During my twelve-year quest to complete and publish Mating in Captivity—my memoir of five years, post-Harvard, in a cult with a radical take on sex and relationships—I read many, many cult memoirs. Plus a number of cult-related self-help and narrative non-fiction works and a few cult novels. Nowadays, I still read cult books—just not as often, or as indiscriminately, as I once did.
Many of these books, I barely remember; some—like one painfully amateur tell-all by a former Hare Krishna—stood out solely for their contributions to what Chuck Wendig has hilariously called “the self-publishing shit volcano.” But a number have both stuck with me and served me well: they’ve illuminated additional aspects of the cult pattern, and helped me understand how it interacts with the broader culture; sucked me, thriller-style, into lurid swirls of zeal and betrayal that practically forced me to keep turning the pages; and, most importantly, shaped my approach to telling my own story.
Those are the books on this list.
Not all shine, from a craft perspective—I would say that just five of the ten were written by writers (those born to write, then handed cult stories by twists in their lives). However, I have yet to let snobbery over prose quality deprive me of a good story—and I’m not going to start now.
Shattered Dreams: My Life as a Polygamist’s Wife (Center Street 2007), by Irene Spencer.
Most Mormoirs (Mormon memoirs) center on a young woman’s escape from a US-based branch of the Fundamentalist Latter-Day Saints (best known, perhaps, for the manhunt leading up to the capture of their chief poo-bah, Warren Jeffs); this one, set mostly in Mexico, chronicles Spencer’s harrowing adventures with an FLDS splinter group, the Church of the Firstborn, led by brothers Ervil and Verlan LeBaron.
The Church moved to Mexico so they could really do their thing, all the way—without interference from American law enforcement. And their thing happened to include “blood atonement,” or the practice of offing Church members in order to cleanse them of otherwise unforgivable sin. Yet it also included homesteading, and fiercely sticking together. The result? A searing tale of vicious killing entangled with tribal affection—par for the course, when kinfolk decide to do their own justice.
My Life in Orange: Growing Up with the Guru (Granta 2004), by Tim Guest.
As a child, through no choice of his own, Guest spent about a decade in the cult of Rajneesh (aka Osho), living for a time at the group’s infamous ashram in Antelope, Oregon—where his Achilles tendons shortened, because he spent so much time standing on tiptoe, searching the swarms of orange-clad adults for his absent mother.
Guest does tell a good story; he sucks you right into the funhouse of Rajneeshee life. But he also places the Rajneeshees fully in context: he traces Rajneesh’s origins back to India, limns the cultural soil in which his charism took root, and reveals the devastation wrought by “life in orange” on those least responsible for it—the children.
The Joyful Community: An account of the Bruderhof—a communal movement now in its third generation (Penguin 1971), by Benjamin Zablocki.
In the late 1960s, when the commune movement was just beginning to blossom, Zablocki (a budding sociologist) and his wife, Elaine, spent four months with the Bruderhof, at their main location in upstate New York. He took notes; she took notes (this mattered, since many activities were segregated by sex). He delved deep into the Bruderhof’s beliefs and origins. He concluded that the Bruderhof was both a cult and a breeding ground for joy.
Years later, at a meeting of the New York chapter of the International Cultic Studies Association, Zablocki told this story: A man familiar with Zablocki’s work was visiting the Elder of the Bruderhof, in his office. The man asked the Elder what he thought of The Joyful Community. The Elder pointed to two wastebaskets, one large and one small. The small one contained nothing but a copy of the book. “That’s what I think of it,” the Elder said.
Combatting Cult Mind Control/Releasing the Bonds (Park Street Press 1988/Freedom of Mind Press 2000), by Steven Hassan.
Fourteen months after physically departing Zendik—still a true believer—I realized, during a watershed conversation with a fellow ex-Zendik, that we were not fucked-up failures—Zendik was one fucked-up place. Then, reading Combatting Cult Mind Control, at her suggestion, I built a conceptual and historical scaffolding beneath my newfound freedom—and saw that Zendik was neither a singular experiment, nor an unprecedented revolutionary movement, but yet another variant on a well-worn pattern.
Releasing the Bonds covers much of the same ground as Combatting Cult Mind Control, while upping the emphasis on the value of listening to loved ones in cults—and letting them come to their own liberating conclusions.
Seductive Poison: A Jonestown Survivor’s Story of Life and Death in the People’s Temple (Anchor 1998), by Deborah Layton.
