In his fascinating new book (with photos by Michael Rauner) Visionary State: A Journey Through California's Spiritual Landscape, Erik Davis writes, "When the United States seized the territory from Mexico in 1848 California became the stage for a strange and steady parade of utopian sects, bohemian mystics, cult leaders, psychospiritual healers, holy poets, sex magicians, fringe Christians, and psychedelic warriors."
Visionary State documents an eclectic mix of these magical, mystical scenes from across Californian history, ranging from loose, anarchic configurations of independent seekers who reject doctrine; to authoritarian fringe cults that cobble together their own strange doctrinaire cosmologies based on the possibly schizophrenic revelations and prophecies of their visionary leaders and gurus. Theosophists, nature mystics, Zen Buddhists, 19th Century spiritual snake oil hustlers, various Hindu sects, the Merry Pranksters, Scientologists, Mansonoids, Burning Man Burners — all are enclosed in Davis' rich spiritual gumbo.
His intention is not to judge. "California consciousness", he writes, is "an imaginative, experimental, and hedonistic quest for human transformation by any means necessary." Davis rightfully suggests that California's "theme park of the gods", in all its chaos and contradiction, is so fecund that it is inherently valuable. Our spiritual nuts, fruits and flakes are, he says, an important part of the richness of California's dynamic psycho-social, economic, and even physical landscape.
Doubtless, California's relative tolerance for deviation from the conventional and the mainstream provides opportunities for both liberatory, free-thinking self-experimentation; and for pathological, neo-conformist head-fucking. The presence of trippy and sometimes destructive fringe cults across California history might be thought of as an inevitable side-effect of the state's position as post-modernism's early adopter.
But while weird cults may be inevitable, very few of them could be considered benign. And though the depredations of the Manson Family, the horrors of Jonestown, and the pathetic futility of Heaven's Gate's attempt to hitch themselves to a comet may have afforded our culture a series of black humor bonanzas, nobody really wants to see their friends and family get sucked into the orbit of the latest power-mad cult leader.
So, for your edification and amusement, and as a warning, I am here presenting a very brief guide to some contemporary California cults:
Miracle Of Love
Miracle of Love is an ambitious Marin County based cult that, according to a March 2006 expose by Jill Kramer for The Pacific Sun, has plans to expand to Seattle, Vancouver, Sacramento, San Diego, Colorado, Australia and South America. Around 1995, their leader, "Kalindi" (real name: Carol Seidman) declared herself "the voice of the latest incarnation of God." (Actually, God originally started speaking through her husband, but he died, and rather than except the obvious implication — "God is dead" — Seidman caught the spirit.)
In a six-day long session called "The Intensive," the group employs classic techniques employed by brainwashers and kidnappers everywhere (famously adopted by Werner Erhard's est group in the ''70s and ''80s). Attendees are deprived of sleep, forced to dredge up psychic pains, verbally abused and embarrassed, and then finally given a warm, comforting love bath to cement their attachment to the group. What's the attraction? Apparently, there is a kind of high associated with completing this type of ordeal, and cult members get their targets to associate this feeling with "God's energy" and that old cult standby: "unconditional love."
For those who become members, classic cult brainwashing techniques continue. To the greatest extent possible, members are isolated from family and other non-believers and give complete control of their lives to cult leaders. According to Kramer, "Devotees are given new names. They're told when to wake, when to meditate, when to do service work for the mission, how much time to allot for chores, what time to go to bed. Everything is dictated, down to which toilet paper to buy."
"Kalinda" and her cohorts seem to be largely motivated by financial gain. Kramer reports that followers are told they can "come home to God within this lifetime" by "letting go of attachments to the material world — the world of illusion. The handiest way to let go of their attachments to money is, of course, to donate it to the Miracle of Love mission."
On the back cover of her book, Ultimate Freedom: Union With God, Kalindi/Seidman poses provocatively in a thong and fishnet stockings. Underneath the picture, are the words "Don't you want to break free?" Spot the irony?
Guru Sri Bhagavan and his partner, Sri Amma are the founders of the Oneness University, which is centered in India, but has a growing California following, particularly in Los Angeles and San Francisco. They claim that the "solution to humanity's suffering can only be found through our awakening to Oneness." And, of course, there is a particular one who can lead us toward that oneness. Bhagavan offers followers the opportunity to experience "Deeksha," "a transfer of divine energy" that produces enlightenment. The group aims to enlighten 64,000 people and thus transform the world by — you guessed it — 2012.
