Cult Classics: 32 Fascinating Books About Cults
Imagine making a Venn diagram of the kinds of nonfiction you’re consistently drawn to. For me, there’s a deep overlap between books about cults, books about scammers, and true crime books. While not all scams are cults, all cults have a scammer at the top. And those cult leaders invariably turn to crime to keep their grift going. There’s something deeply fascinating to me about how these stories play out. They follow familiar beats, but with shocking twists nearly every time. Ultimately, the stories of cults are deeply tragic, and there’s a lot to learn about the best and the worst of humanity by reading about them.
In rounding up the best books about cults, I pulled from both fiction and nonfiction. In choosing nonfiction, I tried to emphasize cult survivors’ stories. Likewise, I seek out deeply researched works that do not aim to sensationalize or exploit survivors’ stories. I’m not a religious person, but the more I read, the more I think a phrase like “There but for the grace of God go I” applies to lots of us who’ve avoided cults. Humans persistently seek connection and purpose. They get involved in cults because those organizations are fulfilling their needs — initially, at least — better than anything else they’ve found. As much as people want to think they’re above it all, master manipulators dupe plenty of smart and savvy individuals. I recommend approaching these stories to build deep compassion and to understand the interplay between fundamental human needs and those who exploit others to build power.
As a general note: take good care of yourself while reading these books. Many contain sickening details of abuse and manipulation, including abuse of children.
Nonfiction Books About Cults
Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism by Amanda Montell
I’m kicking this cult books list off with this quick read. It’s really useful for understanding that fine line between what is and isn’t a cult. This book delves into the language used by cults and “cultish” organizations/activities. With prose that is somehow both breezy and deeply considered, Cultish illuminates why people call all sorts of things cults, from CrossFit to multilevel marketing. Even as someone who consumes a lot of media about cults, this helped me solidify concepts that were murky without concrete language to attach to them.
Member of the Family: My Story of Charles Manson, Life Inside His Cult, and the Darkness That Ended the Sixties by Dianne Lake
Among books about cults, many turn to Helter Skelter as the definitive source for information about Charles Manson’s cult. But consider this memoir from the Family’s youngest member as well, providing a harrowing account of her life in Manson’s grip. Dianne Lake was sheltered from the crimes committed by the cult members and eventually helped the team that prosecuted Manson et al. This is one of those books that will definitely make you ask, “Where were this girl’s parents???”
Broken Faith: Inside the Word of Faith Fellowship, One of America’s Most Dangerous Cults by Mitch Weiss
If you’re interested in women cult leaders, read about the Word of Faith Fellowship, still active today. This book is compiled from many interviews, documents, and secretly recorded conversations. Cult leader Jane Whaley subjects her followers to brutal abuse and controls their every move. Still, some families have managed to escape, and their stories are an important part of this chilling book.
Hollywood Park by Mikel Jollett
Cult leaders use insidious methods to recruit. But founding a cult aimed at people struggling with addiction is surely one of the more despicable tactics. Mikel Jollett, lead singer for the band The Airborne Toxic Event, was born into the Church of Synanon. There, he was removed from his mother’s care at six months old to be raised communally. He and his mother escaped, but life outside the cult was a struggle for them as well, as this heartbreaking and poetic memoir details.
Slonim Woods 9: A Memoir by Daniel Barban Levin
One of the stranger cult stories in recent years was that of the students at Sarah Lawrence who fell under the control of one of their fellow student’s fathers. A story in New York magazine in 2019 finally resulted in leader Larry Ray’s recent conviction. The author of Slonim Woods 9 was one of the students living in the communal house, especially vulnerable to Ray’s manipulation because of a tough break-up. He shares the details of the escalating abuse he suffered while no one else seemed to notice.
Apocalypse Child: A Life in End Times by Flor Edwards
Doomsday cults have a unique terror factor to me. My off-the-cuff theory is that the stress of thinking an apocalypse is imminent must wear down people’s ability to cope with basically anything else. That makes them especially susceptible to a cult leader’s whims. It’s obviously cruel to raise a child with that mindset, but it happened to people in the Children of God cult, as is detailed in this book. Compared to many books about cults, this one has a relatively gentle touch.
