Amma and her organization terrorize and intimidate people: Gail Tredwell
Gail Tredwell was an unknown name to a majority of Keralites till last week. That was when ‘Holy Hell’, a book on her experiences during the 20 years she spent at the Mata Amrithanandamayi math, was released online. Over this past week, the book has been downloaded and read by thousands, which in turn kicked up a fierce debate.
The debates stayed online for the first two days when the mainstream media completely ignored it. But the discussions sustained longer than anyone expected forcing even the Chief Minister to comment on the issue. In this exclusive interview over email, Gail Tredwell speaks out about the factors that led to writing this book and about her expectations from it.
One of the questions being raised against your book is the delay (of 15years) for publishing this. Also, supporters of the Mata Amrithanandamayi are asking why you chose to stay back at the math for 20 years, enduring the things that mention in your book, including ill treatment on the mata’s part and that allegation of rape by one of her close disciples. How would you respond to these?
The first few years after I left Amritanandamayi Math were very hard. Physically I was in very bad shape, plus suffering from an enormous amount of emotional pain, confusion, and feelings of betrayal and loss. It took me many years of rest, good nutrition, support from friends, and a healthy balanced lifestyle to gain perspective.
During those early years it was impossible to speak about any of the harm done. I did not have the clarity of mind nor the strength to face the retribution that would inevitably occur if I shared even a fraction of what I knew. I needed to heal first. During those initial years, I wanted to forget everything and move on with my life.
Eventually, despite my fear of retribution, I felt I had no choice but to publish my story; that I morally owed it to the public and the numerous devotees to share what I knew. So I spent the last four years working on my book.
Despite much abuse, I stayed at the ashram because I held the mistaken belief that Amma was one with God, and that all of her actions, despite how seemingly cruel, were for my highest good.
Also I was surrounded there by people I loved and loved to help, and with whom I was able to participate in fulfilling devotional and selfless service activities.
As for the sexual abuse, I was afraid to speak out about it. Being a western woman, I feared I would be the one blamed. As many victims do, I also carried a lot of guilt, shame and self-blame. I held the fear that if I told Amma I would be kicked out of the ashram. Something I wasn’t willing to risk. One could compare my situation to that of a woman trapped in an abusive marriage, or of a servant being abused by the man of the household. Like these women, I suffered in silence out of fear of the consequences.
You have leveled charges of financial irregularities and sexual misconduct, against the math and some of its higher ups. Why haven’t you taken the legal route yet, or even back then when these things happened? Do you plan to fight this in court?
I was too devoted to Amma and what I believed was my spiritual path at the time. So, I tried to simply surrender to the situation. I do not intend to file any legal complaint. I have already spent twenty years of my life with this organization and do not wish to spend several more years dealing with legal proceedings. I believe in higher forms of justice.
Did you have a fear of being persecuted, in case you spoke out? Have you witnessed other cases of people in the mata’s inner circle leaving and being persecuted for it?
Yes, after witnessing what happened to many who left before me, I most definitely feared persecution. The organization has a very effective way of dealing with people who try to speak out. If they are not outright threatened, they suffer the consequences of character assassination and are labeled as confused, angry, revengeful, and emotionally unstable.
Bottom line, Amma and her organization terrorize and intimidate people into silence.
Did the math offer you money when you left, in return for a vow of silence?
No, but they offered me an ashram in Australia if I would return and sign legal papers. A few months after I left, while Amma was touring Australia, I received a phone call from one of the main organizers with a message that Amma was offering me an ashram anywhere of my choice in Australia. I would not have to do anything, just put my robes back on. There was a tone of desperation in the message and emphasis made that it was a matter of saving face.
I was told there would be some documents to sign. I cannot say what these documents were, but assume they were some form of non-disclosure agreement. Also, although I never asked for or expected any form of compensation from the organization, shortly after I left they did give me a small sum of money and paid my health insurance for about 1.5 years. I believe it was with the hope that after I had some rest, I would return to the ashram.
Is there a team comprised of those close disciples who stage manages her events and her whole image? Would you put the blame more on this team, than the mata?
I know in the west there is a public relations team that handles how Amma is presented to the media. I believe they established the term, “The Hugging Saint.” In the early days, Amma was very much in charge of all major decision-making and there is a strong guru/disciple structure in place. However, as the organization grew I am sure it became impossible for her to manage every aspect. Like all such organizations I am sure there are many players in power now.
Would you describe Amrithanandamayi math enterprise as something which was started with a good intention, but lost its way into corruption as the money came pouring in? Or would you dismiss the whole idea of a human saint as something which can only end up this way?
I like to believe that this all started out with very good intentions. Amma does a lot of good work and inspires many to be charitable. However, I also believe that along the way she fell prey to the usual trappings of money, politics, and power.
What is your take on the silence of the mainstream media, regarding this issue and also about the groundswell of support from the social media? The Kerala Police have now registered a case against those who made comments on the issue in the social media.
I feel media silence demonstrates the political and monetary influence of Mata Amritanadamayi and her organisation in Kerala and elsewhere. I am very disturbed by the use of police power to try silencing freedom of speech of the many voices that obviously agree that something is very wrong. Such an action could not only intimidate freedom of speech but also incite violence and retaliation against district people who speak out.
What is the outcome you expected on releasing this book?
Despite inevitable organization retribution, my hope was to educate the public by shedding light on what goes on inside MA Math. That way, devotees both Indian and Western can make an informed decision before they hand over their mind, heart, lives and money. I was also hoping it would encourage more transparency from the organization.
Why do you think the math has not yet filed a defamation suit against you? Has anyone from the math contacted you after the release of this book? Has there been threat calls?
I don’t know the math’s intentions about filing a defamation suit against me. American lawyers tell me it is most unlikely that they would sue me because I have told the truth, without any malicious motives, and that therefore they don’t have a valid case against me. I have no money for them to collect, so any math defamation suit would only be to financially intimidate me with costly legal proceedings. But dragging this matter through the legal system would inevitably create more media attention and negative notoriety for them.
Since release of my book, I have not been directly contacted by the math. But they have threatened me indirectly. People who know me have been told I would be sued. And they have made intimidating libel threats against an American press service that announced publication of my book, a Swiss magazine that interviewed me, a Swiss newspaper that reviewed my book, and a prominent French psychoanalyst/author who supported my book’s revelations about Amma’s private behaviors.
Without making direct threats, the math has incited many email hate messages against me with a campaign of character assassination against me. As expected, they have wrongly denied everything in the book and labeled me as dishonest, confused, angry, revengeful, and emotionally unstable via malicious on-line blog posts filled with false and defamatory claims about me.
How has your view on spirituality undergone a change in the 15 yearssince you have left the Amrithanandamayi math? Have you lost your belief in spirituality?
Despite all that I went through during my stay in the ashram, I have not lost spiritual faith. When I first left, I was not able to distinguish the difference between my own spirituality and my devotion to Amma. After so many years of indoctrination, these two ideals had become one. But after I left, slowly I was able to untangle my mind from many false beliefs and settle back into a new and improved spiritual life. A life free of superstition, blind belief, and surrender to another human being, instead of God.