"I really didn't trust any humans": What it's like growing up in a doomsday sect

As a child, Michelle Dowd prepared for the end of the world. Those lessons were eerily helpful later on

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published March 12, 2023 7:30PM (EDT)

Woman walking through the forest at sunset (Getty Images/Westend61)
Woman walking through the forest at sunset (Getty Images/Westend61)

"This girl has been indoctrinated by a cult," writes author and educator Michelle Dowd, "but she has a high pain tolerance and a basic knowledge of the region's ecosystem." That girl is Dowd herself. And in "Forager: Field Notes on Surviving a Family Cult," she weaves a memoir unlike any survival story you've ever read. 

Growing up on a mountain in the Angeles National Forest, inside an apocalyptic religious group founded by her grandfather, Dowd experiences unimaginable deprivation and brutality. She is raised to distrust outsiders, and to prepare for the imminent end of the world. Yet she learns to be a resourceful, skilled outdoorswoman and naturalist. The paradox, that all the things she had to eventually leave were intimately entwined with all the things that gave her strength and competence to do just that, creates a unique tension that's riveting. This isn't a conventional account of escape. Instead, it's a meditation on how the things that could break you could also build you and about the complicated nature of forgiveness. It's also a beautiful appreciation of the world we inhabit but rarely take time to learn from, and learning that when all else seems lost, "The earth could hold me in some way." 

Salon talked to Dowd recently about "Forager," making uneasy peace with the past, and what her upbringing taught her about our current political climate. 

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

This is a book about survival emotionally, but also, front and center, about survival physically. I want to ask you about the framing of that, the way that you have written it as a quasi-nature guide. That connection to the earth is such a central part of the book. 

I truly attribute my time on the mountain and my deep core understanding of the intricacies of nature and the incredible web of communication to what I witnessed as a very young child. Living off the land was foundational to my ability to heal after leaving, and my ability to trust that the earth could hold me in some way. 

I was so lost when I left. I didn't know how to make a friend. I became friends with professors, but I had no ability to understand popular culture, to understand culture at all. I did not understand anybody my age. I didn't understand music. I knew music, but I knew music from a very hymn based background. When I left, I felt that my whole world was gone. I felt suicidal frequently. I was unable to not feel extreme guilt. I felt that I destroyed my family. So there was a great deal of pain, even after I got out. 

"I really didn't trust any humans."

People want to think it's freedom and I certainly feel freedom now. But at the time, I just felt like I cut my umbilical cord and was hemorrhaging. And so my foundation to the Earth really was the thing that I could go to. I really didn't trust any humans. If I hadn't had that, I don't know. There's a lot of former members who have killed themselves, have gone to prison, have committed crimes or become addicts. I was very, very fortunate not to go down any of those paths. I really attribute it to that extensive time that I spent on the mountain.

The conventional narrative of these stories is often, "When is she going to leave?" So little of the book is about that. So much of it is about understanding the context of where you came from, and what it was like inside there. It's really about helping the reader to understand what this experience was like, and to illuminate in the scariness and the strangeness of it, also the the beauty of it. 

I wrote the book around my idea that I needed anchoring because I was so unmoored as a child. It felt true that plants were foundational my life.

I've been talking to my sister a lot lately, and she said, "No one loved me ever. Not one single time do a remember feeling cared for and loved, my whole childhood." It felt that the book needed both the feeling of falling back and not having anywhere to land, and then also knowing that the earth was there to hold me. 

There's so much about this book that also feels so scarily relevant for the moment in which we are living. Don't trust anybody. Don't trust outsiders. Your grandfather saying that trusting science is like Eve eating from the Tree of Knowledge. There is that intersection of cult mentality and this also doomsday mentality. 

I absolutely feel like I wrote the book because I felt that it was relevant. I have been sitting on this story for a really long time. I just started writing about it casually maybe three or four years ago. I wasn't looking to publish anything. And then just things keep getting crazier in the world. 

"Trump, absolutely, his mannerisms and his language are so much like my grandfather."

There are large groups of preppers. I have run into them, and it feels like my grandpa. And honestly, Trump, absolutely, his mannerisms and his language are so much like my grandfather. My grandfather spoke very simply and also so grandiose. So because I do think it's relevant, it gave me the courage to talk about something that was really forbidden in my family, and still is forbidden to talk about.

Help me get inside what that feels like when you are indoctrinated. When you just hear constantly, "No, don't believe your eyes. Don't trust your gut, don't trust your body. Don't trust your own fear impulses, don't trust your own instincts, and don't trust what other people are telling you." What does that do to your own gauges for safety, for protection, for relationships, empathy, trust, love?

It's so gaslighting that I still sometimes have no idea if what I just saw or experienced was real. I've been teaching critical thinking, teaching in the university and college systems since I was 21. So forever. I have spent all my time basically trying to figure out what's real. It's very disconcerting, I will say that as far as what it's like on the inside, my both my parents voted for Trump. They still really think in terms of fear. My mom passed away recently, but my family of origin still thinks in terms of fear, and my older sister still believes this way.

"We have instilled so much fear in order to sell solutions to that fear."

There's a lot of people who want to be told what to do, because they don't trust themselves. In capitalism, to be honest, we have instilled so much fear in order to sell solutions to that fear. Since most of us in this country were born and raised here, somewhere, we have been raised on a capitalist mentality. It's not that far to go from capitalism and white supremacy to, "We need a leader who's going to tell us what to do." Inside of a cult, you get someone who at least seems to be entirely confident. They seem to say to you, "You are my flock. As long as you are under my umbrella, I will keep you safe." Whether it's a family of preppers, or a community of preppers, they believe that their guns or their ammunition, their stockpiling of food, their systems for water, all that will keep them safe. They are almost always listening to someone. It's usually a man who is convincing them that the system he's either devised or been ordained or has been gifted from God, is, "You don't need to worry about it because it's too complicated or too hard for you. This is the answer. You need to have faith. You need to trust."

