Zoe Wong-VanHaren

A Childhood Spent Waiting for the Apocalypse

Michelle Dowd ’90 presents an unexpected coming-of-age story in her acclaimed new memoir Forager: Field Notes for Surviving a Family Cult

By Tom Johnson | Fall 2023 Issue

The opening sentence of a book can be unforgettable. Anyone familiar with Melville’s Moby Dick knows it famously starts with “Call me Ishmael,” while Ray Bradbury begins Fahrenheit 451 with a simple confession: “It was a pleasure to burn.”

The same is true of the opening sentence of Forager: Field Notes for Surviving a Family Cult, a memoir by Michelle Dowd ’90:

I grew up on a mountain, preparing for the Apocalypse.

That sentence is unforgettable, and it’s hardly an exaggeration. Published earlier this year by Algonquin Press and favorably reviewed by the Los Angeles Times, Kirkus Reviews, Publishers Weekly and other outlets, Forager recounts ten years of Dowd’s childhood growing up in a cult called the Field and on a 16-acre plot she calls the Mountain located in the Angeles National Forest (on the San Andreas Fault no less). The book is a survivor’s testament; a memoir harrowing at times but ultimately triumphant and (from that first sentence) thoroughly engrossing.

Dowd explains that though she foraged daily for edible plants on the Mountain, her real home wasn’t a place but an idea, one that her maternal grandfather turned into the Field. Of this community Dowd writes:

Both Field and Mountain were governed by Grandpa, the ruler of our world. Grandpa said he was God’s prophet and would live to be five hundred years old, that the angels would descend from heaven and take him up into the clouds like Elijah. Grandpa’s followers believed every word he said, because at the Field, he was the only one with authority. His pontifications were the soundtrack of my childhood, and his sincere belief that God’s vengeance would be unleashed upon the world unless a small group of God’s chosen people stayed his hand terrified me.

“My grandfather decided the truth, and he lied all the time,” Dowd explained during a recent Participant interview. “Everyone in the Field called him ‘Grandpa,’ so I didn’t even know as a kid that he was my biological grandfather. It was confusing, and I never really trusted myself. If I ever asked my mom questions, she would just shut right down.”

It’s not surprising that one of the lasting effects of growing up in a cult is trauma, something that she confronted years later in therapy. “There are a lot of us out there, and we think we’re fine until we’re not,” Dowd said. One of the biggest issues she had to reckon with was the realization that her parents didn’t love her or her siblings. “They couldn’t express love in any way that any of us could feel. They gave us up right at our births to the collective. They didn’t nurture us; didn’t hug us or say ‘I love you.’ I felt that lack from a very early age.”


“In the Field we used the word ‘unity’ a lot. It was almost like we were cheerleaders for the concept. We moved as one and everyone had a role to play.”

-Michelle Dowd ’90


A seminal event in Dowd’s early life occurred at the age of 10 when she entered Children’s Hospital Los Angeles for symptoms that might have been chickenpox. At the time, Dowd was the first child of a leader to ever leave the confines of the cult.

Ironically, or perhaps inevitably, it took Dowd’s hospital stay to begin to give her a sense that there were different places in the world. The chickenpox diagnosis soon led to an extended stay in isolation when it was discovered she had idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpura, a condition in which the immune system mistakenly attacks platelets and requires bone marrow transplants.

Through the many months of treatments, Dowd’s mother was her only visitor, and her visits were infrequent.

“I felt like I was going to die abandoned and alone,” Dowd said. “But when I got back to the community, there was a part of me that had shifted.”

Once back at the Field, Dowd found that her grandfather had scapegoated her with accusations that she had gotten sick because there was evil in the community and, worse still, that Dowd might have been the Antichrist or the wicked Jezebel of the Old Testament.

“But I didn’t think he was crazy,” Dowd said. “I thought I might have been Jezebel. For sure there was shame about me being sick. My mother was so embarrassed that she never told people. To most of the Field, I had just disappeared.”

Michelle dowd and brother as teenagers
Michelle downs 1986/87 Pitzer id card

Michelle Dowd (pictured with her brother) right when she started as a first-year student at Pitzer.


When she was 17, Dowd made her escape from the cult, enrolling at Pitzer in 1986.

“At Pitzer, people would ask me where I came from and where I went to high school,” she said. “I didn’t go to high school, of course. It was uncomfortable, and I’d say I was home schooled. I just couldn’t talk about it. I didn’t know any contemporary music, television, movies. I didn’t have a way to relate.”

According to Dowd, she didn’t choose Pitzer, Pitzer chose her.

“I didn’t even apply to the College,” she said. “Somebody sent my application, which I had written with a pencil, to Pitzer, and they sent me a note saying they received my application from another school and that they would like to offer me funding to come to Pitzer.” Dowd thought becoming a lawyer was a noble (and lucrative) pursuit, and she decided to major in English as part of her pre-law preparation.

But that changed when she encountered English Professor Jill Benton. Benton became her academic adviser, mentor, and later her friend. Dowd took four courses with her and realized that literary inquiry was an area that was joyful and worthy to stand on its own merits. She decided that she wanted to share that joy with others.

After Pitzer, Dowd earned a master’s degree at the University of Colorado at Boulder and is currently a journalism professor at Chaffey College in Rancho Cucamonga.


Dowd’s mother never apologized to her for the neglect she experienced during her childhood, but Dowd believes her parents were both brainwashed. Regardless, she credits her mother, who was a skillful naturalist, with giving her survival skills, the most important one being resilience.

“I’ve been told my whole life that I’m resilient,” she said. “I think the skills my mom taught me in nature—how to look around and make do with what you have—are important. There is always something you can use and you’re never helpless. She taught me the opposite of helplessness.”

Another qualified “positive” that Dowd sees in living in a cult is that members have a rich sense of community.

“I learned very young that family didn’t need to be blood and that you could really have each other’s backs,” she said. “In the Field we used the word ‘unity’ a lot. It was almost like we were cheerleaders for the concept. We moved as one and everyone had a role to play.”


Dowd wrote Forager in four months during the pandemic. Despite the book’s many startling incidents, she says she didn’t want to pummel the reader with “drama porn.”

“I came from a family that didn’t own a camera,” she said. In her book, Dowd compensates for that by painting word pictures that are as crystalline as any photograph.

Dowd said she had been unable to discuss her past for most of her life, but that changed with the writing of this book. She worked in near darkness, writing the book by hand in a room illumined by a single candle.

“I just channeled the young girl inside of me,” she said. “No one had ever listened to her. I just sat and ‘listened,’ and her story just flowed out of my hand.”

Dowd said that when you write a memoir it really is about what you leave out. “You can always go deeper down the rabbit hole,” she said.

The little girl from the Field and the Mountain may be gone, but the woman who has taken her place has reemerged from that rabbit hole and in doing so has testified to a time, place, and experience unfathomable to most of us.