In Amy Wallace’s book Sorcerer’s Apprentice, she says Castaneda claimed to believe “that the only admirable people are those who walk their talk.” In another chapter, she says, “It was his strongest conviction that no true spiritual leader should be a hypocrite, should fail to “walk his talk.” She quotes one of the rants she was in a privileged position to hear:
I have no respect – none! – for these babas and shamans who are fallible! To be fallible while claiming knowledge is to be the lowest kind of egomaniac! I piss on these fakes! It’s meaningless if you don’t live what you preach…
Castaneda declared of himself and his inner circle, “Only we live as we say we do! No one else but us!” He also said, “The warrior seeks impeccability in his own eyes…” That must have been the only place where it could be found. Many people regarded him as untrustworthy, and later revealed the numerous double standards he permitted himself to indulge in.
The commercial holidays –All Saints’ Day, Mothers’ Day, Valentines Day, wedding anniversaries, and birthdays – Castaneda denounced as unworthy of the warrior. His words were, “They are like stakes we tie our life to so we won’t get lost, and thus we walk the Earth, revolving around our descriptions like beasts tied by the neck.” Heavy stuff.
Yet Wallace relates how the inner group made a big deal out of the culturally mandated occasions of Thanksgiving and Christmas, which the leader loved to celebrate. The occasions included turkey, gifts, and “dreadful Bingo games.” Despite the hype about his ascetic lifestyle, Castaneda partied like a rock star. The inner circle’s get-togethers were an important control tool. Not to be invited was a dreadful punishment. And if you were commanded to appear, you’d better show up or risk his wrath.
This may sound more jejune than sinister, but things could get out of hand, like when one of the witches coerced a recruit with 20 years of sobriety into drinking. According to Wallace, a party would usually result in someone being expelled from the group. As Castaneda said, “The pressure is too great – after every party, I guarantee you – heads will roll.” It sounds like he took leadership lessons from Stalin, who famously forced his minions to attend nightly vodka debauches, slow-dance together, and drink till they became incontinent.
Sorcery or Frivolity?
The witches declared to students that they had no time for the frivolous. But there seems to have been plenty of lightweight amusement and unsorcerer-like behavior. They were always going out for lunch to places like Hamburger Hamlet. According to Florinda, Castaneda read nothing but the Enquirer and loved to go to the movies, especially Grade-D martial arts films. During his last illness he reportedly watched nothing but war movies. Florinda herself had allegedly seen just about every movie ever made, to the point where the other sorcerers called her the “movie whore.”
The leader’s daughter/lover Claude took her own loyal clan to Disneyland where they went on the fastest rides, an activity that according to Castaneda “caused magical transformations.” Corey Donovan also mentions a Sunday class where Castaneda said of the Blue Scout, “She’ll get on a ride, going very fast, and it can take her away. She drives fast too. So she’ll say to me that if I don’t want her to stay, just give the word and she’ll spin.”
Corey Donovan’s class notes included the information, from Florinda, that Castaneda could “find chocolate anywhere.” Apparently Florinda could too. She told the students she had met Kylie Lundahl 10 or 15 years previously, in an Oslo art gallery. Having eaten too many French bonbons on the plane, the sick Florinda vomited and Kylie nursed her, which was the start their friendship.
One of Florinda’s dramatic pronouncements to a class was, “So many have tried to be with us, and they either go mad or don’t like it because our life is too harsh.” Yeah, eating so much chocolate you throw up is pretty harsh, for sure.
Keeping others emotionally off balance is an excellent control mechanism. When a controller makes demands on the followers that include mutually exclusive imperatives, he can drive them crazy enough that he can get away with almost anything. In other words, if a controller can put people in a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” position, they will be pretty busy handling the stress.
One of the memorable dialogues reported by Amy Wallace went like this:
“Are you angry with me, don Juan?”
“No. I am never angry at anybody. No human being can do anything important enough for that. You get angry at people when you feel that their acts are important. I don’t feel that way any longer.”
But Castaneda sure got angry. Or feigned anger. And is there any difference? If there is, which is worse? At a Sunday class, he pointed to Wallace and told the students, “She thinks she’s having a love affair with me! She’s insane!”
According to Corey Donovan’s notes, the sorcerers used a technique called “stalking,” which meant acting in roles designed to evoke particular reactions or “assemblage point shifts.” The secrecy and false stories about the circle’s interpersonal relationships were supposedly aspects of this so-called skill. Donovan says,
Because of this teacher’s unique position, abilities and “lack of ego,” it was also not “abuse” when he regularly attacked, publicly humiliated, falsely accused or initiated the “shunning” of his “disciples” and colleagues. On the contrary, all such behaviors were passed off as examples of the teacher’s selfless and “impeccable” teaching techniques.
Castaneda didn’t like sick people. When a disciple/mistress developed some kind of intestinal disorder and needed a colostomy, one of the witches arranged for a $10,000 payment which allegedly was the customary kiss-off or golden handshake for somebody he wanted to get rid of. In the inner circle, interactions were cruel and arbitrary, amounting to a paranoid Grand Guignol. Amy Wallace wrote:
It is truly daunting to try to convey the level of envy, pettiness, and competition that pervaded many of our lives… If I had observed Carlos’ methods working successfully, and we’d all been broken of our struggles for dominance and position, I would have applauded his Theatre of Cruelty, the Carlos Castaneda University of Tough Love, as a supreme accomplishment. Instead I saw spirits crushed, particularly by public humiliation; I saw malevolence, breakdowns, illness, and anguish.
Wallace came in for criticism because she had not gone to college but started writing at age 18. Despite her having published 13 books, Castaneda treated her accomplishments with disgust and scolded, “You’ve never worked a day in your life! Go get a job at McDonald’s!”
Acting on his instructions, she took a waitress position. And gave away her cats. This was part of getting rid of her previous life, which one of the witches came over to help with. Wallace says, “She arrived with a knife and a pair of scissors. We spent three hours cutting up my clothes, the magical procedure for breaking one’s ties with the past. Florinda saved the very best items to give to Carlos to pass on to other women.”
One of the master’s chief ploys, of course, was to play the women off against each other, making them all work hard to earn his approval. And in true classic cult-leader manner, he promoted separation from their birth families. The apprentices were told to brainwash themselves against their relatives and say “I send them to hell!”
“Why?” was the most forbidden word in the sorcerers’ vocabulary, followed closely by “love,” “friendship,” “family,” and the tastelessly human “need.”
I often thought of Castaneda as Ayn Rand on acid, an Objectivist turned inside out.
——- Amy Wallace