These notes contain information about events and characters in the novel including certain symbols and themes that drive the story. Joe Szimhart
listen to Jake's last name in Polish (scroll down to 'other languages') Grzyb:
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"I just finished reading Mushroom Satori and I had to let you know that it blew me away. I loved it!"
Ingrid T. (16 Jun 2013)
May 31, 2013
Novel reflections about Mushroom Satori
When I delivered my manuscript titled Mushroom Satori to Aperture Press in 2012, I spoke with the staff about the content before they read it. The odd title caused some consternation but not the tale of a young man and his ten-year stint in an eccentric Buddhist commune (a.k.a. intentional community or cult) in New Mexico. Agent after agent had rejected my book proposals over the years, so I found this opportunity to present this new story to Aperture Press in person fortuitous. Timing is important when you are ready to cast the bait into the stream. The Aperture staff liked my story and decided to go with it last summer. As a first time published novelist, I truly appreciated this opportunity to avoid all self-publishing schemes.
Mushroom Satori parodies a host of hoax or quasi-hoax novels written since the mid-19th century that use what I call a found or mysterious manuscript device. For example, Zanoni by E. Bulwer-Lytton (1842) is purportedly based on an anonymous manuscript by a Rosicrucian left on the author's desk. In modern times, The Celestine Prophecy by James Redflied (1993) claims to reveal a secret manuscript and its "Insights" hidden in So. Amercia by the sinister Catholic Church authority. Deceased via suicide cult leader Frederick "Zen Master Rama" Lenz (1950-1998) published Surfing the Himalayas in 1995, a book that his cult following believes is a real story retold to sell as fiction. Lenz describes himself as a young man that meets a mysterious Tibetan Buddist 'vajrayana' master and takes on the young Lenz as his apprentice (Lenz mimics hoaxer Carlos Castaneda (1925-1998) who wrote about his imagined apprenticeship with shaman don Juan Matus, a fictional cnstruction like the Master Fwap in Lenz's 2 books). Lately, The DaVinci Code by Dan Brown (2003) uses a secret movement called Priory of Sion--Brown in his entry note maintains the Priory is historically real: It is nothing but a modern 20th century cult with a false lineage. Jay's Journal by Anonymous is another hoax book purporting to be the real diary of a troubled teen in a satanic cult. Despite many readers thus far thinking that Jake's "cult diary" notes are from a real diary, it is not. I never claimed outside the novel that a diary exists--I made the whole thing up, albeit in an apparantly convincing way--unlike the novelists I mentioned who want the reader to think there is some reality behind the entire fiction.
At first writing, this novel began in the middle. I started this story in 2007. In 2007, the central character Jake finally decides to leave a Buddhist commune in northern New Mexico near Chama after 2 years of deliberation. He was involved for ten years, with the last five as a fully committed devotee. In my final draft, we first meet Jake agreeing to allow a cult expert to write a novel based on his diary notes. Next, we find him in an airport a day after he fled the cult. He has his first of a series of panic attacks—anxiety and forms of panic are common among newly defected members of of high demand groups due to everything from embarrassment to confusion to hatred to lingering phobias about the non-cult world.
After his flight from Minneapolis to Philadelphia, Jake approaches his old home in late evening. His mother and her new husband are not aware that he has returned. Jake notices some changes including a young Japanese maple tree in the front yard that replaced an old oak. The tree reminds him of the keisaku or flat stick that his Zen teacher used to slap meditating students on the back. Jake flashes back to images of why he joined the commune. From there I take the reader back to 1997 when Jake was in his last year at the University of Arizona. The story flows for the most part in linear time for the remaining chapters.
Jake is representative of any number of young men I have known and counseled in similar circumstances since the 1980s.
