8 Books That Will Satisfy Your Fascination With Cults

You've heard of the cult from HBO's "Love Has Won," but there are many others out there — and these books will pique your curiosity.
"Cultish" by Amanda Montell, "Don't Call It A Cult" by Sarah Berman and Daniel Barban Levin's memoir "Slonim Woods 9."
"Cultish" by Amanda Montell, "Don't Call It A Cult" by Sarah Berman and Daniel Barban Levin's memoir "Slonim Woods 9."

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It’s hard to say what makes cults so captivating. Whatever the reason, there’s no shortage of cult-related content out there, from HBO’s “Love Has Won: The Cult of Mother God” documentary to the popular television adaptations of books about some of the most notorious groups of the past.

For anyone who wishes to engross themselves in the real and reality-based stories of cults, read on to learn more about the collection of memoirs, works of fiction and journalistic endeavors illuminating this social phenomenon, its victims and its leaders.

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"Don't Call It a Cult: The Shocking Story of Keith Raniere and the Women of NXIVM" by Sarah Berman
From the outside, it’s easy to see the appeal of a group that promises empowerment and “women helping women,” but the reality of the NXIVM cult was a multi-level pyramid scheme from hell. Sarah Berman, a Vancouver-based reporter and former senior editor of the now-shuttered Vice.com who covered NXIVM and subsequent court trials of its leader, Keith Raniere, and several of the group’s high-ranking members. Her book, “Don't Call It a Cult,'' is a fascinating look at what Raniere claimed was an “executive coaching organization” but was later discovered to be a sex trafficking operation and sex cult whose followers included celebrities and wealthy socialites. The Brooklyn-born Raniere founded the supposed self-help NXIVM group in 1998. Devotees revered Raniere’s god-like influence and believed he was helping them develop self-control, higher consciousness and career success. But Berman writes that the former vitamin peddler and self-proclaimed genius manipulated, abused, physically branded and gaslighted members into sex trafficking. (Raniere has since been sentenced to 120 years in prison.) This investigative endeavor is riveting from start to finish.
"The Incendiaries: A Novel" by R.O. Kwon
Fans of Donna Tartt’s “The Secret History” will be drawn to R.O. Kwon’s debut novel about the posh Phoebe Lin and the outsider Will Kendall. The two students meet while attending a liberal arts college. Will is drawn to the beautiful and charismatic Phoebe, and Phoebe is drawn to an extremist religious cult. Before attending college, Phoebe’s mother died, and the grief she feels consumes her. In her emotionally vulnerable state, she’s drawn to a carefree and enigmatic barefoot man, John Leal. Phoebe finds purpose through John’s Christian proselytizing, as do others at the college, and he begins to assemble a group of followers. But John’s appeal is not as easily won from Will, who struggles with Phoebe's newfound commitment to what he begins to recognize as a cult. At the book’s climax, Phoebe disappears, leaving Will obsessed with finding her.
“Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism” by Amanda Montell
Amanda Montell, language scholar and author of the popular book “Wordslut,” deeply understands the power of words and their potential to exploit and control. In her follow-up book, “Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism,” Montell tackles the history and “social science” behind cults past and present, and takes inspiration from her father’s involvement and escape from the dangerous Church ofSynanon in the 1970s. She discusses the kinds of words used to create self-consuming communities and how we’re influenced by this “cultish” language daily. And although most of us may feel immune to cults, Montell’s book makes the case that you’ve probably already been in one, albeit not Heaven’s Gate but a kind of devotion to cult-like groups such as Amway and even Peloton. Montell also examines what makes these groups and their leaders alluring to followers, how they prey on human desires for security and belonging combined with feelings of low self-worth and then, with certain “cult language” and buzzwords, initiate potential enthusiasts.
"Escape: A Memoir" by Carolyn Jessop
In 2011, Warren Jeffs, the leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS), was captured after years of evading the law and was sentenced to life in prison. He had been charged with multiple accounts of sexual assault and rape of minors of child brides — a common practice of this extreme polygamist offshoot of the Mormon Church.“Escape” is the harrowing memoir of former FLDS member Carolyn Jessop, who recounts her life within the church and her courageous fight to flee with her children. Decades before Jeffs’ arrest, Carolyn Jessop was forced into a "spiritual marriage'' at the age of 18 with a man 30 years older than her. She writes that she suffered extreme physical and mental abuse from her then-husband as well as an oppressive fear of the looming doomsday that her church leaders claimed was upon them. When Jessop escaped with her eight children in 2003, she became the first woman to have successfully left the cult, and in her memoir she recounts the lingering effects the cult has had on her identity, sense of freedom and ideas of safety. The FLDS has recently been in the news again after several children of former members were reported missing last year. Many of the parents believe the FLDS is behind the abductions, with Warren Jeffs still acting as the cult’s leader from prison.
