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Holy hell and harrowing heartbreak: How Austinite Radhia Gleis survived the Buddhafield cult

Radhia Gleis bore the tales of Buddhafield life in her book, "The Followers," and the documentary, "Holy Hell." (Holy Hell)

Radhia Gleis never meant to join a cult—in fact, she didn't even know she was part of one until decades after she had joined—and she's still picking up the pieces that her departure left behind.

Although it was Buddhafield, a movement that has been called a cult by a host of ex-followers, that brought Gleis to the Hill Country, the group's Austin presence has diminished to almost nothing. After over two decades in the group, Gleis revealed it all in her first-place PenCraft award-winning book, "The Followers, 'Holy Hell' and the Disciples of Narcissistic Leaders" in which she talks about the dangers of groupthink and the impact that spending years in the Buddhafield cult had on her.

Gleis now works as a clinical nutritionist and is working on healing through her art. (

From a "well-to-do" family in California, Gleis was learning how to make cocktails for wealthy dinner guests shortly after she learned how to walk. She grew up emotionally distant from her parents and only brother; Gleis vividly remembered being called "dopey" by her father, consistently forgotten by her mother and held at knifepoint by her brother.

Needless to say, Gleis grew up without secure connections. On top of that, she grew up in the 1960s and '70s during mass cultural upheaval, the free love movement and obsession with Eastern religions.

"There were these desires to expand your thinking, expand your consciousness as opposed to the 'Leave it to Beaver' kind of paradigm," Gleis told Austonia. "There was a rebellion, a schism in the culture."

She had become interested in the idea of nirvana when she was in high school, so when a friend told her about spirituality sessions with a beautiful woman named Malila who claimed to have experienced God directly, her interest was piqued.

Her experiences with Malila threw her into the spiritual realm. Gleis met Jaime Gomez, the would-be leader of the Buddhafield cult who went by many names, in the early 1980s through a friend of Malila's in California. Gomez, a native of Venezuela, was known to often wear only eyeliner and a speedo in his prime and when Gleis met him, he was clad only in a golden tan, skin-tight jeans and a small vest.

The Shakti scam

Gomez originally began guiding members through an independent spiritual journey but flags were raised when he began to see himself as a godlike figure. (WRA Productions LLC)

Her initiation was subtle—it started as just a group of friends who followed Gomez, a young yogi with a small but growing following, to learn techniques of "The Knowing" that he possessed. Members were initiated via "shakti," a godly transfer of power that opened your third eye. Members would "pranam," or deeply bow to show respect, to God during the first four years of Gleis' time with Gomez.

The initiation started as a relationship between the individual and their "divine birthright" through God.

"Generations were trying to get Shakti from him, they were trying to get his energy," Gleis said. "He was like, 'Whatever you experience in your initiation is between you and God, it has nothing to do with me.'"

Things started to change at the next initiation when Gomez had new members pranam to him and connect to his love, not the divine love they had come seeking.

"He would say, 'Well, Radhia, some people, not you, need a living person they can touch and see and talk to, I am just being that for them,'" Gleis said. "So he considered himself now a living deity like Jesus or Krishna or Buddha."

Although she did not support the pranam to Gomez, the shift was harrowing. While Gomez was a "skilled sociopath," Gleis said, he was also her friend and she was his close adviser; he knew all of her' hopes, dreams, fears and how to keep her around.

"If you go to Disneyland, it's a fantasy, but you're willing to forgo your disbelief for the fun, for the ride," Gleis said. "But what if you don't know it's fake? What if all your friends and all your family are in on it? And the one person that you revere the most is creating the illusion?"

It would take years for Gleis to learn Gomez was secretly taking advantage of members in the group.

The domino effect

Life inside Buddhafield's compound was well-documented by Will Allen, who made the documentary "Holy Hell" years after leaving. (WRA Productions LLC)

The Buddhafield waltzed into Austin from West Hollywood in the late '90s after accusations against Gomez came out, Gleis would later learn. She found out that later that multiple members alleged that Gomez sexually abused them, and it was a pattern of his to jump ship and change his name once people started speaking out.

There were a few reasons the group chose Austin: their new home had to be in a warm climate, near a body of water, full of rich culture and jobs.

Having been in the cult for over a decade, the Austin move had triggered a need to build a life outside Buddhafield for Gleis. The connections she made outside the "family" she had made for herself led her to visit the home of an injured member of Buddhafield, where she says she was greeted by two men who told her tales of Gomez's transgressions.

