No Place to Go - Life in a Prison Without Bars
Cultic Studies Journal, Volume 14, Number 1, 1997, pages 85-105
No Place to Go: Life in a Prison Without Bars
Katherine E. Betz
Walnut Creek, California
This article describes a woman’s experience of 21 years of sexual and psychological abuse and exploitation under the guise of meditation and psychotherapy. Her journey begins with a spiritual-social retreat and leads her into the hands of a teacher and leader who adopts her as one of his chosen disciples. She clashes again and again in moral conflict with this guru and eventually leaves the cult, uncovering the inner workings of the group and its leader to the outer layer of members and the general public.
I am 45 years old. For 21 years I lived within the confines of a closed society, a pseudo-psychotherapy/meditation group led by a man whom I will call “Louis.” I write this article in order to try to help others by shedding light on the process by which intelligent seekers become stuck in a form of mental servitude. I maintain the anonymity of the leader, other persons, and identifying data on the group for several reasons. First, I write about what was a relatively small group (several hundreds of members), which appears to be reforming, and I wish to protect individuals’ confidentiality. Second, I do not want to obscure my primary purpose of helping others understand manipulative influence processes by making this article appear to be a mere exposé of the deeds of somebody who hurt me.
Because I spent so many years in this group, most of my adult life was consumed by a set of rules and regulations governing my thoughts, my feelings, my ideals, my family, my friends, and my community. Leaving this enclosure has not been easy. I experienced extreme depression, suicidal tendencies, guilt, and loss. I lost my family, community, home, and source of income. It has been a long road to recovery and to freedom--a project that has yet to be completed. There are parts of me that will never heal because of what happened.
My recovery involved restructuring myself and my goals to discover a personal life purpose outside of the mind-set put forth in the group. I have learned to survive the abuse and slander put forth by members and former members of the group, engendered by my departure from the group (which subsequently tore it apart). Primarily I have used this time to begin to understand what happened and why. What was the abuse, what went wrong, and how could I correct it? I have also tried to understand what went right and how to keep it. Even though Louis misused his leadership role and caused me a great deal of suffering (and what I consider to be irreparable damage), not all that happened to me during that time was abusive. In spite of an oppressive environment, I had developed my own characteristics, strengths, values, and abilities. Separating the abuse from the valuable has been crucial to my survival. I could not afford to throw away 21 years without at least looking through those experiences and finding some of myself. To do all that, it was necessary to understand what, precisely, was the abuse--what was the wrong that was done.
It began in 1972. I was 20 years old and studying at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Like many of that age, I was looking for myself and a way to live my life. There was much about society, in those times, that warranted questioning. I yearned for some Truth, some honesty-- some sort of guidance around which to structure my life. I was young, innocent, good intentioned, and lacking direction. Around that time some friends invited me to attend a workshop led by the “Enlightenment Institute” (a pseudonym). It was a 3-day weekend designed to give participants a chance to pursue the Truth of Life in a supportive environment. I jumped at the opportunity. The experience was good for me. I felt supported. I liked the people.
This workshop led to my participation in other programs offered by the Institute. The focus was on increasing one’s ability to communicate and interact better with individuals and with society in general. The techniques being used involved various psychotherapy practices ranging from communication dyads to primal therapy. The overall program was based on the philosophy that we are all perfect and that only our relationships needed improvement; and so the Institute offered a structure for my pursuit of a better way of life. At the same time I began to form fulfilling and tangible friendships within the group of fellow students. These friendships proved to be more satisfying than the ones I had been encountering in college.
After several months of attending weekly and sometimes daily programs, I moved into the Enlightenment Institute, a branch of a larger system which was controlled, from a distance, by Louis. The center’s directors were benign and friendly people. The leader lived 2,000 miles away and seemed to have little to do with the Milwaukee branch (I later came to the opinion that he was chronically disorganized and unable to delegate authority from a distance. This meant that he lost effectiveness when not on the scene). Unless the directors of his various centers had a propensity for misuse of power, the branches were fairly benign. Given what I have learned about cultic abuse and mind-control techniques, I have yet to find unethical behaviors within those people. Many of them eventually left and formed families and contributed to society. Yet, because of the very fairness of those running the Milwaukee center, I became inattentive to the pitfalls in the greater system and to the abuse that Louis would eventually bestow on me in the name of truth.
I lived in the Milwaukee center for 2 years. I met Louis once or twice during that time and respected him from a distance only because he seemed to be the originator of some good ways to handle life. Much later I found out that Louis had not originated the communication techniques that we were taught. He also did not originate the ethics of treating people well; instead, he used these--the basic human codes of honorable behavior, a system on which all long-living societies are based--as a cloak of deception.
