Culture Street

By Sophia Whitfield

With the emergence of the Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes divorce and the speculation that has gone with it, our fascination for fundamentalist religions or ‘cults’ has once more been awakened. Was Katie concerned about her daughter Suri’s possible indoctrination into the Scientology movement?

Whatever is behind the divorce, it has placed Scientology on the front page of most newspapers and magazines for the last two weeks. So what is it that fascinates us about ‘cults’?


This year Grace McCleen's much lauded The Land of Decoration received the Desmond Elliott fiction prize. Although the book is fiction, it is, supposedly, largely based on McCleen’s own childhood, growing up in a Christian fundamentalist family. Her book, narrated by 10-year-old Judith is a haunting account of the effect Christian fundamentalism can have on a child. The Land of Decoration tracks the lives of Judith and her father as they spend every moment of their spare time, guided by the Bible, walking the streets in an attempt to evangelize other non-believers.

When McCleen was asked about her upbringing she said:

"There were happy moment and very difficult moments. I drew on the difficult parts to write The Land of Decoration …  When I left university I had a breakdown and couldn't stay in the cult any more, and that was my doorway out, but I stayed in religion through university."

In contrast to McCleen’s book Rhoda Janzen has written a humorous memoir, Mennonite in a Little Black Dress, about her experience with the Mennonites. After her husband of fifteen years leaves her for Bob from and she suffers injuries from a horrific accident, she returns to her parents and the Mennonite community. Janzen grew up in this community, escaped it and then returned to its comfort in her time of need. The comfort was not so much the religious aspect, but the familiarity of the Mennonite community.

While McCleen’s book is serious and haunting, Janzen’s book is humorous as she looks back on her childhood with objectivity. Both authors have one thing in common; they escaped the religious communities they were brought up in.

Young children tend to go with the flow; teenagers rebel against everything and if religious fundamentalism is a large part of their parent’s lives and has consumed the family, chances are they will rebel against it.

As a child I have vague memories of damning articles being written about the school I attended. Throughout the 80s a London tabloid became fascinated with what they called ‘the secret cult’. Reporters hung around the street of our London based school hoping to file a breakthrough story. They claimed the children at the school were “being indoctrinated with the philosophies of the secret cult”.

By today’s standards our school is now almost mainstream, but then it was a different story. The only lasting affects are that I am fairly proficient in Sanskrit and Latin and cannot speak a word of French or German, which would have been preferable.

Most of my friends all went off to university and left ‘the secret cult’ behind. When we get together we share a bond. In our childhood we went through something that was strange and bizarre, but as adults we relish the mundane, a far cry from the oddity of our childhood.

Whether it be Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health, the Bible or The Bhagavad Gita, there will always be books that espouse the way of the virtuous.

Religious fundamentalism continues to fascinate us. What is it that leads people to become so embroiled in these cults? Is it a form of escapism? As Rhoda Janzen suggests:

“So often we think of faith as the crutch of crisis; we turn to it only when our world bottoms out, as mine did when my husband left me.”

For those who are brought up in fundamentalist homes, it provides a community, a shelter from the outside world, but it is also one most will want to escape. Time will tell with little Suri Cruise.


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