The Rolling Stone/UVA debacle was preventable but not unique. Salon had a similar breakdown in early 2014, likewise due to somnolent editors and fabulist sources, plus a hidden element of corruption.
The essence of Columbia Journalism Review’s critique of the Rolling Stone campus rape piece boiled down to these three things:
1. Relying on a single source, and failing to interview subjects who might reveal a different perspective or show the original source to be inaccurate.
2. Failing to provide people accused by the reporter of committing crimes with detailed information about the allegations and an opportunity to respond.
3. Failing to locate a person who was deeply implicated in the story, and whose existence, non-existence, or strong denial would cast the story in a different light or even argue for its non-publication.
Another issue was “confirmation bias,” or the tendency to fall hook, line and sinker for a single source’s uncorroborated story if it corresponds to a “prevalent narrative” or one’s own cherished beliefs. A false story is embraced because it strikes a political or emotional chord, or fulfills a need to believe certain things about groups in conflict. (Of course, a false story may also be embraced as a means of boosting circulation.)
In the case of the Rolling Stone article, the underlying conflict was between feminists concerned about campus rape, and the Southern old boy network — thought to be represented by UVA’s “elite” Phi Kappa Psi fraternity. The reporter, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, sought out a story that would fit a pre-existing narrative, would be emblematic, and would advance views shared by her editors (and which I also share): that sexual abuse of women and girls is a serious worldwide problem (including on college campuses).
The story, “A Rape on Campus,” focused on the pseudonymous “Jackie,” who claimed to have been brutally gang-raped at Phi Kappa Psi; and on the likewise pseudonymous “Drew,” who was portrayed as the ringleader, but was never contacted by Erdely.
As events unfolded, it became clear that Jackie was a troubled fabulist, and that Phi Kappa Psi didn’t conform to Erdely’s stereotypes. In the current universe of UVA fraternities, they seem to be known as nice guys. They hadn’t even held a party on the night Jackie claimed to have been gang-raped. A months-long police investigation (in which Jackie declined to cooperate) turned up no evidence of wrongdoing. The plain facts contradicted Jackie’s story, and Rolling Stone issued a retraction.
The CJR report didn’t blame Jackie, reasoning that had Rolling Stone reporters, editors and fact-checkers followed Journalism 101 procedures, the story would never have seen the light of day. (It’s the publisher, not the source, who’s responsible for what gets printed.) Still, Jackie’s inaccurate claims are at the heart of the harm done to innocents. Her motives remain unclear.
There are whole segments of the media (both left and right) obsessed with “advocacy journalism,” where the purpose is to float allegations for political ends, with little concern for truth or accuracy. Such journalism tends to reflect what people want to believe rather than reality, as with stories in WorldNetDaily that President Obama is both gay and Muslim. It’s easy to play “spot the deficiency” in such stories, where a tainted source or crucial questions never asked by the reporter lead to implausible results.
In “A Rape on Campus,” there were questions Sabrina Erdely never asked, perhaps on principle. Could Jackie have some motive for confabulating? The politically correct answer is that no woman ever has a reason to lie about sexual abuse; yet this does happen. The statistics are so bogged down in politics that no one’s sure how often. In “Are We Manufacturing Victims?” psychologist Tana Dineen points to the prevalence of “advocacy data: numbers created to make a point or support an argument.” She urges careful investigation of each claim, rather than over-reliance on statistics. Cathy Young’s analysis in “Crying Rape” is particularly clear-headed and balanced. Leaving aside the details and quoting her broad conclusions:
Rape is a repugnant crime — and one for which the evidence often relies on one person’s word against another’s. Moreover, in the not-so-distant past, the belief that women routinely make up rape charges often led to appalling treatment of victims. However, in challenging what author and law professor Susan Estrich has called “the myth of the lying woman,” feminists have been creating their own counter-myth: that of the woman who never lies.
A de facto presumption of guilt in alleged sexual offenses is as dangerous as a presumption of guilt in any crime, and for the same reasons: It upends the foundations on which our system of justice rests and creates a risk of ruining innocent lives.
