Book Review - Spying in Guruland
This article is an electronic version of an article originally published in Cultic Studies Journal, 1995, Volume 12, Number 2, pages 198-202. Please keep in mind that the pagination of this electronic reprint differs from that of the bound volume. This fact could affect how you enter bibliographic information in papers that you may write.
Book Review - Spying in Guruland: Inside Britain's Cults.
William Shaw. Fourth Estate, London, England (distributed by Trafalgar Square, N. Pomfret, VT 05053), 1994, 317 pages.
Shortly after the Branch Davidian sect suffered a catastrophe in Waco, Texas, in 1993, William Shaw set out to participate in a few cults in Britain. He did this as a curious journalist after inadvertently coming across an obscure, nearly defunct cult led by a character named Holy John. Holy John taught that a "great earth goddess called the Lady, and her consort Pan, were to return to rule Britain and save us from ecological disaster." Holy John's small commune thrived briefly in the 1980s, only to falter after predictions failed and devotees defected as a result of the leadership's strict authoritarianism. Shaw wondered what cult life was really like after noticing that cults can die out peacefully, almost wholly unnoticed or, as in the Waco incident, violently before the eyes of the world.
Shaw interviewed both cult apologists and anticult activists in his quest for which cults to join. Some anticult people including ex-members cautioned him about the dangers of such a project. He heard frightening stories about mind control and cult researchers who ended up as members. On the other hand, he heard that cults have a very low rate of recruitment and that the vast majority of new members defect after a few months to a year. To his advantage, Shaw had a good foothold in reality both as a seasoned journalist and a married individual. Also, he did not stay with one cult at a time but joined several during the same period. His intense, if brief, yearlong journey as a spy in guruland resulted in this book, one that I enjoyed reading and would recommend to anyone interested in this topic.
The second group after Holy John that Shaw writes about is Chrisemma. The group name is a combination of the names of the leaders, Emma Lea and Chris Orchard. When Shaw joined, the cult was barely three years old and had approximately 20 participants. Chris did the talking while Emma sat silent, even though both were "Enlightened Masters." Some of the members were followers of Osho-Rajneesh who died in 1990, but, according to Shaw, most of the members are "guru junkies." Chris had been a devotee of Sri Chinmoy until 1990 when he discovered "self-realization" in Emma. In her, Chris saw the very form of God. Chris's celibacy ended when sex with Emma became a spiritual act. The introverted Emma, on the other hand, came to enlightenment, she says, at the age of three when she discovered the ATruth of Being Alone."
Shaw joined with the Chrisemma group on Sundays to hear long hours of Chris's spiritual advice, usually love and sex among his flock. The typical member sits and takes in all information with a detached, bored attitude, no matter how shocking Chris might be in what he says. Chris both lectures and answers questions. Emma's role, if she has one, is simply to exhibit "emptiness" or a death of attachment to the physical and emotional world. The group publishes a periodical called The Final Discovery, through which Chrisemma advertises itself and its mission. The mission is to teach unconditional love as a road to enlightenment and to attract devotees to worship Chris and Emma unconditionally. Chris teaches that AI want you to treat me like God. Like I'm the only being in existence. And I don't want to have to do anything to get that respect."
Shaw experienced Chrisemma as a new and changing cult. During the year or so in which he monitored the group, Shaw notes that the fees went from 10 to 40 British pounds, with less frequent meetings with Chris. The group (all 20 or so) moved from Totnes in Devon to Bristol, and changed its name to the Chris Orchard Foundation. The laid-back living-room atmosphere changed into a more posh setting. Emma still sits silent, but her role seems to have "withered." Chris's charisma rules the meetings because he has been able to convince devotees that he has succeeded in killing his attachment to the world, its rules, and perhaps to Emma as well. Unlike the other cults Shaw joins, Chrisemma does not cultivate ecstasy; rather it encourages sublime boredom.
In Chapter 2 Shaw takes us into Emin, an obscure cult that has perhaps 2,000 or more members spread around Britain, North American, Europe, Australia, and Israel. Shaw discovers Emin at a New Age conference, The Festival of Mind, Body, and Spirit. The Emin booth advertised the "Eminent Theatre Journey," and sold a book called The Second Chance at Life. The booth also displayed brochures and an idiosyncratic Tarot deck used by the group. When Shaw inquired about the meaning of "Eminent Theatre Journey" and other esoteric terms in the Emin brochure, a young Emin member gave a response typical of any member of a New Age group: "You have to do it to understand it." So Shaw arranged to attend a meeting.
The Emin Centre turned out to be a rented hall in a gloomy old Welsh Chapel school. The group sets up its props and posters, breaking them down after each meeting. One of the props is a large painting of a woman with angel wings and one exposed breast. Meetings are progressive after the first one in which recruits are taught to experience the human aura and color energy. Shaw paid 45 pounds for a 10-lesson course called "The Search for Truth." Twice a week he attended meetings that went from 7:45 p.m. until midnight. He learned about forces from unseen worlds and how to connect with and understand them. Shaw learned to sense the extent of his aura by chanting "nerve, nerve, nerve," with his hands extended. He noticed that the teachers were heavy cigarette smokers. Members were told not to discuss the course with outsiders, yet after three weeks they still did not know of the existence of Emin or its leader, Leo. A guard always stood outside the meetings to discourage intruders. The information put forth at these meetings got stranger. Shaw learned about "natural laws" that govern the planet, a mystical system of numbers and colors, the Law of Two or opposites, and something called Electrobics. To learn Electrobics, members must wear loose clothing and soft shoes, and perform T'ai ChiBlike exercises used by Emin members to cleanse their aura and bodies of destructive electric forces. Some members claim that they can see these forces. When they do, the infected persons are instructed to gather the electric forces with their hands and flick them away.
