Ordinary Habits, Fanatical Language: In Conversation with Amanda Montell, Author of Cultish
By Rachel Schwartzmann
Ordinary Story is a monthly series by Rachel Schwartzmann that features musings and conversations on one of our favorite ordinary habits: reading. In the sixth installment of this series, Rachel speaks with Amanda Montell about her new book, Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism, and the habits she hopes to cultivate in reading, writing, and beyond.
In Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism, Amanda Montell charts a thorough investigation into how language informs and emboldens cult groups. Aside from the traditionally thought of power dynamics between cult leaders and followers, Montell's work also shows us that cultish rhetoric is virtually everywhere we look—from religion to business to fitness—both online and off.
Throughout the book's six dizzying sections, Montell takes her linguistic research one step further. Montell shares personal anecdotes (for instance, her father's escape from Synanon—a drug rehabilitation center turned commune known for a cruel and confrontational practice called "the Game") and reflections from former cult members. "I met a lot of the sources in totally ordinary places," Montell adds during our call. "Some people have asked me how I connected with so many cult survivors for the book. I'm like, 'I live in LA, baby. You can't go to a dinner party without running into a cult survivor of some kind!'"
While Montell's playful disposition makes its way onto the page, after reading Cultish, it's clear that she’s sensitive to the longing that people can feel when searching for meaning, fulfillment, and community. Language matters—but so does listening. As Montell writes in the book: "In some cases, you get out within a few hours, a little bit shaken; in others, you lose everything. But there is always a story. As soon as you get your language back, you can tell it."
I spoke with Montell about the origins of Cultish, her preoccupation with language, and the ordinary habits she hopes to cultivate in reading, writing, and beyond. — Rachel Schwartzmann
Can you recall your earliest memory of language or fascination with words?
My mom kept a list of every word I could say until I was like 18 months, and I found that list recently. She likes to brag about it because, at 18 months, I think I could say 300 words. [Laughs] So some combination of nature and nurture made me this language-obsessed, loquacious nerd! But clearly, it was there from the start. I was looking at this list, and some of these words were so random—I think squash was on there—and like polysyllabic words. I was just like, "Wow, I must have been annoyingly talkative."
I have an early memory of being around six years old with my mom and my grandfather—my pawpaw—in a wine store. I was sitting in the cart while they were shopping for wine, and my mom and my grandfather spoke French. They're both scientists, and my grandparents took sabbaticals in France throughout my mom's upbringing, so she learned French from a young age. I thought it was this magical superpower, being able to speak a foreign language. And I thought it was magical how switching into even a different dialect or accent could totally change how people perceived you. It could allow you to access spaces that were inaccessible to you before.
I remember being in this wine store and begging my mom and my grandfather only to speak French so that other people would think we were French—and they obliged. But then my mom came up to this man that she thought was my grandfather but was actually somebody else. She was speaking in French, and he was like, "what?" and she got really embarrassed. So she never indulged me in that little game ever again! But I just loved how you could disappear into a whole different identity and universe with language from a very young age.
You took on a subject that has many dark undertones, but your writing voice is so engaging, which made it accessible. As you were gathering the research and structuring the book, were there any considerations you had to make to translate these things onto the page in a way that captured the reader's attention while also remaining true to the reporting?
The trickiest part was deciding which groups to include because most books about cults are a deep dive into one particular cult, or a memoir of someone's personal experience, again, in one specific cult. There are fewer books that are a sort of overview of cults in general, and there are no books that talk about Scientology and SoulCycle in the same breath. So it was tough deciding what groups were really interesting to me personally and that I wanted to follow—not follow like a cult member, follow like a journalist [Laughs]—and what groups would be especially interesting to the general public.
When I originally pitched the book, there were way more categories of cults that I wanted to include—from celebrity stans and music superfans to fraternities and sororities and academic cults. There were so many more, but I realized that the more I included, the less satisfying each section would be. It would sort of read like a textbook where I was glazing over these subjects without actually being able to dive deep. Instead, I landed on five categories of cults: suicide cults, religious cults, multi-level marketing cults, fitness cults, and social media cults. They seem to strike this balance of groups that I was personally really interested in and groups that I thought readers would be interested in, too—and also groups that I felt like had a lot of lore and mythology surrounding them, but that people might not actually know what went on there.
It was cool because even though a lot of the groups I talk about in the book have been documented ad nauseam—like Jonestown and Heaven's Gate—it was fun to be able to bring this new angle and talk about them from a linguistic perspective. It was validating because a lot of the sources that I spoke to were like, "I've told this story so many times, but never like this. Nobody asks these questions." When you talk about cults, people tend to get pretty sensational about it—you can hear the dramatic documentary music in the back of your mind. I was coming at it from a slightly more analytical and nerdy but still fun and curious angle.
As we talk about language, "ritual" stood out to me a lot while reading. Do you think there is a distinction between ritual and habit?
I do. I think a ritual is more intentional. In the book, I say that the word sacred literally means "set aside," and I think of rituals as kind of sacred; they're something that you consciously do that is separate from the rest of your life—or I guess it should be—that serves some sort of healing or grounding or spiritual role; whereas a habit can be kind of unconscious, and not something you do with intention.
