The Dark Side Of Carlos Castaneda
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The Dark Legacy of Carlos Castaneda (Salon, April 2007)
Don Juan and the Sorcerer's Apprentice (Time Magazine Cover Story, March
Wikipedia on Carlos Castaneda
Carlos Castaneda Website
THE DARK LEGACY OF CARLOS CASTANEDA
By Robert Marshall
April 12, 2007
The godfather of the New Age led a secretive group of devoted followers
in the last decade of his life. His closest "witches" remain missing,
and former insiders, offering new details, believe the women took their
For fans of the literary con, it's been a great few years. Currently, we
have Richard Gere starring as Clifford Irving in "The Hoax," a film
about the '70s novelist who penned a faux autobiography of Howard
Hughes. We've had the unmasking of James Frey, JT LeRoy/Laura Albert and
Harvard's Kaavya Viswanathan, who plagiarized large chunks of her debut
novel, forcing her publisher, Little, Brown and Co., to recall the book.
Much has been written about the slippery boundaries between fiction and
nonfiction, the publishing industry's responsibility for distinguishing
between the two, and the potential damage to readers. There's been,
however, hardly a mention of the 20th century's most successful literary
trickster: Carlos Castaneda.
If this name draws a blank for readers under 30, all they have to do is
ask their parents. Deemed by Time magazine the "Godfather of the New
Age," Castaneda was the literary embodiment of the Woodstock era. His 12
books, supposedly based on meetings with a mysterious Indian shaman, don
Juan, made the author, a graduate student in anthropology, a worldwide
celebrity. Admirers included John Lennon, William Burroughs, Federico
Fellini and Jim Morrison.
Under don Juan's tutelage, Castaneda took peyote, talked to coyotes,
turned into a crow, and learned how to fly. All this took place in what
don Juan called "a separate reality." Castaneda, who died in 1998, was,
from 1971 to 1982, one of the best-selling nonfiction authors in the
country. During his lifetime, his books sold at least 10 million copies.
Castaneda was viewed by many as a compelling writer, and his early books
received overwhelmingly positive reviews. Time called them "beautifully
lucid" and remarked on a "narrative power unmatched in other
anthropological studies." They were widely accepted as factual, and this
contributed to their success. Richard Jennings, an attorney who became
closely involved with Castaneda in the '90s, was studying at Stanford in
the early '70s when he read the first two don Juan books. "I was a
searcher," he recently told Salon. "I was looking for a real path to
other worlds. I wasn't looking for metaphors."
The books' status as serious anthropology went almost unchallenged for
five years. Skepticism increased in 1972 after Joyce Carol Oates, in a
letter to the New York Times, expressed bewilderment that a reviewer had
accepted Castaneda's books as nonfiction. The next year, Time published
a cover story revealing that Castaneda had lied extensively about his
past. Over the next decade, several researchers, most prominently
Richard de Mille, son of the legendary director, worked tirelessly to
demonstrate that Castaneda's work was a hoax.
In spite of this exhaustive debunking, the don Juan books still sell
well. The University of California Press, which published Castaneda's
first book, "The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge," in
1968, steadily sells 7,500 copies a year. BookScan, a Nielsen company
that tracks book sales, reports that three of Castaneda's most popular
titles, "A Separate Reality," "Journey to Ixtlan" and "Tales of Power,"
sold a total of 10,000 copies in 2006. None of Castaneda's titles have
ever gone out of print -- an impressive achievement for any author.
Today, Simon and Schuster, Castaneda's main publisher, still classifies
his books as nonfiction. It could be argued that this label doesn't
matter since everyone now knows don Juan was a fictional creation. But
everyone doesn't, and the trust that some readers have invested in these
books leads to a darker story that has received almost no coverage in
the mainstream press.
Castaneda, who disappeared from the public view in 1973, began in the
last decade of his life to organize a secretive group of devoted
followers. His tools were his books and Tensegrity, a movement technique
he claimed had been passed down by 25 generations of Toltec shamans. A
corporation, Cleargreen, was set up to promote Tensegrity; it held
workshops attended by thousands. Novelist and director Bruce Wagner, a
member of Castaneda's inner circle, helped produce a series of
instructional videos. Cleargreen continues to operate to this day,
promoting Tensegrity and Castaneda's teachings through workshops in
Southern California, Europe and Latin America.
At the heart of Castaneda's movement was a group of intensely devoted
women, all of whom were or had been his lovers. They were known as the
witches, and two of them, Florinda Donner-Grau and Taisha Abelar,
vanished the day after Castaneda's death, along with Cleargreen
president Amalia Marquez and Tensegrity instructor Kylie Lundahl. A few
weeks later, Patricia Partin, Castaneda's adopted daughter as well as
his lover, also disappeared. In February 2006, a skeleton found in Death
Valley, Calif., was identified through DNA analysis as Partin's.
Some former Castaneda associates suspect the missing women committed
suicide. They cite remarks the women made shortly before vanishing, and
point to Castaneda's frequent discussion of suicide in private group
meetings. Achieving transcendence through a death nobly chosen, they
maintain, had long been central to his teachings.
Castaneda was born in 1925 and came to the United States in 1951 from
Peru. He'd studied sculpture at the School of Fine Arts in Lima and
hoped to make it as an artist in the United States. He worked a series
of odd jobs and took classes at Los Angeles Community College in
philosophy, literature and creative writing. Most who knew him then
recall a brilliant, hilarious storyteller with mesmerizing brown eyes.
He was short (some say 5-foot-2; others 5-foot-5) and self-conscious
about having his picture taken. Along with his then wife Margaret Runyan
(whose memoir, "A Magical Journey With Carlos Castaneda," he would later
try to suppress) he became fascinated by the occult.
