Nov 30, 2017

Editorial: Finally, Nxivm gets a look

Albany Times Union
November 30, 2017


A controversial "self-help group" faces scrutiny.


Why did it take years of complaints to get to this point?


It is baffling that an organization tied in court documents and published reports to allegations of such questionable practices as human behavioral experimentation and branding of its members has somehow escaped deep official scrutiny for years.

That unexplained inaction, arguably as bizarre as the allegations themselves, may finally be coming to an end for the Colonie-based Nxivm, with at least one state investigationapparently under way. To say it's about time would be an understatement.

Billed as a self-improvement enterprise, Nxivm has a disturbing aura, with attention focused on its cofounder, Keith Raniere, whom followers refer to as "Vanguard." Mr. Raniere is no stranger to authorities, having paid a $40,000 fine in 1996 for his operation of a nationwide consumer buying club that authorities said operated like a pyramid scheme; he admitted no wrongdoing.

Mr. Raniere isn't talking to reporters these days. In the past, he and his associates have strenuously denied any inappropriate activity.

Founded in 1998, Nxivm purports to help people unlock their potential through "rational inquiry."

Many former members, however, describe troubling actions wrapped in something of a spiritual aura around Mr. Raniere. The sordid accusations are no secret to readers of Times Union coverage over the years, based on court filings and interviews. Complaints about the entity have gone over time to the state Attorney General, the U.S. attorney's office in Albany, the New York State Police, the U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement Agency, the Internal Revenue Service and the FBI, yet apparently no significant investigation resulted. Rather, in some cases, complainants themselves came under official scrutiny, and Nxivm relentlessly pursued critics with litigation.

Whether the lack of deep investigation is because the allegations had no merit, or because government agencies fell down on the job, remains a question. Nonetheless, we invite readers to make up their own minds by reading our coverage of Nxivm over the years at

Some examples: The state Health Department recently received a complaint about an Albany physician associated with Nxivm who performed brain-activity experiments, apparently unconnected to any research institution, in which participants were subjected to disturbingly violent images. And both this newspaper and The New York Times interviewed a woman who filed a complaint with the state in which she recounted being branded with Mr. Rainiere's initials by another doctor as part of an initiation into what was allegedly a secret sisterhood, for which the women had to provide nude photos or other compromising material as collateral.

If we are to believe what we're told, state officials may finally be taking this more seriously. The governor's office has ordered a review of the state's handling of the women's complaints, and Attorney General Eric Schneiderman's office is now said to be looking into Nxivm's operations.

No matter what comes of these investigations, there's a question that cries out for an answer from state and federal agencies alike, and which we ask on behalf of those who stepped forward to allege what Nxivm was doing over the years: What took this long?

Nov 28, 2017

The Dangerous Myths About Sufi Muslims

Whirling dervishes perform an Egyptian Sufi dance in Cairo. Whirling dervishes perform an Egyptian Sufi dance in Cairo
Detractors and admirers alike embrace the same misunderstandings.
The Atlantic
November 27, 2017

The attack on Al Rawdah mosque in the Sinai last Friday, during which Islamists claimed at least 305 lives, was quite possibly the deadliest terrorist atrocity in modern Egyptian history and one of the largest terrorist attacks worldwide. Because the mosque was often frequented by Muslims linked to a Sufi order, the massacre also brought to light the deeply flawed ways Sufism is discussed—both by those who denigrate Sufism and by those who admire it.

Extremist groups like ISIS promote the idea that Sufism is a heterodox form of Islam, and then go further to declare Sufis legitimate targets. But it’s not just violent extremists who foster the heterodoxy misconception. In Saudi Arabia, for example, crown prince Mohammed bin Salman claimed on Sunday that “the greatest danger of extremist terrorism is in distorting the reputation of our tolerant religion”—yet intolerance with regard to Sufism is the bedrock of much of the purist Salafi approach that underpins the Saudi religious establishment.

That’s not to say that all those who self-describe as “Salafi” claim that Sufism ought to be met with violence. But many, if not most, deny its centrality within Sunni Islam. Certainly the vast majority of the Saudi religious establishment espouses that kind of belief, which is a massive challenge that the crown prince will have to tackle if he’s serious about his promise to spread “moderate” Islam.

The birth of the purist Salafi movement (which many pejoratively describe as “Wahhabism”) saw preachers inspired by the message of 18th-century figure Muhammad bin Abdul Wahhab attacking Sufism writ large in an unprecedented way. While presenting themselves as the orthodox, these types of purist Salafis were actually engaging in a heterodox approach. Many of these figures had to ignore or rewrite large chunks of Islamic history in order to present Sufism and Sufis as beyond the pale.

Ahmad bin Taymiyya, a commonly quoted authority for Salafis, for example, was reportedly a member of the Sufi order of Abdal Qadir al-Jilani. The Sufi affiliations of many medieval authorities have been airbrushed from history in several modern editions of their texts published by Salafi printing houses. Yet, there were virtually no prominent Muslim figures who cast aside Sufism in Islamic history. When followers of ibn Abdul Wahhab attempted to do so by describing Sufis as outside the faith, they were themselves decried by the overwhelming majority of Sunni Islamic scholarship as indulging in a type of heterodoxy because of their intolerance and revisionism.

While some who portray Sufis as heterodox do so with malicious intent, many fans of Sufism in the West seem to agree that Sufis are heterodox—it’s just a type of heterodoxy that they prefer to the normative mainstream of Islamic thought, which they seem to think is different from Sufism. Ironically, the well-meaning nature of this misinformed perspective echoes the fallacy that extremists promote.

And it is an extraordinary fallacy. Until relatively recently, it would have been unthinkable for students in Muslim communities to consider Sufism anything other than an integral part of a holistic Islamic education. The essentials of theology, practice, and spirituality—that is, Sufism—were deemed basic, core elements of even elementary Islamic instruction. And religious figures known for their commitment to Sufism would not have been considered a minority; they would have been by far the norm. Indeed, the very label of an Egyptian “Sufi minority” being bandied about since the mosque attack is a peculiar one: Sufism isn’t a sect—it’s integral to mainstream Sunni Islam.

Sufism never betrayed Islamic orthodoxy; if anything, it is Islamic orthodoxy in its purest form.

The most famous Sufi in the West, as shown on Amazon bestseller lists, is Rumi, Afghan poet extraordinaire. Another renowned figure is Ibn Arabi, a Spaniard of the 12th century. But few in the West seem to realize that such figures, while indeed Sufis, were very much within the Islamic mainstream. Rumi, for example, was an author of fatwas and a specialist in an orthodox rite of Sunni Islamic law (the Hanafi school); Ibn Arabi was even more steeped in Sunni legal expertise, to the point where he was described by many medieval authorities as being capable of forming his own school of law.

That doesn’t mean that Sufis were never singled out for criticism in traditional Islamic scholarship—they were. Those criticisms were issued by Sufi scholars themselves, much as expert jurists criticized what they saw as shoddy attempts in jurisprudence, and specialized theologians critiqued amateurish forays into theology. One modern critic, a famed Sufi of the Comoros, said, “If we were better Sufis, everyone else wouldn’t think we are anything but good Muslims.”

Another myth is that Sufis are generally apolitical or eschew any martial activity. Historically, that certainly was not the case. Sufi figures like Abu-l-Hasan al-Shadhuli and Ibn Abdal Salam (the latter a famous jurist of his time) were at the forefront of campaigns to defend Egypt from the armies of King Louis of France. The Libyan struggle against the Italian fascist occupation was led by Sufis of the Sanusi order of Sufis, including the famed Omar al-Mukhtar. Shaykh Abdal Qadir al-Jaza’iri was a militant opponent of the French invasion of Algeria in the 19th century, while Imam Shamil of the Caucasus fought against the Russian incursion into his own land. But while they most certainly believed in that martial endeavour, and called it jihad, it was a jihad that meant that the likes of al-Jaza’iri fought to protect Christians; a jihad that meant that al-Mukhtar refused to mistreat prisoners of war; in other words, a jihad that was constrained by the mainstream understanding of Sunni Islam.

This activist trend among Sufis remains in existence today. In my own research over the years, I came across teachers of Sufi texts like Shaykh Seraj Hendricks of South Africa and Shaykh Emad Effat in Egypt. The former was detained for activism against apartheid, while the latter was killed in the midst of protests in late 2011. This is to say nothing of the scores of members of Sufi orders in Syria who participated in the Syrian revolutionary uprising against the Assad regime, as well as against ISIS. It is also true that some Sufi figures engaged in actively supporting autocrats and repressive governments—which other Sufis critiqued for what they saw as inconsistency. That critique has everything to do with what such Sufi figures see as orthodoxy and orthopraxy in the Islamic tradition.

