Bookforum talks with Dodie Bellamy

The TV Sutras BY Dodie Bellamy. Ugly Duckling Presse. Paperback, 240 pages. $18.

I first met Dodie Bellamy in a graduate nonfiction workshop at the California College of the Arts in San Francisco; she was my teacher. I remember her as encouraging and honest. Her most recent book, The TV Sutras, is a personal meditation on religious experience, as well as what it means to be a teacher and to be taught. Like Bellamy, I’ve experienced a cult of sorts, in that I was raised in a fundamentalist Christian family. Perhaps that is why I’m especially drawn to her work. Few ex-cult members can ever entirely turn their backs on the teachings of a charismatic leader, and the worldviews of spiritual communities are often hard to excise from one’s consciousness. Bellamy expertly speaks both to the reader unfamiliar with charismatic cults and to those who have been seduced in the past by such groups.

The first half of the book consists of reflections on lines plucked from television shows and commercials. As Bellamy explains, each day she would do yoga and meditate, turn on the TV, and wait to be “hailed by what the TV is saying.” After noting two or three words or phrases, she would wait to receive a “commentary,” in the form of a sutra, on what the phrases might teach us. The second half of the book is an imaginative essay on Bellamy’s own experience in a cult as a young adult. This section—part invention, part truth—was so convincing that I found myself googling her characters as soon as I finished reading.

Bellamy and I corresponded by email earlier this fall.

You’ve said that the process of writing The TV Sutras took five years and that you hadn’t written about your experience in the cult before because you found it embarrassing. What changed in order to make it possible for you to write this book?

The TV Sutras format created a new angle into the material for me. In the extended essay that comprises the second half of the book, I was answering two questions: How valid are my TV sutras as a spiritual text? What was the cultural climate from which they emerged? In answering these questions, I became more interested in the process of cults rather than my particular cult, and I used my experiences in a cult as one of many sources. I gave myself permission to fictionalize and shape in ways that wouldn’t have been easy if I were calling this a memoir. Cult memoirs can be tedious, mostly because the author blames their specific cult. Cults vary wildly, of course, in terms of their badness, but the more I studied my cult and dozens of others, the more I came to believe it’s the process—not the cult—that’s faulty. That process became an obsession for me.

A lot of mainstream media never address the positive aspects of being in a tight-knit religious community. We are often left wondering how the cult members could be so stupid or so easily manipulated. Your book addresses the scandals and abuse but doesn’t sensationalize them. In fact, if my memory serves, you never use the word brainwash, although you do use the term cult. Was this book a reaction to mainstream depictions of cults?

Everything I write is in reaction to mainstream depictions! Particularly simplistic narratives of healing and redemption. And, yes, if a cult weren’t fulfilling basic human needs, at least at the beginning, for love, excitement; for a sense of self-worth, belonging, safety; for a cohesive worldview that organizes the chaos—no one would join it. In order to refamiliarize myself with what the process is like, on YouTube I watched a six-hour presentation by sacred geometry guru Nassim Haramein, in which Haramein starts with a dot, a line, a square, and then a cube—and ends up with how the Ark of the Covenant was an alien anti-gravity device kept in the pyramids. I watched it without a break, and by the end I had entered this alternate world where I’d believe anything he said, because he kept building and building and it all made such lovely sense. Haramein calls this “relearning reality,” which sums up the process perfectly.

I understood The TV Sutras as a meditation on the malleability of reality. Growing up around fundamentalist Christians, I heard people talk about seeing demons, speaking in tongues, etc.—notions that many people would find preposterous. I found your descriptions of Neva, the woman from Jupiter, particularly fascinating: On the one hand, your descriptions are so clearly imagined, invented, and yet, because of my history, it was entirely believable to me that there might be someone out there who professes to be from Jupiter. In creating this fictional character, what were you hoping to accomplish?

Neva is based on someone I've actually met. I can’t say whether she believes that she’s really from another planet, but from what I’ve read, even false prophets come to believe, on some level, what they’re spouting. The relationship between a charismatic and her followers is intensely intimate. The charismatic can’t do it half-assed; she has to put her whole heart into it. One psychological study I read posited that charismatics lack the self-doubt that plagues the rest of us. I read dozens of these wacky alternative versions of reality and the history of the cosmos. They get tedious quickly, but there’s a beauty in how comprehensive they are. And a comfort. No more wondering why you exist—you’re here because space aliens seeded planet Earth and your purpose is to increase your capacity to love, and when you learn to do that you’ll no longer reincarnate but instead rise to space alien heaven. The more I wrote about Neva, the more I adored her—her power, her sexiness, her ability to call the shots.

Did education and the literary world make you embarrassed of your time in the cult? Are we always just replacing one cult for another?

For many years, for sure, I used the fishbowl of the poetry/experimental narrative scene as a cult replacement. But now that I’m old and crotchety, I just kind of do my own thing. It’s more about individual friendships rather than being a community player.

At this point I’m hyper-wary of any sort of group-think—a position that feels kind of lonely. As an experiment, last fall I joined a Zen study group on the Sandokai, an eighth century poem/chant. “Within light there is darkness, but do not try to understand that darkness; /Within darkness there is light, but do not look for that light.” That sort of thing. I’m not all that drawn to Zen, but I came to love the poem. Each Wednesday evening I’d drive an hour from San Francisco to Tiburon, and I’d ask myself, "Can I handle this?" I never stopped feeling tentative, but I found I could be there without losing myself. Most of the people involved had been practicing Zen for twenty or thirty years—I was the only newbie—and I think that made it more relaxed. Nobody was trying to prove anything. The third week of class, Robin Williams, who lived in Tiburon, committed suicide—and on my way to study group I wondered which of the mansions I was driving past was his. At the end of that week’s class, during the part where the Roshi reads the names of those who are ailing and recently deceased, someone suggested to add Robin Williams, so we all sat there, stiff-backed in meditation posture, and wished him a safe passage. It was sweet.

