The Cult in Google

The Cult in Google

I worked for Google for about three and a half years as a video producer. I was fired because I raised alarm about a doomsday cult that dominated my former team there.

I first joined Google in 2017 as part of Google Developer Studio (GDS), a production company within the heart of Google, making advertisements, instructional content, and produced events, all for different teams within Google itself.

I was fired from my team there in February of 2021 because I raised alarm about a cult within Google, a group called the Fellowship of Friends. The group is well-documented: There are allegations of child abuse, human trafficking, forced abortions, and rape within the group, which has some 1,500 members worldwide and makes frequent prophecies of an imminent apocalypse.

The cult’s members dominate my former team at Google through favoritism and cronyism, not to mention direct payments back to the cult (thus funding its activities). I believe that as a result of my complaints about the Fellowship, I lost my job at Google. I have filed a lawsuit and my story is out today in the New York Times. But I also wanted to tell my story in my own words, so here it goes.

I first started working for GDS in 2017. I’d been recommended by my friend, who I am going to refer to as Dan. Dan was also with GDS and I’d known him for over a decade.

Before joining the team, I’d been working in entertainment as a producer; I’d continue that work at GDS, this time in tech. It was my first job out of LA and my first job making good money. I could grow into this role. I was excited for my future, despite having left so much of my life in southern California.

When I showed up in Mountain View, I tried to get the lay of the land. I asked colleagues where they were from, where I should go, and what I should see. Most of them, including my boss and the director of our department, said they weren’t from San Francisco or the Bay Area. Not unusual, I wasn’t from the Bay Area either. What was unusual was that they were all from the same place, a town called “Oregon House,” which turned out not to be a city or an industry hub, but a small rural community about 150 miles north, outside of Sacramento. For a time, it seemed like half of my colleagues were from this very small place in the California foothills hours away from where we worked.

As I made friends at work, we started to talk about this. My colleagues also noticed how prevalent Oregon House was. Cronyism and nepotism is not uncommon, especially in my line of my work, but it was unusual on this scale: At least 12 people in of the 25, or so, I had met, all from this small town, all of whom knew each other beforehand and had close relationships.

The ties didn’t end there either. GDS contributed a lot of business to Oregon House, mostly wine. Oregon House has a winery — called “Grant Marie,” formerly “Renaissance” — from which we’d buy wine by the crate for the events we produced (between nine to 12 a year). They’d even set up booths just to talk about their wine at these events — events like the Google I/O after-party and the Android Summit, large events with thousands of guests. Sundar himself could have drank this wine — it was certainly served around him. The wine was our most consistent feature, and the invoices I’ve seen suggest we were buying hundreds of thousands of dollars worth every year, just from Grant Marie.

I didn’t think much of it until around late 2018, while at lunch before a shoot. I was speaking to my director of photography, a freelancer for that day, meaning someone who didn’t regularly work with us. I asked him where he was from and he told me he was from Grass Valley, a small city north of Sacramento.

“Oh, you’re from the place everyone we work with is from,” chimed in my friend and co-worker, who was chatting with us.

“Oregon House,” I clarified for my friend.

At that, I saw the blood leave the freelancer’s face. He was gravely serious. “Oregon House isn’t a town,” he said. “It’s a cult.”

We chatted uneasily for the remainder of our meal. He told my friend and I what he meant: A group called the Fellowship of Friends lived in Oregon House, a group that our colleagues were likely a part of. I asked my fill of questions and it seemed like this person was pretty well versed on the Fellowship of Friends. But, of course, I couldn’t form a real impression from one conversation. I brushed it off and we moved on with the day. I pretended to forget.

When I got home, I looked into it. The Fellowship of Friends was a real, documented cult: I found support groups where ex-members talk about their time in the group, including discussions of sexual abuse and grooming. There were articles in mainstream outlets dating from the 1990s that described them as a cult (in the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the Sacramento Bee, to name a few), including an in-depth piece on the group’s “cult wine.” I even found episodes about them on a podcast aptly named “Cults.”

I can describe the cult in more detail. Some of this I learned long after I first looked up the Fellowship of Friends, including very recently through a detailed six-part podcast called “Revelations” that’s entirely focused on the cult.

