Author Interview: Radhia Gleis – Following On, Or Beyond The Buddhafield

October 3, 2021

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By BRUCE DENNILL

The chilling 2016 documentary Holy Hell revealed to audiences the truth about the Buddhafield cult. But Radhia Gleis, featured in the documentary, knows more than any one film could possibly capture. Gleis was a member of Buddhafield for 25 years. In The Followers, she takes readers on an eye-opening journey that weaves her unsettling personal experiences with broader explorations into the dangers of groupthink. Raw, honest and jaw-dropping, The Followers draws cautionary parallels between cult dynamics and today’s political landscape.

 

When, and under what circumstances, did the idea for your latest book come to you?

When I left the Buddhafield in 2006, it was a traumatising ordeal and I just wanted to put that part of my life behind me. The documentary Holy Hell was released at Sundance Film Festival in 2016, just before the presidential election. It was the film that really shined a light on the abuse and depravity of the leader, Jaime Gomez. In the years following 2016, the narcissistic behavior of then-President Donald Trump bore startling similarities to Jaime. I found myself becoming traumatised all over again. Having spent 25 years with a narcissistic sociopath, I could see where this was going, only on a much grander and more dangerous scale with my country.

 

Did it initially feel like something to commit to, or was that something that took time to develop?

As I mentioned in my introduction to the book, the inspiration came from a comment a woman made during a book club meeting about a Bible verse. She said, “Yeah, when the priest says stuff like that, I just let it wash over me and ignore it.” I thought, “Why? Why do we let them get away with that? Why do we not challenge them right then and there? Why do we keep returning and let them continue to indoctrinate us without protest?” Then I thought, “Oh, I know. Duh!” I’d let that happen to me for 25 years. It was at that moment that I realised that my up-close and personal experience with a narcissistic sociopath could provide important insights on what America and the world is facing today. I wrote The Followers because I sought to understand why I made the choices I made in my life, so I could better understand why others make their choices. The original working title was Duped. But as I began to formulate my ideas, I realised that it’s not about the leader, as much as it is about us – the devotees. This is not about policy or political ideology or even the guru or our political leaders, as much as it is about the followers from the viewpoint of a follower. We created the cult leader; we essentially duped ourselves. Our sycophantic adoration to him fed his narcissism and turned him into a monster. Followers and narcissists have a feedback loop. We all have a little narcissism in us. It only becomes a pathological, malignant malady when fed. And we fed Jaime’s – boy, did we feed it. It was a perfect recipe. In the 1960s and 1970s, Eastern culture and religious practices began to gain popularity. I and my friends were disinterested in the vitiated version of Christianity. One typical tenet of Eastern religion was the master/disciple relationship. Not unlike Jesus and his disciples, or Buddha. That expression is often misunderstood by Westerners. It is not meant to be the same relationship as master/slave, like in the American South. The “master” refers to one who has mastered something (a master’s degree for example), in this case enlightenment, and the disciple means student. Another practice found in Hindu tradition was something called Praṇāma (“obeisance, prostration, or bowing forward”), a form of respectful or reverential salutation before something, or another person – usually grandparents, parents, elders, husband/wife, or teachers, or someone deeply respected such as a deity. Basically, kissing their feet. Whenever we entered a house we would take our shoes off, representing leaving the world outside before we entered a holy place. There was usually an altar with candles, incense burning, and pictures of Indian saints, Jesus, and other Holy icons. One would prostrate (Praṇāma) in front of the altar as a sign of respect. Many began to bow to Jaime and touch his feet. In the beginning, he pushed us away. His Western version of this theme, he taught us, was that this practice was not meant to bow to someone, but rather it was the intentional choice to lay our head (representing our ego) below our feet as a conscious sign of surrender – to God. It didn’t take long, however, for him to … well … he just had to give his disciples what they desired and allow them to kiss his feet. Right? It was a necessary sacrifice, you understand. So the followers who came in behind the original elders never got the “lay down our ego” narrative. They just adopted the revised version of kissing the “master’s” feet, as a sign of sycophantic adoration to a lunatic. It didn’t take long before his adage “Connect to God’s love” became “Connect to my love,” and the images of religious icons on the altar were pushed to the back, behind a picture of him. And that was the beginning of a long descent into a world where grovelling minions assembled the Frankenstein Monster, I mean Master.

 

How did you conduct your research or other preparation before writing – was it more experiential or more academic or desk-based?

Both! In the first section of The Followers, I talk about my life. I share about how I learned as a child in spite of dyslexia, despite an abusive father and nuns – how not to teach. And the main takeaway from my graduate degree studies was when it comes to adults, is if you don’t satisfy the “What’s in it for me” factor, they either won’t be interested or even retain the information, let alone be inspired by it. So I wanted to make sure my book would benefit anyone who chooses to read it. I conducted extensive research for The Followers from a myriad of scholastic books, articles, journals, and periodicals on narcissism, cult mind control, American history, democracy, power, culture, propaganda, and authoritarian leaders in history. But unless you’re a researcher, which is sort of my schtick, or have a vested interest in those subjects, who has time to slog through the academic material? Nobody! I knew if I were going to shine some light on the complexities of our present situation, I had to make it personal, humorous, raw and entertaining as well as provocative. I’ve had over 15 years out of the cult to look back on my experience and analyse it impartially. It was difficult and painful in places, where I was forced to relive traumatic incidents in my childhood and my past, in order to objectively look at reasons why we make the choices we do in our lives. But writing this book gave me new insights and catharsis from the work. I knew if I wasn’t transparent and honest, the reader wouldn’t trust me. Although the archival footage in the documentary Holy Hell on Amazon shows you footage of the inside of the cult, the story is so much bigger than a 100-minute documentary could tell. So in my book, I invite the reader to take a journey with me down the road of my life in the safety and comfort of their home, in the hope that they will learn from my experience and not have to take the same road. It’s important to understand that malignant narcissism is a disease, not a character flaw. The book The Followers: Holy Hell and the Disciples of Narcissistic Leaders is not a story about me per se, or some broken, gullible individuals, or the past. It’s a story about what’s happening today – to all of us.