Do you have an off-duty reading habit?
I'm attracted to nonfiction. If I'm going to pick something up for pleasure, it'll probably be a memoir or a collection of essays. I'm trying to get into the habit of reading more fiction. I maybe read between three and five novels a year—I hope to write fiction one day, so I need to read more of it! I think I'm still cultivating my fiction tastes.
And do you have any advice for building a consistent reading habit?
I don't think I'm in any position to give it, but what works for me is if I pick up a book and within the first thirty pages I'm not hooked, I don't force myself to finish it just to say that I did. I only want to read books that I'm addicted to, and I think that's okay. For somebody trying to get into reading—because reading can be really intimidating—I would say don't judge yourself, just read what you love. It's like finding a therapist, you know? You can quit after one session if the connection isn't there, and that doesn't mean that that's a bad book, and it doesn't mean that you're a bad reader. Everybody has their taste.
I have to remind myself of that as a writer because Cultish's readership is so broad, and so many people have so many opinions about cults. The reception to the book has been so amazing, and most people love it, but I'm just sensitive. So if someone says even the tiniest critique, I'm like, "That doesn't mean it's a bad book. It just means that everybody has their taste." That's good to remember as both a writer and a reader.
As a language scholar, are there any books that have broadened or challenged your perspective of language?
Wow, that's a great question. The readings that come to mind are texts I read in college because that's when I was first developing my love of linguistics. I really love the work of the linguist John McWhorter, who's written a bazillion books about linguistics for a general audience. I leaned on the work of the linguist Deborah Cameron a lot for my first book Wordslut.
The writer who's had the biggest influence on my voice—or has had the biggest influence on what a nonfiction voice can sound like—is Mary Roach, who's a popular science writer. She's written books like Stiff and Gulp and Bonk. She has an incredibly curious and hilarious voice, which she uses to talk about subjects from dead bodies to digestion. [Laughs] Just being able to have that approach—and that sparkliness—to your voice when talking about these sort of freaky niche science subjects has always been really inspiring to me.
What habits did you have to build—or what were habits that you really grew to love—when it came to your writing process?
Over the years, not just with this project but with other projects, I've had to develop the habit of being able to write anywhere. I will write on my phone sometimes. It's not ritualistic in that way. It's habitual for me to write every day, but it doesn't necessarily have to be in a certain time or place. It doesn't have to be precious. That isn't very romantic, but that is how I get things done.
I have a habit of taking notes on my phone and keeping random documents of ideas and piecing them together day after day until a book is there. There's much more method to that madness. I do have a system! But I don't always light a candle and do ten minutes of meditation. Maybe I'll try to make my writing process more ritualistic in my thirties because that does sound kind of nice.
I have a habit of drinking a lot of plain sparkling water while I write. I need that oral fixation, you know? You can get restless while you're sitting down and writing, and I need something to do to keep me going and stimulated. But then I do have writing rituals, too. When I go and sit down in a coffee shop and get set up, that feels more like a ritual to me.
I think now, especially as we reemerge, ordinary things that we took for granted have assumed a new level of importance.
Oh yeah! I did not appreciate how important the coffee shop atmosphere was to me until the pandemic. A good coffee shop for writing is practically church to me.
I hear that! I'm in New York, and there's no shortage of coffee shop options. While we're on the subject of the time we're living in now: After finishing Cultish, it's been hard for me to dissociate cult as a part of the word "cultivation." You wrote with such empathy, particularly when telling your sources' stories. As you take a step back and see the book in its entirety and the response it's getting, I'm curious what conversations you hope we cultivate about the importance of language and connection as we emerge from isolation?
That's a great question. (Cult and cultivation are from the same Latin roots—those are connected!) But I hope folks who read Cultish will have the experience that I had while writing it, which was to be sort of humbled in the fact that none of us are immune to cultish influence, and more optimistically, none of us are immune to the desire for connection and meaning, and ritual, and purpose. These are profoundly, deeply embedded human drives, and it's extremely unfortunate when those pure desires are taken advantage of by an ill-intentioned leader or group. But it's not necessarily bad to seek fulfillment in those ways. It's also important to remember that just because you are a bright and skeptical person, if you are a human living in 2021 with opinions or if you use the internet, you are under cultish influence to some degree. It's impossible to evade.
So by remembering that, and remembering that everybody is a seeker and is searching for human connection and purpose—and the internet can send us down rabbit holes, provoking us to believe more and more extreme versions of ideas we might already be attracted to. We don't need to regard folks who, in our subjective opinion, are cult members because they participate in something that we might not. We don't need to write them off as hopeless, brainwashed dunces because that's probably how they see us.
As we emerge from the pandemic, I think it's so important to re-ground yourself in (in-person) connection and not write people off just because they're using language in a way that triggers you to think that they're so completely different from you. That doesn't mean that we should tolerate hate speech—never that. But I think the combination of cultural turbulence, the pandemic, politics, and social media algorithms have brought out the cultishness in us. Hopefully, as we come out of the pandemic—everybody get vaccinated, so you don't get the Delta variant!—we can recalibrate with a balance of open-mindedness and questioning.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.