Tuesday, February 05, 2013

A Yes! Party. Connecting with Osho...

While I'm revisiting my archive, here's another article I wrote about religion for Disinformation.
A Yes! Party

After a long period in the wilderness Osho are once again on the rise. They are attracting new followers to their bases around the world—including Osho Leela, an old Manor House in Dorset in the South of the UK which I visited in late 2005.


Fascist boot-camp, Oregon, USA

Back in 1985, Margaret Hill, a former mayor of Antelope Oregon, had the measure of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. “He is a crook,” she said. There were few people around then who would have disagreed with her.

Mrs Hill was being interviewed by a New York Times reporter who’d gone to investigate the chaos the Indian guru and his followers had wreaked during their four-year tenure just outside her home town. 

In brief, the facts were these: 

The Indian guru Bhagwan Rajneesh had arrived in America in 1981 (along with twelve tons of luggage) claiming that he needed to enter the country for ‘medical reasons’. He was accompanied by around 7,000 disciples, who settled in a 60,000 acre $6million ranch on semi-desert scrubland just outside of Antelope. Almost immediately, things took a turn for the weird.

To the surprise of everyone around him, Bhagwan stopped talking (or, as he put it, he determined on a course of ‘speaking through silence’).  The day-to-day running of the huge community then fell to his follower, Ma Anand Sheela. 

Sheela took to wearing robes and calling herself ‘queen’. Fences, complete with guard towers, went up around the compound and disciples armed with Uzis patrolled Bhagwan’s residence. 

Many of the commune’s members were forced to do twelve hours work a day for no pay. While they succeeded in clearing and planting 3,000 acres of land, building a 350-million-gallon reservoir, a 10-megawatt power substation and a functioning dairy farm, only Sheela and her coterie seemed to live in any comfort. The others had to endure unbearable hardships. 

The most bizarre incidents occurred outside the ranch in the town of Antelope itself. There were so many people living on the ranch that they were able to force the results of the 1984 local elections and take over Antelope’s local council. They decided to rename this hitherto upright Oregon backwater Rajneeshpuram. When attempts were also made to rig local county elections by shipping thousands of homeless people onto the ranch, resistance to the Sannyasins (as Osho’s followers were known)
 grew stronger. Sheela responded by having her followers dump salmonella into the salad bars of several local restaurants. Antelope therefore gained the dubious distinction of being the site of the first (and to date, the last) successful bio-terrorism attack in US history. 

Eventually, Bhagwan Rajneesh emerged from his silence and attempted to distance himself from his disciples. He said that Sheela had been running the place like a ‘fascist concentration camp’ and went on the talk show Good Morning America to try and suggest that those with him were ‘fellow travellers’ rather than followers. He also called on the FBI to conduct an independent investigation into the ranch. The FBI quickly found an extensive eavesdropping system that was wired throughout the commune residences, public buildings and offices. They also uncovered a secret laboratory where experiments had been run on the manufacture of HIV as well as salmonella. Oddest of all they found that Rajneesh’s bedroom was rigged up so that he could receive Nitrous Oxide – laughing gas – while he lay in bed.

Sheela confessed to having a rather ‘bad habit’ of poisoning people and was sent to jail. Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh himself was charged with criminal conspiracy, 34 counts of making false statements to federal officials and two counts of immigration fraud. He paid a $400,000 fine and was given a ten-year sentence – suspended on the understanding that he would leave the United States. When he left he declared that he “hoped never to come back.”

Many of his followers, meanwhile, were simply abandoned on the ranch. Most of these people had given over their life savings. They had been promised that they would be returned when they left or once the ranch had started making money. Of course, they weren’t. Somewhere along the line, however, Bhagwan Rajneesh had managed to amass no fewer than 93 Rolls Royce cars.

“Now he has left two groups of followers in the lurch when the going got tough,'' the plain speaking Margaret Hill told the man from the New York Times (Rajneesh had moved to Oregon primarily to escape a large tax bill he faced at his original commune in India). His cult had been disgraced, discredited and, finally, displaced. It seemed that the end had come. Few organisations would have been able to recover from the kind of scandals they’d been engulfed in, no matter how fanatical their devotees. Few would even have the gall to stick around.


Paradise, Pune, India

All of these antics in Oregon were a far cry from the cult’s humble beginnings just over a decade before in India. In 1971 Mohan Chandra Rajneesh (a former philosophy teacher at the University of Jabalapur, who had quite his job to dedicate himself to his full time calling as a spiritual leader) assumed the modest title of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, meaning ‘The Blessed One Who Has Recognised himself as God’. He had simple commandment: “Enjoy!” Unlike other more ascetic gurus to have emerged from India in the 1960s and 1970s, he demanded little from his followers in the way of renunciation – and lots in the way of carnal pleasure.

The ashram he established in Pune in West Central India in 1974 quickly became a New Age Mecca. 

It attracted thousands of young Western disciples sold on the charismatic teacher’s mercurial wit and unique brand of Eastern mysticism. Marked out by their happy expressions and orange clothes (dyed at the Bhagwan’s instigation, to reflect the colour of the sun) they quickly spread their guru’s teachings and popularised his unique forms of taboo-breaking therapies. In these sessions, known as Dynamic Meditations, pupils were encouraged to destroy their religious and social conditioning to find out who they really were. They wore blindfolds – or nothing at all – and explored their deepest selves by screaming, fighting and, inevitably, they had sex. Broken limbs were common, as were broken relationships. The latter came thanks to the teachers’ propensity to encourage their students to watch their partners having sex with another person – so they could confront the emotions that this betrayal provoked.

In spite of, or maybe even because of, these extreme practices, the ‘Rajneeshees’ continued to expand in number. Soon they spread out across Europe and the USA, often in stately homes like the one they named ‘Medina Rajneesh’ in Suffolk, where 400 of the Bhagwan’s followers established themselves in the early 1980s – seemingly in utopian contentment.

At his peak, Bhagwan Rajneesh laid claim to 250,000 followers. His Orange People were the cults’ cult. They fulfilled every cliché – sex, drugs, tribal music and crazy clothes. Their leader was the very image of the guru, with twinkling eyes, a long flowing beard and a priapic fondness for his flock. And just like most cult leaders, he left behind him a trail of broken families, ruined minds and wrecked lives.

Even before the Antelope episode there had been plenty of signs that all was not well in paradise. One of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh’s more chilling suggestions was that prominent female followers should become sterilised so that they could better practise his teachings. Ugly rumours of child abuse and the destruction of family life slowly began to surface. The growing anti-cult movement of the late 1970s and early 1980s also warned that the group’s communal living practices and intensive ‘meditations’ were akin to brainwashing.

The disaster in Oregon was just the tipping point. The communes around the world had been gaining momentum for a rapid descent a long time. As soon as Rajneeshpuram in Antelope imploded and Rajneesh fled to India, many more of his communities around the world dissolved. Most of them were embroiled in unique scandals of their own. Bhagwan’s English followers, for instance, had developed a marked fondness for the drug ecstasy, which the Indian guru had recommended as a spiritual elixir. It’s widely believed that they were the first to bring it into the UK and members began producing it on an industrial scale. 

Meanwhile, the original commune in India limped on, but Bhagwan Rajneesh was a shadow of his former self. In 1985 he declared that his religion was dead – and that it had, in fact, been invented by his followers. He said he was glad not to have to pretend to be enlightened anymore. Then, in December 1988, he told his followers that his body had become host to none other than Guatama Buddha. However, when the Buddha disapproved of his use of the Jacuzzi, Bhagwan banished him from his body and said that he was now Zorba the Buddha instead. In 1989 he changed his name for the last time to Osho. He died in 1990, bed-ridden and addicted to laughing gas. He left a simple instruction to his disciples for after he passed away: “stick me under the bed and forget about me.”


