Holy Smoke


The story begins in late November 1998 with an Australian family's decision to rescue their daughter Ruth from the attentions of an Indian Guru. Feeling overwhelmed and frightened, they're persuaded to invest heavily in the services of an American cult specialist, PJ Waters. "Three little steps," he says, having looked into Ruth's eyes and judged them willing.... "It could all be over in twenty-four hours." Two days later, out in the Australian bush, the balance of power has slowly shifted between counselor and ...
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The story begins in late November 1998 with an Australian family's decision to rescue their daughter Ruth from the attentions of an Indian Guru. Feeling overwhelmed and frightened, they're persuaded to invest heavily in the services of an American cult specialist, PJ Waters. "Three little steps," he says, having looked into Ruth's eyes and judged them willing.... "It could all be over in twenty-four hours." Two days later, out in the Australian bush, the balance of power has slowly shifted between counselor and client. The promised return to order has given way to seductive chaos. Alternating between the voices of Ruth and PJ, we hear both sides of the "deprogramming," questioning our assumptions about patriarchy, gender, and the contemporary search for connection. What starts as a spiritual struggle about the nature of belief becomes an erotic and disturbing tale of sexual obsession, forcing Ruth and PJ to explore a relationship neither had wanted to make.
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Editorial Reviews

Gardner McFall
The book illustrates P. J.'s claims: ''To open yourself to another person...is a profoundly difficult business....Our natural reaction is to defend rather than to explore our beliefs.''
The New York Times Book Review
Kirkus Reviews
A dual debut for filmmaker Campion and her sister Anna, who offer an account of a very twisted love/hate affair that transpires between a kidnaped cult member and her deprogrammer. "Exit counselors," something of a cross between psychotherapists and secret agents, specialize in forcibly removing people from cults and reorienting them to the real world. P.J. Waters is one of the best of the breed. A New Yorker, P.J. is called halfway across the globe to Australia to assist in the case of Ruth Baron, a bright girl from New South Wales who decided to take a year off from her university studies to travel through India with some friends and ended up joining a cult headed by the charlatan guru Chidaatma Baba. Baba's brand of asceticism has a Hindu scent but is basically his own concoction, revolving in large part on unthinking subservience to him. By the time Ruth's family finds out where she's ended up, she's set to be "initiated" in two weeks. With no time to be lost, Ruth's mother and brother manage to kidnap her and bring her home to Australia, but it's up to P.J. to convince her not to return—or to kill herself. This he accomplishes through intensive interrogations conducted in a safe house over a period of days leading to weeks. As usual, P.J. succeeds, but this time something out of the ordinary happens: he and Ruth develop an erotic obsession with each other. P.J. is a married man, Ruth is barely in her 20's. An affair would only harm her and destroy him—or would it? Two people who have dedicated most of their lives to a search for meaning are not likely to be constrained by conventions, but they cannot be exempt from them either. Can they help each other out? Thepremise and plot are very old-hat, but the Campion sisters' narration is fresh and deft enough to breathe life into them: Worth a look.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781743174210
  • Publisher: Bolinda Publishing
  • Publication date: 4/28/2013
  • Edition description: Unabridged

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

My name is Ruth, "Ruthless" some have said like I'm some freak survivor and I admit my instincts are sharpened that way. Darwinian. Even when the family ganged up against me, more or less ordering me to undergo the three day ordeal I thought, Okay I'll do it, I'll wall off, meditate and survive him ... He's just a fucking thug from New York. Give nothing, be nothing, rise above it. But I wasn't feeling steady within myself and my hand shook. The tremor started as I was running this "Handle it, handle it" dialogue—that's when I asked him (the deprogrammer) if I could talk to my mother and oldest brother, Tim.

    He said, "Sure."

    He said it twice, which calmed me right down, the sense that he was nervous too. I'm bad like that, I can feel other people's anxiety taking shape, looming above them, gathering in damp sweaty clouds across the room. I used to stand in front of my brothers counting, 1, 2, 3, 4, in a whisper. It drove them crazy ... 5, 6, 7, 8 ... It's not working on him though, I don't think he can hear me. His upper lip sweats, he looks directly at me. His eyes are smiley, wrinkly, really I'd say he's about fifty-four, fifty-six.