Our focus on getting justice for women who are sexually assaulted is necessary and right. We are still far from the day when every woman who makes a rape accusation gets a proper police investigation and a fair hearing. But seeking justice for female victims should make us more sensitive, not less, to justice for unfairly accused men. In practical terms, that means finding ways to show support for victims of sexual violence without equating accusation and guilt, and recognizing that the wrongly accused are real victims too.
— Cathy Young, from “Crying Rape”
90s Conflicts Revisited
Though the press is treating the Rolling Stone controversy de novo, many of the underlying issues hearken back to the repressed memory cases of the 1990s. At odds are some truths difficult to reconcile in practice:
1. Women in crisis need unquestioning support, and a therapeutic community where they can talk about their experiences with others who may have had similar experiences.
2. “It is inappropriate to be unconcerned with the truth of a client’s experience during psychotherapy. In the case of a person with no memory of sexual abuse, it is also inappropriate to engage in group counseling with other victims of sexual assault because of the danger that another patient’s problem or experience will be inappropriately suggestive to the client.” — Judge William J. Groff
3. Survivor groups are not politically or factually neutral. While at their best they can be a source of much-needed comfort to a genuine victim, at their worst they can encourage a non-victim to create a new social identity based on victimhood, in order to reap the emotional rewards of attention and sympathy, and to advance a political agenda.
4. It is necessary to distinguish between real victims and faux victims, since victimhood is sometimes used as a rhetorical platform from which to launch attacks which may be motivated by politics, personal grievance, or personal gain.
There would seem to be inherent conflicts between the therapeutic process, the legal process, the political process, and the journalistic process of gathering facts. In the instant matter, Sabrina Erdely may have acted too much like an advocate and not enough like a journalist. Had she been willing to ask more questions and interview more people, she would have discovered that Jackie was “catfishing” her friend Ryan, and had apparently made up a non-existent person, Haven Monahan, as part of her machinations. This would have been a red flag.
MSNBC’s Ronan Farrow recently interviewed Liz Seccuro, a genuine survivor of a UVA campus rape 30 years ago, and the author of Crash Into Me. Seccuro was mentioned in the Rolling Stone piece as if to bolster Jackie’s account, and Farrow questions whether Jackie might have co-opted Seccuro’s story:
Liz Seccuro: Anonymous people, blog commenters, my friends, and my family all called me, or commented, or wrote to me and said, “This is your story.” I can’t comprehend how someone would co-opt someone else’s pain and story for this.
Ronan Farrow: Do you think there’s a chance that that’s what happened, that Jackie co-opted your story?
Liz Seccuro: I think, as I said it’s been suggested to me so many times that I have to allow it to be a possibility.
Ronan Farrow: I understand the crisis management center [at UVA] gave out your book to survivors.
Liz Seccuro: Yes.
Ronan Farrow: Do you think that Jackie perhaps believed that your story was hers?
Liz Seccuro: I think that somebody who has now told this story so many times, and stuck by her story even after being discredited, I believe that that person would have some mental issues, and would believe that.
Ronan Farrow: If this is true, if by some happenstance Jackie co-opted your story (to use your words), what’s your message to her?
Liz Seccuro: Well I think right now, my message to her is to get some help and to understand — and I’m not ruling out that nothing happened to her. I think something traumatic has happened to her in her life, and I think she needs to get some help to address that. It’s very easy to become enamoured with the survivor community and dive into that. But unless you’re willing to talk to the police and to file a complaint, you can’t level these sort of allegations. It was hard for me, and we had evidence. You can’t make these sort of allegations that live on forever, because look at the mess we’re in now.
Seccuro’s comments underscore points 2-4 above, since the implication is that Jackie may have gravitated toward a survivor group and adopted someone else’s prefab narrative in order to qualify for the emotional support, friendship, and camaraderie which the group provided. She may also have wanted her friend Ryan to develop a protective attitude toward her as the basis for forming a romantic relationship. This doesn’t necessarily mean she was “lying.” She may be emotionally troubled and trying to cope as best she can, perhaps by confabulating.
Confabulating is different than wilfully lying, though there may be a continuum between the two. The subject is controversial because we live in a period when we’re still negotiating the boundaries between behaviour which is pathological and in need of treatment, versus behaviour which is unethical and deserving of blame. I feel some sympathy for Jackie, because you don’t hang out with a survivor’s group unless you feel like a survivor. But of course, the true victims are those who were wrongfully accused.
