Given the success of true-crime and mystery podcasts like “Serial,” “S-Town” and “Missing Richard Simmons,” Jonathan Hirsch’s investigation of his childhood in what might have been a cult seems like promising fodder for another runaway hit. Hirsch’s parents were disciples of the New Age spiritual guru Adi Da—previously known as Bubba Free John, Da Free John and Da Love-Ananda, among other incarnations, and born Franklin Jones in Queens, N.Y., in 1939. Hirsch left the community when he went to college, and in “Dear Franklin Jones” he sets out to answer some questions: Who was Franklin Jones? Was he a spiritual master or a cult leader and sexual abuser? Why did Hirsch’s parents follow him?
Those looking for another suspenseful, Serial-esque drama, however, will likely be disappointed. There are no shocking revelations about Jones or his religious movement that could not be found on Wikipedia. In fact, the podcast is not really about Jones at all, which is for the good because as far as spiritual thinkers go, Jones is not all that interesting. He had an unremarkable, middle-class upbringing on Long Island; he went to college and “lost his religion” upon discovering sexual freedom. After school, he took part in LSD experiments and adopted a cat named Robert who Jones considered to be his own guru. The gospel of Jones amounts to this: The world is unknowable and mysterious, and the only path to happiness is to pledge complete obedience and devotion to, you guessed it, Franklin Jones.
Who was Franklin Jones? Was he a spiritual master or a cult leader and sexual abuser?
The more interesting question is: Why would anyone be willing to follow this man? It can be easy, as a Christian—at least our guy has withheld the test of time!—to smugly dismiss Franklin Jones as a narcissistic, sex-obsessed charlatan and his followers as dupes. While that is almost certainly an accurate assessment of Jones, it is worth taking seriously what drove so many “seekers” away from established religious traditions and into the orbit of charismatic preachers of modern enlightenment in the second half of the 20th century.
For Hirsch’s mother, Kathleen, who was raised in an Irish Catholic home and has mostly unpleasant memories of the nuns who taught her, it was a desire for spiritual communion. “I saw someone who was alive in the divine and was offering me a relationship to come into that,” she says of Jones. If the Christians in Kathleen’s life had seemed more alive in Christ, would she have felt the need to travel from Nepal to California, from guru to guru, looking for meaning? If she had been taught about St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Ávila, would she have turned to a self-anointed god who expected money and sexual favors from his devotees?
After 17 years following Jones, the Hirsch family left the community feeling estranged and disillusioned. Looking back on the experience, Kathleen—who as Jones’s personal acupuncturist saw firsthand the manipulative aspects of his relationships—says: “We can get idealistic sometimes about what a god-man is supposed to be. If he’s a man, he’s still a man.” Jonathan is left to try to understand why his parents would let a man like Franklin Jones into their family—and after seven episodes neither he nor the listener has a very satisfying answer.