A Critical Review of Amanda Montell's "Cultish"

"Cultish" repeats some of the most common attacks on the anti-cult movement.

A Critical Review of Amanda Montell's "Cultish"

Be Scofield is the author of the new book Hunting Lucifer: One Reporter's Search for Cults and Demons. Her cult reporting is mentioned in the NY Times, Rolling Stone, People, and has been turned into HBO, Netflix, Dr. Phil, VICE, and more.

Amanda Montell defends her book Cultish against accusations that it's cult propaganda


November 19th, 2023

I only recently read Amanda Montell’s book Cultish, originally having dismissed it as a superficial overview of cults. After I finished it I thought it was a sophisticated piece of cult apologist propaganda. It couched some of the most staunch attacks against the anti-cult movement in a fun and cheeky package. I saw it like a Trojan horse; innocent and unassuming but with a hidden danger inside. 

The book repeated every cult apologist talking point: brainwashing doesn’t exist, cults are not real, fear-mongering over labeling something a cult, using “new religious movements” to describe destructive cults, chastising the anti-cult movement, and using only cherry-picked cult apologist experts. 

Montell refers to cults as "so called cults," and puts the term in quotes, along with cult leader, mind control, and brainwashing. She warns of labeling someone like David Koresh a cult leader or calling Jonestown a cult because it causes "active harm." Throughout the book, she attacks the idea of brainwashing saying things repeatedly like, "Importantly, they do not 'brainwash' them."

The false ideas that Montell uncritically platformed have been used for decades to undermine the anti-cult movement. There are well-funded and cult-backed efforts to destroy our efforts and undermine our language. “Cults hate being called cults,” expert Steve Hassan says. But cult is a powerful and important word for survivors, cult reporters, and experts. For those of us deeply entrenched in the cult wars, it’s impossible not to see Cultish as a continuation of the decades-long attack.

"She truly was irresponsible in her book Cultish," tweeted Hassan. "I have been disappointed in Amanda Montell since she published cult propaganda."

Montell pleads ignorant. Remarkably, she told me she had no idea what the cult wars were or what a cult apologist was. “Why didn’t Steve Hassan tell me about any of this?” she protested after I challenged her. He was one of the few anti-cult experts she interviewed for the book, but she didn’t include his views countering the cult apologists she platformed.

“All I knew is that they had a different perspective on the word cult,” Montell told me about why she chose only cult apologists for her book. She found articles online that embraced a counter-narrative. She thought it was an interesting take “because everyone already knows cults and brainwashing are real.” As a linguist, she wanted to challenge people to think deeper and not just throw around sensational terms.

Fair enough. But it’s irresponsible and borderline reckless to write a book without researching the subject properly. It’d be like writing a book interrogating the idea of transgender identity, uncritically platforming Jordan Peterson-type views, and then pleading ignorant when challenged. The impact is no different, regardless of your intentions. Montell recognized that it was irresponsible and apologized for any harm or confusion her book had caused. She offered to add a clarifying statement to Cultish.

It’d be like writing a book interrogating the idea of transgender identity, uncritically platforming Jordan Peterson-type views, and then pleading ignorant when challenged.

Montell falsely portrayed an expert consensus against the use of the terms cult and brainwashing. "Most experts I talked to don't even use [cult] anymore," Montell writes. "Brainwashing is a pseudoscientific concept that the majority of psychologists I interviewed denounce."

At first glance, I would see this as a deceptive attempt to frame the issue. Montell left out the fact that almost all cult experts embrace these terms. People like Margaret Singer, Janja Lalich, Alexandra Stein, Stephen Kent, Hugh Urban, Rick Ross, Steven Hassan, and Flo Conway. She left their voices out of the matter.

This sleight of hand wasn't nefarious Montell told me. She said she merely wanted to highlight that there were experts who challenged commonly held notions on the subject. She also told me she didn't understand the debates surrounding these terms, nor how contentious they were.

-> Hunting Lucifer is a new book by journalist Be Scofield about hunting cults and dangerous gurus.

Unknowingly, the experts that Montell did platform hold some of the most extreme views. People who are sworn enemies of the anti-cult movement and deny that cults are real. 

One of the sources for Amanda Montell’s book Cultish, Catherine Wessinger, blames the Jonestown Massacre on the "attacks and investigations they endured." This is a common trope used by cults and cult apologists to fearmonger over labeling something a cult. As a reporter who exposes cults, it’s a stab in the chest to blame us for the horrors of destructive cult leaders. 

