Journalist Mike Sager originally wrote this article in 1999 as a long project for Rolling Stone. When the magazine killed the story for lack of page space ─ not an uncommon practice in magazine publishing ─ Sager published it in his first collection Scary Monsters and Super Freaks. “In a world of subjective editors,” Sager wrote via email, “it’s a good lesson for all freelance writers, one that continues to give me strength as I enter the 40th year of my journey along this beloved but difficult career path.” Our thanks to Mike Sager and Thunder’s Mouth Press for allowing us to reprint the story here, which comes recommended by Longreads contributor Aaron Gilbreath.
* * *
The followers doused the headlights of their dusty blue Hyundai and coasted into their regular spot, a no-parking zone diagonally across the quiet intersection from the Sorcerer’s low-slung compound. It was a cool Tuesday evening in early August, just past eleven. The sky was unusually clear for Los Angeles; the mystical heavens twinkled invitingly through the tinted windshield of the ten-year-old compact. Crickets sang, a dog barked, the engine ticked off heat. They sat silent for a few moments, enjoying the powdery fragrance of a night-blooming jasmine, girding themselves for another mission.
“You ready?” asked Greg Mamishian, scanning the compound for signs of activity. He was a short man, fifty years old, with close-cropped gray hair and an elfin sparkle in his eyes. A former Army helicopter mechanic with the spare, sinewy body of a vegetarian, he had lived his entire life—excepting his stint in Vietnam—within a ten-mile radius. Self-employed as an electrician, he worked, as a rule, only five hours a day, commute-time included. He lived modestly in a rustic, two-room cabin with a wood stove and no television in the pleasant wilds of Topanga Canyon, favoring quality of life over a big paycheck, self determination over the modern-day treadmill of achievement and acquisition. A talented tinkerer with a fondness for silly jokes, he was a rabid aficionado of slapstick comedies. “Mongo just pawn in chess game of life,” he liked to say about himself, quoting his favorite line from Blazing Saddles.
“I don’t know,” said his wife, Gabi, sitting behind the wheel. She checked her watch, knitted her brow, a look of concern. “It’s a little early. The Energy Trackers might still be inside.”
Gabi was a tiny woman, five feet tall, thin and severe, with jet black shoulder-length hair parted in the middle. Born in a small town in Bavaria to a school teacher and his wife, she had come early to the conclusion that life had something infinitely more magical than her mother’s middle class dreams. Since her teens she’d been on a constant search, exploring philosophy and literature and religion and politics, trying on a world view, shucking it, trying on something else. In her early twenties she was a member of a radical group that contemplated a trip to Hanoi to stop the war. Later, she joined an underground team of Christians who smuggled suitcases full of Bibles into Eastern Bloc countries. After living for a while in Spain and throughout Europe, she immigrated to America to pursue primal scream therapy. Over the next five years, she says, she cried an ocean of tears.
For both, this was a second marriage. Though they’d been together six years, they’d only recently tied the knot. Truth be told, these missions had been the catalyst. Every couple needs a hobby, a binding interest; in an odd, wonderful way, the Sorcerer had become theirs. They were, they’d discovered, one hell of a team. Greg had dubbed them the Followers. The pun, of course, was intended.
Gabi supplied the vision, the ideas, the tenacity. She read the omens, established the energetic connection, tracked the phantom, stood vigil against inorganic predators seeking to appropriate their energy. It was she who’d first brought them into the Sorcerer’s world. And, it was she who’d been most hurt when they were cast out so unceremoniously from his inner circle. Greg’s role was more focused on the practical. He came up with materials and strategies, added support and enthusiasm and unrelenting good humor, a valuable quality on long, monotonous stakeouts fueled with green tea and McDonald’s fries. Where Gabi seemed to be driven by deep personal feelings that she kept masked behind a cool, almost academic exterior, Greg was more emotionally detached, someone who’d come along for the ride and found himself hooked on the adventure, the giddy folly of it all. Maybe he’d never been quite as invested as Gabi; commitment was not really his strong suit—he was a get-along kind of guy who always kept one foot on either side of the line. Or maybe his vivid dreams had shown him something special, something of the Second Attention that she hadn’t yet seen, couldn’t even imagine. Since he’d begun practicing the ancient ways of the Sorcerer, he’d grown adept at shifting his assemblage point. He’d traveled to other worlds, flown without wings—he’d seen awesome, terrifying, beautiful, incredible things, things that changed his life. So what if the Sorcerer made fun of his sandals?
“What kind of impeccable warrior worries about time?” Greg asked in typical fatuous style, turning now to Gabi a wicked smile on his face. He raised one finger in the air, Gene Wilder as Dr. Frankenstein, stating the elemental: “Time, my dear, is irrelevant to luminous spheres like ourselves.”
“I … don’t … know,” Gabi said hesitantly, ignoring his attempt at levity, glancing nervously across the street. She pinched her thin lips with her thumb and first two fingers. Usually, her voice carried the hard residual edge of her German accent. Tonight it sounded soft and anxious. Something was bothering her. Something just didn’t feel right. One of the things that irked her most about their estrangement from the Sorcerer was the fact that it had come at a time when she was beginning to make real progress. It had happened towards the end of an evening in the rented dance studio in Santa Monica where the group practiced their Magical Passes—martial art-like movements designed to gather energy. She was listening intently to one of the Sorcerer’s three-hour monologues—highly entertaining affairs, Lenny Bruce meets Fidel Castro meets Mescalito, the cricket-like being with a warty green head that embodied the spirit of peyote—when a vortex appeared behind the Sorcerer’s head, a kind of liquid swirl in the air, a whirlpool, just behind him to the left. Since then, it seemed, the magic and the revelations had grown stronger and stronger. Over the months of their surveillance, like Greg, she had continued to practice the passes—they had, in fact, just come from their regular practice group, one of the hundreds of independent cells that formed across the globe. Lately, she’d begun to notice this voice inside of herself, a voice beyond the everyday chatter of the mind, a sort of anchor, a storehouse of knowledge. The Sorcerer called it the Emissary. It answered her questions, guided her choices, told her unwaveringly that this quest of theirs was supported by universal intent. It also told her, on this particular Tuesday night in the summer of 1997, to be careful. Something was different. Something was wrong. She could feel it.
“Let’s go,” said Greg impatiently, reaching for the door handle.
“Let’s just wait a few more minutes, okay?”
The yellowish stucco compound occupied a large corner lot in the tidy neighborhood of Westwood Village, not far from the campus of UCLA. A rambling, L-shaped building with shallow peaks and a shingle roof, it had bars on the windows and a large, internal courtyard, all of it obscured from view by a 12-foot privet hedge that ran along the street sides of the property. From their parking place on the southwest corner of Pandora and Eastborne Avenues, the Followers could watch both gated entrances of the compound, each of which carried a separate address. The right side, on Eastborne, seemed to be used only by male visitors. According to the Sorcerer’s teachings, the right side symbolized experiential knowledge, everything we know—the Tonal. The left side symbolized the mysterious, the unknown—the Nagual. The Sorcerer was also known as the Nagual, the last of a line of shamans that stretched back thousands of years to the Toltecs, the pre-Hispanic Indians who inhabited the central and northern regions of Mexico prior to the Mayans. The left entrance, on Pandora, was used by the Sorcerer and his women: the three Witches, the Chacmols, the Blue Scout, the Electric Warrior, the other female members of the inner circle. The Followers called it Pandora’s gate.
To the rest of the world, the Sorcerer was known as Carlos Castaneda. In 1968, at the height of the psychedelic age, he had published The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge, the first of twelve books describing his apprenticeship in the deserts of Mexico to an Indian shaman, and his journeys to the “separate reality” of the sorcerers’ worlds. Like Herman Hesse’s Steppenwolf and Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception, The Teachings of Don Juan and its sequels became essential reading for legions of truth seekers over the next three decades. Castaneda himself became a cult figure—seldom seen, nearly mythological, a cross between Timothy Leary and L. Ron Hubbard: a short, dapper, nut-brown Buddha-with-an-attitude who likened his own appearance to a Mexican bellhop.
Though the Sorcerer had ten million books in print in seventeen languages, he had lived in wily anonymity for nearly 30 years, doing his best, in his own words, to become “as inaccessible as possible.” Most people surmised that he had a house somewhere in the Sonoran desert, where he’d studied with his own teacher, a leathery old Indian brujo named Don Juan Matus, who’d taken his body and his boots and disembarked in a flash of light for the Second Attention many years ago, leaving Castaneda behind to close out his line “with a golden clasp.” In truth, Castaneda had lived and written most of that time right here in Westwood Village, a neighborhood of students and professors nor far from Beverly Hills. In truth, there were many things that people surmised about the Sorcerer that weren’t remotely factual. The Followers, over the course of their investigations, had begun to figure it out. They were particularly proud of their videos. A major tenet of the Sorcerer’s way was erasing personal history; he never allowed himself to be photographed or tape recorded. The last major legitimate interview he’d given was to Time in 1972; even they couldn’t persuade him to pose for a full-face picture. The magazine ended up running an abstract drawing on the cover. The story described Castaneda as “an enigma wrapped in a mystery wrapped in a tortilla.”
For more than eighteen months now, at least three times a week, Greg and Gabi had made these clandestine pilgrimages. They followed the Sorcerer and his party to restaurants and movies, to inner-circle practice groups. They video-taped him at every opportunity; they’d collected hours of raw footage, the only such cache of its kind.
The Followers weren’t sure, exactly, what they were after, but they were certainly not on the trail. On the one hand, what they were doing felt kind of tacky and intrusive, like they were peeping toms or paparazzi, or maybe more like they were children watching their parents have sex. On the other, it felt like a legitimate—albeit amateur—anthropological exercise. The Sorcerer himself had earned a Ph.D. in anthropology from UCLA; his third book, Journey to Ixtlan, had served as his thesis. His own journey had begun as a undergraduate inquiry into ethnobotany, a study of the natural hallucinogenic plants of the southwest. In a way, the Followers considered their actions a sort of academic homage. And besides, they knew in their hearts that their motives were pure, that their energetic connection was strong and true. They meant no harm to the Sorcerer. Indeed, they liked him. They respected him. They just wanted to be close. The Sorcerer always talked about seeking non-ordinary reality. It was hard to explain, but this was theirs.
At last, Greg and Gabi exited the Hyundai. They clicked the doors quietly closed, crossed the street, stepping carefully, wearing dark clothes. As was their custom, they started at the Eastborne side of the property, began working their way nonchalantly along the perimeter, arm in arm, like a couple on their evening constitutional. They’d taken a few steps when suddenly, out of the hedge in from of them, there emerged a family of raccoons—two adults, two babies, in a single-file line. Raccoons were certainly not uncommon in the area, but the Followers had been to the neighborhood at all times of day and night and had never noticed any before. They watched raptly as the furry critters perambulated unhurriedly west-bound along the sidewalk, a darling little Disney grouping. The last one in line was a bit plump. It struggled to keep up.
The Followers followed the raccoons around the corner, north on Pandora. Twice, the mother broke rank, circled around, coaxed the fat baby with her nose to hurry up, then went back to her place in line. When they reached the gate used by the Sorcerer, the Witches and the rest—Pandora’s Gate—the raccoons turned abruptly right and filed through the hedge. The father, the mother, the first baby disappeared. The last one, the fat one, stopped and turned around. He looked at Greg and Gabi for a long moment, a beckoning type of expression, dark eyes sparkling from within his dark mask, as if to say: “Follow me.”
Greg took a step forward. The fat baby vanished through the hedge. Greg took another step forward, bent down to see where he’d gone. A large black moth flew out of the hedge. It hovered in the air for a second or two, right in front of his face, so close that he could feel the disturbance of the air, the flutter of tiny wings tickling the tip of his ample Armenian nose. A palpable sense of alarm overcame him, a strong suggestion to Keep Out. He stood up quickly, his eyes like saucers. “Whoa!” he exclaimed, a stage whisper. “Did you see that?”
Gabi just looked at him. She couldn’t even speak.
For several long moments the Followers stood riveted to their places on the sidewalk. They felt a weird tingling up and down their spines. The hair on the back of Greg’s neck stood on end. Crickets sang, a dog barked, the leaves on a nearby fig tree rustled in the breeze. And then … and then….
Greg looked at Gabi. Gabi looked at Greg. He raised his hands, palms up, shrugged his shoulders. Then he nodded his head toward the Sorcerer’s driveway, twenty feet away to the north. Gabi cut her eyes toward the driveway, then back to Greg. She knitted her brow, a look of concern, then took his arm. Slowly, they strolled toward the driveway, toward the large trash can at the curb. Greg reached over, opened the top of the can, peered inside.
Greg looked north, then south. Then, grinning triumphantly, like an archeologist unearthing a pre-Cambrian pot, he began removing bags, translucent white plastic numbers secured at the top with twist-ties. He handed three bags to Gabi, took the remaining four himself.
