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Summary

The author of the widely praised Wordslut analyzes the social science of cult influence: how cultish groups from Jonestown and Scientology to SoulCycle and social media gurus use language as the ultimate form of power.

What makes “cults” so intriguing and frightening? What makes them powerful? The reason why so many of us binge Manson documentaries by the dozen and fall down rabbit holes researching suburban moms gone QAnon is because we’re looking for a satisfying explanation for what causes people to join - and more importantly, stay in - extreme groups. We secretly want to know: could it happen to me? Amanda Montell’s argument is that, on some level, it already has....

Our culture tends to provide pretty flimsy answers to questions of cult influence, mostly having to do with vague talk of “brainwashing”. But the true answer has nothing to do with freaky mind-control wizardry or Kool-Aid. In Cultish, Montell argues that the key to manufacturing intense ideology, community, and us/them attitudes all comes down to language. In both positive ways and shadowy ones, cultish language is something we hear - and are influenced by - every single day.  

Through juicy storytelling and cutting original research, Montell exposes the verbal elements that make a wide spectrum of communities “cultish”, revealing how they affect followers of groups as notorious as Heaven’s Gate, but also how they pervade our modern start-ups, Peloton leaderboards, and Instagram feeds. Incisive and darkly funny, this enrapturing take on the curious social science of power and belief will make you hear the fanatical language of “cultish” everywhere.

©2021 Amanda Montell (P)2021 HarperCollins Publishers

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Grain of salt needed!

This book started of great! Learning the unique perspective the author has on cults by emphasising the power of language. However this book took a turn for the worst after the authors criticism on CrossFits “cultishness”. Even though I totally agree with her claim, it was so poorly substantiated I cringed listening to it. The quality of research on that chapter stood so in contrast with the rest of the book I highly doubt she meant to leave it in. Maybe it had something to do with a publishing timeframe. So take the chapter with a grain of salt and read the rest of the book too! Enjoy

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decent

At times I think the feminist/anit-racist aspects felt forced. In the beginning of the book there are a lot of references to later chapters, 'this will be discussed in ch. 6' is mentioned a lot. this makes the listening experience less cohesive in my opinion

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A Whole New Level

I really wanted to like this book however some of the things covered by the author just felt down right judgemental. Anything slightly away from "normal" was treated with derision and a snider tone from the narrator. I listened to the entire book as I was intrigued to see where the author would go next. Oddly although picking on odd things like cross fit and Joe Dispenza a man who has helped thousands she conveniently left out religion! I'm not saying the whole book was awful but a lot of it just made me cringe as it was extremely biased towards what she wants you to think.....almost cultish!

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Mostly Filler Content And Very Little Value

The most basic of books on cults. Only really useful absolute beginners who've never really heard of cults. Gives a decent but very basic introduction and a few examples of cultish language. Offers very little value for anyone who already knows a bit about cults.

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Interesting, informative & well contextualised

Really liked the way Montell contextualises cults & 'cultish' organisations in wider neo-liberal & colonialist ideologies and understands the demographic they aim to cater for e.g. CrossFit's/SoulCycle's appeal to white middle-class aspirational people & bored housewives.

Revealed also a lot about the way corporations like Amazon try to embed fanatical loyalty to them at the expense of worker's wellbeing (learning by heart a 50 plus page manual reminds me so much of Landmark & having to learn their introduction leader manual - the horror).

And the way that dangerous social media guru/influencers like Teal Swan & Benhino Massuro have been able to game sm platforms like Instagram & YouTube in order to gain followers that will fork out for their expensive retreats IRL.

Also liked that Montell doesn't fall into trap of saying 'anyone' could be seduced into being in a cult, but makes the reasons why clear and understandable. As well as the insight into how trauma influences the ability to easily spot a scam and how that's tied to the concept of 'fast & slow thinking' as popularised in the book of the same name.

I want to thank Montell for writing this, as a marginalised cult survivor it is one of the first books which looks with any depth at how abelist, racist etc these cultish organisations and people are.

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Repetitive and shallow after a while

It's a really interesting topic and starts well. However, near the end we are still meeting more identikit 'cults' without really getting any closer or deeper in our understanding of them.

