Third Place Books welcomes Michelle Dowd, professor of journalism and founder of The Chaffey Review, for a discussion of her debut memoir, Forager: Field Notes for Surviving a Family Cult. In the tradition of Educated and The Glass Castle, this shattering and poetic memoir from a brave new voice tells the story of the author’s experience in an apocalyptic cult, and how understanding the natural world was her key to escape—and survival. Dowd will be in conversation with local author of Believers, Lisa Wells. This event is free and open to the public. Registration is required in advance.
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A moving, heartbreaking, and lyrical true story of the author’s escape from an apocalyptic cult—and the survival skills that led to her freedom.
My family prepared me for the end of the world, but I know how to survive on what the earth yields.
As a child, Michelle Dowd grew up on a mountain in the Angeles National Forest. She was born into an ultra-religious cult—or the Field as they called it—started in the 1930s by her grandfather, a mercurial, domineering, and charismatic man who convinced generations of young male followers that he would live 500 years and ascend to the heavens when doomsday came. Comfort and care are sins, Michelle is told. As a result, she was forced to learn the skills necessary to battle hunger, thirst, and cold; she learned to trust animals more than humans; and most importantly, she learned how to survive in the natural world.
At the Field, a young Michelle lives a life of abuse, poverty, and isolation, as she obeys her family’s rigorous religious and patriarchal rules—which are so extreme that Michelle is convinced her mother would sacrifice her, like Abraham and Isaac, if instructed by God. She often wears the same clothes for months at a time; she is often ill and always hungry for both love and food. She is taught not to trust Outsiders, and especially not Quitters, nor her own body and its warnings.
But as Michelle gets older, she realizes she has the strength to break free. Focus on what will sustain, not satiate you, she tells herself. Use everything. Waste nothing. Get to know the intricacies of the land, like the intricacies of your body. And so she does.
Using stories of individual edible plants and their uses to anchor each chapter, Forager is both a searing coming-of-age story and a meditation on the ways in which understanding nature can lead to freedom, even joy.
“A harrowing, engrossing story of survival amid painful circumstances… Heartbreaking and difficult to put down, this book lyrically chronicles an impressive rise out of illness, poverty, and indoctrination…enthralling.”
"Beautifully delicate illustrations and foraging tips also keep things bright. An inspiring and insightful tale of resilience in the face of adversity, this book is hard to put down.”
"Listen to me: get this book in your hands now and prepare to lose a couple nights of sleep because you won’t be able to put it down. Michelle Dowd indeed had a chilling childhood, but that’s not what will keep you turning these pages. It’s the lyricism of language and complex characters you can’t stop thinking about it. For anyone who’s ever felt lost, this book is for you. For anyone who’s ever loved, this book is for you. For anyone who has yearned to understand where they fit in the natural world, this is your guidebook."
—Jennifer Pastiloff, bestselling author of On Being Human
"On the surface, Forager is about dramatic circumstances most of us will never experience--growing up inside a doomsday cult. This unusual lens, however, also mirrors more universal questions, such as how to build meaning out of trauma, how to tell the stories of our lives even as those lives intersect with others', how nature is a healing force even as we participate in its destruction. Michelle Dowd takes on the real, sticky, human issues without easy answers or platitudes and with a voice that is fully her own."
—Gina Frangello, author of Blow Your House Down
"Dazzling in depth, chilling in its revelations, Michelle Dowd’s memoir of a cult childhood proves how a life designed to be holy often turns evil. Dowd forages childhood experiences in an effort to come to terms with a family’s errant divinity—a fanaticism that leads to religious violence. What saves her, ultimately, is her biblical relationship with the natural world. Expansive in scope, brilliant in its undertaking, Dowd sifts through a wreckage of memory to create a survival guide for the apocalyptic brutality of Christian extremism."
—Janisse Ray, author of Ecology of a Cracker Childhood
Michelle Dowd is a professor of journalism and contributor to the New York Times, Alpinist, The Los Angeles Book Review, Catapult, OnlySky, and other national publications. She founded The Chaffey Review, an award-winning literary journal, advises student media, teaches poetry and critical thinking in the California State prisons and has been recognized as a Longreads Top 5 for The Thing with Feathers, on the relationship between environmentalism and hope. She guides yoga and meditation workshops throughout southern California, where she hikes the peaks with her four dogs. (Photo credit: Noel Besuzzi)
Lisa Wells is the author, most recently, of Believers: Making a Life at the End of the World, a finalist for the 2022 PEN/E.O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award. Her debut collection of poetry, The Fix, won the Iowa Poetry Prize. Wells lives in south Seattle with the poet Joshua Marie Wilkinson and their son Jude. She received an M.F.A. in Poetry from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and has taught creative writing at the University of Iowa, the University of Arizona, and Yale-NUS where she was a Writing Fellow in Residence. (Photo credit: Jaclyn Campanaro)
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