Three years ago, Netflix captivated us with a cult docu-series unlike any other. Wild Wild Country earned its repetitive title; the twists and turns just kept coming. Now, the streaming site is taking another look at one of the most prominent and controversial figures from the series: Ma Anand Sheela, who these days goes by Sheela Birnstiel. Netflix's Searching for Sheela picks up where the docuseries left off, but since it's been a while, and a little thing called Tiger King has since overtaken first place on the list of the wildest docu-series on Netflix. You may need a quick refresher on what exactly went down with the Wild Wild Country cult — a term Birnstel has since deemed "so degrading."
What Happened in Wild Wild Country
The 2018 Netflix docuseries chronicles the rise of the Rajneeshpuram community in Antelope, Oregon. The group was led by guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, and Sheela was his second-in-command. According to NPR, the small town of Antelope didn't take kindly to the commune when its people descended on Oregon in the early '80s. There was almost immediately a clash between the "free sex" nature of the Rajneeshees and the conservative values of the Antelope townspeople.
The Rajneeshees all wore shades of orange and red, which made them immediately stand out. But they also weren't content to just live on their 60,000-acre ranch so they became active business owners, according to The Oregonian. They owned and operated a hotel, bakery, and nightclub, among others. When their Portland business Hotel Rajneesh was bombed in 1983, tensions escalated between the Rajneeshees and their neighbors. According to the Los Angeles Times, the bombing was tied to Stephen P. Paster, who belonged to a "militant, fundamentalist Muslim organization." He was sentenced to 20 years for the crime. Although he didn't appear to have ties to the Antelope area, the incident furthered tensions there anyway.
By 1984, the Rajneeshees decided they needed political control to advance their agenda. According to NPR, the group allegedly intended to bus in thousands of homeless people to sway the elections and get Rajneeshees into local government. The plot didn't come to fruition, but the tensions didn't cease. That's where Sheela came into play.
Sheela in Wild Wild Country
After their bussing voting plan didn't work out, the Rajneeshees reportedly tried something else — namely, poisoning people. According to Slate, the group was accused of contaminating 10 local salad bars in order to give voters salmonella and prevent them from turning up at the polls. Although no one died, 751 people got sick and 45 were hospitalized. It's considered the largest bioterrorist attack on United States soil, and it was allegedly carried out under Sheela's orders. Accordion to the Oregonian, Sheela pleaded guilty to the poisoning under the Alford plea, which allowed her to not admit guilt while acquiescing that the evidence was strong enough to provide a conviction.
The poisoning was just the start of Sheela's crimes. According to the New York Times, in 1986 she pleaded guilty to attempting to poison guru Rajneesh's doctor, as well as two county officials. She was additionally convicted of starting a 1985 fire that destroyed a county planning office and of setting up an elaborate wiretapping system. These criminal dealings unwound the Rajneesh community and the commune collapsed around 1985.
What Happened After The Cult
Sheela was sentenced to 20 years in prison, but served just two, according to Slate. She then relocated to Switzerland where she began caring for elderly and mentally ill people. Per the New York Times, the guru Rajneesh pleaded guilty to immigration law violations and was deported in 1985 back to India. He died in 1990 at age 58. The Antelope, Oregon ranch is now a Christian Youth Camp.
Despite the reality presented in Wild Wild Country, the docu-series made Sheela a temporary internet sensation back in 2018. Viewers held up her phrases like "tough titties" as evidence of a no-nonsense approach, she inspired memes, and some people blatantly praised her for breaking the cult leader glass ceiling. Executive producer Mark Duplass leaned into the reactions, tweeting, "When will #toughtitties start trending?" Deadline also reported that he called Sheela a "badass." Netflix, for its part, pounced on the Sheela trend, compiling a video of her "Top 5 savage moments."
Sheela told Deadline at the time that she could understand why some fans labeled her a feminist figure. "I stood up in a man’s world, stereotyped man’s world, and I did not take any nonsense from anyone. I still don’t take it. That’s just a basic nature of mine," she said.
And sure, cult leaders have historically been men, but this wasn't exactly a glass ceiling that needed to be shattered.