Book Review - Moon Sisters, Krishna Mothers, Rajneesh Lovers: Women's Roles in New Religions.
Susan Jean Palmer. Syracuse University Press, Syracuse, NY, 1994, 287 pages.
A lecturer in the religion department at Dawson College in Quebec, Susan Palmer carried out an investigation of women's roles in Anew religious movements" (NRMs). Her goal was to examine feminine conversion and opportunities for leadership in contemporary communal or millenarian groups. Using interviews with primarily current members, along with firsthand data from her own attendance and participation in some of these movements, Palmer concludes that female "spiritual seekers" are voluntarily embarking on romantic/ascetic/erotic ordeals and taking part in "extravagant new forms of marriage and sexuality," through which these women astonishingly "find themselves" or claim new roles for themselves, roles that are lacking in "normal" society.
Although the book contains some interesting details about the groups studied and some rather revelatory insights into the thinking and rationale of the members, the author herself focuses almost exclusively on her positive reframing and apologetic interpretations. Early in the book's Introduction, Palmer makes her position clear when she writes that her approach "self-consciously repudiates...the tendency among anticultists to condemn the extreme and often deviant patterns of sexuality found in 'cults' as 'brainwashing' or...as social control" (p. xii). True, women may be experiencing a sense of "rolelessness" caused by enormous changes and shifts in our society's structure; and, as a result, women may be overly susceptible to the lure of certain psychological con men and cult recruiters (see, for example, the article by Shelly Rosen in this issue). But, in my opinion, that reality does not excuse the behavior of those who would take advantage of such a situation, nor does it mean that women are not psychologically coerced into accepting less-than-healthy roles in these so-called new religious movements under the guise of their own spiritual advancement.
Palmer describes seven groups, some more known than others. They include the International Society for the Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON); the Rajneesh movement; the Unification Church; the Institute of Applied Metaphysics (IAM, an eclectic, Canadian-based group with a female founder named Winifred Barton); the Institute for the Development of the Harmonious Human Being (founded by E. J. Gold, and based in Grass Valley, California); Northeast Kingdom Community Church (led by Elbert Spriggs, and sometimes known as Island Pond or The Community); and the Raelian movement (a group of French origination, founded by a former race car driver, Claude Vorilhon). Palmer provides a nutshell history of each group, and then examines each according to one of three model typologies: sex polarity, sex complementarity, and sex unity.
Palmer's three types are meant to be labels defining the concepts governing the woman/man and body/soul relationships in these groups. For example, the author puts ISKCON and Rajneesh into the sex polarity category, where the reigning idea is that men and women are not spiritually equal, and in most cases men are viewed as superior and women need men to protect them. Sex complementarity as a category includes groups that emphasize marriage to unite two souls to form one and as the means to salvation. Here differences between the two sexes are acknowledged, along with the concept of equality. Such groups often have a dual or androgynous godhead. Sex unity entails the notion of letting go of sex identification to release power and reach infinite potential. In this category are groups that often devalue the body and believe in a sort of rebirthing or even gender change. These three categories at times seemed overlapping, but are perhaps a useful means of trying to make sense out of some unusual practices. As a woman and former cult member, I couldn't help but wonder about a fourth category: that is, sexual exploitation and abuse. But in reading this book it became evident that what many of us (women, feminists, former cult members, or cult-watchers) might regard as a sexist and exploitative milieu kept in place by social and psychosexual control mechanisms, Palmer regards as exciting new concepts of gender and sexuality that allow women to redefine their traditional social roles through "playful and gratifying" reinterpretations of their sexual roles. As far as I'm concerned, no, thank you.
Palmer proposes that some women's involvement in NRMs and spiritual groups is merely a creative approach to "facilitate the difficult metamorphosis from girlhood to womanhood." While in these groups, women can experiment, find empowerment and clear-cut roles, and get away from either the confines or mixed messages of the dominant culture. Eventually, most members reject the authority of the group, Palmer tells us, and they interpret the experience as one of intensive self-reconstruction. She reassures us that these former devotees are not "cult escapees" who "warrant the pity and attentions of 'exit counselors.'" Yet, apparently without realizing it, throughout the book, Palmer describes group requirements, rituals, and patterns of learned behavior that some might consider quite startling in their suppression and repression of the individual female member. Ultimately, I suppose we can thank Palmer for giving us more ammunition in the academic (and sociocultural) battle between those of us who believe that such groups are potentially harmful (both to women and to men) and those who line up with the cult apologists. Moon Sisters, Krishna Mothers, Rajneesh Lovers is a fast-paced, well-written, and nerve-wracking book with a wealth of information and a particular point of view--I recommend it.
Community Resources on Influence & Control
Cultic Studies Journal, Vol. 14, No. 1, 1997