The first time Ma Anand Sheela came up in a conversation, a friend sheepishly confessed to nursing a crush on the cult leader. Sheela, as she’s mostly called in the Netflix doc series Wild Wild Country, though she goes by Sheela Birnstiel today, has no trouble attracting adorers. A recent Breitbart article risibly headlined “Leftists Are Celebrating the Perpetrator of the Largest Bioterror Attack in American History Because She’s a Woman” misunderstands (or deliberately misrepresents) the clearly tongue-in-cheek social media adulation of the now 68-year-old elder care manager. A more accurate headline would read, “Leftists Are Celebrating a Trump-like, Sociopathic Con Woman Because She’s a Woman”—and that celebration is completely understandable.
Wild Wild Country tells a shocking, and shockingly forgotten, tale: the six-year rise and fall of a town of 7,000 in the Oregonian near-wild. Incorporated in 1982 and intended as a city upon a hill heralding the teachings of the Indian mystic Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, the village of Rajneeshpuram seems to have been largely controlled by Sheela, the COO to the ailing and voluntarily silent Bhagwan’s CEO. There’s a lot to complain about in the six-part series, particularly its wooly (if immersive) storytelling and its elision of race and gender in a recounting of events that most certainly could not have taken place without Orientalist fetishization and a tolerance, if not respect, for female leadership. (After watching the series twice, I still have no idea what the sannyasins, or Rajneesh’s followers, believed.) But Wild Wild Country’s directors, brothers Maclain and Chapman Way, present Sheela in the most intriguing manner possible: between antihero and villain, and surprisingly likable in spite of—or perhaps because of—her obnoxious, inflammatory, and ultimately horrifying belligerence. As she’s presented in Wild Wild Country, Sheela is a fascinating, larger-than-life figure, but she’s probably garnering as much “devotion” as she is because pop culture is largely devoid of female characters as complicated as she is, especially women of color. Rooting for her is not unlike rooting for Walter White in Breaking Bad: You know you’re not supposed to, but she’s just so defiant and competent, dammit.
Wild Wild Country is told in chronological order, ping-ponging between stunning archival footage and contemporary talking-head interviews. But its narrative propulsion stems from the escalation in violence and rhetoric that Sheela uses to fight for Rajneeshpuram’s existence. When the people of nearby Antelope, Oregon (pop.: 40), band together with local, state, and eventually federal officials to inhibit the sannyasins’ power and influence, Sheela completes her transformation into a lioness. One part of the Breitbart headline, at least, seems to be true: According to a cooperating witness, Sheela allegedly orchestrated the poisonings of salad bars in 10 restaurants in 1984, affecting more than 700 people, either as a threat against a hostile homegrown community or a dry run for a more serious contagion on Election Day. Later, she pleaded guilty to setting a county office ablaze, assaulting a judge, and the attempted murder of another acolyte whom Bhagwan seemed to prefer to her. To maintain political power over the county, she bussed in 6,000 homeless people from across the country—and when they got too rowdy, she sedated them by tainting their beer with Haldol. It was rumored that she had her loyalists contaminate Antelope’s water supply (the Rajneeshi commune had its own) by liquidating bacteria-ridden beaver corpses and pouring the juices into the reservoir. When Sheela finally fled Rajneeshpuram, Bhagwan accused her of absconding with tens of millions of dollars—and of being “a perfect bitch.” One official went further, calling her “pure evil.”
Sheela hardly kept her aggression hidden. Some of the series’ most guiltily thrilling scenes are the irresistible sound bites with which she gifts the media. Dubbing her enemies in the Oregon government—many of whom blanch at the newcomers’ “free love” and their naked rejection of Christianity—“bigots” and “fascists,” she likens them to “Hitler’s troops … waiting to massacre the Allies.” (In return, a townsperson says of her, “That woman is the closest thing to Hitler that I’ve ever seen in my life. … The only thing she don’t have yet is the ovens.”) “They touch any of our people,” she threatens in the ’80s, “[and] I will have 15 of their heads.” Her slightly stilted English has made her “tough titties” response to the angry Antelopers a meme. Sheela also boasts that the sannyasins are “the only people who enjoy sex fully,” a reflection of the hyperbolic and embarrassingly myopic way that most of the (white, boomer) sannyasins talk about their time in Rajneeshpuram. “I did a Sheela,” regrets a former disciple, meaning she went in front of the news cameras and said something completely and unnecessarily incendiary.
How much of what Sheela said in the media did she actually mean? Wild Wild Country is full of unreliable and highly skewed narrators, and one of its most suggestive (if frustrating) aspects is that we never know who’s telling the truth. Sheela “doing a Sheela” for the audience at home is certainly at least part performance: Her appearances on TV made Rajneeshi book sales soar, and her spikiness—“you are full of shit,” she tells an opponent on Nightline—probably got her invited back. The sannyasins knew she was putting on a show, at least in part, but her outraged adversaries (and the people she actually hurt) never knew how seriously to take her threats. After all, she’d tried to have more than a few of them killed.
Wild Wild Country is a revealing snapshot of a post-Jonestown era, when alternative beliefs were immediately deemed suspicious and possibly fatal. Other facets are eye-openingly timely. In many ways, its second and third chapters feel like a mirror image of today’s ideological battles. On the left are highly educated, well-traveled, sexually experimental, probably wealthy young people who embrace an Indian guru as their spiritual leader. On the right are rural, xenophobic, communism-fearing, less affluent older people whose Christian values are offended by the orgies and public nudity that the sannyasins practiced openly. Both lay claim to the territory: The Antelopers call it their hometown; the Rajneeshis bought and developed the land. Part of what makes the doc so effective is that, more than three decades later, hardly anybody on either flank will give their opponents an inch or admit the validity of the other side’s feelings. It’s a painful portrait of America, and a painfully recognizable one.
It’s more than likely that Sheela has become a social media star among “leftists” not just because she speaks with the pithy, unswerving certainty of a meme, but because she represents the change that was happening to America, and is happening still. Though she’s technically second in command, she proves her “boss bitch” status by running a huge organization and building a city out of nothing. (In her typically bombastic tone, Sheela says of Rajneeshpuram, “They should have offered us a Nobel Prize.”) Later, she plans her escape from Bhagwan, an older man she met at age 16 who later sexually shames her by attributing her crimes to erotic jealousy, as the guru never slept with her. Sheela’s also not entirely wrong when she calls out anti-Rajneeshi prejudice and the Antelopers’ “Mayflower mentality,” as if white Oregonians hadn’t taken their land from someone else. Details that would mitigate the framing of Sheela as a “progressive” rebel are omitted from the film. There’s no mention of her second marriage (to a fellow sannyasin), which could have deflated the sexual tension between Sheela and Bhagwan. Similarly omitted is Sheela’s enormous privilege in being paroled just 29 months after being handed three 20-year sentences (to be served simultaneously)—then having the gall to complain that the American legal system is unfair. Her self-pitying statement captures in a nutshell the sannyasins’ callous self-absorption and seeming disregard for larger injustices.
So why can’t I look away from Sheela? Watching her gave me new insight into Trump’s attraction to his base: The over-the-top offensiveness is part of the charm. The actual Sheela lives in Switzerland today and quite plausibly gives not one whit about where she falls in the identitarian camps of America in 2018. But her social media–anointed drafting into the #Resistance makes sense, since her anger at “bigots” and “fascists” coincides with the left’s contemporary language. Her certitude and zeal also parallel the crudity of political discourse on both sides in the Trump era. After seeing that “we go high when they go low” doesn’t work, many liberals have been craving a honey badger of their own. That she’s seen in the current day in a neat gray bob, gold-rimmed glasses, and a grandmotherly shawl adds to her political appeal: We’re reasonable, everyday people until given a reason to Hulk out.
Better still, Sheela, like Trump, knows how to harness deception and exaggeration as weapons of destabilization. An extravagant threat is a win-win proposition. If your opponents take you at your word, they’re chumps. And if they think you’re a clown, they won’t be prepared for what comes next. The result is an ontological crisis, in which your enemies start questioning what America might look like, what reality can contain. After experiencing the terror of that crisis, it’s natural to want the other side to feel it too. But the only solace to be taken from the tale of Rajneeshpuram is the same reason we can “celebrate” Sheela today: She didn’t succeed.