Well, that was an interesting read! Martha Sherrill is a skillful writer, and has produced a fascinating book; perhaps it is even more interesting to me because I lived in a similar situation for many years, before coming to my senses.
It is a book about how a legitimate spiritual tradition can be co-opted to serve the ego of what appears to be a truly disturbed person. It is a primer on how otherwise intelligent, searching and sincere people lose all discretion in their efforts to find an exotic spiritual truth. It is NOT about Buddhism per se, but about how one culture's nourishment can be another's poison. Within the culture of Tibet, the tulku system may be just fine, but when imported to the Western world without a deep understanding and broad context, it can be a disaster. It describes how a student's mind can rationalize ANYTHING, even outright cruelty and exploitation. Make no mistake, this book describes a process of mind control and spiritual bullying that all seeking individuals should take to heart. One thing I find very interesting is: one of buddhism's primary tenets is that of "emptiness" or "no-self," yet Catherine (I really can't address her by her honorific title) and her followers are obsessed with attaching some kind of cosmic importance to her "identity," and to her and their past lives. It really makes no difference who you WERE, but what are you DOING, how are you BEING right NOW? I also find it interesting that the author, despite her insightful observations of abuse and deceit,is still somehow drawn into the circle and seeks to find some personal meaning for herself, even knowing the history of this teacher. I would say the book is great, I found it spellbinding, but if you're looking for spiritual answers or more information on legitmate spiritual practice within a buddhist framework, look elsewhere! (Anything by H.H The Dalai Lama would be a good place to start...)
This book was great fun to read, and the author has created a vivid portrait of a spiritual community, with all their strengths, weaknesses, virtues, and flaws layed bare. Most of the time she keeps to telling the story without unnecessary commentary and opinion, and when she does give an opinion, she is very open and honest about her own subjectivity in the matter. The picture formed of Jetsunma is not simplistic, and reveals someone by turns endearing, insightful, arrogant, frightened, funny, manipulative, compassionate and outrageous. The community of people that have gathered around her are also portrayed very directly, and for the most part come across very sympathetically. They seem earnest, caring, and well-meaning. There are disturbing incidents in the book when the community seems harsh and vindictive, but overall they seem like a group of spiritual seekers it would be a pleasure to know (if not necessarily join...) Whether or not they are a 'cult' is wisely left up to the reader to decide.
This leads to what I view as the main flaw of the book. If someone is well-versed in Buddhism, then they have a context in which to better understand this community and their leader, and how they are, and are not, typical of other Buddhist communities. We hear people in the book say how different this Dharma center is from others, but nothing more than that. A reader who has not had experiences in other Buddhist centers or communities would be left without a context to place this in. Near the end of the book, when the author does talk to others outside of this community for additional perspective, it is only to briefly quote a rather eclectic bunch, including Tammy Faye Baker(!), Deepak Chopra, and Dr. Laura Schlesinger(! ). (Where are those in other Buddhist traditions on that list! ) A little more explanation of Buddhism itself, and especially of the Vajrayana path would have been of great help to any readers less familiar with the Buddhist 'scene'. The Dharma is taking root in America in many ways, and it would have made this book more 'complete' if there were some more detailed information on how these other communities are both different and similar to those who have gathered around Jetsunma.
In the end, I do recommend this book. It's a well-written, enjoyable, and at times very moving portrait of one particular Buddhist community. For those readers familiar with Buddhism in America, this is a 'four-star' book. For those not so familiar, it's lack of background makes it a less effective, though no doubt still very entertaining read!