Osho returns - everywhere

For a long time, it seemed that the man last known as Osho had indeed been forgotten – or was at least regarded as little more than a bad memory. In 2004, for instance, when Tim Guest
 published ‘My Life In Orange’, his autobiographical account of his childhood in the UK commune Medina Rajneesh, it read like an obituary for the group. As the blurb on the jacket put it, they represented: “a lost moment of madness in the cultural history of the West.”  The press presented them as nothing more threatening than a fascinating museum piece and in nearly all of the coverage this excellent book produced, the cult was written about firmly in the past tense. 

Osho was a busted flush. Nothing to worry about anymore.

The trouble is, however, that in direct contradiction of his last known command, Those of Osho’s followers who remained did not forget about him. They just laid low for a few years, licking their wounds, waiting for the fallout from all the scandals to blow over. 

These followers – who now call their faith ‘Osho’ as well - only actually forgot about all the bad stuff. Like nearly all durable religions and belief systems, Osho has developed a distant and shaky relationship with history. Those facts that don’t suit their cause seem to have been conveniently forgotten (or at least banished), while a new narrative has taken their place.

Osho we are now told, with the cult’s Christian-like habit of talking about their dead master in the present tense,  “is not a guru.” He is just the man who gives people the space to take “responsibility” for their own lives – and thus “find total freedom.”  

So that’s clear. 

The Oregon days, meanwhile, when they are mentioned, are explained rather differently to the way, newspapers, witnesses, local people in Oregon, the FBI and even Osho himself saw things. The article most frequently cited on ‘Osho’ websites (‘The Story of Osho – Master, Mystic, Madman by Amit Jayaram) describes how the guru and his sannyasinstransformed the face of a timeless desert” into a green and beautiful land. Then they came under attack from “a bigoted government” which used every “foul means” at its disposal to destroy the nice old guru and his cult. Meanwhile, the residents of the nearby “ghost town” of Antelope joined in with this conspiracy and harassed the innocent sannyasins.  

So that’s why the ranch collapsed and they all had to leave. The US “government”, it’s claimed, even tried to poison Osho with the drug thalium. (Osho himself came up with this theory and he was convinced of it right up until his dying day, even though he exhibited none of the usual symptoms of thalium poisoning. For instance, he still managed to hang on to his hair and lustrous grey beard, even though thalium induces rapid and catastrophic hair loss.) 

What’s more Osho’s followers have been busy at more than rewriting history. They have also been steadily regrouping over the last decade, attracting new members and spreading out again all over the world. Without anyone really noticing, they’ve once again grown into a huge multinational organisation. 

In short, Osho is back.


Alongside the huge centre in Pune (which never closed down, even in the cult’s darkest days) there are now known Osho-based communities in Iran, Thailand, Holland, Italy, Argentina, Taiwan, Patagonia, Germany, Brazil, South Africa, Denmark, France, Mexico, Canada, all over the UK and the US (where there are large retreats in Colorado, New York and, naturally, California). 

If you were to read the websites that promote these communes without knowing anything about the group’s past, you could easily mistake them for perfectly legitimate New Age therapy centres. Of course, it’s understandable that they don’t market themselves as a crazy cult with a terrorist history, but that doesn’t mean such comprehensive – and fundamentally deceptive – re-branding isn’t troubling.  

The Pune commune in India, for instance, looks on its website like little more than a resort - and they encourage visits from anyone and everyone: 

“This lush contemporary 40-acre campus is a tropical oasis where nature and the 21st Century blend seamlessly, both within and without,” the website gushes. “With its white marble pathways, elegant black buildings, abundant foliage and Olympic-sized swimming pool, it is the perfect setting to take time out for yourself.” 

Sounds lovely. And if that doesn’t convince you, they even provide a plug from Elle magazine: 

"Every year thousands of people visit this luxurious resort… A very comfortable paradise where you can stay a long time, with low-budget hotels nearby and very good food in the commune, with meditations free. The atmosphere is really like a fairy tale. A paradise where all your emotional, bodily and spiritual needs are met. I can advise everybody to visit for a few days and walk around that beautiful garden where everybody is friendly."

It’s only when you delve deeper into the site that you find the odd stuff about the need to wear red robes during the day – because the colour maroon, when worn by many people meditating together “adds to the collective mental energy” and because loose robes are comfortable in the tropical climate. Oh – and you have to take an AIDS test before you can enter the campus. That’s right, an AIDS test.

Even with these strange restrictions and the bizarre nature of the meditations that “guests” are invited to partake in, many people who visit the “resort” have no idea what they’re getting into. I recently horrified a personal acquaintance who had visited the centre in all innocence on a trip around India by telling her about the history of the friendly looking old man whose picture hung on every wall. Up until that point she’d still been convinced that Osho Pune was nothing more than an eccentric resort -even if the AIDS test had made her feel awkward and she had found it strange how many of the people there had changed their names.


It’s not just spiritually inclined tourists who have been taken in. In Holland one of Osho’s most prominent followers, a man who calls himself Veeresh runs something called a ‘Humaniveristy’, which terms itself “an international centre for therapy, training and personal growth.” Here they run a series of courses designed to help create “people people”, easily able to work with others and who will the literature says, “develop and refine many positive and beautiful qualities to become heartful, dynamic, resourceful, juicy, creative and humorous.” 

As well as fostering these useful, if eccentrically labelled skills, the Humaniversity runs a large addiction centre. All very commendable – although it may set alarm bells ringing among those who know about other cults’ involvement with drugs and the way they recruit from the ranks of the homeless and hopeless. 

This addiction treatment has also gained Veeresh a degree of legitimacy that other Osho followers have so far failed to attain. In May 2006, for instance, Veeresh was visited by John E. Sheehan, Vice President of Phoenix House Programs, one of the biggest and most respected drug and alcohol relief organizations in the world.  

An even bigger coup came when Veeresh appeared on BBC radio in March 2006. 

Presented as a "spiritual therapist", Veeresh described the Osho 'Humaniversity' he leads as a training, meditation and therapy centre and claimed not to follow a religion. 

The talk was most notable for Veeresh’s unintentional hilarity. When asked about hugging he replied: "Yeah, yes, that’s what we teach. We're a hugging school. I love hugging. When I met you I thought that you looked like this image of the Johnny Walker bottle, whisky bottle. Yeah, yeah, you're a warm guy, I like you man. I like your voice; I heard it for the first time yesterday."

He then went on to suggest all members of the UN should hug before and after meetings ("that would be so beautiful man, wow!") and explained at length how he once threatened to break his sons legs.

Odd as Veeresh may have appeared to Johnnie Walker’s traditionally rather staid audience, the fact remains that it’s a show listened to by millions in the UK. It marks a new high in the UK for Osho’s disciples’ continuing quest to present themselves as modern dynamic therapists rather than an old-fashioned cult. 


A juicy weekend, Dorset, UK

The continuing success of Osho’s rehabilitation can be measured by the fact that on the very day I’m writing this (6 May, 2006), there’s a recommendation to visit the Osho Leela commune in the glossy magazine section of The Guardian, one of Britain’s bestselling quality broadsheets. It’s the third recommendation in as many years from the paper, and just one of the many that get printed around the world every year by journalists who know little about the group’s true nature. “Consider getting your festival fix at the Great British Yoga Festival in Dorset,” counsels the writer, next to a photo of the Osho Leela building. Judging by the article, it all sounds like good healthy fun with talks, workshops, “nice cups of herbal tea” and lights out by 9:30pm. The worst thing that’s likely to happen to you is that your hair might end up being braided. Anyone clicking on the yoga festival website, meanwhile, will learn that Osho, rather than being a crook, is a “great mystic and teacher.” 

Of course, as Margaret Hill from Antelope could tell you, the reality about Osho is very different. And, from my own personal experience, I know that there’s a bit more to worry about at their communes than hair braiding. 

