Letters from Ananda members, Part 3: What I Learned From Bertolucci’s Lawyers

What I Learned From Bertolucci’s Lawyers
Asha Praver

I was born and raised in a Jewish family. I was a baby boomer, making my appearance in 1947, right after the end of World War II. My father had been in the army, but, thankfully, never sent overseas. So he had no first-hand accounts of the Nazi death camps. We had no relatives in Europe, so the conflict never was personal for our family.

Nonetheless, the Holocaust loomed large in my upbringing, as it did for all Jews. My father had an interest in social justice, and helped desegregate several public facilities, such as the YMCA, in El Paso, Texas, where we lived until I was 15 years old. He often talked to me about the nature of prejudice.

The Jewish community in El Paso was not large, the city was not particularly enlightened, but I was never subjected to any anti-semitism. Not then, not later, not ever. Maybe it’s because I don’t “look Jewish.” Although, because of my intellectuality and the forceful—some people say stubborn—way I argue my point if I think I am right, there are those who say I fit a certain Jewish stereotype. And I can’t disagree!

All my life I have wondered about the Nazis. How could they do it? How could a whole nation of otherwise civilized people allow it to happen? As I grew up, I met German people. Except for their language, which is “Greek to me,” they are just like us, perhaps with a lot more willpower. Cultural characteristics are there, but so, also, is our basic, shared humanity. So I wondered.

One of my closest friends is a black woman named Sheila Rush. I’ve been at Ananda for thirty years. About half the time, in various locations and departments of Ananda, Sheila and I have had the pleasure, not only of gabbing together as girls do, but also of working as partners in one project or another.

Sheila is an attorney, a graduate of Harvard Law School, and, before she moved to Ananda, was a law professor at Hofstra.

Sheila became a lawyer because of an inner call. When she graduated, Martin Luther King was changing the face of the nation, and Sheila went right to work for the civil rights movement. As a lawyer, she worked in the office and in a courtroom, not on the street. She was never subjected to the kind of virulent racism present in the South.

Unlike me, however, Sheila has been touched by the sharp edge of prejudice. All through school, she was a conspicuous minority. In subtle and overt ways, she was sometimes treated shabbily because of her race. Still, Sheila was born at a time when doors were opening for people of color. With talent, determination, and hard work, she sailed through those opening doors.

Often we would talk together—she as a black woman, I as a Jew—about the nature of prejudice.

In her early years at Ananda, Sheila did not do any legal work. But in 1990, when SRF sued us, Sheila began to help with the legal effort, and has continued to do so to the present day, working on both the SRF and the Bertolucci suits.

From the beginning, I have been a member of Ananda’s “Legal Team.” This group of ten people is, collectively, the “client” in both lawsuits. We meet with our attorneys as needed and have responsibility for guiding the direction of our legal effort.

In that capacity, I have attended depositions of representatives from the “other side.” In the SRF case, I was there for depositions of most of the SRF board members and leaders—Daya Mata, Ananda Mata, Mrinalini Mata, Sister Savitri, and others. I was also present for many days of Anne-Marie Bertolucci’s deposition.

It was at her deposition that I finally experienced first-hand the nature of prejudice. Who showed me? Ford Greene and Michael Flynn, Bertolucci’s attorneys.

Ford Greene is a memorable character. Not that you want to keep remembering him, but he is so unusual he doesn’t fade into the background like so many in life do. As a young man, he and his family were deeply traumatized when his sister joined the Unification Church, better known as the “Moonies.” I know nothing about the group, but apparently they are genuinely “cult-like” in that they limit—or even prohibit—a member’s contact with their family. Ford’s sister disappeared from the family nest, and, as Ford put it, it ripped his family apart.

Heroically, Ford went to “rescue” her. Instead, he was converted. He woke up quickly, however, from the “cult brainwashing,” and made his escape, alas, without his sister. As I recall, at the time of the Bertolucci suit, his sister was still a member of the “cult,” and no longer, really, a member of the Greene family.

Ford resolved to go to law school for one reason only: to become a “guru-hunter” and a “cult-buster,” the “career” he has followed ever since.