The difficulty began when the Milwaukee center was closing down and I was at loose ends as to what to do with my life. Most of the people living there went their own ways, going back to school, joining other spiritual groups, and so on. I was invited by Louis to attend a 2-week retreat in California, which he was leading. As I had very little savings I took the retreat at a reduced rate in exchange for future service. Louis solicited me to move to the California headquarters of the Institute to further my growth and to do service work to repay the cost of the 2-week retreat. I jumped at the chance. Later, a few students from Milwaukee did find their way to California to live at Louis’s facilities.
After moving to the ashram, as Louis renamed his center, situated in a remote desert location, I was put to work as the cook. I proved to be a hard worker and was exceptional at the work I was given. I was enamored by the life I was living. The people were both friendly and intelligent. The communal atmosphere was as close to an ideal lifestyle as I had ever dreamed of. We were young, healthy, and on a noble path. I loved the work and the friendship. Soon I was given the job as the main bookkeeper in addition to cooking and shopping for 25 people. The harder I worked and the more efficient I was, the more responsibility I was given. This in turn increased my daily involvement with Louis.
With this increased interaction I began to gravitate to the center of the group. Living in this group atmosphere was enough to keep me happily involved, moving toward the core of this crowd was an unexpected bonus. As a consequence of my involvement with Louis’s inner circle, I gradually came more deeply under the spell of Louis, who was a charismatic and engaging person. He was seemingly insightful and alarmingly able to be in touch with whomever he contacted. I was like a lovesick teenager, mesmerized by his very presence. He gave three lectures a day where he taught the purpose of life, the Away of living based upon Eternal Truth,” and answered his students’ personal questions, often advising on marriage, studies, profession, and relationships. He gave evening classes to a chosen few, including me. He managed, through his charisma, to affect all who listened to him. I believed him, I believed his teachings, and I believed his ethics. He presented himself as God’s agent, and I believed him to be that.
He was my minister and spiritual teacher, my guide through the “entrapments” of life. He was my father, and we were his children. I want to stress here that he was also our minister. He ministered his parishioners. He taught yoga, communication, and spirituality. He taught “treating people well” and “not lying or stealing.” He taught surrender to God and Guru--the Guru being him as God’s agent. The subject matter of what he taught is not what is important; it is the fact he was our teacher. He could have been teaching Christianity or Buddhism or Taoism instead of his brand of Hinduism. It is the relationship not the teaching that matters in the case of cultic power abuse.
There were about 30 of us living in the isolated ashram (a number of miles from nearest civilization), a small universe of Louis-ism. He was our benevolent dictator. This was not a democracy, for all rules and regulations originated and died in his hands. If people did not agree, Louis had them leave. People were flat out asked by Louis to leave if they disagreed, as well as there being group pressure to leave if a person was not happy. The belief was that each of us had free choice and no one was made to stay at this place. So, if you were not happy, then go quietly in the middle of the night and leave us to live and worship as we wanted. There seemed to be no stigma on disagreeing, leaving was only a logical conclusion--why would someone stay when they didn’t agree?
It happened that I agreed with the rules. They were not outlandish or dishonest. They were more like preferences. I had always believed, in the early days, that if my preferences changed or if Louis began to teach something I didn’t agree with, then I could and would simply leave. Later, I realized I did not have that option. But as it was in the beginning, I liked living there since I agreed with the moral and ethical teachings. The people who chose to stay were educated, intelligent, and well-intentioned people. It seemed a good life.
The Rules Change
Capable and intelligent, I soon found myself organizing the food as well as the accounts. As a basically efficient person, soon I was teaching yoga classes in addition to my other duties. I worked 12 to 15 hours a day (and liked it). I was proving myself to be a leader and organizer. This innate ability also meant I was drawn closer and closer within the confines of the inner circle.
Around the time Louis changed his name to “Swami Babaji,” I began to practice the natural meditation techniques that Louis had brought back from India. These techniques, although the backbone of Louis’s teachings, were not in and of themselves abusive. It was the manner in which Louis used this method to his advantage that began to destroy my life. There is sometimes, in the anticult movement, a suspicion of any Anew age” technique as the source of abuse. From what I have studied, in many cases this may be true. In my experience, however, it was not meditation techniques or types of prayer or manner of eating that was wrong. It was the basic misuse of power. The meditation, in itself, was harmless. It produced a general relaxation and contemplation of life that enhances life; it did not restrict it.
