Cult Classic Transcript

Carrie Gillon: Hi and welcome to the Vocal Fries podcast, the podcast about linguistic discrimination.

Megan Figueroa: I’m Megan Figueroa

Carrie Gillon: and I’m Carrie Gillon.

Megan Figueroa: Oh, Carrie, it’s hot here. So, if I say anything strange it’s because

Carrie Gillon: your brain is melted.

Megan Figueroa: Yeah. You know, all of those. Well, you lived here for awhile. You must have seen a local news segment where they fried eggs on asphalt or on the, on the, what is it like the roof of the car, but like the dashboard-

Carrie Gillon: or cookies?

Megan Figueroa: Yep.

Carrie Gillon: They bake cookies.

Megan Figueroa: Yep. Yeah. One of my favorite parts of watching Last Week Tonight with John Oliver are all of the amazing local news clips.

Carrie Gillon: I know I, they’re so good.

Megan Figueroa: It’s out of respect [00:01:00] because I grew up watching local news. I worked you know, the school of journalism at ASU and I get to see like people that I students that w people that were once students there, they’re doing local news stuff and it’s great. And it’s really important work. Oh my god though. Some of the things they make you do,

Carrie Gillon: It’s humiliating.

Megan Figueroa: But yeah, that’s the big thing. If, if people don’t know, maybe you’re in somewhere that isn’t frightfully hot. Yeah. The big thing here is to fry things on our hot surfaces during the summer. So yeah.

Carrie Gillon: Cause every year people are like, wow! how is it this hot

Megan Figueroa: it’s I think it’s a matter of survival.

Our brains have to forget that we survive at every, every summer. Yes, yes.

Carrie Gillon: Yeah. Well last summer I realized I can’t do this anymore. And I was grateful that Chris had already been like, maybe we should move to Canada because last summer it was so brutal. yeah. I couldn’t, I couldn’t wait to get somewhere cooler.

Megan Figueroa: Yeah.

Carrie Gillon: Speaking of cooler.

Megan Figueroa: Yeah. Yes, please. Maybe it’ll make me feel better somehow.

Carrie Gillon: Speaking of Chris, we were, we were planning on going to Stanley park and walking around along the sea wall, which is like about a two-hour walk. Sounds lovely. And it usually is lovely, but of course it’s raining today, which brings up something that I wanted to bring up that in Vancouver, June is often called Junuary because it’s so rainy. And everyone’s like, why is it so rainy? It’s it should be summer.

Megan Figueroa: There are real people in Vancouver that will say out loud to another person it’s basically Junuary, or why is it Junuary?

Carrie Gillon: Yup. Yup. So that’s what it is. And that’s why we’re suffering through rain. I mean, this, this is just the thing that happens every June, yesterday was kind of mixed, but at least somewhat sunny and not raining until pretty late. But yeah, today [00:03:00] it’s, it’s just raining and probably not going to go to the seawall.

Megan Figueroa: Well, I’m glad that you introduced me to it because I love, well, I guess that’s technically a portmanteau.

Carrie Gillon: Yeah. Or a blend.

Megan Figueroa: Yeah. I like blend. I like the word blend better just because it feels like it’s more, I don’t know.

Carrie Gillon: Transparent,

Megan Figueroa: so transparent, but yeah. Blended word. Those are my favorite new words.

Can’t help it.

Carrie Gillon: I love blends

Megan Figueroa: yeah.

Carrie Gillon: I love them. I mean, some, I don’t like, like, I don’t really like momtrepreneur cuz I think actually my mompreneur just doesn’t like flow off the tongue and I just feel like it doesn’t have the right stress pattern. And so I don’t like it, but the ones that like really blend well, I, I love

Megan Figueroa: like chocoholic

Carrie Gillon: chocoholic’s pretty good.

Megan Figueroa: The sounds sound okay in English. But mompreneur, doesn’t feel right at all.

Carrie Gillon: No, it’s because it doesn’t have the right stress pattern, it doesn’t have the right number of syllables. That’s why. So that’s why I even, I even added the tre in there to make it fit [00:04:00] better because it didn’t work.

Megan Figueroa: It didn’t work.

Carrie Gillon: No, because that’s not the word, but anyway, but speaking of -aholic,

Megan Figueroa: oh

Carrie Gillon: that always makes me think of Homer Simpson and he’s like, oh, I’m a rageoholic. Like I’m addicted to rageohol!

Megan Figueroa: Some of the most iconic lines.

Carrie Gillon: I know

Megan Figueroa: there’s also, and then my Simpsons, that’s not true though. I mean, the Simpsons is like as old as I am literally. So I did watch it growing up, but it’s like, Bob’s burgers is my Simpsons, which is also some very iconic stuff coming out of that

Carrie Gillon: it kind of is

the more modern Simpsons.

Megan Figueroa: Yeah. Yeah.

That’s basically what I’ve been doing. Since it’s been over a hundred degrees, it’s watching over and over

Carrie Gillon: it’s a solid show.

You could easily pick a worst, like way easy to pick a, a worse show and still [00:05:00] enjoy it. You know what I mean?

Megan Figueroa: Yeah. Yes. I do.

Carrie Gillon: Kind of a lot of embedded negatives in there. But anyway, so the other thing I wanted to bring up in this intro, I yesterday I was watching The Aftermath with Leah Rimini and Mike Rinder it’s about Scientology. This episode that I just watched was about the Nation of Islam and how Scientology had infiltrated the Nation of Islam, like over 10 years ago.

And it’s basically now like, like they’re now Scientologists and I no idea.

Megan Figueroa: I had no idea

either. What?

Carrie Gillon: Yeah, look it up

Megan Figueroa: in the show it has some stuff about it.

Carrie Gillon: Yeah, that episode there’s one episode. That’s exactly all about that. And they interview, I think mostly former members of Nation of Islam from their perspective, like what happened and why did they leave the Nation?

