Tyaga Hebel is a corrective exercise specialist, public speaker and nature enthusiast living with her husband, daughter and three cats in sunny Southern California.
I grew up, like most orphans, not knowing my real name, birthday, nationality, who my parents were or where I came from.
What I knew was that my father abandoned me in a Hare Krishna community called New Vrindaban in Moundsville, West Virginia when I was one. He visited me occasionally for the first few years but after I was five, I never saw him again. I didn’t know why he didn’t come back for me but I always hoped he would.
Now, I understand more.
When I was 4 months old my father shot and killed my mother, and her husband in what the Mexico City headline newspapers at the time described to be, a crime of passion. He shot my mom first in the heart. She managed to pick up my bassinet resting on her lap in the passenger seat of our car and open her door to put me on the ground, out of the line of fire. He then shot her husband seated in the driver’s seat and turned his gun back onto my mother, shooting her once again where she crumbled to the ground, dead. According to witnesses he picked up my bassinet, and went running to a get away car. Mexican Army officials and FBI were hot on his trail but he evaded an international manhunt and smuggled me into the United States.
Running from law enforcement eventually led him to a Hare Krishna temple in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania where he met a man who encouraged him to go to New Vrindaban, the Krishna’s farm community in the backwoods of West Virginia. What my father really wanted to do was flee the country, which he did, but first he wanted a place to stash me and New Vrindaban seemed the perfect place. As was told to me, we arrived there in 1975. Most of the property’s 99 acres were still undeveloped and many of the residents, including me, lived in little rooms in the upstairs of a cow barn. My father struck a deal with the leader. Even though he had no birth certificate or form of identification for me, the leader agreed to raise me in the community, for a price of course. I was one-year-old and fell into the hands of whomever the leader appointed me to live with.
I’ll get right to it when I say those early years were the worst time of my life. More times than not I was in physically, sexually and emotionally abusive situations I would have much rather not been in to say the least. When I turned five, I moved into the dormitory school for girls called an ashram. Twisted religious absurdity was our deprived reality. Ashram life was austere- Sleep on the floor, wake up at 3 am, take cold bucket showers and traverse dirt roads on foot, often through wet and cold conditions to arrive at morning worship that started at 4:30 am every day. After breakfast of oat water and rice, we kids walked to school and among traditional academic courses, learned to read and write in Sanskrit, one of the oldest written languages of the world. We also learned sewing, cooking, embroidery and as we got older, learned the traditional dance from India called Bharat Natyam.
It wasn’t all bad. It’s impossible for a house full of girls not to laugh, play and have a lot of fun. It was like having a whole house full of sisters, for better and worse. It taught me much about friendship and sisterhood. Our sense of identity was formed in togetherness. I didn’t feel alone most of the time because I had them. They were my family. One of my ashram teachers, Kanka, unofficially took me under her wing. By the time I was ten I was calling her Mom, knowing full well she wasn’t my blood mother.
In 1986, she found out her son was being molested by his male teachers in the ashram. Horrified, she confronted the leader but he protected the abuser and told her in so many words, to shut her mouth. She moved her family to California and left a letter for me, saying she’d send for me as soon as possible. For nearly six months she pleaded with the leader on the phone to let me visit her in California but he refused to let me leave. She finally threatened that she’d send the FEDS to him if he didn’t send me to her. The FBI were already investigating the murder of a temple devotee and the leader was suspected of being involved. Close to the wire, he gave his permission for me to go visit her for “two weeks”.
I arrived at LAX on January 5th, 1987, thirteen years old and finally, free from the leader’s control over my life. We hadn’t even left the airport when my mom gave me a choice. She said if I wanted to stay and live with her and her family she would legally adopt me or I could use my return ticket and go back to the ashram if I wanted. She says it took half a second for me to say, “What? I’m staying with you. I’m never going back!”
In later research I came to find out that by a complete coincidence (my mom never actually called the FEDS), the very next day New Vrindaban was raided by the FBI for child endangerment, racketeering and all kinds of other criminal activities. What once was, was no more. The ashrams and community school were shut down. I was nestled safe in the first bed of my own in my entire life at home, with a mom, a sister and two brothers, warm at the foothills of the Sierra mountains in a small town called Three Rivers, CA.
My mom tried enrolling me in public school but we had a lot of explaining to do! She hired a lawyer and within months we were standing in front of a judge explaining my unknown circumstances. My mom never met my father when he brought me to the community so she knew as much as I did about him and where I came from. I just existed, and that was all we knew. I was deemed a Jane Doe in court and my mom was then able to legally adopt me. We went on The Sally Jesse Raphael show together exposing the child abuse in New Vrindaban and Inside Edition, asking the world if anyone knew who I was, or who my parents were. No tangible leads were made.