Neither Gabi nor Greg quite remembered which one of them first came up with the idea of taking the Sorcerer’s trash. It just sort of happened spontaneously one night. By chance they’d come on a Tuesday; cans were at curbs all over the neighborhood for trash collection the next day. As the night dragged on, the Followers watched as a cast of marginal characters came one by one on foot into the neighborhood to dig for recyclables. If the homeless could rifle the Sorcerer’s trash, they figured, why couldn’t they?
Andy so it was that Tuesday nights became Trash Night. Every week, late in the evening, after practicing their Magical Passes with a group of like-minded (though less literal) followers at a rented dance studio in Santa Monica, Greg and Gabi would drive the short distance to the Sorcerer’s compound and liberate his trash. Once home in their cabin in Topanga Canyon, they’d light a fire in the wood stove, sit on the floor before it, and begin studying the contents of the bags, one of them at a time, slowly putting together a puzzle picture of the life of the great and mysterious man. Whatever looked important or significant they kept. Of the leavings, whatever burned went up in smoke.
As you would guess, the Followers learned a great many things from the Sorcerer’s trash. They learned that the septuagenarian Sorcerer, who was said to live in celibate solitude, co-habituated with at least five women—two of the three Witches (powerful practitioners and best-selling authors themselves, who claimed that they had also studied Don Juan), a fiftyish caretaker, a young woman he’d adopted and a disabled old woman who was said to have been “energetically damaged” many years ago during her studies with Don Juan. The Sorcerer and the Witches, who were in their sixties, ate a lot of chicken and eggs—the mounds of bones and shells rankled the Follower’s vegetarian sensibilities, stunk up their tiny cabin. They had a fondness for ceramic snakes and Mexican earthenware. Someone in the compound was clumsy: things were frequently broken and discarded; they didn’t seem to care for making repairs. The women had a taste for fine clothes—Armani, Barneys, Neiman Marcus. They didn’t believe in thrift stores. When they were finished with an item of apparel they would cut it to pieces and throw it away. Sometimes they were not so thorough—Gabi often wore a pair of DKNY leggings they had forgotten to cut up. Later she would find a leather jacket that belonged to one of the Witches. A corduroy jacket with leather elbow patches had belonged to the Sorcerer himself. It fit Greg perfectly; he wore it everywhere, even to practice group. It was his fondest possession.
The Sorcerer and the Witches, the Followers discovered, used wooden stick matches to clear the smells in their bathrooms. They loved word games, anagrams and crossword puzzles. They cut their own hair. There was mail addressed to dozens of different people—over time, the Followers figured out that each of the occupants of the compound had several different aliases. They subscribed to The Nation and to The New Republic. They loved German chocolates and Diet Pepsi, little airline bottles of vodka, Kotex Light Days pads. There were insulin syringes and acupuncture needles, Chinese paper lanterns, red-handled garden clippers, a prescription for phenobarbital, assorted baby blue boxes from Tiffany’s, literature on health foods and liver cancer, check stubs and bank statements and legal papers, copies of royalty checks, brochures for luxury yachts, ticket stubs from a trip to Hawaii, communications from fans and psychos, tapes full of answering machine messages, a list of home phone numbers for the entire inner circle, Someone in the compound was fond of Eco-tours and Julio Iglesias. The Sorcerer himself seemed overly fond of Las Vegas weddings. Found in the trash were certificates indicating that the Sorcerer had legally married two of the Witches, in ceremonies dated two days apart in September of 1993. A records check confirms the marriages, along with several others between the Witches and male members of the inner circle, including the Sorcerer’s literary agent, and the author Bruce Wagner, who gave a lengthy and obtuse interview for this story about his association with the Sorcerer but refused to divulge specific details.
Now, on this cool Tuesday night in August, loaded down with their latest gleanings, seven white plastic bags of trash, the Followers walked south on Pandora, heading for their car. As they passed the gate, Gabi noticed, in the far corner of her peripheral vision, a white-clad form leaving the house. She stepped up her pace, but it was too late.
The Followers froze, turned around. Out of the gate came one of the Chacmols, a thirtyish woman with close cropped hair. The Followers had come to know her during their time with the inner circle, The Chacmols were named for the massive statues of the “fierce dreamer guardians” that stood watch at the Mayan pyramids of Tula and Yucatan in Mexico. On a daily basis, the Sorcerer’s Chacmols were bodyguards and helpers. At practice sessions and at paid seminars, they demonstrated the Magical Passes, aerobic movements with names like The Saber Tooth Tiger Breath, The Being From the Ground, and The Crustacean Long Form.
The Chacmol looked at Greg and Gabi with flames in her eyes. “What do you think you’re doing?’ she thundered.
“It’s only trash,” said Gabi. Oddly, she didn’t feel nervous at all, In fact, she felt preternaturally calm, as if someone had disconnected the wires to her fight/flight response. Even her perspective had shifted. It was like she wasn’t present at all, like she was watching the whole scene in third person.
The fierce Chacmol ripped the trash bags from Gabi’s hands, gestured for Greg to put his down. “You’ll never get close to us again,” she hissed, gathering up the bags.
That’s what you think, thought Greg. He, too, felt inordinately calm. He crooked his arm and Gabi took it, and they turned nonchalantly in the direction of their car.
Walking away, Greg called cheerily over his shoulder, “Tell Carlos we said hello.”
There was a knock at the door, and Margaret Runyan smiled quizzically at her gentleman caller, a handsome Jordanian businessman she’d been seeing almost daily for the past two weeks. “Now who could that be at this hour?” she sang coquettishly, setting down her cup and saucer, patting his knee, rising from the chintz-covered sofa. Though she’d lived in Los Angeles for nearly fifteen years, her voice still carried the demure, lilting cadence of Charleston, West Virginia. She’d grown up on a dairy farm, the eldest of six children, her daddy’s favorite, a sickly little bookworm with jet black hair, Coke-bottle glasses and startling, gold-flecked blue eyes.
It was January 1960, Margaret had just returned from dinner with her wealthy suitor at a fancy Middle Eastern restaurant, They’d sat on the floor on pillows, eating with their fingers, watching the belly dancers, drinking copious amounts of red wine. She was resplendent, as always, on this mid-January evening in 1960, dressed in a clingy black knit cocktail dress with a scoop neckline by the popular designer Clair McCardle. A cousin of the writer Damon Runyon, Margaret was 39 years old, with porcelain skin and Cleopatra bangs, a short strand of pearls around her neck. Though she considered herself unattractive—owing mostly, one would guess, to the thick framed glasses she wore—Margaret was tall and lithe with an ample bosom. Men were all the time telling her, in the parlance of the day, that she was “really put together.” She lived rent-free in an apartment building owned by her aunt, a dress designer. Margaret herself had been bitten at an early age by the fashion bug: she spent much of her paycheck on clothes, many of which were handmade by a South American seamstress. Years earlier, she’d come close to marrying pulp-novelist Louis L’Amour. He penned beautiful love poems to her but lacked an automobile; they went everywhere by bus—she wrote him off prematurely as a failure. As it was, Margaret had been engaged several times to rather eccentric men, and had been married twice, first to a poet and then to a mafia-connected real estate tycoon. Both men insisted she quit her job as chief operator at Pacific Bell and become a full-time housewife. Neither union lasted more than six months.
An odd combination of career gal and man’s woman, Margaret was an early prototype of a postmodern Feminist, who believed in paying her own way and. making her own decisions, living a life unbeholden to anyone. The great failure of her life, she would later come to figure, was thinking she had to marry a man in order to sleep with him. She was also an early prototype of another postmodern character, the New Age Seeker. Margaret had a keen interest in what were known at the time as the pseudo-sciences—numerology, astrology, parapsychology—and was well-read in philosophy and religion and literature. Herman Hesse and Aldous Huxley were among her favorite writers. Her favorite historical figure was The Buddha. She was also an avid student of a popular mystic from Barbados named Neville Goddard. A spellbinding lecturer with legions of followers, Neville believed that a person could alter the future and achieve personal goals through the manipulation of their dreams, something he called “controlled imagination.” Goddard’s self-avowed personal goal—promoted through paid seminars, a weekly television show and a popular self-published book called The Search—was to shake his disciples out of the dangerous ruts of their ordinary, real world perceptions: to help them, in his words, “To Go Beyond.” Goddard believed in erasing personal history, awakening the untapped portions of the imagination, cutting ties with friends and loved ones. He preached something he called the I AM, an invocation of the God-like within all of us. Goddard was also said to be imbued with special powers. Sometimes, when he lectured, his face appeared to glow. On several occasions, he was spotted simultaneously in two different places; he claimed to have the ability to generate an “energetic double.”
Margaret clicked across the hardwood floor in her sexy black pumps, peered through the peep hole in the door of her fifth floor apartment. Standing in the hallway in the dark olive suit she’d bought him was the short, nut brown, South American anthropology student she’d been dating for the last five years. He called himself Carlos Arana; he was enrolled at UCLA as Carlos Castaneda. They’d had a falling out just before Christmas. She hadn’t seen him since. From the appearance of the cozy scene inside her apartment, she hadn’t been crushed by his absence. She opened the door about eight inches, stuck out her face. Her blue eyes, framed by her bangs, magnified by her glasses, appeared enormous, “Carlos!” she exclaimed, somewhat abashedly. “You didn’t tell me you were coming,”
“I’d like to meet your friend,” Carlos said calmly in his accented English. He was a slim man, five foot five, with the broad nose, high cheekbones, ample chest and short legs of a high-country Indian, A curly lock of brillianteened black hair hung down roguishly over his forehead, His eyes were large and brown; the left iris floated out a bit, giving the impression that one eye was always looking at something beyond. Though not handsome in a classical sense, Margaret found Carlos to be wildly charming, incredibly magnetic. He called her Margarita or Mayaya; it sounded so exotic when he whispered into her ear. Sometimes, he would listen intently while she spoke, riveting her with his deep eyes, drinking in her soul. At other times, it was if he was alone on a stage, in a spotlight only he could see, riffing brilliantly, passionately, manically for hours at a time, speaking of his life, his art, his dreams and fears and desires. Though he was shy around people he didn’t know, he came alive in more intimate settings. He had a gift for storytelling and an earthy sense of humor, and he was so present, so absolutely directed, that social intercourse with him was a palpable, exhausting experience—like being drenched by successive sets of huge waves of pure energy, energy directed only at her.
Somehow, over the five years of their association, in his very odd, very intense way, Carlos had made Margaret feel like she was the only woman on earth, the only person in the whole world who mattered, who could possibly understand—except for those frequent periods when he would disappear, often for weeks at time. It was the tradeoff of being with Carlos, she had come to learn. In certain respects, it made her feel terrible: Margaret really and truly loved Carlos, more than anyone before. He didn’t have to give her anything or do anything for her, she was just happy to be with him. When he was gone, she felt as if something very important was missing. In other respects, however, his erratic attentions suited her just fine. She’d always had a problem with commitment. If he could be independent, then so could she.
“I don’t want you to come in,” said Margaret, speaking through the partially opened door. “Please go away. We’ll talk later.”
“No,” Carlos said. “I just want to come in and say hello, speak with him a few minutes.”
As usual, Margaret’s will was no match for Carlos’s. Since the first time she’d laid eyes on him—a brief, chance meeting at her dressmakers’ house—she’d been deeply smitten. The second time she saw him—she’d called the dressmaker and insisted on another fitting, hoping the dark stranger would be there again—they’d spoken for a bit. He told her he was a painter, a writer, a sculptor. He said he’d love the opportunity to show her his paintings, to do a bust of her in terra cotta, his specialty. At an opportune moment, when the dressmaker’s pretty daughter was out of the room, Margaret slipped him a copy of Goddard’s book, The Search, inscribed with her name and address, which she’d just happened to bring along to the fitting.
From that night on, Margaret practiced Goddard’s techniques of “controlled imagination,” hoping to summon Carlos to her side. Every evening, before she fell asleep, she’d lie in bed and concentrate on her personal goal. Goddard taught that the sleeping state sealed instructions given to the unconscious mind, that dreams could become reality if properly nurtured. Six months later, at nine p.m. one Friday evening in June 1956, her goal was finally realized. The doorbell rang and Carlos walked into her life, picking right up where they’d left off acting as if they’d met only yesterday. Their involvement would span the next decade and a half.
Ten years younger than Margaret, Carlos was a sophomore at Los Angeles Community College, majoring in psychology. He told her he’d been born in Italy on Christmas Day, 1931, the product of an illicit union between a 16-year-old student at a Swiss finishing school and a visiting Brazilian professor. Shortly after his birth, he said, he was taken by his maternal aunt back to São Paulo to be raised. At 15, after being expelled from a prestigious private school, he’d begun traveling the world, studying art in Italy, Montreal and New York before coming to Los Angeles to continue his education. He also said he was a veteran of U.S. Army Intelligence. He was vague about his service, mentioning both Korea and Spain; a long ugly scar that stretched from his abdomen to his groin was the result of a bayonet wound, he said.
