Dec 11, 2004

Beyond belief

The Observer, Saturday 11 December 2004

With the likes of Madonna and Guy Ritchie giving celeb cred to Kabbalah, cults have never been more fashionable, nor more contentious. Nick Johnstone meets US cultbuster Rick Ross who, for a fee of $5,000, offers to deprogramme 'victims' and return them to their families

This is a story about believing too much. It's a story about losing sight of the boundary, the invisible line between believing in something and letting it take over your life. It's also a story about a man who has built his life and career on saving people who he thinks believe too much.

It's December 2003 and I'm sitting in a room full of tanned, good-looking Californians, at the Kabbalah Center in Los Angeles, waiting for a rabbi to give us a free introductory lecture. I'm wearing a white name tag, my name scrawled across it. A few days earlier, in the Kabbalah Centershop, I nearly bought the 'red string' ($26 for a piece of thread that 'protects us from the influences of the Evil Eye'). Always on the lookout for a cure-all for my recurring anxiety/depression problems, here I am, ever hopeful, wondering if the Kabbalah Center will be the answer to my problems.

The lecture reminds me of some New Age, self-help nightmare, visions of Tom Cruise in Magnolia passing through my mind as the rabbi talks endlessly about how the Kabbalah could make our lives so much richer. Quite literally. We are told that financial wealth, career success, love, happiness - all these things are within reach.

The next day, at a Hanukkah party, I mention I've been to the Kabbalah Center. Clearly, this is not the thing to say. One woman says she's heard the Kabbalah Center is a 'cult'. Her partner says he's read that the Kabbalah Center lures you in and then tries to get its hands on your money. Another woman tells me about Rick Ross. She says he is America's top 'cult expert', that I should visit his website,, and read the file on the Kabbalah Center.

I go home confused. What is so bad about the Kabbalah Center? Given that its ideas are a Deepak Chopra-style interpretation of basic Kabbalah ideas, re-cast to suit our rehab, Prozac, self-improvement times, I found what it teaches useful in the same way I find therapy useful.

Later, scrolling through the 'Group Information Database', online home of the Rick A Ross Institute for the Study of Destructive Cults, Controversial Groups and Movements (RRI), a non-profit, tax-exempt archive, public-information service based in New Jersey, I find files on many different organisations, categorised both alphabetically and ideologically. There are files on 'Hate' groups (Aryan Nations, Stormfront and Westboro Baptist Church, whose web address There are 'Religious' groups (International Church of Christ, Order of Christ/Sophia, Children of God, Jesus People, the Jehovah's Witnesses, The Brethren), 'Neo Eastern' (Sai Baba, 3HO, Integral Yoga), 'Satanic' (First Church of Satan), 'Human Potential' (Scientology, Landmark Education), 'Bible Based' (The Holy Order of Mans, House of Yahweh, Jews for Jesus, Victory Church), 'Sci-Fi/UFO' (Chen-Tao/God's Salvation Church, Raelians, Beta Dominion Xenophilia) and so on.

Within these categories are individual files both surprising - Deepak Chopra, Nation of Islam, Patty Hearst, Kim Jong-il - and expected - al-Qaeda, the Manson family, Jim Jones, David Koresh/Waco Davidians, Reverend Sun Myung Moon. Although Ross keeps files on almost all of the estimated 5,000 active groups in the US (and on many of the estimated 500 groups in the UK), he is keen to stress that a group or individual's inclusion on his website does not necessarily mean they are harmful, or a cult. He also stresses that no religious, political or personal agenda motivates the opening of a file. He only opens a file if a group or individual's behaviour starts attracting controversy.

So who is Rick Ross, and why has he appointed himself both judge and jury?

Rick Ross was born to a Jewish family in November 1952. His father was a plumbing contractor and his mother a helper at the Jewish Community Center in Phoenix, Arizona. After high school, Ross worked for a finance company, then a bank, before falling into trouble with the law. In 1974, he was convicted for the attempted burglary of a vacant show house and sentenced to probation. The following year he was sentenced to five years' probation after he and a friend embezzled property from a jewellery company. Ross then went to work for his cousin's car-salvage business. In 1982, aged 30, he had his first introduction to the world of groups and cults when a Christian missionary group infiltrated his grandmother's nursing home.

After successfully campaigning to have the group removed, Ross immersed himself in the psychology and methodologies of group activity, working as a volunteer, researcher and lecturer for various Jewish organisations, before striking out in 1986 as a private consultant and deprogrammer (an Orwellian-sounding term for someone hired to 'unbrainwash' people). Today, deprogrammers are known as intervention specialists, thought-reform consultants or exit counsellors.

In 1992, his reputation was sealed when the FBI sought his advice on David Koresh and the Waco (or Branch) Davidians. A year later, as the Waco siege raged, CBS hired him as on-scene analyst. Meanwhile, he was in court again, after Jason Scott, the 18-year-old subject of an involuntary intervention, filed charges of 'unlawful imprisonment'. Scott's mother had authorised Ross to hold Scott against his will in a bid to deprogramme him from the Life Tabernacle Church, an intervention method no longer practised by professionals in Ross's field. After the court ruled in Ross's favour, Scott won a civil suit in 1995 and was awarded $3m damages. Out of the ashes of bankruptcy, Ross launched and left Phoenix for Jersey City, where he founded the Rick A Ross Institute.

Looking over his career, his moral credentials seem shaky at best. But then, taking into account his claimed 75 per cent success rate for interventions (he has worked on more than 350 cases, at a typical cost of $5,000, everywhere from the US to the UK, Israel to Italy), he has rescued many people from harmful situations and has worked as an expert court witness in cases relating to controversial groups.

Fast-forward to July 2004 and Rick Ross is telling me, via phone from his office in Jersey City, about an intervention case he worked on the previous summer involving the Kabbalah Center. Like most intervention cases, it began with an inquiry from a family; this time, a British family concerned about their daughter's involvement with the centre in Los Angeles.

'Their daughter Sarah was becoming increasingly disconnected from her family,' Ross recalls. 'Her personality seemed to have dramatically changed. Her entire life revolved around the Kabbalah Center. She worked there, spent most of her after-work time there, lived with other members and apparently had no romantic life.'

Despite working long hours, Sarah did not receive 'meaningful compensation, nor benefits such as medical coverage. She appeared largely incapable of making her own decisions, or critically examining how her life had changed, or of considering the practical consequences of her involvement at the centre, such as her personal finances.' After years of her involvement with the Kabbalah Center, Sarah's family believed the situation was deteriorating. 'They called me, hoping to find a way to intervene and discuss their concerns without the centre's interference,' says Ross.

When Sarah told her parents she would be coming home to the UK for the first time in years, for the opening of the London Kabbalah Centre, Ross hatched a plan. The family would rent cottages in the Cotswolds - something they had done often when Sarah was a child - and invite her to take a mini-break. Sarah agreed. And when she arrived, Ross was waiting.

Initially, he explained who he was, why her family had hired him, and why he believed she was being exploited in her position of 'chevra' (a full-time volunteer worker at the centre). After three hours, she stormed off, telling Ross and her family, 'I understand what you're trying to do here. I'm very upset, I'm very angry at everybody. I'm going to pack my stuff and I'm going to go back to London. You've disappointed me, you've tricked me. I'm not going to continue with this.' This being a typical scenario, Ross had already appointed one of her brothers to handle any upsets. After several hours of discussions, Sarah's brother persuaded her to give Ross one more hour of her time.

'I told her that Philip Berg, the founder of the Kabbalah Center, once signed documents "Dr Philip Berg", but in fact he has no PhD, though he may have an honorary, unaccredited or mail-order doctorate. And Berg paid himself $2.5m for intellectual property rights regarding books and tapes - $2.5m out of the [organisation's] non-profit.' Ross also explained to her that the school Philip Berg claimed to be closely associated with in Israel had denounced him. 'Now, these would be things that I would not usually say to someone in the very beginning of an intervention,' Ross says, 'because they might become angry and walk out. I made these points quickly and she looked at me rather startled and said, "Can you prove that?" And I said, "Yes, I have all the documents with me."'

At this point, Sarah and Ross began talking. Three days later, their discussions came to a close. By then, she and her family were being bombarded with calls from the Kabbalah Center.

'They were sending urgent messages to her parents' London home, saying, "Where is she?",' Ross remembers. 'And Sarah was someone Madonna knew personally through the centre and who worked with her daughter as part of their programmes. Guy Ritchie was expecting to see her at the opening of the new centre. When the Kabbalah Center was sending her emails saying, "Where are you?" she was in a mental health facility, Wellspring Retreat, a rehab centre for ex-cult members in the US. Wellspring Retreat and Resource Center is 'a residential treatment facility specialising in the rehabilitation of victims of cultic abuse'. It was founded in Albany, Ohio, in 1986 by Dr Paul Martin and his wife Barbara. Like Sarah, Dr Martin crossed that line between a harmless belief in something and a faith that almost wrecked his life when he got involved with The Jesus People in 1971. At the time, he was a doctoral student at the University of Missouri, studying psychopharmacology (his specialist research field was hallucinogens).

'This bunch of people came through campus in a VW van with a rock'n'roll band,' he tells me, 'proclaiming that Jesus was a better revolutionary than Marx or Che, and it was pretty impressive. They had better music and better-looking girls and I thought, "Maybe this is it," so I dropped out of grad school.'

