Helen Newman’s Apocalypse

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Memo to all plagiarists, fabricators, jailhouse-memoirists and other literary charlatans: This is a story about a writer.

Helen Newman, 29, lives at her mother’s place in Brooklyn. She teaches English at a cram school for Korean kids, sometimes she also assists an art dealer. Her mother pays the rent. Newman got my attention when she put an alumna note in the back of the latest Harvard magazine. It said she was writing a memoir about “spending five years (oops!) in a cult.” Such wit, such openness—I emailed her that day to hear her story.

On October 26, 1999, Newman moved to a place in North Carolina called Zendik farm that was filled with young people and overseen by a charismatic seer/washed-up artist named Arol Zendik, a woman in her 60s whose husband Wulf, the other guru of the spread, had died a few months before.

Zendik farm comes out of the counterculture and has been around in one place or another since 1969. Zendik means heretic. Wulf took the name from some Middle Eastern language, and he believed —his followers still do—that everyone is an artistic genius, they only have to tap into it, and that by offering this new model of self-actualization, Zendik Farm is going to revolutione society. When the Zendiks take over, everyone will become a genius, government will become holistic, and no one will use money any more. As things stand now, the outside world is deathculture. The farm makes its money by sending its adherents out to street fairs and concerts to sell magazines that promote Zendik ideas, t-shirts that say, Stop Bitching, Start a Revolution, and CDs of its leaders’ music.

Clearly a cult. Newman didn’t see it that way then. She sought a community that would stir her imagination. Within two weeks of arriving, she gave Arol the $13,000 she had from a traveling fellowship she had won at Harvard.

I asked her why she was drawn to the farm, and she told me, “I showed up looking for something like the co-op I lived in my senior year of college–a group of free-thinking, anarchistic young people, but in this case with a farm and practical knowledge of the basics of life: how to grow food, get water, build shelter, etc. I was also attracted by their belief that our society–its art, its economy, its politics, its relationships–was a “Big Lie,” and that the mass of people were lying (outright or tacitly) all the time. I was painfully aware, then, of social convention and my acquiescence to its constraints. Plus I was intrigued by the sense I got from the website of something dark, mysterious, and beyond my current range of experience.”

She stayed at Zendik because of the people. Zendiks were intelligent and appealing and skilled. They were good at making things, and they led their lives outside what Newman felt to be “the stifling niceties and bureaucratic constraints” of the capitalist world. An art student at Harvard, she wanted to awaken her imagination. Arol encouraged her.

The farm held her in many ways. It isolated her. She had only spotty contact with her family, and only left the farm to go to concerts or festivals or busy city streets to sell Zendik stuff. The long rides home at night in a truck full of sleeping Zendiks were sugar highs, sitting in the front seat talking personal history. There were constant meetings at which Zendiks discussed Zendik ideas, or read Wulf’s writings, or dissected the problems of the deathculture. The hermetic community worked on her insecurities. Arol and others criticized how she dressed, how she looked, and her hang-ups. They put a list up on the fridge titled “Things to Help Each Other With.”

The farm held her sexually. Newman had never been much for dating. At Zendik, there were lots of good looking guys around, and she didn’t have to negotiate meetings. You went to a third partyand had the friend make the request on your behalf. You met up that night in one of the designated sexual places at the farm. It sounds kind of sexy. Till you consider that Arol would break up couplings that went on too long. Monogamy was “dyadic,” it sucked out your creative life and made you dishonest.

For another thing, what Newman did in bed was openly discussed in sex meetings, to the most intimate details, as a means of improving her screwed-up psyche. “Talk about a means of control. That’s something that can make you turn beet-red, make you feel really bad about yourself.”

Zendiks cultivated the belief in Newman that everything that happens to us has a psychic cause. So the fact that Newman had been sexually assaulted on the subway as a teenager flowed from her being so “strait-jacketed by Catholic morality & social terror” that she could only experience sexual desire in ways she had no control over, so that she could pretend that she was innocent of wanting it. Arol also attacked Newman’s sexual behavior on the farm, saying her desire for a “square relationship” was hurting her as an artist, and hurting the community.

After five years, strains had developed between her and the community. The note on the fridge accused Newman of “Indulgent Nuttiness.” She tended to fixate on things that were wrong or things she wanted, but as she lacked any autonomy, she could do nothing about these things, and harped on them.

Selling became her “bugaboo.” The trips produced anxiety and panic, she wasn’t good at selling stuff. The other Zendiks said that she was “a drag” on the community. Yes, being a Zendik was hard, but the outside world was a lot harder. “We think you need some reality.” Go out into the deathculture and you will see for yourself, they said, it will kick your ass and when you come back you will be a better Zendik. They held a meeting to which she wasn’t invited and agreed she should leave. Newman agreed too.

Maybe Arol saw that Newman’s mind was too active, maybe Arol needed her gone.

