Book Review - Cartwheels in a Sari A Memoir of Growing Up Cult
Cultic Studies Review, 8,(3), 2009, 306-310
Book Review - Cartwheels in a Sari: A Memoir of Growing Up Cult
By Jayanti Tamm
Reviewed by Marcia R. Rudin
The author of this beautifully written, excellent memoir, Jayanti Tamm, was born into and raised in Sri Chinmoy’s meditation group in New York City. After Sri Chinmoy ordered her parents, both new disciples who did not know each other, to marry, Tamm’s mother became pregnant, even though Chinmoy had forbidden sexual activity. The guru declared the resulting child Jayanti to be his “Chosen One”, his special disciple, a burden she carried throughout her life in the group.
This is not a story of the isolation, neglect, starvation, or physical or sexual abuse we have come to expect from children raised in cults. To me, it is even more interesting because Tamm vividly chronicles her attempt to make sense of her double life in “normal,” outside society and her “privileged” status within the closed group, as: a youngster too tired from traveling every night between her family’s home in Connecticut and meditation gatherings in Queens to do her public school homework (where were the teacher or the counselors and school administrators?); the sensitive child trying to fit in with her outside-world peers; the bright teenager ironically sent to an expensive boarding school in Connecticut, forbidden to go to college or to attend parties or proms; an attractive young woman not allowed to have a boyfriend or even to mingle with men; an adult without a life of her own, attempting to fulfill her destiny as the “Chosen One” by following Chinmoy’s dictatorial directives and decisions for her life.
Tamm tells us how Chinmoy ruthlessly manipulated his followers, and she illustrates this charlatan’s cruelty. She details how he sought out celebrities and infiltrated his followers into the United Nations, although she never clearly explains his motives. Tamm documents Chinmoy’s obsessions with claiming superhuman feats such as lifting heavy objects (all, of course, fraudulent), playing tennis, running, and animals. He forbade his followers to have pets (in a moving section, Tamm pleads with him to give her permission to have a rabbit, and he does), but he collects his own illegal zoo in the basement of his home, and one of Tamm’s jobs as a child is to clean the animals’ filth.
One of the most heartbreaking sections of the memoir is her decision to give up the boy Oscar she fell in love with while she was working as a secretary at the United Nations. Because relationships with men and, of course, sexual activity were forbidden—although she discovers later that Chinmoy has hardly been abstinent, Tamm chooses instead the Absolute Supreme as her soul mate. Although she is careful not to be seen in public with Oscar so another disciple does not report her transgression to the leader (even family members, including her brother, spied on and turned each other in), Chinmoy does find out. Later, we discover, as I had suspected, that her trusted best friend Chahna had reported her. The young man knows nothing of Tamm’s life in the cult, and after she tells him she can’t see him anymore, he tries to convince her to run off with him. In a split-second, last-minute decision, she chooses her cult life:
He [Oscar] backed me into the subway car, still clasping both my hands, pulling me inside. For a moment I visualized our perfect future together, burrowed in the comfort of a domestic oasis. With him I would gain a loving partner, but I would lose my holy trinity – Guru, my soul, and the Supreme. My life with Oscar was impossible. I was Guru’s Chosen One, and because of that, Guru left me no choice. I took a decisive step, backing out of the door’s threshold onto the platform as the doors snapped shut. (p. 178)
I also found heartbreaking the destruction of Tamm’s relationship with her childhood best friend Chahna, who leaves the group before Tamm does. Even after Tamm leaves, they cannot resume their deep friendship. Also sad is the role of Tamm’s parents, who passively accept Sri Chinmoy’s dictates for their own lives and for their children’s. Gradually their doubts grow and eventually they leave the group, after Tamm’s first departure. One can only imagine their guilt. However, Tamm’s older brother, seduced by the power and perks in his position as a top guard to Sri Chinmoy, remains.
Tamm attempts to leave Chinmoy many times, but repeatedly he pressures her back into the group. And she cannot function well in the outside world where she has to make decisions about her life. She explains how difficult it was to leave:
Being deeply entrenched in Guru’s path meant basic forms of survival, home, and job were all reliant on it. In an instant, those, too, were snatched away, leaving one homeless and penniless, in addition being without family, friends, or any thread of support. It was all part of a larger system of control; the longer one stayed in the Center and the deeper they rooted themselves, the more impossible it was to leave. That fear, deeply submerged and never discussed among disciples, was always present, privately emerging at moments of doubt, panic, or rare clarity. (p. 279)
Talking about her own situation, Tamm explains,
There was no ‘next.’ There was nothing. In one month I would be twenty-five, and I had no experience with the outside world. Suddenly I was dumped on the side of the road and meant to have prepared a plan? (p. 276)
Finally, she realizes the truth:
A myth. A fake. A lie. The truth was that nothing was true. Guru Sri Chinmoy was a fabrication dreamed and designed by a young and churlish Bangladeshi intent on hypnotizing the world... If Guru was fiction, and invention, I realized, then so was I, for he had created me. My values and truths were all approved, filtered, then injected into me by Guru… I was the creation of the Sri Chinmoy Experiment. I could not imagine that somewhere inside was a real person who could exist wholly unto herself… Nothing around me was true; the emperor wore no clothes. (p. 271)
By the end of this memoir, the reader realizes that the title Cartwheels in a Sari is a metaphor for the double life Tamm was forced to live, her life in the cult and life in the outside world. Shortly before she finally leaves the group for good, Tamm recalls a childhood memory of performing gymnastics in a Chinmoy-directed circus:
Banned from wearing leotards because they were too revealing, in my circus costume of a shiny sari fearlessly tumbling, somersaulting, and cartwheeling around the stage to Guru’s applause… The inversion of my body, losing track of gravity and direction, was disorienting and delirious. From my vantage point, I saw Guru and all of the disciples upside-down, and no one else had. Their faces blurred past, a rush of nonsensical colors and shapes. By the end of my routine, I didn’t know which was the correct way. Both felt as equally unstable then as they did now. (pp. 265–266)
When she finally leaves the group, Tamm vows, “I was through tumbling for him, done cartwheeling, dwelling upside-down.” (p. 284)
Every general reader will be fascinated and moved by this excellently written memoir. People interested in cults will especially find it a valuable contribution to their knowledge of cults and especially to their understanding of the lives of those born into and raised in them.
I wish Tamm had told us more details about what must have been a very difficult transition to the outside world. Did she undergo counseling to help her adjust? How did she survive financially? What is her current relationship with her parents? Did her brother ever leave the group? How did she develop healthy relationships with men? But I was inspired by her apparently successful journey to freedom and a new life. Now an English professor at Ocean County College in New Jersey, Tamm is married and a mother. In one final irony of fate, she reports that her daughter was born only a few hours after Sri Chinmoy died of a heart attack. Illustrative of the humor Tamm exhibits throughout her memoir, she comments:
While I had long ago dismantled him [Chinmoy] as my god and savior, his very ordinary, mortal death shocked me, as though a small part of me had still expected him either to be immortal or to ascend toward the heavens. I was sure that he, too, would have wanted something more visionary and celestial than a mundane cardiac arrest. (p. 287)