Believing himself to have been increasingly indoctrinated, Martin left the group in 1978, in the throes of a nervous breakdown. 'I started having dissociative episodes. I couldn't tell if I was dreaming or awake. It was like a Fellini movie.'

As he recovered, he looked for answers as to how this had happened. 'I picked up a copy of Robert Jay Lifton's Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism and it gave me cold chills because the similarities were really uncanny. I said, "Oh my god, I was in a cult!" I always thought cults were something that only happened to the weirdos, and I wasn't a weirdo. The people in my group were the boy and girl next-door, the class valedictorian, a Vietnam war vet - a cross-section of regular people.'

After finishing his PhD and undergoing training in psychology and mental-health counselling, Dr Martin decided to focus on helping people put their lives back together after leaving groups and cults. Today, Wellspring has 15 full-time staff and nine beds. It's a kind of Betty Ford Clinic, where patients conquer their addiction to beliefs, groups and leaders.

There is a formal screening process. 'We make sure these people are really suitable for our programme,' Martin explains. 'Are they really cult victims or are they mentally ill? You have to make sure they're not so sick or suicidal or debilitated that they could not even participate in a programme where there's a lot of talk or dialogue.'

To verify Sarah's story, I email a transcript of what Ross told me to the Kabbalah Center in Los Angeles (earlier I had requested an interview with Philip Berg, which was declined), asking for their comment. In response, I receive a curt email from its publicist, Andy Behrman, informing me: 'Rick Ross has never met anybody at the Kabbalah Center and to the best of our knowledge this story and the facts are entirely false.' I forward the statement to Ross. 'Mr Behrman knows very well who I am speaking about,' he insists. 'The young woman was a full-time "chevra" worker at the LA centre and well known to everyone there.'

I mention to Ross that while Sarah's experiences with the Kabbalah Center sound troubling, her story is hardly comparable to the mass suicides of Waco or Jonestown, nor the killing sprees carried out in Charles Manson's name. He explains that he is always careful to distinguish between a cult and a destructive or controversial group.

'The Kabbalah Center is not stockpiling weapons,' he says. 'They don't have a compound. I've received no complaints of physical abuse. They seem to be focused on money: buy the Kabbalah water, buy the red string, buy this, buy that, give us 10 per cent of your income, and so on.'

To determine whether a group is benign or destructive, Ross - like most professionals in his field - uses Lifton's 1961 book as a diagnostic tool. Lifton details eight characteristics that typify a destructive group environment: dictating with whom members can communicate; convincing members they are a chosen people with a higher purpose; creating an us-versus-them mentality, whereby everything in the group is right and everything outside is wrong; encouraging members to share their innermost secrets and then purge whatever hinders their merging with the group; convincing members that their philosophical belief system is 'the absolute truth'; creating an 'in' language of buzzwords and groupspeak which becomes a substitute for critical thinking; reinterpreting human experience and emotion in terms of the group's doctrine; and reinforcing the idea that life within the group is good and worthy, and life outside evil and pointless. During an intervention, Ross brings out Lifton's book, usually having picked apart the group's own literature.

As a recovering alcoholic, I still think about where the line is between heavy drinking and alcoholism. In the same way, I ask myself when a life-enhancing involvement with a group, guru or individual becomes damaging? Ross explains that the process is gradual, insidious. 'When people typically join, they only see what the group wants them to see. Then they are gradually spoon-fed more on a need-to-know basis. So,' says Ross, 'there's this escalating involvement, a process of baby steps to deeper involvement in the group. You aren't told the more radical beliefs of a group until you've been so heavily indoctrinated that you're no longer able to critically evaluate those beliefs.'

According to Ross, the kind of person who typically becomes unhealthily involved with a group is looking for ideals and a sense of purpose. They're very altruistic, he says, 'because to be a good cult member you have to make a lot of sacrifices'. They may have been going through a difficult period in their lives. 'When people are lonely, depressed, experiencing a major setback and some group comes along and says, "Look, we've got the answers, we can give you whatever you want, just put the red string on, drink the Kabbalah water and everything will be OK," it's very appealing.'

Carol Giambalvo is now retired, but she was once America's leading thought-reform consultant. (She got into the profession when her stepdaughter became involved with Iskcon, the International Society for Krishna Consciousness.) To her, it's less about a personality type than a matter of circumstance. 'People don't join cults,' she tells me. 'They simply join a group that seems to have answers for their life goals: getting closer to God, self-improvement, getting rich, getting power, getting a feeling of belonging to something real special. People are deceived and their best attributes are used against them.'

As Giambalvo points out, the one unifying factor, according to research, is that people who get involved in a cultic group are in a major transitional stage in life: 'A mid-life crisis, going to college, graduating college, loss of a loved one through death or divorce, moving to a new country or community - these are all normal transitional stages when we're just a little more vulnerable to undue influence.'

Marguerite Corvini, now 24 and studying for a masters in social work at New York University, fits this definition. 'A lot of people who get sucked into these groups are at a vulnerable point in their lives,' she says. 'That was certainly the case for me.'

From a wealthy family, she fell in with mystical Christian group Order of Christ/Sophia after graduating from college in 2001. Unsure what to do with her life, she was taken to Order meetings by her brother Michael, then a doctor in residency at Yale University. He had been introduced to the group by his then-girlfriend Shanti, daughter of Father Peter Bowes, who co-founded the Order in early 2001 with fellow ex-Holy Order of Mans priest, Mother Clare Watts. Michael introduced Marguerite to Father Bowes.

'I was so freaked out by him,' Marguerite says, getting breathless, his power over her still evident. But her brother's devotion and reverence to Father Bowes caused her to cast those thoughts aside. Soon after, Michael moved into the Order house in Boston and asked her to do the same.

She was torn, but having always looked up to her brother, she moved into the house in February 2002 to become a 'Novice', a commitment that required her to take a vow of celibacy and obedience for a year.

'It was a very monastic life. I had to break up with my boyfriend. My teacher, Reverend Beatrice, would tell me not to be sexually involved with my boyfriend, because if you're having sex with somebody, you're releasing that sexual energy and that energy should be focused on God. And if we had any sexual thoughts about anyone, we were urged to confess to our teachers.'

Eventually, Marguerite was given a clear message. 'I was told that having a boyfriend was not right for my soul.' Marguerite 'cut off' from her boyfriend, group-speak for severing communication with non-members. 'He would call me, leave me messages, send emails.'

Finally, Reverend Beatrice put a stop to it. 'She called him and said: "She can't talk to you any more, she's made a commitment to the programme and is celibate."'

Didn't Marguerite find this strange?

'I was upset, I was angry, but all the time in my head I was like, "But if this is what God wants for me, I want to be good, I want to reach my potential as a human being."'

In early 2003, Mr and Mrs Corvini, having both been diagnosed with cancer within a matter of weeks of one another, contacted Rick Ross. They said their dying wish was to have their children free from the Order of Christ/Sophia. Ross began planning an intervention. Meanwhile, when Michael and Marguerite received the news of their parents' illness, they were encouraged not to react by Father Bowes.

'Michael didn't see them while they were sick,' Marguerite remembers. 'Whatever reason he had, it was probably a spiritual thing - "They want you to talk to them, that's why they're getting sick, they're trying to manipulate you with their illness."'

Michael's initial reaction was to sever ties. 'He sent them this letter and basically cut off my mom,' recalls Marguerite, who was by now training to be a deacon. 'And I sent a letter, too. That's something that Father Peter does, he has everybody send letters. It's almost like he wants the parents to be so mad they cut off their kids.'

Soon after, Marguerite was urged to cut off her friends. Father Peter, she says, explained that she was free to leave but added, 'When you meet Jesus, he's going to say, "What happened Marguerite? You were on the right track and you strayed." Then you are going to have to start all over again, and it's going to be even harder to get to where you are now.'

We were just happily doing our thing and then this whole smear campaign against us starts,' says Mother Clare Watts, mother of four (one is in the Order) and co-founder of the Order of Christ/Sophia, in her Southern drawl from the newest Order house, in Seattle. 'It's been so frustrating to us. Rick Ross goes after every single group he can because it's a money thing. Money and power and anger. He's such a slimy character, he's just a sleaze. We actually ended up talking to some Scientologists and they said, "Oh dear, poor you, we've been putting up with this for 30 years. You're just the latest victim." They ended up sending us a ton of stuff about Rick Ross and the whole deprogramming history. I had to start learning about all this stuff. The word "cult" meant very little. Scientology even had us get advice from their attorneys.'

I ask her to explain the Order's basic ideology. 'Our core ideology is the inner path, the mystical path, where we are teaching people how to go inside their being and connect with the God-self inside of them.'

During our conversation, she talks enthusiastically about Rumi, the Kabbalah, Sufism, St Teresa of Avila - all the great mystics. It all sounds harmless. So why does she think Marguerite Corvini is calling the Order a 'cult' and Rick Ross has a file about their activities on his website?

'Well,' she sighs, 'Father Peter and I are both psychotherapists, so we work with all of our students on the psychological and emotional pieces of their healing and their growth; we bump into people's family issues, where there are still wounds from childhood in the way of their spiritual growth, where they're holding anger and resentment and where they're still under the control of their families' emotional or life control. We put a high value on honesty. This is where we get in trouble.'

With the Corvinis' health failing, Ross had to invent an opportunity for an intervention. He coached Mr Corvini on how to call Marguerite and ask if she would come home and drive her mother to hospital. Mr Corvini put the favour to his daughter. Marguerite told him she first needed to speak with Mother Clare, who is revered within the Order for her ability to communicate with the Virgin Mary. (When I ask Mother Clare if that is true, she says, 'Yes, I have received revelations from Mother Mary, but we teach everyone to do that. The way Marguerite puts it, she makes us look like freaks. We teach everyone to make those connections with Master Jesus and Mother Mary.')

