It’s March 30, 2016. Two years ago today, I released my first book: a collection of poetry called Wolves and Other Nightmares, about my experience of being in a one-on-one cultic relationship.
In the time between then and now, plenty of non-cultists have read my story and asked me HOW? How did this happen? How did Arachne convince you she was God?
I always knew how, but didn’t answer them. Partly because I didn’t want people to ignorantly call me schizophrenic/psychotic/etc. But also because I was still afraid that Arachne could track my conversations and punish me for telling anyone about her “powers.”
However, I now understand that what Arachne did to me That Night, could have been done to anyone. In fact, even critical, skeptical people succumb to slight manipulations all the time — just watch any of Derren Brown’s mind control videos.
To mark the two-year anniversary of the day I first opened up about my unusual experiences — and to honor the progress I’ve made as a survivor, becoming more and more comfortable with articulating my experiences — I’ve decided to post this excerpt from what I have so far of my memoir. I originally read this piece at the Boundless Tales Reading Series, to a very supportive audience, and now I’m comfortable sharing it here.
This chapter is about the night Arachneinducted me into her one-on-one cult, by orchestrating what appeared to be a supernatural experience (though I now explain it differently).
So if you ever wondered how the hell I started believing Arachne was God — literally overnight — well, here’s how it happened….
That Night was a strange one from the start. Selene wanted to practice taking photographs with her DSLR camera, and decided to do a photoshoot in which her cousin Arachne and I would be her subjects. This was my third time hanging out with Arachne since meeting her at Selene’s Sweet Sixteen party a few months prior. In the time between then and now, Selene had found out about my eating disorder — which meant, naturally, that now Arachne knew about it as well. They were closer than sisters, after all.
I’d had an intense and inappropriate fascination with Arachne that failed to die over the summer. Not a crush, necessarily. Not admiration, either. Just… a sense. That she was special in some way. It was like she glowed at the edges. And something about her pulled me in. She was whirlpool, she was magnet, she was force enough to drag entire planets into her orbit. And I weighed 105 pounds.
Being the stuttering ball of anxious and awkward that I was, even moreso in the shadow of Arachne’s white-hot glow, Arachne ended up directing the whole shoot: “Selene, turn up the ISO. CJ, pose like this. Now like this. Selene, get lower to the ground. CJ, tilt your head at this angle….”
Looking back on those photographs now, I should have seen it coming: Arachne’s muscular arm around my neck in a chokehold. Arachne commanding me to lay on the ground as she climbed on top of me. Arachne strewing me in her lap, one forearm alongside my breast, the other cradling my head, in a twisted sort of embrace.
I, compliant. I, submissive. I, unsuspecting. Arachne, visionary! magnet! leader! intimidating! Selene, unusually quiet, watching Arachne manipulate and contort my passive form to her every whim. Selene, safe behind her watchful lens.
When the photoshoot ended and we returned to Selene’s room, Selene left to take her nightly shower. Arachne and I got to talking. Eventually, she coaxed the truth out of me, the truth I’d avoided discussing even with Selene: I was suffering from bulimia, getting smaller by the day; at this point my doctors were considering admitting me to a treatment facility.
“I’m really trying to recover, I swear I am. But nothing I try works. Not therapy, not positive thinking…. I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what to do….”
Arachne got on the floor in front of me. Comforted me. Understood me. She said all the things I needed to hear — the things no one else knew to say. The emotion surged forward, and she caught me just as I was about to collapse in tears. My face fit beautifully between her neck and shoulder. She tightened her arms around my body, caressing my back. She breathed with me, chest inhaling as mine exhaled, our lungs a complementary dance, a merging yin-yang symbol. My body melded into hers as if it had been waiting all my life to do so. The way she held me, I couldn’t help but think she’d also been waiting for this.
After a minute of quiet breathing, holding, whispering, we eased out of our embrace and continued to talk until my eyes were dry again. Selene came back from her shower, hair stringy and wet. It was past 9 o’ clock — Arachne mentioned leaving soon. Selene stopped Arachne, asking, “But aren’t you going to show CJ…?”
Show me what? I thought. I searched Selene’s face for answers, but she directed her gaze to Arachne, who simply nodded, stood, hiked up her pants, then sat Indian-style on the floor across from me. Selene belly-crawled onto her bed above us, curled a pillow under her chin, and watched.
Arachne said, “Give me your hands,” and I gave her my hands.
Arachne said, “Close your eyes,” and I closed my eyes.
Arachne said, “What do you feel?” and it began.
Her palms were frighteningly cold. At first I thought, maybe she had really bad circulation. But then the coldness was in my palms, and I realized, it wasn’t a temperature-cold — it was an energy-cold, and she was guiding the energy into my body through a channel that had opened between us.
