The Cult Files by Chris Mikul

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

Book: The Cult Files: True Stories from the Extreme Edges of Religious Belief

Author: Chris Mikul

Type of Book: Non-fiction, cults, religion, true crime

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: This is very subjective, but as an atheist I find all religious beliefs a bit odd. Extreme cults are therefore all the more odd.

Availability: I read the Metro Books edition, but this book has been released by Amazon for Kindle, and that edition is a better bet:

Comments: This book was in my to-be-discussed pile back in 2011 (yeah, I am still catching up) when Chris Mikul sent me copies of his excellent ‘zine, Biblio Curiosa. We began a friendly correspondence and he gave me some interesting information about this book. Evidently his publisher was concerned that some of the content in the book could lead to a lawsuit and demanded the book be radically edited. Mikul sent me the excised chapters but I am limiting myself to the content in the actual book because it seems unfair to discuss material that my readers won’t be able to read for themselves.

But even though he had to cut out some pretty interesting discussions, The Cult Files remains a very absorbing book. Though I am reasonably well-read on the subject of cults, I found information new to me in this cult anthology. There are some of the usual suspects, like the Branch Davidians and Jonestown, but every other chapter had something completely new to me.  That Mikul discussed one of my “favorite” cults, the Ant Hill Kids, led by the repellent and vile Roch Thériault, just sealed the deal for me. Thériault didn’t get much play in the USA and is one of the most fascinating cult leaders, far more interesting than Charles Manson and, in my opinion, at least as toxic as David Koresh. So that was definitely a point in Mikul’s favor.

To prevent this from becoming an extremely long discussion, I’ll just discuss the chapters in this book I found the most interesting or that were new to me when I read the book.

Before I begin, I need to state that not all of the cults discussed in this book fit my criteria of what makes a cult, but it must also be said that I use a pretty strict measure that requires a single charismatic leader, alienation from family and friends, no financial control for followers, increasingly strict punishments for continually changing “sin” metrics, different rules for those in favor with the leader, an inability for followers to question anything, an inability to leave with impunity and more. Mikul doesn’t define his metric with such exacting specificity, though he does give an idea of what a cult may be and how what defines a toxic cult can vary from person to person and from sect to sect. However, his metric comes pretty close to that espoused by Robert Lifton, who stated three different categories to consider when discussing cults: a charismatic leader who positions himself or herself to become the focus of worship, employing brainwashing or thought control methods, and exploitation of the rank and file cult members by the upper echelons of the cult. Even if the cults Mikul discusses in this book may not meet my stringent standards, they meet Lifton’s, who is far more of an expert.

The book begins by discussing the Thuggee in India, a group of traveling confidence killers who preyed on other travelers. They became associated with the garrote, their most common method of killing. I knew a bit about the Thuggee just from osmosis because of my varied reading habits, but I had not known they were dedicated to the Hindu goddess, Kali, the goddess of death and destruction (among other things). The Thuggee were more or less suppressed and destroyed by the British Raj. Before reading this I had considered the Thuggee to be murderous equivalents of the Irish Travelers, con men and women who just upped the ante in scams via murder. I suspect part of it is because I always think of cults in terms of charismatic leaders, and the Thuggee were not organized in this manner, or at least they weren’t when they were in their heyday. But there are typical cult elements that one commonly sees in cults that allow the Thuggee to qualify as a cult, like an us-versus-them mentality, justifying all behaviors, even that which is illegal, as ordained by elevated or outsider status. I think it was an interesting choice to include the Thuggee in this book.

The Source by Isis and Electricity Aquarian

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

Book: The Source: The Untold Story of Father Yod, Ya Ho Wa 13 and the Source Family

Author: Isis Aquarian with Electricity Aquarian

Type of Book: Non-fiction, memoir, history, religion, counter-culture

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: Well, it’s released by Process Media, Adam Parfrey’s newest publishing venture. So that’s a good clue to oddness. And while the topic is compelling, I suspect that this book will be of most interest to people who are vinyl-heads, seeking information about fringe music from the 1970s.

Availability: Published by Process Media in 2007, you can get a copy here:

Comments: As I mentioned in my entry about the Books I Thought About Most in 2010, when I finished this book I made flippant references to it in my Twitter and my personal blog. Someone directed Isis Aquarian to the entries and she wanted to discuss the fact that I called the Source a Jesus Freak cult and how I was in error. I clarified in detail the reasons I referred to the Source as both but I never heard back from her. Maybe she thought me too dense to deal with. It doesn’t hurt for me to remember that my blog will trigger a Google alert beyond my 200 readers in my personal blog and show my snark to people who don’t know me well enough to understand my snark is generally followed by some measure of sincerity.

