The Best Books To Read If You're Obsessed With Cults

For many, Netflix's thrilling documentary series Wild Wild Country was a gateway into the world of cults — and the dark questions about human nature it provokes. What compels people to fall under the spell of a charismatic leader? What does it take for a person to leave a cult? What kind of behavior do cults condone, what do they restrict — and why?
Eventually, though, you'll run out of cult documentaries. That’s where books come in. Cult books range from fact-based works of investigative journalism to novels, which couch the psychological effects of cult membership with fictional characters. So, for a holistic picture of the Manson Family Cult, you can read the definitive true crime account (Helter Skelter) and then its fictional interpretation (The Girls).
Before delving into the wild wild category of cult books, a content warning. As a byproduct of describing life within some more extreme cults, many of these books, especially the memoirs, go into detail about topics like sexual assault, pedophilia, and violence. Women are especially affected by many organizations' restrictions.
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Survivor, Chuck Palahniuk (1999)

Meet Tender Branson. He's the last surviving member of the Creedish Death Cult, and he's headed toward his doom on an airplane bound to crash. But before he meets his end, Tender will tell you his whole life story, including how he got involved in a suicide cult in the first place.
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The Patron Saint of Butterflies, Cecilia Galante (2008)

Ever wonder about the experience of children born into cults or extreme religious sects? The Patron Saint of Butterflies explores the lives of two girls, Honey and Agnes, who have only ever known the Mount Blessing community. Agnes is a believer. Honey is starting to doubt. A visit from her grandmother, who lives outside of their leader Emmanuel’s teachings, only exacerbates Honey’s sense that something is gravely wrong.
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The Leftovers, Tom Perrotta (2011)

Tom Perrotta’s acclaimed novel – and the equally lauded TV show it inspired — center on the world after the events of October 14, when a swath of the Earth's population vanished. There are no explanations. Just a bunch of people completely ravaged by sudden and inexplicable loss. In the aftermath, many turn to cults like the Guilty Remnant, where people take a vow of silence.
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Children of Paradise, by Fred D’Aguiar (2014)

Whereas Emma Cline’s The Girls looks to Charles Manson’s cult for inspiration, poet and playwright Fred D’Aguiar looks to the People’s Temple. The novel Children of Paradise opens on a commune in a jungle in South America run by a powerful (and power-crazed) man. When the preacher chooses Trina as the symbol of his God-like power, Joyce realizes he’s no savior — he’s a madman. And they need to get out. If you’re more interested by the psychological factors that pin people into these communities than in the actual historical events, D’Aguiar’s lushly written novel will certainly enrapture.
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The Incendiaries, R.O. Kwon (2018)

R.O. Kwon’s debut novel is garnering tremendous praise, and with good reason. Ten years in the making, this slim novel is the story of a couple on opposite directions, towards and away from God. After becoming swept into Christianity, Will experiences a crisis of faith and leaves the church. Soon after transferring to a small college and meeting his girlfriend Phoebe Lin, she begins to fall under the spell of a charismatic leader who has ties to North Korea, and a very stringent belief system. It’s an exquisitely written novel about love, loss, and faith taken to extremes.
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The Great Believers, Rebecca Makkai (2018)

Rebecca Makkai’s sprawling, heart-wrenching novel switches between two perspectives: Chicago’s Boystown in the early 1980s as a group of young men are picked off by the AIDS crisis, and Paris in the 2000s as a mother – and the sister of one of the AIDS victims — searches for her daughter, who recently left a cult. At first, the strands seem disparate, but you'll see how they're connected by the themes of loss and vacancy together. When your world is hollowed out, what do you fill it with? By understanding how Fiona’s trauma bled into her parenting, we understand the conditions that led to her daughter, Claire, looking toward a cult for community.
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Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders, Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry (1974)

Before partaking in the many Manson-inspired works of pop culture that are expected in the next few years, read this definitive account of the investigation, pursuit, and arrest of Charles Manson and his Family for the 1969 Tate-Labianca murders. Helter Skelter is the best selling true crime book in history.
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A Place Called Waco: A Survivor’s Story, David Thibodeau (1999)

Like many of the organizations on this list, the Branch Davidians is a religious sect marked by a singular, shocking event. After a 53 day standoff with the FBI, the cult’s Waco, Texas headquarters were burned to the ground, killing 75 people, including the leader David Koresh. David Thibodeau was one of the few survivors.
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In the Shadow of the Moons: My Life in the Reverend Sun Myung Moon’s Family, Nansook Hong and Eileen McNamara (1998)

