During the Trump years, there was a small boom in documentaries about cults. At least two television series and a podcast were made about Nxivm, an organisation based in the United States that was half multilevel-marketing scheme, half sex-abuse cabal. Wild Wild Country, a six-part series about Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh's compound in Oregon, was released on Netflix. Heaven's Gate was the subject of a four-part series on HBO Max and a 10-part podcast. Indeed, there have been so many recent podcasts about cults that sites such as Oprah Daily have published listicles about the best ones.
In many ways the compelling new podcast The Turning: The Sisters Who Left, which debuted on Tuesday, unfolds like one of these shows. It opens with a woman, Mary Johnson, hoping to escape the religious order in which she lives. "We always went out two by two. We were never allowed just to walk out and do something," she says. "So I wouldn't have been able to go, you know, more than five or six paces before somebody ran up to me and said, 'Where are you going?'"
The Missionaries of Charity, very much, in so many ways, carried the characteristics of those groups that we easily recognise as cults
Johnson sees an opportunity in escorting another woman to the hospital, where there's a room full of old clothes that patients have left behind. She makes a plan to shed her religious uniform for civilian garb and flee, though she doesn't go through with it.
It is what she wants to flee that makes The Turning so fascinating. Johnson spent 20 years in Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity before leaving through official channels in 1997. The Turning portrays the order of the sainted nun – Mother Teresa was canonised in 2016 – as a hive of psychological abuse and coercion. It raises the question of whether the difference between a strict monastic community and a cult lies simply in the social acceptability of the operative faith.
"The Missionaries of Charity, very much, in so many ways, carried the characteristics of those groups that we easily recognise as cults," Johnson told me. "But because it comes out of the Catholic Church and is so strongly identified with the Catholic Church, which on the whole is a religion and not a cult, people tend immediately to assume that 'cult' doesn't apply here."
The Turning is far from the first work of journalism to question Mother Teresa's hallowed reputation. Christopher Hitchens excoriated her as "a demagogue, an obscurantist and a servant of earthly powers," in his 1995 book, The Missionary Position. (Along with the writer and filmmaker Tariq Ali, Hitchens also collaborated on a short documentary about Mother Teresa titled Hell's Angel.) A Calcutta-born physician named Aroup Chatterjee made a second career lambasting the cruelty and filth in the homes for the poor that Mother Teresa ran in his city.
Mother Teresa took her adherence to frugality and simplicity to extremes, tolerating primitive facilities that required patients to defecate in front of one another
They and other critics argued that Mother Teresa fetishised suffering rather than seeking to alleviate it. Chatterjee described children tied to beds in a Missionaries of Charity orphanage and patients in its Home for the Dying given nothing but aspirin for their pain. “He and others said that Mother Teresa took her adherence to frugality and simplicity in her work to extremes, allowing practices like the reuse of hypodermic needles and tolerating primitive facilities that required patients to defecate in front of one another,” the New York Times reported. (Hygiene practices reportedly improved after Mother Teresa’s death, and Chatterjee told the Times that the reuse of needles was eliminated.)
What makes The Turning unique is its focus on the internal life of the Missionaries of Charity. The former sisters describe an obsession with chastity so intense that any physical human contact or friendship was prohibited; according to Johnson, Mother Teresa even told them not to touch the babies they cared for more than necessary. They were expected to flog themselves regularly – a practice called “the discipline” – and were allowed to leave to visit their families only once every 10 years.
A former Missionaries of Charity nun named Colette Livermore recalled being denied permission to visit her brother in the hospital, even though he was thought 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 any regular clothes," she said. "It's just strange how completely cut off you are from your family." Speaking of her experience, she used the term "brainwashing".
"I didn't bring up the word 'cult'," Erika Lantz, the podcast's host, told me. "Some of the former sisters did." This doesn't mean their views of Mother Teresa or the Missionaries of the Charity are universally negative. Their feelings about the woman they once glorified and the movement they gave years of their lives to are complex, and the podcast is more melancholy than bitter.
“I still have a great deal of affection for the women who are there, as well as the women who have left, some obviously more than others,” Johnson told me. “But the group as a whole, it just makes me really, really, really sad to see how far they’ve strayed from Mother Teresa’s initial impulse.” Mother Teresa famously used to say, “Let’s do something beautiful for God.” That, said Johnson, “was kind of the spirit of the initial thing. And it got so twisted over the years.”
Not all these stories are new; Johnson and Livermore have written memoirs. But we have a new context for them. There is the surge of interest in cults, likely driven by the fact that for four years the United States was run by a sociopathic con man with a dark magnetism who enveloped a huge part of the country in a dangerous alternative reality. And there's a broader drive in American culture to expose iniquitous power relations and re-evaluate revered historical figures. Viewed through a contemporary, secular lens, a community built around a charismatic founder and dedicated to the lionisation of suffering and the annihilation of female selfhood doesn't seem blessed and ethereal. It seems sinister.
One sister quotes Mother Teresa saying, "Love, to be real, has to hurt." If you heard the same words from any other guru, you'd know where the story was going. – New York Times