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How to Spot a Cult

According to Amanda Montell’s new book, “Cultish,” the jargon and technical language of fanaticism is surprisingly common.

Members of the Osho Ashram in Pune, India in 1991, marking the first anniversary of the death of their leader the Bhagwan Rajneesh
T.C. Malhotra/Hulton Archive/Getty
Members of the Osho Ashram in Pune, India, in 1991, marking the first anniversary of the death of their leader, the Bhagwan Rajneesh

Among L. Ron Hubbard’s most pressing concerns was a singular problem: how to get his followers to turn their nouns into verbs and verbs into nouns. Like a Californian Hamlet, the founder of Scientology pondered the dilemma of “to be or not to be” and settled on beingness. There was no real basis for Hubbard’s morphological experiments, as linguist Amanda Montell explains in her new book, Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism; he simply “liked the sound of technical jargon.” So much so, in fact, that he published two extensive Scientology dictionaries filled with thousands of terms, many of which were borrowed (and subsequently mangled) from fields like psychology and software engineering “to create the impression that Scientology’s belief system was rooted in real science.”

Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism
by Amanda Montell
Harper Wave, 320 pp., $27.99

Hubbard also wanted to establish, through language, a clear way of demarcating believers from nonbelievers (or, sorry—“suppressive persons”). A nonbeliever, for instance, would very likely struggle to parse the following exchange without the aid of Montell’s annotations:

“How are you doing?”

“I’ve been a bit out ruds [rudiments: tired, hungry, or upset] because of a PTP [present time problem] with my second dynamic [romantic partner] because of some bypassed charge [old negative energy that’s resurfaced] having to do with my MEST [Matter, Energy, Space, and Time, something in the physical universe] at her apartment.”

While this all comes across as profoundly idiosyncratic, Montell says there is in fact nothing unique or special about Scientology’s fascination with language. “The most compelling techniques” espoused by cults have had “little to do with drugs, sex, shaved heads, remote communes, drapey kaftans, or ‘Kool-Aid,’” says Montell. As she breaks down the glossary of terms espoused by members of QAnon, Heaven’s Gate, Jonestown, and even Crossfit, Montell says it is language that can best clue us in as to whether an organization we have joined is a cult or is at least engaging in cultlike behavior to extract resources out of its members. She develops a taxonomy of “cultish” linguistic tendencies from “the crafty redefinition of existing words” (i.e., calling a gym a “box” for no real reason), thought-terminating clichés (labeling good-faith doubts and concerns as “limiting beliefs”), and monikers that establish an us-versus-them binary (the “truth seekers” versus “sheeple” of QAnon).

Montell’s first book, Wordslut: A Feminist Guide to Taking Back the English Language (2019), explored everything from the history of sexist slurs like skank and hussy to the gendered assumptions about what it means to “speak with authority.” With Cultish, Montell is still writing about feminism, arguing that many of these organizations often target working-class and minority women who, feeling failed by capitalism, begin looking for some semblance of a social safety net. Nearly half of the victims of the Jonestown massacre were Black women, she points out, and the majority of people working for multilevel marketing companies are unemployed women living in blue-collar towns. An empathetic listener, Montell takes careful note of the empty words that cult members turn to for solace. Though written in punchy and fun prose style, Cultish is more than a fascinating guide to the workings of cults; it’s also an infuriating window into just how starved people have been made to feel for community and structures of collective care.

Montell has a personal investment in cults and how to spot them: Her father grew up in one. In 1969, when he was 14, Craig Montell’s parents joined Synanon, the drug rehab program turned repressive cult. Synanon forced its patients to go cold turkey and cut off all communication from family and friends. Soon it began attracting nonaddicts, some in search of spiritual rejuvenation, others led by an inchoate desire to participate in something unusual (Montell says her grandparents just “wanted to be part of the countercultural movement”). At the Synanon commune, “children lived in barracks miles away from their parents,” and “married couples were separated and assigned new partners.” Infamously, everyone in Synanon had to participate in a ritual called “The Game.” It was an intense nightly session where members would sit in circles and criticize one another in a supposed act of radical honesty. Listening to her father’s stories as a child, what fascinated Montell the most “was the group’s special language,” she says. What was the point, Montell wondered as a child, of all these clandestine codes, from “The Game” to “love marriages” (Synanon’s reassigned partnerships)? How did they fit into the broader pattern of violence taking place within the organization and ones like it?

As she traces just how reliant cults like Synanon and Heaven’s Gate were on jargon and invented language (the latter referred to people as “containers” and parking lots as “docking stations”), Montell concludes that language is the primary means by which any group, and not just a cult, establishes a sense of shared purpose and identity. Specialized terminology allows adherents to feel they have unique access to something. “Whether wicked or well-intentioned,” she explains, “language is a way to get members of a community on the same ideological page. To help them feel like they belong to something big.” In this way, most organizations are cult-ish (her term), and indeed, Montell prefers to see the term cult as something that operates on a continuum, with language alerting us that a popular fitness trend or a company we work for has teetered across a boundary into something dangerously exploitative. After all, most cults do not start off as such. Their respective paths to the dark side though, Montell tell us, often begin with increased levels of esoteric terminology and choice epithets for outsiders. “Language,” she explains, “can do so much to squash independent thinking, obscure truths, encourage confirmation bias, and emotionally charge experiences such that no other way of life seems possible.”

