Elizabeth Fixmer became fascinated with religious cults while practicing as a psychotherapist in Denver. There, the Fort Atkinson native worked with people who had left a religious cult, as well as those still involved in the cult but who would sneak to see her as they started to question their leader.
She became especially interested in this idea: How would a child who was raised in a cult and sequestered from the rest of the world begin to question the leader and the beliefs espoused by the group?
“Answering that question resulted in this book,” Fixmer said of her latest young adult novel, “Down from the Mountain” (Albert Whitman, $16.99).
Fixmer retired to Fort Atkinson and has been writing since leaving the therapy realm. Her first novel, “Saint Training,” was published in 2010. In “Down from the Mountain,” she tells the story of 14-year-old Eva, a member of Righteous Path, a polygamous religious group led by a man named Ezekiel.
Fixmer stressed that Righteous Path is not based on a real organization.
“I was very careful to keep it fictitious, but there are certain qualities and similarities among all cults,” she said. One is outsiders are generally considered heathens. The other is the prophet or instigator of the cult has complete power and will decide who he marries, who can marry within the group, etc.
When coming up with the voice of her main character, Fixmer said she knew the girl had to be sincere, but with a rebellious side.
“Anyone who is going to leave a cult has to have a certain amount of spunk, a will of their own and some capacity for critical thinking,” she said. Eva possesses those qualities, but at the same time tries hard to please the people most important to her, like her mother (one of Ezekiel’s wives). Eva had to be able to “find kernels of wisdom along the way that she could glom on to and use those to fight the battle” going on inside of her.
A formative event for Eva came when a teacher in Righteous Path introduced “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” the C.S. Lewis fantasy classic. Through that allegory, Eva begins to realize there is another interpretation of God, one more loving than the fire-and-brimstone God of Ezekiel’s sermons.
“That resonates in her heart as something much more real,” Fixmer said. “She holds on to that.”
Eva also begins to have contact with the outside world when she is allowed to sell her jewelry at art fairs. She encounters people she’s been taught to believe are heathens, but “it’s very difficult for her to believe that they’re all damned to hell,” Fixmer said.
The book maintains suspense throughout, offering the reader countless opportunities to fully invest in Eva’s struggle for truth. And in the end, Fixmer said, she hopes her work not only entertains but also enlightens.
“I’m hoping, as I always say, that readers will recognize the necessity of listening to your own inner voice — the very best possible inner voice that you discipline yourself to listen to,” she said. “In the end I think that that’s what most people who have left cults come to believe.”