By: Skyler Johnson
From Jonestown to the Manson Family, we as a society have been obsessed with the inner workings of cults. Every few years a new documentary explores the secret lives of a society of people much different than ours. But it’s not very often that you meet someone that doesn’t just explore what crimes a cult committed, but how a cult is formed. This is what Radhia Gleis, an ex-member of the Buddhafield Cult, attempted to do in her most recent book: The Followers, Holy Hell and the Disciples of Narcissistic Leaders. I got the privilege to interview Gleis about the book and her experiences.
Can you tell us a little about the Buddhafield cult and how you became involved with them?
That is a complicated story, and although the documentary Holy Hell shows the frightening transformation of a beautiful little spiritual community into an abusive cult, the details of this thirty-year journey cannot be told in a hundred minutes, like I can in the book. Like the frog in warm water that slowly comes to a boil, it took twenty years for the teacher to develop into the narcissistic sociopath he eventually became.
My journey started back when I was in Catholic school. I was inspired by the stories of the Catholic saints and their transcendental experiences of the Divine. I took a comparative religions class in ninth grade. We were studying Hinduism when we came across a word in italics: Nirvana! I asked the teacher what this word meant. He said, “Some yogis in India, through a certain practice of meditation, experience God directly.” “Is that true?” I asked. “Apparently!” he replied. And from that time on I spent another twelve to fourteen years looking for Nirvana.
I never came across anyone who said that they experienced God directly until I met the leader, Jaime, and the group, who were practicing these kinds of meditation techniques, referred to as “The Knowledge.” The name Buddha-field has little or nothing to do with Buddha or Buddhism. It was just a nickname we called ourselves. We were closer to Hinduism, although we studied Buddhism, Hinduism, Sufism, and Christian Mysticism. Originally that was what the Buddha-field was about—practicing and staying devoted to that meditation practice and a simple life of service and devotion.
In the beginning Jaime’s sharing was always about the “Knowledge.” This ancient technique was introduced to the West by Prem Pal Rawat ji, AKA Maharaji. Jaime was never a disciple of Maharajji; he lied and conned a Premi (one of Maharajji’s followers) into giving him the techniques. Later, when it looked like his guru gig was taking off, Jaime changed the name from the “Knowledge” to the “Knowing” to claim it as his own. Originally, he used to say, “Connect to God’s love,” but it did not take long before our sycophantic adoration of him fed his narcissism to the point of creating a malignant narcissist, and suddenly the narrative became “Connect to MY love.”
What do you believe separates a religious movement from a cult?
Chapter 16 of The Followers, entitled “What is a Cult? It’s Complicated,” analyses the definition of a cult. It’s one of my favorite chapters. Certainly one of the more irreverent and humorous. My conclusion is, I’m not sure there is a separation. Or at least they have a great deal in common. One characteristic both share is the opposition to a Socratic method of teaching—a form of cooperative argumentative dialogue between individuals, based on asking and answering questions to stimulate critical thinking and to draw out ideas and underlying presuppositions, to come to your own conclusions. Most religions regardless of their size are the opposite—non-Socratic. They’re more authoritarian and didactic or patronizing. Whether the group’s origin is based on a historical archetype such as Jesus of Nazareth, Buddha, Mohammed, or L. Ron Hubbard for that matter, the ideology is used in many cases as a form of control and to establish order over a society (large or small). The ideology and its history of origin is usually interlaced with fantastic stories and myths applied to abstract notions of God that enlarge the premise, making it difficult to dispute.
If it’s a newly established philosophy from an individual, such as L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology, or Keith Allen Raniere, founder of NXIVM, a multi-level marketing company and cult, the leader develops an exclusive and unique doctrine or dogma that suits the followers’ needs or desires at that place and time. The leader—usually male, usually white—creates, polishes, and purveys the doctrine to use as a tool for their own narcissistic supply. Some leaders rely on an established theme or a variation on a traditional theme, such as Christianity and the Bible. Jaime adapted his creed from mostly Hindu teachings, practices, and texts, then twisted it to make it his own to elevate his status. All social, political, or religious societies can be vulnerable to corruption. Power corrupts, and when we give anyone—a religious teacher, a boss, a CEO of a corporation, a political leader—too much power, it perverts the soul and feeds the narcissistic tendency in all of us.
Do you blame the government for not being able to prosecute leader Jaime Gomez, also known as The Teacher?
I never thought of blaming anyone, other than myself for not following my instincts and the other members of the group for not having the courage to come forward with the truth about what was happening behind closed doors. And I still don’t blame them; I understand why. It’s complicated, and that is what the book is about. Why do we do the things we do? What makes people give up their will, their sense of right and wrong—give up their moral compass and family ties for a person or an ideal?
As I said throughout the book, it was a collective deception. If one were to expect the government to step in, where does that stop? Step into what? Most of us had no idea the abuse was happening, and we had no proof or witnesses coming forward. We were all adults. The old saying, “One man’s religion is another man’s cult” applies. And we must be careful of using words like brainwashed.
