For Robin George, then 14, the experience began innocently enough in the summer of 1974 with visits to a Laguna Beach Hare Krishna temple for feasts. “It was like baiting a trap,” she says. Six months later she had been captivated by the cult and was soon sleeping on a Krishna dormitory floor, rising at 3 a.m. to chant her mantra hundreds of times and spending her days hustling books and flowers on New Orleans streets. In October 1975 Robin’s parents finally pried her from the Krishnas’ grasp, and two years later she and her mother, Marcia, sued the Krishnas for false imprisonment and emotional distress. They also charged the Krishnas with the wrongful death of Robin’s father, Jim, a heart patient whose death a few months after her return, they argued, was hastened by his nationwide hunt for his child. This June, Robin made history when an Orange County, Calif. jury awarded her $32.5 million in actual and punitive damages, to be paid by the sect’s umbrella organization, the International Society for Krishna Consciousness. Although the judge later reduced that figure to $9.7 million, it is still believed to be the largest award of its kind against a cult.
“With this, I don’t feel like such a failure,” says Robin, now 23 and a born-again Christian. She lives with her mother in Cypress, Calif., near L.A. Her lawyers—who took the case on a contingency basis and will receive 50 percent of the award—successfully argued that the right of parents to raise their children without interference supersedes a religious body’s right to proselytize minors. “This kind of award,” says one of the Georges’ attorneys, Lynde Selden, “is meant as an expression of the jury’s outrage. It shows that people are not sympathetic to any organization that is fraudulent, coercive or deceptive in its practices.” The Hare Krishnas, not surprisingly, beg to differ, and have vowed to appeal.
Robin, who considered the trial something of a holy war, says that nowadays she’d “tell kids approached by the Hare Krishnas to run the other way.” She would understand, however, if they didn’t. At 14, she says, she had a normal relationship with her parents, but felt spiritually unsatisfied. She was drawn to the Krishna temple and, after repeated visits, was urged to become a full-time devotee. She was told that if she didn’t she would be reincarnated as “a worm in stool.” On what she claims were instructions from the temple president, she ran away from home on Nov. 16,1974, leaving a note to her parents that read: “I love you, but I must leave you.”
The Georges immediately contacted the police. But the Krishnas, who disavowed any knowledge of her whereabouts, stayed a step ahead. Robin was shuttled from Laguna Beach to San Francisco, Dallas and finally New Orleans. Her father, an office-machine technician, picketed Krishna temples in Southern California, wrote to Ralph Nader, contacted the FBI and sent flyers to police departments around the country. “He devoted his life to finding her,” says Marcia George.
In March of 1975 Robin was officially initiated into the cult and given the name of Rajanath. Most of her day was devoted to sankirtan, or fund raising. “They told us to say anything at all to get a donation,” she recalls. “Sometimes we said we were feeding starving people. The attitude was that we were doing the karmis [nonbelievers] a favor by taking their money away.”
In April Robin was located by New Orleans police, who retrieved her from the temple. Her father flew in and brought her back to California. Once home, she ran away again, to a temple in Ottawa, Canada. When police again recognized her face from a flyer, she fled back to the L.A. temple, where her parents again tracked her down. Faced with the possibility of being remanded to foster care, Robin reluctantly returned home.
Gradually, with professional counseling and her parents’ support, Robin began to shed her fanaticism. “But she was not like her old self for five years,” says her mother. Robin, whose every decision had been made for her at the temple, would become anxious when confronted with restaurant menus or a rack of clothes at a department store. “It’s difficult if you’re not used to making those kinds of decisions,” she says. “I would just break down and cry.”
Robin realizes that because the court decision is controversial, she probably won’t see any money for years, if at all. She works part-time at an antique store and dates Rob Westerkamp, 34, an industrial-design student and member of her current church.
“Winning has given me a much better feeling about myself,” says Robin, who says she’ll start a foundation to help ex-cult members and their families if the money comes through. “But my feelings are tempered by knowing we aren’t going to see the money for a while. Mom and I laugh that we’re the poorest millionaires in the world.”