The story of how he wound up in a dangerous compound—and how he escaped

Two vintage photographs of my dad and his sisters

I was so young when my dad started telling me his cult stories that I don’t think I even knew what a cult was. In a way, I still don’t. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I realized how unique it was to have a father who regaled his young daughter with vivid narratives from his early life, much less one who survived an adolescence as gripping and gut-wrenching as his.

Now 65, my dad doesn’t look like the stereotype of a traumatized ex-cultist who came of age under the baleful reign of a charismatic leader. Today, Dr…


A taxonomy of internet mindfuckery.

Photo by John Schnobrich on Unsplash

In our socially and politically fraught culture, social media has become a “place” packed with pseudo-psychoanalysis and finger-pointing. Over the past year or so, amid all the digital turbulence and battles of wits, I’ve witnessed the terms “gaslighter” and “troll” surge in usage to criticize different harmful social behaviors. I’ve also seen more than one follower express confusion about what these terms even mean, because when certain labels get tossed around willy-nilly, they can get really far from their intended usage, lose specificity, and ultimately fail to communicate anything at all.

For those interested in untangling the confounding language of…


A “cult linguist” breaks down the baleful buzzwords that might be lurking on your social media feeds…

Photo by Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona on Unsplash

How would you define the word “doctor?”

If you’re a fluent English speaker, this should be a pretty simple task: I’d generally characterize a doctor as either a qualified medical practitioner or a PhD. Odds are your definition is pretty similar, close enough that if we were to have a conversation about doctors, or if I were to hypothetically call myself one (I am not, for the record), you would know with basically zero effort exactly what I was talking about.

As speakers of English, or any language really, we take this mutual understanding for granted. When you stop and…


A conspiracy theory expert connects one key psychological phenomenon to fanatical belief…

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

Why do people join cults? And more importantly, why do they stay?

These elusive questions have haunted me for most of my life. My father spent his teenage years in a notorious “utopian” cult called Synanon (he was forced to join by his counterculture-minded father in the late 1960s), and having grown up hearing a string of beguiling tales from that time, the seed of my lifelong obsession with cults was planted early. For years, I’ve been obsessed with figuring out once for all why intelligent, skeptical people like my grandfather decide to give their lives over to fanatical fringe…


What goes on inside the minds of those who treat “vaccination” as a dirty word? A reformed zealot opens up

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“Subconsciously, I think my thinking was motivated by not wanting to be like the ‘sheeple,’” admits Karina*, a New York City-based mother and recovering addict, who was once ardently opposed to vaccinations.

To those of us who trust science, and who agree that COVID-19 was not the product of some elitist conspiracy, it can be hard to imagine what strange alchemy exists inside the brain of anti-vaxxers (or, as they often prefer to identify, members of the “vaccine risk awareness movement”). Not long ago, I was among the contingent of Americans who regard paranoid New Age beliefs as a hobby…


An explanation for people’s attraction to QAnon, the Plandemic hoax, and more

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From the conviction that there is a secret cabal of nefarious liberals puppeteering our lives to the belief that the moon landing was a hoax, conspiracy theories are a constant subject of perverse fascination in American culture. To believers, these theories explain the inexplicable; to outsiders they’re utter poppycock. …


These manipulative buzzwords might be all over your social media feed…

Photo by Wesley Tingey on Unsplash

My fascination with secret code languages took root under the monkey bars. It was 1999, when a fellow seven-year-old in jelly sandals taught me the simple phonological pattern of Pig Latin. Ig-pay Atin-lay. It felt like a superpower. Upon mastering the language, I was an insider, and so was everyone else who knew it. We were cool. Intellectually superior. Morally superior, even. Anyone who couldn’t scramble their syllables like we could was simply not one of us. With language alone, power could be exercised invisibly, without leaving a trace of evidence.

Two decades later, I’d become a sociolinguist, dedicating my…


A follower entrenched in cultish ideology will not respond well to these phrases

Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

“My brother got caught up with QAnon, and now he won’t speak to me.”

“My best friend is obsessed with this sketchy New Age guru, and I don’t know how to talk to her anymore.”

“I think my dad is in a cult. How do I convince him to leave?”

These are some of the most frequently asked questions folks have posed to me, ever since I started researching the social science of cult influence. Partly inspired by my father’s childhood in a notorious cult called Synanon, I’ve spent the past two years writing a book about the language of…


Linguist and author of Wordslut: A Feminist Guide to Taking Back the English Language dissects the language of women’s body hair removal.

This piece was developed in partnership with Gillette Venus.

One of my favorite feminist language stories to tell is the one about the origin of the word “va-jay-jay.”

It starts about 15 years ago on the set of the hit T.V. series Grey’s Anatomy. In an early episode of the show, the word penis appeared in the script 32 times. That’s a lot of penises, but… it was a medical show after all… so nobody blinked an eye. Then, in the same episode, the writers tried to work the word vagina into the script just twice. Again, this was a…


‘Slut’ and ‘hussy’ used to have tame meanings. Then, like so many other feminine nouns, they came to mean ‘prostitute’

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If you want to insult a woman, call her a prostitute. If you want to insult a man, call him a woman.

Nearly every word the English language offers to describe a woman has, at some point during its lifespan, been colored some shade of obscene. The main piece of evidence for this tendency toward women’s linguistic disparagement appears when you examine certain matched pairs of gendered words. Compare, for example, “sir” and “madam”: 300 years ago, both were used as formal terms of address. But with time, madam evolved to mean a conceited or precocious girl, then a kept…

Amanda Montell

Los Angeles writer / Author of Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism & Wordslut: A Feminist Guide to Taking Back the English Language https://tinyurl.com/34886sec

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