Megan Figueroa: They’re currently members of Scientology or they’re not, you couldn’t speak to. Yeah.

Carrie Gillon: A current Scientologist would never be on that show, right? That is against Scientology. You would be considered to be a trouble sport source or a suppressive person or whatever. No, he could not be on that show.

Megan Figueroa: Well, that just happens to be directly related to our episode today.

Carrie Gillon: Exactly. That’s exactly why I wanted to bring it up because I was like, a, how did I never hear about this?

Megan Figueroa: Right.

Carrie Gillon: The Nation of Islam was like infiltrated by Scientology and then b, it also, yeah. Ties in because and in this episode, our guest, Amanda Montel mentions that most members of cults are middle-aged -sorry- middle-class white people.

And then the Nation of Islam is definitely not that. So it’s like maybe the second or one of the very few counter examples – she brings up another one in the episode, but yeah. It’s I was like, what, a, how did I not know? And then b, also it’s so it’s so wild because yeah, they’re not white and they’re explicitly segregationist.

They don’t want to have anything to do with white people, which who can blame them.

Megan Figueroa: Right.

Carrie Gillon: And then they’re like joining with this super white church that is like against all other religions. Like like doesn’t like Allah and everything. They’re all, it’s all wrong and bad. Like, I don’t know.

My brain was just blown. I was like, what is happening?

Megan Figueroa: Well, yeah. I mean, I, I mean, cults, like not just for white people, I guess.

Carrie Gillon: Yes, absolutely not for white people, but also. Like, so they talk briefly about like why the Nation of Islam would have been okay with this happening. And it still doesn’t really make that much sense to me because, okay.

Yeah, they are explicitly segregationist and then there’s super white church is like, Hey, why don’t we like join forces and like help quote, help the community.

Megan Figueroa: Right.

Carrie Gillon: One of the former members of the Nation of Islam says, oh, well you make money. When someone joins Scientology, every person you bring into Scientology who pays for [00:08:00] things, you get like 10 or 15% of that. So it’s a way for them to make money.

Megan Figueroa: Of course,

Carrie Gillon: that’s what the people at the top of the Nation of Islam, I was-

Megan Figueroa: Oh they’re making

money, not the Scientologists.

Carrie Gillon: Well, because if you, if you join and then you bring people, then you get money. So that’s what I’m saying. Like the only way that it makes sense for the Nation of Islam to want to join is if someone’s in that organization is making money. Otherwise it doesn’t make any sense.

Megan Figueroa: Right? Yeah,

Carrie Gillon: but it still doesn’t make sense. Like

Megan Figueroa: no

Carrie Gillon: these people are not wealthy. Most of them, most members of Nation of Islam are not wealthy. So it’s like how much money are they actually making off of this? And there’s only like apparently around 20,000 members. So it’s not huge

Megan Figueroa: the Nation of Islam?

Carrie Gillon: yes. Although it’s still bigger than the number of Scientologists in the United States, according to The Aftermath, but

Megan Figueroa: all right. I mean, I just think that it’s more, it’s all around us [00:09:00] cult and cult-like behavior and literal cults.

Carrie Gillon: But have you ever heard of this where, like a cult took over a different religion?

Megan Figueroa: No.

Carrie Gillon: I mean, I’m sure it’s happened and I just didn’t know, but wow.

Megan Figueroa: Something about the Branch Davidians. Well, no, that was a person taking over

Carrie Gillon: a preexisting kind of already culty thing. Just made it more culty.

Megan Figueroa: Yeah. That’s the only thing

Carrie Gillon: that’s a little different because that’s kind of what David Miscavige did to like.

Megan Figueroa: Yeah.

Carrie Gillon: He took Scientology and made it actually worse than it already was,

Megan Figueroa: but it was basically like white people doing it to white people and just continuing the tradition, but for this to happen, it’s very strange. Yes, absolutely. Yeah.

Carrie Gillon: Yeah. So I understand from Scientology’s perspective why they did it.

Cause they were like oh we’re too white, let’s bring in some people of color, like, okay, I get their motivation besides also just wanting to like grow. Cause they have been shrinking for quite some time, basically, ever since everyone was like, oh Lord Xenu? That’s what you believe? So I get [00:10:00] from their perspective why they did this, I just, wow.

Megan Figueroa: And then it makes you just wonder how it happened if it even if it was money thinking about the stuff we talked about with Amanda and kind of like how these things kind of happen, how it happened, like the process, how that unfolded is. It would be interesting to know one day

Carrie Gillon: I would like, I, yeah, like something, a deeper dive into what actually happened and what’s still happening.

 maybe, I mean, the situation may have changed in the meantime actually, cause this was 2018 when this episode came out. But yeah. Yeah. I would love to, I’d love to learn more because it, it makes no sense to me

Megan Figueroa: no, talking with Amanda, you may remember Amanda from an episode a couple of years ago when her other book, her first book came out word slut, which is kind of like a a preview of one chapter of the Vocal Fries’ book is kind of word slutty, but it was nice to have her on again.

Carrie Gillon: Yeah. And I, and I think that this book is, is. Even better than her first.

Megan Figueroa: Oh, it is. Yeah. Yeah. Well, I could read about this kind of stuff all day. So that might be

Carrie Gillon: that’s true. That’s true. But still, like she was talking about like her dad’s experience in a cult that I had heard of, but only for the first time last year. So the podcast Reveal had a six part episode, episode about a synonym. And I’d never heard of it before that. So at least I knew what it was, but still like her personal or somewhat personal connection is like, I think really

Megan Figueroa: compelling.

Carrie Gillon: It’s really compelling. Like, yeah. So I definitely recommend checking the book out.

Megan Figueroa: Yeah. It comes out tomorrow, June 15th.

Carrie Gillon: It comes out on Tuesday. The 15th, so yeah. Please, please go get it.

Megan Figueroa: Yeah.

