Thursday, January 19, 2012

Short Story Club: "Walter John Harmon" by E.L. Doctorow

Welcome to Short Story Club. Come on in, have a seat, and let’s get down to business. Tucker and Orlando are in the kitchen preparing watercress sandwiches. As we announced before, the focus of this month’s discussion is the rather lengthy short story “Walter John Harmon” by E.L Doctorow. It’s a fascinating yarn about life in a religious cult- as told by a believer, who also happens to be the group’s in-house counsel attorney.

In what we hope becomes a tradition, we’ve asked for guest posters to kick off our discussion. And who better to inaugurate the John R. Lyman Memorial Short Story Club, than Mr. John R. Lyman himself. (And no, that’s not him pictured above. That would be Doctorow.) What did you think, Lyman?:

I hadn't thought much about cults lately, which isn't all that easy to do when you share a home state with the Lafferty brothers and Warren Jeffs.  Half the time you're trying to just read an article about last week's football game in the local paper you get smacked in the face with horror stories about child brides and tales of end times. At a certain point you tune them out. After reading "Walter John Harmon" I had a better sense of why: most cult stories are invariably told somewhat uninterestingly by outsiders, because in the most interesting cults members don't do much talking to rest of the world. That type of reporting often leads to a list of weird acts and crimes, but never seems to get to the crux of the cult itself. It's a bit like reading a Woodward and Bernstein article on Watergate without any input from Deepthroat.  

In my mind Doctorow's story, although of course fictional, offers as plausible an account as any "true" story of life in a cult. The feeling of complete inadequacy ("I knew the failing within me when Betty was this night summoned for Purification") mixed with the supreme arrogance of knowing you're right about something while the rest of the world is completely wrong ("In the end, no one could withstand the warmth and friendliness of our Embrace."). And, of course, the utter fear of cognitive dissonance, which drives so much of what anyone does but seems to especially affect those in a cult. "Hmm, the prophet ran off with my money and wife -- either I've been a total tool for the last five years of my life or this is all part of the master plan. Let me go talk to a few of the other elders who might have been fooled, too. . . yep, it was all part of the master plan!"

At times the story shows its age. For whatever reason cults were a bigger deal in the late 90s and early 2000s than they are now. Perhaps there was less going on then, or maybe the American public has just come to accept religious wackos now and isn't as interested as reading about them. The passages on the Internet are borderline funny. I had forgotten there was a time -- 2003, apparently -- when people actually used the term "Web log" instead of blog. And if Doctorow wrote the story today he'd either cut the entire descriptive paragraph after "Betty and I learned about Walter John Harmon from the Internet" (really, where else would you learn about a cult?) or replace it with, "Initially we friended Walter on Facebook, which is where all his followers must first declare their loyalty. Then we watched some really funny YouTube videos of him playing with his cats." But the essence is timeless. Life is pretty damn scary for some people and it's nice to have a place to fit in, even at the expense of your wife, livelihood, and rationality.
Thanks, John. What about the rest of you? Do you agree? Disagree? Like the story? Dislike the story? What did you think about the world Doctorow created here? Have at it in the comments!


  1. I think you hit on something key with your observation that we’re getting the story from an insider. It's an interesting perspective. But I love that there’s no lenghty exposition, it’s a very slow reveal that keeps you reading. Which is part of the reason I think it works so well.

    Who says “world-building” is the exclusive realm of Sci-Fi and Fantasy stories? In Walter John Harmon, Doctorow creates an entire religion, complete with origin story (the tornado) and apocalyptic end game (the impending Descent of the Holy City)- and he just feeds it out to us in bits and pieces throughout the story. But for every clue that the narrator’s a nut-case, we get two or three clues that he’s bright, self-aware, and of an unquestionably sound mind. It’s incredible how he’s able to draw us in in that way.

    The story reminded me of another Doctorow tale called “Wakefield.” That one also features a supposedly lucid, well-educated attorney who ends up descending into a different kind of lunacy. Instead of going all-in in a religious cult, this other character completely disappears from his family by living incognito above his own garage while eating out of garbage cans and cavorting with the mentally disabled children around the block. I bring this up because I was amazed to find that it was actually easier to identify with the narrator of “Walter John Harmon,” than it was to identify with the character in “Wakefield.”

  2. I'm more interested in using my friends' reactions to the story as opportunities for armchair psychoanalysis. Matt is extremely enthusiastic about this story. Why? It's because he works as a general counsel, has a blonde wife, and is a member of a cult. I'm curious to know how hard it was for Lyman to reference Facebook in lieu of Google+ in his review of the story – does John experience any cognitive dissonance when opting to mention one of his employer's nemeses as today's dominant social media platform? Is Google a cult?

    I liked the story. It's well written, and I think Lyman's analysis is astute, and I also admire how Doctorow quietly shows how a cult member's mind receives and rejects information that contradicts his beliefs.

  3. "Wakefield" is one of my favorite stories, ever! Great short story.

    But I love "Walter John Harmon" because it accurately conveys how Jed has been brainwashed into believing that mainstream secular culture contains ALL truth. Like in the story, it wasn't a "Jump in the Ocean" moment for Jed, but more of a "Wade in, inch by inch." And now middle class secularism coupled with an indie-hipster-organic-philosophy is so deeply engrained in his brain that he can't fathom any alternative truth. His truth is absolute. And although his cult is arguably the largest cult in the US, he won't admit that it's a cult.

    Amazing how that happens.

  4. The best part of this story is that when it all comes crumbling down, when the prophet runs off with all the money and another man’s wife and the reader is gearing up for a post-mortem or an awakening of some kind, Doctorow doubles down. The cult has become something more than its leader, and the main character continues on in renewed faith.

    I think the final image of the Elders making plans for the wall- and the ominous threat of violence that that suggests- is extremely powerful stuff. I’ve never read this author before, but this was a great choice of a story.

  5. I re-read this story last night. Here is why it's an amazing story: Anyone who has any religious experience or affiliation will recognize their own thoughts and/or experience in this story:

    "Had I come to to the Community from the needs of my own heart, or had I merely gone along out of deference to the convictions of my wife [parents, friends, community]?"

    "We are not idiots. We are not cult victims."

    "So I knew the FAILING WITHIN ME when . . ."

    "I can't quite accept this."

    "Perhaps I was the only one this day to feel that his words were a personal communication."

    "You are working for the devil, sir, he said."

    And here is the real beauty of the story: Doctorow obviously presents "The Community" as a cult, right? But I think he is pulling a Don Quixote here. Is it a cult? Really? And what's to say that The Community is not a cult and that the rest of society IS the cult? Whose truth governs? We'll never know, but truth exists everywhere in different versions. I'll call it the "Mitt Experience" that we are currently seeing in the 2012 Election. Is Mormonism a cult? Moreso than Catholicism? Less so than Scientology? What about secularism?

    These questions (to me) don't have answers because they depend too much on the personal experience of certain individuals, rather than any sort of objective data.

    I love this story.

    So, finally . . . for those if you that are "Gilead" fans . . . how does this Doctorow story differ from Gilead?