ANKE RICHTER Cult Trip. Reviewed by Mary Garden
Anke Richter’s stories of New Zealanders’ experiences of cults raise universal questions about the appeal – and danger – of such groups.
No one joins a cult. They join interesting groups that make them feel special, that give them solace, hope and answers. In her new book Cult Trip: Inside the world of coercion and control, Anke Richter reveals the lure of these groups and the harm they can cause.
Although other groups are mentioned, Cult Trip focuses on three: Bert Potter’s Centrepoint, which operated in Auckland from 1978 to 2000; Gloriavale, situated on the west coast of New Zealand’s South Island; and Agama, a tantric yoga school in Koh Phangan in a remote part of Thailand.
Centrepoint and Gloriavale have been in the news for years. Bert Potter and several senior members of the Centrepoint community were convicted of drug offences and child sexual abuse. The founder of Gloriavale, Neville Cooper, an Australian-born preacher who renamed himself Hopeful Christian Hopeful, was convicted of sexual abuse in 1995. He died in May 2018. Despite continuing controversies that have been the subject of court cases, some ongoing, Gloriavale continues with Howard Temple as its new leader.
Few would have heard of Agama, whose leader is a Romanian man, Narcis Tarcau, who calls himself Swami Vivekananda Saraswati, although he has New Zealand and Australian disciples, with a large number from Melbourne. There are countless other yoga-based groups with similar stories of abuse and control.
I joined one in India in 1973, run by Balyogi Premvarni, whose secluded ashram is in the Himalayan jungle north of Rishikesh. Some years after I escaped, I wrote a book, The Serpent Rising: A journey of spiritual seduction. It was my story of finding heaven and the hell that went with it. Sadly, there has been no end to yoga teachers ‒ many claiming to be enlightened or even God himself ‒ behaving badly. Such as Tarcau, who established his yoga school in 2003.
For 15 years women were allegedly assaulted, raped and gaslighted by Tarcau and some of his instructors at Agama. One of the victims was an Australian woman who filed a complaint, but it was never investigated by police. Although it closed in 2018 for a short period when these allegations were aired, the school soon resumed operating with Tarcau teaching classes. No criminal charges have been laid.
What had started as innocent and exciting, attracting bright, ambitious members of society with a hunger for connection and growth – because those are the ones cults want as members, not the broken and dispossessed ones – led to cult carnage and trauma.
Cult Trip differs from other books on cults in that Richter is not an objective reporter but part of the story as she moves from enthusiastic participant to critical observer. She understands the attraction of groups and is disarmingly honest as she reveals her hopes, fears and disappointments.
In 2012, Richter attended a neo-tantric festival in Byron Bay that gave her the first taste of infatuation:
I experienced what thousands of people do when they begin to get hooked by a teacher or a group: a feeling of distinct before and after, of not wanting to be my old boring self anymore, a sense of tapping into something profound. It is like falling in love ‒ with so much potential.
At Byron Bay, she meets Angie Meiklejohn, who was 15 when her mother took her and her younger siblings to live at Centrepoint. It is Angie’s story that first piques Richter’s interest. Why, she wonders, has this disturbing chapter of New Zealand’s history not been written about? After his death in May 2012, Potter’s victims started to break their silence and Richter interviewed dozens of them in New Zealand and overseas. She also interviews several former members who were convicted for the sexual abuse of children, including Bert’s son, John. She travels to Australia to reach out to those who were in a community established in rural New South Wales by Dave Mendelssohn, Potter’s most loyal devotee. He left New Zealand after his jail time and changed his name. Suffering from cancer, he killed himself shortly after Bert Potter died.
In 2017, Richter travelled with her husband to Pune, India, to attend a week at the Osho International Meditation Resort, previously known as the Rajneesh Ashram. Rajneesh (who renamed himself Osho) was the first Eastern guru to embrace psychotherapy, with many of his group leaders having trained at the Esalen Institute in California. Potter visited Esalen and the Rajneesh ashram in the early 1970s. Centrepoint clearly had its genesis in the encounter therapy groups popularised at Esalen and on offer at Pune. In many respects Potter modelled himself after Rajneesh. Both thought they were God.
Shortly after I escaped the clutches of Premvarni, I became a devotee of Rajneesh and spent a year in Pune. There are several chapters on Rajneesh in Richter’s book. A few things need clarifying.
