Chapter one of 'Secret Cult'
by Peter Hounam and Andrew Hogg
A full expose of a strange and destructive organization that is penetrating the corridors of power
"When religion goes wrong it doesn't just go a bit wrong, it goes very, very wrong."
Bishop of Woolwich
When the London Standard newpaper's top investigate team began to look into the School of Economic Science, they met a wall of secrecy. What they found is cause for public concern:
All this in the name of what claims to be a wholesome philosophy with Christian overtones. But in reality this is a strange, eccentric, essentially Eastern cult...
Peter Hounam is in charge of investigations on The Standard, London's evening newspaper.
Training the perfect woman
Frith Oliver's frantic life of devotion to the School of Economic Science finally began to disintegrate one sunny summer's day in 1976.
I have clear memories of an overwhelmingly powerful personality - deep brown eyes of an extraordinarily compelling nature, a velvet voice with a depthless quality which could reassure and offer wisdom and love (how one longed for his approval!) or slash to the bone with alarming unpredictability. A trained lawyer's voice; he made very impressive use of it. I remember how everyone moved very quietly in his presence and leaped nervously to do his bidding at the slightest command.
At the age of ten Frith began attending group meetings every week to learn more about the beliefs and rules of the movement. Then, on a subsequent visit to New Zealand by MacLaren, she began to realize that he was singling her out as someone special.
Leon MacLaren began to make the insidious suggestion, supremely intoxicating to a child, that I was somehow spiritually superior to most other people (I think my sister was too, but that was something that had to be borne, alas.) It was suggested that I was somehow special, had some awareness that the poor grown-ups lacked. This wonderful quality I possessed would mean that my spiritual achievements would be far beyond the wildest dreams of other, less fortunate members of the School. As an added bonus, since such things smacked of worldly dross, I wouldn't have to bother too much about exams. This sounded like a good idea to me.
Looking back on this period of her childhood Frith can remember no suspicions about the way she was selected as something akin to a goddess in the School's eyes:
I wonder now what he was really looking for. An innocent mind more easily moulded than those of the more experienced adults? A mind empty of preconceived notions which could be satisfactory guided in the path of his choice? (There, I need hardly add, he proved mistaken!) Whatever it was, I was delighted and felt extraordinary privileged. What child would not be, when it was hinted that she was in fact superior to her parents whose authority appeared awesome to her - the hint coming from an authority which exceeded theirs? I felt a strong sense of gratification. Perfection in spirituality was desired by all, and I was a few steps up from the rest - a most satisfactory state of affairs. The division of the family widened.
Frith's parents, both successful professional public servants, accepted her new status with the School. But family life grew more and more difficult. Her parents consulted MacLaren about their daughter's outbursts of temper and wilful behaviour. Frith is in no doubt that it was MacLaren's idea that she should leave her family, fly to London and be brought up by the School.
It is impossible to convey the depth of loneliness and misery experienced by a child of thirteen uprooted from all it knows and thrown unprepared into a strange country, strange company, huge, cold streets of tall grey buildings and endless rain. The hopeless, helpless vulnerability...
And so the expiriment began. Frith was sent to live with three woman, all SES members, in a house used by the cult. It was not an atmosphere with much appeal to a youthful spirit.
These people had no notion of how to communicate with a child. They attempted, I suppose, to treat me as one of themselves as far as possible. They were all well into middle age, two of them with no experience of children whatsoever. The other should have known better: she was a teacher of many years' experience.
Academic life was equally unsatisfactory and unhappy. A place had been found for her in a well-respected Central London girl's school, but she found the curriculum unfamiliar and her classmates unfriendly. Her unhappiness broke out into rebellion, and at the age of fourteen she was removed.
I recall an evening during this period when I was staying at Stanhill Court, the SES retreat in Surrey. I was, as usual, in MacLaren's room, as I was privileged to be owing to my exalted position as his 'find'. I was allowed to serve him at table and listen to the after-dinner conversation. Sometimes he would talk to me alone. On this occasion he was expounding to me on the subject of woman. 'All women feel guilty,' he said. With much trepidation I ventured to argue. 'I don't understand,' I said. 'I don't feel guilty.' Oh yes you do,' he assured me. 'You just don't realize it yet because you're too young. All women feel guilty because of Eve's sin in taking the apple. And so they should. All women are guilty, and the only true aim of their lives must be to purge that guilt.'