Carlos and Mayaya seemed a perfect match—two passionate, keen, eccentric minds who’d been lucky enough to cross paths. Though Carlos had very little money—to support his studies, he worked variously as a cab driver, grocery stock clerk, a liquor delivery man, an artist for Mattel toys, an accountant in a tony dress shop—Margaret was comfortable and generous. They attended concerts and plays, lectures and readings and art openings. They frequented the beatnik coffee houses that had begun to spring up along Hollywood Boulevard, rubbing shoulders with Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. Gradually, Carlos’s interest in painting and sculpture began to fade; he took to carrying a three ring binder with him everywhere, filling it with romantic poetry and prose. One of his poems won a contest and was printed in the LACC student newspaper.
Carlos had a particular fondness for movies: Ingmar Bergman classics, B-grade horror pictures, Russian films. He was fascinated by all things Russian, particularly Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, who had recently taken power in Moscow. In Carlos’s eyes, Khrushchev was a determined leader who had come up from the bottom rung of society to grab the reins of one of the most powerful countries in the world. Over time, Carlos developed the fantasy that Margaret would one day meet the great man. To this end, he encouraged her to take her college entrance exams, then helped her enroll in a night-school Russian language course, which she continued for several years.
A dapper man who favored fedoras and pastel Don Loper shirts, nicely pressed slacks and highly polished shoes, Carlos cut his own hair, tailored his own clothes. He’d add months of wear to a shirt by removing a frayed collar, turning it inside out and then sewing it back on, a skill he learned either in the Army or while living with a band of gypsies in Italy—that story, like many, frequently changed. He was partial to Mexican food, Chinese Dim Sum and pizza, long walks on the beach, nightclubs, fine department stores. In a university community populated overwhelmingly with Caucasians, he seemed insecure about his height, his thick accent, his dark skin. On occasion, for reasons Margaret could never fathom, he told people he was a Hasidic Jew. Another thing she could never fathom is why they never had intercourse together. Though Carlos avidly enjoyed giving her pleasure orally, it went no further than that.
Having been exposed by Margaret to her favorite writers—Huxley, Hesse, Goddard and the behaviorist J. R. Rhine—Carlos became an avid participant in bull-sessions with their like-minded friends, holding forth on subjects ranging from astral projection to trance running to ESP. The cozy spirited gatherings, usually held at the apartment of a friend, would run into the wee hours, fueled by Carlos’s favorite wine, Mateus Rose, which he jokingly referred to as “my most valuable teacher.” His favorite subject, by far, was Huxley’s experiments with mescaline and alternate realities; he chose the topic for a term paper for his second year English class at LACC.
After he received his associate’s degree, Carlos enrolled in the anthropology department at UCLA, a change of direction influenced by the publication of a book called The Sacred Mushroom, by Andrija Puharich. The book dealt with Puharich’s work with a Dutch sculptor who could recall vivid details of his past life in ancient Egypt. Placed under deep hypnosis, the sculptor became Ra Ho Tep, a IVth Dynasty shaman who spoke a lost Egyptian dialect. Puharich’s work with Ra Ho Tep revealed that the ancient shamanistic phenomenon of leaving the body was linked to the use of the sacred mushroom, Aminita Muscaria. As part of his study, Puharieh interviewed anthropologist Gordon Wasson, an expert on drug use among primitive mystics. Wasson told of an ancient mushroom cult that still existed in remote regions of the Mexican desert, in which curanderos, or sorcerers, ate psilocybin mushrooms in healing and divination ceremonies. Of particular interest to Carlos was the fact that Puharich had also involved Aldous Huxley in his experiments. With Huxley in attendance, Ra Ho Tep had requested and was given some sacred mushrooms, and then proceeded through the motions of an ancient ritual. Puharich’s book also included conversations with anthropologist J. S. Slotkin, who specialized in the study of the Native American Church, which used peyote to reach dream states of non-ordinary reality.
These notions of non-ordinary reality appealed to Carlos. He identified strongly with the Dutch sculptor who brought forth Ra Ho Tep from his subconscious, a man named Harry Stone. Like Stone, Carlos was a foreigner in America, shy and insecure, who’d been trying to no avail for almost a decade to establish himself as an artist. The idea of never reaching his potential frightened Carlos. He often complained to Margaret about the routine sameness of his very ordinary life, how he got up every morning, went to class, went to work, came home, started over again the next day. It was not the kind of future he’d envisioned, a lifetime toting his lunch to work in a brown paper bag. There had to be something more.
And so it was that Carlos found himself in an undergraduate anthropology class called California Ethnography. Needing a topic for a term paper, he decided to continue the work of Puharich and Huxley, Wasson and Slotkin, and conduct a ethno-botanical study of the natural hallucinogenic plants of the American southwest. The professor’s assignment carried an interesting caveat: anyone who actually went out into the field and found a live Indian informant would automatically receive an A.
Now, on this January evening in 1960, Carlos walked past Margaret, into the living room of her apartment, and came face to face with her gentleman caller, a wealthy Jordanian businessman she’d been seeing daily for the past two weeks, during which time Carlos had been roaming the California desert, looking for an Indian informant, hoping to secure an A, an early leg on his new career choice—professor of anthropology.
The two men chatted amiably for a few minutes, and then the subject turned to Margaret, who had resumed her place on the over-stuffed chintz sofa, next to the Jordanian. His name was Farid Aweimrine. He was the brother of another man Margaret had dated in the past; they’d met at a Christmas party. Carlos continued to stand.
“You know,” said Aweimrine, “I would have married Margaret the first night I met her if my divorce had been final.”
“Over my dead body!” said Carlos.
“Well why haven’t you married her?” asked Farid.
Carlos looked puzzled for a moment. He crossed his arms, scratched his chin. “You know,” he said wistfully, “I never thought of that.” He turned to Margaret, broke a big grin. “Come on, Mayaya! We’re getting married tonight!”
On a winter afternoon in 1973, Carlos and Gloria sat cross-legged on the beach near Malibu, a blanket wrapped cozily around their shoulders. The sun was low on the horizon, a blood-orange ball; wispy clouds glowed pink and magenta against the perfect cerulean sky. Seagulls swooped overhead, calling and complaining; sandpipers skittled on stick legs across the sand; surfers in wet suits worked a left-hand break a quarter mile offshore. Carlos took Gloria’s hand tenderly in both of his, gazed into her startling, gold-flecked blue eyes.
“You have always been like a bird, like a little bird in a cage,” he said, projecting his voice above the rush and pound of the waves. “You are wanting to fly, you’re ready, the door is open—but you’re just sitting there. I want to take you with me. I’ll help you soar. Nothing could stop you if you come with me.”
Gloria Garvin was transfixed. Though she was an attractive young woman who’d heard her share of come-on lines during her hippie wanderings of the late sixties, no one had ever spoken to her quite like this. What Carlos was saying was kind of corny, really, the sort of drivel usually reserved for the well-thumbed pages of her mother’s romance novels, but somehow it didn’t come across to her that way at all—somehow it was new and magical and deeply fetching. She was 26 years old, petite but amply breasted, with porcelain skin and Cleopatra bangs. She had first heard of Carlos Castaneda on a cold day in early 1969, at a long table in the dining room of an old Victorian townhouse in Haight-Ashbury. She and her boyfriend had thumbed up to San Francisco from L.A. to see the Grateful Dead at the Fillmore West. When they returned from the marathon concert, someone made a big pumpkin pie laced with hashish, and they all ate their fill—reveling in the synchronous pleasure of getting high and satisfying their munchies simultaneously. They lay around on pillows on the floor for the rest of the night, dressed in their velvets and buckskins and beads, mesmerized by the glowing light from a paper Japanese lantern that seemed to be receiving them into the universe.
The next afternoon, still pretty wasted, they were sitting around the dining room table, drinking coffee and smoking joints, when someone began reading aloud from a review of The Teachings of Don Juan. It was a powerful book, simply written yet deeply affecting, a groovy trip into the heady netherworld of psychedelic drugs and alternative realities—Kerouac does psychotropics. Billed as non-fiction anthropology, issued first by UCLA’s University Press, and shortly thereafter by Simon and Schuster, it read more like a novel, an odd combination of Hemingway’s bland staccato and Garcia-Marquez’s magical realism. Regardless of its genre—about which there would eventually be much debate—the book was perfectly suited to its times, an era of sex and drugs and flower power, of back-to-the-land innocence and marvelous cosmic yearnings. Offered in the form of journal entries, the story is set in a hard scrabble desert landscape of organ pipe cacti and glittering lave massifs. It documents the weird, taxing and sometimes antic apprenticeship of a skeptical, slightly annoying young academic to a wily old Yaqui Indian sorcerer named Don Juan Matus, whom Carlos said he met through a friend in the waiting room of a Greyhound bus station, on the Arizona side of the Mexican border, approximately six months after his marriage to Margaret Runyon.
Peopled with indigenous Indians, anthropomorphic incarnations, spirits both playful and malevolent, the book evokes mysterious winds and terrifying sounds, the shiver of leaves at twilight, the loftiness of a crow in flight, the raw fragrance of tequila and the vile, fibrous taste of peyote. Carlos writes of his meetings with Mescalito, who comes to him disguised successively as a playful black dog, a column of singing light and a cricket-like being with a warty green head. He hears awesome and unexplained rumblings from dead lava hills; converses with a bilingual coyote; sews shut the eyes of a lizard with a needle and thread harvested from a cactus; meets the guardian of the Second Attestation, a hundred-foot gnat with spiky tufted hair and drooling jaws. In dry, detached, scholarly language, he details the preparation and ingestion of humito, the little smoke, made from the dust of psilocybin mushrooms, and of yerba del diablo, the devil’s weed, datura, which causes his head to sprout wings and beak and feet, transform into a crow, and fly off into the heavens. At every development, Carlos remains the skeptical rationalist, a modern Everyman, trying in vain to translate his mystical experiences into the kind of concrete understanding which drives the Western mind. As such, his only tools are his questions—his persistent, often fumbling effort to keep up a Socratic dialogue with Don Juan:
“Did I take off like a bird?” he asks the old sorcerer, upon awakening from an experience with the devil’s weed, one of twenty-two drug trips in the first two books.
“You always ask me questions I cannot answer,” the old man tells him. “What you want to know makes no sense. Birds fly like birds and a man who has taken the devil’s weed flies as such.”
Beneath the spectral fireworks and psychedelic drama in The Teachings (and in the subsequent eleven volumes that would follow over the course of the next 30 years) is Carlos’s quest to become a Warrior, a Man of Knowledge wholly at one with his environment. Agile and strong, unencumbered by sentiment or personal history, the Warrior knows that each act may be his last. He is alone. Death is the root of his life, and in its constant presence the Warrior always performs “impeccably.” He is attuned to the desert, to its sounds and shadows, its animals and birds, its power spots and holes of refuge. The Warrior’s aim in becoming a Man of Knowledge, the young academic learns through his apprenticeship, is “to stop the world” and “see”—to experience life directly, grasping its essence without interpreting it, coming eventually to the realization that the universe, as perceived by everyday humans, is just a construct based on shared customs and languages and understandings.
In truth, Don Juan tells his bumbling and often frightened student, men and women are not flesh at all. They are made up of fine fibers of light, glowing white cobwebs that stretch from the head to the navel, forming an egg of circulating threads, with arms and legs of luminous bristles bursting in all directions. Through a series of long fibers that shoot out from the center of the abdomen, every man and woman is joined with every other man and woman, and with his surroundings, and with the universe. Don Juan lectures Carlos: “a man is a luminous egg whether he’s a beggar or a king and there’s no way to change anything.” Of particular import in this cosmic anatomy is the Assemblage Point, a place of intense luminosity, located about an arm’s length behind the shoulder blades, where perception takes place. By shifting or displacing the assemblage point during dream states, the old Nagual taught, a practitioner could gain entrance into other worlds, something called “The Art of Dreaming.”
When Gloria returned to L.A., flush with the new possibilities of Don Juan’s worlds, she mentioned the far-out book to her aunt, who was working in the graduate research library at UCLA. The married author, it turned out, haunted the grad library, particularly the rare book room. He was also dating a library worker the aunt knew well. In short order, a meeting was arranged.
Gloria and her boyfriend spent the whole afternoon with the great man in the student union at UCLA. Sitting at a Formica table, amid the hectic bustle of the student body, they spoke about life and death, drugs and sex, meaning and shamanism. At the end of their time together, Carlos took Gloria’s hand for the first time. “This was a most auspicious meeting,” he said. Then he nodded his head in the direction of her boyfriend. “Too bad you brought that nincompoop along with you.”
