What should I add to my Scientology-inspired reading list?
May 6, 2016 6:37 PM   Subscribe

Looking for good books about cults, new religious movements, charismatic leaders and the groups they lead, "brainwashing" / "mind control" (I realize that these are controversial terms and concepts), pathological personalities in positions of power, belief systems (successfully) promulgated by the mentally ill, and the social and psychological dynamics of the aforementioned.

I've recently become completely fascinated by Scientology. I'm finishing up Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief (it's excellent; you should read it; the HBO documentary is great too). Next on my list is Ruthless: Scientology, My Son David Miscavige, and Me, the just-published book by the father of the Church's (by all accounts) brutal leader.

But I'd like to broaden the scope of my reading a bit, to examine movements and phenomena other than Scientology. I guess I'm most interested in general surveys of the subject – but books about specific sects, etc. are welcome too.

Nothing too academic, please – but also nothing too sensationalist or exploitative.

posted by escape from the potato planet to Society & Culture (22 answers total) 42 users marked this as a favorite
Heaven's Harlots by Miriam Williams is very good. It's about her fifteen years in the Children of God cult.
posted by SisterHavana at 6:55 PM on May 6, 2016 [3 favorites]

Monkey on a stick - about the Hare Krishna
Heaven's Harlots - about The Family aka Children Of God

Ann Rule wrote a lot about charismatic psychos too.
posted by Smibbo at 7:07 PM on May 6, 2016 [1 favorite]

Anything about New York's Oneida Community.
posted by Iris Gambol at 7:07 PM on May 6, 2016 [2 favorites]

You might be interested in Aum Shinrikyo: Destroying the World to Save It: Aum Shinrikyo, Apocalyptic Violence, and the New Global Terrorism by Robert Jay Lifton; Underground by Haruki Murakami.
posted by dilaudid at 7:10 PM on May 6, 2016 [3 favorites]

The Source Family is an interesting documentary about the highly charismatic Father Yod.
posted by scruss at 7:26 PM on May 6, 2016 [2 favorites]

Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer
posted by Ndwright at 7:34 PM on May 6, 2016 [8 favorites]

Not an expert in this field, but I believe one influential work is When Prophecy Fails. I've read it; it's not a thrill ride of a read, but it explains a lot about people's thinking, even outside the religious realm.

One more take on Scientology: recent episodes of Oh No Ross and Carrie
posted by lakeroon at 7:42 PM on May 6, 2016 [2 favorites]

Rick Ross is probably the leading legitimate cult deprogrammer and Scientology expert. He has written Cults Inside Out which is probably essential reading on this topic.
posted by DarlingBri at 7:47 PM on May 6, 2016

The Family (or Santiniketan) was an Australian cult/new age movement, Unseen Unheard Unknown is by one of the women who grew up in it (book available cheaper elsewhere).
posted by AnnaRat at 7:54 PM on May 6, 2016

You might find Lily Dale: The True Story of the Town That Talks to the Dead an interesting read. Not sure I would count them as a cult, but it's certainly within the range of different (than mainstream religion).
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 8:00 PM on May 6, 2016

You Must Remember This is a podcast covering the history of Hollywood's first century. Karina Longworth, who writes, produces, and narrates it, devoted twelve episodes to the Manson family. Here's the description of first episode of the series. All twelve are riveting. They cover not just Manson's character, background, and techniques for keeping people in his thrall, but also the historical setting including the music scene of the late 60s, which Manson was involved with. Given what you've already been reading, descriptions of a remote desert compound and the way the cult used celebrities may interest you.
posted by pickles_have_souls at 9:44 PM on May 6, 2016 [2 favorites]

Do you want to be entirely moved and intrigued? Really?

Check out a survivor of Jonestown - Leslie Wagner-Wilson.

She wrote a book about her experiences called "Slavery of Faith."

