Secretive and extremist, cults are intriguing not just for those inside them but also for non-members. Cults are no doubt a phenomenon that intrigues many, and these eight insightful nonfiction books help answer some of the lingering questions, most notably, what is life like in a cult?
Cult of the Dead Cow tells the riveting story of the elite American hacking group Cult of the Dead Cow, otherwise known as cDc. Far from mischief projects, the cDc organized its efforts in what is now known as hacktivism, or hacking to expose sinister corporations and shady organizations. Cult of the Dead Cow introduces readers to some of the cDc's most powerful alums, a network involving leaders in Silicon Valley and politics, including Texas Congressman Beto O'Rourke.
Irene Spencer's Cult Insanity is a shocking and visceral memoir of life in a polygamist cult. Having grown up in an extremist cult, Spencer was accustomed to thinking that the group's harsh rules and twisted dynamics were perfectly natural. But after Spencer became involved in a polygamous marriage, the cracks of doubt began to grow in her mind that something was just not right. In particular, Ervil, her brother-in-law, held a suffocating hold on the group members. Spencer's thoughts challenged the cult's powerful narrative until at last sher broke free, as told in this fascinating memoir.
First published in 1971, The Family is perhaps the most complete and thorough account of the Manson murders of 1969. Ed Sanders pushes beyond the sensationalist headlines surrounding the Manson killings to detail the shocking truths about the spree of murders by members of the "Family," Manson's famous cult. In The Family, Sanders reveals the motivating forces that led innocent people to follow Manson and scrutinizes Manson's hold on his devotees. Fans of true crime will definitely want to pick up this classic of the genre.
David Thibodeau; Leon Whiteson; Aviva Layton (As told to)
After more than 25 years, it's time to reflect on the now-infamous 51-day FBI shootout at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas. In Waco, David Thibodeau tells the shocking story of how he was pulled into the center of the cult that sprung up around the man known to his followers as David Koresh. While he was just a young drummer in a local band, Thibodeau encountered Koresh and felt drawn to the charismatic leader who called himself a prophet. In Waco, Thibodeau provides a missing piece of the puzzle, an eyewitness account of how anyone can get drawn into—and eventually emerge from—a powerful cult.
Toni Natalie; Chet Hardin
Many have heard of the so-called "Hollywood sex cult," NXIVM, led by manipulative mastermind Keith Raniere, but what was the experience like? Toni Natalie was the first follower of NXIVM and also the first person to break free from the group. Natalie details how Raniere wielded his enormous influence to ensnare some of Hollywood's elite as well as ordinary people seeking community and belonging. In The Program, Natalie recounts her efforts to rescue others from NXIVM, offers her perspective of Raniere's decline, and shares how she's adjusted to living outside the cult.
Cults and extreme beliefs were all Rachel Jeffs knew. As a child, Jeffs was born into a radical wing of Mormonism, the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, which emphasized "sister" wives, polygamous marriage, and a strict patriarchal structure. The leader of Jeffs's sect was her very own father, Warren Jeffs, who became one of the FBI's Most Wanted criminals in 2006 and is now serving jail time for child sexual assault. Breaking Free is Jeffs's harrowing account of life in a cult and the journey out.
The 1978 mass suicide at Jonestown in South America's Guyana stole the lives of more than 900 people, a third of whom were children. The incident has survived in memory through the saying of "drink the Kool-Aid." But what really happened? How did this tragedy come to pass? In the award-winning Raven, Tim Reiterman sifts for answers about this most famous of cults led by Jim Jones. A pastor, the Reverend Jim Jones formed a fundamentalist sect called the Peoples Temple, housed at what became known as Jonestown, a commune in California, eventually drawing vulnerable people to his cause and demanding hard labor. Raven takes readers inside the Jonestown massacre and Jim Jones's lethal ability to get people to do his bidding.
What to Read Next
A freelance librarian, Sarah S. Davis, MLIS, writes about books on Book Riot, Electric Literature, PsychCentral, and others. She has published the bestselling quote collections Brave Brain and A Reader’s Library of Book Quotes. Currently, she is an MFA candidate at VCFA.