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'Bhagwan has been a specter hovering over my entire life'

Daughter learns to forgive but not forget mother’s involvement in cult

In new memoir ‘When She Comes Back,’ Ronit Plank delves into painful childhood memories of abandonment by parent who followed guru featured in Netflix’s ‘Wild Wild Country’

Renee Ghert-Zand is a reporter and feature writer for The Times of Israel.

  • Ronit Plank with her mother in 1980, the first year after her mother returned from a year at Bhagwan Rajneesh Shree's ashram in Pune, India. Her mother wears the colors worn by the Rajneesh sannyasins (followers), and a mala (beaded necklace) with the photo of cult leader Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. . (Courtesy)
    Ronit Plank with her mother in 1980, the first year after her mother returned from a year at Bhagwan Rajneesh Shree's ashram in Pune, India. Her mother wears the colors worn by the Rajneesh sannyasins (followers), and a mala (beaded necklace) with the photo of cult leader Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. . (Courtesy)
  • Ronit Plank (left) with other children at Kibbutz Lahav, Israel, 1975. (Courtesy)
    Ronit Plank (left) with other children at Kibbutz Lahav, Israel, 1975. (Courtesy)
  • Ronit Plank (left) and her sister Nava reunited with their mother upon her return to the US from Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh's ashram in Poona, India, 1980. (Courtesy)
    Ronit Plank (left) and her sister Nava reunited with their mother upon her return to the US from Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh's ashram in Poona, India, 1980. (Courtesy)
  • The Orange Full Moon Affair at the international Bhagwanfestival in Amsterdam, July 1981. (Marcel Antonisse / Anefo, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons)
    The Orange Full Moon Affair at the international Bhagwanfestival in Amsterdam, July 1981. (Marcel Antonisse / Anefo, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons)

In early summer 1978, Ronit Plank stood inside Newark International Airport saying goodbye to her mother as she boarded a plane to India. Plank was just six years old at the time and had no idea that the moment would change her life forever.

Plank’s divorced mother claimed she was off to spend a couple of months at Indian spiritual leader Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh‘s ashram in Pune, and would be back by the end of summer to pick up Ronit and her younger sister Nava to return with them to their home in Seattle. In the meantime, the girls would stay with their father and his girlfriend in New Jersey. (Plank refrained from using her parents’ names in the book to protect their privacy.)

However, Plank’s mother did not return as promised. She stayed at the ashram, only to return after a year to the United States to care for her dying mother.

“I truly believe she returned only because her mother had cancer. I never once heard from her that she came back because of her daughters. We were never on her mind when she was there,” Plank said of her mother, who later returned to the cult.

‘When She Comes Back’ by Ronit Plank (Motina Books)

Plank, 48, begins her new memoir, “When She Comes Back,” with that fateful moment at the airport, which was to shape her relationship with her mother — and her own life — for decades to come. The book is published on May 11.

Unlike those who took an objectively curious interest in the six-episode 2018 Netflix series, “Wild Wild Country,” Plank could only watch it through a personal lens. The documentary series was about the escalating conflict between Rajneesh’s cult and the local residents of Antelope, Oregon. In the early 1980s, the cult established its new headquarters nearby and ultimately took over the town, renaming it Rajneeshpuram.

It was a story of a guru, also known as “Osho,” who captivated the minds of well-educated Westerners with an odd and exploitative combination of Eastern spirituality, capitalism, and sexual freedom. But it was also a tale of sinister criminal acts by cult leaders that included illegal wiretapping, attempted murder, and a bioterror attack on an American city.

“The draft of my book was done, but I was still working on it when ‘Wild Wild Country’ came out. Watching it was so weird. I knew I had to get the book out as soon as possible because my story was now timely and relevant,” Plank said in an interview with The Times of Israel from her home in Seattle.

Plank was among those who criticized the series for omitting critical information. This included the cult’s reported negligent behavior toward children, as well as sexual assault by cult members on women and children, and a near-prohibition against procreating. Rajneesh was against nuclear family relationships, which could tempt sannyasins (followers) to leave the cult for a more conventional and stable life.

“‘Wild Wild Country’ ignores, for instance, the sterilization and vasectomies that sannyasins were strongly encouraged to undergo because, as my mother explained to me, Bhagwan felt that children hindered enlightenment,” Plank wrote in an article for The Atlantic.

Plank also called out “Wild Wild Country” for ignoring the impact on the family members left behind by people who went off and joined the cult, some of them abandoning their children.

