Australian scientist and vaccine advocate Archa Fox, and her wild childhood in the Orange People cult

ABC News, Australia/May 21, 2021

By Natasha Mitchell

Few scientists can say they grew up in a notorious sect or spiritual movement.

But then, nothing about Archa Fox's childhood was typical.

These days, Dr Fox finds herself fronting the media more than most molecular biologists.

Her lobbying efforts with a small but vocal group of other mRNA scientists have paid off, with recent announcements that an mRNA vaccine manufacturing facility will be built in Australia.

The "who, what, when and how much" are yet to be confirmed by the federal government, but a dedicated facility will allow onshore production of the much-needed Moderna and Pfizer COVID vaccines.

Dr Fox, who leads a laboratory at the University of Western Australia, says it'll also boost our capacity to invent and trial other novel mRNA-based therapeutics.

"It's a really exciting opportunity for Australian biotechnology and research, and it could have a lot of clinical breakthroughs as well," Dr Fox says.

But Dr Fox has been less public about the extraordinary events that shaped her early life, and her path into science.

When she was three, her parents packed the family off to India to join the Rajneesh or Orange People movement, so named for the bright sunset hues worn by followers.

"From that point forward, we were on this incredible roller coaster ride of this very alternative life," she says.

"My life turned upside down."

The guru with the hypnotic gaze

From 1970, hordes of young Westerners from around the world were drawn into the orbit of the self-styled guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, until his demise in 1990.

With his long grey beard and hypnotic gaze, Bhagwan became a familiar face of the counterculture 1970s.

He promised devotees a path towards enlightenment, cherry-picking from different religions and traditions to craft his own wild concoction of western philosophy and eastern mysticism.

Disciples or "sannyasins" were encouraged to throw off the shackles of capitalism and career expectations to build a new society based on communal living, challenging orthodoxy, meditation rituals, self-discovery and free love.

The movement represented a rejection of all that was — for what could be.

Idealistic hopefuls responded in their droves to become "Rajneeshees", including Dr Fox's father, then a philosophy lecturer at the University of Western Australia, and her mother, a modern dance teacher.

"I think they were trying to unravel both of their own backgrounds and histories," Dr Fox says.

Her Jewish mother's own childhood had been haunted by the nightmares and trauma of Holocaust survivors.

"She carried with her a lot of pain, intergenerational pain. I think she was looking to … find herself."

Archa's father had come across Bhagwan's ashram while travelling in India and saw it as a liberation from his own "very stereotypical repressed, stiff upper lip, don't-talk-about-emotions, intellectual" family.

"They were both seeking ways to break free from the confines of their upbringing," Dr Fox says.

"My sister and I went along for the ride. [We] really didn't have much choice in the matter."

Life in an Orange People ashram

The world that Archa (then Hannah) and her older sister were catapulted into in the Pune ashram was surreal.

Disciples were renamed, including their children.

"The name Archa, or Ma Deva Archa, was actually given to me by Bhagwan."

Unlike the rest of her family, she has kept her name.

"It's very much part of me now," Dr Fox says.

Her very earliest memories are infused with fun, freedom, and the vibrant sounds and smells of India.

"Even though I've never yet gone back to India to visit, they're so richly evocative," she says.

"I liked chapati or roti bread spread with Vegemite that my grandmother would send us in packages from Australia.

"We did a lot of begging in the commune for little bits of spare change so we could buy ice creams and have rickshaw rides."

She recalls no formal schooling arrangements.

"Somehow … I learnt to read, write and do basic maths," Dr Fox says.

Remarkably, given her internationally pioneering work as a scientist today, she didn't attend school again properly until her early teens, after the sect collapsed.

Loss and longing

Interspersed with happy memories are those she finds more painful to name and reconcile.

"I really remember longing for my mother … longing for just that closeness with her that I somehow couldn't ever get," Dr Fox recalls.

"Even though she was there, she was on her spiritual path, so she was kind of not really available for me.

"It's painful to say that because we have a wonderful relationship now.

"My mum has a lot of regret, but I try and reassure her that she did … what was right for her at the time."

At one point, Archa recalls all the children living together, away from adults, in an anarchic "kids' house".

While their parents participated in the ashram's wild brand of dynamic meditation involving raucous jumping, laughing, yelling and screaming — all designed to free the repressed Western mind — Archa and her sister were free to roam.

"I sort of drifted in the commune and was a little bit of a lost soul in amongst this group of kids," she says.

Other Orange People children have since recalled similar feelings of deep longing and loss, and the disorientation of being co-parented by hundreds of adults.

In his acclaimed 2004 memoir, My Life in Orange: Growing up with the Guru, the late Tim Guest wrote of his own childhood.

"I felt like I had spent my whole life on tiptoes looking for my mother in a darkening crowd," he recalled.

"Some were given a choice commit to bliss or to their kids. Many chose Bhagwan over their babies."

Archa doesn't feel she was neglected by her parents, but she relates to his experience.

"I definitely remember having an awareness that we children were seen as a distraction for our parents, something that is taking them off their spiritual path," she says.

"That is a kind of big thing to put on kids."

The dark side

Guest's poignant account also hints at the darker allegations surrounding the movement.

