Group got piece of mind

Ex-cultist fell prey to 18-yr. brainwash

Daily News/March 28, 1997
By Anne E. Kornblut

[John Doe's] devotion to a California cult did not waver during his 18-year membership -not when he was raped, molested or told how to urinate.

At age 47, eight years after he escaped, [Doe] thinks he understands why.

The cult leaders told him "to expand your awareness of the world, you have to start behaving in a particular manner, little by little," said [Doe], now a Lake Tahoe, Calif., artist. "I did not believe I was being brainwashed."

[Doe] was a 21-year-old college dropout when a newspaper ad for the Fellowship of Friends-a group unrelated to the computer cult that committed suicide-caught his eye. Believing it was an enlightened group that met for philosophical discussions, he and his girlfriend paid a $35-a-month fee and joined.

The bi-weekly discussion groups about "human evolution" and "world awareness" seemed innocent enough, [Doe] said. "They were nice, normal, friendly, thoughtful people. I was very impressed with the knowledge they had."

After a few months, [Doe], a runaway at age 16, and his girlfriend were flattered by the group's invitation to live in a communal home in Carmel, Calif., run by the leader, Robert Earl Burton.

But they were unaware of the house rules.

Residents were forbidden to say "I," instead referring to themselves as "it," he said. They were pressured into getting nice ties, fashionable shoes and a taste for classical music. They turned over at least 10% of their salaries to the fellowship and were told they had better "never leave" the group.

[Doe] said he was barred from having sex with his girlfriend and was even instructed to urinate to the side of the toilet to make less noise.

And Burton, 58, who described himself as a "female goddess in a male body," molested [Doe] and demanded sex acts, [Doe] charged.

"He made me his personal secretary and chauffeur. I had to move into his bedroom," he said. "You assume there's something wrong with you, not the group."

The fellowship, a nonprofit corporation founded in 1971, has been sued twice by former cult members who alleged Burton pursued them and others for sex. Both suits were settled out of court, and the fellowship headquartered in Yuba County, Calif., insisted all sexual encounters were consensual.

[Doe], cut off from his family and friends, moved quickly up the ranks of the sect. During those years, he sometimes questioned Burton's leadership but never objected outright

It took a 1989 visit to the Dalai Lama for [Doe] to at last hear that "sexuality and spirituality don't mix." His instincts confirmed, [Doe] wrote Burton to warn him he was going public with the cult's activities.

In the years since, [Doe] has devoted himself to warning others away from similar groups telling reporters about his experiences and appearing on tabloid TV shows.

The mass suicide of members of a different cult has reminded [Doe] of a phenomenon "that's been happening for years."

"I expected to gain some meaningful knowledge. It was a fraud," he said. "I'm sure these Higher Source people lived, and were brainwashed, in the same way."


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