This article [a]is adopted from a paper presented at the ICSA annual conference in Stockholm Sweden, June 25–27, 2015.
Most of the literature on children in high-demand groups focuses on how distraught parents and desperate families attempt to get young people out of a cultic group. However, this case study, set in both Sweden and the United States, tells the opposite story. In the midst of his own alienation and suffering, our son struggled for years trying to convince us, his true-believer parents, of the deceitful and hypocritical behavior of the leader of our spiritual community.
Our story begins before our son began questioning the spiritual values and lifestyle instilled in him by his family since he was a small child in Sweden. We had joined a well-respected spiritual group there when our son was 4 years old; about four years later we moved to the major center of the group in New York City. As a child, our son felt loved, secure, and part of an extremely tight-knit and supportive spiritual family. If it takes an entire village to educate a child, our son certainly experienced this during his childhood. He was a little beam of sunshine, running about the group’s tennis court with his golden hair and blue eyes, fetching tennis balls as a ball boy. He was everybody’s darling, and sometimes disciples would spontaneously give him presents and even pocket money. Of course, there were very few children on our celibate path, so he was also a relatively rare commodity! In those early years, he would meditate for long periods of time, and his eyes seemed to sparkle with light, to the delight of the entire spiritual community.
Our son loved sports and was very happy in our group, which was very involved with athletics. He could run like a deer. He became an excellent middle-distance runner and trained on local college tracks with his disciple training partners. He also became an excellent tennis player. He took lessons both from a few advanced players within the group and at the US Tennis Association in Queens, and he developed a very powerful serve. He competed successfully for a while in the US Tennis Association’s junior tennis league and was also a ball boy for world-class players at the US Open. The adoring disciples were so proud of our son! Eventually, we had to give up the tennis lessons because they became too expensive for us, living as relatively poor disciples.
Our family was more fortunate than most people on our ashram, which was located in a low-income neighborhood. We got to buy the guru’s old van and were considered householders, with more freedom, but with a lower spiritual status than other members of the group. Often, our son would get to return to Sweden to spend summers with his beloved maternal grandmother, who helped pay for the trips. He was seen as privileged within the group and seemed to be thriving…
Then, suddenly, as he entered adolescence, our son became sullen, withdrawn, and rebellious. We did not recognize it then, but now we understand that he started to feel that aspects of the spiritual environment he had been raised in were oppressive and controlling. He began to be aware that he was missing freedoms enjoyed by adolescents in ordinary society outside of our community.
Gradually, as our son grew older, he came to resent the disciples’ eyes, always watching him. He was not alone in his changing attitude toward the group that had previously been his entire world. For example, the group would rent public schools to hold celebratory functions attended by the adult members. At these functions, devoted disciples focused their attention totally on the guru. Temporarily unsupervised, our son and other frustrated disciple children often raced around in school corridors, slamming lockers and even jumping into forbidden swimming pools in school gyms. One evening an “Inner Circle girl” called us up and said that, when she was coming home after a function, she had seen our son walking around late at night on a public street with another disciple boy and “…where were we, his parents…?!”
We were very troubled as we saw our son begin to share in the exploratory behavior typical of his ordinary (nongroup) peers. He also expressed a desire to go to college. This type of outside-world activity was considered “lower vital”1 and destructive behavior according to ashram standards and was forbidden. In an effort to defuse some of his rebelliousness and replace his desire to go to college and be in the ordinary world, we sent him on the group’s Olympic-torch-style Peace Runs around the world, and also on its international Christmas trips. However, his restlessness within the bonds of the group did not abate.
Eventually, our son was allowed to escape from the strict New York City center, where the guru lived, by joining a distant West Coast center. Peripheral centers were often less supervised and had more freedom. Within our group, this particular West Coast center was derisively called the lower-vital center because it was looser and more open. For example, at least one privileged disciple there was observed for a long time to have a girlfriend. Our son was shocked to find out from some of his acquaintances that exceptions to the rules in various centers were overlooked as long as the youth were discreet, and the disciple/family involved had sufficient status or connections, or made significant financial contributions, or a combination of these. He also found out there were gay boys who were apparently tolerated. He became seriously disillusioned when he saw that the proudly proclaimed celibate stature of some disciples was a lie.
During these years, our son couldn’t really talk to us. Perhaps he was not yet fully able to express his dilemma. And certainly we, his still-indoctrinated parents, couldn’t talk about such forbidden topics as sex with him either. We were afraid that his critical views and rebellious behavior would lead to expulsion by the authoritarian and charismatic guru, to whom we were (still) committed. Our biggest fear was that we would be asked never to see our son again, as had happened several times to other families. We and our son were terrified of this potential outcome!
And then the inevitable happened: Our son was kicked out. Our family was split, and deeply traumatized. We were in shock after this point and could barely function. We had to go to the disciple house where he had spent his last weeks in the center and clear out his few possessions. In disgrace, our son found a cheap flat in New York City. But he was determined, in the midst of his anger and sadness, to make it in the real world outside the group.
