I am writing in response to Ryan Grim’s cover story on Zendik Farm (“Who Are These People?” 11/4/05).
I lived at Zendik Farm for almost five years, from October 1999 to September 2004. For more than a year after leaving, I remained convinced that Zendik was going to save the world and that I was just chicken or lazy—and consigned to a life of no consequence—if I did not at some point return to the farm for good to help with that mission. When I read Grim’s article, I was beginning to question this belief; however, I was still sufficiently in thrall to Zendik that I largely dismissed his account as yet another example of Zendik-bashing by a person too blinkered to understand just how far out, benevolent, and revolutionary the Zendik way of life really is.
Since then—with the help of good friends who also used to live at Zendik—I have managed to wrest my mind out of Zendik’s control; I have begun the process of understanding and articulating what Zendik Farm really is and what I experienced there.
This process began with admitting that when I lived there I was often ill at ease and frequently gripped by intense anxiety. Why? Because, as Grim indicates in his article, Zendik—despite its claims to be creating a culture based on cooperation, honesty, etc.—is in fact an absolute monarchy, with Arol Zendik as queen and Fawn Zendik, her daughter, as heir to the throne. The only thing that sets Arol apart from your average authoritarian ruler is that, in addition to controlling all money, resources, and property, she also dictates the particulars of members’ artistic expression, their work areas and schedules, their sex lives, their views on each other and the world, their eating habits, etc. And what this extreme form of totalitarian rule means, to everyone but the ruler, is that you can never relax. The next dictum, the next decree, the next public shaming session (euphemized by Zendiks under the name “living therapy”) could be just around the corner, and it could have your name on it. In other words, your life is not your own. In fact, your mind is not your own. Arol may not know or admit it, but she practices a highly developed form of mind control.
I would not have had any idea that this was the case had I not read a book called Combatting Cult Mind Control, by Steven Hassan, which an ex-Zendik friend recommended to me. In reading it, I was astonished—and relieved—to discover how closely Zendik Farm parallels his description of a destructive cult. Why relieved? Because if Zendik is a cult—and not, as it claims, the one most holy world-saving crusade—then I could let go the weight of anxiety that I had been dragging with me since I left. Then I would be free to pursue my own dreams without feeling like a traitor and a failure.
In fact, it turns out that one of the “Common Properties of Potentially Destructive and Dangerous Cults” (http://www.factnet.org/rancho5.htm) is that “[t]he leader claims to be breaking with tradition, offering something novel, and instituting the only viable system for change that will solve life’s problems or the world’s ills.” Which is very clever, because if you believe your leader bears special wisdom that will save the world, once put into practice, then disobeying (or even disagreeing) means you are not only disappointing the leader and ruining your chances of bettering yourself, but you are also personally contributing to the advance of ecological collapse, the suffering of little children, etc. Hey, if you’re going to disagree with Arol, why not climb up on a ladder and cut out a nice big chunk of the ozone layer while you’re at it?
So, while Grim is correct in stating that, in physical terms, anyone living at Zendik Farm has the “ability to leave freely,” the matter of detaching the psyche from Zendik is not so easy. Arol—like most cult leaders—does not rely on physical restraints to ensure loyalty or sate her need for power and attention. Rather, she relies on her ability to manipulate people’s thoughts and emotions. I was devastated when I left the farm, because even though I knew I had been largely unhappy there, I still believed that what waited for me beyond those bounds was immeasurably worse.
In closing, I would like to thank Grim for writing a carefully researched, comprehensive account of life at Zendik Farm. His article was one of the many angels that came my way as I sought to free myself from the dogma I learned at Zendik.