Sannyasins of Osho, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, during a meeting, circa 1979. Picture credit: Rainer Binder/ullstein bild via Getty Images
Artillery Row Books

The cult of the father

A memoir of a family pulled apart by the cult of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh

For some, it is hard to tell the difference between Islington and an Indian ashram: there are so many cult figures — Blair, Corbyn to name but a few — already in N5. Not so for Lily Dunn, who was six years old when her father left the family home in North London to join the cult of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh in Pune, India. Dunn’s father abandoned his wife and children to begin a journey of self-enlightenment that would end in a seaside B&B in Ilfracombe, Devon where he died alone of late-stage alcoholism. 

The heady promises of Bhagwan’s cult which was so alluring to so many of the Western middle-class in the late 1970s proved as flimsy as the orange cheesecloth uniform of guru’s foot soldiers. But Dunn’s memoir, Sins of My Father, is by no means a straightforward examination of the cult of Bhagwan. It is a broader examination of the concept of the cult itself; of what it really means to bow down and swear allegiance. Her father was in thrall to a cultish mysticism and, later, the dark God of alcohol, but Dunn was also engaged in her own form of worship: the cult of the father.

And by all accounts, Dunn’s father was an electric figure. A fast, entrepreneurial spirit with a taste for the comic, he attracted intelligent women and made money as a publisher with guile and ease. But he was also deeply damaged. With Jung as her guide, Dunn charts his psycho-social development with a forensic eye, repeatedly asking the reader to consider generational accountability in our appraisal of mental illness. Abused at prep school, where he “suffered a deeply visceral sense of bereavement” upon expulsion from the family home, Dunn’s father went on to abuse his sister before engaging in serial adultery to his first wife — even on the eve of Dunn’s birth itself. Out of the embers of his first marriage, an orange light appeared: the Bhagwan.

Lily Dunn, Sins of My Father, (W&N, £16.99)

Much of the noise about this memoir will focus on the cult angle. Dunn’s treatment of the Bhagwan is judicious, describing the strange and subtle contours of a movement that grew out of the inadequacies of the sexual revolution and its “experiments in transcendence” that failed to capture a deep yearning to change from within. Drawing on the strictures of her father’s suburban upbringing, Dunn lays the blame for the Bhagwan’s astonishingly popular mysticism at the door of convention, a yoke the guru encouraged his disciples (known as sannyasins) to shed entirely. In keeping with Netflix’s viral documentary Wild Wild Country (2018) made by Chapman and Maclain Way, Dunn is careful not to dismiss these ideas out of hand; a decision made all the more impressive when you consider how much she has suffered at their dispersal. Rather, she urges us to consider the generational dynamics that led to their emergence in the first place: “I realise now that this shaking up his life and his sense of himself was the beginning of my father’s odyssey […] a reprogramming perhaps of that early suffocating influence between home and school”.

But Dunn’s most damning verdicts come from her unique perspective as a child of the movement. Visiting her father as a child in the ashram in Suffolk known as the Medina, Dunn describes weekends spent dressed in red being largely ignored by her father, since children were seen as “obstructions to the personal development” of the sannyasins

Worse still are the stories of minors abandoned to the ashram, who, having witnessed the sexual promiscuities of the adults around them, began to mimic this sexual behaviour amongst themselves, often at only eight or nine years old. Such narratives of neglect are hugely important, and we should expect many more to emerge from a generation that continues to be emboldened by the collapse of institutional silences and diktats around emotional health. Tim Guest’s 2004 memoir My Life in Orange numbers in this burgeoning corpus of memoir from the lost children of mysticism.

But the strongest part of Dunn’s book must be its focus on the delicate, fragile relationship between father and daughter. For Dunn, this relationship was unsettled from birth — with devastating consequences. Dunn charts her sexual and emotional development against her father’s journey away from mysticism and into addiction, and describes with heartbreaking candour her inability to form functional relationships, be they platonic, professional or sexual, due to poverty of the “emotional contract” between father and daughter. 

Once the lodestar for thousands, his movement disintegrated into chaos

Drawing from a range of critical thought on the body from psychiatrists such as Bessel Van der Kolk (The Body Keeps the Score), Dunn gestures towards the way in which emotional wounds write themselves upon the physical body — be it a scar or a broken jaw — and the metaphorical potential of this connection. Eventually, slowly, wounds heal. In this memoir, the reader is a part of this process: Dunn emphasis the power of life-writing — both its creation and reception — to soothe the sores of parental neglect. 

Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh died in 1990. Once the lodestar for thousands, his movement disintegrated into chaos, investigated by the FBI and accused of bio-medical warfare. But, to this day, some of his devoted followers remain in distant ashrams now heavy with the stain of abuse. Dunn, too, even after everything, remains a follower of her father: her “Starman”, her “beloved Dad”. Such clear-headed poignancy on the impossibility of ever truly leaving the cult of the parent is what makes this memoir extraordinary. Once read, it will stay with you. 

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover