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!