As a child growing up in the Hollywood Hills during the 1950s, Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson thought it was perfectly normal that a guru named Paul Brunton lived with his family and dictated everything about their daily rituals, from their diet to their travel plans to his parents’ sex life. But in this extraordinary memoir, Masson reflects on just how bizarre everything about his childhood was–especially the relationship between his father and the elusive, eminent mystic he revered (and supported) for years.
Writing with candor and charm, Masson describes how his father became convinced that Paul Brunton–P.B. to his familiars–was a living God who would fill his life with enlightenment and wonder. As the Masson family’s personal guru, Brunton freely discussed his life on other planets, laid down strict rules on fasting and meditation, and warned them all of the imminence of World War III. For years, young Jeffrey was as ardent a disciple as his father–but with the onset of adolescence, he staged a dramatic revolt against this domestic deity and everything he stood for.
Filled with absurdist humor and intimate confessions, My Father’s Guru is the spellbinding coming-of-age story of one of our most brilliant writers.
“An uncompromising yet compassionate book . . . A coming-of-age memoir unlike any other.” –The Toronto Star
“AN EXTRAORDINARY CAUTIONARY TALE …. about the enduring human impulse to imbue charismatic individuals with superhuman attributes.” –San Francisco Chronicle
“Told with a mixture of humor and compassion. . . . Throughout this confessional book a grown man tells of an unusual, even weird childhood and the blind submission that consumed his family’s life.” –ROBERT COLES The New York Times Book Review
“My Father’s Guru is an interesting account of a warped upbringing made fascinating by the insight it provides into Masson’s adult life. He makes no excuses: in initially revering Freud and other authority figures, Masson realizes he was seeking new and better gurus that Brunton–and was fated to reject them pitilessly when they showed themselves, like Brunton, to be merely human.” –Los Angeles Times Book Review
“Beneath the guru-bashing, the book is Masson’s poignant and loving indictment of his parents, worth reading for his psychological portrait of coming-of-age disillusionment.” –Seattle Weekly
I arrived in Mysore City, State of Mysore, South India, on Saturday, December 8th, 1945, at 8:40 P.M. and was met at the station by P.B. He immediately said to me. “You are here for a certain purpose which will be revealed to you before you leave. I wanted you to come here, that is why your trip was made so easy.”
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So begins my father’s diary of his four-month stay in South India, where he went to meet, for the first time, his guru, Paul Brunton.
My father was born Jacques Victor Masson in Paris in 1912. During his early childhood his family moved about a great deal, living in New York, Paris, and Jerusalem, where most of his family still live. He was always considered different and felt different from other members of his family: They were physically large where he was small, they were crude where he was sensitive, they were loud while he was quiet, they (especially his father) were violent while he was gentle. “He looks so refined,” people would say when he was young. And who was he? Was he French because he was born in France? Or was he American because they moved to New York when he was small? Or Bukharan, because both his parents were from Bukhara? Or Israeli, because that is where most of his family lived? He was not even certain what his language was. French? Bukharan? English? Hebrew? Did he live with his mother? His father? His uncle? He moved with each in turn, unsure to whom he belonged. He lived in Paris until he was two, but when World War I broke out, his mother and three sisters went to New York, where his father was living, and stayed in New York for five years. The family then moved back to Paris, and in 1920, when my father was eight, he moved in with his father’s older brother, Sam, and his wife, Ida. In 1926, when he was fourteen, he moved to Jerusalem and lived in the Bukharan quarter with his father and his three sisters (Henriette, Vicki, and Rachel), surrounded by relatives. He remained there until 1930, when he was eighteen.
At that time his father was in his forties and had remarried a beautiful Bukharan Jewish woman, who was only eighteen, the same age as his son. She knew he had been previously married but had no idea that he had five living children. My grandfather was in Shanghai, China, and asked my father to bring his new bride and join him there. Shortly after arriving, however, his father and new stepmother left for an extended business trip to Bombay, Peshawar, and Burma, and my father was left alone with no money. He spoke French and Hebrew but almost no English and no Chinese. He was eighteen but looked fifteen. He felt completely abandoned. His father sent him several hundred kilos of rough lapis lazuli, which was almost unsalable in those days of economic depression. After about a year he managed to sell some of it. During the 1931–32 Japanese invasion, he joined the Shanghai Volunteer Corps.
At twenty, my father decided to migrate to the United States. In 1932, he left Shanghai on the SS Hoover to San Francisco, arriving in the middle of the Great Depression. He survived by doing odd jobs and working in a linen store on Hollywood Boulevard. In 1936 his employer, Norman Jemal, sent him to Honolulu, Hawaii, to open two stores. A year later he began his own linen business in Denver, Colorado. He moved his business to Tucson, Arizona, that same year and then in 1938 to Detroit, obeying a restlessness that has never left him.
My grandfather had not had any contact with my father in eight years. One day in 1938 out of the blue he called. “Jacques, come to Chicago I have a prospective bride for you.” In Chicago, my father met his father at Zion’s Kosher Restaurant on Roosevelt Road. The owners were my grandmother and grandfather. The woman who was to become my mother, Diana Zeiger, joined the two men at the table, and within five months, on January 22, 1939, she and my father were married in Chicago. The next year my father opened a large linen store on Michigan Avenue and another on South State Street, an enormous five-story store devoted exclusively to linen. At that time, it was one of the largest in the world. Two years later I was born, on March 28, 1941, at the Chicago Osteopathic Hospital, even then my parents were interested in alternative medicine. A year later, my parents moved to Los Angeles, California, where my father began a new career as a wholesale dealer in precious stones and pearls, the business in which most of his family had been engaged for as long as anyone could remember. He was successful almost immediately and has continued this business to this day.
During the war, my father was drafted but could not pass the medical test due to kidney problems. He nonetheless attempted to enlist in the Intelligence Division of the U.S. Army, since he spoke fluent French, but he was rejected for lack of qualifications. Although my parents were Jewish, they had no sense of the tragedy taking place in Europe and did not know what had happened until many years later. They were completely engrossed in a different world, the world of mysticism.