Sunday, April 22, 2007

The Abusive Guru: Carlos Castaneda

I admit it, I read and enjoyed the first six or seven books Castaneda published. Until I actually began to study shamanism on my own, largely due to his books, I even believed the first one, The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge, was a valid -- if idiosyncratic -- anthropological study. He went to great lengths to make it appear to be well-researched and academic, not to mention that it was done under the supervision of the UCLA anthropology department and published by the University of California Press.

By the time I read the other books, it was already common knowledge that the books were fiction, despite Castaneda's claims and the decision of Simon & Schuster to publish them as non-fiction (which they still do). Their veracity had been discredited, but millions of people still looked at the books (and their author) as authentic Yaqui spirituality.

Castaneda dropped out of public sight in the early seventies, largely due to a letter to the NY Times from Joyce Carol Oates (1972) in which she "expressed bewilderment that a reviewer had accepted Castaneda's books as nonfiction." The following year, Time magazine published an expose on some factual lies he had told in his books.

So, while it has been commonly known that Castaneda was a fraud, I knew very little about the inner circle of his followers -- until now. Salon has posted a long and well-researched article on Castaneda and his followers, including what would appear to any rational person to be abuse, exploitation, and manipulation of his followers.

The dark legacy of Carlos Castaneda

Here is a long section from the third page of the article:
When "The Second Ring of Power" was published in 1977, readers learned that sometime between the leap into the abyss at the end of "Tales of Power" and the start of the new book, don Juan had vanished, evanescing into a ball of light and entering the nagual. His seclusion also helped Castaneda, now in his late 40s, conceal the alternative family he was starting to form. The key members were three young women: Regine Thal, Maryann Simko and Kathleen "Chickie" Pohlman, whom Castaneda had met while he was still active at UCLA. Simko was pursuing a Ph.D. in anthropology and was known around campus as Castaneda's girlfriend. Through her, Castaneda met Thal, another anthropology Ph.D. candidate and Simko's friend from karate class. How Pohlman entered the picture remains unclear.

In 1973, Castaneda purchased a compound on the aptly named Pandora Avenue in Westwood. The women, soon to be known both in his group and in his books as "the witches," moved in. They eventually came to sport identical short, dyed blond haircuts similar to those later worn by the Heaven's Gate cult. They also said they'd studied with don Juan.

In keeping with the philosophy of "erasing personal history," they changed their names: Simko became Taisha Abelar; Thal, Florinda Donner-Grau. Donner-Grau is remembered by many as Castaneda's equal in intelligence and charisma. Nicknamed "the hummingbird" because of her ceaseless energy, she was born in Venezuela to German parents and claimed to have done research on the Yanomami Indians. Pohlman was given a somewhat less glamorous alias: Carol Tiggs. Donner-Grau and Abelar eventually published their own books on sorcery.

The witches, along with Castaneda, maintained a tight veil of secrecy. They used numerous aliases and didn't allow themselves to be photographed. Followers were told constantly changing stories about their backgrounds. Only after Castaneda's death did the real facts about their lives begin to emerge. This is largely due to the work of three of his ex-followers.

In the early '90s, Richard Jennings, a Columbia Law graduate, was living in Los Angeles. He was the executive director of Hollywood Supports, a nonprofit group organized to fight discrimination against people with HIV. He'd previously been the executive director of GLAAD, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. After reading an article in Details magazine by Bruce Wagner about a meeting with Castaneda, he became intrigued. By looking on the Internet, he found his way to one of the semi-secret workshops being held around Los Angeles. He was soon invited to participate in Castaneda's Sunday sessions, exclusive classes for select followers, where Jennings kept copious notes. From 1995 to 1998 he was deeply involved in the group, sometimes advising on legal matters. After Castaneda's death, he started a Web site, Sustained Action, for which he compiled meticulously researched chronologies, dating from 1947 to 1999, of the lives of Patricia Partin and the witches.