We tried to reach him and communicate, but it was very difficult and painful for our family. We paid for him to enroll in a private business-school course, Internet Technologies, and he managed to get a good job at a hospital. He learned as he went along. His cheap second-hand car was broken into on the street by his apartment, and drug dealers in his building made things dangerous. This period is still difficult for us to discuss.
Though our son eventually got a good job on Madison Avenue, we were still worried that we had not prepared him for life in the ordinary world of high school, college, jobs, and girls. His mom was especially worried about the lack of healthy dialogue and a total lack of education about sex, a required topic in her native Sweden, where our son had been raised for his first 8 years. We initially interpreted our adolescent son’s rebellious behavior against our spiritual values as just a stage he was going through. It was only later that we realized that his resistance behavior was justified and was a mature reaction to a truly disturbing (and deeply hidden) situation in our spiritual group. It was this discovery, and the actions our son took, that ultimately opened our eyes and enabled us to leave the group, and also help bring about its unraveling.
Our son discovered that the supposedly celibate guru had for years spiritually and sexually abused a group of young women who constituted his Inner Circle girls. Later, the ageing guru reportedly expanded his consorts to include some young girl singers—some were barely of legal age. According to the girls’ own shocking testimonials, which ultimately appeared on the Internet, the guru also induced these young girls to have lesbian sex with each other—something that was damaging to many of them. At first, these revelations were too shocking for devoted disciples to comprehend, including us.
But not for our son. Instead of adopting a comfortable role as a devoted disciple, he bravely opted for a much more painful yet more authentic role, striking out on his own, without the comforting and secure values and even (in his mind) the love of his parents. Later, he sadly and angrily described himself as having been “the boy inside the bubble” (referring to a movie about a totally isolated boy, forced to be inside a totally germ-free plastic bubble at a hospital).
Our son interviewed some of the women and was convinced by the consistency and the details of their stories. He set up a website and published first-person testimonials of several “divine consorts” who had suffered or were expelled from the group, or both. Newspapers, cult-awareness groups, and various authors began to pick up his message.
He also had to contend with the Inner Circle of so-called first-class disciples and other followers who tried to destroy his credibility, his career, and his relationships. The guru and his closest disciples threatened to get him fired from his Madison Avenue IT job. They handed us a report documenting our son’s alleged misuse of computers at his job because he used his computer to post to his critical website. If he didn’t shut down his website, the guru said, the group would give the evidence to his bosses, and he would be fired. The guru had done this to several other bitter apostates. We did the guru’s bidding and showed our son the evidence the group had assembled against him. The result was that he did leave his critical website, though he did not shut it down—he turned it over to others who continued his work.
It was after this experience that my wife and I went on a fateful Christmas trip to Phnom Penh, Cambodia. At the Intercontinental Hotel where our group was staying, the guru suddenly called us from the lunch room: We were to come immediately to a totally empty Grand Ballroom, all exits closed and blocked by our groups’ guards. During this secret interview, the guru spoke to us—almost hissing—with eyes half-closed. He said, “They [devoted Inner Circle guards] want to kill your son,” and told us that we were the “parents of Judas.” Then, never withdrawing or denying or modifying this threat, he just slid into other subjects as if he had never made it! We were in a state of shock and disbelief.
Once the threat registered, I could imagine how Abraham must have felt when he was commanded by God to kill his son Isaac. It was the turning point for us. Though we outwardly continued to appear devoted disciples—shortly after we returned from Asia, the guru told us after a function, “I’m so proud of you, you’re on your guru’s side…!”—inwardly we had begun our journey away.
We became “double agents,” feeding the guru relatively harmless but true information about our son’s activities, then warning our son of the dirty tricks the guru and his minions were planning. I went with my son to the New York City police and filed a case of aggravated harassment against the guru. I then reported to the guru that my son had filed a report with the police (maintaining my image as devoted disciple so I could continue our work against the group). The guru was enraged. He was also afraid, since he was not a US citizen. He was terrified of police and immigration officials, and he knew what could happen to his visa status.
We were under enormous stress at this time trying to protect our son. I had panic attacks, and my wife had to have an operation on her throat because of severe acid-reflux damage.
Finally, on a Christmas trip to Australia, during a very private interview, my wife confronted the guru. By this time he was using us as his close confidants and quite openly discussing with us some suspected enemies among his disciples. My wife suddenly blurted out, “What’s going to happen with the death threat to our son?” The guru was completely taken by surprise: No one ever directly confronted the Divine Master! He was totally taken aback and nervously answered, “Oh, that’s not going to happen,” without even denying he had ever made the threat.
The very hard-fought Internet war, begun by our son’s critical website, continued. The guru (a rural villager from Bangladesh) was at first blindsided by the rapid growth of criticism of him on the Internet. After initially relying on the traditional tools of fear, death threats, bribes, and dirty tricks to silence his critics, he rallied his own devoted Internet defense workers. They created propaganda websites that devotees from around the world accessed again and again, around the clock, successfully demoting the critical website far down the page in any potential Web search by outside researchers.
