My Father's Guru

Mark Epstein

MY FATHER'S GURU: A Journey Through Spirituality and Disillusion Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson

Addison Wesley: New York, 1993. 174 pp., $20.00 (hardback).

IT WOULD BE A MISTAKE to dismiss Jeffrey Masson. The psychoanalytic community would like to do so, because of his radical critique of Freud's abandonment of the seduction theory in The Assault on Truth: Freud's Suppression of the Seduction Theory (1984) and his subsequent repudiation of the psychoanalytic profession in Final Analysis: The Making and Unmaking of a Psychoanalyst (1990). Now, those within the Eastern-based spiritual communities of the West (those sympathetic to his critique of psychoanalysis) will be tempted to dismiss him after his damning new portrayal of domestic life in a prototypicaI New Age household: his own childhood home. But Jeffrey Masson will not go away. Voraciously in search of substance, like the Very Hungry Caterpillar of the children's story, Masson chomps his way through spiritual and intellectual movements the way other people eat dessert. Showing no sign of metamorphosis, Masson nevertheless makes fascinating boolc; out of the debris he creates.

My Father's Guru is a candid and strangely affecting portrait of the author's childhood and adolescent years in the midst of a household that revolved not around any family member but around the powerful, enigmatic, tantalizing, frustrating, and ultimately pathetic figure of Paul Brunton, known to his intimates (such as they were) as P. B. Brunton (born Raphael Hurst and half-Jewish), an early British disciple of Ramanamaharishi, published a steady stream of books in the thirties, forties, and fifties with titles like A Search in Secret India, The Secret Path, A Search in Secret Egypt, A Hermit in the Himalayas, The Hidden Teaching Beyond Yoga, and Discover Yourself. One of the earliest popularizers of Eastern religions, Brunton, who fancied himself a reincarnation of an early Tibetan Buddhist mystic, presented a romanticized vision of Eastern spirituality, emphasizing its other-worldliness, secrets, occult powers, and mystery. Brunton was virtually adopted by a small group of American disciples, with Masson's uncle and parents in the forefront of the group, which housed, supported, and took spiritual direction from him for thirty years.

We learn almost nothing of substance about P. B. or his philosophy from Masson's account, but what we do encounter is a first-hand record, from the perspective of a naive, eager, and ultimately disillusioned child and adolescent, of what it was like to grow up in a household where spirituality and daily life were never integrated. Young Jeffrey was left to ingratiate himself with Brunton while his parents retreated on forty-day fasts, pursued ever-elusive mystical experiences, took frequent trips to the Orient, and ultimately moved lock, stock, and barrel to Uruguay at P. B.'s direction to avoid the Third World War that he prophesied in 1956. In descriptions that are startlingly evocative of much of today's "spiritualism," Masson describes his parents' sense of specialness at being "on the Path," their pursuit of spiritual purity by denying themselves food or sex, their unquestioning acceptance of P. B.'s authority, and his own acceptance of P. B.'s worldview.

Above all, this is a cautionary tale about raising children in a "spiritual" household. There is no sign in this book of Jeffrey Masson's ever having had much of a relationship with his parents, let alone an adolescent rebellion against them. He became, in his early years, something of a parody of them: a fundamentalist New Age prodigy (before there was a New Age), an insufferable "spiritual puritanical pest" (as he puts it). Despite his subsequent disillusion, he manages to retain a curiously affectionate bond to his remote parents. Masson dedicates the book to his father and (in lieu of an author photo) decorates the back with a picture of himself gazing affectionately at his father, who smiles into the camera. The book is tinged with a distinct flavor of nostalgia, as Masson recounts over and over again his ingenuous attempts to find some emotional warmth in his household.

As with the best psychoanalytic writers who mine their own experiences to make larger theoretical points, there are ties to Masson's emotional predicament in some of his earlier writings. In particular, The Oceanic Feeling: The Origins of Religious Sentiment in Ancient India (1980) contains several insights into Masson's childhood plight.

The narcissist is hungry for cathected memories, for an image of his own past that involved being the object of other people's love. If a person looks back on his past only to find an empty corridor, he is going to need emergency protection. . . . Nostalgia, I would postulate, must be very familiar to every narcissist: a longing to return somewhere he never seems to have been. This is the image that best describes Masson's troubling and moving memoir: looking back only to find an empty corridor where he never seems to have been.

Mark Epstein is a psychiatrist with a private practice in New York City.

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