The gospel according to John de Ruiter

Once a fundamentalist preacher, John de Ruiter now claims to embody truth, and growing numbers of people believe him. His wife, however, is not among them.

Late last January, not far from Amsterdam‘s red-light district, a shopkeeper placed a poster in his window. I paused for a closer look. It was an advertisement, in English, for a series of spiritual meetings led by an intense-looking man with piercing eyes, long wavy hair, and a beard.

“Core-splitting honesty and absolute surrender have transformed John de Ruiter into consciousness belonging only to Truth,” the sign read in bold letters. “Let John’s wisdom and presence as living, flowing Truth answer the longing inside, end the search. . . . Entrance fee 20 guilders.” At the bottom of the poster, in tiny print, was a phone number with a central Alberta area code.

Everything is available in Amsterdam for a price, including religion. The city is a magnet for those looking for something — or someone — to soothe their aching psyches. Dope is not the only salve. Hare Krishna kids swirl down cobblestone streets, banging drums and tambourines, trolling for new recruits, offering refuge in exchange for compliance. Dozens of freelance gurus pass through each year, peddling their own brands of enlightenment. But gurus with headquarters in Alberta are rare. I decided to investigate.

The meetings were to take place on a small island, a long bus ride from the city’s centre. Getting there wasn’t easy. The island is a yuppie enclave, crowded with modern apartment blocks and fashionable furniture shops. In the middle sits a nautical museum where de Ruiter was set to appear.

I climbed a stairway to the second floor. After paying the equivalent of fourteen dollars, I entered a large room and joined about 300 men and women, most in their forties or older. There was also a small sprinkling of younger, grungy Kurt Cobain look-alikes. A group had just arrived from the airport and their suitcases lay scattered about on the floor. About fifty people were packed together at the front of the hall, inches from a wooden platform. Some reclined on low-slung lawn chairs, while others lay on blankets or snuggled inside sleeping bags.

Wearing pressed slacks and a blue shirt, his shoulder-length blond hair tied back in a ponytail, John de Ruiter slipped into the room. After removing his shoes, he stepped onto the stage, sat down in a swivel chair, and put on a microphone headset. The crowd fell silent. Bathed in a soft yellow light, De Ruiter sat motionless with his hands resting lightly on his thighs, staring straight ahead. Then, almost imperceptibly, he began turning his chair from left to right, and back again, his laser-blue eyes scanning the room. This continued for ten minutes. The hard-core followers at the front gazed up at him, adoringly. Beside me, a woman began to weep.

Ten more minutes passed. Some people closed their eyes. Some began to snore. After about twenty minutes, a volunteer handed a wireless microphone to a woman, who moved to a chair in front of the stage reserved for audience members with questions. The woman looked intently at de Ruiter for a few minutes, and then began to speak. “When I first saw you, three years ago in Bristol, I looked around and thought, ‘What a bunch of weirdos.’ Now I’m lost.” She began to sob. “They were all falling to pieces. I don’t want to fall to pieces. . . . I don’t want to fight any more. . . . Can you help me? . . . I’ve left everything, I don’t really know where to go next. I’m free-flying, but I’m scared. I’m wondering whether you think it would be a good idea to spend a bit more time with you, in Canada?”

De Ruiter stared at her for a long time before responding. “Either there is a very gentle, clear pull to come and be with me, or there is not,” he responded in a halting monotone. “If you cannot honestly know, then do what feels good. . . . When you no longer consult with your mind, when you consult only with what you are, in everything you are doing, then you’ve found the source of life within, which frees us from always having to get something from this life.”

Another woman sitting in the middle of the crowd made a loud retching sound. No one seemed remotely disturbed.

Next, a man with long grey hair took the microphone. “I really don’t have a question,” he began, in a Brooklyn accent. “Who I am is the question. . . . My life is kind of disintegrating. I can’t do anything I did before. . . . I’ve always resisted surrendering to anyone fully, yet I surrender to you. . . . Yet when I do, my life as I know it just falls apart.”

“What you are experiencing,” de Ruiter replied, “is that reality is closing in on you.”

“You haven’t left me anywhere else to go,” stuttered the grey-haired man. “I want to thank you. I love you.”

