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Opinion | Was Mom Teresa a Cult Chief?


Through the Trump years, there was a small increase in documentaries about cults. At the least two TV collection and a podcast have been made about Nxivm, a company that was half multilevel advertising scheme, half intercourse abuse cabal. “Wild Wild Nation,” a six-part collection about Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh’s compound in Oregon, was launched on Netflix. Heaven’s Gate was the topic of a four-part collection on HBO Max and a 10-part podcast. Certainly, there have been so many current podcasts about cults that websites like Oprah Day by day have printed listicles about one of the best ones.

In some ways the compelling new podcast “The Turning: The Sisters Who Left,” which debuted on Tuesday, unfolds like one in every of these exhibits. It opens with a lady, Mary Johnson, hoping to flee the non secular order during which she lives. “We all the time went out two by two. We have been by no means allowed simply to stroll out and do one thing,” she explains. “So I wouldn’t have been capable of go, , greater than 5 – 6 paces earlier than any individual ran as much as me and mentioned, ‘The place are you going?’”

Johnson sees a possibility in escorting one other lady to the hospital, the place there’s a room stuffed with previous garments that sufferers have left behind. She makes a plan to shed her non secular uniform for civilian garb and flee, although she doesn’t undergo with it.

It’s what she desires to flee that makes “The Turning” so fascinating. Johnson spent 20 years in Mom Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity earlier than leaving by means of official channels in 1997. “The Turning” portrays the order of the sainted nun — Mom Teresa was canonized in 2016 — as a hive of psychological abuse and coercion. It raises the query of whether or not the distinction between a strict monastic group and a cult lies merely within the social acceptability of the operative religion.

“The Missionaries of Charity, very a lot, in so some ways, carried the traits of these teams that we simply acknowledge as cults,” Johnson informed me. “However as a result of it comes out of the Catholic Church and is so strongly recognized with the Catholic Church, which on the entire is a faith and never a cult, folks have a tendency instantly to imagine that ‘cult’ doesn’t apply right here.”

“The Turning” is much from the primary work of journalism to query Mom Teresa’s hallowed repute. Christopher Hitchens excoriated her as “a demagogue, an obscurantist and a servant of earthly powers,” in his 1995 e book “The Missionary Place.” (Together with the author and filmmaker Tariq Ali, Hitchens collaborated on a brief documentary about Mom Teresa titled “Hell’s Angel.”) A Calcutta-born doctor named Aroup Chatterjee made a second profession lambasting the cruelty and filth within the properties for the poor that Mom Teresa ran in his metropolis.

They and different critics argued that Mom Teresa fetishized struggling relatively than sought to alleviate it. Chatterjee described kids tied to beds in a Missionaries of Charity orphanage and sufferers in its Residence for the Dying given nothing however aspirin for his or her ache. “He and others mentioned that Mom Teresa took her adherence to frugality and ease in her work to extremes, permitting practices just like the reuse of hypodermic needles and tolerating primitive amenities that required sufferers to defecate in entrance of each other,” The New York Instances reported. (Hygiene practices reportedly improved after Mom Teresa’s demise, and Chatterjee informed The Instances that the reuse of needles was eradicated.)

What makes “The Turning” distinctive is its deal with the inner lifetime of the Missionaries of Charity. The previous sisters describe an obsession with chastity so intense that any bodily human contact or friendship was prohibited; in line with Johnson, Mom Teresa even informed them to not contact the infants they cared for greater than mandatory. They have been anticipated to flog themselves often — a apply referred to as “the self-discipline” — and have been allowed to depart to go to their households solely as soon as each 10 years.

A former Missionaries of Charity nun named Colette Livermore recalled being denied permission to go to her brother within the hospital, despite the fact that he was regarded as dying. “I wished to go dwelling, however you see, I had no cash, and my hair was utterly shaved — not that that may have stopped me. I didn’t have any common garments,” she mentioned. “It’s simply unusual how utterly minimize off you might be from your loved ones.” Talking of her expertise, she used the time period “brainwashing.”

“I didn’t deliver up the phrase ‘cult,’” Erika Lantz, the podcast’s host, informed me. “Among the former sisters did.” This doesn’t imply their views of Mom Teresa or the Missionaries of the Charity are universally unfavorable. Their emotions concerning the lady they as soon as glorified and the motion they gave years of their lives to are complicated, and the podcast is extra melancholy than bitter.

“I nonetheless have an excessive amount of affection for the ladies who’re there, in addition to the ladies who’ve left, some clearly greater than others,” Johnson informed me. “However the group as an entire, it simply makes me actually, actually, actually unhappy to see how far they’ve strayed from Mom Teresa’s preliminary impulse.” Mom Teresa famously used to say, “Let’s do one thing stunning for God.” That, mentioned Johnson, “was type of the spirit of the preliminary factor. And it bought so twisted through the years.”

Not all these tales are new; Johnson and Livermore have written memoirs. However now we have a brand new context for them. There’s the surge of curiosity in cults, probably pushed by the truth that for 4 years America was run by a sociopathic con man with a darkish magnetism who enveloped an enormous a part of the nation in a harmful various actuality. And there’s a broader drive in American tradition to reveal iniquitous energy relations and re-evaluate revered historic figures. Seen by means of a recent, secular lens, a group constructed round a charismatic founder and devoted to the lionization of struggling and the annihilation of feminine selfhood doesn’t appear blessed and ethereal. It appears sinister.

One sister quotes Mom Teresa saying, “Love, to be actual, has to harm.” In the event you heard the identical phrases from some other guru, you’d know the place the story was going.

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