It’s too easy to cast Sufis as a quasi-sectarian group that is somehow detached from Islam. Sufism never betrayed Islamic orthodoxy; if anything, it is Islamic orthodoxy in its purest form. Both those who denigrate Sufis, like ISIS and the Saudi religious establishment, and those who admire Sufis, like Rumi-loving Westerners, would do well to finally recognize this. Otherwise, we all risk betraying Islamic history.

H.A. HELLYER is a senior non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East and an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute.

Nov 26, 2017

Clinical Meditation

Dr. Ruwan M Jayatunge 
November 24th, 2017

Clinical Meditation is a new form of therapy that can be used to treat a large number of physical / psychological / psychiatric ailments. For centuries meditation was considered as a type of religious practice forgetting its clinical aspect. A large body of research highlights the clinical value of meditation. Meditation enhances neuron connectivity in the brain positively changing the brain chemistry. Meditation experience changes the brain structures predominantly increasing the cortical thickness and cerebral blood flow.

Meditation has many health benefits. Meditation balances the body’s homeostatic system.  Meditation can be used to treat anxiety disorders and depression.  Meditation is a great stress breaker . The meditation practice helps to decrease stress hormones in the body. Meditative techniques are indicated in chronic pain. Meditation strengthens the immune system. It facilitates positive emotions enhancing memory and attention. Meditation brings beneficial changes to physical and mental health and it can be used for overall wellness. However meditation remains an under-utilized therapeutic mode in the medical profession.

Meditation Overview

The word meditation” is derived from the Latin meditari, which means to engage in contemplation or reflection (Hussain & Bhushan, 2010). Meditation has been extensively practiced in many civilizations for thousands of years as a means of cultivating a state of well-being and for religious purposes (Braboszcz et al., 2010). Meditation has a number of definitions.

The U.S. National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) defined meditation as a conscious mental process that induces a set of integrated physiological changes termed the relaxation response”. According to Manocha (2000) meditation is a discrete and well-defined experience of a state of thoughtless awareness” or mental silence, in which the activity of the mind is minimized without reducing the level of alertness.

According to  Walsh and Shapiro (2006) meditation is a tool” for spiritual development, where the aim is to reach an inner peace, concentration, positive emotions, while at the same time reducing stress, agitation and negative emotions.

Clinical meditation is a secular psychotherapeutic application that is geared to achieve optimal mental wellbeing.  Clinical meditation helps to combat various psychological / psychiatric ailments such as irresistible stress, severe anxiety, depression, chronic pain and addictions. Meditation is one of the effective psycho- behavioral therapies. It is becoming widely popular as an adjunct to conventional medical therapies (Bonadonna, 2003).

The Clinical Effects of Meditation

Meditation practices are connected with the psychotherapeutic approaches creating a holistic impact. Clinical meditation may mitigate the effects of stress and disease. Clinical application of meditation is indicated in a number of ailments. Meditation is a safe and cost-effective treatment mode which brings effective results. It is a scientifically proven intervention. Numerous researchers have found the    therapeutic benefits of meditation.  Today meditation has become an efficient psychotherapeutic technique in the Western world.

Clinical effects of meditation impact a broad spectrum of physical and psychological   symptoms and syndromes, including reduced anxiety, pain, and depression, enhanced mood and self-esteem, and decreased stress. Meditation has been studied in populations with fibromyalgia, cancer, hypertension, and psoriasis (Bonadonna, 2003). Meditation has become a dominant method for self-regulation. Jindal   Gupta and Das (2013) state that meditation causes improvement in various cardiovascular, neurological, autoimmune, and renal pathologies.

Reibel and colleagues (2001) indicate that mindfulness meditation training program can enhance functional status and well-being and reduce physical symptoms and psychological distress.  Meditation practice can positively influence the experience of chronic illness and can serve as a primary, secondary, and/or tertiary prevention strategy (Bonadonna, 2003). Meditation helps to cultivate positive mental health. Therefore meditation has an immense public health importance.

The Western Theories of Meditation

Although mindfulness meditation has been practiced in the East for more than two millennia, Western scientific research and healthcare programs have only recently drawn their attention to it (Manuello et al., 2016). The Eastern spiritual practice of meditation was brought to the West by various spiritual masters. Among these spiritual practitioners Maharishi Mahesh Yogi was a key figure. He developed the Transcendental Meditation technique and popularized meditation in the Western world. Even Beatles became the followers of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.

Western theories of meditation include Jungian, Benson’s relaxation response, and transpersonal psychology (Bonadonna, 2003). In the early 1970s  Dr Herbert Benson, -founder of the Mind/Body Medical Institute at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston did a number of studies on meditation. Dr Herbert Benson considered meditation is an antidote to stress. Benson and colleagues (1974) surmised that meditation givesrelaxation response by decreasing sympathetic nervous system activity, and increasing parasympathetic activity.

The American Psychologist Robert Evan Ornstein who profoundly wrote about brain’s role in health. According to Ornstein (1972) meditation exercises are designed to produce an alteration in consciousness, which means a shift away from an active, outward-oriented, linear mode towards receptive and quiescent mode with a shift from external focus of attention to an internal one. 

The Australian Professor of Psychiatry Roger N. Walsh states that more than an alternative state of consciousness meditation is associated with calmness, equanimity, concentration, compassion, wisdom, generosity, and perceptual and introspective sensitivity.  

Professor Jon Kabat-Zinn of the University of Massachusetts Medical School performed a number of research in mediation and found its clinical value.  Jon Kabat-Zinn studied the interaction of mind and body towards health. According to Kabat-Zinn meditation has impact on the entire organism–from chromosomes to cells and to brain.

The Buddhist meditation techniques profoundly influenced Jon Kabat-Zinn. However Kabat-Zinn introduced mediation to the clinical community as a secular model. His studies were mainly based on mindfulness meditation. For Kabat-Zinn mindfulness is being awake. He did clinical applications of mindfulness on people with chronic pain and stress-related disorders and found fruitful results.

In 1979 Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) Program was introduced by the University of Massachusetts Medical Center. This program incorporated mindfulness and assisted people with pain and a range of conditions and life issues that were initially difficult to treat in a hospital setting.  Over the years (MBSR) Program gained immense popularity due to its success rate.  MBSR has been described as “a group program that focuses upon the progressive acquisition of mindful awareness, of mindfulness (Grossman et al., 2010).

Alan Wallace founder of the Santa Barbara Institute for Consciousness Studies describes meditation as cultivating mental balance. Wallace and Shapiro (2006) assume that mental suffering is in large part due to imbalances of the mind and that these imbalances can be overcome by cultivating four kinds of mental balance: conative, attentional, cognitive, and affective (Sedlmeier, 2012).

The Western science views meditation in a neuropsychological lens. Neuroimaging and neuropsychology of meditation states have been studied. According to these research meditation has a positive impact on cerebral cortex, prefrontal area, cingulate gyrus, neurotransmitters, white matter, autonomic nervous system, limbic system, cytokines, endorphins, hormones.

Researchers measured brain activation with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) in meditators and found   meditation activates the prefrontal cortex of the brain.  Prefrontal cortex is in charge of abstract thinking, thought analysis and responsible for regulating behavior. In addition prefrontal cortex involved in emotional responses. Prefrontal cortex is responsible for controlling neurotransmitters such as dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin that are important in mood regulation. Hölzel and the group found greater activation of rostral anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and dorsal medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC) in mindfulness meditators.

Jensen and colleagues (2014) found increase of grey matter in the hippocampus (hippocampus- involved in memory formation, memory organization, and memory storing) and parietal lobe (   parietal lobe -processes sensory information) among the mindfulness meditators. Grey matter is a major component of the central nervous system, consisting of neuronal cell bodies, neuropil, glial cells, synapses, and capillaries. There is a strong connection between gray matter and intelligence, self-control and decision making.

Meditation produces positive alterations of neurotransmitters, brain activity, and cognitive abilities (Luders, 2014). Practice of meditation triggers neurotransmitters (Krishnakumar et al., 2015). According to Kang and colleagues (2013) long-term meditators have structural differences in both gray and white matter. Furthermore meditation diminishes age-related brain degeneration. Pagnoni and Cekic (2007) state that meditation may have neuroprotective effects and reduce the cognitive decline associated with normal aging.

