I am kind of obsessed with cults. Give me a memoir about someone leaving the control of a cult and you won’t see me for hours—as I’ll have my nose buried in it. This isn’t a new thing. Back when I was a kid I looked up cults in the encyclopedias, trying to learn about what makes them tick. I devoured Helter Skelter more than twice, and any time there’s a story about one of the Manson girls, or a woman who fled the Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints, I am glued to it.

I devour memoirs and novels written about people in cults. Here are my top picks, in case you want to sink your teeth into a juicy story too.

BJ Knapp author of Beside the Music read Beyond Belief by Jenna Miscavage Hill#6 Beyond Belief by Jenna Miscavage Hill

The author of this book is the niece of the leader of Scientology. When a family member of the leader writes a book about leaving the group, you know it’s gonna be good. She was raised as a Scientologist, and at a very young age joined the elite Sea Org—which is kind of like the Navy Seals of Scientology. When she was, I think 6, she signed a billion year contract to stay true to the organization. Then as she grew up in it she doubted her faith until she left. After leaving she was harassed by members of the church, followed, and stalked. I was biting my nails down to nothing as I read to the end.

BJ Knapp author of Beside the Music read Escape by Carolyn Jessop#5 Escape by Carolyn Jessop

Carolyn Jessop was the third wife of Merrill Jessop, one of the higher ups in the Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints (FLDS) in 2003 she escaped the church WITH all of her 8 children. She left the complete control and domination by the men in her church, and the constant battles for perfection among the women in the church. As a result of leaving she was the first woman to ever win custody of all 8 of her children after fleeing the church. She also played a major role in the conviction of church leader Warren Jeffs. An awesome view into life as a polygamist family member, and the struggle to get out.

BJ Knapp author of Beside the Music read Troublemaker by Leah Remini#4 Trouble Maker by Leah Remini

I listened to the audio version, narrated by Remini herself. Leah Remini is an actress, best known for her role on King of Queens. She joined Scientology with her mother and sister when she was a young girl, and then moved into the Sea Org when she was a young teen. She exposes live as a Sea Org member—long days of working, very little pay, even less contact with her mother and sister. She stays with Scientology well into her adult life. Then she starts to notice that things are not right and she starts to question. This book is an awesome expose into what Scientology is like, and how much the church members have to pay to continue to be members in this church and the never ending schooling to progress to a never ending ladder of levels. She made a TV show about it called Scientology: The Aftermath, which I also devoured. Absolutely fascinating!

BJ Knapp author of Beside the Music read Evil Harvest by Rod Colvin#3 Evil Harvest by Rod Colvin

The reviews on Amazon say that it starts out slow. But I don’t think so. This is a lesser known cult, as the FLDS and Scientologists get all the spotlight. This book is about a “militia” type cult in Nebraska. In the beginning it talks about how this survivalist cult in Rulo Nebraska got its start. Mike Ryan, the leader, collected a group of followers and moved them to a farm in Rulo where he controlled the group through their deity, Yahweh. He teaches his group to make decisions based on the “arm test.” Basically a member of the group holds his arm up, and they ask Yahweh a question. If the answer is “yes” the arm stays up. If the answer is “no” the arm falls down. All the members claim to have no idea what caused their arm to move.

Ryan leads with fear. Any stepping out of his control will incur the wrath of Yahweh, while the group stockpiles weapons and food in preparation for Armageddon. When the author asked to interview Mike Ryan, Ryan had consulted with Yahweh first. He led the members of the group to believe he served in Viet Nam as a green beret and worked for the CIA. He flat out lied to members about going to kill FBI agents in Chicago, just to build his level of mystique.

This one is a fascinating look into how a cult gets its start, and how members absorb the information of a prophet—and how prophets prey on uneducated and disadvantaged individuals.

BJ Knapp author of Beside the Music read The Girls by Emma Cline#2 The Girls by Emma Cline

This one is not a memoir, it’s fiction. It’s about a 14 year old girl who gets mixed up in the fictitious Manson Family. I had read Helter Skelter a few times, which was written by Vincent Bugliosi—the prosecutor of the Manson trial. The book covers how this girl was absorbed into the group, and how easy it was for the leader, Russell, to get the girls to bend to his will and ultimately kill for him. Again, another book about how people can get swept away by the beliefs of a cult.

BJ Knapp author of Beside the Music read Jesus Land by Julia Scheeres#1 Jesus Land by Julia Scheeres

I didn’t even know the Escuela Caribe existed until I read this book. It is a real thing. In the 80s, this is where Christian parents sent their kids to reform if their kids were being unruly. They thought it was a boarding school. But really, it was summer camp in hell. The children were sent to this “school” in the Dominican Republic. Escape is virtually impossible, as the children would have to figure out how to get on a plane without money or a passport. The directors discipline the children with violence and hard labor and introduce them to a social hierarchy where the children are encouraged to lie and rat out the other kids to save themselves. It wasn’t until years later that the parents even knew the extent of how terrible this school was.

BJ Knapp is the author of Beside the Music, available for purchase here. Please sign up for the Backstage with BJ Knapp mailing list to get updates on events, signings, dog pictures and so much more.

BJ Knapp is the author of Beside the Music, available for purchase here. Please sign up for the Backstage with BJ Knapp mailing list to get updates on events, signings, dog pictures and so much more.