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Some Kind Of Wonderful
On Cults And Near Misses With Them.
“Humanity today is like a waking dreamer, caught between the fantasies of sleep and the chaos of the real world. The mind seeks but cannot find the precise place and hour. We have created a Star Wars civilization, with stone age emotions, medieval institutions, and godlike technology.”
—Edward O. Wilson, The Social Conquest of Earth
This oft-quoted phrase rings true for me, even among its growing popularity. It speaks to so much of what we are grappling with in the modern-secular landscape. It appears that we human animals come pre-packaged with what is often described as a “God-shaped hole” at the very center of our experience. It seems we have an unshakable need for a relationship to something bigger than us alone. Some kind of wonderful, so to speak, lest we carry on without and fall into a now predictable personal and ultimately cultural nihilism.
It could obviously be argued that this natural feature of humanity is an evolutionary advantage, and that more is gained from our collective/historical tendencies towards spirituality than is lost. But for our purposes today let’s stick to the blind spot that it sometimes creates—and how this need puts us in a place of a potentially deep vulnerability.
Hence the rise in cults of personality, political strongmen, celebrity worship, etc. Or! The enduring appeal of “intentional communities”, New Age-y catchall publications, retreats and an unending avalanche of ways, people, places and techniques where you can “find yourself,” “improve yourself,” be more this, more of that! Anything to fill up that space where religion has had such a long run at occupying.
(Illustration by Quint Buchholz)
Of course I am not arguing that religion has been flawless in its holding of this spiritual space, every religion has blood on its hands to some degree, and some more than others. I myself am not a religious person, though I did grow up going to church until I was about 11 years old, but I have always had a spiritual “bent.”
So today I thought we could talk about cults and my near misses with them.
Calabasas, California, (circa)1985
We walked into our house after being away for only a few hours and MaryAnn was holding my father’s shotgun. She was visibly shaken as indicated by her bobbing back and forth in place and she strung together the following sentences:
“Um, I walked outside and… um the dog was sleeping next to a huge rattlesnake. So I…um… found your gun and I shot the snake.” She proceeded to point to a corner of the back patio where a rattlesnake had recently been sunbathing next to our sheepdog, Sunny. Sunny was now in an cyclonic tail chase; running in tiny, hypersonic loops in the grass next to the patio. Maybe he was herding the still-clinging spirit of the recently deceased slithering thing. He was a sheepdog, after all.
“I didn’t want the snake to bite Sunny so I shot it.” Still clinging to the weapon, she pointed to a grapefruit-sized hole in the wall. The hole was encircled with burn marks; on the floor beneath it laid in pieces what was left of the reptile. Slowly my father put his hand on the upper barrel of his gun, gently pushed it downward and then gingerly took the weapon from MaryAnn. I think she may have been in a bit of shock because it took her a few seconds to understand that he was retrieving the firearm from her and that her deed was complete. The dragon, though small, had been slain and she could return home now.
Though a few low hanging questions remained. My father, having three children in the house and being a responsible gun owner, knew to hide his weapon and to fasten a child-lock onto its trigger. He also knew to store the ammunition separately. My father had never shared the location of his shotgun with MaryAnn, who he had recently employed to help with some house- and yardwork, and he certainly didn’t give her a key to the child lock. So how did she, in a quick thinking “I’ve gotta save the dog” type of situation, know where to find the gun, how to unlock the lock without the key, and find the separately stored ammo?
I’m not sure my parents ever got real answers to these questions. Or maybe I was too young to understand the how’s and why’s. I do remember after that uneasy and violent afternoon we didn’t see MaryAnn anymore—she returned to her home directly down the street from us to a sprawling and scenic property called Camelot.
There was a young man named Michael who was also employed by my parents on occasion to babysit and do some yardwork. Knowing the way we were raised, which was chore-heavy and with the amount of times I heard the term “pull your own weight,” it’s likely that Michael’s presence was to put adult eyes on us wildlings when my parents needed to step out. I don’t have many memories of him other than his insistence that we never watched the television.
My parents would allow us some time here and there to watch our videotapes, and in this instance it was the animated series “Dungeons & Dragons,” a cartoon based on the hugely successful tabletop fantasy role-playing game. I recall both my brothers and I sitting in formation about six feet back from our television and our fantastical show had begun. Mom and Dad said goodbye and exited the side door. The lower wrought-iron gate made its inimitable closing clang, and the sound of the gravel under the car’s wheels as they peeled forward indicated that their egress was complete. Then, Michael, holding a broom in his left hand, stood in front of the TV and commenced to hit the power button, turning it and our beloved show off.
