This three-part series was based on interviews with members of the immediate Dietz family, friends and relatives, law enforcement authorities, parents of children in cults, current and former followers of the Guru Maharaj Ji, and former officials of the Divine Light Mission, as well as extensive reading in the literature of religious cults.
In July 1981, the Divine Light Mission was decentralized into regional groups, and the corporation dissolved. Many of the mission-run businesses have been sold or transferred to holding companies. Efforts to locate an official spokesman for Guru Maharaj Ji were unsuccessful, but in the past the Mission has vehemently opposed deprogramming attempts and condemned charges of mind control as "bare-faced lies."
On a mild afternoon last December, a middle-aged couple from Silver Spring stood impassively in a Denver courtroom, accused of imprisoning their grown daughter Emily. Esther and Leonard Deitz were intelligent, law-abiding people--a general surgeon who had served as chief of staff at a major hospital in suburban Maryland and his wife, a former nurse. They scarcely thought of themselves as criminals.
For years the Deitzes watched as their daughter became deeply involved in a religious cult they were convinced had shackled her mind and robbed her of her freedom. Gradually they had come to believe that standing by while Emily lost control of her life would be the real crime. So in April 1981, they snatched her from a Denver alley and kept her in a small room hoping to restore a more profound kind of freedom than the freedom they took away.
Emily Deitz had a different view. At 23, a restless, independent woman with her mother's blue eyes and her father's headstrong tendencies, she insisted she was her own person. She wished to live according to her beliefs, by her rights. The law was on her side and when the judge asked her parents how they pleaded, the Deitzes were resigned to their defeat.
"Guilty," they replied.
And so in a courtroom 1,400 miles from home, a judge put to rest what a mother and father and their daughter could not settle among themselves.
The guilty pleas the parents entered Dec. 4 marked the advent of an uneasy truce between the two generations of the Deitz family. The judge ordered Esther and Leonard Deitz not to interfere with their daughter for two years, and in exchange for their pleas, agreed to drop more serious charges against them. The couple promised that their effort to change Emily's way of thinking by force was over. But the passionate beliefs that divided the Deitzes have not changed and perhaps never will.
Unable to reconcile their differences over the years, the Deitzes were driven apart by difficult questions of faith and free will and the responsibilities of love. Society argues such matters in scholarly journals and congressional hearings. For the Deitzes these were concerns of everyday life--religious and philosophical issues that wrenched the heart and warped the course of a suburban family.
There was, of course, much more to the family's history of tribulation and cross-purposes than a religious cult, as there is more than meets the eye in any family's conflict. But in the end one man embodied nearly everything that set Leonard, Esther and Emily apart. He was Guru Maharaj Ji, the 24-year-old baby-faced "perfect master" and spiritual leader of the Divine Light Mission.
In Maharaj Ji, Emily saw a divine being who gave her a sense of purpose, happiness and peace in return for her devotion. Her parents saw a "fat little hedonist" who enriched himself exploiting the yearning and idealism of ingenuous young people, one of whom happened to be their daughter.
So the Deitzes fought back, where other parents might have shrugged and let a daughter go. Three times they abducted Emily as she struggled and screamed for help. Twice they managed to drive her to houses for prearranged "deprogramming" sessions with hired people who they hoped could give her a new perspective on the Perfect Master. When Emily went underground after the first two deprogramming attempts, leaving clothes and possessions behind, her parents tracked her down. They retained private detectives and filed a lawsuit against a bank to get an address. They talked to anyone who had ever been in the Divine Light Mission, asking for Emily. Hoping for a glimpse of their daughter, they sometimes went to the guru's festivals where thousands of his followers turned out.
"They never gave up," said Lisa Hand, Emily's grandmother, who watched as Leonard and Esther Deitz spent five years and something close to $25,000 trying to break the hold of the guru.
The struggle was all-consuming. The Deitzes delved into the literature on cults that 10 years ago was virtually nonexistent, but has mushroomed since the carnage of the People's Temple in Guyana in 1978. They tutored themselves in theories of mind control and psychological coercion. Taking sides in what has become a tug-of-war for public opinion, the Deitzes joined the clandestine network of distraught and angry parents with children in religious cults. Esther Deitz developed an expertise that eventually resulted in a new career at the B'nai B'rith where she is director of cult education. The couple had hundreds of phone calls, meetings, dinners with parents, psychologists, law professors, mental health experts and ex-members of cults whose parents had "rescued" them from various cults, to the children's gratitude.