According to Runyan, she and Castaneda would hold long bull sessions,
drinking wine with other students. One night a friend remarked that
neither the Buddha nor Jesus ever wrote anything down. Their teachings
had been recorded by disciples, who could have changed things or made
them up. "Carlos nodded, as if thinking carefully," wrote Runyan.
Together, she and Castaneda conducted unsuccessful ESP experiments.
Runyan worked for the phone company, and Castaneda's first attempt at a
book was an uncompleted nonfiction manuscript titled "Dial Operator."
In 1959, Castaneda enrolled at UCLA, where he signed up for California
ethnography with archaeology professor Clement Meighan. One of the
assignments was to interview an Indian. He got an "A" for his paper, in
which he spoke to an unnamed Native American about the ceremonial use of
jimson weed. But Castaneda was broke and soon dropped out. He worked in
a liquor store and drove a taxi. He began to disappear for days at a
time, telling Runyan he was going to the desert. The couple separated,
but soon afterward Castaneda adopted C.J., the son Runyan had had with
another man. And, for seven years, he worked on the manuscript that was
to become "The Teachings of Don Juan."
"The Teachings" begins with a young man named Carlos being introduced at
an Arizona bus stop to don Juan, an old Yaqui Indian whom he's told "is
very learned about plants." Carlos tries to persuade the reluctant don
Juan to teach him about peyote. Eventually he relents, allowing Carlos
to ingest the sacred cactus buds. Carlos sees a transparent black dog,
which, don Juan later tells him, is Mescalito, a powerful supernatural
being. His appearance is a sign that Carlos is "the chosen one" who's
been picked to receive "the teachings."
"The Teachings" is largely a dialogue between don Juan, the master, and
Carlos, the student, punctuated by the ingestion of carefully prepared
mixtures of herbs and mushrooms. Carlos has strange experiences that, in
spite of don Juan's admonitions, he continues to think of as
hallucinations. In one instance, Carlos turns into a crow and flies.
Afterward, an argument ensues: Is there such a thing as objective
reality? Or is reality just perceptions and different, equally valid
ways of describing them? Toward the book's end, Carlos again encounters
Mescalito, whom he now accepts as real, not a hallucination.
In "The Teachings," Castaneda tried to follow the conventions of
anthropology by appending a 50-page "structural analysis." According to
Runyan, his goal was to become a psychedelic scholar along the lines of
Aldous Huxley. He'd become disillusioned with another hero, Timothy
Leary, who supposedly mocked Castaneda when they met at a party, earning
his lifelong enmity. In 1967, he took his manuscript to professor
Meighan. Castaneda was disappointed when Meighan told him it would work
better as a trade book than as a scholarly monograph. But following
Meighan's instructions, Castaneda took his manuscript to the University
of California Press' office in Powell Library, where he showed it to Jim
Quebec. The editor was impressed but had doubts about its authenticity.
Inundated by good reports from the UCLA anthropology department,
according to Runyan, Quebec was convinced and "The Teachings" was
published in the spring of 1968.
Runyan wrote that "the University of California Press, fully cognizant
that a nation of drug-infatuated students was out there, moved it into
California bookstores with a vengeance." Sales exceeded all
expectations, and Quebec soon introduced Castaneda to Ned Brown, an
agent whose clients included Jackie Collins. Brown then put Castaneda in
touch with Michael Korda, Simon and Schuster's new editor in chief.
In his memoir, "Another Life," Korda recounts their first meeting. Korda
was told to wait in a hotel parking lot. "A neat Volvo pulled up in
front of me, and the driver waved me in," Korda writes. "He was a
robust, broad-chested, muscular man, with a swarthy complexion, dark
eyes, black curly hair cut short, and a grin as merry as Friar Tuck's
... I had seldom, if ever, liked anybody so much so quickly ... It
wasn't so much what Castaneda had to say as his presence -- a kind of
charm that was partly subtle intelligence, partly a real affection for
people, and partly a kind of innocence, not of the naive kind but of the
kind one likes to suppose saints, holy men, prophets and gurus have."
The next morning, Korda set about buying the rights to "The Teachings."
Under his new editor's guidance, Castaneda published his next three
books in quick succession. In "A Separate Reality," published in 1971,
Carlos returns to Mexico to give don Juan a copy of his new book. Don
Juan declines the gift, suggesting he'd use it as toilet paper. A new
cycle of apprenticeship begins, in which don Juan tries to teach Carlos
how to "see."
New characters appear, most importantly don Juan's friend and fellow
sorcerer don Genaro. In "A Separate Reality" and the two books that
follow, "Journey to Ixtlan" and "Tales of Power," numerous new concepts
are introduced, including "becoming inaccessible," "erasing personal
history" and "stopping the world."
There are also displays of magic. Don Genaro is at one moment standing
next to Carlos; at the next, he's on top of a mountain. Don Juan uses
unseen powers to help Carlos start his stalled car. And he tries to show
him how to be a warrior -- a being who, like an enlightened Buddhist,
has eliminated the ego, but who, in a more Nietzschean vein, knows he's
superior to regular humans, who lead wasted, pointless lives. Don Juan
also tries to teach Carlos how to enter the world of dreams, the
"separate reality," also referred to as the "nagual," a Spanish word
taken from the Aztecs. (Later, Castaneda would shift the word's meaning,
making it stand not only for the separate reality but also for a shaman,
like don Juan and, eventually, Castaneda himself.)