On September 27, 2004, Newman was dumped on a highway in West Virginia—the farm had by then relocated—with $10 in her pocket, told to move on. It has been 4 years, 11 months. She started hitchhiking.

She worked on farms in Arizona, Colorado, Californa, New Zealand. She went around the world. It took her a year to get back to Brooklyn, to her mother, a Catholic school teacher, and her father, a music engraver. And during that year Helen Newman pined to be back at Zendik. She credited Arol with great powers, of knowing who she was and who she should be.

During that year, though, Newman started collecting information that the world was not all bad. She fell in love with a guy. It didn’t last, but it was real. She worked on an organic farm where people had integrity, and autonomy, and sold their goods in a market.

The other thing that happened is a year ago, she began to blog. Her first entry began: “Hello everyone. My name is Emerald. I will live in the Emerald City, when we build it—that’s New York, with all the ugliness erased, and roof gardens everywhere.”

In time, the blog led her to other former Zendiks, including Sea, who had left the farm 25 years before and had the sense not to criticize it to Newman. In an online journal with Sea, for the first time Newman was able to spew all that she hated about the place she wanted to get back to. As she got comments from others, Newman’s writing lost its soupiness. “As for people wanting to know day-in-the-Life of Zendik–well, it’s beginning to annoy me too. At a certain point I just want to tell people to go live there, if they’re so interested; on the other hand, firsthand accounts of people’s experiences are the kind of writing that I find most fascinating.”

She was still telling people Zendik was not a cult. Then on December 1, 2005, Newman met up with another former Zendik, Kyra, and Kyra talked to her about the definition of a destructive cult. The knowledge that she had been in a cult suddenly broke in and ended her dream of returning.

Here’s part of her December 3 entry:

It’s hard to write this, even though I’ve sat with this feeling, and
this knowledge, for two days now–even though I’ve woken up these
past two mornings happier than I can remember being. Even though I
feel like the bloody, suppurating weight of the world has been
lifted from my shoulders, and replaced by a sweet & tender
invitation to join with my fellow humans in the wonder of the
universe, and love it, and enjoy the fuck out of it. In fact, I had
a dream last night, for the first time in I don’t know how long, of
being close to a man. We were riding in the back seat of a car, and
I leaned my head on his shoulder, and it felt utterly wonderful. I
think I dreamed that because one of the things found BAD at Zendik
was my attraction to guys–that was always the thing that was going
to doom me, according to Arol…

I am finished with subsuming my energy into a movement that
robs me of my own life….

Yes, I’m pissed, and there will be bitterness. But overwhelming that
is my freedom, and my intoxication with the world. I get to ride the
subway now and watch people without superiority, without certainty
that they are poor benighted souls who will never know
enlightenment. I get to go shopping at the greenmarket and eat an
organic spelt almond cookie & savor it without guilt. I get to do a
crossword puzzle without Arol’s voice in my ear telling me I’m a
snotty intellectual dilettante. I get to go on road trips and not
sell anything. I get to tell the lady who’s about to give me too
much change, that no, I only gave you 5, not 10. I get to live with
my mother and love her, and kiss her on the cheek before I leave the
house, because she’s the woman who’s taken care of me since
birth–no longer some ogre whose purpose in life is to catholicize
and repress me (and compete with Arol for my loyalty)…

God I wish so much I’d had some guts–I wish I’d gotten to the point
when I was there, of not caring–but how could I not care, believing
as I did that this was the only life for me, believing, even, and
this at times quite literally, that the only other option was death?..

Newman has begun writing a memoir about being a Zendik. Why buy the book when you can get the blog for free? A blog is in the moment, she says. It doesn’t have a back story, isn’t distilled into story.

That’s where I want to leave her story, on blogging. The blog was essential to Newman’s recovery. She will always write, she says, out of the need to express herself. She doesn’t need a KVU (Kaavya Visnawathan Unit: $500,000) to do so. Wouldn’t mind a KVU, but she fears that full-time writing might keep her from the world she wants to know.

I find her understanding of writing inspiring. Salinger always wanted amateur readers; which means that he wanted amateur writers, too. You might think of it in historical terms. Back in Shakespeare’s day there were just a few people who could write, and they wrote for the rest of us. Then literacy, and writing, exploded. By the 1800s everyone was keeping a journal, writing letters. But come the late19th and 20th centuries and we successfully industrialized writing again. Writers had to get money for their work, and you had to jump thru a lot of hoops to be a writer (and sometimes when you wuz jumpin’ you wuz also plagiarizin’). Writers were professionals pulling down $3 a word. Ordinary people stopped writing, the culture suffered.

Blogging changes that. It’s encouraging a lot of people to write and publish. And the solitary act of writing can be revolutionary: it can help a person find out what she really thinks.

Helen Newman’s Apocalypse