International Journal of Cultic Studies ■ Vol. 10, 2019, 93-96
Book Review - The People & the Idiots: Surviving a Cult Childhood Reviewed by Joseph Szimhart
Just Write Books: Topsham, ME. 2019. ISBN-10: 194438622X; ISBN-13: 978- 1944386221 (paperback). 202 pages. $21.47 (paperback, Amazon.com).
Nothing is more telling about an intentional community than how it treats and teaches children. In this book, Daniel Hawes describes in visceral detail his horrifying experience growing up among the Synergists, led by Johnny Dolphin Allen. I first started tracking Allen’s cult in 1975. The People & the Idiots. . . has given me deeper insight into how pathologically elitist and inhumane Allen’s teachings were.
We learn from this memoir that verbal and physical beatings of children (per Hawes, the “people”) by adults (per Hawes, the “idiots”) devoted to Allen’s intentional communities, called Synergias, were so common as to be expected daily. The model for justifying these beatings was the leader, John Polk “Johnny Dolphin” Allen (born in 1929), who used verbal assault and punching as a useful teaching tool to bring students into a higher state of awareness. And that was the goal of Allen’s cult: to create a “universal human being” (p. 150) by repressing the lesser ego, or “idiot,” in the body–machine created by society and evolution.
Allen borrowed and repurposed most of his ideas from the Fourth Way teachings of G. I. Gurdjieff (1866–1949), a cult leader of the Seekers of Truth, which he formed and led early in the 20th century. Gurdjieff taught that irrational means, trickery, repetitious bodily labor, and abuse were necessary to shock the student into emerging from the “machine” self into self-remembering. or being acutely self-aware of action in the moment. The self to be remembered was a gnostic self, or the divine spark within—the seed of God, if you will—that only the elite in society could possibly notice. To attain this “higher octave” or sustained gnosis [see https://www.gurdjieff.org/werbock1.htm], one needed an already enlightened teacher such as Gurdjieff. The assumption was that only those ready for awakening could see the emperor–guru’s clothes.
If that sounds like crazy circular thinking, it is; and it is exactly how otherwise intelligent and caring people get caught up in elitist cult circles. Daniel Hawes had no choice: His misfortune was to be born to parent–seekers who already began to submit to Allen’s projects, ideas, and will. Among other descriptors, the Fourth Way approach was referred to as the Work and the way of the Sly Man. The three lesser, slower ways to enlightenment were the ways of the mind (yogis), the emotions (monks), and the body (fakirs). The distinctions between these ways break down because Fourth Way leaders seemed to employ all ways. Gurdjieff’s ideas have had a significant influence throughout dozens of sects, gurus, and celebrities, including cult leader Osho/Rajneesh, Zen teacher Alan Watts, and architect Frank Lloyd Wright.
This memoir by Daniel Hawes echoes Boyhood with Gurdjieff, by Fritz Peters (1964), whose parents were students with Gurdjieff at the cult’s Prieuré commune in France. Peters was 11 when he first lived, through his teens, with Gurdjieff as his cabin boy in France. Gurdjieff devotees who read Peter’s book may find it revealing about the master’s foibles, but they also find it humorous to read how Gurdjieff manipulated seekers who did not grasp the guru’s intentions. Gurdjieff believed that tricking the wealthy to contribute to his cause was ethical because of the importance of his work. This end-justifies-the-means tactic tends to run through Fourth Way cults that use the Way of the Sly Man terminology, and that includes Allen’s Synergias.
John Allen was adept at manipulating his wealthier students, most notably Ed Bass (born in 1945) who became a Synergist in his twenties. Bass was largely responsible for supplying tens of millions of dollars to fund the Biosphere 2 project in Arizona, for example, which Allen cofounded. Hawes mentions his encounters with Bass while at a Synergia in Australia, where he saw how Bass cowered around Allen. From around age 8 through 16, Hawes labored for meager room and board for the Institute of Ecotechnics (a ranch) paid for by Ed Bass but controlled by Allen. Allen was careful not to overplay his thumb on Bass, who retained most of the profits from Synergia enterprises. Bass always dressed and ate well among Synergists who struggled to live on extremely low wages ($4 a day in the early 1970s, for example). The impoverishment was by design to help cult members to better advance themselves and not be attached to material wealth. Bass was an exception, no doubt because Allen needed the Bass money to augment his grandiose schemes.