According to a private correspondence published by Guruphiliac, "this cult is pressurizing its INDIAN devotees to donate large sums of wealth, if they want to remain in the good books of the disciples (dasas) who run the show, and progress further. We have even been asked to take loans (the last case was Rs 100,000 [$2,220.50 US] which is a large amount), and donate, if we don't have the money. We have been told that we can repay the loans over a few years!
"From the day we join we are pressurized to bring in new people and send them for the initial 3-day deeksha (costing Rs 5000 [$110 US])." A 21-day workshop, according to the Guruphiliac correspondent, costs $5,500.
The guru and his followers also use pseudo-scientific flim flam to claim that they have been able to measure neurological changes that result from the "deeksha" experience. Guruphiliac quotes someone they call "a major university neuroscience researcher," saying this about the gurus claims: "The most questionable aspect" is the author's claim that he has tested alterations in neurotransmitters, hormones, and receptors via electromagnetic signature testing. There is no scientific data to support that this technique is viable."
This is the religion that was formed by Adi Da. Da was born Franklin Jones and later changed his name to Bubba Free John and then Da Free John. I must confess to a soft spot (probably it's just my fontanelle) for Da. He's witty and smart and seems like he might be in on the cosmic joke, assuming that there is in fact a cosmic joke. Imagine if Alan Watts decided to declare himself "the complete manifestation of the divine in human form" and you've sort of got the picture. A 1985 San Francisco Examiner article by Don Lattin reported on secret "drunken sex orgies and luxurious lifestyles among the guru's inner circle in Hawaii and their Fijian island of Naitauba," and quotes one former follower as saying, "We took peyote, psilocybin, marijuana and an unbelievable amount of alcohol. The two of us would sit down and drink two bottles of whiskey. A lot of the people who came in were young women, and he'd loosen them up with alcohol and drugs."
So, what's the problem here? Jody Radzik at Guruphiliac writes, "We've always wanted to like Adi Da. First because Ken Wilber liked him, and then because he was so out in the open with his craziness. Gurus, drugs and group sex just get us so hot! But once he started with his 'world teacher' shtick, he went from being a tantric engine of transformation to just another wackadoo guru."
And, of course, like all of our other gurus, Da scams as much money from his followers to keep the party going. I wouldn't want to be one of Da's followers, but Oh to be Da.
The Helzer Brothers Transform America
The Helzer Brothers' activities were a tawdry and pallid expression of Manson family values. After being excommunicated from the Mormon Church for taking drugs, Glenn Helzer, from Contra Costa County (a San Francisco suburb) decided to form a self-awareness group to stop Satan and hasten the return of Jesus. He got himself two members, his own brother Justin and a young woman named Dawn Goldman. According to an article in the San Francisco Chronicle, Glenn Helzer's plans "included a bizarre plot to train Brazilian orphans to slaughter the leaders of the Mormon Church so he could become its prophet; and 'Transform America,' a self-help group to foster 'a state of peace and joy.'"
In order to raise money, the Helzer's sold ecstasy and Glenn got his onetime girlfriend, Keri Mendoza, to pose for Playboy. (She appeared as Kerissa Fare, Miss September 2000). But when drugs and sex didn't produce enough money fast enough, Helzer's mind turned towards robbery and murder. The group extorted $100,000 from an elderly couple, Ivan and Annette Stineman, and then killed them, returning the next day to dismember them. (Peace and joy can be such hard work!)
Helzer next planned to incorporate his friend, Selina Bishop (daughter of blues guitarist Elvin Bishop) into his plot by getting her to cash the check. But he decided that she knew too much, so he and his brother bludgeoned her to death and then eviscerated her body. Fearing that Bishop's stepfather and mother would finger him as a suspect in the murder of their daughter, Helzer dispatched them the following day. On August 7, 2000 the three conspirators were arrested. Glenn Helzer received five death sentences. Brother Justin got only one and Dawn Godman was sentenced to 38 years-to-life.
As someone who socializes at times on the periphery of "new age" circles, it is my personal observation that most spiritual seekers stopped giving themselves up to charismatic leaders and gurus by the end of the 1980s. But it is clear that there are still enough lost souls out there to fulfill the financial needs and psychopathic fantasies of cult leaders for years to come. My advice: If you feel a need to be part of a group, join a bowling league.