In "Journey to Ixtlan," Carlos starts a new round of apprenticeship. Don
Juan tells him they'll no longer use drugs. These were only necessary
when Carlos was a beginner. Many consider "Ixtlan," which served as
Castaneda's Ph.D. thesis at UCLA, his most beautiful book. It also made
him a millionaire. At the book's conclusion, Carlos talks to a luminous
coyote. But he isn't yet ready to enter the nagual. Finally, at the end
of "Tales of Power," don Juan and don Genaro take Carlos to the edge of
a cliff. If he has the courage to leap, he'll at last be a full-fledged
sorcerer. This time Carlos doesn't turn back. He jumps into the abyss.
All four books were lavishly praised. Michael Murphy, a founder of
Esalen, remarked that the "essential lessons don Juan has to teach are
the timeless ones that have been taught by the great sages of India."
There were raves in the New York Times, Harper's and the Saturday
Review. "Castaneda's meeting with Don Juan," wrote Time's Robert Hughes,
"now seems one of the most fortunate literary encounters since Boswell
was introduced to Dr. Johnson."
In 1972, anthropologist Paul Riesman reviewed Castaneda's first three
books in the New York Times Book Review, writing that "Castaneda makes
it clear that the teachings of don Juan do tell us something of how the
world really is." Riesman's article ran in place of a review the Times
had initially commissioned from Weston La Barre, one of the foremost
authorities on Native American peyote ceremonies. In his unpublished
article, La Barre denounced Castaneda's writing as "pseudo-profound
deeply vulgar pseudo-ethnography."
Contacted recently, Roger Jellinek, the editor who commissioned both
reviews, explained his decision. "The Weston La Barre review, as I
recall, was not so much a review as a furious ad hominem diatribe
intended to suppress, not debate, the book," he wrote via e-mail. "By
then I knew enough about Castaneda, from discussions with Edmund
Carpenter, the anthropologist who first put me on to Castaneda, and from
my reading of renowned shamanism scholar Mircea Eliade in support of my
own review of Castaneda in the daily New York Times, to feel strongly
that 'The Teachings of Don Juan' deserved more than a personal put-down.
Hence the second commission to Paul Riesman, son of Harvard sociologist
David Riesman, and a brilliant rising anthropologist. Incidentally, in
all my eight years at the NYTBR, that's the only occasion I can recall
of a review being commissioned twice."
Riesman's glowing review was soon followed by Oates' letter to the
editor, in which she argued that the books were obvious works of
fiction. Then, in 1973, Time correspondent Sandra Burton found that
Castaneda had lied about his military service, his father's occupation,
his age and his nation of birth (Peru not Brazil).
No one contributed more to Castaneda's debunking than Richard de Mille.
De Mille, who held a Ph.D. in psychology from USC, was something of a
freelance intellectual. In a recent interview, he remarked that because
he wasn't associated with a university, he could tell the story
straight. "People in the academy wouldn't do it," he remarked. "They'd
be embarrassing the establishment." Specifically the UCLA professors
who, according to de Mille, knew it was a hoax from the start. But a
hoax that, he said, supported their theories, which de Mille summed up
succinctly: "Reality doesn't exist. It's all what people say to each other."
In de Mille's first exposé, "Castaneda's Journey," which appeared in
1976, he pointed to numerous internal contradictions in Castaneda's
field reports and the absence of convincing details. "During nine years
of collecting plants and hunting animals with don Juan, Carlos learns
not one Indian name for any plant or animal," De Mille wrote. The books
were also filled with implausible details. For example, while
"incessantly sauntering across the sands in seasons when ... harsh
conditions keep prudent persons away, Carlos and don Juan go quite
unmolested by pests that normally torment desert hikers."
De Mille also uncovered numerous instances of plagiarism. "When don Juan
opens his mouth," he wrote, "the words of particular writers come out."
His 1980 compilation, "The Don Juan Papers," includes a 47-page glossary
of quotations from don Juan and their sources, ranging from Wittgenstein
and C.S. Lewis to papers in obscure anthropology journals.
In one example, de Mille first quotes a passage by a mystic, Yogi
Ramacharaka: "The Human Aura is seen by the psychic observer as a
luminous cloud, egg-shaped, streaked by fine lines like stiff bristles
standing out in all directions." In "A Separate Reality," a "man looks
like a human egg of circulating fibers. And his arms and legs are like
luminous bristles bursting out in all directions." The accumulation of
such instances leads de Mille to conclude that "Carlos's adventures
originated not in the Sonoran desert but in the library at UCLA." De
Mille convinced many previously sympathetic readers that don Juan did
not exist. Perhaps the most glaring evidence was that the Yaqui don't
use peyote, and don Juan was supposedly a Yaqui shaman teaching a "Yaqui
way of knowledge." Even the New York Times came around, declaring that
de Mille's research "should satisfy anyone still in doubt."
Some anthropologists have disagreed with de Mille on certain points.
J.T. Fikes, author of "Carlos Castaneda, Academic Opportunism and the
Psychedelic Sixties," believes Castaneda did have some contact with
Native Americans. But he's an even fiercer critic than de Mille,
condemning Castaneda for the effect his stories have had on Native
peoples. Following the publication of "The Teachings," thousands of
pilgrims descended on Yaqui territory. When they discovered that the
Yaqui don't use peyote, but that the Huichol people do, they headed to
the Huichol homeland in Southern Mexico, where, according to Fikes, they
caused serious disruption. Fikes recounts with outrage the story of one
Huichol elder being murdered by a stoned gringo.
Among anthropologists, there's no longer a debate. Professor William W.
Kelly, chairman of Yale's anthropology department, told me, "I doubt
you'll find an anthropologist of my generation who regards Castaneda as
anything but a clever con man. It was a hoax, and surely don Juan never
existed as anything like the figure of his books. Perhaps to many it is
an amusing footnote to the gullibility of naive scholars, although to me
it remains a disturbing and unforgivable breach of ethics."
