Cultic Studies Review, 5(1), 2006, 165-168
Alison Lurie, an accomplished novelist, won a Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1985 for Foreign Affairs. In Imaginary Friends, Alison Lurie appears to borrow heavily from a study and now-classic report by Leon Festinger, Henry Riecken, and Stanley Schachter. The report appeared in When Prophecy Fails: A Social and Psychological Study of a Modern Group That Predicted the Destruction of the World (1956). The Festinger study disguises the actual cult name, location, and members. In the study, Festinger’s assistants infiltrate a small “flying saucer” cult, the “Seekers,” in “Lakeland” in the 1950s. Lurie was not a member of the cult or an observer during the study.
My guess for the actual cult, if anyone cares, was a small group in the Chicago area led by the medium Dorothy Martin (Marian Keech in the Festinger study), who channeled information from “Sananda” and the Guardians. The “space brothers” used the Seekers in the Festinger study to warn earthlings about a coming catastrophic flood. In real life, Martin fled the Chicago area after her prophecies went public, failed, and made headlines that caused ridicule and harassment of the group. Reportedly, Martin feared commitment to a mental asylum and litigation. She continued her spiritualist quest as Sister Thedra, with an obscure cult following in Arizona. She died peacefully in 1992.
I enjoyed Imaginary Friends. Lurie’s keen eye for detail, plot twists, and subtle, laugh-out-loud humor brings the Festinger study to another level. Lurie includes and goes beyond the participant-observer point of view of the sociologist. She deftly choreographs how cults can affect and change those who study them, just as sociologists can change the cults they study. In many ways, Lurie explores critiques of Festinger’s theory and methodology while she sustains the reasoning behind them.
Imaginary Friends is the story of two male professors, one seasoned and the other just out of graduate school. Doctor Tom McMann as the lead sociologist is a large, fit, middle-aged, never-married fellow. He has established a powerful reputation among his colleagues after just one important publication. McMann convinces his new, young colleague Roger Zimmern, a nonpracticing Jew, to help him find a charismatic group so that the two can test a sociological theory. It has been decades since McMann has published anything of significance. He is anxious that no other colleague knows about the project until he gathers his data. Zimmern finds a small, newly formed cult in the nearby town of Sophis—Lurie mimics Festinger’s Seekers with her cult the Truth Seekers. The two men successfully infiltrate the group that exhibits little suspicion of their motives, save for one member, Ken. McMann wants to observe how unexpected change and unfulfilled prophecies affect group dynamics. He predicts that, after cognitive dissonance from a “disconfirmation,” the group will adjust through rationalizations and by increased recruiting. The sociologists expect to participate for months, if necessary.
Roger narrates the story from the perspective of reflection months after things have fallen apart. The comic events originally occurred when Roger got in over his head in more ways than one during the project. The story is his effort to make sense of all the apparent nonsense that happened then.
The core of the cult depends on Verena, a college dropout at age 19, who moves in with her Aunt Elsie, an avid Spiritualist. Elsie encourages Verena’s mediumistic sensibilities. Through automatic writing, Verena makes contact with an alien race of Guardians from the planet Varna. The Varnian leader Ro channels information to the group through Verena’s cryptic scrawls written after she enters a trance state. The group also hears from Mo and Ko of Varna in this way.
Roger describes Verena as both a nut and a sensitive, alluring waif with sculpted features and hypnotic, liquid eyes. McMann poses as the professor that he is, but in personality more like an affable, accommodating car salesman. Throughout the text, Roger refers to himself as both Roger Zimmern, the objective scholar, and as “Stupid Roger,” the klutzy, shy professor truly interested in contact with Varna. His split persona adds to the tension he feels and the confusion he exhibits, all of which cause uncomfortable, if comic, moments. He eventually wonders who is crazy: Is it he, McMann, or the group?
During weeks of meetings with six or seven others in Elsie’s house, Roger endures progressive changes in diet and belief structures. He tries ineffectively to memorize layers of lessons derived from Ro, Spiritualist doctrine, and idiosyncratic truths that members add to group metaphysics. McMann and Zimmern try their best to be nondirective and participatory, but some circimstances push their acting abilities. For example, during a private conference, Verena attempts to “clear” Roger of icy blocks in his mind by holding his hands while she stands almost against his body and gives an invocation to Ro. “Stupid Roger” believes that she is trying to seduce him, and he wants to let her. “Roger Zimmern” knows that if he dares to have sex with the leader, he could screw up, literally, the entire project, and McMann might kill him. Later in the novel, McMann tells Zimmern that he [Zimmern] missed a grand opportunity for some good sex.
The novel includes truly ridiculous scenes that anyone (like me) who was in a New Age cult might identify with. Ro tells the group through Verena that he and other Varnians will appear to them on Earth from their spacecraft if only devotees prepare the way through purification. Ro gives instructions and announces the hour. The group members remove all organic items from their persons, including cotton underwear, woolen jackets, and leather shoes. They scamper through the house looking for wearable items made of “scientific” materials such as nylon, polyester, and plastics.
The description of women in mismatched apparel gleaned from Elsie’s closet and men in odd items such as rubber galoshes taken from her husband’s closet creates quite a madcap scene for the reader’s imagination. One man in the group had to wear a synthetic quilt wrap throughout the ritual session. After the group removes the offensive organic clothing, Verena directs them to put it all, piece by piece, in the fireplace and watch the stuff burn. Zimmern has a real problem with letting go of his only expensive jacket for something that only Stupid Roger has to believe in. Later in their motel, McMann laughs at him, reassuring him that replacing the jacket is an expense covered by the budget.
The oddly attired group marches outside into the snow in Elsie’s backyard to await “The Coming.” They sing hymns of praise, offer invocations to the Light, and wait and wonder for a long time. Ro and the Varnians fail to appear long after the expected time. An exhausted Verena, who had been fasting and not sleeping for days, finally announces that Ro did indeed appear in a spiritual way. Ro’s spirit is in “man” she says, and then she faints. After the motley entourage carries Verena back into the house, Elsie interprets “man” as Tom McMann. When the lead sociologist reacts on cue to accept his role as Ro, Zimmern gets very nervous and wonders what is going on. Things get out of control when Ken, an ex-member of the cult, arrives and demands to see Verena. Ken is in love with her, and she has feelings for him, too. McMann sees Ken as a threat to the newest developments in the group, thus potentially messing up his project. McMann gets a rifle, fires a shot into the ceiling, and threatens to shoot Ken if he does not leave. Ken later brings the police.
I will not give away the rest of the plot, but I will say that Lurie bends the story from this point on beyond anything that happened in the Festinger study. She entertains us with a wonderfully funny foray into the slippery edges between devotion and mental illness. I can understand why some professors of sociology still recommend this book to their students as required reading. I would.
Cultic Studies Review, Vol. 5, No. 1, 2006, Page