NOVEMBER 26, 2021
I WAS NINE when my mother met the spiritual teacher she believed could help open her heart. I’m sure that’s a metaphor, but you’d have to ask her. And he did help, metaphorically. My mother’s rage, which was both constant and unpredictable, cooled. And when she couldn’t contain it, I suddenly had someone to run to for protection and validation, things my father — emotionally and physically absent as he was — couldn’t provide. By the time I was 12, my parents had divorced and our mother had moved my older brother and me to the small town where this teacher lived to be closer to him and his work. We went gladly.
I’d refer to this man as my godfather when necessary because there was no more apt word to describe our relationship. What else do you call the man who has no romantic involvement with your mother but who’s nevertheless taken on the role of father in the absence of your biological one? The man who holds himself responsible for your spiritual upbringing? The man whose way of seeing the world you lean on as a guide to living? What else do you call that man?
I’ve spent much of my life grasping at language to soften the edges of my experience and make the facts of my life more palatable. When I was young, I’d describe my godfather’s pseudo-psychology as “the emotional growth work my mom does.” I’d tell my friends at school that I spent weekends in “therapy” or “with my family” rather than in workshops where I learned about my godfather’s theology, or in one-on-one sessions with a practitioner of his therapeutic method. The adults who were in those rooms were simply “family friends” rather than fellow community members and followers. As I got older and my relationship with this man became more fractured — with him often threatening never to speak to me again if I didn’t change in the ways he believed I should — I dropped the term godfather in favor of the more loosely held “father figure.” When I was 21 and doctors found a nine-centimeter mass in my chest that this man said was the physical manifestation of my “inner cunt” and the result of my unwillingness to let him close, when he said I’d likely die from it, and that if I did it would be my fault, I called that “tough love.” These days, when I talk about how I was raised, I might say there was a lot of “emotional and verbal abuse,” or I’ll talk amorphously about “trauma,” but I won’t say who perpetrated it or in what contexts. In fact, these days it’s very rare that I’ll talk about this man at all.
Although my reasons for doing so have changed over the years, I perform all these linguistic gymnastics to avoid using one very loaded, burdensome word. Cult.
Words and their power are at the heart of Amanda Montell’s new book, Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism. Montell uses the title term both to describe that which is cult-like, or cult-adjacent, as well as the specific kinds of language spoken in cults to convert, condition, and coerce their members. Language, Montell says, “is the key means by which all degrees of cultlike influence occur” — and she means that as broadly as it sounds. Montell’s book explores and exposes the linguistic tricks that make a whole range of groups cultish — from the Peoples Temple, to fitness communities like SoulCycle, 12-step groups, and your everyday Instagram influencer. Though the stakes of membership vary drastically, the methods used by these groups’ leaders to build trust, assert power, create community, and justify behavior are, Montell shows, “uncannily, cultishly similar.”
I read Montell’s book feverishly, underlining whole paragraphs. It arrived like divine intervention as I’ve been churning over this cultural moment, one in which a new docuseries pops up seemingly every six months exposing the sinister abuses of some fringe group gone sour. Like the rest of the world, I watched in horror as the events of Osho’s Rajneeshpuram and Keith Raniere’s NXIVM revealed themselves over the perfectly plotted episodes of Wild Wild Country (2018) and The Vow (2020–), respectively. I inhaled Emma Cline’s novel The Girls (2016) and gawked at the horrors unveiled in the film Midsommar (2019), fictionalized accounts that pointed to a growing cultural obsession with the cultic fringe. And throughout these voyeuristic escapades, I’ve found myself both spellbound and repulsed. Though I’d been deep in the thrall of such a group myself, I’m not immune to the morbid curiosity that I imagine draws those with “normal” childhoods to flock to this genre of entertainment. I come to these cultumentaries (can I coin that term?) hoping, I imagine uniquely, to see something that makes me feel less alone, perhaps even to understand myself and my own experience a bit better. But inevitably, as the stakes get higher and the extremes to which the cult members go far surpass my own experience, I end up like everyone else, curled up under the covers, biting my nails and thinking this is fucking crazy.
And that’s what those who create this kind of media are banking on, right? When they show footage of naked women gyrating and chanting at Osho’s behest or flash images of Raniere’s initials branded on the hips of women coerced into NXIVM’s sex trafficking ring, they’re hoping to key into the very human part of us that’s titillated by peeping at the transgressive. Never mind how abusive those transgressions may be.
This sensationalism is not only perverse, but it also misguidedly diverts the viewer’s attention away from the cautionary messages we can glean from these stories of flagrant abuses of power. Because, really, what’s so unfamiliar about men manipulating good people in service of their own wealth and influence? What’s so incomprehensible about sticking around too long when a good situation turns bad and leaving means losing your community? The story of NXIVM is the story of America — a society that implicitly trusts the words of confident white men, that allows the wealthy to behave badly with impunity, that’s unfazed by the objectification and exploitation of women, that’s filled with people who crave a sense of purpose and belonging and will go to great lengths to find it.
