There is an abundance of cult literature out there— exposés of various cults, sects and organizations, but memoirs are where the real stories are. Here are five of the most shocking memoirs by cult survivors.
1. Little Sister by Patricia walsh Chadwick
Sirius XM Host Gary Dell’Abate praises Patricia Walsh Chadwick’s “perseverance, wit and courage” as she describes her upbringing in the sequestered community that called itself the “Slaves of the Immaculate Heart of Mary.” Bestselling Catholic author Mary Gordon notes that Little Sister “sheds light on a part of the history of American Catholicism that has been kept in the shadows. This fascinating, often horrifying story lets us in on the secrets of a cult that separated parents from children, fostered psychological abuse, and isolated its members from the modern world… all in the name of the One True Church.” Despite entering society for the first time at eighteen, never having read a newspaper or used a phone, Chadwick achieved a BA in Economics from Boston University and embarked on a thirty-year career in the investment business, leading to her becoming a Global Partner at Invesco. In 2016, she founded Anchor Health Initiative, which serves the LGBTQ community in Connecticut, where she lives.
They promised her heaven, but there was no savior.
Imagine an eighteen-year-old American girl who has never read a newspaper, watched television, or made a phone call. An eighteen-year-old-girl who has never danced—and this in the 1960s.
It is in Cambridge, Massachusetts where Leonard Feeney, a controversial (soon to be excommunicated) Catholic priest, has founded a religious community called the Slaves of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. The Center’s members—many of them educated at Harvard and Radcliffe—surrender all earthly possessions and aspects of their life, including their children, to him. Patricia Chadwick was one of those children, and Little Sister is her account of growing up in the Feeney sect.
Separated from her parents and forbidden to speak to them, Patricia bristles against the community’s draconian rules, yearning for another life. When, at seventeen, she is banished from the Center, her home, she faces the world alone, without skills, family, or money but empowered with faith and a fierce determination to succeed on her own, which she does, rising eventually to the upper echelons of the world of finance and investing.
A tale of resilience and grace, Little Sister chronicles, in riveting prose, a surreal childhood and does so without rancor or self-pity.
2. The Burn Zone by Renee Linnell
Linnell’s memoir details how a hugely successful entrepreneur found herself powerless in a cult, and how she managed to escape and regain her life and herself once more. In this hugely inspirational memoir, Linnell shows how anyone can end up brainwashed, and the strength it takes to leave and become whole again, once you have experienced such life-altering loss of control.
After seven years of faithfully following her spiritual teacher, Renee Linnell finally realized she was in a cult and had been severely brainwashed. But how did that happen to someone like her? She had graduated magna cum laude with a double degree. She had traveled to nearly fifty countries alone before she turned thirty-five. She was a surf model and a professional Argentine tango dancer. She had started five different companies and had an MBA from NYU. How could someone like her end up brainwashed and in a cult?
The Burn Zone is an exploration of how we give up our power―how what started out as a need to heal from the loss of her parents and to understand the big questions in life could leave a young woman fighting for her sanity and her sense of self. In the years following her departure from the cult, Linnell struggled to reclaim herself, to stand in her truth, and to rebuild her life. And eventually, after battling depression and isolation, she found a way to come out the other side stronger than ever. Part inspirational story, part cautionary tale, this is a memoir for spiritual seekers and those who feel lost in a world that makes them feel less than perfect.
3. Beyond Belief: My Secret Life Inside Scientology and My Harrowing Escape by Jenna Miscavige Hill and Lisa Pulitzer.
Niece of the Church of Scientology’s leader David Miscavige, Jenna Miscavige Hill escaped the Church at the age of twenty-one, after a life of controlled abuse within the secretive organization. Her memoir reveals the Church’s methods of recruitment, reliance on celebrity endorsement, control, theft and punishment.
Jenna Miscavige Hill, niece of Church of Scientology leader David Miscavige, was raised as a Scientologist but left the controversial religion in 2005. In Beyond Belief, she shares her true story of life inside the upper ranks of the sect, details her experiences as a member Sea Org—the church’s highest ministry, speaks of her “disconnection” from family outside of the organization, and tells the story of her ultimate escape.
In this tell-all memoir, complete with family photographs from her time in the Church, Jenna Miscavige Hill, a prominent critic of Scientology who now helps others leave the organization, offers an insider’s profile of the beliefs, rituals, and secrets of the religion that has captured the fascination of millions, including some of Hollywood’s brightest stars such as Tom Cruise and John Travolta.
4. The Witness Wore Red: The 19th Wife Who Brought Polygamous Cult Leaders to Justice by Rebecca Musser
The nineteenth wife of the eighty-five-year-old polygamist leader of her people’s prophet, Rebecca Musser escaped the dangerous cult in which she grew up, and testified against its leaders, including her husband Warren Jeffs. Her testimony led to his imprisonment and revelations of the horrific abuse suffered by the child brides in the fanatically religious Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
Rebecca Musser grew up in fear, concealing her family’s polygamous lifestyle from the “dangerous” outside world. Covered head-to-toe in strict, modest clothing, she received a rigorous education at Alta Academy, the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints’ school headed by Warren Jeffs. Always seeking to be an obedient Priesthood girl, in her teens she became the nineteenth wife of her people’s prophet: 85-year-old Rulon Jeffs, Warren’s father. Finally sickened by the abuse she suffered and saw around her, she pulled off a daring escape and sought to build a new life and family.
The church, however, had a way of pulling her back in-and by 2007, Rebecca had no choice but to take the witness stand against the new prophet of the FLDS in order to protect her little sisters and other young girls from being forced to marry at shockingly young ages. The following year, Rebecca and the rest of the world watched as a team of Texas Rangers raided the Yearning for Zion Ranch, a stronghold of the FLDS. Rebecca’s subsequent testimony would reveal the horrific secrets taking place behind closed doors of the temple, sending their leaders to prison for years, and Warren Jeffs for life.
The Witness Wore Red is a gripping account of one woman’s struggle to escape the perverse embrace of religious fanaticism and sexual slavery, and a courageous story of hope and transformation.
5. Synanon Kid: A Memoir of Growing Up in the Synanon Cult by C.A. Wittman
In the late 70s, C.A. Wittman was kidnapped by her own mother and brought to live in the infamous Synanon Cult. For five years she lived in the cult, and in this memoir, she details a childhood of warped relationships and feelings of displacement, of strange dichotomies and the need for survival.
In February of 1977, during a weekend visit to her uncle’s home in Riverside Valley, California, Celena was taken in the night. Two radicalized women planned the kidnapping. Both were members of the Synanon cult’s Kidsnatchers group in Marin. One of the women, Celena would learn, was her mother, whom she had not seen for two and half years. Leaving Los Angeles, she came to enter a strange, secluded world where childhood was an experiment, and no relationship was sacred. Immersed in the strange and deviant society of Synanon, Celena would spend the next five years subject to the unpredictable whims of Charles Dederich, the cult’s shadowy leader. In a series of scenes, Synanon Kid chronicles cult living from a young girl’s perspective and her search for identity and belonging in a world of physical and familial displacement. From the African American communities of South Central Los Angeles to the racially integrated, yet rural and isolated world of Synanon, Celena tries to make sense of and navigate the dichotomy of the mainstream blue-collar life into which she was born and the counterculture lifestyle she inherited. A haunting tale of estrangement, Synanon Kid, is a coming-of-age story of hope, survival, and determination. It is also a story of the unconditional love between a mother and daughter and how that love helped a young girl to grow and flourish against the odds of her distorted childhood.