As for education, Hawes was never taught to read or do math, but he was forced to learn to tend to livestock, cook and clean for “idiots” maintain and drive tractors and ranch equipment. Influenced by the adults, he began smoking at age 9 and learned to use foul language. By age 19, despite not being able to read, Hawes, with a friend, developed a tidy business for a time reconditioning dysfunctional Land Rovers in Australia. Hawes was driven to earn money by a survival instinct and not by cult encouragement.
Allen mimicked Gurdjieff’s style, with a mixture of social engineering using hypnosis or influence-communication techniques, acting and movement classes, theater projects, tedious lectures, esoteric wisdom, and “necessary” abuse [e.g., Fritz Peters wrote of Gurdjieff, “It had been impressive, enlightening and even amusing to watch him, at close range, when he reduced people to a pulp, as he had done to Mr. Orage” (Peters, p. 117)]. Gurdjieff’s tirade against A. R. Orage most likely occurred because Orage developed a variant of Fourth Way teaching, not knowing that this would outrage the master. Orage (1873–1934) was a promising, talented literary figure when he encountered Gurdjieff, who was a young man at the time. The point here, as we learn in Hawes’s book, was submission to teachers or elders (“idiots”), no matter what, and is a feature of the Fourth Way.
When we ask what kind of person is attracted to a Fourth Way group, Peters, as quoted in The Harmonious Circle, by James Webb, observed:
They seemed to me to have been attracted to his teaching for a variety of not very good reasons—because of loneliness, or perhaps because they considered themselves misfits or outcasts. Most of them had dabbled in the arts, theosophy, the occult or something of the sort, and had come to Gurdjieff as if in search of another ‘cure’ for their life problems. . . (Peters, as cited in Webb, p. 414)
Hawes’s parents fit that description. His father, an architect, finally broke with the Synergias years after his son did. Hawes defected when he legally could, at age 16, and more so at age 19 after he had returned to a Synergia to work for a time to try to reconnect with his mother, Lisa. But she remained detached, having barely any contact with Hawes, in compliance with Allen’s teaching that the nuclear family is destructive to the goal of self-remembering. Lisa to this day is a true believer.
Despite efforts by Allen in an imploring, flattering letter asking Hawes to stay, and warning him that he could lose his soul in a bad world, the broken teenager remained firm in his decision made years before he could legally defect. He was well beyond feeling any sympathy for Allen and his abusive system. Devotion had literally been beaten out of him.
Hawes takes us through chores during a typical week at the Ranch in Australia near Fitzroy Crossing. It is hard to fathom what he had to do—a throwback to child labor in the Middle Ages, perhaps. Cult members would argue that this was for his spiritual development of character, and that he learned things he might never experience at proper schools. The latter was certainly true. He would be shouted at or hit for the least lapse in judgement or infraction by humorless “idiots.” Once he was struck so hard by his female manager across the side of his head that he could not hear in that ear for more than a week. No one took him to see a doctor.
This Synergia at Quanbun Station in Australia was in one of the harshest climates on the planet. Temperatures during half the year can reach more than 100°F in humid conditions. Rainfall was a seasonal monsoon, so windmills to pump well water were necessary. One cow might need hundreds of acres for grazing. During his first years at this Synergia, Hawes lived in the most primitive conditions in tents and shacks. He wore second-hand clothes that he slept in for weeks at a time on a moldy mattress. He had to steal food such as granola and snacks from “idiots” who would not share with children or “people.” Hawes earned a pittance per month for his hard labor, barely enough to buy loose tobacco for his smoking habit.
My first encounter with Allen’s cult was in 1975 when I heard stories from people who had attended Synergia workshops. In 1976, I met cult members at a Synergia construction site in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The main Synergia Ranch was 14 miles south of the city. I recall hearing from noncult workers on Synergia projects, saying how strange the members were and how no one stuck to their skill set (if they had one), being challenged from day to day to do jobs they had not done before. This may have been good for therapy, but it created major delays from mistakes and poor workmanship.