I spent a weekend at Osho Leela in the autumn of 2005. I was there specifically because I’d developed an interest in the group while writing a book about cults, cranks and religious eccentrics, The Joy Of Sects
, but I signed up in the guise of a normal punter.  I wanted to keep my identity as a journalist with an interest in cults quiet: both so that they would allow me to visit in the first place and because of a vague sense of paranoia about my own safety.

Using the group’s website, I put my (false) name down for a “A Yes! Party” [sic], just like anyone else can. Described as “mini-festivals’ the ‘Yes!’ weekends offer meditations, workshops, and, according to the promotional literature, “much laughter, play and dancing – not forgetting the great food and cuddles.” They are regular events open to the general public and which strangers to the group are actively encouraged to attend. This last element was good news for me as it meant I could get an inside glimpse into life in Osho Leela without having to declare my interest. More to the point, since so many of the participants were going to be “first timers” it provided a great opportunity to witness first hand the process by which a normal person could become involved with Osho. 

I also hoped to be able to find out why anyone would want to have anything to do with Osho when so much about it and its history seemed downright crazy to me. The answer to this question turned out to be simple. The majority of 50 or so people who had gone along to the party didn’t think the Osho group was odd at all - for the very good reason that they didn’t know anything about its true nature. 

There were several categories of attendee. First there were the actual members of the household who were generally in charge of things. Working closely with them, but performing more menial tasks in the kitchens, gardens and around the house were the ‘volunteers’.
 Then there were the regular visitors who had taken on sannyasin names and paid large amounts of money to keep coming back to various events. There were also a few people who had been on two or three visits to Osho Leela and finally there was a large contingent of first timers like me.

Even the regular sannyasins seemed to know little about the organisation that they were devoting their lives to. There was a limit to how far I could press them about the unmentionable episodes in Antelope, since I was keen not to let on that I was a journalist, but the overwhelming impression I took was that they regarded Osho Leela simply as a place for therapy where they could make friends and kick start a new life (they often seemed to have ended up in Osho’s embrace after personal tragedies: nervous breakdowns, divorces, bankruptcies). Many (particularly a few goaty 50-something male divorcees) also seemed to regard it as something of an advanced singles’ club, frequently dropping lascivious hints throughout the weekend and as I was eventually to discover, engaging in some decidedly ‘blue’ practices.

Out of the less regular attendees, a few had been attracted out of an interest in Osho the guru and a few more were regulars on the UK spiritual circuit and seemed to have a vague idea what Osho was about. Most, however, had not even heard of Osho the person; let alone what he had done. Indeed, videos were shown throughout the weekend with the specific purpose of introducing newbies to the old guru. (Curiously, the one I watched made no mention of guns, nitrous oxide or Rolls Royces).

The question of why –and how - people with absolutely no knowledge of Osho could end up there is harder to answer. Some seemed to have turned up pretty much on a whim. One girl I spoke to, Jo, said that she had signed up for the party after a brief internet search. She’d been looking for a therapy weekend having been treated to one in a hotel once before, where she’d been pampered, massaged and spent most of her time in the steam room. She’d enjoyed this experience so much, she said, she wanted something similar again and since Osho Leela had seemed to be the cheapest “therapy centre” with easy rail access in the South of England, she’d decided to give it a try. 

Naïve as Jo appeared, she did at least have a more savvy friend at home. “He’s dead worried about me,” she said. “He told me, if it’s a cult or anything, you leave girl.”

In spite of this advice, Jo was staying. Osho Leela wasn’t quite what she’d been expecting, but she was having a very “interesting” time and wasn’t planning on leaving until the weekend was finished. 

But if Osho Leela isn’t a cult, I don’t know what is.


The most stereo-typically “cultish” of the weekend’s activities were the trademark Osho meditations. Sometimes they were reminiscent of the kind of reality TV exercises employed to humiliate the contestants, at other times they were pretty worrying. 

For instance, on my first morning in Osho Leela (after a sleepless night spent in a dorm above a room where loud techno music was playing until 4.30am), I got up early (7am) to take part in the infamous Dynamic meditation, a practice carried through from the good old / bad old days of Osho. 

This meditation was split into fifteen-minute stages. 

The first was called "chaotic breathing". As intense a-rhythmic drumming sounds boomed out of the stereo (accompanied by other indefinable sounds in the high-registers) we were told to breath in and out, hard and fast and in no regular pattern. Several of the participants quickly became wet with sweat, while snot and mucus dripped down their fronts. 

The disorientating music and hyperventilating induced a panicky, intense atmosphere in the room; one that was only heightened when the second stage was introduced by a loud crash on the stereo and the room erupted around me. 

When this next stage had been explained for the benefit of the newcomers, we’d been told that the idea was to expunge all bad thoughts and negative energies from the brain. To do this mind-cleansing we were expected to shout, scream and swear at the top of our voices and use our bodies to ‘let out’ our anger. So it was that the people around me began beating cushions (left in the room specifically for the purpose) against the floor, or they used them as protection as they pounded their fists against the walls. A couple of sannyasins stripped down to their shorts, writhing and stomping, the polished wooden floor around them becoming ever slicker with sweat. One man started spinning round and round on a cushion. A woman lay on her back, her legs furiously pedalling at the air. The noise and pressure were immense. A few first-timers were looking as self-conscious and uncomfortable as I felt myself, but most were throwing themselves into it, the hysteria in the room pushing everyone to respond with ever-greater energy.

After all that stress it came as something of a relief that the next stage was just plain old-fashioned daft - if a little tiring. To the accompaniment of pulsating music, we had to bounce up and down on our heels for another 15 minutes, our hands in the air, going "Oooh!-Oooh!-Oooh!-Oooh!" until a voice (Osho himself, recorded before his death) shouted "Stop."

Next there was 15 minutes of complete silence. The calm was broken only by the laboured breathing of participants recovering from their exertions - and one particularly percussive fart around the 10-minute stage. I didn't laugh. The atmosphere forbad it. I noticed when we entered the final stage - 15 minutes of dancing to fast, soaring Indian music - that several people had tears running down their cheeks. 

Afterwards, I was exhausted – and the people around me, who had been participating in all earnest rather than with journalistic scepticism, looked drained. I was surprised how full-on the experience had been, especially since I thought that the sannyasins must have softened things up considerably for the benefit of the inexperienced attendees at the Yes! Party. The stories of broken limbs and group sex from the 1970s and 1980s were beginning to seem far less outlandish…


Alongside the meditations, there were several other characteristics of the weekend likely to effect participants’ minds and emotions. One of the first things we were told upon arrival is that English people never hug properly. A proper Osho hug, we were informed was far better. The correct procedure was to make "a foot sandwich" so that your legs are inter-spliced with your partner and then twist so that your chest is pressed up against theirs and hold still. During this time, the experienced sannyasins would let out deep sighs and porn star style “ahhh” noises. After a good 30 seconds of squeezing, the embrace was released so that you could move on to the next person. The whole thing generally went on for about quarter of an hour – long enough to ensure that you hugged every person in the room at least once. 

There was a hugging session in the evening when we arrived, another directly after the Dynamic meditation another after lunch… I tried to avoid them as much as possible, but still ended up taking part in five. I learnt the aroma of more complete strangers’ armpits in one weekend than I had in the whole of the rest of my life. And if this enforced intimacy, felt like an assault on my boundaries, that was exactly what was intended. One of the first things that Dhyano, the founder of the commune and leader of that weekend’s activities, explained was that to refuse a hug was to “come on all English": with all that cold reserve and all those dreadful hang-ups about personal space. It was thinking with the head instead of the heart.  Keeping a safe distance was weak. "None of us die safe at Osho," he declared proudly.

Most anti-cult activists say that the breaking down of boundaries and intense physical and emotional bonding exercises - like the Osho hugging - are a common characteristic of most dangerous cults. It’s one of the primary ways they create a tie to the group – a tie of guilt and fear (as much as affection) for anyone that might be thinking of leaving. 

