How to Escape From a Cult in the 21st Century
The new documentary Holy Hell offers an unprecedented view of 20 years inside the Buddhafield religious group. We talked with apostates from Buddhafield to find out why they’re still grateful for a “cult” experience.
Jun 3, 2016
By Michael Agresta
Toward the end of Will Allen’s new autobiographical documentary Holy Hell, Danielle Lefemine, his friend and longtime associate in the controversial Buddhafield religious group, reflects on the 20-odd years of history related by the film and characterizes her experience in stark terms. “I was brainwashed,” Lefemine tells the camera. “I was in a cult.”
Over the course of its first hour, Holy Hell — released last Friday in New York and Los Angeles — has pointedly avoided these charged words. Rather than an exercise in casting judgment, Allen has built his film around unprecedented access to the inner workings of a secretive religious community: As the Buddhafield’s unofficial videographer for more than two decades, Allen documented the group’s evolution from an idyllic experiment in communal living and meditation practice in 1980s Santa Monica to a paranoid gang of guru-worshipping disciples in 1990s Austin. When the group’s charismatic leader, then known as Andreas, was caught in a sexual abuse scandal in the mid-2000s, many longtime members, including Allen and Lefemine, exited the group. Only in the film’s final chapter, describing their decision to leave the Buddhafield, do they use words like “cult” and “brainwash.”
It’s common for apostates to toss around such terms when discussing their past affiliations, but most sociologists now agree that “cult” represents a potentially dangerous designation. Contemporary debate over the term dates at least to the 1970s, with the rise of Reverend Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church. On one side were self-appointed experts from the so-called anti-cult movement, who warned parents and young people about the dangers of spiritual leaders who bewitched impressionable followers into brainwashed servitude. On the other side were more careful academics who viewed the cult panic as dangerous both to the lives of adherents and to the constitutional tradition of free exercise of religion.
These tensions reached their zenith after the Federal Bureau of Investigation siege and massacre at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, in 1993. Many scholarly observers blamed the tragedy on anti-cult activists, who had propagated the widespread vilification and dehumanization of Branch Davidians, and some of whom were advising the FBI. “After the Branch Davidian fiasco, people realized that the ‘cult’ label objectified groups in a way that made violence more possible,” says Diane Winston, the Knight Center Chair in Media & Religion at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, who studies the way religions are discussed in the public sphere.
To a large extent, the religious freedom-oriented academics won the late-20th-century battle of ideas over the “cult” label. Today, the preferred term is NRM, or new religious movement. Anti-NRM vigilante groups like Cult Awareness Network no longer threaten to kidnap adherents and forcibly “deprogram” them in hotel rooms and other extrajudicial locales, as they did from the late ’70s to the mid-’90s. For a while, even some journalists got the memo. “Groups that are controversial still get referred to as cults, but good journalists shy away from it now,” says David Bromley, a professor of sociology at Virginia Commonwealth University and perhaps the country’s foremost expert on how people exit NRMs.
Journalists haven’t exactly been shying away from the term in their coverage of Holy Hell, however. The film has been called an “exposé of a Californian cult” and “a textbook case of how a cult operates.” Perhaps the first widely disseminated apostate documentary to include extensive, behind-closed-doors footage from within a secretive religious group, Allen’s film is reviving a long-dormant public conversation about NRMs and manipulative psychological techniques. Along with that conversation comes a new interrogation of words like “cult” and “brainwash,” words ready to be re-discovered and re-litigated by a new generation.
Allen and the other Buddhafield apostates who appear in Holy Helltake a varied approach, appropriating “cult” while eschewing the demonization and objectification of NRM members that typically go along with it. “I like the term ‘cult’ simply because it’s so irreverent,” Allen said by phone from Los Angeles. “We never would have used it. It makes us laugh at ourselves. But I think the word has to be re-defined.” He and his friends have little charitable to say about the anti-cult movement, which threatened their lives and liberty in the early ’90s, but they’re serious about wanting to broaden popular understanding and empathy for what goes on inside an NRM, even a fringy, dishonestly led, abusive one like the Buddhafield. As a result, Holy Hell is a document of fascinating contradictions. It’s an old-school anti-cult exposé crossed with an open-minded, 21st-century effort to destigmatize individual NRM members; it’s also a thoughtful re-invention of the cult-apostate narrative in the exhibitionist tradition of reality television. In the end, Holy Hell is perhaps the fullest, most human view we’ve ever had of life inside an NRM — and the ever-complicated business of getting out of one.
