The best books about communes and cults

Who am I?

I don’t think I’m alone in considering cults and those who join cults fascinating, but I’ve also always found it frustrating when non-fiction accounts or documentaries focus on the logistics of how the communes operate rather than finding out the why. Why do people join a cult, why do they stay, why do they follow increasingly erratic and dangerous instruction? For me, researching cults for my new novel The Sleepless – about a commune whose disciples believe that sleep is a social construct – was about finding out about the characters, the individuals, who are drawn into organisations which often ask you to relinquish that self-same sense of individuality.

I wrote...

The Sleepless

By Liam Bell,

Book cover of The Sleepless

What is my book about?

What if I told you that sleep was just a habit? What if the third of your life you spend asleep, you could be awake instead?

Grafton is a single dad who works in local radio, but he’s always dreamt of being a ‘real’ journalist. When he gets a whiff of a story – a Scottish commune whose residents believe that sleep is a social construct – he decides to investigate… something tells him ‘the Sleepless’ might finally provide answers about his wife, Liz, who abandoned him and their son Isaac for a similar cult in India.

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The books I picked & why

Children of Paradise

By Fred D'Aguiar,

Book cover of Children of Paradise

Why did I love this book?

This novel reimagines the events of the Jonestown massacre with lushly beautiful prose and a magical realist twist that offers the possibility of escape and redemption from the most horrific circumstances.

It’s a wonderfully immersive story that sucks you in with sensory detail and a hope-against-hope that the main characters won’t “drink the Kool-Aid”. One of those books where you need to sit still and catch your breath after turning the last page…

By Fred D'Aguiar,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Children of Paradise as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Acclaimed novelist, playwright, and poet Fred D’Aguiar has been short-listed for the T.S. Eliot Prize in poetry for Bill of Rights, his narrative poem about the Jonestown massacre, and won the Whitbread First Novel Award for The Longest Memory. In this beautifully imagined work of literary fiction, he returns to the territory of Jim Jones’s utopian commune, interweaving magical realism and shocking history into a resonant story of love, faith, oppression, and sacrifice in which a mother and daughter attempt to break free with the help of an extraordinary gorilla.

Joyce and her young daughter, Trina, are members of a…

Book cover of Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson

Why did I love this book?

It wasn’t until I picked up this book that I realised how little I actually knew about Charles Manson and his followers.

Sure, it had filtered down to me – through a variety of popular culture – that he was a notorious murderer and that his female followers were truly brainwashed, but how had that come to be and was there any way of making sense of his seemingly senseless violence and crimes? Guinn’s meticulously-researched book has the answers. 

By Jeff Guinn,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Manson as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

After more than forty years, Charles Manson continues to mystify and fascinate us. One of the most notorious criminals in American history, Manson and members of his mostly female commune killed nine people, including pregnant actress Sharon Tate. Now, drawing on new information, bestselling author Jeff Guinn tells the definitive story of how this ordinary delinquent became a murderer.

Mansonhelps us understand what obsessed him and, most terrifying of all, how he managed to persuade others to kill. Guinn interviewed Manson's sister and cousin, neither of whom has ever previously cooperated with an author. Childhood friends, cellmates, and even some…

Educated: A Memoir

By Tara Westover,

Book cover of Educated: A Memoir

Why did I love this book?

Often people are born into cults or find that their family and those inherited beliefs hold a cult-like sway over their childhood and coming of age.

Tara Westover’s account of growing up in a family prepping for the End of Days is wonderfully clear-sighted and unflinching. Not only that but, despite the violence and sense of betrayal, it also manages to hold the kind of redemptive arc that has you cheering the writer through the last few chapters.

By Tara Westover,

Why should I read it?

17 authors picked Educated as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?



'One of the best books I have ever read . . . unbelievably moving' Elizabeth Day
'An extraordinary story, beautifully told' Louise O'Neill
'A memoir to stand alongside the classics . . . compelling and joyous' Sunday Times

Tara Westover grew up preparing for the end of the world. She was never put in school, never taken to the doctor. She did not even have a birth certificate…

Book cover of My Life in Orange: Growing Up with the Guru

Why did I love this book?

Many people learnt of the Bhagwan Rajneesh and his followers through the Netflix documentary Wild, Wild Country, but Tim Guest is able to tell a much more personal tale of innocence corrupted in this memoir of growing up in the communes of the Orange People.

One of the most remarkable aspects of it is that, with time now having passed and the opportunity for reflection, he is often able to pick out the poignant and funny moments as well as the scandalous or salacious details…

By Tim Guest,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked My Life in Orange as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

At the age of six, Tim Guest was taken by his mother to a commune modeled on the teachings of the notorious Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. The Bhagwan preached an eclectic doctrine of Eastern mysticism, chaotic therapy, and sexual freedom, and enjoyed inhaling laughing gas, preaching from a dentist's chair, and collecting Rolls Royces.

Tim and his mother were given Sanskrit names, dressed entirely in orange, and encouraged to surrender themselves into their new family. While his mother worked tirelessly for the cause, Tim-or Yogesh, as he was now called-lived a life of well-meaning but woefully misguided neglect in…

Nina X

By Ewan Morrison,

Book cover of Nina X

Why did I love this book?

This is a novel about a young woman, the titular Nina, escaping from a Maoist cult and it’s a terrifically absorbing and engrossing tale.

What makes it unique is that it’s as much about the protagonist reclaiming, or even forming, her own identity as it is about the cult that she’s wrestling herself free from. Both the storyline and the form of the book itself involves the reader in that journey into freedom. An excellent and under-rated book.

By Ewan Morrison,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Nina X as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Winner of the Saltire Literary Award Fiction Book of the Year

'Literary gold . . . Morrison has published his masterpiece' Sunday Times

'Sensational. Like nothing I've ever read. A tour de force' Ian Rankin

Nina X has never been outside. She has never met another child.
Nina X has no books, no toys and no privacy.
Nina X has no idea what the outside world is like.
Nina X has a lot to learn.

Nina X has no mother and no father; she has Comrade Chen, and Comrades Uma, Jeni and Ruth. Her closest emotional connection is with the…

5 book lists we think you will like!

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