The definition of brainwashing is the process of pressuring someone into adopting radically different beliefs by using systematic and often forcible means. By that strict definition we weren’t brainwashed. We didn’t adopt radically different beliefs. Most of us were already on the path of beliefs Jaime “taught” before we even met him. And we were not physically forced, like prisoners of war. This is the common mistake when we say that someone is “brainwashed,” that takes the responsibility away from them as enablers.
I heard someone on a podcast discussing Holy Hell. She said, “…and what’s with that Radhia woman? She seems like she wouldn’t take shit from anyone.” We were following the Eastern religious practice of master-disciple relationship. And I signed on to that at the time. The “shit” that I was taking from Jaime was part of the discipline. The ego is the identity of self, and I believed you could not be one with God if there was a “you.” If there is a “you” and God, by the very nature of that duality, there is a separation. That’s why I never believed I was being coerced. I was a conscious and willing participant. I was eager to let someone challenge my ego in order to overcome that ego. Willing to override my instincts and insert myself into the practice whole-heartedly as part of the discipline. What a perfect scenario for a malignant narcissist to take advantage of! But I was exercising my beliefs at the time and would have been very pissed off if the “government” came in, having no understanding of my choices, and tried to take that away.
Do you believe there should be more restrictions on cult activity in the United States and abroad?
Everything is relative and should be handled on a case-by-case basis. We have laws to deal with child abuse, sexual abuse, kidnapping, and so on—whether committed in the context of a cult, a family, a traditional religion, or among strangers. Groups we may identify as cults are not by definition abusive or criminal. The general tenet of the Buddha-field was to live a healthy, virtuous life, practicing meditation techniques, exercising unconditional love and selfless service. We were a cult of love, and we weren’t harming anyone or imposing our beliefs on anyone outside our community. And had it not been for a narcissistic leader taking advantage of our innocence, we would still be living that life in that idealistic community. But if you’re a cult of hate and division, advocate violence or show potential to do harm, or attempt to force your beliefs on others, then yes; restrictions would be appropriate.
What types of people tend to get involved in cults?
In the third section of my book, I talk about several types of people who join cults. Except for sociopaths, I believe most human beings have a conscience that dictates a line in the sand that they will not cross. A place in their soul where their moral compass finally takes the wheel and says, Stop—no more. But that line is usually preceded by little gray lines that we step over before we reach that point. From my observations, I’ve identified three basic types of people who join a cult: the hummingbirds, soldiers on a mission, and the kamikazes.
Hummingbirds are browsers. They are like looky-loos, fluttering through the fanciful world of spiritual communities. They circle around the perimeter, not ready to commit fully, but if it looks interesting, they will hang around for a time. They don’t know what they want, exactly, but they are not satisfied with what they have. They are searching for a place to belong. They will hop over a few gray lines, but when the going gets tough—they’re out.
The second category of people who join cults, after hummingbirds, is a little more complex. I call these people “soldiers on a mission.” I admit I fit more into this box than the others. This group is for those who know what they’re looking for and they are willing to step over a lot of gray lines to get it. For fourteen years prior to meeting the leader and members of the group, I was on a mission to experience God Realization, Nirvana. And when I found someone who claimed he experienced that and could show me the way—I was all in. I was willing to do the hard work and jump over a lot more gray lines to reach my goal of enlightenment.
The third type of people who join cults are the kamikazes. They don’t seem to have a final line in the sand. They come to the abyss of reality and jump off. They can range from benign people who will follow their leader to the bitter end, regardless of facts or morals, to dangerous, destructive, blindly obedient devotees who will kill or die for the leader. Examples of the latter include the followers of Charles Manson; Timothy McVeigh and other domestic terrorists; or those willing to commit suicide at the behest of the leader, such as followers of Jim Jones or the Heaven’s Gate UFO cult; ISIS suicide bombers; or Japanese kamikazes.
What types of people tend to create cults?
It would seem to me that one would have to be pretty impressed with themself to deliberately create a cult. That type of person would be your quintessential narcissist. It’s one thing to have a prayer or meditation group, a club or gathering of people who share ideas in a Socratic format. And sometimes it requires a board or organizers or even instructors or teachers. But when one person takes on a leadership role and is allowed to adopt a non-Socratic influence over a group, that has all the makings of a dangerous escalation of corruption and abuse.
It’s important to understand that the narcissist and the followers have a feedback loop. Together they operate on a constantly reinforced message of perceived “specialness.” Narcissism demands to be fed; and when fed it grows, eventually subsuming followers in a toxic tidal wave that forces them to sink or swim for freedom. It is up to us to recognize and protect ourselves by avoiding the narcissist wherever possible; withdrawing our fealty; or starving their insatiable appetite for self-aggrandizement. We must not expect or wait for them to change. They never will; and the more we feed them and let them get away with it, the more dangerous and powerful they become.
Do you believe there are cults that don’t get the media attention they deserve?