After 1973, the year of the Time exposé, Castaneda never again responded
publicly to criticism. Instead, he went into seclusion, at least as far
as the press was concerned (he still went to Hollywood parties).
Claiming he was complying with don Juan's instruction to become
"inaccessible," he no longer allowed himself to be photographed, and (in
the same year the existence of the Nixon tapes was made public) he
decided that recordings of any sort were forbidden. He also severed ties
to his past; after attending C.J.'s junior high graduation and promising
to take him to Europe, he soon banished his ex-wife and son.
And he made don Juan disappear. 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
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
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,
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."
Whether disciples were allowed to stay or forced to leave seems often to
have depended on the whims of a woman known as the Blue Scout. Trying to
describe her power, Ward recalled a "Twilight Zone" episode in which a
little boy could look at people and make them die. "So everyone treated
him with kid gloves," she said, "and that's how it was with the Blue
Scout." She was born Patricia Partin and grew up in LaVerne, Calif.,
where, according to Jennings, her father had been in an accident that
left him with permanent brain damage. Partin dropped out of Bonita High
her junior year. She became a waitress, and, at 19, married an aspiring
filmmaker, Mark Silliphant, who introduced her to Castaneda in 1978.
Within weeks of their marriage she left Silliphant and went to live with
Castaneda. She paid one last visit to her mother; in keeping with the
nagual's instructions, she refused to be in a family photograph. For the
rest of her life, she never spoke to her mother again.
Castaneda renamed Partin Nury Alexander. She was also "Claude" as well
as the Blue Scout. She soon emerged as one of his favorites (Castaneda
officially adopted her in 1995). Followers were told he'd conceived her
with Tiggs in the nagual. He said she had a very rare energy; she was
"barely human" -- high praise from Castaneda. Partin, a perpetual
student at UCLA and an inveterate shopper at Neiman Marcus, was
infantilized. In later years, new followers would be assigned the task
of playing dolls with her.
In the late '80s, perhaps because book sales had slowed, or perhaps
because he no longer feared media scrutiny, Castaneda sought to expand.
Jennings believes he may have been driven by a desire to please Partin.
Geuter confirms that Castaneda told followers that the Blue Scout had
talked him into starting Cleargreen. But she also suggests another
motivation. "He was thinking about what he wanted for the rest of his
life," Geuter told me. "He always talked about 'going for the golden
clasp.' He wanted to finish with something spectacular."
Castaneda investigated the possibility of incorporating as a religion,
as L. Ron Hubbard had done with Scientology. Instead, he chose to
develop Tensegrity, which, Jennings believes, was to be the means
through which the new faith would spread. Tensegrity is a movement
technique that seems to combine elements of a rigid version of tai chi
and modern dance. In all likelihood the inspiration came from karate
devotees Donner-Grau and Abelar, and from his years of lessons with
martial arts instructor Howard Lee. Documents found by Geuter show him
discussing a project called "Kung Fu Sorcery" with Lee as early as 1988.
The more elegant "Tensegrity" was lifted from Buckminster Fuller, for
whom it referred to a structural synergy between tension and
compression. Castaneda seems to have just liked the sound of it.
A major player in promoting Tensegrity was Wagner, whose fifth novel,
"The Chrysanthemum Palace," was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner prize
(his sixth, "Memorial," was recently released by Simon and Schuster).
Wagner hadn't yet published his first novel when he approached Castaneda
in 1988 with the hope of filming the don Juan books. Within a few years,
according to Jennings and Wallace, he became part of the inner circle.
He was given the sorceric name Lorenzo Drake -- Enzo for short. As the
group began to emerge from the shadows, holding seminars in high school
auditoriums and on college campuses, Wagner, tall, bald and usually
dressed in black, would, according to Geuter and Wallace, act as a sort
of bouncer, removing those who asked unwanted questions. (Wagner
declined requests for an interview.) In 1995 Wagner, who'd previously
been wed to Rebecca De Mornay, married Tiggs. That same year his novel
"I'm Losing You" was chosen by the New York Times as a notable book of
the year. John Updike, in the New Yorker, proclaimed that Wagner "writes
like a wizard."
In the early '90s, to promote Tensegrity, Castaneda set up Cleargreen,
which operated out of the offices of "Rugrats" producer and Castaneda
agent (and part-time sorcerer) Tracy Kramer, a friend of Wagner's from
Beverly Hills High. Although Castaneda wasn't a shareholder, according
to Geuter, "he determined every detail of the operation." Jennings and
Wallace confirm that Castaneda had complete control of Cleargreen.
(Cleargreen did not respond to numerous inquiries from Salon.) The
company's official president was Amalia Marquez (sorceric name Talia
Bey), a young businesswoman who, after reading Castaneda's books, had
moved from Puerto Rico to Los Angeles in order to follow him.
At Tensegrity seminars, women dressed in black, the "chacmools,"
demonstrated moves for the audience. Castaneda and the witches would
speak and answer questions. Seminars cost up to $1,200, and as many as
800 would attend. Participants could buy T-shirts that read "Self
Importance Kills -- Do Tensegrity." The movements were meant to promote
health as well as help practitioners progress as warriors. Illness was
seen as a sign of weakness. Wallace recalls the case of Tycho, the
Orange Scout (supposedly the Blue Scout's sister). "She had ulcerative
colitis," Wallace told me. "She was trying to keep it a secret because
if Carlos knew you were sick he'd punish you. If you went for medical
care, he'd kick you out." Once Tycho's illness was discovered, Wallace
said, Tycho was expelled from the group.
If Castaneda's early books drew on Buddhism and phenomenology, his later
work seemed more indebted to science fiction. But throughout, there was
a preoccupation with meeting death like a warrior. In the '90s,
Castaneda told his followers that, like don Juan, he wouldn't die --
he'd burn from within, turn into a ball of light, and ascend to the heavens.
