What is it about cults that we find so fascinating? Perhaps it’s that we’re fascinated by the darker side of human nature. We want to hear all the grisly details, all the shocking revelations, and to see what’s really going down in the mind of a charismatic madman. It’s like reading any true crime story–the shock, the mystery, and big reveal…it’s intoxicating. But, what about those that join cults? The loyal followers? Perhaps we relish the idea that there are people out there who see something special in us that no one else does–something of a deep and abiding value. And that these people will draw us into something of great importance, something that’s so much bigger than ourselves. Perhaps, for the first time in our lives, we feel special, important, valued.
Whatever the reason, and whichever side you take, cults are a fascinating, if not dangerous topic. And so, I’ve put together a list of different books on cults. Some of these you’ve probably heard of, while others will come across as more obscure. And still others, like Scientology, will be up for debate, as to whether or not they are actually cults. This librarian has her own opinions, but I’ll leave that answer up to the reader.
We’ll get things started with The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple, the tragic story of Jim Jones, People’s Temple, and the Jonestown Massacre–the largest murder-suicide in American history. Jones was a minister and conman who started his career off by preaching a blend of Christianity, Marxism, and Civil Rights. Eventually, he founded his own church, Peoples Temple, and moved from Indianapolis to California, and later, from California to the jungles of Guyana in South America. Jeff Guinn examines all aspects of Jones’ life and political/religious career, all leading up to the horrifying tragedy in 1978, where Jones commanded his followers to drink cyanide-laced drinks, killing more than 900 people. This powerful, crushing book is incredibly well-researched, full of new information and interviews, including testimony from Jonestown survivors. 2018 Edgar Award Finalist, The Road to Jonestown is a deep-dive into the tragic history of a charismatic madman.
The Word of Faith Fellowship is a secretive evangelical cult founded by Jane Whaley in 1979. A former teacher, Whaley claimed that she could change people’s lives and turned a former steakhouse into a chapel as a meeting place for the new church. While there are many who regard Word of Faith Fellowship as a legitimate religious organization, and their leader as a prophet, there are enough shocking details to make anyone question this fact. Broken Faith: Inside the Word of Faith Fellowship, One of America’s Most Dangerous Cults paints a terrifying picture of Whaley, a woman whose iron control was so absolute that she determined everything about her followers lives, from what they studied to whom they could marry. Accusations of abuse, gaslighting, and controversial treatments to remove demons abound in Whaley’s increasingly dangerous “church”. This chilling true-crime novel is based on hundreds of interviews, recorded conversations, and documentation. This terrifying tale of a family who dared to defy Word of Faith and escape, will keep you on the edge of your seat.
In 2011, Catherine Oxenberg and her daughter attended a leadership seminar for an organization called NXIVM. It seemed like a reasonable idea at the time. Catherine’s daughter, India, was preparing to start her own company and a seminar on leadership would surely be helpful to the young entrepreneur. But, it quickly became apparent that there was more to NIXIVM than meets the eye. Rather than simply being a self-help organization designed to help people achieve their full potential, NIXIVM turned out to be a twisted cult which resorted to abuse and brainwashing in order to achieve compliance. Catherine watched in horror as India was drawn deeper and deeper into the cult, eventually joining a secret elite group known as a “sorority,” exclusively for female members. India’s fellow members were put on restricted diets, could recruit other women as their “slaves”, and were branded with the cult leader’s initials. Captive: A Mother’s Crusade to Save Her Daughter from a Terrifying Cult is a powerful tale of a mother’s love, and the lengths one will go to in order to protect those they care about.
Rebecca Stott shares her fascinating story growing up in a separatist fundamentalist Christian cult, known as the Exclusive Brethren. The Exclusive Brethren preached that the world is ruled by Satan, and so the congregation lived separated from the rest of the world in a strict closed community which preached (among other things) that women were subservient to men and that the cult’s members must shun the outside world. Failure to comply with these and other tenants would result in punishment and shame. Rebecca details her childhood within the cult, the inevitable questions of a curious child, and the forbidden books she’d turn to for answers. When her dying father–formerly a high-ranking Brethren minister–presented her with a memoir he had been writing about their time in the cult, Rebecca learned of the true horrors of the Brethren, including scandal and even death. Unable to continue the story on his own, he asked Rebecca to tell his story for him and expose the secrets that had been kept hidden for so long. In the Days of Rain: A Daughter, a Father, a Cult recounts Rebecca’s childhood within the cult, the forces that broke apart her family, and the larger-than-life contradiction that was her father. Despite it all, this is a powerful tale of family and redemption, and ultimately, a hopeful story, too.
Without a Prayer: The Death of Lucas Leonard and How One Church Became a Cult is the terrifying story of a fatal encounter at the Word of Life Christian Church (not to be confused with Word of Faith, which is earlier on this list). Lucas Leonard made some shocking admissions in front of his congregation, including the practice of witchcraft and conspiracy to murder. As a result, the congregation (including members of Lucas’ own family) beat the teen to death. Nine members of the church were brought up on murder charges But, the question remains–what brought a Christian community to the point of deadly violence? And why did Lucas confess the horrible crimes that he supposedly committed?
In a story that shocked the New York community, the deadly deeds of a behind-closed-doors “counseling session” are presented in all their shocking detail for the first time.
Dianne Lake shares her story as one of Charles Manson’s Girls in Member of the Family: My Story of Charles Manson, Life Inside His Cult, and the Darkness that Ended the Sixties. Few cults are quite as famous (or infamous) as the Manson family. This insider story comes from one of “Charlie’s Girls” a group of female members devoted to cult leader Manson. Dianne joined the Manson family at age 14, with permission from her hippie parents, becoming the youngest member of the group. Over the course of her two-year stint with the cult, she details the harsh reality, terror, and loss of innocence that became all too clear to her as Manson’s true nature came to the surface. Despite having no involvement in the crimes themselves, Dianne was rounded up and arrested with the rest of the group, and used as a pivotal witness against Manson in court. You’ve heard the stories before, but never quite like this. Dianne presents a chilling portrait of one of the most notorious names in American crime history.
I had watched Leah Remini on King of Queens for years, but it wasn’t until I started watching her TV series Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath that I realized her connection to one of the most well-known organizations in the world. Remini pulls no punches in Troublemaker: Surviving Hollywood and Scientology, her fascinating memoir of her time in Scientology, her experiences as a high-profile scientologist (thanks to her connections in Hollywood), her eventual escape, and the ongoing struggle she experiences every day as a shunned outsider. Indoctrinated as a child (along with her mother and sister), Remini enjoyed many privileges and connections, even including time spent with the volatile, but high-profile Tom Cruise. But, when she started to question the faith that she had been raised in, she found herself targeted and ultimately branded a “Suppressive Person” and cut off from everything and everyone she knew and loved. Remini’s story is shocking but her bravery inspiring, making this an excellent book for readers who want to know what’s really going on behind the doors of Scientology.