On it went, three hours a session, twice a day, for three days. The people at the microphone all seemed lost. Invariably their questions betrayed deep uncertainty and despair; they talked of failed marriages, stalled careers. Most mentioned that they weren’t making any progress, even after following de Ruiter for years. This, I would learn, is a common refrain.

Just as invariably, de Ruiter’s responses were cryptic. “When love enters the ring, the fighter falls in love,” he said in one breath, to a chorus of blissful sighs. “I am your awakening, even though you don’t need it.” He never offered specific advice, or explained what he would do once people had “surrendered” to him. He did make it clear, however, that he regarded himself as the most evolved creature in the room, and that he spoke only the “truth.” No one questioned him on these points.

During the sessions, a tall, blonde woman roamed the back of the hall with a worried expression on her face. She seemed to be in charge of collecting the daily receipts. At one point, I overheard her talking anxiously on a cellphone, saying something about “the gate,” and “exchanging the money into marks.” Meanwhile, a volunteer repeatedly reminded us that we were “always invited to come to Edmonton, where John resides.” But why, I wondered, would anyone follow this man, who seemed more like a huckster than an enlightened avatar, all the way to Alberta?

After the meeting, a British man named Jeff DeLay told me that he was preparing to emigrate to Edmonton, “to be with John.” When I asked him later to explain the attraction, he replied, “My heart simply responded to what I most love. It’s most wonderfully, irresistibly, choiceless. I simply love to be sitting at the feet of Truth.”

This cheerful abandonment of reason wasn’t unique. Riding the bus to another meeting in Amsterdam the next day, I talked with a short, stocky man in his fifties, a former hologram artist who had met de Ruiter three years earlier in Hawaii. “I saw a poster of him in a health-food shop, and that was it,” he told me. “I was just drawn to his picture. I met John, and he told me to come to Edmonton. He’s a remarkable man.” I told him I hadn’t quite grasped de Ruiter’s message. “There’s nothing to get,” he replied defensively. “If you’re trying to figure it out, you’ve come to the wrong place.”

Only five years ago, John de Ruiter was still preaching the Christian Gospel to a handful of friends inside a small bungalow he shared with his wife and three children in Edmonton’s east end. But, gradually, his message changed. His references to Jesus stopped as he developed his own peculiar religion, a confusing mix of mysticism, empty rhetoric, and group therapy. He now dismisses critical thought and, aside from his own authority, leaves everything open to question. “If you were to follow me,” he teaches, “all I would teach you and show you is how to be compassionate. . . . You would learn to lay your head down inside, warmly, in the midst of anything. . . . You would always acquiesce. You would never, under any kind of pressure, kick or fuss. . . . Then I would be able to teach you more. Then I could take you to deeper places.” He touts this elusive, self-promoting message in a book, called Unveiling Reality, a series of edited transcripts from his meetings.

De Ruiter claims to want nothing from his acolytes, but he charges money for his lectures, and sells an ever-expanding line of merchandise — his own book, flattering portraits of himself, audio and video tapes. He has managed to cultivate a broad following and is a rising star in the international guru circuit. Several times a year, he flies to cities in Europe, India, and Australia, where he fills auditoriums with hundreds of seekers, most of whom are white, middle-aged, and affluent. Some will leave their lives behind and move to Edmonton, joining approximately 250 full-time devotees from around the planet. Most board with other members. All of them accept that de Ruiter is, as he claims, “the living embodiment of truth.”

It’s difficult to estimate how much de Ruiter is earning from this outlandish claim. His company, Oasis Edmonton Inc., is private, its books closed to public scrutiny. But no matter, his followers adore him. They cook his meals, do his laundry, and buy him gifts. They lie at his feet and kiss his toes. They believe he possesses supernatural powers, that his face transforms into different shapes, that he visits people in their dreams. They even claim he practises “bilocation,” the supposed ability to exist physically in two different places at once.

One place de Ruiter is seldom seen any more is at home. Last year, he left his family. Apart from visits with his children, he now divides his time between his two most attractive apostles, a pair of sisters named Benita and Katrina von Sass. Introduced to de Ruiter by their parents, the sisters take turns accompanying the guru on his travels. When de Ruiter visited Amsterdam, Katrina, a twenty-nine-year-old former star of Canada’s Olympic volleyball team, was on his arm. She was the tall woman whom I saw talking on the cellphone and collecting receipts.

