book-reviews

Kidnapped by the Cult!

by Francine Pascal

Rating: ★

I suppose to begin with I should state what my aims are here. First of all, I'm looking to learn about how to be an ordinary teenage girl. There might be some hurdles to that, but we'll deal with those afterwards, the important thing is the mindset. Secondly, dealing with mind control is an interest of mine (which is no doubt why the person who sent me this book chose it out), and so I'm going to be looking at what Pascal has to say on the topic of identifying cults and their methods. It's an ambitious combination, but let's see how we get on. Okay, so here I go. Gloves off, serious business only.

o-o-o

Jessica Wakefield is SO fed up. Her parents have grounded her for being stupid, and her incredibly shallow friends have decided to cram as much impromptu celebration as they can into the short period when she'll be safely locked up and unable to kill their buzz with her scowling fits. And to add further insult, one of her friends is going to London. She's so annoyed by the basic unfairness of this that in cheerleading practice (of course she's a cheerleader), she's messing up the lines, leading to cutting insults like

"Loosen up, Jess! You've got as much spring as a brick wall."

which of course get a big laugh, because why wouldn't they?

But it's okay, because she gets to see her boyfriend Sam when he ferries her home from school. She's been hoping that Sam would spend more time with her and less time with his bike, now that she's grounded and totally unable to do anything other than sit in her room studying, and especially cannot go do bike-related things with him which she actually doesn't like doing at all. But oh no! Not only is Sam ten whole minutes late picking her up, but when she mentions it, he brings up that it was because of his bike, and he has to go home and spend more time doing bike things to fix his bike. Jessica feels there might be something wrong with this girlfriend:bike attention ratio, and Sam isn't exactly reassuring:

"How could I compare a dirt bike to one of the two most beautiful girls in southern California? The one who goes out with me."

Nice smooth evasion, Sam. Get home and get greased up.

The other most beautiful girl in southern California is Jessica's identical twin sister Elizabeth, who takes her home the next day (the bridge was exactly like that, from one journey home to the one the next day, like there was no other way to write either of these scenes). Elizabeth and her boyfriend Todd are really excited about going "bowling", which Jessica considers "a sweaty sport, with absolutely no fashion potential". But they can't stop grinning, and talking about how they'll "improve our games" and "spend more time together", and "Just think of all the hours of practice we'll have to put in!" -- that last one with a mischievous grin. Okay, stop, we get it, geez. Jessica brushes them off, but Todd stays for dinner, during which Elizabeth has the temerity to suggest that maybe Jessica would like to join the randy couple for "bowling". Yeah, I'm sure Todd would love that, but Jessica is definitely not interested in propping up her sister's relationship in that way, even if her own boyfriend is probably lying under some bike right now.

Literally nothing else happens while Jessica is grounded, but immediately upon her release, she gets a huge blow: her boyfriend Sam is not interested in going shopping, because he has a huge bike race later today which he's only been telling her about all week apparently. Well, Jessica knows when she's being mistreated, and drives off in a huff to go cry in public at the mall. Suddenly, who should appear but Her Leprechaun God-Father?! I mean, uh, some ginger kid, who demonstrates his deep emotional understanding of her particular crisis by reading from Top Ten Reasons a Teenage Girl Might be Crying. Jessica is impressed, which gives Ginger an opening to tell her about Adam Marvel and this group of-

Jessica came out of her trance at the mention of the word group. Somewhere at the back of her mind she could see her sister looking skeptical. "Group?" Jessica asked "What kind of group?" "Oh, it's not a real organization or anything like that," Ted explained quickly.

Phew, that's reassuring. Well done Ted. Jessica's hooked into coming along to this not-an-organisation. She drives to their crack-den neighbourhood that evening (by the way, the most terrifying thing about this entire book is that all the characters can drive), and gets a sketchy vibe from things like that peeling paint, or that rusty car, prompting observations like

It looked like the home of the Wicked Witch of the West.

and

"They're probably vegetarians,"

Which frankly I have no idea what to do with. She gets further distressed when they manage to bring her inside and her worst fears are confirmed. They have no TV, phone, or even curtains.