Carrie Gillon: If you haven’t already,

Megan Figueroa: it’s really cool that we get to do interviews like this, this, this, because we get, what are they called? Like advance copy, advance copies of books because. You know, people are listening to us and we really appreciate that. And if you happen to have a couple of bucks extra a month, that you can throw our way on Patreon, we would really appreciate it. Remember, we are an indie podcast,

Carrie Gillon: And I just announced that I’m going to pay for an old transcript with because we hit a goal. Well, sort of a semi goal that I just made up, but I’m going to pay for an old episode. We still don’t know which one. Cause there had to be a tie breaker. Yeah. So I’ll we’ll know soon which one is going to be. And yeah, every, every little bit helps and we would love to have all of the old episodes transcribed. So. Yeah,

Megan Figueroa: It will happen one day.

Carrie Gillon: The more, the closer we get to that. So, yeah. Please, please support us. And thank you so much for those who do

Megan Figueroa: yes. Thank you. Here. We really appreciate it.

Carrie Gillon: Enjoy this episode. It is super fun.

Megan Figueroa: We’re always fun. Like the show would want to make your own. Let me tell you about anchor it’s free and they have creation tools that allow you to record and edit your podcast right from your phone or computer. And now you can even add any song from Spotify directly to your episodes. The possibilities are endless for what you can create, whether it’s music analysis, your own radio show or something the world’s never heard before.

Carrie Gillon: today. We’re excited to have a returning guest. Amanda Montell, who’s a writer, language scholar and podcast host. Her writing has been [00:14:00] featured in Marie Claire, glamour, cosmopolitan, nylon, the rumpus, birdie, and who what where, where she’s formerly served as a features and beauty editor. And she’s the creator and cohost of the comedy cult podcast, Sounds Like a Cult, and also the author of word slut: a feminist guide to taking back the English language, which we had you on for that. And now Cultish: The language of fanaticism about the language of cults from Scientology to soul cycle, which I’m so excited to talk to you. Cause it’s like one of my favorite topics. So thank you for coming again.

Amanda Montell: Oh, my gosh. I feel right at home here,

Megan Figueroa: old friend, old friends coming back onto the show. I love that.

Amanda Montell: Yeah. I remember like the first time I ever felt validated by actual like linguists language insiders after word slut came out was here on the ocal fries podcast.

Megan Figueroa: I love that. That is like an ultimate compliment,

Carrie Gillon: so maybe we can yeah, just get into it. Why did you want to write a book about cults?

Amanda Montell: Oh, well, I have always been interested in cutsl since, before I was interested in linguistics. I mean, I came out of the womb, interested in language, I think. but I grew up on these really fascinating stories that my dad would tell me. My dad spent his teenage years in this pretty notorious cult called Synanon against his will. he was forced to join by his father who was sort of this like pseudo intellectual counter-cultural type of dude who was interested in an alternative way of living and Synanon on was this compound that started as like an alternative drug rehabilitation facility and then came to accommodate quote unquote lifestylers people like my dad’s dad who just wanted to experiment in society’s social fringes. And yeah, so my dad spent his high school years living in Synanon Which was a fucking weird place. a lot of bizarre rules and protocols, children lived separate from their parents. people everyone was forced to shave their heads at some point and break up with their spouses and get remarried to new spouses that the leader, this guy named Chuck Deidrick had chosen your classic cult stuff. And then the, the like centerpiece of life and sin and on was this nightly ritual called the game where everybody had to gather around in a circle and malign one another with this like vicious personal criticism, it was pitched as group therapy, but really was this means of social control. And as it turns out, this type of activity is not uncommon in cultish groups, Jonestown did something similar or the People’s Temple. Igrew up on those stories. Meanwhile, my parents are research scientists, atheists. They’re like not group people. They always love to tell me. And I grew up sort of like, I mean, they raised me very, very Reform Jewish just to have sort of like a cultural reference point. but I was always, always really fascinated by fanatical fringe, supernatural belief because I didn’t, I, it was so different from what I believed. And so anthropologically, I was really pulled to groups from like tongue speaking, Pentecostal evangelicals to like sci-fi UFO doomsday type believers. and then of course I grew up really fascinated by language, and that was actually the most interesting part of my dad’s stories. Like the special language that they would use in Synanon to describe life there to create, basically a shared system of understanding with this new language and to make the insiders feel special, to instill the ideology, to shut down independent thinking, basically everything that a cult needs to do in order to generate and maintain power. and then it was like a few months before word slut came out that I was catching up with my best friend who had recently started going to AA. I won’t, I won’t reveal her name cause anonymous. but yeah, but she was telling me about all of the, the jargon there’s like such a robust glossary of jargon that they use in AA. And I was like, oh my God, it’s so culty. Obviously, AA was playing this like very positive role in her life, but still it was like impossible not to notice the role that the language played in changing her life and in affiliating her with this new group, this like very tight-knit ideologically bound group. And I was like, oh, I should write a book about the language of cults. And that’s how it kind of came to me.

Megan Figueroa: Well, it’s true. Like we could say we could use the cult metaphor for anything where people have jargon, like the like.

Carrie Gillon: Academia does assess this very similar thing,

Amanda Montell: for sure. Yes. Yeah. So funny when I was first reaching out to sources for my proposal and I was reaching out to sociologists and linguists. they, you know more than one of them was like, actually some of this cultish influence shows up in academia and it’s true in the point of the book, because I talk about this wide spectrum of cultish groups, not just the Jonestowns and the Scientologys, but also multi-level marketing groups and soul cycle and social media gurus. You know, I’m talking about this wide spectrum of cultish groups to show that cultish influence shows up in our everyday lives. We’re all under it to some degree. And the most powerful tool that cultish groups in gurus have is language. and it’s, and it’s so powerful in part because it is invisible and it influences us without us really noticing it.

