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  • Writer's pictureThe Bossy Bookworm

Review of Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism by Amanda Montell

I was intrigued by the peeks into various cults and groups that inspire fanatical loyalty, but wished for more answers, more exploration, and more food for thought.

Whether wicked or well intentioned, language is a way to get members of a community on the same ideological page. To help them feel like they belong to something big.

In her nonfiction work Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism, Amanda Montell sets out to explore the language, power, and persuasion of cults and groups with cultlike followings.

Montell touches on past and present groups with various intents (from fitness to sales to group suicide), ranging from Scientology to SoulCycle to Jonestown, as well as our society's collective fascination with them.

I began this project out of the perverse craving for a cult campfire tale that so many of us possess. But it quickly became clear that learning about the connections across language, power, community, and belief could legitimately help us understand what motivates people's fanatical behaviors during this ever-restless era--a time when we find multilevel marketing scams masquerading as a feminist startups, phony shamans ballyhooing bad health advice, online hate groups radicalizing new members, and kids sending each other literal death threats in defense of their favorite brands.

Montell looks to language as a main source of power and belief in order to explore the ways in which we are influenced, shaped, and affected by society and social media.

Cultlike explores aspects of various suicide cults and controversial religions, but also multilevel marketing companies, “cult fitness,” and social media gurus in one book, and this felt a little scattered. The early sections of the book focus on language, but that angle doesn't carry through the book in a substantive way.

Montell suggests that readers of cult books, viewers of cult documentaries, and those obsessed with cults are looking for explanations about what draws people to them, and I share this curiosity--but I didn't feel Montell ever fully explained the reasons for this phenomenon.

I was looking for exploration and answers as to why people become involved (beyond the desire to belong) and why the control works on them (aside from the assertion that language is powerful). I didn't feel satisfied on any of these complicated, fraught, confusing fronts. I wonder if a psychological-expert author might have offered the deep dive into all of this that I found myself wanting.

I was intrigued by the peeks at various groups that inspire fanaticism, but I found myself wishing for more first-person accounts and to follow individuals through their paths pre-cult, through the emotions and logistics and follower mentality, then out the other side with some reflection. To be fair, this would be an altogether different book.

The assertions of what could and likely should be considered a cult and what shouldn't (despite inclusion in this book) felt a little haphazard. And it feels potentially disingenuous and even sensational to include exercise groups inspiring intense loyalty like CrossFit in the discussion, then to dismiss them late in the book as not fitting the "cult" model after all.

On a minor note, I would have been interested in learning more about Montell's father's experience--her father was part of Synanon, a dangerous, violent, abusive, now-famous California-based cult of the 1960s and 1970s, which seems likely to have inspired Montell's own interest in the topic.

The book's abrupt conclusion felt brief and somewhat unsatisfying in the absence of further thoughts, introspection, or other parting ideas beyond concepts such as the idea that we all want to belong.

Although I wished for additional logical or thought-provoking conclusions, I found Cultish interesting—and appealingly voyeuristic in the way that learning about cults can be: delving into members-only accounts of secret, powerful groups as well as the details of their extensive manipulation and of survivors' escapes.

Do you have any Bossy thoughts about this book?

I read Cultish for my book club.

If you're into nonfiction, you might like the titles on the Greedy Reading List Six Compelling Nonfiction Books that Read Like Fiction.

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