There was only one blonde in the room, and she didn't even have a tan.

Worse than that, she's been in the house for ten whole minutes, and nobody has had a screaming argument or slammed a door. She's about to get the hell out of his poverty-stricken monastery, when who should finally come in the door but Adam Marvel, who is a really hot twenty-something guy, and not the Santa Claus figure she has for some reason been imagining. Of course, this changes everything, and she immediately agrees to sit down for dinner. There is an insightful cultural exchange in which Jessica manages to fool the gullible not-a-group into accepting that cheerleaders might be people, and they wrap it all up by sitting around and collectively admiring Adam.

Meanwhile, in twin-o-vision, the "bowling" club meets (yes, apparently it's a 'group' thing), and Elizabeth immediately picks out a hunk in the totally-fine-sort-of-group who smiles at her and says things like "The most important thing, though, is having a good time." There is absolutely no parallel between these two storylines about a twin being attracted to the leader of a 'group'. Nope. Jessica's evening with the Good Friends in their crack-den has totally changed her life, and she starts doing things like getting up in the morning and helping Adam clean a garage and noticing how boring her friends are. Whereas Elizabeth's evening with the "bowling" club has revealed her boyfriend's performance issues, and led to the hunky Justin putting his hands all over her to reposition her body. Todd is a bit miffed about this, leading to the single most hilarious line of the entire book:

"Todd, I want you to know that even though Justin is incredibly handsome, smart, funny, and charming, I still love you."

And anyway, Elizabeth tells herself, Justin is 'only interested in you as a bowler'. What, who's that on the phone? Justin? And he wants to tell Elizabeth that he likes her? Boy, she had better tell Todd about this, right? Wrong. This is about where Elizabeth loses me in this story. Todd is quite correctly annoyed about the Justin thing, but trusts Elizabeth entirely, and Elizabeth repays that trust by going on a date with Justin behind his back, which is just a totally shitty thing to do to a guy who is willing to hang around in a dodgy neighbourhood to back you up against the cult you're investigating. Even though he can barely lift a bowling ball.

Anyway, in main-plot-land, Jessica is off doing things like collecting charity money with the it's-a-group-but-it's-okay folk. At one point she raises a protest about how they're spending the charity money on their own shopping, but a bit of the ol' Adam charm totally erases that qualm. Ditto for when she learns that the group aren't normally allowed to talk to outsiders. Her weird behaviour is attracting the attention of her boyfriend, who she keeps lying to about what she's doing, which is in no way parallel of anything else. Also her sister is wondering what's up with Jessica doing things like cleaning her room and developing an internal life. Elizabeth decides to ask what's up, but broaches the conversation with some exciting gossip: their lawyer dad is working on this case involving a 'group' in town, who are pretending to be delivering money to charities but actually just stealing it all, and also setting up a cult of some sort! Jessica seems less than receptive to this bit of news, and no sister-bonding moment occurs. In fact, Jessica's shaken, and immediately goes and confronts Adam about this, and he explains that really everyone's just out to get them, look deep into my eyes, it's all okay really. Which of course she swallows.

Elizabeth's now taken to stalking Jessica, and finds out all about her involvement with the group, but Jessica swears her to secrecy until there is 'proof' one way or the other about them being a cult. I mean, geez, they don't have curtains, what more proof do you want? Elizabeth wonders how she might get said proof, and hits upon the idea of just going around to the group and pretending to be Jessica, because we have to shoehorn the fact that they are identical twins into this plot somehow, damnit. She goes around and sees basically nothing other than this one girl who doesn't like Jessica looks worried and tells her to leave, and it seems like Adam overhears them and... nothing. She leaves, apparently, and agonises over telling people about the bad vibes she got. It was a really weird scene.

Anyway, it turns out that one of the other cult members has been re-un-kidnapped by his parents, as Mr. Wakefield tells his daughters over dinner, and they're closing in on Adam and the gang. Surely this is proof? Elizabeth tries that on Jessica, and gets jujitsu'd into believing that Jessica totally won't go back to see them. Jessica totally goes back to see them, and tells them where they can re-kidnap the other guy from, and Adam invites her to run away with the group to live in another spartan crack-den somewhere else, which for some reason is a compelling and exciting offer.

