Paradise and Promises Chronicles of My Life With a Self-Declared, Modern-Day Buddha
ICSA Today, Volume 8, Number 1, 2017, pages 18-19
Paradise and Promises: Chronicles of My Life With a Self-Declared, Modern-Day Buddha
Reviewed by Marcia R. Rudin
Alresford, Hants, UK: O-Books, an imprint of John Hunt Publishing, 2015. ISBN-10: 1782799907; ISBN-13: 978-178279990, PCN: 2015931104 (paperback). 15.99£/$26.95 (Amazon.com: $19.25). 264 pages.
Marlowe Sand (a nom de plume) has written an excellent memoir about her 15 years—from 1986 to 2001—in what throughout the book she calls The Community. Officially known as EnlightenNext, the group was headed by self-styled guru Andrew Cohen, who attained enlightenment in India but based his teachings on his own personal experience rather than on Eastern philosophy and religion.
Apparently always a seeker, at the suggestion of her homeopathic therapist Marlowe went to a Satsang, an evening session with Andrew in her small town of Totnes, in England. She experienced ecstasy that night and an immediate transformation. She continued to attend evening meetings with Andrew, where she attempted to find total freedom through denial of her selfhood. This process gradually led Marlowe to leave her German husband and take her two small daughters with her to follow Andrew to Mill Valley, California and eventually to Foxhollow, a large former retreat center in the Berkshire mountains of Massachusetts.
In Cohen’s group, followers lived communally, assigned to houses and apartments and housemates according to their spiritual status (i.e., approval from Andrew). Cohen divided them into lay students and formal students—those more serious and committed—and adherents constantly ascended and descended the ladder. Living conditions and locations depended on one’s metaphysical status, one’s spiritual development. Consequently, Marlowe attributed this unsettling arbitrariness to the formal students. So while this constant seesaw of praise and criticism bothered her, “Not knowing which way to turn among these students for safety,” she explains, “I held onto the beacon that was Andrew.” She didn’t realize until after she left the group that this rigid hierarchy of followers acted only on the orders of Andrew, that through them he completely controlled his members’ lives through capricious evaluation of their spiritual quests.
And what a difficult life it was. In addition to working in the outside world full time, doing difficult household tasks and often spending large amounts of their own money on group activities, moving frequently to different group houses, and attempting to find time to raise her daughters, Marlowe spent hours in house meetings and general meetings and performed exhausting physical exercises and meditation. In one startling passage, she tells us:
Every morning at 4 am, the three women in the house cleared the living room of sofas, lay down our eight-foot wooden boards, and placed a picture of Andrew Cohen in front of us. We stood up straight, raised our arms to the sky in prayer, fell to the ground, and stretched the full length of our bodies out on the wooden board, and slid up again to standing. We did this 600 times [emphasis mine]… (p. 124)
At first, Marlowe didn’t question either Andrew’s teachings or the structure of the organization:
I half-understood that, by accepting the premise that my vision was clouded and Andrew’s was clear, I had become incapable of independently evaluating what was going on. It crossed my mind that I was losing my ability to draw conclusions for myself, but I decided this would only be a problem if Andrew were imperfect. … We wrapped ourselves in the certainty that Andrew stood alone in defiance of the ego; … I therefore absorbed the hierarchal structure and the value system believing it supported my growth. (p. 84)
Marlowe and the other followers were extremely intelligent, talented, and hardworking, accomplished professionals from all over the world. Many contributed large amounts of money. Cohen controlled his members by keeping them exhausted, uprooting them frequently from their living situations, and randomly changing his mind and teachings and policies and approval/disapproval behavior toward them, thus purposely leaving followers off balance and blaming all doubts on their shortcomings. He forbade family and emotional ties unless he gave his permission for followers to form a relationship; and only those with high status were allowed this privilege, which could at any time be withdrawn. He was negligent if not downright hostile, Marlowe tells the reader, toward her children and the many other youngsters in the group. He filled them with fear of leaving the group, telling his followers that, as Marlowe quotes him, “Anyone who leaves will be haunted for the rest of their lives.” Most important, Cohen, like other cult leaders, conferred ontological reality upon his members, what Robert J. Lifton terms Dispensing of Existence. Marlowe reports that Andrew told his followers that, once they left the group, “they ceased to exist as real people.”