“Hey man, what are you doing? We were watching that!” My older brother Darren protested.
“This show you boys are watching is from the Devil. You won’t be watching that anymore. Not while I’m around.” Michael said with a calm and authoritative rasp. I think Darren tried to reach around him to switch the box back on but Michael just casually kept standing in front of it until we lost interest and went back outside, where we spent most of our time. I recall telling our parents what had happened when they got home and then not seeing Michael much anymore after that. He had returned to his home nearby in a place called Camelot.
Over the next couple of years, word kept creeping up toward our small neighborhood about the goings on in Camelot. About how outsiders weren’t generally allowed in, and that anyone that came to work from Camelot into the spread out, mostly horse-based communities around Calabasas had to give ALL of their earnings back to this “church.”
I had ideas in my head about this place called Camelot, which was roughly a mile from my childhood home. In my mind, people there would dress in Arthurian garb, carry swords, act with great chivalry and commune at rounded tables to drink ale out of brass goblets all while questing for and obsessing over religious relics. That couldn’t have been further from what was happening there. The truth, as far as I can cobble together in retrospect, was that they were more like a cult. When I say “like” a cult I mean that they were, for all intents and purposes, an actual cult. Authoritarian control? Check. Extremist beliefs? Check. Isolation from larger society? Mostly check. Veneration of a single individual? Check. They were apparently heavily armed, they were a closed community, their Matriarch was a woman called Elizabeth Clare Prophet (1959-2009) and they all belonged to a movement she had founded called “The Church Universal And Triumphant” or “C.U.T.” To her followers she went by the name “Guru Ma Mother Of The Flame” and was also affectionately known simply as “Mother.” Her followers believed that she was the receiver of “dictations” from ascended masters like the Buddha, Christ and St. Germaine.
(Pictured above- Elizabeth Clare Prophet.)
At one point Elizabeth Clare Prophet and C.U.T. were said to have had a following of nearly 50,000 members, so it made sense that not a small number of people that I interacted with as a boy in my sleepy Calabasas community were (unbeknownst to me) followers of this fringe, New Age ideology. Recently my mother confirmed to me that our family doctor was a member, and he and his wife had migrated with the cult to its 12,000 acre property in Gardiner, Montana, when too much legal and political heat had accumulated around Camelot around 1983. In 1986 C.U.T. finally sold the sprawling property (which is directly across from the main entrance to Malibu Creek State Park) to a Japanese University called Soka. Who then, years later sold it to the California Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority, which turned it into parkland now called King Gillette Ranch. You may have heard of it.
One not terribly unique idea that came to define this gathering of people in Camelot is that it appears they were what could be described as a doomsday cult. Elizabeth Clare Prophet was certain of a coming nuclear armageddon via a military exchange between the US and Russia and she and her followers were the Calabasas (then Montana) version of what we today call Doomsday preppers. The movement slowly disbanded after the nuclear apocalypse never manifested, a spate of negative press continued to haunt the church and Clare Prophet finally died from complications around Alzheimer’s. Though evidently there are holdouts near Gardiner, Montana. Maybe we’ve seen some of them and even toured some of their bunkers on one of those reality shows that seem to be ever-present on the Discovery Channel.
2. Wolves In Sheep’s Designer Clothing, 2009
In March of 2009 I was living in Venice Beach and on a break from a seemingly perpetual world tour with the band. I got an email through my then manager regarding an event that I was being invited to speak at. Below are the two original emails that I received. The names of the senders are omitted, as to save them from further critique after being through a righteously hellish ordeal.
The following is a letter of invitation for Brandon Boyd to
participate in a forum with His Holiness the Dalai Lama. This will be
an opportunity to create measurable goals with His Holiness about
solutions to current world issues. As Brandon seems to share similar
values around compassion and humanity, we thought he would be a lovely
Thank you so much!
The next email came through some hours later.
Dear Brandon Boyd,
My name is ________ and I am an actress on the television show
“_______.” I am writing to invite you to an amazing event hosted
by The Ethical Humanitarian Foundation (EHF), co founded by
philanthropists Sara and Clare Bronfman, with honored guest His
Holiness the Dalai Lama.
