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Waco's Legacy: Will Hill on his Novel After the Fire

Posted on 2nd June 2017 by Martha Greengrass

'I wanted to explore how cults function, how power and authority are wielded over men and women... but I also wanted to explore what happens after such a group ends.'

The events that led up to what was to become known as the Waco Siege in 1993 are notorious; the enslavement and mass trauma enforced within the sect of Branch Davidians, led by David Koresh, have become synonymous with the archetypes of cultic indoctrination. However, when novelist Will Hill came to research the group, he found himself drawn to a different side of the story, to the lives of the children who had survived. Here, he explains how the legacy of Waco shaped his novel, After the Fire.

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Father John controls everything inside The Fence. And Father John likes rules. Especially about never talking to Outsiders. Because Father John knows the truth. He knows what is coming. But Moonbeam is starting to see the lies behind Father John's words. She wants him to be found out. What if the only way out of the darkness is to light a fire?

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Like a lot of people, I’ve been fascinated by cults my entire life. By their natures they are hard to understand, a system of beliefs and rules and structures that only truly make sense to those on the inside, and I think that’s a big part of why people find them so endlessly intriguing: because it’s very hard to put yourself in the same circumstances, and imagine what you would do. Whenever a cult ends – as they often do – in mass murder or mass suicide, people tend to ask the same question: how did it come to this?

I remember watching the news footage of the assault on the Branch Davidian compound in Texas, the culmination of what had become known as the Waco Siege. It was 1993, and I was twelve at the time. Later, when the fires were out and the dust had settled, the newspapers and the TV channels announced that seventy-nine people had died. A number so big that it didn’t seem real. Seventy-nine men and women and children, gone. Why? And for what?

What eventually led me to write After The Fire wasn’t the news coverage of Waco, or the reports into the raid, or the testimonies of the survivors: it was discovering the work of Dr. Bruce Perry, the psychologist who led the treatment of the twenty-one Branch Davidian children who were released during the siege.

What Dr. Perry and his team found when they arrived in Waco were children in a state of constant hyper-anxiety: whose hearts were beating at almost double the normal rate, who were terrified of the Babylonians (David Koresh’s term for outsiders) who were now holding them, who had been told – over and over again – that the end of the world was imminent, and had physically fought each other as training for when it came. They couldn’t put different types of food on the same plate, and boys couldn’t sit with girls: the rules they had grown up with – so arbitrary and ridiculous from the outside – had sunk all the way into their bones.

Sometime later, an idea started to take shape. What would it have been like to be a teenager who survived such a nightmare, to see everything end in fire and shooting, and come to realise that your entire life had been a lie? How would you adjust to the world on the outside, a world that you have been deliberately hidden from, and that you were completely unprepared for?

From that initial idea came Moonbeam, the seventeen-year-old who is the heart of After The Fire. A girl who has come to question the way she was raised, whose own faith has begun to fail her but who is still trapped by the rules and manipulations of Father John, the all-powerful leader of the group she grew up inside. I wanted to explore how cults function, how power and authority are wielded over men and women who are often guilty of nothing more than wanting to believe in something, but I also wanted to explore what happens after such a group ends. 

How would you process the new reality you were confronted with? And what chance would you have of surviving, of building a life for yourself in the aftermath of all that horror? How much strength would it take to wake up every day, disorientated and overwhelmed by grief, and keep moving forward into an uncertain future?

I wondered many times, over the course of writing the novel, whether I would have that strength, that resilience. I like to think I would. But I’m really not sure. 

After the Fire is published by Usborne and is available now.

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