“At the end of the day, there is no cult / not a cult binary,” linguist Amanda Montell explains. “These things are not black and white. It’s a spectrum. There’s cultiness all around us. And it’s important to be specific and to be nuanced, because it’s not productive, and it’s in fact dangerous, to go around being like that’s a cult, that’s a cult, that’s a cult.”
In her new book, “Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism,” Montell does just that: she breaks down the spectrum of cults. It’s called “Cultish,” because she includes what you think of when you think of classic cults, like Jonestown, but also things that are, well, cult-ish, like SoulCycle and Instagram influencers. Again: a spectrum. The book is a smart and fascinating read on the language of cults, and highly readable and engaging. As I wrote in my summer books preview, I simply need everyone I know to read this book.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
You write how you grew up really taken by all things cult, because of your Dad’s experience with Synanon. Can you talk more about this?
Well, my upbringing was interesting because I grew up the daughter of these two research scientists. My parents are atheists who disdain organized religion. My dad has a lot of cognitive dissonance about it because he spent his teenage years in this really oppressive commune. And so he would always say, “I’m not a group person,” but he really wanted me and my brother to have a cultural reference point. So we did grow up going to ultra-Reform synagogue, but we all grew up understanding that was just like a cultural thing and did not correspond to any sort of supernatural beliefs.
I grew up not having any kind of metaphysical proclivities. But I was fascinated by people who did, especially because I grew up on these stories of my dad’s experience in Synanon. I was just so baffled — in the way that you’re always baffled by people whose lives are so different from yours — that these folks were willing to give over so much of their power and agency to this leader, Chuck Diedrich, the charismatic and ultimately maniacal leader of the cult.
Because the way that I view the world is through language —some combination of nurture and nature has made me this word nerd — I was always the most fascinated by the linguistic worlds that Synanon created. They created this whole system of rules and truths that are totally different from the outside. Even when I was a kid, I never really saw a sharp distinction between “cults” like Synanon, which are these fanatical fringe compounds from the 70s, and some of the fanatical, maybe not-so-fringe groups that pervade our everyday lives.
My middle school best friend and her mom were born-again Christians — Pentecostal Christians. To my parents’ befuddlement, or maybe I did this in secret, I would skip Hebrew school to go with them to their megachurch because I was flummoxed and fascinated. Looking at these thousands and thousands of people swaying to Christian rock music and believing with all of their hearts that it was Holy Spirit, I was looking at them like a car wreck. How did they get here? How did we get to this point?
That is so funny that you would skip Hebrew school to go with your friend to her megachurch. Do you really think your parents were unaware?
They were very busy. They had a lot going on! They were trying to cure cancer and malaria. I don’t think they were too worried that I would fall down the rabbit hole of evangelical Christianity.
When you told your dad you were going to be working on a book about cults and cultish groups, what was his reaction?
My dad’s cult experience was not even the most bizarre part of his childhood. He had such a strange and tumultuous upbringing. He was impoverished in New York City as a young kid — very Matilda vibes. So while I was absolutely fascinated by his Synanon stories, he was just telling them very casually. When I told him I was interested in writing a book about cults, both of my parents were just like, “oh, huh.” I was like, “Dad, you were in a cult.” And he’s like, “oh yeah, I forgot.” He almost had this childlike wonder about his own stories. Almost as if they happened to someone else.
He would have a lot of excuses to be a cynical curmudgeon because of his past, but he just doesn’t look backwards. He looks forward. I dedicated the whole book to him, and when I showed him the dedication, he was shocked. He was like, “What? Oh because I was in a cult!” And I was like, “No, because you’re my dad! I wouldn’t have had this fascination if it weren’t for you.”
I learned so much from “Cultish,” including the chapters on multi-level marketing groups (MLMs) and the cultish language they use. What I found really interesting — and relevant for us at Alma, a Jewish culture site — was how you write that these MLMs can really be found in Christian communities. Are MLMs primarily Christian things, or are there Jews involved?
