Heartbreaker: A Novel by Claudia Dey

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This was the smell my mother was giving off now in our front hallway- an unfinished space, an open body cavity, an open grave.

A cult trapped in the 1980s makes for one strangely unique read. Told in three parts by Girl, Dog and Boy, what does it say about me that I devoured the chapters told in the dog’s voice? Well, I did. When not scavenging through discarded junk or trying to be hot like that ‘girl in the Whitesnake video’ our narrator Pony is trying to understand what happened to her mother who has disappeared. Living on a tract of land called ‘the territory’ that the Leader and his followers landed on, we are told that Pony’s mother ended up their seventeen years ago, always an outsider, after a car accident. Her father, ‘the Heavy’ a solid, tragically scarred man doesn’t understand his  beautiful mysterious wife, Billie Jean (not likely her real name) and the others never fully trust her. Isolated from the rest of the world, how far could her mother have gone?

In truth, her mother had been folding in on herself for months, tormented by some inner turmoil and not noticing that Pony too is facing her own emotional ‘storms’ coming of age, the only virgin ripe for the sons. Her father is already set apart from the other men, a mystery. Supernatural is the only boy Pony finds interesting, because of his intelligence not because he is the best looking, he seems nothing like the other boys who think only of sex. Supernatural has everyone in his thrall, simply for being touched by perfection, light, even if he doesn’t feel that way. The relationship between Pony and her mother wasn’t always strained, they shared a separate life for themselves through swimming but Billie Jean’s past before the territory remains shrouded in mystery, prevents a deeper bond between mother and daughter. A life Billie Jean only wants to forget, erase. Was it all about disappearing, just what is out there, beyond the territory? What was she escaping?

What about the dog, what does dog know? Why was it speaking to her mother and her mother to it? “She was always in motion. Always between things. Talking to herself.” All Pony wants is for her mother, the mother both she and her father remember, to surface.

Dog knows a lot of things, shares an intimacy with Billie Jean beyond any human relationship, even if daughter Pony has been the one tracking her mother. Pony, the only child dog can tolerate because, dog tells us ‘Children are manipulators, hysterics, vaudevillians.’ This pet, whom we do not name because in the territory only people get named, is closest to Billie Jean in the three months she hid away in her bedroom. Dog is wise and witty, loyal.  Dog tells us how the territory began, who John (the leader) was and how he escaped Suburbia only to recreate it. It is with deep pleasure Dog has a name, a name bestowed upon by Billie Jean. Dog knows her sorrows and her history, all the secrets of her tragic past.

But what does Boy know? How is he involved? Maybe the territory has secrets of its own, maybe boy’s secret is the biggest. Just who is the Heartbreaker? This novel is an original to be sure, the people are weird, of all the decades for a cult to cling to this leant humor to a moving, sad tale. There is satisfaction in uncovering what led Billie Jean to remain in the territory all those years ago and her choices, mistakes then and now are easy to relate to. Mother as mystery, how many daughters look at their mother’s just this way? How many daughters will themselves be mysteries to their own children one day? Billie Jean wants escape, but instead takes great risks that leave her far more vulnerable, create bigger secrets and deceptions that pull others in and leaves a hell of a mess in her wake.

Publication Date: August 21, 2018

Random House

 

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To the Moon and Back A Childhood Under the Influence by Lisa Kohn

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At first I had no idea that anything was wrong with my childhood.

I have a vague memory as a very young child and a newscast of a lot of people marrying one another (strangers to each other) in Madison Square Garden, and my parents mumbling something about it being ‘crazy’. I was a kid, dazzled by the many brides so when reading this memoir about the Unification Church (which some still call the Moonies and consider a cult) it clicked that this is the group from that long ago newscast. People often talk of Bohemian childhoods, but Lisa’s far surpasses many ‘hippie’ stories, her parents were free spirits that ‘stuck out’ even among those of their generation. Sure, she watched Jefferson Airplane in central park but her childhood was anything but carefree and charmed. “Mimi had tried on religions and movements like some women try on clothes.” Mimi, her mother, falls under the spell of Father ( Reverend Moon)- not her real father Danny (whom isn’t one for the label father anyway) when hearing him speak she found her purpose in life. Her children are dragged along by her passion for the religion.