The guru’s wife flinches when I mention the von Sass girls. Blue-eyed and blonde, Joyce de Ruiter could pass as their older sister. We’re sitting in a busy Edmonton coffee shop. It’s been more than a year since de Ruiter effectively admitted to Joyce what she already suspected, that he was cheating on her, that he was not the faithful husband he claimed to be. When she took the information to a meeting of his followers, revealing to all that their spiritual teacher was sleeping with two disciples, neither de Ruiter nor his followers were moved to do anything about it. For Joyce, it was painful but cathartic. An eighteen-year marriage was over.

From the first time she laid eyes on him in 1981, Joyce thought John de Ruiter was “different.” She was nineteen, and working in a Christian bookstore in Edmonton. John repaired shoes in a shop down the street. One day, he walked into her store. Joyce fell for him immediately. He was a good-looking, polite man with serious, intense eyes. “That’s the man I’m going to marry,” she said to herself. When he bought a book by an author she admired, Joyce took it as “confirmation” that he was ideal.

John started coming to the store almost daily, ordering out-of-print books by obscure Christian writers. Joyce was impressed. “He had such a hunger for God,” she says. “He was the definition of a man. He set the standard for integrity, masculinity, and strength.”

Raised in Stettler, a ranching community in central Alberta, John was brought up a Roman Catholic by Dutch immigrant parents. At seventeen, he experienced an ecstatic but fleeting awakening, which he later described as an “awareness of reality . . . joy, love, and deep, inner rest.” He spent the next decade trying to recreate that sensation. “I began to strive and search intensely through many different means, relentlessly pursuing anything I believed might show me the way back,” he explains in his book of teachings. For about five months, he had lived on the streets, penniless, sleeping in churchyards and eating from dumpsters.

While Joyce thought John’s stories strange, she figured that by the time they met, his days as an ascetic were behind him. His intention, he said, was to become a pastor. They married in 1982. A year later, they moved to Toronto, where they both attended a downtown Baptist seminary. But they were soon put off by the leadership; they both felt it was too rigid. They completed one year of studies and then returned to Alberta, enrolling in the Prairie Bible Institute in Three Hills. After another year there, John decided that he didn’t need any more academic training. “He thought he’d get more learning on his own and interning with a pastor,” Joyce says. “That’s when everything started.”

The couple joined Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Edmonton, where Joyce’s sister and brother-in-law, Hetty and Bob Emmerzael, were members of the congregation. Singing and open rejoicing were part of regular worship at Bethlehem, and they both felt comfortable there. Bethlehem’s pastor occasionally allowed John to preach, but words often failed him. On one occasion, he stood in the pulpit, wept, and said, over and over again, “God wants to set you free.” On another, he stayed up all night, Joyce says, “waiting on God for a sermon. He called the pastor and said, ‘There’s nothing, there’s still nothing.’ On Sunday morning he went up to the pulpit and just said, ‘There’s no word. God has no word for you.’”

In 1984, he decided to undertake a rite of passage: reciting his spiritual history to the church’s elders. This was unusual; members of Bethlehem often waited years before they felt the need to deliver their “testimony.” John talked for an unprecedented nine hours, recalling the story of his “awakening” and his search for reality and truth. His speech nonplussed many in the congregation, but it made a lasting impression on Bob Emmerzael. “[Bob] says that something moved within him, and he [believed he] was hearing the truth for the first time,” Joyce explains.

Soon afterward, Bob became John’s first devotee. The two men began spending hours alone together, meeting about four times every week and staying up until four or five in the morning. They would often fall asleep in John’s van. Joyce and Hetty were always excluded. “It was spooky and weird,” Joyce says. “They couldn’t really describe what they were doing. It was always told to us that they were doing ‘Kingdom of God’ stuff. I loved my husband, but that was the first thing I didn’t like, even though I had to accept it: this was God’s stuff.”

John left Bethlehem Lutheran in the late 1980s, taking five couples with him, including Bob and Hetty. Every Friday night, they gathered at the Emmerzaels’ and listened to John preach. Although he read from the Bible and made Christian references, his interpretations were unconventional. “He talked about death,” says Joyce. “It was about being willing to lose your ego, your emotions, your desires, your ideas, your beliefs. Drop all that, and come to a pure place. It was the way Jesus really taught, or so he led us to believe. John would embellish that place to make it sound beautiful.”