Frith was even more unhappy because she found she didn't feel any guilt. She became more and more bewildered. The SES had told her that she must suppress emotions including sexual feelings, yet as a fifteen-year-old such feelings were running strongly inside her. She was taught that woman were unequal to men and that she should always obey a man and suppress any feelings of doubt and resistance:
Feelings, I was told, were not true. If a person experienced, for example, grief, this was a negative emotion and untrue. It should be suppressed. A person who expressed such an emotion was denying the Truth, and should be punished. The unbelievable cruelty of such notions was lost on me as a child; I simply believed what I was told. I have heard MacLaren state that anyone who was chronically ill or mentally handicapped was in that state because they wished to be so, in order to avoid making the effort to follow the Way of Truth. I believed him. So, astoundingly, did the adults around me. At least one must suppose they did; they stayed.
On top of this she was told not to form any views about anything:
In the very early group I was told (along eith the rest of the group) that the mind should be emptied of opinions. Opinions and beliefs were always 'false', as also were feelings. As I was too young to have formed many opinions, I tried in vain to abandon what I did not in fact possess. The result was a strange vacuum, wherein I believed that to profess knowledge on any subject constituted ignorance. This was compounded by such sayings from the Hindu teachings as 'He who says he knows, knows nothing'. I stifled feelings and manufactured responses, but occasionally some underlying commonsense prevailed, the effort of dissimulation proved impossible, and I exploded.
These beliefs meant that within the SES's clearly defined pecking order there was little if any warmth and friendship. The senior members were cold and remote. They bullied the members beneath them and so on down through the hierarchy. People outside the SES were given no consideration whatsoever.
Puzzled mothers might ask me questions regarding the upbringing of their children, or young couples ask my permission to become engaged. Older couples brought their marital problems. I was far from adequately equipped to cope with such queries, and only too miserably aware of the fact. I spent the evenings in an agony of terror, desperately hoping that none of them would see through my pose as a 'tutor', and for some reason feeling that I was to blame for my lack of suitability for the job.
MacLaren's prophecy of women always feeling guilty was beginning to bu fulfilled.
The husband in a family is told to 'put the School first'. Thus it is far more important for him to be about his SES duties (and these might be three nights a week, and one or even two days at the weekend - more as he becomes more senior) than to be at home with his family. Wives who complain of this neglect are dubbed 'wilful', 'destructive', and 'wicked'.
The School also taught that the way of carrying out tasks was all-important. Each task should be conducted with infinite care and concentration, without the mind wandering onto other things. This was the way to gain spiritual enlightenment:
There was also an insistence on Victorian methods of housekeeping, as being pure and virtuous. Hoovers and washing-machines were discouraged, for example, and old-fashioned boilers extolled. The use of detergents, plastics or any form of synthetic fibre was frowned on. (This, needless to say, involved financial strain as many natural substances are much more expansive than perfectly efficacious man-made counterparts.) Women were also axpected to provide their family with a special vegetarian diet of uncooked food only.
The duties of a housewife had to be combined with an all-consuming commitment to SES-practices. These began after five hours' sleep a night.
One was supposed to rise at dawn, (or even earlier during the winter), meditate, then do an hour's study of the scriptures. Another hour would follow on other SES practices such as calligraphy, or mathematics, and then an hour's Sanskrit practice was required. If one were in an activity group, such as choir, a further three hours' singing practice also had to be fitted in during the day. Failure in any of the above was severely criticized.
A further problem was Frith's high position within the SES. People at a higher level considered themselves superior to anyone lower down, with great spiritual powers. She says the cruelty this led to is difficult to convey:
You really did feel that God himself, or someone with his authority, was reprimanding your misdemeanours (this happened rathe a lot to me - I wasn't a very obedient member!) and conversely, if you were correcting someone in a 'lower' level, you felt that same power invested in you. You (I hesitate to say 'I', as I am now so bitterly ashamed of the belief) really believed that you were responsible for a person's soul if you were their tutor, and regarded them almost as a child. I have been told that when a tutor sits in front of his or her group the 'Voice of the Absolute' speaks through him, and all knowledge is available to him. Nothing he says can be wrong, and his word must be obeyed implicitly. This appealed in no small way to those with a power-hungry nature, and much heavy wielding of authority took place. Some very foolish instructions were conveyed and obeyed, and people suffered very greatly, both emotionally and in some cases physically.
In Frith's case it led to further strains on her marriage. Her husband was in the same level as her students and was thus accorded a much lower status. Inevitably it affected their relationship.
I know now (and will suffer guilt for it all my life) that I neglected my children in the rush and scramble to be at my 'duties'. I left them too young and too often with assorted babysitters. I was more concerned with struggling to achieve all the standards set by the SES than with their happiness. I was, for instance, told that I must teach them to read, write and know their tables by the time they were four. When (not surprisingly) they didn't take to this I was wretched and desperate, and consequently bad-tempered. It was all unbelievably, and I am only now really realizing what the emotional damage to them must have been. The SES often condoned and even encouraged the removal of children from their parents, as in my case, and I have heard Leon MacLaren say that parents are the worst influence a child can have, and really all children should be taken from the sphere of parents' influence.
