Sins of My Father by Lily Dunn review – surviving a cult

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Rebecca Nicholson writes for The Guardian, 26 March 2022.

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A daughter chronicles the reverberations of one man’s decision to abandon his family in pursuit of spiritual enlightenment.

Lily Dunn was six years old when her father left his wife and two young children, walking out of the family home in London, without any mention of when he would be back. He bought a one-way ticket to India, travelling to an ashram in Pune with a woman he met in a strip club, who wanted to introduce him to her guru, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, also known as Osho. Sins of My Father has its roots in a memorable 2016 Granta essay, and has become a memoir of two lives: her father’s, rippled with grandiose drama, and her own attempts to harness the pain that he left in his restless wake. Dunn describes the severing of family ties as “this operatic rupture of flight”. This is a desperately sad story, but there is beauty in its crisp, cold clarity.

Dunn’s father – named by initial, but then referred to as “Dad” or “my father”, which has a steadying effect, both intimate and distant – took to life in the Rajneesh cult, and much of this story is about his time as a devotee of the Bhagwan. He joined a great number of white, wealthy westerners whose search for enlightenment found a home in the 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 is not dismissive of the cult’s appeal, and is surprisingly empathetic towards its followers, considering the havoc it wrought upon her own life.

The cult is only one piece of a complex puzzle. She puts the rest of it together as if she is a detective

But a cool anger emerges again and again. Her father, a writer and publisher, attempted to write his own spiritual text influenced by the Bhagwan; Dunn states that she can “barely tolerate this incoherent rubbish, the fuzz and evasiveness. Such careless words.” Her fury, powerful in its calm focus, is at its most pointed when describing the children who grew up under a “free love” decree that, at best, did little for their welfare and, at worst, enabled a culture of neglect and abuse. When Dunn is 13, she goes to stay with her father in Italy, and is groomed by a much older man. She turns to her father for advice, understandably distraught and confused about his appalling advances. Her father suggests she might learn something, only changing his mind “almost as a throwaway comment” when he realises the man has gonorrhoea.

Sins of My Father is Dunn’s attempt to know her father, constantly on the move, impossible to rely on. “I was always so romantic about him,” she writes. This book is the de-romanticisation, and the cult is only one piece of a complex puzzle. She puts the rest of it together as if she is a detective working a long-forgotten cold case, and though its setting is very different, it reminded me of Laura Cummings’ gripping memoir, On Chapel Sands. Dunn speaks to family members, uncovers old letters and analyses family photographs to see what the expressions might be able to tell her now. She rifles through poetry and Shakespeare, studies Jung and Freud, and learns about trauma and addiction. She circles meditatively, from the end of his life back 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 up to his death following a long period of alcoholism. The description of his decline is as vivid an account of addiction as I can remember reading.

As Dunn seeks to understand her father, she is trying to understand herself. The subtitle, A Daughter, a Cult, a Wild Unravelling, makes it clear that she is claiming her place in the story. She writes that her brother eventually walks away from their father, cutting him off, in order to limit his own pain, but Dunn instead chooses to examine each tiny part of it. At times, this is bracing. I imagine many people would recoil from discovering the full, unvarnished story of their parents’ separation, for example, but there is a remarkably dispassionate observer’s eye throughout. It is dignified and respectful, which feels like an achievement in itself. Dunn never quite shakes the idealised image of her father as a damaged hero, but she does, eventually, shake herself free from the obligation to forgive him. Sins of My Father is a testament to the damage done, but it reads, in the end, like the slow discovery of freedom.

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

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