Cults, parenting, and ‘Meadowlark’: 3 things we learned from author Melanie Abrams at UC Berkeley’s Luncheon in the Library

Melanie Abrams and Jeff MacKie-Mason chat during the Luncheon
Author Melanie Abrams, left, and University Librarian Jeff MacKie-Mason chat during the Luncheon in the Library. (Via Zoom)

No one just up and joins a cult.

Turns out, the reality is a bit more complicated than that.

Author Melanie Abrams unearthed this nugget, and many more, during her captivating, free-flowing talk this month, forming the centerpiece of this year’s Luncheon in the Library. At the event — the first virtual rendition, fitting of the times — Abrams lavished the audience with insights and musings on her latest novel, last year’s finely wrought Meadowlark, springing from a well of research and her deep fascination with communes and closed communities.

Abrams’ debut novel, 2008’s disturbingly erotic Playing, follows a young woman confronting the dark corners of her past. In the words of Pulitzer Prize-winning poet (and Berkeley professor) Robert Hass, it signaled “the arrival of a very gifted new writer.”

“I tend to write about the lasting effects of childhood trauma, and how trauma affects the people we become,” Abrams said during her talk. “Maybe one day I’ll evolve into writing about something else, but that hasn’t happened yet.”

In Meadowlark, these themes take flight.

Released in the early days of the pandemic, the novel traces lives intertwined by fate. The book not only offers a compelling look inside closed societies, but it also lays bare important truths about parenting and the long, jagged scars formed in childhood.

Thomas Schneck ’61 was among those in (virtual) attendance. Schneck’s fondness for the Library runs deep, stretching back to when he was a Berkeley undergrad (and a student employee who once worked at the Library “chasing books in the stacks of Doe.”)

“The Library supported me when I was a student and I want to give back, just like returning books that are borrowed,” he said of his support. “Libraries are the heart of a great university.”

Schneck is currently reading Meadowlark and was taken by Abrams’ talk.

“She was thoughtful, sincere, and shared a lot of information — some personal,” he said. “Overall, her authorship is interesting because it offers a complex tapestry into spirituality that is very different from the conventional, at least for me.”

Abrams talked about her research process, her fascination with cults, and “the hardest piece of being human.”

Here are three things we learned.

1. She went deep in her research for Meadowlark.

Abrams has a hard time tracing her fascination with cults. (She wasn’t raised in a cult, nor does she have any personal connection to them.)

She remembers being in college when the news was erupting about the Branch Davidians religious cult in Waco, Texas. Around the same time, she started writing seriously.

For Meadowlark, Abrams steeped herself in the worlds of cults and closed societies.

Her friend David Sullivan, the celebrated Berkeley-based private investigator known for infiltrating cults, proved invaluable, generously sharing stories and inviting her to a gathering of private investigators. (Sullivan died before Meadowlark was released.)

In the ’60s and ’70s, the Bay Area was fertile ground, blossoming with communes and so-called intentional communities. During the research process for her book, Abrams interviewed people who had lived or grown up in some of these communities, including Black Bear Ranch and Adidam.

“I definitely heard stories that were disturbing,” Abrams said. “But what I found more often than not is that a lot of these people who grew up in these intentional communities were not that critical of them. “There were things about them that they thought had really affected who they had become in positive ways.”

2. “No one joins a cult.”

How do cults gain members? “I was … fascinated by this idea that no one really joins a cult,” Abrams said. (The quote “No one joins a cult” was gathered by writer Julia Scheeres from a surviving member of the ill-fated Jonestown settlement, established by the San Francisco-based Peoples Temple, led by Jim Jones.)

“No one goes in thinking they’re about to be brainwashed and give up everything they have to some sort of mentally ill leader,” she said.

Like the proverbial frog in boiling water, members may not know they’re in a cult until it’s too late.

3. Cults can teach us something about raising kids.

The setting of Meadowlark is a kind of petri dish for exploring the effects of parenting — and tracking the cycle of trauma.

“In some ways, a cult is a controlled study,” Abrams explained. “No one’s coming in, no one’s coming out, and children are affected only by the decisions their parents make.”

But whether you’re a cult member or not, parenting can be just plain hard.

After a recent argument with her child over whether she could watch a certain movie, Abrams texted a friend, who responded that raising kids is “the hardest piece of being human.”

Abrams agreed.

“There’s nothing that is harder or that I am more proud of than having been a parent,” she said.

The Luncheon in the Library is a private, invite-only event honoring Library supporters. Past speakers include Chancellor Carol Christ; lecturer, historian, and journalist Adam Hochschild; and dancer, singer, and actress Rita Moreno.