Even though I’m not always crazy about the interface for Amazon Prime Video, I’ll admit I’ve found plenty of TV shows and movies to keep me content during this quarantine. Since cults are a subject that never cease to amaze me, I binged a docuseries I found there called “Cults and Extreme Belief” a few months ago, but decided to share my thoughts on it in case anyone is looking for something new to watch.
Reporter/anchor Elizabeth Vargas hosts the series and conducts interviews with a number of people who spent time in cults and are still processing the emotional and physical scars from doing so. Each episode is about 45 minutes long and the series is rated TV-14. The first episode focuses on NXIVM, led by Keith Raniere and the subject of many news headlines over the past few years. The group was billed as self-help group, but it quickly spiraled into much more than that, even subjecting various female members with a brand bearing the leader’s initials. Other episodes focus on Jehovah’s Witnesses, Children of God, Twelve Tribes, World Peace Unification Sanctuary and FLDS.
I think the one that affected me the most was the episode on the U.N.O.I, or the United Nation of Islam. In this organization, parents are encouraged to send their young children off to work in various businesses owned by the leader, Royall Jenkins. And when I say send their children off to work, I mean their children are loaded into the back of a tractor trailer and carried across the country from their parents in many cases. Jenkins has made his money opening cafes and restaurants all over the United States, and these children and teens are forced to work in these businesses for free.
It doesn’t take you long in the episode to realize this is a human trafficking organization, and if the children try to tell their parents what is happening, the parents are forced to choose between their children and the church. They don’t usually make the choice you hope they would, either. The Twelve Tribes are organized in a similar fashion, using their members for free labor, and subjecting them to physical abuse if they complain.
The last two episodes focus on more of a roundtable discussion amongst the survivors. These episodes are a little unbalanced, because there are a few survivors who more talkative than others so you may not hear from as many people as you’d like. I think this is an interesting and important series, though, because you see how survivors are often pulled into these organizations based on the beliefs of their parents and family members (NXVIM is an exception to this, though), and when they leave, it’s heartbreaking when they endure the shunning that goes along with “betraying” a cult.
It’s been a strange past month with the shelter-at-home orders here in North Carolina thanks to the spread of COVID-19. We are a fortunate household to have one adult who has been able to transition to working from home completely, and another (me) who works as a contract employee for a magazine, and I’ve also been able to keep generating income through my clients. We are blessed, because we know others who have had to temporarily close their family businesses.
I feel for my kids. They miss their friends, their IRL contact, driving back and forth together to school, and randomly stopping by Dunkin’ Donuts for iced coffees and donut holes. We miss simply being able to hop in the car and eat at our favorite Mexican restaurant, but we are trying to order food from local restaurants at least once a week to keep supporting them where we can. We are fortunate to have Wi-Fi and four separate computers so we can all work and attend classes and Zoom meetings without having to share devices.
We are also sad to have missed a fun spring break trip we had planned to New Orleans, where my son was excited to see the Pelicans in person and witness Zion Williamson’s ball-handling skills. I simply wanted to hear some jazz music and eat a beignet at Café Du Monde.
During this time, we are also lucky the weather has been so beautiful, and that we have access to a greenway right in our neighborhood. While we’ve all gained a few pounds from all the snacking we’ve been doing, we are also exercising outdoors more than we ever did before. We’ve also had more family move nights during this time, and today we even got out and explored a nearby botanical garden together.
I’ve also tried to stay busy by finally reading books that have been on my shelves for some time, taking online webinars and workshops on the craft of marketing and writing (I took a great one from Jenna Kutcher on list building) and continuing to work on my passion project, a true crime podcast I plan to launch in early May.
I don’t want to take this extra time for granted, because there were a few times in the past few months where I wished for time to slow down because I was rapidly approaching burnout. I do hope we can all safely return to a sense of normalcy sooner than later, but I’ll trust the experts to let us know when that time is.
As a fan of many of Wondery’s podcasts, I instantly became hooked when “Over My Dead Body: Joe Exotic” was first released last fall. I appreciate good investigative reporting, and host Robert Moor actually went out to Oklahoma to meet Joe Maldonaldo-Passage (the name he now goes by) and recorded what transpired during much of his time there. I had never heard of Joe Exotic before the podcast, but Moor’s production, voice and storytelling left me eagerly awaiting each new episode (the series was only five or six episodes originally).
Sure, there were parts that made me cringe, and I absolutely do not agree with breeding and selling large cats. I felt both empathy for Joe (after hearing of what he dealt with as a young adult) and anger towards the narcissism that eventually led to his downfall. It’s also clear Joe mistreated both the animals at his park and his employees, so I’m not one in the “Free Joe Exotic” camp. The podcast series slowly delved into Joe’s feud with Carole Baskin, and her voice is also heard on the podcast, and that is the narrative that the podcast stayed with until the finale.
So when I heard Netflix was planning to release a docuseries called “The Tiger King,” I wasn’t sure I wanted to go back and relive that world again. It was hard enough the first time around. I watched part of the first episode and turned it off after about 20 minutes. It came across as exploitive and salacious, and I wasn’t sure I liked the direction it was going in. But then as the internet exploded with discussions about the series, I gave in and binged it in a few days. At the time I’m writing this, 64 million households and counting have watched “The Tiger King.” I guess I felt like I needed to go back and give it another try, especially since I already knew the backstory from the podcast and wanted to compare the two. It’s interesting that there were all these journalists working on this story simultaneously over the course of several years, before Joe was even arrested and convicted of murder for hire.