 

If resources (money, time, whatever) were no object, what additional groundwork would you like to have completed?

It took me two and a half years to write this – well, 67 years, actually – but drawing parallels between my past experience and the present is like whack-a-mole. I said in one of my chapters, “History is writing faster than a stenographer on crystal meth.” Every time you turn on the news there is a blitzkrieg of examples of narcissistic behavior and crazy followers. Technically, I finished the book in the fall of 2020, but then the November elections happened, and all hell broke loose. I practically had to rewrite half the book. My editor, who has become my dear friend, has the patience of a saint. She finally had to say, “Land the plane, Alice, or you will never get this out.” I kept saying, “But, but…what about?” We had to slash and burn quite a lot of material I wanted to cover in order to keep it relevant and not make it the length of the unabridged War And Peace. The book is rich with content, but she restrained me from deluging my readers with too much information. I can do that sometimes – I can’t hep myself! She reminded me that there are other books to write – revised versions, articles, blogs etc. This is the third book I’ve written but my first published. The last book was a sci-fi novel, and the one before that was an illustrated children’s novella. Before I became a clinical nutritionist, I was a professional illustrator. If I didn’t have to work nine hours a day to stay alive, I would write full-time. I love it. I do have my next book rolling around in my head. The working title is Harder To Fall.

 

When considering influence, do you find yourself wanting to write like someone (in terms of their style, tone or use of language), or aiming for a kind of perspective or storytelling approach you admire or enjoy?

One effect of having dyslexia is that as a child, I was a little slow coming out of the gate. You have to understand by the time I got into college, I had never read a book in my life. And once I was in the Buddhafield all we read were spiritual books. I have quite a collection. I really prefer articles and periodicals, but now that Audible is available, I have a sizable library. Of historical authors, I’d have to say Mark Twain is my man. As for contemporary authors, I absolutely love New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd. Like me – ha, more like her, rather – I take complicated non-fiction content and add a pinch of sarcasm, a splash of humorous allegory, and a tasty metaphor or two to bake an otherwise dry and intellectual story into something that anyone could have an appetite for. I even wrote her and thanked her once, while I was writing this book, because I read an op ed she wrote, “Think Outside the Box, Jack,” and her style just left me in awe. I was struggling with a chapter, and she instantly became my muse in that moment. I also love Rick Wilson, one of the founders of The Lincoln Project. His unvarnished, irreverent take-no-prisoners wit is the kind of style I appreciate and emulate. Annabelle Gurwitch and even Dan Harris are other favorites of mine. Even though my first two books were fiction, I prefer to write non-fiction, but it has to be raw, irreverent, and humorous, otherwise the important content will only be appreciated by scholars and intellectuals. That’s not necessarily the audience I’m trying to reach – though of course I hope they will enjoy it as well. It takes a certain finesse to assimilate hard data and make it palatable and entertaining. My writing has sarcastic wit but it’s not all funny ha, ha. When I recorded the Audible for The Followers, I made my engineer laugh, but I also made him cry. I couldn’t ask for a greater compliment. My style is unfiltered, authentic – just me, a SNiGlett. (See Chapter One, “Life As a SNiGlett.”)

 

What’s in your to-read pile – and what upcoming book (other than yours!) are you most looking forward to?

Some of the books I have on my research list for my next book, Harder To Fall, are:

The Reckoning by Mary Trump

Sex Power Money by Sara Pascoe

Postcapitalist Desire by Mark Fisher

Brain in Balance: Understanding the Genetics and Neurochemistry Behind Addiction and Sobriety by Fredrick Von Stieff MD

The Shadow Market: How a Group of Wealthy Nations and Powerful Investors Secretly Dominate the World by Eric J Weiner

Black AF History: The Un-Whitewashed Story of America by Michael Harriot

A Generation of Sociopaths: How the Baby Boomers Betrayed America by Bruce Cannon Gibney

Mediocre; The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America, by Ijeoma Oluo

White Male Privilege A Study of Racism in America 50 Years After the Voting Rights Act, Third Edition by Mark Rosenkranz

Angry White Male: How the Donald Trump Phenomenon Is Changing America – And What We Can All Do to Save the Middle Class by Wayne Allyn Root

Letters to My White Male Friends by Dax-Devlon Ross

The Psychology of Money Timeless Lessons on Wealth, Greed, and Happiness by Morgan Housel

The Price of Peace Money, Democracy, and the Life of John Maynard Keynes by Zachary D. Carter

King Solomon The Temptations of Money, Sex, and Power by Philip Graham Ryken

Requiem for the American Dream: The Principles of Concentrated Wealth and Power by Noam Chomsky

Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty by Daron Acemoglu, James A Robinson

Fragile Power: Why Having Everything Is Never Enough; Lessons from Treating the Wealthy and Famous by Dr Paul L Hokemeyer

 An Empire of Wealth: The Epic History of American Economic Power by John Steele Gordon

The Age of Acquiescence: The Life and Death of American Resistance to Organized Wealth and Power by Steve Fraser

 

Do you have a favourite character that you have created? Or if you’re writing non-fiction, do you have a specific topic that you find endlessly fascinating?

I’m rewriting my sci-fi, narrated by a man named Will, who tells his fate as he learns about the future from Gabe, a young man who returns to 2015 from the year 2050, in search of his father. I’m also thinking about my next non-fiction book, Harder To Fall. It’s about the addiction to power and wealth and why it drives men and women to sell their soul.

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