Death in the Desert
February 20, 2006 11:57 PM   Subscribe

Remains of guru's disciple identified Shortly after the 1998 death of "A Separate Reality" guru Carlos Castaneda, whose peyote-fueled sorceric journeys into the Mexican desert captured the imagination of a generation in the 1970s, five of his closest disciples made out their wills, disconnected their telephones, and disappeared into thin air. via
posted by hortense (46 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
She is also believed to be the camel lady in the last link.
lots of interesting desert photos posted on the forum.
posted by hortense at 12:01 AM on February 21, 2006

Wow. Fascinating. I didn't realize any of this. I just knew the guy had written these books.
posted by Ironmouth at 12:06 AM on February 21, 2006

Peyote. It's a helluva drug.

Great links, hortense.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 12:15 AM on February 21, 2006

Wow. Bizarre. I had no idea about this hidden side of the Castaneda story.

Good post.
posted by Afroblanco at 12:41 AM on February 21, 2006

I remember reading these books in the 70's as a teen, they had quite a profound effect on me. I remember thinking how great it would be to be "Don Juan's" apprentice and learn such magical things.
posted by wtfchuck at 12:49 AM on February 21, 2006

From the Pahrump Valley Times article:
Castaneda's disciples tended to be attractive women and the teacher/student relationship was also a sexual one, according to many of the women who studied with him.

One of these was Amy Wallace, daughter of celebrated author Irving Wallace. Her recently released book "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" detailed her life as Castaneda's lover and student, and his voracious appetite for physical/spiritual relationships with women.
So Casteneda wasn't just blowing smoke about the Don Juan part after all...
posted by cenoxo at 1:17 AM on February 21, 2006 [1 favorite]

Look out the window. thats striped butte charlie manson used to hang around up here.
posted by hortense at 1:28 AM on February 21, 2006

I had a sociology teacher who had Castenada as required reading for a media literacy course. He taught it as literal truth and when I called him on the extensiveness of the fraud he told me I was too critical and that his work was a new kind of Anthropological storytelling. My response was that it was the oldest kind of anthropology - known as data faking. I got a D in the class. My lowest mark in uni and the one I am most proud of.
posted by srboisvert at 2:50 AM on February 21, 2006 [2 favorites]

That last link goes to a site with pages and pages of stories about life in a certain desert community, all centered around an old man named Bickel. Cranks, outlaws, survivalists, and 20 to 40 cats. I can't stop reading.
posted by Marla Singer at 3:51 AM on February 21, 2006

I couldn't help but stop. It seems the web publishing license has expired, or something. It just cuts off. Dang.
posted by intermod at 4:58 AM on February 21, 2006

The Outlaw John story appears to be continued on the second link on the left side.
posted by hupp at 5:26 AM on February 21, 2006

Some believed the five women, three of whom were known as "the witches," might have "burned from within," or vaporized into balls of light that joined with the eternal universe
The skull was never found...

posted by iamck at 6:20 AM on February 21, 2006

My response was that it was the oldest kind of anthropology - known as data faking.

Daniel Noel's The Soul of Shamanism is a good read on this. He doesn't make any excuses for Castenada--neither do I--but, your teacher wasn't entirely off-base, either. Just mostly.
posted by jefgodesky at 6:46 AM on February 21, 2006

Why did they disconnect their phones?
posted by at 7:12 AM on February 21, 2006

At the end of the day, Castaneda was just another fucking guru, and like all gurus, he was a fraud.
posted by perianwyr at 7:42 AM on February 21, 2006

Wow, I first learned about Castaneda from The Book of Lists by the Wallaces. I didn't realize there was such an intimate Wallace connection.
posted by gubo at 7:52 AM on February 21, 2006

perianwyr, you realize you just called out the entire Sikh religion.
posted by iamck at 7:54 AM on February 21, 2006

Excellent FPP hortense. Thank you. The Death Valley website rocks (my late father was a geologist who loved Death Valley with its eccentric codger-miners there and also around Sacramento). The Death Valley Talk forum is really a treat for me to read and see the personal photographs.

