Authorities have recently broken up what is referred to in the media as a “macrobiotic” cult in Italy. The group is named “Ma-pi”, after their leader, Mario Pianesi, a man in his early seventies.
The beliefs of the cult were centered on a macrobiotic diet, a diet that consists of consuming locally sourced, organic, sustainable produce commonly in the form of brown rice, fruit, vegetables, seeds, soy products, buckwheat based noodles and pasta, beans, whole grains and nuts. The diet has roots in Zen Buddhism (Mahāyāna school) and those who follow a macrobiotic diet believe that it has miracle health benefits and the ability to cure disease by balancing out the ying and yang of the individual. Of course there have been no studies that prove a macrobiotic diet has ever cured or prevented any disease and the philosophy of the diet is commonly scoffed at. The macrobiotic concept and diet was born from the mind of a Japanese man named George Ohsawa in the 1920’s while he was living in France.
Ohsawa had witnessed people die as a result of diseases deemed incurable by western medical practitioners and was inspired early in life by a Japanese doctor named Dr. Sagen Ishizuka who claimed to cure people of illness and ailments through the use of food and cooking technique. Ohsawa shared his own personal story in writing some years later where he claimed that he was able to recover from a life threatening disease using Dr. Ishizuka’s methods which allowed him to balance out his ying and yang. People were encouraged to drink liquids only when thirsty and consume food only when the pangs of hunger encouraged the individual to do so. Eating only when hungry ensured that those following a macrobiotic diet would not overeat. Each mouthful of food would also have to be chewed a minimum of fifty times before being swallowed.
By the 1930’s he had published his philosophy including the benefits of a macrobiotic diet and ideas of a world without war through pacifism and peace among men. He lived until the age of 74 and died as a result of cardiac arrest in the mid-sixties.
Mario Pianesi claimed that he was inspired by George Ohsawa’s concept of ying and yang and applied it to all facets of his life. Like Ohsawa, he claimed that if people followed his dietary and meal preparation advice that they could be cured of serious illnesses. Desperate individuals would go to him for advice about diseases such as cancer, diabetes and HIV and eventually would eventually start to approach him regarding issues in all aspects of their life. Many vulnerable people were attracted to the cult, one ex-member described how she was only 26 when she joined Ma-Pi and had a bad relationship with her parents. She was love-bombed by Pianesi’s group and suddenly found herself living with them completely cut off from her friends, family and old life. Isolation is a classic tool of control and a method we often see used by cults who move their followers to isolated or rural locations or have them live in compounds cut off from the outside world.
Pianesi, a business man and advocate of the macrobiotic life, was dishonest to those who eventually became his followers, claiming that his teaching could fix their problems. Slowly but surely he would begin to manipulate, isolate and control the members of Ma-pi in way that would keep them under his spell for more than two decades.
Pianesi was a pioneer of macrobiotics in Italy and one of the first to peddle the philosophy. He opened various restaurants and farms and profited significantly from the theory over the years he was active. His profits were increased by the fact that he used his followers as laborers on his farms and in his chain of dining establishments. The followers believed that they were making the world a better place by converting people to a diet of organic, environmentally sustainable, disease curing food and slaved away as workers in Mario Pianesi’s macro-empire. Many of the Ma-Pi members are said to be people who were mentally ill and had been convinced to stop taking medication as it wouldn’t heal them and was only prescribed by “assassin” doctors to cover up the symptoms of illness.
Pianesi was described by those who came into contact with him as warm and charismatic. He would charm the local communities with gifts and meals and denounce the effectiveness of medicine. A former chef for the cult revealed in an interview with the guardian that Pianesi would also provide the local authorities with food under the pretense that he was interested in their mental and physical health, as their job to protect the local community was so important. The ex-chef believes that there was an ulterior motive to Pianesi’s generosity towards the police as he had been evading his taxes and most likely wanted to get the law on his side.
Although the members of Ma-Pi were originally entranced by the magical healing qualities of the macrobiotic philosophy and the idea that they were serving the greater good, the group eventually changed in dynamic and the rules they once lived by began to change for the worse. Their wonder-diet saw them malnourished and severely underweight- one Ma-Pi member contacted the police for assistance in 2013 and was said to weigh a shocking 77Lbs. She revealed that not only did she work long hours to produce the food that is needed to eat a macrobiotic diet, but that she was forced to pay for the food she worked for free to produce. She explained in an interview that members were also encouraged to make large donations to the leaders which consisted of Mario Pianesi, his wife Loredana Volpi and four other ring leaders who are currently under investigation for tax evasion and maltreatment. 14 others have been arrested and possible gang activity resulting in slavery is being investigated. This Italian article states that some members were in debt and had gave up their homes in order to donate.
Over time the Ma-Pi sect asserted control by telling female members what they could and couldn’t wear. For example skirts above the knee and makeup were not permitted, nor were they allowed to shower during menstruation. Both male and female members were not allowed to clip their nails or trim their hair on a Tuesday or Thursday and they were not allowed to get out of bed on the left side. Strangely they were not allowed to laugh in excess, attend a gym to work out or go online.
These images are from an Italian news site. (source) The caption states that some of the members were so malnourished that they were using crutches to get around. The man on the right is apparently Mario Pianesi.