For 9-year-old Tim Guest, it was routine to see the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh tooling around his Oregon compound in one of his 93 Rolls-Royces, preceded by a helicopter, the sole purpose of which was to strew rose petals in the path of the sedan, and trailed by a posse of Uzi-toting guards wearing mirrored sunglasses.

In My Life in Orange: Growing Up With the Guru, Guest’s tale of a childhood spent within the sprawling global cult that grew up around the charismatic figure of the Bhagwan, the most lurid and shocking details of the group’s practices—violent encounter groups, child rape—are depicted in the naive yet assured child’s-eye literary voice that often finds expression in adult memoirs of stolen youth. The writing is sweet, rarely labored, and at its best able to meld humor and heartbreak in the space of a few short passages.

A tale of stolen youth must have a villain, and here the obvious choice is Tim’s mom, Anne. Born somewhere in Britain—Guest is oddly stingy with this and other biographical details—Anne was the youngest of three surviving children of a harshly fatalistic mother who gave birth to seven. Rebelling against a childhood of ascetic, self-mortifying Catholicism, the adolescent Anne embarked on a spiritual journey, finding solace in what to her must have been revolutionary: the freedom to choose one’s own path to the divine.

In the late ’60s, Anne whirled from LSD to Marx to Jung without finding real satisfaction. In 1968, she met John, who appears here in snapshot as a sweet-natured hippie with a long beard and a fondness for Captain Beefheart. He was a regular in a Sheffield commune she was later to join, and in 1973 they hooked up at a party and conceived Tim. Anne and John never married—it would have been against Anne’s developing ideas on communal living combined with what her son describes as “her feminist mission to reclaim women’s bodies from domination by the patriarchal system.”

By the time Tim was 3, the novelty of revolutionary socialist feminism was wearing thin for Anne, who still, it seemed, craved a personal engagement with God. An experience with ecstatic Sufi dancing and a tape of the Bhagwan’s voice (combined with a few hits off a joint) sent her into a state of bliss that led her to become one of the Bhagwan’s sannyasins, or followers. “For people like my mother, brought up in a strict Catholic family, Bhagwan’s permissive mysticality was a revelation,” Guest writes. “She’d swapped negation for indulgence; restraint for surrender; poverty, chastity, and obedience for life, love, and laughter. She’d found Bhagwan. She could have her path to enlightenment, with sex, drugs, and rock and roll along the way.”

It is difficult to nail down the tenets of the Bhagwan’s teaching. The cult leader was a sort of theological prodigy before becoming himself the object of worship. Perhaps as a result, his teachings drew on a variety of sources, including not only the Buddhism and Hinduism of his native India, but also the sermons of Jesus and the teachings of Socrates. In any case, his was the infuriating brand of mysticism that is based on denial of the kind of ego that feels the need to nail things down. If you have to ask, basically, you’re not getting it. His evasiveness probably aided the Bhagwan in his efforts to maintain a financial hold on his followers while staying one step ahead of the law.

The cult’s attitude toward child-rearing was struck through with a strange ambivalence. Guest writes:

Bhagwan…declared very early on that the very people who would make good parents were the least likely to have children. They would have no need, he said, because they would have freed themselves from the hidden motivations for using children to avoid certain aspects of themselves. Still, once children had chosen to enter this world, he said, the most important thing was not to be violent to the spirit of the child.

This teaching manifested itself in the creation of an almost separate society of children in the communes, ashrams, and settlements founded and maintained by the Bhagwan’s followers. (At its height, the movement boasted more than 120 “sannyasin centres,” reaching hundreds of thousands of followers in dozens of nations.) Though children had regular schooling, in part to comply with whatever local laws they lived under, their instruction was often limited to language and mathematics, dutifully ignoring other subjects. “Life is not a problem,” said the Bhagwan. “It is nothing to be solved.”

Tim endured frequent separations from his mother—renamed Ma Prem Vismaya, or “Mother Love Wonder”—during her ultimately frustrated rise through the ranks of the powerful women who formed the Bhagwan’s inner circles. They moved frequently, taking up residence in communes in the United Kingdom, India, and the United States. Tim was often left in the care of others while his mom took long trips to spread the Bhagwan’s teachings.

