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Follow along: the best books about cults

By Liberty Hardy • September 19, 2021Big Ideas

Unconditional devotion. Sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Wild abandon. Murder. These are a few of the shocking things that draw us to stories about cults.

Because we don't usually hear about cults until they've crossed the line—and then we can't get enough of the lurid details! But why are we fascinated by cults? Perhaps it's because people wonder if they themselves could ever get taken in by a cult leader, if they could believe in something so strongly they would commit crimes for their beliefs.

You might think of cults as something that used to happen in the 20th century, like the Manson Family and Jonestown, but you'd be surprised (or maybe not) to know how many are operating today.

Don't Call it a Cult: The Shocking Story of Keith Raniere and the Women of NXIVM  by Sarah Berman

One of the most captivating stories about cults and followers is the story of the NXIVM cult, which on the surface appeared to be a multi-level marketing company, but that hid much darker secrets. Self-professed genius Keith Raniere (who has been featured in the HBO documentary series The Vow) started a program that seemed to be aimed at helping people improve areas of their lives. But he was later exposed and charged with multiple crimes after it was discovered that several women members were blackmailed, branded, near-starved, and enslaved. Berman gives a comprehensive look at all the shocking details.

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Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism by Amanda Montell

This is a wildly fascinating deep dive into the language used by cult leaders and people looking to gain influence over other people—the language of brainwashing. Using real-life stories of cults like Heaven's Gate and QAnon, Montell explains how people with the power of persuasion have managed to convince others of just about anything.

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Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche  by Haruki Murakami

Legendary Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami penned one of his first works of nonfiction about the lethal 1995 sarin gas attack on the Japanese subway by religious cult Aum Shinrikyo. Murakami investigates the perpetrators of the vicious attack, who were members of Aum Shinrikyo, a Japanese doomsday cult and terrorist group.  And he also talks to the people who lived through the horrific event, and discusses the impact it had on Tokyo.

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The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and Peoples Temple by Jeff Guinn

One of the most famous tragic cult stories is of Peoples Temple, led by the charismatic Jim Jones. Non-fiction writer Jeff Guinn explains how Jones went from being a young Indianapolis minister to the leader of a thousand followers in a settlement in the jungles of Guyana in South America. And how, using his powers of coercion, he talked nine hundred people into taking their own lives (which is where the expression 'drink the Kool-aid' comes from).

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My Life in Orange: Growing Up with the Guru  by Tim Guest

When Tim Guest was six years old, his mother took him to live on a commune led by notorious Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (who was also profiled in the Netflix documentary series Wild Wild Country). Upon arrival, Tim and his mother  were given Sanskrit names and dressed entirely in orange. Guest was just a child running around, and didn't know that the commune's practices of free love and community hid darker happenings, until 1985 when the movement imploded amid allegations of mass poisonings, attempted murder, and tax evasion. This memoir chronicles what it was like to have his life changed so dramatically—and then have it happen again.

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Breaking Free: How I Escaped Polygamy, the FLDS Cult, and My Father, Warren Jeffs by Rachel Jeffs 

And in this fascinating memoir, a daughter tells how she was able to escape her father, the self-proclaimed Prophet of the FLDS Church, and the secretive polygamist Mormon fundamentalist cult run by her family. Defying federal laws and laws of Mormonism and engaging in polygamy and a whole host of other crimes, Jeffs was added to the FBI's Ten Most Wanted List in 2006. His daughter talks about her life inside his cult, how she got away, and her life now.

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Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders  by Vincent Bugliosi

And no list of books about cults is complete without Helter Skelter! Written by the prosecuting attorney in the Manson murder trial, this is an in-depth look at Charles Manson, whose sway over his followers led to them some of the most heinous crimes California had ever seen. How did a small-time con and wanna-be musician convince people to commit the most infamous murders of the 20th century?

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Photo by Jason Wong on Unsplash

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