'I went to Mother Clare,' remembers Marguerite. 'And she said, "Let's ask guidance." So we sit down and ask God and she gets an answer and the answer is no, you shouldn't go.'

Mother Clare had been suspicious. 'I said to Marguerite, "You know, it feels like they're up to something, but your mom may be dying some time in the next few months, so why don't you go visit her? This may be goodbye."'

As soon as Marguerite got home, her father had her car taken to a garage for a service. Then, also on Ross's advice, Mr Corvini had the phone lines cut. In the morning, Marguerite stepped out of the bathroom to find Ross, her parents, her grandmother and her best friend, all waiting for her on the landing. The intervention had begun. She thought of her car - then remembered it wasn't there. The phone was dead. Trapped, she heard Ross out. He managed to win her over. The next day, she collected her belongings from the Order house and flew out to Ohio, where, like Sarah, she was admitted to the two-week treatment programme at Wellspring, which she credits with changing her life.

'They used a lot of cognitive behavioural therapy to help me work through the thoughts and the whole process of how this happened to me. I'm a smart person, I'm well educated, I had pretty high self-esteem when I walked into Order of Christ/ Sophia, but by the time I came out I didn't know who I was. Initially, I would just be driving in my car, chewing a piece of gum and listening to whatever radio station I wanted, and that was immense freedom.'

Marguerite could be talking here about drugs, sex, alcohol, gambling. It sounds like a typical 12-step recovery story. Now she's had time to get her life back together, I ask her how she managed to lose herself so completely.

'Well,' she says. 'You put a frog in boiling hot water, they're going to jump out. You put them in lukewarm water and turn up the heat. By the time they realise they're in a pot of boiling hot water, they're kind of used to it. That's what happened to me.'

And what did the Order make of her leaving? When she arrived home, there was a note waiting for her from Father Bowes. All it said was: 'Where the hell are you?'

Soon after Marguerite left the Order, Ross set up an intervention to get Michael out as well, but as soon as Ross introduced himself, Michael fled his grandmother's house. Today, he's still a priest within the Order. Since then, other exit counsellors have tried to 'free' other members of the Order. None has been successful.

'With Marguerite, we didn't know yet to warn them about these interventions,' Mother Clare tells me. 'Now we warn people and people are aware. And they haven't caught anybody again.'

Such is the impact of Ross's attentions that there is now an 'Open Letter to the Parents and Friends of Our Members' by Father Bowes on the Order of Christ/Sophia website, which begins: 'Families of some of our members in the Order of Christ/Sophia have expressed concern about whether we are a cult. The answer is simply, no we are not a cult.' He goes on to attack 'anti-cult experts' who 'attack legitimate spiritual communities simply because they are not mainstream. They select families that have money and charge high rates to help families force their adult children to leave.'

Two decades into his crusade, Ross has made a lot of enemies, ranging from groups anxious to protect their reputations, recruitment potential and profit margins, to group members fiercely loyal to their beliefs, such as Neo-Nazis who send Ross almost daily anti-Semitic messages. And then there's the litigation. Presently, he's facing three different lawsuits from groups who claim he has made slanderous, damaging statements about their activities.

'I don't think a day goes by when I'm not threatened by somebody,' he sighs. 'Whether it's the threat of a lawyer or maybe something a little more colourful about how my anatomy might be re-arranged ... I've had death threats. I've had people say they would not only kill me but would then wash my remains down the sewer personally. But if I wasn't being sued and I wasn't being harassed I'd honestly ask myself, "What difference am I really making? Am I really doing my job very well?" If Scientologists sent me a box of chocolates with a thank-you card, I'd think, "Boy, I must be in bad shape!"'

As he says this, it dawns on me that everybody in this story believes or has once believed too much. Everybody thinks they're right. Why did the Order of Christ/Sophia seemingly wreck Marguerite's life while her brother Michael clearly feels it's the best possible life path for him?

Why does Madonna credit the Kabbalah Center with enriching her life, while involvement with the very same centre appears to have resulted in Sarah being admitted to Wellspring?

Or is it less about the group and more about the individual? Maybe certain individuals, with pre-existing psychological problems, join one of these groups, have what they perceive to be a bad experience and end up blaming the group for everything wrong in their lives. For every Sarah or Marguerite, there are many others claiming that their lives have been enormously enriched by their affiliation with a particular group or organisation.

Why does Ross keep going? Is it really, as Mother Clare and many other critics and groups claim, a 'money thing'? After a summer's worth of correspondence with Ross, I believe his motives are genuine, even if there are many groups out there who claim he's driven by profiteering.

But he, too, believes in the rightness of his moral compass. Everybody in a position of power or authority in this story, from Mother Clare to Rick Ross, believes they're right. And then, lost somewhere in the gulf between them, are the people who don't know how to believe in something without that faith taking over their lives.

· Some individuals' names have been changed

Nov 27, 2004

Remember when: A yacht moored on the Broadwater was linked to a Denmark-based cult leader

Gold Coast Bulletin
November 27, 2004

Butterfly McQueen, the Bermuda rigged schooner was previously owned by Tvind offshoot the Teachers Group
A MULTIMILLION-dollar superyacht moored on the Broadwater was linked to an accused cult leader facing fraud and embezzlement charges in Denmark

Mogens Amdi Petersen was called a hard man to track down.

After all, he once went missing for 22 years.

When he seemed to slip off the face of the Earth in 1979, most people saw Petersen as a throwback to the 1960s — a charismatic do-gooder out to help the Third World.

The Danish teacher espoused Marxist-Leninist principles, set up radical teaching colleges in his homeland and sent young disciples to Africa.

Then, one day, he disappeared.

Despite this, the `charitable’ causes he founded didn’t miss a beat. In fact, they grew stronger — much stronger.

Some people started calling the elusive boss a cult leader.

Others wondered whether the millions of dollars were reaching the right places.

All wanted to know where they could find Mogens.

Petersen had access to luxury homes dotted around the world, had a multimillion-dollar Florida apartment just for his dogs and enjoyed the use of an elegant superyacht. At 40m, it was once the biggest fibreglass luxury vessel in the world.

If you took a stroll to the Broadwater that weekend you could see it for yourself in all its three-masted, teak-inlaid glory.

Named Butterfly McQueen, the Bermuda rigged schooner was previously owned by Tvind offshoot the Teachers Group.

Petersen was acquitted in 2006 but the case was appealed — he remains at large today and as of 2016 was understood to be living underground in Mexico.

Aug 31, 2004

St. Paul Massacre: First indications point to an international sect

Béchard Lane Eckankar
"L'express Outlook
 August 31, 2004

Friday afternoon: the police go to the Mawooas’ home in St Paul to look for Rajesh Dhayam. A few minutes later, they break their way into the locked house where they find ten bodies. The enquiry points to links with an international sect.

After being taken out of the house, the ten bodies were subject to autopsy. Cyanide was found in all of them.

After being taken out of the house, the ten bodies were subject to autopsy. Cyanide was found in all of them.

The discovery of ten bodies in a state of decomposition in a house at Béchard Lane Saint Paul is surely a heavy blow for the whole country. After three days of enquiry, the investigators have concluded that an “international sect” could be at the origin of the collective suicide. The police are now looking for clues in the past of Critika Mawooa, who seems to be responsible for this massacre. People having contact with the woman say she had a ‘mystical’ side.

Several clues brought the police to investigate further into the habits of this 37 year-old woman, the first being the fourteen-page suicide note found near her body. The letter, which has not been authenticated yet, states how unfortunate she was and how miserable her whole life was. It was because of her sentimental and financial problems that she decided to put an end to her life. So did the nine other persons found in the padlocked house of their own free will, according to the letter. Cyanide was found in all the bodies.

Two medallions carrying initials EK were found on the corpses of Crithika Mawooa and Rajesh Dhayam. These indices led the investigators to the assumption that the Eckankar sect is behind deaths.

The bodies may have remained there for some days before being found by the police. The neighbourhood did not really wonder about their absence as the Mawooas have always been very “discreet people.” The rest of the family were not worried either since they were told that the group was going to Rodrigues.

This macabre affair started on Friday afternoon. The members of the Criminal Investigation Division (CID) of Quatre-Bornes went to the Mawooa’s house to look for Rajesh Dhayam, Critika’s lover. This administrative assistant at the Mahatma Gandhi Institute had been reported missing since 6th August. The police went to Béchard Lane after finding Critika’s picture in his house.

As soon as they arrived at the house, they found padlocks on the doors. They had to break them to discover the ten bodies spread out in the house. Four other members of the Mawooa family were found dead in the house; Critika’s brother, Ravi (36), her sister, Chinta (30), their mother, Coontee (69), and her son, Devesh Nunkumar (11). Rajesh Dhayam’s body was also found in the house. Hervé Janvier, a tramp aged around 50, was also found among the dead bodies.

Maya Jhowry and her two children, Khesha (17) and Bhavesh (15) were found dead in the house as well. Maya had left her marital home on 22nd July after making a statement at the police station of Long Mountain stating that her marriage with Suchit Jhowry was not going well.

