Where do old cult leaders go to grow old and die? Where do they end up when their warped charisma hasn’t reached the infamy of a Manson or a Moon — when their following doesn’t end in the grim swell of bloated bodies from mass suicide, but simply fizzles out?
Apparently, they stay in Berkeley and play tennis.
Richard Thorne, born William Brumfield, aka “Om, Highest of the High, Greatest of the Great, All Power, All Knowledge and Beyond,” gets up most mornings before dawn to prepare for his day, which most likely begins with him reaching for some neatly folded, crisp tennis whites, and inspecting them for any visible signs of lint or dirt. A fit, well-groomed body is a holy body.
Om then exits the old school bus on which he lives — one of four sometimes parked outside the Ashby BART station — and heads for the tennis court. While he is exercising, his ragtag band of remaining followers prepares for another day distributing Shaman’s Smoking Blend — an herbal tobacco substitute — to various shops along Telegraph Avenue.
Thorne’s “Om Lovers” cult was at its peak in the early 1970s when, according to former members, his followers took to the streets to collect alms, sell off the possessions of new members, or otherwise hustle their way through the day.
But that is the least of the accusations against Thorne. Last year, a woman named Cybele Ornelas, whose family once belonged to Om Lovers, filed a police report alleging that a quarter-century earlier, Thorne repeatedly raped her and forced her to perform oral sex as a fourteen-year-old child. Two of Cybele’s brothers allege that other cult members subjected them to similar abuses as minors.
Where do these cult children go when they grow up? Where do they end up when the stories of their fractured childhoods never make it into a book or a screenplay — when their self-esteem fizzles out and they are left without the answers once promised them as children?
Apparently, they stay in Berkeley and play music.
Piero Amadeo Infante was one such child. Raised along with his sister Cybele, two other siblings, and about four other children in the cult founded and run by Richard Thorne, Piero is full of hurt, angry at the world, and at odds with his family over his decision to speak out about their experiences. His mother barely talks to him, one sister has fled the area, another brother is reportedly an addict, and a fourth is said to be in denial of his past. All of them struggle day by day to get along with one another and tame their own depression and self-destructive impulses.
Meanwhile, Om serves 40-love.
Most days Piero wakes up way past dawn, around 11:00. Weekdays, the 42-year-old musician lights a clove cigarette and heads down to his North Berkeley twelve-step meeting. But never the meditation meeting. He’s come a long way since growing up as a member of the Om Lovers, but he still can’t bear to sit in silence for thirty minutes.
He is handsome, intense, prone to fits of laughter, polite, and slightly dangerous. Stocky and well-groomed, Piero often etches sharp, triangular patterns into his short beard, which enhance his already intimidating stare. He perfected that stare as a child. It’s the kind of menacing gaze a new prisoner might encounter on his first day; the kind of look that says I’m going to take my time, but when I’m ready, you are so fucked.
Piero is a musician — one that most other local musicians know, have played with, or at least heard about. His bands — the Freaky Executives, Los Angelitos, and Los Mocosos — have all won Bammies and sold out venues such as the Fillmore, Slim’s, and the Great American Music Hall. His music career began in 1982 with the Freaky Executives, an influential Berkeley band that was at the forefront of the whole Chili Peppers-Fishbone-Faith No More “funk punk” era. The band went on to spawn associations with Primus, Bud E. Love, and the Luniz, as well as influencing subsequent funky rock bands such as MCM and the Monster, and even punk bands such as Rancid.
The Executives also were unique in that they had a truly leftist bent, although the music was in essence a series of raucous party songs. While the beat was definitely commercial and fun, the lyrics were about factory workers, the government, and other leftist topics: a direct result, no doubt, of Piero having grown up with a communist mother. “Even if I hadn’t grown up with her influence, just by leaving me alone on Telegraph Avenue in 1967, I fell in with the Black Panthers, the RCP, and all the other militant leftists,” he says. “Anyone would be influenced.”
Piero’s Latin roots show themselves not only in his musical stylings, swarthy intensity, and perfect Spanish pronunciations, but also in his gravitation to the Cuban mystical religion known as Santeria. A mixture of African and Caribbean beliefs, Santeria concerns itself with the idea of energies — muses of a sort that can transform the path your life is taking. As in, “you can build yourself a new life through music” — which is precisely what Piero did. He embraced music, partly for the opportunity it offered him to develop a surrogate family.
