Jeanne Thornton’s Cult Heroine


Jeanne Thornton’s debut novel The Dream of Doctor Bantam (OR Books) is a punky, poetic rush of a book. Julie Thatch is beautiful and bruised, a chain-smoking 17-year-old whose older sister has killed herself. Patrice is a French girl living in Julie’s Texas, caught up in a cult, the Institute of Temporal Illusions. As Julie’s budding body burns for Patrice, she becomes increasingly involved in a servile relationship, haunted by memories of her sister’s death. Sexy, lucid, and quirky, Thornton nails loss, loneliness, and creepy cult mentalities. We spoke with Thornton about the difference between fun and survival, the yearning of youth, Tarot cards, Scientology, and true love.

ROYAL YOUNG: There’s a big difference between having fun and surviving. But having fun is what a lot of people want to do.

JEANNE THORNTON: I was born in 1983, with the last vestiges of this notion that you weren’t supposed to enjoy whatever you did for a living. I think when I was like 14 or 15, all my friends who did anything creative turned into puppets. I know that’s harsh, but they started saying it was quaint, what we were doing.

YOUNG: It’s so important to have passion. My creativity was always encouraged up to a certain age and then it was like, okay, but what are you really going to do?

THORNTON: Right, I didn’t hear this from my parents, which was a blessing. But, I heard that from a lot of people, sort of criticizing creativity as a childish thing. In the book, Julie sort of whole-heartedly embraces this. She’s working at this job where she’s basically being exploited. She’s like a slave. But, it can be sort of exciting to just fully take on the incredibly grim enterprise of surviving.

YOUNG: There’s also a sexual element to her servitude.

THORNTON: There’s definitely a twisted pleasure in feeling the world is not your home, which in many ways is a kind of religious feeling and perverse.

YOUNG: Do you believe if live long enough, you can get anything you want?

THORNTON: If you live into an indefinite time, you can do everything you want. You can get to the point where you’re not hurting for lack of what you want.

YOUNG: Do you think youth comes along with yearning and questing, and as we get older, that disappears?

THORNTON: I don’t think yearning and questing necessarily go away. But there’s a certain amount of work in living, and you can’t focus all your attention on questing. I remember being 24 and just having this huge amount of plans and ideas, and you feel like if you just put a certain amount of work into them, you can achieve them. But once you get to a certain point, you just want to go to bed or hang out with friends. Not everything has to be related to pursuing your dreams.

YOUNG: When I was young, I had all these things: I wanted to act, sing, paint, write. Now, I’m like, okay, I’ll do writing. It’s about focusing, not losing the drive.

THORNTON: Totally. Was it sort of painful to give up the other things?

YOUNG: Letting go of the rest was a fucking relief. They were getting me in trouble. [laughs]

THORNTON: [laughs] I totally hear you.

YOUNG: There’s a lot of Tarot card reading in your book. Is that an interest of yours?

THORNTON: The Tarot reading in the book, I don’t know what it means. It was more about ending with the image of the Three of Cups. I like Tarot readings, my very good friend Miracle Jones, we were roommates for a while and we found an old deck of Tarot cards. If you can lay out the cards, there’s enough cues to what the cards mean that you can describe the forces that are supposed to be acting out and the person will make the connections themselves and you can just guide them through it. It’s like a Rorschach blot with magic imagery. I don’t know if they’re part of the great magic, but there’s something eerie about working with them.

YOUNG: Let’s talk about cults and how important they can be for people.

THORNTON: The whole purpose of a cult is to take a part of someone and completely feed that part. The cult in the book is based pretty directly on a lot of Scientology, in terms of their techniques and the way they conduct themselves. Scientologists believe that if we don’t give everyone on the planet Scientology, and get them all free of all negative thoughts, nuclear war is inevitable. I remember seeing on this Scientology website, an image of a mushroom cloud over the planet and words to the effect of “Have you done your part to stop this today?” I just pictured people in a crappy Scientology office somewhere flyering the streets. I have one direct, creepy experience with Scientology. This is my Interview Magazine confession: in high school I was a really big fan of Atlas Shrugged. Like, there are creepy 15-year-olds who are really into Ayn Rand, and then there are people in politics who are terrifying right now. We’ve definitely identified these books as cultlike. It’s not good for anyone to have that much power over you.

YOUNG: It seems to me that cults prey a lot upon lonely people. Any system that relies on people being vulnerable is creepy.

THORNTON: I know cults prey on loneliness, but I don’t know that they necessarily have to. I know Scientology makes you take a personality test. A friend of mine took one of the tests and deliberately answered these very honest, self-deprecating responses and had a weird encounter where the man giving him the test took him up to this floor in the Scientology building and sat in this windowless office chain smoking and talking about his personal problems. And the Scientology told him his whole life was a mess. It’s called finding someone’s ruin, you find out what they like least about themselves and tell them Scientology can resolve it.

YOUNG: That’s fucked up. How much do you think we sacrifice for love?

THORNTON: It depends on the person and nature of the love. When there is true love, we’re in it to give. But sometimes, it’s like you can only have that kind of love once. Because if you give it and then have to recover from a major loss of love, it causes you to scab over. You don’t need love as much as you once did.