We Choose Our Cults Every Day

Cultish, a new book by the linguist Amanda Montell, reveals how insidery language informs the communities of modern life.

A collage of cults and cultish brands
Daniel Mihailescu; Siro Rodenas Cortes; Stefanie Keenan; Marvin Joseph / The Washington Post / Getty

Way back in January, I was idly thumbing through Instagram when I received a message that shook me like a nascent martini. “Did you hear that Taking Cara Babies donated to Trump?” a friend wrote. This sentence likely makes no sense to you, unless you’ve had a baby sometime in the past few years. Taking Cara Babies is the brand name for Cara Dumaplin, a neonatal nurse turned baby-sleep expert who became, in 2020, my everything.

In the weeks after I brought my twins home from the hospital, all I could think about was sleep—the absence of it, the craving of it, my physical and psychological inability to do even the most basic tasks without it. In came Cara, a sweet, inordinately soothing woman based in Arizona whose virtual newborn-sleep class ($79) was filled with mantras (“There’s no better mama for that baby on the planet than you”), neologisms (“SITBACK”), buzzwords (“witching hour”), and a sense of connection with other parents who were struggling the way we were. And it worked. Once, I asked my husband how much he would have paid for Cara’s class had he known how invaluable it would be for us. “Ten thousand dollars,” he replied, instantly. (To be clear on the stakes, we would have had to take out a loan.) We had found structure and hope from this woman whose caretaking brand was built on being altruistic, inclusive, and loving, which is why the revelation that she had backed a candidate whose policy separated babies from their parents felt like a profound betrayal. (Dumaplin confirmed the donations and said she did not agree with all aspects of the Trump administration.) My inbox started blowing up with messages from other new moms who were devastated not only by that dissonance, but also by the fact that they’d lost a trusted figure who’d taken on a mythic status—who’d become a kind of idol.

The 'Cultish' book cover
Harper Wave

We had, in other words, joined the cult of Cara. I didn’t realize quite how it had happened until I read Cultish, Amanda Montell’s savvy, enlightening new book about the sort-of-cults people join every day and the linguistic patterns those cults and cultlike brands use to reel us in. Not every cult or cultish organization is necessarily pernicious: Alcoholics Anonymous and charity fundraising campaigns both manipulate language to energize their participants and create a sense of hopeful community. But the demands of modern living, Montell argues, has left many people looking to brands and “gurus” for the kind of guidance and meaning they used to find in religion. I know more people who worship at the altar of Peloton than I do who go to church. And with anything that engenders devotion and financial commitment alike, there’s space for exploitation to occur. Cultish thoroughly examines the ways that words can be manipulated to build a sense of community, enforce collective values, shut down debate, or even coerce damaging behavior in the name of ideology. Though the “stakes and consequences” of being a CrossFit enthusiast versus joining the spiritual group 3HO differ, the book argues, the methods used by both groups can seem “uncannily, cultishly similar.” Consider the “private patois” and beloved catchphrases of CrossFit (functional movements, DOMS, EIE), Montell writes, alongside the terms of 3HO (Piscean consciousness, lizard brain, old soul).

Montell, a linguist and the author previously of Wordslut: A Feminist Guide to Taking Back the English Language, is a breezy writer and an empathetic guide to the various corners of American subcultures. Her father, she writes, was raised in a cult (Synanon, a drug rehabilitation program turned dangerously abusive and criminal community), and as she begged him for stories about it as a child, she became enthralled with the strange “special language” employed by members and what it revealed about their world. Cultish language, she proposes, does three things: It makes people feel unique but also connected to others; it encourages people to feel dependent on a particular leader, group, or product to the extent that life without them feels impossible; and it “convinces people to act in ways that are completely in conflict with their former reality, ethics, and sense of self.” The last two effects are what tend to separate brands or people who inspire cult followings (e.g., SoulCycle) from more malign groups and leaders.