However, according to people around them, Critika had a strong influence on Maya. They had met at the Victoria Hotel where they used to work together as beauticians. Maya was a strong believer and practising member of a branch of Hare Rama Hare Krishna. But one of her relatives admits, “Overnight Maya suddenly abandoned all her habits to follow the precepts of her new guide, Critika.” On Critika’s side, people say that she has always been involved in strange religious rites.

Maya is also said to have vouched for the Mawooa family. According to one of her relatives, she took a certain number of loans for Critika and paid them back. In August 2003, Maya is said to have enrolled Critika and her sister and brother as shareholders of a credit union in Long Mountain. They vouched for each other and finally succeeded in obtaining a total loan of Rs 76,000.

The few details the investigators have on this massacre indicate that it is the result of Critika, a desperate woman gnawed at by her problems since her childhood, being caught up in the precepts of an international sect. Likewise, everything points to the fact that the other people were caught up in this suicidal fever.

The letter, the traces of cyanide… Everyone seemed to be ready for death at Béchard Lane.

However, there is still mystery around these deaths at St Paul. Although the police are seriously investigation the theory of the international sect, they are not neglecting any clues such as the fact that the doors were all closed from the outside when they arrived on the premises.

The police will thus continue their enquiry on the cause of this dramatic event. Unfortunately, the victims may have taken their secrets – and the real cause of all this – to their graves…

“The few details the investigators have on this massacre indicate that it is the result of Critika, a desperate woman gnawed at by her problems, being caught up in the precepts of an international sect.”

Jun 30, 2004

In the Company of Men Mankind's 'New Warriors' Embrace Nature, Each Other, 'Sacred Masculinity'

Nathaniel Popper
The Jewish Daily Forward
January 30, 2004

By the hearth of a crackling fireplace at the Deer Park Church Camp in rural Pennsylvania, Josh Shaneson was welcomed into a brotherhood of men, for the second time.

Shaneson, 19, had been inducted into manhood once before, as his yarmulke and ritual fringes indicated. But unlike his bar mitzvah, at this initiation he had plenty of company.

The 20 or so men flanking Shaneson - some with baseball caps and gold-cross necklaces, others with yarmulkes - had just emerged from a three-day New Warrior Training Adventure, a ritualistic weekend that aims to open up men to the "sacred masculine."

Following a round of drumming and a blessing from one of the group's "elders" at the "homecoming" ceremony, the men discussed the initiation experience while passing around a feathered staff. Between speakers, the men would simultaneously emit a guttural "Ogh!"

Since 1987, some 20,000 men from all religious backgrounds have gone through the New Warrior Training at 27 sites around the world. Though the organizers at The Mankind Project - the nonprofit organization that organizes the weekends - do not collect information on religion, past participants and leaders say they have been surprised by the number of Jewish men, like Shaneson, who have found their way to the training. The Deer Park weekend, with six Jewish participants, was not atypical; in fact, there often are more Jewish participants.

The apparent appeal of the training for Jewish men in particular, from all levels of observance, shines light on the complicated relationship so many Jewish men have with their masculinity.

"The ideal of the Jewish man is more the scholar than the athlete," said Harry Brod, an associate professor at the University of Northern Iowa, where he specializes in men's studies, and editor of the anthology "A Mensch Among Men: Explorations in Jewish Masculinity."

"Because standards of Jewish masculinity are different than in the dominant culture, there are already questions about masculinity in the minds of Jewish men," Brod said, "and the tendency toward sensitivity in Jewish men makes it okay to explore those questions."

Judging from attendance at New Warrior Training sessions, many of the men caught in this bind are observant Jews. On Shaneson's weekend, all six of the Jewish men were Orthodox. The weekends have grown so popular with Orthodox men that this winter, for the first time ever, a Washington-area training was rescheduled to begin after sundown on Saturday so that five Lubavitcher chasidim could take part.

But many of the Jewish men who came forward to talk about their Warrior Training experiences at the Pennsylvania homecoming had not been to a synagogue in years.

Stan Sherman, one such man, who is the enrollment director of the national organization, said that on his first training weekend, in 1997, he turned to a friend and remarked on the incredible number of fellow secular Jews who independently had found the training.

"Yeah, think how much money we're saving on therapy," his friend shot back.

The training does demand a bit more than the typical session on an analyst's couch. While the exact activities are kept secret from nonparticipants, the leaders talk about a ritual hunt (though they are quick to add that no animal is actually killed) and intense emotional confrontations between the initiates and the leaders. Secrecy is an integral part of the weekends, about which information is spread solely by word-of-mouth.

The physical challenge promised by the weekend would naturally be attractive for many Jewish men, says Michael Kimmel, a sociology professor who researches masculinity at the State University of New York at Stony Brook.

"Growing up in my own Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn," said Kimmel, editor of "The Politics of Manhood," "there was a lot of shame to being a Jewish man…. I think this weekend, like a lot of contemporary Jewish politics, comes out of a similar impulse to never let anyone push us around again."

But the more emotionally in-touch Jewish man of lore does not get left behind in the training. Like a good bagel, the weekends promise that elusive combination of crunchy and chewy.

"It's not like you go out and eat raw deer," said Andrew Epstein, 54, a graphic designer from Chicago who went to his first New Warrior Training in 2003. "You go into the woods and process," Epstein said, "and in the process I, for one, met a network of men who I've been able to rely on."

The Mankind Project is one group in the so-called "mythopoetic men's movement," which sprang up during the 1980s with inspiration from the writings of Robert Bly, author of the bestseller "Iron John." The movement, mocked by its critics for its appropriation of Native American rituals and reliance on New Age self-help models, aims to get men in touch with some sense of "primitive masculinity" by creating trusting relationships between small groups of men.

At the Deer Park graduation, all of the initiates talked about the love they felt for their new "brothers." At the back of the room, men locked in silent, 30-second bear hugs.

The tribal resonances of such communal bonding are a neat fit for members of the Jewish tribe. Yet the tribal language used during the weekends takes its cue from Native American spiritual rituals, some of which create uncomfortable friction with Jewish tradition.

Group leaders strive to incorporate these rituals into an nonreligious context; at the Deer Park Church Camp, the Mankind Project banner had been draped to obscure a tiled replica of 'The Last Supper.'

But many Jewish men said that some of the spiritual elements made them nervous, at least initially.

Rabbi Jeffrey Greenberg, 26, who helped lead the training session for Orthodox men near Washington, said that during that weekend he had supervised the kitchen for kosher restrictions and helped provide substitutes for the rituals that had made him uncomfortable during his own training.

Greenberg, a teacher at a Jewish day school in New York, said that many of the rituals were easily infused with a Jewish spirit. The ceremonial sweat lodge, for instance, had an easy precedent in the old-fashioned shvitz.

Such substitutions, though, are not usually made, and many Jewish men came to the weekend looking for a spirituality they felt was lacking in their Jewish experiences, most of all in their first initiation into manhood.

"My bar mitzvah was just a big party," said Hal Klegman, a 56-year-old executive recruiter from Chicago who completed his first training in 1987. "Spirituality was not what my parents were looking for in a synagogue. Spirituality was the lacking component."

For Shaneson - a regular Hillel attendee at the University of Pennsylvania, where he is a student - the weekend brought him to see a more intricate set of problems in his own Jewish education.

"We always read what we should be, and we don't focus on what we are, and how to appreciate that, as the New Warrior Training teaches," Shaneson said. "The ideal of Judaism can be limiting and restricting."

For Shaneson, and many other Jewish participants, the weekend caused a re-evaluation of their Jewish connections. In the end, though, most of them talked about feeling closer to Judaism.

Kourosh Babaian, a 25-year-old clothing salesman from New York, said the Deer Park training weekend helped him to "feel more comfortable as a Jew doing everything" and "to experience my religion in a spiritual way."

The pathways through which this happens have been criticized by a number of feminists, who see the entire mythopoetic men's movement as reestablishing the old gender hierarchies, a criticism Brod expanded upon.

"The idea that there is some essential manhood that lies in separation from women is a dangerous idea," Brod said. "Where comes this idea that men can only learn nurturing and emotional support from other men?"

But most of the wives and mothers at the homecoming ceremony seemed thrilled with their new, improved husbands and sons. And the leaders were full of talk about all the old, artificial categories that are broken down by the experience.

"It allowed a bonding opportunity with other men and with the outside world that might not have been possible otherwise," said Greenberg of the Lubavitcher men who went through the weekend. "They put aside those religious labels, and other externalities, and allowed their core person to come out."

May 25, 2004

Holy Rollers: Murder and Madness in Oregon's Love Cult

Frank MacHovec, Ph. D.
Cultic Studies Journal
Vol. 3, No. 1, 2004

Holy Rollers: Murder and Madness in Oregon's Love Cult
T. McCracken and R. B. Blodgett Published by: Caldwell, ID: Caxton Press, 2002, 295 pages, paperback. $16.95 ISBN: 0870044249
_______________________________________________ ^
The authors, a naturalist and a paleontologist with an interest in northwest U.S. history, refer to their topic as the “long suppressed” story of Edmund Creffield’s Holy Roller movement, started in 1903 in Corvallis, Oregon. (They explain that older folks in Corvallis don't want to talk about the Holy Rollers.)
Writing for the general public, the authors present the Holy Roller movement chronologically, with many anecdotes of the people involved and their life situations. The book includes 30 brief chapters averaging 10 pages each, and a 3-page epilogue. Also included is an impressive 15-page bibliography that includes birth, marriage, and death certificates, census data, and newspaper articles of the time.