    So we're standing on this grassy mound. I wish I could say it had distinction, but it doesn't. The grass is dry, the farmhouse is behind me, and behind the house are the hills. Space, miles of it without people, or it would be if we weren't all standing in our semicircle, all ten of us, staring at the red dust—them with their arms linked to keep me in. Mum comes over and stammers, "Puss's room," in my ear. Iautomatically click on my aunt who stands next to my uncle and sort of winks. I'm thinking, they're all winking and nodding but they can't be, why is Puss winking? She winks again. Puss is my mother's sister, she's married to Bill Bill, who's small faced, thin and giggly. They don't have children, they have emus instead, Puss calls them her "girls," high protein, low cholesterol meat packs, evil to everyone but Puss. Before birds it was cats, none of them liked anyone else either.

    I trudge to the farmhouse, there's nothing else to do. I don't want to justify their madcap kidnap plan with lunatic scenes, pin downs, or mouth-frothing. I know what this is anyway, it's Prue fucking Lemon blahing on about spaced out sannyasins and Guru marriage.

    Prue was my friend, incredibly past subjective conditional or what ever they call it. We'd both travelled to India in April, we didn't really know why we were going, we could have gone many places. Anywhere that wasn't known. Our knowledge was zero—pathetic as you'd expect. Taj Mahal, saris, elephants, bedspreads, and whispered gossip about Goa's party scene with dope, lots of lovely E, and no one persecuting you. Indians don't get on your case, they don't judge you, they judge themselves, self-deprecating like Woody Allen. I'm trying to remember a typical example. Well, typically they exaggerate praise: "Oh you're so wonderful, intuitive, beautiful, fantastic, intelligent, tremendous ..."—exorbitant blah. I asked this bloke Svi why he did it, why he exaggerated, he said, well he laughed, he said, "Gracious Roouth, who needs the truth?"

    What I wasn't prepared for, though, what nobody told me about, was the rubble; one rubble town forming another rubble town, selling rubble to the rubble town. The buildings that weren't rubble had masonry missing, large chunks crumbling into established piles with oversized gaudily coloured Krishnas or Shivas poking through. It all made sense as much as Alice in Wonderland makes sense, a biblical-stroke-diesel heaven and hell. I never knew which we were running into. We'd been warned of rape, we'd heard stories and stuck together after ten, stuck together period. The whole thing was like standing on my head and watching my brains run out through an hourglass. I'd see girls begging whose dresses were so caked in dirt they stood away from their bodies. I saw a beautiful white horse with thirteen men in exotic costume stroking her. I saw a rickshaw with its front glass shattered having banged into an ox. I saw women with strangely carved prosthetic limbs. I saw sadhus with six foot moustaches. I saw exquisite dancers with snakes, child dancers with large kohl eyes. Sometimes I would see all of these things within minutes, sometimes in different mixtures somewhere else. People cleaning their teeth with sticks, men with bones sticking out of their legs, animal, human, animal, human, human, never a day I could predict.

    In Sydney you know what you will see more or less without exception before you see it. Everything's regulated; you can't regulate India, no system could contain her and if you found one you'd only wreck the place.

    After Goa we went on to Kulu and split up at the ashram out of Rishikesh. Prue wasn't happy with the atmos, washing facilities, or chanting. I loved it, it's complicated, but she wanted to go. I kept trying to describe how I felt to her, how my insides were going soft and warm, as if my hard chest plate had been ripped off and exposed to this warm human hand stroking up and down inside my innards. It was such a blissful state.

    I couldn't understand her resistance. She wanted me to go back with her, she wouldn't hear my "No" so I burnt my airline ticket in front of her, then she believed me. She was sobbing, but people don't own you, they really don't, this is what gets me.

The bedroom was so darkened against heat, it was hard to see anything. My eyes adjusted to white raised daffodils on a purple background. Puss has always tried to make a nest egg effort, which is almost impossible on a farm. There was a pink sheepskin cushion on the bed I thought at first was a cat—wow pink! I plucked at the wool muttering internal mantras: "I won't be incarcerated, I won't be incarcerated." I lay looking at all the knickknacks, china cats, brasses, and wedding photographs. Puss's hair was set in a flicked-up bob, she looked fresh. Mum was always femme, buns and plunging necklines, eyelash tongs with curly startled eyeliner.

