Why We Don’t Listen to Trauma Survivors (the “Contagion” principle)

Why We Don't Listen to Trauma Survivors (the "Contagion" principle)
I had another in the series of revelatory conversations with my colleague Theodora Wildcroft the other day that have helped me at least begin to see why we don’t listen to trauma survivors. We don’t listen, ironically, even when we say we’re trying to listen to them. Even when we write articles about systemic harassment and enabling, when we host panels on the subject, when we write the think-pieces.
 
“We are contagious,” Theo said, “and those we speak to will suffer vicarious trauma. I can’t speak my truth without hurting other people.”
 

Continue reading “Why We Don’t Listen to Trauma Survivors (the “Contagion” principle)”

What that Rajneesh Documentary Leaves Out

What that Rajneesh Doc Leaves Out
Coincidence: I wrote this the same day that Win McCormack’s masterful summary of his investigative reporting on the Rajneeshis from 1983-1986 was posted. It completely confirms the speculations I’ve assembled here based largely upon my own cult experiences. It also damns the Way’s efforts to near irrelevance. For a fuller picture and citations, I encourage you to read it here.
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I’m glad that Rajneesh doc was made and is out there, but I have to object to the notion going around that it adds to a general understanding of cult dynamics. It doesn’t.
 
It can’t. What the Way brothers have made is an intoxicating Bollywood Western, minus the choreography. Yokels vs. invaders stage a culture war on a battlefield of orgasms and guns, fuelled by diamonds and drugs and the budget of the DA, played out against pop abstractions of orientalist woo and Americanist fantasies of freedom.
 
The Bhagawan is dangerous, we know, we KNOW… but who can resist goggling and chuckling at this swindler wearing his assortment of tea cosies and Star Trek priest robes, stoned on his upscale IKEA throne? And then there’s Sheela! OMG Sheela! Cooking up salmonella special in her Jesus Grove kitchen. Now the Swiss are letting her take care of old people! OMG! And so on.
 
For me, the prurient high point was the retired DA saying:
 
And so they blended up the beavers, and poured the blended-up beavers into the water supply.
 
The Ways are in their 30s. They made a baseball doc previously. This might be why the last word they give to the endearing Marlboro-man rancher Bowerman is a jovial “It’s like a ball game! Somebody wins, somebody loses, and life moves on…”.
 
I wouldn’t expect the Ways to be drawn to or equipped for the task of the victim-centred narrative. But that’s what we need if learning about cults is what we want.
 
If you read reviews that laud their “objectivity”, consider this short list of big things they left out:
 
  • The effects of joining the Rajneesh movement on members’ families and prior attachments.
  • The effects of arranged marriages and divorces and forced migration.
  • The effects of ashram life on the children born or brought into the organization.
  • The money that members were required to give, and how the 30K “working members” of the Rajneesh movement worldwide — according to Sheela — were paid virtually nothing. For years. What it meant for 99% of them to hitchhike or drive out of the Oregon desert with a few bucks of gas in their tanks and the clothes on their backs, while the leadership scatters over the earth with trunks full of diamonds and gold.
  • The drug trafficking and prostitution by which members paid their passage to various communes and then fees when they got there. (Citations in Falk.)
  • Strongly-encouraged sterilizations of members. (ibid.)
  • Interviews with ANY of the 6K homeless people exploited by the org.
  • More than glancing reference to the 10K audiotapes that contain evidence of battery and sexual assault committed amongst members. Law enforcement obviously didn’t have the resources to investigate these fully. So do these just disappear into another shot of the Bhagwan’s vacant gaze while the opera music rises? I guess so.
Consider this last point for a moment. They seemed to be saying that the tapes were of private domestic exchanges. What we have to do, however, is put that together with the somatics of public ritual.
 
If you saw that sequence in the 2nd episode that featured footage of dynamic therapy from the German filmmaker’s hidden camera, you witnessed physical and sexual assault, sanctioned through the guise of spiritual catharsis.
 
