International Women’s Day Profile – Sarah Steel ‘Let’s Talk About Sects’ Podcast Founder and Host

In honour of International Women’s Day, we are most pleased to present you with a profile of one of our most successful, long term sponsorship partners, Sarah Steel, the founder and host of the ‘Let’s Talk About Sects‘ (LTAS) podcast. If you like to know more about cults and hear from survivors, we whole-heartedly recommend listening to LTAS. We were super excited when she agreed to answer some of our questions for our website. Without further ado, here are her answers.

How did you get started with LTAS?

Around 2015, my housemate and I were listening to lots of podcasts and started chatting about how we’d love to hear one about cults. At the time (if you can believe it) there wasn’t one. Like many women, I was consuming a lot of true crime and was inspired by independent podcasters like Kristi Lee, an Australian-Canadian who makes Canadian True Crime, and also Anna Priestland, who had left her day job in fashion to write for Casefile. These were the people who made me think, hey, maybe I could do this!

I studied filmmaking and ended up working in film marketing roles, but was making short films in my spare time – I’ve always loved to have a creative project on the go. I knew that I could take some of those storytelling skills into audio. Coincidentally, the Knight Center in Texas was running an Introduction to Podcasting MOOC (massive online open course) right around then, and I signed up. That was hugely helpful. It ran through all the elements, from equipment to editing basics to RSS feeds to marketing considerations.

But really, it was when Joe (Gould, who composes all the music for Let’s Talk About Sects) bought me an AT2020 USB mic for a Christmas present that I felt like I had everything I needed to get started. And I swear I’m not just saying that because this is an Audio-Technica profile!

What advice would you give people who are thinking about starting a podcast?

I’ve given advice to a number of people who are thinking about starting a podcast, and honestly, it mostly amounts to “just do it!” Certainly, the women who ask me for advice tend to be more hesitant and less confident that they can pull it off, but I’m sure that applies to some men as well. A personal anecdote – just last year Joe was with me when I went to buy a mic adapter and the sales guy spoke to him the entire time like I wasn’t even there. This stuff still happens, all the time. It can be easy to get discouraged.

The great thing about the medium is that there are no gatekeepers on the publishing end as such – anyone can put up a show with an RSS feed. There are of course other barriers to entry, but a lot of the equipment to get you started is becoming increasingly affordable. I’m loving seeing more diverse voices out there, and hope to be seeing more.

There are two other key pieces of advice that are perhaps a little more useful. Firstly, don’t overcommit. I’ve seen many podcasters burn out when that initial enthusiasm begins to fade. If you’re doing it well, a podcast is a lot of work. Unless you have a team to help you edit and release, even a conversational show takes many hours if you’re going to make it listenable and marketable. I went for monthly episodes with seasons of 8 each year, and that’s so far been manageable for me. I continue to be in awe of anyone doing weekly scripted shows.

Secondly, make sure you have a subject you’re going to be able to maintain interest in. My passion for the subject has completely changed over time – initially, it was the same general psychosocial fascination with cults that most people have, but now LTAS has a mission to provide a platform for victim-survivors to tell their stories, and to remove the stigma around those who “join” cults (spoiler alert: barely anyone ever joins a cult). The feedback that the show is making a real difference in people’s lives is the best motivation I could ask for.

What are the characteristics of the cults you have looked into? 

A few common traits I’ve seen across high-demand groups are:

  • Leadership that doesn’t encourage questions
  • An “us and them” mentality where everyone outside the group is seen to be unenlightened or plain wrong, only those within have access to the truth
  • Those who leave are usually seen as evil and forsaken, rather than supported into their future endeavours
  • A tendency to dress the same, whether through specific restrictions or just general expectations, particularly for women
  • Followers feeling the need to consult the group about life decisions that those of us in the outside community would never think to ask anyone else about
  • Leaders framing the group as being persecuted if any media or ex-members begin asking legitimate questions or try to hold them to account for any wrongdoings

And though I’ve looked at a fair few groups now with female leaders, overwhelmingly cult leaders are male – plus there tend to be more female followers. I guess this is the same as leadership structures across the rest of society, in boardrooms and in politics. A lot of these groups are highly patriarchal, even when they claim to be about female empowerment.

