The Incendiaries by R. O. Kwon tells the story of a woman named Phoebe, who begins as a flippant college student and is slowly drawn into Jejah, a new Christian cult that has formed on her college campus. Phoebe is a woman still grappling with survivor's guilt from her mother's death, and is effectively manipulated by cult leader John Leal - despite protests from her boyfriend Will. Phoebe's vulnerability and her relationship to her mother will be the focus of this post.
One caveat is that the entire novel is told from the perspective of Will. Will is relaying the events he was there for and guessing about the ones he wasn't. This unreliable narration paints Phoebe in a more sexualized light, and makes the reader take what Will says with a grain of salt. We can infer Phoebe's feelings, but nothing we know is concrete.
Phoebe's mom died trying to protect her. When she swerved into the path of an oncoming truck, her mother “pitched her body in front of [Phoebe’s], taking the impact” (103). Phoebe feels extremely guilty about this. She believes that because she was the one driving, that because she was the one her mother was protecting, it’s her fault that she died. John Leal manipulates this guilt to work for him, with the promise that Phoebe could atone for her sins through Jejah. Ultimately, Jejah was the place that Phoebe first explored her trauma. Jejah became her safe space. This is not a coincidence.
John Leal knew about her mother’s death before they even met, due to his connection to Phoebe’s father. He continuously asked her to tell him about it, wearing her down until he got what he wanted. John even bonded with her by claiming he knew how she felt due to the loss of his own mother (I say claimed because it’s John Leal. Who knows if this is true?). He is very observant when he says, “you’re in pain because someone you love has stopped existing,” (95). He knows that Phoebe has not healed from the loss of her mother, and he hopes to fill this void with Jejah. John is not actually concerned with healing Phoebe, but he makes her believe that he is.
Phoebe wants the bait, and she takes it. She’s been looking for someone to take control of her tumultuous life. She’s shown that she has a penchant for accepting the extreme. We first get this inclination when we learn that she was willing to do anything to excel at the piano. As she reflected on in a Jejah confession, “the teacher flicked my hands with a rod each time I didn’t hit the right note, but I didn’t mind. My ambition outstripped this…I could use the extra span” (6). And Phoebe stopped playing at a certain point because she felt that if she wasn’t the absolute best in the world there was no point. Again, John Leal twists this by asking her to play for him. He uses her trauma to make her think of Jejah as healing – when really he is just collecting people to carry out his wishes.
John Leal’s manipulations worked. Phoebe threw herself fully into Jejah. John positioned himself as God’s mouthpiece and Phoebe listened. We understand why she did so when she says, “the Lord moves in rifts. He fills the void” (185). The Lord, or John Leal’s interpretation of Him, has filled the void left by Phoebe’s mother. Phoebe is willing to do anything for John to keep that void filled, because she doesn’t want to go back to her empty life.
Kwon, R. O. The Incendiaries. Riverhead Books, 2018