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How to Start a Cult

·18-min read
Photo credit: ELAINE CHUNG / GETTY IMAGES
Photo credit: ELAINE CHUNG / GETTY IMAGES
Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

Today, when I'm asked about Dyson, everyone expects stories of a charismatic manipulator, tales reminiscent of cult leaders they’ve seen on TV. But that wasn’t his way. The Dyson I’d known my whole life didn’t persuade; he listened. When I was in trouble, he let me talk. He nodded along, encouraged my grudges and gripes—many of which emerged in the aftermath of relationships, when Dyson would trash the men I believed I had loved. More than anything, he knew how to remind me of what had brought us together.

As teenagers, we spent hours on highways singing along to moody mix CDs that he meticulously arranged. The bands were independent and neglected, far too brilliant for popular recognition. We pretended we were the only people alive who knew these songs existed—not even the bands, we joked, knew of their songs. Dyson transferred the contents of the mixes onto a massive playlist for the drive. By now, nearly a dozen years later, these songs frequently played in car commercials or life insurance ads or over tinny speakers at corporate bagel shops, and although hearing these songs in public, reduced to jingles and Muzak, filled me with the shame of crossing paths with an ex, hearing them that day, with Dyson, I fell quickly into singing along. We both had good voices, though mine was better, and he knew when to silence himself to prevent the timid lilt of his voice from holding me back. The playlist was an attempt to blot my mind with nostalgia, to distract me from wondering where the hell we were headed. It nearly worked, too. But once we got out of the city, I asked Dyson where exactly we were going. “My grand-parents’ place,” he answered, then turned up the music to signal he wouldn’t say any more. I welcomed the distraction. For the first time in months, I felt unburdened.

I mistook this feeling for safety.

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

An hour into the drive, Dyson stopped at a towering three-story mall to stretch his legs. He straightened his arms against the roof of the car, resting his weight on one leg and swinging the other pendulum-like in front of his body, as if preparing for a race. I lounged on the trunk, swallowing the sky with my eyes. A few rows away from our car, in an empty corner of the parking lot, five white men crowded around a station wagon raised on a jack. They were changing the rear passenger-side tire in total silence—not one mumble of small talk—working via some ant-like understanding of the task, passing tools and unscrewing bolts, dropping screws into the cupped palms of their partners, cradling the spare like a child. Two of the men wore torn T-shirts and sweatpants and had the foggy, undershaven faces of the terminally unemployed. The other three men must’ve come from work, two in khakis and button-downs, the last one wearing fashionable jeans and the black employee polo of an electronics store. I was too far away to see their eyes—in news reports, their eyes had been described as gluey, dulled—and I would’ve inched closer were it not for the woman behind the wheel. She slapped her window and shouted, “Leave me alone!”

Her fear of the men gave me reason to fear them.

Dyson took a step toward the car. “I’ve never seen a man horde in person,” he said.

I hadn’t, either. “Can’t you hear that woman screaming?” I asked, hoping to minimise his curiosity, and mine. I didn’t want to get involved.

“Maybe we ought to go help her.”

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

“There was the one in New Hampshire, last week, who chopped down the trees in front of the courthouse. They might have weapons for all we know.”

Over the past year, more and more men—always white men—had been hoarding together unprompted to perform mundane social activities. There was no way of telling how a man horde would act once it formed. Some, like the horde at the mall, changed strangers’ tires. Others washed windows at retirement homes. One broke into a duplex and folded all the homeowners’ laundry. Another broke into a duplex and strangled the homeowners’ beagle. The men who hoarded never remembered joining a horde. When shown footage of their actions, they laughed in disbelief, insisted they were watching actors; some spontaneously wept. Hordes had become popular subjects on the local news programs I watched every day, and I considered myself an expert on the whims of the hordes.

The men lowered the station wagon off its jack and departed in separate directions. They would probably never speak to one another again. The driver sped away, flipping them off out the window.

“What a letdown,” said Dyson. “Not exciting enough for you?”

“A letdown for people like you who think the hordes are dangerous.” He started in the direction of the mall.

