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.


bert garvey said...


gossipy twaddle

Anonymous said...

i'm amazed by the reactions of some of the mmbers. hadn't they read Castaneda's books? Why not act instead as a warrior when being spurned? If the spirits spit you out, force yourself down their throats, don't go digging in a person's (or in that case, an object of obsession rather than person)"trash". As i understand it, Castaneda was not a guru, & did not wish to be. Judging by the content of his books, i'd have expected nothing but extreme strangeness from him, & would hope to take responsibility for my own deflated ego when everything didn't click into place just-so. If those ppl believed in his writings, they should know that absolutely nothing is what it seems. If they didn't believe, why were they trying to be involved? For attention? They were lost & weak? Castaneda saved them from themselves & they don't even know it.
Without refernce to the concept of erasing personal history, some statements seem cruel. But surely a warrior can take a little cruelty. We are ALL fleas. Waiting to be crushed. If a person cannot take rejection, they have no place in that kind of environment & would do well to leave.
Gossipy twaddle indeed.

Anonymous said...

If you think Carlos was a guru you're a fool. If you think he wasn't. . . you're even a bigger fool.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

Diablero. Carlos was given choices for doing good & evil, equally. He took out revenge just as much as he helped people. But really, he was simply a sacrifice so that some really early ethnobotanical info and shamanism could grab some limelight.
I think much of it was real, but that most of the narritive is false. Anyone who read the books knows what an idiot carlos is anyway; he always writes down his emotions & never good scientific info!! Aztec folklore ftw.

Anonymous said...

I've read the first 3 books years ago and loved them, tried to incorporate some of the exercises I could.
But now I read about some hard facts involving his life and later secret cult with the witches and am now disgusted with them.
Discrepancies are proved regarding anthropological facts and the stories on all the sex with the followers and his adopted daughter along with their disapearances is apauling! I do hope Carlos answers for his crimes in the after life! I feel cheated.

Anonymous said...

I suppose these comments were left a long time ago; I followed a link from Wikipedia. I wonder if any of the jerky commenters feel different in light of Patricia Partin's (the so-called Blue Scout's) all-too-human bones being discovered by her all-too-human vehicle in the desert. Did don Juan leave behind his bones when he left this world behind? Of course Castaneda was a guru, and of course his books DO have value to many people nonetheless. But if you are brainwashed, those books, and spiritual teachings in general, will do you no good at all.

cybervigilante said...

I liked his books at first, but he just wrote too many. I dawned on me that he was making this stuff up. Especially where his excuse for yet another book was that he "remembered" stuff he'd forgotten while in an alternate reality.

Many people have extremely powerful charisma - or a biofield if you like - that masks as some sort of enlightenment, but isn't. It's just a biofield. Match that up with humor and creativity and you have a powerful jester who can fool people.

Not that the jester's ideas are necessarily false. They may well be in tune with very high levels. OTOH, they may just be great writer/researchers who have immense personal magnetism.

But my test is a personal one. Although initially fascinated, I grew tired of Castaneda's endless books, and realized they had nothing more to offer me but mystification - along with some interesting twists on the infinite. But there has been a lot written about that. Read enough and you can find much more fascinating stuff than Castaneda.

I'll buy his story if he comes back from the Nagual - as he claims is possible ;')

Anonymous said...

A brilliant writer, and an evil, despicable human being.

Fred said...

My experience with the tower on the mountain took 10 years to unravel... I met them - all those women you all seem so afraid of .... maybe it was my predeliction as a solitary servant of Mother Earth that kept me from what you call the inner circle I was never one to join anything.... I was living in Toronto in 1999 and the tower on the mountain came to me and I realized it wasn't David Geffen as I had once been told... it was the being you knew as Carlos.... it was a small world with one mountain and he entered the world at the top of the mountain and slid down it like a firepole... I instantly knew him... had not connected for at least three years in linear time after having a huge fight with the lazy chacmools who were possessed with getting out of this world rather than serving it.