One of Montell’s main concerns is how capitalism has made people uniquely susceptible to cults and cultish organizations. In the absence of robust social welfare programs, many turn to tightly knit groups that seem to provide an alternative space that can save them from the worst ravages of the market: “America’s laissez-faire atmosphere makes people feel all on their own.” That was a major appeal of People’s Temple. Led by a charismatic white preacher named Jim Jones, People’s Temple was an integrated church that preached a message of racial equality and anti-capitalism. In 1974, Jones moved his parish from Redwood City, California, to Guyana in South America, where he and his followers would set up a socialist commune called Jonestown. When Jones, unstable and narcissist, feared he might lose his grip on power, he made the residents of Jonestown drink a sugary beverage spiked with cyanide (thus the phrase “drink the Kool-Aid”) before shooting himself with a revolver.

“Jim Jones,” writes Montell, “was a linguistic chameleon.” His message and style of address drew on the Black Power movement (he called the massacre in Guyana an act of “revolutionary suicide”). He labeled his white followers “bourgeois bitches” and used the term “churchianity” to dismiss hypocritical white Christians. With this kind of language, writes Montell, “[Jones] created the illusion that the Black majority had more privilege than they did.”

By the 1970s, his congregation had attracted a large proportion of Black women who felt sidelined by second-wave white feminists. Montell takes care to note that Black women were not somehow more susceptible to brainwashing, but as people facing racist economic barriers, they had genuine reasons to be compelled by Jones’s unique message of socialist communalism. So did many others: Jones’s vision appealed to women of all races. Montell located a People’s Temple member named Laura Johnston Kohl, a white woman who survived Jonestown only to join Synanon, so strong was her belief in basic tenets of collectivism that she could find nowhere else in American society. “In the seventies we had a saying,” Kohl tells Montell. “One person can only whisper. You need to be in a group to stay strong.”

Some cults, on the other hand, try to convince followers that they can beat capitalism at its own game, as long as they possess a billionaire mentality and sell enough essential oils and diet supplements to their Facebook friends. Montell spends a sizable portion of Cultish discussing the history of multilevel marketing schemes, from early successes like Tupperware to billion-dollar companies like Amway (the source of the DeVos family’s fortunes), to more recent entries on the scene, such as doTerra and Arbonne. These companies, Montell writes, “target non-working wives and moms, and they have since the dawn of the modern direct sales industry in the 1940s.”

After World War II, millions of white American women who had joined the labor force to fill in for men were suddenly ousted from their jobs. Earl Tupper and his most successful recruit, a single mom from Detroit named Brownie Wise, found a way to take advantage of this surplus of women looking for ways to make money doing something that felt professional but not in a way that encroached on their husband’s territory. Selling Tupperware mostly to friends and family was not a job as much as it was an exciting opportunity, “the sort that wouldn’t threaten their traditionally feminine, wifely image.” Yet despite the promises of financial independence, most MLMs require sellers to buy a large amount of inventory up front, sometimes costing hundreds or even thousands of dollars, and according to multiple studies, 99 percent of recruits never make a profit. “Like most destructive ‘cults,’” observes Montell, “they’re in the business of selling the transcendent promise of something that doesn’t actually exist.”

Their real product, Montell insists, “isn’t merchandise, it’s rhetoric.” Today’s MLMs use the language of empowerment to entice women to join. Phrases like “Build a fempire” and “Be a mompreneur” and other “faux-spirational lingo of commodified fourth wave feminism,” Montell writes, abound in their promotional materials. Like cults, they utilize terminology that distinguishes and elevates their business model compared to traditional employers’. For instance, you will not have a boss but rather “an upline mentor,” and sellers are not employees but rather “entrepreneurs.” People with salaried positions, benefits, and other basic labor protections, on the other hand, are said, with derision, to possess a “J.O.B.” (jackass of a boss). In this way, sellers aren’t buying oils or diet pills but life rafts. With enough esoteric Facebook posts about “opportunities” and creepy D.M.s to old high school classmates, they believe they can transcend the conditions of the working poor to become “boss babes.”

I think most people who read Cultish will feel convinced they have, at some point in their lives, been in a cult. It is almost impossible to avoid one, Montell seems to say, in a market economy where corporations have started calling themselves “families” and professional identity is increasingly being offered as a substitute for a living wage. A former academic, I certainly gulped when I read the line: “The glue that keeps this trust intact is members’ belief that their leaders have a rare access to transcendent wisdom, which allows them to exercise control over their systems of rewards and punishments.” It could be, though, that academia is not a cult itself, but rather was a cult for me, because like many of the women Montell writes about, I joined because I hoped it would protect me from capitalism. The student health center was my socialized medicine, and tenure a Scandinavian safety net. In exchange, I willingly participated in language that demoted all other career and life paths. A “job” was an academic one, and all others were “alt-ac” (alternatives to academia). I kept my doubts to myself lest I wanted to hear the thought-terminating cliché: “good people get jobs.”

It strikes me now, having read Montell’s book, that this kind of framing certainly comes in handy for an industry that relies on the aspirations of its contingent labor pool to keep costs down. This, I think, is Montell’s larger point: Cults and cultish organizations rely on precarity and social insecurity. They fill in the gaps, offering a sense of community and shared investment in the future. So when they use the language of “follow me,” you follow, because where else are you going to go?