“I have an intense desire to be liked,” he flatly admits, “and that has translated itself into a compulsion with being in the front of bands and being loved by large groups of people. … All I had to do was say what was on my mind and have some good music to go with it. And all of a sudden there were people surrounding me, and they’re my friends and they’re helping me out.”
But Piero wasn’t just someone in the band — he was front and center, the loudest, funniest, brashest member. Back in the day, he would fill himself with whatever he could get his hands on: food, drugs, cigarettes, sex. This made him a fairly volatile person, but a great front man for a wild band.
These days sobriety has soothed his savage tendencies, but he still appears confident, even cocky. Only a pronounced nervous tic divulges his insecurity and frangible inner peace, and his tender smile invokes compassion.
“I was always under the impression that if I wasn’t in a band, no one would want to be nice to me,” he says. “It took me a long time to realize that I don’t have to be successful musically to be cared for by people.”
On one of those late spring days in North Berkeley when you just want to sit outside and wash down a $2 scone with a $3 cup of coffee, Piero situated himself on a bench across the street from the Vine Street Peet’s he visits most days. He couldn’t sit here for more than a minute without someone hollering out a hello, whether a woman with a baby stroller, an academic with a satchel, or a kid on a skateboard. Piero knows everyone.
He lit up a smoke and began to blink uncontrollably, a manifestation of his facial tic, which usually surfaces when he is about to tackle an uncomfortable subject. Quelling a small coughing fit brought on by the strong cigarettes he smokes, he framed the issue neatly: “Basically, I want to nail this fucker.”
In the last year, much to the chagrin of the rest of his family, Piero set out to do just that. He visited every anticult Web site he could find and regaled them with stories of Richard Thorne’s alleged crimes. He says he did it partly to find other people who had heard of the Om Lovers, and partly to expose Thorne to those who hadn’t. “My family and I were victims of a cult led by a man who went by the name ‘Om,’ whose group advocated and practiced ritual sexual acts upon children,” he claimed on a Web site dedicated to “the study of crackpots.” “This man must be stopped before the lives of more children can be ruined.”
Psychologists might describe Piero’s actions as stemming from the “anger stage” of an adult survivor of abuse, when a victim lashes out at his tormentor and wants to tell everyone else. Piero went so far as to lob caustic accusations at his own mother, whom he publicly proclaimed a pedophile for her compliance in the cult. “I’m violating every fucking family taboo,” he says of his outspokenness. “I’m telling the family secret; I’m admitting that I was a victim. I’m betraying Mom.”
For a few months, ever since hearing that her son had been talking publicly about his childhood, Marilyn Ornelas also was showing up at Peet’s every day. She sits quietly across the street within sight of her son. Neither of them speak to one another. They haven’t spoken for more than two and a half years.
“She’s intimidating me,” he said flatly. “She wants to scare me.”
Om didn’t just fall out of the sky and ensnare this family. Piero’s mother willingly took up with him, following years with an abusive first husband. Om was in the right place at the right time — an intelligent man who was hip to Eastern spirituality at a time many young seekers were looking for exactly that. In many ways, Piero’s mother was just doing what so many other young idealists of her era were doing: tuning in, turning on, and dropping out.
“We are the quintessential Berkeley family,” Piero says. “I am the son of your city; a product of the experiment of the left, interracial marriage, alternative schooling, and drug experimentation. … I am your son.” Marilyn Ornelas, who respectfully declined to be interviewed for this story, was born to a conservative white family in Oakland. For whatever reason, she rebelled against her middle-class upbringing by starting a family with a man of black and Cuban descent who was, by all accounts, domineering and violent. He beat Piero severely when he was a toddler, and beat Marilyn even harder, dislocating her jaw and shoulder. He died from hepatitis caused by heroin use when Piero was three and his sister Cybele was one.
But Marilyn also passed along to her children her vibrancy, magnetism, and passion. It was those qualities that made her popular in the whole lefty scene, and it was a scene, all political sincerity aside. There was a caste system of hippies and freaks, and Marilyn ranked high on the popularity meter. She took pride in breaking barriers by having interracial children. Her kids felt like they needed to be exceptional and precocious to be accepted, and they were. They could quote Marx and swear like sailors; they had a good grasp of political theory and big vocabularies. They were dark-skinned, glowing, and beautiful. They were the anti-Brady Bunch.
