CRIME CULTURE: Northern Irish journalist and podcaster, Emily G. Thompson, has released two new books in the same month, with the promise of ‘uncovering’ bizarre cults and mysterious unsolved murders. G. L. Marlowe takes a look at both and gives her verdict.
Last month investigative journalist and podcaster, Emily G. Thompson, released her second and third book: Cults Uncovered: True Stories of Mind Control and Murder and Unsolved Murders: True Crime Cases Uncovered, co-authored with Amber Hunt. The blurbs promise to “uncover the secrets of the world’s cruellest criminal cults” and that the authors will sort the “facts from speculation.” Rather big claims for two books under 250 pages each.
Now, I’m someone who considers themselves somewhat well versed in cults. However, I am always keen to learn something new and uncover little known facts about what I thought I knew. I’m especially curious when I find a case that I have not stumbled across previously.
Opening Cults Uncovered I was disappointed to find that out of the 18 cults covered I knew about 15. I didn’t let this faze me, hoping that I would uncover new information as promised, or from a technical perspective be blown away by the writing style or unique perspective of the author. The cults picked were renowned for disgusting evils and surely there was more to uncover than what was in the headlines.
It became clear to me that I was not the target audience for this book. This book would work well as a beginner’s guide to cults. It sets out the basic facts and controversies but doesn’t really go any deeper.
It is hard to fit the extreme behaviour and manipulation of someone like Jim Jones or Keith Raniere accurately and comprehensively in a short chapter of a book. There was a focus on the leader and then what brought the cult to an end. There was barely any focus on the theology and philosophy of the cults or what these cults offered which ensnared people.
Due to the possible oversaturation of true crime in the current cultural sphere, most people know what a cult is. Although, Thompson does not set the parameters of a book by defining what she believes a cult is, and why these particular cases have been chosen. Why choose Heaven’s Gate over the Children of God? Or Aum Shinrikyo over The Moonies? No explanation was given or a common link drawn between the cases. As an “armchair expert” I can make as many claims about how I think cults target disillusioned people who often want to make the world a better place (at least in their view); or how love bombing and emotional manipulation eventually convince people to isolate themselves from society – but I don’t have the qualifications or proper research under my belt to be an expert in any sense of the word. On a more academic note, Robert Jay Lifton provides the most well-known definition in his 1981 article ‘Cult Formation.’ According to him a cult has:
- “a charismatic leader who increasingly becomes an object of worship as the general principles that may have originally sustained the group lose their power;
- a process I call coercive persuasion or thought reform;
- economic, sexual, and other exploitation of group members by the leader and the ruling coterie.”
For someone starting out on their journey into the world of cults, it is definitions like these that foster an understanding of why people chose to join cults. Why they stay and how these groups differ from religions.
Thompson’s short chapters are packed with facts, and the structure worked well for dipping in and out. The three cults I encountered for the first time I did find fascinating but wanted to know more. I found myself reaching out for other resources once I finished. Although when it came to the cases I did know about, I found myself getting distracted. There was the odd new piece of information but it was rare and a lot of the time that had to do with the extreme amount of violence, some of which was so gruesome and relayed so clinically that I had to put the book down for a few minutes to take a breath.
But sadly, there just wasn’t anything unique about this book.
This may be due to one of (at least what I believe to be) the worst things to come out of the rise of true crime: books and other mass media rehash everything the public already knows when there are plenty of cases which still need more coverage. I am of the strong opinion that everyone, for at least fifteen years, needs to stop writing, recording and directing anything to do with Charles Manson, the Zodiac Killer, Ted Bundy or JonBenet Ramsey. No one is shining a light on anything new. No one is putting forward new evidence that is being taken into consideration. It’s like a first-year English student claiming to have a new insight on Shakespeare – it’s most likely that it’s already been already written. There are still plenty of unsolved cases that have not been given the attention they deserve.
This is something that Thompson and Hunt do achieve to some extent in Unsolved Murders. While writing about high-profile cases such as The Black Dahlia, the Zodiac Killer and JonBenet Ramsey, at least half of the cases covered were little known murders, committed over the last century. These cases have either faded in the public mind or were ignored due to victims living in lower socioeconomic areas, their professions, or lack of sensationalism surrounding their murders (this feeds into the concept of the “less dead”). Some of these cases were previously thought to be solved before convictions were overturned and are therefore still cold.
Listening to Thompson’s podcast, Morbidology, I was impressed by her coverage of the unknown. Her episode on the shooting of Latisha King showcased the perfect way to honour a victim of a crime despite the controversy surrounding her death. Thompson – unlike many other podcasters and writers – didn’t overtly say she was trying to honour the victim but did it. And did it effectively.
Although this did not always come through in the book. There seemed to be a rush to get all the crime scene, evidence and suspects into under 10 pages, hindering what comes across so clearly in her podcasting work. The cases ended abruptly and probably weren’t given enough space to be fully analysed. No judgement was made. Although I believe that was the intention, but at times it became frustrating as when comparing evidence against suspects, as some clearly had more means, opportunity, motive, not to mention circumstantial evidence.
Unlike Cults Uncovered, the information was not as clearly referenced which prevented the reader from gaining any other place recommended to get more information. I didn’t know where the information came from which in a post-Truth world always scares me.
Unsolved Murders was the stronger of the two, covering cases that deserve attention and have been forgotten making for an engaging read as the reader got to hear the disturbing and sometimes just weird cases that have been forgotten by history. Including Australia’s own Shark Arm Case in 1935 which reeks of old timey drug gangs and illegal gambling dens, and the Frankenstein-esque Cleveland Torso Murders which causes one to wonder if someone enjoyed the Bride of Frankenstein film a little too much.
Both Cults Uncovered and Unsolved Murders are perfect for the armchair detective who is just starting out on their true crime journey but for seasoned veterans it comes up short.