“We’re ‘cultish’ by nature,” Montell writes. And it’s this story she’s most interested in telling, the one that implicates readers and the society in which they live, the one that forces us to ask better questions — questions that place the onus for accountability on those who perpetrate abuse rather than on those who suffer it. Questions like: “What techniques do charismatic leaders use to exploit people’s fundamental needs for community and meaning? How do they cultivate that kind of power?”
The answer, Montell tells us, is language. Words.
“No words can explain such a thing,” I wrote in my journal when I was 16, as I steeled myself for a conversation in which I planned to explain the community I was raised in to my first long-term boyfriend (let’s call him “C”). I met C during a year abroad and the end of the school year had flung us into uncertain long distance, each of us back with our respective families until he started university in the fall.
I was having doubts. Our spiritual teacher always said that no relationship of mine would ever last with someone who didn’t do their own work, by which of course he meant his work. It was time for me to suss out how amenable C was to the idea — not now, necessarily, but someday. If it wasn’t likely to be ever, then what was the point of being in love and miserably apart? “He’s going to think I’m crazy,” I continued in my journal. “It sounds like a cult.”
How do you describe a thing without calling it by its name? It felt like a macabre party game, a high-stakes version of Taboo. There I was, tap-dancing in the liminal space between knowing and not knowing, seeing and unseeing. Words were all I had, and they only made things more difficult.
Interestingly, my very understanding of the word “cult” came from the leader himself. He’d often launch, apropos of nothing, into monologues about how not a cult leader he was. You can leave whenever you want, and that’s why this isn’t a cult, he would say. It was a risky strategy, continuously invoking the very word he wanted me to reject. But it worked to blunt my fears, or at least to dissuade me from raising them.
This is what psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton defined as a “thought-terminating cliché” — a pithy, memorable phrase that serves to halt arguments and discourage critical thought. These clichés aren’t unique to cultic groups, though. We hear them all the time in common language, as Montell points out. Phrases like boys will be boys and everything happens for a reason aim to set a firm and poignant limit to a line of thought, reminding the listener that further investigation is not only unnecessary but pointless. These clichés also serve to quash feelings of cognitive dissonance, that “uncomfortable discord one experiences when they hold two conflicting beliefs at the same time.” If boys will be boys, then suddenly your sense of violation is questionable. Maybe it didn’t happen as you remember. And by the way, what were you wearing at the time?
A few lines down in my journal, I continued: “I know these are all fears I want to use to stop me from having the conversation but […] they are such huge fears.” Then the line breaks and suddenly my handwriting shifts from the clear, rounded sans-serif of a teenage girl to a rough-hewn and unpracticed cursive, almost as if I’m trying to obscure what comes next: “Part of me judges me for being crazy and in a cult.”
Montell describes a linguistic concept called the theory of performativity, which says that language doesn’t only describe or reflect who we are — it creates us. I never spoke my fears of being in a cult out loud. I was surprised even to find them written so clearly in my journal, nearly obscured by scrawl though they were. Silence, too, is a form of performativity, a shaping of one’s world through absence. If I don’t utter the word, if I don’t hear it, maybe it isn’t so.
The group dissolved rather anticlimactically when I was 23 and away at college. The leader’s wife finally had enough of his verbal abuse, and his confidantes for once refused to support him. Word got out and suddenly his bad behavior was communally undeniable. Others started to come forward and describe abuses they’d kept hidden. The only thing that came as a surprise was the fact that everyone had experienced unspoken doubt. A couple of months before I graduated, I got a call from my mother: “It’s all over,” she said.
I’ve scoured my journals from the time for the words I penned about my feelings regarding all this, but there are none. What does exist in those pages reveals how caught up I was in the busyness of my life — my final semester at college, organizing my senior thesis and preparing for what came next. It appears that I thrust myself wholly into the act of carrying on, choosing simply to commit to the great task of building a life that felt my own. That’s how I remember it, too.
There are a few passages that feel telling, though they don’t explicitly mention what became known among members of the group as “The Collapse.” In between a summer reading list and scribbled phone numbers for available rental rooms, I jotted a few lines: “I am a shifting being / my hands have changed / my face / the horizon is blank / like a grey sea cast at night.” On later pages, I seemed to re-up my commitment to journaling with an anxious vehemence: “I’m going to need to start noticing more if I want to be a writer.” To start, as if I’d spent all my life with my eyes closed, as if writing were suddenly available to me for the first time.
While what I remember from that time is mostly the sense of flinging myself into the possible, these entries betray a sense of fear at the indeterminacy of it all. Simple words reveal the worry — that the horizon would be “blank” rather than “open,” that the sea would be “grey” rather than “glistening,” that resolute note-to-self to wake up, catch up, start noticing now.
I am a shifting being — I was free and the horizon was visible, but I had inevitably lost something too, something whose absence made that freedom terrifying.