In the summer of 1997, he was diagnosed with liver cancer. Because
sorcerers weren't supposed to get sick, his illness remained a tightly
guarded secret. While the witches desperately pursued traditional and
alternative treatments, the workshops continued as if nothing was wrong
(although Castaneda often wasn't there). One of the witches, Abelar,
flew to Florida to inspect yachts. Geuter, in notes taken at the time,
wondered, "Why are they buying a boat? ... Maybe Carlos wants to leave
with his group, and disappear unnoticed in the wide-open oceans."
No boats were purchased. Castaneda continued to decline. He became
increasingly frail, his eyes yellow and jaundiced. He rarely left the
compound. According to Wallace, Tiggs told her the witches had purchased
guns. While the nagual lay bedridden with a morphine drip, watching war
videos, the inner circle burned his papers. A grieving Abelar had begun
to drink. "I'm not in any danger of becoming an alcoholic now," she told
Wallace. "Because I'm leaving, so -- it's too late." Wallace writes:
"She was telling me, in her way, that she planned to die."
Wallace also recalls a conversation with Lundahl, the star of the
Tensegrity videos and one of the women who disappeared: "If I don't go
with him, I'll do what I have to do," Wallace says Lundahl told her.
"It's too late for you and me to remain in the world -- I think you know
exactly what I mean."
In April 1998, Geuter filmed the inner circle packing up the house. The
next week, at age 72, Castaneda died. He was cremated at the Culver City
mortuary. No one knows what became of his ashes. Within days,
Donner-Grau, Abelar, Partin, Lundahl and Marquez had their phones
disconnected and vanished. A few weeks later, Partin's red Ford Escort
was found abandoned in Death Valley's Panamint Dunes.
Even within the inner circle, few knew that Castaneda was dead. Rumors
spread. Many were in despair: The nagual hadn't "burned from within."
Jennings didn't learn until two weeks later, when Tiggs called to tell
him Castaneda was "gone." The witches, she said, were "elsewhere."
In a proposal for a biography of Castaneda, a project Jennings
eventually chose not to pursue, he writes that Tiggs "also told me she
was supposed to have 'gone with them,' but 'a non-decision decision'
kept me here." Meanwhile, the workshops continued. "Carol also banned
mourning within Cleargreen," Jennings writes, "so its members hid their
grief, often drowning it in alcohol or drugs." Wallace, too, recalls a
lot of drug use: "I don't know if they tried to OD so much as to 'get
there.' Get to Carlos." Jennings himself drove to the desert and thought
about committing suicide.
The media didn't learn of Castaneda's death for two months. When the
news became public, Cleargreen members stopped answering their phones.
They soon placed a statement, which Jennings says was written by Wagner,
on their Web site: "For don Juan, the warrior was a being ... who
embarks, when the time comes, on a definitive journey of awareness,
'crossing over to total freedom' ... warriors can keep their awareness,
which is ordinarily relinquished, at the moment of dying. At the moment
of crossing, the body in its entirety is kindled with knowledge ...
Carlos Castaneda left the world the same way that his teacher, don Juan
Matus did: with full awareness."
Many obituaries had a curious tone; the writers seemed uncertain whether
to call Castaneda a fraud. Some expressed a kind of nostalgia for an
author whose work had meant so much to so many in their youth. Korda
refused comment. De Mille, in an interview with filmmaker Ralph Torjan,
expressed a certain admiration. "He was the perfect hoaxer," he told
Torjan, "because he never admitted anything."
Jennings, Wallace and Geuter believe the missing women likely committed
suicide. Wallace told me about a phone call to Donner-Grau's parents not
long after the women disappeared. Donner-Grau had been one of the few
allowed to maintain contact with her family. "They were weeping,"
Wallace said, "because there was no goodbye. They didn't know what had
happened. This was after decades of being in touch with them."
Castaneda's will, executed three days before his death, leaves
everything to an entity known as the Eagle's Trust. According to
Jennings, who obtained a copy of the trust agreement, the missing women
have a considerable amount of money due to them. Deborah Drooz, the
executor of Castaneda's estate, said she has had no contact with the
women. She added that she believes they are still alive.
Jennings believes Castaneda knew they were planning to kill themselves.
"He used to talk about suicide all the time, even for minor things,"
Jennings told me. He added that Partin was once sent to identify
abandoned mines in the desert, which could be used as potential suicide
sites. (There's an abandoned mine not far from where her remains were
found.) "He regularly told us he was our only hope," Jennings said. "We
were all supposed to go together, 'make the leap,' whatever that meant."
What did Jennings think it meant? "I didn't know fully," he said. "He'd
describe it in different ways. So would the witches. It seemed to be
what they were living for, something we were being promised."
The promise may have been based on the final scene in "Tales of Power,"
in which Carlos leaps from a cliff into the nagual. The scene is later
retold in varying versions. In his 1984 book, "The Fire From Within,"
Castaneda wrote: "I didn't die at the bottom of that gorge -- and
neither did the other apprentices who had jumped at an earlier time --
because we never reached it; all of us, under the impact of such a
tremendous and incomprehensible act as jumping to our deaths, moved our
assemblage points and assembled other worlds."
Did Castaneda really believe this? Wallace thinks so. "He became more
and more hypnotized by his own reveries," she told me. "I firmly believe
Carlos brainwashed himself." Did the witches? Geuter put it this way:
"Florinda, Taisha and the Blue Scout knew it was a fantasy structure.
But when you have thousands of eyes looking back at you, you begin to
believe in the fantasy. These women never had to answer to the real
world. Carlos had snatched them when they were very young."
