I am pleased to share with you this fascinating interview with Helen Zuman, the author of Mating in Captivity, a memoir that tells the story of Helen’s quest to find meaning in life and relationships that led her to Zendik Farm; a place that espoused a philosophy of saving the world from lies and corruption through art and harmony. What she came to realize was that Zendik Farm was something she hadn’t entirely expected.
Mating in Captivity: A Memoir chronicles my five years, post-college, in a cult called Zendik Farm. When I moved to Zendik, at twenty-two, I was seeking meaning, belonging, and skills not taught in school; I had no idea I would gradually lose sovereignty over my time, energy, mind, and relationships—that is, surrender self-trust. In writing this book, I’ve both composted the stinky guck of my Zendik experience into fertile soul-soil and, I hope, enticed readers to turn their own piles.
What are you working on now?
I have a seasonal gig editing college application essays for an admissions consulting company; in the fall and early winter, that’s where most of my writing energy goes. However, I do write a monthly e-newsletter and blog post, and I spend five to ten minutes each morning engaging, through writing, in an effort to explore and transform my relationship with money.
What advice would you give to your younger writing self?
Embrace the shitty first draft! Decide that the mission of your first draft is to be shitty, and that if you don’t make it shitty enough, you will have failed.
Have you always wanted to be a writer? What made you decide to become one?
I’ve been writing since I was a kid, and the quality of my writing has always been extremely important to me. However, what made me a writer, and an author, was my determination to share the full tangle of my Zendik experience with readers who knew nothing about it. It was the book project that compelled me to establish and keep faith with a regular writing practice, and accept writing as a process. It kept asking me to learn more, travel further—and I kept saying yes.
Who is your favorite character in your book(s)?
My current favorite is Owen, who pops up to deliver some shocking news to the protagonist, then fades out. I like his peculiar blend of whimsy and mysticism.
Where do you do most of your writing?
At my desk, in a nook in the living room of the one-bedroom apartment I share with my husband in Beacon, New York.
What inspires you?
Crisis. Magic. Things that disturb me deeply, or strike me as miraculous. I’m also inspired by delicious writing—in particular, the word-feasts cooked up by my dear friend Nina Kang.
What else would you like your readers to know about you?
I see my book, my other writing projects, and my book-related events as shuttles with which to weave and reweave the web of relationships, i.e., the fabric that both holds and comprises all life. Each connection made, each book read, each story shared is one more thread in the web.
Tell us a little about your process. Pantser? Plotter? Mixture of both?
Since my book is a memoir, I knew the basics of my story before I started writing it. However, I did make many rounds of decisions, over the years, about what belonged and didn’t—and chose, eventually, to focus on my development as a sexual being and my quest for a partner. Those two threads became the spine of the book.
What are you reading right now?
Writing Down Your Soul, by Janet Conner. It’s a guide to getting in touch with, and listening to, one’s inner wisdom, while connecting with the infinite knowing of the larger whole. Also, I just finished two books by Ursula LeGuin—The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed—that seem to be grappling with big questions close to my heart: Is it possible to create a culture without money or overlords, in which everyone cares for everyone else? Is it inevitable that any pathology a group roots out will eventually be replaced by a new one?
If you could spend the day with one of your characters, who would it be and what would you do?
Wulf—the male half of Zendik’s founding couple, whom I never met. I would ask him questions, or perhaps just listen to him ramble, in quest of a better understanding of his motives, his contradictions, his unsolvable knots.
What actor/actress would you like to play the part of your protagonist if your book became a movie/television show?
What are your top 3 favorite books?
In order of appearance in my life: Bomb the Suburbs by William Upski Wimsatt. New and Selected Poems by Mary Oliver. Lost and Found: My Life in a Group Marriage Commune by Margaret Hollenbach.
Do you have any rituals that you practice before sitting down to write?
I make sure I have an adequate supply of homemade chocolate balls—also known as “crack”—on hand, so I can bribe/reward myself with one ball per half hour of thought-work.
What do you like to spend time doing when you aren’t writing?
I like engaging in nourishing conversation driven by open, honest questions about things that matter. I like villaging—especially at Earthaven, an off-grid intentional community in Black Mountain, North Carolina. I like growing food with as little effort as possible. I like singing, writing songs, writing skits, inciting laughter. And I like walking—if not for my quota of six miles per day, I would be a cyborg.
More About Helen:
More about Mating in Captivity:
When recent Harvard grad Helen Zuman moved to Zendik Farm in 1999, she was thrilled to discover that the Zendiks used go-betweens to arrange sexual assignations, or “dates,” in cozy shacks just big enough for a double bed and a nightstand. Here, it seemed, she could learn an honest version of the mating dance and form a union free of “Deathculture” lies. No one spoke the truth: Arol, the Farm’s matriarch, crushed any love that threatened her hold on her followers’ hearts. An intimate look at a transformative cult journey, Mating in Captivity shows how stories can trap us and free us, how miracles rise out of crisis, how coercion feeds on forsaken self-trust.