The new Netflix documentary "Wild Wild Country" revisits the story of the Rajneeshees, a cult Seattle Times reporters covered firsthand in the 1980s.
The Oregon commune no longer exists, but retired Seattle Times reporter Carol M. Ostrom still keeps a few “sex kits” that were given out to disciples of Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh.
Many viewers of the new Netflix documentary “Wild Wild Country” had never heard of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and his thousands of followers, their takeover of a tiny Oregon town and the subsequent saga that culminated in the largest bioterror attack in the U.S.
But the story is more familiar in the Pacific Northwest, where the story was covered extensively by news outlets. The first mention of what was to come appears on Page 9 in The Seattle Times’ Aug. 13, 1981 edition, under the headline “Indians buy Oregon ranch.” The Associated Press story says records filed show that the Bhagwan’s followers purchased the 65,000-acre Muddy Ranch in Central Oregon.
Ostrom and other Times staff members were sent a few times to the commune in a remote area. In 1982, they looked at the conflict between the Rajneeshees and the nearby town of Antelope. In 1985, they covered the fallout after a group of the Bhagwan’s followers were accused of attempted murder, poisoning and electronic eavesdropping.
How The Seattle Times covered the Rajneeshees
Ostrom was sent to Rajneeshpuram — their community that was briefly incorporated as a city — in September 1985 with little notice and no time to go home to pack clothes. When a snowstorm hit, she had to buy Rajneeshee clothing in orange, red and maroon tones that were “all colors of the sun,” she recalled this week.
The Bhagwan’s followers wore similar clothing, meditated and underwent sessions involving screaming and shaking, and advocated free love and expression. The Bhagwan liked everyone to have sex but was obsessed with preventing diseases, Ostrom said, hence the “sex kits” — “fist-sized plastic hearts” that were filled with lubricant, rubber gloves and condoms.
“Sannyasins say they’d do anything to protect Bhagwan and his vision,” Ostrom wrote in a Sept. 22, 1985, story. “Threats, as seen from inside, include disease, especially AIDS, and sannyasins have adopted routines like swabbing alcohol on telephone receivers and holding out their hands to be sprayed before eating in a communal cafeteria. Kissing is taboo, and sex now includes condoms and rubber gloves.”
While in Rajneeshpuram, Ostrom went to meetings, where men armed with assault-style rifles patrolled the stage around the Bhagwan and talked to followers and Antelope residents. She had a sit-down interview with the guru in a room, she said, that was very, very cold. She was instructed to not wear anything that smelled. No perfume, no deodorant.
He told her “life is a joke,” she said.
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“They were nothing if not industrious,” said Ostrom, who retired in 2014 and lives in Seattle. “I never really saw anything they made to sell, though, so it was a little bit of a mystery as to how they funded themselves.”
Ostrom continued covering the Rajneeshees, like when Rajneeshpuram held a “final liquidation” sale in 1986, clearing out “everything from rose-hued thermal underwear to one of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh’s airplanes,” she wrote. The guru died in 1990.
Ostrom’s final story about the cult was in 1995, a decade after the Bhagwan abandoned his commune. Antelope residents recalled the final City Council meeting, when the Rajneeshees gave the town back. A resident stood up and demanded that they apologize to the people of the town. One of the Rajneeshees didn’t see it that way, Ostrom wrote in the story.
“He said ‘you don’t get it, even after all this time! It’s just a joke. It’s all just been a big joke.’ ”