Thirty Years After Leaving ISKCON|
By Nori Muster
August 21, 2018
I joined the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) on June 19, 1978, and stayed ten-and-a-half years. On December 26, 2018, it will be thirty years since I moved away from their West Los Angeles center on Watseka Avenue. In this essay, I will revisit the experience and explain where I stand with it now.
There were some good things about being a devotee, but for the most part it was a difficult, destabilizing experience. I was a college grad; my indoctrination took place my senior year at UC Santa Barbara. I was new at the school, didn't know anybody, and was looking for a spiritual path. A man from ISKCON decided to stay at the preaching center, a rented apartment in Isla Vista, to cultivate me and convince me to join up. The day after graduation I drove to the temple, and thus began my odyssey.
I now look back on my life-changing decision as an attempt to recreate my family of origin, which broke apart when I was fourteen. My parents were both unfaithful and finally my mother got an affair that would carry her and us children to Arizona. I didn't want to go, and must have been awfully stubborn. She left me in Los Angeles at her best friend's house to complete the ninth grade at Van Nuys Junior High.
It seemed like a good idea, except her friend was also going through a divorce and was an alcoholic. In that household I was neglected, and ended up getting raped by a stranger. That pretty much ruined whatever was left of my self-esteem. When I finally moved to Arizona, I was damaged and never felt like part of the family again. Instead, I embarked on a dangerous path of drugs and casual sex throughout my adolescence. My family noticed a change in me, but even I did not understand what was the matter.
My mother tolerated me; my stepfather and I fought all the time. I didn't get along with my step-siblings who turned up one at a time to spend a semester or a year living with their father. My relationship with my stepsister was especially contentious. She was two years older than me, gregarious, and beautiful. I was damaged and shy. She immediately attracted the attention of all my friends, and I felt they abandoned me for her. At age fifteen I was diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic and psychotic; at age seventeen the problems came back and my parents committed me to a psych ward for two months.
I finally pulled it together and got my bachelor's degree, but then to the disappointment of nearly everyone I knew, joined a cult. I had to do it, because I was not mentally able to move into adult life, even though I was twenty-two.
I regret joining ISKCON because it was a sick well. I suffered spiritual abuse, while other members suffered emotional, spiritual, physical, financial, or sexual abuse. Yet I thought I had found the nurturing situation I needed to grow into an adult. Perhaps if I had joined a better group, or gone into a fulfilling career after college, I might have found a healthier source for the support I needed. At least the place I landed in ISKCON - the public relations office - was a safe, family-like situation.
The people who worked in the PR office were more aware of what was going on in the organization, and we had more social interaction with the outside world. Most devotees were isolated, meeting members of the public only to solicit donations. However, we were dealing with reporters, celebrities, big donors, scholars, publishers, printeres, and outside advisors. Thus, the life I led was closer to the real world than other parts of ISKCON, and the immediate people I was around were more like family, and they were not abusing me.
Unfortunately, the system itself was abusive. The PR office was new within ISKCON back then, put together mostly to combat bad press over a drug bust in Southern California that included a murder. It wasn't exactly the organization's murder, but the drug smugglers were ISKCON followers associated with the Laguna Beach temple. The murderer was from the Witness Protection Program, and had happened to get involved with the devotees only to take advantage of their money laundering operation. However, instead of helping the devotee drug smugglers, the PR department worked to distance the organization from the whole mess.
A few highlights of the scandals the PR department confronted during those years include trying to distance ISKCON from the "cult" stereotype after the Jonestown mass suicide; distancing ISKCON from the debacle in the Bay Area when police arrested one of the gurus for illegal weapons trafficking; and distancing ISKCON when a federal grand jury indicted one of the gurus on six counts of mail fraud, and five counts of racketeering, including conspiring in two murders. I remember my life in the PR department as one disaster after another.
We also led positive projects, such as publishing books and magazines to promote ISKCON, and starting the "Food for Life" free vegetarian food distribution program at ISKCON centers. We wanted to spread the word about ISKCON's good side, but that led to cognitive dissonance, trying to minimize and rationalize the organization's dark side. It seemed the harder I tried to defend ISKCON, the more the criminal element took over. It took a couple years, but finally I could no longer justify defending them, so I resigned.
My husband and I had met and married in the group, and during my years of disillusionment we found a way to support ourselves doing freelance graphic design work. By the time we left, my husband had already let go of his grievances, and was glad to be done with it. However, I hung onto it and spent years writing my memoir. Every so often, I would ask him to read my five hundred page manuscript, which he did. We decided we would break up as soon as the memoir found a publisher. Dave and I divorced in 1996 and the book came out in 1997. He was free and I would go on to be the author of the tell all book about ISKCON.
Most of my growing up took place in the first couple years after the book came out. For one thing, I found out the people in ISKCON did not appreciate it. Their official review was a rude awakening, since I had written the book with love in hopes it would help reform the organization. Realizing they did not want to reform, I quit going to any ISKCON properties in 1998. With the support of a pre-ISKCON friend, I realized I could live without ISKCON. Los Angeles was a big city, and Watseka Avenue was just one short street on map with thousands of streets. I continued living with my friend in L.A. until 2005, when I moved back to Arizona and got my real estate license - taking the exam on my fiftieth birthday.
Fast forward to 2016, age sixty, I discovered I had kept a journal throughout my ISKCON years. Along with daytime notations, I also recorded my dreams. I decided it was time to do something with the dreams, so I got the journal into a dream content analysis study. This year, I transcribed the first ten years - the ISKCON years - and presented my preliminary findings at the annual conference of the Dream Studies Association. I love the new dream research frame for my ISKCON experience. I've also derived satisfaction from presenting at the Cultic Studies Association conferences, and helping teach people about cultic behavior. The rewarding parts of life as an adult come in the form of publishing and public speaking. I feel especially good about the people I've met along that path.
When I lament my involvement with ISKCON, people often remind me I would not be where I am today without those experiences. However, I am not completely happy with where I am, or what I've done with my life. So for me there is not much solace in that truism. At times I've let my mind wander to alternative paths:
I could have gotten my license directly out of college and sold real estate in Santa Barbara.There are millions of things I could have done with my life but didn't. I joined a crime-infested cult instead. I believe someday I'll come to terms with the spiritual abuse I endured, and stop feeling guilty for ISKCON's crimes and ethical problems. Another thing that made my leaving traumatic was my father's death. He had been fighting terminal cancer, and had gotten a two year reprieve from an operation, but he died surrounded by his children and friends just eleven days after I moved away from the temple. He was my supporer and best friend throughout life, and I still miss him sometimes.
All I can report at this time, thirty years out, is how much I regret lying for an organization instead of doing honest work in my twenties. At age sixty-two I simply accept and live with the past.