Over the next few years, Gloria and Carlos stayed in touch by letter and by phone. At his urging, she enrolled in UCLA as an undergraduate anthropology student. Later, also at his urging, she broke off her longstanding engagement to her boyfriend. Carlos, meanwhile, published his second book, A Separate Reality: Further Conversations with Don Juan, and then his third, Journey to Ixtlan: The Lessons of Don Juan, which served simultaneously as his doctoral thesis.
In a departure from the first two volumes, Carlos revealed in Ixtlan that the drug part of the program was now over. After ten years of study with the old Indian, he wrote in the Introduction to Ixtlan, “It became evident to me that my original assumption about the role of psychotropic plants was erroneous. They were not the essential feature of the sorcerer’s description of the world, but were only an aid to cement, so to speak, parts of the description which I had been incapable of perceiving otherwise. My insistence on holding on to my standard version of reality rendered me almost deaf and blind to Don Juan’s aims. Therefore, it was simply my lack of sensitivity which has fostered their use.” Now that his eyes had been properly opened, he wrote, it was necessary to focus on what the old sorcerer had called the “techniques for stopping the world.” Only then could he become an impeccable Warrior.
“One needs the mood of a warrior for every single act,” Don Juan tells him in typical fashion, harsh and judgmental but also loving. “Otherwise one becomes distorted and ugly. There is no power in a life that lacks this mood. Look at yourself. Everything offends and upsets you. You whine and complain and feel that everyone is making you dance to their tune…. A warrior, on the other hand, is a hunter. He calculates everything. That’s control. But once his calculations are over, he acts. He lets go. That’s abandon. A warrior is not a leaf at the mercy of the wind. No one can push him; no one can make him do things against himself or against his better judgment. A warrior is trained to survive, and he survives in the best of all possible fashions.”
As it was, by the time his third book was published, Carlos’s notion of survival had taken on quite a different hue. By 1973, he had become nothing short of a cult figure; would-be disciples and counter-culture tourists were flocking to Mexico, combing the deserts for mushrooms and Don Juan. The Teachings was selling an astounding 16,000 copies a week. Ixtlan was a hardback best-seller. Sales of the paperback made Carlos a millionaire. He traded in his old VW bus for a new Audi, bought the compound on Pandora in Westwood Village. Before long, Time came calling.
In what would be his first and last major interview, Carlos told Time that he was born to a well-known family in São Paulo, Brazil, on Christmas Day, 1935. At the time of his birth, he said, his father, who would later become a professor of literature, was 17. His mother was 15. He was raised by his maternal grandparents on a chicken farm until he was six, at which point his parents took custody. The happy reunion was cut short, however, when his mother died. The doctor’s diagnosis, Carlos told Time, was pneumonia, but he believed the cause had been acedia, a condition of numbed inertia. “She was morose, very beautiful and dissatisfied; an ornament,” he told Time. “My despair was that I wanted to make her something else, but how could she listen to me? I was only six.”
Carlos was left to be raised by his father, a shadowy figure whom he mentions in the books with a mixture of fondness, pity and contempt. His father’s weakness of will, he told Time, was the obverse to the “impeccability” of Don Juan. In the books, Carlos describes his father’s efforts to become a writer as a farce of indecision. He told Time: “I am my father. Before I met Don Juan I would spend years sharpening my pencils and then getting a headache every time I sat down to write. Don Juan taught me that that’s stupid. If you want to do something, do it impeccably, and that’s all that matters.”
Carlos was educated, he told Time, at a “very proper” boarding school in Buenos Aires, where he acquired the Spanish (he already spoke Italian and Portuguese) in which he would later interview Don Juan. At 15, he said, he became so unmanageable that an uncle, the family patriarch—Carlos told people he was Oswaldo Aranha, a legendary gaucho and revolutionary who would later become president of Brazil—had him placed with a foster family in Los Angeles. The year was 1951. He enrolled in Hollywood High School. Graduating two years later, he went overseas to study sculpture at the Academy of Fine Arts in Milan, only to discover that “I did not have the sensitivity or the openness to be a great artist.” Dispirited, he returned to Los Angeles and enrolled at UCLA. “I really threw my life out the window. I said to myself: if it’s going to work, it must be new,” he told Time of his resolve to take up anthropology. In 1959, he told the magazine, he changed his name to Castaneda.
“Thus Castaneda’s own biography,” concluded Time, “creates an elegant consistency—the spirited young man moving from his academic background in an exhausted, provincial European culture toward revitalization by the shaman; the gesture of abandoning the past to disentangle himself from crippling memories. Unfortunately, it is largely untrue.”
In short order, the reporter for Time came up with a radically different account of Carlos’s early life, a story later confirmed and appended by Castaneda scholar Richard DeMille, the adopted son of movie mogul Cecil B. DeMille, who has made a life’s work of studying Carlos.
According to U.S. immigration records, Carlos César Salvador Arana Castaneda entered the U.S. at San Francisco in 1951, at the age of 26. He became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1959. He was born in Peru, in the ancient Inca town of Cajamarca, where witches and curanderos were not at all uncommon in the town marketplace. Carlos was the son of a watchmaker and goldsmith named César Arana Burungary, who owned a jewelry shop in the downtown section of the city and was himself the son of an Italian immigrant. Once a promising student, his father was known during his youth as a Bohemian who squandered his academic opportunities after falling in with a fast crowd of artists and bullfighters in the capital city of Lima. Settling down at last to family life as an artisan and shopkeeper, he was a tireless chess player, a constant reader of Kant and Spinoza. His mother was a slender, almond-eyed girl of 16 named Susana Castaneda Novoa. She died when Carlos was 24. He refused to attend the funeral, according to a cousin, and locked himself in his room for three days without eating. When he emerged from his mourning, he declared his intention to go to America.
In his youth, Carlos was an altar boy, attended the local pubic school. He often went with his father to the jewelry shop; over time he became skilled in working with copper and gold, but he hated selling the things he made. After dropping out of school in Cajamarca, Carlos moved to Lima, where he finished high school and then enrolled in Bellas Artes, Peru’s national academy of fine arts. A former roommate remembers Carlos as “a big liar and a real friend,” a witty fellow who loved carousing but never drank or smoked, who made a living playing cards, horses and dice while harboring “like an obsession” to go to the United States and become rich from gambling. A former classmate recalled Carlos as “a very capable fellow, likable and rather mysterious. A first class seducer. I remember the girls used to spend the morning waiting around for him at the Bellas Artes. We called him The Smile of Gold because he had, I think, a gold tooth. Sometimes he would go to the market with some used watches which he could only make run for two or three hours. He would sell the watches and then disappear…. He was always thinking up unlikely stories—tremendous, beautiful things. At times he sold blankets and ponchos from the mountains.”
Confronted by the reporter from Time, Carlos was characteristically unfazed: “To ask me to verify my life by giving you my statistics is like using science to validate sorcery,” he said. “It robs the world of its magic.”
More alarming, perhaps, than the murkiness of Carlos’s history, was the debate that raged over the academic veracity of his work. Billed as ethnography, it read like a novel and sold like a best-seller—the envy, no doubt, of many a scholar who had worked in the trenches of anthropology for a lifetime. Though the panel of professors at UCLA who awarded his doctorate continued to stand firmly behind him—in an introduction to The Teachings, one of them lauds Carlos for “his patience, his courage, and his perspicacity”—social scientists were skeptical, labeling the work a fictionalized composite in the guise of anthropology, a dramatic rehash that borrowed heavily from the work of others at the expense of accuracy and truth, not to mention credit.
In his two volumes on Carlos, DeMille collected ample evidence of what he considered a fraud. Citing myriad examples large and small, he made a case that Carlos’s books were nothing more than cleverly conceived and masterfully executed works of fiction. Among hundreds of well-researched nits, DeMille pointed to the facts that, over his years of apprenticeship to the old Indian, Carlos never learned the Indian names for any of the plants or animals he comes into contact with, and neither did Carlos ever submit a specimen of Don Juan’s mushrooms for chemical testing. DeMille quoted experts—Wasson among them—who said that hallucinogenic mushrooms do not, in fact, grow in the Sonoran desert, and that the practice of smoking mushroom powder was unknown prior to Carlos’s books. According to Wasson, the godfather of such studies, mushrooms are more usually eaten or brewed into tea, and even when allowed to dry, they normally macerate into shreds, rather than into a powder. In any case, he said the leavings do not burn.
Though much of the story takes place in the desert, an expert on climatology—writing in DeMille’s second book, a collection of essays and interviews debunking Carlos’s work—said that desert conditions, during the times of year Carlos describes, would have been harsh and impassable. In one of Carlos’s entries, for example, dated in August, Carlos writes of hiking to the top of a hill at noon-time “to rest in the open unshaded area until dusk.” In another entry, dated in June, he describes the evening wind as being “cold.” Summer temperatures in the Sonoran desert are typically as high as 120 degrees by noon. At night, they hover around 100.
Moreover, throughout their extensive desert travels, Carlos and Don Juan went unmolested by the kind of pests and predators—scorpions, rattlesnakes, swarming saguaro fruit flies, razor-toothed desert javelinas—that normally torment hikers. He never mentions some of the more colorful inhabitants of the desert—nine-inch centipedes, tarantulas as big as saucers, gila monsters, chuckawallas and horned toads. During his adventures, Carlos writes of climbing high trees. Yet the trees in the desert—palo verde, ironwood, mesquite—are nearly impossible to climb, and neither are they high. Their branches tangle into thorny thickets. Higher than six feet they are too weak to climb. Carlos catches five quails at once in a hastily assembled trap. He runs down a jackrabbit and snares it with his bare hands. He hurdles breakneck and terrified through the desert, through barrel cacti and prickly pears and thorny scrub bushes, but never once does he mention being stabbed or cut by thorns. And while he wrote in his books that he took notes on everything—his note-taking, in fact, becomes an object of derision by Don Juan and his associates—Carlos never produced any field notes.
A close reading of Carlos’s books, said DeMille and his collected experts, revealed Don Juan’s teachings to be an amalgamation of American Indian folklore, oriental mysticism, and European philosophy—drawing on, among others, Huxley and Puharich, Slotkin and Wasson, Goddard and Yogi Ramacharaka, a pseudonymous American whose works are still widely available in occult bookstores.
Of equal concern was the existence of Don Juan himself. According to Carlos, the old Nagual was born in 1891, watched his parents murdered by soldiers, suffered through the government-forced diaspora of the Yaquis all over Mexico during that era. DeMille and his experts point out that while many Indian tribes, such as the Huichols, use peyote rituals, the Yaquis, as a rule, did not. Yaqui sorcerers, they continued, don’t take apprentices, either. It didn’t help matters that not one known expert on the desert culture of the Southwest had ever heard anything about Don Juan and his party. Or that exhaustive attempts to locate the wily old Indian were unsuccessful. In Carlos Castaneda, Academic Opportunism and the Psychedelic Sixties, anthropologist Jay Courtney Fikes posits that Don Juan was a composite of a number of different shamans who’d been discovered, variously, by Wasson and by several of Carlos’s colleagues in the anthropology department at UCLA. Indeed: Why else would a field researcher spend so much time in UCLA’s graduate research library?
“Although Castaneda’s concocted episodes often have something authentic about them, they trivialize Huichol, Yaqui or any Native American culture …” writes Fikes. “Those few kernels of truth Castaneda’s books contain are dissolved inside a concoction full of spurious ingredients. Finding ethnographic truth in Castaneda’s books is almost as laborious as panning for gold.”
Even while debunking him, however, DeMille exhibited a fondness and a overarching respect for Carlos and his work. The continuing saga might have been the product of Carlos’s mind—but what a marvelous saga it was, what a valuable mind:
“Castaneda wasn’t a common con man, he lied to bring us the truth,” DeMille wrote in his first book, Castaneda’s Journey. “His stories are packed with truth, though they are not true stories, which he said they are. This is not your familiar literary allegorist painlessly instructing his readers in philosophy. Nor is it your fearless trustworthy ethnographer returned full of anecdotes from the forests of Ecuador. This is a sham-man bearing gifts, an ambiguous spellbinder dealing simultaneously in contrary commodities—wisdom and deception.”
After the meeting in the student union, it would be four years before Gloria Garvin actually saw Carlos again face to face. Meanwhile, she read all his books, followed all the publicity, participated in the gossip that was rampant in the anthro department at UCLA. Part of the gossip centered around Carlos’s very earthly reputation as a Lothario. Some even questioned whether he ever went to the desert at all—his wanderings, they said, were just a ruse to cover his bed hopping. Besides the library worker—who, he would later claim, was energetically damaged during her own studies with Don Juan and would live with him in the Pandora compound for many years—Carlos was also involved with two women in the department, Regine Thal and Ann Marie Carter, who would later change their names to Florinda Donner-Grau and Taisha Abelar. He also began seeing a married mother of two named Judy Guilford, who would later call herself Beverly Ames, and then eventually Carol Tiggs. Tiggs would become especially famous in Castaneda circles as a powerful sorceress who crossed over into the Second Attention for ten years and then returned to help guide Carlos and the others in his inner circle. Together, Tiggs, Donner-Grau and Abelar would form the triumvirate of Witches who surrounded Carlos for the duration of his life. All three would write books about their own, separate apprenticeships with Don Juan.
