The holidays—excuse me, HondaDays—are upon us and with them comes a chorus of motivational quote-flavored reminders about the importance of gratitude, which, believe it or not, is something whose value I believe in deeply. And as I reflect upon this year—not that I’ve read all the books I’m about to talk about THIS year, and if you’ve listened to the podcast you know I’ve read exactly ONE book this year, and yes, I’m very sorry about that—I am immensely grateful for books about cults! Apart from books about Tori Amos—and truly, any book about her will do, quality is almost irrelevant—my very, very favorite books are about cults.
Almost everyone is fascinated by cults. I mean, how can you not be? These folks give up their entire lives to follow some wide-eyed maniac with a regrettable face but charisma to spare, and before they know it, they’re shaving their heads and living in a weird commune and washing other people’s underwear. Of course, the argument could be made that all of the major religions are cults in their own special way, but I’m not here to argue for or against that. I’m here to talk about cult books I’ve read that have alternately fascinated me, disturbed me, made me feel smug for never having joined a cult, but also brought me around to understanding why certain people do. And lemme tell ya, it’s not for the fashion.
When a “regular” religion goes rogue
Do you consider Mormonism a cult? You don’t? Well, my friend, permit me to direct you to your local library’s copy of Jon Krakauer’s excellent Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith. It begins with the bizarrely horrific story of the brutal murder of an innocent woman and her baby by her brothers-in-law, who, of course, blamed the act squarely on a commandment they claimed was sent to them straight from the Big Kahuna upstairs. The book revolves around the murder trial, but also delves deeply into the spiritual history of Mormonism and in particular, the fundamentalist offshoots—the FLDS mainly—that litter Utah, Nevada, and Colorado. Those sects openly violate LDS church doctrine by practicing polygamy, often arranging marriages between disgusting old men and tween girls. Perhaps the creepiest piece of shit in the FLDS—although there could certainly be creepier, but I’m not about to infiltrate them to find out, sorry—was Warren Jeffs. Jeffs was arrested a few years ago on allegations of rape and sexual assault and all manners of similar crimes—including marrying a 12-year-old girl—and is currently serving a sentence of life plus 20 years in what I hope is an especially violent prison. Krakauer does a spectacular job of remaining as objective as possible in the face of revelations that would make a lesser journalist roll his eyes and makes a chilling case for why zealotry so often leads to murder.
Have you hugged your auditor today?
Scientology is probably a more obvious cult than fundamentalist Mormonism, owing mainly to the popularity of the excellent 2015 documentary Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, a film which I’ve personally watched no fewer than 10 times, if only to see the still of the bloated carcass that is L. Ron Hubbard attaching an e-meter to a tomato plant in an effort to ascertain whether the tomato could afford to buy the next 10 books in the Dianetics series. The documentary was based on the even-better 2013 book by investigative journalist Lawrence Wright, Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief which painted a picture of LRH as a mentally troubled master showman who got his start writing science fiction and continued writing science fiction that he somehow managed to pass off as a religion well into his golden years.
Scientology prides itself on offering scientific solutions to spiritual questions and seems to attract folks who are looking for something bigger than what more traditional religions are able to offer them. Unfortunately, after taking out 5 mortgages on their houses and gambling away their kids’ college funds to pay for the courses necessary to progress up the “bridge to total freedom,” they find out that that something bigger is a galactic overlord named Xenu who brought his followers to to Earth 75 billion years ago and proceeded to throw them all into volcanoes, which were then exploded with hydrogen bombs. The resulting alien shrapnel were called thetans, or immortal spirits, and they’re kind of like spiritual mosquitos that attach themselves to people and cause them emotional distress. Sounds plausible, right? Scientologists also believe that everyone in the mental health profession is straight up evil and only in that very lucrative field for those sweet sweet dollar bills. They advise that people suffering from mental illnesses take vitamins, go for a jog, and get a massage once in awhile, and, you know, that’ll take care of that. Anyway, Wright’s book is an amazing feat of reporting that will answer every question you’ve ever had about why Tom Cruise jumped up and down on that couch.
Do you have a favorite cult? There are literally hundreds to choose from, the next more batshit than the last. But what I truly love about (most) cult books is that the authors take great pains to empathize with the victims, and individualize them. Most of them also do very deep dives into the cult leaders’ backgrounds and childhoods, sometimes tracing a direct line from some kind of trauma as to why they just went off the rails at some point. Of course, many of them have no good reason for turning into the monsters they did, which leads to a far less satisfying—and downright terrifying—conclusion: that some people are just born evil. Anyway. Merry Christmas!!!