projectgirl (13K) PROJECT GIRL

JANET McDONALD

It was mid-May and I still felt fragile. I'd been seeing a psychiatrist recommended and financed by the college. Week after week, Dr. Silver sat ensconced in a deep leather chair, tilting her head one way, then another, mum. And every month she sent Vassar a bill for services rendered. I was impressed. The practice of psychiatry seemed to be a scam much slicker than any devised in the projects - big money for little effort, and no results required. She was no help at all. I needed desperately to grab hold to something before giving school another try, and all she could do was play mime. Where was divine intervention when you needed it? As it turned out, it was in Wysox, Pennsylvania.

I decided to run away to the Big Sur and live on a commune. Unhindered by minor details like my lack of money and California contacts, I checked the "Rider Wanted" ads in The Village Voice. Steve the bearded driver and King the blue-eyed Alaskan husky were en route to San Francisco in a rainbow-painted van and needed a rider to share expenses. I had scrounged together only forty-five dollars but trusted that the Big Sur peace and love crowd would take care of me. Steve and I arranged everything by phone and agreed to meet in a week at the Washington Square arch. I climbed into the passenger seat and settled in for my first cross- country trip. I inquired about the photo swinging from the rearview mirror, of a pudgy boy with slicked-back hair. "That's Guru Maharaj Ji," said Steve. The seventies were chock full of gurus, but I hadn't heard of this one.

Against the backdrop of New Jersey turnpike scenery whizzing by, I savored the exhilaration of my reckless lunge from thought to action. I had done something, taken action. Free-falling, probably, but at least in motion. Steve turned to me: "Jan, right? I promised some friends in Pennsylvania I'd stop by. They're really blissful." His words instantly vaporized my euphoria. He hadn't mentioned anything earlier about a stop. I didn't like the idea at all. "Okay, that sounds cool," I said, thinking: I don't want to die!

PROJECT GIRL 81

Dusk was descending on the tiny farming village of Wysox as Steve pulled the van onto the lawn of a simple two-story house. Inside were a pair of married refugees from Wisconsin and their son, another married couple, a single mother and her son, and a frightened kitten cowering in the bathroom. Initially, I went unnoticed in the flurry of hugs, kisses, beards, ponytails, and foreign words. Then one of the women said, "Hi!" and Steve suddenly remembered me. "Oh! Jan, right? Meet the greatest people in the world." He recited a list of names, but the only one I remembered was the kitten's. Christie. "Jan's riding with me to California." His friends said, "Blissful."

We sat down to a dinner of soybean burgers and fresh vegetables from their garden. I noticed a framed picture of the same round- faced boy perched on the living-room mantel in the middle of a circle of candles. Anguish spread through me. I had seen farm people in movies and knew what they were capable of doing with their wood chippers. This group didn't look like homicidal maniacs, but you never knew. Ted, a former sociology professor, worked as a landscaper. His wife, Marlene, stayed at home with their young son. Ron worked with Ted, and together with his pregnant wife, Gail, owned the house. Doreen and her baby son received public assistance. They were all around thirty years old, and very curious about me. Marlene eyed me kindly and asked in a sweet voice, "So, Jan, what are you going to do in California? You have friends there?" I said no, and looked at the kitten. Gail said, "Oh, I guess you're gonna see family." The image of Kevin offering me a candy bar shot through my mind. Maybe it was fatigue, or fear or my first soybean burger … I burst out crying. "I'm running away from home and I have no idea what I'm going to do!" Marlene put her arms around me, radiantly compassionate. "Don't cry! You can stay here, Jan, with us. It's so clear that you were sent! Blissful! That's how Guru Maharaj Ji works! Thank you, Steve, for bringing Jan to us." Then they all began chanting the foreign words, which I

JANET McDONALD

subsequently learned were "Bole Shri Satgurudev Maharaj Ki Jai!" and meant "All Praise due to the Perfect Master!" I looked around at the joyous white faces smiling at me. They weren't going to kill me, after all! I smiled back. "Okay." I wrote home and said I was fine and spending the summer with "some friends" on a farm. My hosts were eager to meet my family and extended an invitation to them. My letter didn't mention the teenage guru.

They described themselves as premies, or devotees, of Guru Maharaj Ji, the then fourteen-year-old Perfect Master. They meditated twice a day and regularly visited area ashrams to sing the guru's praises. I focused on enjoying my surprise summer in the country, weeding the garden, planting vegetables, and making soybean burgers and granola with Gail and Marlene. I even had my first driving lessons. When I knocked over a wooden mailbox, overreacted, and bumped into a slow-moving oncoming car, the premies didn't mind. Just Maharaj Ji up to his little pranks, they said.

I took long walks on empty roads, splashed around with my hosts in cold creeks, and lolled on the grass under the broad blue sky. Ted told me an old neighbor asked about "that charming little Negro girl" staying at the house. She wanted to know if I was from the Fresh Air Fund. We got a good laugh out of it. I didn't laugh, however, when a little white girl walking in town answered my smile with a stuck-out tongue and the word "Nigger!"

Daddy accepted the invitation, and my heart leapt when I saw our station wagon pulling onto the property. Mother, Ann, Jean, and Kevin climbed out, sniffing the clean air and looking around as if for something to look at. This time it was my turn for wild hugs and kisses. The premies met the McDonalds and we ate lunch together. Afterwards, Daddy and Ron strolled between rows of corn, talking about the vegetable garden. Kevin played with the other children, and the rest of us just relaxed. No one said anything about my running away from home. I think Mother and Daddy were just happy that I was all right. As for the rest, they'd

PROJECT GIRL 83

wait and see. I said I had every intention of returning to Vassar, which pleased them. Everyone enjoyed the weekend and my family departed with happy expressions and bags of vegetables.

