Feature photo by Nancy Wong.
As someone who spent 15 years in a cult, I found, in Amanda Montell’s new book Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism, a way to understand something about cults that all my soul-crushing time there didn’t give me. I’ve long known that cults are a way of controlling people; Amanda Montell is interested in the larger topic of cultish behavior and the ways that those communities ask us to buy into a system—her book is about how cultish influence is all around us, in the form of language, and none of us are completely immune to it.
Amanda and I recently had a conversation to compare cult stories, debunk myths about cult members, and discuss why Americans in particular are so pulled to cultish affiliations.
Kate Gale: To start, I was intrigued in your book that you don’t just focus on what cults are, but what makes behavior cultish. As a cult survivor, I’ve always thought that the two elements of a cult are that cult leaders control your behavior and that they don’t provide an exit strategy. What else would you say are the elements of a cult?
Amanda Montell: It’s such an interesting question, and a challenging one to answer because I’ve found that cults really fall on a spectrum. That’s one of the key arguments in my book. Scholars and survivors tend to disagree about where to draw the line past which something is a “cult,” if that line exists at all. Because so often the word “cult” is simply used to denounce “deviant” religious and social groups, which may not be any more dangerous than culturally accepted ones. “You’re in a cult!” “No, you’re in a cult!”
Of course, that is not to say that some groups aren’t legitimately more dangerous, oppressive, or controlling than others. I am just not sure that the word “cult” is how we distinguish between them. We need more specificity than that. So I think, on the most destructive end of the cult spectrum, you’ll find a group like Jonestown, or Synanon, the cult where my dad spent his teen years.
I also think in the really extreme cultish groups, they will make very lofty, grandiose, and deceptive promises. Like, this is the answer to the world’s suffering. But they’re hiding what the cost of membership will really be; they’re hiding the uglier parts of what being in that group will look like. Another feature is an intense “us versus them” ideology. You isolate someone physically, but also psychologically; you make them feel special and chosen, and then you use that as an excuse to mistreat them later. My book talks about how language works to achieve all these things.
KG: Yes, exactly. So you talk about different cult leaders in the book, and most cult leaders have ended up being men. Charismatic men. Of course, it helps to be a bit of an extrovert—Manson comes to mind—but one of the things that people always have asked me in the years that I’ve been out is what made people follow the leader of the cult I was in. George was his name. What did he have going for him?
I was a child when we joined, only three, and it’s hard for me to imagine exactly what my mother and other adults saw in him. But you really followed through with an answer about cult leaders, including Jim Jones, who attracted so many African Americans to his cult, which was particularly strange. What do you think pulls people to these charismatic men, like David Koresh and so on?
AM: Well, I think most fundamentally when a white, middle-aged, seemingly educated man speaks confidently about God and government, a lot of us are likely to listen by default. That sort of voice is just the default sound of authority in our culture. I sometimes joke that cult leaders like David Koresh and Keith Raniere (the leader of NXIVM) all the way to “cult leaders” like Elon Musk and Greg Glassman (the founder of CrossFit) could be first cousins because they look so much alike. This is just this type of guy who matches our perceptions of power and who we think deserves it. It has little to do with charm or some kind of magical charisma, actually. It’s a question of, who are we willing to listen to by default?
Now, Jim Jones was a little bit special because he was able to appeal to such a wide range of different people from different backgrounds. And this had everything to do with his diabolical style of code switching. He learned to master the sociolect of so many different groups, from countercultural college kids who could be smitten by him waxing Socialist all the way to older Black women active in the church. Consistently, survivors told me that the first conversation they ever had with Jim Jones, it felt like he was “speaking their language.”
He was widely read, well-studied. And he had ties to all the “right” people in San Francisco: Angela Davis, the Black Panthers, and others, so he seemed quite trustworthy. But his bottom line was always power, so he didn’t learn to quote Nietzsche or preach like Father Divine for any other reason than to exchange these skills for something pernicious later. I just think we’re all conditioned to trust a confident white man speaking from a position of authority saying, “I have the answers to single-handedly pull you out of suffering.”
