What Makes a Cult Leader; what makes a follower?

Authors: Max Cutler and Kevin Conley

Max Cutler (the founder of Parcast) and Kevin Conley team together in Cults: Inside the World’s Most Notorious Groups and Understanding the People Who Joined Them to review the lives and rise of ten cult leaders, their cults, and their followers. The stories range from cults that function on shame, exploitation, pathological lying, sadism, megalomania, escape, and denial of reality. Cutler and Conley feature well known figures such as Charles Manson, Jim Jones, and Marshal Applewhite as well as lesser known, more far-flung groups such as the brutal (and never caught) Credonia Mwerinde, the Ant Hill Kids, Raelism, and more.

While Cults only covers ten instances, each is told in-depth, starting with the childhood of the leader. The question is – what made these men and women became cult leaders? Were they believers, expert manipulators, broken people wanting attention, cons in search of a following, or maybe a little bit of all the above? Based on the original podcasts (which I haven’t heard but am now intensely interested in), Cutler and Conley break down each story, focusing on the history and the psychology in a casual, conversational, yet insightful, way. It’s true storytelling at its fineness, even though the topics and the horrors are all very real.

Cults isn’t just about the charismatic leaders, but about the normal, everyday people who became swept up to the point of giving up possessions, friends, family, and in many cases their safety and their very lives. What makes people join a cult? What makes them stay when things start to fall apart, when the rose-tinted visions give way to violence and coercion? Through the style of writing, the way the stories twist around themselves, starting at the end, then going back to the beginning of the leader’s rise to power, then switching to the full story, we feel the same pull, the same enchantment turning to horror. The beginning is just the teaser: the reveal that something will go terribly wrong.

Jim Jones, 1977                                                                                        Nancy Wong, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons


Cults is told with empathy for both leaders and followers, bolstered by sociology and expert options, but what drives someone to form a cult, and others to join and even engage in activities like torture and murder, remains speculatory, at best.  The authors bring in the thoughts of a few survivors, and they don’t shy away from gruesome sensationalism while talking about the rise and fall of these men and women, about everything they did, about the carefully engineered deceptions and the horrific actions that went on behind-the scenes. As such, true crime lovers will appreciate the strict adherence to truth, the investigative angle, the psychological tie-ins, the empathetic but truthful retellings, and the fact that despite all the research and study, there will never be a comfortable, tried, and true answer.

What we leave with then are several gruesome pieces of history, a basic understanding of manipulators and their tactics, and a warning. The stories are pieced together well, the profiles of both cult leaders and followers developed and truly chilling. If this were just fiction, we’d be entranced by the weirdness and by the neck-turning desire to look at something horrible. But since this is real, there is also a deep sadness and a chilling, there-but-for-the-grace-of-God awareness. This is not a book for the squeamish or the easily triggered.

In the end, Cutler and Conley show that the warning signs for each cult leader were there from the beginning of their lives. In a way, it is all driven by a desire to belong, a desire for something bigger, whether that be attention (from the leaders’ perspective) or protection and faith (from a followers’ perspective). Each cult is admittedly violent, abusive, and brutal, but few start that way. What Cults is then is a long running story of the rise and fall of such entities and the wreckage left in their wake. Highly recommended. I will certainly be checking out the podcasts.

– Frances Carden

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Frances Carden
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