The Twenty-Minute Cult

Leah called to inform me her boyfriend was becoming (dramatic gasp inserted here) religious. Not just spiritual, she assured me. Joey was definitely being sucked in by a cult.

I used to think cults were some kind of psychologically made-up phenomenon. And I used to sound cool when I said that in college. Seriously. I'd say, "I think cults are some kind of psychologically made-up phenomenon." And all the high people at the keg party would nod, mostly because I used words with more than three syllables without slurring or losing my train of thought.

But I guess that was until Leah called. Because Leah graduated with a degree in psychology and if cults were really a made-up phenomenon, I'd like to think she would let me in on that secret.

Joey had called her from Sacramento, where he lives. They are pursuing a "long distance" relationship. This translates into a lot of phone sex.

"I'm going to abstain from sex," Joey told Leah.

That's when Leah hung up on him and called me.

"I couldn't think of anything else to say, so I said, 'Uh, that's nice.' And hung up. Not only did he say he didn't want to have sex again, he said 'the elders' have been teaching him the ways of the church and he could become an 'elder' if he forgot about life's digressions. I don't even know what the fuck and 'elder' is!"

"What kind of church is this?" I asked, suddenly considering the possibility of a real cult existing in Sacramento.

She did not know. She was too hung up on the sex part to ask.

"Don't worry. It's probably just a phase."

I tried to calm her down, but in between using my super intellect to tell her everything would be okay and simultaneously worrying that I was giving her bad advice, I decided to do a little research on cult behavior just to make sure I wasn't launching myself up shit creek without a paddle. Which is exactly where I would be if Leah found out I was bullshitting her.

Even though I had been alive when the Branch Davidians were holed up in Texas and the Nike-wearing Heaven's Gate members killed themselves, they always seemed like copycat cults. I needed to get to the source.

Then it hit me. My mother would know things. She was alive in the sixties and seventies. She witnessed all kinds of spooky cult stuff, such as the Hare Krishnas, Charles Manson freaks, the Jonestown suicides and the disco phenomenon. I could pick her brain to find out if Joey would get over this no-sex cult or if he would perish at its clutches.

"Mom? Remember Sharon Tate's murder?"


Of course she remembered; my mother, in her high school photos, had looked just like the young actress. The same bottle-bleached hair, layer upon layer of black mascara. It was a fact a lot of kids used to taunt her about.

"I know you remember. That's why I'm calling you. I need to know about cult stuff."


"Leah's boyfriend's in a cult."


"Yeah. And I told her it's just a phase, but I'm not sure it is."


"Yeah. Mom, will ya stop saying 'Oh?' I'm trying to be serious here."

"Okay. What's the cult called?"

"I don't know. He went to some church and now they've sucked him in. He's teaching a class and talking about seminary school. And, he won't have s-e-x."

I don't know why I spelled it out like I was still an eleven-year-old or something.


"And I thought you could help because you were around for all those freaky cult happenings in the sixties and seventies and stuff. Well. Can you help?"

"Honey, I think we'll have to talk in person."


"Because if you're getting sucked into a cult, I can't help you over the phone."

"I'm not the one being sucked in, it's Joey!"

"Honey, I know you're susceptible."

"What are you talking about?"

I felt like I was in a science fiction movie in which my mother would keep playing the opposite game with me until I finally tossed myself off a building.

"You don't remember?"

"Remember what?"

"When you were in seventh grade and went to that Christian concert with Corin?"

"What-the thing that wasn't really a concert at all?"

"Yes, dear."

"What does that have to do with anything?"

"Don't you remember what happened?"

"I remember there were a bunch of freaks there who tried to get us to speak in tongues ... " That was an understatement. Corin and I had gone to the concert thinking we could meet some boys from school there. Little did we know the sole purpose was to brainwash young minds with rhetoric from the religious right. "So?"

"So don't you remember telling me you wanted to join them? That you wanted to start going to their church because it was cool?"

I didn't respond. Clearly, my mother had gone crazy. I had done no such thing. Or had I? I couldn't remember.

"Honey, you almost joined a cult when you were thirteen. Why would you want to join one now?"

"Okay, thanks."

I hung up on my mother just as Leah had hung up on Joey.

I needed to get to the bottom of this. Was Joey being sucked into a cult? Did I want to join a cult ten years ago? Do cults even exist? My questions seemed suitable for a really bad episode of The X-Files. An episode created after the writers had run out of good conspiracy ideas and were being forced to pen something ridiculous.

"Cults are some kind of psychologically made-up phenomenon," I said aloud. There was no one else around. Talking to myself somehow only reiterated that, indeed, I was insane.

Only twenty minutes and two phone calls ago, I was a sane person, sitting Indian-style on the couch transferring cereal into my mouth with a spoon and watching Trading Spaces on television. It was a new episode, too, and my joy had been depleted by this illogical query. I tried to come up with reasons cults were nonexistent.

My list was fairly short:

1. Being brainwashed is stupid and undermines my intelligence.

2. See No. 1.

If my theory was correct, and my mother wasn't lying to me on the phone, I had:

1. Tried to join a cult,

2. Which means I was brainwashed and

3. I am, therefore, stupid.

"But I'm not stupid," I said aloud to my empty apartment. Again, the action only helped confirm my insanity.

When it came down to it, I was frightened by the fact that my mother (who is usually an extremely reliable source, especially when it comes to remembering childhood jaunts I have no memory of because of high-school bong resin and gallons upon gallons of wine from college) remembers me doing something I have absolutely no recollection of. It's as if I had been brainwashed into thinking that speaking "God's language" was cool, then re-brainwashed into my former state of thinking that speaking "God's language" was crazy.

If that was so, then I was still back at square one. I was both insane and stupid.

The phone rang. I wondered if I could trust it. Perhaps the telephone was the device whoever or whatever had originally brainwashed me had used to do the deed. Maybe it was not safe to talk on the phone in my own home, just on pay phones. I could see myself turning into the kind of person who is consumed by paranoia. I would start by sleeping with the lights on, huddled up in a corner with my back to the wall so no one could sneak up on me. I would make cryptic phone calls to the government from those pay phones, telling them their investigations into cults were wrong and they are "everywhere, everywhere I tell ya!"

The Church of Scientology is a cult. The Oprah Winfrey Book Club is a cult. Everywhere I turned I saw evidence of cults trying to get me to believe and act a certain way, trying to get me to close my eyes and ears to any other ideas and drink Kool-aid laced with cyanide or rat poison so I can catch the tail end of Haley's Comet as it passes through the night sky just above the North Star.

The phone kept ringing. I had to answer it or the shrill sound alone would push me into insanity.

"What do you want?"

I expected it to be my mother, calling me back to harass me about how "susceptible" I was.

"Woo-hoo! I'm so relieved!"


"Yeah. I just called Joey back and we had the most awesome phone sex ever!"

About the author:

Vanessa Morsse isn't as paranoid as she seems. Really. Instead of spending her time chasing conspiracy theories and running from federal agents, she is actively seeking a literary agent for her novel, "Groupie."