Carrie Gillon: So you bring up, like, you talk about [00:20:00] these this wide swath of cultish groups, and I assume you use that, that, that terminology, because you don’t really want to be like, well, they’re for sure cults, but how are you defining cults?

Amanda Montell: I mean, it’s really tricky. Like over the course of writing this book, the definition for cult did not become clearer, but just more nebulous and hazier. I don’t really have a hard and fast definition for the word cult and neither do a lot of the cult scholars that I talked to for the book. it’s just one of these words that’s become well, it’s, it’s never had like an academic definition when talking about like fringe religions, new religions the etymology and like history of the word cult is really interesting. You know, it comes from a Latin root that meant like homage paid to divinity and then it evolved the word cult evolved to mean just to sort of like religious classification, like sect. and it didn’t really acquire these dark, dark undertones that we now associate with it [00:21:00] until really like the Manson Family murders and Jonestown. Before then, because we live in this like puritanical, Protestant society people tried to like, Protestants and higher ups tried to infuse the word cult with this sense that these, these fringe religions or these non-Christian religions were like charlatans and quacks and con artists and sinners, but cults weren’t really like a national threat or like a priority for most people. Not until the Manson murders and Jonestown, did everybody suddenly develop this fear of cults. but not all groups that have been or could be described as cults are any more dangerous or whack, then the better accepted religions. And there are all these jokes that religious scholars make that cult plus time equals religion. There are no sharp boundaries separating cults from religion, from culture. so yeah, I mean, for me, like it’s, it’s one of these words whose meaning can completely change depending on the context. Like, because of course, as soon as the word cult became this national symbol of fear, it also became cool. And around the seventies, that’s when terms like cult classic and cult following developed. and so now there’s sort of this like perverse sexiness surrounding the word cults. Like when I worked in the beauty industry the word cult was invoked. All the time is like a marketing buzzword, like this cult-followed product, or like join the cult of Glossier or whatever it was. So yeah, I mean, I don’t really have a definition of the word cult that applies across the board. My point is that when we’re discussing fringe or mainstream ideologically, ideologically bound social groups, or sociopolitical groups or spiritual groups, we have to get more specific about what we’re talking about because the word cult doesn’t [00:23:00] provide enough information. It’s like, are we just talking about a fairly harmless alternative religion or a fairly harmless secular group? Or are we talking about something more dangerous than that? And if so, we need to, to address that specifically because the word cult does not provide enough information.

Megan Figueroa: Yeah. I mean, you, you have the difference between like the Branch Davidians vs. people using it for Lululemon or soul cycle. And although lululemon is kind of-

Amanda Montell: Importantly, like cult cults fall on a spectrum. So it’s not like there’s this binary where something is either a cult or not, or something is either an evil cult or a good cult cultishness for better, for worse. Can show up in all of these tight-knit groups. and so Lululemon is somewhere on the spectrum and the Branch Davidians were more toward the destructive end of the spectrum but we’re we’re all a member of some group that’s on the spectrum somewhere.

Megan Figueroa: Oh, sure. Carrie, do you, well, I think this is, this place is everywhere, but did you ever eat at Loving Hut in Phoenix?

Carrie Gillon: Yeah, Loving Hut is part of a part of this cult. and I don’t even remember the name of the cult, but anyway, we walk in and there’s like the, the, the leader of the cult on the TV on repeat, repeat, but the weird thing is they do that’s, it that’s the entire proselytization that they do in the space. Otherwise, they just give you a delicious vegan food, so I don’t care. If they were like, if they were like Scientology, where they’re like trying to like pull you in and every second, yeah. I would feel differently about it.

Amanda Montell: So, so there’s this long list of criteria or requirements that people, people might try to come up with to define what a cult is or what a dangerous cult is. And, and there’s no, it’s not like there’s a universal list of criteria. Like I think for me, when a cult starts to become well, okay. I’ll say on, on my podcast that I just launched which is like a very lighthearted yet journalistic sort of pop culture, cult podcast. we will pick a cult of the week and discuss it, invite on guests, talk to you know, members of the so-called cult to try to figure out whether it is a live your life, watch your back, or get the fuck out kind of cult. So that’s kind of. It, that’s kind of a cheeky way to categorize these groups, but –

Megan Figueroa: it’s a fuck marry, kill.

Amanda Montell: Yeah. Which is a game we play a lot on the podcast. but yeah, no, totally like it I don’t think it is healthy to write off all sort of like weird kooky woo-woo metaphysical, irrational groups as blatantly evil because we, as humans, are communal by nature and we crave engaging in rituals with other people doing the same. And I think there is a healthy way to do it. but there are like certain red flags where you’re like, mmm, maybe this is going from a, live your life to a watch your back or going from a watch your back to a get the fuck out level. And I think what, like what you were saying when there’s this missionary aspect and it’s a part of the cult’s protocols to go out and try to recruit other people in a really sinister and deceptive way. That’s one red flag and there are many, and not all cults have all of the red flags. For example, like we think of one classic criterion for cults is having like a single charismatic guru, like an ill-intentioned, charismatic guru. But I think we can all agree or most of us can agree that QAnon is an extremely destructive cultish group, but there is no singular charismatic guru with a face, assembling everyone around them in QAnon. So like it doesn’t meet that criteria. And so the, these, there’s not like a mathematical formula for this stuff.

Megan Figueroa: Yeah. Yeah. You’re talking about like in the beauty world, like join this cult following or like cult classic, all of these ways that we use the word cult. I have this like division in my head where I always mean cult as a pejorative, but for some reason I am complete – like cult following is just completely disassociated from that in my head. Cause I can use that just fine and not mean something pejorative. Do you like – what’s going on there?