Sometimes, Joyce says, Bob would writhe on the floor and make orgasmic sounds. “We would all just sort of watch this,” she recalls. “I think we were told that he was exorcising the demons of other people. He was manifesting other people’s shit.”

The meetings moved to Sundays at the de Ruiters’ house. Over the next few years, while still acknowledging Christ, John became increasingly critical of organized Christianity, calling it “Satan’s masterpiece.” The group gradually stopped praying and singing. Then John stopped teaching. “There was a year or two when absolutely nothing happened in these meetings,” Joyce says. “It was called a ‘sifting time.’ We were all supposed to be okay with the fact that we were getting no teaching. We would either sit in silence or we would socialize and tell jokes.”

All the couples tithed, giving John a portion of their income so that he could devote himself full-time to his oddball ministry. Even then, Joyce says, she was uncomfortable with the arrangement. “I didn’t really see him doing a whole lot to earn it,” she says. “He was supposed to be studying during the week but he slept a lot and piddled around with other things.” At one point, she stopped attending the meetings, but that was short-lived. After all, they were held in her house, attended by her friends, overseen by her husband. They were entwined with her life.

In 1993, John met a boisterous woman named Boots Beaudry, a reflexologist with a deep interest in metaphysics. For almost an entire year, John spent about four to six hours a day with her at her clinic, picking up new practices. He started “connecting” with people. “I remember him coming home and sitting at the kitchen table,” says Joyce. “He’d say, ‘Look at me; see what happens.’ He tried it with our oldest son, who was about eight at the time. John would sit on his bunk bed and instruct him to look into his eyes. Our son said, ‘It worked! I saw faces!’”

When his meetings moved to a New Age bookstore on Edmonton’s south side, de Ruiter’s reputation quickly spread. Within months, more space was required for his followers. They assembled in Beaudry’s reflexology clinic until a larger, permanent location was found, next to a doughnut shop in a drab industrial park.

It was here that de Ruiter began to perfect his trademark techniques. “I remember sitting in those meetings so many times, listening to a questioner, and watching John pick apart their life, or their identity,” Joyce says. “Let’s say they ran a charitable organization. Perhaps it was very genuine. He would take it apart, so that it was all about them, their own self-esteem and personal agenda. And you would just see them completely fall apart. That happened repeatedly. He would just completely undo people.”

Dr. Stephen Kent is a sociology professor at the University of Alberta who studies alternative religions. He once had coffee with de Ruiter, and attended several of his meetings at the industrial park. “I think I was seen as a potential recruit,” he says. In fact, Kent’s interest was strictly professional; he was curious to see how de Ruiter operated.

“John’s message is not scientific or sophisticated,” Kent says, “[but he attracts] people with significant emotional problems, trouble with sexuality, violence, loneliness, and so on. The danger is that they will reveal deep personal issues to a leader without any mental-health training. John is not sufficiently skilled to handle a lot of those issues.”

Many of de Ruiter’s followers, Kent says, “are disappointed by the way the world has unfolded. For years they’ve been reading New Age and spiritual material. Rational arguments often don’t reach these kinds of followers. They can project onto John what they know and what they need. Silence is the perfect vehicle for that projection.”

Some have likened de Ruiter to a hypnotist who uses the power of suggestion to exploit his audience’s susceptibility. But Kent feels there are other elements to what de Ruiter does that are more disturbing. “Many of John’s behaviours are narcissistic,” he says. “He revels in the attention of others, he claims supernatural powers, and he claims to know the truth while insisting he can help others find it.” His followers have crossed “a crucial barrier,” he adds. “They have attributed to him a status beyond human.”

Even those no longer associated with the group insist they’ve witnessed phenomena in his presence. David Smith (not his real name), a fifty-two-year-old man from British Columbia, used to attend meetings with his female partner. “Most of the people there seemed sort of damaged,” Smith says. “I couldn’t stand it after a while.” But his initial encounters with de Ruiter amazed him. “I saw visions. John’s face transformed. I saw a baby, an Indian chief, Buddha. I saw Christ with golden tears coming out of his eyes. We went through galaxies together.”

