One of my favorite aspects of my job is purchasing books for the 200s section of our nonfiction collection–Religion. The number of memoirs and essay collections about people’s religious experiences are vast, passionate, and endlessly fascinating.
I recently purchased Daniella Mestyanek Young’s memoir Uncultured. Young’s story details her childhood in the religious cult, The Children of God, also known as The Family, and the extreme lengths the community goes to to mold their followers into fervent, unquestioning believers.
The memoir is anything but light as Young describes the seemingly endless physical and sexual abuse that the leaders of The Family claimed was “godly discipline and love.” The child abuse that is described in Young’s story is abundant, making the book difficult to read at times, but also quite straightforward. Young conveys the details of her traumatic upbringing in a very to-the-point manner, only veiling the most gruesome details for her own privacy.
When Young turned fifteen, she escaped The Children of God. She moved to Texas to live with a half-sister (of which she has many, due to the sharing of women amongst male cult members), enrolled in high school (her first time in “Systemite” school), finished college, and eventually joins the military and works her way up to a role as an intelligence officer.
At the end of her time enlisted, Young reckons with her life and choices in a way that she hasn’t been able to before. She originally joined the military to find another community to belong to and a group with a shared goal to work towards. Without realizing it, she essentially joined another cult-like group. Just as in The Children of God, the group mentality and abuse of women were integral to the functionality of the system.
Uncultured is clear-cut and determined: Young responsibly takes her readers through the painful but necessary revelations of a global group that has claimed a faith that allows women and children to only exist in service of perverse men. Eye-opening is just one word to describe this exposé on religious cults and the human destruction they ensue.
This title is also available in large print.
What could you give an impromptu speech on with no time to research? This is a question that was debated much among my friends. My answer: cults. Well, anything true crime related, but specifically cults. Imagine my delight when I found American Cult: A Graphic History of Religious Cults in American from the Colonial Era to Today edited by Robyn Chapman sitting on the new graphic novel shelves at the library! I couldn’t wait to give it a read.
American Cult is edited by Robyn Chapman and is compiled by numerous artists who each dedicate a section of the book to a different cult. All in all, 18 different American cults are dissected in this anthonology. The introduction discusses how readers have to take a human approach to the people who were sucked into these movements/cults – We need to treat them with ‘50% empathy and 50% justice’. Some of the chapters are pretty straightforward, while others take a wrap-around approach and really force readers to think about the difference between cults and religion. Each chapter is short – working to avoid the sensational information that was portrayed in the tabloids, but at the same time, the chapters don’t go very deep into the histories. Think of this book as sections of short histories designed to get your appetite wet and to give you enough information to do research on your own! Some of the cults presented may be somewhat controversial regarding whether or not you personally think they are a cult, but it’s a good read.
The content of this book starts in the late 17th-century with mystics that followed Johannes Kelpius in the woods outside of Philadelphia all the way to NXIVM and its leader Keith Raniere in present day. This book definitely focuses more on the more current American cults, but I was surprised to find mention of a couple cults that I had known nothing about. For example, did you know that Louisa May Alcott’s father dragged their whole family into a supposedly utopian sect called the Fruitlands? Also did you know that the Cheesecake Factory chain was founded by a member of Sufism Reoriented, a cult still running in California? There were so many random facts that I learned while I was reading this book that caught me off guard, so much so that I actually took notes! I was definitely left with more questions than answers at the end of this book, but luckily I’m in the right place to answer my questions!
Okay, language lovers–You have to add Cultish to your to-read list! Amanda Montell’s explorative work weaves together several interviews and primary accounts of people who have been entrapped by the linguistic power of, yes, cults, but also of organizations like Crossfit or multi-level marketing schemes. With each former cult member and cult-like group that Montell examines, she picks apart the diction that is used to isolate and persuade potential followers–and how saturated our society is with this linguistic phenomenon.
She begins by discussing the heavily debated difference between religious groups and cults. It turns out that even incredibly well-researched academics cannot narrow down criteria that technically distinguishes one from the other. One difference that has been pointed to, though, is the age of the organization or faith-based group. Christianity, Islam, and Judiasm are ancient and that passage of time grants a respect to organized religions that newer organizations do not have. They do, however, still use language that makes individuals feel special and eventually creates a divide between them and those outside the group. Cults, Montell argues, do this as well and then some.
What sends cults and cult-like groups into territory that alarms most people in ways religion doesn’t is the way they warp language. A commonality amongst all the groups that Montell examines is how they expand the standard definition of words in the English language to fit their needs. The end result is believing in a shared language that is fundamentally different from the vernacular our society uses to function together, which is ultimately divisive.
Montell also debunks and demystifies the idea of “brainwashing,” explaining that it is incredibly unlikely for so many minds to be overtaken by buzz-words, mantras, and glossolalia against their will. For one’s mind to become complacent in what we colloquially refer to as “brainwashing” they must already be in a state of mind where they want to be controlled and validated. There is a “charisma” that cults have, Montell argues. They make people feel safe and not alone, which is attractive to most and is the reason why so many people get caught up in cultish groups.
As someone who loves words and how powerful language is, I hung onto every word of Cultish. There is an incredible variety to Montell’s research, which provides an approachable reading experience that allows you to put it down and pick it back up without disrupting the narrative flow. I could write many more paragraphs about her findings and arguments, but I will leave you all with this sliver of insight into this riveting book. I cannot recommend this enough!
This title is also available as a Book-on-CD.