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…


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

Photo by Emily Morter on Unsplash

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’

Credit: samdiesel/Getty Images

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…


tocausan

I don’t know if there were other kids. So far no one I’ve asked has confirmed. I’ll probably never be sure if on different days or in different cities, other sixth graders were tracing my footsteps at the public library. Nervously shuffling past the popular reads — Harry Potter, A Wrinkle In Time — toward a dustier shelf of the children’s nook. It’s sweet how nervous you get when you’re little and think you’re getting away with something bad. A rogue finger in the mixing bowl, a story you didn’t ask permission to read. Kids are such boring criminals. …


It’s been a good year for Benedict Cumberbatch. I’m not talking calendar year; I’m referring to the Hollywood year, the one that starts in October when all the potentially Oscar-nominated films start coming out, and ends in February after the awards are distributed. For the remaining months, all respected figures in cinema enter a deep, dark hibernation. That’s how I imagine it, at least.

This year, English actor Cumberbatch starred as the idiosyncratic genius Alan Turing in The Imitation Game.


A Linguist Explains Why Female Award Show Hosts are Funnier.

I’m making myself a cheese plate for the Golden Globes. Blue cheese, manchego, a truffle flavored varietal. There’s just something about watching an awards show that makes you want to splurge. I’m hoping a handsome man trips, or that Tina and Amy offend someone wearing diamonds. It is their last year hosting, after all. I almost put on a dress for this.

I’m plucking a glazed fig off the counter, the voice of Savannah Guthrie in the background probing Amy Adams to tell her who she’s wearing, reminiscing about my favorite Globes gone by, when it occurs to me that…

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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