Holy Hell, Gail Tredwell’s autobiographical account of her near 20 years as the personal attendant of Mata Amritanandamayi (“Amma”), has certainly stirred up the disgruntled backbenchers of the spiritual world, but the book does little to tarnish the reputation of one of the great luminaries of our age. The self-published memoir is reasonably well written. Although it contains a few grammatical errors and malapropisms, those flaws are more endearing than they are distracting; they complement the book’s narrative voice, which is that of a simple woman telling her story. The book’s organization is adequate to guide the reader through that story, and the imagery and metaphors are, at times, quite moving. The style is chatty and informal. For those who like gossip, the book does not disappoint. For those who love India, it captures some of India’s beauty and complexity.
“Substantively, Gayatri’s book is persuasive in some parts, not at all persuasive in other parts, and very selective regarding the events it chooses to relate. It is, by its own terms, a self-serving book…”
Ms. Tredwell (“Gayatri”) relates the story of her two decades in India. Her book describes her experiences dwelling among the simple, mostly uneducated folk of India’s southwestern state of Kerala, learning the culture and language of that state, becoming the personal attendant to a fishing village mystic named Sudhamani Idamannel, and witnessing Sudhamani’s transformation into a world-famous spiritual teacher, revered by leading politicians, entertainers, clergy, and scholars. Some of the book’s chapters are absolutely enchanting, for example the chapters describing young Gayatri’s first years in India, and the chapter describing the simple and ill-equipped hospital where Gayatri had abdominal surgery to remove a large ovarian cyst. Likewise, no admirer of Amma should miss reading the wonderful chapter in which Gayatri describes a time when she and Amma (and two others) “ran away” in the night from Amma’s busy ashram (spiritual community) and spent a day swimming, frolicking, and meditating in a private park. These chapters are a delight to read, and they set the stage for the later chapters describing Gayatri’s growing disillusionment with Amma and the ashram, and her decision to leave — sneaking secretly away in the night.
Substantively, Gayatri’s book is persuasive in some parts, not at all persuasive in other parts, and very selective regarding the events it chooses to relate. It is, by its own terms, a self-serving book; Gayatri states that the writing of the book was an important part of her healing process. Her book relates her personal story according to how she now chooses to perceive it. She has reinvented herself. The story she relates is the story of a strong and wise Western woman named Gail Tredwell, not the story of a demure and self-sacrificing devotee named Gayatri. According to Western values, a person should have a healthy ego, one neither overblown nor unduly submissive. Gayatri (now Gail) emerges from her 20-year sojourn in India with her ego intact, and her self-absorbed book allows the reader to consider whether her embrace of Western values represents a return to psychological and spiritual health, or something else.
“She has reinvented herself.”
The reader need not look beyond the pages of the book to form an opinion about Gayatri’s strong personality. In the book, she comes across as smart, idealistic, proudly rebellious, self-reliant, independent-minded, hard-working, strong-willed, and courageous. Those are all valued qualities in the West, but many of the same qualities are, according to traditional Hindu values, obstacles that prevent us from knowing our true selves; they are the manifestations of the individual ego that must be overcome through submission to the seemingly whimsical and harsh demands of a guru.
In the book, Gayatri also comes across to the reader as jealous, vengeful, stubborn, calculating, petty, self-concerned, and insecure — a person who too often indulges in self-pity and faultfinding, who frequently compares herself to others, who worries that the world is being unfair to her. Just one of many examples occurs when Gayatri is donning the ochre cloth of self-sacrifice, renouncing all personal desires to pursue God and God alone. She readily admits to the reader that, at that profound moment, she was obsessed with petty concerns about whether the alms she had received were as good as the alms the other initiates had received. The objective reader cannot help but conclude that Gayatri’s jealousy and insecurity color much of what she perceives.
Gayatri admits in her book that she might have conjured up false versions of reality. She states that she “felt too much pain” upon leaving the ashram “to determine what had been real and what had been projection.” In another very candid passage, she writes: “I tucked the memory of these experiences into the dark recesses of my soul. . . . A few years after leaving the ashram I began seeking intuitive counseling. One day during a healing session the lady counselor exclaimed, ‘Oh, you have been sexually abused.’ . . . I repelled the trauma of the memory. After all, it was buried so deep it could never be found.” (Emphasis added.) In other words, until Gayatri received a specific suggestion from her counselor, she had no memory of being sexually abused. In the “acknowledgments” section of her book, Gayatri thanks a special friend “who held my hand and journeyed with me to the darker realms, places that I was unable to face on my own.”