If you want an excellent primer, listen to her exhaustive interview on the podcast Binall of America #912 - find it on iTunes. That interview is just... Jaw dropping. What a courageous honest and incredible human being she is. At the end of the interview when she describes how she sometimes crosses paths with other survivors of The Jonestown Massacre (there were so so few) and how they won't talk about Jonestown openly. Heartbreaking. So real.
posted by jbenben at 10:49 PM on May 6, 2016 [1 favorite]

I think you would like Raven: The Untold Story of the Rev. Jim Jones and His People.
posted by shelleycat at 11:32 PM on May 6, 2016

You might also find good suggestions in this question. That's the last place I suggested Raven fwiw.
posted by shelleycat at 11:50 PM on May 6, 2016

Are you interested in a sociopath who selected his victims because they belonged to a particular religious group? The prose is a bit prosaic and the title is pretty dumb, but I was still fascinated and horrified by Doc: The Rape of the Town of Lovell. It tells the story of Dr. John Storey, who set up shop in an extremely Mormon town and took advantage of the fact that the unmarried and/or devout women tended to be sexually naive or extremely reluctant to discuss sex. He used gynecological exams to rape and even impregnate countless women over a period of 25 years. And the women were at risk dozens of times each year, because he performed pelvics for everything from headaches to sinus infections. The local Mormon leaders were aware of his activities, having fielded numerous complaints. Even though Storey was not Mormon, the Church protected him and even excommunicated some of the more vocal and troublesome women. The book examines in great detail how the insular religious community provided the perfect hunting ground for a sexual predator in a position of power.

(When Dr. Storey got bored with Mormons he'd go after migrant workers and Native Americans, but his primary target was Mormons and he was known to express his disgust with their beliefs.)
posted by xyzzy at 1:35 AM on May 7, 2016

There's the Bloom County sequence about the Rajneesh cult.

And Megan Phelps Roper's account of leaving the Westboro Baptist Church. (I think there was a mefi thread about it as well.)
posted by sebastienbailard at 3:02 AM on May 7, 2016 [1 favorite]

The Sound of Gravel by Ruth Wariner - about being raised in a Polygamist cult in Mexico.
posted by rdnnyc at 5:38 AM on May 7, 2016

An oldie but goody, "No Man Knows My History" by Fawn Brodie about Joseph Smith and the beginnings of Mormonism. She was excommunicated from the LDS Church for it, but now they are admitting that what she wrote about Joseph and polygamy, writing the Book of Mormon with a seerstone in a hat, not viewing golden plates, is all true.
posted by mermayd at 7:55 AM on May 7, 2016 [1 favorite]

Seductive Poison by Deborah Layton, which I found to be a very level-headed and relatable take on how anyone could join a cult. You learn what was appealing about Jim Jones & the Peoples' Temple - it was an interracial church, Jones began with a sterling civil rights record and was the first white parent in Indiana to adopt a black child - and also how surreptitiously it became controlling and dictatorial.

Another book which is more academic in tone but features a number of great passages on the author's personal experience in the Church of Sun Myung Moon - Combatting Cult Mind Control by Steve Hassan. He is a professional exit counselor and tries to analyze the tactics that separate cults from healthy organizations, and to reveal how they control behavior and even thinking patterns through a series of terrifyingly commonplace strategies
posted by sidi hamet at 9:01 AM on May 7, 2016

And here is one more, about a woman's escape from a Chaisidic Jewish cult:
Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots Paperback – October 2, 2012
by Deborah Feldman
posted by mermayd at 12:15 PM on May 8, 2016

I'm really late to this, but I'm so glad I found this question! I also read "Going Clear" and found it enthralling. My new quest to Scientology survivor books lead me to several biographies and I suggest you check out "Troublemaker" by Leah Remini. She joined the Sea Org as a child and I thought her perspective was very interesting as someone who grew up in the church, reached a high OT level and had Hollywood connections. She has a reality show right now too, but I haven't seen it and I'm guessing she can't say much about the church on it. Marc Headley and Jenna Miscavige Hill also wrote books about their escapes from Scientology.
posted by areaperson at 10:38 AM on August 31, 2016

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