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Arts + CultureLit10 cult classics: Books on charismatic leaders to nourish...

10 cult classics: Books on charismatic leaders to nourish your squint-eyed cynicism

Popularity of follower docs aside, unraveling sects might be best as a book-length pursuit. Here are titles that take on the task.

Though most of us feel certain we could never be duped into joining a cult, it’s critical to consider the benefit of hindsight before passing judgement on those who do.

Again and again, history has shown us that indoctrination into high-control groups does not happen overnight, but rather as a gradual erosion of self. This insidious process—we’ve come to call it “brainwashing”—is often years in the making, though specifics and overall validity of the concept remain topics of substantial debate.

Given the public’s intrigue regarding cults, it’s no surprise that a deluge of documentaries devoted to every fringe sect imaginable have made it to the streaming sites. Running the gamut from shameful cash grabs to thought-provoking masterpieces, cult docs provide viewers with a rare inside look at once-private hells. In that tradition, this fall a pair of docuseries—Desperately Seeking Soulmate (Amazon) and Escaping Twin Flames (Netflix)—have taken aim at a cult known as the Twin Flames Universe.

Run by a pair of exceedingly uncharismatic charlatans named Jeff and Shaleia, these series collectively reveal how TCU’s leaders managed to convince their followers to stalk love interests, forsake family members, and ultimately, even to transition genders in pursuit of their so-called “Harmonious Twin Flame Union.” That most of this coercion happened remotely, over Zoom sessions, makes the whole thing even more ominous.

Another newcomer to the sect doc arena is Love Has Won (Max), which charts the borderline-unfathomable story of Amy Carlson (aka Mother God), who died in 2021 at the age of 45 after drinking what can only be described as absurd amounts of colloidal silver.

If you’ve recently watched any or all these documentaries and are looking for more, it’s time to pivot from the small screen to the written word. Indeed, when it comes to cults, the depth afforded by a book-length exploration is often what’s sorely missing from the more salaciously focused visual depictions. Thus, as we await the inevitable publication of a definitive tome on the Twin Flame Universe (which, terrifyingly, is still fully active as of this moment), here are 10 classic cult titles waiting for you at your local bookstore—and sure to blow your mind anew.

Don’t Call It A Cult: The Shocking Story of Keith Raniere and the Women of NXIVM

If you enjoyed Sarah Berman as a talking head in Netflix’s Escaping Twin Flames, get ready for her expose on NXIVM cult leader Keith Reniere. Serving as the culmination of years of reporting, Berman’s tome offers a definitive account of a cult that was ultimately exposed for, among other horrid things, forcibly branding some of its female members. Writing with empathy and authority, her account of Raniere’s sociopathic rise and overdue fall is well complimented by the documentaries The Vow (Max) and Seduced (Starz).

Steerforth Press, 2021. Purchase

The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and Peoples Temple

If you like to read about cults, you’ll want to stock up on the work of Jeff Guinn. In addition to penning definitive tomes on Charles Manson and the 1993 Waco siege, Guinn’s greatest release to date is unquestionably this deep dive into the life of Reverend Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple. Utilizing his favorite source, recently declassified FBI documents, Guinn offers stunning new insights into a group and leader that would ultimately perish in “the largest murder-suicide in American history.” For further reading, be sure to visit San Diego State University’s Alternative Considerations of Jonestown and Peoples Temple website.

Simon & Schuster, 2018. Purchase

Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief

Heavy stuff abounds in this meticulous survey of Scientology and its founder, L. Ron Hubbard. Utilizing all his investigative might, Pulitzer Prize winner Lawrence Wright goes for the jugular, presenting a case troubling enough that it would later became the basis for a blockbuster HBO documentary of the same name. Touching on everything from IRS troubles to forced labor to mental illness (and oh so much more), Going Clear marked a turning point in public perception regarding Scientology when it was published in 2013. Proof that speaking truth to power can work, Wright’s reckoning remains an essential read today.

Vintage, 2013. Purchase

Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith

Whether he’s fighting for his life atop Mount Everest or investigating the death of former NFL player Patrick Tillman, when Jon Krakauer is writing about it, you want to read it. Best known for Into Thin Air, his first-person account of the 1996 Mount Everest disaster, Krakauer’s equally fascinating Under the Banner of Heaven covers two intersecting topics: a double-murder in Utah committed by brothers Ron and Dan Lafferty and the formation and “evolution” of a fundamentalist sect of Mormonism known today as the LDS Church. If you’ve heard the name Warren Jeffs—perhaps via Netflix’s new, related docuseries Keep Sweet: Pray and Obey—yeah, he’s involved in this sorrowful saga too. Once you’ve read the book, you may also wish to check out Hulu’s new miniseries adaptation of the work, starring Andrew Garfield as the investigating detective.