Ford is very mercurial. Sometimes he was so hyped up, that for hours he would continuously twitch and fidget. At other times, he was so lethargic, you wondered if he was even awake. He would twiddle with things, like a child. Sometimes he would get so lost in his own playthings that, seemingly, he would forget that he was a grown-up man, in the company of other grown-ups.

During a deposition, once, when he was in a hyper mood, he became so entranced with some of the large rubber bands used to organize the masses of paper a lawsuit generates, that he eventually put several of them around his head like a sweatband. Then he twanged them against his forehead for about a quarter of an hour. Finally, someone in the room said, “Ford, you must stop doing that!” He appeared not even to know what they were talking about. It had to be spelled out for him.

But Ford was determined—ruthlessly determined—to carry out his self-appointed task to rid the world of the scourge of cults and gurus. He wrote the original complaint Bertolucci filed. When we got to know him and his history, the crazy illogic of that complaint came into focus.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Ford has just one legal document that he uses against every “cult” and “guru” who has the misfortune to come into the cross-hairs of his lawyerly “gun.” The complaint he filed against us was essentially a textbook list of every possible abuse that a “cult” or “guru’ might commit. The words “Ananda” and “Kriyananda” seemingly were simply stuck in whenever the specific name of the entity was required.

That’s why, as mentioned elsewhere on this website, we didn’t take the complaint all that seriously when it first arrived. How could we? Whoever wrote it knew nothing about Ananda. The charges were preposterous, and so easily disproved—or so we thought.

Ford was enthusiastic about his vocation, but not necessarily effective in it. So at first, the Bertolucci suit, under his sole direction, sort of bumbled along. Sometimes papers got filed on time, sometimes they didn’t. But that situation didn’t last long.

There is strong evidence—convincing evidence, as far as we are concerned—that SRF was deeply involved in the Bertolucci lawsuit from the beginning. Just before she filed it, Bertolucci herself was escorted to SRF headquarters by longtime SRF members. There she was given the red carpet treatment, had lunch with Daya Mata, meditated in Yogananda’s rooms, and met with several other senior monastics and board members.

We have been told that Bertolucci was seen by SRF as a gift from God, “proof” that Master was on their side. SRF’s own lawsuit against Ananda was proving a disaster for them. They saw their dreams of suppressing Ananda’s “version” of Yogananda’s teachings being snatched away by the legal system. Swamiji himself saw that attempting to suppress Ananda by persecution would be SRF’s next step.

Evidence of SRF’s involvement is here on this website, in the section, “The Bertolucci Lawsuit: The SRF Connection.” So I won’t belabor the point here.

However, in the hands of Ford Greene, Bertolucci’s case was not going all that well. Ananda filed a cross-complaint, alleging that it was all an SRF conspiracy rather than a bona fide sexual harassment suit. We still believe this is true, even though we dropped the cross-complaint just before the trial.

We have no proof, but we have been told that SRF had a hand in getting Michael Flynn into the case. Years earlier, Flynn had represented Paul Friedman, a prominent member and major SRF donor, in a matter involving environmental violations by a business Friedman ran on SRF property. We have also been told that Flynn has been active in SRF as a “devotee” for about fifteen years. (I have to put the word “devotee” in quotes. I can’t write it as if I see him that way.)

All of a sudden, Bertolucci went from having one bumbling Bay Area lawyer, to having a whole team of attorneys, one from Massachusetts, one from Southern California.

The first we knew that Bertolucci had added lawyers was when Phil Stillman, one of Flynn’s associates, walked into the middle of a deposition we were taking of Bertolucci herself. He slouched down into a chair, and at first seemed bored to the point of almost nodding off. Then the line of questioning changed to Bertolucci’s contact with SRF. At that point, Stillman woke up, sat up, and started taking notes. It was such a dramatic and sudden shift that all the Ananda people noticed it.

It quickly became clear that Bertolucci’s whole show was now being run by Michael Flynn. And Flynn is no bumbler. He has mastered all the tricks of his chosen profession.

In the San Francisco Chronicle, Flynn was quoted as saying “I believe in God and spirituality as long as it is practiced correctly.” This is a perfect reflection of the attitude Daya Mata and SRF have about Ananda. In their eyes, we definitely do not “practice correctly.”