But though I will explain myself here on the whole “Jesus Freak cult” comments and how, while they were flippant, they are apt and not necessarily insults, the reason I found this book fascinating is that as a person who is, for the most part, utterly faithless, I found myself deeply interested in the people who created a life as Father Yod’s acolytes. As I read, I felt a strange feeling that I can only assume is akin to longing, a sense that my faithlessness costs me dearly, though ultimately there is not a damn thing I can do about it. I will, however, be brutally honest that I did not listen to the CD that comes with the book. Largely, the music Ya Ho Wa 13 created, as well as the voices of Father Yod’s followers, didn’t interest me that much, but the fact is, this is a very pretty, interactive book, with tons of pictures of intensely attractive people from the early 70s. Those looking for a very immersive experience will find much to love in this book. As I was writing this discussion, Mr. Oddbooks picked up the book and began flipping through it and remarked that it was one of those books that is as much art as it is a conveyance of words and information.

Isis Aquarian, whom Father Yod appointed the record keeper for the Source Family, reconstructs the life of the group from beginning to end, using recollections from members interspersed with her own text to tell the compelling story of a man who was an interesting mixture of father, lover, trickster, and guru and the stories of those who followed him. Make no mistake, as interesting as the Source Family was, this book at its heart discussed a charismatic authoritative sect, and Father Yod was, any trickster tendencies aside, largely a benevolent charismatic authority, and that is why I feel comfortable dissecting the everloving hell out of this book. When charismatic leaders are malignant, there really is no room for discussion. There is no way to talk about charismatic religious authorities like Roch Theriault without talking about the manner in which naive and impressionable people are ripe for the picking by psychopathic and delusional madmen. There is no discussion other than the depths of suffering the followers of such people experience. That is not the case here. There is a tendency to assume all cults are negative and while I feel comfortable discussing the Source Family as a cult, it was not a malignant cult – though there were some alarming signs for me – nor was Father Yod a mirror of the sorts of men the popular imagination thinks of as cult leaders.

And though I definitely loved looking at all of the beautiful people in this book and found some of the stories in this book amusing, Father Yod is why we are here because it seems to me that it is nothing short of astonishing that so many years later, the vast majority of those who were members of the Source Family remember Father Yod with nothing but fondness and love for the lessons he taught them. Yet even as Isis Aquarian told the story of Father Yod and his family, she shows how even though he was their spiritual leader, he had definite feet of clay.

So let’s talk about Father Yod. He began life as Jim Baker in 1922 and even before he became Father Yod, he had an epic life and was sort of a badass. He served in the Marines in WWII, became a martial arts expert and worked for a time as a stuntman in Hollywood. When he died, Father Yod was on his virgin hang gliding mission and in the group, he had many wives who bore his children. In the 1960s he began to follow fellow travelers into a more natural lifestyle, becoming a vegetarian and opened the Source Restaurant on the Sunset Strip, serving vegetarian fare to hippies (and the Source Family emphatically rejects the label of “hippie” for themselves), burnouts and superstars.

Father Yod became interested in many different branches of philosophy and religion, especially the Vedic traditions, combining them into a world view that had a decidedly Christian flavor (for example, Father Yod updated the Ten Commandments for his followers in anticipation of the coming of the new age and many elements of the cult were reactions to the Judeo-Christian ethos). The cult that built up around Father Yod happened almost accidentally. Young women were strongly drawn to him, as were young men, and the reasons varied from person to person. Some felt he was a paternal figure. Some wanted to be his lover (The Source Family was not anti-gay but the few homosexuals who were a part of the group in the early days were on the outside because the group emphasized the natural and mystical power of the male-female union). Some thought that in his presence they had found a man who would help them find the answers they sought. If you are age 40 or younger and look at the cover of this book and immediately think, “Dumbledore!” you are not alone. I suspect there is an archetype we all have of the Magus, a man imbued with strength, mysticism and moral wisdom and Father Yod fit that archetype. Father Yod’s physical appearance was one of strength and comfortingly paternal to me, and to many of the women in the Source Family, he was sexual force, as well (as is Dumbledore, if you read slash fan fiction and really, you shouldn’t…).

As people were ever increasingly drawn to Father Yod, the members of the Source Family developed a communal lifestyle, living in succession in two large mansions in the Los Angeles area, the Mother house and the Father house. At some times, the family swelled to over 100 members, and despite cramped quarters, the members of the group split work, sharing duties running the restaurant, keeping up laundry for all the members, cooking, cleaning and from the descriptions Isis and other members of the commune give, it worked relatively well. In order to achieve some level of privacy, some members created plywood cubbies that sound for all in the world like those compartment Japanese hotel rooms. Despite close quarters, the Source Family came up with creative and labor-intensive means of dealing with needs for privacy and the infrastructure problems so many people sharing one house caused.