This leads finally to the big denouement, with Elizabeth and Sam realising just in time what Jessica is up to, and rushing over there just in time for Elizabeth to emotionally plead with her sister not to run off with Adam, and for Sam to reveal that the girl who worried about Elizabeth-playing-Jessica is dead! Oh, no, she's just tied up and unconscious. But still, dramatic! And then the police turn up and arrest Adam, so Jessica doesn't even have to express a decision on the matter. Everything goes back to normal immediately somehow. Oh, and the not-dead girl turned out to be a reporter who was infiltrating the group, and for some reason the Wakefields invite her around to their house several days later to explain this entirely unnecessary twist that had no bearing on anything that happened.

Oh, and on the very last page, we have Todd apologising to Elizabeth about the Justin thing (which she has somehow told him about), saying that it was his fault for not worshipping her enough. Poor guy's got an incurable self-esteem issue. You don't need that relationship, dude!

Maybe he should develop an interest in bikes.

o-o-o

So, kids, what did we learn?

How to identify when you're joining a cult

You want to get up in the morning; you can tell when people are boring or shallow; you start reading books; you're encouraged to think for yourself; you enjoy doing work; you're eating museli for breakfast. Actually, though, Pascal did a pretty good job with this bit, the various mechanisms (targeting the vulnerable, personal charisma, social pressure, isolation, vindicating narratives, collaborative enforcement) were all trotted out in a vaguely believable manner, and Jessica's justifications were all plausible given her infatuation and the context she was fed. One exchange between Elizabeth and Jessica in particular was pretty good:

"It's as if no one has a mind of her own. It gave me the creeps." "That proves you don't understand," Jessica countered. "Adam always encourages us to think for ourselves!" "How can you say that?" Elizabeth asked. "No one has any opinion that isn't Adam's."

This is a really good insight which I wasn't expecting from the book. Cults often profess a commitment to independent thought (to contrast with narratives 'everyone else' might have about the cult, if nothing else), which members can buy into quite happily without noticing that nobody ever disagrees (or, in more nuanced forms, that disagreement never goes anywhere or results in anything other than what the cult leader wanted).

How to be a "normal" teenage girl

One stand-out element seemed to be a certain level of comfort with deceit. Jessica lies plausibly and repeatedly about her location and activities, even though in some cases she had no particular reason to do so. Elizabeth engages in a violating level of deceit with Todd, and even Jessica's barely-in-it friends reflexively lie to Sam to cover her whereabouts.

However, the main answer seems to be that you should pretty much always do whatever guys suggest you do. This was quite deeply engrained into the book: Jessica comes to the group house even though she doesn't want to because Ted suggests it to her, and comes inside even though she really doesn't want to because he pushes her to, and even though she was about to leave she stays because Adam suggested she should. Elizabeth does initially turn down Justin's offer of a date, but somehow ends up going on one anyway, even though she has plenty of good reasons not to. Pretty much everything Jessica does in the cult is because Adam tells her to do it and she doesn't want to appear disagreeable and spoil her chances with him, no matter how dodgy the stuff is. About the only thing I can think of which involved one of our girls disobeying a guy was when Jessica stormed off from Sam in the beginning of the book, which started her whole downward slide into the brainwashing tragedy.

o-o-o

At just a shade over 150 pages, this wasn't a long and hard read, and I didn't really expect much from it. It's quite aware that it is pulp, and doesn't really try to apologize for that. My star rating should be taken as within the range of possible books, rather than within the range this book was actually targeting, amongst which it might be quite good (I'm hardly in a position to judge). I did find the book's pitch a bit weird, though: the be-smart-don't-do-cults element seemed a bit too blatantly educational for a genre targeted at rebellious teenage girls. Perhaps the buy-in is meant to be the romantic subplots of the Jessica-Sam and Elizabeth-Todd relationships? It seems like a lot of filler for very little movement on that front. Perhaps I still have more to learn about being a teenage girl.