I grew frustrated with the direction of the Netflix series. I understand it’s the work of the filmmakers (and bless them for spending so many hours upon hours interviewing the key players involved) but the second episode, “Cult of Personality,” left me scratching my head. I never knew there were so many people running exotic animal operations in the United States, and they all seem to be more than a little off their rockers. I had also heard about the mystery of Carole Baskin’s missing husband from the podcast, but the documentary seems to have unleashed a whole new level of interest in that case. (I will admit the disappearance is more than a little fishy, but there is no concrete proof of her involvement at this point). I grew frustrated that the documentary also made it look like Joe Exotic was a real country-music star, and I knew from the podcast that Joe can’t even sing, much less write music. I believe the real songwriters are credited at the end of the series but who was actually looking for that in the credits?
And as for the “bonus” episode of “The Tiger King,” where E’s Joel McHale interviews several people from the series, skip it if you haven’t already. He comes across as condescending and treats the whole episode as a big joke. It was completely pointless.
I may feel more connected to the podcast because I’m also a journalist and feel it depicted the story more honestly without trying to be sensational. I was really surprised at the end of the docuseries when statistics about the number of large cats that exist in the United States appeared. That information almost seemed to come out of nowhere. In my opinion (and apparently Carole Baskin’s), Netflix chose to focus more on the crazy antics of the characters rather than the opportunity to educate the public about the importance of preventing the breeding and selling of large cats.
If you want to check out the podcast, it’s available on all podcast platforms. Wondery has released bonus episodes that feature uncut interviews Robert Moor conducted, but after listening to two of them, I don’t feel like they add anything to the story. There are awkward pauses all throughout and it becomes clear why things are edited the way they are in the final product. Texas Monthly also produced a great piece on the story.
I’d also recommend checking out the podcast “Life is Short with Justin Long,” where Long interviews Moor about his experience researching and producing the “Joe Exotic” podcast.
From a former marine and Yale Law School graduate, a powerful account of growing up in a poor Rust Belt town that offers a broader, probing look at the struggles of America’s white working class.
Hillbilly Elegy is a passionate and personal analysis of a culture in crisis – that of white working-class Americans. The decline of this group, a demographic of our country that has been slowly disintegrating over 40 years, has been reported on with growing frequency and alarm but has never before been written about as searingly from the inside. J. D. Vance tells the true story of what a social, regional, and class decline feels like when you were born with it hung around your neck.
The Vance family story begins hopefully in postwar America. J. D.’s grandparents were “dirt poor and in love” and moved north from Kentucky’s Appalachia region to Ohio in the hopes of escaping the dreadful poverty around them. They raised a middle-class family, and eventually their grandchild (the author) would graduate from Yale Law School, a conventional marker of their success in achieving generational upward mobility.
But as the family saga of Hillbilly Elegy plays out, we learn that this is only the short, superficial version. Vance’s grandparents, his aunt, his uncle, his sister, and most of all his mother struggled profoundly with the demands of their new middle-class life and were never able to fully escape the legacy of abuse, alcoholism, poverty, and trauma so characteristic of their part of America. Vance piercingly shows how he himself still carries around the demons of their chaotic family history.
A deeply moving memoir with its share of humor and vividly colorful figures, Hillbilly Elegy is the story of how upward mobility really feels. And it is an urgent and troubling meditation on the loss of the American dream for a large segment of this country.
I really, really wanted to like this book. I got excited just reading the nine-page introduction and remember excitedly telling my husband about it on the day I started the memoir. Coming from humble beginnings myself, I felt like I would be able to relate to Vance’s story, although I grew up in rural Texas and North Carolina and not Kentucky/Ohio.
But really, the comparison ended there. Vance’s memoir begins with the story of his origins (his grandparents) and follows a pretty linear timeline. It was hard to feel empathy for his mother, who dragged her two kids in and out of so many relationships that I almost lost count of the men in Vance’s life. I believe she was married at least five times, and eventually became addicted to heroin. The figure he looked up to the most was his paternal grandmother, or “Mamaw,” as he called her, but I have to say I took issue with her language and demeanor. I understand she grew up in the backwoods of Kentucky and was married and pregnant before she was even the legal age to drive a car, but her “colorful” language and roughneck behavior did not strike me as someone who should be a role model for any young child. I can’t even repeat some of the things she said to family members and her grandchildren because I found them so offensive. This made it hard for me to read chapter after chapter of how wonderful “Mamaw” was and how his years living with her changed his life. (His grandparents never divorced but stopped living in the same residence by the time Vance was in his teens). I found myself wondering over and over what the point of the memoir is. The book has the subtitle “A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis,” and while Vance did discuss the mentality of many of the working class that reside in the area he grew up in (there’s a sense of entitlement without the work ethic to back it up), I felt like he circled around the topic without giving any substance.
I do have a great deal of respect that Vance realized after being accepted to Ohio State University that he didn’t have the maturity he needed to successfully complete college, thus leading to an enlistment in the Marine Corps first instead. He also completed college pretty quickly once he began his courses, then heading off to Yale Law School. But I found my mind drifting during the chapters where he attended Yale. He didn’t seem to know why he wanted to attend law school, other than the fact that all the successful people he knew from his hometown were either doctors or lawyers, and he didn’t like blood. I don’t even think he is still a practicing lawyer, as the bio on the book jacket says he is now an investor in a venture capital firm. I read some other reviews before writing this one, trying to pinpoint why I found myself skimming the last chapter of the memoir by the end. I think one reviewer nailed it by saying she felt Vance’s prose lacked the color and authenticity one would expect from someone who grew up in the Rust Belt, with childhood memories of Appalachia. Vance went through the motion of detailing his story, but he never plumbs into the depths of how running from his mother on a country road, in fear for his life, or having to pay for her extended stay at a motel after she relapsed into drugs again, really made him feel. What the reader gets is a memoir that reads more like a term paper. And while that may be okay for some, it leaves the reader wanting.