Hi, I’m Maeve Marsden and you’re listening to Queerstories 2020, where just like the old Queerstories Podcast I put queers in your ears, but instead of recordings made in big old rooms filled with sweaty exuberant strangers and friends, these are recordings made at home, or in TINY rooms – so arguably MORE intimate than spraying your breath aerosols mid laugh on a cute person sitting next to you, right?
Today we’re doing cults and conspiracy. Yes, yes we are. As if the internet wasn’t already awash with enough flat earthers and people who think they’re aliens, 2020 brought us a whole new onslaught of religious fervour.
These next two writers were inspired, this year, to delve into their own cult-ish connections.
The first is by Michael Sun. Michael is a prolific writer, published widely and currently working at Junkee. He also co-hosts the Saturday Lunch show on FBi Radio. This story is called St Patricks.
This is a story about a cult.
Growing up, I went to a Catholic primary school (which means I’m now agnostic and live with an overwhelming amount of guilt — and it shows). It was a tiny school called St. Patrick’s, with about one class per grade and an outstanding number of students who later turned out to be gay. I don’t think my parents would have sent me to St. Patrick’s if they’d had access to a crystal ball whose only function was to determine the future likelihood of any given person’s faggotry, but then again, I don’t quite know why my parents sent me there at all.
Apparently, they had decided early on in my life that I was to go to a Catholic school even though they were not Catholic, had never been Catholic, and didn’t know anyone else who was Catholic. They didn’t go to church, and didn’t even want me to go to Church. Once, when I was desperate to fit in, I begged my parents to take me to mass after Sunday cartoons, which my dad reluctantly obliged. We went, and we sat in the chairs, and then we left, and my dad asked me if I wanted to come back to church again or whether I wanted to keep watching cartoons next time, and I said cartoons and that was the end of it. It turned out the only thing I wanted more than fitting in was to watch Fairly Odd-Parents at 10:30AM on Sundays.
I think my parents sent me to Catholic school to get ‘discipline’, and they eventually took me out because I was getting too disciplined in matters of faith and not enough in matters of academia as an 11-year-old. What could I say? I loved Jesus, or more accurately, Jesus’ body, by which I mean the Eucharist and not his actual body; okay, maybe some depictions of his body where you can practically see his abs rippling across his torso but definitely not the one hanging above the altar of St. Patrick’s Catholic Primary School church in 2008 where his abs were, granted, rippling but were also obscured by red paint AKA blood to the extent where the abs were no longer visible except in the semi-hidden, teasingly coy way of someone who answers the door in a bathrobe.
I was not attracted to Jesus (surprisingly), but one thing I was attracted to, or attracted to in the pre-puberty sense of wistfully staring at someone and willing them to spend all their time with you — which I guess is exactly the same way I am still attracted to people — was M, a boy one year older than me who had the same first initial as me, which I always wanted to point out and turn into an inside joke but never could, because someone sharing the first initial as you is neither rare nor romantic.
I met M at after-school care, which took place in a large hall at a public school about 10 minutes away by bus ride from St. Patrick’s. M actually went to St. Patrick’s too, but we never saw each other during school hours, only afterwards in this very large and very fluorescently lit hall. Sometimes it felt like we were co-workers having a clandestine affair, except we were an 11- and a 12-year old who were not having any sort of affair, let alone a clandestine one — only, if I was lucky, a shared bus seat on the 10-minute ride to after school-care, during which we would not talk to each other at all.
I always associate different crushes of my life with the songs that came out while I was head-over-heels, and for M, it’s Just Dance by Lady Gaga, a song about getting half-psychotic sick hypnotic got my blueprint it’s symphonic. I can’t imagine a single thing happening in 2008 without Just Dance also playing in the background, like staring at the Jesus above the altar of the St. Patrick’s Catholic Primary School church with Just Dance playing in the background, or being punched in the stomach by Cassandra Bonfa with Just Dance playing in the background, or being forced to join M’s cult with Just Dance playing in the background.