Wallace isn't sure what the women believed. Because open discussion of
Castaneda's teachings was forbidden, it was impossible to know what
anyone really thought. However, she told me, after living so long with
Castaneda, the women may have felt they had no choice. "You've cut off
all your ties," she said. "Now you're going to go back after all these
decades? Who are you going to go be with? And you feel that you're not
one of the common herd anymore. That's why they killed themselves."
On its Web site, Cleargreen maintains that the women didn't "depart."
However, "for the moment they are not going to appear personally at the
workshops because they want this dream to take wings."
Remarkably, there seems to have been no investigation into at least
three of the disappearances. Except for Donner-Grau, they'd all been
estranged from their families for years. For months after they vanished,
none of the other families knew what had happened. And so, according to
Geuter, no one reported them missing. Salon attempted to locate the
three missing women, relying on public records and phone calls to their
previous residences, but discovered no current trace of them. The Los
Angeles Police Department and the FBI confirm that there's been no
official inquiry into the disappearances of Donner-Grau, Abelar and Lundahl.
There is, however, a file open in the Marquez case. This is due to the
tireless efforts of Luis Marquez, who told Salon that he first tried to
report his sister missing in 1999. But the LAPD, he said, repeatedly
ignored him. A year later, he and his sister Carmen wrote a letter to
the missing-persons unit; again, no response. According to Marquez, it
wasn't until Partin's remains were identified that the LAPD opened a
file on Amalia. "To this day," he told me, "they still refuse to ask any
questions or visit Cleargreen." His own attempts to get information from
Cleargreen have been fruitless. According to Marquez, all he's been told
is that the women are "traveling." Detective Lydia Dillard, assigned to
the Marquez case, said that because this is an open investigation, she
couldn't confirm whether anyone from Cleargreen had been interviewed.
In 2002, a Taos, N.M., woman, Janice Emery, a Castaneda follower and
workshop attendee, jumped to her death in the Rio Grande gorge.
According to the Santa Fe New Mexican, Emery had a head injury brought
on by cancer. One of Emery's friends told the newspaper that Emery
"wanted to be with Castaneda's people." Said another: "I think she was
really thinking she could fly off." A year later, a skeleton was
discovered near the site of Partin's abandoned Ford. The Inyo County
sheriff's department suspected it was hers. But, due to its desiccated
condition, a positive identification couldn't be made until February
2006, when new DNA technology became available.
Wallace recalls how Castaneda had told Partin that "if you ever need to
rise to infinity, take your little red car and drive it as fast as you
can into the desert and you will ascend." And, Wallace believes, "that's
exactly what she did: She took her little red car, drove it into the
desert, didn't ascend, got out, wandered around and fainted from
Partin's death and the disappearance of the other women aren't
Castaneda's entire legacy. He's been acknowledged as an important
influence by figures ranging from Deepak Chopra to George Lucas. Without
a doubt, Castaneda opened the doors of perception for numerous readers,
and many workshop attendees found the experience deeply meaningful.
There are those who testify to the benefits of Tensegrity. And even some
of those who are critical of Castaneda find his teachings useful. "He
was a conduit. I wanted answers to the big questions. He helped me,"
Geuter said. But for five of his closest companions, his teachings --
and his insistence on their literal truth -- may have cost them their lives.
Long after Castaneda had been discredited in academia, Korda continued
to insist on his authenticity. In 2000, he wrote: "I have never doubted
for a moment the truth of his stories about don Juan." Castaneda's books
have been profitable for Simon and Schuster, and according to Korda,
were for many years one of the props on which the publisher rested.
Castaneda might have achieved some level of success if his books had
been presented, as James Redfield's "Celestine Prophecy" is, as
allegorical fiction. But Castaneda always insisted he'd made nothing up.
"If he hadn't presented his stories as fact," Wallace told me, "it's
unlikely the cult would exist. As nonfiction, it became impossibly more
To this day, Simon and Schuster stands by Korda's position. When asked
whether, in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, the
publisher still regarded Castaneda's books as nonfiction, Adam
Rothenberg, the vice president for corporate communication, replied that
Simon and Schuster "will continue to publish Castaneda as we always
have." Tensegrity classes are still held around the world. Workshops
were recently conducted in Mexico City and Hanover, Germany. Wagner's
videos are still available from Cleargreen. According to the terms of
Castaneda's will, book royalties still help support a core group of
acolytes. On Simon and Schuster's Web site, Castaneda is still described
as an anthropologist. No mention is made of his fiction.
DON JUAN AND THE SORCERER'S APPRENTICE
Monday, March 5, 1973
The Mexican border is a great divide. Below it, the accumulated
structures of Western "rationality" waver and plunge. The familiar
shapes of society -- landlord and peasant, priest and politician -- are
laid over a stranger ground, the occult Mexico, with its brujos and
carismaticos, its sorcerers and diviners. Some of their practices go
back 2,000 and 3,000 years to the peyote and mush room and morning-glory
cults of the ancient Aztecs and Toltecs. Four centuries of Catholic
repression in the name of faith and reason have reduced the old ways to
a subculture, ridiculed and persecuted. Yet in a country of 53 million,
where many village marketplaces have their sellers of curative herbs,
peyote buttons or dried hummingbirds, the sorcerer's world is still
tenacious. Its cults have long been a matter of interest to
anthropologists. But five years ago, it could hardly have been guessed
that a master's thesis on this recondite subject, published under the
conservative imprint of the University of California Press, would become
one of the bestselling books of the early '70s.
The book was The Teachings of Don Juan: a Yaqui Way of Knowledge (1968).
