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.

Luna wryly calls herself the mother of God (and has written a book by that name) because her son, Andrew Cohen, is an American guru with an international following, and for three and a half years she became his disciple. Today they are estranged and she believes they will never speak again. "I've been burned," she says. "I don't believe in the premise anymore that anybody can save you. And my son has become a monster to me."
Cohen himself is a boyishly attractive 43-year-old with thick, dark hair and a mustache, and a pensive softness in his eyes. He travels around the world offering teachings and retreats, and his foundations-- Moksha, and Friends of Andrew Cohen Everywhere (FACE)-are headquartered on an estate in Lenox, Massachusetts. He produces tapes; books and a magazine called What is Enlightenment? in which he himself has addressed the question of purity and abuse in spiritual life.

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.