The World in Flames: A Black Boyhood in a White Supremacist Doomsday Cult by Jerald Walker
As if growing up in a doomsday cult weren’t bad enough, Worldwide Church of God segregated its members. Why would Black people be involved with such an organization? In this case, the author’s parents both became blind as the result of childhood accidents, and a leader who promised sight lured them in. Many cults try to isolate themselves from the rest of the society. But kids in the Worldwide Church of God went to non-church-affiliated schools even though the apocalypse was supposedly nigh. In fact, one of the moments of levity in the book comes from the author’s account of his attempt to recruit a friend into the cult as a child.
Talking to Strangers: A Memoir of My Escape from a Cult by Marianne Boucher
This memoir uses a graphic format to share the story of author Marianne Boucher. She gave up her figure skating dreams when she joined a cult that promised her purpose and an authentic life. She was a part of the Unification Church, colloquially called the “Moonies” and known for their mass wedding ceremonies. It’s a quick ride through her recruitment and eventual escape, and gives a vivid account of the recruitment tactics cult members use.
Daughter of Gloriavale: My life in a Religious Cult by Lilia Tarawa
While most of the nonfiction books about cults published in English I’ve come across have examined cults in the United States, cults are not an exclusively American phenomenon. Gloriavale, for example, is a fundamentalist Christian cult in New Zealand whose members endure beatings and forced marriages, among other abuse. For a sample of the story told in Lilia Tarawa’s memoir, you can first watch her popular TEDx talk detailing some of her experiences.
Seductive Poison: A Jonestown Survivor’s Story of Life and Death in the Peoples Temple by Deborah Layton
The story of Jonestown is honestly incredibly heartbreaking and complex. In larger culture, it’s been reduced to “drinking the Kool-aid,” which is a ghoulish thing to say flippantly when 918 people died. I do recommend (with some reservations) The Road to Jonestown as a recently written, deeply researched book. But if you’re looking for a survivor’s story, this one originally published in 1997 chronicles life for someone high up in the Peoples Temple whose pleas for help went unheard.
Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche by Haruki Murakami
Many know Haruki Murakami as one of the foremost living authors of literary fiction, but he has written nonfiction as well. In this book on the 1995 poison gas attack in the Tokyo subway, Murakami speaks with many survivors of the attack to gain insight into what led to the attack and how it affected the Japanese psyche. The doomsday cult that carried out the attack, Aum Shinrikyo, has been recognized as a terrorist organization by both the United States and the European Union.
Breaking Free: How I Escaped Polygamy, the FLDS Cult, and My Father, Warren Jeffs by Rachel Jeffs
The Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints is a rogue sect who believe the mainstream Mormon church’s rejection of polygamy was a mistake. Numerous nonfiction works investigate their crimes. The private investigator whose work led to Warren Jeffs’s arrest wrote Prophet’s Prey. Under the Banner of Heaven, with a recent television adaptation, zooms in on a double murder committed by members. And Breaking Free details the abuse the author, the daughter of Warren Jeffs, suffered.
In the Shadow of the Moons: My Life in the Reverend Sun Myung Moon’s Family by Nansook Hong
Like the aforementioned Talking to Strangers, this book deals with the Unification Church, AKA the Moonies. Where that book delves into recruitment tactics, this gives an account of being born into a cult and witnessing the corruption at the highest levels from very close. Hong was made to marry Sun Myung Moon’s son when she was only 15. Her story includes both abuse she endured and her escape after 14 years of marriage.
My Life in Orange by Tim Guest
The documentary Wild Wild Country introduced many a true crime and cult enthusiast to the Rajneeshpuram community in Oregon, a seemingly utopian community led by guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. But a true utopian community would never have to resort to bioterror and assassination attempts. My Life in Orange is the account of someone brought to Rajneeshpuram at age six. There’s always something especially heartbreaking about children being brought into an organization whose rules they can’t consent to, as this memoir emphasizes.
