Breach of Faith

updated 10/31/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 10/31/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

SIX YEARS AGO, BEST-SELLING AUTHOR Pete McWilliams' world began falling apart. He was on a trip to what was then Joshua Tree National Monument with his guru John-Roger, when the self-styled religious leader announced that he had inspected McWilliams' "aura" and found him to be infected with tuberculosis and AIDS. But John-Roger knew what to do. If McWilliams, who had already written such popular self-help books as How to Survive the Loss of a Love, agreed to share future bylines and profits, John-Roger—known to devotees as the Mystical Traveler—would miraculously ensure that McWilliams stayed healthy. Although doctors found no evidence of disease, McWilliams, a loyal disciple, believed John-Roger. "He was God," he explains. "He had higher information."

Today, thanks to drug treatment for chronic depression, McWilliams, 45, says he has come to his senses. "I do feel like a perfect idiot," he admits. "But you have to understand how brainwashing works and how vulnerable depressed people are." McWilliams himself only came to understand this in June of 1993, after he consulted a psychiatrist who put him on Prozac. Nine months later, McWilliams was emotionally healthy enough to disavow John-Roger, whom he calls a spiritual vampire. McWilliams also turned his back on the Movement of Spiritual Inner Awareness (MSIA, pronounced "messiah"), John-Roger's 24-year-old tax-exempt religious organization based in L.A.

John-Roger and MSIA responded by suing McWilliams in L.A. Superior Court last June, claiming breach of contract and demanding more than $400,000 in royalties for six coauthored books, including Do It! and Life 101. Court papers specify that if McWilhams does not have the cash, MSIA wants his home and possessions. Says MSIA spokesperson Jeeni Lawrence: "It's a very straightforward action. He owes the money, and he hasn't paid it." In a cross-complaint, McWilliams' lawyers contend their client was brainwashed and that more than $550,000 already paid to John-Roger was stolen from McWilliams. A trial date has not been set.

John-Roger, the man at the center of the cult, is a pudgy ex-English teacher from Utah known to his followers as J-R. Born Roger Delano Hinkins, of Mormon parents, J-R, 60, claims that in 1963, following the removal of a kidney stone, a divine spirit who called himself John the Beloved entered his body. Since then, J-R has created a foundation that teaches "individual soul progression" and "aura balancing" (at $75 a shot) and asks a tithe of its 3,000 members, who have included actress Sally Kirkland and author Arianna Stassinopoulos Huffington, wife of California Senate hopeful Michael Huffington, though she now insists that she and J-R "are merely friends."

Bitter about what he calls MSIA's death-blow lawsuit, McWilliams vows to fight J-R publicly. "The only thing he fears is negative press," McWilliams says. Of that there has been plenty. Disenchanted disciples have accused J-R of electronically eavesdropping on his flock and of demanding sex from men in MSIA's "inner circle." "He made it seem like you were the luckiest person in the world," recalls former follower Victor Toso, 42, of Minneapolis. "Now it makes me so angry. It was a rape—a spiritual and physical rape." Adds McWilliams: "J-R called it receiving the seed of the Traveler. He said it was the highest possible honor. That's about as creepy as it can get."

McWilliams, who is homosexual and lives alone, says he was "not cute enough" for J-R to seduce physically, but spiritual seduction was another story. "J-R is a master at manipulation," McWilliams insists. "He has a degree in psychology and knows depression when he sees it."

McWilliams' own emotional troubles began early. The son of the late Henry McWilliams, a drugstore executive with a drinking problem, and his wife, Mary, young Peter grew up in the Detroit suburbs, a hyper kid who "excelled in unhappiness." By the time he was a teen, he was dabbling with LSD, which afforded him enough "religious" experiences to set him on a lifelong spiritual search.

After a year at Eastern Michigan University and a string of menial jobs, McWilliams moved in 1972 to L.A., where he studied and taught transcendental meditation. His first book, The TM Book: How to Enjoy the Rest of Your Life, sold more than 2 million copies. But success did not bring happiness. To stave off depression, McWilliams dabbled in such spiritual movements as est, Science of Mind and, finally, in 1978, MSIA. In fact, when a greeting-card business he had started left him bankrupt in 1978, MSIA came to his rescue with a cheap apartment. "I was so overwhelmed by their niceness," he says.

From then on, McWilliams was committed to the cult. He worked his way up in its hierarchy, all the while writing 14 more books and starting his own publishing company, Prelude Press. Then in 1987, after the death of a friend, he fell into another depression, leaving him vulnerable, he says, to J-R and to the suggestion that he himself was ill.

As difficult as it has been for McWilliams to defy the man he once called God, he has found it even harder to forgive himself for his gullibility. Perhaps that is why his latest book is called LIFE 102: What to Do When Your Guru Sues You. Whatever the outcome of the suit, McWilliams says, "I finally came to the conclusion that although my actions were bizarre, my intentions were good. The real God will forgive me for that."

JOHN HANNAH in Los Angeles

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