    Puss is wiry with sensible undyed hair, colourful clothes mostly purple, her favourite, and terrible Gaia tack earrings. There were cats on top of the wardrobes and book shelves. Stuffed cats, china cats, some linked to each other with brass chains, mother and three kittens. There were pictures too, hand painted efforts of kittens with popped surprised eyes and bulging cheeks—they looked as though someone had stuck a finger up their bum. God it was oppressive ... I had morbid thoughts of them all sitting there trying to look cute, so when she dies someone else will come and take care of them.

    I stood up, I wasn't feeling well, light in the head, cold chills down my back. I went and was sick in Puss's mauve rubbish bin, hands quivering, hardly able to hold the bin. It didn't smell much so I hid it in the wardrobe. Mum came in as I was cleaning my teeth, she was holding a bottle of mineral water, she sort of slunk along the edge of the bed twisting the top. Tim came in stretching a cup of tea towards me; I didn't take it, I let it hang there and spoke to Mum.

    "Mum, he's a thug."

    "Ruth, you don't know him."

    "I don't need to ... look at me, Mum, I've got joy in my life now. I'm really happy."

    My eyes stretched in truthful appeal—"You always said you didn't care what we did as long as we were happy."

    No one was happy.

    Mum tugged at a tissue, Tim hung against the wall, he is handsome in a soapy kind of way, veins throbbing on the temples. I had to act, "do," Baba always said, "do, don't miss the opportunity." Persuade them I'm grasping at full consciousness, that every moment spent here is denying me further progress. Oh, fuck it. It's all so bloody, pissy, impossible with them—wedded to their mall instinct, crumbs of materialism.

    "Okay if it's the marriage that's done this, I won't marry him, it's off, I don't need to do it, it was an honour, an honorary gesture. Baba's love for me, that's all, it was his expression."

    Mum picked her lips. "I don't trust this, Tim, I find her too difficult ..."

    "What's difficult?"

    "You, you've always been difficult, you used to say you were going to school, only you went to the library. Now I don't know where you are, I fear you've been manipulated, even drugged by these people."


    "Well I'm sorry but that's what I think. I believe you're manipulating me now." Deep nod to the mineral bottle. "We've come here to save you, Ruth."

    "Well don't, save yourselves. For god's sake, Mum, why do you think we're here?"


    "On the earth, tell me why are you here? What's the point of your life?"

    Mum was listening, her eyes swivelling towards Timmy, "Is this a trick, Tim? You see she always does this."

    "It's a question of meaning, Mum, what do you think the point of your life is? Do you ever think about it?"

    Timmy stretched out the tea again, I took it, Mum scrunched tissues.

    "Well aren't you interested in your inner essence different from every other essence? Aren't you curious about that potential ... what it means to have created an individual you. I mean why? Why, should God bother? When most people like you treat it like accidental occurrence ... I suppose that's the disappointment God prepares for—human complacency. But if it were possible to know, to really know why you were here, wouldn't you like to, Mum?"

    The tissues mutilated.

    "We haven't got time for this, Tim, he's out there waiting."

    Tim pushed himself off the wall, mobile phone flopping onto carpet. He bent down after it. He was disgruntled, I could tell, he hates the country, stuck in a room dedicated to heterosexual bliss.

    "Well, Tim?" said Mum, "I want you to say something, you can risk an opinion, can't you?"

    "Well, I was thinking mistake, mistake ..."

    "About what?" I said.

    "About you...." he said.

    "Oh fuck you, Tim!"

    "Hold on, hold on, let me finish. I was thinking mistake, mistake, but now I'm inclined to a different opinion."


    He folded his arms and stared at me. "Because ... because your eyes look odd."

    I laughed, crossing my eyes and batting the lids.

    "Look," he said.

    I looked.

    "Mum and Dad have spent a small fortune on this guy, who by the way has a good reputation."

    "According to who?"

    "According to cult experts."

    So I said, "So you think it's a cult do you?"

    He said he wasn't qualified to say, and changed tack, going on hell for leather about the three days treatment and what it could do for me.

    "Why not do the three days, it's only three days. What the fuck can three days do to you?"

    I told Tim he didn't understand, that these guys'd deprogram anything: communists, lesbians, Jews marrying Christians, blacks marrying Asians. They do rough things.

    "Jesus Tim ..."

    "Jesus what? You don't have to look at me like I bloody well killed you."

    "Well, why are you siding with them then?"