Sometimes when people feel emotional pain, they want to externalize it, force it into a victim/abuser paradigm which is pre-scripted, ready-made, and supported by an interest group. But not everything fits into that paradigm. Sometimes the pain is real and is the result of emotional conflict, but there is no abuser.
This again hearkens back to the repressed memory cases of the 1990s. In response to false claims of abuse proliferating at that time, the British Psychological Society issued May 2000 guidelines stating:
Psychologists must be alert to the dangers of suggestion. Potential sources of suggestion include subtle cues about the psychologist’s attitudes and beliefs that may be inferred from the therapeutic context (e.g. particular books on the shelf) or client contact with “survivor literature” and subcultures of abuse. Psychologists must be aware that there may be situations in which clients are motivated to recall memories of abuse for a variety of ends.
The subtext here is the possibility of coaching, but none of this is an argument that sexual abuse (and even gang rape) doesn’t occur; we know it does. It is an argument that journalists have to be extremely careful when dealing with people who’ve immersed themselves in “survivor literature” and subcultures of abuse. And just as psychologist attitudes can influence what a client will recall, so can sessions with a journalist determined to impose a pre-existing narrative. If “A Rape on Campus” turns out to be a borrowed scenario from Liz Seccuro’s book, then who borrowed it: Jackie, Sabrina Erdely, or some combination of the two?
If there was collusion, then what type of collusion? I seriously doubt the two women engaged in a deliberate conspiracy to lie. Far more likely is the type of psychological collusion in which people and groups gradually take on each others beliefs and attitudes, leading to a socially constructed reality which is at odds with factual reality. This problem knows no gender or politics. It could just as easily affect “your crazy uncle who watches FOX news all day” (a figure popularized by Rachel Maddow).
Implications and Cautionary Notes
Events in the real world often have political ramifications, but journalists, media critics, and the general public should beware of the tail wagging the dog. When a too-perfect story pandering to populist stereotypes emerges in tandem with political ax-grinding and journalistic grandstanding, this should raise concerns about truthfulness. See, for example, Paul Krugman on Obamacare horror stories as a means of attacking the ACA.
The need for truth is not liberal or conservative, female or male, religious or secular, but something universal. We all need truth. Truth matters.
Another cautionary note is that while our justice system is imperfect, it has a more rigorous set of checks and balances in place than either trial by tabloid or trial by Internet (both of which can easily descend into vigilantism). When a person appears in the tabloids or on the Internet claiming to have been abused some years previously, but has never (and will not now) file a police report, there’s reason to be skeptical — especially if their claim surfaces in connection with a social control agenda (e.g. closing down fraternities, or discrediting spiritual groups). I believe there’s a higher incidence of false claims when the claim is not freestanding but is allied to a movement ideology, or is meant to be the smoking gun that “proves” one side right on a hotly contested social issue. (Remember the Tawana Brawley rape hoax.)
The implication, then, is that statistics concerning false claims of sexual abuse are not flat across the board, but vary according to the scenario. A person who promptly goes to the police station to file a rape complaint and doesn’t show an inordinate interest in publicity or politics is more likely to be telling the truth. A person who pointedly avoids filing a police complaint, but who seeks attention and publicity — and whose claims leverage a social or political cause — is less likely to be telling the truth. If there’s a span of years between the disputed events and the first report of them, this should also raise concerns; likewise if the person being accused is long dead and can’t possibly defend themselves. (Some people look for an unfair fight.)
Filing false police reports is a crime according to both federal and state laws. But nursing false claims of abuse in the tabloids or on the Internet may carry a civil penalty at most, and would require that the injured party file a lawsuit, which is often expensive, inconvenient, and subject to the Streisand effect (as well as other legal loopholes). Thus, haunting the tabloids and Internet has become an easy way for opportunists to score political brownie points or wreak personal vengeance at minimal risk to themselves, particularly if they’re judgement proof.
