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  • Cultish

  • The Language of Fanaticism
  • Written by: Amanda Montell
  • Narrated by: Ann Marie Gideon
  • Length: 8 hrs and 21 mins
  • 4.6 out of 5 stars (162 ratings)

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Publisher's Summary

The author of the widely praised Wordslut analyzes the social science of cult influence: how cultish groups from Jonestown and Scientology to SoulCycle and social media gurus use language as the ultimate form of power.

What makes “cults” so intriguing and frightening? What makes them powerful? The reason why so many of us binge Manson documentaries by the dozen and fall down rabbit holes researching suburban moms gone QAnon is because we’re looking for a satisfying explanation for what causes people to join - and more importantly, stay in - extreme groups. We secretly want to know: could it happen to me? Amanda Montell’s argument is that, on some level, it already has....

Our culture tends to provide pretty flimsy answers to questions of cult influence, mostly having to do with vague talk of “brainwashing”. But the true answer has nothing to do with freaky mind-control wizardry or Kool-Aid. In Cultish, Montell argues that the key to manufacturing intense ideology, community, and us/them attitudes all comes down to language. In both positive ways and shadowy ones, cultish language is something we hear - and are influenced by - every single day.  

Through juicy storytelling and cutting original research, Montell exposes the verbal elements that make a wide spectrum of communities “cultish”, revealing how they affect followers of groups as notorious as Heaven’s Gate, but also how they pervade our modern start-ups, Peloton leaderboards, and Instagram feeds. Incisive and darkly funny, this enrapturing take on the curious social science of power and belief will make you hear the fanatical language of “cultish” everywhere.

©2021 Amanda Montell (P)2021 HarperCollins Publishers

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What listeners say about Cultish

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Phenomenal book but wish the author did narration.

Paradigm shifting book! I have heard the author speak on podcasts and wish she read her own book as she presents very well. Highly recommend this book!

1 person found this helpful

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A fascinating look at modern day cults

I'm always fascinated by cult stuff, and this is a really interesting study into what a cult means in the times of the internet; QAnon conspiracy theories, bossbabe hashtags, instagram gurus, Gideon investigates how and why cultish language and behaviour has entered into our everyday lives

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Enjoyed this from start to finish

Easy listening, enjoyable and very well read. I'm sure you yourself or someone you know can relate to a cult(ish) story covered in this book. Highly recommend.

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Lacking insight and value

The book has a very promising thesis but ultimately fails to deliver across almost all fronts. While not without value, I don’t think it’s better value than what you can get for free from podcasts like Cultish, Paul VanderKlay, or others, and doesn’t fully justify a purchase.
I’ll begin with the positives by saying the narrator is fairly dynamic and engaging. She doesn’t fall into the sort of canned, repetitive cadence that a lot of narrators are prone to.
As for the book itself, it’s very well structured, broken up into four-ish categories: religious cults, MLM schemes, fitness groups, and a final section that links health and wellness gurus to current cultic overtones in American politics. Each section is also well structured and very easy to follow. Montell is clearly an experienced writer as her highly-polished prose demonstrates.
Unfortunately, however, the book is sorely lacking in substance in my opinion, never mind the other criticisms I have of it. It fails to say anything meaningful or insightful about cultic use of language that isn’t already either commonly known, or easily discovered via free media such as podcasts or youtube channels. Beyond pointing out that cults function by creating “us versus them” mentalities and foster in group - out group dynamics through the development of specialized vocabularies, the exploration of language stops woefully short of breaking interesting ground. Given the work is a discussion of language’s role in shaping social dynamics and perception, it seems reasonable to expect the book to touch on topics like semiotics or memetic theory, or to raise questions regarding the creation of coherent social groups through the construction of language and narratives, and yet it completely neglects all of these. This is made all the more surprising considering that Montell is a linguist. Instead, the book mostly consists of Montell giving some kind of sociological fact, a la Stephen Pinker or Malcolm Gladwell, and then filling out the remainder of the section by giving anecdotal examples of said fact. Strangely enough, we aren’t even given much in terms of compelling case studies; no real details are given of Jim Jones’ antics and tactics, and the Manson family is only mentioned in passing. We aren’t given any start-to-finish examples of how a cult operates and progresses, nor are we given any real insight into the linguistic patterns of cults.
Alongside this, the author inserts herself into the story in a way that doesn’t actually add anything thought-provoking. She explains that her father escaped the Synanon cult and became a scientist, but other than this she fails to give us any sense of her own character, or to add any value to the book by her self-involvement. We’re made to understand that she’s a well-to-do LA resident with progressive values and a skeptical attitude towards capitalism, but beyond that we don’t have any glimpses of self-reflexiveness in her detailing the prevalence of fitness cults and the New Age movement that abound among her own demographic. She never reflects on the forces that have shaped society to experience the hungers that cultic groups seek to exploit, nor does she critically examine what seems to be the growing prevalence of cultic language across multiple fields.
Overall, I was left disappointed. The statistical information regarding fitness cults was very interesting, but didn’t justify a credit. I would suggest looking up some podcasts on the subject matter instead.

