We received the following account from an old-time devotee:
My name is Anu Iyer and I met Amma in 1987 in Palo Alto at the home of our good family friends. My sister and I immediately felt connected to Amma, especially through her bhajans, and wanted to travel with her. The early years were special times as we were youngsters growing up around Amma and the senior monks. And it was back then that I got to know Gail Tredwell. In 1988 when our family invited Amma to our house for the first time, I got a peek into her personality. She was feisty, sharp and domineering even though we were children, and never hesitated to play favorites. Yet, “Gayatri Akka,” as she was infamously referred to, was like a celebrity mafia boss—someone who controlled every aspect of many girls’ lives. Little did I know that my sister and I would soon fall prey to her controlling and tyrannical ways.
In 1992, we travelled with Amma on her three-month tour of the USA and Europe. It was a spiritual adventure, but also gave us close proximity with Gail. She controlled where we would stay, what seva we would do and often did so with utmost partiality. She seemed to revel in dolling out chores to us: “Clean the kitchen, you lazy bums!” while whipping my behind with a dish towel. We took these chores in stride, as helping us to cultivate discipline, but as time went by her personality became darker and more negative. To be frank, it became quite scary to be around her. Ironically, as this transformation happened, she kept a hand-picked clique very near to her, ensuring she always had a supportive ear to vent to and a hand to pat her back. She seemed to delight in making us feel left out and was certain to make sure we knew our place was one of subservience and groveling
For someone we revered to be a high being—“close to Amma”—she talked more like a drunken sailor than a sannyasini.
I remember on one of the early tours while in Bordeaux, I had just gotten up from a long tabla (drumming) session on a Devi Bhava night. I had sat for many hours accompanying the senior monks’ devotional singing set. Suddenly, Gail decided she wanted to lead a singing session and asked me to accompany her. It was always an honor for me to play music with her, as I regarded her sessions as very special. Therefore, intending to hurry back, I asked her for permission to just stretch and quickly use the restroom. Her personality suddenly flipped: “Why don’t you just cut off your breasts and pretend you’re a boy. You favor the swamis anyways. Go kiss their asses!” And she walked off in a huff. Being a young teen, who was quite new to all of this, I was horrified. I remember scurrying off into the nearby sunflower patch and crying in the dark. She seemed to know exactly what to say to inflict the most pain. I can recall dozens of instances where she made me, and others, cry just by being so mean. She often talked using sexual innuendo and curse words, as if obsessed with body parts. Ironically, at the same time, she touted herself as being so pure and innocent. For someone we revered to be a high being—“close to Amma”—she talked more like a drunken sailor than a sannyasini.
As the years went by, it was clear that she was falling apart.
As the years went by, it was clear that she was falling apart. She became blatantly disrespectful towards Amma and talked negatively about the Ashram. It was common for her to use such words as “bastard” and “bitch” to refer to senior monks and those around her. I remember in 1996 when we were staying with Amma’s group in a flat in downtown Paris. Gail had very irreverently used her feet to get the attention of one of the monks. As someone who prided themselves in being so well-versed in Indian culture, she had to have known how disrespectful this was. We sort of accepted this negativity as part of her personality and never really questioned it.
When a friend joined the Ashram in 1996, she remarked how negative and crass Gail was at a meeting for first-time ashramites. The entire room of new residents were horrified and puzzled to witness her dark side having read the so-called spiritual “teachings” of Amma’s closest Swamini. Yet, despite being disgruntled, she voraciously clung to her powers and continued to control everything.
Perhaps the most scary incident happened to me in November 1999 in San Ramon, just days before her “great escape.” I had ventured out with a friend to a local mall, ironically, to buy Gail a birthday present. We never made it to the mall because our car met with an accident. Luckily I didn’t need to go to the Emergency Room, but I completely lost sensation in my neck and couldn’t move it for a few days. One morning I was resting in a sleeping bag in the San Ramon ashram. I could hear her roaring voice in the corridor: “Get up, lazy bones!” as she stomped her foot right next to my head. I was really afraid, as I could not even move my neck. Suddenly, to my horror, she literally started kicking me. I begged her “Please stop! I can’t move my neck!” She showed no signs of remorse, let alone compassion as I writhed in pain, unable to defend myself. For her it was a joke and she retorted, “You can’t move, aye?” with her sarcastic Aussie accent. Even more hurtful was that two of my close friends, the people who first introduced me to Amma, were standing there and did not do any or say anything even though they clearly saw Gail assaulting me. The three of them even left the room together, arm in arm. Being treated this way by people I held so close in my heart was very painful. Tears streamed down my face as she left me there feeling hurt and confused. These girls would leave Amma soon after Gail did. I saw then that Gail had poisoned their minds—part of Gail’s elite clique of supporters whom she had recruited to serve and validate her, perhaps all part of her plan.