It was an article of faith with the Deitzes that what they had attempted was a rescue, not a kidnaping, and that any "loving and responsible" parent with the means would do the same. It took months to plan just one deprogramming attempt and the Deitzes planned three. The doctor canceled weeks of surgery. Fearing the phone was tapped, he would only discuss plans on pay phones. His wife traveled under an assumed name.
Neither Leonard nor Esther Deitz was prepared for the emotions that would be unleashed, the hope and suspense and heartache. Leonard was a stoical, undemonstrative man, never one for tears, and yet at times he wept openly. Esther remembers a moment with Emily when her anguish was deeper than the pain she felt at the deaths of her father and mother. In many ways they believed they were trying to bring Emily back to life, to resurrect her from the living dead. Always it was the fear of being thwarted that hounded them the most, the fear of blowing their one last chance and losing Emily forever.
Before the conclusion of the Deitzes' hearing in Denver in December, Esther Deitz read a statement to the court. "I would like to say," she declared, "that we and any person who may have helped us acted out of a clear understanding of the destructive nature of cults and because of a deep and sincere moral belief that Emily's rescue was indeed in her own best interest. We were not motivated by a desire to control our daughter but rather by our wish to set her free."
The Perfect Master
The year 1971 was a time of turbulence and transition in the United States. American troops were returning from Vietnam but the war raged on. The news was full of names like Attica, Mylai and Charles Manson. The heyday of the flower child had passed but not the millennial fever nor the search for spiritual fulfillment. Magazines traced the burgeoning "human potential movement" and the upsurge of "the Jesus craze."
In retrospect those days of idealism and distemper seem made for Guru Maharaj Ji, an adolescent avatar from the East who came claiming more than a corner on the truth.
He was born near Hardwar, India, as Prem Pal Singh Rahwat, the son of Shri Hans Ji Maharaj Ji, the founder of the worldwide Divine Light Mission. After his father's death in 1966, little Prem Pal assumed the spiritual leadership of the mission and its million members. His new name was Balyogeshwar Param Hans Sant Ji Maharaj, the King of Kings. He was 8 years old.
His mother ran the mission while Maharaj Ji attended Catholic boarding school during the week and "played God on weekends," according to the former president of the mission, Robert Mishler. Mishler and others also alleged that Maharaj Ji had suspected his mother of poisoning his father. For whatever reason, the young guru was eager to escape his mother's yoke, and he ventured to America in 1971, a 13-year-old "Perfect Master" accompanied by a guardian. He settled in Colorado where the Divine Light Mission in the United States took root.
His message in the beginning was that peace in the world began with the inner peace people might achieve acquiring "Knowledge," "the experience of one's real self and harmony with the ultimate which is inside of all of us" as Maharaj Ji put it in an interview in 1979. His followers were known as "premies"--Hindu slang for "lover of God."
The Divine Light Mission grew rapidly, by 1973 claiming 40,000 followers in more than 100 cities and a budget in excess of $3 million a year. Much of it came from contributions and earnings from mission-owned enterprises such as a travel agency, a natural food store, and publishing and film companies. Followers often lived together in ashrams, where premies took vows of poverty and chastity. (Ashram applications ask for the location of security certificates, trust funds, bank accounts and insurance policies.) Maharaj Ji held festivals around the country and in various foreign countries, and premies with little more than air fare in their bank accounts would travel great distances to hear him speak. Sometimes he would give darshan, the blessing Hindus believe comes from the great, and allow premies to file past, kiss his feet and make a donation for the privilege. In two days at one festival darshan earned the guru $200,000, according to a follower who used to work in the mission's legal department.
Money is vital to the Divine Light Mission. Maharaj Ji's prodigally materialistic life style is a breathtaking contrast to the near-poverty of his followers. Through holding companies he today owns mansions in Malibu, London and Miami and in other parts of the world. He wears $700 suits. At his disposal is a fleet of more than 30 Rolls-Royces, Masaratis, Lamborghinis, and other cars, few of which cost less than $30,000. He owns state-of-the-art video equipment. He owns scores of jeweled watches. His 707 plane was refurbished with gold-plated seat belts, and, as a security measure, custom-made nuts and bolts that can only be worked on with a special set of tools. At one time, a former bookkeeper testified that 60 percent of the Divine Light Mission's total income was allotted to the support of the guru's life style. In April 1975, none other than his mother Shri Mata Ji denounced the guru as a "playboy" who had adopted a "despicable nonspiritual way of life."
