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How many times have you heard people say "don't drink the Kool-Aid" when you were getting a little overzealous about something? This, perhaps, somewhat insensitive phrase refers to the Jonestown Massacre when cult leader Jim Jones forced over 900 people to commit suicide by drinking a grape-flavored drink laced with cyanide.
Unfortunately for the Kool-Aid company, it wasn't even Kool-Aid that was used in this atrocity, even though they're permanently linked with the tragedy due to the common phrase. It was actually a less well-known competitor to Kool-Aid named Flavor Aid that was used in Jamestown. Trivia aside though, our world has seen a terrifying amount of violent and dangerous cults rise and fall, taking many people with them.
There have been many attempts at creating religions in the last century. Unfortunately, most of them haven't grown to be large enough to be considered more than a commune or a cult. Even more unfortunately, many of these groups have resorted to violence far too quickly. As a result, many books about dangerous cults have also come to light, sharing knowledge and insight into what this means for the everyday people affected by what cults have done. Hopefully this literature will also be able to stop people from going down this road in the future, too.
Behind the Exclusive Brethren by Michael Bachelard
The Exclusive Brethren broke off from the Christian Evangelical movement and created their own congregation of believers. They ardently believe that Satan rules the world. If you are born into this group, which is generally categorized as a cult, you won't have access to many of the things we consider ordinary.
Members are forbidden from listening to radio or watching television. The use of computers is highly discouraged, and people are scarcely allowed to communicate with people outside of the movement. The scary part about this group is that while they aren't characterized by violence, they're severely restricting the lives of unlucky souls born into the cult. They have fellowships in 19 countries and, scarily, still exist.
In the Days of Rain by Rebecca Stott
If you're looking for a more personal tale that tells of what the Exclusive Brethren did, Stott tells an emotional story focused on her childhood and her father. Though the Exclusive Brethren firmly believed that Satan ruled the world, Roger Stott, Rebecca's father, was not always the most devout man.
Roger Stott was a high-ranking Brethren minister, but he did not always practice what he preached. While the cult believed that they should not have contact with the outside world, Roger Stott kept a radio hidden in the back of his car, and kept forbidden books of poetry in his possession. In this story, the reader learns what it was like to grow up in the Exclusive Brethren.
Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson by Jeff Guinn
The Manson "family" has its place in history as being one of the most notorious cults ever created. However, it begs the question of who exactly Charles Manson was. From a young age, he started learning how to manipulate people and use them for his own gain.
He took the skills of Dale Carnegie and twisted them to his purposes, leading to many brutal murders. In this story, Jeff Guinn, an author who specializes in researching cult leaders, gets in touch with close family members of Manson's who never before came forward to speak.
Charisma and Control in Rajneeshpuram by Lewis F. Carter
The recent Wild, Wild Country documentary on Netflix shed light on the Rajneeshpuram cult, which was largely unknown until Netflixers everywhere started talking about it. Some admire this cult on the surface level, and have an almost positive outlook on the sexual exploits the members took part in a very prudish era.
While that may not sound so bad, there's a lot more violence and danger lurking in this quote. They did a lot more than just orgies. After the criminal investigation began, which was the largest in Oregon history, they found out that the cult attempted to murder Rajneesh's physician, took part in wiretapping, poisoned two public officials, and committed acts of arson.
Sheela Silverman, or Ma Anand Sheela, was initially Rajneesh's secretary, but later became his spokesperson and the leader of the commune. People weren't crazy about the growing Rajneeshpuram settlement, but Sheela took extreme measures. She infected the salad bars of several restaurants in the commune's home state of Oregon and infected 751 people with salmonella. She was also extradited from West Germany for attempted murder, assault, wiretapping, arson, and immigration fraud.
The Girls by Emma Cline
A more recent tale, The Girls by Emma Cline, was released in 2016. This fictionalized tale has beautifully elegant language and imagery. The cult our main characters become a part of seems quite normal at first, but ends up committing heinous murders, much like many of the completely true-to-life accounts.