With its sequels, A Separate Reality (1971) and the current Journey to
Ixtlan (1972), it has made U.S. cult figures of its author and subject
-- an anthropologist named Carlos Castaneda and a mysterious old Yaqui
Indian from Sonora called Juan Matus. In essence, Castaneda's books are
the story of how a European rationalist was initiated into the practice
of Indian sorcery. They cover a span of ten years, during which, under
the weird, taxing and sometimes comic tutelage of Don Juan, a young
academic labored to penetrate and grasp what he calls the "separate
reality" of the sorcerer's world. The learning of enlightenment is a
common theme in the favorite reading of young Americans today (example:
Hermann Hesse's novel Siddhartha). The difference is that Castaneda does
not present his Don Juan cycle as fiction but as unembellished
The wily, leather-bodied old brujo and his academic straight man first
found an audience in the young of the counterculture, many of whom were
intrigued by Castaneda's recorded experiences with hallucinogenic (or
psychotropic) plants: Jimson weed, magic mushrooms, peyote. The
Teachings has sold more than 300,000 copies in paperback and is
currently selling at a rate of 16,000 copies a week. But Castaneda's
books are not drug propaganda, and now the middle-class middlebrows have
taken him up. Ixtlan is a hardback bestseller, and its paperback sales,
according to Castaneda's agent Ned Brown, will make its author a
To tens of thousands of readers, young and old, the first meeting of
Castaneda with Juan Matus -- which took place in 1960 in a dusty Arizona
bus depot near the Mexican border -- is a better-known literary event
than the encounter of Dante and Beatrice beside the Arno. For Don Juan's
teachings have reached print at precisely the moment when more Americans
than ever before are disposed to consider "non-rational" approaches to
reality. This new openness of mind displays itself on many levels, from
ESP experiments funded indirectly by the U.S. Government to the weeping
throngs of California 13-year-olds getting blissed-out by the latest
child guru off a chartered jet from Bombay. The acupuncturist now shares
the limelight with Marcus Welby, M.D., and his needles are seen to work
-- nobody knows why. However, with Castaneda's increasing fame have come
increasing doubts. Don Juan has no other verifiable witness, and Juan
Matus is nearly as common a name among the Yaqui Indians as John Smith
farther north. Is Castaneda real? If so, did he invent Don Juan? Is
Castaneda just putting on the straight world?
Among these possibilities, one thing is sure. There is no doubt that
Castaneda, or a man by that name, exists: he is alive and well in Los
Angeles, a loquacious, nut-brown anthropologist, surrounded by such
concrete proofs of existence as a Volkswagen minibus, a Master Charge
card, an apartment in Westwood and a beach house. His celebrity is
concrete too. It now makes it difficult for him to teach and lecture,
especially after an incident at the University of California's Irvine
campus last year when a professor named John Wallace procured a Xerox
copy of the manuscript of Ixtlan, pasted it together with some lecture
notes from a seminar on shamanism Castaneda was giving, and peddled the
result to Penthouse magazine. This so infuriated Castaneda that he is
reluctant to accept any major lecture engagements in the future. At
present he lives "as inaccessibly as possible" in Los Angeles,
refreshing his batteries from time to time at what he and Don Juan refer
to as a "power spot" atop a mountain north of nearby Malibu: a ring of
boulders overlooking the Pacific. So far he has fended off the barrage
of film offers. "I don't want to see Anthony Quinn as Don Juan," he says
Anyone who tries to probe into Castaneda's life finds himself in a maze
of contradictions. But to Castaneda's admirers, that scarcely matters.
"Look at it this way," says one. "Either Carlos is telling the
documentary truth about himself and Don Juan, in which case he is a
great anthropologist. Or else it is an imaginative truth, and he is a
great novelist. Heads or tails, Carlos wins."
Indeed, though the man is an enigma wrapped in mystery wrapped in a
tortilla, the work is beautifully lucid. Castaneda's story unfolds with
a narrative power unmatched in other anthropological studies. Its
terrain -- studded with organ-pipe cacti, from the glittering lava
massifs of the Mexican desert to the ramshackle interior of Don Juan's
shack -- becomes perfectly real. In detail, it is as thoroughly
articulated a world as, say, Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County. In all the
books, but especially in Journey to Ixtlan, Castaneda makes the reader
experience the pressure of mysterious winds and the shiver of leaves at
twilight, the hunter's peculiar alertness to sound and smell, the
rock-bottom scrubbiness of Indian life, the raw fragrance of tequila and
the vile, fibrous taste of peyote, the dust in the car and the loft of a
crow's flight. It is a superbly concrete setting, dense with animistic
meaning. This is just as well, in view of the utter weirdness of the
events that happen in it.
The education of a sorcerer, as Castaneda describes it, is arduous. It
entailed the destruction, by Don Juan, of the young anthropologist's
interpretation of the world; of what can, and cannot, be called "real."
The Teachings describes the first steps in this process. They involved
natural drugs. One was Lophophora williamsii, the peyote cactus, which,
Don Juan promised, revealed an entity named Mescalito, a powerful
teacher who "shows you the proper way of life." Another was Jimson weed,
which Don Juan spoke of as an implacable female presence. The third was
humito, "the little smoke" -- a preparation of dust from Psilocybe
mushrooms that had been dried and aged for a year, and then mixed with
five other plants, including sage. This was smoked in a ritual pipe, and
used for divination.
Such drugs, Don Juan insisted, gave access to the "powers" or impersonal
forces at large in the world that a "man of knowledge" -- his term for
sorcerer -- must learn to use. Prepared and administered by Don Juan,
the drugs drew Castaneda into one frightful or ecstatic confrontation
after another. After chewing peyote buttons Castaneda met Mescalito
successively as a black dog, a column of singing light, and a
cricketlike being with a green warty head. He heard awesome and
uninterpretable rumbles from the dead lava hills. After smoking humito
and talking to a bilingual coyote, he saw the "guardian of the other
world" rise before him as a hundred-foot-high gnat with spiky tufted
hair and drooling jaws. After rubbing his body with an unguent made from
datura, the terrified anthropologist experienced all the sensations of
Through it all, Castaneda often had little idea of what was happening.
