Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (1931-1990), an Indian-born spiritual teacher with a mostly European and American following, preached peace, love...
“My Life in Orange: Growing Up with the Guru”
by Tim Guest
Harcourt, 301 pp., $14
“Scraping By in the Big Eighties”
by Natalia Rachel Singer
University of Nebraska Press, 225 pp., $24.95
Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (1931-1990), an Indian-born spiritual teacher with a mostly European and American following, preached peace, love and liberation. By the time his movement collapsed in 1985 (along with Rajneeshpuram, its massive compound in the central Oregon desert), it had become notorious for greed, mind control and violent attacks against its perceived enemies.
Tim Guest (born 1975) saw Rajneeshism’s decline and fall starting at the age of 4, when his mother first joined the guru’s British operations. For the next six years, Guest followed his mother to Rajneesh schools and communes in Britain and Germany, to the guru’s first world headquarters in India, and for a few intense weeks to Rajneeshpuram.
Guest, now a London magazine writer, has assembled his memories and mementos of the period with grown-up research. The result: a quietly poignant personal history set in one of recent history’s weirdest milieus, peppered with facts and details even a most observant boy wouldn’t have known at the time. (Even with the movement’s notoriety for open sexuality, it’s doubtful the young Guest would have known, as he reports here, that Rajneesh had left most of his many lovers unsatisfied.)
But this isn’t to say the young Guest wasn’t curious or aware. He depicts himself as having grown up wise beyond his years. He was a smart and lonely boy who mostly had to fend for himself, while his mother was busy practicing Rajneesh’s “dynamic meditation” rituals and running local Rajneesh organizations.
Rajneesh, as Guest notes, assigned most of the top jobs in his movement to women, believing them more trustworthy and less corruptible. He delegated special authority to one woman, Sheela Silverman. She arranged for the movement to buy a ranch the size of Seattle, moved thousands of Rajneesh’s orange-clad followers there, took over the nearby town of Antelope, and declared war on disapproving local and state officials. Under Silverman’s direction, followers poisoned restaurant salad bars with salmonella (the first major bioterror attack on U.S. soil) and tried to murder a U.S. attorney.
Rajneesh fled back to India, where he changed his name to Osho and soon died. Guest insists that’s what happened — Rajneesh didn’t “leave this plane of existence,” but simply died.
What did come back to life was Guest’s relationship with his mother. A former Catholic, she’d vowed not to let her son be hurt by religious zealotry and oppression the way she’d been as a kid. As the Rajneesh experiment wound down, she realized that’s just what she’d done.
A young-adult view of Rajneeshpuram can be found in Natalia Rachel Singer’s memoir “Scraping By in the Big Eighties.” Singer came to the Bhagwan’s ranch with her first husband, a young Norwegian whom she’d met at an astrology bookstore. He’d felt called to join a mass experience of discovery and personal growth. She found it at least as repressive and conformist as the corporate America she was rebelling against. Singer and hubby left after a few days; the marriage ended soon thereafter. To her, Rajneesh’s fleet of Rolls-Royces, his Uzi-toting bodyguards and his hordes of upper-class menial laborers encapsulated a decade when counterculture idealism collapsed before militarism and materialism.
That misadventure’s just one part of Singer’s odyssey from working-class Cleveland, to suburban Chicago, to Seattle’s Capitol Hill, to a hippie restaurant in Port Townsend, to rural Mexico, to Northampton, Mass. (She now teaches at St. Lawrence University in upstate New York.) Along the way she struggles to keep sane and fiscally afloat on little more than a liberal-arts degree and the conviction that society ought to be different.
Singer reminds us that, like the late ’90s, the early ’80s were considered a boom time for some Americans. But many others faced inflation-tattered incomes, stagnant careers and (among Singer’s lefty/alternative crowd) a sense of collective defeat.
“Scraping By” ends with Singer visiting a Buddhist retreat in the Catskill mountains, pondering what it takes to be an authentic person during an age of greed: “No one can transcend the values of her time. … Our choice is to be passive, and hence complicit, or to resist. We are all citizens, even when the people in charge are not on our team.”
Seattle writer Clark Humphrey’s thoughts on popular culture can be found at www.miscmedia.com.