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Interesting and Clever

I enjoyed this book if that is the right word for it! Interesting, informative, cleverly written and enlightening and inspired me to look up some of the people mentioned and a few new podcasts. I have to admit I have always been highly skeptical of pretty much everything that cannot be proven since I was 11 or so and I am a constant thorn in the side of my employers, who employ me to be skeptical and flag up woo and related BS - that's what being in aviation insurance claims for 20 years does to a guy like me but Ms Montell surprised me - well done!

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Protect yourself by reading this!

Really interesting book discussing the way that cults, companies and brands use language to manipulate us. Discusses some of the biggest cults including Jonestown. Debunks the theory that only uneducated people fall into cults. Their methods are more subtle than you might think. Cultish will arm you with the tools to prevent it from happening to you. This is Essential reading for the times we live in.

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Fascinating!

I really enjoyed this and would highly recommend to anyone interested in cults, language and marketing! Very easy listen.

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koolaid for the soul?

interesting read on various types of cult from death cults to multi level marketing to exercise.

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  • chris boutte
  • 17-06-21

Get this book ASAP

I don’t even know where to start with how much I enjoyed this book. I’ve seen Amanda Montell’s previous book Wordslut and have considered getting it quite a few times, but now I’m definitely going to read it now that I’ve finished Cultish. If you’re interested in understanding cults, how people get lured in, and how people get out, this books for you. If you enjoy the psychological aspect of cults, this book is for you. And if you want a completely unique perspective on cults, this book is also for you. I read hundreds of books each year, and many of them are in the realm of psychology, and it was so refreshing to read this book where the author focuses on how the language used can indoctrinate people and suck them into cult-like organizations.

Unlike other books, Cultish covers the full gambit of cults, and what I really respected is how Montell puts cults on a sort of spectrum. The author explains the title for the book and how the word “cult” is often thrown around all willy nilly, so she started using the term “cultish”. Montell covers cults we’re all familiar with like Heaven’s Gate, the Branch Davidians, and Jonestown, but she also writes about many other groups that are “cultish”. Aside from touching on Scientology and some religious organizations, she also dives into how fitness groups like CrossFit and Pelaton can be cultish, and she also discusses the extremely important subject of social media cult followings.

I have no criticisms of this book. Amanda is an incredible writer, and I can’t wait to read her other book. I guess my only complaint is that she doesn’t have more books for me to binge. As someone who is 9 years sober and got sober through 12-step programs like AA, it would have been interesting to hear her dive into that topic a bit more because she said that it’s one of the reasons it inspired her book. But, if she ends up coming on The Rewired Soul podcast where I interview authors, I’ll be able to ask her then.

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  • Fabian
  • 21-06-21

Great info, great narration and great stories

This book turned out to be better than expected. I love to read about cults so I expected an analysis of some cults. It's much more than that. I realized we are all in cults. The political, corporate, wellness or whatever cults. The stories are entertaining and informative.

The author makes it clear that it's not wrong to be cultish because we all are but the book gives information on how to be. little more skeptical and rational. The author is very knowledgable about linguistics and anyone would benefit from reading this book.

P.S.
Some people will dislike the book because they probably feel exposed even if the author was super compassionate and careful.

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  • Lola C.
  • 29-12-21

Wish she would have left out the politics.

This is a really great book. However, I think it could have been a lot better if she would have left politics out of it. Being middle of the road, I don’t find myself particularly offended by anything she says, however I do question the obvious bias and think the book would have been much better had she not referred to one political party or another as a “cult“ I think there is extreme fanaticism on both sides of the aisle and don’t feel that it was well represented that way. Too bad. Hate to see someone allow politics to ruin such an interesting conversation.

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  • Success Pal
  • 17-12-21

Toxic Cultish Closed Minded Bias

An engaging narrative that sucks you into her Cultish thinking.. Loving every minute of her presentation because we agree politically. I was so disappointed that she had nothing positive to share only criticism of everything ... sounding exactly like those Q fans on the toxic right she rallies against.

If she would critique both sides she would have been more credible. Sadly it ended up being a whining victim story against all her perceived enemies. After a few more years of life seasoning and exploring her own shadows she may actually be able to influence positives instead of more closed minded bigotry that serves no one on either side.

