Reviewed by Robert C. Priddy
This book opens with an account of the dreadful night of June 6th 1993 when six young male devotees of Sathya Sai Baba were murdered in his bedroom complex. That was the first sign to Conny that there was something wrong somewhere with Sathya Sai Baba and his claims. Despite all the negative signs and reports he heard, it took another six years for him to be brought to realise the extent of the deceit. The turmoil that entered his life then was greater even than that of his very troubled but equally extraordinary childhood years when traumatic abuses - totally repressed from then onwards - had caused him to become completely dumb for years. He describes how, for years, he was sexually molested by Sathya Sai Baba, believing it to be 'healing' and a prelude to 'raising his kundalini' so he could achieve spiritual self-realization. Only when he finally realised that he was one among many who Sai Baba was 'treating' in this way, did his true therapy - with all the associated pain and suffering - begin. His writing of this book is the crowning achievement of the success of this total self-discovery through analytic therapy, his remembering his entire childhood and understanding how he had become a victim of a cult… not just one but two cults, in both of which he became the guru's favourite for long periods. He became a close servitor of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (which episode is only briefly recounted in this book, but which is to figure centrally in Conny's next book, soon to be published).
In 'Behind the Mask of the Clown' Conny conveys his experiences with such searing self-examination and clarity of purpose that it must strike a chord in those who have tried self-improvement through spiritual sects, whether fraudulent or otherwise, and especially anyone who has been a victim of childhood sexual abuse. An impressive achievement! The background of his visits to India and Sri Lanka is exotic, not least because of his very remarkable experiences of various kinds there.
Conny Larsson's virtually total self-exposure is of uncommon depth and frankness, even in an autobiography. Very few people would have dared to write, "I was so puffed up by the attention from you that I totally lost track of reality", which is but one example of such judgements he makes about his former, cult-deluded behaviour. Conny certainly conveys how naïvely - and driven by personal problems of neglect and sexual abuse in childhood - he went from one spiritual lion's den to the other, thinking them to be harmless and pure people as they claimed they were. After complete dedication to Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, he eventually penetrated deeply into his innermost circle and only left when, with great reluctance and difficulty, he realised the truth about it. From the Maharishi frying pan, he jumped into the Sai Baba fire, where he - along with millions of others - thought he had found salvation. Eventually a final great confusion and ultimate crash came as he realised again - through a major personal crisis - that Sai Baba is not what he claims to be.
Since he came to be very close to both of these gurus… and not least physically much too close for comfort to Sathya Sai Baba - we learn of them as they are in private. His account shows very graphically how easy it is to be drawn in to such cults. Not only the young and naïve seekers are victims of this massive abuse of faith, but also many prominent people including any number of millionaires.
Being so open about being deceived is, in this harsh world, to risk being 'written off' by people as not being a reliable witness. Such persons are invariably outsiders who have not gone through any similar experiences themselves and who only know at second or third hand what a cult is truly like. (One glaring example is Professor Bryan Wilson of Oxford University who claims even courts should generally disregard the testimony of apostates). This kind of argument is almost to be expected from those who are still followers of the two gurus in question here, but such one-sided prejudice from an academic serves only to reduce his credibility. Leaders in the Sathya Sai Organisation have slandered Conny Larsson most disgracefully, calling him a paedophile in public, just because he dared to tell the truth about Sathya Sai Baba, who is accused most widely by dozens of sworn witnesses of sexual abuse of boys and young men. I have inquired of the Danish journalist Øjvind Kyrø, who investigated these allegations and the person from whom they originated, who told me he found absolutely no basis for this slander (see Danish text - http://home.no.net/anir/Sai/norsk/Mikkelsen.htm#slander).
The roller-coaster of many colourful events which pack this book include how, almost on an impulse, Conny got involved in a property scheme in Sri Lanka through which he became a millionaire, but from which he was unable to withdraw without paying kickbacks to all kinds of operators, including officials right up to and including the then Prime Minister! The episode where he kicks down the prime Minister's doors, swears till he is blue in the face and then has to go underground for his own safety is priceless!
This book fulfils a public duty that has fallen on Conny Larsson, who made so many efforts to induce people to follow these gurus, to convey the truths which have been concealed about them and by them. It should help others to avoid them like the plague, whatever their fine words and very charismatic appeal. Many good persons who are attracted to such deceivers do excellent social service in their name, so enhancing their reputations.