Our son and some collaborators also sent out a mass postal mailing to all disciples still in the group, who were forbidden from using the Internet. However, many letters were intercepted, and the guru warned that anyone opening the letters would be expelled. The group’s watchers and reporters did their jobs diligently, intercepting and throwing out letters and reporting anyone who read them.
Finally, amidst the death threat, police complaint, and the still-raging Internet war, our son managed to convince us. He dragged us out of the group after almost a quarter of a century of belief in the guru and living in the spiritual community.
The undisputed celibacy and holiness of the guru was now being deeply scrutinized and questioned by several outside observers. As the first waves of revelations of pedophilia among Eastern gurus and Christian priests appeared in the media, our son’s message was more widely accepted. The guru made one final, desperate attempt to save himself: He said he would pay for our son’s entire college education if his critical site was totally shut down! Even without being absolutely convinced (at that time) of the terrible sexual abuse, this whip-and-carrot tactic—a death threat on the one hand and a bribe on the other—finally convinced us to leave. We saw at close range the guru’s true personality, and this was shocking enough. The attempted cover-up (rendered impossible by the Internet) ultimately led to a growing public perception of the actual sex life of a hypocritical and self-proclaimed celibate guru.
Unfortunately, the powerful psychological and social-influence processes used to varying degrees in all human groups (including cults) are still poorly understood by many. Members are often recruited with misleading or deceptive information. Recruiters are often well-intentioned, respectable, and even quite exceptional people who are themselves deceived. They are often under the influence of a charismatic or narcissistic leader, or friend or family member. Once inside a group, to fit in, we may ignore or suppress our own inner doubts in order to avoid cognitive dissonance, the discomfort of holding contradictory beliefs, or of acting in ways that contradict our instincts or beliefs. This powerful social influence process is functioning in all groups, to varying degrees—from political parties, corporations, and Christian congregations, to gangs, and terrorist groups such as ISIS. Unfortunately, even today, many still blame the victims: “If they were stupid enough to join a cult, then it was their own fault! And if they made a mistake joining, why don’t they just leave?!”
During the time our story took place, there was very little understanding or awareness of these forces, and few safety nets or exit counselors available for those daring or forced to leave. Many former members, living with repressed shame and guilt, had to hide their former lives in order to function in society and get jobs and have normal romantic relationships.
Recently, due at least in part to the revelations by our son and a few collaborators, and continued today by several social media sites, the ultimate bombshell exploded. One of the highest ranking and most respected Inner Circle girls finally admitted, after many years of total denial, that even she had not escaped the sexual designs of the celibate guru (she had joined as a teenager). The remaining followers today are faced with the shocking realization that, living as celibates and forsaking family life and good paying jobs, often without social and medical insurance or pensions, they had been duped by their “God-Realized” guru for decades.
The cognitive-dissonance process is very powerful (as we have personally experienced) and has compelled many disciples and admirers to rationalize, suppress, and deny even the most shattering personal testimonials. Some disciples still continue to believe in the leader’s mythical legacy. Some joined so young, or have been in for so long and become so invested, that they cannot conceive of any other life; and this keeps them in, in spite of all the evidence.
A few years after we left, the now-distraught and often-depressed guru suddenly and unexpectedly died. The spell was now broken! The hypocrisy had been revealed. All the guru’s subjects are now free to see the truth on the Internet and other media if they so choose. Of course, as we know, doing this is not easy for those who entered at a young age. Many are now old, often estranged from family and socially isolated, and they have few other life or job options to return to. How much choice exists for some people, and how free are their choices in reality? We were some of the lucky ones, and we have much to be grateful for.
 The term lower vital refers to “…the small greeds, small desires, small passions … which make up the daily stuff of life for the ordinary sensational man” (see Letters on Yoga, Vol. 1, p. 327).
Russell H. Bradshaw, EdD [AB (Wesleyan University), EdM, EdD (Harvard University), Cand. Polit. (University of Oslo)] recently retired as Associate Professor at Lehman College, City University of New York. He has taught psychological and historical foundations of education and directed the MA program in Teaching Social Studies: 7–12. Dr. Bradshaw’s master’s and doctoral dissertations described alternative-living and child-care arrangements in Sweden (Samhem and Kollektivhus). During his undergraduate studies he received a stipendium to live in Samoa and wrote his honors thesis on religion’s effect on cultural stability and change in Western Samoan villages. Dr. Bradshaw’s continuing interest in alternative living and child-care solutions led him to an intensive experience of a Hindu-based religious cult in New York City. Dr. Bradshaw has received fellowships and grants from Wesleyan, Harvard, and Uppsala (Sweden) universities and from the City University of New York. He and his wife Gunilla currently live in Norrtälje, Sweden, where they are continuing their work for ICSA’s New York Educational Outreach Committee.
[a]Jude: Please format this as an introductory note to the article, as we have done in previous issues.