The Fellowship of Friends is a bizarre group. It claims to have hundreds of members and dozens of “centers” across the world, many in “stately mansions” outside major cities like Paris. They reportedly try to recruit in different countries. One of the things they became known for was placing bookmarks in metaphysical bookstores — some members have described looking for guidance in a book, coming across a Fellowship of Friends bookmark, and joining the group as a result.

The group puts a premium on “high culture.” At its headquarters in Oregon House, in a compound called Apollo, members describe studying philosophy, art, and music, watching ballet performances, and practicing the violin, all while working on the cult’s natural wine vineyards. Members describe paying at least 10 percent of any earnings to the cult as a tithe, with the group receiving millions every year as a result. Its leader, Robert Earl Burton, reportedly goes on lavish shopping sprees all over the world using members’ tithe money, buying European paintings, Ming dynasty furniture, expensive clothing, and exotic animals like white camels and peacocks.

The compound, named “Apollo,” has been referenced as an “ark” and cult members believe that when the world ends, they will help rebuild a new one.

The culture and fine wine hid their other activities though: Robert Earl Burton has reportedly sexually abused dozens of members. Members have described him grooming and sexually assaulting male followers, including minors, and described at least one “love fest” where he tried to have sex with as many as 100 of his male followers in a single day. He has settled a lawsuit by a former member for sexual assault. He reportedly forbade other members from having sex outside of marriage; one member described being fined $1,500 for having sex with a woman when they weren’t married.

I’ve seen statements alleging that women were forced to undergo abortions when they got pregnant because it “wasn’t time for children to be on the ark.” Homosexual relationships were reportedly forbidden (except for the leaders of course) and same-sex couples were forced to break up. Men from across the world were reportedly flown into the country on religious visas to visit the compound before learning that sexual favors were an expected part of their stay — sex trafficking, in other words.

The Fellowship of Friends is also seemingly a patriarchal, Anglo-centric, Europhilic group. Women were disparaged and subservient to male members: Robert Earl Burton taught that women were less spiritual beings than men, and there’s only one woman among the 81 “angels” who look over the group (Queen Elizabeth I). Its leaders were seemingly obsessed with white European culture — Robert Earl Burton’s chateau in Oregon House was created in the style of a French villa, its grounds host a statue of Ganymede, and European arts, music, and dance dominate the group’s culture. One former member called the culture “white supremacist.”

Not only that, but there was pretty suggestive evidence that my colleagues were a part of it. I found property records of both my boss and the director of our department, both listing Oregon House addresses. I also found photos of both of them with the leader, Robert Earl Burton.

It was clear to me what was going on.

I was devastated and furious — I’d been unknowingly supporting a cult, a group with a well-documented history of sexually abusing its youngest members, and I’d moved nearly four hundred miles away to do so. Worse, more than a dozen of my colleagues were seemingly in on it, people like my direct manager. I did not know who I could trust, but I resolved to do something. I thought, naively in hindsight, that if I could make people aware of this, there would be change.

The first chance I got, I brought it up with my friend Dan, who was a manager within Google by this time and, more importantly, someone I knew wasn’t in the cult.

Within a week of my discovery I spotted Dan in our office. I approached his desk and let him know that I had found out something very disturbing about a number of our colleagues.

“I think I know what you’re going to say,” he said, to my surprise. “Let’s go off campus.”

So I drove us to a ramen shop in downtown Mountain View. He told me that he already knew about Oregon House: Another concerned manager had let it spill while drinking, weeks earlier. People already knew, he said.

That didn’t surprise me; it would have been hard not to raise suspicions that something was going on. But what did surprise me was how he dealt with it. He told me that the cult was a problem and he was horrified just as I was after initial research. Despite this, he had softened on them, at least as they existed within GDS. He liked our department lead, Peter, and said he was a “good guy,” despite what he was doing for the Fellowship of Friends. He felt he owed him for a recent promotion.

At a certain point, he said he had thought about both quitting and complaining up the ladder, but ultimately decided against either. He thought complaining could lead not only to the loss of his job, but the destruction of our whole department. The loss of all our jobs. GDS, in his mind, wasn’t on steady ground. A revelation like this would be its end.

He instructed me to keep quiet. He told me not to tell anyone and to tell anyone I had already informed to do the same. He reminded me again that if I complained about this, I could lose my job. Strangely, he threw in that “Peter is a powerful guy.” It was unsettling to say the least.