KG: There are often a lot of women in cults. Can you talk about that?
AM: Again, I think it depends on your definition of the word “cult,” but what I’ll say is this: it’s not that women are simply easier to hoodwink. For example, in the Jonestown massacre, Black women died in disproportionate numbers (and by the way, Jonestown was more of a murder/coerced suicide, not really a suicide as it’s been painted), but—and I’m quoting the feminist Jonestown scholar Sikivu Hutchinson here—that happened mostly because Black women were especially vulnerable due to their history of sexist and racist exploitation.
One of the reasons why so many of these women remained loyal and ultimately perished was because they had so much to gain from a movement that promised them something better, which of course turned out to be a lie. And I think that’s true of women of all kinds of different backgrounds—traditional religion and patriarchy, in general, have not been too kind to them. So when someone else comes in and tells you, “Hey, I have a different way,” that sounds really promising. Especially if you’re young and being love-bombed by this older man, and you’re college-educated and full of hope.
KG: In the cult where I grew up, there was a group that was recruited from elite colleges in the Northeast; they were really just looking for a solution. And my father said to me later about my mother, “she needed to believe in something.” Her dad taught at Cornell. Her ex-husband went on to become a professor at the University of Pennsylvania. She was in college when she was recruited, but she desperately needed something to believe in. You talk about that in your book—this whole idea of the person who needs something to believe in, but is smart and alert and imaginative, which pushes back against this theory that people who wind up in cults are just not smart enough to figure out life for themselves.
AM: That’s right. I am really trying to implicate everybody to some extent in the book because I don’t like these blatant, sanctimonious myths that the people who wind up in cultish groups are desperate, disturbed, naive, or intellectually inferior. Steven Hasan, a well-known cult expert and an ex-Moonie who I spoke with for the book, actually used to recruit people to the Moonies, so he knows a little something about the type of person that cults go for. And it was always, bright, open-minded, gung-ho, service-minded types. They didn’t want anyone desperate or unstable, because they didn’t want people who were liable to break down quickly.
It’s a question of, who are we willing to listen to by default?
That’s another thing I consistently found talking to so many cult survivors: It was not that they had an excess of desperation; if anything, they had an excess of idealism. They were willing to stick it out. Of course, most people who show up to an introductory meeting or workshop for a group that ends up being dangerous don’t join or stay very long. But for those who do, it wasn’t stupidity that kept them there; it was optimism, confirmation bias, sunk cost fallacy.
KG: Your book addressed so many of the conversations I’ve had with people over the years. [One] of them is whether or not cults are a mostly American phenomenon. You also address the idea that over the pandemic there’s been a burgeoning of cultish behaviors that started online. I had an acquaintance who I thought of as a fairly normal person, she was just into health and things like that, but when I saw her as she was emerging from the pandemic, I could see she’d done a deep dive into crazy because she’d been spending so much time online. And obviously she was not alone in that. I think the bigger question is, what is it about American culture that causes these waves of cults?
AM: Compared to other developed nations, the US does have this really consistent relationship with cults. Whenever I talk to my friends who are not American and I tell them I’m writing this book about cults, their eyes do not light up the same way that Americans’ eyes do. And that’s because, across the world, levels of religiosity tend to be the lowest in countries with the highest standards of living, meaning strong education levels, long life expectancies, that sort of thing. But the US is an exception in that it’s both highly developed and full of believers.
And I’m not just talking about believers in traditional religion, which is declining. People are becoming less religiously affiliated, but they’re not believing in things less. They’re not craving spirituality less. And this can be explained in part because, while citizens of other advanced nations like Japan or Norway or Sweden or Canada enjoy all of these top-down resources like universal health care, the US is sort of this free-for-all. Generation after generation, this lack of institutional support is part of what paves the way for alternative groups. The American unrest in the 1960s and 70s gave us a spike in tumult that prompted the formation of so many cultish groups, not unlike what we’re seeing today. Except today we have social media algorithms—the ultimate “cult leader”—and far more cultish subcultures are able to materialize and find followers online.
