How a Self-Taught Hacker Escaped a Cult
The computer Shyama Rose got for her 14th birthday was a boxy Macintosh Quadra 650. The year was 1994. People didn’t email; there was no Facebook; the founders of Google hadn’t even met. And news of the emerging World Wide Web hadn’t yet made its way inside the gates of Barsana Dham, the religious compound in Austin, Texas, where she lived.
The compound sat on a spectacular stretch of lush property and featured a castle-like temple adorned with gold-leaf-covered pillars, marble floors, sheepskin rugs, thrones, and shrines—all encircled by fences. Devotees there rejected mainstream society; they’d renounced their worldly possessions to come worship a spiritual leader named Swami Prakashanand Saraswati, who wore bright yellow and orange robes and garlands of flowers around his neck. Followers sat watching in silence as he ate his meals. They bowed at his feet and drank from his spit. Years later, Rose would come across a “cult checklist” and answer questions like: “Does the group display excessively zealous and unquestioning commitment to its leader?” Yes. “Are questioning, doubt, and dissent discouraged or even punished?” Yes. But when Rose first moved into the compound at age 11 with her mother and brother, life there seemed magical.
One night not long after getting her computer, Rose was in the bungalow she shared with seven adult women. Before the evening services she sat alone in her bedroom, tinkering with the machine. There was a cord that looked like a phone jack, so she dragged the Macintosh into her mom’s room and plugged it in. A strange dial-up sound hummed and beeped. A window popped open on the screen. “This is cool,” she thought.
Rose had just stumbled upon the Internet. And it would be her escape from Barsana Dham.
“The Brainwashing Started When I Was a Few Months Old”
By the time Shyama Rose was born in Rotorua, New Zealand, her mother, Tui Rose, had already started following the guru and his organization, the International Society of Divine Love. He was the one who suggested the name Shyama, after a Hindu goddess.
According to Rose, while she was a toddler her mother took off to travel with Saraswati. (Tui says she went for medical reasons, not to be with the guru.) Her father, an insurance salesman, was left to take care of her and her brother, who was four years older. “Suddenly he’s like, ‘I’m a single dad whose wife has bounced out of the picture,’ ” says Rose. “When I was three and a half, he committed suicide.” She doesn’t remember much (neither she nor her brother were at home at the time), except she’s been told that at the funeral she tried to climb into the casket to hug her father’s body.
“My mom came home and had to pack up our lives,” says Rose. For a few years they lived in California, where Tui had made friends with other followers, but struggled to get by. When they moved to Barsana Dham, life was better. “We had 15 ‘brothers and sisters’ and 200 acres to run around in,” says Rose. “We had a creek that went through the property; we’d go swim and jump off cliffs all day.” She didn’t leave except to attend the local public school, though in her long skirts and long braids, she’d sometimes get called “devil worshipper” by the other kids. “I didn’t care. I just thought, Screw you; you’re stupid,” she says. “It had been drilled into my head that I was this special snowflake and I’d been put on this earth to find God—the brainwashing started when I was a few months old.”
Things changed dramatically when Rose was 12. One day in Saraswati’s kitchen, he began adjusting her sari and suddenly his hand was all over her breasts. He was a half century older than she. He was considered a divinity. “And I was 100 percent devoted,” she says. “I knew it wasn’t right. But I felt like if I said something, I would go to hell.”
Still, she did tell her mother about the incident. “She said it was grace; it was coming from God,” recalls Rose. (Tui remembers the conversation this way: “I asked [Shyama] was she sure he didn’t accidentally bump her while working the sari and gracing her by his attention? She didn’t respond but was not visibly upset at all. I wish with all my being…a red flag would have gone off.”)
Soon the abuse was a regular, at least weekly, event: “There was lots of fondling, lots of touching,” Rose says. After she was assigned to be his personal servant, “I would be sent into his room, and he would do sexual stuff,” she says. “Sometimes he would show up at my bed at three in the morning. It was terrifying.”
When Rose was 13, Kate Tonnessen, a 14-year-old at the ashram, confided that she was also being molested by the swami. “I was sleeping over with Shyama, and going, ‘Say you were abused,’ ” recalls Tonnessen. “I needed her to back me up.” Rose couldn’t. “I still believed in him,” she says. “I didn’t know anything else.”
“I Had No Idea I Was Hacking”
But the day that Rose connected her Macintosh, she was whisked into a whole new universe of curiosities. “I’d go in and delete a critical file to see what would happen,” she says. “Like, ‘Oh, so it does that.’ And then I’d fix it.” She taught herself binary math, the zeros and ones computers rely upon to function, and eventually found other teens secretly dialing in to chat rooms; they showed her tricks, like how to throw “bombs” to lock people out of certain online areas. “I had no idea I was actually hacking,” she says.
On the Internet, Rose felt safe, even empowered. “I realized there was opportunity outside my shitty environment,” she says, “and that the whole world wasn’t a pile of pain.” One online friend told her about a computer science program at Sul Ross State University in Alpine, Texas. “That’s when the idea of college popped into my head,” she says. She applied, got accepted, and took out student loans to pay tuition. “The guru yelled and berated me about letting her go,” Rose’s mother remembers—but ultimately she supported her daughter’s decision.
