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Book Review - Make Believe--A True Story

This article is an electronic version of an article originally published in Cultic Studies Journal, 1997, Volume 14, Number 1, pages 162-164. Please keep in mind that the pagination of this electronic reprint differs from that of the bound volume. This fact could affect how you enter bibliographic information in papers that you may write.

Book Review - Make Believe: A True Story. 

Diana Athill. Steerforth Press, South Royalton, VT, 1993, 130 pages.

Athill writes of an American Black militant who calls himself Hakim Jamal. As a boy, he knew Malcolm X and became a convert to Islam in his twenties after Malcolm X helped him to kick alcohol and heroin. At one time a Black Panther, by the age of 20 Hakim was in prison for attempted murder. His "chief credential" was his part in founding the Malcolm X Montessori School in Los Angeles as a memorial (although he neglected to mention to people that the school collapsed soon after it opened). Hakim was invited to London by people who thought he was doing interesting work organizing progressive schools for ghetto children. It was 1969, and fashionable to be around young, attractive, American Black activists. Athill's British publishing firm was going to publish Hakim's book, which was to focus on Malcolm X's teachings and his impact on Hakim. (Later, Athill states that the publisher didn't hope to sell more than 2,000 copies of the book in England.)

Athill became friendly with Hakim; she admits she was predisposed to Black men, and that she was fascinated by him because he came from such a different background. She, in fact, studies him like a cultural experience. Hakim drew in women everywhere with his charm: reportedly, he had a wife in the States, a liaison with Jean Seberg (an American movie star), and other girlfriends. Athill finds Hakim's political agenda boring and rhetorical; she's really more interested in his autobiographical account. She paints a picture of him as a neglected child, in love with his light-skinned mother. Hakim was the most dark-skinned child in his family and always equated his blackness with ugliness, so that in later life, says Athill, he was always looking for forgiveness for his blackness. Athill was drawn to the hurt child and the abused, misunderstood Black man in society. She admits that when her heart is wrung, she equates it with sensations of love. The author saw herself as having a soothing, stabilizing effect on Hakim when he would become verbally violent and aggressive. She was 14 years older than he, and liked to mother him. She thought she inhibited his God-feelings.

For his part, Hakim was able to manipulate Athill's emotions, tell her what she wanted to hear, keep her wrapped up in him. She says, "I have never known anyone so impossible to disregard" (p. 24). She saw signs of madness early on, such as his calling himself God, his interest in the occult, and his seeing himself as a bestower of bliss. She obviously has read about psychopaths, as she exhibits knowledge of them. Nevertheless, she does not provide her story a frame of reference as she describes her continued involvement with Hakim: giving him money, trying to help him, letting him and his girlfriend Halé (Halé was the daughter of a former member of Parliament) stay in her flat.

Both Jean Seberg, the film star, and Halé showed their own signs of madness, and both died in connection with Hakim (Seberg later committed suicide). And Athill admits to some of her own lunacy in her relationship with Hakim. Athill becomes sexually involved with Hakim and describes their three sexual encounters unnecessarily graphically, almost as if she is trying to portray herself as a very liberated middle-aged woman. She tells Hakim that she sees nothing wrong with incest or infantile sex. At one point she thinks, AIncest must be delicious" (p. 27), as she's embracing him and feeling motherly toward him.

Hakim and Halé traveled from place to place, until they ran out of money, were kicked out, or both. They spent time in Morocco, the United States, Guyana, then Trinidad, and at one point hooked up with Michael X (another troubled person), to whom Hakim then passed on the title of God. Halé was murdered very brutally by several of Michael X's men (it was described as a bonding experience for them, and they were apprehended, charged, and found guilty of the crime). Later, in Boston, Hakim is murdered, seemingly by accident.

It is this murder that Athill focuses on: the tragedy of the poor little ugly Black boy murdered in the ghetto in which he was raised. Athill gives very little mention of Halé being sucked in by Hakim's persuasive charm. Athill calls Halé's "a crazy infatuation--because some vacuum in her needed filling with an emotion of sacrifice and self-immolation" (p. 95). The author appears to have little understanding of how one person is able to manipulate and control another.

Early in the story Athill says she dislikes and distrusts Michael X, but Hakim she likes. She ends the book speaking of her sadness regarding this loving man who didn't have a chance. Although she's a good, interesting writer, I was disturbed by the incongruity between her cheerful detachment in relating these events and their inherent horribleness. I attempted to puzzle out the author's approach and her point in writing this book more than 20 years after the narrated events occurred. It's not quite a personal cult experience because the author is not that introspective (although it incidentally becomes a good portrayal of what appears to be a psychopath, yet only because she describes his deterioration as she sees him through the years). I seemed to find the answer in her statement: "What a glutton I am for discussing my own and everyone else's behavior ... even if I'd murdered someone it wouldn't seem 'unspeakable' to me (I'd have written a book about it by now!)" (p. 80).
Kathy Klein

Former cult member

Berkeley, California

Cultic Studies Journal, Vol. 14, No. 1, 1997