Amanda Montell: Well, I think, I mean, I’m sure this, like we, as conversationalists are extremely savvy at being able to pick up on the stakes and, and context of, of what a word really means when invoked in a particular sentence or in a particular conversation. And so we know that pretty automatically, and of course there’s room for misunderstanding especially on the internet, but [00:28:00] in, in face-to-face conversation, like people can print pretty easily pick up that when you call that restaurant a cult it, well, I don’t know enough about that restaurant, but when when we say academia is a cult or when we say that soul cycle is a cult, we mean it in a sort of hyperbolic way. And we know pretty automatically that the risks on the table are not like death or being completely isolated from your family or you know, that sort of thing. And I think like this goes to the same can be applied to say using the word prison as a metaphor. Like when I was in high school, I used to call my school a prison. but people knew that I wasn’t actually being locked up in a cell. It was just kind of a metaphor. and so I think that’s how cult is being used in this sort of metaphorical way. And you can kind of like cherry pick pretty naturally and automatically what about a cult is applying to academia or soul cycle and what, isn’t

Megan Figueroa: this idea of isolating? How can we use language to isolate. There’s this term that you used along with like semantic stops, the communicative terminating cliche. Yes. Can we talk, can we please talk about thought terminating cliches, because I was just like, we use those all the time and we’re manipulated by those all the time. So what, what is that?

Amanda Montell: So throughout the book, I break down these different linguistic techniques that cultish leaders from Jim Jones to Jeff Bezos, to Peloton instructors use to do all sorts of things in order to, to create and maintain power in various ways. And, and one of the most interesting ones is this concept of thought terminating cliches. I did not coin this term. It was coined in the early fifties by the psychologist named Robert J Lifton. And it describes. Oh, 61. Yeah. Okay. 1961. There it is. Yeah. So there are these stock sayings that are easily memorized easily repeated. And they are aimed at sort of shutting down independent thinking or questioning or thought in general. So thought terminating cliches are by no means exclusive to cultish groups. They imbue our everyday lives. And some of the thought terminating cliches that we might hear day to day are It is what it is, or boys will be boys or everything happens for a reason or it’s all in God’s plan and thought terminating cliches are really compelling because they alleviate cognitive dissonance. You know, like it’s, it’s work to have to hold two conflicting ideas in your mind at the same time and navigate that and reason with that. and the thought terminating cliche kind of lets you off the hook. It, it tells you like, you don’t have to think about this anymore, and this can get dangerous when an ill-intentioned guru is invoking them because when you’re in this cultish group and you have a question about a certain ritual or a certain protocol, or you want to express pushback in any way, they can just whip out one of these stock sayings that you’ve been taught. And and that’s a way for them to sort of shut you down. So. In a new age group and there are a lot of sort of like problematic new agey, cultish groups afoot these days. you might hear a thought terminating cliche come in the form of something like don’t let yourself be ruled by fear or dismissing a very valid concern or anxiety as a limiting belief. Keith Ranieri of NXIVM used to use that one a lot. And I’m sure it’s still does from his prison cell, but you know, a classic one that was used in Jonestown and essentially by all cultish group in his old, every cultish group in history, including the ones that exist today are oh, it’s all the media’s fault. Like the media is brainwashed. The media is corrupt. Don’t believe the media. So, you can kind of like attune to thought terminating cliches that are being used in whatever community you’re a part of. And if there are too many of them, and if you find that, whenever you try to ask a question or express express pushback, you’re met with a thought terminating cliche. That is definitely a red flag.

Carrie Gillon: Okay. So how do cult leaders convince people to join their cults in the first place?

Amanda Montell: Oh, well, because they don’t lead with saying like, please join my cult. nobody ever joins a cult. you join a, a movement or a community that you think is going to solve the world’s most urgent problems. That’s how all of these groups start like some leader who speaks with a lot of charisma and confidence usually like a middle-aged white guy, exactly the type of dude who we would trust with, [00:33:00] big ideas about God and government. he’ll claim that he or she there are female co-leaders – Gwyneth Paltrow. They’ll stand up and and they’ll claim that, that they have the solutions to the world suffering, whether that be homelessness or racism or COVID and if you follow them, then, then you will have access to this transcendent wisdom too, and you’ll be a part of this movement to making the world a better place. and you’ll have, you’ll have access to this exclusive knowledge, and this is not how it’s phrased either. Like it’s phrased much more cleverly than that. and, and they bait and switch you. I mean, they’ll lie to you upfront about what your membership is going to require about what these ideas really are. they’ll love bomb you they’ll make you feel incredibly special, incredibly smart. Like not everybody gets to be a part of this, but like you have what it takes. I mean, if anybody’s seen the WEWORK documentary, that’s all you need to know. But you know, something that was really [00:34:00] humbling that I learned while researching the book is that the similarities between how you wind up in a toxic one-on-one relationship and how you might end up in a cultish group are, are strong. Like those are, those are some major similarities. So if anyone has ever been in a toxic relationship, either with a partner or a friend or a boss –

Megan Figueroa: or a parent

Amanda Montell: or a parent,

Megan Figueroa: yeah.

Amanda Montell: You know what it’s like to end up in a cultish group, because out of the jump or from, from the jump they’re going to make you feel extremely special and like loved. And like, this is your purpose in life. and then as time goes on and the experience deteriorates, or it, it becomes something really negative or not, like you were promised in the beginning, then all these ingrained human reasoning flaws kick into gear, confirmation bias, sunk, cost fallacy. I talk in the book about how brainwashing is this myth. Like you cannot convince someone to believe something that they on no level want to believe. You can only really give someone license to believe what they already do and then sort of further radicalize them from there. so yeah, you, at that point, like if you are a certain number of years into your affiliation with this person, with this group, you’re going to start sort of like brainwashing yourself, because you don’t want to admit that all of this was a lie and that this was just a mistake maybe. And that all of this is untrue. so we, we tend to think of people who wind up in, in cults as desperate or disturbed or naive. But really, if anything, the commonality I found from cult survivor to cult survivor, and I talked to a lot of them was this like overabundance of idealism, this like faith that this one person that this one group really had the answers. If you’re like an overly cynical person, you might die alone, but you won’t end up in a cult like that.

