Jared Garrett has recently published a YA novel titled Beyond the Cabin based on his own experiences growing up in a cult offshoot of Scientology. I've followed him over the years as he's gone through draft after draft, editorial hope and crushed dreams. I read the book, even though I don't read much YA, and found it interesting—especially when coming from an LDS author even though the church has no part of the book.
Eliana: Beyond the Cabin ends much earlier than I would have hoped. Why do you choose to end it then instead of after a successful escape?
Jared Garrett: Long answer to this, but it's at the heart of everything in this story. Please bear with me! Beyond the Cabin was a tough story to write. For one, it's sort of my story - particularly how I would have preferred to have handled my experience in the cult. Another reason it was challenging is because the story takes place over around 4-5 months, but it includes events that happened over a ten-year period, in a very different order too. So I had to find the right story to tell—the right arc for Joshua to travel as he comes to terms with his life and circumstances. But I also needed to make sure that the story was true to who he was and who I am.
The truth is I never escaped, per se. I did a lot to gain control of my personal, inner life and eventually by extension my destiny. From age 10 to age 13, I subsisted on fury and bitterness. I realized my temper was a mess, so I started studying the Dao and meditating. Through that, and honestly through some of the stuff the cult had us do, I found control over my emotions, eventually finding a way to switch them off. After gaining this control is when I started truly seeing the cult around me with open, clear eyes. At that point, I had for all intents and purposes escaped from their control. I didn't do punishments. I ignored tyrannical edicts. I let adults scream at me while I smiled at them.
All this to say that Josh physically getting away was the wrong story to tell. The story is about Josh understanding the isolation he had put himself in, and learning how to love, connect, and take the power to choose for himself. I know the ending feels abrupt, but it comes after he's finally made some deliberate decisions to be a part of other people's lives and to not leave those he loves unprotected. It felt the right place to finish his story because I think we know that he's going to be okay now.
Family is a big subject in the book. How have you faced raising your own family after not having an example of a functional family in your own childhood?
I think family is what I first noticed was off about the cult. I saw families depicted on TV a little, a lot in books, and I longed for it. But as an outsider seeing it but not really understanding what I was missing. I longed for the connection I sort of felt in the shows and stories I consumed.
Important note: I am very close with my sister (I have one!) and have been able to build a solid, if odd, relationship with my father and remaining brother. I don't know how to be a son or even a brother, so I focus on just being honest and kind.
After not having had a functional family growing up, one of the interesting things I've found is that if I look at my past and simply do things the opposite way, I'm pretty much in good shape!
I've had to fight a lot of weird expectations and baggage that I can't seem to stop finding in myself! But as long as I continue to see my mistakes and try to do better, I do okay. It helps to have a wife who is my best friend, and who loves and appreciates quirks—even mine!—and who leads the way with our kids.
Ultimately, having a family, being married to the woman of my dreams (which I am) and having a bunch of kids to hug and be hugged by, was my dream from age 15 or so. I'm living that dream and I'm not going to screw it up. No matter what it takes. I know the consequences of screwing it up. I will never really understand how so many people I knew as a child could possibly choose to let their families go, and I know how hard that kind of abandonment is on kids.
I've learned that the best way to keep the family close is to hug it out. Hug it out always. Kids are people, it turns out, and they need to feel that safety and comfort and acknowledgement from someone they depend on and look to for such things.
Sometimes I'm jealous of my kids.
One thing I didn't love about Beyond the Cabin was the voice of the narrator—for a 14/15 year old, he seemed much younger. Was his naiveté a realistic portrayal of life in a cult?
This is a compliment and a validation, thank you! I struggled a lot with the voice. I needed him to be a little wise and jaded, but in a naive way. This is definitely a true portrayal of my life and outlook and inner voice through much of my life in the cult. I didn't understand human relationships, what love really was, and much more. It was extraordinarily sheltered, and I'm very pleased that it came through in the voice.
I don't know if this is a realistic portrayal universally of cult life, but I wouldn't be surprised if it were similar to what we might see elsewhere. I knew it might be hard for some to read and even enjoy, but I accept that.
What do you think kids need to succeed in life? You've become a happy, productive adult after a lot of challenges. How do you think that worked out?
I have a lot of opinions on this. To keep it brief, love is number 1. Kids need to be loved. They're entitled to the safety and comfort of demonstrated, hugged, cuddled, love. That love will inform everything. Secondly, I firmly believe kids need parents who can be honest with themselves. Parents who have made their family a priority and who are willing to be introspective and change their behavior. It's a fool's notion that kids shouldn't see parents make mistakes or apologize.
We don't need to abase ourselves. We need to humanize ourselves. If we treat ourselves with self-honesty and respect, and do the same for our kids, and demand the same from our kids, I think we are on the right track.
Also, and lastly kids have to make mistakes, they need to suffer the natural (not weird unconnected) consequences of those mistakes, and they need us to transform into coaches as they get older. We have to make sure we don't make decisions for our kids based on what makes us feel a certain way—but based on what is good for that kid.
As for me, I had to raise myself, then learn to really grow up even more, after getting married. A lot of it has been simply trusting in the path I set out on after high school. But a lot has also been me being on my knees, working really hard, white-knuckling through my stupidity and mistakes, and trying to do better. I don't know if that's unique. But it's working out.
