We love shows and books about cults, strict religious movements, and other fundamentalist groups, whether they’re well-researched exposés or fictional narratives. Insular movements are both frightening and intriguing. From a distance, the beliefs and behaviors of members often sound completely unjustifiable — however when we look closer, it often becomes understandable why people fall under the spell, looking to find a sense of belonging vulnerable times under powerful leadership.
I’m among the people who have always been fascinated by fundamentalist movements — the parts of humanity that we barely ever get a peek into. I watched Alex Gibney's highly anticipated Scientology documentary Going Clear, based on Lawrence Wright's critically acclaimed book of the same name, the first weekend it premiered. Then there’s, of course, our newest binge-watch obsession, The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, about a young woman's sudden transition from Midwest cult to New York City freedom. (Side note: Get to seeing both if you haven’t already.)
Beyond what goes on inside, those who have escaped have equally fascinating stories to tell. How does one gain the courage to defy everything they've been taught? What is it like to learn to think for yourself after years (or a lifetime) of having someone dictate your thoughts? How does it feel to transition to life in mainstream society?
Here are nine books that shine some light on worlds that we don’t get to often see — but that are totally captivating when we do.
Gated and Astray by Amy Christine Parker
After the 9/11 attacks and an unthinkable family tragedy, Lyla and her parents flee New York City and follow "Pioneer" to join his Community, with the promise that they will be shielded from the dangers of the outside world. After a rare glimpse at life beyond the walls, Lyla questions Pioneer's leadership and begins to dream of escape. The equally chilling sequel, Astray, finds Lyla free from Pioneer and attempting to adjust to life post-Community. But the Community will go to violent lengths to lure her back behind their walls.
Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith by Jon Krakauer
Under the Banner of Heaven opens with a scene that sounds more like a CSI episode than a true story: two brothers brutally murder a young mother and her baby, claiming they were acting on a commandment from God. Krakauer delves into the history and evolution of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and explores how and why an estimated 40,000 Mormon fundamentalists reject the mainstream Church in favor of Polygamy, secrecy, and abuse.
fathermothergod: My Journey Out of Christian Science by Lucia Greenhouse
Imagine growing up without a single visit to the pediatrician and no access to medication, even ibuprofen. In Lucia Greenhouse's Christian Scientist home, illnesses and injuries were met with prayer rather than visits to the doctor. After their mother fell gravely ill, Greenhouse and her siblings finally learned to navigate the medical system as they were forced to choose between family and faith.
Banished: Surviving My Years in the Westboro Baptist Church by Lauren Drain
Lauren Drain's memoir offers a rare insider's perspective into the notorious Westboro Baptist Church, best known for its rampant homophobia, hate speech, and organized protests at high-profile funerals (including Matthew Shepard, Elizabeth Edwards, and victims of the 2011 Tucson shooting). When Drain's once-liberal father began working on documentary critical of the WBC, the last thing she expected was for him to convert and move the family to the church's Kansas compound. Drain was ex-communicated at age 22 for challenging the church's doctrine and her entire family has since disowned her. Now a nurse and an active member of the NOH8 Campaign, Drain in an inspiring example of forging your own identity and standing up for your beliefs despite paying the ultimate cost.
The Witness Wore Red by Rebecca Musser
What do you wear to court when you're testifying against the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints leaders who held you captive for years? Rebecca Musser chose red, a color that was forbidden on the compound. Musser's memoir details her experiences growing up in the FLDS church, her sexually abusive marriage to 85-year-old Rulon Jeffs, and her role as the key witness who put Warren Jeffs behind bars for life.
Survivor by Chuck Palahniuk
Leave it to Palahniuk to write an unforgettable novel told from the perspective of a cult leader rather than a victim. Tender Branson, the only surviving member of the "Creedish Death Cult," finds himself alone on an airplane that is minutes away from crashing. He uses the flight's recorder to tell the story of how he went from a complicit child to the cult's revered Messiah.
Trance by Christopher Sorrentino
A wealthy newspaper heiress is abducted by the Symbionese Liberation Army. (Sound familiar? Sorrentino's novel is inspired by the story of Patty Hearst.) Told from multiple perspectives, Trance offers the psychological insight we crave into why a young woman would reject rescue and choose to hide out with a violent group rather than return to her privileged life.
The Patron Saint of Butterflies by Cecilia Galante
Two lifelong best friends growing apart as they become teenagers is fairly typical. Living on a secluded religious commune when this happens? Not so typical. Agnes loves Mount Blessing and wants nothing more than to please their leader, Emmanuel. Her best friend Honey craves freedom and seeks an opportunity for escape. When Agnes's grandmother flees with both girls, Honey embraces every opportunity for a new future while Agnes struggles to hold on to her beliefs.
The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta
When millions of people across the world vanish without any trace or explanation, the Guilty Remnant is formed. They take a vow of silence and proclaim themselves to be "Living Reminders of God's Awesome Power." What's it like to lose a family member to a cult? Laurie Garvey's husband and daughter are about to find out when she abandons them to live on the Guilty Remnant compound.