Cult-Hopping in Los Angeles: A Conversation with Sheila Yasmin Marikar




MY CONVERSATION WITH debut novelist Sheila Yasmin Marikar, author of The Goddess Effect, begins with two glasses of natural wine and a discussion of Los Angeles’s yonic shape. Bear with us: both Marikar and I betrayed New York for its sun-drenched frenemy (not even too recently), and all these L.A. years and liters of orange wine later, we are still puzzling out the right metaphors to describe the place. “New York is so vertical and phallic, not like L.A., which doesn’t wear itself on its sleeve,” I offer. “Everything feels a little bit hidden here, behind closed doors,” responds Marikar. Her gaze shifts just past me, as if the answers she moved here for in 2015 might manifest around the corner of this outdoor wine bar any moment now.

In The Goddess Effect, Marikar’s protagonist, Anita, magnifies the anxieties and romantic delusions of so many transplants who come to Los Angeles in their thirties — those hoping to squeeze in a quick rebirth during the last gasp of their “youth.” The millennial daughter of parents who emigrated to the United States from India in the 1970s, Anita feels crushed under the pressure to overachieve; then, on the cusp of bitterness, she discovers a seductive fitness studio called The Goddess Effect. The workout effectively becomes her new religion — and its evanescent founder, Venus von Turnen, her spiritual guru. The Goddess Effect’s allure is as powerful as Anita’s hopes for self-actualization. Soon enough, though, its cultlike underside is revealed.

The L.A. fitness scene is its own character in The Goddess Effect, but no matter where you live, or what influencer, wine bar, or workout studio has harnessed your desire to be your best self, the story is a deeply relatable one. “I hope readers take away from the book that you don’t need to have your life figured out by a certain age,” says Marikar. It’s ironic that, despite existing in one of history’s most sociopolitically unpredictable times, wellness regimes like The Goddess Effect are more than willing to promise certainty: Join us, and you’ll figure out life once and for all. Marikar’s book tells a timeless message in a timely way: self-improvement is religion in this culture, but the big secret is that enlightenment doesn’t exist — at least not in the way we thought it would. As Marikar says, “I’d like readers to know that if they are still learning who they are, or if they’re spiraling, they are not alone.”

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AMANDA MONTELL: I can’t help but want to start with the sense of place in your book. There are so many delicious L.A. references and L.A. wellness-culture references. As someone who has lived in many cities, I was wondering if you could talk about the character of Los Angeles in this cult wellness story.

SHEILA YASMIN MARIKAR: I came at it from the perspective of someone who was new to Los Angeles, as I was, in 2015, when I started the draft that would become this book. I compare it to New York, which is where I spent about eight years. A lot of my formative experiences were there. New York is so easy to fall in love with. It just sucks you right in, and it’s sort of impossible to wrest yourself out. L.A. is much harder to discover in general.

I ended up discovering parts of Los Angeles through my search to find a workout and a daily routine that was going to give my life structure. I tried all sorts of things: strip-mall boxing workouts; yoga at Wanderlust, this yoga emporium that used to be on Highland, just south of Hollywood Boulevard. It was a whole thing — drumming, sage, palo santo. Right after the 2016 election, I went there and bought a white quartz pendant.

What a tableau of an L.A. moment. We really do use fitness as an existential coping mechanism and a way of belonging, so it makes sense that during one of the most turbulent, threatening, divisive days in recent history, you would seek solace in a massive yoga studio. Wanderlust felt not unlike a spiritual hall, right?

It really did. Everything about it, you just felt sort of cleansed when you walked through those doors. I’m sure that the smoldering palo santo has a lot to do with that, as well as the high ceilings and all the wood. The other thing I remember about the 2016 election, besides the result, was that right before I went to Wanderlust, I went for a run around the Silver Lake Reservoir, looking for nature to give me some joy.

“Nature.” The Silver Lake Reservoir is like a glorified sewer.

