The Guru of Suburbia

Elaine Showalter

  • My Father’s Guru: A Journey Through Spirituality and Disillusionment by Jeffrey Masson
    HarperCollins, 174 pp, £16.99, August 1993, ISBN 0 00 255126 8

In the Seventies, I had a colleague who joined the cult of the Bhagwan Rajneesh. Returning to New Jersey in orange garments after a summer in India, David announced that he wanted to change his title in the university catalogue from ‘professor’ to ‘swami’; teach ‘The Wisdom of the East’ instead of ‘Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Faulkner’; and replace the furniture in his office with a simple prayer mat. His spiritual elevation seemed almost predestined to David, since his adoring parents had raised him to feel like the Messiah; in contrast, he recalled, his sister had had to settle for being the sister of the Messiah.

I thought of David often in reading Jeffrey Masson’s My Father’s Guru. In the conclusion of Final Analysis (1990), his comic and indignant account of becoming and unbecoming a psychoanalyst, Masson dropped some hints about his peculiar childhood, explaining that he was naturally disposed to cycles of fanatical belief and devastating disillusion, because he had grown up in a family with a resident guru, one Paul Brunton or P.B. Masson’s tantalising remarks about this unusual upbringing have been fleshed out in My Father’s Guru, and it’s a dilly. There have been memoirs before about growing up in a narrow sect – one thinks of Edmund Gosse and the Plymouth Brethren – and many books about the immersion in cults led by various maharishis, bhagwans and therapeutic saviours. But Masson’s account of his outwardly normal, prosperous Jewish-American family’s intoxication with the unprepossessing P.B., who claimed that he had been sent from Sirius to found a secret brotherhood on earth, is certainly one of the strangest.

Peter Sellers should be living at this hour to play P.B., a cross between the retarded sage of Being There and the monk of Terry Southern’s Candy. Born Raphael Hurst, a Jewish Londoner, in 1898, P.B. transformed himself by means of cosmetic surgery, extensive travel and total self-conviction into an advocate and ‘adept’ of Indian mystical thought and a self-styled PhD in Eastern philosophy – part of his studies took place, if that’s the right term, at ‘Astral University’. In his heyday between the Thirties and Fifties, P.B. published a series of books on Indian mysticism, including A Search in Secret India, The Secret Path, A Message from Arunachala, A Hermit in the Himalayas and The Quest of the Overself. With the Massons and other followers, P.B. spoke of reincarnation, astral travel, clairvoyance and telepathy, and hinted at persecution by Communists and a secret alliance with various highly-placed and influential Tibetan lamas. When he urged his credulous followers to flee to South America to escape World War Three, and many sold all their belongings to settle in Uruguay, Chile and Brazil, a certain scepticism began to set in, especially since P.B. himself did not make the move. (He later claimed to have been in Australia, beaming peaceful thoughts in the direction of Chairman Mao at the behest of higher beings from outer space.) By his death in 1981, most of his disciples had moved on to other paths, a situation P.B. accepted with the impenetrable serenity that had characterised his lifelong demeanour.

Among those disciples who remained loyal, if increasingly frustrated and cynical friends were the successful Los Angeles jeweller Jacques Masson and his brother Bernard. They had been followers of P.B. since 1945. During the many years that he lived with and accepted money (around $100,000) from Masson père, P.B. recommended sexual abstinence, strict vegetarianism and frequent fasts, as well as the study of Sanskrit texts and extended spiritual journeys to India and other mystical locales. These restrictions did not prevent P.B. himself from marrying many times, twice to a beautiful young opera singer named Eve. (Jeffrey was much impressed with P.B.’s monitory accounts of the sin of gurutalpaga, or soiling the bed of the old guru by sleeping with his wife while he was on a spiritual pilgrimage.) Nor did they make much of a dent on the behaviour of the Masson men. Jacques Masson’s French gourmandise rebelled against P.B.’s diets of fruit and nuts; the ideal of celibacy was equally unsuccessful. In Final Analysis Masson relates his own compulsive and widely-reported sexualitty to that of his father: ‘He was never faithful and claims that his father hadn’t been either. It’s in our blood, he says.’

Why was the worldly and dashing Jacques Masson attracted to a man as demanding and implausible as P.B.? The author, pictured on the book cover embracing his father, still handsome and still questing at 80, cannot really explain. Something in the blood, perhaps, or the family’s nomadic history; a yearning for hazy enlightenment or inchoate aspiration. Perhaps fidelity to his guru was at least one kind of fidelity, and perhaps served to quiet his conscience. Even if he failed to achieve spiritual lift-off, much less karmic purification, after years of faithful meditation, Jacques Masson could perceive himself as a seeker. P.B. led him on with prophecies of coming occult powers, of astral journeys like his own, evolution to a high spiritual plane in which even immortality could be imagined. There was also a more mundane rivalry with his brother for preferment, and a sort of guru groupiedom, a fascination with P.B.’s ‘mystic gossip’, name-dropping and tales of the sexual lapses of rival gurus. (All other gurus were rival gurus.)

