Why are we so interested in cults? This mix of non-fiction and fictional recommendations attempt to answer the question.
Helter Skelter: The Manson Murders by Vincent Bugliosi with Curt Gentry
The best selling True Crime book in history, Helter Skelter takes a look at the investigation, arrest, and prosecution of Charles Manson and the Manson Family for the 1969 murders of actress Sharon Tate and others (if you watched Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, yes, the murders happened).
The California-based cult of the Manson Family was mostly made up of young, middle-class women attracted to communal living and eventually radicalized by Manson.
Bugliosi, the prosecuting attorney at the trial, wrote the account to show how he built the case against Manson, and in doing so shed light on the dark undertone of America in the 60s. This book is a classic for anyone interested in cults: why do they happen? How do they happen? Helter Skelter takes a stab at answering all these questions and more.
The Girls by Emma Cline
Emma Cline’s loosely-inspired fictional take on the Manson Family focuses on Evie Boyd, a lonely girl in late 1960s Northern California, struggling to fit in. One day, Evie sees a group of girls in the park and is drawn into their careless, dangerous aura of freedom and abandonment.
She meets Suzanne, head of the group, and is drawn into their inner circle, meeting the charismatic leader in their eerie, rundown ranch. Spending time away from her family and normal life, Evie comes closer to this unthinkable way of living, and a sense of violence that is always thrumming under the surface.
Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism by Amanda Montell
Amanda Montell’s Cultish answers the question of what makes cults so intriguing. What makes them so fascinating for us is because, despite our curiosity about this way of life that seems so separate from our own, we are all, actually, unknowingly, in the hold of our cults.
Humans crave ideology, community, and a sense of us/them, which is why we are so easily influenced. We don’t have to drink the Kool-aid, because we already do: when we work out at a gym, or stan a K-Pop idol, it doesn’t take much to persuade us.
Slonim Woods 9 by Daniel Barban Levin
Sarah Lawrence College, a liberal arts institution that counts among its illustrious list of alumni Rahm Emmanuel, Vera Wang, JJ Abrams, and more (including my cousins), is tucked away in Yonkers, New York, an idyllic bastion of free-thinking education. It also happened to be a place where a cult was born.
Slonim Woods 9 is the story of what happened when sophomore Talia Ray asked her housemates at a communal housing college dorm if her father, Larry Ray could stay with them after his release from prison. Everyone said yes, including writer Daniel Barban Levin.
Ray arrived, and after a spate of counselling sessions with the aim of “achieving clarity,” he had them all in his thrall. Levin’s haunting, redemptive account tells the story of the ten years spent in this man’s grip, and how he and a few brave others, broke out.
The Lightness by Emily Temple
In The Lightness, Olivia runs away from home, away from her overbearing mother, in search of her beloved father. She follows him to the last place she heard he was staying, at The Levitation Center, a place she starts referring to as “Buddhist Boot Camp for Bad Girls.”
While there she is drawn to the friendship of a close-knit group of girls: Serena, Janet, and Laurel. Invited to their coterie, they make it a goal to achieve enlightenment and experience the ultimate lightness. Friendship, desire, danger, and obsession come to a head at the end.