I think, at that point, there was actually no water in the reservoir. It was just a giant concrete expanse. It was a very good metaphor for how more than half the country felt at that time.

Like, look at what you were promised, and look how empty the delivery was. I think that was a very sobering moment, Trump’s election, and I can easily see how it paved the way for so many seemingly progressive, pseudofeminist “allies” and communities to turn to wellness to fill the void that Trump created, or at least widened.

In your book Cultish, you talk about how, as we’ve become more secular, it’s not necessarily cool for people to say, “Oh, I’m so into this religion now,” but it is kind of cool to say, “Oh, I’m really into this new workout. You have to try it, too. It’ll change your life.” If a good friend came to me and said that, I’d be like, “Sure, one class? Absolutely.”

Fitness is modern-day secular spirituality. We’re all creating our own bespoke spiritual routines. They might involve, for example, the Co–Star app, and a wine club or a book club, but also a yoga studio. We’re Frankensteining it. It’s not that we’re not craving religion anymore; we still want all that religion offers — identity, meaning, purpose, and community. We’re just finding it in other places. Can you talk about how you cultivated the exact cultish phenomenon that is the Goddess Effect?

The Goddess Effect, as a class, draws from a lot of different fitness classes I’ve tried, a lot of them female-founded with this sort of veneer of female empowerment.

Girlboss energy.

A lot of girlboss energy. Like Taryn Toomey’s The Class. She overlaid this manifestation-based monologue on a workout that is essentially calisthenics. You’re doing burpees, jumping jacks, and push-ups, but you’re hearing this monologue that’s all about inner strength and interconnectedness. I recorded audio of one of her classes, when I was profiling her for The New Yorker, and when I listened back to it, I was like, “Wait, what? What is being said?” But in the moment, it makes sense.

The phenomenon is not unlike when fundamentalist evangelicals thrust their hands in the air and speak in tongues. It is this incredible catharsis that provides a powerful conversion event that makes you feel forever bonded to this group. It also makes you really vulnerable because you’re relinquishing your body and your voice, and a leader or instructor can come in and sort of implant certain ideas, for better and for worse, while you’re in that state. Besides The Class, what were your other inspirations?

Body by Simone, which was the L.A. workout that I got sucked into when I first moved here. It was a dance cardio–based workout in West Hollywood. They had a three-month unlimited special that I signed up for, and I quickly started doing two-a-days. I would be frantically searching for parking on Santa Monica Boulevard, then running out to feed the meter between classes while chugging water.

It’s like college. Fitness university. “You’re going to be here all day.”

Very much. They gave out pamphlets on how best to utilize the three-month unlimited special, and one of the tips was, essentially, if you get tired from doing this workout twice a day, take a nap!

It is a classic cult conditioning tactic to occupy as much of your time with as much tedium as possible, because if you’re really busy, you’re not going to have time to question anything.

And all of the instructors at the studio know that you’re doing it, so they’re cheering you on, they learn your name. I continued with Body by Simone for a while. I really did like that community, saying “hi” to the other regulars every morning, getting to know the instructors. I still follow some of them on Instagram.

So, Body by Simone was the centerpiece of your early life in Los Angeles.

For that first year, I was super into those dance cardio routines. I’m actually excited to get back into dance cardio at a club called Heimat — it’s sort of like Equinox meets Soho House, from the owner of Gold’s Gym, but with more decor. There are stained glass panels in one of the weight rooms.

Gold’s is smart to pivot in this direction. The more exclusivity you can engineer, the better, especially in this town.

I’m doing a trial membership. I’m excited to be taken under again.

You’re what my podcast co-host and I sometimes call a “cult hopper,” hopping from one cult to the next. What are you personally seeking from all of these groups?

That’s a very good question. That’s probably something that I should work out with a therapist. Like a lot of people, I’m seeking to be better, to unlock some version of myself that is just out of my reach. Maybe if I work out more, or do this certain type of workout, and drink more water and sleep more, eat healthier, I’ll get there. If I just do everything right enough days in a row, something magical is gonna happen.

