Review: Cults: Inside the World’s Most Notorious Groups and Understanding the People Who Joined Them by Max Cutler with Kevin Conley

cover of CultsCults: Inside the World’s Most Notorious Groups and Understanding the People Who Joined Them by Max Cutler with Kevin Conley
Simon & Schuster (July 2022)
416 pages; $22.63 hardcover; $14.99 e-book
Reviewed by Haley Newlin

We’ve seen it for generations: a well-spoken, charismatic person derails the ingrained ideals of humanity. Take the most horrific war leaders of World War II, like Adolf Hitler or Benito Mussolini. Both men, with bloodied hands and a lack of empathy to such outlandish extents that many have argued exemplified psychopathy, not only led their armies down a wretched road of antisemitism, barbarity, and murder but did so with their recruits’ eagerness and even enthusiasm.

The same question is often asked throughout history, whether regarding dictators, crime bosses, or cult leaders: Why do people go along with this?

Cults, inspired by Max Cutler’s Parcast podcast series, conjures a spine-tingling sequence of true crime stories that spotlight the symbiosis of an appetite for an intelligence beyond our own and the need to belong.

Everyone wants to believe in something. A higher calling, a purpose greater than human life. A god on Earth. And in some cases, a guide beyond the oppressive structure of society or even our physical form.

Cutler and Kevin Conley go far beyond the headlines of notorious cult leaders’ most disreputable acts, including the murder of actress Sharon Tate, mass suicides, and burning collected followers alive. Nor is Cults a simple retelling of said events. Instead, the authors look closely at the upbringing of cult leaders like Charles Manson, whose childhood was an endless cycle of neglect and humiliation, and David Koresh of the Branch Davidians, who experienced abuse and parental abandonment. This scope then extends to the leaders’ rise and fall from grace, demystifying any awe of heightened intelligence or power in cult organizers.

In Cults, readers understand that there was nothing inordinately special about these group leaders. Jim Jones, Charles Manson, Aldofo de Jesus Constanzo, and others detailed in this book craved the same thing as their followers — something more than the cards dealt and the expectations that followed. They, too, wanted a sense of belonging, control in life’s unpredictability.

The exceptional, well-researched, thorough storytelling in Cutler and Conley’s Cults makes this a standout read, even amongst some of the most acclaimed books about cults and their followers, like Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry.

Cults show there’s far more to organized groups and the people who join them than insanity, murder, and worship. There’s plenty more darkness in these pages, hitting the unsuspecting reader like a dose of arsenic in their afternoon tea.

Once the horror reveals itself, it can’t be undone.

A brilliant read, with intention exceeding shock and scare. A must-read for true crime readers or fans of the Parcast Network.

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