My mom moved us to Marin County where the transition into this culture was both terrifying and fun. Terrifying because every single thing and person in society was in stark contrast to the Krishna culture I was raised in, and fun well because every single thing and person was in stark contrast to the Krishna culture I was raised in! While I was happy to finally be out in “the real world,” I struggled inside with my changing identity. It was the 80’s, big hair and flat bellies were in. I was a chubby ashram girl with flat hair from West Virginia! I tried hard to make sense of the differing worlds and my place in them. My mom encouraged me to go to regular therapy. It helped tremendously. I thank God she did that because I don’t know where I’d be if she hadn’t. I discovered exercise! Bike riding, weight-lifting, aerobics - I was in love! I got certified as a circuit weight-trainer and years later as an aerobics teacher and personal trainer and now, as a Corrective Exercise Specialist.
Three days after high school graduation, in 1991, I moved to Honolulu, Hawaii. Freedom, beaches and sunshine were for me, living the dream! I was seventeen years old. At 18, I was pregnant, okay- barefoot and pregnant, and at 19 - I gave birth to my beautiful baby girl, Jasmine Kalindi. Having an abortion or giving my baby away as many kids in my young and unmarried situation might do, seemed a far harder choice than being a mother. I was scared but felt capable and was committed to becoming the best single mom I could be.
Being pregnant and giving birth made my desire to know my history hit an all time high! Having my own child made me crave more than ever to know who my mother was, who my father was. Well, out of the blue one September day in 1994 my father called me. I was at home with my daughter when the phone rang. I answered Hello and a man asked, “Uh hellooo is Tyaga there?” I said yep that’s me and when I asked who he was he said his name was Bhakta R and that he knew me as a baby. Immediately I knew he was my dad and asked, “Are you my dad?!” He said no but that he was a friend of his. When I asked him a million questions, he said to write a letter and fax it to him and he would get the letter to my father who was a South Indian priest living in India.
I did as he said and faxed him ALL of my questions and what I received back were pages and pages of philosophy from Vedic texts. The letter my father wrote blasted me, berating me for wanting to know my identity. He said all material relationships and identifications were meaningless and unimportant. I disagreed and told him that knowing my identity and family history, was indeed, important to me. He did tell me my mother was Indian from India and for years I told everyone I was half Indian. With black hair and light brown skin, I just as well could be! I begged my dad to tell me my mother’s name, mine and his but he wouldn’t and after a few weeks of phone conversations and faxes he disappeared from my life, once again. All I had gathered on him was that he was calling me from Florida. I was heartbroken, frustrated, confused and depressed.
In a twist of fate, six months later I ran into one of my Sanskrit teachers, Greg, from New Vrindaban at the Hare Krishna Temple in Honolulu, Hawaii. He had become a South Indian priest years before. I asked him, “Can you tell me about South Indian priests?” He said, “Does this have to do with a guy in Florida?!” I said, “YES! it does!” Greg told me that months before he was in Florida and was interviewed by a man named Adikari. Adikari was setting up a trust fund for Sanskrit education and the Dean of the Hindu University in Florida had recommended Greg as a recipient of the trust. When Adikari interviewed him he asked if he had ever taught at a Sanskrit school before. He said yes, at a Hare Krishna school called New Vrindaban. Adikari immediately asked, “Did you know a girl there named Tyaga?” Greg said, “Yes, I did. She was one of my students, left by her father as a baby,” and it hit him— How would Adikari know Tyaga? So he asked, “How do you know Tyaga?” To which Adikari replied, “I’m her Godfather.” Greg looked at me and said, “If you ask me that man is your father. You look like him.”
He said Adikari had given him a copy of his book he’d self-published and in the back had attached a photo of himself, his wife and his two kids. I said, PLEASE can I see that book? And when I did, I couldn’t believe my eyes! It was word for word what my father had faxed me and the similarities in our looks made me believe him to be the man I once knew as my father. Greg didn’t know Adikari’s legal name. It’s a common name and more of a religious title than anything but he gave me the number to the lawyer who was setting up the trust fund between him and Adikari. I called the lawyer right away! He told me he’d pass my message on to his client and to give him a call back in a few days. I did and he told me that Adikari "vehemently denied" any relation to me and to not call him again. I pleaded with him to tell me the man’s real name but he wouldn’t.
For 11 years I called the lawyer and every single time he told me to stop calling. Each time I thought he might help me but each time he said, he couldn’t. I wrote letter after letter to the address printed on the back of Adikari’s book but never received a reply. I couldn’t understand why. I was crushed but determined to never give up! In that time I moved back to Northern California from Hawaii. In 2003 the love of my life, Sevak, proposed to me and we moved from Northern California to Southern California. I was still calling the lawyer from time to time in Florida but not receiving any answers.
