Maeve: Hi, I’m Maeve Marsden, and you’re listening to Queerstories. This week, Alistair Baldwin is a writer, comedian, thought leader and sometimes blonde. He has written for The Weekly, Hard Quiz, Get Krack!n and At Home Alone Together. He is a member of experimental comedy duo Nemeses with Vidya Rajan. He has been published in Metro, Archer, The Guardian and ACMI Ideas. He’s also a contributor to Growing Up Disabled In Australia, and he performed this story at the Sydney Writers Festival 2021.
Alistair: I briefly dated a very handsome man who tried multiple times to convert me to his cult.
It all began on what I now know to be a cult-recruitment app called Grindr. At the time I guess I was an obvious mark: my Grindr profile showed I was a naive young twink with the innocent eyes of someone easily fleeced out of thousands of dollars – which is an accurate assessment, I have been a victim of the pyramid scheme known as improv comedy for four years now.
It was a hot summer day when I got the message from a cute guy called Rudi – not his real name, just in case he doesn’t come off super well in this story about trying to convert me to a cult.
He was very handsome, by the way. So handsome he didn’t even need to be in a cult – he would have done fine in general society. I feel like a lot of okay looking guys are drawn to these insulated cult communities to help them pick up because options are much more limited – like me, with joining improv comedy.
I’m gonna lean on that joke quite a bit.
As soon as he walked in, our chemistry was off the charts. Every touch felt electric, like we were charging each others bodies.
We had three orgasms in the space of 90 minutes, which is something I didn’t know I could do – although this did occur around the time when every instagram post became a helpful reminder to drink water, so I might have just been properly hydrated for the first time in my life.
In the afterglow of great sex, on a warm day with nothing to do, I didn’t immediately shoo him out with a broom as I did with most gentleman callers at the time. We stayed in eachothers arms and began to talk about our lives.
I began to suspect he was in a cult when he said the following words.
“Back then I was very negative – that’s how I’d bing bing”
“Back then I was-”
“No, the second half”
“That’s how I’d bing bing”
After two minutes of this hilarious, Whose On First miscommunication, I realised he was saying “been being” – as in “how he had been, in a particular state of being”
I asked him where he learned that phrase, assuming he’d say the side of an organic juice bottle, or Jamila Jamil’s instagram, but instead he said he’d learned it at this personal development forum he was a member of called Attraction – also not their real name, in case they don’t come off super well in this story about how they’re literally a cult.
“I don’t mean to be rude, but that sounds like a cult” I told him.
Rudi chuckled, saying “some misguided people have claimed that”.
If you’re ever in a situation where you’re unsure if someone you’re talking to is in a cult, you can do what I did next – reach over to your phone, type in the name of the mysterious organisation, and see if the very first Google autofill suggestion is “cult question mark”
And so, I typed in “Attraction Forum” and the very first autofill was like “Attraction Forum cult question mark”. And the second was “Attraction Forum Banned In France”. Never a good sign, to be banned in France. Never a good sign to be banned in France, they let you smoke inside hospitals there.
Some might consider confirmation that a guy’s in a cult a “dealbreaker”, but what you may not know about me is that I’ll do just about anything as an ironic bit, including, as a random example, dating a guy in a cult. So when he asked me out to dinner later in the week, I said yes.
We met up at a Melbourne bar called Naked For Satan, less fun than it sounds but still pretty good. As we entered, we immediately ran into someone he knew from his cult – a mid-30s finance bro who was there on a date with two German backpackers at once.
I would like to clarify at this point that when I say a dated a guy who tried to convert me to his cult, I don’t mean his cult. Even in this brief interaction with finance bro, I could tell there was a hierarchy and my lover wasn’t super high up on it. I’d love to be up here bragging about dating a cult leader, but he was what we call an underling – or to use gay terms, a “bottom”.
Would that I had dated a cult leader. Honestly, I’m still open to it. Dating the leader means that if shit goes down at the compound, you not only know the access code to the bunker – you know where the grain is stored.
But no, the more I talked to Rudi about his cult, the more I realised he was just a cog in the system. It’s kind of like when a guy says ‘you should come see my band’ but then you get there and he’s the drummer. And you’re like… ‘okay, you got me on a technicality’.
But while he didn’t have much real power in his cult, he had real power in the cult of capitalism – by which I mean, money baby. Naked For Satan does this incredible grilled octopus, and as soon as we sat down he said ‘my treat’, so I got… just so much grilled octopus.
As I chewed on deliciously charred tentacles, he kept asking me if I felt there was anything missing from my life. Through mouthfuls of octopus, I said “not currently”. He said he “thought I’d get a lot out of coming to one of Attractions mixer events”.
It became clear that while him being in a cult wasn’t a dealbreaker for me, me not being in his cult was a dealbreaker for him. So I faced a crossroads… join a cult, or lose out on a few weeks of free, fancy dinners.
But then a third road appeared before me, as clear as day. I just had to convince him that I might eventually join his cult, as long as possible, without ever actually doing it.
So began my sordid, psychosexual love triangle with a human and some delicious octopus – my story was later adapted (with rewrites) into Netflix’s My Octopus Teacher.
I said ‘sure’, but when the night of the mixer arrived I was all like… ‘I have a headache, let’s just get dinner at Chin Chin istead’. So he invited me to the next one, but when it arrived I was like ‘I’ve already joined a cult today, I don’t know if I have another one in me, I’m really dehydrated’. Then he invited me to a third mixer and I was like ‘I don’t really know if being converted is the position for me, what if we found a third on Grindr, then we could convert him together, spit-roast style’.
Anyway I’ve never tried caviar.
But as I got to spend more time with Rudy, leading him on, I grew to like him more. He was smart, funny, self-possessed. He had this magnetism that I was drawn to. A magnetism that I wanted for myself. I started wondering if I’d judged too quickly. Was this organisation really so bad just because it had been outlawed in France?
After all, the French hated Emily in Paris, a modern masterpiece. C an we really trust their judgement? And even if the French were right about Attraction being a cult, so what? Had I just been conditioned by my public school that still had chaplains for some reason into thinking there was only one way to be a religion? After all, aren’t cults just queering normative standards of organised religion?
Isn’t a cult just a niche religion, and isn’t “niche” just a politically correct synonym for “kinda faggy”? Isn’t this exactly why every queer I meet wants to know what my “rising” is? Oh, the stars decide your personality? Babe, listen to yourself, this is a cult.
So, hypnotised by octopus and dick as I was, I talked myself into believing it would be homophobic to not at least give this cult a go. Rudy was over the moon, you know, the way men get when they wear you down. Arm in arm we walked into an inconspicuous office complex and took our seats.
The session was being lead by a charismatic woman from New York, not the leader leader, but definitely inner circle. She invited a volunteer on stage and asked them what their biggest weakness in business was. The volunteer said they have trouble speaking up in meetings. The New York women paused thoughtfully before replying, that must be because you were abused as a child. Tell us about it.
I wish I had left then and there, but in the room, surrounded by mesmerised nods, you buy into it. I stayed in that room for two hours, listening to this woman diagnose people looking to starting a small business with childhood trauma, and create this manufactured sense of community between total strangers by manipulating them into showing raw vulnerability.
No, it was only at the end as I approached the sign up desk to do the beginner course that I saw they wanted $500 up front and $2000 in total. In that moment I learned three valuable lessons.
One: there’s no suich thing as free lunch, especially if it’s octopus. Two: sometimes French people are correct. And three: the only cult that I’m willing to give two thousand of my hard earned dollars to is improv comedy.
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