My Mom Left Me for the ‘Wild Wild Country’ Cult

When Patti Safian was eight years old, her mother joined the Rajneeshees, the controversial religious sect at the center of the new Netflix docuseries ‘Wild Wild Country.’ The story of an Indian guru and his free-sex disciples overtaking a rural town in Oregon? Stranger than fiction. Stranger yet? When that story is an inextricable part of your own personal history.

Glamour/April 3, 2018

By Patti Safian

When I was growing up, in the late 1960s and early seventies, I thought I came from a normal, tight-knit family. My mom, Jill Franklin, and her sister Lois married two brothers: my dad, Ken, and his brother Chet. Dad had been a football player. Mom was a cheerleader. My mom had three babies, and then my aunt had three too—each sister giving birth one after the other. Three boys and three girls with the same set of grandparents. We were more like brothers and sisters. Idyllic, right?

Well, by the time I was six, everyone was divorced.

Blame it on the copy of Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique my dad gave Mom, or blame it on the era. I was born during the height of radical change and the women's and sexual freedom movements. In many ways, blowing up a traditional family made sense for the time.

In 1970 we moved from our perfect red house in Eastchester, New York, to an apartment in the Riverdale section of the Bronx with Mom. Our playground was our tar-roofed balcony. I loved it there. And we would still see my dad Wednesday nights and go to the Berkshires with our uncle and cousins every weekend. Despite the divorce, there was still a semblance of continuity and security. Until…

‘Ma Satya Bharti, divine mother of truth’

In the late sixties, a spiritual leader named Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh was becoming a popular lecturer in India. Americans began traveling east to learn more about Bhagwan's unique brand of spirituality, which combined wealth, free sex, and enlightenment, all at once. By the seventies Bhagwan had created an ashram—a spiritual community—in the city of Pune in India.

After my parents divorced, I started having this dream that my sister, Nancy, and I were driving our family's blue Volvo together. Nancy would steer the wheel while sitting up on her knees and I would press the gas pedal with my hands. In my dream we were always trying to control the vehicle, but it was swerving out of control. It was an apt metaphor for our life, which was starting to spin out.

In Riverdale, life was less structured. When it was freezing outside, Mom would warm the apartment up by opening the oven doors while we got dressed for school.

I remember coming home from third grade one day and taking the rickety, four-person elevator up to our top-floor apartment. I opened the big wooden doors and called "Mooooom!" as I headed down the long, arched hallway. "Mooooom!" I found her kneeling in the bathroom in front of a steaming tub of water filled with orange dye. She turned to me and a tangerine halo, glow reflecting from the water, lit up her face. I later found out that the Rajneeshees wore orange, or pink and magenta, because the colors were said to represent happiness, joy, and laughter. They were also the color of the sun—and of the chakra, or sexual energy.

"Hi sweetie," she said. "Today I took Sannyasin"—the ritual of taking a new name and accepting Bhagwan as your guru—"My new name is Ma Satya Bharti. It means divine mother of truth. Isn't it beautiful?"

Mom began dressing in all orange and wearing a beaded necklace with a picture of Bhagwan around her neck. One day she asked me if I'd mind if she practiced what she called "dynamic meditation." Peering out from under a pillow, terrified, I watched her begin to breathe rhythmically with her nostrils flaring. She twirled and threw her arms in a zillion directions. Her body zoomed and rocked and pulsed, and she began to shout, "Hoo! Hoo! Hoo! Hoo!" until she collapsed to the floor, hyperventilating. When she opened, her eyes she stared only at the images of Bhagwan plastered all over our apartment. It seemed like he had moved into our home, and the love and focus was no longer on us.

By the time I was in fifth grade, our apartment had become a meditation center. Soon there were orange people draped over each other in my bedroom, orange people doing dynamic meditation in our living room. My siblings and I had since moved in with Dad on the Upper East Side of Manhattan for what was only supposed to be a summer. I started to go to a conservative school, where I wore saddle shoes, a gray skirt, and a white starched button-down shirt. I wanted to be normal, like everyone else. So when my teacher thought it would be a good idea to bring my entire fifth-grade class to the meditation center at my mom's apartment, I was flattered. Cut to Alexander Rabinowitz, on whom I had a huge crush, shouting "Hoo! Hoo! Hoo! Hoo!" and Penny Shawn, one of my best friends, fainting after the hyperventilating part. Let's just say that the experience didn't make me feel normal.