The energy permeated my skin and spread into my wrists, surged up my forearms, across my shoulders and neck and finally into my head, until I was no longer a skin-covered mass of muscle and bone; now I was an outline of a body, full of the cold energy, which slid around inside me like liquid electricity — bright, fluid, fierce.
An instinct took over, and I somehow knew what she meant by that. I gathered myself — my energy, my outline, whatever you’d call my current state of being — I gathered “me” and pushed myself downwards, deeper. The coldness amplified. I started to shiver.
Then I noticed, with dread, that something had changed about the darkness here behind my eyelids. It wasn’t the typical closed-eyes-darkness anymore, the kind that swirls with dull spots of color and allows a crevice of light between the eyelids. No, now it was pitch. Sable. Ebony. Ultimate, absolute, unfathomable black.
I should have stopped her right there, yanked my hands away. I should have demanded to know how she was doing this weird trick, and why they weren’t telling me anything. But then Arachne said, “Deeper,” and my curiosity got the better of me. So I dove deeper into the feeling. The coldness amplified. Then I started to convulse.
That’s when the expansion began. The outline of my head broke, like crystal, singing, shrieking. Through the gaping hole left behind, my mind rushed out of its limits. My head is a balloon. Now it’s an elephant. Now it’s as big as this entire house! Bigger, bigger! Now my head is a storm cloud, an ocean, a sky, the sky beyond the sky!
As my head rushed infinitely upwards and outwards, my body was folding in on itself, finding depths beyond imagination. I was simultaneously shrinking and expanding, growing and receding, panicking and too big to panic.
Selene would later say that I looked small, in that moment. While I was busy feeling as big as outer space, she saw me small.
Just when I thought it couldn’t get any more intense, the expansion accelerated. I was convulsing so violently I could have been seizing. My body was wracked with cold; I was seeing pitch blackness inside of my eyelids; I gripped Arachne‘s hands harder, tighter; but Arachne remained tranquil throughout.
And then I saw outer space. Inside my eyelids, like a movie screen right inside my eyelids, I was in outer space — or, outer space was in me. Instantly, I fell calm. The terrifying rush, the questions, the convulsions — all stopped at once.
On this galactic canvas here inside my head, colors started appearing. All sorts of colors. They were swirling and dancing with each other. They curled, then bloomed, then recoiled, then slipped and slid languidly over and under and into each other. I watched in pure awe.
After a few minutes, I got lost in this strange vision; I forgot about Selene and Arachne, as though I’d stepped into another reality entirely. As I stared, my question was answered. I knew why I was here. I knew why they were doing this. This vision, with all its colors, the stars, the swirling and easy movement and the freedom and the beauty of it all — this was me, my existence, represented by a fantastic nebulous mass in Outer Space in Inner Space. My mind, my soul, my being — this was it. Right here. I was being forced to really look at myself.
The epiphany jarred me. The contrast between this luscious vision of myself, and the state of my body — underweight, suffering from malnutrition — could not have been more harsh. What had I done to myself? How did I single-handedly turn this colorful, stellar mass of light and beauty — into a fading collection of bone and void and hurting? How could I enact such blasphemy, to treat something so holy with such cruelty?
Utterly overtaken by wonder and by shame, I doubled over, aching to the core, tears clouding my face, and shouted, “It’s so beautiful, why am I torturing it?!”
In that moment, I knew I could no longer go on shrinking, mutilating, dying. There was no way, that after the beauty I’d seen, I could allow the eating disorder to continue dominating my life.
From now on, I fiercely promised myself, I would eat again. I would gain back the weight. I would grow. I would live.
And I would do anything and everything that Arachne told me to do.
Arachne decided we were finished. “Take a really deep breath. This might jar you.”
Just like that, Arachne let go of my hands. As soon as it had started, it was over. The channel between us closed, the flow of energy stopped, I was suddenly back to my normal size and awareness, back in Selene’s bedroom on the floor, back in reality, like nothing had happened. Arachne sat before me, face soft, irises sheer selenite, pupils obsidian.
I glared at her through burning tears and thought, Who the hell are you? But once again, her mysterious smile offered no answer.
I had no other word for such a person — a person who could take my hands and send me careening into outer space — who could implant visions in my mind that would end my eating disorder — and then sit there in a casual heap like she hadn’t just penetrated my being — I had no other word for such a person, but God.
Over the years that follow That Night, desperate to make sense of this strange event that permanently altered my reality, I will ask Selene three times, what the fuck Arachne did to me to make me hallucinate outer space.
The first time I ask, Selene will stare bullets at me, the way she does, and snarl,“I don’t understand why it’s so important to you.” The second time I ask, she will say the same thing as the first time, just a little less defensively. The third time, she will claim that she doesn’t really remember what happened or how Arachne did it. By then, I will not believe she is telling the truth.