<i>Martha Marcy May Marlene</i>: A Brave Movie

Despite its flaws, this should be seen by everyone as a cautionary tale of what could happen to an unsuspecting victim by a sinister cult leader bent on recruiting followers for whatever nefarious purposes he or she has in mind. Think of it as a cautionary tale.
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I recently saw the movie Martha Marcy May Marlene, which bravely took up the question of the insidious influence of bizarre cults on unsuspecting young people.

Having lived through the era when such cults were media fodder and a number of friends and relatives had lost adult children to this phenomenon, and having written the well-received novel, Cult, I was interested in how the filmmakers approached the subject.

Those, like myself, who were around in the sixties and seventies when cults were portrayed as actively recruiting and brainwashing their unsuspecting victims into walking zombies for profit and control, who saw families destroyed and worse, have been lulled into believing that that era is over. Far from it. There are thousands of cults operating in this country and many more abroad. Some are quite prosperous and upcoming generations should be forewarned.

Of course, we were shocked by the mass suicide of Jonestown and the brutality and violence of Manson and his so-called "family" and other weird manifestations of mind control, which brought into the popular culture terms such as "deprogramming" and images of dull-eyed young people selling flowers at airports.

The media once feasted on such stories, although they never quite delved deeply enough into the phenomenon to increase the public's understanding of the subtle ways cynical and power-hungry people use phony spiritualism, alienation, and communes run by guru pretenders for power and profit. All of them purveyed what seemed like idealistic causes but their real agenda was, and still is, designed to capture the minds of innocent people and, through devious mind control means, corral them into doing their bidding.

From time to time, cults have been exposed and media excitement ensues when their destructive methods are exposed. Remember David Koresh and his Branch Davidians? He was one of many. And there is no greater example than those sad fools who blow themselves up, convinced that heaven offers them the proverbial 72 virgins or some such contrived reward in the afterlife.

Since the subject of brainwashing is so difficult for most of us to understand, it reaches us as distortions and confuses those who have never been exposed to its capacity to break down one's personality with swift and efficient force and enslave the will of an innocent victim. All we see is the resulting ruined lives, minds devastated, and personalities destroyed.

I give the movie Martha Marcy May Marlene an "A" for effort, but "B" for execution, although I do not wish to detract from its sincere and largely successful effort. Obviously, the filmmakers wanted to make the point that it's easy to slip into a cult, in this case a Manson-like "family," but a terrible chore to get out of it.

It was this latter manifestation that was illustrated in my novel. Once the victim's mind had "snapped" into cult mode, the unsnapping requires a massive assault on the victim's mind to untangle the coded messages injected into it by the sinister forces of the cult leader.

I am indebted to Flo Conway and Jim Siegelman who wrote the definitive explanation of this process and gave us the term "Snapping," which is the title of their excellent book on the subject, Snapping: America's Epidemic of Sudden Personality Change.

While most of the acting is excellent, and the movie does depict the terrible dilemma of a victim's dealing with the separation from the cult, it could have added another dimension by showing the process of deprogramming which can be difficult and, in some cases, brutal. Nevertheless, the filmmakers did capture the victim's agony, paranoia and the inevitable "floating" of her mind back into the magnetizing memories of the cult experience.

The filmmakers chose to show how well-meaning relatives tried valiantly to help the victim through her difficulty with separation, but failed in their efforts because of their ignorance of what had been done to the victim's mind. Perhaps this lack of knowledge influenced a less than satisfying and confusing ending.

This could have been an important movie at a moment in history when this growing and powerful phenomenon is largely ignored. It suffers from good intentions and weird editing that makes it impossible for the viewer to fully understand the plotting. In addition to a tongue twisting title that largely defies memory, the ending is, perhaps deliberately, confounding and unresolved.

I understood the premise and waited patiently to learn what triggered the unwitting victim's need to escape the cult, which was never clear from her point of view. In fact there were so many holes in the motivation of the characters that it became difficult to see how this woman victim was ever going to adjust to a normal life.

I hate to be nitpicking what I consider a movie that, despite its flaws, should be seen by everyone as a cautionary tale of what could happen to an unsuspecting victim by a sinister cult leader bent on recruiting followers for whatever nefarious purposes he or she has in mind. Think of it as a cautionary tale.

The fact is that the cult phenomenon is out there still recruiting more and more victims for its insatiable maws.

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