Just as I was settling down with a husband, and pregnancy, two cats, and a nice house with a mortgage, leaving the recklessness of my youth behind—using mundanity as a salve—my father spiraled out of control. In his determination to drink himself to death, for the first time ever he reached his hand out to me. I took it, but then hesitated, looked back on my life as his daughter, and asked myself, what do I owe him?
When I was 6 years old, he had disappeared out of our lives to join a cult on the other side of the world with no mention of when he would return. As a way of coping, my brother and I had told ourselves he was dead. Six months later he returned from Poona, India, dressed in the colors of the sunset with a long, beaded necklace and a photo of his newly discovered guru, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh—now known as Osho—at its center.
Bhagwan, whose cult was partially explored in the Netflix hit Wild Wild Country, quoted many different philosophies, bringing together Indian Hinduism, Zen and Western Psychotherapy. He promoted an ideal state, primitive and innocent, and wanted his disciples to aspire to this freedom too, in order to find their essence—their true self—through love, surrender and sex.
“The man you knew before is no longer,” our dad told us, glassy eyed and gazing beatifically at some distant horizon. “I’ve been reborn.” I shoved my hands into the pocket of my duffle coat to try to stop the shaking and caught eyes with my older brother. Did this mean he was no longer our father? He had been seduced by something more tantalizing than us—our constant love, or the confinement of family life; either way, we were usurped.
And yet, we kept holding on—following him in our school holidays to the different countries and communes he moved between—from the U.K., to Italy, to the U.S.—despite his obvious lack of interest in us and our lives.
Fast forward 30 years and our father is an addict and cannot start his day without a glass of wine or Jack Daniel’s to knock back his pills—Endocet, Vicodin, Diazepam—so saturated with denial that, red-faced, he shouts at us—I don’t drink! despite the wild fire in his eyes, the fresh stain on his T-shirt. When my brother and I were thrown together again on an emergency trip to California to try to persuade him into rehab, leaving our fledgling families behind, that early childhood memory came calling. Where is our father? We could not recognize him in the raging drunk that left his soiled trousers on the floor, his anger at us for confronting him with the truth, while tripping so spectacularly toward his death. In our desperate grasping to understand what had gone wrong, and our helplessness at making it better, we glanced over our shoulder at his determined negation of us, his children, throughout our lives, and wondered if we had made the right decision to not let go all those years before?
Our father spent most of his life running away from those who loved him. In the early days of being married to our mother, he was distracted by love affairs, lovestruck, caught in a dance of betrayal followed by guilt, reaching out for affirmation again to counter the bad feeling. When he became a Rajneesh disciple, he spent the next 10 years chasing the dream—wild dancing, his arms in the air, stripping off his clothes in dynamic meditation; swapping partners, adopting his guru’s grandiose evasiveness—“You think too much,” he would say to me when I shared my confusion and pain at him leaving. “Turn off the critical brain; it will not help you.” And when my tears started to flow unbidden because I was so in need of his attention, he told me, “You are so negative.” Faced with my quiet jealousy of his new wife who was aged 18, only eight years older than me, he would proclaim— “You can choose to be happy, or you can choose to be sad, it has nothing to do with me.” He shrouded his guilt in quasi spiritualism; then he buried himself in his work, grasping for success only to squander his dollars on expensive hotels, cars and fancy watches.
He never drank heavily when I was a kid—he just had the odd glass of wine. He had experimented with drugs, but he had a sensitive constitution and they made him paranoid or sick. But I wondered, while writing and researching my memoir, Sins of My Father, whether it was a classic case of replacing one addiction with another. As a young man he had been addicted to the female gaze; and when he joined Bhagwan’s coterie of followers, he could screw around without a shadow of guilt. “You are responsible only for yourself,” was his guru’s provocative message. But cults thrive on their detachment from reality, creating their own micro-world with its set of rules and supposed freedoms. Bhagwan expected his disciples to surrender to him, but also their own desires. My father, throughout his life, searched for pleasure—always trying to escape from the tethers of the conventional world.