Nov 15, 2017

Jehovah's Witness knew she could die when she refused blood transfusions: Quebec coroner

Éloïse Dupuis required a blood transfusion during the birth and died of a hemorrhage. Facebook
Éloïse Dupuis
Dupuis told doctors she did not want a transfusion, even as her condition deteriorated after she gave birth by caesarean section

Graeme Hamilton

National Post
November 14, 2017

MONTREAL — The day before she went into labour with her first child, an excited Éloïse Dupuis had spoken to her aunt. “She said, ‘Do you realize, Auntie, that in a few days I will be holding my life’s dream in my arms?’ ” Manon Boyer recounted Tuesday.

After hemorrhaging following a caesarian birth, Dupuis, 27, a Jehovah’s Witness, repeatedly refused the blood transfusions that could have saved her life. Her baby was healthy, but Dupuis’ vital organs failed, and she was dead within a week.

News of her Oct. 12, 2016, death sparked intense debate in a province grappling with limits on religious freedom. Critics said her life had been sacrificed for twisted religious beliefs, and there were suggestions she had been pressured to forego treatment. But in a report made public Tuesday, Quebec coroner Luc Malouin concluded that Dupuis chose freely to refuse transfusions with full understanding of the consequences.

“I have no doubt that the medical staff tried everything to get Ms. Dupuis and her family to change their minds about the need to use blood products to save her life,” the coroner wrote. He noted the family members were all Jehovah’s Witnesses. “In accordance with their religious principles, they refused the only medical treatment available to prevent death.”

Malouin wrote that early in her pregnancy, Dupuis advised staff at the birthing centre in Lévis, Que., that she would not accept transfused blood, which Jehovah’s Witnesses believe is forbidden by the Bible.

After complications during her labour, Dupuis was transferred on Oct. 6 from the birthing centre to Hôtel-Dieu Hospital in Lévis, where a C-section was performed and her baby was delivered in good health.

But soon afterwards she began hemorrhaging and was transferred to intensive care. She was diagnosed with anemia — a shortage of red blood cells — and doctors performed a hysterectomy.

In studying her medical records, Malouin found five occasions when Dupuis told doctors she did not want a transfusion, even as her condition deteriorated. “Refusal of transfusion even if death is the result,” one note said the evening after she gave birth.

After she was sedated and no longer able to express her wishes, her husband and parents maintained the refusal to provide Dupuis with blood. She died Oct. 12 of multiple organ failure caused by severe loss of blood.

The coroner noted that her death struck a chord in Quebec, where the once prevalent practice of Catholicism has been largely abandoned and strongly held religious beliefs are often viewed with suspicion.

“At a time when a majority of Quebecers do not actively practise any religion, this notion of respecting religious rules seems to come from a different era,” Malouin wrote. “There was a time in Quebec when such rules were very present and governed the lives of all. It is no longer the situation today, but the choice to adhere or not to religious rules must be respected.”

In a second case from last year studied by Malouin, doctors in a Montreal hospital had to wait six hours before providing transfusions to Mirlande Cadet, also a Jehovah’s Witness.

She had indicated at admission that she did not want transfusions, and when her condition deteriorated after a caesarian birth, her husband maintained the refusal. He relented after the woman’s parents intervened, but Cadet died on Oct. 3. Malouin said it was impossible for him to determine whether the delay in transfusing played an important role in her death from a pulmonary infection.

In his report on Dupuis’ death, Malouin said the law is clear that adults of sound mind are free to refuse medical treatment. The same is not true of minors. Last September, the Quebec Superior Court authorized the McGill University Health Centre to give blood transfusions to a 14-year-old cancer patient, who had refused the treatment because of her beliefs as a Jehovah’s Witness.

Boyer described her niece as an outgoing woman who occasionally skirted the edicts of her religion. “Her favourite movie was Twilight. She watched it in secret at her friends,” she said. “She listened to disco music in secret in her car because they are not supposed to.”

Dupuis’ husband, Paul-André Roy, sent a message to media Tuesday saying his wife’s refusal of transfusion “was out of respect for her convictions, to which she attached a great price.”

But Boyer believes the price was too high. “I agree with freedom of religion, but not at any cost,” she said. “Her son Liam had the right to have a mother. He had the right to feel secure. He had the right to be breastfed. He got nothing.”

• Email: | Twitter:

Involving children in sects should result in revocation of parental rights – Supreme Court

November 14, 2017

MOSCOW, November 14 (RAPSI) – The Supreme Court has ruled that parental rights should be revoked if parents make their children members of sects prohibited in Russia, the court’s plenum has stated.

According to the court, involvement of children in religious or public organizations, which were liquidated or prohibited by Russian courts definitely constitutes abuse of parental rights.

Similar measures should be taken when parents induce children to participate in gambling, vagrancy, begging and other similar activities. At the same time, the court notes that poor financial condition of a family is not a reason for breaking it apart.

The Supreme Court reminds that taking a child away from a family is a measure of last response and may be enforced only when there is a clear danger to a child’s life or health. Evaluation of such danger is to be made case by case.

Revocation of parental rights is also a drastic measure and is to be taken only if there are no other ways to protect rights or interests of a child, the court stated.

The court notes that opinion of a child holds a great value when his or her rights are considered. A child may participate in court hearings after reaching an age of 10 and even younger children may be brought to proceedings if a judge believes that a child may formulate his or her own opinion on the matter. Restoration of parental rights for a child above age of 10 may be completed only if a child agrees. In cases involving multiple children courts must hear opinions of all of them.

It was also noted that courts should not ignore cases when social services failed to take timely measures to protect rights of children.

Nov 13, 2017

Drinking the Kool-Aid at the Garden of Eden

Garden of Eden residents and visitors in the garden. COURTESY THE GARDEN OF EDEN
Searching for community at a North Texas “ecovillage.”

Sarah Angle
Texas Observer
November 13, 2017

He walked barefoot and topless through the dirt and plants in a white skirt that bounced around his slender calves. His tan, tall muscular body glided through the gardens and his handsome face framed the longest goatee I’d ever seen, braided and intertwined with silver beads. An iPhone was tucked securely in a makeshift pocket as he carried his infant son through my tour of the Garden of Eden.

All the stereotypes I had of communal living came true the day I met Quinn Eaker, and a big part of me wanted to be in all the way. Another part of me wanted to run — fast — for the safety of the suburbs.

“Do you ever eat bugs?” Eaker, 34, asks me.

“I did one time at a museum,” I say. “And it was terrible.”

At the moment, bugs were eating me. Of course a commune that condemns chemicals and emphasizes sustainability wouldn’t have bug repellant with Deet. Today, my bare legs bore the brunt of such natural living.

“How are you not getting bit?” I ask.

“It’s a state of mind,” Eaker says. “Everything is energy.”


Off a country road in the middle of one of largest metropolitan areas in the country, sits the Garden of Eden, a commune in Kennedale that’s home to 15 to 20 people depending on the day. This “ecovillage” strives to free its residents from the typical westernized culture of siloed living and materialism — a culture that leaves me lonely and stressed out most days, but also happy to have air conditioning and Trader Joe’s.

This mysterious place is just five minutes down the road from a new development with polished $300,000 homes. Their antithesis to such opulence in this rural landscape is hidden behind a high fence; visitors have to ring a bell to enter. The Garden of Eden sits on more than three acres of land, which includes a really cool outdoor cooking space, an Airbnb dwelling, piles of collected trash, rows of gardens, trees, an old hot tub turned into a pool for the kids, a large composting patch, oddly appealing outdoor showers, unappealing but creatively constructed outdoor bathrooms, and a standard 4,000-square-foot house. The house has air conditioning, but Quinn doesn’t use it. He says recirculated air is unhealthy and it costs money to run. I think it’s hot as shit outside and I’d have that baby cranked up no matter how natural I aspired to be.

When I pull up, Shellie Smith opens the gate and tells me where to park.

This beautiful, thin and tan woman owns the property and started the Garden of Eden eight years ago. But she’s lived here for two decades; it’s where she raised her kids with her ex-husband before she started “living in community.”

I can tell Smith, 58, is in love with Eaker by the way she says his name and looks at him. They’ve been together since 2007. But Quinn’s other partner Inok, the mother of his three young children, lives inside the house, too. Their kids laugh gleefully, playing naked behind us as we talk.

“People here don’t drink the Kool-Aid,” Eaker says, laughing. “They drink the water,” which he hands me. The glass is filled with herbs and strawberries of unknown origin. I’m not about to put that in my mouth. At least not yet. I envision being drugged and forced to do some ceremonial dance or — worse — yoga.