I'm curious about how you joined the church. I know you served a mission as well, so I'm wondering about any challenges you faced coming from a completely foreign background to most people?
This is a big one. I left the cult at 17, after it folded and centralized into an animal sanctuary. I was an optimistic atheist at the time, which I say to indicate that I thought life was grand and the world was awesome and the god I'd been taught about was absurd and I had no intention of believing in it.
I had one year of high school left, and my father and his wife and my half sister were living in Kanab, Utah. They welcomed me into their lives. I went to Kanab High School, made some extraordinary lifelong friends, and rebuffed their attempts to get me to go to church, listen to discussions, and all points in between.
Friends shared bits and pieces of the gospel, sometimes some of it very odd sounding. I remember very little of it. I also remember how weirdly sincere they were about it all and how that seemed strange. I'd been surrounded by rank and blatant religious hypocrisy my whole life—so seeing people truly love their faith and church was pretty surprising.
One of my best friends in high school, a guy named Nathan Riddle, became my best friend after we graduated. He was preparing to serve a mission—to Kenya it turned out—and he and I had been hired to do old west gunfighter shows for the summer in Kanab at the Old Barn Playhouse. We had a blast. Every night after the show, we got a burger from Stage Stop, sat on the middle school's wall near Main Street, and ate and talked. He was fervent, enthusiastic, and full of love and hope and happiness. These have always been deeply attractive to me, so I listened more often than not. By the time he went on his mission, in November of that year I think, I was still an atheist, but I greatly respected him and my friends.
One night I had an experience that convinced me beyond all doubt forever that God was real and He loved me and it was time to get to work.
I was baptized two weeks later.
But I was still a skeptic. That said, I still wanted to believe and craved peace in my heart and wanted to make faith my guiding principle. I found a welcoming home in the two wards I attended in Kanab. Beautiful, beautiful people. And four months after I joined the church, Bishop Wright sat me down and told me it was time to start thinking about a mission. I was stupefied, but trusted without knowing what I was in for.
On my mission I was jealous of my many companions who had deeper knowledge about the Gospel, stronger testimonies, and beautiful families. But that was fine. It was hard at the time, but I still learned to work with what I had.
I got home in the middle of 1996, reunited with Nathan for the first time after I had joined the church, and had no idea how to be a member of the church. I'd been a missionary longer than I'd been a regular member, had only started gaining a detailed testimony during my mission, but had a lot to learn.
As for challenges, the cult background has always been a nice conversation starter. The skepticism I developed in my youth has served me well, more than anything else. Sure, it can be a barrier to faith, but the disquiet and sort of internal disconnect that my desire for faith and abiding skepticism form in me have been great. They help me find doubt, question it openly, and force me to study and search and ponder and find the way to have knowledge and faith become a bridge.
Most of all, I've learned that this is a Gospel of the individual. Whether we serve others, help people in need, prepare lessons in advance, study scriptures diligently (for an individual value of diligently), and everything else comes down to each of us. This is absolutely a product of my childhood. I'm the master of my fate. Helping my neighbor is a moment of individual choice: choose to be a better person and go do good or choose to be the same person and leave that opportunity behind. I become better by making the world around me, and the lives of others, better.
Why did you decide to self-publish?
After writing and rewriting and rewriting again and again this novel, and then editing it like crazy, I knew I had something good that I believed in. Whenever anyone read it, they would say it was really something and that the writing was strong and the story was powerful. My friend Rob Wells read the first couple chapters and loved it, saying I had to get it out there.
So I started querying a little while working on other stuff. But then whenever I sat down to work on one of the three new projects I'm writing, I found my mind going back to this book, this story. It burned in me. I read and re-read it, then rewrote it again, making a new opening scene, honing the voice and capturing it finally, truing up the experience in the cult.
I spent over a year querying. I sent it to 50 agents, honing my query and boiling it down to the heart of the story. Before long, I moved from form rejections to very kind rejections wherein agents told me the writing was strong but they just weren't sure how to position it for sale in today's market.
So after my 50th rejection, I closed my computer, looked up, and said, "Screw it. I'll do it myself." I thought of the wonderful Liam Neeson movie The Grey and laughed, then set to it.
Why? Because I know this story, I love it, I know it's great, and I can bloody well sell it. If a publisher or agent comes along for another project I'm working on and they show interest in Beyond the Cabin, I'll listen and see what comes of it. But for now, I'm done waiting for permission to let others read my story. And I'm done waiting for permission from a very fickle industry for me to live my dream.
Who should I be reading in the Mo Lit world?
Start reading Dan Wells and Robison Wells now. Yes, they're brothers. Their books are great. Honestly, Dan's I Don't Want to Kill You is astonishingly good. If you like Regency Romance, I think Sarah Eden is killing it there.
Other masters: Eric James Stone, Michael Collings, Michaelbrent Collings (the son of Michael), and Larry Correia writes some of the bloodiest romps through monster killing that you'll ever love. I personally adore the audio books of his Grimnoir series. Great alternate history fantasy and Bronson Pinchot is the single best audio book narrator on the planet.
Eliana Osborn was raised on cold weather and wild animals in Anchorage, Alaska, setting the stage for her adult life in the Sunniest Place on Earth in Arizona. She grew up in the church and didn't know there were places where conformity was preached. She has degrees. She writes. She teaches. She has some kids. She even has a husband. She's trying to do her best.
Image credit: Scott Heffernan (used with permission).