The above question, posited by our own CBR gurus and shared across social media, was attached to an excellent review by faintingviolet. Her review kindled a blaze with other CBR readers- myself included! Our Goodreads walls are packed with update-after-update barrages of people frantically ripping through this read! I am very much looking forward to the Cultish flood headed our way.
Now- back to the question. Am I in a cult?
No, definitely not…but I am dogged down deep in cultish language. In my line of work, I am inundated daily with acronyms, odd (to the outsider) jargon, and LOTS of language about “reinforcing new and changed behavior”. Luckily, my repetitive and specific language is used to help children learn how to have their needs met without hurting themselves or others.
Creating special language to influence people’s behavior and beliefs is so effective in part simply because speech is the first thing we’re willing to change about ourselves . . . and also the last thing we let go.
I talk a lot at work about needing to change our behavior to change the behavior of others. It’s the hardest thing that my new staff face: how come we can’t just do what we’ve always done? How come I can’t do the same things that I do at home with my kids? I didn’t grow up that way, why should I do this now? Fortunately, people change their tune quite quickly. Unfortunately, it is often changed to something equally or even more maladaptive than what the kids are already doing. Why? Being mean and punitive is easier than self-reflection and empathy, I’m afraid.
…language doesn’t work to manipulate people into believing things they don’t want to believe; instead, it gives them license to believe ideas they’re already open to. Language—both literal and figurative, well-intentioned and ill-intentioned, politically correct and politically incorrect—reshapes a person’s reality only if they are in an ideological place where that reshaping is welcome.
The biggest question around cults is probably just…why?
Well, as Montell states through intrepid research and clear storytelling: because it feels good. People long to be a part of a communal “something”, even if that community removes their individuality. They are not the “mindless masses”, not “crazies”, not “easily duped”- one of my favorite bits of research regards the fact that people who are considered intelligent (by themselves and by outside observation) hop right into cults and cultish sayings because they are better at explaining WHY they believe a silly thing. People! So complicated!
Montell spends time in several different cultish spaces throughout the book; there are breakdowns and intros to Scientology, Synanon, Heaven’s Gate, The People’s Church, and other fringe religious groups. She gets deep into the corporate and jingoistic language and behavior around Multi-Level Marketing schemes and “Girlboss” attitudes. She leans into cult fitness. She listens to former cult members – including her own father. She has empathy for those who fall in and rightful disdain for those who take advantage of people looking for meaning and acceptance.
What spoke most deeply to me was Montell’s coverage of the scourge that is MLMs. I’m a devotee of Jane Marie’s The Dream podcast, I follow subreddits dedicated to Younique drama, and one of the (many) reasons that I left Facebook was the ever-growing list of friends and acquaintances messaging me with “Hey Hon, have I got an opportunity for you!”
While I am not a child of cultists (I suppose an argument could be made for growing up Catholic, haha) I AM the child of a mother who was in DEEP with MLMs. My mom sold Melaluca (a “miracle” of Australian Tea Tree Oil), Longaberger baskets, and some wild “fashion” adventure that I still cannot accurately name or describe. She’d get in too deep with one and try to use another to pull herself back out. My deep aversion to not only MLMs but also organized religion and the very concept of gambling springs fully-formed from my mom’s dreadful dances with MLMs.
I spent most of my time while listening to this book filled with righteous rage and pitch-black humor. I was entertained but also educated. While I mostly loved this book, there were a few little things that took me away from my gleeful desire to watch the world burn. While talking about Heaven’s Gate, Montell had plenty of vitriol for the leaders but not much empathy for the followers; other groups had more nuance in their descriptions and care, but I felt like the Heaven’s Gate followers were lumped into a “loony bin” which was not entirely fair. My feelings could be stemming from having recently watched Heaven’s Gate: The Cult of Cults; an excellent documentary currently available on HBO. I was young when the images of the “away team” flooded the news- but seeing the living faces, hearing the words of surviving members, and seeing the love from estranged family members showed an empathetic side that is missing from most cult documentaries and reporting, but I digress.
When reporting on glossolalia (or “speaking in tongues”) I was struck by both the inherent silliness of spouting nonsense AND the release of endorphins that comes from spouting said silliness! I can see (and feel) the appeal now of that collective and public expression- I loved the prayers and songs at church when I was young, I was an ardent devotee of Drama Club, and my adoration for summer camp traditions and rhymes still drives my husband up the wall, but what I thought of immediately that sent me into the MOST giggles was Natalie Portman’s embarrassing “unique dance” from the eternally embarrassing Garden State: “This is your one opportunity to do something that no one has ever done before and that no one will copy throughout human existence. And if nothing else, you will be remembered as the one guy who ever did this. This one thing.”
So…am I in a cult? No, but I do speak cultish.