I weakened after an hour and couldn’t get enough of that water. It was purified and soaked in herbs grown in the garden. Herbs are just one of the many things grown here; others include kale, spinach, tomatoes, chard, beets and fig trees.

I envision being drugged and forced to do some ceremonial dance or — worse — yoga.

“Life is easier when you help each other,” Smith says. “It’s different from where one person does everything in the normal American life.” She says this commune has been like a laboratory to see what works and what doesn’t. “We live really close to the earth; I don’t ever wear shoes.” And from a number of women I see walking around the house, shirts are also optional.

Here, nobody has outside jobs. Most food is donated, grown or traded. Jobs are assigned that are essential to keeping the place up and running — including a robust social media presence and website. Instead of money, people have time, choice and support.

But hey, even the most kumbaya place in the country needs to pay the bills. And the Garden of Eden is an interesting mix of commercialism and counterculture. It sells a lot of services on its website, including Eaker’s “new paradigm activation and consulting.” The site says, “Quinn is a super catalyst for your evolution!”

Eaker boasts that he hasn’t had a typical job in 17 years. The Colleyville native didn’t finish high school, either, but says he’s spent most of his life reading and studying.

“I’m probably the most well-educated person I’ve ever met,” he says with a straight face. (And humble, as my dad would joke.) Eaker absolutely believes this, and it seems like the rest of the folks here do, too. He walks like an omniscient God purveying his chosen land and planning how to help the rest of society create their own oasis of health and sustainability. Warning: This oasis is probably going to be really hot and full of mosquitoes.

A lot of what Smith says resonates with me. I’m a single mom working a very hard full-time job that I love, but I have to do everything alone.

Eaker’s grand vision (like any Texan entrepreneur, of course, he has one) is to create “ecovillages” across the country that operate with shared responsibilities and benefits, but also have individual houses and income streams — a.k.a. jobs. He says he wants to make sustainability “cool” and show that living that way doesn’t have to mean “a poor peasant life.”

For now, people who want a taste of communal living can pay $33 a year for a basic Garden of Eden “membership.” That gets you the opportunity (after a thorough background check) to see what this style of life is all about. True to his model of living as close to money-free as possible, the membership fee can also be settled through a trade of goods or services. That said, a $250 deposit is required before you can start living at the commune. In the past, visitors have stolen or damaged property.

“We’ve been burned a lot,” says Smith as we sit around a large fire pit after one of the best dinners I’ve ever had.

Smith takes pictures with her phone as Quinn lets his baby crawl over to the fire at a safe distance. “Hi, sweet boy,” he says. The baby smiles and waves a tiny chubby hand near the flame.

A lot of what Smith says resonates with me. I’m a single mom working a very hard full-time job that I love, but I have to do everything alone. Cook. Clean. Groceries. I recently got sick, and my main support system — my dear parents — were out of town. Sure, my friends offered to help out, but my daughter doesn’t know them well enough. She wouldn’t go to bed at their houses and they don’t have lives set up to take her to kindergarten at the crack of dawn. Maybe I’m unconsciously contributing to my own siloed living and loneliness because I’m not doing enough to build community. And building community has to have its own intentionality.

My Fort Worth neighborhood is probably the closest thing to a citified Garden of Eden. Here, Near Southside, Inc., a revitalization-focused nonprofit, has been working to add mixed-use spaces, walkable streets and bike lanes, and other community-driven changes.

But still, homes are separated by fences. Closed front doors. And the prevailing American attitude of respecting privacy and space. Regularly scheduled potluck dinners are hard to come by, and plans have to be made around hectic work schedules and school activities that divide time and make creating lasting relationships tough.

That was the way Smith used to live. She had plenty of money, but it didn’t make her life easier or better, she says. Money gets people to buy more and then they’re trapped into the maintenance of that reality.

The main house at the Garden of Eden is like any other for the most part; it’s got a stocked kitchen and big dining room table. But a large dry erase board hangs on the wall in the kitchen with a list of chores and activities assigned by name to residents. Of course, there’s a room off the kitchen with some curious tent and a strange-looking yoga apparatus. But the real difference is the people. As Eaker’s youngest child crawls around on the floor, he’s swooped up and cared for by another mother of two who’s living there. Inok cooks inside the house while a man grills outside.

My visit to this friendly hippie community lasted about six hours. I was going to spend the night, but couldn’t wait to get back to my daughter at home. The commune reminded me of family, of my divorce, my solitude and my quest to change that. But for me, this was not my Garden of Eden to be. It didn’t feel real. All these barefoot, partially nude, tan and muscular beings meandering through weeds, piles of wood and compost, content with the heat and saved by some higher level of consciousness found through Eaker? I really wanted to believe.

Sitting in an old metal chair near the big bonfire that night, I started talking to Daniel, a 23-year-old from Israel. He was traveling all over the United States and heard about the Garden of Eden from a friend. Just like that, he made plans to stay for two weeks. Fearless and beautiful, this young man with intense brown eyes wrote my name in Hebrew and told me about his family, thoughts on religion, and the loss of a friend. We swooned over the new alt-J album; I wish he’d been older. These happenstance connections are something I hope to cultivate here in Fort Worth — among the sidewalks, early morning commutes, and yes, air conditioning.

Offices of Aum successor Adelph raided over recruiting practices

Police officers stand guard during a search of a facility believed to be used by the Aum Shinrikyo successor group Aleph in Sapporo on Monday. | KYODO
Police officers stand guard during a search of a facility.
Japan times
November 13, 2017

SAPPORO – Police on Monday searched five offices and facilities of the main successor group to the Aum Shinrikyo cult that was responsible for the 1995 Tokyo subway nerve gas attack.

The raids came after the group, now known as Aleph, allegedly recruited and collected tens of thousands of yen in membership fees from a woman in February without having her fill out the legally required paperwork.

The Hokkaido Prefectural Police raided a four-story building in Shiroishi Ward, Sapporo. The building is thought to be Aleph’s largest facility.

Of the five locations police said they searched, two were in Sapporo and one was in Fukuoka. It wasn’t immediately known where the other two were.

Members of the Aum Shinrikyo cult killed 13 people and injured more than 6,000 in the sarin attack on March 20, 1995. It renamed itself Aleph in 2000.

The police believe Aleph has been luring young followers without disclosing that it is a religious group and without informing them of its links to Aum and its criminal history.

According to the police, there were about 1,500 Aleph followers across the country last year.

The number of followers is on the increase, and many of the younger people who join its ranks are apparently unaware of Aum’s criminal background.

Aleph has organized a number of yoga classes as a means of encouraging potential followers to join, according to the police.

Nov 12, 2017

Jehovah's Witnesses double down on Scripture used to ignore abuse

Jehovah’s Witnesses
Trey Bundy

November 9, 2017

What should Jehovah’s Witnesses do if they think someone they know has sexually abused a child, but no one was there to see it?


So say leaders of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who instruct elders not to take action against a member of the religion accused of child sexual abuse without a confession or at least two witnesses to the crime.

That policy is based on Scripture, according to the religion’s top officials.

The vast majority of sexual predators abuse their victims in secret, with no witnesses present. And even though Jehovah’s Witnesses are under pressure worldwide for covering up child sexual abuse, a senior official says scrapping the policy isn’t up for discussion.

“We will never change our Scriptural position on that subject,” said Gary Breaux, a senior official at the religion’s global headquarters in New York, known as the Watchtower.

Breaux made the statement this month on JW Broadcasting – the religion’s official internet video channel.

“Our good reasoning is pretty solid on this,” he said.

He then looked down at a Bible and read from Deuteronomy 19:15: “No single witness can convict another for any error or any sin that he may commit. On the testimony of two witnesses, or on the testimony of three witnesses, the matter should be established.”

When a Jehovah’s Witness commits a serious sin, such as child abuse, local leaders can form a judicial committee to determine whether the offender should be kicked out of the congregation. But without a confession or the testimony of two witnesses to corroborate the allegations, the elders are instructed to leave the matter to God’s judgment.

The lack of eyewitnesses in most child sexual abuse cases can also be vexing to prosecutors charged with convincing juries that a crime occurred based mostly on a minor’s allegations. Still, such cases are filed every day in courts across the country, and often result in guilty pleas or convictions. In Jehovah’s Witnesses congregations, the burden of proof is so high that some allegations are dismissed even when local leaders suspect that they’re true.

Breaux’s defense of the two-witness rule comes as legal scrutiny of Jehovah’s Witnesses child abuse policies is ramping up around the world. An investigation by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting found that Watchtower policies dating back to at least 1989 direct elders to keep child abuse secret from law enforcement and members of their congregations.

