If you watched Wild Wild Country, the Netflix documentary on the Rajneeshees, binge listened to the Heaven’s Gate podcast, and now find yourself with a cult-shaped hole in your heart, don’t join an actual cult: Download the entire season of Dear Franklin Jones.
In the show, Jonathan Hirsch looks back at his childhood spent in the community of the controversial spiritual leader Franklin Jones, whom his parents followed. Jones, who in the great cult leader tradition had several names, including Adi Da (you can still check out his website), was an American spiritual teacher whose teachings on enlightenment earned him a following in California in the 1970s and ’80s. His devoted followers subscribed to his teachings on love and freedom and happily handed over enough of their wealth to help him buy an island in French Polynesia. Later, some of his followers would accuse him of brainwashing, false imprisonment, and sexual assault. But for Hirsch, he was almost a second father.
That makes telling the story of Franklin Jones complicated. While Hirsch has been a podcaster for a while (his earlier show Arrvls is definitely worth checking out), he waited to feel ready to delve into his childhood experiences.
“There are a couple of reasons I felt now was the time to make Dear Franklin Jones,“says Hirsch. “The chief reason being that I’d been walking around with a story to tell my whole life. It’s a bit of a time bomb holding all of those unresolved feelings inside.
“I also knew sooner than later my wife and I would want to have children, and I still felt so unclear about what my childhood meant to me. It felt like something I needed to sort out before becoming a parent myself. And in a way, Franklin Jones was a second parent to me. To understand what it meant, to be raised the way I was raised, meant understanding the role Franklin Jones played in mine and my parents’ lives.”
Like many Americans of their generation, Hirsch’s parents were looking for spiritual guidance. They found it in Jones’s teachings of love and personal freedom. When they married and had their son, they raised him in the community, but Hirsch didn’t join Jones’s following until when he was older and could make the decision for himself. His parents eventually made it into Jones’s trusted inner circle, but due to behind-the-scenes machinations they still don’t seem to fully understand, they were pushed out.
His parents were abruptly left without a spiritual leader, abandoned by many of their friends, and suddenly without a community. For Hirsch, it was a very adult life lesson. Through interviews with his parents and former and current followers of Jones’s teachings, Hirsch explores those learnings through his childhood memories and his feelings about Jones, and grapples with the idea of whether or not he was actually in a cult, a word he seems to struggle with throughout the show.
Making Dear Franklin Jones was an emotional journey for Hirsch, but not just because it was a trip down memory lane. While he worked on the show, he learned that he was going to be a father, which made him rethink much of his own childhood. “It’s something that completely transformed how I saw my parents in this journey,” explains Hirsch. “They wanted the best for their son, even if at times they had a hard time figuring out what the best was. It made me wonder what I would do if I were in their position. It’s a question I didn’t exactly ask myself until I knew I’d be a parent myself.”
The show is now completed, his child has been born, and Hirsch is ready to move forward with new chapters, personally and professionally. However, he hopes that people will listen to his story and learn from it, too. “I hope people will see how they might have found themselves in similar situations as my parents did. I hope they will see the brilliant optimism that drew them to seek out an experience that was bigger than them, something transcendent,” says Hirsch.
“Dear Franklin Jones is not quite a cautionary tale; it’s a story about the mistakes we all make along the way. The ideas we try to will into being, especially the very big ones that might simply not work. I hope too that people will feel compassion and understanding for the followers of Franklin Jones—they are no different than you or I. They lived in what they felt to be their truth.” Listen here.