The Story of the Fascinating, but Short-Lived, “Source Family” of Los Angeles is Detailed in a Book and Featured in a Documentary
I’ve been fascinated with cults since I was a kid – and the Mason Family burst on the scene, haunting my nightmares.
Spending 14 years inside of one hasn’t diminished my curiosity about the strange and unnatural phenomenon of people turning their backs on the “normal” world, joining together to worship a central character, and follow an unconventional belief.
I recently watched a two-year old documentary that just showed up on Netflix called The Source Family. In fact, I watched it three times is a row.
Although it’s a very different cult than mine, there is a lot there that is all too familiar.
Like all good (read: weird, creepy, riveting) cult stories, it’s a fascinating story. The film tells the story of the Source Family, an early 1970s “Aquarian tribe” of young people in Los Angeles who followed their older charismatic (read: big personality and slightly crazy) leader, originally named, Jim Baker, but who called himself first “Father Yod,” then “YaHoWa.”
Not only did I watch the documentary, but two years ago I also read the book: The Source – The Untold Story of Father Yod, YaHoWa, and the Source Family.
Both the book and the film were written by former cult members, in particular a woman named “Isis Aquarian,” who says that she was the “family historian.” She documented, filmed, photographed, and archived the Family’s short history. (Father Yod renamed every member of the family, giving them all of them the last name Aquarian, as they were “ushering in the Age of Aquarius.”)
The Story of My Introduction to the Source Family’s Twisted Story
I came by the book in a curious way.
I had just finished writing my cult story, Sex, Lies, and Two Hindu Gurus, when I took a trip to Houston, Texas. While there, I visited the city’s independent bookstores to ask about the possibility of getting my book on their shelves.
The two workers at one store were particularly friendly and excited to meet an actual author (little ol’ me!). When I told them about my book, one of the clerks said excitedly, “We love to carry cult books. In fact, we have a new one on the shelves right now.”
He walked to the shelf, grabbed the book, and handed it to me. The cover featured a clearly 70s image of a large Western man dressed in Eastern garb and pounding on a drum. I opened the book and instantly was not interested in it. Plus, it was $25! (But it did come with a CD :/).
Here’s an example of the unusual music.
But the clerk talked up the book, telling me how it was about this interesting group of people who made weird music. As an independent author seeking bookshelf space in an indie bookstore, I felt the least I could do is support the store by buying a book.
Since this is the one the clerk had chosen for me, I bought it.
The book sat on my shelf for months. Then one day I picked it up and randomly flipped through the pages. Certain passages caught my attention and I started reading. After a few days of this casual viewing, I was intrigued. I flipped to page one and read the story cover to cover.
There were several things that stood out for me.
First is that this cult lasted only six years. Yet, a lot happened in that short time. In fact, the entire history of the cult stood like a miniaturized version of the beginning, middle, and end of every cult. (In this case, a flame out and fall to earth of the “guru”.) Except that most cults last longer.
Other standout facts about the cult were right out of a Hollywood script and central casting (elements I’ve seen time an again in the cults that make the news):
- There is a charismatic leader who quickly veers into megalomania and all that embodies.
- There is a unique wacky made-up “spiritual” philosophy constructed by the leader, full of “out-there” teachings and verbal gobbledygook.
- The leader’s questionable past (in his case being a millionaire restaurateur, a bank thief, and a murder) – although, unlike most cult leaders, he was upfront about it.
- There is a weird unnatural communal lifestyle forced on the followers (in this case, young men and women): In this case, living together with about 100 people first in one large house, then another.
- The members adopt a unique, quirky style of dressing.
- There is an “us-versus-them” mentality.
- Then there is the proverbial sex with followers, including minors. Before he dies, “Father Yod” takes 13 wives, many of them underage girls.
Being in the 70s, this cult also smoked marijuana and created music (an odd psychedelic style that oddly has its own “cult” following even to this day).
Also there were some very unique components to the story. For example, when the group started, they ran one of the first vegetarian restaurants in Los Angeles on Sunset Boulevard. It was very popular and profitable. Many famous stars and musicians ate there. As the book’s author says:
“In Los Angeles, we felt invincible. We were popular and admired by some of the most celebrated creative artists in the world.”
