Full Fathom Five Digital (fullfathomfive.com). 2014. ISBN-10: 1633700178; ISBN-13: 978-1633700178 320 (paperback). $3.99 (Amazon Kindle, amazon.com); $6.99 (digital, http://store.fullfathomfive.com/?product=the-family).
A young-adult novel, The Family explores the world of a 17-year-old girl raised in a cult. It takes a certain level of skill to craft a story of a child’s experience in a cult and retain the complexity of that experience. It is easy to create a sensationalized story where the world inside the cult is evil and the world outside is good. But Kennerson presents Twig and her world in such a way that readers can relate to her struggles and are invested in her search for understanding. Kennerson expertly avoids the trap of developing characters and worlds that we either love or hate. Instead, she builds relationships that are filled with a variety of emotions and conflicts, some of which are resolved and some of which are not.
The story centers on Twig, who has been raised in an isolated community in the jungles of Costa Rica. Twig is introduced as a fairly typical teenager. She questions some aspects of life within the cult, but in general feels happy, safe, and secure. However, once the group’s leader, Adam, announces that Twig will be his new wife, her life as she has known it begins to unravel. Through a series of events, she begins to have limited contact with the outside world. The resulting story is both one of a girl questioning the very foundation of the only life she has ever known, and also a love story with a boy she meets outside of the group.
The author developed the internal world of the cult in such a way that the reader understands Twig’s world as “normal.” Twig and the group have a structure, daily routine, recreation, and relationships with each other. Twig finds value in the idea of the needs of the collective over the needs of the individual. It is only gradually that Kennerson first unveils the cost of this idealistic society and eventually unravels the true purpose of the group.
Overall, Kennerson does an excellent job developing the characters and relationships within the cult. The most striking character is the cult leader, Adam. Kennerson accurately and often shockingly captures the extreme unpredictability that is characteristic of many cult leaders. The book opens with the wedding of one of Twig’s closest friends. Adam is late to the wedding, and although it is hot and there is little respite from the sun, the whole group waits without moving for Adam to arrive. Upon his arrival, the group members are suddenly energized. In this very first glimpse of Adam, Kennerson gently introduces us to the dynamic between leader and follower—a dynamic in which members do not question their leader and are willing, if not eager, to sacrifice for him. Through Twig’s increasingly critical observations and interactions with Adam, the reader is slowly exposed to the horror of living with a man who is charming, electric, and benevolent at times, while at other times tyrannical, cruel, and erratic. The character of Adam is well developed and nuanced, which is not an easy feat.
One relationship left somewhat unresolved is the one between Twig and her mother, Avery. Avery and Twig have a relationship in which Twig has become parentified. She spends a great deal of energy worrying about her mother staying out of trouble with leadership and about her mother's emotional health; in fact, she often refers to her mother as Avery in her internal dialogue. As the book progresses, we learn more about Avery and how she came to be recruited by the cult. However, there is no pivotal moment of redemption for Avery. The reader is left with a sense of understanding how Avery became involved in a cult, but the reader is not compelled to forgive Avery for failing her daughter. It may be difficult for the reader to sit with this lack of absolution, but it is an accurate portrayal of the struggle that children raised in cults often experience with their parents.
I have only one small criticism of the book, which pertains to Twig’s relationship with her peers within the cult. With the exception of her relationship with her closest friend, Ryan, Twig does not have close, trusting friendships with the children she grew up with. Kennerson explains this as resulting from the paranoia that comes with group members being encouraged to spy on each other and report on one another to leadership. The problem is that, in cults, although this lack of close relationships may be true for adults, it is not typically true for children. Often, children raised in cults report having more intimate relationships with their peers.
Overall, the story has been crafted with complexity and nuance. The reader is drawn into the world of Twig and becomes invested in her search for the truth about her world. It is well written for the target young-adult audience. Most notably, readers will come away with an enhanced understanding of cultic dynamics in an easy-to-digest format.
Additionally, this book is an important contribution to an audience who otherwise might not be exposed to this topic. Adolescence is a particularly important time to open up discussion about critical thinking, about people and groups that may promise grand solutions and all-encompassing ideologies. This book has the ability to open these important dialogues.
Marissa Kennerson holds a BA in English Literature and a master’s degree in psychology and art therapy. She lives in California with her family (husband and two boys). This is her first novel.
While I have sought to be objective in the review of this book, it should be noted that I was myself raised in a cult.
Ashley Allen, MSW, LSW, completed her Master’s in Social Work at Monmouth University. She has presented on cults, with a particular focus on SGAs, at various mental-health agencies in New Jersey, and at Rutgers University and Monmouth University. Ashley is currently serving on ICSA’s Education Initiative.