Cults are fascinating. Honestly. I think they are one of the most fascinating aspects of religion. I’ve taken entire university courses on the sociology of cults. I get that deep down tingle whenever I see a new book or tv show or movie with a cult focus. There was a tv show that came out a couple years ago about a tv show about a cult within a tv show about a cult. It had crazy potential. I now can’t remember what it was called or why I stopped watching it, but hey, cult stuff – good! So, anyway, when I read the synopsis for The Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly, I knew it was going on my reading list. I promptly requested my library order a copy and put my name on the hold list. And then I waited. And waited. And waited. Because at that point, the book hadn’t even been released yet. In the most fortunate of circumstances, the book showed up on my hold shelf two days before I left for vacation. This was one of those relaxy vacations where you spend hours at a time reading. I powered through this book in a day.
Even without the appeal of the cults, this book would have drawn me in based on the writing alone. Oakes style is beautiful. There’s a fantasy aspect to the reading. I don’t mean that in the fantasy genre sense, but in the ethereal feel that appears at moments in the book. She weaves these two horrific stories together beautifully. Both stories in the novel focus on Minnow, but at different stages in her life. The central story takes place in a prison for girls, where Minnow is now incarcerated for assault. The second takes place in her memories of her life in the Kevinian cult. These flashback scenes slowly reveal what life was like in the cult and the details that Minnow isn’t willing to talk about in her present.
Not only is Minnow learning to live in prison, but also to live without her family or her hands. Literally, without her hands. I had read that in the book blurb, but I thought it might be metaphorical, but nope. Her arms end at the wrist. They were chopped off (this isn’t a spoiler because it’s on the book blurb, but from here, you take your life into your own hands). I’ve recently learned that this book was based on the fairytale of the handless maiden/the girl with no hands. But I haven’t read that fable and I read the book before I knew that information, so it hasn’t influenced my experience.
The need for community is a natural instinct for a big chunk of humanity. Finding the people you fit with. A place where we can feel comfortable. A place to belong. People who share your ideologies. And sometimes, these ideologies are thrust upon people floundering to find their way. This is how cults draw people in. It’s what makes them so appealing. When you don’t know where you fit but you’re desperate to find out, and then someone suddenly says “hey, you fit with me”. That’s attractive. Minnow’s parents were looking for something. They wanted someone to tell them how to find meaning in their lives. Meaning they were unable to find on their own. They were so desperate that they allowed a man so narcissistic as to name a religion after himself to change everything in their lives. They followed him into the woods to live off the grid. Without electricity, running water, basic comforts. To allow the men to rule the women. To allow men to take much, much younger girls as wives. To allow the prophet to tame the willful girls until they broke. For the women to be subservient – always. To be taught that anyone outside their little village was not only wrong but dangerous. To instill a giant dose of racism. And Minnow was so young when she was taken she has only the vaguest recollections of the world outside.
While this was the only community she had ever known, and she’d always sort of known that it wasn’t the one she belonged in. The other people in the community all seem to buy into Kevin’s teachings, to really believe that this is the lifestyle for them, but Minnow wanders. Don’t get me wrong, she instinctively leans towards the things she’s been taught, but she doesn’t really know anything else. When she finally gets away from the community, she is scared of the city. This fear, and the PTSD she’s clearly suffering from, leads to her beating a man almost to death. This attack lands her in prison. A prison full of girls who have committed heinous crimes. A prison full of girls who have been victimized to a point that they feel violence is their only option. Now, I’m not condoning violence, no matter what the circumstances, but this version of community has to make us think. How can we as a society have failed these girls so thoroughly that prison is the better option. Because they felt they had no option other than violence to escape their abusers. Minnow’s cellmate is clearly an intelligent girl but her future has been destroyed because she had no one to save her from sexual abuse. Similarly, Minnow had no one looking out for her when the prophet wanted to marry her. She had no one. There were no supports for her in her life. She was simply meant to obey. Obedience was key. It was so important it lead her father to chop her hands off with an axe because the prophet told him to. Every child in this book has been let down so badly that they can only find familiarity with other equally damaged people.
Minnow is assigned a counsellor while in prison to try to get her to tell the story of her life in the cult and what lead to the fire that brought the group down. She is extremely reluctant at first. She doesn’t believe that he can understand what she’s been through. He’s normal. He’s not damaged. He has no right to know her story. But the more they talk, the more she begins to realize that he has also experienced trauma and the more she is willing to tell him. Again, we come back to the idea of community. Broken people are drawn to each other. Their fractures may come in different width and lengths, but their existence is sometimes enough.
I initially misread the title of this book. Reading Secret Lives instead of Sacred Lies. But I think both are appropriate. Minnow’s lies are intricately woven into her different lives. I feel like I could talk about this book forever and yet can’t really talk about it at. There’s an importance under the initial appeal. The cult stuff is fun, the there’s a real warning about allowing your life to be guided by others. About not taking control of your own ship. About helping those that can’t help themselves. About community as a saviour, not a destroyer. About the importance of healing.
Oakes has given herself a lot to live up to. This is a book I look forward to reading multiple times. And seeing what she does next. If you haven’t read The Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly yet, just go do it. Find how your crack fits with Minnow’s crack and maybe allow a little healing to happen through fiction.