The history of MLMs and their role in the American labor force corresponds pretty precisely to American history in general as a Protestant capitalist nation. MLMs stress a lot of the problematic values that our dignified labor market stresses — meritocracy, bootstrapping. It just stresses them to an extreme because of the way that these schemey companies are set up. And, a lot of MLMs are explicitly Christian affiliated. Like, Mary Kay and Younique and so many of them. In [the podcast] The Dream, one Mormon source said the qualities that make you a good MLM-er are the same qualities that make you a good Mormon: they’re both missionaries who are good at talking to their neighbor about the good news. That missionary aspect is also is ultimately the biggest thing that MLMs and Christians have in common. Jews aren’t going out there trying to get other people to be Jews. I can’t think of any Jews out there I know who are MLM-ers.
A girl I went to college with! She’s involved with dōTERRA. I had to mute her on Instagram.
That’s the thing with these natural holistic wellness MLMs! The MLM industry is so clever and so good at adapting to the market. 20 or 30 years ago, MLMers were like these Suzy Homemakers hawking tupperware. Now, they’re like cool millennial micro-influencers telling you about what essential oils you should use with your one year old baby. And so that would appeal to a different market than the MLMs of the past.
In your research, did you come across any overlap with Jewish communities and cults? Or Jews who fall into cults?
[Laughs]. The overlap between Jews and cults!
I’m sure it’s small. But I’m wondering if it’s there.
Systematically, the people who are attracted to New Age ideology tend to be ex-Christians because the ideology is just recycled and repackaged. If you look at some of this woo-woo conspiritualist QAnon stuff talking about being born in trauma, that’s the same message as being born in sin, just with a different boho twist. A lot of the ideology about a “great awakening” that’s coming, that’s just the Second Coming or the rapture or with a different spin. The good/evil binaries that that exist in conspiratorial New Age ideology are very similar to Christian rhetoric.
If you look at all the most notorious New Age cults from history from Heaven’s Gate to pastel QAnon, the people involved were these white middle class ex-Christians who were looking to fill the void after having rejected the traditional Christianity that they grew up with. So, Jews and cults [laughs] — I’m sure that there is some overlap… I’m not seeing Jews being the most susceptible population to this particular phenomenon. Also, a lot of cults are antisemitic!
Okay, I want to get back to the antisemitic thing in a second but first can we talk about why you think Judaism doesn’t lend itself to “cultiness”?
Some questions worth asking whether you’re participating in a religious community, spiritual community, or really any sort of ideologically bound group are: Can you participate casually? Are you allowed to have one foot out the door, so to speak? Are you allowed to express dissent? Is that encouraged? Are you allowed to question some of the rules or protocols or traditions?
Actually, someone on Instagram today was trying to ask me what the difference was in cultiness between Mormonism and Judaism. And it is the politically correct stance to say that “Well, if one religion is culty, then all religions are culty.” But to my knowledge, there are no casual Mormons, and the rules for participation and belonging in Mormonism are really strict and unquestionable. But you’re totally allowed to be a casual Jew! I consider myself one. It’s baked into the religion to ask questions and express doubt and dissent. Of course there are pockets of Judaism that are oppressive in a religious and a social way, but there is a way to be a Jew and not have it be cult.
Why do people wind up in cultish groups? It’s because they’re seeking community, they’re sorely lacking that type of support — which humans crave naturally. And they’re maybe rejecting the traditional religion or traditional church that they grew up with. And I find that in Judaism, it is such a tight-knit community that you can participate in without it really being religious, so to speak — without it being metaphysical or supernatural. You can be a Jew and not believe in God. You can be a cultural Jew! This is something we see all the time. You can’t really be a cultural evangelical; you can’t participate in the rituals because they make you feel safe and cherry pick what you want to participate in or not. But you can do that in Judaism. I do that — I get a sense of community from my Jewish friends and Jewish family, but I don’t have to sign up for everything that Judaism is about, and I certainly don’t. So, there’s a lot of a lot of wiggle room in Judaism, in terms of the beliefs, but you’re still allowed to hang on to what I think is one of the most valuable and most compelling parts of religion — whether it’s traditional or alternative — which is the community aspect.