Rose was free, finally, from Saraswati. But trying to cope with the outside world, she soon began having panic attacks. “I knew tech was my out,” she says, “the one thing that was going to save my life.” She helped organize game nights, charging $3 per person to play Counter-Strike and Warcraft, raising enough money to take her computer science club to a hacking conference in Las Vegas. The whizzes she met there blew her mind. She learned about “black-hat hackers,” who commit crimes, steal identities, and wreak havoc, but also about “white-hat hackers,” who try to thwart them. And when she heard that Seattle was fast becoming the center of emerging tech companies like Microsoft, Amazon, and eBay, “I stuffed everything I owned in my car,” she says, “and moved there a week after I graduated from college. ASAP.”
In Seattle she joined an underground society of self-described ethical hackers called Uninformed, who communicated through a highly encrypted forum. With the group she started finding the security flaws in systems from Microsoft, IBM, and others, sleuthing out worms and malware and then alerting the companies to their own vulnerabilities. For years she used the neutral handle vf (chosen at random), “because they would take a woman less seriously,” she says. “A lot of people thought I was a man.”
After a while, companies started hiring her. While consulting for Microsoft, Rose says, she worked on some Windows products as a penetration tester. “I would try to break into a piece of software to find all the possible ways a hacker might try, so I could figure out how to stop him before he gets there,” she says. While doing a test for a bank, she found she could essentially trade as much money as she wanted into various bank accounts. “I had a shit-ton of student loans I could’ve wiped out with just a few clicks,” she says. “But of course I had to do the ethical thing and report it. The upside is that you sleep well at night.”
Soon she climbed the Internet security ranks, working for Live Nation and NASDAQ; the job at NASDAQ particularly fascinated her, since a hack there could threaten the whole economy: “People could lose their bank accounts, retirement savings—their livelihoods,” she says. “I started out thinking, Hacking is cool. But it became really important to me that I was protecting people, that I protect their personal safety.” In our newly tech-enabled world, Rose had found her superpower.
“We Have to Do Something”
But as Rose made a name for herself professionally in her late twenties, she continued to struggle emotionally. And then one day Tonnessen, who’d left the ashram, emailed her a link to an article about a spiritual teacher at the compound whom they both knew. He’d been accused of rape, in one case of a 12-year-old, and had been acquitted of the charges. Seeing the word rape brought Rose a sudden clarity. “I’d been deluding myself into thinking what happened was not that bad,” she says, “but it was.” Rose and Tonnessen started thinking about the other children still at the ashram. “There was one specific girl we were worried about,” Rose says. “She was so beautiful, so nice. That was the line in the sand. We were like, This is not about us anymore. We have to do something.”
In 2007, Rose, along with Vesla Kazimer, Tonnessen’s younger sister, traveled to the Hays County sheriff’s office in Texas to report their abuse. (The 10-year statute of limitations had run out for Tonnessen.) Saraswati was arrested on April 25, 2008, and posted a million-dollar bond. It took nearly three years for the trial to be scheduled, but in 2011 Rose faced him in court. After all that time, she says, “I saw him for what he was: a predator.”
On a Friday in March 2011, Saraswati was convicted of 20 counts of indecency with a minor and allowed to go home for the weekend on bond. The next Monday, he was sentenced to 280 years in prison, but did not show up in court. To this day he has not been found. “I was devastated and heartbroken,” says Rose. “It took away that chance I had to believe in life again.” (The compound has since changed its name and renounced connections with Saraswati. Tui Rose, who insists she was totally unaware Shyama was molested by the guru, says she was also a victim of “abusive psychological violence.” She left the ashram in 2007, as did Shyama’s brother.)
With the trial over, Rose felt a huge void. She would sit staring into her bathroom medicine cabinet, thinking, There are pills in there; I want to take them. Talk therapy and medication didn’t work. The turning point finally came two years ago, after she’d started base jumping: She’d climbed onto a bridge over a stunning ravine and a river, preparing for a jump, and paused. Several of her friends had recently been killed in the sport. “I looked down, and I started to cry,” she says. “I thought, This is really scary. I’m not ready to die.” In that moment Rose realized how much she wanted to live—not in the shadows, but full-on.
Today Rose thrives, at the top of her game in an industry that’s only 10 percent women. “I love the sexiness and fun that hacking brings me,” she says. “But there’s nothing that pisses me off more than someone doing something bad to someone who can’t protect themselves. That obviously stems from seeing children harmed. From being one of those children. This industry gives me a purpose; it’s my reason for carrying on.” Head of Internet security at a large financial firm she is careful not to name (“I am constantly targeted by malicious hackers, as is my company,” she explains), she now spends weekends surfing and skydiving, often with her boyfriend, with whom she shares a home and two cats, Dee Dee and Nugget. While she and her mother are estranged, she remains close with her brother. “He’s never once let me down,” she says.
Rose has a permanent reminder of her old life. Just after she left the temple, she got a tattoo of a dragon on her lower back. It was seven years before The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo became an international best-seller, but Rose sees the wild similarities between her story and that of the novel’s protagonist, Lisbeth. (“I think she’s a better hacker than I am,” she laughs.) Then there’s the tattoo she got a year and a half ago on her left arm that sums up her new life, finally free from everything that once trapped her. It reads: “Unfold Your Wings.”
Erika Hayasaki is an associate professor of literary journalism at the University of California, Irvine.