The Community by N. Jamiyla Chisholm
Memoirs by people born into cults or brought into them at a tender age can be tough reads, for sure. But when they include a healing journey, it can be inspiring to witness a damaged relationship being repaired. At age 2, N. Jamiyla Chisholm was brought into a Black Muslim cult in Brooklyn called Nuwaubian Nation, founded Dwight York, AKA Imam Isa. As is a persistent, almost defining characteristic of cults, this community had a leader who abused children. The author has come to terms with her mother’s choice to bring her into such an environment. Another thread of this narrative is the repugnant treatment of Muslims in New York following the September 11 terrorist attacks.
Adult Fiction About Cults
The Incendiaries by R.O. Kwon
This novel explores the relationship between college students Will and Phoebe. The religious environment Will was raised in and rejected makes it hard for him to understand Phoebe, who is drawn in by a secretive and extremist cult. Everyone wants to know what makes someone susceptible to a cult’s influence. This book doesn’t provide easy answers, but it does show how someone’s own baggage can make it especially hard to understand another’s motivations.
Kismet by Amina Akhtar (Aug 1)
There’s definitely something culty about “wellness,” right? It’s the nakedly ambitious gurus claiming to have all the answers while emptying pockets, I think. Kismet takes the concept of wellness as a cult to a thrilling place. The story traces New York lifer Ronnie Khan, who follows her particular wellness guru to Arizona. When bodies start piling up, she begins to realize that whatever is happening in this enclave is definitely not well.
Velorio by Xavier Navarro Aquino
Another defining characteristic of cults is their ability to thrive in situations where people are struggling. What became Jonestown initially flourished by exploiting Black people in segregated Indianapolis. Similarly, Memoria, the cult in Velorio, draws in people in the wake of Hurricane Maria’s destruction of Puerto Rico. This powerful novel shows how people can still prevail against malicious forces in seemingly dire situations.
Loving Day by Mat Johnson
Believe it or not, books about cults can be funny, too. Loving Day is one such book, following Warren Duffy’s quest to understand racial identity. With a white dad and a Black mom, Warren identifies as Black. When he discovers a long lost daughter, Tal, who identifies as white, he aims to acquaint her with her true heritage. This brings them to the Mélange Center for Multiracial Life, which Tal dives right into, but Warren thinks might be a cult.
Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler
I don’t have to tell you to read Octavia E, Butler’s books. You already know this. If you haven’t read Parable of the Sower, it might feel a little uncanny, with its failing social fabric and the president who wants to “Make America Great Again.” But this is the book where you might be rooting for a cult leader. The protagonist, Laura, has a vision for how to save humanity through a new religion, and whether it’s a cult or not is a question I will leave for you to answer.
The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta
As I list this book I also highly endorse the television adaptation of this book made for HBO. The Leftovers asks the question of what happens when you’re not among the chosen ones, and it’s not clear what the chosen were chosen for. When a fraction of humanity suddenly vanishes without a clear pattern, the titular leftovers must figure out how to keep going. The silent, cigarette-smoking cult that springs up in the aftermath is a fascinating sort of anti-cult that embraces nihilism. Where cults can lull people with promises of answering the deep questions, this one aims to jostle people out of comfort at all times.
Trust Exercise by Susan Choi
I’m fascinated by charisma, and what people who wield it choose to do with their lives. Trust Exercise is not a standard cult story. It’s more like a cult of personality story, centered on Mr. Kingsley, the acting teacher at a competitive performance arts high school. When the chemistry between two students becomes the teacher’s focus, things get weird. The dynamics between teacher and student are at the heart of how a cult operates, and they are central to this experimental and challenging novel. This one’s for the theater kids.
Bunny by Mona Awad
The dark academia sub-genre/aesthetic is perhaps inspired by The Secret History, a book about an outsider encountering a cadre of students with a charismatic professor who go overboard with their appreciation of the Classics. There are lots of parallels between elite educational institutions and cults: the power dynamics, the us/them mentality, the isolation from the larger world. Bunny has a similar vibe to The Secret History but goes for it even harder. In it, a student in an MFA program is drawn into a clique of rich girls who call each other “Bunny.” And it turns out they have a truly wild creative process.
Sorrowland by Rivers Solomon
Do not miss this gripping and passionate novel that uses a cult as a metaphor for what the United States does to Black bodies. After breaking free from Cainland, pregnant teenager Vern gives birth to twins in the woods. And then she begins to undergo a metamorphosis into something even more powerful. To protect her family, she will unravel the secrets of her compound, whose tentacles are far-reaching. It’s fierce, genre-defying, and unforgettable.