Creffield, a German immigrant who came to the United States at age 20, was a Salvation Army dropout. His real name was Franz Edmund Creffield. He converted an experienced Salvation Army officer sent to discredit him, and the Salvation Army later left town—both events evidence of his charisma and verbal skills. Also impressive is how he was able to intrude into the personal lives and lifestyles of leading families in the community. Five feet six inches tall and weighing 135 pounds, Creffield was not physically an imposing figure. His strength was psychological, called a “hypnotic effect” by some who observed him. He began recruiting members using a traditional Christian approach, and then he claimed to be Joshua. Ultimately, he became a self-proclaimed apostle and gradually added his own version of the ideal religion.

Creffield’s strategy was to claim a direct divine connection and the power to “relieve suffering” by the laying on of hands. He appealed to those sensitized by guilt or a deprived childhood, although many otherwise normal people were also converted. His technique was to lower defenses and disinhibit by sermonizing for up to 24 hours to followers, mainly women, who rolled on the floor seeking forgiveness. This ritual, by which followers believed they became “God’s anointed,” was often repeated daily. Creffield’s ability to have women cancel their engagements to be married, deter married couples from having sex, and have others drop out of work or school demonstrated his power.
Members of the movement burned their furniture and prized possessions, belongings that Creffield called “carnal.” Nonmembers were “infidels” to be shunned, even if they were spouses or a member’s children.

As the result of growing public outrage, the sheriff had two local physicians examine Creffield in the presence of a judge and city attorney. They found him legally sane. Released, he escalated his message, prophesying an imminent end of the world, which drew public interest. Media coverage spread. So did rumors of this man surrounded by women, amid growing suspicion that he had sexual contact with them. He urged followers to remove clothing to be like Adam and Eve. Because the law didn’t stop him, a vigilante group of men calling themselves “white caps” descended on Creffield. He was tarred, feathered, and run out of town. A follower took him in and allowed him to continue his ministry in the family home. Creffield chose to marry a 16-year-old follower, but her family committed her to the Boys’ and Girls’ Aid Society (she was too young for the insane asylum). There, she was diagnosed as “bright but deranged, mind almost unhinged by religious fanatics.”

Creffield moved to Portland, Oregon and claimed he was “the second Saviour.” Page 62 refers to Maud Hurt vowing “to have nothing to do with him”; but, on the next page, she is referred to as Creffield’s wife, an unexplained gap. His effect on the mainly female group members was strong and destructive. They prided themselves on being “brides of Christ,” and allegedly to Creffield as the second Christ. This behavior further enraged the public. When he was seen nude with a scantily clad woman, he was arrested, tried, and convicted of adultery. He fled but was discovered hiding under a follower’s house. Sentenced to two years in the state penitentiary, he was a model prisoner and won release seven months early.

Creffield then moved to Seattle with his loyal followers. He claimed to have caused the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. This claim impressed group members and strengthened his hold on them. A brother whose sister was “ruined” by Creffield shot and killed “the second Christ” on a Seattle street. The brother, in turn, was killed by the sister he avenged. She later committed suicide, as did Creffield’s wife, bringing this tragic history to an end.
The book is written in a style more journalistic than scientific, although it is well referenced. Its major contribution is its description of how a destructive cult can develop in an average community. The narrative shows the vulnerability of otherwise normal people, and the escalation of a charismatic leader’s control over them. Parallels to modern-day destructive cults are obvious, with similarities to Jim Jones’ People’s Church, Marshall Applewhite’s Heaven’s Gate, and David Koresh’s Branch Davidians. The book offers evidence that wielding total control over others may somehow contribute to a slow deterioration of the leader’s mental state. On the negative side, the book misleads when the authors present whole paragraphs in italics, written in the first person, as if they were direct quotes, when they are obviously conjecture and speculations about what people thought and said at the time. However, this is a minor flaw.
The book provides useful information about the developmental dynamics of cult-like groups and their leadership; as such, it is a valuable addition to the database of how destructive cults develop and to the psychopathology of their leaders. Recommended.

May 23, 2004


Alex Ginsberg
May 23, 2004

Charges of sexual exploitation are being leveled against a Queens-based guru who has presided over a worldwide spiritual empire for nearly 40 years, The Post has learned.

The 72-year-old Chinmoy Kumar Ghose – Sri Chinmoy to the faithful – moved to the quiet Briarwood neighborhood from India in 1964 and has since preached a philosophy of celibacy, vegetarianism and meditation to thousands.

His followers – estimated to be up to 4,000 worldwide – are not asked to replace their religious beliefs with his because Ghose preaches that all established religions are a manifestation of God.

The reclusive guru claims that on one occasion he lifted more than 7,000 pounds with one arm and says he has mastered 25 musical instruments.

But some of his longtime members – who are encouraged to paint their houses baby blue – are attacking the guru’s upright image through a series of damning posts to an online discussion board.

Anne Carlton, a former member for 20 years, told The Post Ghose summoned her for sexual encounters over two extended periods – one in 1991 and another in 1996.

Then, in 2000, Ghose called her at work and told her to have sex with another female disciple while he watched.

“I had never kissed a woman or touched a woman,” Carlton said.

“It was not something I fantasized about . . . My mind was completely blown. It was so hard for me, but not only did I do it but I acted happy about it.”

At least two other women have posted similar sexcapade testimonials – one claiming she became pregnant by Ghose, who paid for her to have an abortion in the early 1980s.

That woman, who did not want to be identified, confirmed to The Post that the testimony online was hers and was accurate.

Alex Zwarenstein, who served as one of Ghose’s official photographers until 1989, told The Post he airbrushed photographs to exaggerate the guru’s weightlifting ability – one of the key components of his image.

“He knew I was an artist,” Zwarenstein said. “He called me over to his house and he said, ‘You see that I’ve lifted this but the picture isn’t clear enough. Could you make it so that it looks like it’s a bit higher?’ “

Rudra Tamm, a member of the group since 1968 who served as the organization’s attorney until 2002, said Ghose’s operation is almost entirely cash-driven, with disciples across the world funneling parts of their incomes directly to the guru to support his life and activities.

Tamm said many disciples went into debt just to support the guru and to attend the group’s annual three-month winter trip.

“For a lot of disciples,” said Tamm, “their whole existence is saving enough money to go on the Christmas trip.”

Ghose, who has attracted several celebrities, including Olympic sprinter Carl Lewis and guitarists John McLoughlin and Carlos Santana, owns a house in Florida and four in Queens, including the two-story home on 149th Street where he lives.

The block is adorned with signs that read “Sri Chinmoy Street” – signs never authorized by the city, according to the city Department of Transportation.

There are also about a dozen disciple-owned and disciple-staffed businesses in the Parsons Boulevard area, including two vegetarian restaurants, a carpet store and a barber shop.

A major part of life in the group is athletics, particularly ultra-long running events.

In one particularly grueling project, the self-transcendence marathon, members walk and run around a schoolyard in Jamaica every day for three months, eventually “traveling” 3,100 miles – in honor of the guru’s 1931 birth year.

Ghose denied a request for an in-person interview. A lawyer speaking for the center, Ed Hayes, said that Ghose denied all sexual allegations and maintained he continued to be celibate.

“You’re going to have disgruntled people,” said Hayes. “His [Ghose’s] philosophy attracts many people, and some of them are deeply troubled, some in a sexual way.”

May 1, 2004

Antony Barnett reports on the killing that has shocked the Beatles' guru's college campus

The Guardian
May 1, 2004

Maharishi University are an incongruous landmark for a sleepy Midwestern town close to the Mississippi river.

Even more unlikely are the scenes that take place beneath them as students from across the globe gather twice a day to meditate and send out cosmic vibes of spiritual energy that they believe can heal a stress-stricken world.

But now a murder and allegations of a cover-up have shattered the tranquillity of the college and of the town of Fairfield, Iowa.

The killing of one student by another has threatened the future of not only what Maharishi disciples call 'a safe, harmonious campus', but also undermines the credibility of the one-time guru of the Beatles and spiritual leader to Hollywood celebrities including film-maker David Lynch and actress Heather Graham.

Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the bearded purveyor of world peace, heads a movement of tens of thousands of people who believe their brew of transcendental meditation and yogic flying - a kind of bouncing which devotees claim is akin to levitation - sends out powerful vibes of harmony that can end conflict across the planet.

In the east-facing buildings of the 272-acre Maharishi University, some 800 students mix a traditional undergraduate education with a heavy dose of meditation and yogic flying.

But in the early evening of Monday 1 March an incident occurred which critics allege makes nonsense of the notion that meditation can bring world peace.

At 7pm Shuvender Sem, a 24-year-old from Pennsylvania, sat down in the university dining hall with fellow students to eat his organic vegetarian dinner. Suddenly Sem stood up, took a knife from his pocket and plunged it into the heart of 19-year-old Levi Butler.

In the ensuing melee, Sem stabbed Butler at least three more times before he was restrained. The police were called and Sem, said to be extremely calm, gave himself up. Butler was taken to Jefferson County Hospital, where the first-year student from California was pronounced dead.

The death left many in the college in a state of shock - if yogic flying brings harmony how could one of their own kill in their midst? And as further details of that day emerge, more serious questions are being raised about the Maharishi's theories.

The knife Sem used belonged to the dean, Joel Wysong. Earlier that day, in a class called Teaching for Enlightenment, Sem attacked another student, John Killian, stabbing him in the face with a pen. Killian needed seven stitches. Sem was taken to the dean's apartment where he was supposed to be under supervision. But it was there that he stole the knife before going to the dining hall.