It's that sense of, please just give me some rules. If I have the rules, and I don't break them, then I'm going to be okay, whether that means I'm going to lose 10 pounds, or my kid's going to get into Harvard, or I'm not going to go to hell. Yet you say from about the age of three, you had your first sense of this Is this not checking out. 

I saw that my grandfather was different behind closed doors than he was when he was preaching. And because I did hear him and see him preach,I was around him all the time in his public persona. My grandpa had kept his public and his private self so separate. I think partly because no one thinks a child is paying any attention and because we were so poor, I saw that there was a real disconnect between the public persona and the private persona. The fear that my grandpa had behind closed doors was different than the competence that he projected.

Throughout the book, you are really wrestling with this discomfort that propels you outside the door and to go to college, while simultaneously feeling, "I also just want to please my family. I also just want to I just want to make them happy."

I think, too, I was always asking questions. I actually encourage everyone in my life, ask questions all the time. Even if people don't have the answers, ask the questions anyway. Somehow as a child, I just couldn't keep couldn't stop from doing it. Even if I wasn't saying them out loud, I was writing them down, and saving them. I have hundreds of pages after all these years. I don't know how I managed to hang on to all that. I was just writing things down from the moment I figured out how to write. And the three years I'd been in public school, kindergarten to second grade, changed my life. Had I had not had those three years, I do not think that I would have gone to college.

I want to ask you about forgiving your parents, understanding your parents, coming to terms with who they were. You frame the book around your mother. The way that you open the book, with your mom telling you not to do this, is really powerful.

"I had very conflicted feelings about my mom. She was still unkind to me to the very end."

The hardest part of writing this book was that my mom was still alive. I had very conflicted feelings about my mom. She was also dying, and I was caring for he while I was writing the book. She was still unkind to me to the very end.

And yet, I saw her as a victim of her father, and of a system. I saw her as the life that could have been mine. I felt so much sadness and empathy for who I would have been had I not gotten out and for who she was, when she had to defend her choice to stay. She defended that to her last breath, because she defended her father. Her father lied about so many things, which is proven. I felt like her loyalty to him was like her loyalty to God. It was so rigid. And watching that and feeling that I couldn't crack her, I was cracked, open. When she was dying, it was so powerful to be able to give her the comfort that I wanted her to give me. She never saw me as a competent or capable human being. That used to seem unforgivable to me. By the time I was writing this, I think because of her illness, I recognized that was a sad thing. I ended up with three daughters and a son, like my mother. And to not be able to fully love them would just seem like such a tragedy of a life. In a sense, I'm not the victim, she's the victim of a system that she couldn't somehow find the courage to leave. 

I started thinking, what did she give me? I thought her love of nature was so powerful. People came out of the woodwork after she died to tell me, "I know what trees are called, I can recognize birds, because of your mother." She taught anyone who came up to that mountain, she gave them so much passion and love for the environment. She couldn't love me as a human, but she taught me love. It wasn't obvious, but she did. I have been a really loving human my entire life. I was able to have relationships, to be open to the world in a way that somehow her love of nature instilled in me. So she hurt me. And she gave me the tools I needed to save myself.

To show that a person can be all of those things is a very subtle and intricate and sophisticated way of looking at human life, especially when it's your mom, and not something we always sees in a book like this. 

My father is still alive, and he's so angry. He hasn't read the book. But he's so angry that I put this book out there that he obviously is not going to read or have anything to do with. What he can't forgive us the word "cult" is on the cover. I just said, Dad, you know, the book is not as harsh as it could be. I'm sure there's things in there that you wouldn't like. And he said, "absolutely unforgivable." Unforgivable. I said, "Okay, Dad, I forgive you for saying that to me." But he also said, "I had nothing to do with your upbringing. Your mother and I divorced ourselves from you." Literally used that term. He's like, we didn't raise you. So there's a price, right? It would have been much more difficult had my mom lived to see this. And also, I loved her in the end, I really did. It was interesting to feel so much love for someone who had hurt me many times and at the end of her life, said, "I can't forgive you for leaving." 

I just wanted to put one thing in context. One beautiful thing is I spoke to all my siblings during the writing of the book and asked them all sorts of questions. I try not to write their story, but still they're in the story. I was trying to portray it as accurately as possible, in the sense that they wouldn't feel that they've been betrayed in some way. All my siblings were wonderful in their ability to talk about it. But even my older sister doesn't question the truth of it. I don't think my father does either. That's interesting to me. It's not that he thinks I'm lying. It's that he thinks I don't have the right to say it in public. That is what goes back to the cult mentality. That's why I'm bringing it up right now. It is the cult mentality that says you can't talk about this, because we don't want them to know. I'm even saying that the organization has changed so much, and it's not about now. I'm talking about something that happened 40 years ago, 35 years ago. But he's still saying, we have to keep our family secrets. 

I think that does so much damage, and it's not just cults who feel that way. People who just think that if you don't talk about something, that you can't be hurt. There's just a lot of secrets that families try to keep, that governments try to keep, that communities try to keep, that if we don't talk about it, it'll go away. Our country has done that so much. We just like think "Oh, it's okay, now we're not doing it anymore." And then the history affects our policy right now. It just feels so relevant.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

MORE FROM Mary Elizabeth Williams

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Cults Forager Interview Michelle Dowd Preppers Psychology