To be fair, there are genuine victims of abuse who may find it difficult to engage with the justice system (which is not always friendly). It’s possible that a person could be raped, feel embarrassed and ashamed, never go to police, but become persuaded years later that “something must be done.” If there’s no evidence, they could conceivably decide that attention and publicity make a good substitute for legal justice. But do they? We should be extremely wary of trial by tabloid or Internet. There’s just too great a risk of destroying innocent people’s lives.
Twelve minutes into Hanna Rosin’s interview with Sabrina Erdely, Erdely claims that Jackie was too traumatized to go to police, but not too traumatized to have her story published in Rolling Stone. This logic troubles me. Richard Bradley, who is often a heartless critic of both Erdely and Jackie, writes:
All of Jackie’s dissembling — her failure to return phone calls, her evasiveness, her refusal to name names, her threat to pull out of the story — were behaviors that should have set off alarms in any good reporter. Not Erdely. To her, Jackie’s “behavior seemed very consistent with a victim of trauma.” In other words: Every single thing that Jackie did that would, to most reporters, suggest she was an unreliable source, actually confirmed to Erdely that Jackie was a reliable source. In that scenario, there is literally nothing that Jackie could do that would not then be evidence of her credibility. If she swore on a Bible that she was lying, it would only prove how “traumatized” she was.
While Bradley tends to poke the protagonists with a sharp stick, he makes a valid point about the catch-22 frequently encountered when trying to evaluate the accuracy of accounts by people who claim to be victims of some traumatic event: the less reliable they are, the more credible they’re claimed to be. Like too much ketchup on bad food, trauma apparently hides all defects. This makes the accuracy of their accounts into a non-falsifiable proposition. (See Virgina Hughes, “And the Memory Wars Wage On,” for discussion of how this conundrum dates back to the 1990s.)
My point is not that trauma doesn’t exist, but that it shouldn’t become a blanket excuse for ignoring sound principles of journalism or jurisprudence. In every facet of human experience, we’re always dealing with truth and falsehood. Just as there are genuine victims of trauma, there are also people who go into “victim mode” to launch attacks on a person or organization, or to provide the ammo for such attacks. That’s why we must always follow a fair process based on evidence — one which holds a steady course in spite of the emotional and political elements which may be introduced.
The very real problem of sexual abuse has this attendant problem of false claims, which we also need to acknowledge. The flame wars between feminists and anti-feminists make it hard to hold both truths in our minds simultaneously. We live in an era of extreme polarization where any sensible middle position gets obliterated or shouted down. Cathy Young’s view in “Crying Rape” that we must continue to seek justice for female victims, while also recognizing that wrongly accused men are real victims too, represents the ideal balance.
Just as combating the problem of sexual abuse means understanding how abuse happens in the workplace or on campus, combating the problem of false accusations also requires insight and analysis. In one problem scenario, a person who is judgement proof (because they have minimal assets or are living overseas or are insane) is persuaded to front for an interest group which then mounts an Internet-based publicity campaign. An outlandish story is trumpeted all over the Net by well-heeled professionals who hide behind the original, judgement proof, fabulist source.
There are lawyers who will tell you they don’t believe anything they read on the Internet, because they know from experience that the Internet is still the Wild West, and libel laws are (for all intent and purposes) nonexistent. This is something to ponder when judging the credibility of material appearing on blogs or Internet-only publications like Salon or WorldNetDaily, or when dodgy Internet material makes the jump to print media due to somnolent editors or low ethics at a tabloid.
We should also be wary of claims of abuse which are a work product of therapy, but which are then removed from the original therapeutic context and unleashed on the public or the legal system. This was a huge problem in the 90s, but has not entirely gone away. (See this 2014 article in Pacific Standard.) Without digressing too far, I would say that real therapy is conducted in private, and no one is minuting every word for uploading to the Net.
Real therapy is about an honest search for personal truth, not an attempt to manipulate public opinion. However, just as we have seen a rise in “advocacy journalism,” there has also been a rise in “advocacy therapy.” In therapy driven by a social or political agenda, there is often an attempt to create a new narrative for past events, and that new narrative may not be truthful. Likewise, we should consider any therapy highly suspect if its “cure” for newly uncovered traumas involves phoning up the newspapers or bloviating on the Internet. These are quack remedies often embraced by synthetic victims. Psychologist Tana Dineen writes:
Synthetic victims are the people who become persuaded that they have been sexually harassed and often they appear to be truly suffering the psychological consequences. … [They include] the person who describes a scene to a co-worker, a spouse or maybe to a psychologist or even a lawyer and is provided with encouragement to think about it differently, perhaps as an incident of harassment or assault.