Father Yod also maintained an inner circle of 14 women, the council of women, and as an inversion of the idea of Christian submissiveness, the Source Family promoted a female-centric community and women’s liberation. Of course, Father Yod’s word was important but as he evolved his message he took counsel from his council of women. Although, and I will discuss this later, Father Yod at times made it hard for women to remain in monogamy with a chosen man and the sexual rules of the commune had a decidedly uneven effect, women ostensibly chose their own men and had a strong voice in the commune. Women gave birth at home (and I had no idea home births were illegal in California at the time), breast fed their babies at a time when that was outre and children were homeschooled. The Source Family had a close relationship with another Jesus sect but as too often happens in sects led by charismatic leaders, minor differences caused fractures. And despite the fact that the Source Family lived a relatively healthy life, deep troubles began.

Despite being clean people, when you have 100 people in one house, bad things can happen. A staph infection ran through the commune and sickened a baby and when that child was taken for emergency care, the authorities descended up on the family. Because the group was afraid that the authorities were going to take the children, Father Yod decided to beat a retreat to Hawaii, a decision that had he lived longer, might have proved the undoing of the Source Family, as the locals in Hawaii were hostile to the “hippies” to the point of threatened violence, they had little experience doing the fishing and farming they would need to survive and Father Yod sold the Source restaurant when he left LA. That restaurant had been the primary source of income for over 100 people and without it, the cult suffered financial woes. Father Yod smuggled vans to Hawaii that had not been paid for, and he also smuggled the family’s cat. The drugged cat was taken onto a plane, stuffed into the dress of a female member who pretended to be pregnant – the cat was later eaten by a mongoose, which means this book also gets the “Oddbooks List of Books that Feature Dead Cats” tag. The situation degenerated so bad for the family that they ended up descending on the welfare office near them and more or less forcing the Hawaiian infrastructure to pay for them to leave (evidently there was a fund that Hawaii would use to return US citizens to the mainland if they did not have the money but the sheer number of tickets the family would require was problematic).

Some of the family returned to San Francisco for a bit then returned to Hawaii. It was there that Father Yod was killed during his maiden voyage hang gliding at age 53. Actually, he was severely injured and did not seek medical help, as the group largely did not put much faith in medicine, and was taken back to their home and died. There was a minor controversy concerning his death because Father Yod believed the soul took three days to leave the body and specific death rituals needed to be performed over his body. Since he died in an accident, authorities were concerned that his body was not immediately turned over to the coroner. When another member of the Source Family died in a hang gliding accident a year or so later, several members of the Source Family, including Isis, were arrested for failing to immediately turn his body over to authorities. They were later cleared of charges.

It is a testament to Father Yod’s message that the family struggled on after he died, but eventually, without the charisma of their leader to bind them together, members moved on and most of them moved on to have very interesting lives. But as I read this book, I felt a bit uneasy because I consider myself to have been victimized by a dopey religious cult – the Southern Baptist Church – and elements of the way the Source Family lived set off my “oh-no” meter. So let’s discuss that. First, to clarify, Jesus Freak now is a terrible appellation, akin to calling someone a “holy roller” or similar and it may have been a pejorative 40 years ago but I know many Jesus Freaks reclaimed the word and didn’t accept it as an insult. When I think of Jesus Freaks, I think of what the term meant by those who called themselves Jesus Freaks: adherents of the Jesus Movement who espoused a counter-culture lifestyle, with an emphasis on back to the land, social justice, communal living, and rejection of contemporary dogma. Many of these groups had a profound musical element to them. The Source Family was Christian in origin, though they carried cards professing Sikhism and the beliefs of the group had a synthesis of many Eastern religions and Egyptology. However, the core of the group appears to me to be Christian, though not as evangelical as some Jesus Freaks were, and their close association with a Jesus Cult and the way that Father Yod recreated Biblical commandments makes me lean towards thinking the group Jesus Freaks. Mileage varies and my terminology is just my interpretation and should not be read as an assertion of an absolute truth.