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Cult and linguistic in a easy to listen book

Very good book if you want to learn more about cults from a linguistic perspective. The author is serious with a bit of whimsy from time to time. Her expertise is adding a new angle to the subject. Easy to listen.

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Awesome book that I wish I’d read instead

This book was amazing. I learned so much and was so engaged by it the whole way through.

The reading though was not very good. A robotic voice with SO many pronunciation errors, it didn’t flow. The performer was just reading word by word, not sentence by sentence — no understanding of or willingness to COMMUNICATE what she was delivering. I’d like to revisit this book but will do so myself, on the page.

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well put together, okay narration

loved the content. great connections. narration sounded a little robotic in tone and I don't know if it was the recording or my earbuds but the sound occasionally dropped from my right ear, which they've never done before.

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  • chris boutte
  • 2021-06-17

Get this book ASAP

I don’t even know where to start with how much I enjoyed this book. I’ve seen Amanda Montell’s previous book Wordslut and have considered getting it quite a few times, but now I’m definitely going to read it now that I’ve finished Cultish. If you’re interested in understanding cults, how people get lured in, and how people get out, this books for you. If you enjoy the psychological aspect of cults, this book is for you. And if you want a completely unique perspective on cults, this book is also for you. I read hundreds of books each year, and many of them are in the realm of psychology, and it was so refreshing to read this book where the author focuses on how the language used can indoctrinate people and suck them into cult-like organizations.

Unlike other books, Cultish covers the full gambit of cults, and what I really respected is how Montell puts cults on a sort of spectrum. The author explains the title for the book and how the word “cult” is often thrown around all willy nilly, so she started using the term “cultish”. Montell covers cults we’re all familiar with like Heaven’s Gate, the Branch Davidians, and Jonestown, but she also writes about many other groups that are “cultish”. Aside from touching on Scientology and some religious organizations, she also dives into how fitness groups like CrossFit and Pelaton can be cultish, and she also discusses the extremely important subject of social media cult followings.

I have no criticisms of this book. Amanda is an incredible writer, and I can’t wait to read her other book. I guess my only complaint is that she doesn’t have more books for me to binge. As someone who is 9 years sober and got sober through 12-step programs like AA, it would have been interesting to hear her dive into that topic a bit more because she said that it’s one of the reasons it inspired her book. But, if she ends up coming on The Rewired Soul podcast where I interview authors, I’ll be able to ask her then.

24 people found this helpful

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  • Fabian
  • 2021-06-21

Great info, great narration and great stories

This book turned out to be better than expected. I love to read about cults so I expected an analysis of some cults. It's much more than that. I realized we are all in cults. The political, corporate, wellness or whatever cults. The stories are entertaining and informative.

The author makes it clear that it's not wrong to be cultish because we all are but the book gives information on how to be. little more skeptical and rational. The author is very knowledgable about linguistics and anyone would benefit from reading this book.

P.S.
Some people will dislike the book because they probably feel exposed even if the author was super compassionate and careful.

20 people found this helpful

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  • Lola C.
  • 2021-12-29

Wish she would have left out the politics.

This is a really great book. However, I think it could have been a lot better if she would have left politics out of it. Being middle of the road, I don’t find myself particularly offended by anything she says, however I do question the obvious bias and think the book would have been much better had she not referred to one political party or another as a “cult“ I think there is extreme fanaticism on both sides of the aisle and don’t feel that it was well represented that way. Too bad. Hate to see someone allow politics to ruin such an interesting conversation.

18 people found this helpful

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  • Success Pal
  • 2021-12-17

Toxic Cultish Closed Minded Bias

An engaging narrative that sucks you into her Cultish thinking.. Loving every minute of her presentation because we agree politically. I was so disappointed that she had nothing positive to share only criticism of everything ... sounding exactly like those Q fans on the toxic right she rallies against.