"Babies die without love," Dhyano told us. “In orphanages children can't survive.” No evidence was provided to support these bizarre claims, nor his most alarming pronouncement: "If you're alone, you will wither and die."


The corollary to this intense bonding within most cults is the creation of an extreme “us” and “them” mentality between the group and the outside world. The frequent references made over the course of the weekend to the deficiency of English nature and the superiority of the sannyasin way was indicative that such conditioning was on the agenda at Osho Leela. Even more emphatic was the workshop I attended following on from the Dynamic Meditation. The subject was “non-violent communication”.

Non-violent communication, we were told, was “a way to learn how to listen empathically and communicate our authentic feelings and needs”. In reality, it was a method that stigmatized everyday language – and, therefore, everyone that speaks it (i.e., everyone that hadn’t taken the course – i.e., almost everyone outside Osho). 

The workshop teacher, a man called Michael, arranged a series of cards on the floor with words printed on them like "Demand", "Threat", "You are," "I am", "Punish", "Sorry". These words we were told were examples of 'jackal' language. Words that bad people use. Attaching two puppets to his hands – one of a giraffe and one of a “naughty jackal” - to help make his points, Michael explained that he wanted us to talk with our hearts rather than our heads (the need not to think being another theme that was cropping up again and again over the weekend). He warned us to be 'self-full' rather than 'selfless' or 'selfish' and to beware of the kind of language – heavy in demands and hard logic – that 'jackals' would use to trick us. We weren't supposed to say "sorry" because that is "a demand for absolution." We weren't supposed to use the verb "to be" too often as that "labelled" people.

These language strictures resulted in some strange combinations. For instance, Michael suggested that instead of saying "that was a good dinner"  (“a meaningless and labelling construction”) we should say to the cook: "I was really touched by the way you brought me that dinner. It satisfied my inner need for beauty."

Of course, it was ridiculous and laughable. But no one else was smiling. By the end of the workshop Michael had even managed to reduce one girl to floods of tears as she was made to relive an argument she had recently had with a friend and asked to try to think of the ‘non-violent’ way of resolving it. There was no doubting that she was taking all this very seriously even though Michael had made her wear a pair of giraffe ears and talk what was, essentially, nonsense.


Brainwashing is a controversial subject. Ever since American GIs captured during the Korean War started coming back talking about how great they thought communism was, there's been hot debate about what constitutes brainwashing - and whether indeed it actually works. Anti-cult groups are convinced that some sinister organisations have been using mind control techniques for years, but medical opinion is divided. The term is too emotive - with its redolence of cold war propaganda and paranoia - and it's too hard to test 'brainwashing' situations in a controlled way for any theories to be completely scientific. There's also the problem that some people seem far more open to mind control than others, leading many people who've researched purported brainwashing cults to conclude that people have to want to be indoctrinated, or at least open to suggestion, before mental coercion can occur… in which case it's not really coercion at all. 

However, while the jury is still out on brainwashing, as any good-cop/bad-cop torture team can tell you, there are definitely a few things you can do to alter people's mental state and to make them more open to suggestion and manipulation. Deprive them of sleep. Exhaust them mentally and physically. Subject them to extremes of pains and pleasure. Be nice to them and then scream at them like a maniac…

The attendants at the Yes! Party all encountered varying degrees of this treatment. The meditations were all physically tiring as well as mentally exhausting, the highs and lows of the screaming sessions followed by intense group hugging must have played fury with participants’ dopamine levels. The jumping, dancing and cushion pummelling ensured most participants were reduced to sweating, quivering messes. 

Meanwhile, even by Saturday afternoon, with a full (largely sleepless) 24 hrs still to go, the wakefulness enforced by the all night music and dancing was already taking its toll on the bleary eyed, puffy skinned people who wondered zombie-like around the compound. The strange atmosphere of the weekend was only increased by the sight of men and women passing out in their chairs, dozing off while eating their dinner and, in the case of the ‘art class’ I took part in after the non-violent communication workshop, lying flat on their backs and snoring while other people scribbled away on the floor around them.  

In Osho’s defence, I should note that this constant loud music and impossibility of getting a good night’s sleep was the only unavoidable facet of the weekend. Nobody had to take part in any of the other activities and they were free to leave at anytime. Indeed, I sneaked away to visit a local pub on Saturday afternoon instead of taking part in a group “Love meditation”. (A high point in my weekend.) 

All the same, even if there were no rules about attendance and there was certainly no physical coercion, there was a lot of peer pressure to take part in everything, ensuring that Osho ticked yet another box on most cult-watchers check lists. 

I noticed several people around my dorm being questioned intensely throughout the weekend. They all were forced into making excuses about why they hadn’t been to various meditations and left looking embarrassed and even ashamed. I had personally been cornered several times by the end of the second day and told that I to participate more and try harder. 

“The more you put in, the more you get out” one man I’d never met before yelled at me, naked and dripping with sweat in the communal dorm, angry that I’d missed the afternoon’s activities when I’d slipped out to the pub.  

“You’ve just got to do it… No point in half measures. Come on!” someone else urged me less than five minutes later. And so it went on. 

Meanwhile, although some people who had come back from the ‘Love Meditation’ that I’d skipped looked like all their Christmases had just come at once, others looked ashen faced and sullen, especially those who were visiting Osho Leela for the first time. “It was a bit much," said a man called John (who only the night before had been bright eyed and telling me how much he’d been looking forward to having a new experience that weekend). He didn't think he was going to come to Leela again. He wasn't even going to try the main event of the weekend - the following morning's Aum meditation.


The Aum meditation took place on Sunday morning. I already had a reasonable idea of what to expect thanks to a session the night before where Amira, one of the full time residents, explained the meaning and techniques behind the various unusual rites we were expected to perform. All the same, nothing could have completely prepared me for the real thing.

As performed at the Yes! Party, the Aum was two and a half hours long, split into 12 stages of 15 minutes.

The first stage was called the ‘Return To Hell’. We’d been told in the pep talk that as in the shouting stage of the Dynamic, the aim of the exercise was to get rid of all our ‘negative emotions’ by “continuously exhausting” ourselves. The difference was that this time we had to go round the room, encountering as many different people as possible and shouting and screaming that we hated them - alongside any other obscenities that sprang to mind. 

The reason for all this, we were told, was that “cancer arises from unexpressed anger” and so we needed to get rid of it. The frenzied shouting, combined with another weird soundtrack on the stereo, created one of the most unhinged scenes I have witnessed in my career.  

And that was just the beginning. The second stage was far quieter, but more unsettling in its way. It was called ‘heaven’. Now we were expected to go around the room telling each person individually that we loved them, with just as much passion as we had been screaming at them before. “I love you,” I had to say to complete strangers, looking them straight in the eye. It felt like a betrayal of all the people outside Osho that I really did love. 

The third stage, ‘second wind’ involved fifteen minutes of running on the spot, arms in the air. It was physically tiring, but a relief after all that forced intense interaction and emotional display.  The same went for the fourth stage, ‘kundalini rising’:  fifteen minutes of continual shaking of the entire body that certainly looked (and felt) strange, but was relatively innocuous compared to what followed. Labelled ‘the cuckoos nest’, this was the strangest of all the sections of the meditation. It involved 15 minutes of acting “as mad as you can be”. We were told to scream, shout, cry, jump, have tantrums, act like a mental patient if we could… 

The reason for this? 

“You’ll never go mad if you freak out.”

The practice was just as dubious as the science. Most people in the room were whipped into a state of extreme hysteria. Some even started going into spasms. One man fell at my feet having a convulsive fit. He was foaming at the mouth, so the sannyasins in black t-shirts (who were there to ensure nothing went wrong during the Aum) took him to one side of the room and propped him up on cushions… And when he came round and they sent him right out again into the maelstrom.

We descended from that sharp emotional peak with 15 minutes of dancing, then 15 minutes of crying (which we’d been told the night before “helps the brain chemistry turn from depression to feeling good”) and then 15 minutes of laughing. The laughing stage was creepy. It felt like being in a room with 50 people doing impressions of the Joker from Batman. Or 45, I should say, because a handful of people had been unable to stop the uncontrollable weeping they’d entered during the crying stage.