First, Become Ashes by K.M. Szpara
If K.M. Szpara’s provocative debut Docile was for you, check out his follow up, a standalone fantasy. The premise is honestly wild: what if you’d been raised to harness magic so that you could fight monsters when you came of age? Okay, but what if all of that was a lie and you were in a cult the whole time? Lark, whose story this is, decides to continue his quest and find the monsters he was taught were real. Like Docile, this book really goes for it with shocking content and a story that will definitely make you uncomfortable.
Storm of Locusts by Rebecca Roanhorse
This is the second book in The Sixth World series, so you will probably want to pick up Trail of Lightning first. Once you’re immersed in the world where climate apocalypse has allowed the Dinétah (formerly the Navajo reservation) to be reborn, you’ll be ready for monster hunter Maggie’s latest adventure. She investigates a mysterious cult whose leader has roots in Navajo lore. If you like the idea of a cult story within the urban fantasy genre, you need to get on this series.
Young Adult Books About Cults
The Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly by Stephanie Oakes
Here’s a book that you absolutely will not be able to put down. Minnow Bly endured intense suffering at the hands of her fellow cult members, including having her hands cut off. So when she escapes and is subsequently arrested for assault, she lands in a juvenile detention center. Meanwhile, her former prophet has been murdered and her compound burned down. If Minnow tells the authorities about her dark past, she may finally be able to get free.
The Liar’s Daughter by Megan Cooley Peterson
YA books about teens raised in cults make a lot of sense to me. They can serve to confirm a reader’s worst fears, that the adults in the world really are terrible. Or they can provide some relief, that whatever a reader is going through could no doubt be worse. This story follows Piper, the daughter of a cult leader. When the cult is busted and she’s living on the outside, she has to figure out whom she can trust.
Those Who Prey by Jennifer Moffett
Going off to college is a time for reinvention. It can also be a vulnerable time, as the adjustment to so many new experiences can be isolating and disorienting. Emily, a shy college freshman in the ’90s, is lonely in her ivy-clad college until she finds The Kingdom. You’ve read this list so far so you can guess where this is going. Emily’s summer trip to Italy takes scary turns, and someone dies. Like many of the best books about cults, this provides a chilling view of the increasing manipulation someone experiences when lured into a cult.
Eden West by Pete Hautman
While many cult books include wild details — including the nonfiction books — there is certainly room for a subtler exploration of a religious community that may or may not have all the qualifications of a cult. Eden West is such a book, about Jacob, raised in Nodd, the land of Grace. When his faith is tested by peaks into the outside world, he has to grapple with his new knowledge. This is a book that will resonate with a lot of people who’ve left any sort of faith.
Hell Followed with Us by Andrew Joseph White
What if you’re in a doomsday cult, but you are also the doomsday weapon yourself? This is life for 16-year-old trans boy Benji, infected with a bioweapon turning him into a monster. He’s escaped his ecofascist cult and he’s looking for safety among a ragtag group of queer rebels. If you like the idea of unleashing righteous fury against oppressors, here you go. This is the apocalyptic cult body horror novel you’ve been waiting for.
Agnes at the End of the World by Kelly McWilliams
It’s fascinating to see how our current pandemic affects how we read, given a book like coming out in the middle of it. Agnes at the End of the World presents an especially horrifying scenario: what if that world-ending event your prophet predicted might actually be happening? Turns out it won’t deter Agnes, who’s known for a while that prayer alone isn’t going to save her diabetic brother. She’s been bartering with the outside, and her doubt in her leader has been snowballing. When she realizes her connection to the virus ravaging the Earth, she has to decide between saving her family and saving humanity.
I know firsthand that many of us fascinated by cult books are voracious, insatiable consumers of these books (and podcasts, documentaries, etc.). So if you want an even more huge list, we have 100 must-read books about cults. If you want a narrower scope, there are more YA books about cults and horror novels incorporating cults. Sometimes I think the best way to avoid ever being ensnared by a cult is to be hyper-educated about their tactics. So keep reading books about cults and stay safe, friends.