Touring through the U.S. and southeastern Canada as a pit crew on my brother-in-law’s Formula Super Vee racing team was an excellent getaway, but I didn’t find my destiny out on the road. I was glad when racing season ended and we finally arrived back home in Marin County. The problem was this: home was gone.
While we were out racing, my mom’s health had deteriorated even further. She had to move out of the house where she and my younger sister lived. When I got back, my sister had moved to the East Bay to live with my dad, and Mom lived in a little room under some stairs at the back of someone’s house. The room had no plumbing, kitchen, or bathroom, but Mom worked at a health spa where she could use the bathroom and the kitchen. I had just spent the summer living on racecourses in the back of a Ford Econoline van, so I really didn’t mind the rough living. However, within a few months, I joined my sister and moved into my dad’s condo. Mom soon took off alone to travel and find her destiny.
Living at my dad’s didn’t work for long. My dad had remarried, and his second wife was a full-scale alcoholic. They lived what I called “the golf and tennis life,” very middle class, and I found it suffocating. After a few months, my older sister and her racing husband called from Southern California: they were there to help Purcell create a spiritual community based on Kan Li’s teachings. Wonderful! This was destiny calling! I packed up my stuff and hitchhiked from the Bay Area down to LA, certain that my magical life was about to begin. I was 17 years old.
This is destiny calling
Purcell’s group was amazing. Purcell (and Kan Li’s teachings) had attracted intelligent, iconoclastic, artistic, and humorous people who didn’t fit into regular society for one reason or another. Most of us were artists, musicians, scientists, or visionaries — and we naturally attracted more people like us. Our group was a large, loving, extended family.
Many of of our members came from England (where Purcell often traveled and taught) — so my ability to act out Python sketches made me the beloved baby of the group. I grew up in that group, especially after my parent’s divorce. Purcell (though he had two children of his own) even became a kind of surrogate father for me. So this was a safe and happy place for me to land.
When the U.S. contingent of our group (about 30 of us) first formed in 1971, we gathered to hear Kan Li’s teachings at Purcell’s apartment in San Francisco, or at one of our friend’s homes in the Bay Area. After a few years, though, our group became much larger, and we all wanted to create something of our own.
By mid-1978 (when I was 17), our group had decided to pool our money and talent to create a series of spiritually attuned shops, businesses, theaters, schools, and so forth. This business was going to be named The Lake of Li, after one of Kan Li’s magical parables about life in ancient China. Our business idea was truly wonderful (and just writing about it brings back my old idealism), but essentially, what we were creating was a mall. In Southern California, no less.
But see, this was going to be a beautiful and meaningful mall — where everything that the people in our group cared about and knew how to do would be supported. We were going to serve our spirituality, provide excellent services for everyone, and make a living through our right livelihood. It was an awesome idea, and we were all deeply and totally dedicated to it.
Our group rented a large warehouse in an industrial area of Irvine in Southern California (the natural habitat of the mall), and those of us who could relocate did. My elder sister got there very early, she invited me to live with her, and eventually, my younger sister joined us as well. The UK contingent also came over in force, but Mom never showed up at Irvine (she was travelling through the states from healing center to healing center, learning about massage, nutrition, and spirituality).
In Irvine, about sixty of us lived together and began to organize our money, our ideas, and our lives — we began to create a world in which we could all share our gifts, make a meaningful living, and finally, fit in.
The problem was this: Our fitting in was being achieved at the expense of our individuality. Though Kan Li’s teachings certainly didn’t start out this way, they slowly changed from the sharing of timeless wisdom to essentially telling us how to live. In a very short time after I arrived in Irvine, the women had to abide by a dress code, celibacy was urged for the unmarried (and definitely for the lesbians and gays) among us, we were asked not to speak to friends or family members who didn’t support the vision, and we received a great deal of strange dietary advice (fasting, specific herbal concoctions, balancing the acidity and alkalinity of meals, mega-doses of vitamins, etc.).
As a kitchen worker in Irvine, I had to deal with a lot of unorthodox meal plans — and while I was rightly expected to prepare food for dozens (or sometimes hundreds) of people, I was also asked to wear a dress while I worked. I ignored the absurd dress code and wore jeans, though I was gently (and not so gently) reprimanded for doing so. I felt safe in my defiance, though, because I was everyone’s funny little Karla — as well as a surrogate daughter to Purcell. I wasn’t just your average group member. I was special.
Anyone who understands social control models (see Robert Jay Lifton and Janja Lalich) will know that this group was beginning to unravel, even while it presented a mask of conformity to itself and others. Rules were becoming more important than people — yet some people (like me) were exempt from rules because they had a special position within the hierarchy. Most of us were breaking family ties in deference to the group’s vision, and we were allowing the teachings to dictate our eating habits, our clothing choices, our sexual activities, and our daily lives.
From the inside, we all believed that we were still the amazing artistic iconoclasts we had been six or seven years previously, but from the outside, it was clear; we had become a cult.
This is Jonestown calling
On Sunday, November 19th, 1978, news of that previous day’s murder/suicide of the Jonestown cult in Guyana reached us at the Irvine warehouse. Nine hundred and eighteen people (including Congressman Leo Ryan, who was in Jonestown at the request of many worried families) were either murdered outright at the command of cult leader Jim Jones, or were urged en masse to drink a lethal concoction of cyanide and Kool-Aid.
