The author of the widely praised Wordslut analyzes the social science of cult influence: how cultish groups from Jonestown and Scientology to SoulCycle and social media gurus use language as the ultimate form of power.
What makes “cults” so intriguing and frightening? What makes them powerful? The reason why so many of us binge Manson documentaries by the dozen and fall down rabbit holes researching suburban moms gone QAnon is because we’re looking for a satisfying explanation for what causes people to join—and more importantly, stay in—extreme groups. We secretly want to know: could it happen to me? Amanda Montell’s argument is that, on some level, it already has . . .
Our culture tends to provide pretty flimsy answers to questions of cult influence, mostly having to do with vague talk of “brainwashing.” But the true answer has nothing to do with freaky mind-control wizardry or Kool-Aid. In Cultish, Montell argues that the key to manufacturing intense ideology, community, and us/them attitudes all comes down to language. In both positive ways and shadowy ones, cultish language is something we hear—and are influenced by—every single day.
Through juicy storytelling and cutting original research, Montell exposes the verbal elements that make a wide spectrum of communities “cultish,” revealing how they affect followers of groups as notorious as Heaven’s Gate, but also how they pervade our modern start-ups, Peloton leaderboards, and Instagram feeds. Incisive and darkly funny, this enrapturing take on the curious social science of power and belief will make you hear the fanatical language of “cultish” everywhere.
APPLE BOOKS REVIEW
The “cult" word conjures a terrifying list of doomsday groups, ritualists and fanatics. In Cultish, writer and language scholar Amanda Montell helps to reddress this. “As soon as cults became frightening, they became cool,” she notes. Tracking the history of cult groups in America, from early societies and even to an abolitionist-led vegan farming cult, Montell takes apart concepts of “brainwashing” with the aid of survivor and psychologist interviews. Whether we like to admit it, deep fascinations arise from possibly figuring out how normal people fall for wicked schemes. But in our increasingly secular age, there’s a cult for everyone, Montell warns. Her sharp prose and razor-sharp examination show how we are all at risk unless our guards remain raised.
Journalist Montell (Wordslut) argues in this vivid study that "language is the key means by which all degrees of cultlike influence occur." Uncovering commonalities in the use of "secret mantras and code words" to attract and retain followers, Montell surveys the indoctrination techniques and conformism of cults such as Heaven's Gate and the Peoples Temple (whose adherents committed mass suicide in South America in 1978), as well as "woo-woo wellness influencers," QAnon, and fitness groups such as Peloton and CrossFit. Combining personal anecdotes (her father was partially raised in Synanon, a San Francisco drug rehab center turned church), interviews with former cult members, and anthropological analysis, Montell documents how cult leaders including "spiritual guru" Bentinho Massaro employ "thought-terminating clich s, intended to gaslight followers into mistrusting science, as well as their own thoughts and emotions," and argues that understanding the rhetoric of cults can help to distinguish between benign and dangerous communities, and reduce the stigma that can further entrap people in cults. Though the personal digressions (including an overlong account of taking a "personality assessment" at the Church of Scientology in L.A.) occasionally distract from the bigger picture, Montell is an engaging and well-informed tour guide through the world of "cultish scenarios." This intriguing account is worth a look.