When I Tell You I Was Born into a Cult this is What it Means

Reviewed by Sarah Williams

“2: I ate brownies every Sunday at 5:30am, having risen roughly an hour earlier for Pledge.”
“18: My name is weird, like kids in almost every cult (I offer you Sufjan Stevens, River Pheonix).”
“24: We did celebrate Halloween”

“25: We were not allowed to dress up as witches or ghosts.”
“26: My mom sees ghosts often.”
“39: Grape Ginseng-up was my prize when I won the biggest fish contest at Camp Sunrise when I was about seven. The excitement about my prize might have been less about the drink than who I win it over (quite a few boys, all older than me.)”
“51: I still miss the after service curry.”
These are excerpts, numbered and brisk, deadpan and droll, of both Akina Cox’s artist book When I Tell You I Was Born in a Cult This Is What It Means and her life. The cult  is Reverend Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church, better known by its more pejorative nickname, “The Moonies.”
I really like books, artists, artists’ books, words in art, and stuff about cults. So it was easy to like Cox’s little book, a backward glance, but even more so with its memories and idiosyncrasies, assertions of normality and admissions of difference.
Outside of the strange beauty of each sentence, much of the charm of this book is found in its form as a list. Short statements in black text, floating on a page with plenty of space to stretch out. A list is comforting to me, I am attracted to the ideal of being able to outline, define, create something out of a set of seemingly all-encompassing, ordered statements. But this is, of course, just an illusion of order. Instead, what you get is something more akin to a connect-the-dots puzzle. If you go in the right order, make the right lines, sure, you end up with a form that points you towards the bigger picture, but still leaves you with a lot of details to fill in.
To some extent Cox’s book gives you this neat drawing of what it meant for her to grow up in a cult, but you also get to fill in the in-betweens, to imply what is unsaid. This allows for what you’ve seen or read about cults in movies or books to seep in, or seep out. It welcomes parallels between the odd instances of your own childhood, that perhaps you only realized as an adult were not “shared” across the board, perhaps even the cult-like qualities of one’s own upbringing, whether it is in the Moonies, Catholic School, playing team sports, or just your family. It lets you add volume and shading, details and elaborations, a past and future. It shows you that as comforting in its conciseness as a list can be, the full story is always so much larger and more powerful in the mysteries of the white space, with the words left unsaid.

Akina Cox, When I Tell You I Was Born into a Cult This is What it Means, (Golden Spike Press, 2012)
Images: interior of When I Tell You I Was Born into a Cult This is What it Means