Cult Leader John-Roger, Who Says He's Inhabited by a Divine Spirit, Stands Accused of a Campaign of Hate
Susan Whitmore finally decided that her guru, John-Roger, was no man of God the day her husband’s life was threatened. In fact, the evidence had been accumulating for some time. Six months earlier, Susan’s husband, Wendell Whitmore, now 42, and his twin brother, Wesley, had left John-Roger’s Los Angeles-based Movement of Spiritual Inner Awareness (MSIA), denouncing its founder as a fraud. Since then they had been subjected to a campaign of hate mail, vandalism and death threats. Still, Susan believed she could confront J-R, as his followers call him, and reason with him.
John-Roger agreed to meet with her in January 1984, but his message was hardly encouraging. “He told me that the vandalism was a warning and that he was personally touched that someone loved him enough to do it,” says Susan, 37. “He informed me that some people wanted to kill Wendell and Wesley. He spent 10 minutes telling me how they were going to make it look like a car accident. He said that no one would be able to trace it back to him.”
The Whitmores’ charges, and others leveled against John-Roger, 54, by similarly disaffected disciples, have cast an ominous shadow over his international religious organization, derisively referred to as the “Cadillac of cults” by ex-members. Claiming that he is the embodiment of a divine spirit, which he calls the Mystical Traveler Consciousness, and that he is able to guide people to God, the onetime California schoolteacher has turned his tax-exempt MSIA—pronounced “messiah” by his followers—into a multimillion-dollar enterprise. Insight Seminars brought in $8 million in 1986-’87, and J-R’s organizations back various media enterprises and own real estate, including a $6 million John-Roger foundation building on L.A.’s Wilshire Boulevard.
For the last four years MSIA has publicized its commitment to the betterment of humanity by holding an annual star-studded Integrity Day, at which checks for as much as $10,000 are dispensed to the favorite charities of such honorees as Mother Teresa, Desmond Tutu, Ralph Nader and director Oliver (Platoon) Stone. (None of these notables was involved with J-R’s organizations, but Stone, for one, says he accepted the award because of the stature of prior winners and because it enabled him to donate the money to Medical Aid for El Salvador.) John-Roger’s ministers have run productivity seminars for employees of the U.S. Social Security Administration and such major corporations as Lockheed and Chemical Bank. MSIA’s celebrity ministers include Beach Boy Carl Wilson and actresses Sally Kirkland and Leigh Taylor-Young.
If former cult members have their way, J-R’s elbow-rubbing days will be over. They accuse him of abusing his spiritual authority by brainwashing his followers, seducing young male staff members and intimidating dissenters. Movement dissidents say J-R used hidden listening devices at the organization’s Santa Monica headquarters as a way of supporting his claim of having mind-reading powers. “What people thought was J-R’s clairvoyance was just his cunning and deceitful information gathering,” said one disenchanted member. Ex-followers also accuse J-R of subtly manipulating MSIA members with a kind of spiritual catch-22. “He says one thing—’Check it out, think for yourself’—and then when you do, you are told he is the only one who can validate your inner experience,” says defector Susan Gray, an office manager. “Some people don’t even think they can exist in the world without John-Roger.”
The Whitmores, who joined MSIA during the heyday of California enlightenment in the early ’70s, decided to leave in 1983. They could no longer deny their burgeoning doubts after several male staffers confessed during an informal group discussion that J-R had used spiritual threats and promises to elicit sexual favors from them. J-R’s followers had been encouraged to believe that their master had taken a vow of celibacy, so the succession of attractive young men who shared his opulent Southern California house had apparently aroused little suspicion. “He always had someone sleeping in his bedroom at night, supposedly to protect his body while he was out of it,” says Wesley Whitmore, now a graduate student in psychology. A MSIA spokesman denies that John-Roger ever took a vow of sexual abstinence.
Those who complied with J-R’s sexual advances were reportedly promoted to positions of authority and praised for their spiritual qualities. Victor Toso, 34, now living in Minneapolis and engaged to be married, says he was not homosexual but that he consented to J-R’s requests for sex because he feared being kicked off the MSIA staff. “Whenever we fell out of line, having another sexual encounter with him was sort of required to seal us back in the brotherhood,” says Toso.
Even after leaving the movement, defectors hesitated to challenge J-R publicly “because we were made to be afraid,” says Susan Whitmore. J-R, she says, would declare that people who questioned him had placed themselves “under the Kal [a devil-like spirit] power and its field of negativity, known as the Red Monk.” Behind the voodoo jargon was a clear warning that anyone who associated with the Whitmores or other defectors risked dire consequences. According to Susan, one woman was told she had had a miscarriage because she had hugged one of the infidels.
Following the Whitmores’ defection, their cars were vandalized and they received obscene letters accusing them of homosexuality and phone calls threatening their lives. In a similar case, Eve Cohen, the teenage daughter of ex-MSIA ministers Matthew and Ellen Cohen, received a letter graphically describing her father’s alleged sexual acts with other men. The letter was purportedly from a girlfriend of Eve’s in Los Angeles. Matthew, a mind-body therapist, calls this kind of behavior “psychopathic.”
Born of Mormon parents in a small Utah coal mining town, Roger Delano Hinkins, now J-R, claims that while in a nine-day coma following a kidney-stone operation in 1963, he came to be inhabited by a spirit who identified himself only as “John the Beloved.” Before that, Hinkins had lived quietly in Salt Lake City. He worked for a time as a night orderly in a hospital psychiatric ward and as a telephone operator with the police department. Then, after graduating from the University of Utah with a degree in psychology, he taught English in a Rosemead, Calif., high school. Starting with karmic coffee klatches in his own living room, where he would share his spiritual wisdom and accept $3 donations, he worked his way up to his current estate, which includes seminars offered by his worldwide organization at up to $775 a pop.
Once initiated into J-R’s circle, say former disciples, followers hesitate to leave, if not for fear of reprisals, then out of reluctance to blow their chances at salvation. John-Roger has warned, after all, that the Mystical Traveler Consciousness visits earth only once every 25,000 years. Moreover, concedes defector Matthew Cohen, many of the faithful “sincerely believe in the goodness of John-Roger and what he’s doing.” Among them is best-selling author Arianna Stassinopoulos Huffington (Picasso: Creator and Destroyer), who rejects the charges of John-Roger’s critics. “These rumors have no validity,” she says. “I have known John-Roger for 15 years, and there is nothing in my experience of the man to support any of these allegations. I have never once seen any evidence of him wanting to control people.”
For his part, John-Roger has denied all the accusations and is reported to be traveling in Europe. When news of a possible scandal broke, his various enterprises were renamed for marketing purposes, according to a MSIA minister. No one who claims victimization at his hands has taken legal action against him, and so far as is known, no law enforcement authority is investigating. Friends and associates of his movement have been invited to “catch the vision” at a gala tribute to J-R at the Sheraton Universal outside Los Angeles in December. Meanwhile, a bill has been introduced in Congress to declare Sept. 24, Roger Delano Hinkins’ birthday, National Integrity Day.
—By Montgomery Brower, with Suzanne Adelson and Leah Feldon in Los Angeles