Lily Dunn’s Sins of My Father review – surviving a cult | Books

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IIly Dunn was six when his father left his wife and two young children, leaving the family home in London, with no mention of when he would return. He bought a one-way ticket to India, going to an ashram in Pune with a woman he met at a strip club, who wanted to introduce him to his guru, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, also known as Osho . Sins of My Father has its roots in a memorable 2016 essay by Granta and has become a memoir of two lives: that of his father, wrinkled by grandiose drama, and his own attempts to tap into the pain he left behind in his life. restless wake. Dunn describes the severing of family ties as “that lyrical severance of flight.” It’s a desperately sad story, but there’s beauty in its crisp, cold clarity.

Dunn’s father – named by his initial, but then called “dad” or “my father”, which has a stabilizing effect, both intimate and distant – came to life in the cult of Rajneesh, and much of this story concerns his time as a devotee of the Bhagwan. He joined many white and wealthy Westerners whose search for enlightenment found a home in Bhagwan’s teachings and communes. In 2018, the Netflix documentary series Wild Wild Country told the story of the cult’s move to Oregon in the United States, introducing its orange-clad sannyasins to a new generation. Dunn does not disdain the appeal of the cult and is surprisingly empathetic towards its followers, considering the havoc it has wrought on his own life.

But a fresh anger emerges again and again. His father, a writer and publisher, attempted to write his own Bhagwan-influenced spiritual text; Dunn states that she can “barely tolerate this incoherent trash, fuzziness and escapism. Those careless words. Her fury, powerful in her calm concentration, is at its peak when she describes the children who grew up under a decree of “free love” which, at best, did little for their well-being and , at worst, has enabled a culture of neglect and abuse. When Dunn is 13, she goes to live with her father in Italy and is cared for by a much older man. She turns to her father for advice, understandably distraught and confused at his appalling advances. Her father suggests she might learn something, only changing her mind “almost as a throwaway comment” when he realizes the man has gonorrhea.

Sins of My Father is Dunn’s attempt to get to know his constantly on the move, unreliable father. “I’ve always been so romantic with him,” she wrote. This book is de-romanticization, and the cult is just one piece of a complex puzzle. She pulls the rest together like she’s a detective working on a long-forgotten cold case, and while its setting is very different, it reminded me of Laura Cummings’ gripping memoir, On Chapel Sands. Dunn talks to family members, uncovers old letters, and analyzes family photographs to see what expressions might tell him now. She digs through poetry and Shakespeare, studies Jung and Freud, and learns about trauma and addiction. She circles meditatively, from the end of her life to the early stages of it, back and forth, adding another layer each time. During this painstaking process, she discovers terrible secrets about her father’s childhood, what happened during his periods of travel and success, and what led to his death following a long period of alcoholism. The description of his decline is as vivid an account of addiction as I remember reading.

As Dunn seeks to understand her father, she tries to understand herself. The subtitle, A Daughter, a Cult, a Wild Unraveling, makes it clear that she is claiming her place in history. She writes that her brother eventually pulls away from their father, cutting him off, in order to limit his own pain, but Dunn instead chooses to examine every tiny part of it. Sometimes it’s invigorating. I imagine many people would recoil at the thought of finding out the full, unvarnished story of their parents’ split, for example, but there’s a remarkably unbiased observer’s eye throughout. It’s dignified and respectful, which feels like a feat in itself. Dunn never quite shakes her father’s idealized image as a damaged hero, but she eventually breaks free from the obligation to forgive him. Sins of My Father is a testament to the damage done, but it reads, ultimately, as the slow discovery of freedom.

Sins of My Father: A Daughter, a Cult, a Wild Unraveling by Lily Dunn is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson (£16.99). To support the Guardian and the Observer, order your copy from guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.


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