Sem has been charged with aggravated assault for the first attack and first-degree murder for the second. But because the university authorities did not report the earlier crime, this has led to the allegation that they intended to cover up the violence.

Critics of the Maharishi - including former students and staff and Fairfield residents - have been inundating the local newspaper with calls and emails. They allege that the movement strives to prevent negative publicity that might halt donations from its wealthy alumni. Some claim incidents have been hushed up in the past, although no hard evidence has emerged.

The university defended itself by saying it was not its role to bring criminal charges and that this is the first such tragedy to happen on a campus claiming to be the most crime-free in America.

Some members of Butler's family are now considering suing the university, which could have devastating repercussions for its international reputation.

Butler's uncle, Benjamin Howard, posted an email which said: 'I am terribly angry that this organisation places its public appearance above the safety of its students. The earlier link "Safe Harmonious Campus" from the [university] web page reveals one major selling point for the university. Of course an administrator wouldn't wish to call police when something violent happens on campus. It would ruin that unblemished record of 30 years with no crime. If a lawsuit is necessary to teach this campus a lesson, then so be it.'

The Maharishi himself is reported to have blamed the violence on US foreign policy. Dr Craig Pearson, executive vice-president of Maharishi University, said: 'Maharishi Mahesh Yogi has made one comment regarding this event. He said that this is an aspect of the violence we see throughout society, including the violence that our country is perpetrating in other countries.'

But the most serious criticism levelled against the movement is that transcendental meditation may exacerbate existing psychological problems in students.

Dr Kai Druhl taught physics at the university for 13 years. He has since left to teach at a college 20 miles away after becoming disenchanted with the movement.

He said: 'There were certainly initial benefits for some of the students but the promise of complete enlightenment is just not true ... it just doesn't happen and I saw how this intense meditation can damage some students, particularly if they have mental problems.'

Druhl recalled a student with schizophrenia being told to come off his medication, as meditation along with a herbal remedy would cure him. The student had a major breakdown.

Druhl described a culture where such events were treated as 'top secret'. He said: 'There was a definite understanding between staff members that you must not allow any bad news to leak out. You were required to keep up this image of a perfect campus at all costs.'

Supporters of the Maharishi claim the murder was a freak tragedy that could happen anywhere. They say the university did all it could in the circumstances and has been as open as it can. Some blame the alignment of the planets for the tragedy, while others believe the 'Maharishi Effect' was not sufficiently in place to protect Butler because of the declining number of people meditating in the domes.

Bill Goldstein, the university's lawyer, said: 'In my 22 years as legal counsel the issue of image is never considered with regard to reporting incidents on campus. The university reports incidents to the police every week for their action and has always done so. The fact is that the university is the most crime free of any in this state. No incident like this has ever occurred.'

Defending the university's failure to report the earlier stabbing, he said: 'The injury did not appear serious. The event appeared as a very short altercation in class with a rather minor wound and its implications were, very unfortunately, not apparent at the time. Nevertheless, Sem was removed from class and placed in the custody of the Dean of Men to consider what immediate disciplinary or precautionary measures should be taken prior to a customary, full-scale disciplinary review.'

As the Maharishi and his followers grapple with the ramifications, the Fairfield newspaper summed up the mood of the community: 'The university cannot afford to ignore reality. It has an obligation to step back and take a good, hard look inside - for the sake of its students, its movement, its town and itself.'

Apr 14, 2004

Passion, Joy Restored in Controversial Therapy

Ira Iosebashvili
Moscow Times
April 14, 2004

The scene: A well-lit, comfortably appointed auditorium on the second floor of an office building. Cheery, clean-cut people, all sporting name tags, are discussing such lofty topics as goal-setting, childhood trauma, and "giving back to the community" as soothing sitar music plays in the background.

If you thought this was a moment from a New Age gathering somewhere in California, think again. The meeting is taking place in a working-class eastern Moscow neighborhood. And the organizers, Avatar Consulting Center, are not pitching pyramid power but an intensive three-day group therapy process that will help clients "reunite with the power, passion and joy in their lives" as they confront their most deep-seated fears and self doubts.

"All kinds of people come to us," said Natalya Tikhonova, Avatar's director. "Many of our clients are businessmen who want to earn more money, but we also get students, housewives, even pensioners."

According to Tikhonova, a good chunk of the Avatar philosophy can be summed up in two words: taking responsibility.

"People, especially here in Russia, often blame someone or something else for their own misfortunes," she said. "We teach them to take responsibility for their own actions, to draw an ideal picture of their lives and then work on making that picture a reality."

Avatar was formed in 2000 by Tikhonova and her husband, Roman, both graduates of Lifespring, a popular but controversial U.S. self-help movement that made its way to Russia in the early '90s. 

A typical Avatar basic training course, which costs $275, is designed as a hard-hitting group encounter, lasting 12 hours a day for three days, usually with a follow-up session the same week. The course begins with a two-hour speech by Tikhonov about the basics of the group's philosophy and a briefing on the rules participants will be asked to observe during the session. At the end of the lecture, participants leave the room for a short break and are asked to come back only if they decide the course is right for them. 

Avatar's organizers are reluctant to discuss what comes next, claiming that doing so would undermine the experience for those who have not been through the program. Graduates, however, relate a three-day emotional roller coaster, where lectures are combined with various partner exercises and closed-eye, or guided imagery exercises, in which the trainer lulls participants into a trance-like state and brings them back to their childhood to confront long-standing issues.

Ideally, basic training ends when participants, drained but exultant, are greeted by friends and family members (many of whom are also Avatar alumni, having recommended the program) who have come to see "graduation." Rock music blasts over the loudspeakers as members dance wildly, pump their fists in the air and endlessly hug one another.

There is no shortage of Avatar and Lifespring devotees, who attest that the groups provide an extremely beneficial experience that has helped them drop the burdens of the past, actualize their personalities and affect positive changes in their lives. Critics, however, have accused Lifespring of "brainwashing" its members. The company has been on the receiving end of more than 50 lawsuits in the U.S., many of them charging psychological damage.

While the Tikhonovs acknowledge that Avatar's courses are, in fact, similar to those employed by Lifespring, they are also quick to point out that their program, which involves a rigorous, often psychologically exhausting therapeutic process, is not for everyone.

"Those with pre-existing psychological problems might respond negatively to the course," said Tikhonov, adding that Avatar tries to minimize that risk by screening its clients and having a licensed psychologist on hand during seminars.

Some of those who have completed basic training describe the course as one of the most positive experiences in their lives.

"I felt like I was sleeping my whole life, and only woke up after I took the course," said Tatyana Struyeva, 37, who completed basic training in 2002. "It definitely opened my eyes to who I am and why I'm in this world."

In addition to the basic training course, Avatar also offers a six-day advanced course, as well as a three-month "leadership program," where participants work in teams to accomplish three goals -- one personal, one within a group, and a third benefiting society in general. While many members choose to focus on anything, from starting a new business to losing weight, others have more exotic aspirations.

"One of our graduates will be parachuting onto the North Pole in a few weeks," Tikhonova said. "He'll be wearing an Avatar T-shirt over his jump suit when he does it."

Avatar has three courses: basic ($275), advanced ($540), and leadership ($480). For more information, call 730-5735 or 510-7743, or get information online at

Apr 3, 2004

Chief Rabbi sounds alarm on mystical Kabbalah group

David Rowan
The London Times
April 3, 2004

The Chief Rabbi has issued an unprecedented public warning about the Kabbalah Centre, the mystical religious organisation favoured by celebrities including Madonna and Elizabeth Taylor, amid growing concern over its allegedly "cult-like" practices.

The intervention of Dr. Jonathan Sacks comes as the centre prepares an intensive recruitment campaign from its new £3.65 million base in London, and follows serious complaints received by other Jewish bodies in Britain.

Former recruits have alleged that they were put under pressure to donate large sums of money to the centre, and to sever ties with unsupportive partners or families, with warnings that "bad things would happen" if they left.

One London businesswoman, in her early 30s, described how ten weeks ago a Kabbalah Centre rabbi urged her to donate £65,000 on the spot to cleanse her late parents' souls.

Such a gift, the woman claims she was told, would free her from the negative energy that prevented her from having children or a successful relationship. When she explained that she could not immediately raise the cash, she says that she was urged instead to sign over to the centre a property that she owns.

Dr. Sacks is so concerned about the claims being made about the centre that his office has issued a statement to be sent to synagogues in Britain.

It reads: "In the light of issues which have been brought to our attention relating to the Kabbalah Centre in the UK, we wish it to be known this organisation does not fall within the remit of the Chief Rabbinate or any other authority in the UK recognised by us." It is jointly signed by the London Beth Din, the main rabbinical court, and the United Synagogue movement, and is intended to echo similar warnings from rabbinic authorities in other countries where the group operates.

The centre, whose classes are open to non-Jews and Jews, claims to have reached 3.5 million people around the world with its teachings, based on a mystical interpretation of Jewish law. Its founder, Rabbi Philip Berg, a former New York insurance salesman, reinvented himself in the 1960s as "the world¹s foremost authority on the Kabbalah."

The Kabbalah Centre declined to answer questions detailing allegations made in a series of interviews conducted by The Times. Instead, Yehuda Berg, Philip Berg¹s son, said they had, in the most part "excellent relations" with the organised Jewish religion. He blamed the complaints on "the jealous and the sceptical."

