Finding Home in a Cult’s Aftermath: Talking with Ronit Plank
Like many others, I was entranced by the premiere of Wild Wild Country, the hit Netflix docuseries that follows the cult of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh from India to rural Oregon and the cultural battle between the Rajneeshees and the rest of the world. It was a twelve-hour dramatic rendering with all the twists and turns I expected of a cult and some I didn’t.
But something was left unsaid, untouched.
In all those hours of footage and interviews, we never heard about who the Rajneesh cult members left behind as they went in search of a higher spiritual plane. The docuseries covered how the cult was responsible for an attempted assassination and the largest biological attack on US soil at the time but ignored how Bhagwan preached that children were not part of his prescribed new order and life. In fact, he encouraged sterilizations among his followers. At no point in the series did children appear on screen, nor include any mention of them at all. Surely some of these thousands of cult followers had kids. Where were they?
Ronit Plank was one of the children left behind. She was just six when her mother left her to join the Rajneeshees. When She Comes Back, published yesterday by Motina Books, is a coming-of-age memoir about Plank’s ordeal of being volleyed between people and places, all while waiting for her mother to come back to her—if the same mother could come back at all. Plank’s brave memoir is an integral piece of the Rajneesh story that might have otherwise been relegated inconsequential.
I was honored to meet with Ronit and talk with her about family, belonging, and what it’s like for her life trauma to be part of such a sensationalized media phenomenon.
The Rumpus: I particularly liked how your book and the docuseries seemed to work together to tell a more whole story. Taken together, it was almost a collaborative experience. Was the release of the docuseries the impetus for writing your memoir?
Ronit Plank: I’d written the first few drafts as my grad school thesis, but when the docuseries came out the following year, I was stunned. I never considered that Bhagwan would be resurrected, let alone for mass consumption. I felt kind of flooded, like I was trying to dip my toe in a river whose current threatened to wash me away. I was eager to learn more and also like I had to hustle to connect the current media interest to my book. Ultimately it reaffirmed that I needed to share my version of events.
Rumpus: Did the series inform your continued revision of the book?
Plank: I was able to use my fear of seeing my mother on screen in the footage and my curiosity to explore our story in a way I hadn’t before. Once I saw the docuseries, it felt like permission to embrace the effect Bhagwan still had on me and the mother-child experience that left an indelible mark on my whole family.
Rumpus: What has it been like to be a part of a story that’s been put up for public consumption in this way?
Plank: I remember when the Waco series came out in 2018, before I even knew anyone was making a documentary about Bhagwan. I wondered how the families with loved ones involved with David Koresh felt about watching it, to see their loved ones portrayed this way. Especially because the topic of coercive religions and cults can be so sensational. People seem to love this kind of media and cults get a lot of airtime. And then smack, there was Wild Wild Country a few months later. I couldn’t believe it. It’s strange to watch something you are every bit as interested in for the spectacle as for your own history.
I just never imagined Bhagwan would resurface. We didn’t have internet when I was young, and I didn’t read the newspapers about him then, either. For so long the story was like a legend to me, a forgotten piece of history. Now it was as if Atlantis had bubbled to the surface and everyone could look at it for themselves and form an opinion—this thing that I thought was gone forever. For years I could only talk about it with my sister. Now everyone was talking about it.
Rumpus: While it’s true of all stories, being a part of such a public story means that there are many opinions and takes as to what the “true story” is. When in fact, there are multiple truths. Can you talk a little about how you approached the idea of “truth” in writing When She Comes Back?
Plank: For me, it was about embracing my experience while being receptive to other perspectives and how I’ve changed since those events. I feel like writing memoir is holding fast to your right and invitation to tell your story while remaining vulnerable and searching. You’re certain about what you want to say but you also need to be open. There’s almost a dance between certainty and uncertainty. As we learn, we change our approach, and our story changes, too.
There’s emotional honesty in being able to tell the truth about oneself, even the parts that are unpalatable or we would rather hide. In fiction you can make your protagonist or any character you write about the hero. But in memoir you probably will reveal aspects of yourself you wish weren’t true, that you feel are less desirable. But that is what helps make a memoir rich—the tension between what you want to believe about yourself and the reality of you are. When you explore your past behavior and the beliefs that led you to act the way you did in all their complexity, you fulfill this unspoken agreement with the reader.