According to sociological consensus, people who leave NRMs typically join a group that opposes their former group — called an “oppositional coalition” — and develop a narrative that suits both their new ties and individual needs. In the first essay of a 1998 collection of sociological studies about NRMs called The Politics of Religious Apostasy, Bromley calls this storytelling the “captivity narrative.” In Bromley’s foundational account, NRM leave-takers emphasize that they “were innocently or naively operating in what they had every reason to believe was a normal, secure social site.” Apostates will often claim they were “subjected to overpowering subversive techniques,” e.g. brainwashing, and endured subjugation and humiliation until they ultimately escaped or were rescued. Leave-takers will vigorously resist any “ambivalence” or “residual attraction” toward their NRM once they’ve departed the group — those expressions could be seen as evidence of untrustworthiness, according to Bromley — and conclude by issuing a public warning about the dangers of membership. It’s a straightforward script.
This after-school-special version of NRM membership will be familiar to anyone who came of age before the turn of the millennium. The 1981 fiction film Ticket to Heaven, about a young schoolteacher who attends a training camp for an NRM and becomes brainwashed, is a classic of this genre: The happy ending comes only when he is kidnapped by anti-cult types and deprogrammed. But research doesn’t support the Pied Piper-like captivity narrative popularized in the 1980s and ’90s. “At that point in time, many people believed that, if someone entered into a cult-like group, if they were deprived of sleep and the food they received was monotonous and bland, if they were sexually tempted and argued and bullied into obedience, that their minds would snap and they’d become brainwashed cult members, glassy-eyed, easily led,” Winston says. “Since then, people who study human behavior have come to the conclusion that brainwashing is not that simple.”
Holy Hell doesn’t begin like a typical captivity narrative. In Allen’s rendering, Buddhafield members join the group without coercion, of their own free will. Later in the film, each apostate interviewed offers extenuating reasons for why they stayed in the group too long, several laying the blame on Andreas’ psychological manipulation or groupthink inertia; nevertheless, all agree that they entered the group of because they found it socially and spiritually fulfilling.
“The hardest part of the film to make was the first part, to acknowledge that we were in this and we loved this, and to make him look good,” Allen says. From the beginning, Holy Hell presents the Buddhafield as spiritually ambitious, tolerant, and sexually open; one apostate refers to it wistfully as “the booty field.” Everyone in the group, it’s also worth noting, is extremely attractive — a recruitment philosophy that Allen attributes to Andreas’ genius for cultivating “social proof” — the notion that appearing happy, popular, and sexy confers legitimacy to an otherwise-controversial leader or group. “If he has a lot of beautiful people around him who support him, that keeps him safe,” Allen says. Another way Andreas protected himself was by frequently changing his name. In the group’s early days in Los Angeles, he went by Michel; recently, re-settled in Honolulu, he has adopted the name Reyji, or “god-king.”
Allen doesn’t like the term “brainwash,” in part because he believes it delegitimizes the hard work of daily meditation and ego suppression that he and other Buddhafield apostates still look back on with pride. “We thought of it as a cleansing of our brain,” Allen says. “We thought we were seeing things in a different way, that it was healthy. And it is healthy — for a semester, in a controlled environment, with a qualified teacher, with checks and balances. We weren’t doing that.”
The group followed an ad hoc program of spiritual exercises designed by Andreas to help adherents experience direct communion with the divine. Initially, much of it was borrowed from the teachings of Maharaji, an Indian guru who developed a large American following, known as “premies,” in the 1970s, while other Buddhafield ego-shedding exercises came from theater training. Holy Hell holds onto a sense of group spiritual achievement even through the film’s darker passages. Ex-Buddhafield members seem more likely to look back on their spiritual work as an impressive achievement that nonetheless left them vulnerable to Andreas’ predations than to recall it as a scam and a fraud.