Memories change; reactions change; feelings change AND stories change. Relatively trivial events can become dramatic; they can be moulded, edited and modified to fit the sexual harassment script which people can easily find in pop psychology books, women’s magazines and on talk shows and now even on the Internet. As Mordecai Richler puts it in his most recent book Barney’s Version, these are people who “are tinkering with memory, fine-tuning reality.”
Scrupulously investigate any sexual harassment report that lands on your desk, looking not only for corroborating evidence, but, also, for possible contamination by the Psychology Industry. This contamination can take place, not only directly in psychotherapy but indirectly through pop psychology books, self-help manuals, media reports, support groups, comments made by family or co-workers, and even information posted on the Internet.
— Tana Dineen, “Are We Manufacturing Victims?”
I want to stress that just because there are synthetic victims doesn’t mean we should become insensitive to the worldwide problem of sexual abuse of women and girls. It does underscore the need to distinguish between real victims and faux victims, and to recognize particular scenarios where the incidence of false claims is higher. This might include divorce and child custody battles, employee wage disputes, and activist campaigns (whether left or right) to publicly discredit a person or organization. The latter includes anti-cult campaigns which attempt to falsely demonize minority faiths or get them to conform to pre-existing stereotypes. Again, if someone is portrayed on the Internet as committing crimes left and right, but in the real world there’s not a single police complaint, this suggests “the fix is in.”
A problem with survivor groups of various stripes is that in their zeal to produce social change, they may urge members to “come forward” with stories of abuse “to support the other women” and “to help society” (by opposing a targeted organization). Where the stories of abuse are only arrived at gradually over time (with pressure, coaching, and editorial assistance), it’s unclear whether they represent newly uncovered truths or painstakingly constructed falsehoods. Even the justice system may fail to make a clear determination, but at least it tries to eliminate hearsay, prevent collusion of witnesses, provide penalties for perjury, and ensure that accusers may be confronted and cross-examined. The same cannot be said of trial by tabloid or trial by Internet. This is why I remain critical of attorney Joseph C. Kracht for conducting Internet show trials which are mere vigilante exercises, with collusion between witnesses the order of the day.
Returning to the specifics of “A Rape on Campus”: While the Columbia report is very process-oriented and never mentions ethics, critics claim that Rolling Stone had an ethical obligation to question and corroborate before trumpeting such toxic accusations. Blaming the process lets individuals off the hook — individuals whose job it was to ensure that the process worked. See Slate.com, “‘Journalistic Failure’ Won’t Get You Fired From Rolling Stone.”
RS made so many mistakes, it’s a veritable fielder’s choice as to which ones to highlight. Scholar Clay Shirky tweeted that “Erdely got rolled by a source. Rolling Stone got rolled by Erdely.” (Or was it groupthink?) Allison Benedikt and Hanna Rosin note that it’s a cardinal journalistic sin to publish damning accusations of criminal wrongdoing without contacting the accused for comment. (See “The Missing Men” on Slate.com.)
What does all this have to do with Salon? Perhaps a teachable moment…
The Salon Article
In May 2014, Salon.com ran a false story claiming that Sri Chinmoy (1931-2007) — the genial Indian-American meditation teacher and humanitarian who had often received favorable coverage in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and other papers — was really a “sex criminal.” The newspaper of record (which had covered Sri Chinmoy since 1971) had it wrong, and only one lone blogger at Salon knew the real skinny. Salon’s headline was: “The media’s love affair with accused sex criminal Sri Chinmoy.”
In the real world, Sri Chinmoy was an exemplary citizen who had received numerous awards and commendations for his spiritual, humanitarian, artistic, and athletic activities, including letters of appreciation from the mayors of New York City and San Francisco, remarks praising him in the Congressional Record, and nominations for the Nobel Peace Prize. Needless to say, he was never under investigation for any kind of crime. He sometimes got decent press coverage because in the real world he did demonstrable, verifiable good and no harm.
