When Noa Maxwell was four, his bohemian upper-middle-class parents, disillusioned with London, bought a farm in Herefordshire, where they began to live self-sufficiently – harvesting by horse, slaughtering pigs, curing bacon, making butter – while trying to find time to paint.
One day in 1976 they received a letter from a friend who was in India where he had found the meaning of everything. So Noa’s family – parents plus three children – went out to visit the ashram in Poona where the controversial guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, also known as Osho, was preaching his mix of eastern mysticism, western philosophy and free love, raising the consciousness and promising utopia to his orange-clad international followers.
Rajneesh, who died in 1990, and his sannyasin movement, have found themselves in the public eye again in recent weeks thanks to the Netflix documentary Wild Wild Country. The much talked-about series focuses on the community they established in Oregon after they were forced out of India in 1981, and how they got on with the locals. (Short answer: not well.)
My meeting with Noa, now 46, at a cafe in Notting Hill, west London, has come about because of the show. I wrote a positive review of it. It’s an extraordinary story – of mistrust and misunderstanding, power and politics, fear and loathing that escalated to attempted murder, terrorism and chemical warfare – exhaustively and objectively told. But I wanted to know more, about life in the cult, particularly for the children who can be seen running around in the background of shots. Noa tweeted me. He was one of them – first in Poona, then Oregon.
In Poona, Noa’s family soon agreed that this was their new life. After returning to the UK to sell the farm, they came back to India, Noa’s parents, Noa and his younger brother. His older one has a different dad and didn’t come, which would cause a lot of pain to his mum.
Noa remembers visiting Rajneesh to be given new sannyasin names and other kids running up and asking: “What’s your new name?” He couldn’t remember and had to ask his mum. Noa Maxwell’s new name was Swami Deva Rupam.
Soon Noa’s mum was living in one place in the ashram, his dad somewhere else, and Noa was in the kids’ hut. “We had been a tight, 70s middle-class family, and within a very short period that family unit was ripped up,” he says.
The children’s hut was an octagonal bamboo structure with bunks. Noa and the other kids – from Australia, Germany, America – were pretty much left to their own devices. There was a school, “run by this crazy English hippie called Sharma with long blond hair and a guitar and we would sing ‘We all live in the orange submarine’. I don’t know how much it mattered if we were in school or not. When I eventually did get back to this country when I was 10 I couldn’t read anything or write anything, or do two plus two.”
He did learn how to smoke. And at the age of six he got accidentally stoned by eating hash cake.
The most shocking bit of the Netflix documentary is a clip of a film taken by a German inside the Poona ashram of what seems to be a violent orgy inside a padded room. Noa never saw this type of thing but he did witness some freaky behaviour and emotion. Laughter was a way of saying “I’m OK with my feelings,” and one night thousands of people suddenly started laughing hysterically, crying with laughter. Noa was certainly aware of the sex. “You could hear people having orgasmic sex all the time. All night, like mating baboons, gibbons.”
And he knew his parents had different partners. Was that upsetting? “I never showed upset. The narrative – particularly from my dad – was: this is fantastic, you’re fantastic. So I showed fantastic. I know my mum was struggling. She has said since she was already massively questioning what we’d done. They were notionally still together but we weren’t living as a family unit.”
In some ways the independence Noa had has stood him in good stead, he says. “But if you have no boundaries in your life the world is quite scary.” Boundaries – or lack of them – is something that comes up again and again.
He says he can understand the appeal of Rajneesh, the aura of the man, the extraordinary voice, his charisma. “But I think without doubt he was deeply culpable, guilty of neglect of his people and did massive damage to many of them.”
He doesn’t like seeing pictures of him. And he has fundamental problems with the message. “For me, the meaning of my life is about family, family relationships, and that was blatantly disregarded in the idea that these kids are just going to be happy growing up in this wild place.”
In some ways it’s hard to connect this engaging, articulate man sipping a macchiato in Le Pain Quotidien with the tearaway hippy child running wild, free of shoes and boundaries, in India. But there is something in his eyes, a look that says: yeah, we’ve seen a bit, in our time.
Bhagwan’s personal assistant/lieutenant Ma Anand Sheela of the Rajneesh sect poses for a mugshot in Mulnomah County, Oregon in 1985. Photograph: Donaldson Collection/Getty Images
After Noa and his family had spent about four years in Poona, and amid increasing tension between the ashram and the Indian authorities, Rajneesh and his followers moved to the US and set up a commune on a ranch in Wasco County, Oregon. This is where Wild Wild Country picks up the story. The star/villain of the Netflix show is Rajneesh’s personal assistant/lieutenant, Ma Anand Sheela, who was instrumental in the rapid creation of Rajneeshpuram, a new city in the middle of nowhere and an extraordinary human feat.
Noa’s memory of Sheela is that she was confident, funny, cool. “But I also knew, because I would hear from my parents, that she was ruthless, and I think it was clear the power she had.”
His dad had a run-in with Sheela over chickens, after which he was immediately taken off farming duties (which he knew a lot about), and put on fire-tower watch. Noa’s mum looked after cows. Neither of them were part of Sheela’s inner circle.
Noa remembers the crazy, fevered work that was being done. And the elements, being colder in winter than he had ever experienced, and brutally hot in summer. Again, he lived with the other kids, running wild, trying to jump on to ice blocks floating on the river, killing snakes, putting spiders and wasps into cassette boxes to see which would kill which. In many ways it was brilliant.