“We were like the Navy SEALs of spiritual discipline,” Radhia Gleis, a Buddhafield member who was with the group for over two decades, says over green curry when we meet one evening in May in a suburban Austin shopping mall.
In its second half, the film conforms better with Bromley’s archetypal captivity narrative. For instance, Holy Hell directly confronts the various ways in which members were humiliated. Apostates recall sexual dimensions to “karma cleansing” sessions, weekly one-on-one meetings between Andreas and his adherents, during which they were encouraged to drop all defenses and confess their deepest secrets. Recorded audio from these sessions suggests Andreas groomed straight men for sexual encounters, and multiple apostates testify on camera that Andreas manipulated them into unwanted sex. Those and other accusations recall Bromley’s description of “overpowering subversive techniques.” “The dude was a hypnotherapist,” Gleis says. “He had his talons in our psyche every week.”
But Holy Hell doesn’t dwell on members’ powerlessness, and when I speak with ex-Buddhafield members about the film’s more ominous moments, they tell me their aim wasn’t to disown their actions, but rather to call out Andreas’ bad-faith mentoring. Gleis feels deeply betrayed by Andreas, even though he never asked her for sexual favors. “The real abuse is in the cleansing. That’s the real intimacy,” she says. “That’s where you shared every dark deep secret. He didn’t use it against me much, but sometimes he would.” Though Gleis admits that Andreas’ spiritual counseling helped her through difficult periods in her life, she has come to the conclusion that he was delving into his adherents’ inner lives more to enrich, titillate, and protect himself than to serve others.
For her part, Gleis flatly refuses to say she was “brainwashed.” “I made decisions based on lies,” she says. “But everyone was different. People came in at different levels of maturity.”
The subjects of Holy Hell bring nuance to their “cult” stories. It’s worth noting, though, that some held official roles so high up in the organization that their “captivity” narratives deserve special scrutiny. Both Gleis and Allen occupied exalted positions in the Buddhafield hierarchy. Gleis describes herself as the group’s “consiglieri” — she was the one who managed the early-’90s legal threat from CAN that chased the Buddhafield out of California, and she purchased Andreas’ Austin home, which became the group’s headquarters for a decade. Allen was a key member of Andreas’ “entourage,” a mostly male coterie of self-described “beautiful ones” who were financially supported by the group and spent their days massaging the leader and accompanying him on Speedo-clad excursions to Austin-area beaches and swimming holes. Both Gleis and Allen admit to lying constantly — to their family members, to lower-ranking Buddhafield members, and to each other.
Gleis says that at least one other longtime Buddhafield member thinks Holy Hell goes too easy on the entourage, insulating high-ranking apostates from the sorts of criticisms levied at Andreas. Bromley’s scholarship would critique this as the tension between “apostate” and “traitor” roles: Leave-takers, of course, don’t want to be seen as turncoats or losers of power struggles; they want to be seen as victims. “You can’t have a leader without followers,” Gleis says. “I think we are all guilty of a lot of lies.”
Toward the end of the film, Allen tracks down his former guru in Hawaii, where elements of the Buddhafield community have re-settled post-scandal. When he asks Andreas, on hidden camera, whether he’s “being a good boy” to current members of the group, it becomes clear that the chance to expose the group, and to break it up, is a central reason why so many ex-Buddhafield members have risked public humiliation to put their faces and stories onscreen. Nevertheless, Allen says his primary artistic aim was not to raise alarm about Buddhafield.
“I would like to see a dismantling of the group and everyone waking up and being in their own power,” he says. “But I did not make this movie for 100 people. I spent 20 years living for 100 people. I couldn’t spend four more years for 100 people. I made this movie for everyone else.”
