This article is an electronic version of an article originally published in Cultic Studies Journal, 1996, Volume 13, Number 1, pages 113-114. Please keep in mind that the pagination of this electronic reprint differs from that of the bound volume. This fact could affect how you enter bibliographic information in papers that you may write.
Book Review – Take Me for a Ride: Coming of Age in a Destructive Cult.
“One flew east, one flew west, one flew over the cuckoo’s nest.” This children’s poem begins Mark Laxer’s autobiographical account of what happened during his seven years under the influence of a cult leader and Laxer’s subsequent years of recovery from the experience. The cult of Rama (Frederick Lenz) began in the late 1970s when Lenz was yet a recruiter for Sri Chinmoy, a controversial Indian meditation guru. Under Chinmoy, Lenz, known as Atmananda for nearly 11 years, may have been Chinmoy’s top recruiter. During that time Lenz received his Ph.D. in English Literature, but his interests seemed to be more directed toward seeking devotees than novels and plays. Laxer became one of Atmananda’s closest students and remained with him for a couple of years after Atmananda became Rama in 1983. Laxer broke with his guru only after his growing awareness that Lenz was more a confidence artist than a true mystic became too much to ignore.
By the time Laxer left Rama’s group, it had grown to several hundred students. In Laxer’s opinion, Lenz had diminished from enlightened teacher to a greedy and paranoid womanizer who used religious themes and experiences to manipulate his students. Laxer no longer believed that taking LSD with Lenz had any benefit. The drug experience merely left him and others more vulnerable to Lenz’s mystical tricks. It took Laxer some time to learn that any amateur hypnotist could reproduce the mystical experiences Lenz’s students were having: they saw Rama glow with golden light, they saw him change into pastlife forms, they saw him levitate and disappear, and they felt his powerful energy. These experiences, as any meditator knows (or should know), are tricks of the mind and have nothing to do with enlightenment in the strict Eastern sense of the concept.
Laxer estimated that by the early 1990s Lenz was making around eight million dollars a year from his students. In Laxer’s view, Lenz had never been “enlightened.” By the mid-1980s, Lenz encouraged students to get into computer programming. Today, Lenz’s group consists mostly of computer programmers and a sophisticated array of businesses. Laxer documents all of the above as well as many of the articles written about Lenz up until 1993. Interviews with former members, summarized in the last chapter, ground Laxer’s personal knowledge of Lenz and his group after 1985.
Since Take Me for a Ride came out, Lenz has continued to attract controversy in the press. After St. Martin’s Press published his heavily hyped novella, Surfing the Himalayas in 1995 (see my review of this book in the Skeptical Inquirer magazine, JulyAugust issue, 1996), many reporters and reviewers referred to Laxer’s book and interviewed him. On January 11, 1996, Washington Post reporter Richard Leiby wrote: ALaxer’s book has gotten far better reviews than Lenz’s…. The Santa Fe Reporter said Laxer’s portrait of himself as a young spiritual seeker >comes across brilliantly.’ On the other hand, the Denver Post panned Lenz’s book as ‘poorly researched crud.’ ‘Terrifically dull and stupefying,’ agreed longtime reviewer Hart Williams, [who goes on to say], >Aside from failing at every level, there’s nothing remarkable about this novel, except that it was published.'”
If Surfing the Himalayas is a best-seller while Take Me for a Ride has not made it on any charts, it only demonstrates that many people are more easily hyped by advertising than educated by research. Cult apologists in academic circles tend to denigrate the “atrocity tales” of former members as unreliable. They call such writers “whistle blowers” or worse, rarely taking the time to research the truth behind the stories. Yet, “whistle blowers” such as Laxer provide society with the rare, valuable insight individuals need to evaluate deceptive cult activity. Truth and honesty both come across clearly and sensitively in Take Me for a Ride. If you are interested in Frederick Lenz, it is a must read. If you are interested in how easily a bright young person can be duped by a slick mystic, this book will entertain and educate you thoroughly.
Cult Information Specialist
Cultic Studies Journal, Vol. 13, No. 1, 1996