Death in the Family

Once you learn the full story of the mom-and-pop cult known as "The Family," you'll understand an unsettling reality: Any of us might have joined in.

So it went with Wright. There were terrifying and bizarre things in store for his "circle of seers." And it was against the rules to question.

A soccer player with mannish features and a strong, athletic build, Deirdre Wilson wasn't your stereotypical heiress. Though she'd gone to the best private schools, had her own trust fund, and could claim the founder of Xerox as her grandfather, she steered clear of anything that overtly smacked of wealth and privilege. None of the Wilsons would comment on the record for this story, but a psychological report conducted prior to Wilson's sentencing, additional court documents, and interviews with her former classmates do tell something of her pre-Wright existence.

Almost every child has a defining interest that sets him on a particular destiny. The boy who collects baseball cards might grow up to win a baseball scholarship. The debater becomes a hotshot attorney. For Wilson, the obsession was Africa. It led her into the hands of Winnfred Wright.

Winnfred Wright.
Courtesy of AP Wide World Photos
Winnfred Wright.
Deirdre Wilson.
Courtesy of AP Wide World Photos
Deirdre Wilson.

After her father showed her slides of a trip he'd taken to Kenya when she was a child, Wilson fell in love with what she saw as a culture more vibrant and spiritual than America's. At Wesleyan College, she listened to reggae, majored in African studies, and, like Bremner, took on a leadership role in her campus anti-apartheid movement. When Wilson visited east Africa during her junior year of college, she met and fell in love with a young Tanzanian journalist named Nechi Lyomo. After college, the two planned to marry. Wilson attempted to help Lyomo gain authorization to enter the United States, but the efforts were fruitless, and Wilson came back to the States alone.

On her return, Wilson was "heartbroken and extremely emotionally vulnerable," says her friend Zahara Heckscher. She missed Lyomo, was frustrated with the immigration authorities, and to top it off, had aborted a child she'd conceived with Lyomo.

With the idea of establishing California residency so she could afford to get a degree in agriculture from UC Davis and rejoin Lyomo in Tanzania, Wilson moved to San Francisco. It was 1987, and at age 23, she was going through "a dark and difficult time," as she would later tell her psychologist.

Soon after arriving in town, Wilson went to a reggae show on Haight Street. A man with dreadlocks and, Wilson remembered, "bright huge eyes" introduced himself to her as Rasheen Nyah. He asked her if she wanted to smoke a little ganja outside the club; she agreed. Nyah -- the name Wright called himself -- struck Wilson as "a gentle person," a good listener who seemed to share many of her interests. He wanted to hear all about her travels in Africa. He, too, was interested in African culture and seemed to know a little bit about it. "His God was very Afrocentric," Wilson said, and they agreed that "a white-dominated and materialistic society exploited people of color." Wright told her he was an artist and impressed her with his knowledge of astrology, in which she'd always had an interest. After sharing the joint, she agreed to come back with him to his apartment.

His Sunset pad was filled with his paintings: images of lions, serpents, and ancient Egyptian symbols in red, gold, black, and green. An attorney who later worked on Wilson's case described them as "bad hippie art," but to Wilson, they created an overall effect that was like "a temple." She and Wright talked all night, and in the morning, he introduced Wilson to his "wife," Carol Bremner. Bremner was wearing a kind of nun's habit, her long blond hair covered by a head scarf. The get-up, as well as Bremner's "purity" and "wise and gentle air," impressed Wilson. The couple had two toddler daughters and presented themselves as an alternative, Rastafarian family that had rejected the materialistic, racist attitudes of mainstream America. They were, they said, living a spiritual life dedicated to the "pursuit of knowledge" and racial harmony.

Wilson would later say that her meeting with the unusual couple was the most "intense, favorable experience" of her entire life. Like many idealistic young people, Wilson was worried about selling out, now that she was in the real world, post-college. These were people who appeared to be practicing what they preached, living precisely according to their moral convictions.

In following days, Wright talked to Wilson for hours on end about his philosophies and way of life. He and Bremner didn't subscribe to the traditional male-female roles of Western society. Bremner worked to support him and took care of the children, as in "African tribal cultures," while Wright acted as the spiritual head of the household. Like a yogi, he spent his days meditating, fasting, exercising, writing, painting, and reading spiritual books.

He told Wilson that people were born with a "karmic destiny" it was their duty to live out. All the bad things in the world were just manifestations of how people were thinking, both consciously and subconsciously. "What was happening in the world was what was happening in the soul," Wright told her.

During the conversations, Wright sometimes gave Wilson massages; initially she rejected his sexual advances.

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