Mating in Captivity: A Memoir by Helen Zuman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Zendik is a communal organization, you might use the word cult, that I'm surprised I hadn't heard of before, particularly since it was housed in Hendersonville, NC, just 30-40 minutes from where I live, up until 2003. At that point it moved to West Virginia, to a large homestead. It got some press a few years back when that farm went up for sale, after the remaining founder of Zendik, Arol, passed away. It seems like Zendik more or less finished dissolving at that point, although you can still find their Facebook page.
The author of this memoir went looking for a communal society to join after graduating from Harvard, and landed on Zendik. She was funded by some kind of grant where she had agree to do research on this kind of society, but that was kind of a lie, as she really wanted to embrace it for herself. I found myself asking on a somewhat frequent basis if Harvard teaches anything like ethics or critical thinking, because the author does not seem to employ either in her decision making. Using grant money, over $10k, for something other than what you received it for, is surely against all terms of service! (She outright donates the entire sum to Zendik very soon after moving in as an apprentice, when they weren't even asking her for anything yet.) She also doesn't seem to be able to see the organization from the outside, which even if she was pretending to be the scholar receiving the grant, it seems like some baseline level of an understanding of fieldwork practices would have been employed.
Instead, she just... jumps in. Eager to have a different kind of life and to lose her virginity, a communal society where sex is arranged between multiple partners as long as both consent, and no property or body belongs to everyone seems kind of perfect to Helen. She embraces it but it does not take long before she finds out that actually, a lot of people pair off, and actually, she's going to have to sell stuff on street corners, and actually, there is a well-developed hierachy, and actually, the remaining leader employs a lot of crazy tactics that are common in fundamentalism and cults. It feels like she entered Zendik after its peak, after the founder Wulf, with his esoteric philosophies and rules, passes away. The group has picked up and relocated several times, but she didn't see this as a warning sign. From the memoir, I did get a sense that she has some trauma in her past, so perhaps that made her more susceptible, but I definitely found myself asking why! I think the author wanted to know why as well, and that's why she wrote this.
I know I sound critical, but a lot of people who get stuck in cults enter them as babies or after severe trauma or complete helplessness (drug addiction, homelessness)... Zuman is an educated person who just seems to make bad decisions. But I suppose it can be an interesting, if frustrating, read in that regard. (It's almost worse on the occasions where she leaves, hitchhiking without any awareness of personal safety.)
But I almost want to bump up the star rating because I enjoyed deep diving into this story on the internet. To that end, I bring you:
-The author's LiveJournal, where she had been writing her experiences and connecting with others from the same and similar backgrounds. This entry has a lot of the lingo and timeline associated with her time at Zendik.
-A Huffington Post article about the 2013 sale of the WV farm, with pictures of the space. The author was still a part of Zendik when they made the move to this location, but it almost felt like it was part of the reason she finally had to leave.
-Zendik Farm Arts Foundation on Facebook, not active in the last few years, but great photos of the founders, Wulf and Carol. They led the group from the 1960s on.
Thanks to the publisher for giving me early access through Edelweiss. They also published another leaving-religion title that I read last month, Shunned: How I Lost My Religion and Found Myself. This title came out May 8, 2018.
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