This is where Holy Hell departs definitively from the ’90s-era captivity narrative formula and creates a new model for the genre, one that can reach the mainstream. By “everyone else,” Allen means the widest possible film-viewing audience: people of all ages, races, sexualities, religions, etc., most of whom will likely encounter Holy Hell not as a polemic of anti-cult advocacy but as a character-driven story of hope and disillusionment, tragedy and triumph — and a bit of an amusing freak show.
While Allen did belong to an explicitly anti-Buddhafield coalition when he first took leave of the group several years ago — Gleis refers to a period of “innies” and “outies” arguing against each other — by the time he began editing footage, that alliance had faded as apostates began to move on with their lives. By then, Allen’s key organizational ties were to film-business players like the Sundance Institute, where he worked on Holy Hell as a fellow, and later Jared Leto, who became executive producer on the film.
It’s no dig at Allen to note that the resulting story includes a narrative arc that follows confessional conventions established by Oprah and reality television, and that the cathartic result is a people-pleaser. (Indeed, two ex-members mentioned rumors that Leto is pursuing plans to serialize the Buddhafield story.) Over the course of the film, apostates cast their stories as journeys of seeking and overcoming, stories that unfailingly culminate in personal growth. There are moments when viewers might envy the experience described by these apostates — by the end, membership in a controversial NRM begins to sound like a vital opportunity. The so-called “cult” experience, however abusive, comes off as a liberating net benefit.
I met former Buddhafield member David Christopher on a plane from Austin to Salt Lake City in January. He wore a Holy Hell baseball cap and passed out business cards to fellow passengers traveling to the Sundance Film Festival. Later, watching the Holy Hell premiere, I’d learn that he had given up a fledgling acting career to join the Buddhafield in the mid-’90s and was now hustling to break back into the business. (All the Buddhafield apostates I spoke to were to some extent involved in the entertainment industry.)
Months later, in a quiet South Austin café, I asked Christopher whether he would call the Buddhafield a cult. “I had to re-define what that word means for me,” he said. “I re-defined it in terms of: Any group or organization that tries to control your process of thinking, through any kind of guilt, coercion, or shame, may be a cult. If you think in those terms, the Catholic Church may be our biggest. But what about the NFL? What about your own family?”
“Your own family has a way of being, and you grow up in that programming, and there’s a language that you use, and a lot of times your parents have an idea of what you should be, and if you want to have an independent thought that goes against that, you might be guilted or shamed because you’re trying to go against the grain,” Christopher continued. “That is a cult. What I often tell people is, I joined a cult to escape a cult. The cult I left was my family. I left my not-so-good programming for a programming I thought was better. And it was better, much higher. But then I had to leave that programming only to find my own authenticity and my own voice, without anybody else’s conditioning. For me, that’s empowerment.”
Allen, on the verge of his first big film release, and Gleis, who is trying to launch a naturopathic television network, echo similar sentiments. “The first five years, I learned love and selflessness and humility,” Allen says. “The next 15 years, I learned a lot of other things — the hard way. They were hard lessons to come by, but very valuable to me.”
Sociologists and veterans of the Waco tragedy may wince to see Holy Hellrehabilitating the word “cult” and returning it to the headlines. But, in Allen’s rendering, the term assumes a different and less dehumanizing meaning. When Lefemine says, at the end of Holy Hell, that she was in a “cult,” the emphasis is not on belittling the group or re-opening the possibility of ’90s-style anti-cult violence. Instead, she’s spinning a tale of self-discovery, relatable to anyone who’s had to make a break with an abusive family, a bad marriage, or a soul-crushing job. “I was in a cult,” in her phrasing, is not substantively different from, for example, “I married a jerk.” The moral of the story is a warning, but a broad one, about just how bad any group can get if you stay too long and ignore the warning signs: The Buddhafield apostates went there so you don’t have to.
Gleis suggests that even Andreas/Reyji may be excited to see Holy Hell, even though the film treats him as a villain. His narcissism reflects one reason whyHoly Hell’s version of the cult apostate narrative feels so much a product of our media-saturated age. “Andreas always wanted to be a star in a movie,” Gleis says. “Well, you got your wish, dude. He’s up there on that cross where he always wanted to be.”