In September, current and former Jehovah’s Witnesses in Canada filed two class-action lawsuits against the Watchtower claiming the organization protects sexual predators in its congregations.

Attorneys in the U.S. have filed dozens of lawsuits against the Watchtower on behalf of alleged victims of sexual abuse. The commission that regulates charities in England is currently investigating whether the Watchtower’s child abuse policies violate charity laws. In 2015, a government commission in Australia reviewed internal Watchtower documents indicating that officials there had knowledge of 1,006 alleged child sexual abusers in that country. None had been reported to law enforcement.

Reveal’s investigation focused on former Jehovah’s Witnesses who claimed to have been sexually abused as children by a leader in their rural Oklahoma congregation. According to documents, other leaders there had suspected Ronald Lawrence of sexual misconduct “over a period of years in the past.”

In a letter to headquarters in New York, the leaders explained that because no one had witnessed the abuse, and because Lawrence had not confessed, that no action would be taken.

“The matter,” they wrote, “would be left in Jehovah’s hand.”

Trey Bundy can be reached at Follow him on Twitter: @TreyBundy.

Murder of three teens in Mexico led police to a fugitive US polygamist and his dark world

Rancho el Negro in Ciudad Cuauhtémoc
Rancho el Negro in Ciudad Cuauhtémoc
Orson Black was arrested after the bodies of three Americans were found near his Mexican ranch – then police and neighbors learned the truth about his life.
Luis Chaparro in Ciudad Cuauhtémoc
The Guardian
November 11, 2017

Rancho El Negro is a five-hectare property amid rolling fields of corn and cotton at the foothills of a lonely mountain outside the town of Ciudad Cuauhtémoc in the north Mexican state of Chihuahua.

Neighbours – mostly members of the region’s German-speaking Mennonite community – referred to the farm as “The Company” and had little to do with its owner.

They knew he was called Black, and lived with several women and young children in a rough concrete house and a handful of RVs. There were stories that he was an American businessman who kept a menagerie of animals including horses, and at least one bear.

“We almost never saw him or his people. He was not a Mennonite and he didn’t go to church on weekends,” said Juanito Peters, Black’s closest neighbor, before adding: “He had a very untidy way of living.”

Then in September, the bodies of three American males, aged 15, 19 and 23, were found shot dead nearby – and neighbours started to fear that the truth about Rancho El Negro was much darker than they had suspected.

Last weekend, more than a hundred law enforcement officials descended on the ranch and four other properties and arrested the owner, whom they identified as Orson William Black Jr, 56 – the fugitive leader of a polygamist sect.

He had been on the run for around 15 years after facing five felony counts of sexual misconduct involving two minors in Arizona.

Along with Black, officials detained three of his wives, a woman described as “a concubine”, and 22 other Americans living in Mexico illegally. Another woman escaped during the raid, according to Mexican prosecutors.

The raids also turned up a bizarre collection of exotic animal parts and stuffed animals, including elephant feet, a lion skin, stuffed birds and buffalo heads.

This week, Black was charged with illegal possession of wildlife and human smuggling – and then quickly extradited to the US.

Named after his father, another polygamist, Black was a member of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, which split from the main Mormon church when it disavowed polygamy in 1890.

FLDS leaders teach that men must have at least three wives to reach the highest level of salvation. The group’s former spiritual leader Warren Jeffs is now serving a life sentence for sex crimes against two girls aged 12 and 14.

Around 1990, Black proclaimed himself a prophet and founded his own splinter group in Colorado City, Arizona.

It was around that time that he met the Petersons – a large polygamist family whose patriarch had more than 40 children.

He took two of the Peterson daughters – Roberta and Beth – as his four and fifth “wives” when they were minors, according to their sister Pennie Peterson, who still lives in Arizona.

“My sister almost died when she had Orson’s son. She was only 12 when she delivered. So in 1997 I had to do something – and filed charges against him for having sex with an underage girl,” she said in a telephone interview.

Black fled to Mexico in the early 2000s with four of his wives and about 20 other followers, including children.

Peterson had no news from her sisters until two months ago, when she received a call from an officer with the US Marshals.

“He asked me to sit because he had some bad news to share, and I though he was gonna tell me my sister Beth was dead. But instead, he told me my two nephews were shot dead in Mexico,” she said.

Robert,15, and Michael, 23 – sons of Beth and Roberta respectively – were murdered on September 10 alongside a third American called Jesse Barlow, 23. Reports in the Mexican media say that all three were shot just outside one of the trailer homes.

Mexican officials initially said that they were investigating Black’s role in the deaths, but he has now been ruled out, and security sources on both sides of the border suggested that the murder may have been carried out by members of a drug cartel.

At Rancho Negro, there is no sign of the bear that Black was reputed to have kept. The gate hangs open, and more than 20 horses wander loose in a scrubby pasture.

Further inside the property are three enormous cages, hung with scraps of animal skin – and beyond them, a huge pile of burnt animal bones.

The house and the five RVs where the family lived are still in chaos, littered with liquor bottles – empty and full – and piles of dirty clothes. The smell is unbearable.

In one room is a pile of scrapbooks, containing hundreds of drawings of Black’s face.

On a kitchen wall there are pictures of his sect: seven men dressed in black, and a separate line of 11 women dressed in flowing pioneer-era dresses and long plaits; none of them is smiling.

Mexican officials say they are still investigating Black’s activities in Chihuahua.

His former neighbours are left with nothing but questions.

“We never knew who he really was,” said Peters. “But now that the news is spreading we keep asking ourselves: what was really going on inside those walls?”

Nov 11, 2017

Jehovah's Witnesses' withheld info will cost them

Complaints of molestations to leaders of Jehovah’s Kingdom Hall in Linda Vista accomplished nothing, according to court documents.
Appellate court lets stand prior ruling that penalizes at rate of $4000 daily

Dorian Hargrove
San Diego Reader
November 10, 2017

The clock is ticking for Jehovah's Witnesses headquarters to turn over documents detailing sexual abuse of children by kingdom elders. For each day they do not, the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, Jehovah’s Witnesses’ organizational body, will be forced to pay $4000.

On November 9th, a state appellate ruled that the daily sanctions that a trial court imposed on the church stands.

In 2012, former parishioners José Lopez and Osbaldo Padron sued the Watchtower over abuse they had suffered while members of the Linda Vista congregation at the hands of former elder Gonzalo Campos.

Just months prior to their lawsuit, the kingdom had settled with five other victims whom Campos abused from 1982 to 1999 while serving at the Linda Vista and La Jolla congregations.

Despite the earlier settlement, the Watchtower decided to litigate Padron’s and Lopez’s lawsuits. In 2013, a judge awarded Lopez $13.5 million after the church was accused of withholding documents that potentially showed that Watchtower headquarters was aware of the abuse and did nothing to stop it.

Watchtower attorneys successfully appealed that decision, claiming that the judge had failed to impose daily sanctions first.

Then, in 2015, a trial judge in the Osbaldo case also determined the church was withholding documents. However, instead of issuing terminating sanctions, the judge followed the appellate court's advice and imposed daily sanctions of $4000.

Last year, attorneys for the Watchtower filed an appeal, stating that the court did not have authority to do the exact thing they had wanted to be done in the Lopez case.

As reported by the Reader, on October 11 the appellate court judges expressed their frustration with Watchtower attorneys for trying to play both sides.

That frustration showed in the appellate court's formal ruling as well.

"...[W]e are troubled that Watchtower has taken two inconsistent positions before us," reads the November 9 ruling.

"Here, after the superior court imposed a daily monetary sanction for noncompliance, Watchtower now argues such a sanction is not authorized. We cannot rectify these diametrically opposed positions…. Watchtower has obstinately refused to comply with the order, consistently attempting to reargue the very discovery issues the court already decided."

Padron's attorney, Irwin Zalkin, says it is his firm's position that sanctions should have begun in June when judge Richard Strauss first imposed them.

As for his opinion on the court's ruling, "We are now one step closer to exposing the depth and breadth of the scourge of child sexual abuse within the Jehovah's Witness Organization that has been covered up for decades. It's time for them to come clean and seriously address the problem and make good on their public relations refrain that they 'abhor child abuse.'"

Nov 10, 2017

Trump, Scientology and the IRS: Yes, let the tax stripping begin

Cheryl K. Chumley
The Washington Times
November 10, 2017


According to a longtime family aide, President Donald Trump agrees the Church of Scientology ought to have its tax exemption stripped.