When I say forced, it was more like forced by my own pre-pubescent crush to join M’s cult, so what I really mean is I joined M’s cult for love. When I say cult, though, what I really mean is cult.
M had the kind of charismatic personality that only a queer person could have, as in he was loud and attention-seeking at a time when I was also loud and attention-seeking but didn’t really know how to make people believe that being loud and attention-seeking could be charismatic rather than deeply annoying. Sometimes when I think about M, I think I might be getting the story wrong, and that everyone maybe did think he was deeply annoying, but then I remember that no, he convinced 10 people to join a cult, and if that isn’t charismatic, then I don’t know what is.
This cult was centred entirely around a rejection of technology, making M the first boomer ever, or potentially the real identity of Banksy. I have no idea how the cult started, just that I was enticed into it as part of M’s master plan to form critical mass — his logic was that once a certain number of people had joined the cult, there would be no choice for the other students at after-school care but to join the cult, unless they wanted to be part of a minority, which no-one wanted. (Actually, I was already a minority, since I was a fervent Little Monster — which is what every Lady Gaga stan in 2008 called themselves and still calls themselves — and everyone I knew had no thoughts at all about Lady Gaga, so M and I both knew the unspoken reason I was joining was because I was in love).
Obviously, I didn’t need much convincing to join the cult. All it took was one tap on the shoulder from M and I was in, I was in deep, I would gladly have betrayed anyone I knew if it made M happy or even satisfied. M was my king and not in the “we stan a king!” sense but in the medieval sense where I would gladly have been the court jester to his king, which makes sense because if there’s one thing I was and still am, it’s a clown. Sometimes when the conversation of cults has come up in the years since this, people have told me that I would probably be the first person they know to join a cult and normally I laugh it off like “that’s so silly, I would never join a cult!” …but they don’t even know the half of it.
Every afternoon at after-school care M would come around and check on us to make sure we were not at all using any form of technology, that we were not playing snake on our Nokia phones, or so much as watching other people play Mario Kart on the Nintendo 64, and definitely not listening to Just Dance on our iPod nanos. There were a lot of things we were not allowed to do, but not much that we were actually supposed to. I guess that was the point of the whole shebang — something about unplugging and digital detox and rest and relaxation, although I doubt M, even the child prodigy that he was, would’ve framed it in such alluring buzzwords. We had weekly meetings where we didn’t talk about much, or maybe I was just distracted because for the entire duration of the meeting I would be wistfully staring at M and willing him to spend all of his time with me.
On sunny days M would gather us, all 10 of us, or maybe it was even more towards the end, up on the grassy knoll above the very big school hall, like Children of the Corn. I am imagining him now in a white robe, but I am certain what he was actually wearing was a grey shirt with a blue and yellow striped tie and grey shorts and knee socks, which was also what I was wearing and was also the school uniform of St. Patrick’s Catholic Primary School. On the grassy knoll we would hold hands, free from the shackles of technology, no Nokia phones or Nintendo 64s or iPod Nanos with Just Dance as their only song loaded onto them distracting us from what was in front of our very eyes, which at that moment in time was M in the centre of the circle. Sometimes he would deliver what I guess I would now call a sermon. There is one line I remember most clearly, because he said it again and again on different days — he said “technology rots your brains”, which was meant to strike fear into our hearts and make us never use technology again, but what he didn’t know was that my brain was already rotten and the only thing left was the song Just Dance by Lady Gaga.
Sunny days like these were the most cult-ish but also the most blissful, and those days make me understand the addiction of religion in a way that no amount of Catholic teachings ever could. M’s charisma — or his loudness and attention-seeking disguised as charisma — was addictive in a way that being with him felt like permanently having ingested ¼ of a badly measured edible, galaxy-braining towards him, my king, at the centre of that circle and also every circle. He was addictive in a way that made me forget about Just Dance by Lady Gaga, even if just for a moment.
