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'Dear Franklin Jones' is an audio memoir about growing up inside a cult

Newspaper clippings about Franklin Jones’ group.
Newspaper clippings about Franklin Jones’ group.
Courtesy: Jonathan Hirsch
Newspaper clippings about Franklin Jones’ group.
Jonathan Hirsch, host/producer of the podcast "Dear Franklin Jones", as a boy.
Courtesy: Jonathan Hirsch

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Childhood is supposed to be an innocent time that provides us with memories that become more precious as the years go by.

For Jonathan Hirsch, it was anything but.

“Dear Franklin Jones” is a documentary-memoir podcast produced and hosted by Hirsch. In the course of seven episodes, Hirsch revisits and reconsiders his childhood and how it was dominated by the man who was his parents’ guru.

Jones was an American spiritual teacher who developed a following in California in the 1970s and ‘80s. Despite his popularity, some of his followers would later accuse him of brainwashing and sexual assault. While Hirsch is not one of those accusers, he does explore the charges in the podcast. 

We spoke with Hirsch recently about his childhood experiences and the making of the podcast. "Dear Franklin Jones" is a production of Stitcher, which distributes the podcast, as do other providers.

Interview Highlights:

On whether he realized he was partially making a story about seekers and their relationship to the people they thought would fulfill their dreams:  

I knew my parents' story. I knew that my mom was born in the Midwest and raised in the 1950s and '60s. She went to college in Detroit in 1968 during a time in our country where there was a great deal of distrust of the government, of established religions and ways of doing things. The established order in a lot of ways was changing and my mom felt that she was in the center of that. She saw protests on the campus of her college. She had a boyfriend [who] died in Vietnam while she was in college. And she started to feel like she didn't know what kind of world she was living in. As far as what she said to me, it was looking for something deeper.

 Photo of Jonathan Hirsch's mother.
Photo of Jonathan Hirsch's mother.
Courtesy: Jonathan Hirsch
Photo of Jonathan Hirsch’s father.
Photo of Jonathan Hirsch’s father.
Courtesy: Jonathan Hirsch

My dad's own story reflects another kind of experimentation, where people from that era arrived at this big question of what their life was about. For him, as a Hungarian immigrant who became a refugee in the U.S. after the Hungarian Revolution, he started a life here and was living in Santa Monica in the 1960s, working at a restaurant, working here and there. And then he started to experiment with psychedelic drugs. And he had an experience while dropping acid where the world, and his relationship to it as a person, shifted in this way he couldn't quite explain. For him, it raised the same question of: What is [my] place in the world and what does it mean? Until I did this story I didn't understand how those two experiences so appropriately encapsulated the experience of many boomers. 

On how he thinks about his personal diaries and letters from his childhood, which reflect a teenage man grappling with Franklin Jones' world:

When I was growing up, there were two different kinds of people that existed. There were people that were part of "the community," and then there were people who were part of "the world." It was literally the shorthand that we used to describe all kinds of things that would come up in your life. There's the worldly thing, there's the community thing — the community, the community, the community. Just the idea that we were living within the boundaries of Franklin Jones' teachings, and within his group our lives were defined by a different set of rules. In some ways, it's hard to know those diary entries, whether in those moments I felt [it] was the world that was causing me so much confusion and suffering, or the community. 

On how he's experienced the responses from listeners:

It's been disarming. Just the volume alone. But I will say the most edifying and the most intense kind of feedback I've received is from people who grew up in different spiritual communities than I did. And who found, by going through this process with me, that it helped them in some way find a way to do it for themselves. I can't tell you how many times I've just sat there, tears in my eyes, reading through these notes [feeling] like I'm so grateful that I've come out on the other side of this experience. And I cannot believe that there are not more opportunities for people who have been through similar experiences to find a way to collectively process. And I feel like the show opened that door for enough people that I came to understand that it was a thing that the show did for some people.

On how "Dear Franklin Jones" is a new podcast form:

One of the big conclusions I drew as an audio documentary producer was that, in some ways, I feel like "Dear Franklin Jones" was kind of like the first audio memoir, if you will. It's not a book on tape, it's not just a documentary; it has a beginning, middle and end. It's about processing things that have happened in your life. It's reflecting on your life. When I came to that conclusion I realized that there needed to be more of those. For the wide variety of experiences that we have on this planet, podcasting in some ways is a perfect medium to construct these kinds of audio memoirs. I think there's space for that. 

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