At the risk of coming under the aggressive angry eyes of Scientology bulldogs — the kind and type showcased in actress Leah Remini’s “Scientology and the Aftermath” A&E series — fact of the matter is, this brand of religion is little more than a cult. A massive, money-making, real-estate buying, pocket-enriching, nothing-to-do-with-God cult.

And cults in America just aren’t entitled to receive a tax exemption.

From the Huffington Post: “The history of the Church of Scientology and its tax-exempt status is complicated and has long been under a cloud of controversy. The church first obtained its tax-exempt status in 1957, but the IRS revoked the status in 1967. At the time, the agency said the church’s activities were commercial in nature and to the benefit of its founder, L. Ron Hubbard, which would disqualify the church from exemption.”

Following, Hubbard and his colleagues spent 26 years fighting to win back the exemption. Then David Miscavige took over the organization when Hubbard died in 1986, and ratcheted the fight even further.

Specifically, church members filed lawsuit after lawsuit against the IRS and against individual IRS workers.

As the Huffington Post noted: “The church launched a sophisticated operation to infiltrate federal government agencies, the New York Times reported: Members filed scores of lawsuits … private investigators probed IRS agents’ personal affairs; and two private investigators set up a phony news bureau and posed as reporters to try to gather information about Scientology critics within the IRS.”

Mafia, move over.

The IRS ultimately gave back the church its tax exemption.

Miscavige declared to his members “the war is over” — meaning, the millions upon millions of dollars members must pay in order to move up in the church’s ranks is largely padding for the Friends of Miscavige’s top brass pockets.

More from the Huffington Post: “The [IRS] decision did indeed provide the cloak of legitimacy that Hubbard had wished for. … The exemption has also given the church an effective attack line when dealing with critics. Responding to allegations of slave labor and church-ordered punishment, members and staff cite religious freedom as the reason those allegations should not be further explored. The church and its staff members will often call reporters and critics ‘bigots’ when they question the church’s policies or actions.”

And into this, enters the Trump White House.

Lynne Patton, who’s worked for the Trump family for years and who now serves the administration in the Department of Housing and Urban Development, told Remini in a Twitter direct message that she was going to press for revocation of the church’s IRS exemption.

However, it’s not clear if Patton did indeed take the next step on this. It’s not exactly lawful for White House officials to try and sway the IRS on such decisions.

Still, the Huffington Post had copies of the Twitter messages, and they seem to suggest, at the very least, that Trump’s not a big fan of Scientology.

Here’s one message, from Patton to Remini: “From the moment I saw your series I told President Trump & his family we needed to revoke their tax exempt status. They couldn’t agree more, but please don’t publicize that yet. I want to do more due diligence on what the IRS has attempted in the past (or maybe you can enlighten me), then I’ll identify who we need to connect with again.”

And in another message, Patton wrote to Remini, according to the Huffington Post: “This is going to get done in the next 4 years or I’ll die trying. Knock on wood!”

What happens from here is an unknown. Really, the White House can’t order the IRS to revoke any group’s tax-exemption status — or grant one, for that matter. The IRS website states that the agency “may begin a church tax inquiry only if an appropriate high-level Treasury official reasonably believes, on the basis of facts and circumstances recorded in writing, that an organization claiming to be a church or convention or association of churches may not qualify for exemption,” as The Hill noted.

But it’s high time to put the pressure on the Church of Scientology — to hold its cultish feet to the IRS fire. What’s leaked over the years about this organization isn’t just an offense to real religion. It’s an outrage and an affront to humanity. If even half of what Remini and other whistleblowers say of Scientology is true, America’s IRS, bluntly put, is simply being used to shelter and pad funding for a near-criminal organization.

Nov 9, 2017

"What Faith Allows?" Classroom in a Cult

Angie Pavlovsky 
November 8, 2017


New York - Eyewitness News investigates the Word of Life Christian Church in our week long series. "What Faith Allows?"

The Word of Life Christian Church had many elements inside the walls of its Chadwicks location, including the congregation itself, a dog breeding business and even a classroom. The Agape Christian Academy was a school inside of a cult.

"Like Jerry, like me, we didn't want our kids to go through public school," former member Gregory Ames said. "In light of that, he found a way that we could start a school and have his kids educated through that, so he wouldn't have to send them to public school. The school was started for Jerry and his kids. He used us because we were members and brought us in on it."

Nathan Ames and his brothers attended the academy every Monday through Thursday, returning Sunday for church service. While Jerry Irwin preached from the pulpit, his daughter's role was sculpting young minds.

"When I was in fifth grade, Tiffanie Irwin was my teacher," Nathan Ames said. "She was only two years older than me. I don't know what grade she was. I think she had moved up two or three grades more than she should have been, because she stayed home and did a bunch of homework. It was all self-taught, so it was home schooling, but done at a private school building.

"We sat in these desks, and what we would have to do is look forward at the wall, and we would just have to do our homework and raise our flags," Ames continued. "When they came to answer the flag, either you were doing a check-up on the pace or you were getting ready for a test or you had questions."

However, requests for help weren't always answered.

"Tiffanie, she was very controlling. She would look down at everyone like she was better than everybody. She wouldn't answer any questions," Nathan Ames added. "I remember one time, just sitting there waiting, and I looked up onto my computer screen, and there was a body standing behind me. It was Tiffanie with a note pad, looking at me with my flag up, and she's just writing stuff down about me. I was just waiting on her to answer my flag, and this happened a lot."

Pastor Jerry Irwin held students to strict standards. Those with a grade mark below 90 were considered failing.

"Jerry would tell us our kids are doing this wrong; our kids are doing that wrong," Gregory Ames said. "Years later, we find out those stories weren't true. We believed Jerry more than we believed our kids. I'm believing everything he is saying because I believe that his word is the word."

Vancouver woman says scars from ritual 'branding' fuel her fight against 'cultish' group

'We were weeping. It was like something out of a horror movie,' says Sarah Edmondson

Yvette Brend
CBC News
October 27, 2017

Vancouver actress Sarah Edmondson is warning people about what she describes as a "secretive" organization that she once embraced and now fears.

Edmondson, 40, said she regrets if she inadvertently helped deliver Vancouver recruits to the group, which she said eventually led her to travel to Albany, New York, last spring, where she underwent a harrowing flesh branding on her abdomen.

The event prompted her to cut ties with Executive Success Programs (ESP), a self-help organization she first joined in 2005, drawn by its positive messages of female empowerment.

At one point, Edmondson spearheaded a Vancouver chapter for the group, opening an office on Georgia Street in 2009.

But her role in the group took a dark turn last January when an ESP mentor and friend flew to Vancouver and urged her to join a secret splinter group.

The two arranged to fly to Albany in March for an initiation.

There, Edmondson joined four other women at a private condo where they took turns holding each other still while a brand was burned into their lower abdomens.
Stench of burnt flesh

"We were looking at each other, at the beginning, and we had surgical masks on because the smell of burnt flesh was so strong," she said.

She left the group two-and-a-half months later.

Back in March, Edmondson said she believed that the ritual would help her become more empowered.

But now she believes her consent was fuelled by what she calls anti-female indoctrination.

"It's not OK to carve another person's initials into someone's flesh," she said.

The branding ritual was never mentioned when her friend, a long-time ESP leader first invited her to join the secret group of women in January 2017.
Secretive group

After leaving the group in June, Edmondson says she was shunned and faced police questions.

She believes another highly-placed ESP leader told police she committed fraud and theft.

Vancouver police confirm its financial crime unit is investigating, but can't confirm who is under investigation.

Police say that investigation connects to NXIVM (pronounced Nex-ee-um), the parent company to ESP, which markets personal development classes.

NXIVM was founded in 1998 by Keith Raniere, an enigmatic leader from Clifton Park, New York, who calls himself "Vanguard" and is linked to actresses and heiresses but does few interviews.
NXIVM says it is not involved in alleged 'branding'

NXIVM leaders did not respond to CBC's requests for an interview.

But following similar allegations reported in other media, an official statement from the company said it had nothing to do with the "social" group allegedly engaged in human branding.

The statement adds that the company condemns violence and has provided educational tools to 16,000 people in 30 countries aimed at human empowerment.
The 'stripe path'

Edmondson said she decided to share her experiences to warn other active members, despite promising to keep them secret.

She said ESP members routinely sign confidentiality agreements to protect course content, which introduces ideas about collateral and penance at higher course levels.

In the past few years, she said more women were assigning themselves voluntary penance, in the form of low-calorie diets or handing over collateral, such as cash paid to the organization, if they failed to hit recruitment goals.

