What I got from watching The Source Family

I just watched The Source Family, a recent film that depicts the brief life of the cult of the same name, led by James Baker, aka Father Yod, aka YaHoWha. The film labels itself a documentary, but is less so than it is a compilation of old footage and interviews with past members who, to this day, largely believe that James Baker was, and still is, God.

My initial review of the film is that it’s a repetition of an old formula: nostalgic and sentimental chronicle of the rock n’ roll 60’s, starring the ‘wierd and wacky’ charismatic leader-guru-guy. On another level though, the movie’s major failing is that never truly probes the darker side: the casualties of the spiritual movements that swept through the hippie counter-culture scene. This is all-too likely to be because Isis Aquarian (still a true-believer) was Associate Producer of the film, and is in possession of the entire Family archive.

We can’t expect to see a true examination in this case. But in this flippant look, there’s a mistaken assessment that because The Family didn’t end in catastrophic tragedy like Manson Family or People’s Temple (Jonestown), that life in The Family must have been a benign frolic. This perpetuates the perception of the 60’s counter-culture cults that they were merely a joke. The movie fails at acknowledging the destructiveness of cults, and the devastation that they have had on people’s lives. There’s a lack of humanity in this approach.

So, what do we – survivors of cults – gain from such works? I have to admit, I wanted to watch it. I was curious. I wanted to see what kind of picture would be painted, and I wanted to be able to address any discomfort with what I would see, both in the footage, and in the crafting of the picture.

There is so little mention of anyone who was born into The Source Family, that it’s like watching a generation being erased right in front of you.

It’s shocking. We see footage of what looks like a terrifying home birth going very badly, and a very narrowly escaped death. No responsibility taken in their complete negligence. These are people who were ordered to refuse medical care under any and all circumstances, and WE are asked to watch an infant nearly die right in front of our eyes.

Sadly, this is a typical story. With libraries full of literature about cults, there remains a glaring lack of information about the people who were born and raised in them. Many professionals in the field of cult recovery will even admit to not having adequate information or training for the care of second generation adults. And like The Source Family, the story of the second generation children of 3HO hasn’t been so much as glanced at. This negligence, or erasure, is that much harder to digest with the obsessiveness with with the fixation on cult leaders and their inner circles and harems persists, seemingly never out-of-vogue. It’s as if they’re being given a second – and perhaps more glorifying – platform for their misdeeds. And the followers… the plebians? The tone I hear, time and time again, is that there needs not be any sympathy for them, or their offspring.

The upside:
It was helpful for me to see in the footage of The Source Family the many parallels this group had to 3HO/Kundalini Yoga. With these parallels between most cults and charismatic leaders, one can become reassured over time that their respective group wasn’t especially clever – that they shared many tactics, and often borrowed and mimicked each other’s ways.

In The Source Family, Yogi Bhajan is referred to a couple of times, and it’s hinted that he was one of the providers for the template for the charismatic leader. (We also know that Yogi Bhajan borrowed techniques from other Gurus of the time, like Swami Sachidananda, Ram Dass and Maharishi Mahesh). Photographs of early 3HO in Los Angeles were used in the film. One of the archival photographs used was the famous Lisa Law photograph of YB at The Farm in El Rito New Mexico, an early document of YB’s emergence on the scene.  It’s through these scenes that we can start to build bridges toward conclusions about the human traits and the motives of a these cult leaders – narcissism and megalomania being the driving forces behind the behavior.

And the charismatic leader’s unrelenting narcissism can be of value, if only to teach us something in the end (something we should not have to learn, but here we are).  Jim Jones, James Baker and Yogi Bhajan all managed to record copious amounts of footage of themselves, leaving hundreds of hours worth of archives for scholars, historians and documentarians to later pore over. The narcissism is so powerful a force in these individuals that they possess no awareness that any of this footage may one day be the tool that will expose them in their duplicitousness, their myopia, their insecurities, and their absurdities.

Makes one wish someone would make a quality picture with it in the end.