The mission has grown primarily by word of mouth. Friends bring friends to vegetarian dinners at premie houses and to introductory satsang, or spiritual discourse. Talk turns to the purpose and perplexity of life. The guru, the recruits are told, has a priceless gift. Maharaj Ji himself mentioned it last November at the Shoreham Hotel in Washington. "I know a way to make people happy," he said.
It was at such a satsang session that Emily Deitz appeared one evening in Bethesda in the summer of 1974. She was 15 years old.
A Headstrong Girl
Emily was born the third of six children and grew up in the Deitzes' handsome contemporary house set in a tall oak woods at the end of a long gravel driveway in Silver Spring. Her parents observed the Jewish holidays, but Leonard and Esther Deitz placed their faith in grades, college and good jobs.
This was not blasphemy. A surgeon for 26 years, Dr. Deitz had worked hard at his practice--he was often called away on weekends or in the middle of the night--and had done well, serving as chief of staff and chief of surgery at Holy Cross Hospital. His colleagues voted him a diplomate of the American Board of Surgery. Done taking care of children, Esther, a former nurse, had gone back to college for a degree in psychology at the University of Maryland.
"We were liberal parents," Dr. Deitz said. "We let the kids do what they want."
All the same, Emily chafed under her parents' strictures and expectations. She had always been a restless, intractably independent girl. Even as a toddler she refused to be helped with her shoelaces and snow pants zippers.
"I always felt like I didn't need anybody," Emily said. "I never felt really close to my parents. There was never a lot of communication. They never tried to reason. It was always the back of the hand."
Once in a letter to her older sister Leslie, Emily wondered why "Western culture keeps its kids in the nuclear family so long." At 14 she got a job in a restaurant. She wanted to be free to do what she wanted, and time and again she would wake up from dreams in which she had been flying. She felt her parents hassled her about her friends and her habits, and still remembers the time when her father, suspecting her of pot-smoking, summarily hauled her into his study (where the walls are decorated with the calipers and ax heads of the surgeon's antique tool collection) and gave her an eye exam under the desk lamp.
Independent as she was, it was often remarked in the Deitz family how closely headstrong Emily took after her father. They shared times of happiness that now seem almost cruelly poignant. In a college essay that is hard for Leonard Deitz to reread without emotion, Emily wrote of the times she cleared ski trails through the mountain laurel in the woods behind the house and helped her father plant 2,000 azaleas on the property--how her father "fostered in me a love and respect for the earth and triggered my desire to know how things worked."
In 10th grade Emily went to parties and tried out to be a cheerleader. She ranked high in her class and still talked, as she had for years, about becoming a lawyer. Needing just a few English credits, she'd decided to skip her junior year for she had matured quickly and begun to question the course of her life. The regimentation of high school seemed onerous, the people boring, the dream of material happiness a lie.
"When you grow up in the part of society I did, you have everything," Emily said. "You see the whole trip laid out. It was supposed to make us happy and it wasn't making us happy. Everybody was so superficial."
So she searched for something else. She read books about the pioneers and the old West, and "New Age" books, as she referred to them, on natural diets, massage, medicinal herbs. She eschewed food with artificial colors and preservatives, quit wearing clothes made with polyester fabrics. She dressed in embroidered shirts and patched-up jeans. Frilly "feminine" things were never to her liking. Practicing a kind of downward mobility, she slept on a mat on the floor. Then, in 1974, in the summer before her senior year, taking English to graduate early, she met a woman who rhapsodized about a holy man called Guru Maharaj Ji.
"The first time I heard about it, I was pretty negative, pretty cynical," Emily said. "I definitely had no intention of joining. My mother may think I was coerced but at some point it just clicked in me. There was no pressure. Looking back, I have the feeling that I was lacking something. There was a push inside me to do something."
Six weeks later, she was inducted into the Divine Light Mission when she "received Knowledge" at a day-long session with one of the guru's "initiators." Pressing her eyes, she could see the Divine Light. Cupping her hands over her ears, she could hear the Divine Music. To sample the Divine Nectar (an elusive substance that her father calls "postnasal drip") she extended her tongue to the back of her mouth. To feel the Divine Word, the primordial vibration of the body's life force, Emily concentrated on her breath.
"It was just another neat thing for her," said Leslie Deitz. "She was always searching for things. She was driven. She didn't love high school, but I don't remember her being unhappy. The cult just seemed to jibe with her new interests."
