From Synanon to Hare Krishnas?

While I was at Phoenix House Descanso (San Diego) from ‘92 to ‘94, they began allowing “outside mentors” to come and chat and befriend and talk to us. The most memorable was the group of Hare Krishnas that would come up weekly and chat with us, in groups and individually.

One young Hare Krishna, whom I will call David, seemed to take a particular interest in spending time with me primarily while he was there, bringing me the Bhagavad Gita after a couple of visits and inviting me to their temple in San Diego for this free vegetarian buffet on the weekend and said he would be able to get me a “pass” to spend time there. The other thing he told me was something I didn’t understand AT THE TIME and that’s that he was previously part of what he would call “the old group” and he was referencing what Phoenix House *was* before it was rebranded, which is the Cult of Synanon. He did tell me that when his old “church” was closed down a couple of years prior, he joined the Hare Krishnas because it seemed to “jibe” with the way he was already living and practicing his “faith”. I recall very clearly that he made a joke about how he had already been required to shave his head, so that wasn’t a shock when he joined the Krishnas.

David asked a lot of questions about the way we ran the program there at Phoenix House on a day-to-day basis and was one of the few people ever who haven’t been taken aback when I was honest. I wasn’t afraid to tell David about the abuses and traumatic encounter groups, marathons, haircuts (being yelled at publicly by staff while expected to maintain a straight face all the way through) or any other component and I didn’t exactly believe him when he said that “the old group” did it this way as well, and he was very familiar with, seemed almost nostalgic for, those methods.

David was probably 18 or 19 and relatable as a young person. He was also attractive and charismatic, funny, and he was obviously very intentionally trying to recruit me. This had been arranged with staff who knew why they were there.


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