By Mary H. Webb. Muntu Books. Berkeley, Califomia. 435 pp. Paperback. $I0.
Reviewed by Lita Linzer Schwartz, Ph. D.
Pennsylvania State University
Reading The God Hustlers, for someone acquainted with the literature on cults, is like meeting familiar figures. (You can’t say “like meeting old friends,” for these characters are not one’s “friends.”) Simon Peter Stone, a leading “hustler” in the novel, bears a strong resemblance to the late Jim Jones, with the almost-rhymed name hardly a coincidence. Mamie Divine recalls the late Father Divine and his widow, although she is not one of the purveyors masquerading as a deity. Tiffany Shane might be the stand-in for Jeannie Mills of the Peoples Temple, and Leroy Banks brings to mind a non-kidnapping Ted Patrick. Ahmed Sadiq could represent any number of Eastern gurus who have captivated hundreds of thousands; but with the emphasis on his materialism — not to mention the Rolls Royce pressed on him by congregants — he is probably more like the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh than any of the others. Sadiq, however, is American-born, and has simply moved from pimping to religion — complete with fabricated background and philosophy — as a “bigger and better hustle.” Other characters in the novel represent the various type of people who are drawn to the “god hustlers.”
Ms. Webb has drawn Simon Stone so much in the image of Jim Jones that at times this becomes irritating. Stone develops an integrated church; he provides day care centers for children and housing for the elderly, acquiring a good community reputation in the process; he takes drugs, wears dark glasses, and suffers paranoia; he has people sign over all their money to him; and he punishes brutally any of his followers for the slightest infraction of his rules or departure from his expectations. Does this sound familiar? Webb does not quite have Stone move his people to the hills, or to Guyana, but otherwise much of the early and middle phases of Jim Jones’s career is recapitulated.
Essentially, the novel’s plot begins with Simon’s “vision” at age ten, and follows him as he moves from VISTA volunteer to preacher to demigod. Although this is the story of one cult and one cult leader, the latter’s approach is characteristic of what we have learned about many recent cult leaders: “ . . . he allowed their fervor to build, stoked their furnaces, fed them fuel for only if they believed in him fanatically would they work fanatically for change, either in themselves or in the world, and change must come. The means be damned at this point, for he saw the end in sight” (p. 71). The story develops, in part, through the “histories” of several of Simon’s congregants, giving their backgrounds and revealing the needs they had which were met — at least for a time — by him and his cult. It is the story of charismatic leaders, Simon and Ahmed, who manipulate and exploit a variety of people for their own ends and who ultimately become victims of their own megalomania and delusions of grandeur.
What does not quite ring true in the novel – which is not, I should stress, simply a fictionalized account of the Peoples Temple — is the number of blacks and poor people who become involved in the story — both as good and evil characters. Given the variety of cultic strains and symbols employed in The God Hustlers, blacks and poor people appear to be overrepresented, while middle-class, college-educated types are less visible than they really are in contemporary cultic groups as a whole. This imbalance, which may stem from the novel’s placement in the San Francisco area of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, detracts from the interwoven stories of Ms. Webb’s characters. Comparing these stories with autobiographical accounts of real ex-cult members, the admixture of so many different types of people, given their varied social histories, has reduced credibility.
Looking at the characters in “groups,” we find that the “hustlers” have come from backgrounds where a strong, positive father-figure was not available, and where the long-suffering mothers tend to die rather young. (The absence of a strong father-child relationship is common among cult members, but we do not have good comparative data about the childhoods of cult leaders that can ten us whether this is equally true of them.) The “hustlers” themselves are good-looking and manipulative — Sadiq in particular is described as charismatic — and they have substantial (and multi-faceted) sexual appetites. That they regard women as inferior is underscored several times, both verbally and behaviorally. At one point, for example, Simon thinks to himself.- – “All women saw themselves as domestic servants basically, (and] could be browbeat or charmed into doing … just about anything,” and “All women were whores anyway, and in taking so many to bed so easily, he simply revealed their own nature to them” (pp. 182-183).