I confronted several of the women as well... in that world... they were there and gave me a test which I failed... they laughed at me and said I was still stuck in my vagina..... but I knew they felt affection for me... I asked the tower several questions about that world and other worlds....he told me many of those things was about another writing/a book he had written and in there was a clue for me from Genaro and the raven spirit... he then gave me the hug of gratitude which is like no human hug...he was an impeccable being and I didn't know he'd lost his form.... I just knew I would never see him again.... yet something told me it wasn't over... the warriors path is never over... I found out later that it was reported he had died .... I laughed.... well wouldn't that be exactly what the spirit intended for the groupies .... maybe his body had cancer but he sure as hell didn't die...

In the final book he wrote there is a passage there he put in for me.... in answer to my rage that the warriors didn't care about Mother Earth.... I almost had to read the entire book and almost gave up getting more and more pissed off and then.... there it when you read his last book look for the passage where he and Genaro both told us to serve the matrix give back to this awesome planet.... and before you crucify him again be careful when you look in the mirror.... you were not there.... I was...apparantly Jesus Christ didn't exist at all either... I know he did and I am a Jew.

PS I live on top of a mountain now for 7 years alone solitary no humans here... I serve the earth.... I am off the grid and will protect the wildlife and my corner of this world... what are you doing other than gossiping and judging .... Sazacha Red Sky

Karlito said...

For those who follow the warriors path, they know to SUSPEND JUDGEMENT above all else, because there is more to this mysterious world than meets the eye.

A warrior chooses to believe for the folly of it. A warrior has to believe something, so a warrior picks their delusion strategically.

Above all the warriors path is solitary in the pursuit of freedom (as taught by many masters dead or alive) so the chances of cult behavior emerging is diametrically opposed to achieving freedom.

All we have are our choices, choose to be annoyed by the hoax of Don Juan or choose to enjoy the teachings of Don Juan.

Karlito said...

For those who follow the warriors path, they know to SUSPEND JUDGEMENT above all else, because there is more to this mysterious world than meets the eye.

A warrior chooses to believe for the folly of it. A warrior has to believe something, so a warrior picks their delusion strategically.

Above all the warriors path is solitary in the pursuit of freedom (as taught by many masters dead or alive) so the chances of cult behavior emerging is diametrically opposed to achieving freedom.

All we have are our choices, choose to be annoyed by the hoax of Don Juan or choose to enjoy the teachings of Don Juan.

Karlito said...

For those who follow the warriors path, they know to SUSPEND JUDGEMENT above all else, because there is more to this mysterious world than meets the eye.

A warrior chooses to believe for the folly of it. A warrior has to believe something, so a warrior picks their delusion strategically.

Above all the warriors path is solitary in the pursuit of freedom (as taught by many masters dead or alive) so the chances of cult behavior emerging is diametrically opposed to achieving freedom.

All we have are our choices, choose to be annoyed by the hoax of Don Juan or choose to enjoy the teachings of Don Juan.

Fred said...

thank you Karlito and all those who were indelibly linked to the spirit of something no one can ever begin to comprehend.... remember power chooses you.... you don't get to choose and for those who are jealous don't be.... it is formidable to be chosen.... and solitary and melancholy.... so moments of joy and grace are indulged into.... and no there is no party.... just work.... and there is no rock and roll.... just the moments taken to rest and recharge and then back to warriors predicament. SRS

John Constantine said...

Only the gullible and those desperate for escapism could be taken in by Castaneda. There are also those who pilfer crumbs from Castaneda's table in order to scratch a living. There never has been any Toltec "nagualism". Anyone who doubts this merely has to pick up a book on the Yacqui or any other Mexican ethnography. There is no workable esoteric system to Castaneda. The books are in fact deeply pathological juvenile New Age fantasy, well suited those incapable of adapting to life and unwilling to face the rigors of work and self enquiry. Do-it-yourself "nagualism" is simply asking for trouble. The exercises of "dreaming" and "stalking" can and will lead to permanent derangement, a characteristic which is all too obvious in the bizarre ramblings of Castaneda followers. Assuming the pose of a "warrior" or "sorcerer" is the simply adding another veil of illusion from the self and the real world. This is the effect of the glamor of kundalini; exaggerated ego and realization of self-importance. Hence the deep-seated pathology - "I was chosen for power"; cutting oneself off from blood kin; assuming a pretend identity; dodging the responsibility to pay for one's existence, etc, etc. All of this is the polar opposite of genuine esoteric tradition.