The camera, of course, presents the scene as an oddity that will provoke a sex panic amongst all those normies in overalls and suits. The media others the members as dangerous because of heterodox behaviour that could spread like a virus.
But the deeper truth is that the members are first and foremost dangerous to each other. They are being stimulated to exert control over each other as part of the top-down dominance hierarchy. Fearing the members’ behaviour from the outside is premised in part on believing that it is chosen, consensual. Not only is that premise either weak or false, but it fails to account for the fact that the members undertaking that “meditation” every day may be living in a state of perpetual volatility, if not trauma.
 
When I was a member of Endeavour Academy from 1999 to 2003, a similar dynamic meditation occupied the central hours of every day. Our sessions weren’t as explicitly violent as the Pune footage shows, but they did feature heavy body contact that was often rough and/or sexualized, despite the ideological understanding that “we were not bodies”. The leader commonly hit and rubbed up sexually against members — women and men both, but with the women he often mimed gestures of intercourse. Everybody laughed. I understand now that the laughter was defensive, but it was conflated with ecstasy.
 
It’s notable that Endeavour had many ex-Rajneeshis in it. Some of them were socially prominent. It was the next thing to do for them. This was the late 90s; many of them had been in similar communities since Oregon imploded in 1985.
This is something we should keep in mind when we think about influences in yoga and meditation communities of the early 2000s, when things started to mainstream and gentrify. Do a little digging, and you’ll find that many A-list yoga personalities have backgrounds in these groups. Then, just think about who might emerge from the 70s-80s cults with enough of their confidence and charisma intact — and also having spent their formative years disqualifying themselves from mainstream professional life — to take leadership roles in new yoga groups.
I’m not bringing this up to foster paranoia, but rather consideration. Of course people change, mature, and grow in kindness and self-reflection. But this process is rarely seen, and hard to measure. I counted some of those ex-Rajneeshis as some of my closest friends. One in particular I loved dearly. He taught me how to cook for three hundred people at a time. I still have some of his psychedelic paintings on my wall. My little boys stare at them in wonder.
But it pains me to say that could not trust this friend, or any other ex-cult member, in a teaching role in the fields of yoga or Buddhism or meditation unless I had a clear sense from them that they had transparently digested and healed the cult-wiring of their brains and nervous systems in such a way as to be able to provide students safer spaces than we had.
 
Four things I can report from my own Rajneesh-lite experience:
  1. Your “performance” of ecstasy (real or contrived) within the group meditation session was directly related to your social rising and falling within the group. Your capacity to physically express oneness with or domination over the group translated into social and even financial opportunity outside of the session. If you’ve never been in such a mosh pit, you can start thinking about those group activities as being non-verbal dominance rituals that test the position and resolve of participants.
  2. If you were a young woman in that melee, you were targeted for sexual attention. Some gained social and even spiritual capital from this to the extent they presented themselves as welcoming.
  3. THESE HOURS DOMINATED YOUR ENTIRE DAY AND MADE YOU INCAPABLE OF INDEPENDENT ACTIVITY. When Rajneeshis describe being “emptied” or “mindless” at the end of the session, you have to think about what comes next, how easy it is for them to go pick vegetables or clean toilets without thinking about where they are or  whether they’re being paid.
  4. The experience cannot be shared with people outside of the group. The session is so strange it cannot be described without deep self-consciousness or shame. The central part of your day, the material reason that you are in that group at all, has the function of isolating you, while, paradoxically, purporting to show you your oneness with all humanity and the universe. This isolation-through-oneness causes severe internal splitting, a cognitive dissonance that compounds daily. I believe that this somatizes in very distinct ways. I remember that in my group we would commonly speak of feeling intense internal “pressure” that would discharge in severe headaches or periods of near-catatonia. We had a narrative about these sensations being evidence of a “transformational crisis”. It was understood that the sensations would intensify until we “popped”, which might look like a seizure in the middle of the session room that could last anywhere from minutes to an hour, and was generally followed by days of radiant dissociation. We would say that the person had “gone to the other side”.

The meditation is a highly effective opiate, and it holds people in a kind of labour and agency stasis. Also, it is so fucking stressful that of course you look happy when you’re scrubbing vegetables. “I just love being here in this community” is a partial statement. It needs to be qualified by “I’m also so relieved no one is screaming at me right now, or that I’m not jumping up and down with no sense of self.”

