The Horror of ‘Martha Marcy May Marlene’: Cult Manipulation and Creation of the ‘Other’

“If you want to belong here, you have to be a part of things.”

‘Martha Marcy May Marlene’ tells the story of a confused young woman, known to her biological family as Martha, who is attempting to adjust to normality again after being taken in and brainwashed by a Charles Mansonesque cult. The film is uncomfortable viewing to say the least. The depiction of the Martha’s cult family activities are far removed of what would be considered normal in civilised society, and how Martha has been so clearly affected by it in the aftermath is just as chilling. What is interesting about the film is its portrayal of how a person can be constructed into a cultural other. It is implied from the moment Martha reunites with her sister, Lucy, that she has always been a bit of a misfit who found it difficult to fit in with ‘regular’ people. Throughout the film the viewer is shown how Martha’s oddness has increased tenfold and how her experiences in two very different patriarchal households have rendered her confused, paranoid and unable to function in a manner that would be deemed as acceptable behaviour.

Several binaries are established and explored throughout the film, two examples being the dichotomy between Martha and Lucy and also the one between communal living and privileged upper class living, and the difference in both their morals and societal outlooks. There is a stark difference between what is seen as appropriate in a civilised society versus what is in a communal, cult space for example the questions Martha asks, clothes she wears and her swimming naked,;all of which reflect societal attitudes towards women and the sexualisation of women’s bodies. Even though the two modes of living she adapts to contrast greatly, both claim ownership over women’s bodies in different ways. It reflects the notion of how any sort of attitude can be normalised and also how cults work. In her communal home getting raped is seen as “lucky” and “an amazing night”, one to remember. Here, Martha isn’t encouraged to cover up or stay quiet; she is invited to share herself completely both physically and emotionally. She is substituting one form of control for another in a way that is construed as freeing, illustrating how women are conditioned to submit and adapt to abusive environments. They make rape sound like a choice. It is a cleansing ritual. Pain is good; it is way of letting go of your former self and former values.  Martha is constantly reassured that it takes time to find her role in her new family. Patrick’s renaming of the women is a method of claiming ownership. The inherent misogyny extends to the children the girls bear; it is implied that the female babies are murdered when Martha declares to a new arrival that “Patrick only has boys”. Murder is justified. Death, for Patrick, is one the most beautiful part of life. He tells Martha that fear is great because it brings awareness and lulls one to a state of nirvana. Death is on a par with pure love. Here, in his explanation to Martha about why it’s okay to kill people, Patrick uses a twisted kind of logic to justify murder. He tells her that people are never really dead or alive – they just exist. Patrick calls what he is doing a sacrifice and wholly unselfish and at first Martha believes him.

By escaping the cult, Martha effectively swaps one patriarch for another. She always has to live under a particular set of rules that basically enforce the status-quo of women being less than men. Ted preaches to her about how she needs to abide by the rules of his house. Unlike normal society, the cult makes Martha feel like she is important, Patrick constantly tells her that she is a teacher and a leader. Both sides use of sedatives to solve a problem or to render women docile is telling of their inert similarities. In her interaction with her family, we also see how Martha has been influenced by her cult experience how she has inadvertently inherited some of Patrick’s traits. Towards the end of the film she tells her sister that she will be a terrible mother, a sore point for Lucy since she is trying to conceive and has spent her life feeling guilty over not giving Martha enough guidance. Martha has gained the powerful knowledge of being able to figure out people’s weaknesses and how to exploit them for her their own advantage, or as a way of causing pain. While she evidently feels that she doesn’t belong with Patrick and the others, what this signifies is how difficult it can be to escape cultural conditioning of any kind of patriarchal society.

What is truly frightening about the film is the portrayal of how societal values and so called morals are in actual fact merely social constructs. When Martha lets go of what her former society would label as right or wrong she is letting go of the values that tell her that rape and murder are unacceptable. It isn’t an innate sense; it is something that has to be learned. The group mentality plays into this also, because Martha and the rest of the commune are isolated, and for the most part separated from society, there is nothing to tell them what Patrick is teaching them is wrong. When a large group of people treat certain behaviours as okay then it becomes normalised and that is when previously held societal valued begin to dissipate. That said Martha never does become truly immersed in the commune. We see that senseless murder is one thing that she cannot stomach and it is this that ultimately drives her away from her new ‘family’. This suggests that although the film points out that the values that society instil within us could very well be fleeting and easily swayed, there is also the suggestion that there could very well be some sort of innate moral compass, illustrated by Martha’s lack of acceptance for certain acts.

When Martha leaves the commune, this is when she truly becomes ‘other’. She doesn’t belong anywhere, she cannot adhere to Patrick’s way of living nor can she adapt to Ted’s traditional, capitalist outlook on life. There is no place for her, nor will there ever be, until she can learn to truly leave behind the teachings of both patriarchal modes of living and carve out her own path. However, the ambiguous ending suggests that perhaps this just isn’t possible. No matter how much one dislikes the society they live in, it is very difficult to leave behind everything, to operate outside of it and unlearn all that they have held as a ‘given’ while growing up. The ending suggests that Martha will never truly escape patriarchy, no matter how hard she tries to run away from it. She fits in nowhere, she is truly an outcast.

– Cora

One thought on “The Horror of ‘Martha Marcy May Marlene’: Cult Manipulation and Creation of the ‘Other’

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