The ninth stage was called the ‘Dance Of The Lovers’ and rather alarmingly entailed dancing in a “sensual and sexual way” with other people around the room. We’d been asked to “allow” ourselves “to take a risk.” I had no desire to do anything of the sort, but it turned out, I didn’t have much choice. 

Already shattered from all that had gone before, I moved to the side of the room, intending to keep out of things. Most other participants joined in near-orgies, dry rutting as a deep Barry White voice boomed over the sound system about how "nice and sexy" everyone was feeling and how much we all loved Osho to the accompaniment of moaning sounds and crazy trance music. Several girls were crying. They didn’t seem to like it either. My attention was diverted from their plight, however, when two (much older) female sannyasins came towards me. I told them I wanted to be left alone, and according to the explanation we’d been given the night before, that should have been that. Instead, they grabbed me, sandwiched me and started frotting me. 

I’m aware that this “Sam-sandwich” sounds pretty funny. And I’m sure that the look on my face was absolutely priceless while it was all going on. But as the old cliché goes, I can laugh about it now, but at the time it was terrible. Then it seemed less like a good dinner party anecdote and more like molestation. 

The only way out seemed to be to overpower the two over-enthusiastic ladies, a prospect I was I was beginning to seriously contemplate when I was rescued by the sudden malfunction of the stereo system. As the CD began to skip, I was able to push myself clear without using too much force, spending the rest of that particular stage by the water cooler, feeling very odd indeed. 

The three remaining stages were all extreme and unpleasant in their way too, but by then my attempt at objective observation had collapsed, my one aim being to keep my mind clear and just endure the meditation until I was free to leave. I went though it all on autopilot: 15 minutes of chanting the word Ohm in a circle, 15 minutes of complete silence and then that Osho favourite, 15 minutes of intense hugging. 

It was two and a half hours I never want to repeat. Judging by the faces of others around the room it had had a similarly intense effect on them. But our experience palls in comparison with what the full time sannyasins put themselves through and what it really means to be a full time follower of Osho today. 

Amira had hinted darkly during his pep talk the night before the Aum, ‘The Dance Of The Lovers’ could get much more serious. Even more unsettling was his proud declaration that the Aum should really go on for days. He himself had been on a five day Aum marathon. For three of those days he’d gone without sleep (“a big thing for heightening emotions” he explained). He’d only finally stopped when, he said, “one guy became completely catatonic”. 


By the end of the Aum, I was eager to leave, already convinced that despite their efforts to forget the past, the Osho group was already repeating it (to paraphrase George Santayana). I also felt that I’d been made to throw off quite enough of my “typically English” reserve. 

The excitement wasn’t quite over, however. During Amira’s evening talk about the Aum, I’d taken the opportunity to take a few photos of sannyasins who were helping him to demonstrate the weird rites. That had turned out to be a mistake. Soon afterwards I’d been approached twice in quick succession – first by Amira himself and then by Dhyano the commune founder. They’d both demanded to know (in as aggressive a way possible for people who insisted on communicating 'non-violently’) why I was taking pictures and what I intended to do with them. Now again on the following morning, as I sat panting in the main hall with all the other people who’d taken part in the Aum, Dhyano made me raise my hand, informing everyone that a “snapper” was present and making sure they all got a good look at me. 

It was time to leave.

I made my exit soon after the meeting was over and my already tired and paranoid brain had decided that sticking around was going to, at the very least, cost me my camera and what little dignity I had left.

My last contact with an Osho follower came as I packed my back and hurried out of the dormitory.

“You better not publish those photos man,” he said. “There are governments that want to shut us down. They don’t like people supporting themselves or being happy.”

I should have asked in return what possible harm would come through publication of the photos if Osho had nothing to hide. It might have been pertinent too, to inquire why, if Osho Leela was were a mainstream therapy centre as it purported to be, they’d object to someone explaining what went on there. I could also have pointed out that no one had seemed at all “happy” to me and that the only people supporting themselves were the group leaders while most other people appeared to be parting with an awful lot of money to keep them afloat. 

Of course, by the time I’d thought of all that, it was too late. I was already in my car, eager to put a good few hundred miles between Osho Leela and myself. When the heat was on I’d simply made a weak joke about how my photos probably wouldn’t be good enough to print anyway (true enough as it turned out) and wished him luck for the future (he was another man drawn in by Osho following a recent bankruptcy). My feeling of culpability and personal dishonesty added to the already uneasy mix of fatigue, paranoia and disorientation the weekend had instilled. My conscience was clear on one point, however; the story of Osho Leela was one that should be told. I’m convinced it’s still a cult, and potentially dangerous for anyone that goes there.

Magdalene Laundries

The Magdalene Laundries are in the news again today

In case you're wondering what these women are fighting for, here's an article I wrote for Disinformation back in 2006. 

It took a chance discovery to set in motion the chain of events that led to the unravelling of the mystery of Ireland’s Magdalene Laundries.

 In 1993 a mass grave was discovered in the grounds of a Catholic nunnery in the north of Dublin. The grave was found on land that The Good Shepherd nuns from High Park Convent had sold to a developer, to build the kind of brash new development that has characterised Ireland’s economic miracle during the past 15 years. At first it was thought that there were 133 bodies. They were all female.

 Extraordinarily, even though most of these women had died as recently as the 1960s and 1970s, the nuns were unable to name 45 of them, or to provide death certificates for 80. Since the nineteenth century, it’s been illegal in Ireland not to register any death that occurs on your premises, but even so the Irish government did nothing. Nor was any investigation made. Instead, the Department of the Environment quickly granted the nuns an exhumation certificate so that the bodies could be removed and the building work could go on. No action was taken, even when the grave was exhumation was carried out and a further 22 bodies were found. It was a flagrant avoidance of the legal requirements, but no more than typical in a country where until very recently the Roman Catholic Church had been at least as powerful as the state.

 However, while the Church may have escaped the law, history at least was catching up with it. When it became known that the bodies had been discovered, Dublin families streamed to the convent hoping to identify long-lost daughters, sisters and mothers. Their personal tragedy soon became a public scandal as the press began to wander aloud about what had happened to all those women – and why. The answers to their questions were shocking. A country already reeling from the revelation that up to a quarter of its population had been physically and sexually abused by members of the Roman Catholic priesthood now had to contend with yet another dark secret.


 The back-story and purpose of the Magdalene Laundries at least was fairly easily discovered1. Taking their name from the biblical figure Mary Magdalene (who was supposed to have been a prostitute turned penitent in Christian mythology), they were first established as a refuge for “fallen women”, intended to take prostitutes from the streets and to “reform” them using the twin persuasions of hard work and religious instruction.

 Originally, these holy washhouses hadn’t just been an Irish phenomenon. Indeed, the first was built in France by the Catholic order of The Sisters Of Our Lady Of Charity of the Good Shepherd of Angers (known more simply as “The Good Shepherds”) in 1641. That was more than 100 years before the first Irish institution, the Dublin Magdalene Asylum, opened in1767 (some ten years after a similar building had opened in London). Other institutions were built all over Europe and the United States.

 Nor were the laundries an exclusively Roman Catholic. Protestant orders ran almost as many of the institutions in the early years of the nineteenth century as Catholic. However, there were crucial theological differences and these started to affect the running of the asylums as time wore on.

 Because of the Catholic belief in grace and the need to be in a state free from sin before death, the two orders of nuns who controlled the institutions in Ireland - The Good Shepherds and The Sisters Of Mercy - began to steer a new course. It became less and less of a priority to reform the “penitents” (as the women were branded) or to send them back out into the world. After all, the best way to keep them away from temptation and the presence of sin was to keep them under the careful supervision of the nuns in the laundries.2

Further inducement to keep the women prisoners for life came as the laundries grew increasingly profitable. The fact that they were functioning washhouses was no accident. The women were told that they were literally washing away the stain of their “sins” – as well as, usefully enough, earning money to provide for their own upkeep and for the enrichment of the convents that presided over them. The longer that women stayed in the institutions – any youthful independent spirit broken by a life of drudgery – the more useful they generally became as workers.