In 1997, John told Joyce about a couple he’d just met, who lived in Calgary but who owned a retreat centre near Edmonton. Peter and Ilona von Sass have money and influence. They have a history of attaching themselves to spiritual teachers. They have daughters. “Immediately, John just let this family right in,” Joyce says. “He gave himself to them.”

Susan Scott (not her real name) was a close friend of the von Sass family, and a fellow seeker. Peter and Ilona, she says, were always eager to curry favour with self-styled spiritual leaders. Between 1988 and 1996, the von Sasses devoted themselves to a Hungarian guru named Imre Vallyon. He ran something called the Foundation for Higher Learning from a retreat centre called River Lodge, which the von Sasses had helped find near Stony Plain, Alberta. Ilona was devoted to Imre, Scott says. “But then her husband, Peter, had some kind of falling out with him, and Imre asked them to leave the group. My husband and I left with them.” Peter ended up in control of River Lodge.

About a year later, the von Sasses heard about de Ruiter. The two couples went to their first meeting together. “I was really impressed,” says Scott. “He was such a humble man. He would just look at you and there was this energy. I was on cloud nine. For a week after, I didn’t need to sleep or eat. So of course I was hooked.”

Ilona was also excited. She asked de Ruiter if he would lead a retreat at River Lodge, and he agreed. “Then she invited him to Calgary and organized a session and invited everyone she knew,” says Scott. Peter was less enthusiastic. “He was quite angry. Peter didn’t matter any more. I guess the only reason he came at all [to meetings] was because he loved his wife.”

John also began spending hours alone every day with the von Sasses’ eldest daughter, Benita. Now in her mid-thirties, the former model has long, blonde hair, a pale complexion, prominent cheekbones, and a slightly regal bearing. Like her parents, she instantly became a devotee.

When John first started travelling to Calgary for his meetings, he stayed overnight with Peter and Ilona. After six or seven trips, he began staying with Benita. When Benita moved to Edmonton, recalls Joyce, John spent many late nights in her home. Naturally, she felt threatened. “I didn’t like her,” she says. “I found her controlling. But John said she had this amazing heart. So I just tried to accept this. I considered it a big test from God.” A few months later, Benita’s sister Katrina arrived from Europe, where she’d been playing professional volleyball. Her mother had sent her a picture of John, and something in the picture grabbed her attention. Needing a place to stay, Katrina moved into the de Ruiters’ basement.

On nights he was not visiting Benita, John would stay at home with his new boarder. They’d watch movies and talk late into the night. Joyce sometimes begged him to come to bed, but says she was always rebuked. John told her that Benita and Katrina were “disciples,” and insisted his relationship with them wasn’t personal or emotional. But John was spending less and less time with his wife and more and more time with the von Sasses. “I’m quite sure it’s because he wanted someone to help his image, not hinder it,” Joyce says.

It was thanks in part to Ilona von Sass’s efforts that de Ruiter’s influence began to spread beyond Edmonton. She helped to organize four-day retreats at River Lodge and booked appearances for him in Calgary. Positive stories about him appeared in The Edmonton Journal and the Calgary Herald religion sections. “I love the truth more than my own life,” he told a reporter in 1997. “At the heart of truth there is no interest in power. There is just the love of being. I’m not my own. I belong to the truth.”

De Ruiter was soon travelling to Vancouver and Toronto, and then Colorado and Hawaii, tapping into New Age communities there. In Maui, he attracted the attention of Jeanne Parr, a well-known former news correspondent and TV talk-show host with cbs. Despite a tough, no-nonsense personality, Parr has had a life-long interest in spirituality. De Ruiter, she says, impressed her. “He had the ability to communicate higher consciousness better than anyone I’ve ever known,” she says. Letting go of “false pride” and the need to control was a message she found particularly compelling. “I had to confront myself on levels that most people never do,” she explains.

Parr decided to move to Edmonton, and rented an apartment downtown. “I was interested [in his philosophy], and I wanted to get stock footage for a documentary I planned on doing about master teachers,” says Parr. “After being with John for several months I decided the documentary would [focus] only on him. So many of these gurus get into power, money, or sex. . . . He had this lovely wife and children. Everything seemed very clean.”

