Book Review – Stripping the Gurus: Sex, Violence, Abuse and EnlightenmentGeoffrey D. FalkReviewed by Joseph Szimhart
Geoffrey Falk (b. 1966), who resides in Canada, is an author, a computer programmer trained in electrical engineering, and a music composer. He was once a “monk” in the Self-Realization Fellowship (SRF) founded by Yogananda. After Falk’s reported abusive experience in SRF, his spiritual life took a critical turn into skepticism and some serious research into the guru and cult scene. In Stripping the Gurus, Falk covers territory very familiar to me. In my business as a cult specialist and exit counselor I have come across almost every organization and guru that he mentions. The book for me was a page-turner that I read in short order. I reread many sections and took notes for this review.
For the first 25 chapters Falk writes in the style of a provocateur, tongue in cheek at times, with a scattershot approach to information indicative of someone doing his research on the fly, seemingly cutting and pasting references and quotes from the Internet. In the last few chapters he waxes serious with an effort to put things in perspective and finally ends with his insights as a way to “Make it Better.” In these last few chapters, Falk establishes that indeed he has read widely about controversial gurus and has studied the existing literature on undue influence and harmful cult behavior.
In this book Falk recycles published criticism, some of it from obscure sources, on influential players in the modern spiritual circuit. When we consider the actual histories and behaviors of Rajneesh, Satya Sai Baba, Ken Wilber, Andrew Cohen, Werner Erhard, Swami Rama, Ramakrishna, Krishnamurti, Yogananda, Meher Baba, Amrit Desai, Ram Dass, Sri Chinmoy, Aurobindo, Yogi Bhajan, L. Ron Hubbard, Muktananda, Satchidananda, Adi Da, Chogyam Trungpa, Vivekananda, and assorted others associated with Zen Buddhism, Findhorn, and Tibetan Buddhism, we see that Falk’s task was no more difficult than shooting fat fish in a barrel. Nor does our author shrink from firing a few rounds at the Catholic Church and the Dalai Lama. All are sinners. Indeed, no one can deny the facts if Falk’s research is to be believed. Abuse of power and lying to followers occurs in the most enlightened of old religions, in new religions, and among “Self-realized” leaders. That much is predictable—so what else is new?
Falk acknowledges that all this bad behavior is consistent with human nature. However, as he points out many times, self-proclaimed god-men and enlightened gurus who sustain a charismatic hold on devotees can be especially disgusting and destructive. Most manage to avoid incrimination only because so few ex-members have the capacity or wealth to prosecute. Even when they do sue, the result rarely stops the aberrant behaviors, and true believers remain loyal. These “Rude boy” gurus [and rude girls], as Falk calls them, play their mind games with followers essentially to fulfill narcissistic desires. The closer we get to the gurus he examines with a critical eye, the less enlightened they appear. Falk uses the unsavory facts about all these super beings to dispel the charismatic bubble so many devotees and cult members project onto them.
Falk discusses how otherwise-educated seekers merge into seemingly sacred paths only to find themselves in rabbit holes of delusion and abuse. He shows how easily seekers remain in a group for years or even a lifetime after they discover or even experience abuses. The rationalizations are eerily the same whether the seekers follow someone as obviously flawed and unenlightened as Adi Da or the media’s poster people of holiness, the Dalai Lama and Mother Teresa. Show a devotee or true believer an unfavorable article, and most likely that devotee will dismiss the message and attack the messenger for daring to even bring it up. Confirming the damaging evidence might cause painful cognitive dissonance.
Falk’s longest chapter belongs to his experience with the SRF and why he eventually left it. In more than seventy pages he both documents his attraction to being a monk in the group and deconstructs the god-man image of the founder, Paramahansa Yogananda. After having sustained a loyal membership in SRF for ten years, the author spent nine months at the Hidden Valley center in Escondido, California as a “resident volunteer,” during 1998–99. He came to realize that Yogananda’s yogic powers were either exaggerations or outright misrepresentations of what the yogi did or could do. Yogananda himself was probably deluded by the same magical beliefs and doom prophecy common to New Age cults. (The good yogi was purportedly Will Shakespeare in a past life.) Falk offers evidence that SRF centers are fraught with same internal bickering, irritable managers, and power trips of any nonsacred business. “In all seriousness, I have never encountered a less spiritual environment than I was forced to deal with during my six months working under that particular monk” (p. 287).