Yet most of the time, at least according to Piero, their mother barely paid attention to them. He says he cried for hours when he saw an old picture of his mother breastfeeding him, because he didn’t know she had ever done anything that kind for him. “She was a hero on the Avenue,” he says. “She was loved by Hell’s Angels, communists, and Black Panthers. But she wasn’t a mother.”
Piero says he spent most of his days running around on the Avenue, Telegraph, until the soles of his feet were bloody. Other errant kids congregated there as well, children of hippie parents who let their own kids run free, either out of permissiveness or sheer neglect. One gang of kids was called the Mini Mob; another, the Red Rockets. Piero would kick the ass of anyone, of any size, in any place, at any time. His godmother Jackie remembers him punching a Hell’s Angel on Telegraph when he was only a small kid, knocking the biker back into a table full of goods and into the street. Mostly, the perpetually hungry boy scavenged for food from a handful of regular places, he says, or went to the student union at Cal and watched TV with a friend.
He rarely attended school, but since that was a government-run entity, he says his mom didn’t seem to care. In fact, when Piero got picked up once for truancy, he says his mother was so furious that she packed all their things and moved to Veracruz, Mexico, in a failed attempt to emigrate to Cuba.
Then she met Om.
“When Om came along, he was another handsome, megalomaniacal egomaniac, another extremely magnetic, powerful personality who was insane and violent,” recalls Cybele, who was about six at the time. “She sensed it; they recognized each other, as sadists and masochists always will, without a calling card or anything, just by radar across a room.”
Om was born William Brumfield in or around the 1940s — his own sibling didn’t know his exact age — and attended Berkeley High. He was raised as a Jehovah’s Witness, and his brother is still active in the church. These days, no trace of William Brumfield’s name lives on, and even his brother has no contact with him or any idea where he lives. But a gold mine of information about Brumfield’s past lives on, from Berkeley Barb stories about his exploits in the Sexual Freedom League under the name “Richard Thorne,” to a later feature on the “Om Lovers” in Al Goldstein’s infamous porn rag Screw.
The Sexual Freedom League (SFL) is said to have been started in 1963 by a man named Jefferson Poland. He later legally changed his middle name to “Fuck,” as in Jefferson “Fuck” Poland, and then to Jefferson “Clitlick” Poland. According to Mikal Marinacci, a writer interested in countercultural groups and an acquaintance of Poland’s, the roots of the league go back to New York, where Poland met two anarchist women who were into nudity and recreational sex. He returned to the Bay Area to attend San Francisco State University and began espousing “free fucking” and marijuana use.
The movement’s philosophy was fairly simple: Sex is natural, the body isn’t shameful, and the repression of both ideas has led society down an oppressive path. For most people in the movement, it was an exciting time of experimentation — a way to cast off the Victorian leanings of their 1950s upbringings.
Margo, who prefers to be identified only by her first name, was one of the main organizers of the league’s San Francisco chapter, which took its lead from the Berkeley group. She says she got in at the ground level, before it became hip for middle-class swingers to throw sex parties. “We were trying to do something that was educational, philosophical, and political, as well as fun,” she says.
Early on, the Berkeley league was a group of people who appeared at public “nude-ins” in places such as People’s Park and Aquatic Park in San Francisco. Just how political it actually was is debatable. Some critics disdain the sexual freedom movement as a rather sexist network of men acquiring physical access to young hippie waifs under the guise of liberation. Sam Sloan, a former league member who joined Poland in coauthoring a book of essays entitled The Sex Marchers and has written extensively about those days on his Web site, SamSloan.com, admits his goal was to get laid on a regular basis. “I wanted mainly to use the organization as a vehicle to get to know beautiful women (which we had in great abundance, fortunately),” he writes.
Poland, who has since changed his name again and now lives incognito somewhere in California, dislikes talking about those days, but did offer a brief recollection in an e-mail: “From ’63 to ’66, the League was just a political group, in the anarchist tradition. Then it held a nude party or two, and Richard Thorne got involved. He was a charismatic and utopian orator, personally very attractive, who recruited dozens of young ‘swinging couples.’ By the force of his seductive personality, he made the SFL become sexual in fact, not merely in name.”