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

The mall’s shadow stretched over the lot like a stain. The air was chilled, shiver-inducing. I felt a pang of anticipation as we drew closer. We had grown up in a rural patch of New Jersey notorious for ample skies and groundwater toxicity. Ours was a town of paranoia, of grief. We had lost two classmates to cancer. The disease had taken dozens more in the surrounding grades. As teenagers, we obsessed over escaping—partly out of generic adolescent angst, partly out of an unconscious impulse for self-preservation. We were drawn to expressions of life that seemed endless and immortal, and nothing suggested immortality more than commerce. After school, we darted onto highways en route to movie theaters and restaurants and arcades and flea markets and magic shows and specialty grocers—but most often we drove straight to a mall.

Malls were repercussionless places. There, the future didn’t exist. You ate pizza slices thick as bricks or grease-leaking pretzels under the pretence that no discomfort would follow. The elderly roaming the promenade ignored the grip of mortality. There was no mortality in the mall. There was no paranoia—only praise from employees who wrote our names in script on dressing room doors, who told us how pretty we looked in clothes we couldn’t afford, who lifted samples of meat to our mouths like servants feeding a queen in her castle.

The mall was the kingdom where nobody died.

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

But time had overtaken this mall—as it had overtaken so many other malls. Fluorescent lights gagged overhead. The air reeked of the cleaning solution used to mop up the vomit of children. The mall teetered between its decay and a naïve faith in its revitalisation. Harried managers carnival-barked from the entrances offering sickening discounts: 30 percent, 40 percent, 50 percent, 75 percent. “The Death March of Discounts,” Dyson called it. Stores’ façades masked in plaster apologised for their dust but promised to transform into exciting new enterprises: and soon! At the entrance to a record store was a cardboard cutout of my ex-boyfriend, Blake Dayes, gripping a guitar by the neck. “The You I Knew,” the title of his latest single, appeared in red script across his body. It took everything in me not to topple the cutout. Four stores down, a poster of Cassandra Hanson promoting noise-canceling headphones hung in the window of a laptop store. She was my former mentor and business partner. When my wellness program, ABANDON—a regimen that encouraged its followers to refrain from all products both toxic and non-, all rinses, creams, tinctures, and tonics—first started gaining attention, it was Cassandra who stepped in to guide me. She introduced me to important influencers and podcasters and the unmistakably wealthy. She was one of the unmistakably wealthy. She was also a prominent online meditation instructor. Her career didn’t really take off, however, until she appeared on TV denouncing me as a fraud. The headphones were her biggest sponsorship yet. An evolved version of me would have been happy for her. I wasn’t that person.

Dyson was going off about his cult. He rambled to me about men, the dangers men faced, how men were depressed and threats to themselves. He waved his arms, pointed, nodded diligently, and blathered with the scattered enthusiasm of a child giving a TED Talk. It wasn’t unusual for him to speak in such perplexing extremes, hopping from truisms to clichés to conclusions as if they were rocks in a stream. He ended on a solution: our cult.

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

“We’ll call it The Atmosphere,” he said. “The men will be Atmospherians. It’s a film term. Another word for extras: people who provide the atmosphere and stand in the background. What better aspiration for men? To cede power, the spotlight, to let others speak, let the action continue without them.”

“Give me a pen,” I said. Dyson was one of the few people left who still carried a pen.

“You don’t need to take notes.” He tapped his forehead. “It’s all in here.”

“Just give it to me.” He handed one over. I marched to Cassandra’s poster intent on drawing an X over each eye, but the poster was hanging inside the glass.

“If you’re interested in a poster I can get you an excellent deal,” said a pouchy man in a tucked polo shirt. He had a face like an electrical outlet. “I’ll throw it in free with a pair of Ear Locks.”

“She’s a bad person!” I said.

“Plus my employee discount. That’s fifteen percent on top of the twenty- five you’re already saving. It’s an unbeatable deal.” He spoke like someone who had never been excited.

“Your company shouldn’t associate with bad people,” I said.

“I do commercials,” Dyson said to the employee. “A ton you’ve probably seen. Movies, too. Blockbusters. And I’ve heard terrible things about how Cassandra treats people. She’s notorious for it. She’s the worst-kept secret in wellness.” Professionally, he was an actor—a career extra in films, TV, and ads—and loved elbowing his experience into conversations. I normally found the habit grating and insecure, but today I was heartened by his defence of me.