The story began in my mind with two words: Sanity’s Angel. Those two words introduced a passage from Jake’s (fictional) notebook or diary as the source of the story. I wanted to immediately get into the head of a young man in crisis, a young man of thirty about to make a big change to reverse his devotion with ten years investment. This was a serious choice to back out of a spiritual contract for life called “taking refuge” by Buddhist monks. Sanity’s Angel was the working title for the four years I worked on this until it was ready for submission. Mushroom Satori appeared as any mushroom does—after an elaborate underground process it pops above the surface in full view as the fruit rooted in what was hidden inside the cover.
My initial intent was to fill in Jake’s past through flash backs to 1997. After two early readers commented on the story, I saw that I needed more flesh on the bone for my character’s actual cult experience and the progression of events that got him into it.
The story could have been much longer. So much can happen from entry to exit points in anyone’s cult experience. Jake wrote the diary in real time, so I tried to imagine real time perspectives to guide me--this was not a memoir written from recall but a history based on a written record. I wanted to include enough significant events to indicate the depth and range of the commune experience without getting bogged down in the intricacies of gradual indoctrination and submission. My original intent was to focus on Jake’s post-cult recovery stages that include revisiting his sexuality, his struggle with being normal, and his inner confrontation with the lingering presence of the guru in him. This intent reflects Professor Ben Zablocki's research on cults that indicates "exit costs" as the trigger for effects of brainwashing to kick in. Iow, brainwahing is not what happens to get you into a cult, but what you experience when trying to get out. These are common problems for any newly exited cult member. Half the book, the latter half mainly, is about an intense two weeks of Jake's life immediately after the cult.
During Jake's few days in a mental hospital, he meets an assistance psychologist, Alka Krol, who I introduce as a human stand-in for science and reason in feminine form. Jake needs common sense and a serious reality check to truly recover from his cult experience. Jake is immediately enthralled with Alka as she represents the beauty of a rational mind with the very tools he needs to cleanse from cult toxicity. She also provides a mirror for his soul but one he will not begin to realize until the end of the story.
Though Jake leaves the commune by his own volition, it is not so easy to just walk away. The initial panic attacks, very real for many cult members I’ve known, are a somatic indicator of a psychological detoxification that has begun. He has yet to realize how these deep inner forces of personality that cult life repressed will emerge. Jake wants to be “normal” again but first he must face his stranger in a strange land condition.
I developed symbols and metaphors that repeat throughout the novel. These were not forced by any means—symbolic meanings occurred to me after I wrote the words. Mushroom or Grzyb is Jake's last name in Polish. I had clients with this last name in Australia. They were concerned about a young adult daughter that left school to be with the local Hare Krishna sect in Melbourne. The idea now intrigues me to connect the tangled underground mycelia phase of a mushroom's life with the main character’s dark rite-of-passage before coming of age in the light, so to speak.
There are loose parallels in this saga that feel autobiographical. One is my Eastern European surname that Americans find difficult to pronounce. The z is silent. In Hungarian, the sz in my name sounds like s in English—the z in my name is silent. Grzyb phonetically begins with a hard g as in garage and the z sounds like the second g in garage, so in Polish it sounds a bit like G-r-‘djib with a clipped b at the end. In the novel, Giles is one character that knew Jake’s deceased father well; he pronounces the name in American fashion as G-zip. I think I chose this name to provoke the reader to think that typical cult members are not so easy to read—they are not stereotypes. Also, I had Polish clients in Australia with this surname that means mushroom.
Storms occur in the story at crucial times of change—four that are significant—during transitional phases in the protagonist’s life. The first is when Jake is on his way to the commune for the first time. The second appears when Jake leaves the commune for good; the third, during his surreal escape from treatment at a mental hospital; and the fourth, when Jake and Alka, his new-found love, run for cover into a cathedral at the end of the story. Each rain storm is a kind of baptism or natural initiation for renewal that comes from the heavens.
