BOOK REVIEW / Son bathed in astral light: 'My Father's Guru' - Jeffrey Masson: HarperCollins, 16.99

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The Independent Culture
ANYONE aware of Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson's various incarnations - debunker of psychoanalysis; plaintiff in a libel suit against Janet Malcolm and the New Yorker magazine; reformed womaniser, now engaged to marry a radical feminist legal scholar - will be curious about this little memoir, subtitled 'A Journey through Spirituality and Disillusion'.

Masson's new book opens, fittingly, in Hollywood. ' 'P B, why is it that you don't drive a car?' I asked Paul Brunton, my father's guru. He smiled, somewhat mysteriously, and waited for a rather long time before answering. The smile conveyed to me that he was remembering times long past, that there were things he could not yet tell me . . . I was perhaps 10, he was about 50. 'Jeffrey, on Venus there are no cars.' '

When Jeffrey Masson was four years old, his father, an affluent Jewish gem merchant, had installed the otherworldly Brunton at the centre of family life. Brunton had written numerous popular books on Indian mysticism by the time Masson's father became a disciple. For the next 20 years Masson pere supported Brunton financially, disastrously consulted him on numerous practical matters, and followed his goofy spiritual teachings with cheerful zeal. The story is set in southern California, Hawaii, Arizona, Uruguay: sites sufficiently isolated or tolerant of eccentricity to leave intact the parallel universe of bizarre domestic routine which Masson describes in chagrined but loving detail.

Masson now feels too affectionate toward both his father and the guru to indict them; like the genial narrator of a documentary film, he rummages through stacks of letters and diaries, chatting us along. Endearingly ditzy, the tale doubles back, changes direction in the middle of a sentence - was it dictated into a tape machine? The lined-up people in photographs are routinely mislabelled, as if by slips of the tongue. The effect is highly entertaining.

Apparently, Masson intended something else: a work of social criticism in the lineage of his The Assault on Truth: Freud and Child Sexual Abuse. But disenchantment with psychoanalysis has left him in conceptual free-fall. Bits of information and insight bob around in the warm fluency of Masson's recollection; now and then a troubling fact catches his eye and gets a second look, but his evaluations lack conviction.

Particularly disorientated are his efforts to comprehend his own sexual development. Brunton preached sexual abstinence, so sex went underground in the household, and Masson, citing dim but exciting memories, thinks he must have been sexually abused as a child. Yet he cannot make the case persuasive to himself: 'As I look back . . . from the vantage point of having written about the sexual abuse of children, I know this was unmistakably sexual exploitation. But I cannot remember feeling anything other than sexually aroused, and thrilled . . . 'Fixation' is not

a conception I favour, but I can see how a cer-

tain attachment to secrecy and surreptitiousness

developed from this early experience . . . Perhaps, too, though unlikely, I am misremembering. This is, not unexpectedly, what my mother thinks . . .'

Equally pregnant with psychoanalytic implications is Masson's account of the guru's promotion of a view that the son was a more highly evolved being than the father and fated to become 'a spiritual leader'. Nothing in later life could compare with his childish faith that he was being prepared for astral projection. Masson hesitantly labels this his 'family romance' (Freud's term for the common childhood fantasy that one is actually of noble birth), then lets the matter drop. But the diagnosis sounds right. Masson's defining character trait as a public figure, a sometimes foolish self-confidence in spilling his and other peoples' beans, has to have some consistency with early development. However, his memoir swerves from such self-analysis, focusing instead on

the way his thrilling secret influenced what to external eyes would have seemed a normal, albeit

privileged, boyhood.

Masson's relationship with Brunton ended dramatically at a family dinner during a vacation from Harvard, where he was studying Sanskrit. Masson ridiculed Brunton's fraudulent claims to scholarship, and goaded his father's guru into faking a levitation. Unfazed, his parents rebuked him for rudeness. Eventually, Masson pere arrived at his own, affectionate disengagement from P B 's teachings, but retained a benign regard for the man. It seems that, at the age of 51, Jeffrey Masson has finally become this father's son. Arrayed like the pearls, cats'-eyes and sapphires that furnished a livelihood to his Moussaieff ancestors are the nuggets of memory Masson has salvaged from this outlandish upbringing, offered here as a birthday present to his father at 80.