Down from the Mountain (Albert Whitman Teen) by Elizabeth Fixmer, $16.99
An interview with author Elizabeth Fixmer —
Down from the Mountain is a contemporary YA novel about Eva, a girl who has grown up in a religious cult, and begins to question Ezekiel, the self-proclaimed prophet. What are the psychological dangers of being a cult member that Eva experiences?
From the time Eva is ripped from her life, at age five, and forced to live by Ezekiel’s rules in Righteous Path, her new “normal” is psychologically dangerous. A religious cult by definition deviates from widely accepted religious beliefs and practices in some fundamental ways. The leader is usually charismatic, authoritarian and espouses to have the key – the only key to salvation.Because Eva was a small child when her mother joined Righteous Path, she had no choice from the very beginning. Like all the members, Eva loses everything that connects her to the outside world including her possessions and her parents. All the women in the cult are considered mothers. She is not allowed to have a special relationship with her mother, Mother Martha, and her mother has absolutely no authority over her. She is taught that outsiders are heathens, and dangerous, and to be terrified to have contact with outsiders because they’ll try to take her away and could destroy her purity. In addition to isolation from the broader society, and family outside the cult members are not allowed to question anything Ezekiel says or to disagree with him. Since Ezekiel espouses that he has a direct line to God, members who question are showing a lack of faith and must be punished. School for Eva and the other kids occurs in the compound and is limited to content Ezekiel approves, which is very little.In a nutshell, the obedience required of her doesn’t allow for her to develop critical thinking skills or become her true self.
What elements of Eva’s story do you think would appeal to the average teen?
The average teen is becoming his or her own person – coming to terms with his or her own values, opinions and eager to have greater independence from her parents. Because Eva is prevented from becoming her own person, the reader will empathize with Eva and root for her. Eva’s situation is different from most readers, but her struggles reflect universal feelings – her budding sexual feelings, her devotion to friends and to her mother, her pull toward independent thinking.In addition, the teen reader will find Eva likeable. Readers will root for her. Almost everyone who’s read the book says that it’s a page turner and hard to put down. Also, teens are often fascinated by reading about other teens who live in a world so different from their own. And it doesn’t take long to recognize that Eva is struggling with universal issues – sexual feelings, independent thinking, questions about faith and the role of family in maturing teens.
What is your purpose in bringing this book into the world?
First and foremost I want kids to put themselves in Eva’s world and raise all of the questions the book engenders: Is this stuff real? Why do people follow cult leaders? Why don’t they just leave? Etc. By asking these questions and coming to understand how and why religious cults come about, I hope that teens will develop a shield against being drawn into shady religious groups. Most kids today don’t know about the big cult tragedies that have occurred and believe they’d never join a cult. What they don’t realize is that many of the most dangerous cults start out with beautiful beliefs that get distorted as the charismatic leader becomes more controlling and sometimes paranoid.
Religious traditions and spirituality are important in your first book Saint Training which focuses on Catholic school. But that book reflected a certain innocence of character and belief. Down from the Mountain reflects a more cynical form of religion that includes brainwashing. Can you tell readers the difference between most religions and cults?
The major religions of the world are based on a set of beliefs and practices that are well known to the participants and are stable over time. When a person decides to participate in a major religion she generally knows what she has signed up for and what she can expect from her religion. In a religious cult the leader generally purports to have a direct line to God, and to be privy to “truths” not known to the major religions. Because beliefs and practices are based on the leaders so-called “direct line to God” they are changeable and generally result in greater and greater control on the part of the leader. When anyone questions the leader she is seen as being weak in faith.In most cults obedience to the leader means salvation while disobedience means eternal damnation. In broader religions salvation may or may not be dependent on following the beliefs and practices of the faith, but it is not likely to be tied to the ideas of a single individual.
You have counseled cult members in the past which led to research about cults. What is your goal in bringing that research and knowledge of cults to teen readers?Education is power. If readers come to understand common characteristics of cults and cult leaders, and the dangers these pose to followers, they’ll be able to make an intelligent assessment about participating. Many times people who haven’t been in cults think that something has to be wrong with those who join them. In truth, cults are attractive to extremely smart individuals and especially those who are spiritually oriented.
What is your philosophy of religion vs spirituality?
I see spirituality as a way of understanding the world and a way of experiencing life. The spiritual person believes in some kind of a higher power, some kind of divine plan. This may or may not include a personal God. Spirituality is the large umbrella of beliefs that religion falls under.
Religion is an attempt to institutionalize spirituality – to break it down into a distinct set of beliefs and rules.
What young adult novels are you reading now?
I am reading I’ll Give You The Sun, by Jandy Nelson. I’ve recently read we were liars by e. lockhart, and The Carnival at Bray, by Jessie Ann Foley. I’m looking forward to reading A Time to Dance by Padma Venkatraman.
What are you working on now?
I’m really excited about my next book! It’s about Alexi, a girl who has just turned seventeen and is facing a long sentence for stealing her mother’s car, downing a bottle of vodka and hitting a university student who later dies from her injuries. When Alexi thinks things can’t get any worse she learns that she’s pregnant. She’s horrified at first but decides she really wants to keep the baby, because she was torn from her birth mother’s arms as a child, and adopted. She doesn’t want her baby to go through that. Alexi happens to be in one of seven prisons in the United States that allow women to keep their babies right in prison, if the inmate meets rigid criterion. (This part is not fiction. The programs really exist.) But she is facing a much longer sentence than is allowed, and has already been in trouble behind bars. She struggles to change her behavior and find a way to be accepted into the program.
Is there anything you’d like to add that I may have missed about this book?
My background as a psychotherapist and social worker keeps me interested in the emotional growth of my readers and in issues of social justice and social change. The purpose of my third book is to shed light on the sad state of separating mothers from their children in prison because when the mother has the potential to parent. Such separation prevents normal attachment and keeps the recidivism rate high for the mother and eventually the child.
Can you give a brief biography to readers?
Elizabeth has provided a list of books on her website for further reading. These are a combination of novels and books written by former cult members. She will soon be adding books by cult experts. To visit her website, go to http://www.elizabethfixmer.com/