Aidan Dunn is a man driven by money and power – he just doesn’t have any. What he does have - he thinks - is charm. He’s been honing his manipulation skills as a charity collector for years, earning enough commission to rent a bedsit and keep him in lager. But it’s time for bigger and better things. He needs a break or a meal ticket and rich, vulnerable looking Sophie Harris could be the answer.
The problem is, Sophie seems immune to his charms.
When she isn’t at work, she spends her time at a group which she won’t tell him about. Worse still, she won’t commit to seeing him. It’s infuriating and addictive, so when Sophie finally seems to melt and asks him to come with her to a Salvation program meeting, Aidan is putty in her hands.
Because Nobody's Perfect
At the meeting, ex-model front woman, Yvette Blake, and the program’s charismatic founder, doctor Jeffers, seem to be offering the route to money and power that Aidan seeks. All he has to do is climb the ladder and become a‘Savior’ with the chance of securing a lucrative ‘Salvation program’ franchise.
The problem is, it costs too much. Fortunately, Sophie is willing to pay for him. She needs recruits to progress in the program, so what has Aidan got to lose? Nothing but his sanity, his freedom and his chance of true love with fellow initiate, Lizzie.
When does a story start? When the action starts? When a life starts changing? Or when a life is formed? Surely a story isn’t complete without the whole picture. A background canvas on which a life is slowly painted, building up in layers as the years add depth and character. But you won’t care about that. You won’t care about my whole history. You’ll only want the juicy stuff - the dirt on Yvette Blake; my reasons for joining the Saviours. So, let’s start with why I joined. Let’s start with my darling wife Sophie - the mad witch who ruined my life.
The best thing about trying to get money out of people for charity is that they usually trust you already. You must be a nice guy if you are working for such a noble cause and for peanuts as well, they assume. Because you already have their trust half the battle is won. Sure, they often walk past with no more than a ‘sorry man’ but pick the right ones and you’re home and dry. Pick the guilty ones and they’ll sign up without a fight. Sophie looked like one of those, and I saw her coming a mile away.
When I'm not being a mum, working or writing, I am a keen runner and open water swimmer. I am also one below black belt in Tae Kwon Do (Korean karate), though I tend to only make it to one class a week with my son these days, so won't be making it to black belt anytime soon.
I had the idea for Dunn years ago, when some one I knew had a friend who got involved in a similar cult. I started writing the first incarnation of the novel, whilst teaching English in China, but came back and changed most of it after my son was born. The beginning and ending have changed, thanks to the guidance from an award winning author and playwright who has basically tutored me. My writing has developed because of his guidance and I am now really happy with dunn. It's ready to go. I hope you will enjoy it.
A bit of background......
Back in 2004 I was thoroughly miserable. Fortunately, none of the events in Dunn actually happened to me. I didn't get embroiled in a psychotherapy cult. I just met someone who unintentionally made my life worse, and they knew someone who had.
And so the spark of an idea emerged. I wrote the first paragraph (which I have since abandoned), realised I didn't actually know anything about psychotherapy cults, and went off to China for 6 months to get over the death of one of my dearest friends ever, and various unsuitable love interests. Neither worked, but I did have a great time in China and get lots of research on psychotherapy cults done.
After 9 years + of actual writing/rewriting/scrapping/sulking/starting again etc, my debut novel 'Dunn' is finally released as an ebook on amazon/google play/apple iBooks. here
And more to follow . There will be a paperback available on the matador-troubador website here next month too. So, now the hard work of trying to get people to read it begins.
But what are therapy cults?
I found out that various groups had lured people in to a cult-like 'self-help' and 'pseudo-therapy' scenarios over the years. Some of them were selling New Age ideas and treatments; some were pedalling methods for self-help; others counselling methods. I won't name any groups, but if you look, you'll find them mentioned all over the net.
As the name suggests, therapy cults are generally selling some kind of treatment, so they're targeting vulnerable people.
Examples include New Age therapy cults that promise cures for terminal diseases, often claiming that mainstream medical practices are ineffective; and counselling and self-help groups that offer pseudo-psychological therapies they claim will help victims to be more confident/successful/happy/all of the above.
'The Salvation Program' in 'Dunn' is based on the latter.
How do they get followers to join and stay?
Cults seem to employ various methods of recruitment, including direct invitation; the use of leaflets and advertisements; direct street recruitment, and even advertisements in mainstream magazines/TV in the States.
Most of these crop up in 'Dunn'.
My main character, Aidan Dunn, is invited to a 'Salvation program' recruitment meeting by Sophie Harris, who uses what Aidan perceives as their 'burgeoning relationship' to get him to join phase one.
Later in the story, Aidan uses leaflets and magazines along with a direct street approach, to successfully recruit to the program.
But why do recruits join and stay?
What these groups mostly seem to have in common, is the destruction of victims' perceptions of themselves and their history. Key relationships often suffer as a result, be that with family and friends or mainstream medical practitioners. Either way, the victim becomes dependent on the cult as a result.
Thought reform and control
I read an old psychology book by Margaret Thaler Singer, called 'Cults in our midst' whilst I was in China, and most of the 'thought reform' processes that I have tried to capture in 'Dunn' are based on those described in that book.
The author, Margaret Thaler Singer, summarises the objectives of these types of cult in three succinct points, which I have paraphrased above, and outlines the basic method used to get victims in such a state of dependence as follows:
1) Subtle behavioural changes introduced and reinforced with peer pressure
At his first 'Salvation program' phase one meeting, my main character, Aidan Dunn, is lured into a chanting circle - something not in character - by an attractive girl and the feeling that he is an outsider.
All Aidan's weekends are taken up with 'Salvation program' meetings and seminars, effectively controlling his social interactions. His only other contact is Sophie, who only wants to talk to him about the 'Salvation program'.
3) Rewards and punishments areused to reinforce the cult's ideology
This idea comes up again and again throughout 'Dunn', but perhaps the best example is that used on Jim by Mrs Tressel in an early chapter. She excludes him from 'the circle of love' when he won't say that he is a failure and is rewarded with her attention when he capitulates.
4) Members rewarded for rejecting their old personality and life view, and punished for non-conforming
Aidan is rewarded by Stephanie for changing his memories of his childhood and punished with her disapproval when he resists. She subsequently coerced him into confronting his parents about his childhood, resulting in isolation from his parents (though, actually, in Aidan's case, I think that may be a positive). At group seminars, members are also rewarded for sharing confessions about their past and punished with disapproval if they don't. I explore this theme a lot in 'Dunn', because it's so horrible!
I'll stop there for fear of accidentally dropping spoilers in.
Needless to say, this was an interesting, if terrifying topic to write a novel about. I would be lying if I said it was an entirely enjoyable experience, as it lays bare just how horrible and manipulative humans can be too each other, and highlighted just how dark some of the creatures lurking in my brain actually are.. This, and the fact that I'm exceptionally cynical, is the main reason that the novel is darkly humourous. I wrote it whilst teaching full time (thank goodness I can now be part time); raising a child, and getting addicted to running to keep myself sane. I needed to keep it fun and lighten it up in places. Some of the characters are deliberately unpleasant (more about that in a post next week) and so writing about them was not always nice. I quite enjoyed giving them a hard time.... More on that next week
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