However, the cult aspect of it is where I got uneasy. Of course, the word “cult” today has almost without question a negative bias though that is just connotation after years of malignant sects doing grave damage. Objectively, a cult is a group of people whose beliefs and actions seem strange when compared to more mainstream customs. Nothing nefarious or unhealthy in that and the Source Family falls largely within that definition. But the group also exhibited some of the more exploitative and damaging elements of a group built around the theories of one man. Here are some of my observations:

1) The Source Family was centered around a charismatic leader who “love bombed” people, resulting in the center of the religious experience being the leader and not the religion. In fact, even after reading this book so closely that I can quote passages of it, I have a hard time explaining the core mission of the Source Family, the core beliefs but I know a lot about Father Yod. Magus, who left the cult in early days, described a descent from a innocent beginning to an almost “Aleister Crowley type megalomania.”

2) There was an inability to leave with impunity or finality. Some people did indeed leave, but the problems were there. Magus says he was shunned when he left. When Rhythm left, the whole of the group went to fetch him back to show him that they loved him. But the end result was still that his desire to leave was not respected. When Galaxy was returned home to her parents by the police, Father sent an adult man to fetch her back then marry her so that her parents could not interfere.

3) The Source Family showed some disregard for family ties, making Father Yod the only real connection some members often had. For example, fetching back the underage Galaxy from her family using deception interfered directly with the relationship between parents and their minor-age child. Paralda described how Father Yod interfered in her marriage to Omne soon after he married them, pressuring her to have sex with him. Few people lived or worked outside the Source Family, ensuring the primacy of the relationship with Father Yod.

4) The tenets of the Source Family changed to suit the needs of a charismatic leader. One of Father Yod’s commandments was that nothing should come between a man and his woman… until he found women he wanted more than his then wife, Robin/Ahom. Quick evolutions of matters of faith are alarming especially when they seem to revolve around the sexual needs of the leader of the sect (and though Father Yod may not have begun with the idea of having sex with so many women, some of whom were underage, it did happen and many elements of group belief sprang up making Father Yod’s sexual belief a group belief.)

5). Father Yod created new identities for members, often based on his interpretation of their personalities. Not only did everyone get new names, some several times, but Father Yod also would revoke names to tamper with the idea of identity, as when everyone was called a number for a brief period of time. This was one of the fine line reservations with me as I can see both sides of the argument on diminishing the self and of course some religions emphasize selection of a new name, as Catholics select a new name during church rites. But Father Yod picked his acolytes new names and changed them again when he felt like it.

6) The Source Family exercised sexual control over its members. Men were given a very strict manner in which they could have sex – tantric sex – and if a man could not control the need to ejaculate for a specified period of time, he was looked down upon. Men who could “hold their seed” got all the women, entrenching their place in the The Source Family. But even though these rules created a group of men who could not attain a regular lover and helpmate, Father Yod would assign women to service and take care of these pariah men because their labor was needed in the cult and they could not afford for them to leave if they began to feel too alienated. The tension between have and have-not men was always there because the men without lovers felt they needed to work on themselves because the lack of a sexual partner was seen as a spiritual failing.

7) Members seldom had any control over money. Communal living is not that unusual, but when only a handful of people control the bank account for over 100 people, it can be a very negative thing.

8) The group substituted Father Yod’s common sense for their own. Though clean people, close quarters created a staph infection that ran through the group that was not treated medically and led to problems, the most obvious being Anastasia and her baby. Anastasia had a staph infection in her breast yet continued breast feeding, as the group did not approve of bottle feeding. Her infant fell very ill with staph but did not immediately receive medical care because Father Yod taught the rejection of conventional medicine. The child almost died and Anastasia almost lost her breast. Two children died in the cult. One baby who was clearly failing to thrive evidently never received any medical care before she died, or if she did, it wasn’t mentioned in the book. One of Magus’ sons became very ill with an ear infection and the treatment Father Yod recommended was to shine colored lights on the boy and chant for him. On a more ridiculous level, Father Yod told people to stop wearing their glasses in order to build their eye muscles. Father Yod proclaimed the group for a while would only eat fruits and vegetables whose colors reflected the rainbow. To have followed any of this indicates that Father Yod’s magnetism was more important than common sense.

9) The group had to operate in secrecy, though I openly admit that in a climate where home births were illegal and breast feeding was seen as odd, some secrecy was needed. However, this secrecy set up an us versus them mentality that created hardship. When Anastasia’s baby almost died and it looked like child protective services were going to act because the children in The Source Family did not go to school, there were home births that were illegal at the time, overcrowded living, etc., the answer was not to address these issues openly with either a legal stance to change law or an attempt to work with authorities. Rather Father Yod uprooted the group from LA, sold the restaurant that supported the group, and sent people to a remote Hawaiian island with little support because he hoped there would be little interference from the authorities there.