Gloria talked to Carlos now and then by phone, exchanged the occasional letter, but never saw him in person until one day, walking across campus during the winter quarter of 1973, she spotted him. Their eyes locked, he came over. He acted as if they’d met only yesterday.
And so it was that Carlos and Gloria were sitting cross-legged on the beach at sunset, a blanket wrapped cozily around their shoulders. He had her hand clasped tenderly in both of his; he gazed deeply into her startling, gold-flecked blue eyes. “What this entails is not a normal relationship,” he told her. “I want to take you with me but it won’t be as a normal man, because I am not a normal man any longer. I want to take care of you. I want you to be my wife. I’ve always known that. Don Juan has told me that. He’s seen you; you’ve hovered around me in dreams. He has identified you as the woman who is going to be in the center of the hurricane with me. There are other winds in the north, south, east and west, and they are very cold and ruthless women, but you are not that way. I want to take care of you. I will do everything in my power for you, because this is a commitment, one that has existed for a very long time. One that will exist beyond this lifetime.”
With that Carlos leaned over and kissed Gloria. It was an intense, directed sort of kiss; not passionate, not sloppy, not out of control, just very directed, she can’t describe it any other way. At that moment, the sounds of the beach grew silent. Time stood still. She felt herself giving something away to him, something very deep, something of herself she’d never reclaim.
Fast asleep on a futon in his modest apartment, late one night in the spring of 1985, a 32-year-old computer technician named Jeremy Davidson found himself on a mountain top, wearing nothing but his underwear.
He was standing on a rocky ridge, at the edge of a sheer cliff. Eagles soared, riding the updrafts. Clouds floated past; wispy fingers of moisture caressed his face. Beneath him, hundreds of feet below, was a gorgeous clear lake. He turned slowly in all directions, inhaling the crisp air, taking in the view, trying to form a clear and lasting image of the whole place, performing a systematic intake, the way Don Juan recommended. It was a wondrous alpine setting, with craggy escarpments and evergreen trees, snowcaps on the distant peaks. Though it was cold and windy, he was comfortable and warm, filled with a buoyant sense of well-being despite his precarious barefoot perch. A feeling of giddiness overcame him and he took off running—hopping and skipping from boulder to boulder like an astronaut bounding across the surface of the moon. Changing direction, he plunged straight down the cliff face, pausing here and there to flip and spin and twirl, throwing tricks like a free-style ski-jumper, making his way toward the languid blue waters of the lake.
The scene changed and he was standing in a small cove, his toes buried in fine, gritty sand. Thinking it might help to cement the dream, to make it last longer, he decided to look at his hands for a bit. He sat down in the sand, concentrated on his palms, his fingers, his nails. Just then, a big wave rose up and washed over him, enveloping him in bubbles and blue, sending him sprawling.
Rising to his feet, Jeremy moved toward the back of the cove, toward a trail. He walked for a while through the dense woods, then came upon a building in a clearing, a huge Hansel and Gretel type affair, a gingerbread house with fancy trim. He got the feeling it was an abandoned resort hotel. He decided to explore.
The scene changed again and he was inside, in the lobby, a room with a fireplace and overstuffed chairs, a gift shop off to one side, cobwebs and dust everywhere. As he looked around, performing a systematic intake, things seemed to become more and more solid, as if he was watching an image download from the web onto a computer screen. He walked into the gift shop, helped himself to a dry T-shirt that was hanging conveniently on a rack. Off to one side, behind the cash register, he saw an opening, like a door, leading into a blue-green world. He stood a moment, regarding the opening, trying to decide what to do next. Then he spoke aloud: “I intend to go to where the sorcerers are. Take me to the sorcerers….”
Shy and highly intelligent, a bit at odds with the world, Jeremy Davidson had first discovered the writings of Carlos Castaneda in the late seventies, while studying physics as a college junior. He’d always been a seeker, a skeptic, a bit of an outsider, the kind of person for whom the normal order and the normal answers never seemed to ring true. He’d experimented with psychedelic drugs, read extensively on eastern and western philosophy. He’d been a Buddhist and a Scientologist, an atheist and an orthodox Jew. More recently, during a bad period in his life he’d re-discovered Carlos. Starting with The Teachings, he’d worked his way through the series, which had grown by now to eight books.
Carlos himself had long since disappeared from the public eye. Smarting, no doubt, from the effects of his exposure in the early seventies, he lived in quiet anonymity in the Pandora compound with the Witches, traveling around the country and to Mexico, churning out books all the while, honing the message and the method, taking it further with each new publication. Though Carlos said that Don Juan left the world in 1973, dying “the immaculate death” of the Warrior, each subsequent book continued to expound upon Don Juan’s teachings. Diligent readers noted that the anthropological references seemed to grow fewer as the series progressed, and that the books increasingly bore the traces of other influences, such as phenomenology, Eastern mysticism and existentialism. With Don Juan having left the world, Carlos himself became the heir to the sorcerer’s lineage, the Nagual. No longer a disciple, he had become the prophet. As the books evolved, his focus turned more and more toward the Art of Dreaming.
According to Carlos, Don Juan was an intermediary between the natural world of everyday life and an unseen universe called the Second Attention. Though Western minds are conditioned to believe that the world we live in is unique and absolute, it is, in truth, only one in a cluster of consecutive worlds, arranged like the layers of an onion. Don Juan said that even though humans have been energetically conditioned to perceive only their own world, they still have the capability to enter those other realms—worlds as palpable, unique, absolute and engulfing as the ordinary reality that we live in every day.
Don Juan said that in order for people to visit those other realms—the existence of which are constant and independent of our awareness—they had to first recondition their energetic capacity to perceive. To this end, he prescribed a series of techniques designed to displace the Assemblage Point, a place of intense luminosity, located about an arm’s length behind the shoulder blades, where perception occurs, where we receive the signals that tell us what we see, feel, hear and understand. Furthermore, said Don Juan, once a person became adept at traveling to the Second Attention, he or she could ultimately remain there as a luminous egg for all of eternity, in a wonderful universe too vast and beautiful and complex and fulfilling to render in conventional language or ideas.
Reading all of this, Jeremy felt invigorated and alive, perhaps more so than he’d ever been in his whole life. Here, at last, was a belief system that felt right to him. It was a system that stressed living every moment to the fullest, as a Warrior and a Man of Knowledge, rising to every trial as a challenge, taking responsibility for everything you have a part in, living impeccably every single day. And, it was a system that explained the place of man in the universe, and the nature of that universe itself. Added to all of this was the promise of other worlds, not just worlds you could visit in an afterlife, but worlds you could visit right now, today. In sum, the Sorcerer’s Way was a mode of thinking as well as a mode of acting—a world view that offered its adherents not only ideas and guidelines but also procedures and results. You didn’t just sit around believing. You could act.
Jeremy thus embarked on the path of the impeccable Warrior. He sought to live each day as a challenge, as a discipline. He strove to eliminate self-importance, to use death as an advisor, to erase personal history, to disrupt the routines of his life. He tried to have a romance with knowledge, and to write people he cared about a blank check of affection. He practiced gazing and not doing, stalking and the right way of walking. He tried to stop the world and to see. He watched for omens and read infinity, a specific gazing technique where he focused on a fixed point until a violet field appeared, then continued to focus until a little blotch of pomegranate exploded into either written words or visual scenes. He spent hours recapitulating his life—a laborious process in which he reviewed each and every contact he’d ever had with another human being since his first memories after birth, an effort to regain wasted energy. Slowly but surely, he began to become aware in his dreams—he began traveling to the Second Attention.
Now Jeremy found himself in a gift shop somewhere in the mountains, having entered the Second Attention from his futon one night in the spring of 1985. He walked through a doorway into a blue green world, intending to go to the Sorcerers.
As he entered the doorway, a force that he had come to think of as The Spirit picked him up and flew him over a vast area like a huge town square, filled with thousands of people. From his vantage point high in the sky, he could look down and see their faces. Most of them, he could see, were in some state of fear, degradation, agony. Some of them looked up as he soared past. Again he voiced his intent: “I intend to go to where the Sorcerers are.”
The scene changed and he found himself on the ground in a dark, smoky gray area. There were small, dark beings surrounding him, and when he focused on them, they turned to face him. They were ghoul-like creatures, with yellowish eyes and a single protuberance extending out from their faces, terminating in creepy little mouths. They began advancing.
Retreating, he entered another area, inhabited by a different sort of beings, tall blocks of dark shadows, like huge sentient rectangles. They too began to surround him, and he found himself standing on something that looked like a gray tombstone lying flat on the ground. Scared of the beings, wishing to leave, he knelt down and clenched his fist, placed it upon the stone. “I want to go where the Chacmols are,” he said out loud, but nothing happened. He was about to repeat his demand, using the name of one of the Witches, Taisha Abelar, when a voice told him not to do that, but rather to restate his intention. This time he said firmly: “ I INTEND to go to where the Chacmols are.”
With that, the scene changed and he was in a cave, with rock floors and walls and boulders strewn everywhere. Though there was no source of light apparent, it was bright as day. He walked around the cave, exploring. Suddenly a man jumped out from behind a rock. He was primitive, vigorous, wild looking, wearing fur clothes. He ran towards Jeremy; Jeremy turned and fled. The caveman chased him through a vast system of tunnels and caverns, gaining with every step, getting closer and closer. Just as the caveman was about to overtake him, Jeremy spotted a hole. It seemed to lead into another chamber. He dove through.
The scene changed and he was flying again, in a prone position with his arms extended like Superman. He felt his mood lighten; up up up he sailed, high into the sky, toward the moon, bright and full. He made a smooth banking turn and headed back toward earth, toward a shopping mall. In his mind, he considered leaving this place, flying out toward the countryside somewhere, but the voice inside his head overruled his thoughts and The Spirit took control of his flight, as it sometimes did, and he began to descend. He flew into the mall, around the atrium, past a fountain and an escalator.
The scene changed. He was inside of a store, a sex shop. There was racy lingerie hanging on the racks, all kinds of toys on the shelves. Drawn to the toys, he was about to pick one up when he noticed a bunch of people in a back room, men and women in various states of undress, an orgy in progress. He stood for a few minutes and watched. A man came over with his attractive girlfriend. He offered her to Jeremy. Though his inner voice clearly told him “No!”, Jeremy ignored the voice and took the girl in his arms, began pulling off the remainder of her clothes. She seemed a bit reluctant. Jeremy got the strong impression that she’d never done this sort of thing before, that she was only doing it to please her boyfriend. It bothered him a bit that maybe she wasn’t totally into the whole scene, but she was beautiful; it had been a long time since he’d been with a woman. The voice told him No! He reached for her breast….
He awoke in his futon. He sat up, feeling a bit ashamed. He had not acted like a Warrior. He shouldn’t have crossed the wishes of the inner voice. He shouldn’t have defied The Spirit. It was months before he dreamed again.
At precisely 9 a.m. on Christmas Eve, 1993—the same time as every morning for the past several months—the phone rang in Melissa Ward’s Santa Monica apartment. She was in bed with a horrible flu; she just wanted to be alone. The phone rang again, then again. The shrill noise hurt her head. Finally, she picked it up.
“How’s my baby girl?” sang Carlos.
“Still pretty sick, I’m afraid.”
“You’re coming to the dinner tonight, aren’t you?”
“I don’t know, Carlos,” she said, and then she sighed. “I feel like I’ve been run over by a truck.”
“But you have to be there! The whole dinner is for you!”
She rolled her eyes toward the ceiling. They were a startling shade of cornflower blue, with gold flecks that shimmered in the light. “I guess I’ll have to see how I feel.”
“Why don’t I come over and bring you some chicken soup?”
“No no no!” she said quickly. “Don’t bother. Really! I’ll be okay.”
“Well you have to rest,” insisted Carlos. “Don’t go to work, don’t do anything, just rest. You have to be ready. Tonight, you become one of us!”
“Well, er, um,” said Melissa, pushing her Cleopatra bangs away from her forehead. He’d been talking about this mysterious dinner for weeks now. Frankly, it gave her the creeps. Become one of us! The way he said it made her shudder. It had the distinct ring of something cult-like; she didn’t like the sound of it, not at all. “I’m gonna try my best to make it,” she said half-heartedly.
“You must make it!” roared Carlos. “Everything is ready. You are the Electric Warrior! We have been searching for you for all of eternity! We have found you just in the nick of time. You must come!”