“Gayatri admits in her book that she might have conjured up false versions of reality. She states that she “felt too much pain” upon leaving the ashram “to determine what had been real and what had been projection.”
It is unclear what these statements signify, but if any of the recollections recorded in Gayatri’s book are the product of recovered-memory therapy, then there is good reason to question their validity. (See the links at the end of this review.) Significantly, a large portion of Gayatri’s book is not objective fact but her subjective and speculative theories about what the objective facts reveal — theories that include serial rape by Amma’s leading swami (Swami Amritaswarupananda) and also a jealous love triangle involving that swami, Gayatri, and Amma. Here, the book fails to persuade, and therefore it comes across to the objective reader as gossipy and vindictive.
Not only does Gayatri fail to persuade, but the facts she omits from her story suggest that her speculative theories are simply wrong. For example, she does not relate that just weeks after she left Amma’s ashram in November of 1999, she visited a devotee’s private home and stayed there for a week with several senior people from the ashram, including Swami Amritaswarupananda (“Swamiji”). During that week, she considered returning to the ashram, but she chose instead to go to Hawaii. A year later, she prepared a large jar of lemon pickle especially for Swamiji, and she had it sent to him. The gift was delivered, but Swamiji declined to accept it.
All those facts undermine Gayatri’s description of Swamiji as a serial rapist whom she feared and from whom she had to flee. They also undermine Gayatri’s story of a harrowing escape from an authoritarian guru-led cult. On the contrary, just a few weeks after Gayatri’s high-drama escape, she voluntarily stayed in a private home with several of the most senior people from the ashram, she discussed the possibility of returning to the ashram, and, after she chose instead to leave the ashram, the senior leaders of the ashram drove her to the airport to see her off. When one knows these additional facts and then reads Gayatri’s version of the story, one is unsure what to conclude, but one cannot help wondering if Gayatri fills the role of the scorned woman — deeply in love with Swamiji, intensely jealous of his devotion to Amma, and therefore imagining a base love affair between the two.
“Many of Gayatri’s supporters have been quick to spread unsubstantiated slander about Amma and the ashram, ignoring all that is clearly good that Amma has done, and that she has inspired others to do. With what glee these people criticize Amma! It is as if Amma’s impeccable reputation caused them to feel the sting of their own failings all the more, and thus, in the prospect of Amma’s downfall, they are enjoying some relief. But Gayatri’s memoir will not result in Amma’s downfall.”
There are many esoteric levels within Hinduism, and there is probably more to Amma’s story than the official hagiographies relate. But that possibility does not imply scandal, nor does it diminish from all the good that Amma has accomplished through her hard work and kindness. Amma has a permanent bruise on her cheek from embracing millions of admirers, one at a time, sometimes sitting for 15 or 20 hours without a break, turning no one away. She maintains a grueling touring schedule, sings nightly before large audiences, gives numerous speeches and public talks, answers millions of individual questions, and administers a huge social service organization, all the time maintaining unwavering concentration. Her hard work has inspired a worldwide philanthropic movement — an ethos of mercy that has spread to other spiritual groups.
Each of us must decide for himself or herself whether to admire Amma as a role model or to reject her as a fraud. But in making that decision, we should be honest and fair. Many of Gayatri’s supporters have been quick to spread unsubstantiated slander about Amma and the ashram, ignoring all that is clearly good that Amma has done, and that she has inspired others to do. With what glee these people criticize Amma! It is as if Amma’s impeccable reputation caused them to feel the sting of their own failings all the more, and thus, in the prospect of Amma’s downfall, they are enjoying some relief. But Gayatri’s memoir will not result in Amma’s downfall. Rather, Amma will continue her work, and a day may even come when Gayatri rejoins Amma’s global mission. On that day, Amma will welcome her back with open arms and with complete acceptance and understanding.
Senior Research Attorney, California Supreme Court
Links regarding recovered-memory therapy:
“ ‘Memory’ Therapy Leads to a Lawsuit And Big Settlement”
“Pseudoscience, Cross-examination, and Scientific Evidence in the Recovered Memory Controversy”
“Recovered Memories” (describing how specific therapeutic procedures can lead to false memories)
Canadian Psychological Association’s guidelines for psychologists regarding the use of recovered-memory therapy