This money-making potential of the laundries, when combined with the peculiarly anti-sex zeal of their Catholic managers, also encouraged mission creep. At first the nuns had only housed prostitutes, but they began to expand their remit, taking charge of many other kinds of women who they labelled as “fallen”. In this task they could count on the easy compliance of the local population whose fiercely traditional brand of local Catholicism was quick to see sin and eager to condemn it and sex outside of marriage was seen in the same category as murder as a “mortal sin”.

 Victims of rape and incest were sent to the laundries, as were women who had children out of wedlock (and there were plenty of those since the Church had banned sex education as well as contraception). Even virgins were taken in; “pretty” girls denied their freedom on the basis that they had the potential to be “temptresses” or, most absurdly of all, because of a “love of dress”. 3


 Attempts have been made to justify the Magdalene Laundries on the grounds that they were symptomatic of their times. The desire to reform prostitutes in the 19th century was a common one, and the nuns did at least provide the women a place to live and a shelter from the frequent horrors of the streets during the period.

 However, even in the late 1800s, the hypocrisy inherent in the system was easy to see. No one ever suggested, for instance, that the love of dress displayed by female members of the British Royal family (who then had sovereignty over Ireland) was sinful. Fortunately, as time went on, most of the world realised that the laundries were out of step– and most were closed down.

 The sad exception was Ireland. There, in the 1920s, under De Valera’s newly independent Roman Catholic dominated government, the Magdalene asylums actually began to expand. They continued to take in women up until the 1970s. So, while the rest of the developed world was celebrating the Summer Of Love, women in Ireland were having their freedom taken away for looking too pretty.

 This very existence of Magdalene Laundries within living memory is unsettling enough. Many people in Ireland even were shocked to hear that they existed. Certainly, the majority of people I’ve spoken to who weren’t involved with the laundries tell me that they didn’t know anything about them until the scandal broke in the 1990s.

 Other writers, however, have argued persuasively that more people were aware of the institutions existence than like to admit it now. Dr Frances Finnegan, the author of the first major history of the Magdalene Asylums, Do Penance Or Perish, states explicitly that “the idea that society is blameless – that the Magdalene Asylums were so shrouded in secrecy that the public was unaware of what was taking place – is a myth.”4 She says that the phrase “be Good or I’ll send you to the laundries” was common threat to badly behaved children. Furthermore while many of the families who did send their daughters away claimed that the girls had “emigrated”, the truth can’t have been hard to work out. 

Whether people knew about the laundries before the scandal broke or not, what is beyond doubt is the fact that the revelation of went on inside the buildings horrified Irish society – not to mention the world. They were in short, and in the words of so many survivors, “hell on earth”.

Discovering this inside story was a slow process. By the time the story hit the news in 1993 with the discovery of the mass grave at High Park, most of the women who had been through the Laundries were old and frail. Few were able to properly express themselves anyway - one of the most upsetting consequences of their life inside the Magdalene Asylums was that they had received very little education. Most importantly, they were afraid: afraid of the stigma attached to publicly declaring themselves to have been “fallen women”, afraid of the continuing power of the church in their communities (or indeed, afraid of the nuns, since they still housed many of the women). Also, thanks to years of religious indoctrination, they were afraid of the consequences in the next life of criticising the church.

 “The shame of being a Magdalene still runs so deep in Ireland nobody would [talk],” explained Steve Humphries, the maker of the documentary Sex In A Cold Climate, and the man who perhaps did the most to eventually uncover the story. His film, first shown in British television in 1998, was instrumental in finally changing the atmosphere sufficiently so that some women felt able to tell their stories.

 Humphries was so successful because he managed to track down four women who had escaped the Laundries and since fled to the UK. Their testimony is devastating.

 One of these women, Martha Cooney, was put away by the local priest and her family after she’d complained to a cousin that she’d been raped. “They got rid of me very quickly,” she said. She’d broken a cardinal rule, as she discovered to her cost: “the biggest sin in Ireland was to talk.” She was made to work so hard in the laundries that she got varicose veins in her hands aged just 15. If she ever did anything the nuns perceived as wrong, she was made to bow down before them and beg for forgiveness. She spent 4 years inside an asylum until a family member came and rescued her in 1945. She has never felt able to marry. “I never wanted anybody to have power over me, or chain me ever again,” she explains.

 Phyllis Valentine, an orphan, was judged a danger because of her good looks, and transferred direct from her orphanage to an asylum. It was years before she found out that this was the reason for her detainment. She recalls punishments and girls being “punched” “slapped” and beaten with a leather belt. “They were very vicious, some of them nuns,” she says. “They were really cruel to us. And we never did anything wrong.” In 1964 after 8 years incarceration at the Sisters Of Mercy asylum in Galway, and months of determined rebellion, self-starvation and trouble-making the nuns found her so much of a handful that she was released. She married at 25, but her sex life was ruined from an overhanging conviction that the act was “wrong,” a hang up from the laundry. “I felt ashamed every time he touched me,” she says. The nuns had taught us that it was wrong to let a man touch you. They never prepared us for the outside world.

 Christiana Mulcahey went to the same Galway asylum ten years before Phyllis Valentine. Her perceived crime was to have given birth outside of wedlock. She agreed to talk to the program makers only because a recent diagnosis of terminal cancer had freed her from any consequences. Like many other Magdalenes, she had been forcibly separated from her baby while still breast-feeding. She was informed that the baby would be placed for adoption with a "good Catholic family" (many hundreds of babies were sent over to Catholic families in the United States, who were almost entirely ignorant of their original circumstances). When she arrived in the Asylum, she still had milk in her breasts. She went, in her words, “absolutely berserk” when she discovered one day that her baby had been adopted.

Phyllis Valentine explains that there was nothing unusual about Mulcahey’s story. It happened often and it was always heartbreaking. The mothers, she says, were “desperate to find out where their children were—absolutely desperate.” But they rarely did. “It was really very sad, but all the girl could do was to cry. There was nothing else to do but cry.”

The worst of it all was that Mulcahey had been hoping that she could still have a life with the baby’s father. “I lost out on him,” she says. “I would have married him. I loved him." During her time inside, a priest sexually abused her. After three years in the asylum she became one of the few people who successfully escaped, slipping out a side gate when a cowherd was taking cows into the asylum. She fled to Northern Ireland and became a nurse. She never saw her lover again, although she was finally reunited with her baby shortly before her death in 1997, having kept his existence a secret from the new family she started for more than 50 years.

 The fourth woman to talk to Humphries, Brigid Young, managed to avoid entering a laundry directly, but not its influence. She grew up in an orphanage attached to the Magdalene Asylum in Limerick. One say “just for talking to a Magdalene” (she had spoken to a “penitent” at the laundry door and agreed to help her see her baby, who was in the orphanage with her), she was given “a severe beating.” The Mother Superior of the convent beat her with a purpose made black rubber baton and forcibly cut her hair off. Afterwards, she forced Brigid to look in a mirror, in spite of the blood flowing into her eyes. “I’ll never forget what looked back at me,” she says. “Totally devastating. My face all swelled up. Under my chin, all cut up where she had stuck the scissors...” The Mother Superior was triumphant. “And you’re not so pretty now!” she is said to have exclaimed. Later, when a priest masturbated on her dress, Young was so afraid of being sent to the Magdalene asylum that she told no one. In 1956 she left the nuns’ charge. Her later marriage collapsed as a result of the abuse she had suffered. “It haunts you,” she says.