Louis had his disciples divided into two categories. One category was those who were on the willful path. They were students or married people. The other category was for those who surrendered their life and soul to God and Guru. These people were not married and eventually took vows of celibacy and poverty. Louis fell within the second category. The second classification was the coveted one. If you agreed to surrender to God and Guru, you were on the highest path. If you were unable to surrender to God and Guru, you were relegated to the secondary path.
Regardless of which path you were on, celibacy and poverty were urged for any unmarried student. At the time I welcomed an abstinence from sexual interactions since I had spent my teenage years in total confusion about my goals in relation to sex. In my family, sexual abuse had been a substitute for emotional contact. As a result, I had lived a promiscuous and dissatisfying sexual life in my efforts to gain emotional access to others. At 23 years of age, I was too young and immature to know what I wanted or needed on an emotional and intimate level. I was confused about my choices and options. I welcomed celibacy, not as a doctrine but as a reprieve.
Louis seemed to be pure, and I absorbed what he taught about sexual expression, personal evolution, and spiritual growth. So what initially had been a reprieve became a belief. Looking to Louis’s perfect modeling of an unblemished and more evolved lifestyle, I chose to follow his example. I had no idea at the time that Louis would eventually seduce his female students and that what he presented publicly was the complete opposite of how he lived. I wholeheartedly believed that he was living a life elevated beyond the pitfalls of sex and material wealth. I never conceived that he was having sex with his female students, most of them at least 20 years younger than he. I had no idea that the money he accepted as donations went into his personal fund. He was not a renunciate, he was the ruler of a small empire that only he controlled. He did not pay taxes and he did not work; instead, he reaped the benefits of all who toiled beneath him. It was a dictatorship, and hardly benevolent.
Sexual Overtures Begin
One evening Louis invited me to his personal rooms for a spiritual guidance session. I was surprised and honored. When I appeared at the appointed time, however, I found him in bed with the lights dimmed. It seemed so strange and sexually charged, yet I felt my hesitations were my problem and my fears. He was a saint, beyond sexuality and beyond material gain. What did I have to fear? Louis launched into a long dissertation about meditation and non-action and celibacy. I tried to follow his train of thought, but was unsuccessful. Slowly, during this long, confusing talk, it became more and more clear to me that he was letting me know that I had entered a new phase of meditation and I was being chosen to meditate with him. It still didn’t dawn on me exactly what he was talking about. He said that meditation was non-action and therefore, if one was not the actor, one could have sex and still be celibate. He said that because of my level of evolution, I would be his partner in this journey toward the ultimate. I was special, the chosen one.
In retrospect I can see that because of the enforced celibacy and the lack of personal independence enhanced by the lack of personal money, an energetic and sexual tension arose in the community. That tension revolved around the central figure, Louis. Louis used that tension, injecting it into the meditation that he was teaching. He professed that the sexual energy came from the meditation, rather than it being a separate issue. Since he was the leader and wrote the rules and regulations on the exterior level (celibacy and renunciation), he also wrote the rules and regulations on the esoteric or hidden level, the sexual level, the “fulfill all your desires” level.
That first evening I was shell-shocked. Here was my teacher wanting to screw me, without even being up-front about it. All of my instincts came up: get out of here, don’t get involved, the guy has flipped. I said no and fled the room. The next day and for several days following, Louis pursued me and the subject again in efforts to overpower my initial choice, using his persistence and skills at persuasion. “This isn’t sex, this is meditation,” he said. “Meditate with me and be liberated,” and finally, “Help me in my meditation by meditating with me.”
The bottom line was that I couldn’t say no to him. He knew more than I did. I felt flattered that he even considered me. He was the teacher and I was the student. Because of the asymmetrical relationship, he held the power. In the end, my rational thinking was subdued by the relationship. I knew that what he was suggesting was wrong and a complete contradiction of what he taught publicly. The basic fact was that I knew if I declined I would have to leave and I had nowhere to go. I not only had no money, but also I had severed all ties with my family and friends. The life at the ashram was my only life and I firmly believed I could not make it on the “outside.” I felt completely, physically dependent on Louis. If I disagreed with him, I would have to go quietly. To decline what I knew was wrong meant not surviving. I stayed and lied to myself because I felt I had nowhere to go. To handle the incongruence, I began to “believe.” Thus began the violation and abuse that was to continue for 16 years. The damage that occurred then and throughout those 16 years has destroyed much of the fiber and consistency that I as a person was made up of.
