7 Books About Cults That Demonstrate How Dangerous Groupthink Really Is

by E. Ce Miller

I don’t think I’m alone in my curiosity — OK, I’ll just say it, mild obsession with cults. From the tragedy of Jonestown to the grim and lingering fascination of the Manson Family, from an afternoon spent devouring Emma Cline’s novel The Girls to a weekend spent binge watching the recent documentary Wild Wild Country, films and books about cults often make the top of my Netflix queue and bedside TBR pile. But I’m not the only one who — when faced with the bizarre, the fanatical, the devoted, the utopian aspirations — cannot look away.

A recent feature in the Paris Review looked at the human obsession with cults, positing that everything from the timeless illusions of free love to the culture of the current White House administration draw viewers’ and readers’ eyes to stories of uniformly-dressed devotees that almost always begin with worshipful ecstatic dancing and end with disillusionment, legal battles, and tragedy. But what also inspires the almost voyeuristic fascination, at least in my case, is how relatable the stories of those willing to trade in their lives for complete devotion to something greater really are. Purpose, community, belonging, a clear path forward — these are things we all long for in our lives, at one point or another. And you don’t have to look too closely to realize that the difference between, say, an airplane hangar filled with Donald Trump voters screaming “lock her up” and a megachurch filled with undulating yogis isn’t that one is a cult and one isn’t, but rather one is — for whatever reason — considered far more mainstream than the other.

Here are seven fascinating novels about cults that demonstrate how dangerous (and yeah, eerily relatable) groupthink really is.

‘The Incendiaries’ by R. O. Kwon

Forthcoming this July, The Incendiaries landed debut novelist R.O. Kwon a mention in the New York Times as one of the “four writers to watch this summer". Finely attuned to Americans’ obsessions with religion, cults, and extremism, Kwon weaves together the narratives of college students Phoebe Lin and Will Kendall with that of charismatic cult leader John Leal to tell a story that spans from North Korea to upstate New York. This story is one of intense love and unfailing (and failing) faith — and the disaster that can unfold when that love and faith join forces with fanaticism.

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‘Geek Love’ by Katherine Dunn

Katherine Dunn’s most recognized works all feature the dangers — and, at times, disturbing appeal — of fanaticism and groupthink (earning her another mention, below.) In Geek Love, Dunn tells the story of a genetically engineered family of circus “freaks”, one of whom — Arturo, or “Arty — forms a cult that preaches the achievement of peace, isolation, and purity through voluntary limb amputation.

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‘The Girls’ by Emma Cline

The much buzzed-about fictionalized retelling of the Manson Family cult and the Hollywood murders they committed, Emma Cline’s The Girls looks at the life of a cult from the perspective of someone who loved it and left it and always regretted it — or at least recognized that otherwise normal life would never look the same. Evie Boyd is a lonely teen when she meets the girls of a soon-to-be-infamous California cult, and she’s drawn into their life as much by these other young women as she is by the offbeat and unhinged leader they follow.

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‘The Leftovers’ by Tom Perrotta

The basis for the now-concluded HBO series that we all were obsessed with, Tom Perrotta’s The Leftovers takes place after the rapture — when millions of the earth’s population disappeared in an instant, leaving friends and family to pick up the pieces of a devastated world. In the wake of the loss, a cult known as the Guilty Remnant forms, intent on clinging to their loss and terrorizing the community around them.

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‘Children of Paradise’ by Fred D'Aguiar

A fictional exploration into one of the most infamous cults in modern history — the Peoples Temple, led by Jim Jones — Fred D’Aguiar’s Children of Paradise is a blend of historical fiction and magical realism that looks at the journey of one mother and daughter to escape their utopian community; with the help, of all unlikely things, the commune’s resident gorilla.

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‘Attic’ by Katherine Dunn

The first, though lesser-known published novel by Katherine Dunn, Attic is famously inspired by Dunn’s own experiences as a young woman, and tells the coming-of-age story of Kay, a member of cult-like organization that sells magazine subscriptions, and who is imprisoned for trying to cash a bad check. Attic is written as Kay’s stream-of-consciousness experience of her cell, her impressions of her fellow inmates, and her reflections on her young and unexpected life.

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‘The Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly’ by Stephanie Oakes

The Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly by Stephanie Oakes is YA novel telling the story of 17-year-old Kevinian cult member Minnow Bly, who lost her hands as a result of cult discipline, and who — now being held in juvenile detention — might be the key to decoding what exactly happened in the cult’s secretive camp before their cult leader was murdered and their camp burnt to the ground.

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