Knock, knock, from the outside ...


    We all looked as the door opened. He was standing there, saying, "May I?"

    Our mouths were slack, Mum vigorously nodding her head, phew written across it. And I looked at him, fully stared. Everything was pressed, his jeans, his collared T, jacket, hair. God, I felt depressed, an old time jock my father's age exploring my mind. He shook my hand, which I didn't want to do, he even enclosed it in his other paw, "Hi Ruth, pleased to meet you." Face smiling, confident, beaming in at me. He had wide cheekbones, nothing too big. His lips had a pronounced V, they were moving. "Could you," mumble, mumble (must have been go, because next my mother and brother leave the room). I don't protest, I watch, he's quieter than they are. He checks the door, turns into the room, pauses, walks towards me in a rhythmic slouch and talks sort of lullaby American.

    "Ruth, I suppose you hate me already, not an unusual reaction given the circumstances...."

    My arms do an involuntary shiver. Of course I did hate him but pathetically I didn't want him to hate me.

    "Call me John," he was saying. "Or PJ"—PJ Waters was his full name.

    "Do you need a drink?"

    I did, but I said, "No."

    He said, "Good."

    Then he went into this thing about us having to sort something out, on account of the fact my family had hired him and that even if I returned to India it would be in my best interest to hear him out.

    I didn't speak, my mind filled with whys and receding hairlines. I was about to engage, when a face appeared at the window with a little wave. PJ noticed and went straight up and closed it. Robbie, my second oldest—"rock on youse chickie babes"—brother, looked all sheepish. His tongue grossly distended, stretched out and dribbling. Hand on pretended rope, in an (opps, opps) mock execution pose.

    The family was driving me nuts, all this tiptoeing about, buddy buddy stuff. We all love you, and to prove how much we've hired our own special gorilla from AMERICA. The gorilla sits down near me, his face all sincere. "I can't concentrate round these shenanigans." His arms flap in exasperation. "Your family is too disruptive, we can't work here."

    My face mirrors his in a series of blank and earnest gestures. I really want to laugh, the family put in such a fashion. I sort of nod my head conspiratorially, feeling sly. He continues: "The three days is an in-depth conversation we're going to try and have here...." He presses the podgy bits on his palms.

    "To open yourself to another person, to talk openly is a profoundly difficult business. It's not normally required of us. Our natural reaction is to defend rather than to explore our beliefs."

    Yeah, and I'm thinking, I wonder why given our destructive capabilities. And he's going on about games and how we play them with ourselves and with others till that's all we do. My head's ballooning out all these sarcastic bubbles, like "Bend over now," and "Do you require lubricant?" He knew I was lolling about not focusing, so he stopped, looked really worried, pulled himself to attention, and began again in a concerned tone.

    "The dialogue between the inner and outer selves is in constant dualism, in that sense we are always chatting away with an internalised other. Essentially dramatic. The strain for us as humans is not so much this internal dialogue, but the communication with the other that is not us."

    My stomach churned, I felt stupid that it had, that I'd had some physical reaction. He stared round at me, fingers pulling at his collar.

    "I guess you've thought about the damage that could be done to your core self, to the very centre of yourself if you were to, say, hand that centre over to someone else ... the wrong someone else?" He leans forward, fiddling in his pockets, pulling out a box of matches.

    "`I feel within me that spark, that atom emanation of the divine spirit.' Giuseppe Verdi. The soul is the match, the spark, the flame that can light your path."

    He strikes a match, holding it out in front of him, his wrist flicking it through the air. We both watch the flame dwindle. He gets up and walks about, head tilted slightly, talking to the ceiling. I look up too imagining it thick with flies, there weren't many.

    "If I could arrange somewhere more peaceful for us to be, would you commit?"

Blah, blah, somehow I'd joined his words up there on the ceiling as he spoke them—so I said, "Yes," partly because I could see we would all be going on forever if I didn't and partly because I was nervous. Nervous about the idea of "No." "No" meant I'd have to justify with an energy I didn't possess. "No" means you really do care and I didn't care for him and his opinions. I lie down when I say yes, it usually means no, snore zzz ... that my position was intolerable, and totally unconscionable still stood. However the family was worse; immolation I think you call it, when you offer up your prized sacrificial pig. They were victorious immolators.

    Then he made his first mistake.

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