Another former insider is Amy Wallace, author of 13 books of fiction and nonfiction, including the best-selling "Book of Lists," which she co-authored with her brother David Wallechinksy and their father, novelist Irving Wallace, also a client of Korda's. (Amy Wallace has contributed to Salon.) She first met Castaneda in 1973, while she was still in high school. Her parents took her to a dinner party held by agent Ned Brown. Castaneda was there with Abelar, who then went under the name Anna-Marie Carter. They talked with Wallace about her boarding school. Many years later, Wallace became one of Castaneda's numerous lovers, an experience recounted in her memoir, "Sorcerer's Apprentice." Wallace now lives in East Los Angeles, where she's working on a novel about punk rock.

Gaby Geuter, an author and former travel agent, had been a workshop attendee who hoped to join the inner circle. In 1996 she realized she was being shut out. In an effort to find out the truth about the guru who'd rejected her, she, along with her husband, Greg Mamishian, began to shadow Castaneda. In her book "Filming Castaneda," she recounts how, from a car parked near his compound, they secretly videotaped the group's comings and goings. Were it not for Geuter there'd be no post-1973 photographic record of Castaneda, who, as he aged, seemed to have retained his impish charm as well as a full head of silver hair. They also went through his trash, discovering a treasure trove of documents, including marriage certificates, letters and credit card receipts that would later provide clues to the group's history and its behavior during Castaneda's final days.

During the late '70s and early '80s, Jennings believes the group probably numbered no more than two dozen. Members, mostly women, came and went. At the time, a pivotal event was the defection of Carol Tiggs, who was, according to Wallace, always the most ambivalent witch. Soon after joining, she tried to break away. She attended California Acupuncture College, married a fellow student and lived in Pacific Palisades. Eventually, Wallace says, Castaneda lured her back.

Castaneda had a different version. In his 1981 bestseller, "The Eagle's Gift," he described how Tiggs vanished into the "second attention," one of his terms for infinity. Eventually she reappeared through a space time portal in New Mexico. She then made her way to L.A., where they were joyously reunited when he found her on Santa Monica Boulevard. In homage to her 10 years in another dimension, she was now known as the "nagual woman."

Wallace believes this was an incentive to get Tiggs to rejoin. According to Wallace and Jennings, one of the witches' tasks was to recruit new members. Melissa Ward, a Los Angeles area caterer, was involved in the group from 1993 to 1994. "Frequently they recruited at lectures," she told me. Among the goals, she said, was to find "women with a combination of brains and beauty and vulnerability." Initiation into the inner family often involved sleeping with Castaneda, who, the witches claimed in public appearances, was celibate.

In "Sorcerer's Apprentice," Wallace provides a detailed picture of her own seduction. Because of her father's friendship with Castaneda, her case was unusual. Over the years, he'd stop by the Wallace home. When Irving died in 1990, Amy was living in Berkeley, Calif. Soon after, Castaneda called and told her that her father had appeared to him in a dream and said he was trapped in the Wallace's house, and needed Amy and Carlos to free him.

Wallace, suitably skeptical, came down to L.A. and the seduction began in earnest. She recounts how she soon found herself in bed with Castaneda. He told her he hadn't had sex for 20 years. When Wallace later worried she might have gotten pregnant (they'd used no birth control), Castaneda leapt from the bed, shouting, "Me make you pregnant? Impossible! The nagual's sperm isn't human ... Don't let any of the nagual's sperm out, nena. It will burn away your humanness." He didn't mention the vasectomy he'd had years before.

The courtship continued for several weeks. Castaneda told her they were "energetically married." One afternoon, he took her to the sorcerer's compound. As they were leaving, Wallace looked at a street sign so she could remember the location. Castaneda furiously berated her: A warrior wouldn't have looked. He ordered her to return to Berkeley. She did. When she called, he refused to speak to her.

The witches, however, did, instructing Wallace on the sorceric steps necessary to return. She had to let go of her attachments. Wallace got rid of her cats. This didn't cut it. Castaneda, she wrote, got on the phone and called her an egotistical, spoiled Jew. He ordered her to get a job at McDonald's. Instead, Wallace waitressed at a bed and breakfast. Six months later she was allowed back.

