Samantha Brick: The cult that tried to take over my lifeIt started with a massage — but soon she was paying thousands to a sect that preyed on the lonely. Years later, she still fears they’re watching her
00:59 GMT, 19 July 2012
As I slipped into the freshly made bed, it occurred to me that no one who knew and loved me had any idea where I was. I left the bedside light on for reassurance and tried to relax, but was shocked when, just minutes later, the door to my room was suddenly opened. I sat bolt upright in bed. ‘What is it’ I asked.
‘We prefer guests to turn the lights off,’ the woman replied, before telling me my bedroom door would be locked ‘for my own safety’ until the morning.
I was so frightened I barely slept a wink that night, asking myself repeatedly why I’d been reckless enough to come to a weekend retreat under the control of an organisation I knew nothing about.
Close encounter: Samantha Brick was once drawn into a group that had all the hallmarks of a cult
This unsettling experience came flooding back to me when I read about claims that Tom Cruise’s devotion to Scientology had contributed to the marriage break-up with his wife Katie Holmes. Sadly, I know what it’s like to be in the control of a cult.
I became a follower of Sathya Sai Baba — an Indian guru and mystic, who died last year — for 12 months, during which time I spent close to 10,000 on various ‘services’.
Looking back, I was naive. How else could I have been conned into paying for weekend retreats purporting to assist my spiritual development, expensive bottles of essences prescribed to keep me in optimum health and meditation sessions to ensure my mind was attuned to the guru
At the time I was 25 and single, earning 50,000 a year as a TV producer and living alone in my own London flat.
I didn’t realise it then, but I was having what some psychologists refer to as a ‘quarter-life crisis’.
Suddenly, I was bored with going out every weekend, where the most meaningful questions posed by my friends were which trendy nightclub guest-list were we on and how many glasses of complimentary champagne we could consume.
I wanted purpose and meaning in my life, which made me the ideal target for a cult.
One day in 1996, I went for a massage in a plush London spa recommended by a colleague. Within minutes of meeting the therapist, Helen, I told her what I did for a job, my marital status and the fact I lived away from my family in the Midlands.
The guru Sathya Sai Baba
I revealed I’d been reading a lot of self-help books and was feeling unfulfilled in my job. I may as well have been wearing a placard emblazoned: ‘Insecure female: please exploit me.’
Helen urged me to buy some healing essences from her. They cost 30 a bottle and she said I needed five different potions to help with the areas of my life in which I was having difficulties.
She claimed that placing drops of each essence on my tongue every day could heal my back problem, further my career, aid weight loss, improve my love life and cure my insomnia. So, I spent 150 on the five bottles.
When Helen phoned later that week to see if I was feeling better, I couldn’t help being touched and flattered by her concern. She mentioned she held weekly meditation sessions at her flat in Notting Hill, West London (I learned later that the apartment was paid for by a wealthy cult member), and I decided to go along.
Mediation was very much in vogue at the time, and I genuinely thought a few sessions with like-minded people would bring me a sense of peace. When I arrived at the flat, I was over-awed by the smart, white, stuccoed building. I rang the bell and was ushered into an elegantly decorated apartment.
There were 20 well-dressed people there, each paying 10 for an hour’s meditation. Except it wasn’t meditation — which is all about calmness and quiet — but more like a group therapy session.
Each person was invited to talk about their week: their frustrations at work, arguments with friends, disagreements with family.
I felt uncomfortable sharing my private thoughts, but Helen and the others seemed so sensible and reassuringly friendly that they put me at my ease. I was surprised at the end of the evening when all the other people there said they felt transformed. Reluctant to confess that I didn’t, I lied and said I felt amazing, too.
I was looking for a path in life, so I needed to be open to ideas, but perhaps this made me easy prey for snake-oil salesmen.
At my second ‘meditation’ session, I was told about a weekend retreat in Wiltshire, held in a house owned by a female follower of the Sai Baba movement. It cost 500 and offered ‘an experience to help you move forward in your life’.
At that point, I knew almost nothing about the organisation or what the weekend would entail, but I still signed up for it.
The woman running the retreat was a self-proclaimed guru and one of Sai Baba’s so-called representatives in Britain. I learned later that she claimed her energy force was so powerful that whenever she had sex she fused the electricity in her house.
No, I didn’t tell any of my friends that I was going to the retreat — because I didn’t want to give them the opportunity to talk me out of it. I was also worried that my family, who are devout Catholics, would question or criticise what I was doing.
It's over: It's claimed Tom Cruise's devotion to Scientology contributed to the marriage break-up with his wife Katie Holmes
The house in Wiltshire was large and remote, and I remember the smell of incense as I walked in.