Corey Donovan, one of the former students of Castaneda, mentioned in the article about Partin's death, wrote an excellent review of book by Len Oakes, Prophetic Charisma, The Psychology of Revolutionary Religious Personalities, about pathological narcissists as cult leaders. Corey expressed his opinion in the review that Castaneda had narcissistic personality disorder (NPD).

Corey created a site, that you also linked to, Sustained Action, to both expose Castaneda's frauds and discuss some of the techniques Castaneda used. Since I was studying the psychology of pathological narcissism at that time and had just joined MetaFilter, it was my first FPP here.

Corey also created a discussion group for people recovering from the cult leadership of Carlos Castaneda, in particular people who knew Carlos Castaneda and had been students of his. Corey invited me to join that group to discuss the narcissism of several Tibetan Buddhist lamas I knew and because I had also been very influenced, like millions of others, by Castaneda in the 70's.

There is a more public forum, Sustained Reaction, discussing Castaneda's cult and his techniques. For those people interested in discussing recovery from any cult there is Steve Hassan's Yahoo group, FreedomOfMind, connected with his main site.

Another cult recovery tool is the use of "exit counselors" and "deprogrammers", such as Joe Szimhart.

srboisvert, it's heartening to hear you would not be coerced/bullied into believing something you doubted.
posted by nickyskye at 8:11 AM on February 21, 2006 [2 favorites]

Intriguing book review, nickskye.

In David Mamet's film House of Games (1987), Mike explains to Margaret that a con artist's goal is not to gain the confidence of his mark, but to give his own confidence to the mark.
posted by cenoxo at 9:00 AM on February 21, 2006 [1 favorite]

This is sad, because Castaneda had (as with many "gurus") some great insights and started out OK, with a powerful and innovative way of reaching people - a "trickster" persona based on probably, but not definitely, fabricated material. It is largely because of his early books that sleep researchers were forced to take a closer look at lucid dreaming and reverse the scientific consensus that such a phenomenon was impossible.

But like so many others, he either became convinced of the literal truth of what he was saying or he decided to play the game to the cynical extreme, and either way he went off the deep end. Now his legacy is just "another charismatic cult leader." Oh well. At least he didn't get involved in a shootout with the FBI.
posted by soyjoy at 9:08 AM on February 21, 2006

ooh cenoxo, I love that movie, Nice insight. Yes, I think this is part of why people become enmeshed with narcissists, it may feel like confidence/glamour/power by proxy.

When I asked the exit counselor, Joe Szimhart, his own thoughts about truth seeking he replied:
"Truth is not what you find in the end, in the packaged religion, it is a gift you get along the way if the way you practice is moral, elegant and socially sound."

soyjoy, I agree with you. ..."There is nothing inherently wrong with knowlege or being taught knowledge, which can be openly questioned, discussed in civil, adult ways with transparency of intention, it's the CULT around the knowledge that is sick..."
posted by nickyskye at 9:29 AM on February 21, 2006

I saw Castaneda speak in '71 or '72 (I was stoned through most of college and can't quite remember dates).

After reading the first book, we had prepared ourselves for this outlandish figure with feathers, beads, sandals, and a pancho. What we saw was this small latino man in a dark suit, white shirt, and a black necktie. Honestly, when he stepped up to the podium, we had no idea it was HIM.

He was very precise, understated, and quietly impressive. I am wondering if soyjoy is right about him getting corrupted by his notoriety and personal magnetism. . .

Ah, another feet of clay story. . .they all turn out that way, or so it seems. . .
posted by Danf at 12:18 PM on February 21, 2006 [1 favorite]

Danf, I think the feet of clay metaphor is a good one. People are human, flawed, not idols to be worshipped as ideal. When people are put on pedestals or set themselves up to be worshipped, sooner or later, a savvy person will see the feet of clay and the golden image crumbles. Admired or respected with good reason, ok, idealized, nope.

ps. Just wanted to say how Bill Gann's site, that hortense linked to, all about the characters in that part of the desert world, is so interesting, very readable and entertaining. There are assorted photographs connected with the site as well.
posted by nickyskye at 12:54 PM on February 21, 2006

I am stunned, and still laughing. Marijuana mixed with jimson weed, and sold as weed, would go a long way toward explaining the UFO sightings in the Panamint desert area, and the "Nordic Aliens" that live in the Panamint caves. The marijuana mixed with jimson weed, would explain the extraterrestrial bases in that area, and a whole host of other things.