Anchor Books, 2004. Purchase

Heaven’s Gate: America’s UFO Religion

One of the better, more nuanced documentaries on any cult to come out in recent years is the Max series Heaven’s Gate: Cult of Cults. Those who’ve seen it will recognize the name Benjamin Zeller, who serves as a foundational talking head throughout. For the full picture, however, there’s no substitute for Zeller’s book on the sect. Approaching the group with respect, he analyzes it as a religion from an academic vantage point. As such, he neither supports nor condemns the ritual suicides committed by the group’s members in 1997, offering comparisons and context in lieu of judgement. To date, this is the only full-length book on Heaven’s Gate, making it a vital counterpoint to the decades of one-dimensional punchlines about Nikes and UFOs that fail to probe deeper.

New York University Press, 2014. Purchase

Trust the Plan: The Rise of QAnon and the Conspiracy That Unhinged America

Bless Daily Beast reporter Will Sommer for subjecting himself to years of unfiltered crazy to bring us a firsthand look at how QAnon become the dark force it is today. Putting boots on the ground in decidedly unenviable locations, Sommer takes us from QAnon conventions occurring at the peak of Covid to the homes of friends and family members desperate to break their loved ones free from this enigmatic movement’s evil grip. There’s no way around it: this is extremely scary stuff. To journey further down the rabbit hole, HBO’s Q: Into the Storm is a dizzying dash to determine who, in fact, is Q.

Harper, 2023. Purchase

American Cult: A Graphic History of Religious Cults in America from the Colonial Era to Today

Prefer your cult reading in graphic novel form? No problem! Feast your eyes on chapters from a killer crop of artists as each tackle a different religious cult. Edited by Robyn Chapman, this colorful cult compendium features contributions from 20 top cartoonists, including work by Brian “Box” Brown, Lisa Rosalie Eisenberg, and J.T. Yost. Even if you’re not a graphic novel reader in general, American Cult’s format provides an ideal opportunity to brush up on several centuries’ worth of spiritually centered schemes that have, in no small part, come to shape America as we know it today.

Silver Sprocket, 2021. Purchase

Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche

As a novelist, Haruki Murakami likes to write of jazz, love, and the longings of youth. Thus, it was of particular significance when the perennial Nobel Prize for literature contender opted to turn his focus to non-fiction with 2001’s Underground. Though he’s since published numerous other works of non-fiction, this one stands apart as Murakami’s lone foray into true crime. At the book’s heart is Aum Shinrikyo, a Japanese doomsday cult found to be responsible for carrying out a deadly poison gas attack on the Tokyo subway system in 1995. Probing the Japanese psyche in search of answers, Murakami delivers a work as haunting as any of his novels. Notably, there appears to be a new documentary on AUM on the horizon. Though it reportedly screened at Sundance earlier this year, an official release date remains unknown.

Vintage, 2001. Purchase

Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup

If it sounds like a stretch to suggest a tech company startup can be a cult, I beg of you, read Bad Blood before you decide. In Wall Street Journal reporter John Carreyrou’s book-length adaptation of his ongoing coverage of Elizabeth Holmes and the scandal surrounding her blood testing venture, Theranos, many of the hallmarks of high-control groups turn up. Holmes denied her staff sleep, kept every department separate from each other, and had many of her most prized hires relying on stock options to earn their share of the pie, ostensibly forcing them to stay. Sound familiar? I mean, are we really surprised that Henry Kissinger [editor’s note: May he currently be burning in hell] would get duped by a cult? You can decide for yourself, both via this book as well as Carreyrou’s limited podcast series, which follows Holmes’ recent criminal trial. Need more? Catch Carreyrou as a talking head in the Theranos documentary, The Inventor (Max).

Vintage, 2020. Purchase

Slonim Woods 9: A Memoir

When it comes to reading books by former cult members, it’s best to tread lightly. Among the most prevalent issues are titles that lack a sufficient level of objectivity and, practically speaking, works that are poorly written. Fortunately, neither issue is present in Daniel Barban Levin’s illuminating Slonim Woods 9. Recalling the two years he spent under the spell of his roommate’s father while attending Sarah Lawrence College, Levin channels his gifts for poetry in a brave attempt to claim his role in this woefully dark story. A tale of both hope and caution, Levin’s memoir also led to the release of 2023’s Stolen Youth, an excellent three-part Hulu docuseries he subsequentially co-produced on the subject.

Crown, 2021. Purchase

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Zack Ruskin
Zack Ruskin
Zack Ruskin is an award-winning drugs and culture reporter living in San Francisco. His bylines on weed, music, books, and more can be found at Leafly, San Francisco Chronicle, Variety, KQED, Cannabis Now, Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair, California Leaf Magazine, and numerous other publications. From 2016-2021, he wrote SF Weekly’s “Pacific Highs” cannabis column, which was recognized with a California Journalism Award in the Best Column category (2020). Follow him on Twitter: @zackruskin

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