He could not be sure what it meant or whether any of it had "really"
happened at all. That interpretation had to be supplied by Don Juan.
Why, then, in an age full of descriptions of good and bad trips, should
Castaneda's sensations be of any more interest than anyone else's?
First, because they were apparently conducted within a system -- albeit
one he did not understand at the time -- imposed with priestly and
rigorous discipline by his Indian guide. Secondly, because Castaneda
kept voluminous and extraordinarily vivid notes. A sample description of
the effects of peyote: "In a matter of instants a tunnel formed around
me, very low and narrow, hard and strangely cold. It felt to the touch
like a wall of solid tinfoil...! remember having to crawl towards a sort
of round point where the tunnel ended; when I finally arrived, if I did,
I had forgotten all about the dog, Don Juan, and myself." Perhaps most
important, Castaneda remained throughout a rationalist Everyman. His one
resource was questions: a persistent, often fumbling effort to keep a
Socratic dialogue going with Don Juan:
" 'Did I take off like a bird?' "
"'You always ask me questions I cannot answer...What you want to know
makes no sense. Birds fly like birds and a man who has taken the devil's
weed flies as such.' "
"'Then I didn't really fly, Don Juan. I flew in my imagination. Where
was my body?' " And so on.
By his account, the first phase of Castaneda's apprenticeship lasted
from 1961 to 1965, when, terrified that he was losing his sense of
reality -- and by now possessing thousands of pages of notes -- he broke
away from Don Juan. In 1968, when The Teachings appeared, he went down
to Mexico again to give the old man a copy. A second cycle of
instruction then began. Gradually Castaneda realized that Don Juan's use
of psychotropic plants was not an end in itself, and that the sorcerer's
way could be traversed without drugs.
But this entailed a perfect honing of the will. A man of knowledge, Don
Juan insisted, could only develop by first becoming a "warrior" -- not
literally a professional soldier, but a man wholly at one with his
environment, agile, unencumbered by sentiment or "personal history " The
warrior knows that each act may be his last. He is alone. Death is the
root of his life, and in its constant presence he always performs
impeccably " This existential stoicism is a key idea in the books. The
warrior's aim in becoming a "man of knowledge and thus gaining
membership as a sorcerer, is to "see." "Seeing," in Don Juan's system,
means experiencing the work directly, grasping its essence, without
interpreting it. Castaneda's second book, A Separate Reality, describes
Don Juan's efforts to induce him to "see" with the aid of mushroom
smoke. Journey to Ixtlan, though many of the desert experiences it
recounts predate Castaneda's introduction to peyote, datura and
mushrooms, deals with the second stage: "seeing" without drugs.
'The difficulty," says Castaneda, is to learn to perceive with your
whole body not just with your eyes and reason. The world becomes a
stream of tremendously rapid, unique events. So you must trim your body
to make it a good receptor: the body is an awareness, and it must be
treated impeccably." Easier said than done. Part of the training
involved minutely, even piously attuning the senses to the desert, its
animals and birds its sounds and shadows, the shifts in its' wind, and
the places in which a shaman might confront its spirit entities spots of
power, holes of refuge. When Castaneda describes his education as a
hunter and plant-gatherer, learning about the virtues of herbs, the
trapping of rabbits, the narrative is absorbing Don Juan and the desert
enable him, sporadically and without drugs to "see" or, as the Yaqui
puts it "to stop the world." But such a state of interpretation-free
experience eludes description -- even for those who believe in Castaneda
Not everybody can, does or will But in some quarters Castaneda s works
are extravagantly admired as a revival of a mode of cognition that has
been largely neglected in the West, buried by materialism and Pascal's
despair, since the Renaissance. Says Mike Murphy a founder of the Esalen
Institute: "The essential lessons Don Juan has to teach are the timeless
ones that have been taught by the great sages of India and the spiritual
masters of modern times " Author Alan Watts argues that Castaneda's
books offer an alternative to both the guilt-ridden Judaeo-Christian and
the blindly mechanistic views of man."Don Juan's way regards man as
something central and important. By not separating ourselves from
nature, we return to a position of dignity.
But such endorsements and parallels do not in any way validate the more
worldly claim to importance of Castaneda's books: to wit, that they are
anthropology, a specific and truthful account of an aspect of Mexican
Indian culture as shown by the speech and actions of one person, a
shaman named Juan Matus. That proof hinges on the credibility of Don
Juan as a being and Carlos Castaneda as a witness. Yet there is no
corroboration -- beyond Castaneda's writings -- that Don Juan did what
he is said to have done, and very little that he exists at all.
Ever since The Teachings appeared, would-be disciples and counterculture
tourists have been combing Mexico for the old man. One awaits the first
Don Juan Prospectors' Convention in the Bruio Bar-B-Q of the Mescalito
Motel Young Mexicans are excited to the point where the authorities may
not even allow Castaneda's books to be released there in Spanish
translation. Said one Mexican student who is himself pursuing Don Juan:
"If the books do appear, the search for him could easily turn'into a
His teacher, Castaneda asserts, was born in 1891, and suffered in the
diaspora of the Yaquis all over Mexico from the 1890s until the 1910
revolution. His parents were murdered by soldiers. He became a nomad.
This helps explain why the elements of Don Juan's sorcery are a
combination of shamanistic beliefs from several<br/><br/>(Message over 64 KB, truncated)