Piper experiences life Before and After her life in The Community, a religious cult secluded somewhere in Northern California. Before, in The Community, Piper is happy. She has her brothers and sisters; she has a lake and a garden where all of their fresh vegetables are grown for the family. She has her Aunties, stern caregivers who take care of Piper and all of her younger siblings. Her Mother and Father do not live with Piper and her siblings but rather take care of everything based around the Community at a separate compound. Life is idyllic. After, Piper is in a strange, new house. She is being kept by a strange woman named Jeanie. Piper doesn’t know what or who to trust about her new life, including herself. No one will tell her where her family is nor why she is no longer with them. Piece by piece, these two lives, the Before and the After converge to reveal the truth to Piper about who she is.
Peterson does a wonderful job in this book of exploring and explaining what life is like inside of a cult (read the author’s note for more on how she was able to do this so well). She writes about Piper’s life in an even and metered way. On the surface, Piper’s life looks great, but Peterson deftly works in little details and events here and there that, to us on the outside, are big red flags, but to Piper, on the inside, they are just run of the mill moments in her life. There is no one big event that would ever cause Piper to doubt or to think that she’s in a cult. It is not until Piper gets some distance that she is able to see the big picture.
Peterson also does a great job of making Piper (and me at first, to be frank) doubt Jeanie as being all together a benevolent person in Piper’s life. During Piper’s first couple of interactions things are just a little off. Enough to make me raise my eyebrow at what was really going on. There was some quality writing on Peterson’s part to bring us fully into Piper’s experience.