Alongside these stories of personal tragedy, Sex In A Cold Climate also helped to build up an image of everyday life inside the Magdalene Laundries – an image that gradually became clearer as more people started talking to the press in the documentary’s wake.

 As well as denying them their freedom, the nuns took away the women’s right to their very individuality. When they arrived their clothes were taken away and replaced with drab, heavy Victorian smocks (even in the latter half of the twentieth century) made from course material. They were also given new names (generally taken from Catholic saints, although some, bizarrely, were given masculine titles). This renaming of the girls had the incidental effect of making it harder for their families to track them down – especially because they were frequently moved without anyone being informed. Since a request from a family member was just about the only recognized way of getting out of the asylums, these measures often resulted in the girls being prisoner for life – with no trial, no judgment and often not understanding what they were supposed to have done wrong.

 Strictly speaking, according to Irish law, the nuns had no legal right to imprison their charges. Women were supposed to have entered the asylums voluntarily, but most were sent to them by priests, their families or directly from Industrial Schools (where they were supposed to have been under the protection of the Church and so kept away from the kind of “sin” they were being punished for in the laundries). Even a report commissioned by the Irish government, the 1970 Kennedy report, questioned the validity of the “voluntary” placements and noted that girls were kept unaware of their true rights. 

Escape, meanwhile, was extremely difficult. The residents were kept inside high walls (more than 20ft in many of the institutions), topped with glass and barbed wire. If they did manage to get outside, the girls were often forcibly returned to the asylums by the local police. And even if they did get back to their homes, they were generally rejected and then returned by outraged family members. The only real escape came in leaving Ireland completely.

 “I would rather have been down the women’s jail,” Mary Norris (one of the survivors who came forward after the scandal broke) told the Irish Independent. “At least I would have got a sentence and would know when I was leaving.”

 Meals were eaten wordlessly to the sound of biblical readings, the “penitents” stationed away from the Sisters, whose food was invariably better.

 Until the 1970s, the women, regardless of age, were referred to as “children”. They had to call the nuns “mother”. A priest writing in 1931 neatly summed up the contempt inherent in this patronizing relationship: 

"It may be only a white-veiled novice with no vows as yet; and it may be an old white-haired penitent giving back to God but the dregs of a life spent in sin. It matters not. In the Home of the Good Shepherd the one is ever the 'Mother' while the other is always the 'Child'."5

This quote further highlights one of the greatest tragedies of the whole system: the way the women were indoctrinated with the idea that they were “sinners” and “penitents”. They were taught that they were outcasts, that their natural desires were disgusting and that any sexual abuse they might have suffered was their own fault. The hardship of their lives was said to be no more than they deserved. They were also told that if they tried to leave the asylums they were literally taking the road to hell. Indeed, if they wanted to avoid the fiery Catholic underworld the best course of action was to debase themselves completely, obey the nuns in everything and pray for their souls constantly. They also had to – quite literally in some cases – work themselves to the bone.

 “You’d have to hand wash—scrub,” Josephine McCarthy - who was in a Magdalene Asylum in the 1960s - explained to the makers of a documentary for CBS in 1999. “You’d have no knuckles left. Ironing—you would be burnt. It was just hard work.”

 It was a real slog, with hours of scrubbing (often of bloody sheets - and worse - from the hospitals that made up a large part of the laundries’ custom), hours of hanging and hours ironing (work which gave Martha Cooney varicose veins aged 15). The days were strictly time-tabled with several hours of prayer on top of around 10 hours physical work in the washing rooms, six days a week.6 For most of the day the women were forbidden to speak or even communicate with each other. Nuns were stationed around the work areas to watch for any transgressions. Punishments were frequent and, by all accounts, brutal.

“Those places were the Irish gulags for women,” said Mary Norris. “When you went inside their doors you left behind your dignity, identity and humanity. We were locked up, had no outside contacts and got no wages although we worked 10 hours a day, six days a week, 52 weeks a year. What else is that but slavery? And to think that they were doing all this in the name of a loving God! I used to tell God I hated him.”

 Phyllis Valentine too recalled how she had asked to be paid after her first week in the laundry. “They just laughed at me,” she said.

 This failure to pay the women for their labours is thrown into stark relief by the huge profits that the Asylums used to make. The accounts of the Sunday’s Well Good Shepherd asylum in Cork alone show that the laundry was making a profit of hundreds of thousands of dollars in today’s money each year between the 1950s and 1960s7. The books also show that nearly all this money was spent on the nuns, and their increasingly fancy internal chapel, rather than on their imprisoned work force. The Laundries only stopped making such vast profits from the 1970s onwards, thanks to the advent of cheaply available automatic washing machines and driers. Indeed, many commentators, not to mention survivors, have attributed the Magdalene Asylums’ eventual decline to the arrival of the washing machine. It was money that closed them down, rather than to any ideological objections to their existence, or any realisation of their injustice on the part of the nuns.


 In spite of the horror of the revelations about life inside the Catholic Church’s Magdalene Laundries, next to nothing was said or done by the Vatican. At first, there wasn’t even an apology. Journalists hunting for comment were met with silence. Only Ireland’s outspoken liberal prelate Bishop Willie Walsh of Killaloe publicly recognized the wrong that had been done, telling ABC News “the Magdalene Laundries were in some instances a form of slavery … a source of pain and shame.”

 Even now, if you look on the huge online Catholic Encyclopedia the only reference to anything that might have been awry in the Magdalene Asylums is the comment “this order is no longer in existence.”8 My own attempts to get a statement from the Vatican or the Conference of Religious in Ireland (the umbrella organization for all monastic orders in the country) came to nothing.

 The Vatican was moved to speak, however, in 2003 when the director Peter Mullan released The Magdalene Sisters. This film, inspired by the documentary Sex In A Cold Climate, and made in consultation with a number of survivors, as well as a former nun (who had left the Church in dismay at what she saw in the Laundries), provided a predictably harrowing depiction of the life its young subjects had to endure. It won the best film award at the Venice Film Festival and was watched by a third of the Irish adult population. The Roman Catholic Church was unable to ignore it, so they denounced it. The Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano declared it an “angry and rancorous provocation” that misrepresented religious leaders. The Catholic League in America labeled the film “anti-Catholic propaganda” and barracked Miramax for distributing it. Elsewhere, the old canard was reeled out that the film was biased because it didn’t do anything to promote the good work that the Catholic clergy do around the world.

 One scene in particular, where a group of nuns mock their charges’ naked bodies, was heavily criticized as exploitation. In fact, the filmmakers and many survivors were adamant that if anything, the film understated the reality. In The Magdalene Sisters, the nude parade is presented as a one off, but according to many survivors, that kind of thing happened to them weekly. Every Saturday night, according to Brigid Young, who also recalls how the nuns mocked the girls lined up before them, laughed at them for being fat and shouted abuse at them. “They enjoyed us stripped naked,” she adds.

In fact, if the survivors themselves had any criticisms of the film it was the extent to which the reality of their lives had to be watered down to make it bearable for cinema audiences.

 "Plenty of people will think the events in the film have been exaggerated to make it more dramatic," Mary Norris explained to the Irish Independent. "But I tell you, the reality of those places was a thousand times worse. There's a scene in which a girl is crying in the dormitory and another goes over to her bed to comfort her. That could never have happened. You weren't allowed any private conversation. Again, in the film the girls get glimpses of the outside world and even ordinary people who don't live in the laundries. In reality, we were totally incarcerated. You could see nothing except sky.”

 Meanwhile, Mary-Jo McDonagh, who spent five years in a Magdalene asylum in Galway (after being molested by a neighbour) told The Guardian: "It was worse in the Magdalenes, much worse than what you see. I don't like to say it, but the film is soft on the nuns. "

 Director Peter Mullan openly admits that he left out some of the most harrowing material for the sake of the audience, and tells the story of how one 65-year-old woman said to him: “It’s not nearly bad enough. You didn’t show it as it really was. We were only babies. It was a lot worse. It was horrendous.”