Jeffrey Masson is not the sort of writer to bring out the full Californian zaniness of life with P.B., but he is fascinating on the lost paradise of spiritual election and on the circular dance of master and disciple. If the master is exposed as a fraud, then the disciple also loses his claims to special status. Besides, P.B. was not an egregious charlatan and hustler; he did not have the guru’s ‘usual faults of overweening arrogance, sexual predation, murderous activities, ruthless greed and insatiable appetite for luxury.’ He was modest in his personal demands, a tea-drinker, a string-hoarder, a reuser of paper towels. After ‘the World War Three debacle’, he moved to a tiny apartment near Lake Geneva, where he lived in obscurity, ‘preparing his meagre meals for himself, and answering his ever-diminishing mail’. Nonetheless, as Orwell said of Gandhi, it took a lot of money to keep him in poverty.

Masson’s memoir is also an astonishing account of the gender dynamics of growing up inside a cult. When they were not meditating, fasting and travelling, the Masson family took baths together, weighed and monitored bowel movements, and talked endlessly about illumination. Jeffrey grew up with a messiah complex, while his mother and sister Linda, about whom we do not hear nearly enough, wrestled with the minor roles for women in P.B.’s spiritual universe.

Masson was aware that by the age of four he was ‘being raised as if I were the incarnation of a great Indian yogi’. At 13, he was ostensibly living in the normal world of a suburban Los Angeles Jewish bar mitzvah boy, while at the same time having another life in which he chanted Sanskrit verses and pursued theosophist mysteries in a ‘mythological universe filled with remote Tibetan monasteries, secret manuscripts, Indian masters with strange powers, and dark forces aligned against the forces of light.’ It was a world as simple and romantic as ‘a boy’s adventure story’ – P.B. was ‘a general in that spiritual army and I was his young but valiant aide-de-camp.’ Nothing that might contribute to young Jeffrey’s future career as a spiritual leader seemed too extreme for the Massons. He and his sister Linda were sent to a tiny boarding-school in Switzerland, where P.B. oddly thought he would make nice Hindu friends, while their parents moved to Geneva to be near them; father and son then took off for a four-month all-guru tour of India and Ceylon, where they encountered a guru alleged to be two hundred years old (‘He looked three hundred’) and even a female guru, La Mère, a transplanted French woman who claimed to be immortal.

The experiences of his mother Diana and sister Linda were very different. No audiences with the holy men and boys’ adventures them; P.B. had little use for women in the secret brotherhood. In his opinion, they were ‘too emotional’ and ‘could never rise to the mystic heights that a man could’. Nonetheless, the wives and daughters of his ‘important and wealthy disciples had to be accommodated’. While P.B.’s ideas struck Diana Masson as ‘forbidding and severe’, she tried her best to accommodate herself to them, taking up 40-day water fasts and yoga. As a ‘mere woman’, however, she was often excluded from the daily meditation or allowed to meditate for only a short time. Linda, too, made a game effort to go along with the family routine, although she was regularly left behind on the pilgrimages or relegated to the mystical margins. Masson recalls waving his 11-year-old sister away when she interrupted his meditations: ‘Woman, I have just been reading The Mysterious Kundalini and cannot be disturbed in my contemplations.’ Linda’s answer – ‘what bullshit’ – suggests a firmer grip on reality.

In 1959, while the Massons were living in Montevideo, they met John Levy, ‘an enormously wealthy, irascible, upper-class Englishman’ who was a disciple of the intellectually sophisticated Indian guru Krishnamenon. All the Massons were charmed by Levy, and began to hitch their spiritual wagons to Krishnamenon’s star, but Diana Masson was particularly impressed, and eventually became Levy’s disciple. Masson comments only that ‘My Mother’s Guru is another book’; one hopes that Levy was a good deal juicier than P.B., a sort of karmic reward for her years of putting up with the ascetic family regime.

Masson ends with an account of his disillusionment and rejection of P.B. during his years at Harvard, when his study of Sanskrit and Eastern religion soon showed him how little P.B. knew. His main emotions were then disappointment and anger at having been duped for so long, but now he has more a Wordsworthian sense of nostalgia and loss:

The world was never again to seem so charged, so filled with mystery ... How could Harvard compete with Astral University? How could a train ride through France compete with heavenly journeys to distant galaxies? How could a struggling assistant professor compare with the ancient masters who taught at hidden universities fast in the Himalayas?

Indeed, having lost faith in the secret universe of P.B., Masson quickly found a replacement in psychoanalysis, another ‘secret doctrine complete with guru’.

From his fifty years of experience as a disciple and apostate, Masson concludes that he has seen into the totalitarian nature of systems which demand the ‘suppression of critical questioning’ and ‘unquestioning submission’ in a ‘cult of personality’. But Masson’s current engagement to the fierce feminist guru Catherine MacKinnon suggests that he cannot live for long outside such systems. Will this spiritual crusade outlast the others? We’ll have to wait for the next instalment of the Masson autobiography – My Mother’s Guru? My Guru’s Mother? – to find out.