Its time to tear yourself away from watching true crime documentaries on YouTube and Netflix and pick the stories up in your hands instead. Watching as opposed to reading harrowing stories of people just like you and me can be somewhat numbing after a while, and in my experience of reading up about cults, sitting with a book gives you the reflection time you need, as opposed to the constant stream of information that comes at you while watching shows and films like Holy Hell, Witches: A Century of Murder or Deprogrammed. Cults that are active today range from New Age mystic groups to hardcore fundamentalist Christians preparing for the end of days. Many have been around for decades, with some as old as a century, and dozens are still operating in the plain sight.
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From the outside looking in, cults or religious sects seem like a genuine breach of human rights, but its interesting to take a step back and think about how humans are vulnerable to the feeling of belonging. These true accounts help us to learn about how these communities were conceived, why people listened, joined and eventually why many give up their entire lives to these counter-culture movements. The speakers in these stories entirely humanize the whole experience and make it easy for us to understand why cults and extremist groups exist, why people join, how they become more powerful and what happens when it finally becomes too much.
The books on this list reflect many different experiences for both men and women, who have been members of, and left, cults, religious sects and extremist religious lives. The stories range from those of ex-scientologists, to those who have rejected the strict religious lives of their families, to those who suffered control and abuse at the hands of cult leaders.
1. Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots by Deborah Feldman
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Deborah Feldman spent nineteen years growing up in the strictly religious Satmar sect of Hasidic Judaism. The sect prohibited her from talking to people on the outside, from reading specific works of literature and forced her to dress conservatively. It was arranged that she would marry into a sexually and emotionally dysfunctional relationship with a man she barely knew. It was with this stranger that she conceived her first child, and it was at that moment that she had to save herself and her son from a life of oppression. This is her story.
2. Beyond Belief: My Secret Life Inside Scientology and My Harrowing Escape by Jenna Miscavige Hill and Lisa Pulitzer.
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Jenna Miscavige is the niece of the Church of Scientology’s leader David Miscavige. After leading a controlled life of neglect at the center of this controversial organization, by the time Jenna was twenty-one, she was ready to make a break for a life outside the church and escaped. In her memoir, she speaks about facts such as the church’s emphasis on celebrity recruitment, the oppressive and alienating culture within, and how the most devoted followers often receive the worst of punishments.
3. Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali
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This is a remarkable coming of age tale of one of today’s most admired and controversial political figures. This champion of free speech made worldwide headlines following the assassination of Theo Van Gogh, a Dutch film director, by an Islamist who threatened to kill Hirsi Ali next, due to her film Submission. Hirsi Ali has survived a civil war, female mutilation, and a forced marriage. Since escaping her marriage, she and her sister have been granted asylum in the Netherlands where she enrolled as a student of political science and has since been fighting for the rights of Muslim women and the reform of Islam as a member of the Dutch parliament. Disowned by her father, expelled from her family, stripped of her citizenship and under constant threat of death, this fascinating woman’s memoir is a must read.
4. Not Without My Sister: The True Story of Three Girls Violated and Betrayed by Those They Trusted by Kristina Jones, Celeste Jones and Juliana Buhring.
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Abused from the age of three by their ‘guardians’ in the infamous cult known as ‘Children of God’, these three sisters were denied access to education, lived a life of sexual exploitation and sustained beatings on a daily basis. The story follows the day their mother decided to escape with the hope of saving one of her children. Years later, that same child returned back to the cultto free the sister she left behind. The third sister, Juliana, pregnant with her first baby finally escaped as well, bringing all three back together after years of painful separation. This is perhaps one of the most harrowing tales you will ever read, but fascinating all the same.
5. In the Days of Rain: A Daughter, a Father, a Cult by Rebecca Stott.
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In her interview with the New York Times, Stott said, “What we’re really talking about is collective PTSD. I knew it happened to my family, but I didn’t know — I do know now — how bad it was. We need to remember that cults can flourish not just in the desert or remote places but in suburbs as well, and that people have the capacity to do this to each other.” This is a memoir written by Rebecca Stott of Brighton, England, who’s endured a harrowing childhood during which her father was an officer in the Exclusive Brethren, a radical Protestant sect that closely controlled the lives of its members. Stott takes a painful trip down memory lane to uncover the holes in the story her family left her with, and to expose the abuses she, her family endured at the hand of this sect before their excommunication.
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