In 2005, I was working as a Personal Trainer and was training a client at Body Focus in Thousand Oaks, CA when my client asked me about my heritage. I told her I didn’t know my family and my parents could just as well be dead. She encouraged me to call a medium she had recently gone to. She said, “Tyaga, if your parents are dead, this woman could speak to them!” Well I sure as heck couldn’t and I was desperate. I gave the lady a call. She told me I would find out who they were and that in all of my communications in so searching, I should attach a photo of myself. I emailed the lawyer and attached a photo like she said. This time, he called me back! He said, “Are you the lady who’s been calling me all these years?” I said yes. He said, “You obviously don’t know.” I confirmed that no I didn’t, I didn’t know anything and that’s why I was calling. He told me Adikari was dead, he died in India years before and he gave me the names of 2 lawyers who he said were calling him, upon Adikari’s death.
He said if they wanted to help me they could but to please not call him again. I thanked him and assured him I wouldn’t but asked, “Who shall I tell them I’m calling about?” He said, “Alfred Meyer Silberman”. I called both lawyers and before I knew it I was in touch with my father’s family. They claimed Alfred was allegedly wanted for murdering a couple in Mexico City and kidnapping their infant that he insisted was his. His brother offered for me to take a DNA test with his blood and my half-sister offered to do the same with hers. The results came back, I’m 98.75% likely to be Alfred’s biological child.
Though I found my father’s family I was still looking for my mothers. I believed my mom was Indian like my dad had said and went to India in hopes of finding her. My father’s wife invited me to stay at their home in Nabadwip, 2 hours outside of Kolkatta. Her family was very welcoming and my visit with her and my half-siblings was great! I was there for 3 weeks, searching for any clues to my “Indian mom” or any information tying my dad to Mexico but there was nothing.
In February, 2006 I requested a copy of Alfred’s FBI file through The Freedom of Information Privacy Act and received all 400 plus pages of it. The date of the murders was listed but the names were redacted. I called the agent on my case begging and pleading for him to please let me see the names that were printed. He took pity on me and said, “I’ll send you another file, this time look closely. You’ll be happy with what you see.” When I received the next file, on one page, the names of the slain couple were printed.
I flew to Mexico City with my adopted mom and her bilingual friend. We searched through decades of old newspapers at the National Archive Library in Mexico called La Hemeroteca. There, for the first time after a lifetime of wanting to know my real name (32 years), it was printed right there in the newspapers: “Marisol Paola Terres Amador.” Printed was also the last known address of a relative requesting for anyone who knew of my whereabouts to contact them. The address was for my mother’s husband’s mother, Ana Maria Terres. Now I had just found out through the newspapers that my father had indeed, murdered her son. Ashamed, in shock and conflicted, the last thing I wanted to do was go knocking on her door but much to the support and encouragement of the librarian helping us, (who was adopted, later found her birth family and insisted I wouldn’t leave Mexico until I found mine), that’s exactly what we did! It was the librarian, my adopted mom, her bilingual friend, our Spanish speaking cab driver and myself .
They were all standing in front of me at Ana Maria’s door trying to explain why we’d come when suddenly I see this little old lady push all of them aside, take one look at me and cry, “Marisol!!! God has only let me live 80 years so I can see you again!” We were in puddles of tears. This was the defining moment of my life! My grandmother, though not my blood claims me to be her child, her hija and to this day gives me more love than I could have ever imagined. I celebrated my 33rd birthday for the first time with her and my family in Mexico City. Mariachis, tres leches cake and all it was the best birthday of my life!
My aunt Gloria, one of my Grandma’s daughters, handed me my original birth scroll she had beautifully wrapped in ribbon and kept in her bedside drawer for 33 years praying nightly that I would return for it. My aunts and uncles had old reels transferred to DVD and we sat together watching old films of my mom, her husband and me as a happy, bubbly infant, all of us together as a happy family. I never felt more thankful for the man I consider my real papa, Armando, my mom’s husband and his loving family. Despite the fact that my mom and Armando were not able to celebrate with us, I was overjoyed to have been reunited with their families after so much time apart.
My grandma told me I could find my mother’s family about an hour and a half Northeast of Mexico City in a small village called Villa Del Carbon. I arrived there to a huge and warm, life-dream welcome! My mom was one of 12 children with 10 brothers and one sister. They and all my cousins, nieces, nephews and so many people in the village who knew and loved my mom, all had their hands up to the sky crying, “Es un milagro! It’s a miracle!” They held a church service that Sunday in honor of their prayers that I would return, being answered. Every year my family got together and prayed for me. I can tell you there were times in my life when I badly needed even one person in this world’s prayers. I believe their love and prayers though a country away, made an impact on my life. Their faith held me in times I wasn’t even aware of.
Being reunited with my extended families who loved and wanted me all of my life, and I them, IS a miracle and one I’m honored to share with you. I hope my story inspires and motivates others to find their birth families. What I found is a family torn from tragedy. It’s painful but I can tell you nothing is as painful as not knowing anything.
It’s an intrinsic need we have to feel connected to our history. I feel peace now knowing. There’s always a hole in my heart for the loss of my mother, her husband, our family and even my father. I wish things could have been different, but we don’t get to choose. However, we do get to choose where we are today, and for that I want to thank you for taking the time to read my story. From my heart to yours, thank you!