In the aftermath of the film The Magdalene Sisters, the survivors did at least get something of an apology, not from the Vatican or the perpetrators themselves, but better than nothing. It came from the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas – the US branch of the organisation that ran the asylums in Ireland not run by the Good Shepherds. “It's not proper to hide from anything," said a spokeswoman for the organisation. "We're all human, we've all made mistakes. We do reach out and apologize to anyone who may have been abused at the hands of our sisters, or any sisters."

For a while it even seemed as if the remaining survivors were going to get some compensation for their years of slave labour. In 2002, following on from the numerous Catholic sexual abuse scandals that emerged in Ireland in the 1990s (including the exposure of the systematic mistreatment of thousands of children in the country’s Catholic-run Industrial Schools and hundreds of cases of priestly paedophilia as well as the stories from the Magdalene Laundries) an independent Redress Board was set up with the stated intention to: “make fair and reasonable awards to persons who, as children, were abused while resident in industrial schools, reformatories and other institutions subject to state regulation or inspection.”

 Surprisingly, however, very few of the Magdalene survivors fell within the ambit of this board (the main exceptions being those who were transferred direct from the Industrial Schools).

 “They were completely ignored,” explains Mari Steed, a spokeswoman for the Justice For Magdalenes group, whose own biological mother spent a number of years in the Sunday’s Well asylum in Cork. “Basically, in 2002, it came down to a decision from a chief justice [The Honourable Mr. Justice Sean Ryan] who determined that the Magdalene women were, in fact women” – i.e., they were too old – “and were 'voluntarily’ sent to these institutions. As such, he felt that they were not entitled to the redress given to other victims of institutional abuse.”

 Not surprisingly Steed and the survivors were unimpressed by this decision. “If these women 'voluntarily' submitted to a life doing industrial laundry,” she asks “why when some tried to leave or escape were they dragged back by the gardai?”

 “Many were not legal adults when they entered,” she adds, noting that none of the various scenarios for which women were sent to the laundries (being the victims of rape, having babies out of wedlock, being too pretty or deemed “flirtatious”) “seem very voluntary, either.”

 In addition to this injustice, the women have lately had to contend with further setbacks. Perhaps the most damaging is the controversy following on from the publication of the book Kathy’s Story by Kathy O’Beirne. A misery memoir in the mould of James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces full of painful stories and horrific accounts of abuse within the Magdalene system, the book was an international best seller.

 Unfortunately, claims have been made that Kathy’s Story resembles Frey’s work in more than just its explicit storytelling. The “Good Shepherd” nuns, who ran the High Park asylum in Dublin in which O’Beirne says she spent several years, have claimed that many of the stories O’Beirne tells are untrue and that she did not spend any time in any of their institutions. Although they had kept an undignified silence when the first attempts had been made to uncover the story of the Magdalene Asylums, and declined all press interviews when their laundries first hit the headlines, The Sisters seized this opportunity to put the boot in:

 "We are very careful about confidentiality as people's reputations are sacred to us whether they are dead or alive. Our girls came to us because they needed help,” High Park’s senior archivist told the Irish Sunday Independent. "Kathy should produce evidence of where she was and when. Where is the child's birth certificate? Why has it taken 30 years to find? I am very sorry, the girl is clearly very traumatised."

 The Sunday Independent was happy to report the story almost entirely from the nun’s viewpoint, portraying them as victims “appalled” by the allegations being made against them, not even mentioning the verifiable suffering about which they have been silent for so many years.

 “It has been very difficult distancing ourselves from the media hype surrounding Kathy,” says Mari Steed, and it’s plain that the controversy has had a negative effect on other survivors and their supporters. When I spoke to Kathy O'Beirne, she did at least make the point that her book has kept the issue of the Magdalene Laundries firmly in the public eye, and like James Frey she pointed out how helpful it has been to many of her readers who have themselves suffered abuse. She is also able to defend herself on the grounds that plenty of other people with complicated upbringings in Industrial Schools and Laundries are unable to produce their correct birth certificates and documentation. O'Beirne also claims that many of her records were destroyed in a fire. Sadly, however, there are several aspects of the book that other more neutral observers have declared, “do not pass the smell test.”

“It’s all the truth,” protests O’Beirne. “We know it’s the truth. They [the Church] know it’s the truth.” At the time of writing, she faces an uphill struggle to prove her case. It seems likely that the case will go to court. There is, however, no doubting that O’Beirne carries a lasting trauma from whatever it was that happened to her in her youth, and an enduring hatred for the abusive members of the Roman Catholic clergy. “They’re just sick. They’re the disciples of the devil,” she kept repeating when I spoke to her. “They should be ashamed.”

 As it is, the nuns have shown no sign of repentance, although, unsurprisingly, the asylums they ran still cast a long shadow over many lives today. The survivors, will of course, never forget. Indeed, many of them are so institutionalised by their time in the laundries that they are unable to fend for themselves and still live in the care of the same orders of nuns who used to hold them enslaved. There are also the hundreds (or possibly even thousands) of children who were forcibly separated from their mothers. Most of these will never find them – or even find out who they were.

 There have at least been some happier stories, however. There are the women like Christina Mulcahey who managed to escape the system and went on to lead a fulfilling life and raise a family of her own – not to mention telling her story to a wide and sympathetic public and eventually tracking down her long lost son.

 Others too have been reunited with their lost babies. Mari Steed from Justice For Magdalenes, for instance, eventually found her mother after a ten-year search.

 “I am one of the very lucky ones who met with absolute joy in my reunion,” she says. “My mother had been eagerly awaiting my 'return' one of these days, and was not at all put out by my finding her.”

 She insists that there is still hope for those still looking and encourages them to persevere, albeit with the following warning: “ guard yourself against unrealistic expectations, because sometimes you're not always met with a warm welcome. The shame and stigma of unwed pregnancy in Ireland was so heavy back then that many women have never outed themselves to subsequent husbands or children.”

So it is that most of the women who passed through the Magdalene Laundries never have, or never will tell their story. As Mary Norris told the Irish Independent:

 "Many survivors refuse to talk about what they went through but I've never been ashamed to have been in one of those places. The shame is not mine; the church should be ashamed. They say now they're sorry — what they mean is, sorry they were found out."

 An estimated 30,000 women went through the Magdalene Asylums (estimated because no proper records were kept). The last one closed as recently 1996. There has been no apology. No state enquiry. Most of the 155 women found in the mass grave at the High Park Laundry still have no death certificate. More graves, still uncovered, are said to be scattered around Ireland.

Justice for Magdalenes can be found at: http://www.Magdalenelaundries.com/ . They are running an e-card campaign to express outrage to the Irish government that no official inquiry has been made into the Laundries and that most of the women in the mass grave found in High Park Laundry still have no death certificate.


1 Not least because before the scandal broke several of the institutions had handed over their records to the historian Dr Frances Finnegan who made it her mission to bring this shadowy history into the light, talking to journalists, helping to inform the TV programmes that would eventually explain the Laundries to the world and eventually publishing the definitive history “Do Penance Or Perish” in 2001.

This was all explained in the hand-book of the Good Shepherds: “The greater number of our children we know desire to return to the world. The thought that they will be once more exposed to the danger of going astray… is a sorrow for a Religious. We should then, make every effort to induce them to remain in the asylum opened to them by Divine Providence, where they are assured the grace of a happy death…” (Practical Rules for the Use of the Religious of the Good Shepherd for the Direction of the Classes, Mother St Euphrasia Pelletier, 1898 pp 182-3, cited in Frances Finnegan Do Penance Or Perish. Oxford University Press 2001)

3 As shown in the records investigated by Frances Finnegan, Op Ed, p195 
4 Finnegan, Op Ed. p46.

5 Finnegan, Op Cit, p.42

6 Sundays were given over to yet more religious contemplation.
7 Suffer The Little Children by Mary Raferty and Eoin O’Sullivan, p290