The story is fiction, but it has a great deal of realism in the events and the characterization of the protagonist. The book draws on the Manson murders, one of the cults that performed acts of sexual abuse horrendously often.
The Road to Jamestown by Jeff Guinn
Jim Jones was the founder and leader of the Peoples Temple, which he moved from Indiana to California and then finally to Guyana in South America. Jeff Guinn, who also wrote about Charles Manson, tells the full story of Jim Jones. This cult leader has the blood of over 900 adults and children on his hands from when he forced his followers into a mass suicide. While it's called a mass suicide from how they died, by drinking poisoned Flavor Aid, they were surrounded by armed guards and had little choice in the matter.
Oddly, Jim Jones' early career actually wasn't all bad. He was the director of Indianapolis' Human Rights Commission in 1960 and received a Martin Luther King Jr. Humanitarian award in 1977 for the recognition of his efforts to achieve racial integration in the city. He helped to desegregate churches, restaurants, a hospital, and many other things in the city. Obviously, what he would do later in life is completely unforgivable, but it's interesting to learn about what good things terrible people did before completely losing their mind.
Seductive Poison by Deborah Layton
If you want to read the flip side of the Jonestown tale, Layton tells the story of how it's much easier than people think to end up trapped in a cult. Layton realized rather quickly after he arrived in Jonestown that Jim Jones was "increasingly paranoid, psychotic, and dangerous." She almost immediately started contemplating how she could escape, but she wouldn't be able to leave with her aging mother who was terminally ill with cancer.
This darkly intriguing firsthand account of Layton's experiences in Jonestown is fascinating. It's filled with emotions that tear at you, and it truly shows how, sometimes, you can realize quickly that something is wrong but end up being trapped within it anyway.
Jim Jones' cult was, undoubtedly, one of the scariest cults that committed mass murders.
Prophet's Prey by Sam Brower
In case you've seen The Book of Mormon on Broadway and you're now feeling confused, the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS) is an offshoot of Mormonism. Warren Jeffs, celebrated as their most esteemed prophet, committed an entirely horrifying amount of crimes. This self-proclaimed prophet of FLDS had more than 70 women and young girls as wives. One of these girls, who was literally a child, was only 12 years old when Jeffs commanded her to lie on a ceremonial bed, where he brutally raped her.
This book explains the horrors of what happened to prisoners with chilling clarity and heart-wrenching imagery. The book is well-researched and captures details about the people involved, reminding readers just how real these terrible crimes were.
Escape by Carolyn Jessop
Unfortunately, Warren Jeffs wasn't the only man in FLDS who practiced polygamy. It was a very common practice within the cult. This book is the firsthand account of Carolyn Jessop's life and how she was born and raised in the FLDS. She was coerced into an arranged marriage with a man 32 years her senior when she was only 18. After 15 years of psychological abuse and bearing eight children, she became the first women to ever escape from FLDS with her children.
While there are modern areas of thought that are more open to considering alternatives to monogamy, the polygamy practiced by FLDS was entirely one-sided. There was no freedom for both people in the relationship to enjoy different partners. Women were treated like walking incubators for children, and given very little opportunity or freedom as a whole.
Waco: A Survivor's Story by David Thibodeau
One danger of being part of something that could be perceived as a cult is that because there have been so many cults that committed heinous crimes, there's a lot of skepticism of all new, small religious groups. This story is about the Branch Davidians, which was an offshoot of the Seventh-Day Adventists. They were preparing for the second coming of Christ, but they actually weren't committing any crimes.
Thibodeau writes this book from his firsthand experience as a member of the community who survived the 51 day siege by the FBI. He explains how he wasn't even that serious about religion, he was more there to find peace and improve himself, but says that the government was "demonizing our community as a bunch of Bible-crazed loonies." In this scenario, the cult wasn't violent, but the group's leader, David Koresh, and 82 of his followers died in the FBI's hostile attack.
In this case, it wasn't the cult that presented danger, but the public misinterpretation of the cult. While you probably came here looking for books about dangerous cults in particular, this last book shows that sometimes, the danger isn't always from within.