As soon as Flynn came on, the love affair between Bertolucci and Danny Levin took a back seat to the real objective of the lawsuit: to serve SRF by attacking Swami Kriyananda. The entire first day of Kriyananda’s deposition—hours of testimony—focused entirely on the SRF agenda. Flynn asked detailed, esoteric questions about events that happened 30 or 40 years ago—Kriyananda’s early years in SRF and the time he spent in India. I’ve been with Swami for 30 years. We’ve spent thousands of hours talking about his life in SRF. Flynn brought forth details that even I had never heard.

Flynn had information that could only have come from the highest levels of leadership at SRF —Daya and Ananda Mata. No one else in the world, except Swami himself, would even know about some of the things Flynn was asking.

Apparently Flynn realized he had tipped his hand and implicated SRF, at a time when everyone from Daya Mata on down was self-righteously declaring they had nothing to do with the Bertolucci lawsuit. So, after the deposition, Flynn subpoenaed SRF records, trying to cover up the fact that he was already working hand-in-glove with them..

Attendance at Kriyananda’s deposition was strictly limited. Paul Friedman, however, was smuggled in, under the pretense that he was a paralegal in Flynn’s office. Later, Friedman boasted to someone from Ananda that even though most SRF members knew nothing about the Bertolucci lawsuit, Friedman knew all about it, because he was very close to Daya Mata and had attended Kryananda’s deposition.

For both Flynn and Greene, this was not just an assignment. They had very personal reasons for wanting, not just to win, but also to destroy Ananda and Kriyananda.

In a letter to Ananda members, Swami Kriyananda described these two attorneys as the “closest thing to the personification of evil that we are likely to encounter in this lifetime.” Everything published by Ananda quickly found its way into SRF’s hands, so we were not surprised when Flynn began to quote from that letter during Swamiji’s deposition in the Bertolucci lawsuit.

On one hand, he and Greene wore Swamiji’s condemnation of them like a badge of honor. On the other hand, Flynn seemed bothered by it, and pressed Swamiji hard on the point. Finally, Swamiji said, essentially, “I don’t know what you are like in your personal life, but what I have observed here is that you are a sadist. By this I mean you seem to enjoy hurting people. That’s why you became a lawyer. It is a profession that allows you to hurt people. You seek to destroy. What else is evil except the desire to destroy?”

To my everlasting regret, in my own deposition, when Flynn also pressed me as to my understanding of that statement, I hedged. I did not have the courage to look right at him and describe the darkness as I saw it before me. Perhaps that is why I am writing this now.

Sitting across the table from Greene and Flynn for many hours, Sheila and I gradually became aware of an interesting phenomenon, something we had never experienced before. In a very real sense, to them, we didn’t exist. Of course, they could see us and would, from time to time, relate to our presence. At one point, Ford actually made a drawing of Sheila—a gross characterization, badly done, of a “Negro woman” which he proudly pushed across the table for us to see.

What we felt was that we had ceased to be ourselves. We were no longer “Sheila” and “Asha.” We were just “members of the cult.” We had no feelings, no needs of our own, no shared humanity. We were just symbols to them of what they had vowed to destroy. In order to justify what they were doing, in order to stifle the voice of conscience that exists within the hearts of all, they had to make us less than human. They had to make us something entirely different and other than themselves.

This is the nature of prejudice. And for the first time in my life, it was directed at me. I don’t mean to be melodramatic, but I felt that if they thought they could get away with it, Ford Greene and Michael Flynn would not have hesitated to pull out guns and shoot Sheila and me dead, right there in that deposition room. Thus ridding the world, as they saw it, of two more of “them.”

Later, when I told Sheila about the chilling revelation I had had, she told me she had had exactly the same thought, at the same moment.

My lifelong question was answered: This is what happened to the Jews. The Nazis decided that the divine truth that we are all made in God’s image no longer applied to the Jews. In order to treat them as they did, they had to make the Jews into something completely other than themselves.

This is the Holocaust. This is evil.

The Bertolucci case is long over. Ford Greene has faded into oblivion as far as we are concerned, and we hope he stays there. Flynn, however, has not given up his quest to destroy Kriyananda. Now he is openly employed by SRF as the lead attorney in their lawsuit against Ananda.