It was very calm: there was no noise, no TV and no sounds from the outside world.
I was then told that before I could attend the retreat, I had to have a mandatory session with the guru at an additional cost of 100. This ‘treatment’ would get rid of any harm from past lives I might bring into the sessions. The guru was a big woman, supremely sure of herself and very charismatic.
She told me that a man she had cured of his fear of flying had bought her a red Mercedes sports car that was parked on the drive.
She left the room and two assistants asked me to lie down on a treatment bed. They rolled my jeans up to my knees and applied creams to my legs to pull ‘evil forces’ out of my body.
I realise this sounds ludicrous, but I have to admit I was flattered by their words and the attention I received.
The retreat felt like an oasis from my London life and the fickleness of the business I worked in. I was encouraged to talk about myself, about the things I would change in my life and the person I wanted to be. All this soul-bearing was strangely seductive — I attended six more retreats over the next 16 weeks that winter.
After the third retreat, I felt as if I was experiencing the heady emotions of an intense love affair. It was a combination of the beautiful surroundings, serene atmosphere and the idea of a better life that the members promised.
I spent close to 5,000 on retreats, aura cleaning sessions (in which I supposedly purified the vibrations around me by chanting), one-to-one time with the guru and yet more bottles of essences.
At the time, I thought this was money well-spent, as I believed this kind of spirituality could be a positive influence on my life.
Moved on: Samantha is now happily married to Pascal and lives with him in France. She dreads to think what could have happened if she remained in the cult
It never occurred to me that what I was being drawn into had nothing to do with a genuine spirituality and had all the hallmarks of a cult.
Artwork by the guru — costing thousands of pounds for a picture — was on sale at the retreats. One day, I made a complimentary remark about two paintings of Hindu shapes, and from that moment on the woman selling them — who was on commission — subjected me to the hard sell.
As I wrote out a cheque for 5,000, which I couldn’t afford, I began to realise this was an organisation I didn’t want to belong to.
Talks given by the guru were often no more than mystical hogwash, but there was a sinister side to them, too.
The guru would ‘randomly’ select someone in the room and then present that person’s most private issues to the entire audience, using information gleaned during meditation sessions with Helen — who acted as her right-hand woman during these retreats — and some of the other members of staff.
One man was pressured to admit he was gay to a room full of strangers, while a woman was reduced to tears because she couldn’t get pregnant. It was pitiful to witness, yet no one in the room of devotees — who included famous actors and actresses, lawyers, bankers and businessmen — did anything to stop it.
Dr Dawn Perlmutter, an expert in cults, says this stage of cult indoctrination is the point at which you are most vulnerable.
‘It’s known as milieu control. Recruits are typically in a rural, isolated environment away from their family and friends — cut off from anyone who might give them a reality check,’ she says.
Almost half of cult members are aged between 19 and 25 when they are first recruited
‘Once they are completely broken down, they can be built up into the individuals the cult wants them to be.’
The turning point came on the day I overheard two assistants discussing the guru’s plan to ‘match’ me with a follower who worked for her full-time — an average looking man 15 years older than me. I felt deeply uncomfortable about this.
But Helen insisted that it was a wonderful opportunity for me and told me just how lucky I was to have been ‘chosen’.
My blood ran cold. I’d been seeking — and paying handsomely for — spiritual enlightenment, not an arranged marriage.
I fled back home to London that night in the summer of 1997, feeling upset and unable to sleep.
The next day I changed my mobile and landline numbers, and never contacted any of the followers again.
Looking back, I realised I had felt under increasing pressure to attend retreats, but had continued to hope they would teach me about myself.
I was like a lot of the followers who had jumped on the guru’s bandwagon: living miles from our families, in high-powered jobs, but looking for meaning.
I am 41 now, married and living in France with my husband, Pascal. I dread to think what would have happened if I’d stayed in the cult. I think I would have lost my money, my home and independence.
Strangely, it was only five years ago that I felt able to dump the two Hindu paintings I bought. I know it was nonsense, but I held on to them in case they did have magical powers.
On a more sinister note, until I met Pascal, I was also scared of the consequences of destroying them. Even years after you have escaped from a cult, there is an unshakeable feeling the guru is still watching your every move.
Mr Kishin, a representative of the Sri Sathya Sai Central Trust UK, which was founded by Sai Baba, said: ‘I’m really shocked Samantha had to pay a penny to attend a retreat. That goes completely against all of Sai Baba’s teachings.
‘I’ve never heard of this so-called Sai Baba centre or this woman, but I imagine she preyed on rich, yet vulnerable, lonely individuals. Unfortunately, I think Samantha was taken for a ride.’