Book Review - American Guru A Story of Love, Betrayal and Healing

Cultic Studies Review, 9(1), 2010, 250-253

American Guru: A Story of Love, Betrayal and Healing

William Yenner

Reviewed by Marta Szabo

If you are curious about life inside a cult, or life inside Andrew Cohen’s cult, you will learn a lot from this book. William Yenner is to be applauded for the thoroughness with which he makes his points, the clarity of his writing, and the many voices he has included. For many, it will be illuminating to be taken behind the scenes of this organization and to have its leader unmasked. Yenner has done a great service to all of us by not remaining silent.

Mr. Yenner is a level-headed ex-devotee, seeking to display the facts as clearly and objectively as possible. Throughout this book he weaves together his own experiences of 13 years as a high-ranking member of Cohen’s community with detailed personal-experience reports from other disaffected members, adding some official announcements and teachings from Cohen and the organization for good measure.

Yenner studiously avoids taking cheap shots, and he gives readers plenty of room to draw their own conclusions. Yet anyone familiar with the abuses of power so prevalent amongst contemporary spiritual leaders can read this book only one way. Despite some horrendous tales told in this book that might shock some, Andrew Cohen is a garden-variety deluded leader who abuses his followers in the name of spiritual enlightenment. We’ve seen it many times in many fields—political, spiritual, corporate, domestic: Wherever groups of people form, cult-like behavior can creep in.

Yet it is crucial to keep examining this phenomenon because no one has really figured it out. Why do smart, creative people fall prey to seductive, authoritarian figures? Yenner seeks to answer this question, but he falls short.

It’s a question I’ve looked at often because I have to answer it. I was one of those people. I know what it’s like to be inside one of these communities, to be certain that the degrading things my leader is saying about me are true, to believe that the psychological pain my leader is putting me through is evidence of love, and that I will reach an end to this hard road, and it will be more than worth it. I know first-hand the life Yenner describes.

Perhaps one of the reasons I am a writer dedicated to memoir is because I must find out why I have given myself over to others in this way more than once. My own writing and personal exploration have uncovered two hot-spots in a devotee’s life that have to be uncompromisingly examined: the state of one’s life when one decides to enter a cult (although of course that word is not the one the newly fledged devotee uses), and the answers to this question always lead straight back to an even richer area of information: the dynamics of a person’s childhood. Any real close-up examination of childhood—no matter how trouble-free that childhood appears at first glance—will yield the mother lode of information about why a person enters a cult.

Although Yenner briefly describes his own life at the time that he met Cohen, no one in the book addresses his or her childhood and original family dynamics. But for those of us hell-bent on understanding why we did something as self-destructive as give ourselves over to a cult, and why we stayed so long, simply looking at our situation at the time of contact with the group is not enough. What led us to that point? That is the crucial question. The chain of answers leads back link by link into our deep past. I don’t think any of us will be free of what made us vulnerable to cults until we have taken an unconventional, risky look at where we came from.

Yenner was married and earning a good living when he met Cohen; but despite this stability, he had a deep yearning to achieve something spiritually in his life. It was this yearning, he claims, that allowed him to become so inspired by Cohen that four months later he left his wife and everything else to join this new community. And, he says, it was an “open heart” that was the important ingredient for why he and so many others stayed so long.

I used to say something similar about my reasons for joining two different supposedly spiritual communities. I used to say that I had a driving desire to have the most meaningful, worthwhile life possible. This was true, but ultimately I don’t find this enough of an explanation for why one abandons one’s life—everything and everyone one knows—for the sake of an idea, of a possibility. At first glance, it seems noble. But looked at more closely, it is a form of suicide, being willing to throw oneself away—to find no value whatsoever in what one has so far created as a life, to be willing to ditch the lot.

In “yogic” terms this action is seen as “sacrifice,” giving up these worldly trifles for something greater. But really, does Yenner—or anyone who gives up everything to join a community—really have anything to give up? If they had meaningful, satisfying lives, the appeal of Cohen and his ilk would be nonexistent. So one must look further back for the real clues as to why a person chooses to disappear themselves into an oppressive, family-like organization.

And why are there so many who are ready to believe that someone can tell them how to have a better life? Why is there a basic assumption that authorities on this matter exist, as if it were a generic subject?

Yenner holds onto the basic belief that yes, there are such things as true gurus and that a quest for spiritual evolution is a good thing. I am surprised by how much benefit of the doubt Yenner allows Cohen—there seems to be a reluctance to utterly reject him. Yenner claims that his time with Cohen had meaningful benefits despite the heinous crimes that took place against him and others.

Often I am asked, “But didn’t you receive anything from your time in Siddha Yoga?” The assumption behind the question is that, despite my criticism of the guru and the movement I was part of, I must be able to pick out something that was significant and true. “No,” I answer. What I received came from life. I lived my life as fully as I could during my many years in other people’s custody—and because of this I learned, I grew, I became more independent; but I claim that all this was despite the efforts being made to keep me small. No matter where you are, what you are doing, you will grow up; you will mature and become stronger.

Yenner’s point of view is that valid spiritual paths leading to spiritual evolution still exist. He and his colleagues just chose the wrong one. I disagree. I no longer believe in this thing called enlightenment or “liberated beings.” Perhaps there are people who break through something mysterious and become different from the rest of us. Why would such a person mention it to anyone? Why would they be interested in drawing attention to themselves? If someone were to become enlightened, I believe they would become the most invisible person imaginable, smart enough to be indistinguishable from the rest of us. Like water.

Because when someone claims a special status on the enlightenment scale, it sets up a hierarchy completely in opposition to their claim. It immediately establishes that you are lacking and they are not. For this reason, a person who is enlightened (if such a state exists) wouldn’t tell you. They would simply continue their life—and allow you to continue yours.

I don’t believe in some constant state of enlightenment. But I do believe in and am uplifted by others’ moments of transcendence—the cheerful smile of my local grocer when I know he’s been on his feet for 12 hours; the willingness of the guy at work to fix my computer; the generosity of a friend who goes out of her way for me one morning and convinces me it’s no big deal. If I can’t find the ultimate stuff of life in what I can see, feel, and experience every day—in the life I have created and in what has come to me—I don’t think I’ll find it anywhere else.

Cultic Studies Review, Vol. 9, No. 1, 2010, Page