Carrie Gillon: Yeah. Well, I’m pretty cynical. So this also reminds me of like how QAnon works. So, they actually end up completely burning washing themselves because it’s all online and it’s all like, you do your own research. And like, so you find the thread that’s going to convince you the best. Cause you’re doing your own research, giving you a list of things to look at.

Amanda Montell: And actually, speaking of thought terminating cliches, a classic one in QAnon is I did my research. I did my research. Or do your research, do your research.

Carrie Gillon: Yeah, of course.

Amanda Montell: Research to them. Is this like. DIY internet rabbit hole thing where like, who knows what sources they’re finding, they’re just like on YouTube or 4chan or like wherever they are. and this is something that a lot of these new age groups are, conspiritualist groups that’s a portmanteau of conspiracy theory and spirituality. And a lot of what we’re seeing right now online is the marriage of conspiracy theory ideology and new age ideology. So a lot of what they, these groups do and have always done in groups like Scientology and NXIVM, et cetera, is that they’ll take these words that have a very specific meaning in certain scientific fields. And they’ll twist them slowly and deliberately to infuse them with these cultish metaphysical meanings. So even a word like research, which like we, we as like everyday people have a certain definition in mind of what research is. It’s when you look into reputable sources in order to learn more about a subject. But because in QAnon or in QAnon offshoots they are conditioned not to trust mainstream media, not to trust academia research for them is this totally different thing. and yeah, a lot of these cultures groups will, will [redefine scientific terms from valence and engram, those are Scientology terms that have real meanings in other fields to research. And even the word doctor in a conspiracy circles means something different. So it’s, it’s really a mind. Fuck.

Megan Figueroa: Yeah.

Carrie Gillon: It really is a mind fuck. When I first realized what was really going on with the QAnon people like, yeah, they’re doing their own research, but also they only look at the things that they find compelling. So if they think that JFK Jr is definitely dead, then they’re just going to ignore that line of, of inquiry. And they’re not even going to be like, maybe this, all of this is wrong.

Amanda Montell: And we all do that to some degree, like confirmation bias is this, it’s this fallacy that like not even the smartest, most logical people can resist, like it is in us and it takes work to push back against that. and if you don’t want to, then it’s very easy not to. and what’s kind of dangerous about the internet is that algorithms are like the ultimate confirmation bias encourager. So what algorithms will do by design is send you down rabbit holes so that you become a more extreme believer in something you already believed. And that’s what forms these ideological sects online. That’s why like someone who is deeply entrenched in QAnon ideology and maybe someone who is deeply entrenched in like social justice idealogy cannot even speak to each other because they are living in different worlds online.

Carrie Gillon: Yeah. Yeah, it’s quite fascinating to watch actually. I’m like, why are you bothering, fighting with these people? They don’t understand you. I just block them.

Amanda Montell: Yeah. Yeah, no, totally. And it’s and it’s kind of upsetting because like we’re all like flesh and bone with like silly little limited brains. and we. You know, we should be able to connect with one another. But the internet and COVID in particular has driven us apart, ideologically. And I actually recently for another project that I’m working on, talked to this really fascinating mis-and disinformation scholar named Elizabeth Creaston, and she studies like conspiracy theories, anti-vax stuff, QAnon stuff. And she studies like how to communicate with those people. She develops like counter strategies for like how to talk to people who are just like so far gone. Yeah. It was really interesting to talk to her. I don’t provide a lot of service in the book for like, here’s a guide to how to talk to someone who’s in a cult. That’s not what my book is about. but I did publish a Medium piece recently talking about three things, never to say to someone who might be involved with a cult. And what I can say is if you know someone who you think is involved with a cult definitely don’t tell them they’re in a cult because that’s going to trigger them. Like you were saying, it’s this judgment, right. Like, people don’t want to feel like they’re being judged. even though it’s so tempting to be like, you’re in a cult, like, that’s what this is like, you want to name it. They’re not going to be receptive to that. it’s not useful to tell them they’re brainwashed. And frustratingly, it’s not useful to quote some reputable source at them because they have been conditioned not to trust that. And then they’re going to think you’re brainwashed by the media or academia or whatever it is. So it’s so counterintuitive.

Carrie Gillon: I just personally know that I could never deprogram anyone, so I don’t bother trying and I applaud those who can and do, because it is hard.

Amanda Montell: Yeah. I don’t want to say it’s a futile effort because I don’t think it is, but I think it is just, it is near impossible to convince one person, much less a whole bunch of people on maps to convince, to convince something or to, to believe something that they just don’t want to believe, you know?

Carrie Gillon: Yeah. No, it has to be, I think an individual thing one-on-one and you have already have to have a pretty good relationship. Otherwise, I don’t think it works.

Amanda Montell: Just have to like co-exist with them. That’s the thing it’s like, if you know someone who’s affiliated with a group from NXIVM to QAnon or whatever it is, like, you just have to keep them in your life because slowly but surely, like just you kind of getting in their head might convince them that there’s like a wrinkle in this belief system that they’ve been so attached to and the, and then they’ll like sort of deprogram themselves.

Carrie Gillon: You. Yeah. Yes.

Megan Figueroa: So you also talk about, and you mentioned it before that we’re kind of conditioned by society. At least our society in the US to be – take white middle-aged men as the authority on whatever, because white supremacy and just, you know even you referenced Lindy West’s chapter, in The Witches are Coming, Ted Bundy wasn’t charming. Are you high? Which I thought was hilarious because [00:43:00] we’re having this like time right now, where there’s so many Netflix movies and specials on Ted Bundy. And I think that some people that are not white are like, why do all of you people think he’s so charming? What’s going on? I wonder, is there like race differences in cult? Did you look at that at all?