10) Most alarming to me was that towards the end of his life, Father Yod was beginning to trip down the old eschatology lane, positing about the end of the world, how it was coming soon, and how the family needed to be ready to survive and lead the survivors. That… Of all of the sort of wacky, new age bad decisions that came about, this was the most disturbing to me. Whenever any sect begins to assign an approximate date for the end of the world, it ushers in all kinds of problems.

Yet after reading all of this, still having the capacity to be flippant meant that I didn’t feel like I was reading a small scale People’s Temple that got averted by a tragic hang gliding accident. Despite my innate abhorrence for religion and my admittedly bizarre aversion towards spirituality in general, I found myself wishing I had, in my youth, been a part of something like this. I had a similar feeling when I watched the series Big Love, a feeling that being a loner was definitely working against me and that sister wives might be nice. But then I realized how completely unsuited I am for such a life, channeling Charlie from the movie Metropolitan, who, like me, wouldn’t want to live on a farm (or commune or conjoined houses in Utah) with a bunch of other people. Part of it may have been that the Source Family was a group that reveled in natural pleasure and enjoyed beauty and displays of flashiness and only became ascetics when circumstances forced such behavior, but that was not the whole of it because as a near hermit, I don’t care that much for the physical world and other peoples’ involvement in it.

So how come I find myself wishing I could have a talk with Father Yod and hear what he has to say? As a person allergic to authority and spirituality, why did I find him so deeply interesting? I think, at the end of it, I liked Father Yod because he knew he was not god. He may have been a man who had an enormous ego. He might have enjoyed being followed more than leading, and he definitely had all kinds of issues with his libido (and, frankly, I think he introduced tantric sex as a means of controlling himself and to prevent descending into a priapic orgy, and you can take that about as far as you want given my degree in armchair psychology), but even as this book showed how he had feet of clay, I don’t think Father Yod ever lost track of that himself.

This scene from when a group of men from The Source Family arrived in Hawaii, deeply influenced my belief about Father Yod, showing me his humanity in the midst of what could at times be fawning adulation. This passage comes from Zinaru, who arrived at Kauai to be met with a bowl of magic mushrooms:

It was around this time that a lot of discussion on YHVH began, and there was a shift in Father’s deep commitment to spiritual development and observance of natural laws to seeing himself as the Avatar–the actual incarnation of God. I noticed the women around him reinforced this direction in his perceptions, maybe because this God incarnate status for Father stimulated their own egos and reinforced their own special position as “wives of God incarnate.”

Back to our arrival day in Kauai. After about 40 minutes, the effects of the mushrooms were becoming very strong and it was suggested that we all go take a walk. About 20 of us followed a trail through the property and up the closest hill. Some Family members wanted us to observe the “Sleeping Lady,” a description that local Hawaiians had given to a group of gently rolling hills visible from the highest point on our land.

Due to our brisk walk up the long hill and the blood circulating rapidly in our bodies, the power of the mushrooms really began to peak. Father began to speak, and it was obvious that he was very affected psychologically. Father made a comment about the power of nature while we observed the “sleeping lady.” The sun was starting to go down, and we all stood for a moment in silence appreciating the tropical beauty, our surroundings, and the power of nature.

It was then that Father said in a soft voice, “I am not God. I am only a man.” Immediately Makushla [Father Yod’s wife, sort of a first wife among equals] said, “No, no, you are God,” and several women agreed. And he said, “No, I am just a man trying to understand God.” He continued. “I am nothing. I am just a man. I am not sure what to do, really.” Father turned and looked me in the eyes, and I could see he was deeply moved emotionally. I saw his insecurity manifest in his eyes in a way I’d never seen before. He dropped all pretense and was deeply humbled by his augmented state and honest self-perception.

This passage was the most important in the book, I think. It showed me that Father Yod was a guy with some interesting insights who got caught up in an echo chamber and in his moments of extreme clarity, he was under no illusions as to who he really was: a man searching for truth, a man who ended up with many people relying on his judgment, and a man whose responsibilities hung heavily on his shoulders.

And that makes for compelling reading, learning all about this man via the words of others, as well as learning about the people who tell the story. There is a whole lot I can’t really touch on because this discussion is already too long, like the affront Father Yod’s perspective on the name of the creator must pose to Jews, and the band Ya Ho Wa 13 didn’t interest me much. But I hope this discussion shows how deeply interesting this book is. Not only is it quite pretty (the pictures of a time past are amazing — Sunflower bears a striking resemblance to Mr. Oddbooks before he cut off all his hair and I wish more information was given about Snow, the beautiful albino girl who drew my eye in every picture she appeared in), but with the CD, and the participation of so many past members of the Source Family, this book is a well-documented look at a complex man who lived an amazing life during a turbulent time in America. I recommend this muchly.