Montell recounts the stories of well-known cults and allegedly cultlike groups to examine how language has historically enabled coercion. Jim Jones, she writes, used code words and neologisms to separate residents of Jonestown from outsiders, and was fond of hurling inflammatory nicknames at his enemies in a way that Montell likens to the oratory of Donald Trump. Heaven’s Gate made its members choose new names to intensely bond them to one another and psychologically separate them from their families and the outside world. Montell interviews a former member of the Church of Scientology, who tells her how the organization allegedly labeled any criticism of its methods “hidden crimes” and any skeptical insiders “PTS,” or “potential trouble sources,” as a way of stigmatizing internal dissent.

Cultish brands, without coercing people or enabling abuse, rely on the same linguistic coding to hook customers and engender a sense of belonging. The “words and intonation” of a cult fitness class such as Peloton or SoulCycle can “put exercisers in a transcendent headspace,” Montell writes, while the multilevel-marketing company Amway characterizes any kind of negativity as “stinkin’ thinkin’.” Consumerist influencers have tapped into the holes in the American health-care system, mixing medical terms and psychobabble into an enticingly frothy “wellness” cocktail. (Goop, a Quartz article pointed out in 2017, hawks some of the same pseudoscientific supplements that Infowars’ Alex Jones does.) Many cults and cultish communities—not to mention individuals as disparate as Boris Johnson and my mother—also rely on expressions called “thought-terminating clichés,” which affirm positivity while shutting down debate. Cultish cites some of the catchphrases used by the conspiracy theorists of QAnon as examples: “Trust the plan,” “The awakening is bigger than all of this,” and “Do your research.” Thought-terminating clichés, Montell writes, are “semantic stop signs,” and a cue that everyone present should halt independent inquiry and accept the party line.

To learn to recognize cultish language isn’t to automatically indict it. In my wardrobe is a long-sleeved black T-shirt that I bought online after seeing it on Instagram: Emblazoned on it is the motto Find What Feels Good, which could be the mantra for, variously, a CBD brand, an all-cotton shapewear line, or a faux-feminist sex cult. In reality, it’s the catchphrase of Adriene Mishler, a 36-year-old yoga teacher from Austin, Texas, whose free classes targeting afflictions including sciatica and uncertainty have carried me and millions of others through a year of working from the couch. As her motto suggests, Mishler encourages participants to work only as hard as their imperfect bodies allow. It champions moderation, not excess. I work for a magazine whose core principles (“spirit of generosity,” “sense of belonging”) encourage an insidery feeling of community. “Group affiliations … make up the scaffolding upon which we build our lives,” Montell writes. What we tend to overlook, she argues, “is that the material with which that scaffolding is built, the very material that fabricates our reality, is language.”

In that sense, we choose our own cults every day, and cultish language is what helps, encourages, or coerces us into doing so. We select political candidates whose polished manifestos often get much less meaningful coverage than their unfiltered sound bites. (“Malarkey” and “C’mon, man” are as fundamental to Joe Biden’s brand as “Lock her up!” was to Trump’s.) Our jobs, our leisure activities, our purchases, and our fitness regimes are informed by linguistic tricks and tics that aren’t so far off the ones that more nefarious cult leaders employ to control their followings. Occasionally, cultish brands and cults overlap. Montell cites Amazon’s 511-word leadership principles, which employees are expected to memorize, and the company’s habit of encouraging employees “to tear each other’s ideas apart in meetings,” as having much in common with Synanon, the cult her father escaped. Keith Raniere, the disgraced founder of NXIVM, spent his early career running a multilevel-marketing organization, a genre of company whose own brand of commodified, spirituality infused cultish language Montell spends several chapters analyzing.

Montell’s conclusion isn’t that everyone should necessarily be wary of cultish language, but that they should be aware of it: identifying language’s powers of coercion, questioning statements that discourage analysis, and being skeptical of loaded language that deliberately engenders a heightened emotional state or stigmatizes outsiders. “The fact is that most modern-day movements leave enough space for us to decide what to believe, what to engage with, and what language to use to express ourselves,” Montell writes. “Tuning in to the rhetoric these communities use, and how its influence works for both good and not so good, can help us participate, however we choose, with clearer eyes.”

When you buy a book using a link on this page, we receive a commission. Thank you for supporting The Atlantic.

By Amanda Montell

​When you buy a book using a link on this page, we receive a commission. Thank you for supporting The Atlantic.