Amanda Montell: Definitely. Well, I was actually just talking about this yesterday on another podcast. but no, it’s a, it’s a really important question because it is impossible not to notice that a lot, uh the vast majority of people who get involved with particularly these new age groups which is what a lot of cults are this sort of like appropriative Eastern slash occultic slash Indigenous takes on what fundamentally is just still kind of like evangelical ideology. Alot of those people are white because they’re sort of like ex-Protestants, ex-Christians who are rejecting the sort of like oppressive or uninteresting religion that they grew up with. And now are sorely lacking community. They don’t feel like they have a culture. They don’t feel like they have institutional support living in the United States where we don’t have universal healthcare. And if you’re poor: kind of too bad. and if you lose your job, like the government is not going to be there to support you, et cetera. they a lot of like white ex-Christian middle-class Americans kind of feel like existentially high and dry, if you will. And so they end up turning to these alternative groups to fill the void that folks who have a better built-in sense of community support might not turn to and of course, like white privilege gets factored into the matter. Because if you. If you, I don’t know, just like the, the mindset that you have to be in to place all of your faith and money into this one guru, and to believe that you can contribute to solving all the world’s issues. that’s a pretty, pretty privileged point of view. and so, yeah, I mean, you can definitely find that, that middle-class ex-Christian white folks are those most attracted to new age ideology. Jonestown was an exception. And I write about that at length in the book. you know, most of the folks, and I didn’t realize this before I started looking into it. Most of the folks who died in the Jonestown massacre, which was a coerced suicide slash murder, not this totally sensational mass suicide, everybody drank the Kool-Aid like it’s portrayed in the media. It wasn’t even Kool-Aid anyway, it’s a different brand. And you 100% had to you know, you had no choice, essentially. you either had to drink this thing or, or, or you would be injected with it or you would be shot trying to run away. Like it was, it was a really dark thing, but, but Jim Jones he, he was sort of this like Machiavellian master code switcher and he targeted black folks. And that’s the majority of folks who, who died in Jonestown were black majority black women actually. and he, and he targeted Black San Francisco Americans in a way that was really diabolical. He promised to have this solution to racism and class disparity in the United States. That looked really legit because he had affiliations with all the right people, the Black Panthers, Angela Davis, etc. And he learned how to meet people on their linguistic level. So he would you know, he was a mentee of Father Divine, the famous pastor. he could talk to everyone from like privileged white college [00:47:00] students or college graduates who wanted who were impressed by him quoting Nietzsche, but he could also talk to middle-aged black women who were active in the San Francisco church scene and sort of mimic the, the, the lilt of a Pentecostal preacher. And you know, almost all of the Jonestown survivors that I spoke with told me that upon first meeting him, it really felt like he was, he was speaking their language. Like he was really speaking uniquely to them. and, and that was quite exceptional by and large. he was, he was really widely read, widely studied smart dude.

Megan Figueroa: That’s funny because don’t, we mostly think of like, He was really speaking my language. That’s more metaphorical, but here we’re talking about-

Amanda Montell: Yeah. Oh, it is literally like, he would, he would use terms that white people were not supposed to know, and he was able to pull it off because it looked like he walked the walk. He, he you know, he started out as an integrationist pastor. he did, he, he had adopted many children of color. Like he seemed legit. He stuck out and I’m leaning on a lot of the research that the feminist scholar Sikivu Hutchinson has done on, on this topic. And yeah, I had, I had no idea the, the complex racial dynamics of the People’s Temple until I started looking into it. but, but yeah, no, largely ex-Christian middle-class white Americans are the folks who join these like new age fringe, fringe movements.

Megan Figueroa: Oh yeah. I would, I, when I read that part, I was like I joke about when I met Carrie, she introduced me to feminism. So if she happened to be a cult leader, I would have been in a cult, but otherwise

Amanda Montell: under the right circumstances

Megan Figueroa: I was particularly lonely at that point. And you know, if you know, it was perfect, but well, it wasn’t perfect because she’s not a cult leader no matter what anyone says about you, Carrie,

Carrie Gillon: thank God. Yeah. It’d be fun to see someone try to call me that.

Megan Figueroa: What’s the most dangerous way language has been used to. Promote ideas that are harmful or is it just like all of it together is just this one big, huge clusterfuck. Or was there something that you noticed particularly?

Amanda Montell: Yeah, I think it’s, I think it’s all the techniques compounded. I mean the one, the one cult language technique that I was especially excited to investigate for the book is glossolalia or speaking in tongues. just because I I’ve, oh my God. I’ve always been so fascinated by that ever, ever since I watched the documentary Jesus Camp when I was like 14 or something like that. Yeah. And it was really cool. I got to talk to like the only modern glossolalia linguist. which was really cool. I think his name is Paul Delacy? Oh God.

Carrie Gillon: Yeah. I actually know him in person.

Amanda Montell: Really? Yeah. Well, and it seems like he kind of like fell into being a glossolalia scholar. Yeah. Yeah. but it was pretty cool to investigate that. I was just always like, so I was just like rubbernecking like mad at the practice of glossolalia cause I’m just like, what is going on? Like, is it a threat to me? and it is interesting because when someone speaks glossolalia they do kind of enter a dissociative state, which is not inherently bad. And we, we enter dissociative states in small ways all the time. Like when you start a bonfire, you know but what’s dangerous is, and what was dangerous like in that movie Jesus Camp, which is about like this super radical, like evangelical Christian summer camp, where these kids are learning how to like take back America for Christ or something. Anyway, what can be dangerous about glossolalia is that like under the influence of a pernicious religious leader or guru this glossolalia experience can be loaded with a lot of meaning that actually isn’t there and you can like have trouble separating what’s real from what’s not real. And someone can, can really exert a lot of power over you by loading this. It’s like the ultimate form of loaded language, which is another form of cultish language that I talk about in the book. I don’t, I don’t know if glossolalia is like the most dangerous form of cult language out there, but it was definitely like one of the most fascinating parts of the book to investigate. I think, yeah, definitely all of it compounded together. Like you need the us, them labeling and just like, buzzwords in general, like you need the exclusive jargon in order to make people who are part of this group, feel elite. And in order to make everyone else seem like a villain you need the thought terminating cliches, you need the loaded language, like you need all of it, and the more sort of like features of cult-ish language that a group uses the, the more red flags you might be seeing.

