Author: Emma Cline
Publisher: Random House
Published: June 2016
Number of Pages: 368
In the summer of 1969, fourteen year old Evie was floundering. Her parents are newly-divorced and otherwise-occupied. She has just lost her best friend over a boy. Above all, Evie dreads the end of the summer—when she will be shipped off to a fancy boarding school. Then she meets the girls.
Narrated by a middle-aged Evie, the novel tells an introspective account of the summer in which she found herself in the midst of a Manson-esque cult. Rather than focusing on the violence however, Emma Cline uses her debut novel to explore the emotions and circumstances that make such a community appealing. At the end of the day, Evie just wants a place to fit in.
Author: Scott Hawkins
Publisher: Broadway Books
Number of Pages: 400
In Carolyn’s mind, typical Librarian hobbies do not include knitting, drinking tea, or collecting cats. That sort of nonsense is for Americans. Instead, she and her “siblings” spend their days cloistered in the Library learning complex mathematics, the art of healing, or the finer points of brainwashing. Each of them is on a separate path set for them by Father, who raised them. The Librarians are now all in their late twenties to early thirties and have completely lost touch with the rest of the world. Only Carolyn still remembers English, even though there was once a time when they were all Americans.
Father runs the compound with an iron fist. One of his prized possessions is a grill shaped like a bull. All the librarians silently fear that grill. They have good reason.
You may ask why the librarians put up with all of this. It’s quite simple, actually—Father is the almighty God of the universe.
Author: Dave Eggers
Genre: Science Fiction
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
Published: October 8, 2013
Number of Pages: 497
Mae is a typical underemployed twenty-something with a college degree. To save money, she lives with her parents and works at the local utility company as a customer service rep. Thanks to her college roommate, however, Mae soon finds herself working for The Circle—the hottest tech company in the world. Mae starts out in Customer Experience and soon becomes immersed in the culture and ideology of the company.
**Note: If you have watched the recent movie starring Emma Watson and Tom Hanks,
I must warn you that they changed the ending. **
The Ties That Bind
Although only one of these novels is generally considered cult-related fiction, all three exhibit groups with at least one strong leader whom other characters generally follow without question. Group-think is alive and well in each of these stories.
The Girls shows the most-recognizable version of a cult. Set in the hippie heyday, it recreates many aspects of the Manson group—a commune-like community based at a ranch where they stay for free in exchange for labor, a would-be musician at the helm of a group mainly comprised of women, and of course there are the gruesome murders. As a fourteen year old with no friends and little parental guidance, Evie is easily sucked into the group and their ideology. On her first night at the ranch, she and the others celebrate the solstice with a party.
Although she did not notice it at the time, the middle-aged Evie narrating the story gives insights into why she and the others were drawn in by Russell and his ideas. At the ranch, Evie finds what she thinks she’s been looking for—affection, acceptance, and the chance to feel grown-up and important. Russell provides an unconventional sort of structure for Evie and the rest to mold themselves around. What Russell says is treated both as gospel and as law. Whatever Russell asks of his followers, they will enact.
The Library at Mount Char likewise depicts a small community dominated by a single, godlike figure. When I first started reading this book, I actually thought it was about a cult. Carolyn and her siblings were taken in by Father as children and completely brainwashed to act and think as he wishes. Father raises his family with strict expectations and harsh punishments. By the time the novel begins, most of the Carolyn’s siblings remember almost nothing of their former lives—they have forgotten everything from their parents to conventional dress to the very language they used to speak. All of that has been replaced by the ways and teaching of their almighty Father. In truth, this group does function as a cult, the only reason that it is not classified as such is simple—this is a fantasy book. Father doesn’t just say he’s the leader of the universe—he actually is the leader of the universe.
The Circle may not be in control of the entire universe just yet, but the company and its leaders, The Three Wisemen, are well on their way. As Mae soon discovers, Circlers are expected to spend all free time at the Circle participating in community activities, such as a solstice party, a private concert, or a circus. After all, why would anyone want to leave the Circle? The longer Mae is employed by the company, the more her life is dominated by it—all waking hours, whether working or otherwise, are consumed by the Circle.
The company doesn’t merely control the lives of its employees. As The Circle develops more and more innovations in the name of creating a more perfect world, it also creeps deeper and deeper into the lives of each and every person on the planet. All online activity must be conducted as your true self (TruYou)—right down to your social security number. No screen names or shadowy email accounts to hide behind. Everything you’ve ever done or said is searchable and retrievable. In the lens of the Circle, secrets become lies and personal privacy becomes theft. Politicians and others who oppose the Circle and its growing sphere of influence quickly find themselves under investigation for computer-related crimes.
Though presented through different lenses, all three novels show not only the mechanics of a cult, but also how easy it can be to slip into such a group. Most characters who get folded into these groups don’t realize it’s happening—even as their entire ideology and thought processes are radically modified.
William Shakespeare’s Star Wars by Ian Doescher and Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn