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Losing Your Mother for the Whole World to See

A crisis of daughterhood led this author to reclaim her life one page at a time.

Key points

  • In a new memoir, author Ronit Plank explores the loss of her mother to the guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh.
  • Discussion includes abandonment, resilience, and the impact on children when a parent leaves.
  • Plank explores resilience after the trauma of loss.

Ronit Plank’s memoir When She Comes Back is about the loss of her mother to the guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, who was featured in the Netflix series Wild Wild Country. Ronit first wrote about this for The Atlantic. She is also host and producer of the podcast And Then Everything Changed. We spoke, via email, about abandonment, hope, longing, and finding—and defining—her own solid ground.

Meredith: Your book encompasses themes of abandonment but also of hope. Hope is inherent in the title itself but there is a sadness, too.

RONIT: I lived a great deal of my childhood assuming, hoping my situation would change. I was almost in a kind of subconscious suspended animation. I knew what my current situation was, and I knew who I missed and what I wanted but I don’t think I ever became truly hopeless until part of my adolescence. When we’re young I think it’s hard to grasp what is actually happening to us first because we may not have that perspective yet and also because in many cases acknowledging what we are experiencing might be too painful.

If someone had told me when my father left and then my mother left what would happen next, I don’t know that I could have taken it. I needed to hope, to hold on to the future and I think that’s what got me through. Plus, I think children often—especially when they’re young—believe the best about people who are supposed to take care of them.

When I [finally] hit on this one it seemed to capture the longing that colored so much of my early life. I think longing is about feeling like there is a chance what you wish for could happen, it’s like sad dreaming.

Meredith: Being left at a young age does shape a child. How did it shape you growing up? What would you like others who are questioning their ties to their parents/family to know?

RONIT: On the one hand I was a very confident kid because I spent my first few years on a kibbutz in Israel in a close-knit community where most everyone knew me and I knew them. I didn’t have much fear during those years, very few traumas. Then, once I was four the pain started piling up pretty fast coupled with a brand-new country and home.

I became insecure and knew something was wrong: between my parents and also with me because I didn’t seem to get the response from people I used to get in Israel. I didn’t know this at the time but when each of my parents left, I lost part of myself or who I could have been. They were no longer there the way I had known them to be and I now felt leave-able.

I had a hard time believing I was enough to sustain another’s interest, to capture someone’s heart or loyalty. Without consciously realizing it I lost a great deal of faith in myself and that took me years, decades really to recover from. That fear about myself impacted my friendships, my romantic relationships and jeopardized my ability to sustain an honest, vulnerable partnership with my husband. Luckily, I was able to dig in and hold myself accountable and figure out what I was so afraid of.

I’ve learned that we really have to deal with what we grew up with before we can move on; that whatever we haven’t healed or come to understand will linger and nip at us until we do that work. It can seem unfair—to go through childhood hard stuff in the first place and then have to revisit the origins of those patterns to finally get rid of them.

Meredith: You wrote about this for The Atlantic, but what was it like actually seeing Wild Wild Country on Netflix, and the footage of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh...

RONIT: I had already [begun] the memoir when the Wild Wild Country came out. I almost couldn’t believe it. I hadn’t considered that Bhagwan would be a story again or capture a cultural moment. Seeing all the coverage was an odd mix of feeling like my family’s history was worth revisiting and also wanting to back away from it.

[But]I wanted to see what life was like on Bhagwan’s ashrams and what my mother was up to; I wanted to see her in the footage and I also didn’t at all. I have the same interest in coercive movements and cults that many people do but this one was so close to home. I felt the tension over all six episodes of wanting more information and being afraid of what I would learn.

Meredith: When She Comes Back is about the loss of your mother to Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, and, as a result, the role you found yourself in as a child as the emotional support and confidant of your father and caretaker of your younger sister during your formative years.

RONIT: Readers will likely be able to identify the relationship with my father morphing into one I grew uncomfortable with as the narrator-me does in the book. What began as a comfort, a point of pride, became too much for me. I don’t think there was a way I could have avoided acknowledging it but when I did, I officially had to contend with it. I began rejecting that role in small ways as soon as I could and then wholeheartedly at my very first opportunity. I think I was able to begin carving out space for myself after my father remarried. And then, like so many people I tried to forget about my history until it bubbled up as essays and articles and now this memoir. And it may seem funny but in many ways, it’s a gift to be able to look back from the clarity and safety of my life now.

Visit Ronit's website to find more of her work.

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