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Find Your Soul

On American cultishness, from group exercise to mass suicide

Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism by Amanda Montell. Harper Wave, 320 pages.

Amanda Montell got the idea for her new book Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism while visiting an old friend who had moved far away and decided to join Alcoholics Anonymous. While struggling to figure out dinner plans, her friend explained why she was having trouble deciding what to do: “I’ve been HALTing all day, I caught a resentment at work, but trying not to future-trip. Ugh, let’s just focus on dinner: First things first, as they say!”             

Montell, a linguistics scholar, was taken aback at the sudden outburst of weird terminology. It seemed as if her friend was using a voice that wasn’t her own. It would have been easy enough to roll her eyes and dismiss her friend’s verbal flailing as a lapse into faddish lingo. Yet the almost random employment of these obscure terms and phrases suggested to Montell something deeper: a “conquest of her vocabulary.”

Montell started thinking about “cultish” behavior, and about what makes people susceptible to cults. She takes the reader on a brisk, chatty, and sympathetically even-handed (sometimes overly so) tour through the widely varied forms that cultishness can take, and the role that language plays in cults’ magnetic power. Her examination includes self-improvement rackets like CrossFit, SoulCycle, Bikram Yoga, as well as multilevel marketing schemes. It also looks into “suicide cults” such as Jonestown and Heaven’s Gate, and destructive groups like Scientology, the pseudo-religion founded by sci-fi author L. Ron Hubbard, who “published not one but two unique Scientology dictionaries” full of made-up terms like Dianetics and thetans.  

Admitting that it’s lazy and simplistic to accuse other people of being brainwashed and leave it at that, Montell takes a more empathetic approach. She suggests that “it doesn’t take someone broken or disturbed to crave that structure . . . we’re wired to. And what we often overlook is that the material with which that scaffolding is built, the very material that fabricates our reality, is language.” She’s critical of how cults thrive on people’s fears and insecurities, but if “language is the way ‘we breathe reality into being,’” then the buzzwords involved are what can lead the way to fanaticism.

It sure seems like no one ever went broke overestimating the masochism of the upper middle class. Maybe the better off you have it, the more you crave paying someone to routinely drag you. The power of terms used in CrossFit and SoulCycle, workout regimens that fetishize fitness, are enhanced by putting participants in an enclosed environment where they pay to sweat and pedal their way toward a probably unrealizable idealized body image. They work out in a space described as “like a womb regression,” being alternately browbeaten and occasionally validated by an instructor who repeats creepily blunt slogans about the necessity of pain and suffering: “Puking is acceptable. . . . Blood is acceptable. Quitting is not.” Promising to give the client both “flat abs and inner peace” is a melding of human aspirations so shamelessly on the nose that if you saw it in a movie it would seem like overkill. The ancient question of the mind/body connection is crudely solved for you, in cosmically unforgiving terms. 

Maybe the better off you have it, the more you crave paying someone to routinely drag you.

Montell perceptively connects the willingness with which people fall into such cultish traps with the lingering influence of the Protestant Ethic. Burning all those calories gradually reveals fitness culture’s inner Puritanical drive: “cleanse, detox, purify, obedience, discipline, perfection. These terms have unquestionably Biblical undertones . . . the language of cleansing and purification can condition listeners to believe that achieving ‘perfect fitness’ is possible, if you try hard enough, and that it will in turn ‘perfect’ their whole life. This mentality can feel like a soothing Epsom salt bath in a society that leaves so many citizens feeling existentially high and dry.”  

Add this physical and emotional exertion to a free-market economy’s inevitable obsession with success—and the gut-level anxieties that come with not making the cut—and you can see why Americans often feel a need to cleanse themselves of their assumed moral and physical weakness. Naturally, in America this all-too-human physical and spiritual angst is also easily commodified with another pay-for-play wellness regime—or even by offering a fresh moneymaking opportunity in which you take charge of your life by selling something.   

As people have already been culturally primed to pull themselves up by their gym straps, it’s no big leap for anyone to turn to multilevel marketing (MLM) to build their wealth. Montell describes MLMs as “white-male-founded, white-female-operated beauty and ‘wellness’ brands whose recruits peddle overpriced products (from face cream to essential oils to diet supplements) to their friends and family, while also trying to enlist those customers to become sellers themselves.” The manipulatively enthusiastic patter of you-go-girl boosterism encourages possible customers to become an “affiliate” or a “Boss Babe” and thereby take their sorry lives back, one high-pressure sale to their nearest and dearest at a time.

In no time, affiliates find themselves hustling to meet relentless sales quotas, with the money being kicked further and further upstairs. But this couldn’t possibly be a pyramid scheme, the MLM advocates protest, because “pyramid schemes are illegal”—a mind-twisting (and somewhat self-incriminating) way of justifying their sales model. Montell describes her brief and unsatisfying experience being pestered online by MLM pitches. The manufactured enthusiasm for her entrepreneurial spirit quickly fades away when she fails to become a “Boss Babe.”

