Cults typically have a leader whom members admire and look up to. They offer the support and friendship of their peers and the promise of security in an insecure world. I get the attraction.
The real-life experience of cults, however, is a tad off-putting. Charles Manson and the Family. The Branch Dravidians. The Jonestown Colony in Guyana. All got off to a promising start. Each left an unexpected legacy. Manson gave the Beatles the inspiration for “Helter Skelter.” The Branch Dravidians put the wacko (not to mention the whack) into Waco, Texas. And after Jonestown, no one contemplated Kool-Aid in quite the same way.
Also, they all ended badly. Really badly.
Even less lethal cults—Scientology, for instance—have an unsavory rep. I was on the staff of a publishing house in Toronto when we published a book critical of L. Ron Hubbard, Scientology’s founder. Our receptionist fielded threatening phone calls. Our publisher started varying her route home. Scientologists, it turns out, do not appreciate critics. Nothing came of the threats but for a few weeks we were more careful than usual about locking up. We may even have glanced uncertainly over our shoulders in the street. We definitely developed an aversion to cults and we weren’t alone.
There’s a widespread consensus that cults suck.
But what if we joined a cult and didn’t know it? After all, cults tend to represent themselves as benign organizations, dedicated to our welfare. And there’s no denying that cohousing, for all its apparent innocence, bears some of the marks of a cult.
A leader. Community. Security in a perilous world. It’s all there.
The leader, at least in North America, is a California-based architect, Charles Durrett. His research in Denmark and the books he has written make him the leading authority on the theory and practice of cohousing. He presides over exhausting, weekend-long workshops in which bleary-eyed devotees pay good money to be inculcated with cohousing principles. Cults do something like this.
Cohousing is all about community. A year or so ago, WRCP sponsored a screening of “Within Reach,” a documentary about a couple’s journey across the United States in search of an established cohousing group they could call their own. What they were looking for was a kind of extended family. Totally a cult-type quest.
(That couple found their cohousing family, by the way: the film has a happy ending.)
As for the promise of security, cults consistently view themselves as a refuge in a hostile world. Cohousing groups tend to see the outside world as ecologically unsustainable and inimical to building positive personal relationships. Cohousing undoubtedly is a refuge of sorts.
So … is it a cult?
It’s worth addressing the question, if only because others ask it. My own sister had her doubts.
Charles Durrett, as far as I know, is a perfectly decent gent who generously shares his knowledge of a phenomenon that has achieved widespread acceptance in Europe and the United States. Attendance at his workshops is entirely voluntary and entails neither coercion nor abuse. Not a cult leader.
If the search for community is controversial, maybe it’s because it conflicts with an American ideology that emphasizes individualism as a pre-eminent virtue. Reliance on others is seen, in this context, as weakness. Cohousing pretty much requires a rejection of this ideology. Cohousing, you could say, is all about the townsfolk turning away from the gunslinger’s solution and solving problems as a group. And in this sense, it is all about democracy. Which is not a cultish governing principle.
Cohousing offers a refuge for members but it’s a refuge that looks out, not in. A number of cohousing communities have a deliberate educational mission. They showcase sustainable living. They foster businesses that connect to the community. Their members work in the outside world. This is not a cultish attitude. Its opposite, in fact.
So, no. Not a cult.
Of course, there may be those who remain suspicious. What’s with the emphasis on shared meals? Cooking together, drinking together, celebrating minor occasions and anniversaries. So much togetherness can seem a bit weird to the casual observer. And that jug on the table that everyone’s sharing …