Review: Cultish by Amanda Montell

a phone featuring the cover of cultish by amanda montell held against a wall of bookshelves

I was really proud of myself for picking up Cultish by Amanda Montell the year it was published. Even more proud that I did it within six months of its release. It ended up being one of my favorite and most recommended books of the year. As someone who is chronically behind on new releases, this was quite an accomplishment for me.

The first time I saw this was on either Twitter or TikTok as Montell showed off the hardcovers arriving at her house for the first time. I immediately made note of it so I could read it when it released. Cults have intrigued me since I learned what they were and how easily people get inducted. What better way to satisfy my curiosity than to read a book about cults, how they work, and why people join them?

Title: Cultish
Author: Amanda Montell
Format: E-book
Pages: 326
Genre: Non-fiction

Book 24 of 2021
Reading Time: 4hrs 32mins
Date Finished: October 3, 2021

Content Warnings: Cults, cult language, mass suicide, murder, emotional manipulation, mental manipulation, gaslighting, physical self harm

What Worked For Me: Educational, varied examples, interviews with former cult members
What Didn’t Work For Me: N/A

5/5

There are six parts to the book, each featuring a different kind of cult and how language plays into making them what they are. From MLMs to stereotypical cults to the cult of #GirlBoss, I thought it was fascinating to see how language made a big difference in how things are perceived. There were groups that I didn’t realize were considered cults because my idea of cults has always been a group of people huddled together as some guy on a cheap throne tells them to do bad things. Realizing that wasn’t the case made me think more about what communities I’ve seen that could be considered cult-like.

It comes down to the language, that’s what I’ve learned. Language can disguise a cult, make it feel like something special and unique, without showing any signs of danger. It’s how people believe that groups like Scientology and NVIXM are truly about higher learning and unlocking knowledge rather than cults that earn millions. Before reading this, I thought that people had to be dumb in order to join a cult, but that was quickly corrected. It’s not about intelligence, it’s about a willingness to believe that slowly pulls people on it. And it’s not an immediate plunge into the middle of the cult ocean, it’s baby steps that leave you in the deep end before you realize something’s wrong. By then, you’re so used to it that you don’t see any difference.

What makes this even better is that Montell has personal experience with cults. Her father was raised as a member of Synanon, a dangerous American cult that operated from 1958-1991. He escaped because he fell in love with science and wanted to pursue an education. Growing up, Montell heard her father’s stories and that partially inspired the writing of this book. If there’s anyone qualified to talk about this, it’s her.

Since she knows so much about cults and what makes them, reading this felt like a conversation with a really smart friend. It was really easy and engaging even when the topics got a bit more educational. Never once did I feel like it was going over my head. Rather, I felt like I was able to understand and learn and not feel stupid for not realizing that cults aren’t all about drugs and sex and murder.

After I finished this, I spent some time thinking about the communities I’m currently part of (and have been part of) that have elements of “cultish” language and what the consequences are if I left the group. Thankfully, none of my existing communities would manipulate me to into staying or threaten to unalive me, so I’m safe for now. That being said, I’ve always thought that I’d be a terrible candidate for cults because I’m too skeptical and introverted to say yes to any kind of large group meeting. If I somehow end up in a cult though, please hit me on the head with this book.

A major part of me wishes that I figured out how to export my highlights from my library’s e-book, but I didn’t. At least that’s an excuse to buy a physical copy for my shelves. I’ll be reading this one again in the future and already told my dad that he should read it.

In the meantime, I’m getting my fix of learning about cults through Montell’s podcast – Sounds Like A Cult – with documentary filmmaker and comedian Isa Medina. It’s been a great time learning more about other cult-like groups and whether they count as being legitimately dangerous or if they’re secretly more wholesome than I realize.

If you’re interested in cults or sociolinguistics at any level, I think this would be a fascinating read. It might sound a bit intimidating, but I had a lot of fun throughout the reading process and think it’s written in a highly accessible manner.

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