Friday 19 February 2021

Courtney Summers' The Project

Last year, I was reading Alice Bolin’s Dead Girls, a collection of essays about the American, and specifically pop-cultural, obsession with fetishizing young dead women in narratives. It uses David Lynch’s Twin Peaks and the iconic image of Laura Palmer’s body, wrapped in plastic, as a jumping-off point to write about other dead girls, with the caveat that the most interesting entries here undermine the central idea somewhat. In the sometimes great, sometimes terrible Pretty Little Liars, the death that begins everything is reversed, but many other dead women appear throughout. In Twin Peaks itself, Sheryl Lee returns in a different role – a cousin whose appearance begins resembling Laura’s more and more, whose death eventually bookends this story about now two dead girls. 

I was thinking about Courtney Summers’ Sadie during Dead Girls, and what it means when the story of the dead girl refuses to become a tale about the men now invigorated to seek revenge, or turn into superheroes, or more conventionally prove their ability as good detectives to find the killer. Summers writes novels – devastating novels, again and again, novels that will destroy you™, about young women who experience the violence of patriarchy, and the violence of a system that does not care about their suffering except when it fits a neat story. Sadie writes about a dead girl from two perspectives – that of her sister, who is out to seek revenge against the man she knows is to blame for her death, and that of a male podcaster who runs a true crime show (fittingly, the first chapter ends with the lines – “And it begins, as so many stories do, with a dead girl.”) It’s a story about grief in which it becomes very obvious soon that there is no potential for a happy end. 

I was thinking about both these books again when I started reading Summers’ new novel, The Project, which once again centres two sisters. The Project splits its perspectives early on – it begins with Bea Denham, on the night that she becomes an older sister. It continues with a horrific accident a few years later, in which Bea loses both her parents and then, almost, her little sister Lo – hooked up to machines, unlikely to live, Bea promises that she will do anything for her sister’s survival.

Then, The Project jumps ahead. It’s a disorienting jerk forward, into the body of the younger sister, into a world that has radically changed. We’ll very slowly fill the blanks between now and then, figure out why Bea has disappeared from Lo’s life. Nobody is dead yet, except, very soon, a young man, who jumps on the tracks in front of an incoming train right after recognising Lo. 

I think what makes The Project such a great novel is that it takes so long to even realise what it is about. Lo happens to work for a famous if somewhat washed-up investigative journalist who just happens to be friends with the young man’s father, and that father is eager to prove that the death of his son was caused by a – for now highly lauded – religious organisation. Lo, who works as his personal assistant but wants to be a writer, doesn’t mention her own personal connection to The Unity Project, or that the young man recognised her face (or the scar that makes her face so recognisable). She sees that the journalist gets nowhere, that he can’t prove that anything is wrong at the Unity Project, and then decides that she has an opportunity here for a career-making investigation. We find out that Bea, her sister is part of The Unity Project, and has not spoken to her or contacted her in any ways in years. And so Lo’s attempts to get into the Project, and closer to its charismatic founder Lev Warren, begins.

It takes a while before it becomes obvious what The Unity Project is. On the surface, they do good deeds and provide community services that the state has abandoned. Underneath the surface, Lev Warren is treated like a god, has a tight hold on his disciples, and follows the rule-book of previous cult leaders when it comes to control and manipulation. Summers shows this from both perspectives - Bea, after her sister’s unlikely survival, which she attributes to Lev’s healing powers, dedicates herself to the cult. Lo, critical at first, soon falls victim to Lev through a combination of bad luck (the journalist she works for, who is some of her only connection to the world, turns out to be too unreliable for any kind of stability in her life) and re-traumatisation through a manufactured car accident that leaves her shaken and vulnerable. As Bea, in the past, slowly reveals the depravity and violence of Lev, Lo begins experiencing the same escalation, all the while also realising that her sister appears to have vanished off the face of the earth recently. It takes her a while to realise that this is not another act of deliberate abandonment, but the fall-out of Bea’s attempts to leave Lev. 

And so we work our way again towards the dead body of a woman. It’s like a reverse Twin Peaks, in which the outcome begins to feel more and more inevitable, and the only outstanding question becomes if there will be one or two dead girls at the end of it. 

