Just as I was settling down with a husband, a pregnancy, two cats, and a nice house with a mortgage, leaving behind the recklessness of my youth—using the mundane as balm—my father spun out of control. In his determination to get drunk to death, he held out his hand to me for the first time. I took it, but then I hesitated, thought back to my life as his daughter and wondered, what do I owe him?
When I was 6, he disappeared from our lives to join a cult on the other side of the world with no mention of when he would return. To cope, my brother and I told each other that he was dead. Six months later, he returned from Poona, India, dressed in the colors of the sunset with a long pearl necklace and a photo of his newly discovered guru, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh – now known as Osho – in its center.
Bhagwan, whose cult was partially explored in the Netflix hit wild wild country, cited many different philosophies, bringing together Indian Hinduism, Zen and Western psychotherapy. He promoted an ideal, primitive and innocent state, and wanted his followers to aspire to this freedom as well, in order to find their essence – their true self – through love, abandonment and sex.
“The man you knew before is no more,” our father told us, glassy-eyed and gazing blissfully at a distant horizon. “I was born again.” I stuck my hands in the pocket of my duffle coat to try to stop the tremors and met my older brother’s gaze. Did that mean he was no longer our father? He had been seduced by something more tempting than us: our constant love, or the confinement of family life; anyway, we were usurped.
And yet, we continued to follow him during our school holidays in the various countries and towns where he traveled, from the United Kingdom to Italy via the United States, despite his obvious lack of interest in us and our lives.
Fast forward 30 years and our dad is a drug addict and can’t start his day without a glass of wine or Jack Daniel’s to knock down his pills – Endocet, Vicodin, Diazepam – so saturated with denial that, red-faced, he yells at us –I dont drink ! despite the cold fire in his eyes, the cool stain on his T-shirt. When my brother and I were reunited on an emergency trip to California to try and persuade him to go to rehab, leaving our budding families behind, this childhood memory came calling. . Where is our father? We couldn’t recognize it in the furious drunk who left his soiled pants on the floor, his anger at us for confronting him with the truth, while stumbling so spectacularly to his death. In our desperate desire to understand what was wrong, and our powerlessness to improve it, we looked over our shoulder at his determined denial of us, his children, throughout our lives. , and we wondered if we had made the right decision not to let go of all those years before?
Our father spent most of his life running away from those who loved him. Early in his marriage to our mother, he was distracted by love affairs, love struck, caught in a dance of betrayal followed by guilt, again seeking to assert himself to counter the bad feeling. When he became a disciple of Rajneesh, he spent the next 10 years chasing the dream – wild dancing, arms in the air, undressing in dynamic meditation; swapping partners, adopting his guru’s grandiose escapism – “You think too much,” he would tell me when I shared my confusion and pain at his departure. “Turn off the critical brain; it won’t help you. And when my tears started to flow spontaneously because I needed his attention so much, he said to me, “You are so negative.” Faced with my quiet jealousy of his new wife who was 18, only eight years older than me, he would proclaim, “You can choose to be happy, or you can choose to be sad, it has nothing to do with me. He enveloped his guilt in a quasi-spiritualism; then he immersed himself in his work, seeking success only to squander his dollars on expensive hotels, cars, and fancy watches.
He never drank a lot when I was a kid – he just had a glass of wine once in a while. He had experimented with drugs, but he had a sensitive constitution and it made him paranoid or sick. But I wondered, writing and researching my memoirs, My father’s sins, if this was a classic case of replacing one dependency with another. As a young man, he had been addicted to the female gaze; and when he joined Bhagwan’s coterie of followers, he could mess around without a shadow of guilt. “You are only responsible for yourself,” was the provocative message from his guru. But cults thrive on their detachment from reality, creating their own micro-world with its own set of rules and supposed freedoms. Bhagwan expected his followers to submit to him, but also to their own desires. My father, throughout his life, sought pleasure, always trying to escape the bonds of the conventional world.
Bhagwan devotees were supposed to live in harmony with everyone and with nature. They will be “creative,” able to turn their pent up energy into something productive like music or poetry. They will live in love. They tended to drift into a perpetual state of “bliss”, trance, dreaminess and disengagement. It was incredibly seductive.
He wasn’t a drinker at the time, but he was just as much of a drug addict. I wonder if his search for transcendence, through sex, through work, through spiritualism, took him so far from what was real that it was inevitable that alcohol and prescription drugs would follow.
But then again, alcoholism had poisoned generations of my father’s family. His aunt died of drinking and left her fortune to a cat house, and it was a commonly told anecdote that his grandfather could drink 16 pints at lunchtime. It is perhaps ironic that it was not this aspect of his family that my father had so blindly shunned, but rather their banality, the brutal fact of their banality – middle class, post-war, yearning for the latest model machine wash. He was determined, always, to be something bigger, bigger, more special – women made him feel like a sex god; worship as one of the elect, a New Man, innocent, irreverent, freed from the bonds of Christian repression; money was his security blanket, the key to his millionaire fantasy. When he finally turned to drinking, he loved how it made him grow taller, feel larger than life; it helped him tap into his supernatural powers. But in reality, the drink merely fueled his self-delusion and, coupled with his irrational desire for money, is what ultimately sent him into a tailspin.
My father fell for a scam, promising millions in inherited wealth from an unknown distant relative, which landed him in a suite at the Connaught Hotel, one of the most expensive in London. It was apparently paid for by the Russians, a lie as obvious as the grass is green for everyone but him. And that’s what caused my dad to stumble off the edge of the cliff. He thought he could keep running, running forever, but soon enough realized that the ground beneath him was quickly disappearing. Fifty thousand dollars down payment, plus a hotel bill that would have made even the most deceived aware, he flew back to his beachfront home on the beach in Bolinas, Calif., and buried his shame in bottles. And yet my father resisted realizing the damage done, even when his belongings were stolen by locals, with the bank threatening to take his house away from him. The first time he ended up in intensive care, after breaking his neck falling down the stairs, doctors told him he would die within a year if he didn’t stop drinking. I begged him to stop, and he pushed me back with – “But it’s so much fun!”
My father was a chameleon, he adopted the morals of the person with him. I always found it excruciating to sit with him in a Chinese restaurant when he took on the waiter’s accent. Was it because he barely knew himself? He didn’t really want to be known to anyone, always escaping our grasp; insubstantial – “like biting on a pillow,” my mother said. He was a dangerous combination of lovable and unlovable.
In writing about him, I set out to solve a lingering enigma: how could this man I loved, so adventurous, so charismatic, so successful, have lost everything in recent years? His second wife, his business, his home, his will to live. He was in and out of Marin General Hospital when the Benevolent Society paid his $100,000 plus medical bill (his insurance had expired), then took him on a plane home of origin, Great Britain, where he arrived with nothing but his Mulberry bag. and shows Panerai. Less than six months later, he was dead. Alone on the floor of a B&B.
I’ve realized now that there are special people who go to great lengths to avoid the mundane, to avoid being ordinary. During the last years of his life, I wanted more than anything for my father to come home. Not as a delirious alcoholic, but as a quiet old man who could spend the last of his well-deserved money on a little townhouse a few blocks from me, so that I could visit him and together we would sit in his garden a cup of tea. Did I really think he would ever stop and sit down like that, to live so modestly? Instead, from the dry house, he phoned me and my brother on a loop, and asked us for money, to spend on vodka and scones, and chocolate digestives, more vodka, pills; anything to ease the pain. Sitting alone on a bench on the North Devon coast with the wind dripping in his eyes, imagining his latest escape, the next quick scheme to earn money for nothing.