"I began to look around for adults to care for me", he wrote.

"If the adults wouldn't give us the intimacy we needed, we'd get it from each other."

In his book, he alleges adults were having sex with minors, and children with each other.

Sexual liberation was an overt part of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh's ethos and teachings, and sex and sexual partners were freely and readily swapped.

"I do have a distinct memory of a group of kids wandering through various huts, and observing people having sex, which sounds incredibly confronting," Dr Fox says.

"I personally didn't feel scarred by it.

"I feel like I was in a little bubble of my own where I was sort of removed and able to observe."

The Oregon experiment

In 1981, Bhagwan and his followers — including Dr Fox's family — upped stumps from India to embark on an ambitious and bizarre social experiment on the other side of the world.

They bought up large swathes of land around the small cattle country town of Antelope in Oregon to build a self-contained commune city called Rajneeshpuram.

Roads, a bus service, an airport, shops, food farms, a hospital — it had it all.

As money from the disciples worldwide poured in to support the vision, their guru's obsessions became more lavish.

Bhagwan amassed nearly 100 Rolls-Royce cars.

"Once a day we would all line up on the side of the road and he would drive past in a Rolls-Royce, and at the same time an airplane would fly overhead, dropping rose petals," Dr Fox recalls.

"That was really something else."

On occasion, Bhagwan would stop the Rolls-Royce and get out to connect with the long line of his disciples.

"Every adult would be in this state of bliss," Dr Fox says.

"It's hard to describe, but it's a kind of collective euphoria that the more people are feeling … the more people feel it.

"A mob mind where people do things in a mob that they would never do individually."

Even now, decades on, Dr Fox struggles to make sense of what she witnessed as a child.

"To be honest, I don't know whether he was a complete charlatan, just taking everybody for a ride, or whether he really was enlightened, and it was the people around him who were building this tangled web."

The collapse of the Orange People

The story of what happened next is complex and sordid.

Conflict between the local community and commune residents escalated, paranoia set in, and things got nasty, with allegations of corruption, wiretapping, murder plots, and even bioterrorism.

Bhagwan employed his own armed police for protection.

Dr Fox recalls an "us and them" attitude inside the commune.

"We were good and the forces outside were trying to bring us down.

"When I was in it, I wouldn't have said that I was in a cult … towards the end, I think there were a lot of typical traits of that."

Bhagwan Shreen Rajneesh pleaded guilty to arranging hundreds of sham marriages so his overseas disciples could move to the US.

He paid a fine and agreed to leave the country.

The guru's former secretary pleaded guilty to immigration fraud, wire-tapping, and other charges.

Dr Fox was 11 when her family left the sect, just before its final chaotic collapse in 1985.

Bhagwan died five years later in India at the age of 58.

Finding her feet in the 'normal' world

Arriving back in Australia, Archa faced going to school properly for the first time.

"The thought of starting high school was utterly frightening, scary, alarming."

Initially, she kept her past a secret.

"After my whole childhood, having to wear orange, being pointed at and made to feel so different, I just desperately wanted to be normal," she says.

But she quickly realised that she adored school and was good at it.

"I was a bit of a Renaissance scholar. I was like a sponge. I just wanted to absorb everything."

Dr Fox thinks being a voracious reader in the commune saved her.

She discovered a passion for science when she was in Year 9.

"I realised science had something really fascinating for me — the ability to dig deeper and deeper into something until you get to a point where you actually don't understand how it works and maybe nobody understands how it works."

She remembers pushing a science teacher to explain something to the point where they'd run out of explanations that satisfied her.

"That was the real moment where I thought, oh, OK, there's much more to learn here."

Would she live it all again?

Today, Dr Fox is married with two children.

She and her husband, Charlie Bond, also a scientist, collaborate on cell biology research at the University of Western Australia.

She thinks her path into science was partly influenced by growing up in the Orange People sect.

"I was encouraged to just explore whatever interested me. There was no real consideration about money, security, or needing to have a good job. It was very free in that sense."

She powered through her final school exams and could have gone into medicine or law with her marks.

"I took a bit of pride in being unconventional, saying … I'm not going to actually use it to do something that people might expect," she says.

"It's an immense privilege to be able to go to work every day and essentially do what I love … to discover the way things work and hopefully help people as well."

Her scientist mind was activated as a child in the ashram.

"I didn't believe all those things that the adults believed. I was observing them … and I knew that was their choice to believe that," she says.

"But it is interesting to me that there were so many adults who were not very scientific or rational or evidence-based in their approach.

"There was even talk about 'the mind is wrong and it's the heart that you need to listen to'.

"And then what do I do? I've become a scientist," she smiles.

"I do think I have a tender heart and I'm a very loving person, but I rely on evidence that's collected as opposed to vague spiritual notions.

"Actually, as a scientist, I'm comfortable with there being phenomena that we can't explain, although I would probably say that we can't yet explain it."

It's taken decades for Dr Fox to talk openly and freely about her past, and to embrace her story.

But despite the challenges of her childhood, she has no regrets.

"On the whole, the positives definitely outweigh the negatives for me," she says.

"I do feel like I don't need to be ashamed of this. It is just a part of my life story.

"It's unusual. It's different, but it is who I am as well."

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