ALittle Bit Culty is the unofficial follow-up to HBO’s The Vow, a docuseries about the cult and pyramid scheme NXIVM. Hosted by husband-wife duo and former NXIVM members Sarah Edmondson and Anthony “Nippy” Ames, the podcast sheds light on the abuses of power that take place in cults and other high-control groups from the perspective of experts and survivors. Rather than focusing on voyeuristic details typical in the true-crime and cult genre, A Little Bit Culty builds an empathetic and humanized understanding of why people join cults, what happens behind the scenes, and what recovery looks like after exiting.
Each episode of the podcast features interviews with experts and survivors that dive deep into topics ranging from specific cults and religious groups to themes like corporate culture, abusive relationships, consent, and the language of fanaticism. The show’s dark subject matter is defused by Edmondson and Ames’s upbeat and free-flowing tone, since the two often share their own stories and vulnerabilities with their guests. Humor also plays an integral role in the podcast as the hosts and their guests each gripe about their groups in tongue-in-cheek ways, finding catharsis and levity in their shared experiences in high-control groups.
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The show’s insightful approach to the topic pushes the boundaries of what it means to be in a cult. Frequently returning to filmmaker and NXIVM survivor Mark Vicente’s statement that “Nobody joins a cult. They join a good thing,” the podcast emphasizes that people join organizations with positive intentions that over time get cannibalized by the group’s ulterior motives. Through the stories of numerous survivors, it becomes clear that the path from joining a group to becoming a full-blown cult member is systematic, with each individual being slowly cut off from a sense of self-trust. Through overt and covert manipulation, control, humiliation, and isolation, the victim gradually outsources their power to a charismatic leader. As listeners, we start to notice patterns of abuse that we can then watch out for or recognize in our own lives.
A Little Bit Culty also investigates how tactics common in high-control groups may exist in the mainstream. In an episode about the language of cults, the linguist Amanda Montell talks about concepts like thought-terminating cliches, which are phrases designed to curb cognitive dissonance and control dissent. These phrases aren’t unique to cults but are actually all too common in society at large –– think of how the well-known adage “boys will be boys” is used to undermine conversations around rape culture. In another episode about corporate culture, business expert Cameron Herold examines tactics used to encourage social cohesion in the workplace and how these can become harmful when taken too far. These conversations demonstrate that the barrier between cults and socially sanctioned institutions is porous. Seemingly good things have the capacity to go south.
As a podcast, A Little Bit Culty treads the line between genres. It is as much, if not more, an educational show about culture and society as it is a cult show. Through this positioning, the podcast successfully shines a light on the rarely seen human experiences within cults and how they affect ordinary people. It simultaneously provides relief to cult survivors who may feel isolated and ashamed after their experiences while also showing the world that anyone can fall victim to cult abuse. The show provides much-needed commentary about a world that is poorly understood and often misrepresented. By foregrounding the stories of experts and survivors, the podcast reshapes the discourse around cult abuse while having a few laughs along the way.
Tara Vidisha Ghose is a freelance media critic and culture writer based in the UK. She is especially passionate about TV, podcasts, art, astrology and anime. She is the author of The Sun is a Star, a fortnightly e-newsletter about astrology and culture and can be reached via email at [email protected]