Sloan, who in time became president of the league, has similar recollections of Thorne. “I did not found the organization. Jefferson Poland actually thought up the name. … I also did not organize the first sex orgy. Richard Thorne did that.”
According to Sexual Freedom League papers at Cal’s Bancroft Reference Library, Thorne also wrote the league’s Statement of Position, a handbook that outlined the group’s general philosophy. The manifesto began with a simple summation: “This pamphlet has been printed in hopes that, besides the conventional puritanical views on sex, another minority view — but one which in our opinion, is just as legitimate — can be also heard and appraised. Though we say that it is just as legitimate, we feel actually that it is more legitimate than customary views on sex and morality, for it cuts through all the myth, prejudice, and ignorance which enshrouds sex, and has as its aim sexual enlightenment and the creation of climate in which greater sexual pleasure and, indeed, greater human brotherhood and love are the rewards.”
At the same time Thorne was pursuing sexual enlightenment, he also was reading up on unconventional spirituality. He was particularly influenced by the shamanistic works of Carlos Castaneda, and eventually emulated Castaneda’s character Don Juan by going down to Mexico and hanging out with the Zapotec Indians. He came back to the United States calling himself “Om,” and claiming to have shamanic powers.
It’s hard to trace exactly when Thorne went from being an active league member to bona fide cult leader, but he resigned as league president in 1966 when he went down to Mexico. “After turning SFL over to other leaders,” Poland wrote, referring to himself in the third person, “Jefferson Poland and Richard Thorne each formed spiritual groups — Thorne’s Om religion, and Poland’s Psychedelic Venus Church.” Since neither man wanted to administrate the rapidly growing league, Poland says its leadership passed to other, “less eccentric” hands. “Poland was manic depressive,” he writes of himself, “while Thorne may have had schizophrenic tendencies.”
Thorne was well-read on spiritual matters at just the point in history when more and more young people were looking for unconventional teachers. San Francisco drummer Baba Duru says he met the amateur guru in Chicago around 1967, where he had traveled after receiving a vision to “go East.” Duru and an idealistic friend were eager to get out of the Midwest and find God. They needed a teacher, and Om needed students. Thorne claimed to be Om, but he also said that everyone was Om, that everyone had God inside them. “He told us he had gone to Mexico and fasted with the Indians,” Duru says. “He looked like a Greek statue; he was a muscular, Hercules type of guy. And he was intelligent — super-bright.”
The two teenagers’ first “spiritual lesson” was to hitchhike to California while Om drove a car one of his followers had “surrendered.” He told the boys that their journey by thumb and foot would cleanse any bad karma they had accumulated during their middle-class upbringing. At the time, Duru was taken in, but he later warned a young Piero about following a man like Om. “I look back on those years with mixed feelings,” Duru now recalls. “I was just a teenager, and if I hadn’t been a teenager I probably wouldn’t have been swayed so easily.”
Eventually, Duru and his friend arrived in the Bay Area and hooked up with Om on Telegraph Avenue. But it was a short date with enlightenment, Duru reports, because Om was soon arrested. One of his followers, after having relieved himself of his material possessions and other “hang-ups” — including his car and apartment — began to second-guess his actions and allegedly filed a police report.
According to Duru, when Thorne went before the judge and was asked his name, he would identify himself only as Om. The judge, Duru says, responded by committing Thorne to Napa State Hospital.
Duru says he visited Thorne in the psychiatric hospital many times. He believes Thorne became deeply attached to his new beliefs during this hospital stay. “I guess he had to go further and further out to hold on to any identity he had of himself,” Duru says. “He was a different person after he came out of there, the shock treatments and stuff. It’s kind of like he really believed he was Om.”
In any case, Thorne soon transformed himself from a swinging “free sex” advocate to the head of a group of hippies who did his every bidding.
Om and roughly eighteen followers, including Marilyn Ornelas and her four children, lived above the Starry Plough on Shattuck, across from the center of the Black Panther Party. Piero and Cybele say the cult raised money through “alms” collected by members on the street.
“It was a very highly controlled, highly ordered, almost militaristic style of life,” Piero recalls. “When I expressed my desire to hang out with my friends, he said, ‘You must learn to wean yourself from your old-world companions.’ In his philosophy, anybody that wasn’t with his new-world crap was ‘old world.’ Old world was not necessarily evil, but misguided.”