In the afterword, Summers references Jim Jones’ The Peoples Temple. I didn’t know anything about Jim Jones except the rudimentary facts and numbers of the fall-out of the mass-suicide in Guyana, but it’s worth reading The Project alongside with Jeff Guinn’s The Road to Jonestown (which is very thorough if sometimes frustrating, for example refusing to call out a clear act of rape) just to see how much Lev’s tactics here resemble that of Jones. Lev builds his reputation on a myth: having healed Lo through the power of his faith. It’s a myth that works for him because Lo’s own perspective on her unlikely survival remains absent through the founding years of his Project, and instead it is Bea who follows him. Like Jones, Lev claims a keen interest in social justice, but uses manipulative and violent strategies to keep his followers in line. He isolates them from their families, takes their belongings, and punishes them physically and mentally if they transgress his roles. Cruelly, once Bea gives birth to their child, he demands that the child is raised communally, without a clear mother-figure, because he knows that if he controls the girl, he has power over Bea. 

I hadn’t read The Road to Jonestown, but there is a different cult here that The Project appears to reference, one that isn’t explicitly mentioned. As much as Lev resembles Jim Jones, other aspects of his control, and the fact that he gets his money from a millionaire heir who is his left hand, mirror Keith Raniere’s NXIVM cult (likely because Raniere would have taken inspiration from Jim Jones as well). Some things here are too specific to be incidental, like when Bea is branded with a caustic pen to mark her the property of Lev. Summers’ reveals the true nature of the Unity Project slowly, through the experiences of Bea in the past and Lo’s mix of initial investigative interest and then fascination with Lev. What in the beginning appears to be a dedicated religious organisation is soon revealed to use physical and mental violence, a system of public shaming, and the collection of deeply personal confessions so that the cult leader can threaten his followers should they choose to defect. All of these methods of violence control are also present in The Peoples Temple and NXIVM.

Last year, two different television documentaries about Raniere’s cult and the horrible fall-out especially for his female victims aired: The Vow was a non-linear re-telling that was often difficult to watch because it followed people deeply embedded in the power structure who had themselves recruited others, and were therefore partially responsible for the suffering they discovered (also it’s important to keep in mind who gets to reveal their own truth on The Vow, and whose narrative we are watching). In comparison Seduced: Inside the NXIVM cult is a much more straight-forward documentary about Catherine Oxenberg’s attempts to save her daughter India, and reveals the complicity of other cult members in the enslavement of women for Raniere’s purposes a lot more honestly and directly. 

Jim Jones targeted minority groups in the 1960s and 1970s United States, creating the illusion that their grievances with racist and capitalist politics would be addressed by him, that Peoples Temple was building a more equitable society. Raniere (maybe again picking and choosing from previous cult leaders, recognising the power that Scientology has built through a similar approach) targeted Hollywood, especially mid-range young television actresses. It feels disorienting to see, in the background of The Vow’s extensive documentary footage, several cast members of the prestige Battlestar Galactica remake, and to realise that one of these women never made it out. The very specific way in which NXIVM mixed self-improvement courses (which acts as a replacement for straight-forward religion here) with the strict regime of body control that women working in Hollywood experience – restricting their caloric intake so intensely that some of them would regularly faint - points to the fact that Raniere recognised how much that culture was priming women for the kind of control and manipulation that NXIVM exerted. 

The Project portrays The Unity Project from the perspective of two women who get caught up in it. One of them attempts to escape, and fails, the other succeeds. It portrays what happens when someone enters a crisis mode, a state of being after a catastrophe, in which it becomes easy to lean on something that ultimately turns out to be profoundly harmful, and what it means when a narcissist recognises the power that comes from preying on the vulnerable. It refuses to condemn either Bea or Lo for falling for Lev, and instead portrays their strength when they realise the reality of their situation and begin, in isolation, to find a way outside, both literally and mentally. Here, the focus is neither on those who have been responsible for the suffering or those on the outside, incapable of comprehending how anyone could disregard so many red flags: It is firmly on Bea and Lo, and their love for each other which somehow transcends even Bea’s death. 

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