Jan 22, 2004

"Marcy's TM Story" by Marcy Greene

Marcy Greene
January 22, 2004

Congratulations on formation of the Singer Foundation. I offer my story and support. In April, 1995, I became deeply involved with Don. We knew each other for over 4 years through mutual friends. After Don separated from his wife we began to spend time socially. Despite differences we complemented each other and our relationship evolved. At present we share a life that is rich, stimulating, and traditional. Last June for my 46th birthday Don offered to pay the $1000 fee for me to learn TM. He prefaced his offer by telling me that if there was one thing in the world that he wanted for me, it was TM.

It caught my attention for many reasons. Most people I know would want me to quit smoking. In fact my smoking was an obstacle for Don initially. I knew Don to be a frugal person and $1000 seemed like a great deal of money to me. Don told me that he was a TM teacher although he had not instructed anyone in many years. I didn't understand why he was unwilling to teach me for free. He had much to say about MMY's desire for everyone to learn TM, how it is universal, natural, good for everyone, simple, etc, along with all the scientifically proven benefits, yet he was never able to really explain why people needed to pay $1000. Finally, he said that he just hadn't taught in a long time, didn't have time to study his notes, and didn't have a problem with the $1000. From the onset, I was unable to connect this simple, totally wonderful practice with this totally outrageous $1000. For me MMY and the movement lacked some kind of integrity. It is a fact that I would not have paid the money but I did accept Don's gift.

During the time Don and I were getting to know each other, he spoke a lot about TM and the teachings of MMY. I knew nothing beyond the early involvement of the Beatles. It all seemed reminiscent of the 60's which was a pull for me. I had much respect for Don's intellect and the positive impact he claimed TM had on his life for the past 25 years. He's a practicing clinical neurophysiologist and not someone I view as a crackpot. Although most of the "science" and "philosophy" seemed silly, unrealistic, and narrow, I often thought that I must lack the intellect to "get it". I mostly listened because early on, I realized that the answers to the questions I asked were unbelievably unsatisfying and left me feeling frustrated and angry. I became quickly turned of by sentences which start with "MMY says . . ." and there were many.

Don received a Ph.D. from MIU, played a key role in the building of the domes, went on lots of courses, had all of those secret advanced techniques, has a brother with the same credentials, and was married to a TMer. He seemed to have infinite knowledge of Hinduism, although he didn't call it that. Ironically, although Jewish, he knows nothing about Judaism to the extent that he had never seen the diary of Ann Frank. This was the complementary piece I was to provide and Don assured me there was no conflict. TM, of course, is not a religion.

I am a "child of the 60's" and always prided myself on my open-mindedness. I have utilized alternative medicine and have practiced deep breathing and relaxation meditations. My B.A. is in soc/anthro. I've always been interested in other cultures. I am, however, fundamentally Jewish. I am a serious student of the Holocaust, provided my now 22 year old daughter with a private Jewish education, and would not have become seriously involved with a non-Jewish man. I am not religious but . . .

The man who would instruct me is also Jewish. In fact he was a cousin of my former husband. Don explained that John was living with his parents to help them with the family business. John is in his mid 40's. Previous to this he had been on Purusha which is some kind of celibate, monk-like branch of the TM movement. My former in-laws had always spoken of the "poor parents" of John who was "involved in that TM stuff". Actually one of John's brothers and a cousin are also involved. His parents, however, and another brother, are traditional Jews. I had been to their home for family occasions and remembered it as being filled with Jewish books, art objects, etc. Because I didn't understand the destructive nature of TM and I was familiar with John's "Jewish home", I did not feel unsafe or strange. He came to my home to deliver the first 2 lectures and the next 5 meetings were at his parents' home. I had never met John at family functions and was immediately struck by his lack of color and vigor. He was "dressed up" which is a big turn off for me. I still wear jeans and tee shirts. He was humorless, stiff, and his delivery was flat. In fact his affect was flat. What struck me was that he used the exact same words and examples that I had heard from Don. What I had believed to be Don's own feelings and opinions were being delivered word for word in this intro lecture. I can tell you that I remember nothing about those two free lectures. It was very boring and I felt like I needed to get up and drink some water just to stay awake. I did that. Because of the frustration associated with "questioning", I didn't question. Rather I made a decision to learn the technique and just not get into the rest of it. I thought that it would not be harmful to meditate regularly and perhaps it would be beneficial. I looked forward to actually learning the technique, and considered the rest to be a big waste of time. When John and I spoke about what led me to TM, I told him it was Don's praises. I also remember telling him that my life was good, that I don't see any big problems, and that I was not really seeking anything. I told him that I practiced other relaxation techniques and was willing to practice this one instead.

I remember being a little put off by the description of the initiation ceremony, "pagan" I thought. Still I would not be asked to participate beyond bringing a handkerchief, fruit and flowers. I was told that a picture of MMY's teacher would be displayed. I decided to be open minded, and just "go along with the program." Don believed this to be very valuable, had paid $1000, and I didn't want to disappoint him.

I believe I will never forget John's parents' home, walking through the kitchen, and waiting in the living room. Although John had displayed TM books on the coffee table, they were overwhelmed by the "all things Jewish" surroundings. Then he motioned me into another room. It was a small incense filled den-bedroom where my eyes were instantly drawn to a table/altar. It was not unlike what had been described, but the impact of actually seeing it and being there was intense. I was profoundly uncomfortable with this "whole other world" I had entered. Still I remained and tried to appear "calm". As I watched this young Jewish man bow down to this graven image, I was literally sick. I felt my heart beating faster, and I could barely repeat my mantra when that part of the ceremony began. It's difficult for me to describe what I was thinking or feeling, in fact my memory is unclear. I believe I was desperate to escape into the mantra and meditation in order to rid my mind of what I believed to be the most hideous act of betrayal inflicted on one Jew towards another that I have personally experienced. Although Don was not from a religious home and knew no better, this was not the case with John and I knew that. It was difficult for me to look at him. During the rest of the time we spent together, checking, watching old MMY tapes, etc., I only answered his questions "the right way". It was clear to me that this "checking procedure" was some form of hypnotism. Although I did decide to practice the technique while I was at home, I did not really meditate in John's presence after the initiation ceremony or subsequent checkings during the rest of the instruction, and did not indicate to him that I had any problems. The meditation experience I did have after the ceremony was nothing unique and had experienced that "feeling" with other techniques, so I did not feel that it could be dangerous. I did make a decision to never go back to be "checked" or to ever become involved with the TM movement or advanced teachings.

I did not want to disappoint Don so I did not tell him about my negative feelings initially. I told him only that the meditation experience was not unique. I felt badly about his $1000 and questioned my own "small mindedness" and religious bias with regard to the ceremony. The meditation was something we shared, although not really. Mine was 20 minutes twice a day. Don's was much longer, more involved, and included listening to tapes that were in Sanskrit. He also practiced a "technique" around noon every day. It was not natural for me to practice this "ritual" even for 20 minutes twice a day. It made me feel listless and drowsy. Sometimes I would fall asleep; sometimes I would look at the time every couple of minutes; sometimes it was OK. Because Don's "program" was so long, I still had to wait for meals, etc. He would often fall asleep during the later meditation.

Last summer we took a car/camping trip across country. That's when I started to notice negative and destructive elements of TM. Up until that time I had largely accepted Don's assessment of the positive effect of TM on his life. You really have an opportunity to get to know someone on that kind of an extended trip. He talked about how he had learned TM while he was a student at MIT and not in good shape, eventually ending up at MIU with a wife. Then he went on all of these courses to India, Switzerland with no money and spending months at a time away from his wife, having little connection to his family, but wound up with his Ph.D. from MIU. The events he described to me as good times or normal events and steps towards enlightenment positively horrified me. My questions were no longer geared toward TM philosophy but rather the degree to which his life had been controlled by MMY/TM.

Don always differentiated between TM/teachings of MMY and "the TM movement". He claimed little involvement with the movement since leaving MIU 10 years earlier. He was critical of the Natural Law Party and talked about problems with m Ayurveda because it was unable to make the same demonstrable claims as Western medicine. This kind of thinking was consistent with the critical thinking he applied to everything except TM/MMY. In the same sentence however he would restate his unwavering belief in TM/MMY. It scared me because I was aware of a change in his face; almost like a wall came down whenever I would probe or question something beyond the superficial. During the course of our relationship this was our only consistent source of strain. I tried to leave it alone but could never maintain my silence for long. It struck me as odd that even during a month long camping trip when we moved almost daily and put in long hours on the road that the priority was maintaining the meditation schedule. Experiences that made me impatient with this chore were many. I remember arriving at Pfeiffer State Beach at Big Sur, California. I spent much happy time there during the late 60's and hadn't been back since. It had been a dream of mine to return. We arrived in time to meditate. I fought back the tears as I closed my eyes on all this overwhelming beauty. I didn't want to "settle my mind" but wanted my mind and senses to totally "indulge". This may sound like a stupid little thing, and of course was only 20 minutes, but it made me sad and angry at the same time. I was not able to see this as "natural" or "good" in any way, still I did close my eyes. The other extreme was when we camped in the desert. I hated it there, heat, stillness, etc. Don always went to great lengths to make me comfortable, pillows, shade, etc. Still meditating in the heat and stillness of the desert made me feel like I was suffocating. Other roadside and campsite meditations were less dramatic. The outstanding feature was the rigid adherence to the ritual and how food, sleep, and activities were planned around it.

