Cults in themselves are not a very complex phenomenon to understand. A charismatic person leads a group of people with a mix of spiritual and psychological instructions and knowledge to command their unquestioning allegiance and obedience and makes profits from it. The real enigma is about a cult follower’s relenting control of one’s self to a group or a person and the circumstances under which a person does so. BBC Sounds’ eight-episode podcast A Very British Cult takes an in-depth investigative look into a British life-coaching group called the Lighthouse, which according to most classic parameters can be termed as a cult, to seek answers to this all-important question about the loss of the sense of self.
Reported and narrated by Catrin Nye, the podcast weaves a fascinating and elaborate narrative centered around people who got enrolled in the Lighthouse whilst seeking life coaching and stepped deeper and deeper into the organisation often loosing not only money and family members in the process but also their own autonomy, only to eventually get disillusioned by the organisation and leave it. Besides telling the stories of these individuals, the podcast also uses the testimonies of their family members to relate how their involvement in the group affected their near and dear ones who could observe the detrimental effects that it was having upon their lives.
The podcast tries to uncover the reasons that these people joined Lighthouse and in doing so it tries to make a larger point about the personal circumstances due to which people seek help and guidance in life. It tries to explore both the business of life-coaching as well as cults by including inputs from both life coaching practitioners and cult specialists. The coverage of the issue provides a fascinating social-psychological insight into the entire phenomenon of cult.
The podcast also undertakes a rigourous investigative exercise to trace the origins and progress of Lighthouse itself, including a brief life-history of its founder Paul Waugh starting from his humble beginnings in South Africa up to his iconic status as the leader of the Lighthouse in Britain. Through the intertwined history of Waugh and Lighthouse, the story attempts to lay out how a cult and a cult leader materialise. The common factor in both, as revealed through the podcast, is the opacity with which they operate, refusing to entertain any enquiry or calls for accountability. In fact, the most identifiable thread in this story is that of the hostility and vendetta with which the organisation goes after anyone who questions them, especially former members and their families.
The story takes a serendipitous turn towards the end which makes for a fascinating listen where the group’s opacity backed by its hubris is challenged by the government authorities themselves. How it turns out, what becomes of the Lighthouse, its key members and its founder Paul Waugh and how the former members who have escaped the clutches of the organisation pick up the pieces of their lives, are the questions, answers to which bring this story to a full circle towards the end.
The expanse of the investigation is remarkable as Nye takes us into the thick of things by reporting at various locations, important to this story, often providing a play by play commentary of her team’s investigations and their findings. The narrativisation is crisp and objective without any needless dramatisation making this podcast a fascinating audio-investigative documentary.
The most important takeaway from this podcast is the cautionary tale of surrendering one’s faculty of critical thinking and reasoning when lured by the appeal of an organisation or an individual whilst looking for help or answers during some important moments in one’s life. As the story reveals, it is not just emotionally vulnerable people who can be captured by the appeal of cultish personalities or cults but also those who may otherwise seem in full control of their lives. What draws most of them in, is the need for some reassurance or guidance at a specific point when they might be facing a big change in their personal lives.
Cults are not a new phenomenon but in a world where “influencers”, “life coaches”, “following” and “followers” are becoming increasingly normalised especially due to the omnipresence of social media, this podcast is a good reminder of the importance of critical thinking and questioning everything without any exceptions.