Guinevere Turner begins her memoir, “When the World Didn’t End,” with a punch: “On Jan. 5, 1975, the world was going to end. All the World People were going to be wiped off the face of the Earth, but not us, because a spaceship was going to come and take us to Venus, where we would live. This seemed completely plausible to my 6-year-old self — exciting, even. We were going to live on the planet of love!” As a result, she explains a few pages later, “To honor the year the world was supposed to end, we would reset the date: 1975 was now the year 00.”
Thus, Turner drops us into the alternate universe of her childhood, writing quite effectively from the perspective of her 6- to 18-year-old self. She takes us on the confusing and eventually harrowing journey from her early years growing up in what to her seemed like an idyllic world on a compound in Kansas, where, without her mother, she worked and played with dozens of other children on a farm in what she experienced as a bucolic existence.
In reality, she was living as part of the Lyman Family, a cult isolated from the rest of society, ruled by the disturbing dictates of Mel Lyman, who declared that the “World People” had lost their way. Incorporating excerpts from her extensive diaries, we experience the normalization and, at times, idealization of the toxic environment, with its controlling rules, disturbing rituals, hierarchies, and lack of personal choice.
Turner writes, “We were accused of ‘being on our own trip’ or ‘being too self-involved’ … We lived with the contradictions, but weren’t allowed to ask questions for fear of being asked, ‘Who the hell do you think you are?’ We knew that Melvin lived in his separate chambers, played his music, sometimes came out to lead an acid trip for one of the adults.”
Turner soon becomes part of the circle of Jessie, whom everyone idolizes, and is the queen, wielding unchecked power to determine what would happen next. “Jessie believed that women should take care of the men … So, that was how it was: Women served men, kids served adults, and everybody served Jessie.”
Being in Jessie’s royal sphere is precarious, for fear of being tossed out. Friendships and alliances are essential, and hard to navigate at such a young age — but Turner is happy. She enjoyed the prestige of migrating according to the seasons with Jessie’s entourage, among the various properties the group owned, including on the Vineyard. But one day, her worst nightmare occurs, and she is thrown out, and sent to live with her mother and her boyfriend, who had been in another of the Lyman communities, but were no longer part of the family.
The section when Jessie banishes Turner is heartbreaking: “‘You just aren’t enthusiastic enough toward life, and so it’s time for you to have a new one.’ She spoke for a long time, elaborating on why this was the right choice, seeming not to notice the sobs I was only half-managing to control … ‘The thing is’ — she paused briefly to find the words — ’I used to love you, but I don’t love you anymore.’”
While we may be relieved that Turner is swiftly banned from the cult, she skillfully conveys the complicated and painful experience it was for her younger self. We go through the anguish of her transition into another phase of her life.
Promised that she could decide to return, Turner, who hadn’t seen her mother since she was 3, is thrown into a mightily dysfunctional and dangerous family situation. We also feel deeply for Turner as she tries to navigate the “World” she had been raised to believe was evil. School and social norms are an anathema, feeding Turner’s self-recrimination that members of the Lyman cult had indoctrinated her in as she grew up. But home is truly the most perilous place, both mentally and physically. We see how, time and again, she is trapped in the nightmare, trying to navigate the continuous threat of violence and abuse, which, heartbreakingly, sometimes meant acquiescence.
As an acclaimed screenwriter and actor today, Turner immerses us in the complicated path from childhood to her eventual freedom to create a riveting and sophisticated memoir.
“When the World Didn’t End: A Memoir,” by Guinevere Turner, is available at Edgartown Books and soon at Bunch of Grapes bookstore.