A fool is what I thought he was, a soft, misguided fool. I didn’t understand how the man who was telling his story in the documentary series Wild Wild Country on Netflix could have ever believed in Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, could still believe in him after all these years. How could a smart, once successful corporate lawyer—someone who made a living being circumspect, pragmatic, and smart—fall for a guru the way my mother had?
It was 1979 when Bhagwan came into my life, soon after my family left the kibbutz in Israel where I was born and had spent my first years. My parents had just divorced and my mother, who had custody of me and my sister, stayed with us in Seattle. My father moved back to the East Coast. On the kibbutz, my mother had had a clearly defined role and our family had had all our material needs provided for; now she was in a new city and alone for the first time, thirty years old and a single mom with no family nearby and few friends. When she learned about Bhagwan’s spiritual movement she began bringing me and my sister with her to the Rajneeshee Center in Capital Hill.
When my sister and I, aged three and six respectively, would enter the meditation room I remember Bhagwan’s followers, sannyasins he called them, barely acknowledging us. Unlike most adults I had met, they didn’t seem warm toward or interested in us. They would look in our direction, but their eyes seemed focused on something I couldn’t see. I could not have known that their paths to spiritual growth as prescribed by Bhagwan did not make room for children, but I felt it. I sat close to my sister on a sofa in the dimmed room and watched the sannyasins on the floor around us, subsumed in layers of sunrise-colored clothing in oranges, reds and pinks, waiting for the mediation to end. I listened along with them to Bhagwan’s slow-speaking voice coming from the speaker on the wall, the unusual way he lingered on certain syllables, how he drew out the “s” at the end of his words like a tired snake. The tape would end, and I’d stay on the sofa with my sister watching the adults embrace one another until my mother drifted back over to collect us.
It took me a week or so to make the decision to watch Wild Wild Country. I had sworn when I was a teenager never to expose myself to Bhagwan again if I could help it. I blamed him for taking my mother away both times she went to follow him. Finally, on a chilly night last month, I pulled a purple sleeping bag off the back of a chair where it was unzipped and airing out from one of my kids’ recent overnights and gathered it up around me, moving the cold teeth of the zipper away from my chin. My husband pressed start on episode one and, my arms crossed tight against my chest, my body as still as I could make it, I braced myself.
Author and mother on kibbutz
In 1979, my mother decided she wanted to join Bhagwan’s ashram in Pune, India. She had planned on bringing me and my sister along with her, but her friends cautioned against it because it might not be safe for us. My mother called my father and asked him to take us, but he said he had no room in the small New Jersey apartment he shared at the time with his girlfriend and her two daughters. She called him again to tell him she had decided to place me and my sister in Jewish Family Services for temporary fostering.
“Please don’t do that,” my father said.
That’s when my mother motioned me over to phone mounted on the kitchen wall. She talked to me for a moment, and then she put me on with him.
“Mommy is going to India. Can we stay with you?”
“No, honey,” he said. “There’s no room.”
Our conversation paused while my mother talked to me again. Then I came back on the phone. “Can Aunt Ellen take us?”
“I’m afraid not.”
After a pause to listen to my mother again I came back.
“How about Grandpa Sam?”
My mother whispered to me, and I repeated what she’d said. “Grandma Doris?”
“She’s not well.”
I held the phone to my ear and looked to my mother. After a long pause of his own, my father said, “Put your mom on the phone.”
He told my mother he could take us.
When my mother got the money together she dropped me and my sister off with our father in New Jersey and left for India. At that time, close to 30,000 sannyasins visited the ashram every year to learn directly from their master. His teachings combined the human potential movement, dynamic meditation, Hinduism, psychotherapy, and lots of sex. My mother stayed in India for nearly a year.
The Wild Wild Country footage of the Pune ashram and then at Bhagwan’s second commune in Oregon—of which there was plenty, because the Rajneeshees believed they were building a civilization for the ages and documented most everything—was captivating: the frenzied movements of sannyasins, their red and orange clothing, the black-beaded malas hanging from their necks with Bhagwan’s photo dangling at the end, arms flung into the air, hands shaking like Aspen leaves in a squall. Dozens and then hundreds of sannyasins danced and hyperventilated and almost exploded until they could do nothing else, it seemed, but collapse to the ground, utterly spent.
Again, and again I found myself scouring my TV screen as quickly as I could before the frame changed, trying to beat the camera before it finished panning over crowds. I was looking for a tall woman with short dark hair, fair skin, glasses. I was looking for my mother. Though I’m not sure what I thought I’d discover if I saw her amongst the sannyasins. Perhaps I wanted proof she had really been in Pune and in Oregon. Maybe I imagined if I saw her face I would know whether she had been happy then. Or maybe I thought I’d be able to tell if she had really believed in Bhagwan; that being there was worth leaving me and my sister for.
