Amanda Montell’s Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism (Harper Wave 2021)is a deep-dive into the linguistics surrounding cults and other groups. Montell’s study covers various groups whose affiliations are based on adherence to a set of core values that are reinforced through the use of language. A compelling new book, Montell’s well-researched and humorous text tries to unpack the why, how, and who of cults and culitsh language. Montell takes us on a journey through some of the most famous cults in American history in addition to exploring the cultish impact of fitness, social media, multilevel marketing, and more. How do these groups deploy language as a tool of control, she asks? And just who is the most susceptible to it?
Montell’s book exposes both the language systems of cults (or cultish groups) as well as the source behind our own contemporary fascination with them. Divided into five separate parts, Montell starts with the cults we’ve all heard about: Jonestown, Synanon (of which Montell’s father was a reluctant member as a teenager), NXIVM, and Scientology. What all of these groups have in common, she argues, is their complex manipulation of language in order to slowly indoctrinate people into ideological systems that isolate, manipulate, and coerce. On many levels, Montell’s book is an excellent survey of cults and the damage they can do, and it is precisely the kind of text that caters to our interest in those groups because of the ‘famous’ cult stories it recounts. However, according to Montell, the reason we might find a book like hers compelling is a complex one:
“The reason millions of us binge cult documentaries or go down rabbit holes researching groups from Jonestown to QAnon is not that there’s some twisted voyeur inside us all that’s inexplicably attracted to darkness. We’ve all seen enough car crashes and read enough cult exposés: if all we wanted was a spooky fix, we’d be bored already. But we’re not bored, because we’re still hunting for a satisfying answer to the question of what causes seemingly ‘normal’ people to join—and, more important, stay in—fanatical fringe groups with extreme ideologies. Were scanning for threats, on some level wondering, Is everyone susceptible to cultish influence? Could it happen to you? Could it happen to me? And if so, how?” (11)
Our anxiety about where cults generate and who is susceptible to joining one drives our focus on cult-media. Montell’s study makes a compelling case that many of the roots of this problem are available in the language cult leaders use; however, its not just cult leaders whose use of language we should be aware of. Cultish language surrounds us, Montell argues, and we may very well encounter it on a daily basis through advertising and social media. After examining the word ‘cult’ and its various moral and historical associations, Montell explores the way cults operate linguistically through various devices such as love-bombing, thought-terminating cliches, and other linguistic devices. She also interrogates some cults’ exclusive language, noting the way that these groups work to distance the way their members simply speak to one another from the general public, and the way that language works as a form of control (who can say what and when, how someone can say it, what words are good or bad, etc). This fascinating analysis is truly innovative and unique, exploring the dynamic ways that cultish language can be abused, and, troublingly, the way it lives in our culture.
Montell’s latter sections are devoted to the use of cultish language in potentially toxic (but much more socially sanctioned) environments like multilevel marketing schemes, intense, insular fitness groups, and social media. Montell makes the compelling case that this language and its devices are all around us, but that these things are not always negative elements of our lives. In reality,
“The haunting, beautiful, stomach-twisting truth is that no matter how cult-phobic you fancy yourself, our participation in things is what defines us. Whether you were born into a family of Pentecostals who speak in tongues, left home at eighteen to join the Kundalini yogis, got dragged into a soul-sucking start-up right out of college, became in AA regular last year, or just five seconds ago clicked a targeted ad promoting not just a skin care product but the ‘priceless opportunity’ to become ‘part of a movement,’ group affiliations—which can have profound, even internal significance—make up the scaffolding upon which we build our lives. It doesn’t take someone broken or disturbed to crave that structure. Again, where why are two. And what we often overlook is that the material with which that scaffolding is built, the very material that fabricates our reality, is language.” (46)
Overall, Montell’s book is about just one of the many of ways that language can be put to use, and she points out that language is an incredibly powerful method of ordering our environments and society at large. Depending on a person’s motives, language can be misused or outright abused in service of a larger motive—typically power. While Cultish inevitably exposed me to the various cultish linguistic devices that occur all around me in everyday conversation, the text also provided a new insight into a topic that has been rehashed in multiple forms over the last fifty years. In her interviews with scholars, linguists, sociologists, cult survivors, former multilevel marketing employees, and former fitness group members, Montell paints a comprehensive portrait of the degree to which groups—for good or for ill—inform our society:
“I began this project out of the perverse craving for cult campfire tales that so many of us possess. But it quickly became clear that learning about the connections across language, power, community, and belief could legitimately help us understand what motivates people’s fanatical behaviors during this ever-restless era—a time when we find multilevel marketing scams masquerading as feminist start-ups, phony shaman’s ballyhooing bad health advice, online hate groups radicalizing new members, and kids sending each other literal death threats and defence with their favorite brands.” (45)
Cultish was a fascinating, well-researched, and thoughtfully presented text that is essential for anyone interested in true crime, cults, or the power of language. I highly recommend.
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About the Writer:
Rachel M. Friars (she/her) is a PhD student in the Department of English Language and Literature at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. She holds a BA and an MA in English Literature with a focus on neo-Victorianism and adaptations of Jane Eyre. Her current work centers on neo-Victorianism and nineteenth-century lesbian literature and history, with secondary research interests in life writing, historical fiction, true crime, popular culture, and the Gothic. Her academic writing has been published with Palgrave Macmillan and in The Journal of Neo-Victorian Studies. She is a reviewer for The Lesbrary, the co-creator of True Crime Index, and an Associate Editor and Social Media Coordinator for PopMeC Research Collective. Rachel is co-editor-in-chief of the international literary journal, The Lamp, and regularly publishes her own short fiction and poetry. Find her on Twitter and Goodreads.
A copy of this book was graciously provided to True Crime Index from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.