Michelle Dowd’s family told her it wasn’t a cult.
“Your mother and I, we would never raise you in a cult.” Dowd is sitting on the couch in her living room in an Inland Empire city she’d rather not disclose when she says her dad reiterated this to her recently.
“But one of the things about cults is they don’t say they’re a cult; they say they’re a community.”
In the 1970s and ’80s, Dowd’s “community” was in the Angeles National Forest. She was a child, living in the woods, preparing for doomsday under the repressive and puritanical leadership of her maternal grandfather, who professed he was God’s prophet. She was forced to learn the ways of the mountain – how to sustain herself by foraging for food, siphoning dew from leaves and distilling urine in a pit. “We were told the end of the world was imminent and we needed to be prepared,” she wrote in her forthcoming memoir, which will be her first published book. “Part of that preparation was learning to survive off what the mountain would yield. The other part was becoming a soldier in the army of God.”
Dowd was conditioned never to question her grandfather’s teachings. Yet, even as she witnessed and suffered the grueling emotional and physical abuse that served as a swift consequence for skepticism or defiance, she remained unconvinced. A seed of doubt sprouted inside her, and she began to secretly journal the contradictions she noticed.
Set to release this March from Algonquin Books, “Forager: Field Notes for Surviving a Family Cult” details her process and 10 of the years she spent under the thumb of her grandfather’s organization, the Field, starved of love, food and basic necessities. Raised to survive the apocalypse and Satan’s rule of Earth, Dowd ultimately learned to survive her harrowing upbringing.
And, along the way, she has transformed some of the skills she learned growing up into useful lessons for her life today.
“Learn your surroundings,” Dowd says. “Which might include plants and animals – but learn your surroundings, meaning all the geography of your region. If you live in a city, learn the streets, learn who lives on them, learn who makes money there.”
Some skills have even translated well to being a memoirist: “Learn yourself or study yourself. The same way that you study surroundings, look at yourself objectively. Find out what natural strengths and weaknesses you have,” Dowd says. “Be raw and honest with yourself, even if you don’t say it to someone else about who you really are, be honest with yourself.
“Find your people: Find the people in your life who are yours, that you know and trust, who you can let see you, who you can invite into your world but who have also invited you into theirs. A lot of that is understanding what it means to trust somebody.”
Visible from the north-facing windows of Dowd’s home in the Inland Empire are the San Gabriel mountains where she was raised. Her house is hidden behind a gate and a massive 100-year-old ficus tree; it’s covered in vines on one side, and on the other is a mural she recently painted with a friend. Sugar pine, Jeffrey pine, yerba santa, prickly pear, elderberry, a king snake, a saw-whet owl – “These are the animals and plants from ‘Forager,’ ” she says, beaming up toward the second story, where painted green leaves extend down from the roof.
Inside, she walks through her living room, lined with hundreds of books covering every wall. On the couch, she holds out pictures of a young girl with unruly blonde hair wearing a prairie-style dress. Showing another photograph: “This is my grandfather,” she says of the black and white of a tall, lanky man wearing a hat and suit jacket. He’s sitting at a desk with papers strewn about, and although he looks relatively normal in the photograph, he is not.
“He believed that he was God’s next son, the next Messiah,” Dowd says. “My grandfather said he had a Ph.D. from Stanford and another degree from UC Berkeley, but he didn’t have any degrees, not even a basic college degree. My guess is he could barely read.” Still, he amassed a following with disciples (Dowd’s mother and father included) so devout that they believed he spoke the voice of God and would live 500 years. Dowd’s mother, born into the Field herself, believed that “like Abraham, she was called to sacrifice her children as a testament to her devotion to her Lord.”
Throughout the book, that sacrifice in various forms, severe neglect among them, is palpable. Dowd is subjected to abuse from the boys and men of the Field but is told they have been sent to protect her. She is instructed to perform in the traveling road show and annual circus – the main source of funding for the Field. And when she grows ill with a severe case of idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpura, a blood disorder that can result in easy bruising and internal bleeding, she is mostly left alone on and off for three years to receive treatment at a hospital.
That was the way of the Field. “Forager” opens with a brief origin of how the organization in which she was raised came to be, how her mother was on hospice as Dowd was penning her memoir, and how her mother forbade her to write this book. It was her duty to keep the family secrets safe, she told her. Dowd’s mother, a main presence throughout “Forager,” passed away with Dowd by her side in 2022.
“At the end of her life, I was able to see that she was always a woman in need of care, and that she had been denied the care she needed, which is why she had so much armor,” Dowd says, clutching a cup of coffee. “I was able to love her while she was dying. I climbed on the bed with her because she was in pain. I was holding my mom the way that I wish she had been able to hold me when I was in the hospital as a child. That gave me a lot of closure, because I felt that I was giving to her what I most needed, and in doing so I felt that she hadn’t destroyed my ability to need or to give. I felt that her ability to give had been destroyed somewhere along the line. I felt great empathy for her in the end.”
“Forager” may take place within the confines of a religious cult, but it’s not a book about a cult. It’s the coming-of-age story of a young girl who learns to trust herself first and foremost, whose unusual upbringing breeds an unrelenting self-reliance.
“When I was writing the book, I think what I started with was this idea of, well, I am a capable woman now. How did I get here?” Dowd says. “When I put myself back into my childhood, I recognize that there was so much of who I was that formed who I am now. As I was writing, it was those things that I had thought that I had lost, that were also things I had gained in terms of self-reliance. There’s a price for that, certainly, but curiosity has stayed with me my entire life, and that’s its own form of resilience, which is a quality that has served me well.”
Dowd and Emily St. Martin will be in conversation for the release party of “Forager” at the Maloof Foundation in Rancho Cucamonga on March 7 at 3: 30 p.m. The event is open to the public.