A Very British Cult: the BBC sheds light on life coaching and The Lighthouse International Alice Howarth The Skeptic

What do you think of when you think of cults? Maybe you think of Jim Jones and the murders of his followers in the doomsday cult the Peoples Temple? Or you think of Charles Manson and the Manson Family? Maybe even you think about the more modern cult varieties like the multi-level marketing-based NXIVM.

There are a few things these cults have in common – but one of them is that they all are or were based in the US. It’s very easy to get the impression that cults just can’t really happen over here in Britain. Maybe you think we’re just too cynical a bunch to fall for some charismatic leader’s claims of peace and love changing the world? But Catrin Nye would disagree with that impression. Because she’s spent the best part of two years researching a potential cult on our very own shores.

A Very British Cult was launched on BBC Sounds at the end of March and is an eight-episode dive into Lighthouse International Group. Ostensibly, Lighthouse is a life coaching business that aims to support its clients to be the person they want to be: start that business; conquer Antarctica; live your Best Life.

The podcast follows the story of Jeff who, when he joined a reading group online, was picked up by the book club leader, Jai. According to the show, Jeff became Jai’s mentee, and would go on to spend £10,000 for a mentoring course to improve his discipline; Jeff wanted to hike to the South Pole, something that would require a remarkable amount of discipline.

Two years later, Jeff says he had given £131,000 to Lighthouse. He’d sold his house, become a ‘Lighthouse Associate Elect’ and was spending five to six hours a day from 5am on long calls, where Lighthouse leader Paul Waugh would talk at length about ‘toxic families’ and the ‘four levels’ of person you could be. Only Paul had reached the top level of ascension, level four; other members of Lighthouse were at lowly level one, but he could help them ascend. Each of these calls were recorded, transcribed and stored to make sure not a single word spoken by Paul was lost.

Jeff still hadn’t made it to the South Pole. In fact, none of the people Catrin spoke to over the course of the show apparently ever really achieved any of their goals, but they did spend day after day on hours and hours of calls, sometimes in houses shared with other Lighthouse members (one property owner believes eight people shared the six-bedroom house she rented to Lighthouse).

What A Very British Cult does remarkably well is to humanise these stories. We can all be guilty of finding stories about cults a little too salacious – we focus on the most horrific stories until we become so desensitised that jokes about “drinking the Kool-Aid” are completely divorced from their gruesome context. But it’s easy to forget that the people caught up in cults can be completely ordinary people, people with dreams and aspirations and goals.

Erin (not her real name), an ex-Lighthouse member Catrin spoke to, had experienced incredible trauma in her childhood, and had recently gone through a divorce, whereas Jeff had a relatively happy upbringing, and was in a relatively happy relationship. Nevertheless, their time in Lighthouse alienated them both from their families and loved ones to some degree, fostering a reliance on the safety and support of Lighthouse itself. Erin wanted to set up a business; Jeff wanted to hike to the South Pole – goals and aspirations that they were told Lighthouse could help with.

Catrin’s skill is in asking the difficult questions that get to the core of how and why each of the ex-members she spoke to believed in Lighthouse enough to give them tens of thousands of pounds of money they often didn’t have. She deftly exposes the depth of the damage that has been done to them, and the ways in which she believes this ‘life coaching company’ is arguably a cult.

What A Very British Cult exposes is something very real, very raw and very relatable. The podcast shows step by step how people are drawn in, gradually, slowly over time, in a way that any ordinary person might if they were exposed to these encounters. When Catrin explains that Lighthouse might have looked for people who were recently made redundant when a travel agent went out of business, I thought of family members who lost their jobs around the pandemic and how vulnerable they might have been in a similar situation.

When members try to leave Lighthouse, the podcast describes how leader Paul Waugh would switch from compassionate and supportive life coach to aggressive… and back again, several times. We hear audio of Paul telling Erin that she’s “so fucked up”. When Jai thought about leaving, he explains that Paul “loved him through it”, and we hear audio of Paul claiming he “tucked Jai away for six years” in which he “never talked to anyone” outside of Lighthouse. Jai, as the BBC found in their investigation, has CCJs for £20,000 worth of debt; Paul, by contrast, has no debt, and lives in a very large house.

Ultimately, the BBC weren’t the only ones investigating Lighthouse and the company was wound down by the courts for business failings just last month – in fact, the day before A Very British Cult launched. The details of the court case and a hostile conversation between Catrin and Paul are aired in the final episode of the show.

The podcast is a gripping listen, it delves deep into how Lighthouse works and comprehensively makes the case that this organisation is a cult. It describes the very deep harm its ex-members have suffered, and touches on the experiences of family members of those still inside the group. It also shows the humanity and bravery of the ex-members highlighted, it shows compassion for those Lighthouse members still inside the group, and it does it all while being engaging, and very listenable.

The post A Very British Cult: the BBC sheds light on life coaching and The Lighthouse International appeared first on The Skeptic.

The BBC podcast A Very British Cult is a gripping exploration of The Lighthouse’s life coaching, and the true stories of ex-members who got out
The post A Very British Cult: the BBC sheds light on life coaching and The Lighthouse International appeared first on The Skeptic.