Ma Anand Sheela exhorts sannyasins at Rancho Rajneesh outside Madras in the 1980s. (Photo courtesy The Oregonian/OregonLive)
Spinning through the documentary “Wild Wild Country” was like watching old home movies.
The six-part Netflix series tracks the history of the Rajneeshees and their leader, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. The guru left his native India and settled in Oregon in 1981 in his commune a little north of Madras.
The episode after all these years still has the ability to shock. Since the series rolled out last month, reviewers and watchers across the country have had a near-unanimous reaction: This is unbelievable.
Spread salmonella on salad bars in restaurants to deliberately sicken innocent people.
Import homeless people from around the country, lacing their beer with sedative, and then dumping them back on city streets.
Wiretap phones, rooms and offices and recording private conversations day after day.
This is a story I know well, reporting on it in-depth for The Oregonian in the 1980s and revisiting the topic in 2011. Chapman and Maclain Way, directors of the series, included me among the “talking heads” for their documentary.
As I watched “Wild Wild Country,” I spotted many, many people who I had come to know in months of investigating the sect. From the time, there were the local officials such as Bill Hulse, the Wasco county commissioner, and state officials, such as Attorney General Dave Frohnmayer and Gov. Vic Atiyeh.
And then there was the still-familiar cast from the sect, chief among them Ma Anand Sheela. Sheela and I tangled in the day and got reacquainted when I visited her in Switzerland a few years back.
Whatever her crimes and behavior, Sheela has been remarkably consistent. She retains great faith in herself and in her judgment. She is unapologetic. She still blames Oregon for her misery. And she insists she acted at the direction of the guru.
As I watched her, now with graying hair and slower movements, I respected her – in a way. Like her or hate her, you know what you have when you’re dealing with Sheela. She can charm and she can spit nails. She is no phony about her feelings.
Others from the sect seem far less forthcoming. Philip Toelkes, who went by Swami Prem Niren, gets a lot of screen time. He was a key lawyer for the sect. He projects an image of a defender of people unfairly and unjustly under attack. He loves loaded words – government officials were out to “destroy” Rajneeshpuram. He is almost mocking in recalling the Rajneeshee act to take over nearby Antelope. Just an exercise in democracy, he maintains. Nonsense.
He sidesteps any responsibility, coming across as just a seeker who wanted to help out. The beguiling image on the screen doesn’t match up the aggressive and sometimes belittling lawyer I knew back in the 1980s.
The documentary introduced views to some who remain believers, including believing that all the troubles of the Rajneeshees can be traced to bigoted Oregonians. Other former sannyasins seem more rooted in reality, recognizing that what happened in leadership ranks of the commune was wrong.
One point that came through was that so many of the guru’s followers were genuinely after something very personal. They joined the outfit to better themselves, spiritually and otherwise. To this day, I believe they had little clue to just how manipulated they were or what evil was being planned at the upper ranks.
That evil, in my judgment, doesn’t come through distinctly in the series. The worst of the bad acts appear as almost justified because the former Rajneeshees giving voice to the conflicts of the day aren’t challenged about their claims. That might leave some viewers concluding that while poisoning salad bars is bad, sometimes people have to do something to defend themselves.
The series did provoke me in one way. Niren said he’s working on a book to set the record straight. That can’t be the last word on what happened in Oregon. So, I’m dusting off the outline for my own book, relying on never-disclosed material to more fully tell the true story.
NOTE: I will be appearing at the Ontario Public Library on May 21 to discuss the Rajneeshees.
Les Zaitz: [email protected], 541-473-3377.
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