This occurred in 1975. He persuaded me to have sex, cloaked as meditation, whenever he wanted. I loved him before as a father, and that love was transferred to him as a lover. Our “meditation” was always done in secret. He told me over and over that what we were doing was mediation and not sex. It was the highest meditation, he said; it was a 7,000-year-old yogic secret. It was an “old religious secret.” No one should be told the secret or their chances of being elevated to this level of meditation would be spoiled. It was sin to expose the secrecy. The initial fear of having nowhere to go if I were to refuse evolved into being convinced that what he said was true. I began to swallow the story, hook line and sinker. Every doubt I brought up to him was quelled by the statement that if I didn’t want to engage in the meditation, well, there must be something wrong with me. If there was something wrong with me, then I would have to go. I desperately wanted there to be nothing wrong with me. I had no idea that the yogic secrecy was no secret, but instead was a cover-up of intense ministerial sexual abuse. And in fact it was not about sex at all, but about power.
When it was him and me only, it was something I could handle. The secrecy was difficult, but I had begun to believe that to expose yogic secrets was a worse sin. I promptly learned that secrecy was justified everywhere. When Louis began to “meditate” with other female students, at first, he denied it to avoid complications and my upset. When he couldn’t cover up any longer, I was told that in non-action meditation, we should not use our will. Louis was not going to use his will not to meditate with others. It turned out that I wasn’t the “chosen” one, but one of several women he would choose from on a daily basis, depending on who complained less.
The Secrecy Continues
There were about 20 people involved in the inner circle at this time-- mostly women, but also a few men who would follow Louis’s rules and not interfere with his sexual encounters. We all believed the yogic secret. When we doubted Louis, we all believed that there must be something wrong with us, not the technique. The group pressure to succeed, in this case with meditation, encompassed us and reinforced Louis’s stranglehold over all of us. There was a competition to survive the onslaught of sexual abuse in the form of meditation. My life went into a tailspin. I was torn between the belief I had in Louis’s outer teaching and the horrors of the secret life in which I was entangled. There was no way out. I had been with the group for 5 years now. I knew no other life. I had no other friends. I had no other job.
When I expressed doubts to others in the group or to Louis himself, I was criticized for not being able to take the emotional strain of the meditation. I was not evolved enough to endure it, they would say. I had too many attachments to the “world.” I felt that I was a failure. I knew that I could not take the sexual encounters that were going on within the group. This was a fact. Yet, I believed Louis in that his way was the only way. I couldn’t stay and I couldn’t leave. I couldn’t understand how the others could tolerate what was going on. Everyone seemed to accept it as normal. I began to accept the inner group’s opinion that there was something wrong with me.
In order to be part of the group and not have to leave, I tried all of Louis’s suggested techniques to get over what he called my jealousy and possessiveness. I was to watch others having sex. I was to accept their love. I was to let the jealousy burn out within me. For 5 years I experienced daily emotional, instinctual, and mental torment trying to accept non-monogamy at its worst. Trying to be spiritual. Trying to be part of the group. I was becoming an emotional and physical wreck. I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t eat, and I couldn’t live.
Eventually I found I could not take it and in order to simply stay alive, I began to accept that I was subnormal. I opted out of the sexual trysts that were going on. I stayed within the system, yet out of the system. It was a lonely time for me. I struggled with understanding the secrecy. I still believed the outer teachings and still felt some connection within the outer circle. I began to live in the outer circle of students, trying to pretend that the inner circle orgies were not happening late in the night. I kept the secrets. They were yogic and religious and above reproach. I accepted that it was I who was missing something and that I had no right to destroy it for the others who benefited. Very much later I came to realize that a healthy conscience kept me from being subdued further to such unethical practices. Maybe this is one of the reasons why I could later take the good parts of these years and leave the negative behind.
In 1976 the ashram moved to another part of California. I moved with the group. The group now numbered 25 in the inner circle and about 150 in the outer circle. Most of the fringe students, having no idea that there was an inner circle, believed completely in Louis’s outer teachings. The ashram was becoming a growing financial success, all of which was completely controlled by Louis. He had the typical “guru” limousine and comfortable living quarters. He had a personal cook and women who cleaned his house daily. He did no work at all. Meanwhile, the volunteers worked 12 hours a day for no compensation. People bowed and scraped just to get close to him. They followed his every instruction, such as whom to marry, or whom not to marry, whether to go to school or to renounce the world. Donations and tithes were a must if a devotee had an outside salary.