Everyone in the cult was renamed. Piero became “Boldness,” and other members took the names Harmony, Intelligence, Inspiration, and Sovereignty. Om didn’t believe in using any negative phrases or words. For example, a week sounded weak, so he called them “strongs” and gave them ten days.
UC Berkeley sociologist Richard Ofshe is an expert on cults and their use of coercive social control. Asked what separates cult leaders from everyone else, he replies with one word: “opportunity.” Becoming a warped guru requires being in the right place at the right time, not necessarily charisma. Ofshe dislikes the term “charisma,” because usually the only people who find cult leaders charismatic are their followers. Everyone else thinks they’re pretty creepy. “The most common thing about them,” he says, “is that they tended to be con men or women with outgoing, ‘salesmen’ personalities.”
Om had written many religious texts about his ideals, which were routinely read aloud in the group, Piero says. Every morning they would wake up at dawn and sing songs to their leader: “Willing slaves of Om, destiny is life and truth.”
Sexuality also continued to play a major role in Om’s worldview. In the Om Lovers, sexuality was a sacred gift to be shared. “We’d kind of have little bad hippie pop odes to how big his mighty phallus was,” Piero says. “We had to worship the thought of his phallus, his mighty dick. … We were supposed to sing to it, especially the women. He wanted the women to deify that part of him.”
He would even lead his followers into the bathroom to view his “holy shit,” deifying his own excrement, some former cult members recall.
In the evenings, according to Piero, the more overtly sexual aspects of the cult came out. Om and the rest of his followers were often naked. The women practiced tantra naked in a circle, and Om would have sex with whomever he chose. Later, according to Piero and one of his brothers, the women in the cult would fondle the boys’ genitals and lead their young hands to their vaginas.
“It was really late at night or really early in the morning,” Piero remembers of one incident. “I was awoken — directed to a fold-out couch bed. [A female cult member] led my hands to her vagina and was kissing me and playing with my dick. … I was eleven.” Other times, at the same age, Om would instruct Piero in sex. “He was teaching us how to stimulate a woman’s clitoris,” Piero recalls. “[The same woman] was laying on the floor, up against a pillow with her legs spread. Om proceeded to give me an anatomy lesson, manipulating her, and he was saying this bizarre phrase: ‘That’s how you get it a-rockin’.'”
Thorne himself is publicly on the record as supporting childhood sexuality. “We feel that the fuss against children being exposed to sex or indulging in it is just so much nonsense based upon much misinformation,” he wrote in the league’s Statement of Position. “The sex organs of children are not injured by sex indulgence, any more than the sex organs of adults are so injured. Nor are the minds of children hurt by sex indulgence. … If there is any single statement which aptly expresses our views concerning sexual activity among children, it is this: we believe that a sex organ in the hand of a child is more desirable than a toy machine gun. [Emphasis Thorne’s] … That ‘sex is corrupting’ we believe is sheer nonsense. It can only be corrupting when an equation is perpetuated between sex and dirt, sex and crime, or sex and guilt. Otherwise it is uplifting. All laws, in any state, which militate against sex activity by children should be reevaluated.”
Elsewhere, in a section dedicated to “Sex Education,” Thorne explained how such “sex indulgence” might occur. “A very valuable education is imparted through a more personal relationship with sex, in the home, or elsewhere, with the help and enthusiastic guidance and encouragement of parents and guardians.”
Jefferson Poland, Thorne’s onetime colleague in the Sexual Freedom League, later confessed to personally providing such “guidance and encouragement”; in 1990 he wrote an article titled “Confessions of a Nudist Child Molester” for the nudist magazine Nude and Natural. “I developed an elaborate rationalization (‘Stinkin’ thinkin”) to justify my behavior,” he wrote. “I believed that sexual pleasure was inherently good, and that some (not all) types of erotic play were age-appropriate for children, such as masturbation, fondling and nudity. … I believed that my needs suited me to be an erotic mentor to an intelligent child.”
Ofshe says cult members often develop ideologies that allow them to act on their own socially deviant desires. “All of the cults I’ve studied are just crawling with exploitation, especially of a sexual nature,” he says. “It’s done by either the leader or the followers, and they will often base it on some new insight or new interpretation of some sacred document that is not normally interpreted that way. In other words, they develop a position to justify what they feel like doing. Sexual exploitation of children in highly controlled groups like that is really not that uncommon.”