Think about what it means for 10K people to be engaged in a daily ritual that expresses and routinizes their positions within a somatic hierarchy, and then mobilizes their excess labour for centralized profit. Think about parents caught up in this daily cycle, and how they are or are not energetically or emotionally available to their children.
 
If you watch Wild Wild Country, I encourage you to think about these things, because the doc won’t ask you to. The doc wants you to wonder about Sheela’s mental health, how Sunny can keep permasmiling. The Ways want you to get all verklempt with Niren as he wells up remembering the great genius delicate sensitive man — THE GREATEST MAN WHO EVER LIVED NO THAT’S A FACT I’M A LAWYER — and the great project and the great possibility that failed… but maybe it didn’t really, because wasn’t it all a test and play of consciousness? [Sheds more tears.]
 
I hope that you were all able to hear the abstraction and objectification with which these humiliated honchos uttered the word “sannyasins”. As if they were still speaking for the group. As if everyone would still be on the same page. As if they were actually hiding their complicity, and their wounding.
 
It was really moving to hear about how much Jane was able to understand and recover, but even with her it doesn’t appear she was asked about the mass suffering at the heart of the group. It’s too bad — I have the feeling she understands some of it.
 
Think of everyone they could have interviewed. The Ways have said that they didn’t want to gum up the narrative with too many talking heads. Fair enough. Clinical psychologists probably depress Netflix rankings. But when you focus on four ex-leaders you give up a lot in exchange for flash. You get the self-absorbed musings of the privileged. Those for whom it more or less worked out.
They could have interviewed a single child who grew up there. A single homeless person lied to and kidnapped and then fed narcotics in his beer when he started to get anxious. Or just a single woman or man who now names her experience in dynamic meditation as assault, and is now working with complex PTSD. I can assure you many are out there. 
 
Finally, since the buzz over this doc has erupted, I’ve seen several earnest and naive convos cross my feed about how cult analysis discourse is alienating, it defames all members, etc. Or that analyzing this cult is structurally racist — as if Osho was somehow drawing on a venerable tradition, instead of actively abusing traditions and getting turfed out of India in the process. As if his first victims weren’t Indian. Yes it is important that we not perpetuate colonial stereotypes of evil sex yogis, but that’s a small part of the mix here, even though the Ways want you to focus on it.
 
The complaints are always abstract; they never make mention of the obvious harm and suffering produced by an organization like this. This too is the fault of the documentary bias. WWC plays up the culture war angle, which is like candy to the “civilizational struggle” addiction that certain yoga people seem to be nursing. Rajneeshpuram was not about spirituality, anymore than rape is about sex. It was about power.
And please don’t tell me that without Osho we wouldn’t have the sweet sweet tunes of Deva Premal and Miten, and so everything’s even-steven and that the dark produces light or whatever. There’s plenty of folks who make good music without the aid of gun-addled sex and doomsdays cults.
 
Those who came out of Rajneeshpuram and then enjoyed good and productive lives are the beneficiaries of privileges that had little to do with the cult. They may in fact have socially and psychologically benefited from having been able to come through the chaos armed with an unearned experience of invulnerability, and then reinforced by leaving with an unearned story of perseverance-and-triumph.
If you want the fuller story, find the silent and silenced majority.

The Guru May Actually Hate You, and You May Actually Hate Him

The Guru Actually Hates You, and You Actually Hate Him

Image: Father Yod of the Source Family.

 

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Yesterday, I learned something new about cult leaders from Philip Deslippe​, a whip-smart Religious Studies scholar who focuses on the history of modern yoga and new religious movements.

He once interviewed an attorney who handled a number of high profile cases against cults. The attorney said that from his experience, leaders follow clear patterns:

At some point they realize how desperately co-dependent they are in relation to their students. They begin to regard their students as idiots, children, incompetents. They begin to loathe them not only for their immaturity, but even more intensely because they are dependent on that immaturity, that devotion, for their daily bread. They’re trapped. Some drink themselves senseless, others take drugs, hide out under mountains of cash, or think help. Some manage to kill themselves.

Oof.