Thirty-eight years old, petite and attractive, Melissa Ward was born beneath the Northern Lights at a secret military base in the Aleutian chain. Though she was a bit too young to have been a hippie, she grew up with her feet planted firmly in the early seventies counter-culture, into eastern religions and Credence Clearwater Revival, psychedelics, the writings of Gurdjieff and Huxley. She was 18 when she first read Carlos. She’d just returned from backpacking through Europe; she was severely ill with colitis, in a lot of pain, trying to cure herself naturally with herbs. Staying by herself in a friend’s cabin in the woods, lying around naked, trying to fight the sickness, she came upon a copy of Journey to Ixtlan on a shelf. She opened the book at random, let her eyes drift down the page. “Death is always following you,” she read. In her condition, the words rang very true. She turned to the front of the book and started in.
Melissa had been reading for an hour or two when she heard some weird scratching noises outside. She struggled out of bed, looked through the window. There, on the deck, was a giant black bird, the biggest crow she’d ever seen. It was hopping up and down, acting very strangely, like it was trying to get her attention. Stranger still was the fact that crows played a significant part in Ixtlan. In Don Juan’s world, crows were said to be the incarnations of powerful sorcerers and spirits. Under the influence of the devil’s weed, Carlos himself had become a crow—his head had sprouted wings, a bill and feet and had flown off into the heavens. Over the next few days, as she continued reading the book, the crow became bolder. It tapped on the window with its beak, hopped from place to place on the deck, knocked over little pots of herbs, generally making itself known. By the third day, her curiosity got the better of her and she ventured out to the deck, sat down with her new companion. The crow hopped up on her chair. She fed it grapes. Though she might have been delirious, she could have sworn the crow had a kind of benevolent presence. In an odd, unexplainable way, it seemed to be there for her, to help her through this rough time. The crow visited every day for a month, until she was fully recovered. Then it disappeared.
Time passed and she went on with her life, forgot all about Carlos. After bouncing around from job to job, she enrolled as an undergraduate at UCLA. By her junior year, in the winter of 1993, her life was full and hectic, more gratifying than ever. She was working part time as a nutrition consultant, writing for the college newspaper, doing an internship at the actress Jessica Lange’s film company, taking a full load of classes—looking forward, meanwhile, to graduation and the promise of a job in either journalism or entertainment. And then one day she got a phone call from her mom. She was dying of cancer.
The next nine months were a living hell. Melissa nursed her mom to the end, held her hand as she took her last breath, sat alone with the body for three hours until the man from the funeral home came to take her. Melissa handled all of the arrangements, served as executor of the will. By the end of the summer she’d taken to her bed in a deep depression. Lying beneath the covers with the shades drawn, she repeated to herself a manta of despair: “Nobody cares. I’ve given up hope. Life sucks.”
Then one day in September, she ran into a friend at the health food store. He said he was going to another friend’s apartment to hear Carlos Castaneda speak to a small group. The session had been arranged primarily through the efforts of a German woman named Gabi Geuther, a New Age enthusiast and veteran of primal scream therapy who’d befriended Florinda Donner-Grau and other members of the inner circle after a reading at a women’s bookstore in Santa Monica. For the first time in many years, Melissa thought of the weird and friendly crow who’d helped her through hard times. She decided to come along.
Though Melissa didn’t realize it just then, the fact that Carlos had begun to appear in public after a 20-year absence signaled a stunning change in direction for the Nagual and his party. Over the last few years, they’d slowly begun taking on select students for a weekly private class, held in a rented room in a dance studio. Now, apparently, they’d decided to rev things up, to actively promote the ideas and practices of Don Juan on a larger scale, to make them available for public consumption. To this end, Carlos and the Witches had hired a lawyer and formed several corporations, with the stated intent of establishing “a magical relationship between the endeavors of a corporate unit in our modern world and the purpose and will of a bygone era.” Toltec Artists was a management agency—run by inner-circle member Tracy Kramer, a well-known Hollywood agent—set up to handle the literary careers of Carlos, the three Witches, and assorted other connected artists. Laugan Productions was a company that sold instructional videos and other saleable products. Most important was Cleargreen, which acted as both a publishing house and as the sponsor of seminars and workshops for something they were now billing as Carlos Castaneda’s Tensegrity.
Derived from the words tension and integrity, Tensegrity was said to be a modernized version of the “magical passes” that were developed by ancient Indian shamans and passed down secretly through 27 generations to Don Juan and then to Carlos and the Witches. By practicing these exercises, Carlos said, Toltec sorcerers had attained an increased level of awareness which allowed them to perform “indescribable feats of perception” and experience “unequaled states of physical prowess and well being.” Through the use of the Tensegrity exercises—a sort of combination of martial arts, meditation, yoga and aerobics—modern practitioners could achieve a new level of vigor, health and clarity. And they could gain the kind of energy needed to displace the Assemblage Point and actively engage in the Art of Dreaming, traveling at will to other worlds. While it was earlier believed that the Sorcerer’s Way was a solitary pursuit, Carlos now said that the “mass” created by a group of people practicing together caused quicker and more powerful results.
Though Carlos had never before mentioned the “magical passes” in his writings; though other anthropologists insisted that there was no such tradition of body movements among pre-Hispanic Indians; and though Carlos had always eschewed the notion of selling his techniques through expensive seminars, it was Cleargreen’s express purpose to disseminate the teachings of Don Juan to a large audience at a high price. What had caused the change of heart was not exactly clear. Perhaps, some suggested, Carlos saw fertile ground in the national obsessions with physical fitness and New Age philosophy—theirs was one heck of a product, a time-saving two-fer, designed to benefit both the mind and the body. Perhaps, some suggested, Carlos was becoming infirm and out of touch and the Witches had begun to call the shots.
Carlos himself acknowledged that Don Juan had always said that the magical passes should be kept secret. This new path, Carlos explained, had been spurred by an extraordinary event. According to Carlos, while following Don Juan’s techniques, Carol Tiggs, one of the three Witches, had disappeared from a hotel room in Mexico City into the Second Attention. She had vanished for ten years, Carlos said, in order to act as a beacon from the other side, guiding initiates through the “dark sea of awareness.” In 1985, however, Tiggs made a surprising reappearance at a California bookshop where Carlos was giving a talk. Her return had convinced Carlos that the “message of freedom” enshrined in the magical passes should now be passed onto the world at large.
Others had a more cynical view: “Castaneda had built himself up as a prophet through the Don Juan books,” said anthropologist Courtney Jay Fikes. “The bible, so to speak, was written; but there was no ritual, so it was necessary to invent one.”
Over the next several years, dozens of seminars—some lasting a weekend, some as long as three weeks—would be attended by thousands of Carlos enthusiasts in the U.S., Mexico and Europe. The seminars cost from $200 to $1,000. Tables were set up to sell Tensegrity T-shirts (The Magic is in the Movement) and Tensegrity videos, which had been directed by the well-known novelist and screenwriter Bruce Wagner. Also on sale were Tensegrity tools, for use in concert with the magical passes. “The Device to Enhance Centers of Awareness,” was two balls made of Teflon reinforced by a ceramic compound. “The Device for Inner Silence” was a round, weighted leather-covered object for placement on the stomach. “The Wheel of Time” was invented by the Blue Scout; it was a flat disk made of compact foam rubber, extremely pliable, but durable enough to withstand pushing, pulling and twisting. Carlos himself appeared at all the early seminars; both he and the Witches gave long, amusing, passionate speeches. Interspersed with the lectures were Tensegrity demonstrations by the Chacmols, dressed in matching black workout uniforms.
Also over the next several years, serious questions would be raised about the origins of Tensegrity. Some alleged that Carlos’s magical passes were nothing more than the appropriated teachings of a kung fu instructor and “energy master” named Howard Lee, with whom Carlos had studied for many years, and to whom Ixtlan had been dedicated. Though there were allegations that Carlos paid a substantial sum of money and the phallus of a puma to deter the Santa Monica-based Lee from taking legal action against Cleargreen, Lee denied this. Smiling inscrutably, he refuses to speculate upon the actual origins of Tensegrity. He does acknowledge, however, that once Carlos began teaching Tensegrity, the formerly close relations between the two wise men become chilly.
And so, on a balmy night in September 1993, Melissa found herself among a group of 40 people, jammed into an apartment in Santa Monica, listening to the great man speak. Though she’d brought a notebook and had started out taking notes, she quickly gave up. There seemed to be no rhyme or reason to what Carlos was saying, no outline to his talk, just a torrential downpour of ideas and stories and jokes. Though she was frustrated at first, she found herself settling into her seat on the plush pile carpet and letting his words rush over her, concentrating not so much on what he was saying as on his energy. He had about him a really nice emanation, she felt, a nice kind of presence that was warm and fluid, almost like floating around in a Jacuzzi with all the jets on. Whatever this was, it was cool. She felt better than she had for months.
Carlos rambled for two hours, and when he finished he received a standing ovation. Melissa just sat there, kind of stunned. Before she knew what was happening, Carlos was standing over her. He leaned down, whispered in her ear: “You have very good energy,” he said. Then he was gone.
Then next day, Melissa was contacted by one of the Chacmols, who invited her to a private class, and she went, and Carlos seated her front and center, seemed to be lecturing only to her. The next day, one of the Chacmols called to ask if Carlos might have the privilege of calling her at home. Soon, Carlos was telephoning every morning at nine a.m. sharp, sometimes late in the evening as well. He called her his baby girl. He asked her about her life, her family, her past sex life, her history of venereal disease. He told her that if she smoked pot, she should stop, and that she must completely stop having sex. “You must zip it up! You must not let anyone touch your baby-thing,” he’d said. He asked her to tell him her innermost secrets; he asked her to make a list of all her sex partners, to recapitulate each experience. He asked her if she’d ever “been taken away kicking and screaming by men in white coats.” Frequently, he’d ask her to lunch or dinner, for sushi or Cuban, his favorites. Usually, she said no. On those occasions when she relented and said yes, one of the Chacmols invariably would call and cancel at the last minute, telling her that Carlos was sick or that he had to leave town unexpectedly. Though they never met alone outside the weekly private classes, Carlos continued to call each morning. He told her that her energy was incredible, that they were soulmates, that he would never leave her. Melissa didn’t know what to make of his attentions. Though his tone was distinctly sexual, he never made a move. It was like he had an obsessive need to make women fall in love with him, then to keep them at arm’s length. While she had no interest in him sexually, his attentions were oddly addictive—she kept coming back for more, despite her better judgment.
In time, Carlos began telling Melissa that she was the Electric Warrior that they’d been searching for, and on Christmas Eve, 1993, they held a special banquet in her honor. Though she was creeped out by the notion of what seemed to be happening, she attended the dinner, a classy affair for 18 people with champagne and candlelight at a long table in the banquet room of a four star French restaurant in Westwood. There were toasts and speeches and each of the Witches came in turn to sit next to her and chat. Though the Witches struck her as being very catty and a bit hostile—asking her, for example, what her favorite kind of music was and then berating her for her answer—she got the feeling like she was the bride at a wedding, albeit a bride who was marrying into a family who had mixed emotions about the union. With dread, she sat at the table—Carlos at one head, Florinda at the other—imagining a wedding chamber set to receive her and her sexagenarian groom. To her great relief, when she said she was tired and wanted to leave, no one stopped her. The minute she got into the door of her apartment, Carlos was on the phone. “They all love you! The phone hasn’t stopped ringing!” he said excitedly. She could hear the call waiting feature beeping on his line. “Everyone’s crazy about you, baby girl!”
From that night on, Melissa was part of the inner circle. She didn’t understand what this Electric Warrior thing was all about; nobody bothered to explain. There were others too—the Lecture Warrior, the Blue Scout, the Orange Scout, The Trackers, The Elements, the Chacmols—most of them attractive younger women. It was a little creepy, all this attention from a man old enough to be her father, but nobody was touching her, nobody was really acting inappropriate—though Carlos had this weird obsession with teaching her to make a fist. Truth be told, the inner circle was kind of fun. She hadn’t had a group of friends for many years; it took her mind off her problems, and that was a great relief. The members of the inner circle were all smart and well read. They were up on current events, loved nice clothes and making puns, were always joking around and pulling practical jokes, infantile stuff, like a bucket of water atop a door. They had dinner parties at people’s houses and at fancy restaurants; they loved going to Tony Roma’s for ribs—in short order, Melissa, formerly a vegetarian, gained ten pounds. Once, at Tracy Kramer’s beautiful Craftsman house, Carlos prepared a jelly which he said was made of devil’s weed. He said it would make them all fly, but nothing happened to Melissa.
