Man at His Best

What It's Like To Spend Almost Half Your Life In A Cult

Director Will Allen & fellow survivors talk about the emotional prison ​from which they escaped.

BY EVELYN WANG | May 30, 2016 | Film & TV

As far as cult leaders go, the leader who runs the Buddhafield—sometimes known as Andreas or Michel, sometimes The Teacher—seems relatively benign at first, perhaps even laughable. A ballet dancer with a Ken doll's body, a penchant for wearing Speedos and mascara, and whose claim to fame was being an extra in Rosemary's Baby, he is miles away from the likes of Jim Jones and Charles Manson. Even the Buddhafield itself seems like your standard '80s Hollywood Hills hippie commune. Imagine lots of watered-down Eastern spirituality and group sing-a-longs. 

Director Will Allen's documentary about the Buddhafield, Holy Hell, seems pretty tame in the beginning. Allen had spent half his life in the cult when he departed at the age of 44. But during that time he was allowed to film 22 years' worth of footage, which he combines with interviews with other cult members who defected late in their lives. Gradually the film steers towards the sinister, and about a third of the way through, there's a tangible key change. The charisma and kumbaya-ing turns into megalomania and gaslighting. The cult members accuse The Teacher (real name Jaime Gomez) of moral and criminal violations, the worst of which is widespread sexual abuse of the male cult members. 

Will Allen, along with former Buddhafield and cast members Vera Chieffo and Phillipe Coquet, sat down with Esquire to talk about the power of the cult's leader (known as The Teacher), why they joined Buddhafield, and life after living in a cult. 

ESQ: How do you think one man was able to have so much power?
Phillipe Coquet:
Some people have such a need to take other people's energy that when it comes to them, it feeds them. It's like a vampiric thing. And there are many people that we've seen, like Donald Trump for instance, who does this really well. The more people feed him, the monster gets bigger and bigger. It was almost like a mosquito, how they just suck your blood until they pop. Also, a lot of us wanted somebody to give our power to, somebody to help guide us along.

Vera Chieffo: I never saw it as giving my power to him.

Will Allen: You don't see it that way. I never thought, "I'm going to join a group and give my power to someone." But there is a social proof that happens. And there is this groupthink that goes on. There's a wave of agreement, because we're all agreeing to do it. A lot of the principles of the East vs. West that we were doing—surrendering to the guru, dropping your ego, taking your shoes off before you walk into a room and leave the world behind—we didn't think of it as giving our power, we thought of it as empowering. And he also had a relationship with each one of us individually. He ended up getting everyone's power individually, one at a time.

In the film, Will, you mentioned that you had one of the closest relationships with him. Did you know about all that at the time and what was that like?
WA:
I don't know if I had the closest relationship with him, but I definitely think I was around him the longest out of anybody I know, [having lived] with him for 18 years. 

Did that change your perception of all of that?
WA:
Yeah, it was like I saw the man behind the curtain. But I had to accept him, too. We were asking us to be loved unconditionally, so we also had to love unconditionally. So when you see his faults, you go, "OK, well, I can wrap my head around that. He's not perfect."

VC: I would say, too, "He's doing this for me." I saw him as perfect. Everything he did was for our growth and a lesson for us.

WA: He was serving us. It looks like we were serving him, but he was serving us. I'm your mama, you're nursing on me, I'm giving you all this love, you need me.

PC: There's this movie Whiplash. That film is about this master teacher, and he puts this guy through the wringer, and the guy is supposed to continue to do it and eventually he's vindicated because the guy's a genius. That's how we saw it. This master teacher is going to do whatever it takes to bring you to the ultimate, even if it means destroying you and himself.

What prompted you to join Buddhafield?
PC:
I was in a really bad seven-year relationship that I'd been trying to get out of. I was just searching for something more. I was dissatisfied with all my friends who were all drunk and drugged all the time—including me. I was doing a lot of acting, and that was going really well, but it wasn't enough. And I met this young man who was very beautiful. I felt very taken by him, and he invited me to a meeting. It felt like a really loving, sweet, beautiful family, and I got really high in the environment that I was in. I went home and was like, "Wow, I didn't even have to get high to get high."

VC: It was the same thing. I was searching for something. Actually, the first time I saw him, I said, "He is frigging weird." He was wearing little Speedos and this little tiny vest, with these really big muscles, and I was like, "I don't know if I like this." But when I left, I was high. I was just in ecstasy. A lot of people did come for the community, but I was so in love with him. I would have died for him. He used to say in the beginning, "Don't call me a guru. I'm a teacher." And in my head, I said, "No, you're my guru." And I felt that way because he was so potent.

