Report — From the November 2013 issue

The Man Who Saves You from Yourself

Going undercover with a cult infiltrator

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Nobody ever joins a cult. One joins a nonprofit group that promotes green technology, animal rights, or transcendental meditation. One joins a yoga class or an entrepreneurial workshop. One begins practicing an Eastern religion that preaches peace and forbearance. The first rule of recruitment, writes Margaret Singer, the doyenne of cult scholarship, is that a recruit must never suspect he or she is being recruited. The second rule is that the cult must monopolize the recruit’s time. Therefore, in order to have any chance of rescuing a new acolyte, it is critical to act quickly. The problem is that family and friends, much like the new cult member, are often slow to admit the severity of the situation. “Clients usually don’t come to me until their daughter is already to-the-tits brainwashed,” says David Sullivan, a private investigator in San Francisco who specializes in cults. “By that point the success rate is very low.”

Underworld, courtesy Till Gerhard and Galleri K, Oslo

Underworld, courtesy Till Gerhard and Galleri K, Oslo

Sullivan became fascinated with cults in the late Sixties, while attending Fairview High School in Boulder, Colorado. It was a golden age for religious fringe groups, and Boulder was one of the nation’s most fertile recruiting centers, as it is today. (There are now, according to conservative estimates, 2 million adults involved in cults in America.) “You couldn’t walk five steps without being approached by someone asking whether you’d like to go to a Buddhist meeting,” says John Stark, a high school friend of Sullivan’s. Representatives from Jews for Jesus and the Moonies set up information booths in the student union at the University of Colorado, a few miles down the road from Fairview High. Sullivan engaged the hawkers, accepted the pamphlets, attended every meditation circle, prayer circle, shamanic circle. When the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi led a mass meditation session at the university, Sullivan was there, watching from the back of the lecture hall.

Sullivan was not religious. Though raised Catholic, by high school he considered himself a “hardcore atheist.” Before the family moved to Boulder, his father had managed a used-car dealership in Salina, Kansas. His mother worked in a pawnshop. On Thursday nights, during the late shift, Sullivan sat with her at the counter, where he met criminals, alcoholics, and grifters trying to stay one step ahead of bill collectors. He saw how people could be manipulated if you exploited their weaknesses. He learned about desperation and the lies people told to arouse sympathy. From his grandfather, a funeral-home director who, Sullivan suspects, forged death certificates for the local Catholic church, he learned how to keep a secret. The suicide of a gay priest was called a heart attack. The botched abortion of a pregnant nun was pneumonia.

During spring break in 1968, inspired by On the Road, Sullivan and Stark set off on a tour of the Southwest in Sullivan’s baby-blue Pontiac convertible. They visited Drop City in southern Colorado, eating brown rice and tofu under geodesic domes, and the New Buffalo Commune outside of Taos, New Mexico, washing dishes after the communal meal and hitting on the women. Stark remembers how excited Sullivan would become when he entered these communities. “He had a wanderlust, a powerful urge to immerse himself in these different cultures.” When they spent the following summer in Mexico City, Stark noticed that Sullivan had begun to speak with a Mexican accent.

“There was a soul-searching element of it,” says Sullivan. “But I was also curious to know what the gurus were getting out of it. And I wanted to figure out how they picked up all those girls.”

The spiritual groups, he soon realized, shared a simple tactic: they demanded that their followers suspend critical thought. “They’d say, ‘You have to break out of your Western mentality. You’re too judgmental. You have to abandon your whole psychological-intellectual framework. Your obsessive materialism is blocking you from seeing the truth.’

“I became disturbed by how dramatically they transformed people, and in such a short period of time. They could take some regular American kid and all of a sudden he’s wearing saffron robes, walking around barefoot, all painted up, with a tiny ponytail and shaved head, dancing for hours, selling flowers and incense, living on the floor and eating disgusting food, repeating Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama. They persuaded a lot of intelligent young people to drop out of college, fuck up their whole career track, break up with their boyfriend or girlfriend, and go off to some retreat. Next thing you know, they’ve lost contact with their family, they’re scrubbing latrines with toothbrushes and liquidating their personal savings.”

