‘I grew up in a cult’ My bizarre upbringing
When his parents joined the Orange People, it was the beginning of his strange upbringing writes NATALEE FUHRMANN
At just five years old, Sohan Hayes could never understand why his mummy would leave him. He’d cry and get angry about it, but above all he missed her, and nothing could lessen his feelings of abandonment.
His mum Prem Arpita (real name Suzanne Hayes) and her partner Ron Fewster were part of an infamous worldwide sect known as the Sannyasins, the Rajneeshees or Orange People.
Led by Indian mystic Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, thousands of Aussies were enticed by the sect’s promises of enlightenment through spiritual cleansing, hedonism and sexual openness.
Prem left Sohan with the WA branch of the movement to pursue enlightenment in India. The brunt of that decision has had lifelong effects for Sohan and his younger brother Govindo, who were billeted with other sect families for months at a time and left in meditation centres during their parents’ odyssey of self-discovery.
“I’m 42 now and a father of two, so I’ve come to accept it, but I can still remember arguing with my mum well into my 30s about her leaving me,” Sohan says. “Mum’s only explanation was that she was following her heart. She was a fantastic mother and I felt like I was number one in her life, but during those Rajneesh years, until I was nine, there were some wild times and not a lot of direction was given to us kids.
“I’m no longer damaged by my experiences, but I am marked,” says Sohan, who has managed to move on with his life and is now happily engaged to Laetitia Wilson, 38, who supports him in dealing with his past, and is mum to their two daughters Kaia, five, and three-year-old Tora.
With philosophies that shadowed Hinduism, the sect was “loud and proud” and quickly became a source of derision.
“They bought and renovated one of the buildings on Collie Street [Fremantle]. We had a whole floor of just kids. Adults must have been up or downstairs,” Sohan says, recalling his time being cared for by members of thee sect when his mother left.
“I saw plenty of nakedness ss and people having sex at home, but I just accepted it as normal. In the Fremantle headquarters, the adults would throw their arms in the air during dynamic meditation and shout, ‘Who? Who? Who?’ which was short for ‘Who am I?’ hundreds of times. They ended up padding the windows because there had been noise complaints.
“I remember being mesmerised watching the catatonic dancing and shaking,” adds Sohan, who recalls his mum and stepdad taking part in bizarre practices such as staring at a wall for three days. “Mum even practised laughing for three hours per week, then crying for three hours the next week.”
Sohan’s mum, who passed away in 2011, was eventually asked to leave the Rajneeshees for speaking out against some of the excesses, like the Bhagwan’s penchant for Rolls-royces – he had 93! But for Sohan, the damage was already done.
“I’d have loved a normal childhood with two loving, well-adjusted parents but I went to 16 schools and was angry for so many years.
“Mum and I had it out when I was in my 30s – there were a lot of tears. She apologised for being absent but I continue to have trust issues for fear of being let down and abandoned.”
Sohan’s unusual childhood has made the media artist all the more vigilant with his own family – he’s determined to give his girls the childhood he never had.
“I feel I overcompensate with Laetitia and our girls now,” laughs Sohan. “Having two loving parents is so important to me now, and I fight to maintain that. I invest a lot of time in my family, and I will preserve it at any price.”
‘I continue to have trust issues for fear of being abandoned’
Govindo with his mum and grandparents. Sohan, who was called Arielriel before being givenven his Sanskritt name, with Premem and brother Govindo.