I first met Conny in Oslo in autumn 1983 when he spoke at a public meeting and a weekend seminar where he told about his contact with Sathya Sai Baba. (However, I visited him again for some days in Stockholm in 2005 when I was also active in a panel discussion at the presentation of Conny's book). He was convincing, all in all, to me because I had already experienced some wholly inexplicable contacts with Sathya Sai Baba, who had appeared to my aged mother in UK and apparently healed her of all chronic pain from a crushed vertebra, which had seemed an unexplained miracle to me for a year before I heard she had seen him. I discovered that it was apparently Sathya Sai Baba who had appeared to her and told her in exactly the words I had prayed to him on her behalf, 'No more pain'. I had, however, kept my distance from Conny because I then regarded these experiences - including many vivid dreams of Sathya Sai Baba - to be a private matter which I did not wish to make public.
Conny has been accused by Sai devotees of being a 'mythoman'. His former over-zealous enthusiasm and dramatising way of relating his experiences, which he now readily admits to have been unfortunate, gave him a reputation for inaccuracy or embroidering facts among some devotees, though a huge number wanted only to hear his stories. I was personally able to check that he had exaggerated in a few of the incidents he had originally told about at the first public meetings I attended. It seemed that he was too enthusiastic, and his (often rather too fantastic) accounts were a bit too good to be true. [However, this is also a common feature of many devotees who recount their experiences with Sathya Sai Baba.] There had also been some curious signs of shyness, something held back, when he spoke about his being 'married' to Sathya Sai Baba but said he could not expand on that as it was private between him and 'Swami'. I had a passing thought as to whether there could be something sexual involved, but put it aside as absurd! My recall of this event did not become fully significant to me until I read this book. Now I realise my brief intuition was indeed correct.
Even twenty years after that it still took me some time before I could credit Conny's revelations about his being sexually used and abused by Sathya Sai Baba. I was unable to accept the revelations of David Bailey when they surfaced and I stayed 'on the fence' as to the many allegations for nearly a year (by when I had assured myself through investigations that many were true - a difficult process). I considered Conny's revelations doubtful even after that, for I was already sceptically inclined towards him… though I did not close off my mind. After some months we managed to meet a young Norwegian lady journalist in Oslo, Hilde Wright, who had filmed and interviewed Conny while staying some weeks at his estate Tostebo, where the Kärnan Institute is. She had also been in an interview with Sathya Sai Baba in Prashanthi Nilayam when travelling there with her boyfriend in Conny's travel group. Her evidence of how Sathya Sai had grasped her boyfriend's testicles in the interview room, and also had tried to break up their relationship, was most convincing. Also, her account of how Conny had come to realise the immense deceptions to which he and everyone had been subjected by Sathya Sai, and of his subsequent suffering as he underwent psychiatric therapy in the aftermath. My wife and I, still in partial denial, told her about the alleged 'materialised' green diamond ring I was wearing, which she brushed aside as an irrelevancy. Right she was indeed - thought I did not definitively discover it to be a cheap imitation (a synthetic sapphire) until some years later.
Various rumours and claims that devotees disgruntled with Conny and his revelations were circulating to discredit him were gradually cleared up for me one by one, not least through e-mail contact with Conny. Eventually, I became completely convinced that the abuse by Sathya Sai really did take place exactly as he says. Moreover, I am convinced that the two boys who Conny was helping and took to see Sai Baba and who later took their own lives (independently) were victims of the same kind of sexual abuses. All in all, Conny has through this lucid account fully overcome his tendency to 'mythologise' events.
The abuse of the body and mind is a dreadful thing, for which Sathya Sai is now becoming notorious. The abuse of Conny's faith is even more all-embracing - it is the same for everyone to whom Sathya Sai has claimed to be completely pure, perfect and divine in all ways and to be 'all gods rolled into one'. This disgraceful deception is bringing shame on the Indian nation since the evidence is too massive and continues to emerge, even though Sai Baba can stop any litigation against him due to his influence on devotee Prime Ministers, Presidents, Supreme Court and High Court judges plus many other persons in power.
How anyone can be induced to fall for the astonishingly excessive claims of Sathya Sai Baba seems wholly inexplicable to most outsiders, but Conny's book helps those without such experiences to understand something of how vulnerable even experienced and intelligent people can be to Sai Baba's claims and promises, especially when they have been hooked through extrasensory experiences (which do occur and not only in connection with Sai Baba) and by getting some personal attention [and the flattery of being "noticed by God"!]. This, taken together with some very positive and hope-inspiring (but mostly simplistic) messages he preaches and the overheated climate of a charismatic personality cult which has blanket rationalisations for everything untoward, can confuse people of all levels of experience and education. The positive propaganda is wall-to-wall and only by years of involvement do some people come to learn of the dark side of Sai Baba. There is a cloak of secrecy around everything the complicit insiders do not wish should become known. That most of the intelligentsia of India are under the Sathya Sai Baba spell from Prime Ministersand Presidents downwards, is proof of the pudding!
All in all, Conny's book had me thinking that there is still truth in the old saw about true art being the product of suffering. Yet this book is no artistic fiction… it is fascinating fact through and through.