Many people ask, how can SRF be so determined to destroy fellow disciples? It’s very simple: They don’t consider us fellow disciples.

From the beginning of Ananda, SRF has constantly spread the myth that Kriyananda is the guru here, not Yogananda. Like many of their charges, we seldom bother to answer it. It is so self-evidently untrue. Devotion to Yogananda permeates everything Kriyananda does, and by extension, also permeates Ananda. This website is filled with stories of people who were drawn to become Yogananda’s disciples because of Kriyananda’s devotion to his guru.

Recently, an article appeared in the Los Angeles New Times, claiming that Yogananda had a son, and listing other supposed indiscretions of the great master, all completely false. Kriyananda immediately wrote a powerful defense of Yogananda, which appears on this website.

SRF’s way of defending Yogananda was to call their lawyer. Flynn, of course, led the charge. He wrote a scathing letter to the New Times threatening to sue. Flynn also said in the letter that Kriyananda was the driving force behind the slanderous story about Yogananda. Flynn’s letter, and further anonymous allegations that Kriyananda speaks ill of his own guru, appear on the SRF/AAN (Ananda Awareness Network) website.

It’s sickening to see SRF behave this way. I don’t think most of the people in SRF even believe it. Why, then, do they do it?

Because it makes us other than them. It takes away our shared humanity. We are no longer gurubhais. “We follow Yogananda,” SRF piously declares. “You are not Yogananda’s disciples. Kriyananda is your guru.”

What foolishness. In fact, SRF is so built around the infallibility of Daya Mata that the accusation is more accurately leveled at them about her. But we have no wish to play their game. We have no need to make them “other.”

We joyously claim our shared humanity with everyone in SRF. We celebrate our relationship as gurubhais, our shared devotion to Paramhansa Yogananda. We fight for the cause of Self-realization, not against SRF. We don’t define our cause as the need to suppress or destroy any expression of Yogananda’s light.

For days, Kriyananda sat in the courtroom during the Bertolucci trial, listening as Flynn guided the witnesses in their vilification of some figment of their imagination called “Ananda” and some imaginary leader they called “Kriyananda.”

Late one night, after a day of particularly ugly testimony, Swami prayed deeply to Babaji, “Why are you letting them do this? I don’t mind for myself. I know who I am, no matter what they say. But I am a disciple of Master. And these insults are creating a stain, also, on the name of Paramhansa Yogananda.”

Inwardly, Swamiji felt Babaji’s reply. “They are all My children,” Babaji said. In his mind’s eye, Swamiji saw Ford Greene, Michael Flynn, Anne-Marie Bertolucci, and all the rest of them embraced by Babaji’s unconditional love. Wise or foolish, “They are all My children.”

On September 11, one group of God’s children decided to destroy another group of God’s children. It was a most terrible and cowardly act. Everyone asks, “How could they do it?”

At the risk again of being melodramatic, I have to say, because I sat in that deposition room across from Michael Flynn and Ford Greene, I feel I have seen the consciousness of a terrorist. The way they felt about Sheila and me is the way the terrorists feel about “Americans.” To them, we don’t exist. We are no longer human beings. They have made us into something completely “other.”

President Bush talks about our need to defend democracy. Democracy is a noble system. But is it an ideal worth fighting and dying for? In itself, perhaps not. But as the expression of something far more profound that stands behind it, I say it is. The Declaration of Independence makes it clear.

“We hold these truths to be self evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

What makes us different from terrorists is not our faith in God. They, too, claim to believe in God. What makes us different is our faith that God dwells equally in the heart of every human being. “We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal.” With this kind of faith, there is no “other.” There is no way to stifle our conscience and behave as the terrorists do.

Some children of God have chosen to use their God-given liberty to try to extinguish the divine light of others. I don’t think God wants us to stand aside and let evil rule the day. I do believe in righteous war.

Whether it is a conventional battlefield, a courtroom, or words on the Internet, bravely we must stand against the darkness. We must radiate the Light. Always remembering Bababji’s words, “They are all My children.”

Asha lives in the Ananda Palo Alto community where she serves as a minister.