If she would critique both sides she would have been more credible. Sadly it ended up being a whining victim story against all her perceived enemies. After a few more years of life seasoning and exploring her own shadows she may actually be able to influence positives instead of more closed minded bigotry that serves no one on either side.

11 people found this helpful

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  • Kelly Anderson
  • 2021-06-21

Amazing book

I absolutely loved this book. Very informative and well researched. Made you really think about the power of words and when things that are mentioned have been tried on you. So good. A must read for everyone.

5 people found this helpful

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  • TnT
  • 2022-02-07

Interesting

a good listen. I just wish the author didn't get political. it could have been avoided but obviously they felt the need to express their political views in their work.

I get enough politics everywhere, I wouldn't have our purchased this had I know that they would insert their political views.

4 people found this helpful

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  • Heidi Rae
  • 2021-09-25

Engaging but slightly (unnecessarily?) political

Hearing a linguist engage with cult language at varying levels was so engaging. I enjoyed myself immensely. However, even as a liberal, I do wish the author refrained from the topic of Donald Trump. At those points, it pulled me out of the academia-esque nature of this book because it felt more driven by opinion than academic analysis. Regardless, the book was still informative and interesting. Now I have to go buy a copy for my personal library, well done.

4 people found this helpful

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  • math3matica
  • 2022-06-07

Was Not Target Audience

Narration is good given the material. The material was biased, poorly argued, and preconceived.

Im an early 30s straight white male with moderate political beliefs and spiritual but not religious beliefs. This book is about a subject matter I find interesting, but the book isn't intellectually deep enough to actually explore the topic of language and cult groups. Two frustrating points are 1.) the author only chooses groups that are on the fringe to their beliefs rather than actually stepping back and asking about the language of groups that they personally support - the left: Hillary Clinton, BLM, academia, LGBTQ+, etc (I mention these groups not to claim they are cults but to emphasize the language and actions of groups she deem as cults are selected because they match the author's politics). 2.) the poor research. The chapter on Scientology is the epitome of this. She was a teen that was obviously creeped out with anything that wasn't in her norm, and took a personality test at a Scientology Organization. Now she wants to write a book about cults and must have an obligatory chaper on Scientology and thinks because she once walked in a church, and she knows how to use Google, that she is an expert on the subject - spoiler: her obvious lack on knowledge on the subject makes this one of the worst chapers.

There is so much room for an actual interesting book on this subject. 'Suggestible You' by Erik Vance is a good book on a similar topic.

3 people found this helpful

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  • ike9898
  • 2022-02-05

Under-delivered on an interesting topic

I share many of the author's biases, and yet still I felt like she was presenting a weak case. I also didn't find much in here that was new to me, and these aren't subjects I really follow. A lot of it seemed to be drawn from other popular non fiction sources, without much original added by the author. She does have some limited direct experience with Synanon and Scientology, and I have to acknowledge that. Did not care for the multiple uses of Forbes magazine as a demonstration or evidence. I question whether the author is really 'a linguist' as she claims, or just a person who got a BS in the subject and then never worked in the field; I don't care enough to investigate, but the book made me feel like I know which she is. Overall, not bad, but if I were her editor, I'd send her back to dig deeper

3 people found this helpful

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  • K
  • 2022-07-11

I wanted to like it but…

I tried. I get her points but she is trying way too hard to make connections between community and cult. I’m surprised she doesn’t “attack” the language of parents to children. She oddly doesn’t talk about the Army and I gave up with about an hour left so I dont know if she really gets into religion but it’s not good.

For some reason, she talks so quickly about actual cults that I had a hard time following the order or structure she was using. This could be due to audio rather than having the book in hand, but I was often either confused about the subject or annoyed by the connections she was making.

I almost wish she structured the book to start with deadly cults and moved toward toxic and dangerous ways they recruit and hold you hostage. Then she could have moved into the borderline cults and MLMs that bankrupt people. She could then talk about fitness groups and some negative impact they have but to label them all as using “cultish” as she calls the language of cults is so ridiculous. It was a reach for me. Cult = toxic. Fitness is not toxic. Its like labeling ALL relationships toxic because you know someone who was in an abusive one.

It is NOT language that’s the sole driver of abuse in cults. Blaming language is like blaming arms after they get punched. Language is an important tool humans use and while it can be used nefariously, the receiver of that language also has to be willing to receive that information, accept it, and follow it. She blast the language of communities and families perhaps unknowingly and I found that to be confusing and disturbing.

While I appreciate a good discussion of the power of language, the author here takes it too far and makes unreasonable connections in my
Opinion.

2 people found this helpful