Lyn Millner is Associate Professor of Journalism at Florida Gulf Coast University. This interview is based on her new book, The Allure of Immortality: An American Cult, a Florida Swamp, and a Renegade Prophet (University Press of Florida, 2015).
JF: What led you to write The Allure of Immortality?
LM: I was looking for a magazine story idea, and there was this little-known historic settlement down the road from me. The Koreshans formed a utopian society around the belief that they could achieve immortality. They followed a man who believed he was a messiah, they practiced celibacy, and they believed that we live inside the earth.
I figured I’d research and write a 2,000-word piece and then move on to my next project. But it didn’t work that way. The Koreshans wouldn’t let me go. What haunted me was the question of why a group of people would give up everything to follow a man into a mosquito-infested forest to build a city. It seemed crazy to me, but the more I researched it, the less crazy they seemed. We all know someone who has made a radical change that puzzles us, but we rarely explore why. The more I followed my curiosity about them, it became apparent that in 2,000 words, I wouldn’t get beyond “Gee, aren’t they kooky?” I saw that they deserved their own book.
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of The Allure of Immortality?
LM: This story shows how unshakable belief can be, even when it runs counter to reality. Even when fact bleeds through, belief has the power to triumph.
JF: Why do we need to read The Allure of Immortality?
LM: There are people we would like to dismiss as crazy because it’s convenient for us not to explore our own beliefs and contradictions. The Koreshans, kooky as they seem, wanted what we all want. To live somewhere beautiful away from pollution and crime, to eat healthy food, to have more time to play, to raise our children the way we see fit, to have answers. To transcend. That’s hard to turn away from.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
LM: When I read Erik Larson’s “Devil in the White City.” I’m a reader and writer first, but it just so happens that history is what I most like to research and write about. My favorite books to read are nonfiction narratives, and I’m inspired to write history in a way that’s readable—using character, scene and dialog. That’s my formal training.
JF: What is your next project?
LM: I’m still pondering that.
JF: Thanks, Lyn!