Trauma transformed: Pitzer grad releases memoir of childhood in a family cult
By Lisa Butterworth | special to the Courier
When Michelle Dowd first started writing as a young girl, it was during stolen moments in the margins of a Sears catalog. The only larger book she owned was her childhood Bible, and in her family the catalog was akin to contraband.
She surreptitiously scribbled in its pages — verse-like stories about the man in the moon, curious words from the Old and New Testaments, and lyrical descriptions of her own experience, which she refrained from speaking aloud, lest she be reprimanded for the “sin” of fabrication.
More than 30 years later, this catalog became a valuable resource, helping her to recount the story of a traumatic upbringing she barely survived. On Tuesday, March 7, “Forager: Field Notes for Surviving a Family Cult,” Dowd’s raw, heart-wrenching, and beautifully crafted memoir, will be released into the world by Algonquin Books.
“It’s very unnerving,” she said. “It’s something I truly feel like I avoided most of my life.” And with good reason. Dowd grew up in the San Gabriel Valley in an intensely religious, apocalyptic cult called the Field, created by her grandfather in the 1930s. His contingent of mostly young, male followers believed him to be God’s prophet, and he preached fundamentalist ideologies and fire and brimstone tirades with “mercurial tyranny.”
When Dowd was 10, he sent her family to “the mountain,” acreage he had leased in the Angeles National Forest. She lived with her parents and three siblings in a one-room mess hall on the property; their sole purpose was to prepare for the end times. It was here, under the tutelage of her naturalist mother, that Dowd learned to live off the land. In fact, she had no choice. It wasn’t unusual for her mother to drop her in the wild for hours or days at a time, without so much as a canteen of water.
Poverty, violence, and neglect were embedded in the Field. Dowd and her siblings knew that, much like the Bible’s story of Abraham and Isaac, they would be sacrificed by their mother if God required it. And in many ways they were. Dowd lived, but telling the tale was not part of the plan.
“I feel like this process, all of it, hasn’t been seeking, it has been saying ‘yes,’” she said.
The process began in 2019, when Dowd, a media and journalism professor at Chaffey College in Rancho Cucamonga, took on one of her own assignments alongside her students: to send out inquiries and gather some rejections. A writer friend suggested she submit to Modern Love, the New York Times’ weekly column. “She said, ‘Oh, they’ll reject you for sure,’” Dowd recounts with a laugh. Only they didn’t. Dowd’s stirring snapshot of a dead-end relationship, contextualized with snippets of her unusual upbringing, was published within a week, and book agents came calling.
“I have always been taught not to talk about it,” she said. To her parents and older sister, who were still part of the organization (her mother died last year), speaking out was the ultimate betrayal. (She was told the photo of singed Bible verses on the book’s cover are enough to send her to hell.) Yet she still felt like she was ready. “A lot of the healing came prior to writing the book,” she said. “That gave me the courage to say yes.”
Once she did, the words poured out, handwritten in the dark by candlelight, just as her notes in the Sears catalog had been. “I just channeled the inner voice of the girl who never got a chance to tell her story,” she said.
Each chapter of the book is anchored by an actual field note — information about the edible soft inner bark of the Jeffrey pine or the nutrients found in dandelion leaves. The plants’ nourishment is literal, but also metaphorical. “I wanted to make sure that the book is about what it takes to heal,” Dowd said. The mountain sustained her, and also taught her how to sustain herself.
Dowd was excommunicated from the Field at 17. Though her memoir ends there, the rest of her life was just beginning. She had never been to Claremont, but based on a college application filled out with the help of a woman whose house she had been secretly cleaning for money, Dowd was accepted to Pitzer College. “They said, ‘We think you’d be a really good fit for us,’” and when she sat in on a class and noticed everyone was barefoot, she agreed.
“My time in Claremont changed everything about my life,” Dowd said. She read voraciously, took classes in every subject that piqued her interest, and made lifelong friends of her professors. “I do not think that I would’ve survived in a traditional college,” she said. “[At Pitzer] I felt free. I had been raised with so many restrictions that I was like, ‘Oh wow, this is a place where you can be or do anything.’”
Dowd married young, to a man who had also left the Field, and by the time she was in grad school at University of Colorado, she had four children. They returned to Southern California and bought a 100-year-old house on an acre of land in Rancho Cucamonga, where Dowd (since split from her husband) still lives with her Australian shepherds, chickens, and a cat. In addition to teaching at Chaffey, she also leads regular classes at Claremont Yoga.
Though Dowd no longer has to live off the land, she knows she can. “I still pick elderberries, I still make rose hip tea,” she said. “It does feel really, really nurturing and comforting to me to be anywhere where there are no lights, where you can see the stars and the darkness.”
With her kids grown, and Forager already racking up “new and noteworthy” accolades from the likes of The Washington Post and Los Angeles Times, Dowd said she is ready to keep saying yes: “I’m open to a new journey now.”
Catch Michelle Dowd at these upcoming events:
• “Forager” pre-release party and candlelight yoga, Friday, March 3, 6-8:30 p.m., Claremont Yoga, 300 W. Foothill Blvd. Info: claremontyoga.com
• “Forager” launch party, Tuesday, March 7, 3:30-6:30 p.m., The Maloof Foundation, 5131 Carnelian St., Alta Loma, CA 91701. Info: malooffoundation.org
• “Forager” book signing, Thursday, March 9, 7-8 p.m., Vroman’s Bookstore, 3729 E. Foothill Blvd., Pasadena, CA 91107. Info: vromansbookstore.com