I remember parts of the meeting at the Lake of Li that night, where I’m sure we all prayed or sent healing light-energy to Jonestown or to the families of the victims (sending healing light to others is a form of prayer in the New Age) – but what I remember most clearly is how we all joined together to strongly deny our own cult status.
I am very, very sorry for all of the families who had to deal with the horror of Jonestown, but I am even sorrier that Jonestown became a way for other cults to prove to themselves that they weren’t cults.
The mass murder at Jonestown was a devastating and extreme example of cult behavior, but sadly, that overwhelming devastation protected (and continues to protect) other, less murderous cults from acknowledging their true status. Every post-1978 cult I’ve encountered has uttered some version of the refrain, “Hey, this isn’t a cult. This isn’t Jonestown – no one has died here.” Jonestown raised the bar of horror so high that cult leaders and cult groups can now get away with almost anything – just as long as they don’t murder hundreds and hundreds of people.
After November 19th, our group-that-wasn’t-a-cult began to change. Purcell left Irvine to gather more capital so that we could purchase the land for the Lake of Li mall complex, and slowly, special statuses and any laxity within the warehouse began to erode.
Soon, I was called in to a meeting in front of the senior women (men and women now had separate power structures within the group), where I was cajoled into wearing proper dresses, no matter how filthy I got in the kitchen. This change was requested – in Purcell’s absence – because a few of the women in the group were beginning to follow my lead and wear what they liked. I was also urged to have less contact with the unmarried men in the group (it didn’t matter to anyone that they were my buddies, not my lovers), and my forays out to grocery stores to purchase supplies were now chaperoned (though no one would ever call it that).
A perfect sacrifice
At a full group meeting in early December, a senior woman (and grocery chaperone) stood up to air her concerns about a female from our group who was having inappropriate contact with outsiders. This female, she said, was joking, laughing, and flirting in a way that wasn’t feminine (whatever that is). I stood right up and asked out loud, “Are you talking about the way I joke with Jesse, the bag boy at Von’s [a supermarket]?” Some forms of honesty were valued in our group, so the senior woman answered that yes, that was her concern.
I didn’t ask why this woman hadn’t spoken directly to me, because the communication style in the group had been indirect for a very long time. What I did ask was something like, “Wait a minute! Jesse is a friendly guy, and we like to laugh. What’s the problem?” The senior woman became a little fidgety, and she looked to the people around her for support. I was so sure of myself that I knew she wouldn’t find any support. However, as I looked around me I saw familiar faces – people who had known me for years – nodding their heads and joining this senior woman in her concern.
I blanched as people began to speak up about protecting our group from outsiders – from people who didn’t believe in our vision. The financial situation had become very strained for our group, and since most members believed that you create your life through your affirmations and your karma, they were on the lookout for anything that wasn’t just right. My group mates didn’t stop to consider that we might all be living in an unrealizable dream – they just knew that money was tight, which meant that some form of negative karma or negative affirmations were hindering their ability to materialize money. That something negative, on that day, was me.
Though I felt extreme shock and a deep sense of betrayal (compounded by the fact that I had nowhere else to go)*, I see now that my expulsion from the group was inevitable. A goat had to be sacrificed, and as the person in the group who had previously been allowed to break the rules, I was that goat.
*Of course, my sisters didn’t abandon me, and after I was banned, I was able to crash with a few people in the group. I just wasn’t allowed into the warehouse again, and people weren’t allowed to talk to me about Lake of Li business.
However, I didn’t understand my goat-status at the time, so I tried to reason with the group. I got nowhere, and I watched in shock as my old alliances faded and the group sacrificed me in order to save itself. It didn’t even matter that I made a pretty strong extemporaneous speech about the common man (Jesse), common decency, and common sense. It didn’t matter, because common sense wasn’t the order of the day – conformity and scapegoating were.
Actually, now that I look back, I have to say that the group couldn’t have picked a more perfect scapegoat. I had already gained a reputation as someone who wouldn’t back down (the dress-wearing issue was a final straw for me, and the senior women knew it). It just took a minor push to get my back up, and with very little effort, the senior women were able to transfer the group’s anxiety and discomfort onto me. At that meeting, my anger and disbelief were not viewed as a sign that I had been offended against; they were seen as a confirmation of my spiritual unsuitability, and I couldn’t win for losing.
It was a truly awful situation, but I now marvel at the ingenuity of the group’s machinations (though I’m certain there was no conscious planning) – because with our leader out of the country, I had no special protection. The adored, spoiled child had become the goat, and the goat had to go.
I wish that my being sacrificed had done something useful for the group’s cohesion, but their descent was already well underway. After I was thrown out, more expulsions came tumbling on the heels of my own – infighting became endemic, power plays and factionalism destroyed most of the business ideas, and the mall site was never purchased. The warehouse was emptied within a year; people went back home if they still could, and some people sued each other and Purcell (I don’t know what became of those lawsuits).
The Lake of Li dream ended – as so many cult dreams do – in chaos and disillusionment.
Next post: 4. The Flying Circus Psychic Academy