Now the idea that the marijuana mixed with jimson weed, a trailer and a big bottle of wine, was the source of Castaneda's continued inspiration, along with 5 women flying shotgun, now that is amazing. The guy was in heaven, and he had a typewriter, that would enable him to continue his quest. As for the four other sorceresses, they must be laughing their asses off in a bar in Guaymas...

unless they all burned with a fire from within, which ending I prefer. Who wouldn'twant to find the magical back door to the closet, and travel to realms unimaginable, dance the night away, and be home for breakfast?
posted by Oyéah at 1:27 PM on February 21, 2006

This is a great post and followups. I am loving Bill Gann's stories!
posted by dejah420 at 2:15 PM on February 21, 2006

Great post. I was captivated by Casteneda's books as a teen in the late 70s. I stumbled upon one recently and scanned a few chapters. I really couldn't believe how stupid they were, and poorly written. But I am telling you, as a teen, those stories were just so deeply fascinating it is hard to explain.
posted by vronsky at 2:38 PM on February 21, 2006

Great post. Go. fuckin. figure.
posted by Smedleyman at 2:58 PM on February 21, 2006

Ever since I read the article about ol' Carlos in The Believer, I just can't take anything related to him seriously.
posted by absalom at 3:01 PM on February 21, 2006

Corey Donovan...hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.
posted by Oyéah at 3:50 PM on February 21, 2006

huh, what do you mean Oyéah? Corey is a man.
posted by nickyskye at 4:37 PM on February 21, 2006

At the time, reading the books was a "Separate Reality", good reading, and very believable considering the books were dubbed "non-fiction"
posted by wtfchuck at 12:47 AM on February 22, 2006

Castaneda's books, published by Simon and Schuster were originally sold as non-fiction. They went to the non-fiction best seller list and that fueled the controversy that this was an actual "Separate Reality". Now, however, Castaneda's books are sold BOTH as non-fiction and as science fiction/fiction. Even today, in Wikipedia, he is listed at the bottom of the page under the tag of "American non-fiction writers". The con is still being perpetrated.
posted by nickyskye at 6:22 AM on February 22, 2006

I wonder why Americans are so keen on living in another reality. They already do!
posted by acrobat at 6:33 AM on February 22, 2006 [1 favorite]

What if Juan Matus was, simply put, John with a big bottle of Mateus, and a bag of Jimson Weed laced Marijuana? Even at that I still own all the books, and have read them all at least 4 times apiece. Tales of Power I have read more than that. All told over the years, I may have paid $60 for Castaneda's books. Guys in cigar bars pay $80 for a single shot of Scottish whiskey. I got the better deal, do they still sell Mateus?
posted by Oyéah at 6:52 AM on February 22, 2006

Hi folks nickyskye was kind enough to tell me of some of you visiting my Walt Bickel Heritage site.

Those interested in Casteneda should also read Alex Apostolides' story. There is a button for his page from the home page. ZY World is blocked here at work or I'd post the link for you.

Alex was a friend of Casteneda and discussed the shamanic world with him before he wrote his books. Alex was a friend of mine.

Alex just died (at 84) in fact, and his wife is bringing his ashes from Texas. We are going to scatter them on the mesa behind Bickel Camp on April 16. Come if you like.

The story about Outlaw John has been cut in half by my server. I have to pay a fee or something to get my space back.

One more interesting note on the Casteneda connection to Bickel Camp. The body of one of his lady friends was found in Death Valley shortly after Carlos checked out. Her body wasn't identified for several years. With improved DNA, however, this ID just took place.

Anyway, look at the Camel Lady, find a picture of that groupie on the net. They sure look like the same person. Problem is the dates don't match up.

Camel Lady was drunk all the time when I knew her, and never said anything that made much sense. She also served time, as told in the last part of the story that has been cut. Whatever.