Rumpus: You’re not trying to set the record straight.
Plank: Memoir isn’t for settling a score, or vindictiveness, it’s not for being “right.” Also, memory is imperfect and you might have things wrong. I used to think it was important—even a must—for memoirists to let the people in their memoir read the manuscript before going to press. I followed Mary Karr’s advice in The Art of Memoir to ”[n]otify subjects way in advance, detailing parts that might make them wince.” Now I’m not so sure this is necessary. But I felt better allowing my family to read it before it went to press. My father was able to help me with specific details and my sister reminded me of important events I had forgotten about.
Rumpus: Your title, When She Came Back, tells the reader that your mother does return and there are things that happen after. Throughout the book, you occasionally bring the reader to the present in that way, to a time when you can reflect on what happened from a point in the future, like a reassurance that it all turns out okay. How conscious was that decision?
Plank: You’ve hit on another issue that snagged me in the beginning: if this was a memoir of childhood loss, how much of present-day me should I include? I had this idea that if I added background about where I am now and my relationship with my mother from the present day, readers would be thrown out of the world of the memoir; I wanted to keep the current me separate from the kid me. But one of my early editors, Jessica Lipnack, encouraged me to let the reader know a little bit more about my life now; to share that I was okay, that I had perspective about mothering and what I wanted in my own life because of my childhood. Once I listened to her and incorporated this fuller picture, I was able to reflect throughout the memoir and have more of a conversation with myself and hopefully the reader. It was freeing.
Rumpus: Your memoir isn’t told in a strictly linear narrative. It is (mostly) chronological, but it isn’t only a small sliver of time. How and why did you choose the scenes you did?
Plank: I love this question because for me, though I wish I were more of a free spirit, structure informs everything. Until I settled on the framing of the memoir, I think I floundered a bit. I felt like there was so much to cover, so much “story.” How could I ever choose what stayed and what to drop? Ultimately I followed my mentor, memoirist Debra Gwartney’s, advice to outline a bunch of scenes, about eight to twelve, that were the most important and consider why. I took a look at those to be sure they represented significant events and that they also helped contribute to understanding more about the character-me and my family’s dynamic. I strove to keep scenes that helped strengthen the story’s resonance and sift out those that were redundant or didn’t help increase the stakes.
Rumpus: While your memoir isn’t about this exactly, you can’t ignore your body. You often talked about whether things might have been different had you taken up less space, if perhaps then you could have fit in some way into your mother’s life. Can you tell us more about this?
Plank: When I was on the kibbutz in Israel I had this open, expressive community and I was very young and much less self-aware. But my awareness, in keeping with my age, grew when we relocated to the States and I sensed right away how different people were in my new Seattle home: the way they spoke, their demeanor, the way they seemed to react to me.
I was tall for my age, spoke with a thick accent and a lisp, had silver caps on several teeth, was a little pushy and loud. What I did with the reaction I got from people—another kid in my shoes might not have internalized it quite this way—was [to] determine that something was wrong with me. I did what lots of kids do in the absence of facts and assumed I was the problem and that part of the reason I didn’t have my family intact and my mother with me was because I was unappealing.
As I got older and continued to experience waves of abandonment, I grew disconnected and at a root-level, though somewhat unconsciously, began to think I was forgettable. That created in me a lot of insecurity and doubt. The way I processed that feeling of being untethered was to try to nail down my life; to try to keep track of everything and everyone. I couldn’t tolerate any uncertainty, which is why close relationships were challenging for me.
This is why memoir fascinates me, it is about what the individual at the center of the story does with their experience, not just the experience itself.
Rumpus: You write about place particularly well. I could envision those avenues in Flushing, the groves on the kibbutz. And yet the common place we think of in childhood is the place beside the mother—which you were not, and that’s really at the crux of your story.
Plank: I’ve thought about place in my memory before and I think because I arrived at new locations as I was getting older and becoming more aware of myself, my new homes left a strong first impression.