Bhagwan’s devotees were supposed to live in harmony with everyone and with nature. They will be “creative”—able to transform their repressed energy into something productive such as music or poetry. They will live in love. They tended to drift in a perpetual state of “bliss,” trance-like, dreamy and disengaged. It was incredibly seductive.
He was not a drinker then, but he was as much an addict. I wonder if his search for transcendence, through sex, through work, through spiritualism, took him so far from what was real that it was inevitable that alcohol and prescription drugs would follow.
But then again, alcoholism had poisoned generations of my father’s family. His aunt died of drink and left her fortune to a cats’ home, and it was a commonly told anecdote that his grandfather could drink 16 pints at lunchtime. It’s ironic perhaps that it was not this aspect of his family that my father had fled so blindly from, but more their mundanity, the blunt fact of their ordinariness—middle class, post war, aspiring to the latest model washing machine. He was determined, always, to be something bigger, greater, more special—the women made him feel like a sex god; the cult like he was one of the chosen, a New Man, innocent, irreverent, free of the tethers of Christian repression; money was his security blanket, the key to his fantasy of being a millionaire. When he did finally turn to drink, he liked how it made him expand, feel bigger than life; it helped him tap into his supernatural powers. But in reality the drink simply fed his delusion about himself, and, coupled with his irrational desire for money, it was this that finally tripped him into freefall.
My father fell for a scam, promising millions of inherited wealth from a distant unknown relation, which landed him in a suite in the Connaught Hotel, one of London’s most expensive. This was apparently paid for by the Russians, a lie as obvious as the grass is green to everyone but him. And it was this that caused my dad to stumble straight off the cliff edge. He thought he could keep running, forever running, but realized quite quickly that the ground beneath him was quickly disappearing. Fifty thousand dollars down, plus a hotel bill that would have kicked even the most deluded into consciousness, he boarded the plane back to his seaside house on Bolinas beach, California, and buried his shame in bottles. And yet, still, my father resisted waking up to the damage done, even when his possessions were being swiped by the locals, the bank threatening to take away his home. The first time he ended up in intensive care, from breaking his neck falling down the stairs, the doctors told him he would die within the year if he didn’t stop drinking. I begged him to stop, and he batted me away with—“But it’s so much fun!”
My father was a chameleon, he would adopt the ways of the person with him. I always found it excruciating sitting with him in a Chinese restaurant when he took on the waiter’s accent. Was this because he barely knew himself? He did not want to be truly known by anyone, always slipping from our grasp; insubstantial—“like biting on a pillow” my mother said. He was a dangerous combination of both loveable and impossible to love.
In writing about him I set out to solve a persistent puzzle: how could this man that I loved, so adventurous, so charismatic, so successful, have lost everything in those last years? His second wife, his business, his home, his will to live. He was in and out of Marin General Hospital when the Benevolent Society paid off his $100,000 plus medical bill (his insurance had lapsed) and then wheeled him onto a plane back to his home country of Britain, where he arrived with nothing but his Mulberry bag and Panerai watch. Less than six months later, he was dead. Alone on the floor of a B&B.
I have realized now that there are particular people who go to great lengths to dodge mundanity, to avoid being ordinary. In those last years of his life, more than anything I wanted my dad to come home. Not as a delusional alcoholic, but as a quiet old man who might spend the last of his well-earned cash on a small terraced house a couple of streets away from me, so I could visit him and together we would sit in his garden over a cup of tea. Did I really think he would ever stop and sit with himself like this, to live so modestly? Instead, from the dry house, he phoned me and my brother on repeat, and asked us for money, to spend on vodka and scones, and chocolate digestives, more vodka, pills; anything to ease the pain. To sit alone on a bench on the North Devon coast with the wind making his eyes stream, to dream up his final escape, the next quick-fire plan to make money for nothing.