Aspiring warriors, say Jennings, Wallace and Ward, were urged to cut off all contact with their past lives, as don Juan had instructed Carlos to do, and as Castaneda had done by cutting off his wife and adopted son. "He was telling us how to get out of family obligations," Jennings told me. "Being in one-on-one relationships would hold you back from the path. Castaneda was telling us how to get out of commitments with family, down to small points like how to avoid hugging your parents directly." Jennings estimates that during his four years with the group, between 75 and 100 people were told to cut off their families. He doesn't know how many did.

For some initiates, the separation was brutal and final. According to Wallace, acolytes were told to tell their families, "I send you to hell." Both Wallace and Jennings tell of one young woman who, in the group's early years, had been ordered by Castaneda to hit her mother, a Holocaust survivor. Many years later, Wallace told me, the woman "cried about it. She'd done it because she thought he was so psychic he could tell if she didn't." Wallace also describes how, when one young man's parents died soon after being cut off, Castaneda singled him out for praise, remarking, "When you really do it, don Juan told me, they die instantly, as if you were squashing a flea -- and that's all they are, fleas."

Before entering the innermost circle, at least some followers were led into a position of emotional and financial dependence. Ward remembers a woman named Peggy who was instructed to quit her job. She was told she'd then be given cash to get a phone-less apartment, where she would wait to hear from Castaneda or the witches. Peggy fled before this happened. But Ward said this was a common practice with women about to be brought into the family's core.

Valerie Kadium, a librarian, who from 1995 to 1996 took part in the Sunday sessions, recalls one participant who, after several meetings, decided to commit himself fully to the group. He went to Vermont to shut down his business, but on returning to L.A., he was told he could no longer participate; he was "too late." He'd failed to grasp the "cubic centimeter of chance" that, said Kadium, Castaneda often spoke of. Jennings had to quit his job with Hollywood Supports; his work required him to interact with the media, but this was impossible: Sorcerers couldn't have their pictures taken.

But there were rewards. "I was totally affected by these people," Jennings told me. "I felt like I'd found a family. I felt like I'd found a path." Kadium recalls the first time she saw Tensegrity instructor Kylie Lundahl onstage -- she saw an aura around her, an apricot glow. Remembering her early days with the group, she remarked, "There was such a sweetness about it. I had such high hopes. I wanted to feel the world more deeply -- and I did."

Although she was later devastated when Castaneda banished her from the Sunday sessions, telling her "the spirits spit you out," she eventually recovered, and now remembers this as the most exciting time of her life. According to all who knew him, Castaneda wasn't only mesmerizing, he also had a great sense of humor. "One of the reasons I was involved was the idea that I was in this fascinating, on the edge, avant garde, extraordinary group of beings," Wallace said. "Life was always exciting. We were free from the tedium of the world."

And because, as Jennings puts it, Castaneda was a "control freak," followers were often freed from the anxiety of decision-making. Some had more independence, but even Wallace and Bruce Wagner, both of whom were given a certain leeway, were sometimes, according to Wallace, required to have their writing vetted by Donner-Grau. Jennings and Wallace also report that Castaneda directed the inner circle's sex lives in great detail.

The most difficult part, Wallace believes, was that you never knew where you stood. "He'd pick someone, crown them, and was as capable of kicking them out in 48 hours as keeping them 10 years. You never knew. So there was always trepidation, a lot of jealousy." Sometimes initiates were banished for obscure spiritual offenses, such as drinking cappuccino (which Castaneda himself guzzled in great quantities). They'd no longer be invited to the compound. Phone calls wouldn't be returned. Having been allowed for a time into a secret, magical family, they'd be abruptly cut off. For some, Wallace believes, this pattern was highly traumatic. "In a weird way," she said, "the worst thing that can happen is when you're loved and loved and then abused and abused, and there are no rules, and the rules keep changing, and you can never do right, but then all of a sudden they're kissing you. That's the most crazy-making behavioral modification there is. And that's what Carlos specialized in; he was not stupid."

Another guru exposed as a manipulative and corrupt mortal.


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