So in my entry yesterday, I mentioned that I have a fascination with stories about cults, but didn’t find the documentary The End of the World Cult to be that fascinating. Sure, it was interesting, but it was very “by the numbers.” I don’t think that I needed Jonestown-type footage to make it interesting; I think what I needed was a deeper dive into what drives the cult, its history, and more testimony from former members. That’s not necessarily something you can do in an hour when your focus has to be on the people who are there and the leader (and if you want a good long-form documentary on a cult, check out Netflix’s Wild Wild Country).
Fortunately, there are podcasts out there that scratch this itch and do it well, mainly because they are created and produced by people who are either experienced journalists or experts in the field of psychology and help people out of such groups. Here’s a quick rundown of four of them that are worth the listen and definitely fall into the “subscribe” or “keep” side of things (links in the podcast titles).
Uncover, season 1: Escaping NXIVM. Produced by the CBC, this podcast is a very in-depth look at the NXIVM “self-help” group/cult whose leader, Keith Raniere, is currently in jail for sex trafficking charges. It’s also the group that famously included Smallville actress Allison Mack among its high-level members (and she is is also serving time). The lens through which we hear the NXIVM story is Sarah Edmonson, a Canadian actress who was one of the more active recruiters for the group, and whom also found herself taken into the subgroup “DOS”, a master-slave sex cult that Mack was purportedly leading and included some of the more bizarre behavior that you may have heard about on the news. The season is eight episodes (nine if you include a post-mortem episode that previews season 2) and each episode runs about 45 minutes.
American Scandal: Waco. A Wondery podcast (and Wondery being one of those podcasting networks that sucks you into all of its shows at one point or another), this is a pretty well-reported rundown of the Branch Davidian cult, David Koresh, and the standoff at the cult’s compound in Waco, Texas in 1993. The insights into Koresh and some of the interviews of the people involved are very good, and while there have been volumes written and produced on this tragedy, it provides even those who know a little bit about what happened (I was in high school and remember seeing it on the news) with some insight. This has seven episodes and after listening to it, I’d watch the PBS American Experience documentary The Road to Oklahoma City, because that is an outstanding show about how the events here influenced and motivated Timothy McVeigh.
IndoctriNation. Rachel Bernstein is a family therapist who has, for years, worked with people who have escaped the influenced of cults and other high-intensity groups. Each episode, she interviews someone who is in that position and they talk about their history with that group as well as the lingering effects on their lives.
Similar to that is …
Generation Cult. This podcast, hosted by Dhyana Levey, also interviews people who survived cults, and is more or less a companion to IndoctriNation (honestly, neither is superior to the other). The show has two season and went “off the air” this April, so there’s a finite number of episodes.
Both of these shows are fascinating because they not only provide a deep dive into groups that are very extreme but also groups that you may have heard of like the Moonies or Jehovah’s Witnesses. Plus, IndoctriNation has a great couple of episodes about Multilevel Marketing companies (MLMs, for short) and how they are very cult-like. My favorite thing about them, though, is that the hosts take the time to let their guests talk at length about getting out of the cults and how they’ve been affected since. What has it been like to deal with the trauma? How behind have they been on their education? Are their relationships affected? Do they feel a pull back? It’s all fascinating.