“Soon you’ll know!” I shouted. “Soon you’ll all know.” I sensed people staring and covered my face with my hand to prevent anyone from recognising me. Any one of the men from my building might be in this mall. “We need to keep moving,” I said to Dyson.

Dyson and I rode an escalator to the second floor and skirted the food court. Cashiers thrust cuts of teriyaki chicken into our faces. Dyson refused, so I took his, and mine, then his and mine when we circled past a second time.

He said, “It’s my fault I haven’t been here for you. But I want you—if you can—I want you to tell me how you are, where you are emotionally. Cults are founded on honesty, Sasha. And trust. We can’t get where we’re going if you don’t tell me where you are.” Had these words come from anyone else, I would have cackled. But he was calming, sweet. And familiar. That meant more than anything else. “Don’t leave a single thing out,” he said.

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

The past three months tumbled out incoherently: A man who left explicit comments on my photos and videos, the same man who emailed me pics of my head cropped into porn videos, the same man who made new profiles every time I reported him and who used a VPN that the police were too lazy to trace—that man had taken his life after I told him to leave me alone. This man was Lucas Devry, a “preacher” and “father of three” who live-streamed his own suicide. In the video, he told the internet he was ending his life because I had harassed him. Did I use poor judgment? I did. In response to one of his comments, I told him the world would be much better without him. Cruel. Callous. Correct. But hardly harassment. And the internet? It believed him! My ex couldn’t associate with me after the scandal. Cassandra used my downfall as a chance to boost her career. Then the men with their signs. Now I was being evicted from my apartment—I was too toxic to rent a room in New Jersey. My mouth emptied as tears rinsed my cheeks. “I’m so embarrassed,” I said. “Crying in a mall on a Tuesday afternoon.”

“No one’s watching,” he said.

I peered around me. People passed without looking, their avoidance intentional. My anonymity was a relief. After Lucas Devry, I’d become recognisable, a point of discussion—exactly what I’d desired for years. In an effort to remake my image—and to pay rent—I had applied for jobs at a number of charities: the ASPCA, the Organisation for African Children, Save the Peruvian Mice, Médicos Sin Fronteras, the Red Cross, the Salvation Army, Make-A-Wish, Have A Heart, Break A Leg, Give A Lung, Teach For America, Cats in the Schools, and L.A.M.B. But even the laziest Google search disqualified me from being hired.

“Where we’re going,” he said, “none of what happened will matter.”

“You haven’t told me where we’re going. I’ve never been to your grandparents’ place.”

His father’s parents had left him property in southern Jersey, on the northern edge of the Pine Barrens. It was as off-the-grid as you could get without leaving the grid. No shouting, no protesting. “It’s the perfect place for the men to grow and reform,” he said.

“What men?”

“These men I’ve been working with. They’re harmless, but they’re so full of rage. They’re depressed. They’re at risk for suicide. They’re like my father.” He inhaled, collecting himself. “If my father’d had a place to talk out his feelings, who knows what might have been different.”

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

Dyson’s father had died in a car crash while driving to work the summer between our junior and senior years of high school. It was an accident, we told ourselves, because we both suspected it wasn’t. No explanation was the explanation. But the simplicity of Dyson’s new equation disturbed me. If his father’s death could be reduced to cause and effect, maybe Lucas Devry’s could be as well, and I was more at fault than I wanted to believe.

On the third floor, we paused on a bench so close to the railing that our knees pressed into the glass. Dyson gave me a pep talk on all the barriers I’d leapfrogged, the ceilings I’d shattered: “You changed lives. You helped women who struggled with toxic standards of beauty. You gave hope to the despairing, the outcast, the ignored, the desperate, despondent.”

“All that work destroyed by one stupid comment.”

“All that work prepared you for this,” he said. “Everything you thought you did with ABANDON, all the good you brought to the world, all the people you helped, it’ll be nothing compared to what we’re gonna do. Cassandra Hanson, Blake Dayes—you know how meaningless their work will look beside ours? Cassandra makes wealthy dullards relax. Blake writes earworms for idiots. But Sasha: We’re gonna change the world. People will talk about us and The Atmosphere for generations after we’re gone. We’ll make the world safer for everyone. Because the world is full of terrible men. Despicable men like Blake Dayes and Lucas Devry who get worse every day. And nothing gets done. It might seem crazy to do this, but it’s crazier to do nothing.”

