much he weighs. He’s at his army weight right now. He did break other kinds of rules, though. My dad had shoes when we didn’t, partly because he wanted to care for his feet. So there were things he allowed himself. My dad had face cream, something we didn’t, so my dad had a level of vanity.
Can you tell me about your choice to include an epilogue?
The editor forced me to do the epilogue. I wanted the book to end when it ended, but she said no. All the team members also said I had to do an epilogue. They said that readers needed to know what happened to me. So I will say, for the record, I don’t like the fact that I condensed my entire adult life into four pages. But I did that to please them.
When somebody finishes your book, what do you hope they take away?
Certainty is dangerous. Anytime an institution or an organization [insists] they’re right and tries to tell you they know, something’s wrong. You need to find answers for yourself. You shouldn’t trust something because someone tells you. Instead, someone should say, “Here’s my experience. Here’s some literature. Here are some things that you can research.”
Find out for yourself. In almost every situation, there’s more than one truth. Questioning is the way that we grow. We should challenge ourselves when we start feeling sure about something. It’s how we discover the next piece of the puzzle. We should constantly be questioning.
Dr. Tamara MC is a cult, child marriage, and human-trafficking survivor/activist and advocates worldwide for girls and women to live free from gender-based violence. Her PhD is in Applied Linguistics, and she researches how language manipulates vulnerable populations. Tamara attended Columbia University for an MFA and has been honored with residencies/fellowships in places such as Bread Loaf, Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Sewanee, Ragdale, Cave Canem, VONA, and VCCA. She’s published in prestigious outlets such as New York Magazine, Salon, The Independent, Food 52, Parents, and Thrillist.