Psychology Today, March / April 1998
Crimes of the Soul
by Jill Newmark, Marian Jones and Dennis Gersten
It isn't often you invite the mother of God to drop by
for a visit, but that's exactly what I did one wet
morning last December, when the rain snapped on the
pavement like popped guitar strings. She arrived at my
home in a parka, leggings, and sneakers, shaking out her
umbrella, an endearingly messy halo of bleached blonde
hair around her face. After plunking a few playful notes
on my piano, she sat down to tell her story-a peculiarly
American story of the search for transcendence and how it
had gone awry, morphing into a gothic horror flick of
abuse and betrayal. America, home of Deepak Chopra and 0.J.
Simpson, The X-Files and Touched by an Angel, the endless
search for grace and the endless fall from it. And home
of Luna Tarlo.
In 1986, however, he was just another spiritual seeker
who had broken up with his girlfriend when he met an
Indian teacher named Poonja. Later that month he claimed
that a "spiritual realization [had) transformed his
life beyond recognition." He immediately began to
attract followers, and brought his mother to India, where,
she says, he told her that the son she knew was dead,
that he felt like God, and that in his presence she was
now enlightened. "At first, I felt I'd won some kind
of cosmic lottery recalls Tarlo, who was astonished by
her son's new charisma and "silver tongue," and
who was longing to be catapulted out of her own pain (she'd
lost her husband, father, and mother in the previous four
years, and had just left a second marriage). "Andrew
said he felt he was on fire, and that his body was like
an electric generator. Poonja told me he'd been waiting
for Andrew all his life." Andrew and Poonja wrote
each other ardent letters. From Poonja, November 2, 1986:
"You've occupied my whole mind day and night."
From Andrew, April 13, 1988: "Master, I love you so!
My each breath is only you and you and you!"
|By 1989, Luna was sending similar adoring letters to
her son: "Beloved: just as a leaf turns toward the
sun, am I turned towards you." Surrendering to a
spiritual teacher is, she says, as mysterious and
shattering an act as failing in love. "Men and women
fall in love with Andrew in this mad hysterical way as if
he's their savior, I did, too. I believed he had reached
this exalted state."
But the enlightened teacher, she warns, was not all love and compassion. She recalls him lashing out at his disciples supposedly in an attempt to strip away the ego. Tarlo says he told her to give way to him or their relationship would end; he once ordered a regimen where she would cook one meat a day, meditate for two hours, and remain in silence except for talking to him, saying that "since I was so full of opinions and nothing but opinions, I was absolutely forbidden to express an opinion on anything."
Her son, formerly the "sweetest, sensitive kid, had changed into an unrecognizable tyrant."
Tarlo found her moods veering from ecstasy to self-loathing. "He thinks if you disintegrate the personality you'll find your true self. I think it's an extremely cruel act. I Wouldn't have remained if Andrew were not my son, but I knew if I seriously- objected to anything, I'd be kicked out." Finally, she returned to New York and burned all her writing as a gift to her guru: "I watched [myself], a remote, alien being, move to and fro, to and fro, from filing cabinet to incinerator, from filing cabinet to incinerator." When she called to tell him of this spiritual act of renunciation, his response, she says, was: "Show me how much you love me. Show me." When she returned to sit at his teachings, "I hardly dared look at him. He sat, backed by tiers of gorgeous flowers, looking like the king of paradise."
Eventually, Tarlo broke with her guru and son. "I've lost a child and I'll never get over it." But, looking back, she believes she knows why she followed him and why he is still so popular: "Everybody wants to be saved from their suffering, and the unique quality gurus have is that they seem so certain, so confident. Confidence is its own kind of magic."
Only Luna Tarlo and her son can know whether her story is an accurate rendering. But she does trace topography of seduction and betrayal described by many American disciples of gurus.