Guest recalls these absences with vivid and fond depictions of a carefree existence. The book is illustrated with snapshots of a childhood that might seem ordinary were they not set against his strange recollections. Tim teased wild monkeys outside the gates of the Bhagwan’s ashram in Pune and helped mount a kids-only production of Grease at Medina Rajneesh, the Bhagwan’s compound in the Suffolk countryside. There were stolen afternoons making up games in the woods and evenings watching pirated videotapes of E.T. and Flashdance. Along the way, he picked up a new name, Swami Prem Yogesh, and a talent for evading the admittedly relaxed dictates of commune schooling.

Tim’s father, John, reappears sporadically throughout the book. Though he dabbled in mysticism, John rejected communal life, preferring to spend the money he earned as a software engineer on himself and on Tim’s occasional birthday trips to John’s adoptive California. Because of their early separation, Tim lacked a strong emotional connection to his father, at least for the purposes of his memoir. He appears not to have depended on John’s presence, love, or approval. But as he transformed from a toddler to a school-age child, the book suggests, he began to evince a desperate craving for parenting; the sense of childlike wonder that permeates his recollections begins to give voice to a growing anger at his mother: “We all needed something unique that the commune didn’t provide. There were hundreds of people joyously washing our clothes, cutting our tofu, rinsing our string beans. But none of it was done for us personally….I wanted some things that were just for me.”

By 1984, Tim and his mother had taken up residence in Rajneeshpuram, the Bhagwan’s 100-square-mile Oregon settlement. Life there, for Tim and for the Bhagwan cult, took a rather dark turn. While ardent followers of the Bhagwan dismissed (and may still dismiss) charges that the Bhagwan cult was a libidinous free-for-all, a laughing-gas dream for daft hippies, and a con game to boot, it’s especially hard to take their denials once Guest reveals their practice of urging children as young as 8 to have sex, with both each other and adults. Guest dances around the topic of childhood sexuality during the early sections of his memoir, recounting only seemingly innocent games of kiss-chase and spin the bottle. Indeed, such explorations seem inevitable in a society of children left to their own devices. But then he plucks this item from his memories of the 10th year of his life:

That year, the summer of 1984 at the Ranch, many of the Medina kids lost their virginity; boys and girls, ten years old, eight years old, in sweaty tents and A-frames, late at night and mid-afternoon, with adults and other children. I remember some of the kids—eight, nine, ten years old—arguing about who had fucked whom, who would or wouldn’t fuck them.

Guest does document, more through the mind’s eye of the journalist he became than the child he was, the transformation of the Rajneesh cult from flaky followers of Eastern mysticism to an armed separatist group that openly threatened its neighbors. What American readers will remember about the group—the fleet of bulletproof Rollses, the salad-bar-poisoning allegations, the yearslong legal war between Oregon and the increasingly militant leadership of Rajneeshpuram—Guest retells in the detached voice of hindsight. He chronicles the Bhagwan’s arrest for immigration fraud and eventual flight from prosecution, noting that at the time, “living with my father in San Jose, I saw only brief fragments of the story on Californian TV.”

We see the Bhagwan’s mug shot, and we read of Tim’s mother’s estrangement from the cult’s leadership, but this, too, is rendered without the immediacy of his more vivid childhood recollections; as a child, of course, he lacked awareness of the power struggles atop the Bhagwan’s hierarchy. In the end, his mother leaves the cult and moves Tim back to Britain, where he is enrolled in elementary school—an experience for which he is ill-prepared.

Guest ends on a hopeful note, documenting his efforts to assimilate his childhood into his more traditional adolescence and providing glimpses into his struggle to both blame and forgive his mother for her neglectfulness. To his credit, he does not put a neat bow on his experience; he is too smart a writer to suggest that his story is over. But at times, Guest comes off a bit like a reluctant analysand unconsciously steering his therapy away from head-on confrontation with a primal trauma. In the Bhagwan’s encounter groups, he notes, “[t]he biggest taboo…was to blame someone else for the way you were feeling.” Whether through residual indoctrination or narrative choice, Guest appears to have internalized at least this portion of the Bhagwan’s relentlessly upbeat preaching. CP

More from WCP