The God Hustlers’ “congregants” range from the very poor to the very wealthy, but they have loneliness and “searching” in common. There is a respectable middle-aged widow, who is black; a young woman, deserted by her man during pregnancy, whose baby has died of lead-poisoning; Alvin Fearing, son of a well-to-do and overbearing father and very weak mother, a victim of abuse and a homosexual; the wealthy Valerie Solon, whose long marriage is decaying to emptiness with the departure of her youngest child; and many minor characters. Most of these followers escape the cult after becoming totally disillusioned and/or physically injured. Valerie allegedly commits suicide (“allegedly,” because Leroy Banks thinks she was murdered) after revealing to an investigative reporter the horrors she has witnessed. What horrors? Beatings, various sexual acts performed in front of other people under duress, electric shocks to control children. Valerie also repeats a rumor (related earlier in the novel as the events actually happened) that “Simon made a child eat his own vomit because he threw up on his plate when he didn’t want to eat something.” In an example of Ahmed’s brutality, he is reported to have beaten Tiffany Shane so badly that three of her ribs were broken and her face was cut and bruised.
Just to reinforce what attracts people to cults, the investigative reporter — Catherine Meyer — lists what cults appear to offer their recruits and members: immediate acceptance; directions on how to live (her marginal notes next to this item are: “People have too many options these days and too few criteria for making choices. Lots of people lack focus”); certainty; and “family/community/closeness.” Catherine herself is a somewhat religiously naive Jew who becomes involved with Leroy Banks, a southern black intellectual. Although she is the heroine of the book, in a sense, she, too, comes off as being used by a man — Banks. (“He did not live with Catherine because he loved her. . She had to have been useful to him in the work that he was trying to do, or he would not have ended up living with her.”)
Banks himself could have become a “god hustler, as is shown in his early meetings with Simon Stone, who was then a VISTA volunteer.” He had the glibness and self-confidence and idealism that attracted other people. Banks’ older sister, Carla, was one of the “vulnerable,” but instead of becoming seriously enmeshed and hurt in a cult, she earned a Ph.D. and became a marriage and family counselor. Like many of her peers, she is seeking answers to her existential questions and guidance for her life. Carla is one of those who follow a female guru to India in search of “truths,” but returns to a black psychologist, Coleman Robinson, who is writing a book on cults. She discovered in India “that in order to do your best work, you’ve got to have a loss of ego … But in order to lose your ego, it has to be strong first, and that means giving up some of your limitations and defenses.” The problem for many young people attracted to authoritarian charismatic leaders is that they don’t have egos strong enough to cope with disappointments and lack of certainty.
Webb does several things very well. She captures the southern dialect and black English effectively. She delineates the development of the “hustlers” from their childhood on, and victims’ stories as well, believably. By tracing the leaders’ lives, she brings them down, crudely at times, from the pedestals they have built for themselves. It appears that Webb has drawn more on books about the Peoples Temple than those about the Moonies, Hare Krishnas, Children of God, Divine Light Mission, or Scientology, although facets of Eastern mysticism have filtered into the story. She also conveys the potential vulnerability of almost anyone to the pull of charismatic leaders. There are certainly positive factors about the book.
As a novel, however, The God Hustlers does not maintain a story line as forcefully as, for example, The Cult, where the focus was on one group — an amalgamation of the Unification Church and the Hare Krishnas, primarily — and on college age youths who became enmeshed in it As a primer on cults and a tutorial on aspects of social and abnormal psychology, The Cult was a valuable teaching tool. Webb’s novel, especially in the early chapters, would not “grab” today’s students as firmly as The Cult did because of its more diffused plot and the writing style, which is flowery at times. On the other hand, once past the first 60-70 pages, the writing becomes tighter and the story direction more evident. Indeed, on a snowbound winter day, The God Hustlers becomes a good read.
Lita Linzer Schwartz, Ph.D., is Professor of Educational Psychology at the Pennsylvania State University, Ogontz Campus. She is the author of numerous articles and papers on religious cults, including, Charismatic leadership: A case in point, with Natalie Isser, concerning the ]9th century proselytizing work of the French clergyman Theodore Ratisbonne (Cultic Studies Journal, 3, 1986, pp. 57-77), and Parental responses to their children’s cult membership, in the current issue of the Cultic Studies Journal.
Cultic Studies Journal, Vol. 3, No. 1, 1986