This master teacher is going to do whatever it takes to bring you to the ultimate, even if it means destroying you and himself. 
 

WA: One of the boys who knew him before I met him, before he even had followers, came to Sundance and he said, "Michel said, 'I want to have followers. I want to have people follow me.'" I never heard that until Sundance. That one piece of the puzzle made me go, "OK, fuck him." By the time I met him, he had the whole act down. He had followers. I was trusting these people around him that they had vetted him.

PC: We all had these blinders on. Like when you fall in love with somebody and start excusing the little red flags that come up. The first time I saw him, I went home and told my boyfriend, "I had a great time, but this guy is kind of demonic." And I went back. 

Except for the huge email that someone sent [with accusations of the leader including sexual abuse] and once people started leaving, did people confront him about any of the accusations?
PC:
Some people did privately, and he would just deny it. There were a few people who sent letters, and he would just say they were crazy and not to talk to them.

WA: He denounced anybody who came up with anything against him. This is why I made the movie, because one person can't really tackle him—it's your word against his. But when you get a bunch of people saying the same thing, it's hard to deny everyone saying the same thing all at once.

PC: And we were so confused. There were some moments where people tried to attempt that in class, and it really backfired. There was a guy who confronted him about the way he was treating another guy in the class, and it was actually the same guy who eventually wrote the email, and Andreas just spun it around.

VC: He was a master spinner.

PC: So we all didn't trust that guy.

WA: He'd make you embarrassed for saying it, so there's social shame happening.

PC: And he also knew everything about everyone, because he's a therapist, and he was really good at pulling out things in a way that you would shut up, because you didn't want to reveal more.

He denounced anybody who came up with anything against him. This is why I made the movie, because one person can't really tackle him—it's your word against his.
 

WA: And it was all public. No one wanted to be in that limelight.

VC: Also, since we all lived together, he'd ask you questions about someone else, and he would tell me, "If you don't tell me that, then you are creating karma. So you need to tell me what this person's doing," so he could help them, and then he would say, "I saw this in a vision."

WA: He was always lying and saying he had a dream. He told me he saw me dying.

PC: There were quite a few people he played that one with.

If he was so paranoid about exposure, as portrayed in the film, why do you think he let you film the entire thing?
WA:
He wanted to be a movie star, so I think a part of him was flattered. I think originally he didn't want me to pull the camera out, he didn't want me to document things. When people would leave, he would go break in their homes to get any photos they had. He felt very like no one could have any incriminating evidence about him, he didn't want it to exist. So the fact that he let me film or allowed me to do what I wanted to do just came with time. He trusted me slowly. One film I made, I made him look really good, and I made another one that made him look really good, so he went alright, you're on my page.

PC: And we all got to see it and it reinforced our vision of him, too, because Will made him look so beautiful.

If you hadn't made the film, do you think you would still be there?
WA:
No, I think we all probably would have gotten out earlier. These films were one of the elements that helped keep us together. They were like home movies that reinforced our family. So in a weird way, we'd all watch these movies and get reconnected and go, "Oh, that is beautiful.”

A lot of people did come for the community, but I was so in love with him. I would have died for him.
 

What has life been like for all of you after? Like, deprogramming, adjusting, unlearning all of these things?
WA:
I still do it all the time. I have to really feel and know what I'm feeling, understand my feelings and my thoughts, and put them in the context of the personal and not borrow them from someone else or a concept that's not mine. I had a partner eventually, and every day something would remind me. I have to talk about my life. I had to cry about what happened to me. I was doing drugs, I was drinking, I was doing all the stuff that we hadn't been doing for 20 years. I wasn't resolving anything. I was creating new memories and time was going by. But it wasn't getting better, so I saw a psychotherapist—a real one, because I wanted something clinical, that was not spiritual, to talk about this. Because we all talked amongst ourselves, we could tell all of our stories, but we didn't resolve them.

PC: I needed to dive into radical self-expression. I went to Burning Man and did a year of Shamanic studies. I needed to find my own inner authority. I developed a lot of spiritual practices of my own that were very different from what was going on before. A year later I had my first relationship, I met up with someone who is still my partner. I [hadn't had] a relationship for 20 years. And it has been amazingly healing. I've done a lot of other alternative kinds of healing, but mostly it's like dancing around a fire naked, screaming and carrying on, and wearing lots of costumes.

VC: I dealt with it a lot with therapy and a lot of different things. I moved 32 times in five states in eight years. I was just trying to find who am I, what I want, what I like. He made every decision for me. I didn't pick a colour of lipstick without him. That's how bad it was. To start over… I was in a foetal position on the floor. My whole belief system was gone, all my friends were gone. And now I'm finally getting my feet on the ground. 

From: Esquire US.