Review by Joe Szimhart
“…a burlesque of the quest for enlightenment, and an affectionate meditation on American womanhood.” —amazon.com introduction to 2013 edition
Back in the mid-1980s, cults were a more common topic in the news when we witnessed the rise and fall of dozens of homegrown and exotic gurus, some more notable than others. John Updike (1932–2009), one of America’s premiere novelists, wrote S. during that era. In S., Updike plunges us into the world of white, upper-middle-class guru devotion through the letters of his protagonist Sarah Worth, who signed off mostly as S. She also used Sarah, Sally, Sare, mother, mummy, Ma Prem Kundalini, Sara P. Worth, Sarah nee Price, and more. The novel is a wryly sophisticated send-up of privileged, white, female devotees who fall for ego-destroying therapies and pseudospiritual sexual rituals with lascivious, non-Caucasian cult leaders.
I first read the novel around 1989 when I was very busy with cult-related interventions. I recall being immensely entertained by Updike’s rich prose and also by the raw if catty honesty of his character Sarah, who leads us through witty twists and surprises in her cult experience. S. captures the spirit of women of means who in middle age decide to leave their unfulfilled lives, unloving husbands, and flawed families behind to join an ashram that promises true bliss. Like these women, S became a “sannyasin” (pilgrim) on a deeper quest for a spiritual life. Her weekly yoga classes were not cutting it. The guru in the novel, known as “the Arhat” or Shri Arhat Mindadali, The Supreme Meditator, parodies Rajneesh, a.k.a. Osho, (Chandra Mohan Jain, 1931–1990), who led his outrageously controversial and eventually criminal movement from India to Antelope, Oregon in the early 1980s. Just as in Ashram Arhat, near fictional Forrest, AZ in the novel, the majority of Rajneesh sannyasin who lived communally next to Antelope were well-schooled, many with advanced degrees in psychology, education, law, and medicine.
While flying from New England to join the Arhat’s ashram, Sarah writes her first letter to her husband, Charles, a doctor she describes as a philanderer for whom she sacrificed her early career and interest in modern philosophy to raise their children, and so Charles could pursue his calling. She coyly reveals to him that she secretly “split” their financial assets, took her “half” and fled the marriage for a chance to explore her inner self. At the time, Sarah is around forty years old and her daughter Pearl is 20.
S also writes letters to her daughter, dentist, lawyer, former yoga teacher, close female friends, son, mother, the Arhat, and the IRS, and to news outlets. Through her often-effusive, sometimes-intimate revelations, we follow Sarah’s progressions from the neophyte who arrived at Ashram Arhat only to learn she would be thrust into hard labor (work is worship) in artichoke fields and made to rake poured cement for foundations for many weeks, to her role as personal assistant to the guru. She participated naked in verbally and physically punishing encounter groups (she had to fight off a young man trying to rape her because he saw his hated mother in her). Within a year, she managed to work her way up to an executive position for the ashram. She dealt with donations and finances for the guru. We learn how she became his “Shakti,” or sex partner, in an uncensored description of a rather silly tantric ritual. Sarah spends 3 years at the ashram, where she picks up a new language of Sanskrit words, one that she decides gave her an alternative way to value her life and the world even after she defects. Updike treats us to a Sanskrit glossary of more than 200 terms as references in the back. He clearly did his homework for this novel.
In S, we find in Sarah an ex-wife and ex-cult member who refuses to play victim. Despite the guru’s elaborate interpretations of their “maithuna” (coitus) sessions, Sarah derives all the pleasure she can from the encounter while never completely buying the guru’s sacred jargon. She rises into the inner circle during a time when the ashram is under attack by critics for its armed guards, flaunting of local laws, and abusive leadership of Durga, the woman who is second in command and came to America with the Arhat from India. The septic systems are not working properly, no building is up to code or is being used for something it was not built for, and the pressure on members to raise more and more money has worn thin. Investigators discover that the infirmary is little more than a drug-dealing operation—the leaders and the sannyasins use narcotic pills, cocaine, and other drugs as enhancers for enlightenment, or they sell drugs to make money. Bipolar members are treated with lithium until they run out of it. In her efforts to save the operation, S writes letters to assuage angry parents of adult sannyasins—she has the audacity to tell parents to come and join the Arhat’s teaching so that they can be one with their children again. Despite the obvious mess, Sarah believes in the essential mission of the Arhat, to break up old patterns and to create the new, spiritually awakened self.
Over time, in her third year of devotion, Sarah realizes the limits of the Arhat’s closed system and decides to move on. Membership at the ashram has declined significantly and the second in command is gone, leaving Sarah in a powerful position. While managing ashram funds, she repeats her illegal partition of assets with her husband by shifting a lot of ashram money to a private account. She leaves more than three hundred thousand dollars for the guru and explains why in her final letter to him. She retires to a remote equatorial place where no one, including her husband, can reach her personally or legally. She had secretly taped sessions with the guru, sessions in which she discovers his true identity (he is not Indian at all, but I will leave the surprise to the reader) and tells him of it in a letter. She blackmailed the fraud!
There is no profound lesson for ex-members or cult-research specialists in this novel beyond an entertaining, erudite ride through what some cults resemble. Former members of similar movements should easily recognize and perhaps laugh at memories of themselves in this story. Sarah discloses her most intimate revelations to close family friend Midge (who ironically becomes Sarah’s husband’s mistress), and in these passages we find the new feminist values she believes she gains from her ashram experience:
But one of the things the Arhat has done for me is encourage me to let it out, let out the feelings and thoughts both and get rid of the conditioning that had us trained to keep quiet while all these fathers and husbands and sons and lovers and lawyers and doctors and Indian Chiefs talked. All this trying to be not too smart, not too loud, not too sexy, not too wonderful or else we’d overwhelm men that we were subconsciously taught to do like children in Hong Kong apartments trained to live in two cubic feet of space—…
In the end, the reader has to choose between two possibilities: Is Sarah truly enlightened when she writes that she has attained Sahasrara or “rare Sarah?” Sahasrara is the seventh chakra above the head, a symbol of ultimate spiritual freedom. Or is she the aging woman left alone with some fond memories of the better times with her husband Charles and family? Her last letter, signed S., is to Charles, and we the readers are left to wonder.
Joseph Szimhart began research into cultic influence in 1980, after ending his 2-year devotion to a New Age sect called Church Universal and Triumphant. He began to work professionally as an intervention specialist and exit counselor in 1986.
Since 1998 he has worked in the crisis department of a psychiatric emergency hospital in Pennsylvania. He continues to assist families with interventions and former members in recovery, including consultations via phone and Internet. firstname.lastname@example.org