She said the group has changed since she first joined in 2005, when she was searching for personal fulfillment and the classes helped her overcome fears and barriers in her acting.

But there were inklings that something was wrong.

Edmondson read news stories that made it sound "cultish," but says coaches persuaded her that the negative stories were not true.

"I felt like they were family," she said.

CBC News spoke to six former ESP members who described following the so-called stripe path, a merit system that involved earning neck sashes and different coloured fabric stripes as they progressed.

Edmondson earned a green-hued sash after reaching a level of teacher or "proctor."
Hands over nude photo

She says she recruited hundreds of people who paid $300 to $10,000 for workshops and seminars, held all over the Lower Mainland, in New York and Washington States.

In late summer every year the group holds a retreat near Albany to honour Raniere.

The events that led Edmondson to the branding ceremony began last January, when she says a long-time ESP friend — and mentor — came to visit and stayed at her home.

The friend invited Edmondson to join a "bad-assed" secret sisterhood.

She told Edmondson if she wanted to be part of something called "DOS," there were extra hurdles.

DOS was described to her as a secret group of women who would work to change the world.

She said she was asked to provide collateral to ensure the group remained secret.

That collateral included submitting self-incriminating material such as a nude photos and written confessions of past misdeeds, even handing over a condo deed.

She handed over a nude photo of herself and written confessions.

She said she learned she would receive a "dime-sized tattoo." And she would be compelled to refer to her sponsor as "master," and eventually wear a necklace to symbolize a slave collar.

Edmondson said she was reluctant, but her friend eventually persuaded her.

By the time she headed to New York, Edmondson said she had already experienced years of ESP "indoctrination," which introduced ideas about women being emotional, weak, lacking character, and at the same time reinforcing obedience.

She said that DOS, which she was told stood for dominant over submissive, translated from Latin, was a safe place where women could become stronger by learning to "humiliate" each other.

"If a man does it he's seen as an abuser," said Edmondson, who said she now cringes at her former beliefs.
'She was squealing'

In Albany she said five women from Canada, the U.S. and Mexico were blindfolded and taken to a condo.

There they kneeled, naked, and recited a script that began: "Master please brand me. It would be an honour."

Then they took turns holding each other down on massage table while a female doctor burned lines into their lower abdomens with a small cauterizing iron, as they writhed and screamed in agony.

"We were weeping. It was like something out of a horror movie. We were shaking. The woman on the table was squealing like a pig. She was squealing like an animal being branded."

Medical face masks helped with the stench of burning flesh, she said.

Three weeks later, she said she discovered that the third-degree burns etched on her lower abdomen were not a symbol of the four elements, as she believed.

She said her mentor told her that the crude marks are letters forming the initials KR for Keith Raniere.

Edmondson said she felt horrified and misled.

"Branding means you are owned by another person," she said.

By June 2017, she closed her chapter of ESP in Vancouver.

In July, she filed a complaint with the New York State Department of Health against the doctor involved in the branding. Officials there told her to go to police because the issues did not represent "medical misconduct."

Edmondson said she then went to Albany police but her complaint went nowhere because she had consented to the entire exercise.

Police did not respond to queries, but a spokesperson for New York Governor Andrew Cuomo told CBC that his office is looking into the "disturbing allegations."

Edmondson insists she broke no laws, and just wants to warn others who may get lured in.

"I hope they wake up," said Edmondson.

But she says in an odd way the work she did in the personal development program did make her stronger.

"Crazily enough, they taught us to stand up for our principles. I had to leave ESP to figure out what those principles are," she said.

What Doomsday Cults Can Teach Us About ISIS Today

New York Times
November 5, 2017

How ISIS Resembles the Doomsday Cults of the 1970s

Can the lessons we learned from extremist cults decades ago be used to fight ISIS recruitment today?

A disturbing 1981 film from Canada could serve as an enduring learner’s manual for any family worried about a son or daughter succumbing to the lure of a religious cult. The movie, “Ticket to Heaven,” describes how a young man, adrift and vulnerable, falls prey to a sect closely resembling the Unification Church of the Rev. Sun Myung Moon. Deprogramming — rescuing him from the zombielike state into which he has fallen — proves a challenge for his friends and relatives.

More than three decades later, a ticket to heaven is what Abdirizak Warsame thought he had bought when he and other young Minneapolis men of Somali origin came under the spell of recruitment videos posted online by the Islamic State. The power of that propaganda to inspire acts of terror was evident again last week in New York, where the authorities said such videos impelled Sayfullo Saipov, an Uzbek immigrant, to drive a truck along a bicycle path at high speed, killing eight people and injuring 11 others.

In Minneapolis, the aspiring jihadists were like the fellow in the 1981 film: nowhere men. They felt distant from both family traditions and the conventions of their adopted country. In 2015, they set out to join Islamic State fighters in Syria, only to be arrested by federal agents who had them under surveillance.

“My son was brainwashed because he was watching this propaganda video,” Mr. Warsame’s mother, Deqa Hussen, said to Retro Report. “He thought that if he go to Syria, he’s going to go to heaven and all my family is going to go to heaven.”

Retro Report, a series of documentary videos that mine past news events for their continuing relevance, explores the behavioral threads that run through the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, and apocalyptic cults from years ago. “When you’re in a vulnerable situation,” Leslie Wagner-Wilson said, “by gaining your trust, slowly, you become indoctrinated into the ideology of the organization.”

That description fit Ms. Wagner-Wilson and her family 40 years ago. They were mesmerized by Jim Jones, a charismatic figure who declared himself God incarnate. He founded the Peoples Temple, a cult that promised a future utopia where poverty, racism, injustice and war were banished. Based first in Indiana and then Northern California, Mr. Jones drew thousands to his side. But he became ever more paranoid, and his behavior ever more erratic and menacing.

In the mid-1970s he moved his flock to a jungle base in Guyana called Jonestown. On Nov. 18, 1978, feeling threatened by deepening scrutiny from American officials and the news media, Mr. Jones organized one of history’s most devastating acts of mass suicide and murder. He compelled his followers to drink a fruit punch laced with cyanide.

Ms. Wagner-Wilson managed to escape in time with her young son. Others in her family were not so fortunate. They died, along with more than 900 others, including at least 270 children, their bodies strewn across the jungle floor. The horror shocked the world (and gave rise to a lasting expression for blind adherence to a perilous idea: drinking the Kool-Aid).

Jonestown was not the last cult twisted by visions of apocalypse. Aum Shinrikyo in Japan, the Branch Davidians in Texas, Heaven’s Gate in California, the nonreligious Manson Family — all had faithful disciples. All embraced death.

Now, groups like the brutal Islamic State and the Shabab in East Africa are magnets for several thousand readily duped Westerners, including scores of Americans. Many of them feel isolated from family and community, and long for something to believe in. They’re typically young men like the Minneapolis Somalis. “ISIS tries to instill that there is something greater that you can be doing,” Mr. Warsame said in an interview last year with the CBS show “60 Minutes,” after his arrest and before a federal judge sentenced him to 30 months in prison. “It kind of takes control of you,” he said.

Social media and online videos are powerful recruiting tools that the Islamic State has exploited skillfully and aimed at young people like him and his friends. “If they’re living in a context where they feel alienated, they feel like they’re not getting a fair deal, they can be open to indoctrination,” Charles B. Strozier told Retro Report. Mr. Strozier, a psychoanalyst who is the founding director of the Center on Terrorism at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, added, “They’re susceptible to thinking of these larger messages which come flooding at them through the internet.”

They are not necessarily beyond salvation, though. Almost as if “Ticket to Heaven” were a training film, the federal court in Minneapolis has turned to a version of deprogramming as a possible solution. Only the word used in connection with jihadists is deradicalization. The court invited in Daniel Koehler, founder of the German Institute on Radicalization and Deradicalization Studies in Berlin. Mr. Koehler has concluded that extremists of all stripes share a sense that what is wrong with the world and what is wrong in their own lives are intertwined.

Many high school or college students feel woebegone: Parents are annoying or teachers are oppressive. Most young people figure out that there are various ways to cope. But for someone who has been radicalized — say, a teenager led to believe that his religion is being persecuted — the perspective can narrow and obvious solutions fade (except maybe violence). Mr. Koehler calls it “depluralization.” What he attempts, he told Retro Report, is to “repluralize the worldview, make it broader again, make them understand that there are no easy answers for single problems.”

That means, in part, reintegrating them back into the larger society and inculcating skills other than how to fire an AK-47 or strap on a suicide vest. He thinks that progress has been made with some of the young Somali men, but not all. The judge in Mr. Warsame’s case, Michael J. Davis, said he remained unpersuaded that the defendant had abandoned jihadist aspirations.

