The word “cult” is used only by outsiders. There is nothing extreme or ridiculous about the Truth if you believe it. In a world of secularity and cynicism we are drawn to the stories of those who live and die with such utter conviction, just as we wonder at how credulous they can be. We feel superior because we believe we could never be drawn in so completely. But the best books about cults lead us, as readers, into understanding just how easily it could happen.
Cult seemed an inappropriate description for this group of respectable ladies, so far removed from the horror and hedonism of sects such as Jonestown and the Manson Family. I was rather seduced by their terribly English gender subversion. These women had not fallen under the spell of a charismatic male leader; they were rejecting the Church of Men and leading the charge for feminism. But, given permission to plunder their archive (now held by a charitable trust) I discovered a familiar story: coercion and control, sexual repression and transgression, vulnerability and mental illness.
In communities cut off from the wider world, tensions run higher, relationships intensify, frustrations bubble over. Perhaps that’s why we love books about cults: they rarely end with a happily ever after. Below are 10 favourites:
1. In the Days of Rain by Rebecca Stott
An account of growing up in the Exclusive Brethren, a separatist fundamentalist Christian cult in the UK. Stott has weaved her own memories with wider research; making sense of her own family’s experience as she uncovers the schism that was opening up at the very highest levels of their church. A fascinating insight into a closed society that still exists, , revealing its rules and punishments.
2. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
Terrifying in its credibility, this freshly relevant story imagines a dystopian future where extreme views have moved from the margins into the mainstream. With no separation between church and state, women are subjugated in the name of God’s will. The Handmaid’s Tale explores the power of the word (or in this case the Word) as a weapon of control by those with an agenda. Atwood’s depiction is particularly powerful because many of the women are complicit in the misogyny.
3. The First Book of Calamity Leek by Paula Lichtarowicz
Calamity is one of 12 young sisters imprisoned behind the Wall of Safekeeping by two deranged characters known only as Mother and Aunty. She tells her story from a hospital bed where she is recovering after a fire. Lichtarowicz had fun creating an alternative version of the creation myth, fusing mysticism with show tunes to reveal how baseless our beliefs can be. But beneath the delightful eccentricity are disturbing questions about how we brainwash our children and project our fears on them.
4. Educated by Tara Westover
A coming-of-age memoir that proves the old adage that knowledge is power. Westover spends an isolated childhood in the mountains of Idaho, her survivalist parents convinced that the End is near. But when she first enters a classroom aged 17, a journey of self-discovery begins that takes her across boundaries and oceans, and with distance comes a new perspective. It’s a raw and difficult read at times; Westover more forgiving of her family’s dogmatism, and the danger it puts her in, than I am. But the reader is carried by the sheer force of Westover’s intellect and determination.
5. The Girls by Emma Cline
Set in 1970s California and loosely based on the Manson Family, this novel fictionalises a time and place that created the perfect storm. The era’s permissive attitudes to sex, drugs and altered consciousness were born from a desire for a better world, but leaders like Manson exploited the zeitgeist for their own ends. Cline focuses less on the infamous murders than the vulnerability of the girls who wanted so desperately to belong to something, or someone.
6. The Followers by Rebecca Wait
This novel opens with Judith visiting her mother, Stephanie, who is in prison after committing a horrifying act of violence. We learn that Stephanie’s choices were motivated not by religion but a lack of faith in herself. After meeting an attentive stranger, she began to put his needs before her own and her daughter’s. A familiar pattern of abuse, but the difference here is that she was not the only one devoted to pleasing Nathaniel, who led a church of followers on the moors. The dynamic between Stephanie and Judith explores compelling questions of culpability and our capacity for forgiveness.
7. The Road to Jonestown by Jeff Gunn
In the largest murder-suicide in US history, more than 900 members of the People’s Temple were killed on the command of their leader Jim Jones in the community they had built in the Guyanese jungle. Many went willingly to their deaths but transcripts of the recordings made of adults and children being held down and injected with cyanide make for horrifying reading. Guinn is forensic in exposing the ugly truths behind the miracles Jones professed to perform.
8. Underground by Haruki Murakami
I knew nothing of the 1995 Tokyo subway gas attack that left 12 people dead and I had never heard of Aum, the doomsday cult responsible. In his 1997 book, Murakami first records the testimony of victims, then speaks to those on the other side of the story: encouraging cult members to question their motivations. Some left Aum, some have remained devoted, many are still in denial about their guru’s involvement. The result is a series of separate interviews that allow the reader to consider multiple perspectives.
9. The Girl in the Red Coat by Kate Hamer
In other hands this might have been a much more straightforward thriller about the disappearance of a child, but Hamer tells a story that owes much more to fairytales. It is a book about loss and grief, of a mother coming to terms with the disappearance of her daughter, who goes missing at a festival. What we know, that Beth does not, is that eight-year-old Carmel has been snatched by a man who says he is her long-lost grandfather and believes she has the power to heal people. But it is Carmel who becomes a figure of veneration.
10. The World in Flames by Jerald Walker
A memoir subtitled “A Black Boyhood in a White Supremacist Doomsday Cult”. Walker grew up in Herbert W Armstrong’s Worldwide Church of God. He describes how, aged six, he sat counting those in the congregation he had learned would be crucified for marrying interracially. Walker’s parents, both blind since they were children, refuse to see the truth of the church’s deception, living for the promise that their sight will be restored when the End comes. Walker finally turns from their beliefs, in that moment becoming an outsider looking in.