Cults are a strange and somewhat frightening thing. While we often, somewhat disdainfully, refer to celeb culture as cultish or call a rather fervent fanbase a cult, the real deal is often even more nefarious. In many cases they also lead to tragedy, such as the events in Waco and Jonestown or the mass-suicides/murders connected with the Order of the Solar Temple or the Heaven’s Gate. Whenever I see cults mentioned in the news I wonder what draws people into them, what are their motivations? So the synopsis of Lisa Ann O’Kane’s Essence was bound to snag my attention. When I got the chance to ask Lisa for a blog post of course I had to ask her about why she chose to write about them and how she researched them. You can find her answer below.
Cults in Essence
I have always been intrigued by the psychology of cults, so I jumped at the chance to create a main character whose entire upbringing was shaped by one.
Autumn Grace, the main character in my debut novel ESSENCE, was raised by San Francisco’s Centrist cult, which believes expressing emotions leads to Essence drain and early death. Her cult’s mantra is “Neutrality is the key to longevity,” and its followers conserve their Essences by meditating and trying to remain as dispassionate and detached as possible.
I chose San Francisco as the hub for my Centrist cult because I remember the public outcry that ensued in the aftermath of the Northridge Earthquake in 1994. Some groups actually believed the earthquake was a manifestation of God’s anger, and they said San Francisco was targeted because it was a haven for perversity. I wondered what would happen if a group of San Franciscans actually took this message to heart, and the foundation for my story was born.
Before I could begin writing, however, I needed to do my research. I began studying San Francisco’s various counter-culture movements, and I also began drawing parallels between my Centrists’ beliefs and the beliefs of Theravada Buddhism and Taoism.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with Theravada Buddhism, it is the oldest form of Buddhism in the world, yet it is encountered in the West far less often than its counterpart Zen Buddhism. One of the most basic differences between the two is that while Zen Buddhism teaches the importance of compassion and service to others, Theravada Buddhism tends to focus on the supreme virtues of a life of seclusion and detachment.
The Four Noble Truths are also incredibly important to the followers of Theravada Buddhism. These truths state that life is suffering, and suffering is caused by cravings and attachments. The only way to cure your suffering is to free yourself from these cravings and attachments.
The Four Noble Truths line up perfectly with the meditative lifestyles I wanted my Centrists to lead, so I figured it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to imagine they may have adapted these teachings into a new belief system in the aftermath of a natural disaster like an earthquake.
The Essence theory itself—and its belief that your emotions can tick down your lifespan like a gas tank—was modified from the Taoist concept of yin and yang. I have always been a fan of the idea that every dark must have a light, and every good must have an evil. Therefore, the Centrists believe positive emotions are just as dangerous as negative ones, and they try their best to repress everything.
I tried to imagine how scary it would be to grow up believing you might run out of Essence and drop dead at any moment. I also wondered how liberated you would feel when you finally broke free from that fear. That’s what my main character Autumn faces when she finally decides to forsake her Centrist upbringing and join the free spirited, commune-like Community in Yosemite.
Bio: Lisa Ann O’Kane is a young adult author and former vagabond who once camped out in Yosemite National Park for an entire summer, an experience that inspired her debut novel ESSENCE. Her background is in zookeeping and environmental education, and she has been kicked, cornered, bitten and chased by nearly every animal she has ever loved. She currently resides in Florida, and she is now a huge fan of shooting stars, indoor plumbing and keeping both her feet planted firmly on the trail.
Autumn escaped a cult, but now she realizes she’s fallen into another.
Growing up in San Francisco’s Centrist Movement, sixteen year-old Autumn Grace has always believed emotions—adrenaline, endorphins, even happiness—drain your Essence and lead to an early death. But her younger brother’s passing and a run-in with a group of Outsiders casts her faith into question.
Ryder Stone, the sexy, rebellious leader of the Outsiders, claims Essence drain is nothing more than a Centrist scare tactic — and he can prove it.
Autumn follows Ryder to his Community of adrenaline junkies and free spirits in Yosemite National Park, and they introduce her to a life of adventure, romance, sex, drugs and freedom. But as she discovers dark secrets beneath the Community’s perfect exterior, she realizes the more she risks in search of the perfect rush, the further she has to fall.