My anxiety reached new levels. I’d thought there was a path forward, but now I felt trapped. I started looking for other work. As Dan had said, there weren’t a lot of options, good or otherwise, for people working in video productions in the Bay Area. I had work, but it now involved keeping quiet about a destructive cult, a doomsday cult, growing in influence in our department. I heard of new members regularly being added and I saw how existing members excelled, further boosting the status of the Fellowship of Friends within our department. Conversely, it seemed the Fellowship members who were on the outs with the group were made to leave. Seemingly, where you stood with the Fellowship of Friends very much related to where you stood with GDS.

Still, I did as Dan said for longer than I’d like to admit. I cautioned my peers not to talk about the cult, at lunch, in the studio at work. I tried to put distance between myself and the problem. I engaged less with Fellowship of Friends members. I avoided work social functions wherever I wouldn’t be noticed.

One night, it got the better of me. I went to the emergency room thinking I was having a heart attack. I was 31. They said it was nerves, a panic attack, the first of my life. The consulting physician asked me if there was any stress in my life. All I could say was “work.” I knew I had to do something.

I went back to Dan, but his line was clearer now, more rehearsed. At his home, over a drink, he cut me off the moment I raised the cult as a concern. He told me to drop it and, for that day, I did. I felt defeated. Weeks later, I steeled myself and tried again, more forcefully. I wouldn’t back down this time. It was an explosive argument, the first and only I had had with my friend Dan and the last time I’d be alone in a room with him. I begged him to go to HR. I pleaded with him to help me do something. He had access. I did not. I was a TVC — which stands for “temps, vendors, and contractors,” a designation within Google for workers who aren’t full-time employees and are hired by third parties companies, not by Google itself. We do the same work as full-time Google employees — I worked right alongside them — but we don’t have the same corporate benefits.

If I went to my HR department, they’d have no power over Google. In fact, they were entirely beholden to Google. They had disregarded colleagues who had complained about more clear-cut issues like a drunk and unruly manager. “Why are you telling me this?” they’d ask. “Don’t tell me this.”

I left Dan’s that night knowing I’d need to figure this out on my own. Then, COVID happened. Suddenly a dangerous cult seemed like less of a priority. I was allowed to work from home, I even moved to a different state. The problem grew distant and I was finding a semblance of peace. I didn’t have to see my old manager, the director of our department, or even Dan. My work went well. I received only positive reviews, zero complaints, and my client was looking to bring me on as a genuine, full-time employee of Google. Besides that, I was up for a promotion. Things felt better.

Then, without warning or reason, I was fired. The person who actually gave me the decision didn’t know why they were doing it. They said they had no involvement in the decision. They asked me if I knew why I was being fired. I said “I assume you would know, right?” They didn’t. (A funny detail: The raise for that promotion I was given was processed after I was fired, so I received two last checks at the higher rate. Fired and promoted at the same time.)

Even though Dan was not in my chain of supervisors, I’m convinced he helped to orchestrate my termination. I believe he saw me as an existential threat, to him, his colleagues and their jobs. The purported reasoning for my termination was an email I had sent requesting the retention of an editor, which was a completely normal business issue. In retrospect, it looks like Dan was looking for pretext to shuffle me off for some time before that.

In the middle of a pandemic, in a new state, I was unemployed — fired, for the first time in my professional career. I had recently joined the Alphabet Workers Union, the union of now almost 1,000 workers across all Alphabet companies, including Google. I told them my story and they advised that I get a lawyer. Fifteen months later and this is where I am: the lawsuit is pending, I’m still unemployed, and I see no change in the cult that essentially runs an entire department within Google.

Still, I’m optimistic. I was not the first or the last person to complain. I know of at least four former colleagues who’ve also spoken out about this. None of those complaints have thus far been taken seriously, likely because they are coming from TVCs like me. I have heard that agitation against the cult is increasing.

Google knows about this problem. Managers know full well that a destructive cult, a group credibly alleged to be involved in the sexual abuse of possibly hundreds of followers, including children, has significant influence over an important team within the company. Yet they turn a blind eye, ignoring their own workers who’ve spoken out. I’m doing my best to hold them accountable.

2 Points