Pere shaped

Conrad Landin finds Lily Dunn’s memoir of a father in thrall to a well-known Rolls Royce-loving guru a far cry from Netflix

Thursday, 19th May — By Conrad Landin

Lily Dunn and inset Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh

Lily Dunn and, inset, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh

ONE grey October day in the 1970s, amid “that perpetual flat-toned ochre of autumn”, a six-year-old Lily Dunn met her father in Hampstead High Street.

“It was his smile that spooked me,” Dunn writes in Sins of My Father. “It was all dreamy, and his eyes were glazed, focused on some other horizon.”

As he proclaimed his re-birth as “Purvodaya”, he spoke words that his daughter would grapple with for decades to come: “The man you knew before is no longer.”

Dunn pere had left the family home in Islington six months earlier, travelling to the Indian city of Pune as a disciple of the now-infamous guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. “If you’re no longer the man you were,” his daughter recalls wondering, “does that mean you are no longer our dad?”

Bhagwan – and in particular his penchant for free love and his 96 Rolls-Royces – has recently become familiar to a new generation thanks to the popular Netflix serial Wild, Wild Country. This bit of fascinating telly explores the motivations of the orange-clad sannyasins and the havoc they wreaked in Oregon, where they sought to establish a city-scale commune by any means up to and including chemical warfare.

But the TV series asks few questions about those the sannyasins left behind as they pursued their inner selves.

In Sins of My Father, on the other hand, Dunn catalogues the “wild unravelling” of the family her father jettisoned – as well as his own. Unlike her brother, who tells her he won’t “go back into it again”, she determines that a decade after her father’s death from alcoholism, writing a book about him is the only way to come to terms with his persistent haunting – and her own life in his absence.

Dunn takes us on a literary voyage through Suffolk, Italy, the US and back to north London, as she interweaves her memories with extensive reading around the Bhagwan cult, parenting and abandonment. Her rich descriptions underscore the power of her recollections and remaining sense of anger and hurt.

She is refreshingly blunt in her piercing assessment of the cod mysticism and selective reading of Eastern philosophy which underpinned Rajneeshism.

Even more valuable is Dunn’s assessment of her father’s capitulation to his guru not as an aberration – but as the logical conclusion of his public school upbringing. Describing how an Oregon resident viewed the sannyasins as “educated beyond their intelligence”, Dunn thinks “of my dad and his boarding school peers, of the British elite, most of the men who rule this country”.

While her father believed his new community was “the antithesis of all he experienced as a boy”, he was merely “exchanging one institution for another” – only this time as “one of the chosen few, surrounded by people who were less powerful and therefore could not hurt him”. In other words, his proclamation that “the man you knew before is no longer” was the biggest lie of them all.

But even if his fellow travellers could not hurt him, the characteristics that underpinned his spiritual journey – perpetual flight, dishonesty and self-contradiction – surely did. The man who was once a successful publisher and ladies’ man ended his life fleeing unpaid bed and breakfasts bills and avoiding rehab in Devon, having fallen for a classic financial scam in the US, where he had made his home in later life.

And there was real hurt and damage far earlier for his daughter, whose underage grooming at the hands of a fellow Rajneeshi he enabled and laughed off as an educational experience.

Dunn’s narrative loses pace when she quotes and discusses other memoirs and philosophical tracts. The analysis of Bhagwan’s own motivations and the trajectory of his cult can also be troubling, allowing too much credence to the narrative which attributes the Oregon ashram’s downfall to his deputy Ma Anand Sheela.

Dunn attributes Bhagwan’s retreat into silence to the notion that “the harshness of the land at the ranch and its development into a self-governing city was just too big for him”. It’s worth remembering that Bhagwan first rose to prominence as a fierce critic of Indian communism: this was a man with serious political objectives as well as an exceptionally large ego.

But as well as a heart-shattering personal memoir of love, loss and grief, Sins of My Father provides an invaluable insight into the generation of middle-class westerners who were not simply hoodwinked by – but actively bought into – a destructive personality cult.

Dunn asks not just how, but why: deftly illustrating how Bhagwan allowed his followers to inflate their own status as well as his own.

With the consumerism that fuelled his rise now at epic proportions, lets hope the next generation to drop out pursue a little less self-actualisation, and a little more introspection.

Sins of My Father: A Daughter, a Cult and a Wild Unravelling. By Lily Dunn. Weidenfeld and Nicholson, £16.99

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