The group’s drama around Louis was getting thicker and thicker. Occasionally Louis would convince me that AI was the only one important for him,” and I would try “meditation” again. He would match me up with other men in the inner circle to quiet me. I just never could get into the scene, the orgies, the multiple partners, the many abortions women were having, the general group upset. There were times when I would be completely overwhelmed. I would try to leave, but all such attempts were unsuccessful. I had no money and no friends outside the group. When I would leave, I would go to people from the group who lived apart from the group. Louis would always find me and woo me back. I could not successfully disconnect.
The Last American Chapter
In 1977 Louis acquired enough money to purchase a 400-acre retreat in northern California. We moved the ashram to the country. There were many more volunteers, many more people visiting, and the daily programs were becoming more and more of a production. He assigned me as director of the facility. I was good at it. I liked the job and I liked the people, most of whom were completely unaware of the duplicity inherent in Louis’s teachings and the behavior of his close disciples. I continued to block out the sexual orgies that happened frequently. I blinded myself to the night-time wanderings of the inner group. Louis and I had continual disagreements about the inner teachings. He claimed I was unworthy to understand and be able to participate. I accepted this.
In order to remain part of the group and to keep my sanity, I decided to marry a man who was also a close student of Louis’s. Louis had matched me with him. I felt that marriage was my only option because in the typical tradition of marriage, there was to be no meditation, that is, no sex with other people. I could live in the ashram and follow the outer teachings. In a way my marriage was a last resort, a final attempt at coping with the situation.
The man I married seemed to be willing to be monogamous and wanted a family. In my heart I hoped that marrying him would save me from the duplicity into which I had spiraled. As it turned out, my husband was as enmeshed in the subservience expected of Louis’s students as I was. He married his guru’s woman; he had the prize. I was a used possession, being passed to an honor student. We continued to live in the ashram and work for Louis. We were dependent on Louis for our livelihood. We received room and board and $150 per month.
What I didn’t realize was that marriage had no sanctity for the guru. Soon after the marriage, Louis suddenly decided that in fact married people could meditate. It was not long before he was asking my husband whether he was willing to help his spiritual father by allowing his wife to meditate with him. My husband also could not say no to his guru. I felt my life being torn again. The relationship between me and my teacher was not based on either sex or religion, but on a sick misuse of power.
About this time one of the women involved in Louis’s inner circle (an 18-year-old) had a nervous breakdown and spent time in a psychiatric hospital. She was able to speak about the abuse in the group, and as a result some of the secrets were revealed to the general public. The effect rippled throughout the community of 150 people, splitting it wide open. Louis took emergency actions and drew the inner circle tight. “We must uphold the 7,000-year-old secret,” he proclaimed. “We have to protect yoga.” All of us, except a few, did as told. We denied it all. We put the responsibility on the woman who had the breakdown. We were upholding the Truth, the Eternal Way of Life. We were protecting the basic system of “evolution.” It was not a lie. It was a yogic secret. Although some people left, many stayed and believed their teacher and their teacher’s closest students. Despite our cover-up, the fallout from the exposure damaged the community feeling. It was falling apart.
During this time Louis became extremely paranoid. He trusted no one and feared for his life. He convinced most of us that we must leave for a safer place. He was afraid that the large property that we had just acquired would be confiscated. He was afraid he would be persecuted, much like Jesus. The land in California was put up for sale. Louis was on the move to a safer place. The community had been put together by all of us. It was to be a new life for us. We had worked hard to raise funds and renovate the buildings. Many people lived on the property and had planned their lives around the community. Suddenly it was over. The church was to be abolished. The funds went into Louis’s pockets. Most of the people did not hear from Louis again. It was a hard time for many. Louis would only take a few with him. My husband and I were among the chosen.
The destination was Australia. In the meantime we lived in Hawaii working on instructional manuals. Louis soon had a group of women living around him. My husband and I tried to live a semi-normal existence alongside the group. We had a baby. We did not participate in the multisexual partners, but we knew it was happening and that fact began to erode an already precarious relationship. Louis continued to pursue me, but now I had a small child and so Louis began to lose interest in me sexually. But he used my competence and my belief in the outer teachings, just as he used my and my husband’s capacities to keep students and to make money. We made money on his behalf and gave it all to him.
The property in California sold, and as the ashram’s director, I handed the check for $400,000 to Louis, as I had been instructed by him. At this same time I was expelled from the Board of Directors, a move that allowed Louis to take complete control of the money and a Board of Directors entirely devoted to him. He began to actively pursue the flight to Australia. My husband worked long hours convincing the Australian government to allow us to immigrate there. My husband and I were readily accepted, while Louis was not. The Australian government had received a letter from a former student about the abuse charges.