KG: Another of the things I really liked in the book was that I kept thinking about how in the years since I’ve left “The Farm” as they called it in New Hampshire, I’ve really prided myself on being “allergic to gurus.” And then you talk about how after your father left, he has been pretty careful about gurus, too. But as I read your book, I thought about all the ways that I have been susceptible to what you would call “cultish behaviors.” Like at some point I had a friend who said to me, “Everybody is doing NutriBullet!” So then I went and got a NutriBullet. But why? To chop my friggin’ vegetables? I had a blender. […] One of the things you talk about is that if we can be aware of what we’re giving into, then that’s better.
AM: Definitely. And I do not want to be sensational. It was very important to me in the book to demonstrate how I’m not putting SoulCycle on the same level as Scientology. It’s not that at all. It’s more that cultish influence, to some degree, imbues our everyday lives. None of us are entirely above it.
I’m also not at all arguing that we need to disengage from all cult-like groups. Humans are communal by nature, and we crave participation, even in irrational or supernatural things. Too much cynicism ruins the most magical parts of being alive. But what I like to say is that it’s important to maintain a vigilant tingle in your brain, this thing that tells you that your identity comes not from one singular guru or ideology, but from a vast array of influences, language, and experiences. It’s important to trust reality above all else.
Cultish influence, to some degree, imbues our everyday lives. None of us are entirely above it.
By the end of the book, I came to the conclusion that maybe the best thing we can do is involve ourselves in multiple cultish groups. There was this Jonestown survivor I spoke to named Laura Johnston Kohl, who not only survived Jonestown (she happened not to be on the compound that day) but went ahead and joined Synanon right after that. You might think, this lady sounds nuts, but she was incredibly bright, jovial, and kind. She was just determined to find a single commune that would fulfill all her dreams, but then wound up in two of the most infamous cults of all time. So after all that, her solution to stay safe was to join multiple groups. She was like, “I’m going to be an immigrant’s rights activist with this organization, I’m going to get together with my old Synanon pals sometimes, and I’m also going to be a Quaker.” I guess she sort of diversified her social and spiritual portfolio instead of putting all of her eggs in one basket.
KG: You really stress throughout your whole book this idea of how special you feel once you learn a cult’s language. Learning the language gives you access to the world inside the cult. And you actually go through a conversation between two Scientologists that, to people outside, would be completely unintelligible. But controlling a person’s language means that you’ve got complete control of the way they think. Talk to us a little bit about that, because I think if there was a big takeaway from your book, it was that we should all be thinking for ourselves, right?
AM: There’s a linguistic theory called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which says that language influences thought, but it does not determine it. A Jonestown survivor I spoke to, Laura, said something that I liked. She said, “Oh, I was absolutely brainwashed, but I brainwashed myself.” She said, “I allowed myself to hear what I wanted to hear from Jim Jones because I wanted so badly for it to be true.”
If you don’t want on any level to believe what a guru is saying, or to use their language, you can absolutely resist. They can’t control your thoughts. But with a touch of willingness, language can do so much to obscure truths, trigger emotional responses, instill problematic ideology… all those things a cult needs to do. Because, you’re right, we all love learning a secret code language; it makes us feel special and superior. But I also spoke to people who were born and raised in some of the most damaging cults in history, like The Children of God, who, even though they grew up only knowing the group’s language, still knew on a gut level that this place was screwed up.
KG: Absolutely. I certainly was one of those kids because I was three when I got there, but I just kept coming up with my own language and stories and ideas as to how I might leave and survive on the outside.
AM: That’s amazing. We all have the ability to resist on our own.
Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism is available from Harper Wave, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Copyright © 2021 by Amanda Montell.