As a young man, my husband attended confirmation classes at a Lutheran church three times a week. They were presided over by a charismatic minister who harangued other religions, including other branches of Lutheranism, while extolling the virtues of his own. When the time came to be confirmed, my husband found the experience to be very much like joining a cult. Although his was a mainstream denomination (one whose teachings he ultimately rejected), many young people attracted to charismatic teachings aren’t so lucky. In this month’s issue of Harper’s Magazine, Nathaniel Rich, whose last pieces for the publication were on arena football (January 2013) and a three-time lottery winner (August 2011), takes us inside the sinister world of cults. In “The Man Who Saves You from Yourself,” he follows David Sullivan, a professional deprogrammer hired to rescue people lured into cults, which Sullivan does by joining the cults himself, sometimes at great personal risk.
In a Letter from Baton Rouge, “Dirty South,” Ken Silverstein, a long-time contributor to the magazine, investigates a complicated story on the political battle over “legacy lawsuits” against oil companies in Louisiana. Silverstein presents internal memos showing that for decades, corporations systematically and knowingly contaminated properties they had leased from Louisianans for exploration and drilling. Now, the energy industry is lobbying hard to curtail landowners’ ability to sue for damages — one of the few remaining recourses against this kind of environmental predation in a state whose political culture is thoroughly pro-oil. The story is accompanied by photographs from Samuel James, whose photo essay on clandestine Nigerian refineries ran in the September 2012 issue.
In “Showing a Little Leg,” Dan Keane recounts his experience as a leg model for artist Ellen Altfest. He posed for four months, hours at a time, in the hot Texas sun, for a painting shown at this year’s Venice Biennale. Keane travels to Venice to see his painting, and describes the feeling of seeing a body part turned into art, and of having others respond to it as such.
Robert Frost is considered a venerable figure, yet Joyce Carol Oates, with this month’s story, gives us a more honest portrait of the poet behind the sainted façade. In “Lovely, Dark, Deep,” she delightfully skewers the “grand master,” presenting him as alternately crabby, confrontational, and lecherous.
Also in this issue: Jean Halley recalls a fateful collision with a deer that raised fundamental questions about life and death; Robyn Creswell reviews the poetry of Arab uprising; Bee Wilson speculates about longevity and the quest for immortality; and Thomas Frank reports on the recent strike by fast-food workers.