September 30, 2004
"The Program" by Gregg Hurwitz (William Morrow, $24.95).
"Cults are like a long con," crime novelist Gregg Hurwitz said. "They run a con on you but it can last 20 years. It's the ultimate con."
Hurwitz's new page-turner, "The Program" reads like an expose of cult con artistry. In the noir thriller, former U.S. marshall Tim Rackley infiltrates a mind-control group whose brainwashing tactics are more insidious than the Viet Cong's.
To rescue the daughter of a powerful Hollywood producer, he attends 24-hour recruitment sessions designed to render newcomers exhausted and malleable. Cult members spike the food with legal but potent narcotic herbs; they wildly fluctuate the temperature and lead chanting and overbreathing exercises to make participants feel dizzy and disoriented (the medical term: respiratory alkalosis).
Then there are the invasive "sharing" exercises: "Everyone had to share the most horrific event in his or her life, then re-experience it from the perpetrator's perspective," Rackley notes in the book.
While the depiction of cults as villainous is rampant in the popular culture -- from the Manson clan in the TV movie "Helter Skelter" to the voodoo cult in "Live and Let Die" -- Hurwitz's group eschews the clichés. His fictional "Program" isn't bent on world domination, but on getting rich, troubled souls to sign away their money. The group is a hybrid of self-help and psychotherapy cults such as Lifespring and the Sullivanians.
If the novel reads like a textbook for Cult Indoctrination 101, the approach is vintage Hurwitz. The 31-year-old Harvard and Oxford graduate has made a name for himself in the glutted mystery market by weaving detailed, real-world research into his fiction. It's perhaps one reason he's already published five well-received thrillers -- the latest of which was No. 6 on the Los Angeles Times list -- and why Paramount purchased his previous novel for seven figures.
Hurwitz's publisher is hyping him as the "Crichton/Grisham" heir apparent (there's a 'Program' billboard on Sunset Boulevard), but the author sees himself more in the tradition of his socially conscious Jewish relatives. His grandfather was a top lieutenant in the American Federation of Labor; his mother founded an international adoption agency; and his aunt is executive director of a legal aide society in San Francisco.
"I write crime fiction, but it always revolves around key ethical dilemmas," said Hurwitz, who is the son-in-law of Robert Blake. "I think in some ways, crime fiction has replaced the social novel. Authors like Dennis Lehane and Michael Connolly deal with the most compelling issues that confront us, like how we function in a fractured society or contend with violence. And those are the kind of issues I like to confront in my work."
In his 2003 novel, "The Kill Clause," Rackley joins a vigilante group when his daughter's killer walks on a technicality. The book offers a more nuanced view of vigilantism than Charles Bronson's "Death Wish," including a meticulous analysis of legal loopholes.
"If an officer serves a knock-and-notice and waits five seconds instead of seven, do you throw out the five corpses he discovers?" the author said by way of example.
The ethical questions again drew Hurwitz, several years ago, when he met a man whose sister had disappeared into a cult.
"It's a con, but it's totally legal," he said of cult tactics. "They can spike your punch with extra sugar to make you elated; they can lead you in 'guided meditations,' regress you back to your childhood and implant memories of sexual abuse, so you'll disown your parents. And because no laws govern mind control, your child or spouse can be exposed to this kind of systematic abuse and you have absolutely no legal recourse."
Hurwitz wasn't about to base his fictional cult on any one organization, for fear of repercussions.
"These groups have an endless supply of manpower," he said. "At the most harmless level, they'll call you every seven seconds for two months, no matter how often you change your number."
To avoid changing his number -- or his face -- the author made "Program" a hybrid of groups he researched. He interviewed psychologists and former cult members; he studied bootleg indoctrination tapes of the Heaven's Gate cult and the history of brainwashing going back to the communist Chinese. Like Rackley, he also went undercover, braving a grueling eight-hour recruitment meeting while avoiding the spiked food.
Hurwitz didn't take the next step -- attending a cult retreat: "If you've never been exposed to rigorous sleep and dietary deprivation, you just don't know how you'd react," he said.
The myth is that cults prey on dysfunctional, neurotic people; actually they seek out healthy individuals who are in a transition phase -- which is why recruiters often target college students.
"It is one's normal psychological responses that make one susceptible to cult techniques," Hurwitz said. "With 'The Program' I wanted to peel back the veneer and expose all the tricks."
Hurwitz will appear in conversation with mystery writer T. Jefferson Parker at the West Hollywood Book Fair on Oct. 3, 11 a.m., at the mystery pavilion. For information, visit www.weho.org or call (323) 848-6503.