Here were two people so close to Amma in a similar role, yet one was so loving and compassionate and the other so negative and full of hate and abrasiveness.
On the other hand it was Lakshmi Akka, who closely serves Amma that lovingly washed and folded my laundry at the time of the accident despite her busy schedule and responsibilities. It really taught me a lesson in optimism and attitude. Here were two people so close to Amma in a similar role, yet one was so loving and compassionate and the other so negative and full of hate and abrasiveness.
In 2001, I received a preposterous email full of accusations about Amma from Gail’s inner circle. They tried to destroy my faith and make me leave, yet didn’t have the guts to sign their names. I easily figured out their identities and was appalled at their lack of integrity, their willingness to stoop to any means necessary to proliferate lies. Couldn’t they just leave me alone now that they were gone? Their efforts backfired and desperate attempts failed to (and still fail to) deliver anything of significance. My experience is my guru and I don’t need to be “saved” by people who have nothing good to offer to the world. I am reminded of a quote by Winston Churchill from my school days: “The truth is incontrovertible. Malice may attack it, ignorance may deride it, but in the end, there it is.”
“The truth is incontrovertible. Malice may attack it, ignorance may deride it, but in the end, there it is.”
It has only been Amma’s teachings of love and forgiveness that have helped me overcome such wounds. Amma and the swamis always showed utmost love and compassion to us. In the early days, when we would have freezing-cold accommodations in some European cities, Amma looked out for us, offering her hot shower, even taking us in her room to sleep there. Even on a mundane level Amma was taking care of us.
The swamis always showed deep respect and love towards us, despite Gail’s allegations that the organization is “male-dominated.” In 1993 when we were in Chicago at the Parliament of the World’s Religions, Swamiji, a senior monk, corrected me when I called Gail by her first name. In Indian culture, one shows respect by adding either a “chechi” or “akka” to refer to an elder as big sister or big brother. He made sure I referred to her as “Gayatri Akka” in order to respect her properly. Amma gave me the special honor of playing the tablas, and the swamis lovingly accepted me as the first female tabla player on all the world tours. They always encouraged, mentored and praised me and fostered my creative talents. Ironically, it was Gail, the highest-level woman monastic, who discouraged and controlled me and other girls with condescension. The swamis were always light and jovial and always displayed a spiritual countenance. Whereas, Gail’s was always condescending to us girls and paranoid about everything and everyone and never had the broad-heartedness one would expect from someone in a high-level role. In fact, Gail was never a role model for women. It is Amma who has been a cutting-edge leader in women’s rights. She’s flipped traditions in India by appointing the first women priestesses in India who can perform sacred rituals and rites. Women hold the highest positions in all of Amma’s institutions. They are principals at the Amrita Vidyalayam schools and department heads at Amrita University. There are programs and forums for women’s empowerment which teaches life skills to women all over India and I have been fortunate enough to collaborate with some of these women . Many of Amma’s speeches at global forums have solely focused on uplifting women and instilling confidence in them. The list goes on and on and elaborating on these few points is like holding a candle to the sun.
It has only been Amma’s teachings of love and forgiveness that have helped me overcome such wounds.
It was very sad for me to see how bitter Gail had turned as the years went by. She is someone I revered and admired, yet in the end it’s only the painful experiences that cut so deep and are hard to forget. I have touched her feet many times out of respect for what she represented: a monastic on the path of love. Yet she fully abused this role and failed to live up to her own vows while troubling and harming others. I really pray for her peace and well-being and hope that she realizes that love is the answer, not hate and revenge.
At the time I am writing this, I am not affiliated in any official way with Amma’s Ashram. I have chosen a spiritual path to travel and volunteer with Amma for the last 22 years, purely based on my own decision. Amma has only insisted that I make education a priority, and that I “see the world” for myself and make my own informed decisions. She has nourished my creative talents, allowing me to become the empowered and free woman that I am today. Ironically, my most limiting and difficult experiences with this organization came the hard way through Gail’s “teachings.”