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  • Kelly Anderson
  • 21-06-21

Amazing book

I absolutely loved this book. Very informative and well researched. Made you really think about the power of words and when things that are mentioned have been tried on you. So good. A must read for everyone.

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  • math3matica
  • 07-06-22

Was Not Target Audience

Narration is good given the material. The material was biased, poorly argued, and preconceived.

Im an early 30s straight white male with moderate political beliefs and spiritual but not religious beliefs. This book is about a subject matter I find interesting, but the book isn't intellectually deep enough to actually explore the topic of language and cult groups. Two frustrating points are 1.) the author only chooses groups that are on the fringe to their beliefs rather than actually stepping back and asking about the language of groups that they personally support - the left: Hillary Clinton, BLM, academia, LGBTQ+, etc (I mention these groups not to claim they are cults but to emphasize the language and actions of groups she deem as cults are selected because they match the author's politics). 2.) the poor research. The chapter on Scientology is the epitome of this. She was a teen that was obviously creeped out with anything that wasn't in her norm, and took a personality test at a Scientology Organization. Now she wants to write a book about cults and must have an obligatory chaper on Scientology and thinks because she once walked in a church, and she knows how to use Google, that she is an expert on the subject - spoiler: her obvious lack on knowledge on the subject makes this one of the worst chapers.

There is so much room for an actual interesting book on this subject. 'Suggestible You' by Erik Vance is a good book on a similar topic.

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  • TnT
  • 07-02-22

Interesting

a good listen. I just wish the author didn't get political. it could have been avoided but obviously they felt the need to express their political views in their work.

I get enough politics everywhere, I wouldn't have our purchased this had I know that they would insert their political views.

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  • Heidi Rae
  • 25-09-21

Engaging but slightly (unnecessarily?) political

Hearing a linguist engage with cult language at varying levels was so engaging. I enjoyed myself immensely. However, even as a liberal, I do wish the author refrained from the topic of Donald Trump. At those points, it pulled me out of the academia-esque nature of this book because it felt more driven by opinion than academic analysis. Regardless, the book was still informative and interesting. Now I have to go buy a copy for my personal library, well done.

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  • ike9898
  • 05-02-22

Under-delivered on an interesting topic

I share many of the author's biases, and yet still I felt like she was presenting a weak case. I also didn't find much in here that was new to me, and these aren't subjects I really follow. A lot of it seemed to be drawn from other popular non fiction sources, without much original added by the author. She does have some limited direct experience with Synanon and Scientology, and I have to acknowledge that. Did not care for the multiple uses of Forbes magazine as a demonstration or evidence. I question whether the author is really 'a linguist' as she claims, or just a person who got a BS in the subject and then never worked in the field; I don't care enough to investigate, but the book made me feel like I know which she is. Overall, not bad, but if I were her editor, I'd send her back to dig deeper

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  • K
  • 11-07-22

I wanted to like it but…

I tried. I get her points but she is trying way too hard to make connections between community and cult. I’m surprised she doesn’t “attack” the language of parents to children. She oddly doesn’t talk about the Army and I gave up with about an hour left so I dont know if she really gets into religion but it’s not good.

For some reason, she talks so quickly about actual cults that I had a hard time following the order or structure she was using. This could be due to audio rather than having the book in hand, but I was often either confused about the subject or annoyed by the connections she was making.

I almost wish she structured the book to start with deadly cults and moved toward toxic and dangerous ways they recruit and hold you hostage. Then she could have moved into the borderline cults and MLMs that bankrupt people. She could then talk about fitness groups and some negative impact they have but to label them all as using “cultish” as she calls the language of cults is so ridiculous. It was a reach for me. Cult = toxic. Fitness is not toxic. Its like labeling ALL relationships toxic because you know someone who was in an abusive one.

It is NOT language that’s the sole driver of abuse in cults. Blaming language is like blaming arms after they get punched. Language is an important tool humans use and while it can be used nefariously, the receiver of that language also has to be willing to receive that information, accept it, and follow it. She blast the language of communities and families perhaps unknowingly and I found that to be confusing and disturbing.

While I appreciate a good discussion of the power of language, the author here takes it too far and makes unreasonable connections in my
Opinion.

2 people found this helpful