This post may contain affiliate links for books we recommend. Read the full disclosure here.
We each have our own preferred genres of choice. Kate loves horrors and thrillers, really anything that will keep her up at night! And Serena enjoys escaping through hidden doors into realms of magic and adventure. We also read mysteries, historical fiction, graphic novels, etc. etc. And that’s not even counting the multitude of sub-genres contained within each greater genre. In this series, one of us will present a list of our favorites from within a given sub-genre of one of our greater preferred genres.
I could probably just call this “Cult Escape Memoirs”, though I think some people would come after me were I to refer to some of these groups as ‘cults’. That and some are less about groups and more about toxic family dynamics which are run like a cult, but aren’t technically cults. So High Control Group it is! I’ve always been super fascinated by groups that close ranks, isolate members, put leaders on a firm pedestal, and build and build up abuses and corruption and use intimidation, coercion, and violence against those within, and all the brainwashing that comes with it. I also love harrowing memoirs of people who have been a part of such groups, and how they ultimately break away no matter the personal cost and sacrifice (and it is usually a lot).
There are a lot of different cults and high control groups that have functioned over the years, so this is merely a smattering of the various groups. But all of the stories are harrowing, enraging, heartbreaking, and hopeful, and it shows the resilience of those who have escaped when they never should have had to go through their trauma in the first place. These are all admittedly difficult reads with lots of content warnings, but I’ve found them to be fascinating and engaging reads.
Book: “A Billion Years: My Escape From A Life in the Highest Ranks of Scientology” by Mike Rinder
Scientology has been pretty heavily scrutinized in the past decade or so, and a lot of voices leading the way are those who jumped ship and lost so, so much by doing so. Leah Remini is a very clear example of this, but her celebrity insulated her a bit from the fallout, which is why I decided on “A Billion Years” by Mike Rinder. Rinder used to be a very high ranking member under L. Ron Hubbard, but once Hubbard died and David Miscavige took over, the toxicity and abuse ramped up to the point where Rinder no longer felt he could stay. Leaving his family behind (they are still alienated from him) and everything he knew, he is now a whistleblower and a very outspoken critic. This memoir is a really good look at his time in the organization, and gives insight as to what it’s like for those inside who aren’t powerful celebrities. I really love that Rinder is trying to repent for his past complicity, and this memoir is honest and very harrowing.
Book: “Unspeakable: Surviving My Childhood and Finding My Voice” by Jessica Willis Fisher
This is the first of two memoirs that isn’t about a specific larger group, but more about the influence of an extremist fundamentalist family and its leader, and this one is a really, really hard read (it’s actually the read that gave me the idea for this list). Jessica Willis Fisher was initially known as the oldest of the Willis Clan, a Fundamentalist Christian family that performed in a band together and had its own reality show following their lives. What viewers and fans didn’t know was that the patriarch, Toby, was verbally, physically, and sexually abusive to his wife and children, Jessica herself one of his rape victims and ultimately the family scapegoat. Her memoir speaks to her childhood, her relationships with her family members, her love of music, and how she eventually started to push back against her father, and how that cut her off from her siblings and mother, but also pushed her towards people who did support her and help her come to terms with her traumatic childhood, and help her eventually turn her father in. Willis Fisher is so incredibly brave, her memoir so well written, and it has hope in darkness and love and empathy.
Book: “Breaking Free: How I Escaped Polygamy, the FLDS Cult, and My Father, Warren Jeffs” by Rachel Jeffs
I have read so many books about the Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints as run by Warren Jeffs/Rulon Jeffs and the compound in Short Creek, but if I had to pick one that encompasses the horrors of the compound and the abuses of the people who lived there, I would go with Rachel Jeffs’s memoir. They are all harrowing, but Rachel is one of Warren Jeffs’s many children, and her experience shows that his sadistic abuses and violence towards others was also very much a part of his family life as opposed to the non-related members of the community. Rachel is brutally honest about the things that she went through, and it gives a deeply personal connection to the Warren Jeffs years of the FLDS. It’s also a good look into the FLDS culture as a whole, and doesn’t mince words about how abusive, violent, and oppressive it is for those who live in it, especially the women. And it’s especially disturbing seeing how Jeffs treated his own children, his abuses and cruelty being doled out to them as much as it was to others in the community. Rachel is incredibly brave for getting out, and I’m glad she was able to push back in her own words.
Book: “In The Shadow of the Moons: My Life in the Reverend Sun Sun Myung Moon’s Family” by Nansook Hong
Of all the cults and high control groups that have fascinated me over the years, I actually didn’t know much about the Unification Church, a religious cult based in South Korea run by Sun Myung Moon. This memoir was written by his daughter in law Nansook Hong, whose marriage to his oldest son was wrought with discord and abuse. The Moonies, as they are known, present themselves as an ideal group of Divine Christianity, and Moon himself placed himself as a messiah-like figure and hoped to have influence across countries and political positions and leaders. But this memoir exposes the hypocrisy and corruption within the group and how Moon abused his power, and hid the violence and troubles within his own family. After years in an unhappy marriage that had abuse and addiction issues, Hong escaped one of the Moonie compounds and divorced Hyo Jin Moon, the eldest and heir apparent to the Unification Church. The Moonies kind of go under the radar these days when it comes to cults and high control groups, and this memoir has some really interesting context and has the story of a brave woman who left.
Book: “Member of the Family: My Story of Charles Manson, Life Inside His Cult, and the Darkness That Ended the Sixties” by Dianne Lake
There are so many notorious cults out there, but the Manson Family is the one that really shattered the American consciousness in the late 1960s when they carried about the multiple murders of Sharon Tate and her guests, as well of those of the LaBianca Family. While many of Manson’s ‘girls’ are remembered because of the huge court case (or in Squeaky Fromme’s case, when she tried to assassinate President Ford because that would help Charlie, somehow?), Dianne Lake was one of the few that got out, though not unscathed. Lake joined up as a teenager after her family went all in on a nomadic lifestyle, and pretty much just let her go off with Manson and his group, and soon she as deeply under his spell and living on Spahn Ranch. This memoir is about that time, as well as the childhood that led up to it, and then when she turned against him and the others after the Tate/LaBianca murders. I really like this one because it doesn’t only show how a group can manipulate and control vulnerable people, but how people end up in groups like that in the first place if they were not born into it.
Book: “Educated” by Tara Westover
Much like “Unspeakable”, “Educated” is less about a specific group and more about a family that has been overtaken by a zealous patriarch that imposes fundamentalist rules and abuses on his loved ones. But “Educated” is such an amazing book that I really wanted to have it here. Tara Westover grew up in an isolated, off the grid existence with her family, her father forbidding any contact with public education or healthcare and her mother working as an herbalist and midwife to other off the grid people. As Tara gets older, she finds herself wanting to learn and read anything she can get her hands on, and wonders what else is out there to learn beyond her family’s grip. And when one of her brothers becomes more and more violent, and Tara becomes the target of his escalating violence, her yearning to get into the world isn’t just about wanting to learn, but wanting to save herself from a dangerous and isolated family situation. This memoir very well written, incredibly inspirational, and there is a reason it was so well received when it came out.
What escape memoirs have you enjoyed? Let us know in the comments!