What impresses me about this analysis is that we’re always aghast when we hear of cruelty and abuse flowing downward from a spiritual leader. We can’t believe its inconsistency with their apparent spiritual mission. But what if instead of pathologizing it we considered a simpler answer: it’s an economy of loathing.

Sogyal Rinpoche punching a nun, Trungpa sexually assaulting public figures in a temple, Osho staring blankly at his followers from the window of his Rolls. Iyengar ranting about how students who have touched his feet for a decade are ignorant fools, and then hitting them, Michael Roach giving people meaningless unpaid tasks and joking with the inner circle: “Of course we’re in cult.”

The pattern I’ve seen seems to be that the cruelty increases in direct proportion to the “success” of the guru. Is power its own addictive feedback loop? Yes, but so is loathing. How can the guru not loathe himself, when he sees he’s propped up by the very people he’s broken? Then, if you’re a crazy wisdom dude like Sogyal or Adi Da you fold that very corruption back into the the content of your teaching: of course the world is an absurd illusion for you. What else do you know?

They hit their students, sexually dominate them, starve them, steal their labour and money, mock them. These are all morbid actions, but they also acts of retribution against the terms of their shameful imprisonment, which they blame on their students, and cannot own for themselves. And the most incredible part of all is that as the loathing escalates, so does the devotee’s need to say it is something else, all the way up to love, in order to stand it.

This is not a post about humanizing cult leaders, although everyone is human. They were all little boys once. It’s a post about standing outside the cult mechanisms in our lives to see that fantasy and idealization are the opposite of love, and that when directed en masse at a leader whose charisma flows out of some ungodly wound, a downward spiral ensues that belies the upward spiral of the group’s self-narrative.

Of course there’s another side of the loathing economy. A a part of the devotee secretly loathes the guru as well.

Because devotion is inseparable from fantasy and idealization, it must have a conflicted core. How can you love someone who towers above you in grace and humanness? How can love a person who builds his presence before you on the premise he knows you, knows your nature, knows the nature of the world? How can you really love a saviour, when the first thing a saviour must do to be a saviour is to concretize your sense of inadequacy?

My guess is that the tension holds true in both the flesh and the abstract. Who can truly love Jesus, whose nature excludes you from communion with God? Who can truly love Krishna, who knows enough about the universe that he can reverse your reason and moral doubt and send you off to war? That we eroticize both is a clue to how hard it is to really love them.

The shadow cast by fantasy and idealization is that of your presumed failure. The guru sits there and pontificates, and you are seduced. The secret of seduction is that “seduction” means: “being led away from yourself.” If you pay attention you can feel it happening. The body is running away from him as fast as it can. But the socialized self co-opts that kinetic energy, and aims you at his feet.

The disillusionment, already built-in to the structure of fantasy and idealization, becomes a little more palpable when the devotee subconsciously realizes their fantasy and idealization can’t be fulfilled. Somewhere they feel they don’t actually love the leader, or perhaps never did. But they’re in so deep they force themselves to. The leader smells the lie he brought on himself, and lashes out.

Really sorry this post is dark. I still believe that the more we can see this clearly, I believe, the less it will happen.

On Minimization as a Patriarchal Reflex

Minimization As a Patriarchal Reflex

Image: A chinstrap for children, designed by Moritz Schreber. Illustration from: D.G.M. Schreber: Calligraphy. Leipzig, 1858

 

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On Facebook, I posted a brief note about starting to learn what is painfully obvious to women: patriarchy inflicts the stress of constant bodily vigilance at best and acute terror at worse.

The post took off and the comments were stunning. So many stood out, like those that reported on strategies for increasing safety in taxis. One commenter wrote that she always video-chats with a friend while she’s alone in an Uber, dropping details that signal to the driver that someone knows where they are. If men don’t know about this kind of defensive labour, they’ve got to learn.

One genre of comments sent me down a real rabbit hole. The commenter would start with congratulations about my sensitivity to this kind of thing, because the commenter commonly interacts with men who simply think they’re irrational, neurotic, angry or bitter.

But I could feel instantly that such a compliment was undeserved, because I know in my bones what minimizing the other feels like. Continue reading “On Minimization as a Patriarchal Reflex”