In April 2009, many of the most influential leaders from every
industry around the world will come together to discuss measurable
ways in which we can move the world forward in an incredibly positive,
peaceful and powerful way. Such leaders as Nobel Laureate Betty
Williams, Sir Richard Branson and, of course, His Holiness the Dalai
Lama will be participating in the discussions-not to mention numerous
high-profile artists such as Rosario Dawson.
It promises to be a one-of-a-kind event. It is our goal to create,
throughout the course of the event, measurable goals in each area
discussed to bring about global change.
The Ethical Humanitarian Foundation is building a committed group of
visionaries at this inaugural event called The World Ethical
Consortium Event. In a directed, coordinated, ongoing approach, this
group will act to bring compassion and ethics into the primary social
arenas of our society.
As such, we would like to extend an invitation to include you in this
extraordinary initiative. We believe your presence; guidance and
participation are essential to its success. Attached to this email
please find additional documents providing information about our
leadership and outlining the mission of our initiative. I don't know
if the values of our mission align with yours but if they do and you
are interested, I will be in LA the weekend of the 14th and 15th of
March and would be happy to speak with you or meet in person to
provide further details.
Many thanks in advance for your time and consideration.
Sounds pretty great, right? I’d be lying if I claimed to not be both intellectually and egotistically stimulated by this invitation. At a glance this ask seemed to touch on many of the things and places in which I hoped to be of assistance in the world and in ways which my then burgeoning notoriety might have been able to help highlight. I accepted an invitation to meet with the two young women, who were spearheading the outreach part of the consortium, to speak further on what my role might be if I agreed to be a part of this illustrious group of people and these events. The two seemingly lovely young women were in a place of celebrity themselves being stars of a then very successful television series so there was an immediate sense of camaraderie in meeting them.
This is probably a topic of conversation to be had on its own in another deep dive, but to give you some context; the experience of fame, whether fleeting or lasting, is a very strange thing indeed. It has its perks (to be sure) but there is a deeply isolating part of it that is very easy to gloss over because of the blinding glare from the shiniest moments of success. So, that being said, when I met these two actresses at my home, it felt easy and relatively natural to speak and I had a casual trust with them, even having just met. Did I mention that they were both very beautiful?
In retrospect, there is indeed a "wolves in sheep’s clothing” parable to be recalled. Also, in looking back at this I can now see the cut-and-paste nature of these initial communications. The very blatant appeal to my ego is also noteworthy, and for anyone reading this who is interested in dodging future vacuous dramas with a burgeoning narcissist, feel free to use this account as a cautionary tale.
We spoke at some length around my dining room table that afternoon. The tea we drank brought us into an enjoyable, energetic space. Both women were a great hang and they seemed bright, intelligent and enthusiastic about being vehicles for societal change. It wasn’t until a little while into our conversation that the central figure of their operation came into view. And once his name emerged, I began noticing the frequency with which both women, but one of them in particular, were mentioning him. “Keith this,” and “Keith that,” and “what Keith believes” became the centrality of our discussion. This was my first red flag, but I was still on board, on paper. I had no reason to suspect anything from anyone at this point but the more she mentioned Keith, the more my spidey-senses perked up as to who this man was and what he was gettin’ up to.
We wrapped up our chat and exchanged warm hugs. I told them I would sleep on it and get back to them in 48 hours or so. We exchanged phone numbers so we might approach the next steps more informally than email.
After finding this email chain from back in 2009, I looked in my phone for the text thread that ensued. The actress’ number that I’d had in my phone and who I’d texted with for the coming weeks thereafter was indeed there but our entire conversation was not. Just gone. Erased? I’ll likely never know why, but what was said looked something like this:
Brandon: “Hey _________, I just wanted to say thank you for making the trek out to Venice. It was really cool meeting you guys. I am going to respectfully pass on your invitation to participate in the forum though. I am a little short on time around the scheduled event (that part was untrue) and to be honest I have some concerns about some aspects of the core organization.”
Actress #2: “Why? What concerns?” She texted back with some consternation.
This is where I wish I had the original text thread to see what my response was, because in my memory of the text chain, and I absolutely could be experiencing a severe case of selective memory here, I swear I texted back that…
“There’s something a little cult-y about this that I can’t put my finger on. At the very least there is a bit of a cult of personality happening here that you two might want to take a closer look at.”