I think that’s why when I saw him, a decade later, 5 Lady Gaga albums later, I didn’t even recognise him. He had become a blur in my memory. In my mind, he was no longer real — just a rush, a peak that I had been coming down from my whole life. I didn’t think I would ever see M again, even though deep down, I always hoped I would, even after we had both left after-school care, even after we had both moved schools and long stopped talking to each other.
When I saw M again, I was at the university pub, and he was in Young Labor, which makes total sense for someone who was loud and attention-seeking and also started a cult. If early-2010s indie cinema had taught me anything, it was that if you go searching for an old flame all you will find is someone married with kids who has no intention of rekindling their relationship with you, and you will end up sad and alone.
But what I found wasn’t someone married with kids — it was someone who was 21 and queer, which was somehow worse, and plus, I was sad and alone anyway.
If M was married with kids, I would’ve known that my 11-year-old fantasy was just that: a fantasy. But what I imagined could have happened between M and I now felt like something more, as if the fact that he turned out to be queer meant that more could have happened, as if it validated my pre-pubescent crush and hours of wistfully staring at him, as if his wild anti-technology cult suddenly seemed like the most reasonable, blissful thing in the world again.
I thought all of these things, even though when I saw M again, I knew I was no longer attracted to him. He told me he had no memory of the cult, but when we talked, I quietly hid my phone under my bag, just in case.
It’s been a strange year for thinking about old friends. Is it the endless doom scrolling to break up the monotony of lockdown that sees us suddenly preoccupied with people from the past? I’ve been down that rabbit hole, and I tell you, nothing good comes from finding out someone you went to primary school with is currently obsessed with the 5G roll out and international paedophile conspiracies that involve pizza.
The next story is by writer and former teacher, Ernest Price, who works as the Education Officer at the Victorian Association for the Teaching of English. His writing has been published in Overland, Ernest lives and works on the lands of the Wurundjeri and Boon Wurrung people of the Kulin nation.
I recently learned that my mother identifies as a freedompreneur.
I am embarrassed to admit that I had no idea what she was talking about. I applied all of my context clues and still came up empty. The freedom part seemed straightforward enough, even if I had questions about exactly what was entrapping her. I’ve never been able to pronounce ‘entrepreneur’, or been able to figure out exactly what they do, so that was my first roadblock.
I started on Google, of course, like any good ally. There’s no Freedompreneur Wikipedia entry just yet, but there are a lot of free-thinkers out there who are part of what seems to be a rapidly growing movement. They are casting off ‘traditional belief systems’ and ‘pursuing freedom’ with ‘modern marketing strategies’. I’m pretty sure Pete Evans is a freedompreneur, even if he doesn’t know it yet.
There are freedompreneur academies, freedompreneur communities and even a freedompreneur M. D. Someone even compiled a list of 86 reasons to become a freedompreneur. I didn’t read the whole thing,, but the sheer weight of the number seems compelling enough.
So it seems clear, after a brief reading of the available literature, that my mother is in a pyramid scheme. Again.
This should not surprise me. We have danced this dance before. To trace the etymology of the freedompreneur my mother is today, we can start with the entrepreneur she has always been.
My parents were selling Amway from before their first bankruptcy. Living in rural Western Australia didn’t stop them having a side hustle to the farm machinery business my father had inherited from his family.
Their second major business venture was their very own pyramid scheme of sorts. They built an empire by selling other rich people on the possibility of avoiding tax altogether. Rather than giving money to the pesky social democratic structures that seemed to have a tyrannical grip on early-mid 90s Australia, my parents reasoned that the wealthy could park their taxes with them. They would redirect the money of course, to where it was needed. Tea tree farms, strawberry farms, macadamia farms.
Young and with nimble fingers, I happily spent my weekends and school holidays in the office, shredding paperwork and assembling prospectus packs as my parents sought investors for their projects. I like the shredding because it was like creating one big jigsaw puzzle, but the prospectus packs were my real favourite because they came with little bags of chocolate macadamia nuts that I could skim.