While the Islamic State in recent months has lost much of its territory in Syria and Iraq to United States-backed coalition forces, experts say it is not defeated. Thousands of militants remain in those two countries and presumably are still able to tempt gullible Western recruits, who are within reach via laptops and smartphones. And there’s always a chance that new death-hugging cults will arise. If the past is a guide, some young people are bound to be seduced into picking up a gun, convinced it’s their ticket to heaven.

The video with this article is part of a documentary series presented by The New York Times. The video project was started with a grant from Christopher Buck. Retro Report, led by Kyra Darnton, is a nonprofit video news organization that aims to provide a thoughtful counterweight to today’s 24/7 news cycle. Previous episodes are at To suggest ideas for future reports, email

Daphne Bramham: Court to hear polygamist Winston Blackmore's constitutional challenge

Vancouver Sun
November 5, 2017

In 2011, the B.C. Supreme Court ruled that Canada’s anti-polygamy law was valid and “demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.”

But Canada’s best-known polygamist Winston Blackmore — a man with at least 24 wives and 149 children — disagrees. And he is challenging that law starting Tuesday in a Cranbrook courtroom in the hope that his conviction on one count of polygamy will be stayed, the trial declared an abuse of process, or an order is granted to stop any further prosecutions against him based on evidence prior to 2011.

In July, Blackmore was found guilty of having married 24 women between 1990 and 2004, but that verdict has yet to be registered pending the outcome of the constitutional challenge. If it is upheld, the former Canadian bishop of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints faces a maximum penalty of five years in jail.

The 60-year-old Blackmore, who leads a splinter group of several hundred in the community known as Bountiful in southwestern B.C., contends that the law breaches his constitutionally guaranteed right to freedom of religion and freedom of expression.

In addition to claiming a constitutional right to practice polygamy, Blackmore will argue that his right to a fair and speedy trial has been denied because, for years, the provincial Crown refused to approve polygamy charges due to concerns about the law’s validity. Blackmore has been investigated off and on for nearly 30 years.

Also in July, James Oler was found guilty of polygamy and of having married five women in religious ceremonies. Oler, Blackmore’s former brother-in-law and another past FLDS bishop, refused legal counsel for the trial. Whether Oler is joining Blackmore in the appeal is only expected to become clear when the hearing begins on Tuesday.

What will be up for debate is whether or when Parliament can limit constitutionally guaranteed rights. The measuring stick used by Robert Bauman, who is now B.C.’s chief justice, was whether the harm caused by the exercise of those freedoms justifies limiting them.

His decision was overwhelmingly yes and included a catalogue of harms to women, including: Higher rates of domestic violence, physical and sexual abuse; elevated rates of depression and other mental health disorders, including lower self-esteem; competition for material and emotional access to a shared spouse; higher risk of death during childbirth because they tend to marry younger and have more children; less autonomy; and higher poverty rates because of inequitable division of familial wealth or simply lack of sufficient income for the larger-than-average families.

He provided an equally long list of harms to children. Infant mortality rates are higher even when controlled for economic status. Children in polygamous families have more emotional, behavioural and physical problems and lower educational achievement than those in monogamous families.

There is also polygamy’s cruel arithmetic that results in boys and young men being forced out of their communities or choosing to leave because there are simply not enough young women to meet the skewed demand for wives.

Both during and since the reference case, legal scholars criticized parts of Bauman’s analysis, especially his contention that the polygamy ban is essential to protect the institution of monogamous marriage.

One of polygamy’s greatest harms, he wrote, is that it “directly threaten(s) the benefits felt to be associated with the institution of monogamous marriage.”

“The prevailing view through the millennia in the West has been that exclusive and enduring monogamous marriage is the best way to ensure paternal certainty and joint parental investment in children,” he wrote. “It best ensures that men and women are treated with equal dignity and respect and that husbands and wives (or same-sex couple), and parents and children, provide each other with mutual support, protection and edification through their lifetimes.”

Although inequality, domestic assault and child abuse clearly exist within monogamous families, Bauman said that wasn’t relevant to his analysis.

During the reference hearing, some — including from the FLDS lawyer — urged him to adopt the broadest possible reading of the law so that it would only apply to relationships where there was exploitation or undue influence. Bauman refused.

Blackmore’s lawyer Blair Suffredine has provided few clues about how intends to deal with these complex issues. His rambling, 12-page draft application was almost entirely focused on the improper appointment of special prosecutors that eventually led to the constitutional reference case being called in 2009, rather than any analysis of the reference decision or legal arguments.

As for Blackmore? “Anybody can explain the Constitution,” he said outside the courtroom in July.

“Twenty-seven years ago, adultery was a criminal act. Twenty-seven years ago, when they started with us, same-sex marriage was criminal.”

After nearly 30 years of waiting for his day in court, Blackmore is banking on his application having the same result for polygamy.

Twitter: @daphnebramham

Courts have no business reviewing religious decisions

Barry W. Bussey: Last week, the Supreme Court was asked to do something courts never do: review the solely religious decision of a church

Special to National Post
November 9, 2017

On November 2, the Supreme Court of Canada was asked to do something Canadian courts never do: review the solely religious decision of a church community. Until now, the courts have recoiled from getting involved in religious disputes—and for good reason.

The case involves Randy Wall, who was dismissed from a Jehovah’s Witness church for failing to repent of his religious offences: getting drunk on two occasions and verbally abusing his wife. Wall’s appeal to another church entity was unsuccessful. He then appealed to a court of law by means of “judicial review,” on the grounds that the church had denied him a proper hearing.

In Canadian law, in a process known as “judicial review,” a person can ask a court to “review” (i.e. hear) whether the decision of a “public actor” (such as a government licensing agency) was unfairly decided. Courts rarely review decisions of “private actors” (such as a church); they generally do so only if a private actor’s decision engages property or civil rights. In Wall’s case, the court had to determine whether the Jehovah’s Witness church’s decision involved property or contractual rights, which would then enable the court to review the church’s decision.

The church argued it was a private religious body, not a public body, and that its decision did not affect Wall’s property or contractual rights. It also argued that its disciplinary procedure was a religious process involving prayer and scripture reading aimed at reconciling the relationship between Wall and the church. The lower courts both held that religious decisions can be reviewed by courts to determine whether a church gave a fair hearing, even if no property or contractual rights were engaged. However, both courts were also of the view that property rights were an issue in the case. The Supreme Court of Canada must now decide whether those courts were right. The Supreme Court reserved judgment after last week’s hearing; we can expect its decision early in the new year.

Courts like to “fix things.” They naturally want to find resolutions to disputes; this is what they exist to do. However, courts have historically avoided getting involved in religious cases, recognizing that they lack the expertise and authority to settle religious disagreements. They handle legal cases, such as contractual disputes, but not religious cases that raise metaphysical truths, such as the definition of God.

Wall argued his case did involve a “property right,” because his dismissal from his church meant the church members were no longer willing to do business with him. As a real estate agent, 50 per cent of his clientele were Jehovah’s Witnesses. His business folded from the loss of their support. He says there is a direct line of causation between his loss of church membership and business loss. It’s likely the case that one caused the other, but that doesn’t mean Wall’s claim is a legally enforceable property right.

The reality is, Wall chose to limit his business to Jehovah’s Witnesses and took a personal risk in doing so. The church did not tell him to do so, and certainly there is no known legal principle that says a church is responsible for the economic losses that might flow from a loss of membership. A church member is not required to patronize the business of a former member. In the same way, we would not expect a former husband to maintain business with his ex-wife’s family.

At last week’s hearing, Wall’s legal counsel tried to persuade the court that, if there are no grounds under Canadian law for the court to interfere in purely religious matters, the court should then consider adopting U.K. law, which does allow this type of review. “Good luck!” Justice Rosalie Abella quipped, prompting everyone to burst into laughter.

That exchange suggested the court was not persuaded that it is time to change the law to allow courts to get tangled up in reviewing decisions of religious bodies. That would be a good thing, as courts don’t have the moral or legal authority or doctrinal expertise to decide such matters.

This hearing occurred around the time of the 500-year anniversary of Martin Luther’s nailing of his 95 Theses to a church door in Wittenberg, Germany. If we have learned anything since then, it’s that the law does not need to apply to every nook and cranny of our lives – especially our religious affairs.

Barry W. Bussey is Director Legal Affairs at the Canadian Council of Christian Charities. He blogs at