At the rotten heart of Castaneda is New Age relativism. There is no way to verify the indescribable events Castaneda pretends to experience of the "nagual". It is the same convenient get-out-of-jail clause used by a vast number of abusive gurus who peddle spiritual power this and spiritual power that. Buyer beware, Castaneda can transform you into an spiritual invalid.

Vinyasa Yoga System said...

Thanks for the article

Ninja said...

Here's what I think - written in 2008:

At least the first three books and especially Journey to Ixtlan contain brilliant spritual advice even if the body of work is complete and utter fabrication. They are some of the most entertaining stories I have ever read.

cg said...

Posted Oct 2012

I, too think the 3rd book, Journey to Ixtlan, was the best. I think it contains lessons people can learn and actually follow - Death is an Advisor being the most important.

It is not important whether or not you believe the narrative. What is important is the message that all is not always as it seems. Perception, that is key. This is applicable in every life instance, physically, mentally, spiritually; and it can be proven/has been proven. It seems as if he is just stating the obvious. So what? We need to be reminded to gain perspective.

It is sad to read Carlos was abusive, but what do you expect? He was human.

acebackwords said...

What a total b.s. artist that guy was.

Anonymous said...

Interesting. What the human mind is capable of creating and believing! ((Is an exclaimation mark useful here? Is a question mark useful here)) The conditioning. Before the believer is the belief, after ingesting the belief, the believer becomes the belief. We are all victims of memes, the "world pulled over our eyes".

Even apparently Castaneda. Power corrupts. In all journeys to the outer limits of the human form, the journey to and through energy and to and through consciouness, the way is paved with obstacles, vanguards of the inertia of the human form, call them what you like, Bogey Men, Shadows, Maya, Mara, Inorganic Beings etc, boundary penetration through the realms of matter, energy and consciousness are 'naturally' guarded by the inbuilt inertia of the frame of reference, resisting phase change. Of which memes are at this level of consciousness, clearly a function of.

Power is one obstacle at the phase change from matter to energy. Knowledge is one obstacle at the phase change from energy to consciouness. Castaneda got stuck at the most rudimentary level of the phase change from matter to energy. As most humans do. Clearly Castaneda's sexual behaiour is indicative of this. The power corrupted his use of knowledge. If he had really overcome this, then the trap of sexuality would have been overcome. Poor deluded Castaneda. Poor deluded 'meme struck followers'.

As Nietzche commented, from 'The Creator', "...He who seeks may easily get lost himself"

And finally from Nietzsche, "...Go apart and be alone with your creating and loving, my brother and justice shall be slow to limp after you. Go apart and be alone with my tears my brother, I love him who wants to create beyond himself and thus perishes."

There are reasons for Pacceka Buddhas.

Unknown said...

please explain meme ... that was a name my first dog had and she was impecable... for your information Mr. Stuck one yourself.... nothing is as it appears... around the time the being you call CC left the world I as in my own being who had no knowledge of where he was or doing and certainly none of the alleged sexual behavior stuck to his "meme" had 3 encounters with the being you all know as CC... He isn't 'dead' and never will be... the worl I met him on was impecable and very small... there was no abuse of any kind in that world, especially animal abuse which I asked directly. And there was one mountain...

He is known there as "the tower on the mountain" ... so you go figure all the Memes you like... what is is and what people misconfigure will always be...
Nam Myoho Renge Kyo

Anonymous said...

The vagina-as-Venus-fly-trap meme has even been used as fodder for bad horror films.