Meanwhile, I was becoming more and more involved in family life. My son was 1 year old. Although the arranged relationship with my husband was strained and there was much discontent, we had a family and our energy went into the family and into building our new life in Australia. We moved to South Australia in 1984. I was secretly pleased that Louis would not be allowed into Australia. I felt I could live there and lead a life based on the more ethical philosophies that I had learned.
Louis was finally admitted to Australia in 1985. He chose to live as a hermit in a remote area. My husband and I and our son lived about 2,000 miles away. Louis had his money and was leaving us alone. We were slowly making money on our own. We decided to live in a community of Louis’s students who had not been involved in his inner teachings. These were people with families, people who wanted to live a good life. I began to experience relief and freedom from the years of suffering in California. I was not aware that Louis was heading for broke as he had used up the $400,000 of church funds on bad stock market dealings and frivolous spending (first-class air travel, first-class hotels, etc.). One day my husband received a call from Louis asking if he could come to South Australia. Would we in the community take care of him? My husband said yes. I think I would not have been able to say no either, but I was not happy.
Recreating the System
Louis arrived in the South Australian community under the condition that he agree not to do in the new community what he had done in California. He agreed not to have sex with his female parishioners. He promised, and we believed him. Slowly he built up a life in the new community in which he began to exert tremendous control. Louis began with weekly Sunday meetings and individual classes and therapy sessions. The community began to revolve around him and his teachings rather than around people’s lives. He instructed people on how to have and raise their children. He reproached people about their personal lives. He shamed them into getting rid of their televisions, stopping outside recreation, taking their children out of the public schools and putting them into home schooling. He began to categorize people into the more evolved and the less evolved. The propensity to misuse his position, to pit people against each other, to solicit funds in the name of the church began to take hold once again.
By 1989 he had a group of women and men around him who once again believed what he taught about meditation and sexual energy. He was starting the inner circle over again, this time with families. Now the people getting involved had children and much more to lose. The upset and jealousy and insanity increased on a daily basis. There were beatings and threats, between the adults. There were guns and knifes. The turmoil was incredible.
Our personal life and home were in jeopardy. My peace was shattered, and soon so was my family. Our marriage was in shreds. My husband was constantly depressed. He wanted to become involved with other women, but I refused to open up our marriage. I pleaded with the other couples involved to stop and save their marriages. I was laughed at. Again, I was told that those were my weaknesses, my inability to grow and my lack of emotional maturity. Cleverly, the sexual behaviors were kept secret from most of the new students, but for the 15 to 20 people involved, it was a new generation of “evolution.” These were the chosen people in a renaissance of personal growth.
My husband and I were not directly involved with the inner circle happenings, but we knew what was happening. We watched as people came and went in the cloak of darkness. We watched their families bend over with stress. I listened to the stories about the continued abortions and mishaps among the families involved. The children, while not directly involved, began to exhibit manifestations of severe psychological difficulties in school and inappropriate sexual acting out.
I pleaded with Louis to stop. He laughed. He had his power. The people around him believed him. They had completely changed their philosophy of life. Before Louis came to Australia, the people in the community seemed interested in their families, their work, and their children’s schooling. After Louis, family life became a duty to fulfill only minimally, since meditation was more important than working. People’s businesses began to fall apart because the focus was on sex, not work. Louis disdained education, so they withdrew their children from public schools in order to home school them. I watched as they accepted the secrecy completely, and were willing to put their families and children in jeopardy in order to become one of the elite in the march toward enlightenment.
On the outside my life continued as if unaffected. I aspired toward a better life. I followed and believed the outer teachings. More and more people began to move to Australia and join the community. More and more money was being collected for Louis. He had money under his mattress and in hiding places. He created another nonprofit religious organization like the one in California, and without having to pay taxes, he was amassing large quantities of money. The students in Australia were more affluent, so Louis received large donations from them, as well as from my husband and me. We continued to support him publicly. I felt then that I had no alternative. I was afraid to break the code of silence, a code I agreed to so many years earlier. I was afraid of my life falling apart and that I would have no other life beyond that which I had lived for close to two decades. Financially, our counseling work was tied up with Louis’s students; our home was part of his communal deed; and all of our friends were followers of Louis. My life was a house of cards, and to expose the secrecy would destroy my life, of that I was certain.
My son and the other children in the community were showing continued signs of distress from the secrecy, the sexual trysts, and the stress of their parents. People were becoming so dysfunctional that they were losing jobs, and eventually their property. With our marriage disintegrating even further, my husband began to gravitate toward the multiple sexual partner scene. While we were not involved in the sexual rendezvous with the other families, we were constantly bombarded with requests. My husband finally revealed to me one day that he had gone to prostitutes in Bangkok (exposing myself and my son to the AIDS virus). He said he felt justified as it was non-action--”It just happened.” The whole situation sickened me. The misuse of power in the teacher was being transferred through the generations. I knew that I needed to get out of the whole system, yet found no outlet. I didn’t know where or whom to turn to. But I began to plan a way out.
