I Want To Break Free: Ex-Cult members on what it’s like to be part of a California Cult
It was March 24, 1997. Comet Hale-Bopp passed close to Earth, a celestial projectile brilliant even above the most light-polluted urban sprawls. As it streaked over Southern California, an obscure religion began a three-day mass suicide below, at peace in the belief that a comet-trailing spacecraft would whisk their departing souls to a ‘Next Level’ of spiritual existence.
This was the Heaven’s Gate millenarian group. Incongruously tranquil images of its 39 dead devotees, laid neatly beneath matching purple shrouds on the bunkbeds of a rented Rancho Santa Fe mansion, soon flooded the media. Video stills of their mesmerized, unnaturally-tanned leader, Marshall Applewhite, followed. A former music teacher who founded Heaven’s Gate in 1974, Applewhite had joined his disciples in washing-down fatal doses of phenobarbital with vodka, before tying plastic bags over their heads.
It was an event that shocked the nation. But 20 years later, California’s role as a hotbed for cults hasn’t slowed. Here, in an excerpt from Issue Two of Us of America, Paul Rogers speaks to three former cult-members to learn more about their experience inside some of California’s strangest “new religions.”
Name: Will Allen
Cult/New Religion: Buddhafield
Last year, filmmaker Will Allen released a documentary called Holy Hell recounting his 22 years in the Buddhafield cult, for which he was de facto videographer. Founded in Florida by a ballet-dancing Venezuelan ex-porn actor who variously called himself Michel and Andreas, the New Age-y group found a fertile home in 1980s West Hollywood.
“[Michel] came to L.A. and, sure enough, everyone gravitated towards him,” Allen recalls, relaxing in the hideaway back yard of a friend’s Hollywood bungalow. “What he told everyone was, people in L.A. are way more open—they’re searching.”
Buddhafield boomed at a time when its many gay followers were seeking sanctuary from the then-mysterious scourge of newly-discovered HIV/AIDS. "We were protected under his 'Grace' is how [Michel] would put it,” said Allen. Its largely “yuppie” membership also craved something beyond Reaganomics-era materialism.
With its insider footage of literal tree-hugging and mass near-naked frolicking, Holy Hell offers unprecedented insight into what initially appears to be a stereotypical peace-and-love West Coast cult. Only the 120-strong Buddhafield wasn’t all fun. Beneath a belief system stitched from various Eastern philosophies lurked Michel’s ferocious narcissism and manipulative seduction of male members during $50 hypnotherapy sessions. Under scrutiny by the now defunct cult deprogramming organization Cult Awareness Network, the group relocated to Austin, Texas, in 1992 and then to Oahu, Hawaii.
“I didn’t realize how close I was with everybody until we lost each other,” Allen recalls. “I think the work that I did was admirable and idealistic—[but] I think we could’ve done that work in a few years, not created a cult around it.”
In addition to Allen’s films, Buddhafield made music videos and put on elaborate stage productions, even building its own theater near Austin. Here, for two years, they rehearsed a full-blown ballet that never went beyond dress-rehearsals.
“A lot of cults … become what’s called a ‘high-demand’ cult,” says Allen. “You’re always expected to be some place or do something or help someone … so you almost have no time to really be yourself or to think or to question.”
Allen estimated that “30 to 40” people left Buddhafield upon viewing Holy Hell. Yet Michel, now in his late 70s, still commands a core following.
“I would like to think that the age of the guru is dead,” says Allen. “Kids [have] more self-empowerment; I think they have more self-identity now … There are people who want what we had—just not with a teacher.”
Name: Shari Lynn Howerton
Cult/New Religion: Christian Gospel Temple
Shari Lynn Howerton experienced how relatively cult-friendly California can be when the independent church she was born into moved from Southern California to Tennessee in 1993. Then calling itself Christian Gospel Temple, the group has more recently changed its name to New Life Fellowship.