Parr’s son, the TV actor Chris Noth (Law & Order, Sex and the City) paid a number of visits to Edmonton and became interested in de Ruiter as well. According to several observers, de Ruiter treated his two celebrity followers like royalty. “[Parr and Noth] knew a lot of people,” says one observer. “[Parr] mainly did a lot of videotaping, following him on trips to show that he did have followers all around the world. [She] videotaped several of his meetings and he used them to sell to people, for the group’s income purposes.” Parr also introduced him to some acquaintances in New York, including Carl Mindell, a psychiatrist, and his wife Pearl, a psychologist. The Mindells would soon give up their practices and move to Edmonton.

“John didn’t have any education, he had long hippie hair, he was kind of a bumpkin,” says one close observer. Parr advised de Ruiter on his wardrobe, which had consisted mainly of jeans and T-shirts. She told him that to be taken seriously, he would have to tie his hair back.

“People started to spoil him and buy him expensive clothes,” Susan Scott says, adding that more than his appearance changed. “In the beginning, we’d take him out to dinner, and he was so humble that he didn’t want to order. Then after a while, when he went out he would ask for cigars or cigarettes.” His hobbies moved from simple pleasures such as backpacking to power sports, recalls Joyce. “He had to have bigger and better boats. He’d go four-wheeling.”

More followers were contributing money. “There were quite a few families who chipped in,” says Susan Scott. She and her husband gave him $300 a month. De Ruiter had visions of buying property near Edmonton’s airport, putting up housing for his followers and building a massive cathedral. In 1998, he registered a corporation, 790034 Alberta Inc., with himself as sole director. He and Joyce bought a new house, and hosted parties for the group.

But their marriage was becoming bleak. De Ruiter continued to distance himself from his wife. “Living in a moral code or moral structure is the elimination of love,” he told his followers. “When you begin with a really wonderful marriage, a nice marriage, a good marriage, then you have an illusion that it is actually good. . . . When a marriage starts out rotten, your eyes are open and you can see. That is a wonderful start for a marriage.”

In late November, 1999, Joyce says, de Ruiter dropped a bombshell. “We were sitting around the kitchen smoking cigarettes,” she says. “He was talking about my ‘death.’ He acknowledged that I had gone through a lot of dying, which was a good thing. I had let go of ninety-five percent of the life that I had to let go of. But he said I wasn’t letting myself go completely. He suggested that my ultimate death would be if he took on two more wives.”

Joyce says she thought he was joking. He wasn’t. He brought up the matter a second time, and asked Joyce if she thought his three wives could live in the same house. It was obvious to her that he meant the von Sass sisters, but he wouldn’t say any more.

Joyce phoned Ilona von Sass. “I asked her if she knew about this,” Joyce says. “She said that she did. But she also said that we didn’t know what ‘wives’ meant. She thought it might mean some incredibly close discipleship. She said that she’d had many sleepless nights about it, but if what [her daughters] were doing was the truth, then we had to accept it. I also asked my best friend at the time, and she looked at me with sad eyes and said, ‘Just let go.’ “

The following Saturday, Joyce says she woke her husband from a pre-meeting nap. “When are you going to tell me what ‘wives’ are?” she asked. He finally answered. “Wives are just like you, Joyce,” he said. “A complete physical, emotional, and sexual relationship, just like you.” That, Joyce says, “was when reality hit.”

She hadn’t planned on speaking out at the meeting that day. “I was determined to keep quiet,” she says. Then someone took the chair and asked if it was ever “true to lie.” De Ruiter was quiet for a long time. “It’s true to say what you know,” he finally said.

“I remember sitting there and thinking it was a bullshit answer,” Joyce says. She angrily stomped out of the room and ran into Jeanne Parr, who asked what was wrong. Joyce explained everything. Parr told her to go back inside, take the chair, and confront her husband. “Shaking like crazy, I did it. I said, ‘John, you just told me you’re taking two more wives. There’s people from all over the world here, and nobody knows you.’ ” Mild shock rippled through the crowd. Like other gurus before him — Maharishi Yogi, Swami Muktananda, Rajneesh, to name just a few — John stood accused of satisfying himself sexually with members of his flock.