During 1971, Laurence Veysey, a history professor, lived on the New Mexico commune near Santa Fe as an undisguised participant–observer. This says a lot about Allen’s ego at the time because he believed he would win over the researcher. Veysey published The Communal Experience: Anarchist and Mystical Counter-Cultures in America in 1973. In Chapter 5 (more than 125 pages long), “New Mexico, 1971: Inside a ‘New Age’ Social order,” Vesey did a masterful job revealing the nature of Allen’s cult. Veysey changed names (Allen is “Ezra”), but otherwise there is no disguise of behavior and setting. In his Australian Synergia experience, Hawes underscores everything and more that the scholar Veysey noted in New Mexico, from enneagram symbols on the walls to required theater classes, to the requirement of sitting in silence at meals while Allen or a subleader pontificated and criticized “idiots.” Although attachments in relationships were roundly repressed, sex was available on demand by simply knocking on someone’s door and asking, “May I come in?”
One personal anecdote regarding the Biosphere 2 project in Arizona that placed Allen and his Synergias into world news: Hawes (then 19) mentions the Biosphere 2:
My sister, Lavice, had grown into a fine young lady. . . She had been sent to Quanbun [in 1989] for failing to live according to John Allen’s wishes while she was working on Biosphere 2 . . . a Synergia that was a three-and-a-half-acre self-contained system, located
. . . near Tucson. (p. 154)
I toured the Biosphere 2 in 1991 the day before launch, when eight Biospherans, four men and four women in Star Trek-like costumes, would enter the impressively sealed ecosystem and try to thrive in it for 2 years. The grand plan was designed as a first step toward a self-sustaining, sealed community on Mars. Four of the Biospherans were devoted to Allen, thus predictably producing tensions with the ones who were not. I asked my guide, a Synergia devotee, “Will data be gathered from psychological monitoring of the Biospherans?” No, she said, “because of privacy concerns.” I found that answer ludicrous, if telling. It came out later that Allen was secretly communicating with his Biospherans all along, though the claim was that he would have no communication.
In 1991, the parents of one of the Biospherans hired me to fly down to Arizona with them to try to convince their adult child that this was more about brainwashing than science. They were justifiably afraid that the Biospherans might die in the experiment. I did meet with their Biospheran for less than an hour and shared some information, but the intervention had little effect. We left the meeting on a positive enough note for the family not to feel cut off in the future. I doubt the Biospheran ever kept or read the literature I shared.
Biosphere 2 was a failure before getting out of the gate for a host of reasons, not the least of which was Allen’s grandiose vision coupled with delusional, deficient science. In the end, the expensive mission to Mars became an exotic greenhouse purchased for the University of Arizona. Curiously, when Ed Bass had a falling-out with Allen, the Bass family hired Steve Bannon (later to be Donald Trump’s close campaign advisor; see Anglen & Janetsky, 2016) in 1994 to lead a hostile takeover of the entire facility, eliminating Allen and his Synergia cult from the project.
Hawes eventually got training for work, adapted to postcult life after an initial struggle, and married in 1993. In 1991, with help from his father, Hawes started publishing a newsletter, The People’s Network, to support and inform ex-members who grew up in the Synergias. Through his networking he learned that some of the “people” suffered in the cult even more than he did. He would move his family to Maine in 1994, where he worked through various jobs, including being self-employed as a ceramics artist and teacher. Lately, he has found work with the sheriff’s department in Portland.
The People & the Idiots. . . evoked a range of emotions from me as I read and reacted with anger, tears, and thankfully, some laughter at childhood pranks played by the “people” when they could hide from the “idiots.”
Anglen, R., & Janetsky, M. (2016, August 31). “Trump's chief strategist Bannon spent tumultuous time at Biosphere 2 in southern Arizona.” The Republic. (updated Nov. 15, 2016). Available online at https://www.azcentral.com/story/news/local/arizona/2016/08/
Peters, F. (1964). Boyhood with Gurdjieff. New York, NY: Dutton.
The Skeptics Dictionary. (n.d.). G. I. Gurdjieff (1872?–1949). Available online at http://skepdic.com/gurdjief.html
Veysey, L. (1973). The communal experience: Anarchist and mystical communities in twentieth century America. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Webb, J. (1987). The harmonious circle: The lives and work of G. I. Gurdjieff, P. D. Ouspensky, and their followers. Boulder, CO: Shambala.
About the Reviewer
Joseph Szimhart, cult information specialist and author of Mushroom Satori: The Cult Diary (2012), began research into cultic influence in 1980 and began to work professionally as an intervention specialist and exit counselor in 1986. Since 1998 he has worked in the crisis department of a psychiatric emergency hospital in Pennsylvania. He continues to assist families with interventions and former members in recovery. In 2016 he received an ICSA Lifetime Achievement Award.