A Review of Michelle Dowd’s Forager: Field Notes for Surviving a Family Cult
by Marlana Botnick Fireman
Harsh but preparatory, bohemian but doctrinal. Michelle Dowd’s recently published memoir details her experience growing up in a family cult called The Field, and we discover that aspects of life which might seem at odds are actually far from clashing. The religious cult facet begins as many do, with a man, Dowd’s grandfather, who sees himself as an immortal prophet of God, the Christian variety. The typical route ensues. Followers are gathered, there is prayer and indoctrination, and the group begins preparing for the end times.
While some cults prepare for the end by leaving society, building bunkers, stockpiling weapons, doing drugs, or praying relentlessly, The Field’s approach is slightly more atypical: survival off the land. Naturalism doesn’t usually come to mind when I think of cult practices, but in this case it goes hand in hand. The pages of Dowd’s memoir share the details of a repressed life, one where physical affection is for babies only, where boys and men face no consequences for physical, verbal, or sexual violence, where religion is not just a way but the singular way of being. These pages also illustrate the importance of having knowledge of one’s natural resources, The Field’s coveted survival tactic for the Rapture. These survival tips are based on flora local to The Field, close to Angeles National Forest in California. These methods vary from edible to medicinal, from plants such as the Wild Rose, Snow Plant, Prickly Pear, and more. Each chapter begins with a short anecdote pertaining to the importance of the natural resources that Dowd was taught to utilize by her mother. These naturalist tendencies were taught to the women of the cult to aid in survival, but they do so much more. Beyond the subtextual weight the chapter openings carry, they provide a lifeline for Dowd as she plans her escape from The Field. Dowd’s liberation was not a sudden, triumphant occasion, but rather a slow extrication of herself from a community that despises “Outsiders” and “Quitters”. Of course, Dowd becomes a Quitter herself.
In the tradition of the cult-escapee memoir, Dowd shares the details of an inhibited childhood, one with few friends, little formal education, and a gaping lack of tenderness within the family structure and beyond. Dowd speaks of the kind of life many children would quickly question as they begin to understand that this sort of upbringing is abnormal at best. From this, I crave deep emotional introspection.
Dowd’s career in journalism might explain the hesitant emotional exploration in her narrative, especially in comparison to other cult-escapee memoirs, such as Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover, Member of the Family: My Story of Charles Manson, Life Inside His Cult, and the Darkness That Ended the Sixties by Dianne Lake, or Uncultured: A Memoir by Daniella Mestanyak Young. On the other hand, this hesitancy left ample space to imagine what my own emotions might look like in a community where total subservience is required. Forager leaves readers to wonder why deeper emotional exploration is placed on the backburner. The embodiment, though, of Dowd’s journey is striking. She falls into the spiral of an unnamed eating disorder. Dowd attempts to evade and shrink away from what feels for most pre-teens and teenagers as the ultimate universal curse: womanhood. In a life where her every move is controlled by religion and reverence, it is painful to see how Dowd might grasp at some semblance of control over her life by way of her body. Not unlike Roxane Gay in her memoir Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body, Dowd uses her body as a method of protection.
To me, the compelling question lies in understanding how someone with such an upbringing can grow into a well-adjusted, well-rounded adult, while continuing to maintain relationships with some of the people responsible for such a painful upbringing. In comparison, many escapees choose to go no-contact with people from their lives still engrained in cult life. Throughout and after her escape, Dowd maintains a relationship with her mother. Thanks to her, Dowd has skills most Master Naturalists envy: “I know what you can eat raw and what you have to pound, grind down, dry, or bake. I know the ratios to dilute, how far to dig during a drought, and what is worth fighting for (Dowd).” This very same mother knew of Dowd being sexually abused, was neglectful, and turned a blind eye to Dowd’s almost-fatal autoimmune disease as a young girl. And yet the book is dedicated to her: “For my mother (1942-2022)”
Naturally, there is no “How To Forgive Your Cult-Indoctrinated Mother” listicle or self-help book, but what context Dowd provides in terms of how her relationship with her mother changed between her escape from the cult and her mother’s death, is scarce. The narrative being presented in present tense closes the reader off from both contextual and sympathetic understanding from anyone who isn’t Dowd. Without background information on Dowd’s life after the cult, it is challenging to accept that Dowd has fully released her inner-self from the shackles of The Field. The epilogue notes that Dowd visits her mother regularly still, wearing long sleeves to hide her tattoos. Dowd maintains that she is the woman her mother raised her to be. Somewhere within that, I think, or at least I hope, there is forgiveness.
This memoir is honest to its core but can also seem overly stoic regarding experiences that would haunt most people for life. This made me question how the author intended readers to feel, and how I should have felt upon finishing this book. A more thorough, connected, and grounded version of this story could be a bit further down the line, due to its lack of introspection brought on partly by the use of present tense and authorial voice.
This memoir is a testament to the fact that if Dowd can survive what she did, then anyone can. Gleaned from this story is an uneasy truth: That perhaps escape, acceptance, and forgiveness are not black and white nor ever complete. That the messiness of family, love, indoctrination, and religion may never exist in a fully unraveled or understood state. What is certain is that Michelle Dowd has emerged as her version of victorious: free from living under oppressive cults and religion, autonomous, earthly, and most importantly, a lifelong forager; not just for plants, but for acceptance.
Marlana Botnick Fireman
Marlana Botnick Fireman is a writer, editor, and illustrator in New Orleans, Louisiana. She is currently pursuing her MFA in Creative Writing at the University of New Orleans. Her work can be found in Ellipses and Hey Alma. Currently she serves as an Associate Fiction Editor for Bayou Magazine. Marlana cherishes the opportunity to highlight queerness and Judaism in her work. When she is not writing or reading, she is gardening, cuddling with her dog Aiko, or watching something silly with her partner. Marlana was born and raised in central Ohio. She can be found on Instagram and Twitter @firelightdisco.