Things Fall Apart
A few months before I actually left, my husband and I became involved briefly with one other couple. It was an act of desperation and an act that would prove to save my life and the life of my son. The man in the other couple was a fringe student of Louis’s, and very skeptical of the entire subject. With a solid background in psychology, he actively voiced his doubts and concerns over the destruction of families. His varied point of view began to dissolve the fixity I had in the system I had lived under for 20 years. While my husband and this other man’s wife became ardent followers of Louis’s secrecy and inner circle, this man and I began to look for outside help.
We separated our lives from the rules and regulations of Louis’s tyranny, which led us to be put before a tribunal and ostracized. The ostracism pushed me further out of the closed society. I did the forbidden: I went to a therapist from outside the community. I went to Social Services Sexual Assault counseling and began to tell what had happened, what was still happening. I began to get help for myself and for my 9-year-old son.
My marriage fell apart. Although I continued to live in the family home (which was located in the middle of the community) with my son, my connection with the group began to thin out. I was shunned and slandered for leaving. I was personally condemned by Louis, and physically and socially threatened. Both Louis and my husband blamed me for the breakdown of our marriage. The fact of the sexual abuse was completely ignored as a reason by anyone involved in this community of secrecy. Nowhere in all of this did Louis admit culpability. He was right and always remained right. I continued to get outside help.
With counseling I began to realize that our “secrets” were not religious, but were a cover-up of an extensive, ministerial abuse system, much like the secret of incest. Not speaking out only protected the abuser. I contacted all of the people I knew in the outer fringe of students, both past and present, and told them what had happened and what was still happening. The day I wrote the letter and sent it, I cowered in my room afraid that I would be shot. I feared for my life. The power that secrecy had over me was incredible. I did the unthinkable. I unveiled the secret. Except for the one young woman years before who had been hospitalized and stigmatized as psychotic, no one had spoken out. Many people had left during the years, but no one had spoken out. Even in their disconnection, former followers kept the secret, and now I know that such silence allowed the abuse to continue. Unfortunately, the fear I felt that day was nothing compared to the repercussions I was to eventually receive from the reactions of others.
The Australian community erupted in chaos. The people in the inner circle were caught with their pants down. They couldn’t refute what I had so explicitly exposed. Somehow the unveiling of this secrecy prevented the mass sexual abuse from continuing. It was as though suddenly all were waking up to a horrible legacy. Louis went into hiding; and without his constant drive to keep the mass sexual lunacy going under the auspices of “yoga,” the group split apart. Of the 10 couples involved, only one remained married. It was very ugly for many months. We had land and property in common, but no longer a common bond. Although some of the women received counseling, most men and women isolated themselves in an attempt to rebuild their lives or justify what had happened. With more than 200 students worldwide, the news eventually filtered overseas.
Somehow having been involved as a victim became a greater crime than the originator’s crime of ministerial abuse. And those who were most heavily involved began to lash out at me. I was an easy target. The ones with families and professions could no longer, in good conscience, protect or cover for Louis. Yet, it hadn’t been their initiative to uncover the secrecy. They had no idea what exactly the abuse was and why it had happened. They just knew that in the public’s eye what had taken place was outrageous, and they couldn’t or shouldn’t align themselves with such ideology. My ex-husband said that I took his choice away. In fact, I didn’t, but Louis had managed to construct everything to be my fault.
It is a mystery to me why exposing a harmful secret causes such havoc for those who decide to expose it. For me, the consequences were tremendous. I was blamed for everything, as though I had been the abuser. Those who had participated so entirely for so many years blamed me for destroying everything. Those who had been kept in the dark blamed me for having kept it secret. One man blamed me for abusing his children, because “they had to witness” that I had left my husband. According to our teachings, divorce was a sin, a greater sin than all of the sexual misuse that took place. Without the approval of the religion, people were left with the sorry consequences of their actions. Former communitarians were no longer getting along. Individuals who had once been some of my closest friends were now trying to justify what had happened and began to downplay their actions. This severely inhibited the uncovering.
