Children of Om 

How one family grapples with the painful legacy of an abusive cult.

Where do old cult leaders go to grow old and die? Where do they end up when their warped charisma hasn't reached the infamy of a Manson or a Moon -- when their following doesn't end in the grim swell of bloated bodies from mass suicide, but simply fizzles out?

Apparently, they stay in Berkeley and play tennis.

Richard Thorne, born William Brumfield, aka "Om, Highest of the High, Greatest of the Great, All Power, All Knowledge and Beyond," gets up most mornings before dawn to prepare for his day, which most likely begins with him reaching for some neatly folded, crisp tennis whites, and inspecting them for any visible signs of lint or dirt. A fit, well-groomed body is a holy body.

Om then exits the old school bus on which he lives -- one of four sometimes parked outside the Ashby BART station -- and heads for the tennis court. While he is exercising, his ragtag band of remaining followers prepares for another day distributing Shaman's Smoking Blend -- an herbal tobacco substitute -- to various shops along Telegraph Avenue.

Thorne's "Om Lovers" cult was at its peak in the early 1970s when, according to former members, his followers took to the streets to collect alms, sell off the possessions of new members, or otherwise hustle their way through the day.

But that is the least of the accusations against Thorne. Last year, a woman named Cybele Ornelas, whose family once belonged to Om Lovers, filed a police report alleging that a quarter-century earlier, Thorne repeatedly raped her and forced her to perform oral sex as a fourteen-year-old child. Two of Cybele's brothers allege that other cult members subjected them to similar abuses as minors.

Where do these cult children go when they grow up? Where do they end up when the stories of their fractured childhoods never make it into a book or a screenplay -- when their self-esteem fizzles out and they are left without the answers once promised them as children?

Apparently, they stay in Berkeley and play music.

Piero Amadeo Infante was one such child. Raised along with his sister Cybele, two other siblings, and about four other children in the cult founded and run by Richard Thorne, Piero is full of hurt, angry at the world, and at odds with his family over his decision to speak out about their experiences. His mother barely talks to him, one sister has fled the area, another brother is reportedly an addict, and a fourth is said to be in denial of his past. All of them struggle day by day to get along with one another and tame their own depression and self-destructive impulses.

Meanwhile, Om serves 40-love.


Most days Piero wakes up way past dawn, around 11:00. Weekdays, the 42-year-old musician lights a clove cigarette and heads down to his North Berkeley twelve-step meeting. But never the meditation meeting. He's come a long way since growing up as a member of the Om Lovers, but he still can't bear to sit in silence for thirty minutes.

He is handsome, intense, prone to fits of laughter, polite, and slightly dangerous. Stocky and well-groomed, Piero often etches sharp, triangular patterns into his short beard, which enhance his already intimidating stare. He perfected that stare as a child. It's the kind of menacing gaze a new prisoner might encounter on his first day; the kind of look that says I'm going to take my time, but when I'm ready, you are so fucked.

Piero is a musician -- one that most other local musicians know, have played with, or at least heard about. His bands -- the Freaky Executives, Los Angelitos, and Los Mocosos -- have all won Bammies and sold out venues such as the Fillmore, Slim's, and the Great American Music Hall. His music career began in 1982 with the Freaky Executives, an influential Berkeley band that was at the forefront of the whole Chili Peppers-Fishbone-Faith No More "funk punk" era. The band went on to spawn associations with Primus, Bud E. Love, and the Luniz, as well as influencing subsequent funky rock bands such as MCM and the Monster, and even punk bands such as Rancid.

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