A podcast about Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple. A documentary series covering the “self-improvement” group NXIVM. A memoir exploring one man’s experience in a group similar to the one in Wild Wild Country. If it’s about a cult, you’re listening to it, watching it or reading it. If you can’t get enough of compelling stories about these systems of veneration and devotion directed toward a particular figure or object, read on for 11 of the best books about cults to add to your Bookshop cart immediately.
The 11 Best Books About Cults (If You’re Into That Sort of Thing)
1. the Girls By Emma Cline
Loosely inspired by the Manson Family and the murder of Sharon Tate, Cline’s bestselling debut is set in Northern California at the end of the 60s. There, a lonely teenager, Evie, is intrigued by a group of girls in the park. She soon becomes mesmerized by Suzanne, an older girl in the group, and is drawn into the circle of a soon-to-be infamous cult and the man who is its charismatic leader. As she spends more time away from her mother and her obsession with Suzanne intensifies, Evie is blind to the fact that she’s coming closer and closer to unthinkable violence.
2. my Life In Orange By Tim Guest
When he was six, Tim Guest was taken by his mother to a commune modeled on the teachings of the notorious Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (who you likely recognize from Netflix’s Wild Wild Country). The Bhagwan’s teaching encompassed Eastern mysticism, chaotic therapy, sexual freedom and more. In 1985, the movement collapsed amid allegations of mass poisonings, attempted murder and tax evasion, and Guest had to reckon with reentering society and coping with everything he had been through.
3. sex Cult Nun: Breaking Away From The Children Of God, A Wild, Radical Religious Cult By Faith Jones
Faith Jones is the granddaughter of the founder of the Children of God, a cult that’s been around since 1968 and is known for its alarming sex practices and allegations of abuse and exploitation. Growing up on an isolated farm in Macau, Jones prayed for hours every day and read letters of prophecy written by her grandfather. When she was 23, Jones broke away, leaving behind everything she knew to forge her own path in America. In this coming-of-age memoir, she uses her own complicated story to mirror our societal norms of oppression and abuse while providing a unique lens to explore spiritual manipulation, bodily rights and the veiled world of growing up just outside of mainstream society.
4. educated By Tara Westover
Born to survivalists in Idaho, Westover was 17 the first time she set foot in a classroom. But when one of her brothers gets himself into college, Westover is determined to try a new kind of life. Her compelling memoir charts her quest for knowledge from Harvard and Cambridge University and beyond.
5. godshot By Chelsea Bieker
In Peaches, California, 14-year-old Lacey May lives with her alcoholic mother in an area that was once an agricultural paradise but is now an environmental disaster. During a disastrous drought, the town’s residents turn to a cult leader, Pastor Vern. Though Lacey has no reason to doubt the pastor, her life soon implodes when her mother is exiled from the community. Abandoned and distraught, Lacey May moves in with her widowed grandmother. As she endures the increasingly appalling acts of men, she goes on a quest to find her mother at all costs. Though this one is fiction, it's worth noting that Bieker told NPR that her own mother left when she was nine years old, undoubtedly connecting her to her protagonist.
6. going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood And The Prison Of Belief By Lawrence Wright
Despite its high-power followers like Tom Cruise and John Travolta, Scientology remains largely shrouded in mystery. This fascinating investigation of L. Ron Hubbard’s science fiction-adjacent endeavor draws on years of archival research and more than 200 personal interviews with current and former Scientologists to attempt to uncover the inner workings of the church. From the church's legal attacks on the IRS, its vindictive treatment of critics, and its phenomenal wealth, Going Clear is compulsively readable. (The United States recognizes Scientology as a religion, but it's considered a cult in various other countries.)
7. under The Banner Of Heaven By Jon Krakauer
In this bestseller from 2003 year, the author of Into the Wild and Into Thin Air investigates and juxtaposes two histories. First, the origin and evolution of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (starting with the early life of Joseph Smith), and second, a double murder committed in the name of God by a pair of brothers who subscribed to a fundamentalist version of Mormonism.
8. the Secret History By Donna Tartt
Tartt won the Pulitzer for The Goldfinch, but her first novel—about a group of misfits at a New England college who fall under the spell of a charismatic, morally questionable professor—will always have our hearts. The narrator, Richard, is the newest member of the group, and finds himself suddenly burdened by some very dark secrets. Opening with a murder, The Secret History reads like a slow burn, with tension building gradually and an ending that will blow your mind.
9. helter Skelter By Vincent Bugliosi
Books about the Manson murders are a dime a dozen, but this is the O.G. Bugliosi, the prosecuting attorney in the trial, recounts his (and his team’s) tireless detective work and reconstructs Manson’s philosophy while examining how he was able to cultivate such fervent followers.
10. nine Perfect Strangers By Liane Moriarty
The nine titular strangers have convened at a secluded Australian resort that bills itself as a ten-day “Mind and Body Total Transformation Retreat.” Each is there for a different reason, but they’re all led on their wellness journey by the resort’s owner and director, Masha, a blunt Russian émigré hell-bent on providing her guests with some sort of mind-body awakening. Fans of Big Little Lies will recognize Moriarty’s signature slow-burning reveal; you can sense that things are starting to go south, but you’re not sure why—or who will be impacted. Basically, it’s safe to assume that your hesitations about Masha’s motives aren’t unfounded.
11. bunny By Mona Awad
At an elite MFA program in New England, Samantha is a scholarship student who rolls her eyes at her classmates’ privilege. Then, she gets a taste of the inside when she’s drawn into a clique of rich girls who all call each other "Bunny,” a name that’s sweeter than the weird rituals they practice behind closed doors, in this compelling novel for fans of Ottessa Moshfegh.