Piero’s sister Cybele left the Bay Area fifteen years ago to get away from her family and the memories of what they went through together.
Like her older brother, she is striking, with long dark curly hair, dark skin, and the same dapple of freckles that made her irresistible to the passersby whom the Om Lovers forced her to beg for change as a child. She also has her brother’s eyes, intense and troubled, yet affectionate and wise. Say what you want about their mother and father, but both siblings inherited the dash and fire of their parents.
Cybele now lives in a California coastal town, the kind of place that sustains itself with three months of tourism and a whole lot of Captain’s Platters at oceanside seafood restaurants.
At the time she moved, no one wanted to hear her protestations that Om had exploited her, that their family was a mess, and that they needed help. In many ways, that period of her life was more hurtful to her than anything Om had done — hearing her family deny her ordeal has had a profound effect upon her. “I’m still not out of the woods on that,” she confides. “I still feel suicidal a lot. … When I say suicidal, I’m not talking about planning to take my life and things like that, I’m talking about the loss of the will to live.”
Cybele says she first felt that her life was over when she was only nine years old. That, she told police, was when she first learned that she would eventually be turned over to the man she calls William Brumfield as his “bride.” She remembers being in a room with the adults of the cult, women and men, who made sexual advances at her. “They were all smiling at me when he was talking to me about explicitly sexual stuff, how they marry girls even younger than me in other cultures, have sex, or ‘sacred fucking.’ I was traumatized.”
The actual event didn’t first occur until she was fourteen, which gave Cybele five years to live in constant fear of being sexually assaulted. The cult leader was very pragmatic, she says, and always prepared for things in advance. “On the day I came home from camp in 1977, William said to me, ‘Will you be my bride?'” she wrote in her police complaint. “I was scared of him so I nodded yes. From that point until I was almost sixteen years old, William sexually assaulted me consistently. … While we were having sex, various women would fondle me and William; they would touch my breasts and my hair.”
What was even more heartbreaking, Cybele recalls, was her realization that her mother was going to go along with it and offer up her daughter to her leader and lover. “My mother wasn’t going to protect me; I knew it, I could see it, and that was terrifying.”
Cybele filed her 2002 police complaint against Thorne in the hopes of seeing him prosecuted for rape after the California legislature lifted the statute of limitations on crimes of this nature. Recently, however, that law was ruled unconstitutional, and now she and her family must accept that Thorne will never be convicted for his alleged crimes.
Although broken in spirit, Cybele seems to have come to grips with her past. She is a strong, intelligent woman who struggles with forgiveness. These days, she says, she can forgive the cult leader for what happened to her, although she refuses to call him anything other than William Brumfield. “I can’t call him Om; he can’t have that,” she says. “People use that to meditate all over the world. It’s a concept, it’s a sacred celebrant. It’s not his.”
But what Cybele says she can’t forgive is what she alleges the cult leader did to her younger brothers, something no one in the family wants to talk about. Piero wasn’t present for any of this, having run away from the cult at the age of fifteen. One of Cybele’s younger brothers alleged in a brief interview that Om was extremely violent and abusive with him, even locking him in a closet for days.
It always was Piero’s job to be the lookout; he was the great protector, willing to stick up for any of his siblings. But he couldn’t protect his siblings from Om. In fact, his siblings were eventually carted off to Mexico with the cult leader after Piero ran away.
“When my father died, he thought he had to be the man of the family,” Cybele recalls. “My father beat him pretty badly, and he was only four years old when my father died. He battered him severely, in the old tradition of ‘You will be a man, you will not cry. You are going to take care of your sister, be a man.’ … From that time on he thought he had to be our father, our protector, our hero. … He hasn’t ever really reconciled himself with things that he doesn’t understand, like that you can’t do that when you are four. You can’t be responsible at fifteen for what happened to the children of the family.”
Now Piero grapples with survivor guilt for not sticking around to help his family. “I did feel responsible; I still feel responsible,” he says. “I’m learning now that in reality, I can’t do anything about it … but there’s still this nagging voice that’s the fuel for a lot of my intervening in other people’s disasters, saving baby squirrels, giving people money, saving people. I was always trying to make up for that thing that I couldn’t do.”