End Of Dramatic Reenactment
After typing this out, I am growing doubtful that my language was this specific, but for the sake of this regaling let’s just say that I declined the invitation to participate in the World Ethical Consortium event and the rest is history.
Shall I give you the quick and dirty version of the events that unfolded from then (2009) until 2021? NXIVM was the parent organization and all of its umbrella organizations grew in size and scale exponentially, recruiting some very accomplished actors, film makers, musicians, artists, billionaires, heads of state and lay people alike. At one point in its ascent it boasted a following of roughly 17,000 people who took NXIVM’s courses and curriculum. Among the many branches of NXIVM and Keith Raniere’s little empire were the Ethical Humanitarian Foundation (EHF), which was funded by the billionaire heiresses to the Seagram’s liquor fortune. Its offshoot, The World Ethical Consortium, WAS able to get the Dalai Lama to participate and it helped legitimize Raniere’s ventures. Long story short, (too late?) it appears as if Keith Raniere and his multitudinous NXIVM operations were an elaborate pyramid scheme that all eventually led to a deep inner circle. That innermost sorority was led by Keith Raniere and was eventually described by the media as a “sex cult”. I encourage anyone interested in further investigating this to watch the HBO series “The Vow” and see for yourselves the vast, gaslit web that he and his unwitting cohorts weaved. A spider’s maze that eventually ended with women, young and old, being Raniere’s sex slaves, but under the guise and semantic wrangling of their subservience being “a part of their spiritual growth.” The sorority eventually resorted to branding Keith Raniere’s initials onto their victims pubises. Yeah, holy shit is right.
Raniere was convicted by a federal jury in June 2019 on charges of racketeering, racketeering conspiracy, sex trafficking, attempted sex trafficking, sex trafficking conspiracy, forced labor conspiracy and wire fraud conspiracy. It gets so fucking dark that it strains one’s imagination in attempt to understand how smart, sensitive and talented people could be roped into something so strange and unforgivable. I don’t believe that these two young actresses (one of whom was sentenced to three years in prison as a “co-conspirator”) who came to my home to invite me to participate in this forum knew in 2009 what would become of their altruistic attempt at making the world a better place, but I DO believe that someone higher up sent them to recruit me as an influencer of sorts. Another useful idiot/celebrity who would help to legitimize his plans. I feel deeply for His Holiness The Dalai Lama in that he believed Raniere was a force for good. But ultimately he was duped by a snake-oil salesman, and Raniere used that meeting and the Dalai Lama’s name to unspeakable ends. If Hell exists, there is a special place in it for people like Raniere. Here is the US Department of Justice’s trial summary if you’d like to see the specifics of the case.
This is where things get more complex for me. I have been struggling to ascertain as to whether my decision to not be a part of this consortium, and what could have easily evolved into a relationship with this oddball cult, was because I truly smelled a rat or because I am just lucky. It’s likely a bit of both. Having had some strange karma and proximity to cults and cult psychology (in psych class) I think I may have had a bit of a leg up in being able to spot a burgeoning cult of personality around this Raniere character. But mostly I think I just got lucky. Lucky in the same way I got lucky when I was a kid and my doctor was part of a doomsday cult but nothing sordid ever came of it. Lucky in the way that MaryAnn blew the head off of a snake with my father’s shotgun and not my head or that of one of my beloved family members. Lucky in the same way that coming up around drug addicts made me expert in steering clear of the same fates. But of course there is yet another layer as we wince through the peeling of this onion.
I am just as susceptible to these ideas as anyone. After watching this docs-series and others akin, it becomes clear that the ideas present in these cults, which we eventually find so abhorrent and come to recoil at, have roots in eternal truths. Kernels perhaps, but the cleverest salesmen offer something therein that feels vaguely familiar; hence their marketability. Baked into Raniere’s whimsical and barely coherent ideologies there are flecks of religious and spiritual axioms that have survived aeons. He and people like him just repackage them for the 21st century, minus the funny hats. I read half a dozen books by the complicated spiritual teacher Osho before I learned of the exploits of him and his followers in Oregon in the 1980s. And truth be told, even after watching the Netflix doc-series “Wild, Wild Country,” which does a bang up job of telling the story, I still think many of his teachings are of high spiritual value. Including his fall from grace and the things that happened as his experiment in human intentionality corroded to its core. There is much to be gleaned from examples of how NOT to be and what NOT to do.