In a horrifying illustration of this power to confer existence, Cohen created a category of women who he declared had utterly failed in their spiritual quest and faithfulness to him. They were termed No Women. These outcasts lived together (as all other members did) and were not allowed to speak to or have contact with others, even while performing their menial duties. Toward the end of her stay, Marlowe was placed into this group and, through her fellowship with the other No Women, eventually found the strength to leave the cult.
Marlowe describes in great detail her life in the group. One chapter (9) is a very interesting journal of her trip to India (Cohen held special meetings and workshops in various parts of the world, and his avid followers embarked on long and expensive journeys on their own dime to attend.) In what to me is the most heartbreaking chapter of the memoir (6), Marlowe relates how, when she was deemed worthy, she was put in charge of managing the construction of a new meeting hall in Cohen’s Berkshires estate. She and other members worked extremely hard for months, but when it was finished Marlowe was not invited to the dedication. Andrew never acknowledged her hard work. This experience seems to be the beginning of her doubts:
Although we rationalized why Andrew had ignored my work, I think we knew that we were rationalizing. This might have been the moment when I had an inkling that my private response to the situation trumped what the Community thought. A part of me had grown strong during this building project and would not leave me even if things got tough. (p. 182)
After nearly fifteen years, Marlowe did decide to leave. Out of the group, Marlowe networked with other former members and came to realize Andrew’s sole responsibility:
I had always imagined that Andrew was unaware of some of the cruelty meted out by his students. Now I learned from those in his inner circle that he had not only ordered it, but received detailed reports about it. I realized then that his condition was not just a mixed bag of benevolent and cruel; his was, or had become, a pathological condition. Nothing stood in the way of Andrew’s demands for control and adoration. There was no check on his abuse of power. (p. 234)
Marlowe is still attempting to process her experience. Remarkably, her two daughters weathered their unusual upbringing well, and she and her ex-husband are on good terms. She has remarried and established a solid professional life. Andrew Cohen has retired from his teaching and, with the group experiencing severe financial problems, Marlowe reports, “It is unclear to what extent Andrew’s teachings and the culture that surrounds them are continuing under other names” (p. 252 ).
In my nearly forty years of involvement in the countercult movement, I have read numerous former-member accounts of their experiences. I should be used to these stories of sacrifice, abandonment of former lives, often abandonment of children and other family relationships, pain, humiliation, and the struggle to finally break free and recover. But one never gets used to the stories, and this book resonated with me deeply. Perhaps it is because of the author’s very powerful writing and insight.
I believe this memoir deserves a wide public audience. A listing of References and Further Reading and Web Sites at the end of the book is helpful for those who want to further explore this specific group.
About the Reviewer
Marcia R. Rudin received a joint MA degree in Religion from Columbia University and Union Theological Seminary, specializing in Philosophy of Religion, and taught at William Paterson College in New Jersey. In addition to numerous articles and book reviews on a wide variety of subjects, she is author and coauthor of many books, including (with Rabbis A. James Rudin and Hirshel Jaffe) Why Me? Why Anyone?, and (with Rabbi Rudin) Prison or Paradise? The New Religious Cults. She edited and contributed to the anthology Cults on Campus: Continuing Challenge, published by ICSA’s International Cult Education Program.
Ms. Rudin has appeared at conferences and panel discussions about cults and psychological manipulation, and has lectured on these topics throughout the United States and in Canada and Poland. She has been cited as a cult expert in The New York Times, Newsweek, The Washington Post, The Philadelphia Enquirer, The Los Angeles Times, Modern Maturity, The Chicago Sun Times, The Portland Oregonian, The Austin-American Statesman, and Woman’s Day. She has also been interviewed on many TV and radio programs.
She presently writes novels, plays, and screenplays; six of her plays have received 11 productions in Manhattan; New Jersey; Santa Cruz and San Diego, California; and Canton, Michigan; several have received staged readings.