To celebrate the release of her new book The Room by the Lake Emma Dibdin has written a guest post about her research into cults, the theme at the centre of the novel. I would like to take this opportunity to thank Emma for writing this very interesting piece.
Cult Research by Emma Dibdin.
The idea to write about a cult came from a strange encounter I had years ago in Seattle, with a man on the street who was protesting against then-president Barack Obama. The man was very young, about my age at the time (early twenties), and his argument was very odd and illogical, as though he had learned it by rote or by brainwashing. He was polite, but dead-eyed, and the encounter haunted me, particularly when I learned he was part of a far-right “political movement” which is essentially a cult. They prey on young people, often people cut off from their own families, and that got me thinking about what would make someone psychologically vulnerable enough to be sucked in.
There are a lot of novels out there about cults, and I made a point of not reading any of them because don’t think that kind of direct influence is helpful when you’re in the “discovery phase” of writing fiction. What I did read was a lot of non-fiction, including biographies of cult leaders – Jim Jones, Bonnie Lu Nettles and Charles Manson in particular – and self-help books targeted at cult survivors and their families, with instructions on how to combat cult mind control. I listened to an extensive podcast interview with a cult survivor who spoke about the terrifying hallucinations he experienced after drinking drugged tea: a very specific blend of psychedelics and antidepressant drugs which I ended up using wholesale in The Room By The Lake.
The final piece of the puzzle, in writing the cult, was working out what it would actually look like day-to-day. It had to seem harmless and appealing enough on the outside that a reasonable person would be sucked in, and so I settled on this combination of an intense bootcamp and a therapeutic retreat. In 2014 when I wrote the bulk of the novel, I was doing a lot of classes at Barry’s Bootcamp (which I hasten to add is delightful and not a cult!), and thinking a lot about extreme exercise and dietary restriction, how this healthy desire to push yourself and live clean can become obsessional. For me, fiction isn’t about writing “what you know”, so much as taking little pieces from your own life and imagining them several shades darker.
The cult is really secondary to Caitlin’s psychological journey – it’s just the impetus that forces her to confront these long-held fears she’s had about her own sanity, because of the history of mental illness in her family. But I wanted to make sure that the depiction was as detailed and convincing as possible, as well as respectful to the horrific reality that actual cult survivors go through. One interviewee described his recovery process: “For the first three months when I got back, I thought i was still in the cult. I thought that real life was a hallucination.” That blurred line between reality and hallucination, and between dream and waking states, resonated with me and played a big role in the way I wrote Caitlin as the book developed.
Please take a look at this wonderful psychological thriller available to buy now.