Peggy Riley is the author of the incredibly intriguing Amity & Sorrow. Although I have not reviewed Amity & Sorrow here on the blog, I did write it up as a feature for the She Knows Book Lounge. Peggy is here today talking about cults and utopias.
I was five when Charles Manson was given the death penalty for the Tate-La Bianca murders committed by his followers, The Family. I was too young to understand how a longhaired, crazy-eyed man could inspire such passion in his commune of young female hippies, but I wouldn’t forget his face. I was thirteen when I saw the bodies of nine hundred and fourteen worshippers strewn across the dirt of the jungle compound of Jonestown; they had drunk poison at the command of their leader, Jim Jones. In between there were catastrophes: earthquakes and oil spills, riots and serial killers, even as the Beach Boys still wished everyone could be a California girl, singing at rundown county fairs between hog calls.
When I was born in California, people were still moving west, still pursuing the American Dream at its very edge. Even before it was a state, California was the destination for dreamers: pioneers and gold diggers, wannabe movie stars and fanatics, Midwesterners and émigrés’ intent on political, economic, and religious freedom. It was also a hotbed for cults.
The Summer of Love filled California with utopian hippies, cut off from their families and looking to be a part of something. From the Midwest came Charles Manson and Jim Jones, both with their own troubled family backgrounds: Manson’s mother sold him for a pitcher of beer then put him into care; Jones’ mother believed she had given birth to a messiah. Both were intent on becoming charismatic leaders, creating new families through communal living, left-wing political activism, and lots of sex. In California, they found a state full of fresh-faced and down-and-out followers, people with a great capacity to believe and a greater need to belong. In Manson and Jones, in charismatic leaders throughout history, they found a modern messiah, able to be both father and God. We all want to belong to a person, a family, a group. I can understand the yearning, if not the commitment to the violent outcome when all that utopia goes wrong, as it always does – as it must.