In July, the premies drove to New York to attend a talk by one of Guru Maharaj Ji's mahatmas. These saffron-robed "saints" were said to transmit wisdom to aspirants through a touch of a finger on the person's forehead. At that moment, you were supposed to see within a bright inner light of divine Knowledge. The premies wanted me to be initiated by "receiving Knowledge." I wasn't sure. In my opinion, a white premie was one thing, but a black one from the projects, well, that was quite another. In the end, uncertainty yielded to anxiety. Despite feeling much happier and settled than I had in a year, I was still worried about returning to college. I decided, what the hell, I would ask for the Light, just for backup. In a plush premie apartment on Central Park West, we listened for hours to the mahatma's discourse. He spoke of maya, or illusion, the treachery of rational thought, and Maharaj Ji's wisdom. When the time came, I raised my hand along with a number of others who felt "ready" to behold the Light. The shades were drawn and we sat in meditation. I was abruptly startled by a finger touching my forehead. I wasn't sure I saw anything, but it didn't matter. The important thing was that I was officially "saved." A baby-faced guru was watching over and protecting me. I meditated side by side with the other premies, worked "blissful" into my vocabulary, and handed out Guru Maharaj Ji leaflets in nearby cities. In Philadelphia, we nearly scuffled with some Hare Krishnas who accused the Perfect Master of being a materialistic, false prophet who wore gold jewelry, drove a Rolls, and needed to get on a diet.

CHAPTER

In September, I returned to college, with much to prove and a giant framed poster of Guru Maharaj Ji's face for my wall. I was assigned to Kendrick House. Some students received me with skeptical courtesy, others with outright disdain. Politically oriented black students sought to convince me that Maharaj Ji was "irrelevant." Pearl, Adrian, and the rest of my old friends were delighted to see me back, although they didn't quite get the "guru thing." Laura had graduated and occasionally sent encouraging letters. Judy Kroll was on a year-long sabbatical in India but continued to write me regularly. I was on my own.

It being my second try, I was actually a faux-freshman and hoped the college's real freshmen wouldn't hear about my disastrous first year. Registration was a breeze the second time around. My priorities had changed. In defiance of my high-school French teach-

PROJECT GIRL 85

er's command, I enrolled again in French class, this time despite its early-morning scheduling. The reality of social diversity supplanted my cliched world of "rich white girls" and "bougie blacks." Of course, Vassar wouldn't be Vassar without its share of debs, heirs, and trust-fund brats of all races, but a surprising number of them were down to earth. Moreover, there were other kinds of students, if you looked. Along with Pearl and Adrian, my friends included Fabienne, a very rich black girl from Harlem who drove a red Mercedes convertible and was as unpretentious as any kid from the projects. I also got on well with Suzanne, a Jewish art major from Long Island who was on financial aid; Urvashi, an outspoken feminist of East Indian origin with a wicked sense of humor; and Gray, a Puerto Rican from New Orleans who sang like Aretha in the school's gospel choir. I realized I was no more an outsider than an Indian feminist or a Puerto Rican Southerner or a Harlem teenager who kept horses at her family's upstate ranch.

Armed with the divine Light and a second-hand typewriter, I was ready. I attended classes, pored over thick English novels and thin books on religion, corresponded with Judy in India, and practiced my tennis serve, which never improved. I hadn't chosen a major, but that could wait. I just wanted to succeed as a student. Daddy's monthly checks arrived, as did Mother's weekly letters. The bleak stories from home sometimes slowed me down to a sullen churn, but I maintained my forward momentum. Kevin spent weekends with me sometimes and met my friends, bowled in the school's bowling alley, ate himself into a stupor at Central Dining, and cheerily sang along to my Guru Maharaj Ji records. He thoroughly enjoyed Camp Vassar.

I got to know the one other premie on campus, a debutante from Baltimore, and together we would go to the ashram to "testify" and sing "The Lord of the Universe." But my faith was brutally dashed to bits at the Houston Astrodome Divine Light Festival. A chartered planeload of us flocked to Texas to see Guru Maharaj Ji

JANET McDONALD

himself, his blessed mother, and his four holy brothers. The buzz in Houston was that the Perfect Master was going to transform the Astrodome into a gigantic flower-bedecked spaceship and whisk us off to nirvana. I was ambivalent. After everything I had been through, I wanted at least to finish college before making the celestial trip.

Swathed in white, Guru Maharaj Ji gazed down upon thousands of premies from a satin-draped throne. Amidst cries of "Jai Satchitanand!" and "Blissful!" he spoke about rainbows, nectar, and light in a slightly irritating, high-pitched voice. Premies in locked lotus position swooned to and fro with eyes shut. The less flexible, like me, tried to hold the locked L position - legs straight out and back erect - but ended up shifting incessantly on the hard floor. Following the discourse, I waited for two hours to pay my respects to the Guru's mother. In spite of my best efforts, I couldn't stifle my growing embarrassment as I stood in line, and felt thankful that nobody from the projects saw me kiss her miniature white-socked Foot.

The Astrodome failed to lift off, which left a lot of premies disheartened and a few suicidal. The longtime devotees argued that the Divine Teenager himself had never explicitly said the Dome could fly and they urged us to empty our questioning and troublesome minds through meditation. I left the group and Guru Maharaj Ji married a tall California blonde. The deb stayed on for six more years until, according to newspaper accounts, she was kidnapped from an ashram in Jamaica by a "deprogrammer" hired by her wealthy family.