Meanwhile Louis remained isolated. He eventually insisted, through lawyers, that the entire community property be sold (along with seven family homes) in order to take his investment with him. This was possible through a legal clause he had written into the original property organizational plan. These were ugly months. Even though his influence was now limited, his former students, not having recovered from his influence, continued to hurt and insult me. I was told that Louis’s final instruction was to “Slander and abuse her until she backs off.” My sin of exposing the secrecy was considered far greater than any coercion or manipulation that might have taken place.
A New Beginning
In 1993 I began a loving and equal relationship with the man who had helped me so much to look at what was happening in the group. We eventually got married. Together we worked on our recovery for ourselves and for our children. Finally, in 1995, we left Australia and returned to America, primarily to get away from the abusive atmosphere, from the legacy of Louis.
In retrospect, I know that people involved in such experiences must get professional counseling to understand and exit from the effects of that abuse. Most of the others in Australia did not receive that type of help. In addition, the relationships we had established suffered irreparable damage because of the secret society which needed to be acknowledged. The broken trust between the couples and friends will never recover. I lost some of my closest friends during this time. We could not relate outside of the teacher’s influence. Recovery is a lonely time.
And lastly, it is difficult to admit that one has been involved in such a manipulation. It is difficult to admit to having participated in such unethical behavior. It is difficult to know one has supported such a sham. I am not proud of having been in such an abusive atmosphere, but I am no longer ashamed. Louis used his position as minister to coerce his parishioners into sexual contact with him. He used his position of power to take money from students and then, under the auspices of the church, he used that money for his own personal whims. He used his position as minister to destroy families, support lies, and abuse those who spoke out against him. For Louis, the end justified the means. His end was the fulfillment of his goals, not the goals of humanity or of his parishioners. He preached non-injury, non-theft, not lying, and supporting family life. He lived an opposite existence of stealing, lying, and destroying families.
Those secrets that we held, in the name of God, will haunt us and our children for years. The damage that was caused to those who participated and shielded those secrets is great. Coming out of the cult has not been a friendly experience. In general, society has failed to understand that rape and sexual abuse is not about sex, but about the misuse of power. Violation occurs when there is an asymmetrical relationship, not just in age, but also in position. When doctors, teachers, ministers, and therapists cross over that line of discrimination and manipulate their patients, students, parishioners, or clients, they violate those people in their innermost core. If sex is involved, it is a sexual violation.
Despite the damage I have experienced a tremendous learning process in recouping the lost years. I have begun to understand precisely how vital it is that those in helping professions never cross over the line between themselves and their client. The goal of the helper must be to help the other, not to fulfill the helper’s own covert goals. Therapy, spirituality, medical help, education are about the client or person being helped; they are not about the therapist, minister, doctor or teacher. There must be respect for the individual and respect for her free choice. Manipulation and coercion are never helpful. The misuse of power is rampant in this and all societies. It must be recognized and an understanding of it used as a tool to educate the general public about such abuses.
In the past 20 years, although I was entrapped in unrelenting violation, I did not die. I was victimized, but I am not just a victim. I have had thoughts and abilities. I have learned about myself, my strengths. I have learned to respect others and their boundaries. I have learned what is ethical and what is not. I learned to appreciate community life and as a result to contribute in a positive way to the greater community. My priorities are clear, and I form my life around them rather than around someone else’s priorities. My life, my children lives, and the life of our family far exceed in value a philosophy or technique of enlightenment. I am not proud of having lived in such an entanglement, but I am not guilty any longer. I am proud that I got out and that I got my son out.
My hope is that more stories will be told, and more people will be supported in coming forward about this type of molestation. I hope that information about the exact abuse is made distinct from what might be valuable. Many of these groups cover up their illicit actions with teachings that have a lot of merit. Yoga or meditation or vegetarianism is not what the abuse is about. Living in groups or communities is not inherently wrong. The wrong occurs when a person or persons misuse their position of power in order to control or manipulate others for their own gain. Lastly, I hope that this story and others like it give individuals in a similar position “a place to go” away from the abuse.
Postscript: The following is a poem my son wrote when he was 11 years old about life in the cult.
Secrets, whispers in the dark
They surround you and tear your life apart.
They seep into your soul and heart and leave a cold feeling
empty and alone.......until you die.
The darkness covers your eyes and you can’t breathe.
You want to scream and cry out, but you suppress those feelings.
You beat them back down.
That is what you’ve been taught--never tell, never love,
never challenge those who control your life--secrets.
Only do what you are told or suffer the fate of social solitude.
You will never be loved again.
The blackness encircles you and the secrets wrap around you,
tightening. Your scream is muted by the hollowness of your life.
Katherine E. Betz lives in California with her husband and two children, Shan, 13 years old, and Oliver, 3 months.