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There was a small boom in cult documentaries during the Trump years. At least two television series and a podcast were shot through Nxivm, an organization made up half of tiered marketing programs and half of sexual abuse cabal. Wild Wild Country, a six-part series about Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh’s Oregon compound, has been released on Netflix. Heaven’s Gate was the subject of a four-part series on HBO Max and a ten-part podcast. In fact, there have been so many podcasts about cults lately that sites like Oprah Daily have published lists of the best.
In many ways, the compelling new podcast “The Turning: The Sisters Who Left,” which debuted Tuesday, is unfolding like one of those shows. It begins with a woman, Mary Johnson, hoping to escape the religious order in which she lives. “We always went out in pairs. We were never allowed to just go out and do something, ”she explains. “So I couldn’t have taken more than five or six steps before someone ran up to me and said, ‘Where are you going?'”
Johnson sees an opportunity in taking another woman to the hospital where there is a room full of old clothes that the patients left behind. She makes a plan to take off her civilian religious uniform and flee, even though she doesn’t go through it.
It’s what she wants to escape that makes “The Turning” so fascinating. Johnson spent 20 years in Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity before going on official channels in 1997. “The Turning” portrays the Order of the Holy Nun – Mother Teresa was canonized in 2016 – as a beehive of psychological abuse and coercion. It begs the question of whether the difference between a strict monastic community and a cult lies simply in the social acceptance of operational belief.
“The missionaries of charity bore the characteristics of these groups in many ways that we can easily identify as cults,” Johnson told me. “But because it comes from the Catholic Church and is so strongly identified with the Catholic Church, which is by and large a religion and not a cult, people immediately tend to assume that ‘cult’ does not apply here.”
“The Turning” is far from the first journalistic work to challenge Mother Teresa’s sacred reputation. Christopher Hitchens described her in his 1995 book “The Missionary Position” as a “demagogue, obscurantist and servant of earthly powers”. (Hitchens worked with writer and filmmaker Tariq Ali on a short documentary about Mother Teresa called Hell’s Angel.) A Calcutta-born doctor named Aroup Chatterjee made a second career exploring the cruelty and filth in the world Mother Teresa, abused by houses for the poor, ran into his town.
She and other critics argued that Mother Teresa fetishized the suffering rather than alleviating it. Chatterjee described children cuffed to beds in an orphanage run by the Missionaries of Charity and patients in their home for the dying who were given only aspirin for pain. “He and others said Mother Teresa took her adherence to frugality and simplicity in her work to the extreme, facilitating practices such as needle reuse and tolerating primitive facilities where patients had to defecate in front of each other,” the New York Times reported . (Sanitary practices have reportedly improved after Mother Teresa’s death, and Chatterjee told The Times that needle reuse has been eliminated.)
What makes “The Turning” unique is its focus on the inner workings of the Missionaries of Charity. The former sisters describe an obsession with chastity so intense that any physical human contact or friendship was forbidden. According to Johnson, Mother Teresa even told them not to touch the babies they were caring for more than necessary. They were expected to regularly whip themselves – a practice known as “discipline” – and were only allowed to visit their families once every 10 years.
A former charity Missionaries nun named Colette Livermore recalled being denied permission to visit her brother in the hospital despite being believed to be dying. “I wanted to go home, but you see, I had no money and my hair was completely shaved – not that that would have stopped me. I didn’t have normal clothes, ”she said. “It’s just strange how cut you are from your family.” She used the term “brainwashing” to refer to her experience.
“I didn’t mention the word” cult “,” said Erika Lantz, the host of the podcast. “Some of the former sisters did.” This does not mean that her views about Mother Teresa or the Missionaries of Charity are generally negative. Their feelings towards the woman they once glorified and the movement to which they dedicated years of their lives are complex, and the podcast is melancholy rather than bitter.
“I still have great affection for the women who are there and the women who have gone, some obviously more than others,” Johnson told me. “But the group as a whole makes me really, very, very sad to see how far they are from Mother Teresa’s initial impulse.” Mother Teresa used to say, “Let’s do something beautiful for God.” That, said Johnson, “was kind of a ghost of the first thing. And it’s gotten so twisted over the years. “
Not all of these stories are new; Johnson and Livermore have written memoirs. But we have a new context for them. Interest in cults is growing, likely due to the fact that America was ruled for four years by a sociopathic con man with dark magnetism who shrouded much of the country in a dangerous alternate reality. And there is a broader drive in American culture to expose guilty balance of power and reevaluate revered historical figures. Viewed from a contemporary, secular perspective, a community centered around a charismatic founder and dedicated to the dandelion formation of suffering and the annihilation of feminine selfhood does not seem blessed and ethereal. It seems scary.
Quoting Mother Teresa, a sister says, “Love, to be real, has to hurt.” If you heard the same words from another guru, you would know where the story would lead.
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