My Dad Grew Up in a Cult. Now He’s a Famous Scientist.

The story of how he wound up in a dangerous compound—and how he escaped

Amanda Montell
Human Parts
Published in
9 min readApr 13, 2021

--

Two vintage photographs of my dad and his sisters
My dad and his sisters, in the 1960s and 1980s, just before and after Synanon.

I was so young when my dad started telling me his cult stories that I don’t think I even knew what a cult was. In a way, I still don’t. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I realized how unique it was to have a father who regaled his young daughter with vivid narratives from his early life, much less one who survived an adolescence as gripping and gut-wrenching as his.

Now 65, my dad doesn’t look like the stereotype of a traumatized ex-cultist who came of age under the baleful reign of a charismatic leader. Today, Dr. Craig Montell is a world-renowned neuroscientist with a litany of awards, honorary doctorates, and publications across prestigious journals like Science and Cell. He wears argyle pullovers and rimless glasses when he teaches his undergrads and plugs away at his grants from a corner office, where he runs an oceanfront research laboratory at the University of California, Santa Barbara. You would never guess to look at him that my dad spent his teenage years in a notorious cult called Synanon.

--

--

Amanda Montell
Human Parts

Los Angeles writer / Author of Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism & Wordslut: A Feminist Guide to Taking Back the English Language https://tinyurl.com/34886sec