Bert [Potter] had also stayed at the ashram of Indian guru Rajneesh, or Bhagwan, who later rebranded himself Osho.
The kids who grew up in his ashram or other centres that had sprung up around the world were separated from their parents as early as five years old.
Most harm is done in groups which live together, in a closed compound or ashram. Visitors, including Bert Potter, did not stay at the Rajneesh ashram, situated on a lush, 32-acre piece of land in the Koregaon Park area of Pune. The ashram was gated with fences surrounding the perimeter. Most of us sannyasins did not live inside the ashram; we lived independently outside, renting huts or apartments. No-one told us what to do or controlled us. We were at the periphery of things. I was oblivious to some of the darker things going on inside the ashram around Rajneesh himself and his inner circle, which included the therapists, and the sexual abuse of underage girls. Their stories are only now being shared, with several memoirs to be published in 2023.
At Pune children were not separated from their parents as early as five years old, as Richter contends, although this happened in centres in other parts of the world. Children were not allowed to live in the ashram, but hung around there during the day, left to fend for themselves, as they were at Centrepoint, something that deeply troubled me.
Much has been made in the media of the rampant sex and orgies that occurred at the ashram. Richter mentions this too. These reports are exaggerated. In the year I was there I never witnessed or was part of any orgy, although they occurred in the encounter groups, which I did not consider doing. These groups were known to be extreme, with physical violence and even rapes occurring.
I was not harmed by being in this group ‒ some were, though, especially those in the inner circle ‒ and, luckily, I left before they relocated to America.
In Oregon, the Rajneeshees established a self-sufficient compound, Rajneeshpuram. The community morphed into a truly destructive cult as portrayed in the six-part Netflix documentary Wild Wild Country. This documentary focuses on the crime saga that played out in Oregon, and not, as Richter points out, the psychological damage suffered by followers. Nor does it mention the neglect and sexual abuse of children.
You’d think that the therapy-based cults of Rajneeshpuram and Centrepoint would be worlds away from a conservative Christian-based cult like Gloriavale, but as Richter discovers, they have much in common. Their leaders dictated all aspects of members’ lives, including their sex lives. The control of an authoritarian leader is the main hallmark of a destructive cult.
Richter writes, ‘Charismatic leaders turn their followship into parallel societies that look like safe havens in an insane world but cause harm.’ Leaders who proclaim to be enlightened or God (as Bert Potter did) invariably end up exploiting their followers sexually, emotionally, and financially. Rather than spiritual lights, these gurus turn out to be deluded con men. A few are downright psychopaths.
Although Cult Trip focuses on the harm caused by certain extreme groups, Richter reminds us that the same dynamics of control and influence are present in mainstream society, with institutionalised harm done in the name of religion and the state, from paedophile priests to child welfare.
Children are given a voice in Cult Trip. Unlike their parents, they did not choose to be a part of these closed societies, removed from the ordinary world. Their stories are deeply disturbing and heartbreaking. They deserve a genuine heartfelt apology from those who abused them and from those who stood by as it happened.
At his father’s funeral, John Potter apologised. He explained to Richter, ‘I wanted to send a message to the people who feel they were damaged by this place.’
Richter wants to know, ‘Feel that they were damaged? Or were they damaged?’
Potter replies, ‘I’m sure they feel they’re damaged.’
The perpetrators’ lack of remorse is the most troubling thing about these stories.
Richter writes that often social services are oblivious, naive or ignorant, and calls for counsellors specialised in cultic abuse. There were none around in the late 1970s when I emerged from the world of cults. Nothing much has changed.
At the beginning of her journey, Richter says if those who were there at Centrepoint could share their stories, it might help the collective healing. Personal stories have the power to heal. They make people feel less alone. This book will help heal, not only those who have been harmed in the groups investigated, but those who’ve been caught up in other groups where there is coercion and control. Too often our experiences are ignored, disbelieved or dismissed. We’ve been blamed and shamed for speaking out.
Anke Richter Cult Trip: Inside the world of coercion and control HarperCollins 2022 PB 352pp $34.99
Mary Garden is a writer and author of two books, The Serpent Rising, which won the High Country Indie Award 2021, and Sundowner of the Skies, short-listed for the 2020 NSW Premier’s History Award. She has a PhD in Journalism, and her writing has appeared in a range of publications.
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