When her parents first met, her mother was a straight A student, daughter of a judge while her father, Danny was ‘the beatnik son of socialist intellectualists’. Rushing headfirst into marriage the summer they were out of highschool, having children, her father attending college for a time, their marriage didn’t last long and her parents divorced. Danny moved to New York while Lisa, her mother Mimi and brother Robbie lived in New Jersey.  Her father, a bartender and partaker of serious drugs had always been ‘anti-establishment’, and certainly isn’t able to provide stability anymore than her mother who is swallowed by the Church. A mother who once made the children suffer through micro-biotic diets, sugar-free living, a tv-less existence, an abusive boyfriend and whatever new fad caught her attention now pushes her children away to devote her entire being to the cause of Reverend Moon. While her mother needed to find truth and meaning, and their father came and went with the wind, Lisa and her brother relied on themselves confused by the differences in their parents lifestyles, slowly becoming aware just how strange their lives, their parents were in comparison to their peers.

“These were the beliefs that wrapped themselves like creeping vines around my mind as I grew up- during my most formative preadolescent and adolescent years- always clasping tighter and holding my life, my soul, and my sense of self together.” Lisa becomes just as enraptured as her mother, she learns to share the love and sell the ideas of the church on strangers, and friends alike. Love-bombing people with the hopes they will join, not exactly appealing to fellow students. Lisa and her brother Robbie fall in love with the positive energy and the always smiling fellow moonies. It isn’t long before they become close to the ‘True Children’, top of the hierarchy. The church becomes more their ‘real life’ than school and home, soon their mother is no longer living with them, her devotion solely to the church-  her ‘calling’. Living with their grandfather “Pop”, she begins to shoulder adult responsibilities. Rather than feeling anger towards her mom, she just assures herself that it’s an important sacrifice her mother has to make, and Lisa should feel proud. Easier said than done.

When her Pop is admitted to a psych hospital it is Danny’s turn to house Lisa and her brother. Danny’s lifestyle is loud, carefree, filled with late hours, crazy wild friends and there is little chance of him putting his partying ways and drug abuse aside. He is as passionate about coccaine as her mother is about Reverend Moon and his teachings. Living with their mother, not an option, Lisa is unwanted. Her ‘puritanical’ church beliefs begin to collide with her peers, who are more interested in skipping school and experimenting with drugs, sex, all things forbidden youth loves to flirt with. Danny’s way of life too is antithesis to the Church of Unification’s values, exposing his children to everything the church reviles.

As time goes on, her mother moves often and seems to drift further from her children. As Lisa comes of age, she becomes a groupie, discovers she and her brother are banished  (considered impure) for a time, and begins to question this church she once felt devoted to with all her being. Then there is Stuart, and first love. Her life is in turmoil -just what does she believe in? Church rules change, now she can’t even be with True Children, due to Reverend Moon’s latest decree, because people like her are a ‘satanic influence’. She begins to experience new forbidden things away from the church. Drinking, dancing, parties, boys and eventually Cornel. She begins to crack. It takes years, but she begins to emerge from her difficult childhood and the influence of both her parents and the church. While suffering with an eating disorder she proves even her therapist wrong with her pregnancy, already trying her best to be a better mother than her own. Finding that with her first-born child, old fears rise. A life spent distancing herself from her past involvement with the church comes full circle in the last chapter, Reunion.

I was thinking about the whole ‘cult/church’ aspect and thought ‘really families themselves are a little like cults’. What family is without its strange habits or demands? What family doesn’t warp the mind a little of each member? Now add an actual cult (outside influences) to your own family chaos and you can imagine Lisa’s struggle. If we spend our adulthood recovering from our families and childhood, how does one manage to recover from life in an actual cult? How does a woman learn to be a solid, present mother and wife?

This is a first person account of a life inside a cult, or church, depending on who you ask! Facing pain, rejection, abandonment, the confusing chaos of two parents who are equally destructive forces in her childhood, Lisa Koon somehow creates a stable, healthy beautiful life out of the ashes of her childhood.

Publication Date: September 18, 2018

Heliotrope Books