After six unhappy years the marriage finally fell apart. Frith got a divorce with custody of the children. But she was still totally committed to the SES, although always she had felt doubts about the teachings. Much was unintelligible and occasionally she realized that others found it so too. She put all this down to her own inadequacies and continued to feel guilty about it. As she had known no other type of life it never occurred to her to leave - until the incident in the garden where the confrontation with the neighbour brought home the way her life had become totally dominated by SES demands.
Whereas there was a rule that adults should have no more than five hours' sleep avery night, children under twelve were supposed to have no more than eight hours. However, I let them sleep until they woke naturally; if they needed to relax I let them watch television, a pastime the SES did not approve of. And instead of restricting them to uncooked food only, I baked cakes and made shepherd's pie. I gave every reasonable support and help with their homework, but when I thought there was far too much I would sometimes write a note excusing the child from finishing it. I refused to force them to sit up til 10 p.m. or 10.30 to complete it, as I know many parents did.
For several years she did not consider removing the children from the schools - her SES conditioning was too strong for that. But gradually, as she began to sense freedom lying outside the cult, she found it more and more difficult to approach teachers and voice her worries. She was blamed for the children's unhappiness and lack of academic progress. One teacher said her daughter was the worst child she had ever had to teach. Why? Because Frith was not providing the right atmosphere at home.
Although I was growing anxious about my children's progress, I was still afraid to move them because I had no idea where they could go. I was wary of the state system. Leon MacLaren had frequently, in ranting speeches to SES groups, asserted that state schools were full of drug-pushers and violence. There was also a total lack of discipline, and a low educational standard. I was also quite aware that I could not afford the fees of any other private school.
By 1980 Frith had been promoted and had a well-paid secretarial job at a college. She began to tell her friends at work about her life in the SES. But it was not until two years later - in the summer of 1982 - that the question of the children's schooling came to a head. Her son broke down and said he was being badly bullied. He also began to have headaches. The boy and his sister had both developed asthma. She felt the way the children were being handled at school was a strong factor in their physical and mental distress.
Since his parents divorced he has lived mostly with his mother and has attended school here regularly. His home environment is plainly not helpful to him. His mother's behaviour is erratic and unreliable and has resulted in several outbursts against the school which seem to have little rational basis. The boy has not been well cared for at home: when he was younger he was frequently unwashed and poorly clad and we have had problems with homework and indeed with anything that required sustained effort. He has clearly benefitted from the school and from the companionship of the other boys and from the care of his Masters. We would certainly like to keep him in the school.
At the judicial hearing which took place at a county court in London the headmaster made even stronger comments about Frith Oliver and her family, even going so far as to say that the boy had criminal tedencies which could only be corrected by SES methods. But persistent cross-examination revealed his passionate devotion to the SES ideas. His reference to the boy being 'poorly clad', for instance, referred to the fact that he turned up at school in clothes made of synthetic materials - not the pure wool and cotton laid down in SES doctrine.
At the moment her mother is not in contact with the school, and we find that the child achieves very little homework when she is at her mother's, but she does receive help when she stays with her father and then when she gets to school she enjoys the encouragement for work well done. We do not advise a change of school, because (the child) is being very well catered for here and because we feel that to continue in the same school, rather than change again at the age of thirteen, would ensure stability and continuity for her, when her home circumstances are not stable. She does enjoy the time that she spends with her father and she comes back happy and very well turned out.
Their evidence failed to make much of an impression on the judge, because many people were prepared to testify that Frith Oliver was a loving, conscientious and devoted mother. Nevertheless the matter was not resolved. The judge decided that Janet should not have removed her children so swiftly, and stipulated they must return to the school for the rest of that term, pending the outcome of a hearing over the custody of the children.
After about two years, when one has been initiated into the SES, one has begun to be enmeshed in the rules, which are very cleverly designed. (After all, Mr MacLaren is a lawyer.) The basic rule of never discussing the 'teachings' outside the SES walls is one such. Another, never to communicate with anyone who leaves the organization, is a cunning protection. The highly organized network of meditation tutors throughout the School, requiring all students to report periodically concerning their practice, is most extraordinary confidence trick. Most tutors admit among themselves that their experience of meditation means almost nothing to them.
Copyright (c) 1984 Peter Hounam and Andrew Hogg / published by Lion Publishing plc (England) ISBN 0 85648 837 2, Albatross Books (Australia) ISBN 0 86760 605 3 / First edition 1985 / pages 12 to 28
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