There are many true crime documentaries about crazed, self-regarding cult figures and their largely messed-up followers, but few are as curious as The Followers: House of Prayer. Here, the main protagonist resists many of the familiar clichés of offbeat sect leaders (think creepy white guys like David Koresh or Marshall Applewhite), yet Anna Young still ultimately escapes our sympathies as, episode-by-episode, we’re introduced to more harrowing stories of her young and innocent victims.
The first and most obvious anomaly that immediately hits us between the eyes is that, evidently, Anna is a woman — a black woman of pretty humble birth. She also a practicing christian (her interpretation of the Bible leaves a lot to be desired, but she isn’t Charles Manson), and an outwardly loving mother to her many children (and at the point the podcast begins, an elderly one).
But, at the same time, Anna is an arrogant, meglomaniac cult leader, a serial child abuser, an accused murderer and the brutal former master of a number of vulnerable adults.
It’s a peculiar and jarring package. And though there is a clear and traceable confusion between caring and cruelty lurking beneath the surface here, Anna’s actions cannot be so easily dismissed. There is evil — or something like it — at play here too. It’s illustrated by the haunting testimonies of witnesses like John, who recounts his own abuse, aged 7, at the hands of the deluded adults around him: “I was lying on the couch. I remember it was a couch with a yellow cover on it, because by the time they was done the whole couch was just covered in blood. In my blood.“
Another striking aspect of this story — aside from its unrestrained violence against children — is how it eventually came to light: Anna was reported to the police by her own biological daughter, Joy, whose conscience forced her to reveal long-suppressed family secrets that had burdened for her many years. That Joy wrestles so much with this report is intriguing and also baffling. It gives us some idea of Anna’s hold and influence or, perhaps, it is a kind of testimony to whatever redeeming features she may have had as a parent.
Ultimately though, Joy just has too many questions about incidents she witnessed in her youth. Why did so many children die or go missing from Anna’s care? Could God really condone her mother’s ruthless behavior towards her community of followers?
This is a sad tale, in which there are no winners. Just a long trail of destruction, that includes lives wasted, relationships severed, parents left without answers, and even Anna’s own family at odds with one another.
The investigation is thoughtfully presented by host Leila Day and investigative journalist Beth Karas, who work to carefully expose each individual case and yet, for such a strange and maddening story, this podcast does fail to land a killer blow with its delivery.
Well, we’re told of Anna’s charm and how it pulled vulnerable and unsuspecting would-be followers into her orbit, yet somehow she isn’t quite fully drawn. It can be difficult for the listener to truly understand why her devotees withstood her vicious attacks and apparently remorseless cruelty. Something — we’re not sure what — has been left out.
We’re told that she Anna had traits that were likable. Her children want to hug her before she is sent to a prison cell by the judge, but we’re not sure why. What it was about her that kept — and continues to keep in the case of her relatives — so many individuals loyal. The ‘Anna effect’ is referred to but never described in the technicolor required to reinforce the tension at the center of the piece.
This should be a memorable story. In some ways it is a tale of our time: one of power, displacement, blind faith, race, gender, community, cruelty and unfulfilled potential. But it just isn’t in the end, and that’s a real shame, because the children that were beaten, abused, and disposed of by Anna Young deserve to have that suffering recognized more vividly than this interesting but quiet podcast allows.