The struggling actress decides to be a cult leader with money and power all taken from the Hollywood elite. 2,563 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Thirty years ago in a small town in rural Pennsylvania, I knew exactly what I was going to be when I grew up. I would be an actress. There was always a white Christmas, and Amish buggies often blocked your way on single lane roads, and some of the nicest buildings were impeccably maintained barns sporting Hex signs. I got out of that place and went to a respected conservatory where some of my idols had studied. The moment I got my BFA I did exactly what they trained you not to do; I went to L.A. to be in movies. Heresy! I’d turned my back on the theater and embraced its lesser upstart cousin, film.
Ten years later I was still a waitress. A goddamned fucking waitress.
It was at a nice Westside restaurant at least. When I first arrived in town an agent told me that I was, “Fine for a human but ten pounds overweight for an actress.” I’m pretty and pleasant and always on the ball, so I did well with tips. And every evening I had the honor of serving overpriced tiny portions of exquisitely arranged delicacies to people who had everything I ever wanted. Lesser people who had fallen upwards, as only you can in this business. Connected kids with no cares and little talent. The farthest they had to travel from home to achieve my dreams was their doorsteps.
Except her. Sabine. (A stage name, of course. Should I have changed mine? Would it have made a damn of difference?) She was good. She actually deserved all of her success, and there was a lot of it. Once a performance of hers had given me chills. Real goosebumps raised up across my flesh as I sat at the Arclight believing she was a doomed historical figure and not the biggest female star in Hollywood.
She came in for dinner one night a week. Every Friday she was in town. I suspected it was her cheat night and that she starved herself every other long hungry day. I waited on her often and she was always nice. (What in the world did she not have to be deliriously happy about anyway?) Finally, I reached the point where I created the role of a lifetime for myself to take what I deserved: some sort of success in Hollywood.
It happened when too much went wrong all at once and I just couldn’t take the failure anymore. First my repulsive boss made a pass at me. My car was broken into. Then a few of my actor best friends gave up even though they were good. But they were sick of the grind and the cycle of latching onto one more hope only to have it disappoint. Again. (One moved way out to the ass end of the Valley to become a real estate agent. Another moved home to the Midwest to take their expected place in their small family business.) But the real last straw for me was when I decided to give in and audition at an Equity theatre for a play my manager was pushing me to do. It would the lead and it would pay. And of course, I’d get it. I was trained as a Shakespearean actor at a prestigious school known for populating Broadway with its biggest stars.
I didn’t even get a callback. How in the holy fuck is that possible?
My inspiration came as I downed my third chocolate icing-stuffed cookie from Canter’s while watching a documentary about Jonestown. It gave me an answer. Sure, a lot of people died. And Jim Jones was a really terrible person. But he made people believe that he had all the answers. Even that he could heal them. It’s what actors do, make people believe that they are someone they are not.
He made people follow him. I could make people follow me.
Jim Jones trained like an actor, too, learning from the best. As he started to feel the power he had over his congregation, and decided to see how far he could exert it, he sought the advice of Father Divine, a well-known cult leader with a thriving group of followers. Jones learned his role. He honed his craft. After years and years of acting classes, I could relate to that. It hit me that I should start a cult. I should be a cult leader with followers, and money, and power, all taken from those people who have stood in my way. I would populate my cult with the Hollywood elite, and I knew just who I’d start with.
I watched everything I could on cult leaders and mind control. I bought a stack of books on the subject and, of course, I called Uncle Bill to learn more about Pow-wow. It has nothing to do with Native Americans. It’s a form of German folk magic practiced in the Penn Dutch region of Pennsylvania where my family is from. Passed from male to female, or female to male, it focuses on healing and banishing threats. My uncle did it for me when I was five or six.
I’d burnt myself when I picked up a spoon my mother had left sitting too close to a hot burner on the stove. Uncle Bill was visiting. It was Thanksgiving dinner, and he quickly knelt beside me, taking my reddening hand in his. Catching my gaze, he looked at me and, without blinking, asked, “Do you trust me?”
“Yes,” I managed.
“Do you believe I can take away your pain?”
“Yes,” I said again. Because I did. Because he was my favorite person in the whole world. And then he blew on my hand and whispered his special unknown words. And the pain went away. Immediately. It was magic. It worked because I trusted him. I could use that.
On Friday night she showed up at the restaurant. As usual. I had been studying for my new role and I was ready. Benny was serving her table that night. He was sweet and I hated to get him in trouble, but for once I wasn’t going to allow my decency to stand in my way. I’d finally learned that being raised right was a disadvantage in L.A.
Just before Sabine’s meal was served I carefully, with no one seeing, took away her silverware, went into the kitchen, and heated that fork over the open flame of the stove. I quickly wrapped in a fancy linen napkin with knife and spoon, and waited. When Benny came rushing in, I knew exactly what he needed: silverware for Sabine. And when she dropped the fork and howled in pain (and poor Benny’s face was twisted with shock and confusion), I was there.
Let me go back a second. I forgot to mention timing. I didn’t just study my part. I made sure that my audience was ready. Vulnerability is the first step in mind control. I had read the trades and the tabloids, and observed Sabine for weeks. Her big relationship (with her hottest co-star yet by far) had just imploded. Her tentpole action film releasing next summer was troubled and starting reshoots. She’d left her long-time agent for a slicker one at a bigger firm. And she was smoking. No matter how hard she tried to hide it I could smell it under the No. 5. She was vulnerable.
I went right into my role. Going gracefully to my knee, I cradled her swelling hand and looked up at her wet eyes and said in a carefully modulated voice, “Do you believe I can take away the pain?”
