Wild Wild Country: 'Sex Cult' Member Reveals Truth About Orgies, Sterilizations and Punishments at Oregon Ranch

Updated | “We certainly didn't have orgies,” says Satya Franklin as she recalls her experiences three decades ago at Rajneeshpuram, the commune in Oregon run by a so-called “sex cult” at the center of the new Netflix documentary Wild Wild Country

“No one working that long [has orgies],” the 76-year-old tells Newsweek, contradicting rumors that Rajneeshees—the followers of the controversial spiritual leader and free-love advocate Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh—led a lazy life of sex and meditation. “You could barely tumble into bed at night.” The startling footage of Rajneeshees screaming and fighting in the nude shown in Wild Wild Country were likely filmed in India and had nothing to do with the ranch, Franklin claims.

In fact, Satya—born Jill in suburban New York—argues there are several gaping holes in the six-part series which charts the rise and fall of the briefly incorporated city Rajneeshpuram, and its standoff with neighboring Antelope, Oregon: population 40. 

Its directors, brothers Chapman and Maclain Way, did a fine job demonstrating the issues of religious freedom dragged up by the establishment of the commune, and the concerns of Antelope’s conservative residents who feared their new neighbors' belief in free love, rejection of the nuclear family, and the speed with which they built their city.

The documentary showed how Bhagwan was a contradictory figure. He regarded meditation and free love as the paths to spiritual enlightenment; but he believed in consumerism—evidenced by the Rolls-Royce he drove around the commune and diamond-encrusted Rolex watch he wore while giving sermons. He accused Mahatma Gandhi of worshipping poverty. He railed against cults, religion and other iconoclastic ideas despite heading his own controversial religious group. 

But where in Wild Wild Country was the mention of the sterilizations? Or the life-consuming work hours? And where was Franklin's side of the story? After all, she played no small part in Bhagwan​'s rise to fame, which saw his name attached to communes around the world, and meditation centers to this day. The books she ghostwrote in the mid-Seventies were based on his talks and published in many languages.

She had once been a close friend of his infamous secretary Ma Anand Sheela, who served 29 months of a 20-year prison sentence for attempted murder and assault for poisoning 751 Oregonians with Salmonella in 1984. It was the largest biological attack in the history of the U.S.

franklin2 Satya Franklin (front, middle) with her now-deceased ashram lover and two fellow Rajneeshees in India. Satya Franklin

You are frozen like ice and I want to melt you

Franklin was active in the anti-war and civil rights movements, and in the early 1970s worked as a speech writer for Shirley Anita Chisholm, the first African American woman elected to Congress. Between the ages of 19 and 24, she had three children with her first husband whom she divorced by the time her second child was six.

Franklin, who now lives with her fellow ex-Rajneeshee husband in Rhode Island, was first attracted to the teachings of Bhagwan when she read a “cheesy” pamphlet a friend in her meditation class brought back after meeting the guru in India. “She came back totally transformed and I was struck by her transition,” Franklin says of her friend.

His teachings offered the promise of respite from the rigors of life. “I was an intellectual and viewed the world through my mind and needed to get in touch with my inner self. And that’s what his meditation technique allowed me to do,” says Franklin.

“You are frozen like ice and I want to melt you” were the words that resonated most deeply with her.  

The allure of being 'melted' started a journey that would see her leaving behind her children and life in the New York suburbs for India at age 33, being poisoned, and fleeing Rajneeshpuram with her husband under the cover of darkness in her forties.

IMG_5840 Satya Franklin (left) kneels and talks to the Bhagwan at Rajneesh Ashram in Pune, India circa 1978. Satya Franklin

Sexuality was a means of control

Becoming a 'Sanyassan,' or follower, of Rajneesh was easy. Franklin simply wrote to Bhagwan, and received a letter informing her that her new name was Satya. She was instructed to dress in orange and wear a string of mala beads around her neck with a photo of the guru at its center. The red clothing commonly associated with the movement - and referenced on the 'Antelope: Better Dead Than Red' protest signs of the city's residents - came later.

In December 1975, she moved from New York to the ashram in Pune, India. There, she was taken in by Baghwan’s companion, Ma Yoga Vivek, born Christine Wolf Smith. Franklin says it is remarkable she was not mentioned in Wild Wild Country, despite being in several photos in the documentary.

"She saw him twice a day and I saw him twice a day too. Most people saw him once every many months," recalls Franklin.

“Bhagwan used open sexuality as a means not just to free people from their inhibitions but a means through which people were controlled. If you don't have tight bonds between you and other people, whether family or a partner, then the community and Bhagwan became the center of your life and focus, energy and efforts," says Franklin.

He had me once lie on the floor and touched my various chakras including my sex center.

"His English wasn't very good [in those days] and although he gave talks in English he was thinking in Gujarati and would translate that from English, so he made a lot of mistakes. He knew I was a writer and we would talk about the ways to phrase things.

"I never saw him as a real person but as the personification of a higher being. In Bombay [Mumbai] he always sat in a chair, and anyone who talked sat kneeling before him. On his feet he wore only velvet flip-flops. They were very fancy. He would slip them off his foot and take his toe and fondle my breast with his toe. I didn't see him as sexual at all. He also had me once lie on the floor and touched my various chakras including my sex center," explains Franklin, referring to her genitals. 

“I never saw him as a sexual being. If I had taken his action of fondling of my breast and checking my sex chakra as sexual he might have asked me to have sex with him—and I would have."

It was during this time in the early '80s. as Sheela set up the 64,000-acre Oregon ranch, that Franklin’s involvement with the movement took a dark turn. Franklin fears she was one of many people that Sheela—who admitted in court to having a habit of poisoning people—targeted her. Franklin suspects it was because Sheela didn't like visitors who had read her books asking to meet her. 