The business was booming until renowned socialist John Howard crushed their entrepreneurial spirit. Turns out my folks were a little too ambitious and were circumventing the spirit of one too many tax laws. Cue bankruptcy number two, and some accompanying legal action.
My mum proved her entrepreneurial chops, but she’s always been seeking freedom too. The signs of my mother’s unrest accumulated throughout my childhood and adolescence. There were weekly business trips, where she sought freedom from the shackles of parenting. I didn’t mind too much, happy to be parented by an entity known as The Wallet that resided in a kitchen cupboard. It was a liberal parent, willing to finance whatever nefarious adolescent activities I dreamed up for the long weeks.
There were new self-help courses every year, where she sought freedom from the shackles of her own personality. The list is long and to reveal them all would be to court legal action I cannot afford, but suffice to say that she started with the infamous precursor to today’s Landmark Forum, and never really stopped. It was my parents’ first real date actually, that weekend at The Forum.
A range of cutting edge New Age medical treatments, where she sought freedom from the demands of the physical form. There was the kinesiologist who demanded to cleanse me in a smoking ceremony that did not seem entirely culturally appropriate, and the book of get-well mantras from Louise Hay that served as family physician for a good decade. It wasn’t a complete bust though; it’s because of those mantras that I know my ongoing shoulder problems aren’t a relic of my sporting youth but rather a crippling martyr complex. She even parlayed the love of natural medicine into a scheme hawking over-priced vitamins and supplements for a while. While she claims they cured her cancer, the business never really took off, and my Dad got yelled at for wearing her merchandise to the beach. Who knew a man wearing a t-shirt proclaiming ‘You’re too fat’ wouldn’t be welcomed by beachgoers making the most of Noosa’s picturesque foreshore?
My mum really has been building towards this freedompreneur thing for a while.
Since coming out she’s found a sense of community online, an active support system, and I think it’s helping her in ways I never could. She seems happy. More authentically herself. There’s a rich world out there, waiting to embrace her for who she really is, even though she’s been largely rejected by her family.
I know this because I’ve been stalking my mum online for the last six months.
I’m keeping tabs on her Facebook account (especially her live feeds), her Instagram and her all-too-infrequently updated YouTube channel. I have the liberty of checking out some of the people she is associating with, of course. They have their own Facebook, Instagram and YouTube accounts. Some of them even have their own websites.
This interest in my mum’s online activities started as research. It was purely professional. We keep our distance, my mum and me, but this world of hers is a virtual goldmine for a novel I’m trying to write.
The protagonist in my novel-to-be is a trans man, in his mid-thirties. He’s a high school English teacher, living alone in Melbourne’s inner-north-west. He’s estranged from his parents, and using his 10 Medicare-rebated psychologist appointments a year to work through his abandonment issues. Turns out our protagonist’s mother is a freedompreneur too.
He doesn’t want to see his parents, doesn’t see the point really. He’s remade his life, and figures there’s no point to wasting his hard-won happiness on people purely because of a biological connection.
Nonetheless, our protagonist finds himself compelled to keep tabs on them. He sees himself as an Erin Brokovich type, speaking truth to power. Speaking truth to an online personality with a couple of thousand followers, at least.
Telstra gifted me 25 GB of extra mobile data to get through Melbourne’s second lockdown, and I’ve invested that in reconnecting with my mum. It’s the stuff of a Telstra ad, really.
I started with her Instagram feed. It’s a world of mis-attributed inspirational quotes, set against beautiful backgrounds. Mum does more than most though. She is clearly making her own images, a kind of freedompreneur content creation service. The pictures are not of models or even of children. They’re mum, albeit ten years ago. The quotes are her too, or sometimes my Nana, although as much as I really did love Nana I’m not entirely sure she was the first person to proclaim that ‘Life is an echo, it all comes back. The good, the bad and the true. So if you give your best to life then the best will come to you.’
