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Book Club is My Alibi: Discussion Guide: Cultish by Amanda Montell

A book group for true crime enthusiasts. Meets monthly on the 2nd Wednesday of the month at 7pm. All are welcome.
Program notes for book discussion on Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism by Amanda Montell

Wednesday December 13, 2023 @ 7 pm in Susman Room

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About the Author & Book Summary

Amanda Montell

is a writer, linguist, and podcast host living in Los Angeles. She is the author of three nonfiction books, Cultish: The Language of FanaticismWordslut: A Feminist Guide to Taking Back the English Language, and The Age of Magical Overthinking: Notes on Modern Irrationality (forthcoming April 9, 2024 from OneSignal). She is also a creator and host of the hit podcast, Sounds Like A Cult. Amanda’s books have earned praise from The Washington PostThe Atlantic, Kirkus Reviews, and more. Cultish was named a best book of 2021 by NPR, was shortlisted for several prizes including the Goodreads Choice Awards and getAbstract International Book Award, and is currently in development for television. Sounds Like A Cult won “Best Emerging Podcast” at the 2023 iHeart Radio Podcast Awards and was named a best podcast of 2022 by Vulture, Esquire, Marie Claire, and others.

Amanda’s essays and reporting have appeared in The New York TimesHarper’s Bazaar, Marie Claire, and elsewhere. She was born and raised in Baltimore, MD and holds a degree in linguistics from NYU. Find her on Instagram @amanda_montell or Substack at


Check it out:

What makes “cults” so intriguing and frightening? What makes them powerful? The reason why so many of us binge Manson documentaries by the dozen and fall down rabbit holes researching suburban moms gone QAnon is because we’re looking for a satisfying explanation for what causes people to join—and more importantly, stay in—extreme groups. We secretly want to know: could it happen to me? Amanda Montell’s argument is that, on some level, it already has . . .

Our culture tends to provide pretty flimsy answers to questions of cult influence, mostly having to do with vague talk of “brainwashing.” But the true answer has nothing to do with freaky mind-control wizardry or Kool-Aid. In Cultish, Montell argues that the key to manufacturing intense ideology, community, and us/them attitudes all comes down to language. In both positive ways and shadowy ones, cultish language is something we hear—and are influenced by—every single day.

Through juicy storytelling and cutting original research, Montell exposes the verbal elements that make a wide spectrum of communities “cultish,” revealing how they affect followers of groups as notorious as Heaven’s Gate, but also how they pervade our modern start-ups, Peloton leaderboards, and Instagram feeds. Incisive and darkly funny, this enrapturing take on the curious social science of power and belief will make you hear the fanatical language of “cultish” everywhere.

Podcast Recommendations

Sounds Like A Cult w/ Amanda Montell

Putting the “cult” in culture…

Do you think SoulCycle is a cult? What about the Royal Family? What about Disney Adults? Or spiritual influencers? Is Instagram itself a cult? We’re Sounds Like A Cult, a podcast that analyzes a different fanatical group every week to try and answer the big question: This sounds like a cult, but is it really?

Sounds Like A Cult premiered in June of 2021 and was named a best podcast of 2022 by Vulture, Esquire, Wired, Marie Claire, Harpers’s Bazaar, and others. The pod was nominated for a 2023 iHeart Radio “Best Emerging Podcast” Award and peaked in Spotify’s top 20 podcasts in the USA.

Question and Topics for Discussion

  1. What is the difference between religion and a cult?
  2. Why are cults such a big pop culture obsession today?
  3. Which cults and cultish groups featured in the book did you find to be the most harmful? The least?
  4. Why are phrases like “brainwashing” or “mind control” insufficient to describe how people get involved in cults?
  5. How is elitism—wanting to be part of the in crowd—exploited by cultish groups?
  6. It’s a stereotype that cults or cultish groups prey on the weak and needy. But in fact, research shows that cults usually exploit people who are idealistic, optimistic and hardworking—people who don’t give up when things get tough. How can someone’s idealism, optimism and good intentions become the inroad to cultish groups?
  7. The word “gaslighting” is used frequently online and in media. What does it really mean, and what does it have to do with cults?
  8. Multi Level marketing (MLM) and direct sales have a long and ignominious history of targeting women, especially stay-at-home moms. How have more recent MLMs such as LuLaRoe employed phrases like “boss babe” and “entrepreneur” to their benefit?
  9. Did this book give you a better understanding of why someone might get involved with a cultish group?


Book Recommendations