All of these instances remind me that literally anyone can fall prey to a charlatan. Snake Oil salesman have a common talent in their ability to notice a gap in the market. Couple that with just the right amount of inscrutability, add a lack of empathy to fill that gap and voila! “I got what you need man.” It almost becomes a matter of supply and demand at a specific interval! There are people, men and women, in this late stage capitalistic paradigm, who perhaps notice that “God-shaped hole” and have just enough of a capacity to turn off their empathetic response (if they have one to begin with) to be the one to sell whatever fix is in demand. (Sound familiar in any current or past politicians?) In this case, the drug is some more direct line to God, and some people are uniquely gifted at convincing us they are speaking directly to and sometimes for the Most High. I will give credit where it is due, these people aren’t dummies. Keith Raniere famously convinced his audience that he had the highest IQ in the world, and though I don’t believe that for a second, I do believe this was at the very least a deeply savvy individual. If only his savvy could have been applied with a more hefty dose of compassion, or he’d had his ego checked more consistently, or if he’d done a Herculean round of psychoanalysis around his obvious Mommy issues, he may not have ruined the lives of so many people, and he himself might not be serving 120 years in prison. Yep.
(Illustration by Dan Adel for Forbes Magazine.)
3. LAS VEGAS, NEVADA, 1996? (OR WHATEVER YEAR IT WAS)
Speaking of dizzying and near misses, I’m recalling the second time I took LSD.
I was 17 or 18 years old at a Grateful Dead concert in Las Vegas and was having a glorious time. After the show my three friends and I made our way out of the venue and onto the trillion-bulbed Strip where we enjoyed the busy architecture and miles of decorated carpets at the strange palaces along that famous street. I ended up sitting on a bus bench a few blocks off of the strip with my fellow teenage psychonauts, when a loud popping noise filled the air followed by the screeching of tires. A lowered Impala flew around the corner, chased closely by a parade of police cars.
As the odd Doppler effect bent the song of alarms through the narrow side street and the scene drew nearer to us and came further into focus I saw from out of the passenger window and one of the rear windows of the Impala—multiple arms outstretched and holding handguns. Each one hurling sparks and bullets toward the encroaching law enforcement. Both teams playing out their strange and violent game of cat and mouse. The bullets seemed to whiz directly in front of the four of us and all three of my pals shrieked and leapt behind the bus bench to take cover, but for some reason I did not move. I was transfixed. Alarmed, quite frozen, though not from fear but perhaps a psychedelic fascination. The projectiles had a pitch, a specific note I could whistle to you if we were in the room together.
It was evidently not my first near miss nor would it be my last. I was, after all, in a period of my youth where I was following the Grateful Dead around the West Coast. If the Grateful Dead were/are a cult and Deadheads their congregates, they were/are definitely the most fun cult to make their way into my world. I remember meeting countless beautiful young women in the lots and in the shows, unwashed, barefoot, dreadlocked, smelling of exotic oils and cannabis and with pupils black and wide as nickels.
So many of them didn’t know who their fathers were so when asked they would say, “Jerry’s my father, man.” And they’d smile blankly before spinning off into the mist. Cult-y enough for you? I made it out on my own though, never needing to be exited officially. I cut my own matted hair off at 23 years old, sold my VW Westfalia and hung up my dirty overalls. All for reasons befitting someone naturally exiting a phase of his young life. I will say though, I do still get a pang of lovely nostalgia whistling through me when I smell the cocktail of burning sage, Nag Champa and indica mixed together on a fall afternoon. Or when I hear “Fire on the Mountain” echoing through a Blaupunkt speaker from an open window of a camper van. It could even be argued that I traded out their band for mine. One cult created by them for a cult created by myself and two of my high school pals. Ha!
These events tend to rattle us in varying degrees, as they should! And these near misses, be them whizzing rainbow-trailed bullets fired past my face by Vegas gangsters or brushes with fringe spiritual groups, I only hope that I have retained some of the lessons herein and I continue to harbor the wherewithal, the wisdom and/or the good fortune to be able to spot danger before I am too close to duck behind the bench. And! if I ever become some de-facto cult leader myself, preaching my own song lyrics as the direct word of God or some douchey shit like that, will someone promise to make sure that I’m not too much of an asshole about it? Thanks.
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