He has one sad memory. “There was one night when we got hold of a barrel of beer and we were just necking the beer on and on, and suddenly for the first time I got really drunk. If you think about it, aged 10, it’s a bit early. Then I just started wailing for my mum and dad, I just wanted them.”
He says they – the kids – were probably a little bit more advanced with sex, too. “Not madly, well it depends who, but I think we probably were a bit further ahead. We were further ahead with everything.”
Much of the documentary centres on the antagonism between the sannyasins and the Wasco County locals. “They were the enemy,” Noa says. “Stupid, conventional, conservative people.”
The sannyasins thought they were better than everyone else, and that comes over in the documentary. Noa was amazed, when he did get out, meeting a friend of his mum’s for example, that she could be articulate and emotionally intelligent. “I thought unless you were a sannyasin, that was impossible, you would just be a kind of drone.”
He thinks the series focuses too much on the conflict between sannyasins and rednecks. “That is interesting, but the inside story is more interesting – of how you end up with lots of intelligent middle-class people like my family going into where they got to, the heart of darkness. How does that happen? It’s like an ideal is bigger than reality and can make you lose your sense of justice and what’s right in the world.”
Noa wasn’t aware at the time of the scandals that feature in the series – an immigration fraud that involved sannyasins going off to get married in various parts of the country so that they could stay in the US, the poisoning of 751 people in the town of The Dalles, through contamination of salad bars at local restaurants, and another shocking episode where they bussed in a load of homeless people in order to win a county election. In fact, Noa had left by the time these events had taken place, although he did remember seeing the homeless people at the ashram, on the other side of a chainlink fence, on a visit back to see his father.
Why would he know what was going on? He was a kid, and this was his life. But he noticed the increased tensions and power struggles and that there were more and more guns about the place. “By that time, you kind of knew it was cranky; everything was cranky, there was massive paranoia about Aids and about the world coming to an end.”
In 1986, Sheela pleaded guilty to attempted murder and electronic eavesdropping within the commune, as well as her part in the immigration fraud and poisoning incidents, and was given a prison term along with two other leaders.
When, in 1993, Waco happened, and the compound of cult leader David Koresh was stormed by the FBI, leading to 76 fatalities, it affected Noa profoundly. He suddenly realised that something like that could have happened to them.
Noa’s mother ended up wanting out – she had been uncomfortable even in Poona. They had come back to Britain, the marriage was over; she was going to stay in Norfolk, his dad was returning to Oregon and Noa and his brother were given a choice. “I remember sitting in the back of the car and they said: ‘What do you want to do?’ I said: ‘I want to stay and go to school and learn things.’” Noa’s brother made the same decision.
That has been Noa’s response to his “weirdo” childhood, to go diametrically opposite to everything he experienced. “I wanted to as be normal as possible, I made a lot of choices that would give me something solid.”
He says it was a good thing he got out when he did. “If I’d stayed longer I think the disengagement with the real world would have become more accentuated. That’s the sense I get from kids who stayed longer. I imagine it was hard to assimilate back and a lot of them ended up deeper in that kind of fringe world.”
It wasn’t easy, going to the local comprehensive. He still went by the name of Rupam, which he didn’t change for a long time, out of loyalty to his dad. But he was good at fitting in, adapting. He said his Indian name was because his dad had farmed in India. No mention of ashrams.
There had been press reports about the sex cult, the guru with all the Rolls Royces. Noa began to realise how weird it was, and he didn’t want to be associated with that. But he was way behind, and he was getting into trouble, not because he was rebellious but because he was finding it hard to exist in the real world.
His grandmother then paid for him to go to a hippy vegetarian private school, which encouraged Noa’s desire to become an actor. One day, the headmaster called a special assembly because there were some very dangerous people coming to town, a sex cult called the sannyasins. A warning video was shown, and guess what the opening shot was? A closeup of Noa’s face. Thankfully, because of his wild hair and the fact that it was taken a few years before, no one recognised him.
The sannyasins carried on, in various locations, in various factions, after the end of Rajneeshpuram and after the end of Rajneesh. His father is still very much involved with them. Noa’s mother’s feelings about it are dominated by pain and guilt.
And Noa? It’s a strange mix of both resentment and gratitude. He’s done his fair share – “a massive share” he says – of different sorts of therapy to deal with a childhood with no boundaries, how scary that is, how power can be abused and how emotions can get out of control. And he’s very wary of gurus.
Yet he says he acquired a good deal of understanding about people from his time in the cult, which has been invaluable. He did become an actor, using the name Rupam Maxwell – his last role was in Emmerdale, where he played racy young aristocrat Lord Alex Oakwell from 1997-98.
Then he went into coaching. He now advises clients on personal impact, teaching them to harness their natural strengths for pitches, presentations and media appearances. Again, he says he likes the linear structure of working with law and accounting firms, with their boundaries and rules. He says the basis of what he does is about authenticity, and however misguided it was, that’s what the people in Poona and Oregon were after, too. After our coffee, he’s going to Geneva for a meeting.
He is married. His wife is from “a really good Irish Catholic background, and I love that”. They have three children, aged 17, 16 and nine.
What kind of father is he? “Not as good as I think I am. My older kids now tell me about times I was too angry with them when they were young and all that kind of stuff. But that, for me, is first and foremost in my life: family, being supported by your mother and father in a way that says I’m there to help you grow into this world.”
He has talked about the ashram with them. He feels relaxed and able to now, and says they are understanding, insightful, balanced. “Now they’ll probably go and join a cult,” he adds.
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