Their Emily Vanishes
In "Sacred Journeys," his sympathetic study of people in the Divine Light Mission, James V. Downton found that the number of premies who had experimented with psychedelic drugs was higher than a comparison group of unconverted college students. Downton concluded that many premies were seekers, whose mystical experiences under mescaline and LSD predisposed them to the doctrine of the Divine Light. He also found that premies "were more likely to rate their family experience on the 'poor' side than nonfollowers."
At first her parents didn't pay much attention to Emily's conversion. To them it seemed like a weird fad she'd outgrow. How long could someone as freethinking as their daughter prostrate herself in obedience? In a matter of months the question was moot, for their Emily, the Emily they knew, vanished before their eyes.
Home from school, Emily would go directly to her room, put a sheet over her head and meditate. She had tacked up posters of her new guru and built a carpet-padded, T-shaped meditating stand to rest her arms on as she contemplated the Holy Name. On the phone she greeted premie friends with, "Jai Satchitanand," which means "Hail Truth Consciousness Bliss." She had quit eating meat, and would cook a separate meal of stir-fried vegetables while her mother fixed dinner for the rest of the family. Evenings she ducked away early to attend 7:30 satsang sessions. She begged out of family trips to the Blue Ridge and bar mitzvahs in New York. At a Passover seder she sat with her eyes closed in a trance.
To old high school friends who had spotted her meditating in class during her senior year at Springbrook, Emily seemed to have become a loner. In truth she had merely found a new circle made of the polite, soft-spoken premies whom her parents would see briefly when they came to pick up Emily.
That fall, as Esther Deitz worked toward her degree, curiosity and concern spurred her to look into Emily's new faith and friends. Over a two-month period she attended satsang, drew up a questionnaire that she was not allowed to distribute and wrote an extensively footnoted 10-page paper in which she asserted that the mission was a "charismatic cult." The paper explored the social and psychological forces behind the adherence of the devotees. She got an A.
When she tried reasoning with her daughter, however, Emily had no patience for footnotes.
"She would say,'Oh you don't understand, I can't explain it to you, you have to experience it,' " Esther Deitz recalled. "All she kept talking about was the ego. She would say, 'The only reason people want to achieve is to gratify their ego.' It was a direct quote from the guru. She began to lose her goals. She went from an autonomous independent individual to a person who essentially did not think."
Emily graduated from Springbrook in June 1975 in the top 3 percent of her class, and that summer moved into a premie house, the first of a pattern of moves over the next two and a half years. After a brief homecoming, she would move out to live with a group of premies in the area. However, she was still intent on going to college in the fall. She had gotten into a new school tailored to her free-spirited ways, called Hampshire College.
It was a choice her parents quarreled with at first. Newly built on an old apple orchard in Amherst, Mass., Hampshire opened in 1970 as an experimental school with a countercultural pedigree, and such innovations as ungraded courses, interdisciplinary studies and coed bathrooms in the dormitories.
There Emily accomplished a lot in a little time, studying chemistry, biology, genetics, exercise physiology and dance. She worked in an organic garden and edited a book of student papers on nutrition that included her paper on the nutritional value of germinated seeds. She allowed she was "an avid sprouter." After four semesters she was ready to begin her thesis.
Yet all the while the Guru Maharaj Ji divided her attention. She lived with premies over the summer breaks, during the school year, and when she took a semester off.
At the beginning of the fall term in 1977, she told her parents she wanted to drop out. Frantically they corresponded with one of her professors, telling him they were at a loss but that "having Emily committed to school and involved maximally in school work is a must." And indeed, at the start of the semester, she had mapped out a year of thesis work.
It was not to be.
When the Deitzes visited Hampshire on Parents Day during Emily's final semester, they found their daughter immersed in the Divine Light Mission. She draped a sheet over her head and meditated in the motel where they stayed. The week before she had flown to Rome to attend one of Maharaj Ji's festivals. She went to satsang every night, yet felt bad because she wasn't devoting all her energy to the guru. Nor was she focusing much on school, which struck her as a waste of money. The time had come, Emily believed, to choose Maharaj Ji or college.
"When I left Hampshire," Emily said, "I left because I felt like I had to adopt a different life style. I didn't want to go back to school and become a so-and-so."
That was the last straw for Esther and Leonard Deitz. As long as Emily had been enrolled in college, they could hope her infatuation would fade. Now their daughter, who couldn't keep her own room clean, had dropped out of college and was working as a domestic. Clearly more was involved than a passing adolescent fad. For two years they had been researching and investigating the Divine Light Mission, and the cult phenomenon. They, too, believed the time had come to make a choice.
They had no legal recourse. They chose to venture outside the law.