Things only got worse when Mom returned from India later that year and told us she was going away for "a long time." She talked about wanting to bring us with her, but Dad would say "over my dead body." After that, we moved to Scarsdale, New York, with our dad. We never lived with our mother again.

‘What did Bhagwan know?’

In 1981 Bhagwan and his followers relocated to Wasco County, Oregon, where they created Rajneeshpuram, a utopian commune in the desert and the subject of Netflix's Wild, Wild Country, where thousands of his devotees lived together until 1985. Some leaders of the sect were responsible for several scandals and crimes including a salmonella outbreak that infected over 750 people and for conspiring to kill a United States attorney for the district of Oregon, Charles Turner.

The pain I felt missing my mom during that period was indescribable. For the next 13 years she would float in and out of our lives like a ghost, kind of like her blue par avion letters that would somehow reach us from India. I would anxiously await those letters, which often shared Bhagwan's words of wisdom, like: "Look at the stars and the sky and the moon and know that I, your mother, am looking at the same stars, moon, and sky."

Those words didn't help. They didn't help when I got my period for the first time or kissed my first boyfriend or when I got dropped by my seventh-grade friends one week because I straightened my curly hair and didn't want to go swimming that day. Those words, I thought, were bullshit. What did Bhagwan know about the special bond between my mom and me?

In Scarsdale people would ask me, "Where's your mom?" And when she'd show up, returning from India—and later, the Rajneeshpuram ranch in Oregon—wearing all orange, I was mortified. My best friend Robin's mom would often buy me clothes. At checkout she would whisper in my ear, "A girl needs a few nice things." The other moms would say, "You poor thing. A mother shouldn't leave a lovable girl like you." When I was in college at Northwestern University, I wrote in my diary that "the only thing that could fill up the empty hole in my soul was about 10,000 bags of sand."

‘Breakdown before a breakthrough’

By 1986 Rajneeshpuram had been deserted, and the commune disbanded. Bhagwan was arrested and plead guilty to charges of immigration fraud. He was deported to India, where he spent his remaining days. He died from heart disease in Pune, India in 1990.

Today I am actually very close to my mom, who has since left the Rajneesh. (Editor's note: When contacted by Glamour, Jill Franklin wrote: "It's important to Patti that she has a chance to tell her story. The filmmakers [of Wild Wild Country] didn't contact me, and I didn't know about the project until a week or so before it aired. The documentary ignored people like me, who were horrified by what was happening, had themselves been victimized by the regime, and were effectively silenced.")

I waited until I was 37 to have my first child, because I didn't think I knew how to parent. As a mother of two, I still don't fully understand how a mother can leave her children. But without my upbringing I wouldn't be who I am today, or have been led to my current career as an acupuncturist who helps women—women who won't take mothering for granted—get pregnant. As a parent and a wife, sometimes life gets challenging, and sometimes I want to split. But I don't.

I went through my adolescence with my mom when I was an adult. From ages 25 to 40 I would slam down the phone anytime she upset me, to test her, to make sure she wasn't going to leave me again. Sometimes I still get annoyed if she gets over involved with my kids or gives me advice about how to parent. Partially I am upset because I think she has no right, because she wasn't around when I was growing up. But also, for the first time ever, I feel like we have that typical mother-daughter relationship, which actually feels pretty good.

My mom made a mistake that altered our lives forever and yet, I get it in some way. We are all in process, just trying to figure out whatever journey we're on. In her book, The Promise of Paradise: A Woman's Intimate Story of the Perils of Life with Rajneesh, she wrote about this mistake—how something she thought would infuse her life with meaning turned into a cult full of deception, drugs, terrorism, and guns. And to be honest, the "orange people" I knew growing up were different from what other people saw. I remember them as happy, fun, sunny hippies who were seeking "enlightenment," whatever that meant. Their ethos was simple: to rid our lives of habitual and negative preconditioned ways of thinking. Sometimes I even have sexual fantasies about the Rajneeshees, because free sex seems so appealing.

I forgive my mom, even though the scars run deep. I know that she was searching for connection and meaning, which I understand. She also came back into our lives full of regret, apologies, and attention. (For the record, if my kids could spend time with any grandparent, they would pick their "Ra," which is what they call my mom.) She has taught me that sometimes, maybe, you have to have a breakdown before you can have a breakthrough. And, sometimes, you have to get lost before you can find your way back to yourself. Just like my mom found her way back to me.

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