In 1974, Sullivan briefly dated a woman whose grandparents had joined something called the Peoples Temple in San Francisco, led by the Reverend Jim Jones. Sullivan’s girlfriend called him one day in tears. Her grandparents had announced that they were following Jones to a settlement he was founding in Guyana. They had already packed their suitcases, but Sullivan helped persuade them not to go.

He received another call around the same time from a friend whose sister was being initiated into a group called the Divine Light Mission. The DLM’s leader was a pudgy thirteen-year-old boy from Haridwar, India, named Prem Rawat. He was said to be the reincarnation of his father, the Perfect Master Guru Maharaji, the founder of the DLM, who died when Rawat was eight. The DLM had millions of followers in India, but its adolescent guru wanted to bring his message to America. He arrived in 1971, preceded by a press release: “He is coming in the clouds with great power and glory, and his silver steed will drift down at 4 p.m. at Los Angeles international airport, TWA Flight 761.” A crowd of reporters and screaming young acolytes greeted him at the airport. The DLM incorporated as a tax-exempt church in Colorado and established an ashram in Wallstreet — an abandoned town ten miles west of Boulder that had been conceived, in 1897, as a socialist utopia.

When Sullivan arrived in Wallstreet, supplicants were lined up alongside a creek outside the ashram, waiting to be granted admittance to the Perfect Master’s chambers. Once inside, they bowed before the guru’s feet, made an offering of a khata, a ceremonial scarf purchased at the gate for a buck fifty, and received a blessing. Then they sat and listened for hours to the boy’s droning pronouncements:

“The lotus flower grows in filthy water, yet it is pure.”

“You do not want to just polish the car, the outside. You want to work on the inside.”

“When we die, we will become one with God. It will be like a drop of water that falls in the ocean. Can you take that same drop out again?”

Sullivan stood in the back and watched as the boy gawked at the breasts of the American girls who bowed before him. (Three years later, at age sixteen, Rawat would marry a twenty-four-year-old Pacific Southwest Airlines stewardess named Marolyn Johnson.) But the boy did not interest Sullivan nearly as much as did the boy’s mother.

Mata Ji, “Holy Mother,” was a large, buxom woman in a sari who wore wraparound green-tinted sunglasses. She stood behind her son, scrutinizing every visitor. Occasionally, displeased by something her son said, she leaned close and whispered into his ear. The boy would stiffen, his eyes widening, and nod abjectly. When he repeated her lines she rewarded him with round pieces of taffy, hand-feeding him as one might a trained monkey. Holy Mother caught Sullivan staring. When Sullivan began to ask skeptical questions to some of the followers, a lackey asked him to leave.

Back in Boulder, Sullivan found his friend’s sister. She was a smart, pretty girl from the East Coast with artistic aspirations and a trust fund — an ideal recruit.

Sullivan met her in Boulder’s Beach Park. The conversation did not get off to a good start.

“How can you possibly sit in judgment of an ancient Eastern religion?” she said. “In India they have a deep and powerful understanding of life. We in the West, we’re spiritually impoverished. We’re a new society without traditions. Their civilization has been around for aeons!”

“They’ve been conning people for centuries,” said Sullivan. “That’s the only thing that’s ancient about this.”

“The Perfect Master says humility is a good thing, poverty is a good thing, manual labor is a good thing. What’s wrong with that?”

“If that’s the case, then why doesn’t he ever lift a finger? Why does he fly first class or in chartered jets?”

They went back and forth like this for an hour. Finally Sullivan took a different approach.

“Forget about their philosophy,” he said. “Let’s focus instead on who is really in power.”

He explained what he’d seen at the ashram, the way the mother dominated the son. Sullivan knew that the girl had come to Boulder to escape her alcoholic mother.

“If you join the DLM, you’re not going to be working for that little boy,” said Sullivan. “You’re going to be working for Big Momma.”

That cut it. She stopped visiting the ashram, finished college, and got a master’s degree in fine arts. The Divine Light Mission, she realized, was not her calling. But Sullivan had found his.

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is the author of the novels The Mayor’s Tongue and Odds Against Tomorrow. His last article for Harper’s Magazine, “Opportunity Knocks,” appeared in the January 2013 issue.

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