In the fourth week the teacher told them about Leo, the great mystic who has powers that none of them even comes close to. Leo's picture appeared on the wall at the next meeting. He is a tall, bald Briton with a goatee who now lives in Florida. Leo was born around 1925 as Raymond John Schertenleib, but often gives his name as Raymond Armin. After 1945 Leo was sent to India by the Royal Air Force as part of his national service. While there, he developed a fascination with Oriental cosmology. Later he became an encyclopedia salesman, and went bankrupt in 1965. In the late 1960s Leo developed a small following in England. By 1972 he founded Emin and began his immense outpouring of mystical texts. He claimed to have mystical powers--even though he smoked heavily, for example, he stated that it was no longer harmful to him.
Emin attracted some critical attention from the press in 1977 and 1983. As a result the group became more secretive. Each member has a cult name and may not know other members' real names. Members claim that there is no group, no cult. Yet, Shaw experienced Emin as multilayered and purposeful. The purpose is for members to gain psychic awareness and power through such techniques as chanting, clapping, and ritual marching. Emin subgroups might be called Gemrod Petition or Gemrod Endeavor. They believe they are fighting an invisible enemy of dark forces. Every event and symbol they encounter is a mystical text to be interpreted. They believe that their psychic techniques can cure cancer. They worry about impending doom. They await every missive from Leo, whom they rarely see. They consider themselves the vanguard of the New Age human.
At times Shaw was afraid that his lack of belief would betray him as the spy he was. "Instead, I am discovering that in many ways it is easy to exist inside a cult. You are welcomed with open arms when you show the slightest interest. Cult members' beliefs are absolute and real. They can't understand why everyone isn't doing it."
Eventually Shaw quit the Emin group. Two months later he checked in with some Emin members at the Healing Arts Festival, a psychic fair. He avoided many Emin phone invitations for him to attend another meeting. He discovered that most, if not all, of the people who joined with him had dropped out. This is consistent with what Shaw has noted about most cults and recruits: the dropout rate is high.
In the subsequent chapters, Shaw joins ISKCON (the Hare Krishnas), the Aetherius Society, the School of Economic Science, and Noel Stanton's Jesus Army. There are at least a few groups that I have studied that might have been less kind to Shaw had he infiltrated them and dared to criticize them. He reports on the history of each group so that it is easy for the reader to place Shaw's experience in context. He interviews a confused ex-member of the Brahma Kumaris, and he analyzes the Branch Davidian holocaust at Waco. His vicarious account of the Waco Branch Davidians is good as he partially described it through the eyes of a surviving member. Shaw smartly sketches how an extremist cult can attract extremist reactions which can lead to senseless tragedy. Unlike the first few groups he mentions, most of the other groups have been written about extensively; yet, those familiar with the latter groups will still want to read what Shaw has written.
In his final chapter, called "Stockholm Syndrome and the Seven Seals," Shaw criticizes anticult attitudes and mind control theories. One of his whipping boys is Ian Haworth, head of the British Cult Information Centre, who tells Shaw that there are A26 different methods of mind control." Also Shaw takes issue with Steve Hassan, author of Combatting Cult Mind Control, who wrote that you would not know if you were under mind control. Shaw notes that often it is ex-members of cults, like Haworth and Hassan, who provide bewildered cultists with answers they most want to hear--namely that it was not their fault, that they were victimized by mind control techniques and deceit. Shaw observed that members stayed because they wanted to, not because believers worked on them with "love bombing" and phobia indoctrination.
Shaw suggests that the anticult movement may be overreacting, creating its own phobias and stereotypes about cults, which it then combats. Clearly, he favors the approach of the people he thanks at the end of his book. These include Dr. James R. Lewis of AWARE, Eileen Barker and others of INFORM, and Larry Shinn, who has written sympathetically about the Hare Krishnas. He recommends that people turn to INFORM for independent advice on cults. By stereotyping so-called anticultists and deprogrammers (e.g., Ted Patrick and Rick Ross), Shaw almost falls into the trap of cult apologists who sustain a reactionary attitude toward anyone who criticizes cult activity or theorizes about mind control or "brainwashing." I say "almost" because Shaw is aware that the INFORM people and their ilk, as he states, "may well not agree with some of the content of this book." Whereas Barker and Lewis prefer innocuous terms like "New Religious Movement" to describe cultic groups, Shaw uses the word cult liberally and appropriately.
In summary, I think that William Shaw has done a credible job with a difficult subject. His description of group members and interviews with them adds a personal note often lacking in cult literature. True to his healthy skepticism, Shaw brings out the bizarre, convoluted nature of each cult. What is lacking in Shaw's accounts are interviews with former members who have not only rejected these cults for good reasons--for the same reasons that he resisted belief--but also intelligently recovered their lives in the process.
Joseph P. Szimhart
Cult Information Specialist/Exit Counselor
Cultic Studies Journal, Vol. 12, No. 2, 1995