Montell repeats this attack by blaming the Waco tragedy on the media labeling the group a cult. “Perhaps the most significant fiasco that resulted from demonizing ‘cult followers’ was the case of the Branch Davidians,” Montell writes. She claims the FBI was "scandalized" into thinking Waco would be another Jonestown which caused this "unavoidable calamity."

This is more fearmongering. Words have power but Waco was a highly complex situation with many moving parts, motivations, and mistakes. To pin the whole thing on reporters and experts who called it a cult is extremely reductionary and propaganda.

Another source for Cultish, Rebecca Moore, denies that Jonestown was a cult and says there was no brainwashing there. She also attacks the people who exposed the cult as “defectors” who were exaggerating claims. This is another popular talking point. As early as the 1970s founding cult apologist scholar Bryan Wilson claimed cult survivors should not be trusted. They told false “atrocity stories” that the media loved. The idea has stuck with cult apologist scholars.

Montell cites Rebecca Moore to interrogate the idea of brainwashing. "Moore would be the perfect candidate to believe in literal brainwashing, considering her two sisters’ role in the Jonestown tragedy," Montell writes. "But she still refutes the concept because, for one, it disregards people’s very real ability to think for themselves." Montell quotes Moore saying that if brainwashing were real "we would expect to see many more dangerous people running around, planning to carry out reprehensible schemes.”

This statement is tragically ironic given Moore's sister Annie "lobbied Jones to poison his flock and administered the toxic concoction." Both of her sisters "shared Jones's bed" and "planned the killings and ruled over the commune." The reality is Moore couldn't deal with her sisters being labeled "cultists" and "brainwashed fanatics." She's worked to undermine the concepts ever since.

"Simply put, you cannot force someone to believe something they absolutely do not on any level want to believe by using some set of evil techniques to 'wash' their brain," Montell quips. How do we explain Sharon Amos, who was in Georgetown, 100 miles away from Jonestown during the massacre? She took her children into the bathroom and slit their throats. Sharon had one of her children cut Sharon's throat.

"Labeling something a 'cult' becomes not just a value judgment, but an arbiter of real, life-or-death consequences," Montell writes, continuing the fearmongering. She further warns that applying the term cult "perpetuates a culture of hyperbole and chaos."

Every month dozens of news articles, docuseries, and books are released using the word cult to little fanfare. The problem is not too much "deadly" police involvement i.e. Waco. It's the lack thereof. It's virtually impossible to get the FBI or authorities involved even when using the dreaded C-word.

Montell continues her attempt to undermine the idea. "Secondly, Moore argues, brainwashing presents an untestable hypothesis." These attacks on "brainwashing" are attacks on a strawman that cult apologists prop up to tear down. They know that cult experts aren't referring to some perfect and scientifically proven cold-war fictional method. Rather, they mean the general techniques cult leaders use to break people down like love bombing, sleep deprivation, isolation, and indoctrination.

“All I knew is that they had a different perspective on the word cult,” Montell told me.

She quotes Laura Woollett who denies Jonestown was a cult. “Bodies weren’t autopsied. Families were denied the timely return of their relatives’ remains," Wollett says. “Once the press identified Jonestown’s victims as ‘cultists,’ they were instantly relegated to a subclass of human,” Montell writes. Jim Jones did that, not reporters.

The complexity of the Jonestown aftermath can't be explained or blamed on the word cult being used. I'd have hoped that Montell would have questioned inflammatory cult propaganda claims like this before regurgitating them. I'd have hoped she would have researched the motives of the people she platformed. When I see someone making inflammatory accusations it's a red flag. I look into their backgrounds and biases.

I can understand wanting to present a seemingly fresh take on a subject, but not uncritically spreading false information that undermines cult reporters and the anti-cult movement.

A third source, Eileen Barker, had 18 paid trips by the Moonies cult to study them. Unsurprisingly she concluded they didn’t use brainwashing or coercion. Barker is described as the “mother of all cult apologists.” Montell uncritically regurgitates Barker's claims in Cultish that the Moonies didn't use brainwashing or coercion. She also cites Megan Goodwin who claims it is “violent” to label something a cult. 

Strange bedfellows for an unassuming pop-culture writer. But giving Montell the benefit of the doubt I understand now how someone like her could resonate with what felt like a counter perspective. That led her down a narrow lane of ideas with a shadowy history.