I practiced TM for less than 2 months and figured I just hadn't found a "place for it". I also reasoned that once we got home, I could fit the 20 minutes twice per day practice into times that were comfortable for me. In addition I made a decision to alter the times because I observed something that was scary with regard to Don's practice. I became aware that Don seemed to "change" when his afternoon meditation time approached. Sometimes he became irritable, got a headache, or was sleepy. He always said that he'd be fine after his meditation. In fact meditation was the cure for colds, flues, headaches, bad moods, etc. What I can say for sure is that Don had a difficult time keeping his eyes open when meditation time approached. I picked up on the urgency to pull off the road and meditate. It scared me and I reasoned that I could avoid this "habituation" by varying the times of the day that I would meditate.

For the next few months our relationship deepened, our affection for one another is obvious to everyone who knows us, there are and have been from the beginning so many positives that I would have no problem listing them. In fact I'd have no problem listing Don's positive and endearing qualities. Although Don did tell me that he did not grow up in a religious home and in fact, outside of any Jewish community, I did not really "get it". Still he continually expressed his appreciation of my commitment and knowledge of Judaism and said that it was a much valued missing piece for him that I could enhance. We plan to go to Poland in November followed by a trip to Israel. This is a huge step for Don who never allowed himself to even watch Holocaust films or in fact deal with anything of an unpleasant nature. He seemed to grow and change in many ways. This is why I always felt so guilty and uncomfortable about my thinly veiled attacks on MMY and TM. The closer we became, the more Don shared, the more afraid I became about the seriousness of his devotion to MMY and his teachings. It got to the point where he told me early on he made a conscious decision to trust and believe whatever MMY said. My fears included the possibility of MMY somehow "summoning" Don to some far away destination for some undisclosed amount of time. Don had previously described his frustration while working on his Ph.D. because professors and advisors would "take off" without notice in order to be with MMY. Although Don had not been involved with the movement for 10 years and promised that this would not happen, I believed that Don's unwavering loyalty to MMY would always prevail. During one of our heated discussions, Don told me that even if MMY proved to be a fraud, he would consider the techniques valuable and would continue to practice them. Whatever problems I had with the canned answers, secrets, etc., I continued to meditate as Don suggested. It appeared that Don would "allow" some discussion but would suddenly become profoundly sleepy. He would often just close his eyes or yawn. As time went on, any time we talked about TM/MMY I could see this "wall" come down.

I received a TM flyer in the mail announcing a videotape of MMY being interviewed by an Israeli journalist with regards some current project in Israel. I wanted to see it but was not willing to go to the designated location with the other TMers. Don in his capacity of "governor" was able to borrow the tape for me. Don was working so I watched the tape. The format was the same as the ones I saw with John, my TM teacher: MMY complete with love beads and flowers, cross legged, and an audience filled with adoring followers. There was a "panel of scientists" dressed in suits. They all spoke in the same monotone and had the same lifeless expression, a frozen half smile. This "interview" was a set of obviously prechosen questions that gave MMY an opportunity to say all the "same old same old". In addition, he indicted the Israeli government for their failures and criticized the Kabballah as lacking the perfection of the Veda. If that wasn't bad enough, I watched this Sabra (Israeli born) woman batting her eyes and almost "swooning" while agreeing to take MMY's offer of "salvation" to the Israeli people. I was very upset and wanted Don to watch the tape. He saw some of it but never did finish it or "see what I saw". Then the tape had to be returned. In retrospect, I believe I stopped practicing TM after I watched the tape. I closed my eyes but didn't use the mantra. Most time was spent checking the time.

No matter how I tried to silence myself, I eventually started a discussion about TM. We went out to lunch one Saturday, and I asked Don "How many mantras are there?" I already knew that the exact number would be a secret but I did expect that he would say something like "300" or "100". Instead he looked at me very coldly and said "That's private." I was caught totally off guard by the way he said it. In the past, Don demonstrated much "tolerance" and really tried to say "something." He always spoke kindly. In all fairness to Don, he did "catch it" and quickly tried to say something like "I only know how many mantras I was given." I tried to catch my breath. It felt as though I had been punched in the stomach. I was not accustomed to Don slamming a door in my face. I think I asked a few stupid questions like "were you given 500 mantras or 50 mantras?". It was very uncomfortable. If I had missed it before, it was now painfully clear that Don was loyal to some kind of "code" and boundaries were clearly drawn. We went on with the day which included a movie. After the movie we came home and Don set up his computer screen. He had been introducing me to the Internet. Until that day I had been "techno-phobic". For some reason, I clicked into TM, then TM-EX and Trancenet. I will never be able to adequately express my gratitude. There was not one problem I had with TM/MMY that wasn't echoed over and over again. Whatever I had imagined was worse, much worse. The impact of the 16 mantras being the names of Hindu gods caused me to feel profound guilt and shame. What flashed before my eyes was my family members, dead and living, all part of the proud Jewish continuum. I thought about how my Yiddish speaking grandmother might feel about me invoking the energy of a Hindu god. I thought about my daughter who is married to a Belgian Jew who she met while living on an Israeli kibbutz. I felt "dirty". I thought about John, my TM teacher from a Jewish family, and all the admonishments with regard to Jews knowingly leading other Jews astray. I will never erase the image of John bowing down to the picture of MMY's dead teacher. Once I saw a translation of the puja, I was "stunned", not however too stunned to read on. The information was overwhelming and Don agreed to print it out for me.

If I remember correctly, Don was not able to "stick with it", became sleepy, and at some point went to meditate. For the next couple of days I read, cried, raged, and spoke to a rabbi. Needless to say I did not meditate again. I went to the library and took out books about cults. I continued to read all the printouts from TM-EX and Trancenet. Although I didn't know about a lot of the bigger parts of TM, sidhis, yogic flying, advanced techniques, other secrets, it was clear that Don did. The more I read, the more I wondered how this brilliant man could buy into all of this. At some point, early on, I was able to understand how this happened. Because he had always maintained total ignorance of Judaism, I did not blame him for misleading me about the nonreligious claims of TM. I won't get into Don's process or pace of letting go of TM. The point is that he did. Although he didn't "get it" right away, he absolutely "got" my pain. My belief is that once he read the first item of information, the exit process began. We attended a CAN meeting and met other people. The stories were not about TM but everyone had the same story. We got more books, continued to seek information, and talked to CAN members. We borrowed a Margaret Singer tape.

Part of my daily routine is a workout at the health club. I work out at our local Jewish Community Center (JCC). Although I have never been "religious" in terms of practice and ritual, the community aspect has always been important to me. One day, I received a flyer from the TM organization that announced an upcoming lecture about m ayur veda by Dr. Edwards Smith scheduled to be given at the JCC. I couldn't believe it! I was aware that they had an upcoming "health and wellness" series for the spring, nutrition, stop smoking, etc., but I couldn't find anything about this particular lecture. I called the center and spoke with the young woman who set up this series. She told me that the lecture had been scheduled by the director of the Phys. Ed. department. Yes, she knew about the "TM connection". I voiced my concerns and she said that Bob, the director, would return my call. He did. He told me that Dr. Smith's lecture was originally scheduled at the Barnes and Noble bookstore. They cancelled and somehow he was asked if Dr. Smith could speak at the JCC. He told me that he knew many positive things about TM but wanted to meet with me to discuss my concerns. Before our appointment, I called a couple of members of the board to express my concern. The woman who originally took my call and Bob, the Phys. Ed. director, met with me. I had all my printouts, CAN information, reprints of articles, etc. There was something in Bob's manner, lack of affect, "noone's home" look in the eyes, etc. You guessed it, a 23 year TMer. Because I was pretty "well read" I knew not to step into the closed system in order to make my points. Fortunately as a member of the center, he was forced to "give me my say". He remained stone faced, and when the other woman read the mantras, puja, and description of the yogic flying, TM descriptions of yagyas, etc., it was obviously enough to determine that m ayurveda might not be consistent with the goals of the JCC. The lecture was cancelled. However, when I returned to pick up my materials, it was clear that this woman did not understand the destructive cult dimension at all. I suggested that we have a Cult Awareness Day, as cults claim a disproportionate number of Jews. Hopefully this will happen as part of the Health and Wellness Series in the fall. I loaned her Margaret Singer's tape as an example of what I have in mind.

As a P.S. to this, Don called a prominent rabbi with regard to this lecture. A board member returned his call, a lawyer who learned TM in the 70's. He stopped and really didn't see it as a serious problem. Although he called Bob about pulling the lecture, it was more on the basis of something "controversial" rather than TM is a destructive cult. I spoke to my new friend from CAN who tells me that this is common.

I received another TM movement flyer that offers $25 off residence courses for anyone who can bring a new person to TM. They suggest leaving flyers about the free lectures in health food stores, etc. Don and I plan to design our own flyer including mantras, and will display them anywhere I see the TM stuff. If I can "enlighten" one person, I'll be happy.

Don and I share a good life. We continue to read, talk about the cult stuff daily, and participate on the Internet, because it is very important. We laugh a lot now and we don't keep any secrets. Don looks so clear and bright. We both have a lot of energy and enthusiasm for life. It's good to get excited! We eat and sleep when we want. I am back to my "normal" state, which is to be passionate and free. It is astounding how profoundly effected and uncomfortable I was for the short time I practiced TM. I can appreciate the courage and strength it takes to "start fresh" while at the same time struggling to overcome the past. It is a joy to watch Don "come to life".

Yes, information is freedom. To this I add "Secrets keep people sick." In gratitude for all the information, I offer my story, no longer a secret.