The way Montell sees it, what Scientology offers is just another way of attempting to be a Boss Babe. In L.A., where she lives, “wannabe films stars find ads in issues of Backstage magazine promising career-making crash courses in entertainment, or they attend artist workshops secretly backed by Scientology. . . . Some do it with a genuinely open mind, and most get the hell out of Dodge long before they’re really in. But a select few look at celebrities like Tom Cruise, John Travolta, and Elizabeth Moss—Scientology’s mascots—and tell themselves, that could be me.”

What might start as a chance to network develops into a moneymaking scheme, with bizarre  language that teases a higher level of awareness you can have access to—for a price. The main goal is to “go clear” and achieve Scientology’s ultimate stage of enlightenment. Montell explains that it can cost anywhere between five thousand and ten thousand bucks to unlock the secrets revealed on the next level, while the cost of finding out the most esoteric information—and getting closer to going clear—can clear your bank account of up to a cool hundred grand.

The “Bridge to Total Freedom” gives you an insider’s knowledge of things like “Xenu the galactic overlord and invisible ‘body thetans’ (spirits of ancient aliens that cling to humans and cause destruction).” This sounds like a silly way to try for a good old-fashioned cash grab, and of course, it is. Yet desperate people looking to make career connections or achieve spiritual peace have already been primed to assume that both are available, if not reciprocal, as long you’re willing to pay. More disturbingly, Montell points out that some members of SEA-Org, which she describes as “Scientology’s paramilitary group,” sign a Billion-Year Contract to “help the church execute federal crimes: breaking and entering, stealing government documents, wiretapping, destroying criminal evidence, lying under oath, whatever was deemed necessary to protect the church.”

What Scientology offers is just another way of attempting to be a Boss Babe.

Things get considerably darker when Montell looks into the Jim Jones cult, which became infamous in the late Seventies. Jones ordered over nine hundred of his followers, including children, to commit “revolutionary suicide” in Guyana once American authorities started to close in on their compound. Always clad in dark glasses, sometimes dressing like a priest, Jones cribbed ideas for how to manipulate his cult members by aping the way that charismatic preachers compelled their congregations.

Finding followers in San Francisco, Jones employed vague but paranoid “us versus them” terminology and pretended to advocate for social justice in an attempt to give his cult a patina of moral purpose. But it was always ultimately all about him. Jones perpetually ranted to his “children” about promoting equality and striking back against fascism, only to quickly turn on his own flock, calling them “bourgeois bitches” whenever they got out of line. In the end, the built-up momentum of his lies and hyperbole demanded a gruesome conclusion. The farther in you go, the more you’re committed—and the less you are willing or able to surrender. “Traitors” were defectors and therefore enemies of Jones, who was “God in the Body.”     

One significant flaw in Cultish’s structure is that since Montell tacks easily from chapter topic to chapter topic, it can feel like she puts each form of cultish behavior on more or less the same level. Jonestown was truly horrific, involving the violent death of hundreds of people. Scientology’s treatment of its lower members is evidently dangerous to their mental and physical health. But getting yelled at by an autocratic yoga instructor in an overheated room isn’t remotely comparable to mass suicide. Montell doesn’t explicitly intend to equate these experiences, but putting them side-by-side in chapters unintentionally lumps a lot of varied cultish behavior together.         

She also doesn’t explore as deeply as she could the implications of what linguists call “the theory of performativity,” which argues that “language does not simply describe or reflect who we are, it creates who we are.” This is an intriguing premise, but it might not be as easy as all that. We are made up of more than just language. Even though language certainly frames contexts and creates terms of debate and thought, there are all kinds of other factors, both internal and external to humans, that influence and define our behavior. Words do a great deal of work in defining who we are, but they aren’t necessarily sufficient at some of our most important moments.     

Yet it’s revealing to look to the language to see how demagogues and cult leaders keep collective fantasy rackets going. They make outrageous promises, alternately woo and criticize their followers to keep them off balance, and tend to frame everything as a binary struggle using as many apocalyptic terms as possible. It’s a little demoralizing to see how consistent the playbook tends to be. As long as there are human frailties like insecurity, anxiety, and the need to belong, and a culture that exacerbates these perfectly normal human emotions for some kind of gain, there will be cults.

Montell understands this, and to her credit, she doesn’t condemn or mock all the poor lost souls who get swept up in the momentum. Maybe anyone could succumb, given the desperation that comes with a sudden change in circumstances—always a possibility in a society where people’s basic needs aren’t provided for. What’s important to remember is how the seductive power play of language both compels us to abandon our skepticism and paradoxically reveals the way out of cultish life. If you can be talked into joining something, then maybe you can be talked out of it—that is, if you know what to listen for.