These 14 writers and bloggers investigate alleged cults and their leaders
Journalists, bloggers, and book authors — sometimes one and the same — investigate all sorts of people and organizations. Though they often make mistakes that damage their subjects’ reputations and blow back on their own, their work as a whole is worth celebrating and protecting.
One of the more interesting investigative writing niches involves organizations alleged to be cults (and leaders alleged to be cult leaders). The reading public’s appetite for stories about secretive organizations — both well-known and not so well-known — is all but insatiable, and there’s plenty of material for intrepid writers to supply.
If you count yourself among the many readers intrigued by this type of writing, you’ve come to the right place. What follows is a list of more than one dozen writers and bloggers who currently or have in the past written about organizations and leaders alleged to be involved in cult activity.
Mike Rinders runs an independent blog devoted to “exposing” the follies and foibles of so-called cult organizations that more mainstream outlets don’t or won’t cover. He also covers more “mainstream” organizations that have courted controversy in the past, some of which receive sustained coverage in major daily newspapers, magazines, and TV outlets. His highest-profile target is Scientology; his motto is “Something Can Be Done About It.”
Writer Be Scofield is a self-proclaimed “cult hunter” whose investigations have appeared on several niche websites devoted to so-called cults and cult activities. While Be Scofield’s controversial approach has generated criticism, the writer remains active and continues to pursue new investigations.
Paul Morantz has an unusually high profile for a writer focused mainly on cults and cult leaders. That’s largely because he’s also an accomplished attorney with a number of high-profile cases to his credit, several of which involve alleged misconduct by cult leaders. He’s the author of two books: “Escape: My Lifelong War Against Cults” and “From Miracle to Madness: The True Story of Charles Dederich and Synanon.”
Steven Hassan is a self-proclaimed former cult member who has spent the better part of 40 years investigating an alleged cult leader named Tony Alamo. He is also an advocate for victims of alleged child sexual abuse by members of various orders’ clergy, including the Catholic Church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, and Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Mitch Weiss is a reporter whose groundbreaking AP investigation tells the story of a victim of an alleged cult known as the Word of Faith Fellowship. Weiss’s story pulled back the curtain on the secretive North Carolina group, which claims hundreds of members.
Les Zaitz is a retired reporter for the Portland Oregonian newspaper. In the 1980s, he was part of a group of intrepid Oregon journalists on the trail of the sect led by Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and Ma Anand Sheela — years later, the subject of the popular 2018 documentary Wild Wild Country. The Columbia Journalism Review has more on Zaitz’s accomplishments.
Emilie Friedlander is an investigative writer who spent months on the trail of Trumple, a “social media cult” that many observers brushed off as a “troll” until Friedlander began digging. Her work revealed a new model of “rigidly hierarchical” organization that’s at once attractive and dangerous to young, tech savvy followers.
Dennis Yusko is one of several upstate New York reporters who began tracking the secretive “sex cult” Nxivm in the early 2000s. Despite his and his colleagues’ intrepid work, the group operated more or less without restraint until national media outlets picked up the trail in the late 2010s. Still, Yusko’s groundwork proved vital in spotlighting the organization’s seamy side.
David Thibodeau is a former member of the Seventh Day Adventist offshoot sect led by David Koresh. The sect is best known for the calamitous events at its compound in Waco, Texas, in 1993, when a botched raid by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms left dozens of members dead. Thibodeau’s book, “Waco: A Survivor’s Story,” is required reading for anyone interested in Koresh’s organization and the origins of the modern-day right-wing militia movement.
Deborah Layton is a memoirist and former member of the infamous People’s Temple sect, whose years-long presence in the jungles of Guyana culminated in one of the largest mass suicides in recorded history. Her book, “Seductive Poison: A Jonestown Survivor’s Story of Life and Death in the People’s Temple,” is regarded as a classic of the first-person “cult survivor” genre.
As a reporter for the San Francisco Examiner, Tim Reiterman traveled to Guyana with then-Congressman Leo Ryan to investigate the People’s Temple sect. Years later, he would write “Raven: The Untold Story of the Rev. Jim Jones and His People,” a compelling companion to Layton’s first-person account. Readers interested in the story of Jones and People’s Temple, and aspiring writers looking for a model of cult journalism to follow, would do well to read Reiterman.
Jeff Guinn is the author of the definitive biography of Charles Manson (“Manson: The Life and Times of Charles”), one of the most influential cult leaders of the past 60 years. His work builds on investigations by others but remains a vital resource in its own right.
Sam Brower spent nearly a decade investigating the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, a polygamist derivative of Mormonism led by Warren Jeffs. His book, “Prophet’s Prey: My Seven-Year Investigation Into Warren Jeffs and the Fundamentalist Church of Latter-Day Saints,” is at once spellbinding and informative.
Lawrence Wright is one of the foremost investigators of Scientology. His book, “Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief,” was made into a major Netflix documentary in 2015.
Keeping Them Honest
These writers are not the only ones who’ve made names for themselves investigating organizations and leaders alleged to be involved in cult activity. Many others are active in this niche, and anyone familiar with it knows that there’s plenty of uncovered material out there.
Perhaps you think you have what it takes to write about alleged cults and cult leaders. Or perhaps you’re just looking for a good read on a lazy day. In either case, your contribution helps keep honest those on both sides of the writer-subject divide and ensures more great stories in the years ahead.