He was much beloved by his followers and by countless people who got to know him while working with him on projects for world betterment; but there are also people obsessed with trying to discredit him. As a result, he’s an Obama-like figure who has a small segment of the media running occasional hatchet pieces which emanate directly from cloud cuckoo land and have no connection to the real world. Such pieces are typically based on fabulist sources who live on the Internet or are associated with anti-cult groups.
One reason such hatchet pieces didn’t end with his death in 2007 is that he’s survived by the nonprofit spiritual organization he founded, Sri Chinmoy Centre, and by various artistic, athletic and humanitarian concerns. His followers continue to hold events based on his legacy and teachings.
One such event was the 2008 “Paintings for World Harmony” exhibit at the United Nations. It would be well to view the video in order to take in the real world flavour and get some grounding before diving headlong into the Salon piece:
A problem with the Salon piece is that it tries to paint a hateful picture in words which simply doesn’t match the visual or the data. It’s unclear whether the “sex criminal” headline was the same headline Nevada-based blogger Edwin Lyngar submitted to Salon editors. As Dustin Rowles recounts in “How Salon.com Rewrote My Headline and Turned Me Into an Internet Troll,” Salon reheadlines pieces to drum up page views.
From the get-go, the Salon piece had that clickbait stench about it — the redolence of what Chez Pazienza at The Daily Banter calls “outrage porn.” Pazienza writes: “The editors of Salon are trolling you, all of us, and they’re doing it hard, because trolling drives traffic.” Ryan Holiday observes: “It used be that sites like Salon.com had the moral high ground compared to right-wing pundits and demagogues like Rush Limbaugh… now they traffic in the same garbage.”
Journalist inflation played a key role: The cherry-picked source, Celia Corona-Doran, falsely claimed that back in 2006 when she was 38, Sri Chinmoy once asked her to consent to one-on-one sex with another woman. She did not identify the other woman, and Sri Chinmoy passed away in 2007.
The unconfirmed incident was inflated to a “sex crime” in Salon, and the surviving organization which Sri Chinmoy founded, Sri Chinmoy Centre, was described as a criminal organization, notwithstanding its good reputation, pacific outlook, and total lack of any criminal complaints in its 45-year history.
The Salon story was shockingly wrong, and as in the Rolling Stone piece, the core allegation came from a single, uncorroborated source who was regarded with mindless credulity. The whole matter amounted to a “she said, he’s dead” (long dead), since there was never any complaint, evidence, or witness. (The alleged “other woman” cannot be produced.)
The false claim has since been posted on a number of anti-cult sites and trumpeted to mainstream media figures, always in connection with attempts to discredit Sri Chinmoy Centre or persuade followers to recant their faith.
The source, Celia Corona-Doran, was known in Sri Chinmoy Centre by the name “Suchatula.” She never reported the alleged incident and remained with Sri Chinmoy Centre until 2009. She spoke well of Sri Chinmoy both before and after his death in 2007. In 2008, she wrote about him with particular enthusiasm, describing her own positive experiences in detail, accompanied by photos where she appeared happy and smiling with friends. See these 3 screenshots from 2008 issues of the magazine Inspiration-Sun, published by an Austrian follower of Sri Chinmoy, or view the source documents here and here.
Her cheerful demeanour, glowing descriptions of “Guru,” and detailed accounts of fun activities certainly raise grave doubts about anti-cult material which later appeared under her name in connection with an Internet-based ex-cult support group. Since she seemed so happy in 2008, the obvious question is: what changed in 2009?
In 2009, she got into a labor dispute and some credit card debt. She eventually declared Chapter 7 bankruptcy and sued her former employer, who was a follower of Sri Chinmoy, for back wages. She also fell in with old friends who had left Sri Chinmoy Centre some years previously and who took a hard apostate stance. Their modus operandi involved posting uncorroborated “testimonials” of abuse on the Internet in order to “rescue” purported “cult victims” who (apparently) could not be relied upon to make their own decisions in spiritual matters. In this context, claims of abuse take on a rather utilitarian purpose, as a means to an end.
