cover image Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism

Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism

Amanda Montell. Harper Wave, $27.99 (272p) ISBN 978-0-06-299315-1

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 clichés, 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. (June)