Often, there were madcap performances by something the inner circle called, alternately, the Sorcery Theater or the Theater of Infinity. Written by Bruce Wagner, the skits were hilarious. Slickly produced affairs, complete with props and costumes, most of them were didactic, portraying Carlos’s philosophy and his rules, but always in a lampoonist fashion. One favorite skit featured a gypsy fortune teller who picked out members of the audience and proceeded to ruthlessly deconstruct their personalities, their idiosyncrasies, their habits, their oddities—fertile ground, to be sure. Another favorite featured the Chacmols doing nude, martial-arts-like movements with sharp knives in their hands. There was a skit featuring a six-foot dildo; another number was aimed at Melissa and the Lecture Warrior—a musical rendition of “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” from Jesus Christ Superstar. In time, the Witches—all of whom wore their hair extremely short and dressed in designer clothes—seemed to grow to accept Melissa; they began inviting her along to movies and on shopping trips to Century City Mall, which was walking distance from the Pandora compound.
Toward the end of 1994, Melissa began seeing changes in Carlos, in the inner circle. Though Cleargreen was getting stronger, holding more seminars, the group seemed to become directionless, like they were waiting around, trying to figure out what to do next. Carlos even said as much: “We don’t know what to do,” he told Melissa, “we don’t know where to go, we don’t know what’s happening.” Carlos also started complaining about the tyranny of the Witches. He said they were bossy, that they wouldn’t listen to what he said. He spent the whole of one Sunday private class railing about the fact that Taisha had made herself a hamburger one night and refused to make one for him. He was obviously having trouble seeing—she heard whispers about diabetes—but no one said anything out loud, though everyone had suddenly taken on a new interest in acupuncture and nutrition—an area in which Melissa was very knowledgeable, a fact that seemed to draw the inner circle more closely around her as she began advising them on meal preparation. One thing was certain: Carlos didn’t look very well. His skin had become ashen, his hair had turned entirely gray. He wobbled just a bit when he walked. And sometimes, when he came close to talk to her, or to help her practice making a fist, she noticed this peculiar, sour kind of smell about him; it reminded her of the way her mother had smelled before she died.
Then one day Carlos approached her in private. “I’m leaving soon and I’m taking you and everyone else with me,” he said.
Melissa was horrified. The first thing that came into her mind was Jim Jones, Kool-Aid, the mass cult suicide in Guyana. She didn’t know what to say.
C.J. Castaneda polished off a tall glass of tap water and turned out the kitchen lights, slowly climbed the stairs to the master bedroom of his rambling, suburban Atlanta house. It was 10:30 p.m. on April 27, 1998, the end of another long and difficult day. The blond, blue-eyed, 36 year old was bone-weary.
A former real estate appraiser and sometime-inventor with a taste for the good life and a near-genius IQ, C.J. had recently started a new business, a chain of drive-up coffee kiosks. The logistics of servicing and running his far-flung mini-enterprise kept him hopping from long before sunup until way past dark, seven days a week. The toll was beginning to show on his handsome countenance; his weight-lifter’s build had gone a bit soft around the middle. Sighing, he sat down heavily on his side of the bed, undressed and slipped between the sheets, kissed his wife Lisa goodnight. As was customary, she had settled in with a book, preferring to read for thirty minutes before going to sleep herself. C.J. set his alarm for 4:40, pulled the covers over his head. In moments he was out.
Though few people knew it, Carlton Jeremy Castaneda was Carlos’s adopted son, born to Margaret Runyan and a Mormon businessman named Adrian Gerritsen. As with every other chapter in Carlos’s life, the story of C.J.’s birth was odd and convoluted.
Six months after Carlos and Margaret were married in Mexico, Carlos had come home to their apartment one afternoon and told her excitedly about meeting an old Indian in a Greyhound bus station near the Arizona border with Mexico. Carlos was enrolled at the time in his first undergraduate anthropology class as UCLA, a course called California Ethnography. His professor had promised an A grade to any student who found an actual Indian informant for a term paper. For months, Carlos had been making trips to the desert, searching for an indigenous wise man to teach him the ancient secrets of hallucinogenic plants. Though he’d once dreamed of becoming a great artist, Carlos now had his sights set on a career as a professor of anthropology. UCLA had a great and competitive department. Surely this desert meeting was an auspicious start on his new path.
Margaret, of course, didn’t see things his way at all. She was deeply in love with Carlos; she wanted her husband at home. This was her third marriage, and though it had started out quite romantically—a showdown between two suitors culminating with a midnight road trip to a Mexican justice of the peace—things were already beginning to sour. Besides her suspicion that he was seeing other women, a big stumbling block in their relationship was their respective schedules. While Margaret continued working days as chief operator at the phone company, Carlos was working nights as an accountant in a fancy dress shop in downtown L.A., attending classes during the day. Now, in addition to this hectic schedule, he told Margaret, he was going to start spending his weekends in the desert with this mysterious old man.
Fights and unpleasantness ensued, and soon Carlos moved out of the apartment. Margaret began dating Gerritsen, a tall, handsome Mormon from Utah. Gerritsen was in the clothing business and came frequently to L.A. on buying trips. Finding herself in love with Gerritsen, Margaret asked Carlos for a divorce, and he was surprisingly accommodating. They drove back to Mexico, to the same justice of the peace who had married them. Unbeknownst to Margaret, however, the official didn’t actually complete the paperwork for a divorce. Also unbeknownst to Margaret, Gerritsen was an acquaintance of Carlos—it was Carlos who’d actually arranged their first meeting. Furthermore, in a letter filed in connection with a probate case many years later, following Carlos’s death, Gerritsen would confirm that Carlos had asked him to father a child with Margaret, a child whom Carlos would then adopt as his own. Margaret and Gerritsen—who was already married to a woman in Salt Lake City—were married in Mexico a short time later. Though the newlyweds never took up housekeeping together, a son was born in August 1961.
Not long after the birth, Carlos came to Margaret and confessed that their Mexican divorce had been a charade, something he’d done to appease her while he did his field work, hoping, he said, that they’d one day reunite as a couple. He explained that they were still married, and that he wanted to adopt her son. As it was, Carlos had been seeing the little tow-headed boy frequently since his birth and had developed a deep attachment. He called the boy Cho-cho; the boy called him Kiki. Carlos took him everywhere—to the beach, to the mountains, to his power spot in Topanga Canyon, to the movies. People got used to seeing the nut brown man carrying the little blond boy everywhere on his shoulders. Often, he brought Cho-cho along to classes at UCLA. When asked, Carlos proudly claimed Cho-cho as his biological son, attributing the obvious differences in coloring to the boy’s mother, whom he said was Scandinavian. When Cho-cho was two Carlos appeared at Margaret’s apartment with documents from the California Department of Public Health naming Carlos as the natural father of one Carlton Jeremy Castaneda. Her relationship with Gerritsen having long since dissolved, Margaret agreed to sign. A boy needs a father. Carlos was the only one her son had ever known.
Over the next five years, Carlos saw a lot of his Cho-cho; the boy regularly spent nights in his room at Carlos’s rented house. In the mornings, for breakfast, Carlos fed him bananas and raw hamburger to help him grow, then walked the boy, hand in hand, to school. In the evenings, while Carlos worked on his book, the two women who would later become the Witches—Florinda Donner-Grau and Carol Tiggs—read Cho-cho his bedtime stories. Before going to sleep, Cho-cho would stand beside Kiki at his desk. “What are you writing?” he’d ask. “I’m writing a book for you, Cho-cho,” Carlos would answer. “You’re going to make it the most magical of books, because you’re the biggest brujo on the planet.” Though money was still a problem, Carlos insisted on paying for Cho-cho’s tuition at an exclusive Montessori School in Santa Monica—one of his classmates was the daughter of Charlton Heston. Carlos also paid Cho-cho’s doctor bills and bought him clothes, sent him for karate and skiing lessons. He would continue paying child support through the mid seventies, when he and Margaret were legally divorced.
When the boy was seven, Margaret and C.J. left L.A., a move that pained Carlos greatly. Carlos continued to correspond with Margaret for many years, writing of his undying love for both her and his Cho-cho, and of his intention to leave any money he might amass to the boy. “I went by your old apt. in the Valley a couple of days ago and got an attack of profound sentimentalism,” Carlos wrote to Margaret in August of 1967. “You are my family, dearest Margarita…. I owe you a very, very special something. I owe you the most beautiful and magical of all my dreams, my Cho-cho. You brought that dream into my life for one instant, and compared to that instant of dreaming all my other dreams are nothing…. Take care! And kiss my Cho-cho’s big toe for his Kiki. I keep on telling to myself that I will go hiking with him.”
The following year, Carlos dedicated his first book, The Teachings of Don Juan, to Cho-cho and Margaret, and he mentioned him in several subsequent books as well, discussing “a little boy that I once knew” with Don Juan, telling him “how my feeling for him would not change with the years or the distance.” In 1978, Carlos attend C.J.’s high school graduation in Tempe, Arizona; for the next three years, he paid his college tuition. They were reunited briefly once again a few years later in New York.
Starting in around 1993, however, around the time that Cleargreen and the other companies were formed, Carlos ceased all communications with C.J. and Margaret. Despite his repeated phone calls and letters, C.J. was thwarted in his efforts to contact Carlos by members of Cleargreen, who appeared to be handling all of Carlos’s personal business with the outside world. Other friends, including an old roommate and one of Carlos’s favorite UCLA professors, were similarly thwarted in their efforts to contact the great man. Frustrated, C.J. heard news of a lecture Carlos was giving in October of 1993, and flew to Santa Monica to try to see him.
C.J. waited in the parking lot outside of the bookstore, and when Carlos spotted the strappingly handsome young man, he seemed overjoyed. He embraced C.J. enthusiastically, kissing him on both cheeks, patting him on the back, speaking with warmth and animation. Their reunion was cut short, however, by two of the Chacmols, who took Carlos one by each arm and hustled him away. As they were moving toward the van to leave, one of the Chacmols retrieved from Carlos a piece of paper with C.J.’s phone number on it, balled it up into a piece of trash.
Three years later, frustrated by Carlos’s continuing silence, C.J. paid $400 to attend a Tensegrity workshop where Carlos was slated to appear, once again hoping to reunite with his Kiki. At the door of the workshop, however, he was recognized by the Cleargreen organizers. They refunded his money and asked him to leave. When he and his wife went across the street to a mall to get something to eat, members of Cleargreen followed at a discreet distance, keeping them under surveillance.
As the 90’s progressed, Carlos’s contact with old friends ceased altogether. Though he was by now nearly blind, and had to be helped to the stage for lectures, he became increasingly litigious. Lawyers for Cleargreen filed suits attempting to block the publication of writings of a woman named Merilyn Tunneshende, who called herself “The Nagual Woman” and said that she too had studied with Don Juan. In 1995, a suit was initiated by Cleargreen’s lawyers against a Toltec teacher and old friend named Victor Sanchez, claiming that the jacket of Sanchez’s book about Carlos infringed on Carlos’s copyrights. And in 1997, Cleargreen lawyers launched a suit against Margaret Runyan Castaneda and the publishers of her autobiography, A Magical Journey With Carlos Castaneda.
In February of 1997, Carlos made his last appearance at a Tensegrity seminar, in Long Beach, California. A spokesman for Toltec Artists said that Carlos had decided “that the seminars were taking their own course and he did not need to be present.” Others had a different view of his absence. “He was taking medication, losing weight,” said one Carlos watcher, “People were becoming suspicious. If Tensegrity was supposed to lead to health and well-being, why doesn’t he look so good?”
In the winter of 1998, Toltec Artists delivered to his publisher the manuscript for Carlos’s eleventh book, The Active Side of Infinity. In a departure from his other books, Infinity takes a somewhat apocalyptic view of the mystical universe, defining it as predatory and populated by shadowy entities called the Flyers, who prey on a man’s glowing coat of awareness. Only by practicing Tensegrity, Carlos suggests, can these dark forces be repelled. He also reappraises once again his encounters with Don Juan, concluding strongly that the “total goal” of shamanic knowledge is preparation for facing the “definitive journey—the journey that every human being has to take at the end of his life” to the region that shamans called “the active side of infinity.” “We are beings on our way to dying,” Don Juan said. “We are not immortal, but we behave as if we were.”
Much attention is given in Infinity to the departure of the old Nagual, and the notion that an enlightened sorcerer does not die a normal death but is consumed by “the fire from within,” a sort of spontaneous combustion, gathering his mortal energy and. carrying the body with him into the next realm. As if preparing his readers for his own leave-taking, Carlos describes in great detail the departure of Don Juan and his party. “I saw then how Don Juan Matus, the Nagual, led the 15 other seers who were his companions … one by one to disappear into the haze of that mesa, towards the north. I saw how every one of them turned into a blob of luminosity, and together they ascended and floated above the mesa, like phantom lights in the sky. They circled above the mountain once, as Don Juan had said they would do, their last survey, the one for their eyes only, their last look at this marvelous earth, And then they vanished.”
Now, fast asleep in the master bedroom of his suburban Atlanta house on the night of April 27, 1998, C.J. Castaneda, once called Cho-cho by the only father he ever knew, became aware of the insistent buzzing of his alarm clock. He opened his eyes, looked at the time: 4:40. As he reached for the snooze button, he happened to notice, sitting in a chair in the corner of the room, glowing a spectral shade of blue, the great man himself, his Kiki, Carlos Castaneda.