When Nansook Hong, the co-author of this memoir, was 15 years old, Reverend Moon, the founder of the Unification Church, chose her to marry his grown son living in New York. Nansook was shipped off from her native South Korea to America to begin a nightmare-like experience. Nansook’s new husband, who was much older than she was, lived a wayward lifestyle — which Nansook was blamed for. Nansook witnesses first-had the hypocritical lifestyles of the so-called “pure” Moon family.
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Seductive Poison: A Jonestown Survivor’s Story of Life and Death in the People’s Temple, Deborah Layton (1999)

There aren’t many avenues for first-hand accounts from the People’s Temple. That’s because in November 1978, 913 members of Jim Jones' People's Temple took their own lives in Jonestown in a South American jungle. Only 33 survived. Deborah Layton, the author of this fascinating book, escaped from Jonestown four days before the mass suicide. Immediately after leaving, she went to Washington D.C. to give testimony to State Department officials about the planned suicide, to no avail. In this acclaimed memoir, Layton provides an insider’s account of how she, an 18-year-old girl, became enmeshed in Jones’ web, and gives a portrait of Jones himself.
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Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche by Haruki Murakami (2001)

On March 20, 1995, members of the religious cult Aum Shinrikyo Haruki unleashed sarin gas on the Tokyo subway, killing 13 and injuring thousands. Murakami is known for his inventive novels, but in 2001, he flexed his investigative journalist muscles to recreate the experience using first-hand accounts from survivors and current and former members of Aum. And yes, I think of this book each time I go on the subway.
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Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith, Jon Krakauer (2004)

Under the Banner of Heaven is investigative journalism meets page-turning thriller. Krakauer’s book centers around the so-called “Lafferty murders:” the murder of an innocent mother and her baby daughter by brothers Ron and Dan Lafferty, who claimed to have received a commandment justifying the murders from God. The Laffertys are members of the Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints (FLDS), a radical sect of Mormonism that split from the Mormon Church over a century ago. Members of FLDS still practice polygamy and believe Warren Jeffs, who is believed to have 70 wives, to be their prophet.
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Not Without My Sister: The True Story of Three Girls Violated and Betrayed by Those They Trusted, Kristina Jones, Celeste Jones, and Juliana Buhring (2007)

Read this book, and prepare for a truly harrowing experience. Kristina Jones, Celeste Jones, and Juliana Buhring grew up in Children of God, a cult founded in the 1960s by David Berg under the principle that God was love and love was sex, and so there should be no limits. Under Berg's mandated “Law of Love,” an adult male member could have sex with anyone — including children. The three authors of this book, who have the same father, were all sexually abused throughout their childhood. At 12, Kristina and her mother escaped. Growing up, Kristina’s primary goal became rescuing her sisters. Children of God — now called the Family International — still exists today.
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My Life in Orange: Growing Up with the Guru, Tim Guest (2005)

Calling all fans of Wild Wild Country: This memoir provides an alternate lens on the movement spurred by Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh’s teachings. When Tim Guest was six years old, he and his mother moved to a commune modeled off Bhagwan’s teachings. Tim and his mother got new names (he was now called Yogesh). In 1985, the movement was plunged into scandal when Bhagwan’s community was found guilty of poisoning a town in Oregon.
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Breaking Free: How I Escaped Polygamy, the FLDS Cult, and My Father, Warren Jeffs, Rachel Jeffs (2017)

In this memoir, Rachel Jeffs gives a searing picture of what it was like to grow up as one of the 58 children of Warren Jeffs, the polygamist prophet of the FLDS cult. Rachel Jeffs was especially exposed to the difficulties of life as a woman in the strict patriarchy of the FLDS: She was forced into a polygamous marriage, sexually assaulted, and separated from her children, among other travails. Her father, Warren Jeffs, is serving a life sentence for child sexual assault, though he still has influence over the church.
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In the Days of Rain: A Daughter, a Father, a Cult, Rebecca Stott (2017)

Growing up, Rebecca Stott was primarily concerned with the end of days. So was everyone else around her. Stott was raised within the Exclusive Brethren, a closed fundamentalist Christian sect in Brighton, England that believed the world was governed by Satan. Eventually, Stott’s father broke with the church and moved his family into the outside world. As she got older, Stott’s father revealed the terrible crimes he committed in the name of enforcing the sect’s code of conduct.
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Once You Go In: A Memoir of Radical Faith, Carly Gelsinger (2018)

Carly Gelsinger is only 13 years old when she falls under the spell of the Pine Canyon Assemblies of God, a Pentecostal Church near her California home. Soon, she's speaking in tongues and living with a degree of religious fervor unfamiliar to the rest of her family. Gelsinger beautifully chronicles the allure of extremism for a lonely teenage girl, and the process of finding her way towards a lifestyle not consumed by this degree of fundamentalism.

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