In her teens, Layton—following a number of family members—entered Jim Jones’s People’s Temple; eventually, she gained admission to his inner circle. By the time he committed mass murder, in 1978, she knew he was dangerous, and had been working feverishly, for months, to try to prevent the worst. Nonetheless, she barely escaped with her life.
Her book is, simply, spellbinding. It’s a thriller-cum-memoir, combining intimate portraits of humans seeking love and purpose with a heart-pounding quest for rescue and escape. It drops you right into the ravening jungle, and forces you to watch as the doom clouds roll in. It drags you onto the massacre plain and makes you look, in riveting detail, at what really happened.
World Made by Hand (Atlantic Monthly Press 2008), by James Howard Kunstler.
This book (the first in an eponymous series) is not about cults, per se, but it does feature a cult (The New Faith Church, led by one Brother Jobe), amidst a polyculture of other social forms (a gang, a neo-clan, a struggling small town)—and asks what role each might play in a post-Internet, post-electricity, post-oil, post-fiat money, post-federal government world. The New Faithers—fairly well adjusted, for a bunch of cultists—come through where others can’t, thanks to their strong communal bonds, their habit of pooling their labor, their ecstatic optimism, and the practical skills many have acquired in their old roles, for example, as soldiers. They remind me, at times, of Zendik at its best—we might not have excelled in the human rights department, but we sure did know how to band together to get shit done!
The Shelter Cycle (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2013), by Peter Rock.
I’ve read a number of novels focused on cults, and found that most bend toward caricature. This one, however, does not. Why? Because Rock spent many hours interviewing former members of the Church Universal and Triumphant (best known for building vast underground bunkers to which they could escape when their leader’s prophecy came true and the world was blasted by nuclear war), befriending them, making an earnest effort to understand them on their own terms. Yes, this book is fiction—and quite fantastical. But it springs from true regard and respect for those on whose lives it is based.
Bounded Choice: True Believers and Charismatic Cults (University of California Press 2004), by Janja Lalich.
Lalich spent ten years in a Bay Area political cult called the Democratic Workers Party, then earned graduate degrees in Human Development and Human and Organizational Systems while attempting to understand what had happened to her. She wrote her PhD dissertation on her own group and Heaven’s Gate, then turned that work into this book—which not only humanizes two gripping cult stories (one notorious, one fairly obscure), but also sets forth a nuanced theory of how smart, driven people function in cults: they don’t lose their capacity to reason, or act—they simply grow used to doing so within a narrowed range.
Lost and Found: My Life in a Group Marriage Commune (University of New Mexico Press 2004), by Margaret Hollenbach.
This is my all-time favorite cult memoir. I first read it in 2007, then reread it, for craft clues, while working on my own book.
What stands out most about this story is the atmosphere it creates: reading about Hollenbach’s time with The Family (of Taos, New Mexico), I felt like I was there. I can still conjure up the feeling of the place—dry and scrubby, yet somehow lush—years after my last read. In addition, I appreciate Hollenbach’s graceful handling of a challenge I also faced: showing the reader, beat by beat, how an intelligent adult might surrender her sovereignty to a group led by an egomaniac.
A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Jonestown (Free Press 2011), by Julia Scheeres.
Thirty years after the People’s Temple met its tragic end, Julia Scheeres, author of the memoir Jesus Land, turned to the FBI’s recently unsealed files on Jonestown to discover what really happened—and concluded that Jim Jones’s followers died by murder, not suicide. In A Thousand Lives, she shows that those who joined the People’s Temple were looking for the same things most of us want—meaning, belonging, a chance to serve a worthy cause—and how Jones and his inner circle twisted those longings into a real-life nightmare.
Hey, you! Thanks for reading my Top Ten list!
What do you think? Which, if any, of these books have you read? Which are you inspired to try? What book or books do you think should have made the list, but didn’t?
I’d love to hear from you; please get in touch (email email@example.com, or, on Twitter, find @HelenZuman) and share your thoughts. I’m especially interested in ideas for books I should vet—yes, I may well have read your fave cult book and chosen not to include it, but it’s also possible I don’t even know it exists.
If you are excited about reading any—or all!—of the books on my list, I request that you at least try to get them at your local bookstore, the library, or Bookshop.org (the American Booksellers Association’s online store), before resorting to placing an order with Amazon. You might even ask your librarian to buy the book or books you’d like to read, and add it, or them, to the library’s collection.
And, of course, if you’re looking for a cult book that’s both beautifully written and a page-turner, go ahead and get a copy of Mating in Captivity (not eligible for the list, due to a conflict of interest)! You’ll find it wherever books are sold; if you’d like that personal touch, you can get a signed copy directly from me.