Do you have a vision of what that self looks like? What does she have that you don’t?

She probably doesn’t have this inherent hunger to keep being better. She’s happy where she is.

She’s arrived. So, you’re really seeking presence and contentment.

Yes.

A lot of seekers and strivers are seeking something a little more concrete in the form of, like, “I want to make this amount of money” or “I want to weigh this much.” You’re seeking something more abstract, but you’re seeking it through these channels that make this abstract thing seem achievable …

Even though it’s an inner battle. I have to work it out within myself; no external source is going to give me that kind of validation.

How does what you’re seeking compare to what your protagonist is seeking?

Anita is seeking something concrete. She’s seeking a job that is going to impress her friends and family, and a social media presence that is going to surprise people she doesn’t know. She wants to feel like she’s made the right decisions. There’s also a sort of nebulous desire there. She thinks that by getting this job, moving to L.A., being part of the Goddess Effect, creating a life that looks new from the outside — all of this will give her some sort of confidence that she can’t get on her own.

I have certainly fallen into the trap of thinking, at various points in my life, “If I just get that job, everything is gonna change. If I just get this promotion, everything is going to fall into place.” I think that that is something a lot of people go through. You come up with this formula: I need X, Y, and Z and I’ll get to this place where I will feel happy and proud of myself, and I’ll be a success. More often than not, it does not work that way at all.

Anita is suffering from something that I analyze a bit in Cultish, which is that, as millennials, we were promised by our boomer parents that we could be whatever we wanted to be. That ended up not quite being true because of things like 9/11, the 2008 recession, and COVID-19: lots of chaos. At the same time, on social media, there is at least the illusion that we could be living infinite different lives. That creates this chooser’s paradox of, “Who am I? Where should I live? What should I read? What should I eat?” A program like The Goddess Effect provides an identity template that feels really comforting: “Now I have something to help get me there.” That resonates so much with Americans. Self-improvement is our ultimate religion. It comes back to these deeply American values of bootstrapping and meritocracy. The New Age version of those things is manifestation. I think Anita is a representative of those values that we’ve all been conditioned to hold since childhood, and The Goddess Effect is the perfect example of a franchise that’s willing to come in and exploit that.

You put it so well. I was fascinated to learn in Cultish that the American fixation with workout regimens is rooted in the Protestant work ethic, the belief that fitness is good and being a couch potato is a sin. As I was reading, I was thinking that Anita really doesn’t know that she’s an example of that. She thinks that she’s being her own woman, charting her own path, but in reality, she’s in step with something that has been baked into this culture for a very long time: the idea that you should be better tomorrow than you were today.

Can you talk about how you crafted the voice of this story? The book is so voicey and funny — it has a snap-crackle-pop to it. Does that come naturally to you? How did you imbue this piece of fiction with that chatty familiarity?

The first version of this book was written in the third person, and it felt, even as I was writing it, that I was trying to seem smart. I wanted people to read it and be like, “Gosh, that girl is so clever and has such a way with words.” I was self-obsessed enough to actually picture that in my head as I was writing. Then, over a series of revisions, it became clear that this was a very, sort of, pompous voice. It was a bit pretentious. It wasn’t a voice that I wanted to read. So, I rewrote it in the first person, and when I did that, I went in with the intention of, I want this to sound like friends talking to each other, or texting, using the natural language of our day, what we all fall into, for better or for worse — LOLs, emoji, “I feel like.” When I started, I was writing for an audience that … I don’t even know exactly who that audience was. I was writing what I thought a book should be, and then it got distilled into a book I actually wanted to read.

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Amanda Montell grew up in Baltimore, earned a degree in linguistics from NYU, and currently lives in Los Angeles. She is the author of Wordslut: A Feminist Guide to Taking Back the English Language and Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism, which was named a best book of the year by NPR, became a GoodReads Choice Awards Top 5 finalist, and is currently in development for television.

 

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