Twisted Sisters – While the Movie Skirts the Downside, the Book Dives in Deep
I learned about the documentary only after it had aired at SXSW the same year I purchased the book. I was extremely curious – but could only find it available on Amazon. I didn’t want to pay for it, so I just waited, hoping it would appear on YouTube or Netflix. And it finally did.
The film offers some glimpses of the group that the book cannot, for example, Jim Baker’s affected “guru” voice. It’s hard to explain, but it’s something I heard constantly in my own cult. The minute one of the formerly ordinary people put on orange clothes and began speaking, suddenly their voice took on this “holier than thou” cadence. The same is true for this guy.
Also, many times in the recordings of him talking, you can hear his coterie of female followers giggling, sighing, and commenting in the background. This was also a prominent feature of my cult. My ex-gurus’ “women” made the same sounds, especially the female preachers, acting as if they were in a perpetual state of awe, excitement, and near ecstasy (very sexual overtones, I might add).
The film offers only a brief overview of the Source Family, however. It barely touches on the full story revealed in the book. People who only watch the movie will be missing huge chunks of the strange trip this group took – including the downside: namely, the negative experience that many ex-members had in the cult. This is a huge loss – because the cult was far from just some whacky short-lived trip. It was a very, very bad trip for many people.
Ex-Devotees Speak the Truth About Jim Baker and His “Religion”
Here are a few of their voices:
According to a male follower called “Zinaru”:
“It was around this time that … there was a shift in Father’s deep commitment to spiritual development … to seeing himself as the Avatar – the actual incarnation of God. I noticed the women around him reinforced this direction … maybe because this God incarnated status for father stimulated their own egos and reinforced their own special position as ‘wives of God incarnate.’”
In a therapeutic letter she wrote to Father Yod after he was dead, “Paralda” wrote:
“It was not more than a few months after you married us (she and fellow follower) that you were chasing after me to have sex magic. Looking back at all this, I feel that I was seduced by you and your charismatic father figure. As I am writing this I feel angry… It was the sexual aspect of our life together that I feel was not right, was not healthy and (was) damaging.”
“What prompted me to leave was what I perceived to be a slow shift from bhakti-based Hinduism mixed with Buddhist sensibilities mixed with Egyptological and Western mystical teachings, to an improvised Aleister Crowly type of meglomania. For me, there was no longer the innocence that was there in the beginning, and what I saw was unbridled lust and the development of a hierarchy consisting of an inner circle and an outer circle. … I saw an erosion of the original child-like humility in the family lead to an unwarranted amount of arrogance, self-righteousness, sense of superiority, and judgment ending in the ultimate We (the Family) vs. They (people who were not followers of the Father’s teachings). So I left. In doing so, I incurred Father’s wrath. He told the family that they should shun me because I was ‘lost in maya.’”
That statement is worth reading a few times – because the essence of the words could easily be describing so many cults!
Tellingly, when the cult died, several of the female members moved to Las Vegas and became prostitutes, states the book.
Meanwhile, many others extol him or at least the unique life they lived with him. Isis, for example, is a stereotypical hard case. In fact, she still believes Father speaks to her. As she says in the film:
“He still talks to me and he says, ‘I haven’t released you from your duties yet…we are still doing the work.’ My destiny as the family historian has been to save the legacy.”
In that she has done an excellent job – because the book and film are both fascinating. (Note: It’s been reported that Isis “earned herself the nickname Dragon Lady [and also ‘The Hatchet’] among her new brothers and sisters, thanks to her somewhat aggressive compulsion to serve and protect her leader.”) I know the archetype well: We had quite a few dragon ladies in our cult!
However, as an ex-cult member, I feel I have a unique perspective that allows me to cut through the BS and see how really damaging this cult experience probably was for most people.
This is clear in the words of Father Yod’s favorite woman at the time of his death, who lived with him intimately for two years and was looking into his eyes when he expired, Makushla. After the leader and the cult died, she drifted in an out of other cults, but now says:
“After being with YaHoWa it seemed like an impossible thing to have a relationship with anybody. I feel like still to this day I work with NOT giving my power away to another.”
Makushla hit the proverbial nail on the proverbial head: ALL a cult is is a bunch of people who have given away their personal power and inner wisdom to a twisted leader.
It took time, but at least she finally saw the light. Good for you, sister!
Note: I found extra footage of The Family on YouTube with the voice of many more members describing the cult.
Read my personal cult story in Sex, Lies, and Two Hindu Gurus here.