Sacred Lies dismantles defenses around the violent cult of whiteness

While compiling a list of upcoming premieres, I accidentally discovered this Facebook Watch show from 2018 and proceeded to cry my eyes out while binging the 10-episode first season in one day.

Adapted from Stephanie Oakes’ YA novel The Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly, the show follows a handless teenager who escapes from a rural Montana cult and lands in juvenile detention, where she gets a crash course in diversity and deprogramming from the toxic beliefs she has always known.

The story is based loosely on the Brother’s Grimm tale “The Handless Maiden,” and apparently the showrunner grew up with her own ties to the Rajneesh cult featured in the Netflix documentary Wild Wild Country. With that background, it’s clear that Sacred Lies has a moral message to convey about the dangers of extreme, intolerant belief.

Coincidentally, I started watching the first episode the same day that I read this think piece about whiteness as a pathologically violent affliction that exists somewhere between a mental illness and a culture of hate. Sacred Lies personifies this concept in Minnow’s cult, a band of disaffected white people led by an asthmatic prophet named Kevin, who persuades them to leave behind their trailer park lives and build an isolated community in the woods.

Kevin is a generic white supremacist cross between Charles Manson and Ted Kaczynski, preaching that the salvation of his utopia exists for whites only because people of color do not have souls. His racism initially presents as a foreign and extreme message that only “crazy white people” would get behind. But once Minnow encounters the intersectional reality of the outside world, we see how variations on Kevin’s toxic belief are woven into the fabric of normal peoples’ everyday experiences. Minnow soon realizes that she’s connected to the other girls in the detention system, because just like her, “someone messed with them, so they messed with someone else.” Differences aside, they’re all victims of larger patriarchal forces that would rather make them invisible than confront the injustices they’ve endured.

Just when it couldn’t get any more depressing and misogynistic, Sacred Lies restores a little hope with moments of women lifting each other up, despite the unfairness of it all. Minnow’s roommate Angel serves as her cynical guide through the harsh detention system, teaching her resilience in the face of trauma and even dropping some knowledge on the school to prison pipeline. Portrayed as jaded rule-followers, the perpetually-exhausted detention staff are still genuinely empathetic toward the girls in their charge. Everyone is struggling through their own journeys, but they still support each other. These sentimental scenes – the world-weary understanding, the shared psychic pain – made me cry frequently.

While the cult metaphor of Sacred Lies is quite literally on the nose, it’s accurate in the sense that most white people exist only within the confines of their oblivious white world, moving only in spaces designed to spare them from having to contemplate the meaning, history and consequences of their whiteness. For the vast majority of white people – who squirm and scream under the mere suggestion that their identity is built upon the degradation of other humans – the growth stops here.

In contrast, Minnow’s sheltered upbringing presents an opportunity to overcome this psychological barrier, because stripping away these false beliefs of superiority leaves her with a completely blank slate. Instead of crumbling, she chooses to face the pain, guilt and confusion that bubbles up at the loss of the only worldview she has ever known. Through Minnow’s oversized doe eyes, Sacred Lies shows us that a path to redemption is possible through humility, acceptance and understanding.

As you’ve probably gathered, this show is not an easy watch. Some episodes contained graphic violence more repulsive and terrifying than most of the horror movies I watched last year, and several scenes strongly reminded me of the traumatic made-for-TV film, Savage Messiah. It’s not a perfect show by any means: the dialogue is painfully blunt and the music selection took me out of the moment at least once per episode. But despite the flaws in execution, the emotional impact still slaps. Maybe it was my hormones, I dunno, but this story got to me, and apparently I’m not the only one who found it inspiring.

Don’t take my word for it. Give the show a watch, read this article and think it over for yourself.

What do you think of Sacred Lies?