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Submitted Literature

My Life In Orange

By Tim Guest

Review

For the majority of Tim Guest’s childhood he lived in communes of ‘the orange people’, followers of Indian guru Bhagwan Rajneesh. This involved moving back and forward to England, Germany, India and North America, often without his parents present. Despite the utopianism, this instability, neglect, and lack of boundaries, was bound to create problems. By the time his mother “abandons orange”, he ends up in a London school with overt mental health problems. It is easy to see why people, like Guest’s mother, fell for Bhagwan. She wanted to escape a Catholic up-bringing, seeing the nuclear family and the state as oppressive. She held a doctorate in psychology, but heard voices, and this included the voice of Bhagwan. A quotation from the text, when she informs people she is “taking orange” is telling:

The Marxists thought co-opting Eastern philosophy was intellectual imperialism. The feminists were outraged that her consciousness had fallen so low that she was carrying a picture of a man around her neck. Her therapist acquaintances warned she was projecting her primary love-object in an unconscious bonding with an omnipotent fantasy and that was bound to end in catastrophic negative counter-transference. Her hippie friends thought it was a hassle to have to dye so many clothes. (p. 13)

There is comedy, and a lot of truth in all these comments. Guest manages to lay bare the deep longings of a son chasing his mother. He gets deformed feet in the process, standing so much on tiptoe amongst thousands of orange people, searching for her amongst the crowds. This is heart wrenching, but not mawkish. The book fully evokes the 1970s and 1980s. Perhaps you have to be once removed from the world, as in a commune, to understand it. From shrinking Monster Munch crisp packets under the grill, to almost worshipping the colour visor on a Lego spaceman, Guest encapsulates the ontological essence of being a boy in this period. He is the rebel, but no hero, as when he narrates when, to look cool to his mates in England, he pretends to not know the girl with thick glass and on crutches who he had been friends with in Germany.

The book also contains evocative black and white photographs, which, from Guest’s perspective reveal how his father and mother had been forever searching elsewhere. She believes in the subversions of R.D. Laing, that the mad might be sane, and vice versa. Laing invited her home, but we don’t learn if she accepted! Bhagwan’s beliefs changed like the wind, and the level of scandal and corruption that led to the fall of the main commune in Oregon, including terrorist plots and mass poisonings, is startling. All Guest wants is a home. What is even more shocking is that even after his mother has given up orange, they are always on the move. He eventually gets her to face what she has done to him, forces her to settle, and, ironically, through using techniques probably learnt in Bhagwan’s communes, there is reconciliation and hope.

As Guest puts it, according to R.D. Laing, when one looks into the mother’s face one sees oneself, and to be seen by the mother confirms existence. Guest’s mother embraced Bhagwan, and her looking away to Bhagwan meant that she abused her son. Guest refuses to confirm that actual child sexual abuse took place in Oregon, when asked by an official. This is despite eight year olds bragging about having sex. His own depth of loss is clear. Guest’s ability to evoke the external world of time and place, in various countries, with the inner more complex world of childhood, is immense. 

REVIEW SUBMITTED BY DR JASON LEE

Key Themes:

  • Autobiography
  • Revealing Reads

Reference: Tim, Guest. 2005. My Life In Orange. Granta, 2005

Reviewer

- Charley Baker
Date Review Submitted: Tuesday 10th November 2009