Sects and cults in Oregon

I’m fascinated by the reports about the religious community in Eldorado, Texas. Multiple wives, child brides, lost boys, an all-powerful leader, a mammoth limestone temple -- mainstream newspaper and website “YFZ Ranch” headlines read like the tabloids.  

It wasn’t so long ago - early 1980s - that stories about an Indian guru and his red-robed followers in Antelope, Oregon, made the nightly news. I was living in the Midwest, and up ‘til then the only images I had of Oregon were of a top-less Mt. St. Helens and a psychedelic bus. I thought Oregon was smothered in ferns and green forests; Rancho Rajneesh’s landscape could have been the Arizona desert. And I couldn’t reconcile a psychiatrist friend’s glowing account of his visit to the ashram with the salmonella-in-the-salad-bar plot. 

Journalist Tim Guest spent his childhood in the Rajneesh spiritual communes during the 1980’s.

In My Life in Orange: Growing Up with the Guru he describes his life as a “disciple by default” -– he was 3 years old when his mother became a follower of the Bhagwan and moved them to ashrams in London, India and Oregon. His memoir is funny, poignant and moving, a closely-observed account of a very odd childhood. I guess it’s no surprise that his new book, Second Lives: A Journey Through Virtual Worlds, explores how computer technology enables people to create new utopias.

But before the Baghwan appeared in Antelope, a charismatic Christian preacher named Joshua Creffield settled in Corvallis in 1903 and won the souls (and bodies) of young women. Intrigued by the stories of her town’s “Holy Roller” cult, Corvallis native Linda Crew based her novel Brides of Eden on historical documents, court records and photographs.

Using the voice of 16-year-old Eva Mae Hurt, Crew reimagines how she and her friends became entranced with the self-proclaimed messiah. Brides is strong on facts, but less convincing in capturing Joshua’s magnetic personality. Still, this is a fascinating exploration of religious fanaticism and group thought, a stranger-than-fiction true Oregon tale.

Photo: Oregon followers greet Osho Rajneesh as he drives by. © 2003 Samvado Gunnar Kossatz