Growing up cult in Connecticut

The Hour, Connecticut/July 14, 2009

Before she was even born in 1970 at Norwalk Hospital, Jayanti Tamm was declared the chosen disciple of Sri Chinmoy, an Indian guru living in Queens, N.Y., who proclaimed he was the last avatar.

For 25 years, Tamm served as Chinmoy's "Chosen One," until after years of trying to leave, she was banned from the cult.

Now she shares her experience in "Cartwheels in a Sari: A Memoir of Growing Up Cult" (Harmony Books, $22.99). Tamm will also give a talk Thursday, July 16 at 7 p.m. at Darien Library.

"The book was a long time in coming," said Tamm, adding that it was during therapy that she had a realization. "The only way I could really move ahead was to go back."

Tamm said writing the book was a "great way to process everything."

"Enough years had passed; I had enough objectivity," she said. "My hope was by sharing my story, I'd be able to help other people. I thought if I could write my story, it would open some dialogue."

The one thing Tamm stressed is that this is her story alone.

"The book is not meant to be an exposé," she said. "This my own experience growing up in this world. It's about finding one's own truth. This is my experience; this is my truth."

Tamm's story begins with her parents.

"My parents were hippies; it was the late '60s," and like many people at the time, they were seeking faith and enlightenment, she said. "Both had hear about this Indian guru" and decided independently to attend a mediation circle Chinmoy held.

"Guru told my mother to sit next to my father and both of my parents felt something tangible. They thought it was the real thing," she said of their first meeting. Chinmoy told her mother that she should "become his disciples and marry the man next to her."

The couple were eventually united in a "divine marriage" by Chinmoy.

"Shortly after he married them, he decided that everyone, included married couples, should be celibate," Tamm said. "My mother became pregnant. At first, Guru was really angry."

But then, Tamm said, he said he was "bringing down this special soul to serve and to please him his entire life."

Tamm's birth became a myth Chinmoy would retell.

"He came to the hospital to bless me and give me my Sanskrit name -- Jayanti means victory. He said he was meditating outside of the nursery when I folded my hands and bowed to him," Tamm said.

Being the chosen disciple offered Tamm advantages and adventures.

"As a little child, it was fun. I would receive so much attention," she said. "Whether it was mediating at the United Nations with the Secretary General or putting on elaborate plays, there certainly were lots of amazing opportunities in my life."

But all was not perfect.

"He was our Guru, he also served as our father. Everything in my childhood revolved around serving the Guru," she said. "He told us what to eat, what to wear, what to read, who to be friends with. As disciples, we thought we had this rare opportunity to serve God on Earth."

Tamm and her family served as the Connecticut missionaries for Chinmoy, holding mediations in their basement of their Norwalk and then Greenwich homes, where he would visit once a week.

"We were responsible for bringing disciples to him," she said.

As a child, Tamm said she would recount moments where the guru would do or say things that she intuitively thought were wrong. She said she would think, "This is strange because Guru told us he was absolute divine, so he couldn't be wrong," she said. "I questioned it, but as a child, I questioned myself: I wasn't wise enough, I didn't understand."

One particular memory was when the bus they were on broke down.

"Guru was complaining about this one disciple who was giving him trouble. This was a woman the disciples were told was his consort," she said. "One of the disciples said, 'Oh Guru, is there anything we can to help you with this person?' and he said, 'Can you not kill her?'

"As a child, it's scary. You don't understand," she said, adding that Chinmoy clarified saying he meant psychically. "It was moments like that I knew something was wrong. But that type of confusion, you didn't talk to anyone."

As she got older, Tamm began to struggle with some of Chinmoy's edicts against books, newspapers, education, television and dating.

"As a teen, I ended up rebelling against his rules. That became a problem," she said.

Tamm was told that "the Supreme," the Guru's word for God, was her boyfriend.

"You weren't supposed to look at boys. You weren't supposed to talk to them. That became a real problem. There were things I wanted: higher education, career, family," she said.

Tamm struggled with the decision leave.

"That type of struggle is really difficult. Faith is confusing and mysterious. I know I couldn't live this life properly, but part of me was still afraid of his prophecy."

Chinmoy would tell his disciples that they would be punished and suffer karmic retribution if they did not obey, she said.

"I had this extra guilt; here I was blessed by him as his special disciple. It was a continuous struggle that I had failed him. It's your church, your family, all your friends, your economic lifeline," she said.

Tamm sunk into a deep depression, even attempting suicide. Eventually she was asked to leave in 1995.

"When he told me to leave, I think he was tired of dealing with this person who was constantly rebelling against him. I think he considered me an embarrassment. I was a liability to him," she said.

When she left, she was staying at a house her parents, who remained disciples, owed in Queens.

"When they kicked me out, I tried to block everything out of my way. I basically tried my best to pretend that I was normal," she said. "I had a real kind of intense focus to make up for lost time that kept me going."

Part of her quest for a normal life was getting the education she sought after. Tamm graduated Magna Cum Laude from Queens College and received a master's degree in fine arts in Creative Writing from American University.

"Education was something that I secretly longed for and admired but the Guru was against it. It was always something I was interested in," she said.

Though her parents remained disciples for years after she left, "Both my parents had said they had doubts during those years," she said.

Her father was the first to leave.

"In 2001, a former disciple who was another child who left as an adult started a Yahoo chat room for formal disciples to talk. Many people came on there and posted their own stories" of dark tales including sexual abuse, she said. "Guru was terrified about this."

He told his disciples they were not allowed to go online, not allowed to search his name on the Internet and not allowed to go to the chat.

"My father went online and read the posts and went back and questioned disciples about it," she said. "Guru kicked my father out and my mother took the opportunity to leave as well. It ended their divine marriage."

Her mother still lives in Connecticut and her father moved back to North Dakota.

"They have been very supportive of the book," she said adding that they have reached "a whole different level" as a family now. "It's wonderful. Though my brother is still a very devout disciple until this day. My aunt as well. Neither has spoken to me in years."

Tamm has started a family of her own. She is married, has a daughter and now lives in New Jersey where she is an English professor at Ocean County College in New Jersey.

"My rebellion is having a normal life," she said.

Tamm said she found full closure with the birth of her daughter on the morning of Oct. 11, 2007, the same morning that Chinmoy died.

"Motherhood is just the greatest joy. I am so grateful I got out," she said. "It makes it clear to me that I want to make sure my daughter never hands over control of her life to another."

As for what's next for Tamm, she is currently working on a novel.

"This is my one and only story about me and a cult I am writing," she said. "I am writing other people's stories now."

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