"’It's your thing, do what you wanna do’ describes the California I grew up in,” says Howerton. “Maybe there is a greater acceptance or tolerance of weird and crazy than in other places … We were totally under the radar in California.”
But America’s southern Bible Belt proved less accommodating, particularly as Christian Gospel Temple’s move coincided with the law-enforcement siege of the similarly cultish Branch Davidian compound in Texas. The latter group’s demise dominated worldwide news channels before ending in a tank assault and inferno.
“I felt scrutinized in Tennessee,” says Howerton. “For one thing, we looked like a cult right off the bat, because, who packs up and moves 400-plus people from California? It isn't such a ‘live and let live’ or ‘do your own thing’ kind of area. Some people were afraid of us at first.”
Although Christian Gospel Temple was technically affiliated with other Gospel Assembly Churches (collectively called ‘The Body’), all tracing back to founder William Sowders, each pastor was somewhat autonomous. “We had no overseeing boards or official councils for accountability, as the group was formally against ‘organized’ religion or denominational governance,” Howerton said.
On its website, New Life Fellowship describes itself as “A non-denominational church … neither traditional nor contemporary." The vivacious Howerton, who left the group in 2003 and has since appeared in lighthearted TV commercials for her husband’s West Virginia car dealership, recalls its forbiddance of smoking, shorts, movies and dancing. Women were not allowed to wear short hair, pants or excessive jewelry, and the pastor’s approval was required for everything from baby showers to vacations.
Murmurings of widespread sexual abuse followed the Christian Gospel Temple to rural Tennessee, exploding into lawsuits by four female former members in 2008. “I slowly and painfully learned of secrets kept by the pastor, that were devastating to me,” says Howerton. “Sexual abuse had been consistently covered up by men who were preaching to me—and others—that God required perfection from us.”
Howerton, who wrote a 2009 book titled Breaking the Chains about her time in Christian Gospel Temple, said it has lost many longtime members over recent years.
Name: Susan Schenck
Cult/ New Religion: Miracle of Love
“They put an advertisement in the newspapers saying God has returned and there’s a meeting at Howard Johnson’s—pay $10 and come find out,” recalls Susan Schenck, one of the original members of Miracle of Love, a controversial New Religious movement formed in San Diego in 1991. “They had a workshop, which was kind of a modified Lifespring [human potential training company] workshop. And their whole philosophy was to really get into your feelings and break up the energy blocks that are created by trauma and sad events in your life.”
Funded by fees from multi-day seminars and a reported $10 million donation from Procter & Gamble heiress Kendra Gamble, Miracle of Love went on to develop a worldwide membership. But a hefty payroll and the allegedly lavish lifestyle of its late leader ‘Kalindi’ (a.k.a. Carol Seidman, who started the group with her husband) gradually depleted both funds and following. Currently based in Denver and calling itself “The Center of The Golden One," it continues to host seminars in multiple global locations.
“People are looking for a community, and that’s what this group—and many other cults—offer,” says Schenck. “In America we’ve lost the community … You don’t even know who your neighbors are.”
Now retired and living in Ecuador, former schoolteacher Schenck stressed that, although she left Miracle of Love after a year because she “wasn’t getting anything out of it," her time in the group included “really deep experiences” and set her on a lifelong spiritual path that has been greatly enriching. Since leaving Miracle of Love, Schenck has been a student of the Advaita Vedānta school of Hindu philosophy.
“There was no lingering damage to me … because I got out on time,” she says. “But for the people who stayed … they became almost like slaves to The Master. And I don’t think every group is that bad, but I think [Kalindi] was very naïve, spiritually, and it was devastating for people who gave up their own money-making process and donated all their talents and skills to this group … I’ve seen so many groups that seemed so innocent and powerful and [with] so much wisdom in them. But when you start getting into the flock, the core, that’s when it becomes a cult—when you lose who you really are, instead of finding who you really are.”
For the full feature, get a digital copy of Issue Two available here.