I am familiar with all the locations in the novel, more or less. After a generic use of the University of Arizona at Tucson, Jake drives to the Jemez area of New Mexico known for its hot springs and small rustic towns, a Zen Buddhist center, the Anasazi ruins, and Los Alamos known for being a nuclear science center. This is also the location of an actual Catholic retreat for clergy with sexual deviance and substance disorder issues. Jake stops briefly, mostly out of curiosity, to visit both the Zen center and the treatment center, but this encounter with both Buddhism and Catholicism feeds the core theme of Jake’s inner search.
Rabbit Peak is a real place above Chama, NM, but the commune that Jake joins on its slopes is entirely fictional. His commune friend Waylon, later Usagi, comes from the Jicarilla Apache reservation east of Chama. I drew the Waylon-Usagi character from personal experience. A Jewish man I knew well a long time ago, a colorful rogue-chef-bartender from Philadelphia, inspired me to move to Santa Fe when I was at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. He had lived out west for many years under an assumed name that hid his Jewish roots—people out there took him for mixed Mexican heritage. He returned to New Mexico to work at the Jicarilla hunting lodge as the master chef after I moved there in 1975. I later heard that he fathered a son by an Apache woman he lived with, but left her before the child was born. I derived Waylon from that son, as he would have been around the right age. Also, I gave talks about the cult problem to Indians on the Jicarilla reservation twice in the late 1980s, so I have some personal familiarity with that fascinating Athabaskan culture.
No other character in the book has a specific background from my actual experience except Amy, the young woman that Marga, the female leader at the commune, meets in a mental hospital. Amy is based on a someone I knew who was committed to psychiatric care during an acute manic episode while she was obsessed with the teachings of J. Krishnamurti. Amy in the story was at the Lama Foundation at the time of her madness. The Lama Foundation is where Marga goes for rest and relaxation and where she gets the lead to the Japanese Zen teacher and his new commune near Chama. As stated in the novel, scenes for the film Easy Rider ware shot at the Lama commune in the late 1960s.
All other characters are either composites or drawn from whole cloth. The sensei or “the old man” who is Jake’s cult leader with no revealed name in the story is a composite of the flawed characters and abusive techniques of several foreign Zen teachers that set up shop in America, mostly in the 1970s and 1980s.
Jake’s experience in a mental institution after he returns home has a number of influences. I derived the grounds of the psychiatric clinic in the story from the now closed Pennhurst State School and Hospital, an older asylum that once housed over two thousand mentally retarded residents. I was employed as a Therapeutic Activities Worker at Pennhurst from 1970 to 1972 when it had one thousand, three hundred residents, so I was very familiar with the tunnel system as well as the buildings. The clinic that treats Jake has some similarity to Montgomery County Emergency Services where I work at this writing on the grounds of another old and nearly shut down asylum, the Norristown State Hospital, originally established for mentally ill folks. I have been inside perhaps eight or nine mental hospitals throughout the United States as well is one in Australia to work with former cult members who needed hospitalization for disorders ranging from anxious to depressive to psychotic. The clinic in the story called Psych Hall with its staff and patients is purely a composite drawn from a wide range of institutions and workers I have experienced.
My purpose for dragging my character into a mental institution was twofold. No one exits a high demand milieu after ten years of devoted activity without major adjustment needs. Totalist cults by definition have no desire to assist anyone to leave, although a cult leader might kick people out. Getting kicked out of a cult has its own problems of feeling utterly powerless as an unwilling ex-member. Jake left by choice after the cult had gone through a change to a more democratic style of leadership but he nevertheless carried some physical and psychological scars that had yet to heal. The tunnel system connected to the clinic gave me an opportunity to compress the recovery experience with dramatic features that included going deep into subconscious territory and into a final confrontation with the imprint of the false guru and “dying” to that control. The pseudo-baby must go out with the toxic bath water. Many ex-cult members emerge into full recovery feeling “born again” like new wine poured into new wineskin once these remaining aspects of pseudo-personality are realized and purged, and that could take years to occur in most cases, if it ever occurs. Not everyone wholly recovers from an abusive cult experience.