More than halfway through the book, Falk begins his effort to put all the bad news about gurus into perspective. In the “Gurus and Prisoners” chapter, the author offers his take on Philip Zimbardo’s infamous “prison experiment” of the early 1970s. A professor at Stanford at the time, Zimbardo gathered college-age, male volunteers to act as guards and as prisoners in a makeshift correctional facility on campus. Within a few days the experiment got out of hand, with not only the two sides over identifying with their roles, but also Zimbardo himself taking part rather than observing. An abusive, cult-like situation erupted (guard cult/prisoner cult). The experiment had to be stopped. Falk uses insights from extensive studies about the mock prison event to comment on why and how so many of the Rude boy gurus generate similar abusive group formations around their authoritarian styles.
In one of the last chapters, “Spiritual Choices,” Falk concentrates somewhat on a book by that name, Spiritual Choices, authored in 1987 by Dick Anthony, Ken Wilber, and others. The subtitle, The Problem of Recognizing Authentic Paths to Inner Transformation, indicates the pseudo-academic abstruseness of the content. I recall reading Spiritual Choices when it came out and being quizzically impressed by some of the seeming erudition, although I struggled to grasp Anthony’s typology of how to rate spiritual groups and teachings. Falk was also impressed with Wilber and this book at one time, but later came to his senses. Spiritual Choices is filled with speculative nonsense. Falk became an outspoken critic of Wilber. In his book “Norman Einstein”: The Dis-Integration of Ken Wilber (2009), Falk quotes a football player who mistakenly identified the genius of physics as “Norman Einstein.” Falk puns on this faux pas to ridicule those who call Wilber the “Einstein of consciousness.” One of Falk’s insights throughout Stripping the Gurus, with a host of examples, is how significant figures in spirituality can mislead unwary seekers into ridiculous philosophies and even the worst of cult formations. For example, Wilber during his career had endorsed Adi Da and now has aligned with Andrew Cohen. Falk reminds us that Bill Clinton and Al Gore read and touted Wilber’s work during their White House days. Although Falk doesn’t mention it, one is reminded of Oprah Winfrey endorsing A Course in Miracles, and lately New Age pundit Eckhart Tolle.
In the same chapter, on pages 352–54, Falk cites Paul Brunton as a resource to criticize Meher Baba (Merwan Sheriar Irani, 1894–1969). Meher Baba, of Don’t Worry, Be Happy fame, may be forgettable as a spiritual influence now, but Dick Anthony based his whole notion of spirituality in the 1987 book on a mystical experience with this guru, whom he never met! Falk notes this as an example of the arrogance of many self-proclaimed arbiters of the spiritual scene, Wilber and Anthony among them. Falk sheds light on Anthony’s role in criticizing “brainwashing” theory and rightly points to Professor Ben Zablocki’s devastating rejoinder to Anthony (p. 358). But back to Brunton, cited by Falk as Meher Baba’s critic: Falk neglects to mention that Paul Brunton himself falls into the false guru demographic. “PB”, as he was known to his devotees, in reality was Raphael Hurst (1898–1981). Jeffrey Masson (1993) wrote the autobiographical My Father’s Guru, in which he exposes PB, who lived in the Masson household for many years.
Stripping the Gurus can help true believers and religious fundamentalists break the spell of naïve devotion, and it will offer prospective members a reality bath before they go gaga over another dubious path or guru. The book works fairly well on that level. However, after a closer reading, I saw the author undermining his argument with inconsistency (e.g., using Brunton without a caution) and a lack of clear resolution. As I mentioned above, Falk’s sword swipes equally at Rude-boy gurus like Cohen and old traditions such as Catholicism and Buddhism. Obviously, the flaw here regarding the big religions is that the author draws targets around the arrows he shoots into the side of the barn of history. The legends of Moses or Buddha may have been just as concocted as devotional stories about Ramakrishna, but foundation myths alone do not a religion make. The lives of modern gurus are not “locked in tight and out of range” (to quote Bob Dylan), and their cults have not had time to develop sophisticated and viable social applications—that is, if they ever will. Nevertheless, there is a lot to chew in this book; and for some, including scholars of religion and devotees of any guru or group Falk targets, the result may be indigestion.