Ronit Plank (right) and her sister Nava with their mother on a weekend visit with her in New York. Her mother is wearing clothes in the colors worn by the Rajneesh ‘sannyasins’ (followers), and a ‘mala’ (beaded necklace) with the photo of cult leader Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. (Courtesy)

Plank’s mother claimed that she was never aware of any of the nefarious activities within the cult, especially when she returned to the cult a second time — this time to Oregon just six months before Rajneeshpuram closed down in 1985.

“She said she was living her best life there. She still maintains it wasn’t a cult and that she was not brainwashed in any way. She said she never saw anything you see in the Netflix series. She claimed to have never been in the inner circle,” Plank said.

“I truly believe she wouldn’t have left Oregon if the place had not closed,” she added.

The author attributes her mother’s attraction to Rajneesh’s cult, and to the self-actualization quasi-religion EST, to her search for love and belonging in groups. She did not get these from her family while growing up in New York, and particularly not from her mother.

Four-year-old Ronit Plank with her mother at her going-away party at the Children’s House at Kibbutz Lahav, Israel, 1976. (Courtesy)

Plank’s life could have turned out very differently had her parents remained — whether married or divorced — on Kibbutz Lahav, where they  initially started their family. It was a place that met Plank’s mother’s need for a tight-knit, supportive community.

The couple met in 1967 at a Zionist farm in New Jersey and immigrated to Israel a year later. They married in 1968, and Plank was born four years later. In “When She Comes Back,” Plank shares fond memories of her early years on the kibbutz, and of her mother’s happiness there. The fly in the ointment was her father’s affairs with European volunteers and discomfort with communal life.

Ronit Plank (right) and her sister Nava in Seattle, 1978. (Courtesy)

When Plank was four, the family left Israel for Seattle, where her father had lined up a job. But within a short time, her parents divorced and her father moved across the country to New Jersey. Overwhelmed by single parenthood and with no family and few friends nearby, Plank’s mother sought belonging among local Rajneeshees. She often brought her young daughters along to meditation sessions, leaving them to fend for themselves among the adults. Other times, she would shut herself in her bedroom, listening to tapes of the Bhagwan’s sermons.

Plank said that her mother has never really told her what her life was like at the ashram in India or at Rajneeshpuram in Oregon.

“It’s opaque. Bhagwan has been a specter hovering over my entire life. I sensed a feeling of reticence and removal in my mother when she returned that remained for many years,” Plank said.

Plank’s father was left to raise his daughters alone, save for a few years when Plank’s mother lived in New York and saw the girls on weekends. She did not show up at Plank’s bat mitzvah.

Ronit Plank (center) with her father and her sister Nava at Ronit’s bat mitzvah celebration at the Free Synagogue of Flushing, NY in 1985. (Courtesy)

“My father was nurturing. That is definitely where my sister and I learned to be good parents,” the author said.

Much of “When She Comes Back” deals with Plank’s experience growing up in a cockroach-infested apartment in Queens with her father and sister. As the eldest daughter, she became the woman of the household, taking care of chores and becoming her father’s de facto partner. It was a role she came to resent as a young teenager. She was glad when her father remarried.

“I was relieved when Judy [who is now divorced from Plank’s father] came into our life. Someone could take over so I could be a child again,” Plank said.

After Plank married and became a mother herself, she came to realize that many of her emotional issues stemmed from her past, and her relationship with her mother in particular. Much psychotherapy and introspection helped.

“My relationship with my mother has strengthened over the years, but I always felt the ground could shift at any moment,” Plank said.

Ronit Plank (Mandee Rae)

“I finally realized that my mom left because of her, and not me. I never felt I was okay just as I was. Now I accept myself more and am better at communicating with people,” she said.

It has helped that Plank feels her mother is now more present in their conversations and more willing to answer her questions.

“I have more trust that my mom won’t run away. I don’t need to be on the attack anymore,” Plank said.

In what can only been viewed as a happy ending, Plank and her mother now live close to one another in Seattle and are in regular contact. According to Plank, her mother is an excellent grandmother to her children.

Plank’s father splits his time between New York and Seattle, and the entire family gathers on Friday evenings for Shabbat dinner.

In an interesting twist, Plank’s father often reminisces about the family’s time on the kibbutz.

“There is no question that I would be a very different person had we stayed in Israel,” Plank said.

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