“The Sheer Fun of Researching” Cults

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Sociologist Susan Palmer studies new religious movements—“cults,” as the rest of us might call them—not out of morbid fascination or a desire to catalog their evils, but because she considers them “beautiful life forms, mysterious and pulsating with charisma.”

Of course, it’s a controversial line of work, and involves more than its fair share of ethical quandaries—but none of the ones you’d guess. (Should you let cult members use you as an excuse to drink alcohol forbidden by their religion? Palmer decides yes.)

Read her account of her singular career at Longreads.


Lauren O'Neal is an MFA student at San Francisco State University. Her writing has appeared in publications like Slate, The New Inquiry, and The Hairpin. You can follow her on Twitter at @laureneoneal. More from this author →