I pretended I couldn’t tell he was flattering me. I wanted him to say more.

“I know what you’re thinking,” he said. “But don’t worry. Cult: it’s an organising principle. Strong leader at the top. Two leaders in our case who dictate how those below ought to live. Have there been bad apples? Absolutely. Jonestown. Heaven’s Gate. The Manson Family. Rajneeshpuram. But the model is perfect. Because if any social group ever deserved forced isolation, ever needed their worldview shaped by trusted leaders—for the greater good—it’s men. White men, especially. And we’re the only ones brave enough to commit to this work.”

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

“I just want this all to end.”

“Wrong,” he said. “You want vindication. Exoneration. Hell, you want revenge. You deserve it. Imagine Cassandra’s face when she sees you interviewed on morning talk shows—spreading your message of radical transformation for men. Imagine how quickly Blake will call you, desperate to get back together, when he sees you’re more famous than he is.”

“I’d never get back with him,” I said, though I’d often imagined it.

“Of course not. You won’t even answer his calls.”

I shaped my hand into a phone and spoke into it: “See you in hell, you goat-voiced fraud.” Dyson was laughing. But the pain of losing Cassandra and Blake flooded back into me, and I curled over my knees. “You don’t get it,” I said. “People despise me.”

“Lucas wouldn’t leave you alone. You told him the world would be a more beautiful place without him. I would’ve said the same thing.”

“I won’t be any help.” I regret it now, but I wanted him to tell me he needed me, for him to douse me in praise. I wanted to be convinced.

He intuited this: “You’re organised. Brilliant. Persistent and patient—everything I’m not. I’m a big thinker. An ideas man. I shoot from the hip. Pow! Pow! But you have experience. You already made one program from scratch— had it senselessly taken from you. You’re an expert about group management, planning. I couldn’t possibly do this with anyone else.”

“You do need me,” I said, stupidly confident.

“And you need this. You’ve hit rock bottom. You’re broke. Evicted. The Atmosphere is your only path to redemption. I wish this could happen some other way, but this is the world we have: Americans love reckonings. They’re obsessed with atonement. Reform some men, prove you can care for guys like Lucas Devry, and the media will slobber over your tale of redemption. Boom: you get your life back.”

He insisted the plan was simple: The men would arrive at his property in a week. Over the next six days, he and I would prepare the camp, brainstorm strategies for transforming these men, strategies for bringing The Atmosphere to the public’s attention— “For your sake,” he said, though I knew Dyson was desperate for notoriety, albeit too proud to ever admit his desperation. He promised me a beautiful cabin in the woods and men who were ready to grow and evolve.

“How does that sound?” he asked.

“Too good to be true,” I said.

“Sometimes things can be good and true. Have confidence in me for once. Just trust I know what I’m doing.”

He was right: I had no confidence in him. But if something went wrong, I had confidence in myself to fix it, or escape. I stood and leaned against the railing, rested my arms over the edge.

Dyson took this for what it was: a sign I would join him. He edged in beside me, shoulder to shoulder, and I felt unexpectedly safe.

A young girl screamed from the ground floor of the mall.

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

She was pointing at a purple helium balloon that was drifting to the ceiling. “I got it!” Dyson shouted. It was a foolishly confident thing to say and even more foolish for him to stretch over the railing. I pressed a hand to his back to hold him in place. I was sure the balloon would slip past him, that a gust of central air would blow it beyond his reach and that he’d tumble over the railing to his death. But he palmed the balloon with one hand and cradled it to his chest. He rushed down the escalators to deliver it to the girl. Bystanders applauded the miracle they had witnessed. The girl hugged the balloon. Dyson refused the mother’s attempt to slip him some bills. He ascended the escalators as if gliding on a wave of his own self-satisfaction and pride. A bright, blinding light of inevitability shined inside me: Perhaps I had every reason to trust him. Everything he described would happen exactly as he described it. I was sure of it then.

The girl released the balloon. A collective gasp spread through the mall.

Adapted from THE ATMOSPHERIANS by Alex McElory. Copyright © 2021 by Alex McElroy. Reprinted by permission of Atria Books, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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