Suffering from an aching neck, one of Sheela’s “underlings” suggested Franklin should go to the medical center. “The next thing I knew, I was in permanent traction in the most archaic traction machine. It looked like a torture instrument from the 1400s. My neck got worse and I was fed medication.” She was hospitalized for two months. 

“I was poisoned, which I didn’t know until many years later. I don't know what the poison was. And I was very ill and was fed enormous amounts of tranquilizers and hallucinogens and became addicted. Finally my weight went to 79lbs and I was sent back to the States.”

satyafranklin Satya Franklin (second from left) pictured with her parents and Ma Anand Sheela. Satya Franklin

Cut off from the outside world

Meanwhile, the ranch had grown from an empty lot to the vast city of Rajneeshpuram. Populated by thousands of worshippers, all dressed in red, it had infrastructure including an airport and fire department, as well as a meditation center, mall and a pizza restaurant.

Over a year later, Bhagwan summoned her to the ranch. “He was my master, what could I say?” says Franklin. She soon discovered that Rajneeshees worked a minimum of 12 hour days, but more likely from 7 a.m. until 10 or 11 p.m. Franklin held roles as varied as running the kitchens and the post office to heading banking and accounting systems. During the lunch hour, Bhagwan would drive his Rolls Royce around the ranch.

We had no idea what was going on in the outside world. It was under those conditions that it became a little out of hand.

“Most Sanyassans were very eager to see him. My husband and I often would not go to drive-bys. I didn't really feel a connection to Bhagwan by then. His attraction to expensive things and diamond watches was something that frankly turned me off. I came from a middle class family and my grandparents were very well off and it was an embarrassment being driven around by a chauffeur as a child.

“As time went on there were more restrictions. We were worked to the bone. We had no access to radio or TV, magazines or newspapers. We had no idea what was going on in the outside world. It was under those conditions that it became a little out of hand,” says Franklin.

Followers would be dressed down for behavior deemed unacceptable. A number of members were put on “sleep therapy” for several days to “mellow out” and conform to the ranch regime, says Franklin. After offering advice to a customer at the commune gas station, she was told not to talk to people and instead direct them to the head office.

IMG_8872 Satya Franklin's book detailing her experiences as a Rajneeshee. Satya Franklin

Lives were ruined

Sterilization was an open secret, says Franklin. 

“Sheela had a hysterectomy and I believe she was the first. Bhagwan felt children were a distraction from the spiritual path. He said the nuclear family is a disease.” He deterred one of Sheela’s entourage from having a child by advising her to “borrow” a friend’s for a week and see if she still wanted one, says Franklin.

“But the idea of the sterilization was that if you didn't want to have kids anyway and people had multiple sexual partners, it was not unreasonable. I know people who left became angry about the sterilizations. They were livid that their lives were ruined.

“Not every man, but scores had vasectomies. Were people forced to be sterilized? People were told if you want to be on a spiritual path this is good to do. They were not forced, but if they didn't they were at risk of losing their ashram job or being asked to leave. People were not encouraged to be pregnant, that's for sure,” says Franklin.

Mass poisonings and attempted assassinations

As the commune became embroiled in its war with Antelope, Sheela fostered an “us vs them” mentality against Oregonians in order to encourage Sanyassans to work even harder. After a Rajneeshee-owned hotel in Portland was bombed in 1983, guards toting AK-47 rifles started to accompany Bhagwan, and Rajneeshpuram became one of the most heavily armed places in Oregon.

Unbeknownst to the commune residents, the camp was wiretapped by Sheela, and she and other high-ranking Rajneeshees had played a part in mass poisonings and attempted assassinations.

“[Baghwan] wasn’t operating from a clear space," says Franklin. "Just because you can be in a clear space doesn't mean you are always there. He was taking a ton of medication at the ranch. Whether Sheela got him in an unclear space, I don't know."

“She wasn't someone I respected. She was someone I knew for a long time and had been a close friend with. But as she rose to power she became unpleasant and I couldn't bear to listen to her talks, nor could my husband. We’d sit at the back of the auditorium because we knew if we didn't go to these meetings we'd be yelled at and dressed down.

How did we allow ourselves to become subjects to a totalitarian regime?

Franklin and her husband became disillusioned. "There were a group of people who wanted to be at the ranch because it was the community of our master but who didn't approve of what was happening there. I no longer wanted to be there but wasn't ready to leave until my husband did and we thought ‘we gotta get out,'" says Franklin.

By September 1985, Sheela and around a dozen of her associates fled the camp after one of her closest allies attempted to murder Bhagwan's doctor. A month later, Bhagwan and those close to him were arrested. By the end of the year the ranch had closed.

IMG_2044 (1) Satya Franklin is no longer a devotee of Bhagwan. Satya Franklin

Life after Rajneeshee

Franklin is no longer a Rajneeshee, although she says the meditation techniques she learned from Bhagwan have helped her maintain her very passionate relationship with her husband, and eased her pain when her son was viciously murdered by a stranger.

To this day, Franklin is grappling with how she and thousands of others were won over by the commune’s apparent utopian promise that, as Wild Wild Country depicts, was rotten to its core. 

“One of the things I say in the intro of my book is it’s about the risks of being with the spiritual master and the beauty of it. People are attracted to these movements all the time and there is something beautiful and beneficial. But if they suspend their critical judgment they pay the price.

“We were extremely intelligent. Tons of people had PhDs and Masters degrees, and most people were college educated and had successful careers. How did we allow ourselves to become subjects to a totalitarian regime? And it’s that which was not told in Wild Wild Country.”

The Promise of Paradise: A Woman's Intimate Story of the Perils of Life with Rajneesh by Satya Franklin is available on Amazon and eBay.

This article has been updated to add background information.