But if your religion that you grew up with doesn’t allow you to access the community aspect without also signing up for the beliefs, you’re going to look for a way to fill that void elsewhere. That’s a position that ex-Christians find themselves in more than than Jews. Because you can be a “bad Jew” and still reap the benefits of Judaism.
Absolutely. Okay. Why are conspiracy theories usually antisemitic?
The roads of all conspiracy theories lead to antisemitism in some form or fashion. We’re trying to come up with a scapegoat population of liberal elites who is secretly controlling everything? That’s always Jews, really, when we’re talking about conspiracy theorists. Even if you’re talking about people like flat-earthers, or people who you don’t think are hate groups.
Conspiracy theories and cults overlap because the conspiracy theory isn’t just about the belief; it’s about the community surrounding the belief. When you give up a conspiracy theory, you’re not just giving up this supernatural notion you have in your mind, you’re giving up a whole identity. You’re giving up who you are and the people that you know. Mis- and dis-information scholars continuously find that the way that conspiracy theories work is that they fracture your trust in something big that you always believed to be true. When your trust is fractured in one big thing, then you’re going to start just distrusting everything. It’s not like you’re going to exclusively believe that the earth is flat and accept science in every other capacity, or accept reason in every other capacity. If you’re willing to accept that the earth is flat, then odds are you’re going to be at least amenable to the idea that a cabal of high powered Jews is secretly puppet-mastering the world.
The QAnon bit at the end of “Cultish” was super interesting to me, because I’ve written about as an antisemitic conspiracy theory, but I’ve never really thought about it as a cult.
QAnon is this catch-all term for what’s really this sprawling network, spiderweb monstrosity of conspiracy theories and beliefs. QAnon is not just white dudes in their mom’s basements who like believe that Hillary Clinton drinks the blood of children in order to stay young — it’s become something a lot more mainstream. QAnon is this black hole that has sucked in every breed of slightly conspiratorial thinking that exists on the internet right now, and that is in part because of algorithms and in part because of QAnon influencers who are like their own mini cult leaders in a way. Even though QAnon is only online, we’ve seen by now — in large part because of the capitol attack — that these groups have very material cultish power in the real world, but we don’t necessarily take them seriously out of the gate. The social media networks themselves didn’t.
What was the most shocking thing you learned in your research?
Writing this book was extremely humbling for me. I went into it thinking, “Oh, I’m such a skeptic. I’m such a cynic. What’s wrong with all these cult followers? How does language work to brainwash these suckers?” Very quickly, after talking to so many of the the brilliant scholars I talked to for the book, it became clear that so many of the stereotypes and prevailing wisdoms that most of us believe about cults and cult followers and cult leaders is totally false. And really none of us are above cultish influence.
When I noticed the the similarities between how cult leaders and their followers relate to each other, and how toxic romantic partners and and their victims — whoever they’re dating — it really opened my eyes because I’ve been in that position. I’ve been in emotionally, psychologically abusive situations. A toxic relationship is just a cult of one; the tactics of manipulation are very, very similar.
The book caused me to have a much greater sense of empathy and compassion, even for people who get inveigled into a group like QAnon. Because if we don’t understand what is going on with them, and we just write them off as these idiots and these monsters, then that’s going to totally annihilate any hope of actually bringing these people back down to earth. If we’re able to understand, psychologically and sociologically, what is actually going on with cult leaders and their followers, then we’re able to not only feel empowered because we know how to proceed, but also to feel more compassionate. And that’s really my ultimate goal with the book.
My last question: What Jewish celebrity would you follow into a cult?
Oh my god, that’s an amazing question. What Jewish celebrity would I follow into the dark? Jenny Slate.
That’s a great one. I would totally follow her, too.
If Jenny Slate was like, “hey c’mon everybody let’s go move into the house I grew up in that’s haunted,” I’d be like, “sign me up!!” I absolutely stan the living shit out of Jenny Slate and would 100% shave my head and wear nothing but shoes and a face, á la “marcel the shell,” if she told me to.