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Book Review: Cultish

Amanda Montell’s Cultish comes highly recommended. It’s easy to see why: cults are an eternal fixture on the walls of our public consciousness. If they’re not in vogue now, they will be tomorrow. We seem drawn to the catastrophes that so reliably befall organizations like Heaven’s Gate and The People’s Temple of Jonestown. Whatever the occasion, when the word “cult” hits the front page, we’re transfixed.

Montell establishes pretty early on that “cult” isn’t a very meaningful term. It’s a word we tend to associate with groups after the fact, once we know that they’ve gone wrong, or during, as soon as we’ve decided we don’t like them. She points to the popular tongue-in-cheek equation “cult + time = religion”. So it might be less that we’re always interested in cults and more that “cult” is a word unevenly applied to groups we already find ourselves interested in. Most of us don’t go digging through obscure religious and spiritual sects in search of drama, but when we hear “cult”, we can’t help but turn our heads.

That little linguistic difference, what a simple term can do to immediately sour the reputation of a group frames the object of Montell’s investigation: that it’s language and the use of specialized language that makes cults and cultish groups so effective.

Montell’s tour delves first into some tip-of-the-iceberg stories about the cults we’re already best acquainted with, like The People’s Temple and Heaven’s Gate, but the path she leads us down is filled with more unconventional kin, people and organizations who use the same language for similar ends, from multi-level marketers to modern cult fitness trends like SoulCycle and CrossFit. Comparing these groups, she demonstrates how the same speech techniques can be used to achieve adjacent goals in alternative contexts.

The book is really well-written, and Montell plays the part of our tour guide excellently so long as she stays on the path. When she deviates, your mileage may vary. To give her the benefit of the doubt, I don’t think it’s unfair to assume she believes she’s connecting her personal experiences to her subject matter in order to make it more relatable to her and those like her. But those like her are bicoastal, well-connected twenty-somethings who thrive on a certain image of success. The more I read, the more Montell’s asides begged to be read as satire: “A twentysomething acquaintance of mine recently hosted a cult-themed birthday party in New York’s Hudson Valley”. “I remembered a lecture my mother had given me in high school after we’d decided to take up a family friend’s invitation to spend spring break at a beach resort in Mexico.”. “Me—currently in LA, inhaling an overpriced cocktail and a gust of car exhaust”.

Maybe it’s simple envy, or a distaste for images of thrivery in the long shadow of the pandemic. Transcribing these quotes, I wonder if it’s an overreaction. But marching through Cultish felt like reading one very solid book punctuated every chapter or two with a paragraph from a sister novel that I would never have chosen to read. It was jarring to me. If you’ve got a stomach for Los Angeles fad diets and suffering from success, these brief pivots will be of no concern to you. Those of us stuck living and working in flyover country might find them less relatable.

When she’s on-topic, Montell’s prose stays excellent, ushering me effortlessly through her cultscape. My highlights were plentiful, and I feel like I learned a lot and made connections that I wouldn’t have before. Concepts like “thought terminating cliches” (“it is what it is”) have burrowed their way into my vernacular. Information is presented strongly and, for the most part, I think Montell succeeds in selling the importance of language in the organization and administration of cult-like groups.

Toward the end, my confidence wavers a bit. The book’s description of QAnon, for example, seems overly simplistic, but those who haven’t devoted hours to dredging the sewers it was born and raised in may not find as much to complain about as I do.

The most unfortunate turn of the book comes at the end, where I’m not confident Montell sticks the landing. She rounds up everything we’ve learned so far about cults, the cult-esque, and Cultish, and examines the hypothetical question of what we should do with our newfound knowledge, entertaining first the adoption of a model of strong skepticism. To me, everything we’ve seen so far ushers us closer to that answer. Montell disagrees, arguing in favor of the benefits of letting our guards down long enough to enjoy the positive effects of mantras, chants, and cult-esque tradition without falling too deep down the rabbit hole. That argument, though, goes uncountered; there’s no caution statement about boundaries, no additional distinction between good cult and bad cult. She shows us cults that drive members to suicide, influential yogis and gurus who assault their congregants and play fast and loose with mental health, and marketing scams that use persuasive language to con poor women out of their life savings. The bulk of the book is spent here, on these incredibly dangerous organizations, but Montell’s mind seems to linger on the groups closest to her, the gyms and yoga studios where the biggest threats are losing Facebook friends and shelling out hundreds of dollars on leggings. Of course some speakers of Cultish aren’t deadly, I concede, but Montell’s moral seems to ignore her previous assessments of risk and betrays the book’s better arguments.

Still, this somewhat dissatisfying moral is one moment out of the book’s hundreds, most of which are excellently-written and draw the reader in. Montell approaches her argument and topic with an enthusiastic attitude that drew me in and, exempting my particular problem with her personal asides, kept me until the end. Even if you come at it from the same angle I did, I think it’s an interesting and informative book, and one that taught me something new while ferrying me smoothly from page to page. If you’re more unlike me, and jetsetting asides don’t knock you off balance, you’ll probably enjoy it even more.

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