Forager: Field Notes on Surviving a Family Cult with Michelle Dowd  

forager field notes on surviving a family cult

In the modern era, many of us spend most of our time at home, subsisting on what we can get through tech and grocery chains. But in her new book, Forager: Field Notes on Surviving a Family Cult, Michelle Dowd proposes that we are all still foraging internally. Instead of gathering food, we gather what we need to survive emotionally and intellectually. Following our dual appearance on The Megyn Kelly Show, she joined me on the Influence Continuum podcast to discuss how she reframed her harsh experiences to find joy and fulfillment.  

Michelle Dowd is a journalism professor and contributor to The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The LA Book Review, TIME Magazine, The Alpinist, ORION, LA Parent Mag, Catapult, and other national publications. She was the 2022 Faculty Lecturer of the Year at Chaffey College, where she founded the award-winning literary journal and creative collective, The Chaffey Review, advises Student Media, and teaches poetry and critical thinking in the California Institutions for Men and Women in Chino. Michelle was raised on a mountain in the Angeles National Forest, where she learned to identify flora and fauna, navigate by the stars, forage for edible plants, and care for the earth. As an Experienced Registered Yoga Teacher, she has taught students and trained teachers in southern California studios since 2008. Michelle’s memoir, Forager: Field Notes on Surviving a Family Cult, showcases her life growing up on an isolated mountain in California as part of an apocalyptic cult and how she found her way out of poverty and illness by drawing on the gifts of the wilderness.  

Healing the Body and Soul

Michelle was isolated from medical care and chronically sleep-deprived as a child and developed a rare, potentially life-threatening blood disease. I raised the idea that many cult survivors suffer from psychosomatic and autoimmune disorders due to the stress of their circumstances. Michelle noted that she is much healthier physically and mentally after her exit from the Field.  

For many, including Michelle, the path to healing the aftereffects of this stress is long. However, humans are deeply invested in their own survival. Our self-preservation instincts are powerful; even when suppressed by adverse circumstances, they do not go away.  

In addition to physical problems, while involved in a high-control group, one may become disconnected from themself and forced into a pseudo-identity. After exiting, many struggle to replace that identity with a more authentic one. We discussed a therapeutic technique I use in my practice called reparenting, in which patients recall a negative familial memory and visualize what an ideal parental response to them would have been. Similarly, cult survivors often have to imagine and try on identities until they find what they want independent of outside influence. In both challenges, I’ve seen human resilience thanks to our brain’s neuroplasticity and neurogenesis.  

Poetry in Prison  

Michelle also highlighted the human capacity for change and self-healing regarding her experience teaching writing courses in prisons. Many incarcerated people she worked with had never attempted to be creative. Michelle urged them to try something new and put their own stories down in poetry or nonfiction narratives, allowing them to see a different version of themselves.  

We agreed that in American culture, particularly regarding the authoritarian prison system, there’s not much credence given to the idea that a person can fundamentally change. Survivors of high control groups may see this differently, however. Michelle felt an immediate empathy for and kinship with the women she taught. She understood being confined and isolated and the terrible things you can be convinced to do when you’re under undue influence. I have also been in contact with high-security prisoners and felt, “There but for the grace of God go I.” Michelle made the apt comparison of undue influence to an abusive relationship. A person drawn into dangerous circumstances is not necessarily weak or evil. People lead the lifestyles they do, including criminal ones, because they’re seeking something they need, such as a sense of belonging or purpose. Healing begins when something can be found in a healthy environment.  

This appears to be the case with Manson Family survivor Leslie Van Houten, who worked as a tutor with Michelle’s students. Van Houten has been a model of good behavior throughout her sentence and is now recommended again for parole. Both of us hope she will be finally released.  

Artists Go First  

I was touched by Michelle’s stories about using art to heal from undue influence. I have a background in art, the story of which is told in my book Combating Cult Mind Control. When I entered the Moonies cult, I was asked to make a sacrifice to prove my dedication. The story of Abraham being supposedly tested by God to sacrifice his beloved son Isaac was used on me_ I was told to demonstrate my dedication. I was told to throw out all of my original poetry (over 400 poems). I understand they were trying to destroy my real identity as an artist. Talking with Michelle and Gerette Buglion of has inspired me to start making time to write again.  

Michelle pointed out as we were finishing up that authoritarian regimes always target artists first because art comes from the part of us that resists being controlled. It’s appropriate that she spends her time teaching others who have been controlled or hurt to access an artistic side and heal themselves. We all could benefit from connecting with our generative, authentic selves. This part of us will always point towards freedom of mind.  

There are countless brilliant, talented people trapped in authoritarian systems who are not able to contribute to humanity. By successful, high-profile people like Michelle Dowd writing books and being willing to educate others, the hope is we can destigmatize the phenomenon of being raised or recruited into authoritarian groups. It will make it so much easier for folks to know there was nothing wrong with them, and it was the system that influenced them and kept them from developing fully.


Buy Forager: Field Notes on Surviving a Family Cult

Michelle’s website

Steven and Michelle on the Megyn Kelly Show

Michelle’s piece in Time Magazine: Religion is an Ex I’m Still Trying to Leave Behind

Michelle’s Instagram

Michelle’s Course at Chaffey – Register for ENGL-7E Creative Writing: Nonfiction- section #30736

Michelle’s Online Writers’ Workshop at Orion Magazine