Well, nice to meet you. Bill Gann
posted by BillyElmore at 1:15 PM on February 24, 2006 [2 favorites]

Hiya Bill Gann/BillyElmore, I hadn't read the Alex Apostolides' story and look forward to it. Your stories of the people around Bickel's Camp are marvelous, a feast of oral histories. I've forwarded the link to the Alex A. story to Corey Donovan and Castaneda's students. I think it will be of interest to them. Glad you joined MetaFilter and posted in this thread. :) nicky
posted by nickyskye at 4:15 PM on February 24, 2006

Wow,thank you nickyskye, for your conrtibutions to this thread. I linked to Bill's site to add color to an oldnews post, and it turns out that a friend/colleague of Casteneda had a page there as well. whadda ya know.
Welcome to metafilter Bill,
posted by hortense at 7:20 PM on February 24, 2006

hortense, nifty little coinkidink there about that page, lol, and thanks.
posted by nickyskye at 9:09 PM on February 24, 2006

Oyéah , you may be near the mark with that last comment: "Even Margaret Runyan Castaneda, who had been married to him, while admiring Castaneda and his work, says she doubts Don Juan ever existed and believes his name came from Mateus, the bubbly Portuguese wine the couple used to drink. "

"Summer 1960 - Mary Joan Barker ("Joanie), whom Castaneda later describes to the Sunday group as "don Juan's first student," becomes involved with Castaneda....

It is presumed that, early in their relationship, Joanie took Castaneda for a visit to the Morongo Indian Reservation, near her childhood home in Banning, California. Margaret notes that, at this time, "Carlos began leaving for hours at a time, and then days . . . . At first, I thought he had found another woman, but he denied that. Carlos said that he was making trips into the desert to study the use of medicinal plants by the Indians." (A Magical Journey p. 81.) She also reports that, for his paper for Meighan, Castaneda "worked with a Cahuilla on a reservation near Palm Springs, and then went out on the Colorado River and worked with a few Indians there. . . . . Ultimately, he found one man who related a great deal of information about Jimson weed (Datura inoxia) and it was that information that served as the basis of Carlos’ undergraduate paper . . . ."

Could this person who taught Castaneda about jimson weed have been Alex Apostolides?
posted by nickyskye at 4:46 PM on February 25, 2006

We love our myths, don't we? It must be innate to us as a species to create legends, to which we offer up our fondest dreams and aspirations.

What a great thread this is.
posted by Oyéah at 8:40 PM on February 25, 2006

Actually I knew Alex for several years before he even spoke of Castaneda.

It was only when he brought this, seeker from Greece, I suppose is best to call him that I even heard of Carlos. This guy wasn't anything special, except he had devoted his life to the quest for knowledge. That sort of blew me away. What a concept.

The intellectual depth I had achieved up to that point was found in the Hobbit and Jonathan Livingston Seagull. I actually thought I was on to something.

It was Alex's girlfriend, Anita, who mocked what I thought, was profound insight in those books. "That's a bunch of 'do your own thing' crap, talk to Alex if you really want to know about knowledge."

Anita and I were rather young in those days and pretty much full-on potheads.

Alex, however, was older and very conservative with using psychoactive plants, especially Jimson Weed. He might hit a joint once a month but looked upon Anita and I as naughty children. We pretty much smoked everyday all day when possible.

He kept saying pot is a spice in life, not the main course. I think that's why he and Anita finally split Jimson Weed, he never mentioned.

But, true enough, he knew much about magic plants and did talk of 'cememonies' he had experiened. Who knows?
posted by BillyElmore at 8:47 PM on February 25, 2006

Hortense, was your friend Dr. Derek Lamar?

I had some interesting e-mail exchanges with him. Then, I think I said the somthing he didn't like. No answer.
posted by BillyElmore at 8:59 PM on February 25, 2006

No I don't know the good Dr. but, have had some interesting coincidences occur in the saline dunes.
posted by hortense at 9:40 PM on February 25, 2006

BillyElmore ; I know a few spring Bobs though,you maybe interested in a previous post
posted by hortense at 9:53 PM on February 25, 2006

Were you on the Skins or the Misfits?
posted by BillyElmore at 8:29 PM on February 26, 2006

Bill sent me an e mail and restored the missing part:I just found a little time to go to my site and fix the second half of the
Camel Lady story. There is still a small part missing from part one, but, by
far, the best part of the story you didn't get to read. here it is
posted by hortense at 11:42 PM on March 8, 2006 [1 favorite]

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