Who are the people that have to realise they ended up in a cult?

There are so many cults out there. I had no idea when I started this project. My list grows constantly, and I could do this podcast for the rest of my life and never run out of groups to look into. But I think in some ways we can all fall victim to cult-like thinking. It’s just the way that human psychology works.

So I think every one of us would do well to examine the ways in which we might be perpetuating some of these damaging behaviours. We should look at the nuances of the so-called “cancel culture” and see that sure, sometimes it’s toxic black-and-white thinking, but sometimes all it is is holding someone to account for their own bad behaviour. We should look at power structures and make sure we are prioritising accountability and transparency to keep them in check. We should look at what we value in leadership, and whether it’s right. We should require that anyone who aspires to lead is able to collaborate and demonstrate empathy.

What are some of the takeaways from your experience interviewing and researching former cult/sect members and experts?

I’ve found there’s still a pretty big victim-blaming mentality around people who’ve exited cults, and this really needs to change. The rest of us want to believe we’d never end up in that situation and be so easily manipulated, and it’s scary to believe that we could. But the blame has to go where it belongs – with the manipulators. Research has shown that you get more out of life by trusting people, and it’s very unfortunate if you trust the wrong person. I’m sure we’ve all been there in one way or another!

Also, I don’t think our societies are set up to effectively help those who exit cults. The coercive control that people experience in cults is not well understood by many psychologists, and most definitely not by police. People I’ve interviewed who went to police faced the attitude that their experiences were the result of their own choices. That said, it is also tricky for police to investigate these types of groups. I’ve spoken to many people who came out of cults with nothing, and had dedicated years of their life and labour to these groups, and sometimes their life savings and inheritances – yet no crime had been committed so there was nothing the police could do. I think the law needs to change to recognise coercive control as a crime not just in domestic relationships, but also within high-demand groups.

Was there a very memorable or thought-provoking moment in your podcast career you would be able to share?

It would have to be winning the Australian Podcast Award for Independent True Crime in 2019. I couldn’t believe it! There was a fancy ceremony at the Seymour Centre, and all the awards were being won by the big networks and broadcasters (who are doing excellent work, of course). But there was this one independent category, and it was judged by some real industry heavyweights, so it meant an awful lot to me that I won it.

In terms of a more thought-provoking moment, I get those all the time. I’m hugely grateful to the ex-members who share their stories with me, and I’m totally inspired by their bravery in speaking out. Laura Sullivan, who told me about her experiences in Outreach International, was the first former member to speak out in any public way – you couldn’t even Google that group when I interviewed her. And she isn’t the only interviewee whose story has brought me to tears. It’s really due to all the ex-members that my understanding has increased and put me in a position to make an impactful show.

Has your vision for the podcast changed since you started? What is next?

I think it became clear to me in the first season that the podcast was going to be something quite different from my initial vision. I was using voice actors back then, and although I spoke with Ben Shenton (child member of The Family) for the first episode, I wasn’t pursuing interviews heavily. These days, many of my episodes are driven by former members getting in touch with me to tell their story. And I take that as a huge compliment. I’m incredibly honoured to be trusted with these very personal and traumatic stories. I want the podcast to make a difference in the world.

The big news in the “what’s next” column is that I’ve been approached by a major publisher to write a book – so I’m very excited about that. We’ve just signed the contract and I’m getting into the research phase now. I’m really looking forward to digging into the wider societal issues that I think about all the time and sharing some of the things I’ve learned that will hopefully be useful to anyone who’s experienced manipulative and controlling relationships in any aspect of their life.

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