After the kibbutz in Israel, I never found a place that was there for me the way I needed. I saw Seattle, Brooklyn, Newark, and Flushing through the lens of “what is this place? Where am I now?” I was probably taking note, figuring my environment out of a need for self-protection as much as natural curiosity—in a way collecting information for survival. Though it’s hard to really know how much of that behavior was innate and how much was a product of insecurity. And yes, I do think I was trying to get home or to a feeling of home. I named my short story collection (which will be out next year from Sowilo Press) Home Is a Made-Up Place, so I guess it’s a preoccupation of mine.
Rumpus: What was the role of writing in your life as you were living in these experiences? Was it activated at all? Or something you came to later?
Plank: My father was a freelance writer when I was growing up. I enjoyed creative writing assignments at school and fell in love with a handful of books. But I am definitely not that writer whose origin story is of always knowing I wanted to write.
For years, my sister had suggested I write, but I never really considered it an option. My earliest creative writing was for some sketches I performed at The Actors’ Gang in LA and a class at The Groundlings, but I didn’t start writing stories until we’d moved to Seattle and my second child was born. I’d stopped acting and finally felt the pull to create again in some way. That was twelve years ago.
Rumpus: Sometimes trauma from childhood can come rushing back when we have our own children. Was that what inspired you to turn to writing? If not, can you talk about how trauma informs your writing—not just what you write, but how you move through the writing community and business?
Plank: I didn’t know it at the time but yes. I grew up thinking I needed to be tough; for me vulnerability was a giant liability. I couldn’t let anyone see me cry if I watched a movie. I had this idea—maybe from my early years on a kibbutz where pluckiness was prized, maybe from my family, maybe simply innately—that I needed to handle things by myself. I was an Israeli, then a New Yorker, then an actor auditioning and putting myself out there, steeling myself for rejection.
It took me years and years and years to allow myself to break down, to understand that I had a lot of work to do. It wasn’t easy and I have to stay on top of it because my natural knee-jerk reaction is defensiveness and to try to have things “handled.” I’ve had to work at being softer and reclaiming the openness that might have once been mine.
I try not to lay my entire life on the line for consumption but when it comes to this memoir or sharing my story or interviewing guests for my podcast And Then Everything Changed, I approach that with openness and self-inquiry, with patience and compassion. For myself, too.
Rumpus: Loss, obviously, figures prominently in When She Comes Back. In what ways does loss figure into your other writing? I find themes from my own childhood traumas pop up everywhere in my writing, even when I’m not expecting it.
Plank: I was absorbed with family loss and alienation in my earliest short stories. And characters often experienced disempowerment and having to make decisions while unempowered. Those themes come up again and again. When I begin a short story, I think I know what I want to write about. I know my characters and the feelings I’m trying to express, but then I don’t realize until I’m halfway through that I’m working out some personal history in a fictionalized way.
Rumpus: How has your life experience, and the journey of writing this memoir, influenced your fiction?
Plank: I started off in fiction and never thought I’d write nonfiction. Then I became a mother and started writing about that and all this history burbled up. I decided to dig in and wrote the first draft of this memoir while getting my MFA in nonfiction. I thought I was done with fiction, but over the last few months, I’ve begun working on a novel and I’m enjoying building a fictional world much more than I enjoy writing scenes for memoir. It must be the pressure of capturing things as accurately as I can in memoir, whereas in fiction I can play around more. When I first started publishing short stories, I was definitely writing themes close to my heart—childhood loss, alienation, losing control and giving up one’s power—just camouflaged a bit.
Rumpus: Which you can’t really do in memoir. In memoir, you’re trying to un-camouflage yourself so you and your reader can see yourself better.
Plank: I think memoirists have an obligation to be as honest about themselves as they can, especially the parts that they are embarrassed about or worry make them unlikable. I think it’s also perhaps one of the more challenging aspects of writing memoir. Memoirists aren’t only writing scenes and dialogue, trying to forward the action, and working on chronology and structure like other writers; they are also teasing out the truth about themselves.
Vivian Gornick wrote in The Situation and The Story: The Art of Personal Narrative, “Truth in a memoir is achieved not through a recital of actual events; it is achieved when the reader comes to believe that the writer is working hard to engage with the experience at hand. What happened to the writer is not what matters; what matters is the large sense that the writer is able to make of what happened.” It’s not fun to write about the aspects of yourself you’d rather hide; it’s scary. But it’s also memoir gold.
Photograph of Ronit Plank by Sarah Anne Photography.