Perhaps the most telling passage comes a few pages later in the form of someone else’s words, a short quote I transcribed from a Lydia Davis story: “Our words are so often those of some unknown, alien being. I don’t believe any speeches anymore. Even the most beautiful speech contains a worm.”
In the wake of The Collapse, I allowed myself to research the term “cult” for the first time. One of the first definitions I found went something like this: “A group or movement unified by a shared commitment to a charismatic leader or ideology.” Though the Jonestownian imagery associated with that word didn’t track with my experience, this definition did unequivocally.
I had been raised in a cult. It seemed clear as day, at least semantically. In part, I felt thrilled to be able to embrace that word and disregard so many ill-fitting ideologies I’d toted around with me most of my life. To the degree to which my experience was in fact very bad, this word and the accompanying diagnosis were liberating. “I’ve always found comfort in preexisting conditions,” writes Esmé Weijun Wang. “I like to know that I’m not pioneering an inexplicable experience.” I tend to agree.
But to the degree to which my experience wasn’t that bad — wasn’t Jonestown, or Heaven’s Gate, or the Manson family — I felt nervous about claiming the word. Reckoning with its perceived severity and what it seemed to say about me felt like a stain. What would people assume when they heard me say it? How much time would I have to divert their line of thinking before they got stuck there, judging me, disrobing me with their gaze, looking for the marks? And would I have to spend all my life explaining away the things that were done to me — those things that were horrible and yet not quite so horrible as they might have been?
A new sort of cognitive dissonance emerged, one in which I felt myself both cult survivor and not. I both craved the label and shunned it. As a result, I was no more able to say the word out loud than I was as a young girl. Six years later, I still struggle to.
As suggested by my anxious focus on noticing the world around me, I became possessed by a desire to write around the time of The Collapse. The renewed interest was coincidental, blooming out of a memoir-writing class I took my final semester of college, but it felt undeniably kismet — the gaining of storytelling tools just as I suddenly felt free to tell mine.
High on my new sense of power, I committed the inevitable rookie mistake of trying to write about it all while still too close to the events. Within six months I’d started a memoir that should never have seen the light of day, but because I’d also been admitted to a respected writing workshop around the same time, the initial “manuscript” — 22 pages of nonlinear memories and modernist babble — unfortunately did.
In the middle of the first page, this sentence appears: “I am 23 years old and I grew up in a cult.” Something about that line felt revelatory to me at the time, having spent so much of my life avoiding that word and my association with it. To put it so boldly at the start of a piece of writing made me feel powerful, exposed, free.
I got a great deal of feedback on those pages, but the only bit I actually remember came from the workshop leader himself: “What if you wrote the entire thing without ever using that word?” I remember flushing at the suggestion, as if my attempt at clarity and decisiveness had instead revealed itself as a grab for attention. My plainness had read as confessional rather than intellectual. I’d said too much, which was always my deepest fear.
Looking back on this suggestion six years later, I’m not sure he meant it the way I took it at the time — that is, literally. Perhaps he was only inviting me to imagine a story in which the emotional impact was derived from the telling rather than from provocation. Perhaps it was more of a what-if exercise designed to get me thinking about what that word really means.
I’m still asking myself that question. About what it all means. About what words really offer in terms of understanding and contextualizing experience. About why we’re all so obsessed with labels and binaries, and why giving language to phenomena can be so satisfying.
There isn’t, as it turns out, an academically agreed-upon definition for the word “cult.” It’s become so sensationalized that most experts don’t even use it in their work anymore. Us non-academics have only intuition to go by. “A cult is like pornography,” one Jonestown survivor told Montell. “You know it when you see it.”
One researcher did provide Montell with a compelling definition of the structure of cultish groups: “[A] power imbalance built on members’ devotion, hero worship, and absolute trust, which frequently facilitates abuse on the part of unaccountable leaders.” I think we all know this structure better than we’d care to admit.
I like Montell’s research because it makes me feel witnessed without being judged. It helps me make sense of my past in a way that makes that past seem almost banal, which is what I spent so much of my childhood wishing it were. But my interest reveals something humbling, which is that I still seek truth outside myself. I still don’t know how to trust myself as the narrator of my own life, to listen to that little kernel of wisdom in my solar plexus that knows that human beings are much too complicated to reduce to a single word or one aspect of our identities. I am, despite myself, still looking desperately for a way to belong.
I know that one can be both good and damaged, that all of us live in that uncomfortable in-between, with darkness and light as the inevitable bookends of our days. That each of us traverses these seesaws of self, never squarely centered in certainty. And that this is, in fact, what makes us human.
But in the silence I’ve left open for so many years, a feeling of shame has grown that’s hardened with time. Remaking myself through new words has required a simultaneous demolition, a chipping away at that murky matter I’ve come to recognize as myself, slowly and daily, until I strike gold. And until that day, I keep searching, trying to ask myself better questions, trusting that the gold of me will make itself known, eventually.
I hope I know it when I see it.