At first, de Ruiter said little. Then, over the next few meetings, he explained that his relationship with Benita and Katrina had nothing to do with “their looks, their appearance, their heart, their age. It didn’t have anything to do with any kind of compatibility; it had only to do with what arose from within my innermost.” It was, he insisted, based on the “truth. . . . Regardless of what it would cost me, and regardless of what that would cost others. . . . With Benita that took place, and with Katrina that took place. . . . No one is to be pitied.”

Parr wasn’t buying it. At one meeting, she took the microphone and blasted de Ruiter for the way he was treating Joyce. “For you it’s truth,” she thundered, “and for anyone else it would be something else called, you know the word, adultery.”

“I live being in love with her and cherishing her,” John insisted.

“She doesn’t know it.”

“Yes, she does.”

Afew weeks later, Parr packed her bags and flew home. “I miss John,” she says now. “I miss his teachings on higher consciousness. They are beautiful, but I can’t sweep his behaviour — what he’s done to his family — under the carpet.”

Her plans to produce a documentary on his life have been shelved. But de Ruiter’s following is more committed than ever. At least 200 people show up four times a week for his Edmonton meetings. He continues to travel the planet, spreading his curious message to wide-eyed baby boomers. The von Sass family remains in the fold. Recently, a third von Sass sister, Carola, has moved to Edmonton, and occassionally attends de Ruiter’s meetings.

Carl and Pearl Mindell, the psychiatrist and psychologist duo from New York, are still in Edmonton. “I think he’s the most powerful spiritual teacher I’ve ever seen,” Carl told The Edmonton Journal. “I’ve been a psychiatrist for thirty years, and I think I’m in full control of my faculties.”

Perhaps. But at the University of Alberta, Stephen Kent has received a number of telephone calls from the parents and friends of group members. They are worried that their loved ones have entered a mind-bending cult. Kent fears that some of de Ruiter’s followers have “lost the ability to make informed decisions about their own lives.”

David Smith’s partner refuses to leave Edmonton and return home to British Columbia. “Her personality has changed,” says Smith. “It’s impossible to communicate with her. She’s just gone. There’s no spark, no spontaneity. It’s John, John, John, all the time.” She holds down three jobs, Smith says, and lives in a house with ten other followers. She pays $280 a month in rent. De Ruiter and his brother-in-law Bob own the house.

Meanwhile, de Ruiter has become more guarded than ever about his affairs. He remains his company’s sole director. Now called Oasis Edmonton Inc., the company insists followers who take his photograph hand their film over for development “in order to determine that all images are appropriately representative of John for the general public. . . . Any negatives deemed unsuitable by Oasis [are] permanently marked, so that they not be copied.”

In Amsterdam, I approached de Ruiter and asked him for an interview. He gave me his laser stare and said nothing. I asked him how he had managed to build an international following so quickly. No response. I asked if being “the embodiment of truth” wasn’t an impossible undertaking. “We’re all human,” I blurted. He slowly shook his head. Finally, he told me to send him an e-mail. “Tell me what you’re interested in and I’ll think about it.” Back in Canada a few days later, I followed his instructions. He never replied. I did, however, receive a letter from his lawyers, warning me to back off.

Joyce isn’t surprised. “Silence,” she says, “is John’s specialty.” These days, he’s especially wary of the press. Even Joyce has been warned about talking to reporters. She’s aware of the irony. “What happened to telling the truth?” she asks, bitterly.

She is currently seeking full custody of their children. She has a part-time job, and was seeing a counsellor for a time. She has her happy moments, but, like Parr, she misses de Ruiter. “He came by the house once to pick something up and I asked him, ‘What ever happened to being faithful?’ And he said, ‘I am faithful to you.’ I’m so used to believing him that for a split second, I thought, ‘Yes, you are. This is all my problem.’ ” Then she caught herself.

She hopes that John will leave the messiah business but wonders if he will ever lead a normal life. “It’s too bad,” she says. “He was a good husband, in the beginning.”

Since making public her allegations of de Ruiter’s infidelity, Joyce has lost most of her friends. “I was convinced that everybody would say, ‘Okay, he’s a fake, this is not spirituality, this is not the truth,’” she says. “At this point, I guess he can do anything.”

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