She answered in a sound that was meant to be a fully formed word but wasn’t. “What?”
“I can take away your pain if you believe that I can.”
“Do you believe that I can?”
There it was. With an honest desire for it to be so in the subtext.
And so, I muttered my magic words (all I could think of was “Red Leather, Yellow Leather” repeated very fast) and blew breath across her hand slowly. I knew it worked when I saw the relief wash over Sabine’s face. Actors were the perfect target. We spend our lives convincing ourselves and others that we are things we aren’t. Especially ourselves.
I had Benny quickly fetch a first aid kit, then I slipped back to my duties. But not before offering Sabine a benevolent smile. As I knew she would, Sabine sought me out before leaving. What exactly had I done to her? Was it some Buddhist thing? Wicca maybe? Or any number of other fad new age pastimes people in Hollywood glom onto for five minutes?
I gave her that smile again (“serenity” was my new cult leader role’s subtext). “I learned it from my Uncle and he from his mother.” Which was true. “It’s in my family.” Which was also true.
And when she wanted to know more, I excused myself.
That is how it began.
At first, I limited her access to me during the Friday night visits. Then when she sought me out, I offered advice.
“How did you know?!”
I answered with that smile.
When she finally admitted that her life was a wreck I offered to go to her house and banish the bad energy. She was grateful. I injected black ink into a raw egg, sealed it up with some clear glue, and went to Sabine’s house. Mansion, I mean. She led me through all six bedrooms, eight bathrooms, formal dining room, living room, den, at least three rooms whose sole purpose was being big, a kitchen to rival a restaurant’s, and a library with rows of never-opened books. I played my part by burning herbs, and chanting nonsense, and holding that egg aloft. I told her someone meant her harm, but that I’d collected the bad energy into the egg and broke it. The blackness infecting the yolk had the desired effect.
Word soon spread among the Hollywood elite.
I wrote up a few quick pamphlets filled with the kind of hokum I knew would play well in this town and sold them on Amazon. I had an app, too, by a tech kid in town to work for Netflix or Hulu. The app was an invitation-only test. Very simple. But it told me all I needed to know about a new recruit and which dream to sell them and which problem to address. I had to rent larger venues, and larger ones still, to speak to my followers. I didn’t worry over the finer theological points of my new “religion”; I simply told each person what they needed to hear. To make them feel good. To make them come back. To bind them to me. To follow me. Besides, the contradictions confused them and wore them down and made them rely on me for answers. The contradictions made it work. Mind Control is amazingly effective. It weakens the mind. It impairs decision-making abilities.
I am no longer a waitress. I quit my job, and left my acting classes, and fired my manager, and committed to my new role. I made a list of things I wanted it to get me. A house, a Tesla, a place in Palm Springs. I made a list of potential followers to target. I created my own role and produced my own project. People started paying me to perform for them, even if they didn’t know it’s just an act.
I moved into Sabine’s at her invitation, taking over a suite and the largest of the big-to-be-big rooms as my reception area. The tabloids began to speculate. Were we long-lost sisters? Best friends? Lesbians? Was I her spiritual guide? Whatever it was, her slick new agent didn’t like it the threat of my closeness to his star client. I encouraged Sabine to leave him and go with the President of a rival agency. When she did, I made sure it was known to him why she signed with his firm. And before long, he was in my reception room, in her house, offering me thanks. What I wouldn’t have given a year ago to have this man pay any attention to me. Before long, he couldn’t make a decision without me.
He needed me. Nothing is more dangerous than need in Hollywood.
Now that I was no longer one of them, an actor with a few credits and mediocre representation, all I could see were people overcome with the need to fulfill their dreams. Had I been like that? I felt like a newly born vampire who could suddenly see only blood and sustenance where before stood people. It wasn’t just actors. Anyone who had a need — above-the-line, below-the-line, a few politicians (I anticipated they would eventually be particularly useful), even some tech people from up north — came to Sabine’s to see me. Some because I was the latest thing. Others wanted to be amused. But if they had a vulnerability — and, really, how many don’t — I found it.
After a few months I noticed that having me there was benefiting Sabine as much as it was me. I was pulling interesting people into her orbit. Imagine that. I’d created my new role to benefit only me. Me.
This was not meant to be a symbiosis. But a person like her just can’t lose. It was time I moved on to my own place. Sabine should have to go farther than her next room to come to me.
I sequestered myself in my suite at Sabine’s and saw no one for a month. I claimed I needed time to recover from all the healing and banishing I’d done for everyone. It was best if they thought the work I did for them cost me. I spent most of the time browsing house listings.
I chose a place in Laurel Canyon because the setting fit what I was selling best. There were private areas for me, a nice big room and an outdoor space where I could receive followers, and, most important to my expansion plans, additional bedrooms to house recruits.
Stars were fickle. How many would be adherents in a year? I needed a fresh supply of people willing to do the things I’d never ask of a Sabine. I sent them out to sell my pamphlets, and cleansing kits, and recruit more followers. Within a year the money was rolling in.
Some reality show people sought me out. I didn’t bother with them at first. My message was that all kinds of people should come to me because I can help. From the biggest stars, and powerful players… to you. Your dreams could come true. It happens, not often and not to everyone, but it happens. You’ve seen how many attain all your dreams? Are they as good as you? Do they have your talents? Your drive? Your training? No? Because they have a secret.
I see beyond the failure. Through the disappointment. What makes you totally unique. I can make others see it, too. We make our own success. But you must come to see me. Leave your phone behind, open your mind, and give me a weekend.
You do want to live your life to its fullest success, don’t you?