My Nana was a formidable woman. She was of that generation where every adult you knew died in some horrific fashion or lost themselves in alcoholism, leaving you to somehow raise yourself. She and my Pop built their own life, from making the bricks that built their house to building a woodworking business in the back shed. They were quintessentially working class people who built the security they never had as children. Their son ingested these values, becoming a primary school teacher who married a primary school teacher. Their daughter, as we have seen, rebelled against them wholeheartedly. Nana’s chief hope for her daughter, my mother, was that she would get a “real job”, presumably something that paid a salary and super. When I became a teacher she was overjoyed, confident that the “sensible gene” had skipped a generation. She certainly did not authorise her image to be used as part of marketing for my mother’s brand.
Mixed in with the wisdom of luminaries like my mum, my Nana and Oprah are photos of take away coffees at the beach. This is a really important part of the freedompreneur aesthetic, documenting all of the freedom you get to have while you preneur your way around town.
My Mum lives in Noosa, Australia’s freedompreneur capital. It’s a fact she mentions at the start of every Facebook Live feed without a hint of irony, given that the town is probably most famous for the way it is lampooned in Kath and Kim. She neglects to mention that she and my dad are renting, or that they seem to be eeking out a living from selling my Dad’s model cars on Ebay. There’s no word of the fact that they chose Noosa over proximity to any of their children or grandchildren. Mum doesn’t even tell the story of how they came to be in Noosa, after they were driven out of Sydney by the threat of legal action from disgruntled investors. The palm trees sure look nice in the videos though.
When I first started watching the feed, I fantasised about developing an alter-ego who could fact-check my parents’ claims. I searched high and low for any digital record of my parents’ past that I could use as a weapon in this attack. Nothing, every time. My parents timed bankruptcies one and two perfectly; there’s barely a word of them online.
The central problem became how to execute a pointed online attack whilst maintaining my anonymity and carefully-crafted supposed disinterest in my parents’ lives. I ran the idea past a few close confidants, who politely suggested that it was perhaps beyond my capacity to depersonalise this attack. I briefly explored a significant plot change after listening to the impeccable podcast series The Dream about the multi-level marketing industry. I thought I could create an entry-level investor who could perhaps bring the whole scheme down from the inside. A friend pointed out that I probably don’t have the financial capacity to pull this play off, even if I could somehow feign belief in the project.
Sometime around week four of lockdown I had to give up the charade that I was “researching” anything. The fact that I was routinely sending my girlfriend screenshots and links to the videos of a woman that she will never meet really blew my cover. I was deep in self-indulgent territory. If anything I realised that hate-watching social media was only ever going to give me a caricature for the mother of my protagonist. Readers needed to feel something more for my character than I ever will for my Mum.
That’s not to say I’ve stopped monitoring her online presence. I can’t turn away. As the year has worn on she’s really neglected her video feed, but some of the same themes remain. The business model is all about creating more time with your family, a goal that seems dubious for a woman estranged from all of her children, but that lands well with the Facebook community. There was even a tearful confession that she regrets not spending more time with her kids, the clear implication that she is glad to have rectified this mistake now. It is about creating residual income streams, which seems to be about getting money for doing nothing. The Freedompreneur had come full circle. The ultimate content creation. Remaking a product on the run. My mum is truly the ultimate content creator. Old enough that no one suspects she would lie; young enough to know how to work the technology. She’s got the social media down, she is consulting via Zoom, she’s even publishing E-Books. The last video was all about the work she’s been doing on her memoir, which I am led to believe will focus on her cancer journey.
I have to stop watching long enough to write, otherwise she will get a book deal before I do. That would be even more annoying than her video with seven tips about how to love yourself more.
Thanks for listening. If you want to sign up to the cult of Queerstories, you can support the project for as little as $1 per month by signing up to my Patreon – look up Maeve Marsden on Patreon or follow the links in the podcast description.
you can follow me, Maeve Marsden, on Twitter and Instagram. Follow Queerstories on Facebook for updates.
This project is supported by the City of Sydney through a Creative Fellowship Fund.