Cybele had been waiting for years for her family to come out of denial and face up to what happened to them under the guidance of Brumfield. But when Piero began his very vocal crusade against Om, it only seemed to further strain his ties to the family. His younger half-brothers, born to different fathers and struggling with their own pasts with Om, denounced Piero and fought him, especially for demonizing their mother, whom he had unfairly described as a “pedophile” on the Craig’s List message board.
To Cybele, it seemed as if Piero was once again hogging the spotlight, this time hoarding the family pain and calling it all his own. Her bold older brother had once again become the center of attention.
One of the principles Om taught all the children under him was the art of surveillance, which in his case meant the ancient Japanese practice of Bushido. Part of the Samurai code, Bushido is a martial arts term that translates into “the way of the warrior” and involves a sort of sixth sense for detecting the presence of danger. True warriors could sense their enemies without hearing or seeing them.
Piero explains this as he is driven through his old Central Berkeley neighborhood, then up to Shattuck Avenue, where he lived with the cult, and down Telegraph, where he ran wild as a kid. “Thorne was always five moves ahead of everyone else,” he recalls. “We lived in a paranoid illusion.”
On the avenue a tall and lanky, light-skinned young man, probably about nineteen, traipses by the car as if in a daze. His hair is a messy Afro, his clothes are hip-hop stylish but dirty, and his gaze is dead-blank. There are many homeless people like this on Telegraph, but few are this young. “That’s Omson,” says Piero. Om has at least three sons, two of whom stay close by him. This third one, however, looks very lost.
As soon as Piero begins talking about him, the young man disappears. Five or more minutes of driving around and trying to locate him yield nothing.
“Bushido,” Piero says.
The same can be said of Thorne himself during the course of reporting this story. The master of Bushido seemed to have disappeared completely.
Several times, steely-eyed and clutching a hot latte, Piero was driven around Berkeley to Om’s usual haunts — in front of Willard School, in front of the Ashby BART station, over by the DMV on Claremont Avenue — and his buses were nowhere to be seen. Having passed the old school buses day in and day out for weeks, now, as we approached for a “surprise” interview, they had evaporated.
“Bushido,” Piero laughs.
Eventually, during a daily Om hunt in Berkeley, a green bus believed to be Thorne’s was spotted on Claremont Avenue. Sharp knocks on the door brought no reply, and a gaze into the windows of the vehicle revealed nothing but a clean, spartan, carpeted motor home. A note was left on the windshield, but nothing was heard back.
Piero isn’t ready to clean up his unfinished business with Om, anyway. He’s scared of what he might do if he sees him again. His mother, however, is different. After denouncing her and thereby alienating himself from her and the rest of his family, who remain in contact with her and stood by her, Piero had some unfinished business with his mother too.
“I was initially very angry with her, not so much for how I was raised, but because when I tried to talk to her about what happened to us, she brushed me off with a sigh and, ‘Oh, you always were manufacturing little dramas.'” After that, he wanted to make war with her, and with Om. “I was in a state,” he says.
Now, Piero denies that she is or ever was a pedophile, and has apologized for the charge. “My girlfriend told me that my resentment toward my mother was the greatest single danger to my mental and physical health,” he says. “She said it to me in such a loving way, that I had to relook at the situation and see how I had been lashing out in anger. I needed to tell my truth, but it had to be accurate, or people would not listen.”
It was late summer, and Piero was once again at Peet’s, settling in with his cronies. It had been a long summer of remembering, crying, family infighting, and confessing publicly all the things that have happened in his past. He had big plans now: a new band, a solo record, travel abroad.
Piero says all of these issues were swimming in his head when he focused across the street on a familiar figure. The woman was straight out of a Dorothea Lange portrait; fleshy and wrinkled, bent and stooped, her shoulders turned inward and her forearms crossed on her lap in a sort of acknowledged defeat. Mom.
“All of a sudden it was so clear to me,” he recalls. “She was not the enemy. She was also a victim.”
That night Piero logged on to the Internet and posted this message on a bulletin board: “Today I saw my mother on the street. Of late I have slandered her, and tried to make her feel all the pain I felt at her hands as a child. It got really bad. My family excommunicated me, my mother was heartbroken. And so was I. We didn’t speak when we saw one another. Today, for no reason I understand, and without warning, I saw this woman, my mother … and I stopped her, held her and told her the truth. That I loved her. That I was wrong to be vengeful, that I was in pain. She held me and we both cried.”