Sex, Cults and the 1970s, Really

When people find out that I joined a New Age cult when I was 12 years old....

When people find out that I joined a New Age cult in 1973 when I was 12-years-old, they immediately want to know if my parents were involved. They weren’t. The next thing they want to know is if there was weird sex or forced sex or if I was kidnapped. Not that either.

The problem might be the word, “cult,” which technically defines a sub-culture. So a religious cult would be a non-mainstream religious organization -- which is what MSIA was. MSIA stands for The Movement of Spiritual Inner Awareness, and as cults go its basic precepts and philosophy were fairly cool and even groovy. Mainly a rip off of another cult, Eckankar with some shades of Eastern Philosophy and a big helping of the more mellow passages from the New Testament, MSIA was cult-lite.

Its basic elevator pitch was that all human beings could attain soul awareness, e.g., come and go from their physical forms at will but that in order to attain this awareness, there was spiritual work to be done, spiritual laws to obey and karma to be cleared. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” “To thine own self be true.” “Dishonesty forfeits divine aid.” “Let Go and Let God.” All of this reads pretty blandly, like bumper stickers on the fender of any middle-to-average Unitarian.

Except the major flaw, and really the element that, when added, stirred and shaken creates not just a boring sing-along spiritual movement, but a lethal manipulative and dangerous cult, was the founder and the leader -- a man by the name of John-Roger -- who, like so many of his cult leader brothers, started off Lite FM but turned heavy metal.

John-Roger was a California high school teacher, originally from the Mid-West, who gained a huge following among his students by turning the lights off in class and leading his students through guided meditations. There would be question and answer sessions where J-R would accurately name family members that he had no prior knowledge of, and generally conduct an “ooh and ahh” type seminar -- a la John Edwards. His popularity became exponential and outgrew the confines of just a few hundred students and -- voila -- a cult is born.

New members of MSIA quickly learned that John-Roger was channeling the “Christ Consciousness,” so in effect, embodying Christ. And that he was also the “Mystical Traveler” -- a spiritual transformational force. If you miss out on the Traveler/John-Roger’s offer in this lifetime, it wasn’t the end of the world, it just meant your layover to true spiritual awareness and liberation would be departing in another 25,000 years. Considering the presumption that most earthly souls incarnate once every other generation, that might be a while.

So how in the world would a 12- year-old girl, sequestered in the happy and bucolic suburbs of Bala-Cynwyd, Pennsylvania meet up with this psychic high school teacher from LA? I didn’t, actually. I met the Rev. Michael Bookbinder, a New Age minister who came home to Philadelphia to spread the spiritual salvation he had found there.

Michael was the “real deal,” the inverse of John-Roger. Later that would play out in some very ugly ways -- like the time John-Roger found out how incredibly successful Michael’s New Age Center had become, and so withdrew all funding. Or so the story goes. Things like that happened behind the scenes and people like me -- at that point in time, I was all of thirteen -- weren’t privy to the Christ Consciousness’s backstabbing. All I knew was the one safe haven in my world - the one place where I flourished and was loved -- had been shut down.


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