Inside Out: A Memoir of Entering and Breaking Out of a Minneapolis Political Cult
Alexandra Stein, North Star Press of St Cloud, Inc.: Minneapolis, 2002. ISBN: 0-87839-187-8. $16.95
Reviewed by Dennis Tourish, Ph.D.
In recent years, a growing number of volumes have been published, detailing stories of various cults from the inside. These autobiographical accounts have contributed much to our understanding of cultic phenomenon. We now know more about the processes of recruitment, emotional affiliation, indoctrination, and about how many people find the inner resources to eventually escape. This book details the author’s experiences inside a little known leftist cult in Minneapolis and adds substantially to that literature. But to say only this understates the towering achievement which this reviewer believes that it represents. I had the pleasure of reading the manuscript in draft form, and am quoted on the book’s cover saying that the book is “a literary masterpiece, and a classic of autobiographical writing.” It is the best inside account of a cult that I have yet read, and one of the very best written books that I have ever encountered. Irrespective of anyone’s interest in cults, the book will be taken to heart by readers simply interested in stories of other people’s lives and in good writing. It is that rare achievement—a book which is so unputdownable that those who buy it are likely to become addicts, resenting other intrusions on their time until it is finished.
Alexandra Stein was born in South Africa, and her narrative movingly recounts how her family left the country in the late 1950s in a semi-voluntary exile from Apartheid. Like many reaching maturity in the 1960s she found much to protest about, and adopted an itinerant lifestyle, leaving home at an early age to live in Paris, and then surfacing in California in the dying days of the 1960s. In these times (simultaneously so remote, yet still so recent), political action was the norm rather than the exception. In the course of leftist political activity Stein eventually encountered members of a secretive organisation called simply ‘The O.’ Her book recounts her history in this group, mostly in Minneapolis, where she moved in order to be more active in the organisation.
Stein’s narrative crosses genres in doing so. This is much more than the chronological tale of ideological infatuation, disillusionment and (thankfully, in her case) a rediscovery of the self. It is the story of a generation of baby boomers, aware that something was wrong in society, conscious that individual protest would be insufficient to right social wrongs, and desperate to find an appropriate form of organisation and a coherent ideology to underpin it. There were many who, like Stein, thought that Leninism and its organisational manifestations would offer a way forward. Instead, it chained them to impenetrable walls within a psychic prison. Intolerance stood guard, demanding extreme conformity and enacting the standard panoply of abuses that we know exist in all manner of cults. A leitmotif that begins on page one of the book and recurs as it moves towards a gripping climax is the murder of a young man. It would give too much away to say more, other than that Stein’s struggle to find out what happened is typical of this quite exceptional book, its highly original narrative structure, and its ability to have readers at times quite literally on the edge of their seat. One turns pages barely able to read on, but too engrossed to possibly stop reading.
The O. was, even by the standards of the far left, a bizarre grouping. For the most part, it seemed more devoted to running small businesses (invariably, with a highly skilled degree of incompetence) than in the tasks of political organisation. Its leader communicated to the members mostly by memo and rejoiced in the improbable acronym of P.O.O.—one would have thought that this was a somewhat unfortunate choice for a leader ultimately revealed to have more farmyard than human qualities. No one ever knew what it stood for, and Stein herself only realised the identity of the shadowy P.O.O. towards the end of her period of membership. The group nevertheless managed to completely dominate the lives of its members. It dictated where they lived, how many hours they slept, whom they lived with and whom they were to marry. Stein’s account of her own marriage, and her attempt to exit the group with her husband and with their family intact, is one of the most moving parts of this book. At one point, and in pages that tear at the heart, The O. attempted to separate Stein from her two adopted children. One wills her to succeed, and again it would be telling too much to say how she eventually fared. Her account of these experiences brings home the intense cruelty and deceptiveness that we find in all cults, regardless of how liberating their ideology purports to be.
Ultimately, the book is redemptive. Stein often writes with great comic effect, as in describing how when she left the group its impenetrable jargon (only weeks earlier regarded as so revealing) now made literally no sense at all. Against heavy odds, she began to struggle against this oppressive environment, to understand what it really represented and to break free. Some of the best writing in the book, and some of the best writing that you will find anywhere, describes this process. I cannot resist one quotation. Stein describes getting in touch with the real world outside the cult, in all its wonder, beauty and complexity. She writes: “Nature was there to tell me that winter ends and spring begins and I, too, was beginning again. Every morning, rain or shine, I visited the lilac, bowing my face into its purple sprockets; this was my meditation when the dirt was lodged in me and through the coming months when the dirt had to be faced. The love of my friends and the miracle of a Minnesota spring returned me to the land of the living.” It is impossible for anyone who has ever endured anything remotely similar not to be deeply moved and informed by this book and the many passages like that just quoted.
What ultimately distinguishes Inside Out from many other memoirs is the author’s own deep knowledge of cultic phenomenon. She manages to seamlessly include references to various theories of cult processes, illustrate them with fascinating personal experiences, and enrich our theoretical understanding of cultism while doing so. The word classic is often overused. Not to use it here would be to do this marvellous book a disservice. I urge you to buy it! And then pass it on.