Field Notes for Surviving a Family Cult: a Memoir
My family prepared me for the end of the world, but I know how to survive on what the earth yields.
Michelle Dowd grew up on a mountain in the Angeles National Forest, born into an ultra-religious cult—the Field, as members called it—run by her grandfather, who believed that his chosen followers must prepare themselves to survive doomsday. Bound by the group’s patriarchal rules and literal interpretation of the Bible, Michelle and her siblings lived a life of deprivation, isolated from Outsiders and starved for both love and food. She was forced to learn the skills necessary to battle hunger, thirst, and cold; she learned to trust animals more than humans; and most important, she learned how to survive by foraging for what she needed. And as Michelle got older, she realized she had the strength to break free. Focus on what will sustain, not satiate you, she would tell herself. Use everything. Waste nothing. Get to know the intricacies of the land like the intricacies of your body. And so she did.
With haunting and stark language, and illustrations of edible plants and their uses opening each chapter, Forager is a fierce and empowering coming-of-age story and a timely meditation on the ways in which harnessing nature’s gifts can lead to our freedom.
"In chapters centered on the edible plants she was forced to forage to avoid starvation, Dowd (now an academic and journalist) charts her path to freedom with remarkable clarity."
—Los Angeles Times
"Dowd’s heartbreakingly beautiful book works not only as a field guide charting the author’s young life and eventual freedom from the family cult that devoured her for so many years, but it also functions as a poignant, insightful field guide for life and how she found a path forward."
"Forager is a stunning memoir, which elucidates the terrifying beauty of the natural world in which Dowd is raised, set against a stark backdrop of religious extremism."
—Law & Crime
"A harrowing, engrossing story of survival amid painful circumstances… Heartbreaking and difficult to put down, this book lyrically chronicles an impressive rise out of illness, poverty, and indoctrination… enthralling."
"Beautifully delicate illustrations and foraging tips also keep things bright. An inspiring and insightful tale of resilience in the face of adversity, this book is hard to put down.”
—Jennifer Pastiloff, bestselling author of On Being Human
"On the surface, Forager is about dramatic circumstances most of us will never experience--growing up inside a doomsday cult. This unusual lens, however, also mirrors more universal questions, such as how to build meaning out of trauma, how to tell the stories of our lives even as those lives intersect with others', how nature is a healing force even as we participate in its destruction. Michelle Dowd takes on the real, sticky, human issues without easy answers or platitudes and with a voice that is fully her own."
—Gina Frangello, author of Blow Your House Down
"Dazzling in depth, chilling in its revelations, Michelle Dowd’s memoir of a cult childhood proves how a life designed to be holy often turns evil. Dowd forages childhood experiences in an effort to come to terms with a family’s errant divinity—a fanaticism that leads to religious violence. What saves her, ultimately, is her biblical relationship with the natural world. Expansive in scope, brilliant in its undertaking, Dowd sifts through a wreckage of memory to create a survival guide for the apocalyptic brutality of Christian extremism."
—Janisse Ray, author of Ecology of a Cracker Childhood
"Michelle Dowd's bounty of a memoir offers us not just a survival guide, but the most ingenious map for sustenance in both body and spirit during dark times. In a world that prefers singular goals and simple answers, Forager finds power and joy in sharp-eyed, keen-fingered wandering, and its vertiginous complexities will sustain you for years to come."
—Meredith Talusan, author of Fairest: A Memoir
"No matter who you are or where you’re from, Dowd will guide you by the hand into her beautiful and heartbreaking family forest to show with heroic vulnerability how you might glean life from both the flowers and the thorns of her own. This isn’t just a field guide for surviving a family cult, but a universal path through the dark and glorious wood of life itself. Forager is a forest in bloom, a stream on a sweltering day, a Polaris of hope, a masterpiece of storytelling and empathy. And when you step into the sunlight on the other side of this magnificent book, Dowd will have freed you right alongside herself."
—Drew Philp, author of A $500 House in Detroit
—Hope Edelman, New York Times bestselling author of Motherless Daughters—Hope Edelman, New York Times bestselling author of Motherless Daughters