When You Find Out Your Parents Met in a Cult

As told to
Jenna’s father and Rajneesh. Photo: Courtesy of Jenna

I started following Jenna (she prefers not to use her last name here) on Instagram about a year ago. I’d been dabbling in monochrome, and she was clearly the queen of color — from the music videos she directed to the clothes she wore. Her 51,000 other followers appreciated her eye as well. So too does the Times, where she works as an associate creative director.

When I wrote about my personal monochrome obsession for the Cut, I reached out to Jenna for a comment. We’d never met, but she followed me back on Instagram. A few months later, I posted in my stories about how incredible the monochrome looks were in Netflix’s Wild Wild Country, a documentary about the Rajneesh cult moving to a small town in Oregon in the 1980s. “My parents met in this cult,” Jenna responded to me in a direct message. Period.

I nearly fell off my chair. Monochrome was in her blood! Jenna told me that she’d only learned this about her parents a few weeks prior, all thanks to the documentary. I had to know the full story, so I asked Jenna to meet me for coffee one afternoon this spring, and she generously obliged. Below, she tells it in her own words.

I grew up in an apartment where there were pictures of Rajneesh, also known as the Bhagwan, all over the place. One day, I asked my parents: “Who is this guy?” They told me that he was an Indian guru they followed. They meditated a lot when I was growing up. When you’re a kid and your parents are already weird as hell, you’re like: Oh, yeah. That makes perfect sense. I figured they’d gone on a long yoga retreat, or something. It wasn’t until I heard the word “cult” used in reference to Rajneesh that I started asking questions.

About a month ago, I overheard my co-workers talking about some documentary series on Netflix, blah blah blah. I didn’t care, but then this girl used the word “cult” followed by “Rajneesh” and I was like, “Oh, I know of Rajneesh! That wasn’t a cult.” She gave me this look like I had just told her I thought Santa was real. Then I was like: Oh, fuck. I need to do some research. Now it looks like I’m brainwashed.

I texted my dad later that day saying, “Hey, there’s this new Netflix documentary series about Rajneesh and the people who followed him. I’m hearing it referred to as a cult. Is this true?” I could see him starting to respond, but then the text bubble disappeared. My dad is 80 now, so who knows what was happening with him. But a couple of days later I saw my mom and I asked her the same thing. She sat there and she kind of stared. She shrugged, as if it were the first time she’d thought about it, and replied, “Yeah. I guess it was a cult.”

It was 1982. My mom had just gotten married to her first husband. On their honeymoon, they started listening to Rajneesh’s tapes. When they got back to New York, they heard that there was a weekly event on Saturdays at Studio 54 from 5 to 11 p.m. that was a Rajneeshee meditation session. They went, and the person leading the meditation was my dad. Before she even laid eyes on him, my mom says that she heard his voice and thought to herself: Oh, fuck, I just married the wrong man. From that point on, her discipleship had some ulterior motives.

Rajneesh event at Studio 54. Photo: Courtesy of Jenna

My dad was a disciple in India for a few years before Rajneesh decided to expand in the United States. Later, he would visit Oregon five or six times a year for these little three-day festivals. One time, he says Rajneesh drove by him in his Rolls Royce and looked him right in the eye. He took it as a sign that he had to come back. So he got his affairs in order back in New York and ended up returning to Oregon for around three months.

They put my dad in charge of about a hundred of the homeless people and said, “Your job is to make grass grow in this mud.” He knew nothing about plants, botany. Absolutely nothing. He was a kid from the Bronx. I don’t know how much grass my dad had even seen! But they gave him three days to buy a textbook and study. And then he came back and taught 100 homeless people how to propagate plants. I mean, isolated, that is pretty fucking cool.

He got a lot of recognition from Sheela about what a good job he was doing. But he said that when he met her, he felt: “This is a person I stay away from.” He just got a really dark vibe from her. She had a flirty personality but was also very sneaky. When he described her to me, he kept doing this motion of a snake coming out of her to bite you and then coming back in. The reason he invited my mom, though, is because they needed her for the vote. So she came, by herself, without her husband, and that’s when they first got together.

Sheela walking next to Rajneesh in his Rolls Royce. Photo: Courtesy of Jenna

My mom was in Oregon for a couple of weeks and she was really prepared to live there for a little while, but she kept seeing all these guns. A little backstory on my mom: Growing up in Bushwick, she did pretty much whatever she could to stay away from home. After graduating college at 19, she joined the army to keep busy. So, she was familiar with guns. But she saw the rifles in this context and she was like, “Something’s not right here.”

Then, my dad found out about them poisoning the salad bar. “That was when I realized I didn’t want to be there anymore,” he told me. So they left. They still had their New York street smarts in them and they were just like, “No, fuck this, I’m not sticking around.” I don’t think it started as a cult in India, but it became one in the United States.

It was really tough for me to sit down and watch Wild Wild Country. I had chills up my back the entire time that I was watching it — but not even because of my parents. Looking back now, it put a lot of things into perspective. Like, my mom dancing anywhere without music at any point in time during my childhood, which was the most embarrassing thing ever for me.

I also understand what they saw in Rajneesh; they’d both been through a lot in their own lives and his teachings offered a brand of positivity that maybe they’d never seen before. My dad had been a heroin addict about 20 years prior to joining Rajneesh. He was no stranger to jails and rehabs, and thought the way he was treated by both the justice and health systems was impersonal and counter-productive.

Rajneesh disciples in Oregon. Photo: Courtesy of Jenna

The docuseries made it really easy to just write everybody off as crazy, but I’ve seen firsthand how Rajneesh’s teachings have manifested in my parents’ lives, positively. In 1988, they founded a non-profit together for people with HIV/AIDS, substance-abuse problems, and the recently incarcerated. Meditation, dance, group therapy, and community-building activities are integral parts of the programs they run.

They took out of their Rajneesh experience what they needed, and have helped so many people using tools that it gave them. I also think a part of what they learned there was being open and accepting things the way that they come. That’s very much a part of how they operate, and they’ve passed that on to me.

My mom still goes by Samudra, which is her Sannyasin name. Her name is Maria. And my dad often still goes by Maha. His name is Howard. It’s just funny because you think your family is weird. And then you find out your parents met in a cult.

When You Find Out Your Parents Met in a Cult