Tales of Gomez attempting to hypnotize male members of the group into removing their clothes, which Gomez would deny, and his penchant for using the AIDS crisis to scare members into silence came to light. It was a feat in and of itself to tell a single soul about the things the victims had experienced, let alone make formal charges.

Among the victims was Will Allen, who released the documentary "Holy Hell," made from hours of his own original footage, in 2016 to detail his experiences.

The women in the group were untouched to Gleis' knowledge and some of the victims took years to gain the courage to speak out.

"Now it was like dominoes, it was like this was our #MeToo movement. When this guy came out, now all of a sudden, I'm getting phone calls because the rumors spread," Gleis said. "It was very heartbreaking—I started hearing all these stories of what (Gomez) had done and all the secrets that all of these men had been holding, these traumas that they had been holding in for years."

That was her line in the sand—so, at 55 years old, Gleis left Buddhafield, "alone and forsaken." And she has learned a good deal about herself since then—she works as a clinical nutritionist but left all of her friends behind, with no one to fall on but herself.

It has been 15 years since her departure—15 years to ponder how she was manipulated into that place. Gleis often compares those two decades of her life to Trumpism, where Gomez had tapped into her preconceived notions and led her to believe what she wanted to believe.

As someone who grew up not knowing love, it made sense to jump headfirst into the sense of community and protection that Buddhafield offered.

"We have to be careful when we use words like 'brainwashed.' We went willingly. Jaime didn't torture us. He didn't brainwash us," Gleis said. "All he did as a narcissist—he figured out what we were all thinking about and he became that for us. When you pranam to him, which we did, then he becomes bolder. That's what a sociopath does."

Gleis details her story of what led her in and out of Buddhafield in her book, "The Followers." Gomez and certain members who are still connected to Buddhafield have moved on to Hawai'i, but Gleis remains in Austin and is currently working on a children's novella.

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Tito's releases (not so?) ugly sweater line for the holidays, profits to charity

Tito's Handmade Vodka

Show your love for Tito's and for the community this year with a wide selection of not that ugly, uglyish, ugly, uglier, and ugliest holiday sweaters.

There's lots choose from, and plenty of accessories like scarves and socks, plus gear for your dog, too.

All of the items can be purchased online or at the Love, Tito’s Retail Store in Austin, TX. 100% of all net proceeds from online or in-store purchases go to one of the nonprofits we’ve teamed up with.

Click here to see the entire collection in the Tito's store.

Mac and Cheese Fest and Free Art Exhibit
Waterloo Greenway, Good Vibrations Installation

🗓 All weekend

🎨 Creek Show Art Exhibit

Check out this highly anticipated art exhibition with illuminated art along Waller Creek. Tickets are free and the event includes food vendors, dazzling lights, live music, and hands-on activities

All weekend 6 p.m - 10 p.m | 📍Waterloo Park

✨ Mozart's Light Show

This iconic holiday tradition lights up for the first time this holiday season starting this weekend! Reserve your spot for an enchanting light and sound performance, delicious hot cocoa, sweet treats, and some overall fun with your friends or family. The show runs till January 6th.

6 p.m and 9 p.m | 📍Mozart's Coffee Roasters - 3825 Lake Austin Blvd, Austin, TX 78703

🗓 Saturday

🥊 Kickboxing in the Park

This fitness event is free and open to the public. Get your morning started right with a "Fitness in the park" class for kickboxing! The class will be led by certified instructors and is a great way to get a cardio workout in while also honing your self-defense skills.

10 a.m - 11 a.m | 📍 Metz Park

🛍 The Front Market

Support local LBGTQ+ and female artists at this outdoor market with over 150 vendors. Get your holiday shopping out of the way at this event, with vendors for food trucks, handmade goods, raffles, hands on workshops and activities, and more.

11 a.m - 5 p.m | 📍Ani's Day and Night - 7107 E Riverside Drive, Austin, TX 78741

🗓 Sunday

🧀 Mac and Cheese Fest

Did someone say cheese?! If you're like me and always willing to get your hands on a bowl of mac and cheese, then this event is for you. Check out the Mac and Cheese festival happening this weekend to decide which vendor has. the best mac and cheese for yourself, and enjoy the bar with creative cocktails while you're at it. Tickets start at $45.

11 a.m - 3 p.m | 📍Lantana Place - 7415 Southwest Parkway