My eyes were drawn to the children who lived on the commune, of whom little was said. What happened to them? How did they feel about being there? When I did see the occasional baby or elementary school kid I wondered if they were okay. I wondered if they would have wanted to change places with me. Would it have been better for me to be have been there close to my mother and Bhagwan or was I lucky I had stayed with my father? Bhagwan didn’t want kids to get in the way of their parents’ path to spirituality. Being unattached, he taught, was the best way to enlightenment; his followers would be freer without their children around. Of course, lots of parents might feel freer without children to have to take care of; kids can be time-consuming that way.
Author and mother after Pune, India
My mother left India in 1980 and settled in Manhattan. My sister and I, who then lived in Queens with our father, saw her on the weekends. In 1981, Bhagwan’s secretary, Ma Anand Sheela, bought 64,000 acres of land in the Oregon high desert and built a new commune jauntily named Rancho Rajneesh. The second time my mother left, in 1985, she went there for six months, until about the time the Bhagwan fled Oregon and federal authorities shut the ashram down.
When I watched the first interview with the lawyer at the start of the Wild Wild Country I didn’t want to like him or know his side. I felt myself close up inside. To me he and the other sannyasins were grown-ups who didn’t know how to be grown up, selfish people complicit in a movement that had swallowed my mother for too much of my childhood. Once I was several episodes in, the man I’d thought was a fool was the sannyasin I wanted to hear from most.
His Bhagwan-given name was Swami Prim Nerin and he had been Bhagwan’s personal attorney and later became the mayor of Rajneeshpuram, the town where the commune was located. He was still a faithful devotee even decades after Bhagwan’s death. He sat in a tidy-looking room with low ceilings in what looked like a cozy cabin, a well-fitting cardigan buttoned neatly around him. In the old clips of him as a young man he seemed patient, determined, nice. A man filled with passion for his leader, but also with great composure, even when he was defending Bhagwan from prosecutors. Grey-haired now and portlier, his devotion was unchanged, and he still appeared level-headed and calm. Except for the several times he remembered something beautiful from his time with Bhagwan. Then his face flushed, his lip curled with a spasm of grief. He had to pause.
When I was twelve and my mother was gone for the second time I’d sometimes see a woman walking in my Flushing, Queens neighborhood who for a moment I thought looked like her. I wanted so much for it to be my mother I’d peer at the dark-haired woman from across the street or half a block away until I was certain it wasn’t her. Then I’d imagine what I would do if it had been her. Would I run up to her and hug her? Would she see me first and surprise me? Sometimes even when I didn’t see a woman who looked like her I’d imagine what it would be like to have her where I wanted her to be. I’d be walking down to Main Street to get a slice of pizza and I’d picture her face emerging from the tide of people walking toward me. Or I would be picking out a bracelet, I’d turn, and she’d be there. I’d realize what it would feel like if she were right next to me and that feeling would take my breath away.
Author in middle school, around the time of Rajneeshpuram
Thirty years later and I was still looking for her, wondering if maybe she’d appear on my screen in the background of the frame waving at the camera or embracing a lover or dancing next to the other sannyasins lining the road waiting for Bhagwan to drive by in one of his ninety-three Rolls Royces.
The series moved into its concluding episode, the latter part of 1985, the same time my mother had been there. Bhagwan was trying to flee the US, federal authorities descended, and everything fell apart. The ranch was closing up. In the footage, greyhound buses pulled away loaded with sannyasins. Maybe they would head back to where they had come from or maybe they would look for new places to try and to begin again. On my screen, sannyasins hugged each other goodbye, cried. Fighting back tears, some said they wouldn’t leave until bulldozers came and knocked every structure down. This part of their life, maybe the best part they’d ever known, was over.
For as long as I can remember, I thought of Bhagwan as the enemy. I hated his books, his cassette tapes, his voice, his necklaces; I hated seeing his face on book jackets, his big glistening eyes gazing out from under heavy lids. I was angry that he took my mother away from me. I used to wish for him to die so I could be sure she would stay with me and not run away anymore. I used to think that if he hadn’t existed or if my mother had never found him she would never have left. I’m not sure I believe that anymore. Bhagwan didn’t kidnap her.
During the final episode of the documentary Swami Prim Nerin was talking about his very last days on the ashram, what it was like watching Bhagwan leave and his community crumble. Then he had to pause. When he next spoke, he tried to contain his emotion when he said that being with Bhagwan was the first time he had ever been loved and accepted for who he was. Tears filled my eyes; my throat tightened. Maybe to him, finding Bhagwan was a kind of falling in love—that feeling of knowing, really knowing you mean something in the world. That you matter to someone. He longed for a place and a time that’s gone, that he can never get back. It’s painful to lose the person you want caring and looking after you, the person your life is built around. I understood him. We lost our worlds at the same time.
Photographs provided courtesy of author.