Screenwriter-actor Guinevere Turner has published a new memoir, When the World Didn't End. The book describes both her childhood spent within the Lyman Family cult, and the emotionally-wrought adjustments her family made when Turner's mother left the group in order to take up with an abusive partner.
Turner has been active in the entertainment industry since the '90s, and is perhaps best-known both as being the co-writer and star of the lesbian classic Go Fish, as well as the writer of the film American Psycho, in which she also appeared. Turner also was a writer and co-star on The L Word.
The Lyman Family was founded in 1963 in Boston by musician and writer Mel Lyman. He predicted that, on January 5, 1975, the family's members would be transported by UFO to the planet Venus. Among those members ready to leave that day was a young Turner, and it's that incident kicks off Turner's memoir.
When the World Didn't End will be feted at a launch party at Whiskey Girl, 6318 N. Clark St., on June 4 from 2-5 p.m. In anticipation of the launch, Turner discussed the book and how those Lyman Family memories shaped her life.
Windy City Times: What was it like to revisit these memories as you compiled the memoir, and how long did When the World Didn't End take to write?
Guinevere Turner: I wrote a piece in 2019 for the New Yorker, more about the cult part than anything. I wrote that piece after not writing anything about my childhood for yearsand I'm a career writer. I wrote that piece because I had just done a film called Charlie Says, and suddenly my upbringing was relevant to what I was about to do with this film.
I thought that, when I talk about this, that the conversation can get so derailed and nothing else happens. So I thought, 'Let me try to write something and publish something ahead of time that just gives journalists something to say about [the Lyman Family]. So then I could say, "Just ask me about my movie."
That was a hurdle I needed to get over, because I had been wanting to write about this my whole adult life. But I was kind of scared and wasn't sure how to approach it. And I didn't want to be in trouble with the Lyman FamilyI didn't want them to be mad a me, as if I was still a child and not a woman in her forties at the time.
Once I got over that hurdle, I realized the world was still standing. The response to that piece was so overwhelming, from readers to cult survivors and New Yorker lovers to agents. It was clear to me that people were dying to know more.
WCT: In that New Yorker piece, you describe speaking with people about the Lyman Family, and you noted that they often expected more salacious details than you could offer. You're adapting this into a script, and are involved with a project about cult de-programmers. What do you think attracts people to cults?
GT: That's kind of an internal question that I continue to ponder and write about. Right now, there's a proliferation of cult documentaries, from fancy HBO ones to crappy ones that seems like they've been cranked out in a weekend. But they're there because people love them.
I've been thinking about that: Why all the cult documentaries? It's not like you're talking about The Inconvenient Truth. They're not calls to action. They're people's messed-up lives as entertainmentas is all True Crime. Of course, being in a cult is not a crime. Cults often commit crimes, at least the ones we know about.
Why are people so fascinated with cults? That's kind of like something I'd like to change. People watch True Crime and think, "Look at those crazy people. That could never be me." There's a kind of marginalizing with it. It makes people think, "My life may be crazy, but at least I don't have these problems." People don't think it could happen to them. That's something I'd like to change.
A person who gets sucked into a cult or a coercive group is a seeker. They start out as an idealist, or want something different. It often starts out as a spiritual journey. You don't like your life the way it is. So that makes me sad. I'm a cult-survivor and at one point I begged to stay in the cult that I was in. I didn't join [as an adult], but there's this spectrum with any identity.
WCT: Can you describe Jan. 5, 1975? That's the genesis of your title, so speak about why it was so formative a day.
GT: I started the book there because it was really one of my earliest memories. It sort of defined the Lyman Family. They were forever changed by that. They sort of set the clock to Year Zero. We all had this feeling that we were doing it wrong. By "doing it wrong," that means "being a human being wrong. You don't deserve better than this until you get your shit together. You're just in trouble permanently with the universe."
To me, it seemed like a good place to start. I thought, "You've got to figure something out. You've got to figure out how to be a better person. We all do. And what does that mean? Don't ask, because you won't get a straight answer." So that shows that I was raised with this uncertainty and underlying tension.
WCT: Throughout the book there are so many moments where that proverbial rug is pulled out from under youthe end of the world doesn't come, your mom leaves the Lyman Family so you have to as well, your leaving the house to get away from your mother's abusive partner. Do those events influence you as an adult? How do you deal with change now?
GT: I'm bordering on being a change junkie. I live half in New York and half in L.A. I have a neighbor who, whenever he sees me he says, "You're home for a week, then you're bored. You're away and texting me that you're homesick." I think it's made me a change junkie, but in a good way. I'm a risk-taker. I love new environments. I've been to many artists' residencies, where you're there for six weeks with a bunch of people you don't know. We eat dinner together. Sound familiar? (laughs) I'm like, "Why do I love this so much? Oh. it's like the way I grew up." No matter what happens in your day, you're going to be eating dinner with the same group of people, and it should be equally weird, since everyone is a self-absorbed artists.
WCT: So the Lyman Family still exists?
GT: They're notoriously private, which is why they are not going to be happy about this book. They exist; all of the places that I mention in the book are still the places that they live. My generation is sort of half-in, half-out. Some people stayed, some people didn't. Some people left but still have a relationship with their parents, because they have kids.
The generation above me is mostly in their seventies. Jessie, who figures prominently in the book, passed away in February, which means that right now they're probably going through a radical moment trying to figure out who's in charge. I obviously don't have a lot of contact with people directly. I just hear things through the grapevine. … The level of gossip that I get, considering I have no contact with them, is pretty hilarious. I don't know if they're aware of me and what I've done before this book. They just are aware of me out in the world, having various career successes.
WCT: Do you visit Chicago often?
GT: I love Chicago. It's very near-and-dear to my heart since I made Go Fish there. I made some lifelong friends there, including V.S. Brodie, my co-star in the movie, who's going to be there [at the reading], all the way from Sweden, where she lives. She's remained one of my best friends afterhow many years? Who wants to do that math? (Laughs)
RSVP for Turner's book launch at evite.me/UAYqEECMas . Event details are at www.windycitytimes.com/lgbt/Screenwriter-Guinevere-Turner-book-launch-June-4-book-chronicles-growing-up-with-infamous-Lyman-Family-cult/74974.html .