I don’t know offhand which cults should get more or less attention because I’m not a part of them, so I don’t know their story. When you say “media,” what type are you referring to? The media landscape today is not the same as the media of yesteryear. Much of media business models are about sponsors and ratings, rather than straight journalism that presents factual news or in-depth investigations. They wrap information in partisan pundit opinions and shovel a mixture of selected facts, lies, and biased appraisals into a mini horror series in order to scare the bejesus out of us, because—that’s what sells.
And then there’s the Frankenstein of the internet. The amount of traffic to mainstream social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, and YouTube has exploded since 2017. We find comfort in echo chambers provided by media and in social viewpoints that reflect what we already have been indoctrinated to think because it’s easier and more comfortable than taking in new information, especially if it conflicts with our preconceived notions.
In many cases social media is a rogue thought machine, with little or no filters, editors, or fact checkers. There are hardly any rules or decorum in this mock-journalism today. It’s a free-for-all. And social network platforms do not judge your beliefs. There is limited personal discernment, just algorithms designed to target your interests; so, if you’re posting or commenting on a topic, the platform’s algorithm will gladly send you more and connect you to other like-minded users to interject their latest toxins. Social media can have its advantages when trying to bring awareness, but it can also have a dark side—a recipe for abuse and exploitation.
Very often the complexities of a person or a group of people’s lives can end up as sound bites—fodder for the public’s entertainment and media profit. That’s why I wrote this book. As good as the documentary Holy Hell was, it was snippets out of thirty years of the lives of 150 individuals, each having their own experience. Don’t get me wrong, Will Allen, the filmmaker, did an amazing job telling the story. And the film opened up this important conversation. But when you put a person’s life in soundbites and leave the rest up to the viewer—strangers looking for entertainment at the expense of that person’s very personal, painful trauma—that’s the price you pay when it is put in the hands of the media. So to answer your question, I think it all depends on what media is telling the story and how thorough and sensitive the journalist or pundit is to the situation.
Do you think the media tends to help or hurt cult activities?
I got a call from a friend one day who said she was driving in her car and heard two people talking on a podcast about me! It’s the weirdest experience to have perfect strangers talk about you on a public forum. I heard another podcast talking about Holy Hell. These two commentators saw the film and they were enthralled, giddy, like two mean girls in high school gossiping and judging about something they knew nothing about. I had to laugh because I get it. All they had was the snippets to make their conclusions and present their case to the court of public opinion. One woman on a podcast opened her episode with a caution to her listeners that Holy Hell was a “disturbing horror story and the leader was literally a hideous monster, and we were all stupid, brainwashed, sex slaves.” Whaaaat?
I will say, those podcasters inspired me to clarify what they thought they saw in the film. But if you don’t happen to have two and a half years and a lot of money to publish a book, the subjects in question are left with an indelible, distorted, and obscure impression of who they are talking about. Whether it hurts or helps—that’s a complicated proposition. Because it’s such a wild, wild West on the internet, and anyone can produce a podcast, YouTube channel, or social network—so we shouldn’t be surprised there are a lot of unprofessional “media” personalities out there, voicing their unqualified opinion. Cults are complicated, dangerous, and traumatizing—no one needs their kind of help. And it takes courage and confidence to tangle with the media.
What can we expect in your new book: The Followers: “Holy Hell” and the Disciples of Narcissistic Leaders: How My Years in a Notorious Cult Parallel Today’s Cultural Mania?
Expect a wild ride. I see so many people in a state of dis-ease, confused, frightened, and overwhelmed by what is happening in America and around the world today. And because of my twenty-five years’ experience in a cult, under the influence of a narcissistic leader, I get it on such a deep level. And like I do in my wellness practice, I conducted extensive research for The Followers from a myriad of scholastic books, articles, journals, and periodicals, but unless you’re a researcher or have a vested interest in this subject, who has time to slog through the academic material? Nobody! Except me. That’s sort of my schtick. I read, studied, digested all that material for you. But I knew if I were going to shine some light on the complexities of our present situation, I had to make it personal, humorous, raw, and entertaining as well as provocative.
I definitely open the kimono, so to speak, in this book. I knew if I wasn’t real and honest, the reader wouldn’t trust me. Although the archival footage in the documentary Holy Hell on Amazon gives you real footage of the inside of the cult, the story is so much bigger than a 100-minute documentary could tell. I invite the reader to take a journey with me down the road of my life in the safety and comfort of their home, in hopes that they will learn from my experience and not have to take the same road. I have lived an extraordinary life. I’ve done things that most people can’t even imagine. On this journey you might laugh, you might cry, you might get angry, or you might find relief that you’re not alone. I invite you to go all the way to the end with me, even if you find some discomfort along the way. In my life I chose the road less traveled. I spent sixty-plus years in contemplative practice, and at the end of this book I promise I won’t leave you without some pearls from my experience to help you navigate this crazy world. The book The Followers, Holy Hell and the Disciples of Narcissistic Leaders is not a story about me per se, or some broken, gullible individuals, or the past; it’s a story about what’s happening today—to all of us.
The book is available on Amazon and Barnes and Noble but if you don’t like or have time to read, it’s also on Audible in my voice.