Megan Figueroa: What’s a quick example of loaded language.

Amanda Montell: Oh, oh, oh my gosh. Well, one of the first, one of the first examples that I, I discovered in the book I was talking before about how a cult will take existing English words and twist them to have a different meaning. And that doesn’t just go for like scientific terminology. It goes for regular words in the English language too. they’ll take them and load them with really high emotional stakes and emotional charge in order to manipulate people’s behavior. And one of the first examples was I I think the very first interview I did for the whole book was with this young woman who had left this group called 3HO the Happy, Healthy Holy Organization which is Kundalini yoga cult and has a lot of freaky practices. It was very impressive. Or it still is because it exists. It’s the group that owns Yogi Tea, if you know the brand of tea, Yogi Tea.

Megan Figueroa: I read that and I was like, well, I haven’t bought it yet, but I won’t anymore.

Amanda Montell: Cultish is everywhere. But I remember she told me about this example where the 3HO redefined the word old soul in a really emotionally interesting way. So old soul to an everyday English speaker is a compliment. It means you’re like wise beyond your years, it’s something you would like to be called. but in this Kundalini yoga group, it meant somebody who had reincarnated and reincarnated and gone through life after life, after life and could never get it right. They were on a quote unquote, very low, low vibration. and this is, you [00:54:00] know, a type of new age rhetoric that’s used all over the place – vibrations, frequencies, whatever. and so. Old soul could be used to, to trigger dread and fear. It was, I could almost be used as a threat. Like you don’t want it, like how dare you break this rule or that rule. And there were all these rules you had to wake up at 5:00 AM. You had to you couldn’t eat meat, like all the stuff. Well, I don’t know I’m vegan, but yeah, there were all these rules and protocols. And if you broke any of them, they could throw old soul in your face as, as a threat, as this thing that you might become. And she was telling me how to this day, like years after having left every time she hears the word old soul, she like shutters because that emotional charge is like still in her body, you know?

Carrie Gillon: Yeah. I found that part really interesting. I was like this- I mean, I don’t really like the term old soul. Cause I think it sounds silly, but to have that dread associated with it, I was like, oh boy, I’m glad I don’t have that at least.

Amanda Montell: And once you know what loaded language is, you can you can start identifying examples of it from your life, you know?

Carrie Gillon: Yeah. It’s everywhere.

Megan Figueroa: Yeah. I mean, I could talk about cults for, I would say all day, but really, I mean for a year straight and not get bored because yeah, yeah, yeah. You were deep in it. Were, were there times where you actually were like you were just like, I can’t believe that I’m surrounded by so much language that is meant to manipulate me.

Amanda Montell: but like actually oddly enough I thought that writing this book would make me this very like misanthropic, paranoid person, like cult are everywhere! But really it, I actually just kind of made me like a softer person because I’m like, you know what, we’re fundamentally irrational. We fundamentally as human beings, crave connection. And sometimes we really like to bond over weird shit. And I think that that is fine. And I don’t like judge that as much anymore. What I judge is when these gurus and leaders and like clout-chasing ill-intentioned people at the top exploit others and use others very like innocent craving for community and connection to benefit them and only them, like I resent and judge that. But I, yeah, actually the book has like made me a little, it has definitely made me like more compassionate toward cultish ideas. and I think there is a way to indulge in that sort of thing while at the same time remaining skeptical and safe and healthy and connected to reality. And actually it’s interesting, like something I learned toward the end of my research is that some of history’s greatest minds like Carl Sagan when given a personality test would score off the charts in both conscientiousness and open-mindedness so like Carl Sagan decades ago, when it was really edgy and considered quite culty to believe in the possibility of extraterrestrial life, he was willing to entertain that idea. But he was not so open to every wacky idea that crossed his desk, that he was willing to believe that like a UFO had already landed on earth and was like leaving like crop circles and whatever. so I actually think it’s good to be open-minded to weird ideas and to not judge other people for weird ideas within limits, like it’s important to have like a ritual space to engage in whatever spirituality you’re into and then to leave it and to be able to think independently and rationally and make, and make decisions based on like facts.

Megan Figueroa: Yeah. You know how wacky people thought the Wright brothers were.

Amanda Montell: Yeah. Oh yeah, no, too much conscientiousness [00:58:00] too much skepticism, stifles innovation. and, and just staples, like not to sound too earnest, but like the magical parts of the human experience like we’re not meant to be, we’re not built to be these robots. Like we want to do weird things and believe in weird things. and I think to a point that’s okay. And that’s good.

Megan Figueroa: Yeah, but Carrie right? Robots need love too, I’ve heard. We really appreciate you coming to talk again, to talk with us about your book. We’ll see you in about what two years for your next

Carrie Gillon: All right. Well, thank you so much. And I always say: don’t be an asshole.


Carrie Gillon: We would like to thank our newest patrons, Mariana Montez, Edward Delmonico.

Megan Figueroa: Yea.

Carrie Gillon: He was a former student of mine. And actually he and two other former students. and I co-wrote a chapter on our conlang experience, so yeah. And then Olivia Buchan. Thank you so much.

Megan Figueroa: You know, every time there’s more than one and was like, that’s so lovely. Aren’t people so lovely. Yes. Thank you so much.

Carrie Gillon: Yeah. Thank you.


Carrie Gillon: The vocal fries podcast is produced by me, Carrie Gillon for Halftone Audio, the music by Nick Grano. You can find us on Tumblr, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram @vocalfriespod, you can email us at And our website is

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