"Slonim Woods 9: A Memoir" by Daniel Barban Levin
What makes someone susceptible to a cult? And what sorts of individuals do cult leaders target? When writer Daniel Barban Levin left for college to attend Sarah Lawrence, becoming entrapped in a cult was the last thing he believed could happen to him. Levin and his fellow roommates at Slonim Woods 9, one of the liberal arts college’s residence houses, didn’t think much about it when the father of one of the housemates moved in. Levin, like his fellow roommates, were open-minded, budding intellectuals who were not interested in traditional living setups. But Larry Ray was a wolf in sheep’s clothing who was now freshly granted access to a group of impressionable young academics. Ray’s daughter Talia introduced the housemates to her father, claiming his recent stint in prison was actually a result of a revenge scheme orchestrated by an ex-wife. She insisted that Ray was truly a genius who had government clearances and proximity to the New York elite. But what Ray truly excelled at was being able to “break minds” and control people using isolating tactics and playing off insecurities. Soon Ray had Levin and his housemates moving into a Manhattan apartment, where he sexually, mentally and physically abused the students for three years. Levin’s brave and honest memoir shows how anyone can fall prey to the machinations of the charismatic and charming among us.
"Seductive Poison: A Jonestown Survivor's Story of Life and Death in the Peoples Temple" by Deborah Layton
“Seductive Poison'' is the firsthand account of Deborah Layton, who managed to escape from the infamous Jim Jones' Peoples Temple. The cult is known for the Jonestown massacre in Guyana in 1978, a horrific mass murder-suicide orchestrated by Jones in which 918 members were poisoned. Layton was once a high-ranking member of the cult but was able to leave before the murders and fled home to America, where she attempted to warn others about the sinister influence of Jones and the abuses she witnessed. Her memoir is a warning for readers of how charismatic individuals can manipulate and brainwash large groups into doing unspeakable things.
"Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche" by Haruki Murakami
In 1995, one of the world’s busiest subway systems was attacked by a doomsday terrorist cult in Japan. The Aum Shinrikyo, a pseudo-spiritual group, believed the world was coming to an end and, using several bags of luggage containing a liquid nerve agent, members boarded five morning rush-hour trains, causing 13 deaths and 5,000 injuries. The group’s founder, Shoko Asahara, claimed he was Jesus Christ reborn and the first "enlightened one" since Buddha. Soon after the cult’s initial founding in the 1980s, it quickly grew and attracted thousands of followers, not only in Japan but also internationally, and it even acquired an official status as a religious organization in 1989 from Japan. Followers were so devoted to Asahara that they would pay exuberant amounts of money for clippings of his hair. With the increase in interest came an influx of funds and deeper scrutiny into Asahara’s beliefs, which grew increasingly paranoid and violent. Novelist and author Haruki Murakami, who is best known for his innovative and sprawling novels, such as “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle,” was determined to gain insight into the attack and speak with as many survivors as possible. The result is an empathetic and deftly written true story that’s brimming with sensitivity and beautiful prose.
"The Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly" by Stephanie Oakes
Teenager Minnow Bly has spent over a decade of her life within the Kevinian cult, enduring abuse, manipulation and even the loss of her hands after she once tried to escape. When the cult’s prophet is murdered and their camp is burned down, Minnow is accused of being the culprit — an unlikely claim since she doesn’t have hands. She’s sent to a juvenile detention facility and is promised a deal by an FBI detective: Admit to everything she does know about the cult and win the freedom she’s never had. But can she overcome the years of brainwashing and all the consequences of her blind faith? Stephanie Oakes’ stunning work of fiction, loosely inspired by a German fairy tale, shows the effects cult life can have on a person’s psychology once it hooks readers in with her first graphic line, “I am a blood-soaked girl.”

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