Arianna Huffington for many years sought to downplay the extent of her involvement in the Movement For Spiritual Inner Awareness, a cult ex-members described as sexually and financially exploitive in a series of Los Angeles Times exposés in the 1980s and 1990s. During her then-husband's 1994 U.S. Senate run, the Greek-born socialite claimed movement founder John-Roger (pictured with her at a 2004 book party, left) was a mere friend, and pictures of him holding her daughter were ordered withheld from the group's newspaper, the editor later said. But the Huffington Post editor-in-chief is an ordained "Minister Of Light" in the group and once described John-Roger to Interview as her "way-shower." She relaxed a bit in the New Yorker's Oct. 13 profile , admitting she had been too "defensive" about John-Roger, and allowing writer Lauren Collins to listen to a guided MSIA meditation stored on Huffington's iPod. But she wasn't entirely forthcoming. What about the role she has fashioned for her cult in HuffPo staff development?
Late last year, former staffers say, Huffington directed two Huffington Post employees to attend an Insight Seminar in Westlake Village, California. Though technically distinct from MSIA, Insight shares a founder, John-Roger, and a "Spiritual Director," John Morton (right) with the group. This sharing of staff goes back at least 20 years, when the LA Times reported Insight was rife with MSIA "volunteers" and obtained emails showing John-Roger was calling the shots. A former top-ranked church minister told the paper Insight was used to draw new recruits into MSIA.
One of the staff members made to attend the event was HuffPo's New York-based Living section editor, Anya Strzemien (left), according to two insiders. Strzemien did not respond to an email seeking comment, but Huffington Post is said to have paid the bill for her flight and multi-day stay in California, and by all accounts the trip occurred at Arianna's behest. Said one tipster: "It was kind of a joke in the office, like 'is she going to be brainwashed by the creepy cult.'" It is not clear if Strzemien was attending for personal development, to "cover" the event for HuffPo or both.
The other staffer was apparently an unnamed Los Angeles-based scheduler struggling to serve Huffington, an erratic and sometimes brutal presence over staffers who work out of her Brentwood mansion. It was made clear to this person, one source said, that attending the conference was necessary to keep her job. Huffington asked the staffer to think about how important her job was to her, then suggested the seminar as a way to refocus — a neat way of making the event mandatory without being explicit and perhaps running afoul of laws governing religion in the workplace, the source said. After struggling with the decision for a week, and supposedly making a fruitless plea to HR in New York, the scheduler ended up attending, only to leave the company a month or two later.
Huffington's commitment to MSIA may well go beyond seminars for her staff. One tipster said that while Huffington is reported, including by the New Yorker, to give to 10 percent of her income to charity each year, that money flows as a tithe to MSIA, and/or to charities closely linked to the cult. That would be in keeping with church principles, as described in a lengthy 1988 LA Times article:
Tithing, or giving a percentage of one's monthly income to MSIA, is also recommended. Because of its tax-exempt status as a church, MSIA is not required to make public its financial records, but by all indications people contribute money freely — in some cases in large lump sums.
One devotee happily told the newspaper about handing over a check to the group for $500,000, without even knowing how it would be used.
Why would Huffington tie her enterprise, which depends for its continued success on access to celebrity contributors and other influential people, to a controversial organization like MSIA? Perhaps because making the Huffington Post a faithful reflection of her own personality has worked so well thus far. Despite its turnover problem, the website has posted truly astounding traffic growth just in the past few months, to 262 million pageviews per month, as the election draws near. And as the New Yorker noted, HuffPo has become an influential hub for liberal political discourse, drawing op-eds from the likes of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. More importantly, its reporting has figured prominently in the election, particularly Mayhill Fowler's scoop on Barack Obama's comments about "bitter" small-town Americans and Sam Stein's scoops, including on John McCain's fake campaign suspension.
But it is all but impossible to read the LA Times' three exhaustive articles on MSIA, dating to 1988 and 1994, without coming to the conclusion that the movement is, in fact, a scary cult, and among the last organizations Huffington should be calling on to prepare HuffPo to keep growing as the economy, and soon politics, cools down.
John-Roger is depicted as a paranoid leader who secretly wires each room in Insight headquarters with a microphone connected to his office, who taps the phones, and who warns that his critics "had been infected by a powerful and contagious negative force known as the Red Monk," a spirit of whom members were terrified. He removed "negative entities" in a popular "exorcism-like" ceremony known as the "Super II's," organized hours-long "Prana Awareness Trainings" involving "repeatedly answering a simple question," and organized followers into a complex hierarchy, including a Melchizedek Priesthood and an inner, elite circle of attractive young male ministers known as "the Guys."
The LA Times said one of these favored sons was among at least three close John-Rogers associates who said they had sex with him "as an important spiritual favor:"
In July of 1977, John-Roger put [Victor] Toso on staff, and he joined the rarefied ranks of "the guys." But things didn't go smoothly. "He kept telling me I didn't have what it took to be on staff," Toso said. Finally John-Roger told him that he would have to move from the hillside estate to the movement's Purple Rose Ashram of the New Age in downtown Los Angeles, he said.
Toso says that he dropped to his knees and sobbed, begging John-Roger to tell him how he might become a better servant of the Traveler.
"It dawned on me what I had to do," he said.
To stay on staff, Toso said he knew he would have to engage in sexual relations with John-Roger. "I decided to make the Faustian pact," he said. "And, indeed, I was admitted into the brotherhood."But the pact didn't sit well with Toso, even as he found his life with the Traveler vastly improved. And one day "I walked in on another staff member having sex with J-R. I had been naive enough to believe I was the only one," Toso said.
In last year's interview, John-Roger denied he had sexual relations with Toso or any other staff member.
Toso said he was later "defrocked" in front of other church members and stripped of his wallet, credit cards, watch, ring and airline tickets, and had to write a "dishonest" letter to get them back. Other former members, named in the series, testify to brainwashing and other forms of manipulation. "My God, I was manipulated and used," former MSIA newspaper editor Victoria Marine told the newspaper.
In the articles, John-Roger denies having sex with or brainwashing his followers.
Whatever his flaws, and whatever it is that has drawn so many to look to him almost as a messiah over the past 38 years, a "Mystic Traveler" to be physically envisioned while chanting and to be paid for "polarity balancings," "John-" Roger Hinkins shares with Arianna Huffington a reputation for having two faces, one of seductive, overpowering charm and the other for a nasty temper. Wrote the LA Times:
Two [former staffers], Toso and Wesley Whitmore, recall thinking that in contrast to his public behavior, John-Roger in private was often angry, vindictive and bizarre, occasionally shouting that he was under attack from negative forces. But their devotion to John-Roger kept them from addressing these issues, they said.
And so it is with Arianna and her badly battered staff. She could hardly have picked a more appropriate guru.