Audio availible here.
Dragged into the Light is a true crime book in which journalist Tony Russo delves into the parinoid and manipulative world of the Shrinanites, who followed leader Sherry Shriner, and looks at a suicide and a murder linked to the online cult.
At first glance Shrinenites are bizarre. They believe that there is a plan by aliens, who are lizards, to take over the earth. These aliens are bombarding those chosen by God to defend the earth, with evil energies which can only be combatted by doing exactly what Sherry tells you and placing orgone (essentially resin ornaments) around places and people under attack. What’s more the lizards have already taken over some prominent people and their plan is underway.
So far, so wacky, but while people with these beliefs are low hanging fruit for even the most hopeless of armchair comedians Russo uncovers a story which is pitiable more than anything else. What Russo firmly does is place the outcomes of the cult, within a cultural context of the crumbling American empire, and the death of the public service ideal. By doing this he makes the scared, isolated lives the cult members live much more a symptom of the modern worlds lack of connection, community and shared values, rather than the punchline of a joke.
While I am sure that some people will always want to laugh at these people – because hey, if we took it seriously we might feel compelled to actually do something about the problems that which are at the genesis of these weird beliefs – Russo makes the effort to get to know them, to understand who they are and why they fell for Sherry Shriner, daughter of God.
The real downside of this book is that Shriner died before Russo was able to try and interview her. Part of me wonders if he did get an interview would it be useful enough to help our understanding, to parse her motivation for the blatant and nasty manipulation she doled out in guise of “help”. I’m not sure it would. Cult leaders by the time they come to the wider public’s attention have generally gone so far down the path of the myths they have built around themselves that they are totally divorced from reality. While it’s hard to tell if Sherry really did believe her own hype, it is difficult to ignore the amount of work that goes into not just starting a cult, but building and maintaining a following – would anyone really put in all that effort if they did not believe what they say? I suspect any interview with Sherry would have been disjointed, bizarre and most of all, angry. I would however have liked to hear more from those who knew Sherry before she became a cult leader, who could shed some light on what made her tick, and possibly what deep insecurity set her on the path to cult leadership.
I don’t think this is the last we will hear about the Shrinenites, as the needs which drive people towards cults will not have died with Sherry, but will look for something or someone else to cling to. As we’ve seen before, sometimes when it comes to beliefs, a leaders death is just the start.