Carlos looked young again, and happy, the kind of face he used to make just before he’d lift the young blond boy up up up over his head, onto his shoulders; the kind of face he used to make in the mornings at his rented house, standing over the sink, cutting the little seeds out of the center of a banana because his Cho-cho didn’t like that part. Sitting there in the chair, Carlos smiled at C.J. winked one eye. C.J. blinked, blinked again. Carlos was gone.
Seven minutes later, at 4:47, the alarm buzzed again, and C.J. sat up in bed, swung his legs over the side. Shaking off the cobwebs, he rose, padded to the bathroom to take a shower.
Ten minutes later, at 4:57, dressed with wet hair, C.J. took the dog by the collar and left the bedroom, went downstairs, let the dog out the front door, walked to the kitchen, poured some dog food in a bowl. He looked at the clock on the microwave. It said 11:00. He walked over to the kitchen table, picked up his watch. It also said 11:00.
Puzzled, he let the dog back in the front door and returned to the bedroom. The clock by his bed said 11:01.
“Lisa!” he whispered loudly. “Lisa! Wake up!”
His wife stirred, rolled over, looked at the clock. “What do you want?” she asked, “Why are you dressed?”
“How long have you been asleep?” C.J. asked.
“For a while, why?”
“Lisa, it’s 11:01. What do you mean you went to sleep a while ago?”
“What are you talking about!” exclaimed Lisa, growing annoyed.
C.J.’s mind raced. If Lisa had gone to bed at 11:00, how was it that he’d awoken and snoozed and showered and gone downstairs? It was now 11:02. All of that would have had to have taken place in one minute. It was at least twenty minutes worth of activities—she would have still been still reading when he first awoke! The whole thing didn’t compute, not at all.
“Why don’t you get back in bed?” Lisa suggested, rolling back over, putting her head down on the pillow.
“Holy shit!” said C.J.
“I just remembered!”
C.J. felt a weird tingling up and down his spine. The hair on the back of his neck stood on end. “I think Carlos is dead.”
The Follower parked his dusty blue Hyundai at the curb in front of Spalding Mortuary, a nondescript brick building in a run-down industrial district just east of Culver City. It was Monday, June 22, 1998, around ten a.m. Though the morning sun was bright, the air was cool; Greg Mamishian was wearing his favorite jacket, a tan corduroy sportscoat with suede elbow patches that once belonged to Carlos. Greg sat silent for a few moments, listening to the engine tick off heat, a short man, fifty years old, with close cropped gray hair and an elfin sparkle in his eyes, girding himself for another mission.
For the past two and a half years, Greg and his wife Gabi had made a hobby of following Carlos. They’d sat outside his compound for hundreds of hours, watching the comings and goings, trying to read between the lines. They’d trailed the Nagual and his party to restaurants and movies, to inner circle practice groups. They’d videotaped him at every opportunity, collected and processed his trash, made what they considered an anthropological study of his life. Along the way, they’d learned much about the great man and the doings of his inner circle, and much about themselves. Every couple needs a binding interest; in an odd, wonderful way, Carlos had become theirs.
It had been more than nine months now since that magical summer night when the fierce Chacmol had caught them red-handed stealing the trash. Though they’d promised the woman from Cleargreen that they were done with their innocent surveillance—thereby avoiding a formal complaint to the police—they’d only lasted about a week before their curiosity and determination had gotten the better of them, and they’d renewed their activities in earnest. Besides changing the time of their trash runs to 3 a.m., things proceeded pretty much as before. The Followers, as Greg had dubbed them, were back in business.
Then, one Sunday afternoon in late February 1998, sitting at their regular post, in a no-parking zone diagonally across the quiet intersection from Carlos’s low-slung compound, the Followers saw a car pull up to the Pandora Avenue gate, a blue Ford Crown Victoria that belonged to one of the Chacmols. As it slowed to a stop, several members of the inner circle came quickly out of the house, moved toward the back door of the car. Riveted, Greg and Gabi watched in disbelief as they ministered to the great man, helping him gingerly out of the back seat, hauling him to his feet. For some time it had been obvious that Carlos’s vision had been failing; they’d found insulin syringes and prescription medicine bottles in the trash. Now it was clear that his health had taken a dramatic turn for the worse. Carlos was thin and fragile, floppy like a rag doll. His skin was grayish green, his hair was very short, there were dark circles around his eyes; he had the skeletal appearance of an internee in a concentration camp. He didn’t so much walk as shuffle, supported on either side by Chacmols, steadied from behind by the Blue Scout.
Gabi looked at Greg, Greg looked at Gabi. A wave of extreme sadness washed over them. There was no mistaking the fact that Carlos was dying, that their marvelous folly would soon be coming to an end. At the edge of the sadness was something else, a sort of bitter aftertaste of disappointment: If Carlos was planning, as he’d promised, to leave the Earth in full awareness with his boots on, in a flash of light for the Second Attention like Don Juan, he had better hurry. From the looks of him, he didn’t have much time.
Over the next weeks and months, the Followers saw no more of Carlos. His public appearances at seminars and workshops ended; the private classes at the dance studio came to a halt; he never again went out for a movie or a meal. Meanwhile, the level of activity at the compound increased dramatically. People came and went in shifts several times a day, bringing with them medical supplies and covered dishes of food. The members of the inner circle all got new cars, mostly mid-sized Fords. A new roof was put on the house, many other small repairs were made as well; the Followers got the feeling that the place was being readied for sale. When landscapers arrived and began tearing up the internal courtyard of the compound, the Followers wondered if they were digging a grave. Then one evening they observed Taisha Abelar packing her van with stacks of files and documents and a big cooler full of supplies. She was in an obvious hurry. The Followers wondered: Were they taking Carlos to Mexico to die? In mid-April, Gabi and Greg observed what seemed to be a flurry of packing and cleaning and organizing. Their trash take that week was unbelievably fruitful: clothes, statues and knicknacks, flatware, curtains, supplies—there were 16 bags, more than twice the normal amount. Once upon a time they’d have been overjoyed by such fabulous gleanings. Now they felt only curiosity and sorrow.
During the week of April 22, Greg and Gabi left off their surveillance in favor of a rare, seven-day vacation to Kauai, the honeymoon they hadn’t yet gotten around to taking. When they returned, tanned and rested, the first thing they did was drive to Carlos’s compound.
The place was empty. There was no one there. No cars, no people, no furniture inside. The only thing in the trash can was some construction debris and a few fast food wrappers. Several trips over the next few days confirmed their suspicions: The Sorcerer and his party had disappeared.
For the next six weeks, things at the compound remained unchanged. Meanwhile, phone lines and Internet chat rooms were buzzing with speculation. There were rumors that Carlos and his party had bought a big luxury yacht and had embarked on a world cruise. Others said that the inner circle had taken Carlos to Mexico to “leave.” Still others posited that Carlos had died and the Witches had committed suicide in solidarity. Everyone associated, it seemed, had an opinion. Cleargreen remained suspiciously mum, continuing to schedule new seminars, carrying on business as usual.
Then, in mid June, C.J. Castaneda received a notice from the probate court in Los Angeles. On April 27, 1998, the letter informed him, Carlos Castaneda had died. Though C.J. and Margaret were mentioned in the will, they were left nothing of the estate, which some estimated to be worth as much as $20 million. In the six-page document, which was signed and dated April 23, Carlos explicitly distanced himself from his Cho-cho, stating in Article 1 that “although I once treated him as if he were my son, C.J. Castaneda is not my son, natural or adopted.” All monies and property and future rights to his work were bequeathed to something called The Eagle’s Trust, the officers of which were members of Carlos’s inner circle, men and women who also served as the officers of Cleargreen, Toltec Artists and the other corporations. Outraged that Cleargreen had failed to exercise common decency and notify him of his Kiki’s death, hurt that he’d been disavowed and disinherited by the only father he had ever known, C.J. called the Los Angeles Times and tipped them off to the death. Later, he would initiate a suit against Cleargreen and Carlos’s executors, claiming that the will was a fraud. After nine months of legal wrangling, C.J. would drop the suit.
The story ran on the front page of the Times on Friday, June 19. “Carlos Castaneda … apparently died two months ago in the same way that he lived: quietly, secretly, mysteriously?”
According to his death certificate, the Times story said, Carlos had died of liver cancer on April 27, at the age of 72. In typical Carlos fashion, the death certificate listed his occupation as “teacher,” and his employer as the Beverly Hills School District, for which he’d never worked. It also said that he had never been married. Immediately following the death, it was reported, his body had been cremated, his ashes spirited away to Mexico. Explaining why no one was notified about his passing, Carlos’s long-time lawyer, Debra Drooze, was quoted as saying: “He didn’t like attention. He always made sure people did not take his picture or record his voice. He didn’t like the spotlight. Knowing that, I didn’t take it upon myself to issue a press release.”
The next day, on their website, Cleargreen issued a statement to the faithful. Their position was a bit different than the lawyer’s. “Carlos Castaneda left the world the same way that his teacher, Don Juan Matus did: with full awareness,” the statement read in part. “The cognition of our world of everyday life does not provide for a description of a phenomenon such as this. So in keeping with the terms of legalities and record keeping that the world of everyday life requires, Carlos Castaneda was declared to have died.”
Having read both the article in the Times and the posting on the Web, Greg and Gabi, like many others, didn’t know what to think. So many odd and wonderful things had happened in connection with Carlos, so many mystical events and occurrences that seemed to have no explanation in the world of ordinary reality. Now they wanted to know how the story ended. They needed to know the truth. Had he died like a man? Had he left like a sorcerer? Which was it? For so many years now, Gabi and Greg and countless others around the world had set their reality compass by the teachings of Carlos and Don Juan. There was a need for some kind of closure. It didn’t help any that all the Witches had disappeared. When asked, Cleargreen would only say that the Witches were “traveling.”
Using the detective skills he’d honed to a sharp edge over the last several years, Greg tracked down Carlos’s death certificate. A little leg work revealed that Carlos’s body had not been taken to the mortuary that was specified, but to a different place, one with an unlisted telephone number called the Spalding Mortuary.
And so it was, on the Monday morning following the announcement of Carlos’s death in the L.A. Times, that Greg got out of his car and walked through the unlocked door of a nondescript brick building in a run-down industrial district just east of Culver City. He was going to get to the bottom of this mystery, once and for all.
He was met in the hallway by a tall, elderly black gentleman, who kindly asked his business. Standing there in the dark hallway, wearing the corduroy sportscoat that had once belonged to Carlos himself, Greg explained that Spalding Mortuary had recently cremated the remains of a man named Carlos Castaneda. This man, Greg continued, had claimed to be a great and powerful sorcerer and had followers all over the world. Though his teachings were many, Greg explained, first among them was the notion that an enlightened sorcerer does not die a normal death, but rather is consumed by something called “the fire from within,” a sort of spontaneous combustion, wherein he gathers his mortal energy and leaves for the next realm, taking his body with him.
“I am here to find out the truth,” Greg told the elderly gentleman in his typically earnest but ironic style. “What I want to know is this: Did he burn with the fire from within? Or did you burn him?”
The gentleman regarded Greg for several long moments—trying, no doubt, to decide what to do. Greg seemed harmless enough. He was polite and appeared sane. He was obviously deeply aggrieved. But what Greg was saying, well—he’d seen and heard many things in his years in the mortuary business, but this took it all: he’d never heard anything so ridiculous in his life. “Please sit down,” he said at last.
After ten minutes or so, a well-dressed, older woman appeared before Greg and asked him to repeat his business. She listened intently, nodding her head, wearing a sympathetic face. Until, that is, he got to the part about “the fire from within.” She reared back her head and laughed out loud.
Greg looked at the woman and smiled. He raised his hands, palms up, shrugged his shoulders. She was a tall, heavyset, regal woman, the model of a family matriarch. She leaned down and put her arms around Greg, gave him a tender, motherly hug. “He has gone to a better place,” she said, patting his back.
Greg stepped back from her embrace. “I know that,” he said, regarding her quizzically. “But what I want to know is: which better place. Are you sure you cremated him?”
“I watched it myself,” she said confidently.
“His spirit is gone, baby.”
Greg thanked the woman, turned and went outside, to his car. He opened the door, started to get in, then stopped himself. He felt numb, an odd mixture of disappointment and relief. For what must have been the one millionth time over the six years, the words of scholar Richard DeMille floated through his mind. Castaneda wasn’t a common con man, he lied to bring us the truth. His stories are packed with truth, though they are not true stories, which he said they are…. This is a sham-man bearing gifts, an ambiguous spellbinder dealing simultaneously in contrary commodities—wisdom and deception.
Greg removed his favorite jacket, the tan corduroy sportscoat with suede elbow patches that once belonged to Carlos, and threw it unceremoniously into the back seat of the car. It was time to move on.