The beliefs of the cult members in your book are, on the whole, rather positive. I remember thinking that the cult, in fact, seemed zany but largely harmless. Can’t we also become enraptured with dark and frightening realities through the leadership of charismatics? You mention “the cult of global warming” near the end of the book. Can you say more about this?

The cult I was in left a lot of people devastated, but compared to others, yes, it was pretty benign. I was lucky in that. In The TV Sutras, I do address a number of cults that have treated followers with sexual and physical violence. I could have included scores more. I have a 2500-word collage piece—“Rascal Guru”—in which I list one sexual and financial scandal after another by these guys. Ultimately, the language the followers used to rationalize the behavior was more interesting than the scandals themselves, which became like wallpaper after a while. “Rascal Guru” is one of a number of supplemental pieces that I decided not to include in The TV Sutras, but hopefully they’ll make it into my forthcoming Semiotext(e) collection, When the Sick Rule the World.

“The cult of global warming”—that’s from the more “poetic” ending, so its literal meaning is kind of loose. I was thinking about how humans are such social creatures that we cannot help but be products of our time, our environment. Whenever I look at the news, it seems that we of the twenty-first century can no longer stomach the totality of capitalist materialism, and the id is breaking out across the globe. All those public beheadings, a practice so ancient and creepy—it’s like this primordial rage is crawling up from the deep. Rationality appears to be losing to cult-think. Even in my local poetry scene, I’ve witnessed some distressing behaviors condoned in the name of “community.”

At the end of the book, the narrator merges with the persona of the charismatic spiritual leader, in one long fantastic stream-of-consciousness list/rant. I read the section as being about forgiveness (to use language based on my Christian upbringing), but it could also be understood as having more negative connotations. From which standpoint did you begin, or was the ending a way to address both the positive and negative aspects of religious grandiosity?

The passage about cosmic narcissism is derived from Prophetic Charisma: The Psychology of Revolutionary Religious Personalities by Len Oakes, a book that informed my ideas on charismatic leaders. My ultimate embodying of the charismatic voice—that was an outgrowth of my goal of blurring these various first person voices. I followed the formal plan I’d devised, and the rant at the end is where I ended up. I was noticing a rise in the number of poets who were taking on a mystical persona—poets involved in the avant garde. This was surprising to me because ever since I entered that scene in the early 1980s, the intellect has been privileged and anything woo-woo has been scorned. But now we have these woo-woo poets getting respect. After writing the straightforward narrative portions of my book, I had woo-woo envy. For inspiration, I watched Helen Adam videos on YouTube, determined to play with the richness of that sort of language, to be crazy and wild. It was exhilarating. The ending is more about pleasure than forgiveness. When I’ve read from the ending, people have come up to me, acting kind of stoned, saying the ending was transformative—even though what I read makes no sense at all. Cults are like a drug, and I wanted to demonstrate that, to offer the reader a conversion experience.

You describe the sutra as a “thread of exposition, the absolute minimum that is necessary to hold it together.” You go on to describe trying to find the one moment in your story that might explain how things ended up the way they did. Would you describe the writing itself as a “sutra process”?

Sutras are so brief that they reek of ambiguity and mystery. Thus, there are endless commentaries as to their meanings. There is no official version—or perhaps more accurately, there are numerous official versions of what any sutra means. This makes sutras unstable and continuously alive. Each year spiritual types churn out new commentaries on the yoga sutras, Zen koans, Tibetan Buddhist Lojong slogans, Analects of Confucius—and I don’t think that’s going to stop anytime soon. During the five years I worked on my book, my relationship to the material kept shifting, and by the end, I too was questioning what was sutra and what was commentary. I ultimately decided it didn’t matter. The process of writing the book was a movement from befuddlement into some sort of (temporary?) clarity.

You write, “In order for any system to survive it must become self-perpetuating.” This is my favorite line from the book, along with the sentiment that you are interested in absorbed systems of logic, rather than those learned or observed. My fundamentalist upbringing informs my reading of these statements. However, having rejected and challenged the reality I was brought up with, I now suspect that these systems are all around us, unexamined. Do you believe there exists a “secular reader” who may not truly understand the idea of an absorbed system? Is it a concept that only someone who has experienced religiosity can understand?

Your question makes me think of Foucault—who I’m teaching this semester, so I see him everywhere. In The Order of Things, Foucault refers to these absorbed systems as a grid: “Order is, at one and the same time, that which is given in things as their inner law, the hidden network that determines the way they confront one another, and also that which has no existence except in the grid created by a glance, an examination, a language; and it is only in the blank spaces of this grid that order manifests itself in depth as though already there, waiting in silence for the moment of its expression.” He’s talking about systems of order that are so taken for granted, they’re invisible to the point of feeling like natural laws rather than perspectives imposed on the world: “The fundamental codes of a culture—those governing its language, its schemas of perception, its exchanges, its techniques, its values, the hierarchy of its practices—establish for every man, from the very first, the empirical orders with which he will be dealing and within which he will be at home.” In other words, our very basis for making sense of the world is via absorbed systems. Religion is just one expression of that. I tell my students that their purpose as writers should be to make these hidden networks or invisible grids visible. That’s the first step in any sort of social change.

Martha Grover's first book, the memoir One More For the People (Perfect Day), was published in 2011.