8 books you need to read if you’re interested in cults

Novels, first-hand histories, spiritual texts, and more.

April 10, 2018
8 books you need to read if you’re interested in cults

1. Afterlives of the Saints: Stories from the Ends of Faith, by Colin Dickey (2012)

I'll read about the cult of saints till I'm dead. Just about every aspect of modern life is reflected, kaleidoscopic, in stories of horrific suffering and devotion hundreds and thousands of years old. This short book is my favorite recommendation for both newcomers and experts. It's unique because Colin Dickey is not a theologian but a writer of true stories about ghosts and conspiracy theories, so his broad macabre history is written with the detached, agnostic bemusement anyone will appreciate. Just lots of sobbing and stabbing and people standing for years on flagpoles. — Duncan Cooper

2. Perfect Little World, by Kevin Wilson (2017)

The "scientific family" at the heart of this 2017 novel isn't a cult, but it's definitely not not a cult, either. The story follows Izzy, a single mom with a newborn baby and a lack of plans for the future, who signs up to live with nine other couples and their babies in a self-contained child rearing experiment. The 10 families raise each other up under the guidance and staff of Dr. Preston Grind, a genius with his own family baggage and complicated corporate ties. A big mess ensues! — Myles Tanzer

3. Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith, by Jon Krakauer (2004)

Jon Krakauer's very Jon-Krakauery story about a few very bad Mormon Fundamentalists wildly spread out into a story about how bad any old religion is and can be, full of heinous murders and equally insane smaller-scale injustices. For that latter point, the well-documented and easily disproven Mormonism, not yet 200 years old, makes for a tidy (too tidy?) case study. — Duncan Cooper

4. The Girls, by Emma Cline (2016)

No one ever says you can't judge a book by its opening line, because truthfully you can. And The Girls starts with a great one: "I looked up because of the laughter, and kept looking because of the girls." It's one of those perfect sentences that totally wrecks you, the first of many in Emma Cline's sleepy debut novel, which follows a lonely 14-year-old girl as she's hypnotized by the no-frills beauty of a Manson-like cult during the hazy summer of 1969. — Patrick D. McDermott

5. Courage: The Joy of Living Dangerously, by OSHO (1999)

During my senior year of high school, I worked at a local library, stacking and organizing books. I took my time to browse through the shelves whenever I made it to the “spiritual” section of the library, mostly because I was a curious teen trying to find meaning and purpose in a depressing, white, southern suburb. (I am aware that this is how most people end up joining cults.) I came across OSHO’s The Book of Understanding: Creating Your Own Path to Freedom, and though I don’t remember what the fuck it was about, I remember thinking it was chill and wholesome. I’ve read several OSHO books since then, including Courage: The Joy of Living Dangerously, which is also wholesome, and which I found to be really helpful for getting me out of my comfort zone; I even bought it for a friend as a birthday gift. In college, I would sometimes smoke a lot of weed and watch OSHO videos because he talked really slow about shit like "finding your light."

Fast forward to 2018, I just started Wild Wild Country, a Netflix docuseries about the Rajneesh movement, and it turns out OSHO is actually Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh — a psychotic, narcissistic cult leader who rebranded in 1989. The moral of this story is: research your authors before you get dangerously close to joining a cult. — Juliana Pache

6. The Earthseed series, by Octavia Butler (1993-1995)

Octavia Butler’s Earthseed series is and isn’t about cults, depending on which character's perspective you take. The two books, Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents, respectively, chronicle the near-future collapse of American society as we know it. Among the series’ most gutting qualities is its prescience — there is a presidential candidate who literally wishes to make America great again, a fanatical Christian right whose practices preclude morality, and a deadly dearth of water. But there is also a glimmer of hope in a community founded by the protagonist, whose central belief revolves around the concept of God as nature and the afrofuturist notion that for humanity to survive, it must leave Earth. A cult I can believe in. — Rawiya Kameir

7. Phenomenon: Everything You Need to Know About the Paranormal, by Sylvia Browne (2005)

I watched a lot of Montel Williams in high school, where author and proclaimed psychic Sylvia Browne (R.I.P., bless her heart!) made frequent guest appearances. She often gave readings to people in the audience, sending messages from “the other side” via their dead relatives. I loved it! I also loved all of her whacky books about conspiracy theories and the paranormal. In her book, Phenomenon, she explains everything from reincarnation to zombies to aliens and more. As a former hotep myself, I can say with confidence that this makes a perfect gift for any hotep in your family. — Juliana Pache

8. The Source, by Isis Aquarian (2007)

If you’re not familiar, The Source Family was a rock & roll-loving "utopian community" led by Jim Baker, a Hollywood health food tycoon better known as Father Yod, who was killed in a bizarre hang-gliding accident in 1975. The Source is their story, recounted with glassy-eyed affection by Isis Aquarian, one of Baker’s 14 wives. It comes with beautiful pictures, a glossary of relevant "Aquarian" terminology, and a CD featuring songs by the Father Yod-fronted psych group, Ya Ho Wa 13. Catch up now while you're waiting for an update on Todd Haynes's long-rumored Source Family TV show. — Patrick D. McDermott

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8 books you need to read if you’re interested in cults