MARCH 21, 2019
SHE GOT ME with “Dear ones!,” the two words that introduce Kirstin Allio’s disturbing new novel, Buddhism for Western Children, and that signal the author knows something about Eastern spirituality in 20th-century America. If “Dear ones” — used as a salutation — isn’t familiar to you, you probably haven’t attended a mostly silent meditation retreat, where notes are taped to doorjambs and bulletin boards with earnest entreaties like, “Dear ones, Please clean your plates,” “Dear ones, Please shut the door behind you,” or (a sincere suggestion on a bathroom stall) “Dear ones, Please flush only toilet paper.” “Dear ones” is a small, charming example of a much larger assimilation of selected aspects of Eastern spiritual traditions into a uniquely Western context.
Allio deftly uses a mash-up of Buddhist and Hindu terms and phrases (likely for satirical effect), which reflect the disjointed world her characters navigate. The community Allio depicts is kooky and amusing — until the reader begins to see that the New Age surface masks a dark, disturbing story of a religious cult. Cycles of psychological, physical, and sexual abuse play out between devotees, a false Guru, and his Inner Circle, who mimic the leader’s behavior and become abusers themselves.
The book’s glib title is click bait, which is maddening to someone like me, who has spent a significant portion of my professional life translating classical Buddhist meditation practice into secular techniques appropriate for Western children. The bastardized spiritual teachings espoused in this book are pure satire, and they play to the prejudices of those with an ax to grind. Readers looking for reasons to slam the American practice of Buddhism will find plenty of material here. Those in search of a more nuanced portrait of the many ways that Eastern spirituality has been misappropriated in the West should probably look elsewhere. But if you’re keen for a well-crafted, complex, visceral novel about abuse of power and the trauma it inflicts, you need look no further.
Allio’s personal story is compelling. She began writing Buddhism for Western Children in 2005 with a single phrase in mind — the title. In a May 2018 interview with the literary journal The Common, she explains that she
knew that I wanted to explore the childishness of religion as I’d experienced it in my parents’ childlike searching, when I myself was supposed to be a child. The title led me straight to a hotbed of very specific, almost lush memories, and in general a recounting of the ways in which children were isolated, and used, in the context of one spiritual community in California.
Her parents were followers of a charismatic leader, and Allio was expected to fall in line.
Allio introduces the fictional Guru via a cassette recording played over the speakers of a beat-up station wagon. Ray (no surname provided) is driving. He, his wife Cleary, and their two Western children Daniel (10) and Violet (seven) are leaving a mostly conventional life in Halifax, Nova Scotia, to join a cult situated on the outskirts of a coastal town in Maine. Old houses, a ramshackle barn, a chicken coop overgrown with blackberry bushes, and various dilapidated structures make up “The Sanctuary,” where Avadhoot Master King Ivanovic (the Guru) and his Inner Circle — his nine wives (called the nine Beautifuls) and his Lieutenant — rule the devotees with an iron fist. A classically trained pianist said to have played at Carnegie Hall, the Guru’s larger-than-life image is matched by a tall, broad body “full of caloric life energy.” His piano playing transports a room full of admirers eager for a good scolding into a trance-like state:
You think you are separated from your own source of happiness! You think I am rejecting you because I don’t move you up a Level or I don’t praise your posture in the zendo or I give a concert and you’re not invited.
But you are not separate, do you hear Me?
You are with Me now!
It’s one thing to sign on for this voluntarily; it’s quite another for children without agency to be thrust into the mix. The reader fears for them, justifiably.
It takes a couple of months of living at the Sanctuary (30 pages of the book) before the children interact with the Guru on their own. Walking along a path, with Daniel shadowing behind boulders and hemlocks, Violet spots the cult’s leader. She drops to the ground face down, in a full prostration, as he beams above her. In Daniel’s words, the Guru gave “[a] smile of such brilliance, such overwhelming love, that you would forget your fear as you were transported to the shores of light that were the inside of the Guru’s great cranium.” The Guru first pokes Violet between the ribs with his toes, then — slipping one foot out of his sandal — he kicks the girl hard with his heel. Allio describes the encounter in skin-crawling detail. “And Daniel?” she asks. “He could have jumped screeching onto the wide shelf of the Guru’s shoulders. He could have sunk his teeth in. He was about to, when the Guru saw him. The Guru winked and headed off into His forest.” This passage is the first of several scenes of abusive behavior that are very difficult to read.
Through his Lieutenant, the Guru formalizes Daniel’s role as a witness two years later by renaming him Jubal and designating him confessor to the sangha (Sanskrit for community). Perhaps Daniel/Jubal’s new name is a reference to the legendary town Jubbal in India, site of the Hatkeshwar Temple, a valued shrine built for the Hindu Lord Shiva. If so, the author makes sure we know that the characters haven’t been clued in — as Daniel/Jubal reflects, “wonderfully we had no idea of its meaning.” Armed with a rickety tape recorder that’s often busted, Daniel (now Jubal) is charged with recording the Inner Circle’s “Leelas” — a Sanskrit word that can be loosely translated as “play.” But Daniel/Jubal’s role as sangha confessor is anything but playful. It’s serious business for the nine Beautifuls and the Lieutenant; a rare opportunity for them to ingratiate themselves with the Guru by telling their origin stories of how they “found” Him. Here, the adults become the Guru’s Western children, looking to a 12-year-old to convince a false god of their devotion.
Devotion is a loaded word, and for good reason. Misguided devotion is one explanation for why Daniel’s parents hand over their agency. It’s also a justification for abuse in nonfictional spiritual communities. A full discussion of why a person would surrender their autonomy to someone else under the guise of such devotion is beyond the scope of this piece. It’s fair to say, however, that there is no shortage of eccentric, charismatic spiritual leaders who have used devotion to rationalize extreme teaching methods and unethical behavior. The Guru in the book, as with all accomplished abusers, has figured out how to gaslight his victims, to convince them that disassociation is a sign of spiritual attainment. “If you feel disembodied now,” he says to Daniel/Jubal, “it is just another feeling for love!”
The abuse of power by spiritual teachers can cause lifelong trauma in their victims, and it is in its exploration of this theme that Allio’s novel is most affecting. The conventional wisdom is that it’s not possible to understand spiritual experiences conceptually. The same could be said of trauma. One cannot truly understand trauma and its aftermath by thinking it through; there’s an unbearably naked quality to the experience that’s hard to fathom without having lived it. Through the remarkable structure of her book, Allio offers readers a visceral experience of disassociation.
In the second half of the novel, the author introduces Ruth, who brings the story full circle. She is Daniel/Jubal’s therapist who, unbeknownst to her, has painful and deep generational ties to the cult — Ruth’s mother, now deceased, was one of the nine Beautifuls, who abandoned her family for the Guru when Ruth was a child. In the last chapter, Ruth puts the pieces together, recognizing that her origin story is woven through Daniel/Jubal’s narrative. It is at this point that Allio offers a second, stunning revelation that destabilizes our sense of the entire narrative we have been reading.
Daniel/Jubal and Ruth stitch together a fuller picture of their shared past. Albeit a patchwork, it’s nonetheless whole. By exploring this catastrophe together, a kind of healing has begun. Happiness is elusive for the characters, but there’s comfort in connection and understanding. Such healing is happening in the real world too. As evidenced by hashtags like #SpiritualAbuse, #MeTooChurch, and #MeTooGuru, spiritual communities and religious institutions are being called out for their physical, psychological, and sexual abuses. In the ongoing war against the abuse of power by clergy, Allio’s unsettling novel is an urgent bulletin from the front.