IN 1995, TWO OF THE pioneering cult apologist scholars, Gordon Melton and James Lewis, were paid by the Aum Shinrokyo cult to fly to Japan and defend them. They told the press they investigated and that the cult couldn't have produced the sarin gas. They chastised the government for "religious persecution." Just days later, however, the group's poison stockpile that was used to kill 13 people was found.

Despite the blunder, the two went on to become influential in their fields. Melton became a touted resource recommended by Scientology. He's also on the board of Massimo Introvigne's Italian pro-cult organization CESNUR. James Lewis speaks at CESNUR conferences and defends cult leaders like Adi Da, not unlike Introvigne's recent defense of Gregorian Bivolaru.

Melton, Lewis, and Introvigne are at the forefront of what's known as the cult apologist movement. As a group of religious and sociology scholars, they seek to relabel dangerous cults as religious movements. They warn of the hysteria and dangers of labeling something a cult. As a result, they ignore or whitewash the harm these groups do. They have a dubious field of study called New Religious Movements or NRM for short.

LEFT: Introvigne with Eileen Barker RIGHT: Introvigne with Rebecca Moore

New Religious Movement scholars created academic journals where they published extensively. They testified on behalf of Scientologists and Moonies in court and set up cult-defending organizations like CESNUR. The writing of Bryan Wilson, who claims we should not trust survivor testimony, is now found in "virtually every Scientology magazine or internet page."

"When asked to define a cult, I explain that it is a baby religion," says cult apologist Susan Palmer. "Personally, I find cults (and babies) attractive." Some of these people have a disturbing fascination with dangerous cults. They fail to distinguish that cults are based on deception and destruction, religions are not.

In many ways, Cultish is Massimo Introvigne's fever dream. No one writes with such vitriol or persistence to attack the anti-cult movement. "Getting rid of the useless and dangerous concepts of 'cult' and 'brainwashing' is the best way," Introvigne writes. He blogs incessantly and tears at these concepts with a unique vindictiveness. To have a best-selling book express his ideas is a thing of beauty for him. Cultish has sold over 100,000 copies, pushing the ideas to the masses in a way cult apologists could never have imagined.

Those of us who expose cults are smeared terribly, tracked by P.I.'s, sued, and harassed. Cults and their defenders have taken extreme measures to destroy us and our concepts. Nine times out of ten when someone advances the radical ideas Montell does in Cultish it's to undermine the anti-cult movement. Introvigne and cult apologists defend the most vile and destructive cults in the world whom they are in bed with. How could we not be suspicious when someone uncritically broadcasts these noxious ideas to the masses?

Montell brushes it off as a coincidence saying that ideas she found interesting just happened to be nefariously aligned with these contentious cult wars. That's fine but she published false and inflammatory information which makes anti-cult activists suspicious.

IN CULTISH MONTELL STRIPS THE destructive nature out of cults and reduces it to words. Cultic control is "not some freaky mind-bending wizardry that happens on a remote commune," Montell quips. "The real answer all comes down to words."

Words. A cult is just a series of harmless linguistic expressions that are found everywhere. Everything Sounds Like a Cult (the name of Montell's podcast). She labels mundane things like Weddings and CrossFit that aren't cults as cults. Meanwhile, she refuses to label actual cults like Scientology as them. This definitional reversing destabilizes the meaning of a cult.

"After reading it I think everything is a cult," wrote someone after finishing Cultish. If everything is a cult, nothing is a cult because it’s just a meaningless, overused term. This is a cult apologist fever dream. They'd love to neutralize the term in this manner.

I have no problem shedding light on how cultish language is found in everyday life. But when paired with a staunch attack on the concepts of cult and brainwashing it feels more like an agenda to diffuse the stability of the terms.

Montell protests this accusation. She says her goal was to encourage people to think more broadly about the word. She is a linguist after all. She says the entire purpose of Cultish was to interrogate the loaded terms we use, and the impacts they have. She just happened to unwittingly pour fuel into a fire that's been raging for decades.

After chatting with Montell for several hours I trust that she doesn't have bad motives and I hope my colleagues in the field will see the same. I blame it on shoddy research and a desire to present what felt like an edgy new take on the subject.

Be Scofield is the author of the new book about cults Hunting Lucifer: One Reporter's Search for Cults and Demons.