Enter James Doran, Elizabeth Kracht, and Joe Kracht
There were other factors which led to Celia Corona’s radical volte-face. While still with Sri Chinmoy Centre, she became involved with a male follower, James Doran (a.k.a. “James D”), partly via the Internet. Mr. Doran’s peculiar way of wooing her was to familiarize her with extreme hate material circulated on anti-cult sites which portrayed Sri Chinmoy as a fiend in human form (which is certainly counterfactual).
According to Ms. Corona’s later report, James Doran was in contact with a number of women in the San Francisco Sri Chinmoy Centre, whom he emailed regularly.
Like Jackie (from the Rolling Stone article), when Celia Corona began portraying herself as a victim, she may have been “catfishing” James Doran, telling him the kind of story which seemed to interest him and would make her appear special. The two of them began Skyping almost daily, and gradually colluded in constructing a new version of reality which conveniently justified their eventual marriage. Ms. Corona writes: “He [James] said he was going to leave the Centre and that I had to leave too.”
Neither Ms. Corona nor Mr. Doran wanted to appear unspiritual to their friends, or to admit that they had simply succumbed to romantic temptation. So their cover story was that they had found out the guru was a fraud, and that was why they had left. Yet, numerous figures in the interfaith community, themselves possessing impeccable credentials, have attested to Sri Chinmoy’s genuineness (see below).
It must be noted that like Jackie, Celia Corona was initially extremely reluctant to have her (false) story publicized. When that story first appeared on an anti-cult message board in 2009, it was not posted by her, did not use her name, and did not even mention Sri Chinmoy. However, over time Celia Corona was resocialized to view herself as a cult victim, and persuaded to incorporate the false narrative she now relates into her personal biography. This change occurred in the environs of an Internet-based ex-cult support group, and those doing the persuading included her old friends Elizabeth Kracht and Joe Kracht — disaffected former Chinmoy followers once known as “Nirbachita” and “Yogaloy” respectively. (They are sister and brother.)
Elizabeth Kracht and Celia Corona had become fast friends in the mid-1980s, when they attended Los Gatos High School and often partied together. Their exploits “hitting some of SF’s elite clubs” (using fake IDs) are chronicled on Elizabeth Kracht’s blog “Chosen Instrument Child” (or see excerpts here). Describing those nights of frenetic partying, Ms. Kracht writes: “In retrospect, we’re both amazed we survived.” Celia had once dated Elizabeth’s other brother, Andy Kracht (a.k.a. Jeevan). When the two women later joined Sri Chinmoy Centre, this represented a gradual shift from a party lifestyle to a modest lifestyle based on meditation. Elizabeth Kracht writes:
The summer of my graduation I was a thorn in the side of my stepmom and dad. I slept until 2 p.m. in the afternoon, lazed about in the sun on the back deck of our house in Morgan Hill and only motivated myself to meet friends in Los Gatos and do more of the same: party.
My brother Andy was on a different trajectory. He’d finally surrendered to his fate and joined the Sri Chinmoy Centre, joining my older brother Joe, who’d done the same years earlier. By this time Joe was living in New York, close to the master, and Andy joined the Cupertino meditation center and was working at a cafe affiliated with the group. I would make my way over the cafe from time to time to see Andy, and he was hard at work winning me over to the side of a simpler, happier life through meditation by making the most amazing avocado sandwiches, and stuffing me with black bottom cupcakes. Both food for the soul. And the couple people I met that were part of the cafe and disciples of Sri Chinmoy I liked too: Pujari and Giribar.
— Elizabeth Kracht, “Chosen Instrument Child”
But by 2009, Elizabeth Kracht had been away from the Centre for 8 years, having left with a male follower named Pinak, and that relationship having recently gone sour, leaving her bitter. It was a rocky period in her life when she was making a mental list of grievances and looking for someone to blame. She moved in with her brother Joe, who had started a blog critical of Sri Chinmoy Centre where he recycled negative material found on message boards, or dished dirt on former colleagues. The blog became a magnet for anyone who had left the Centre in disfavor. Elizabeth Kracht joined with those writing “testimonials,” which were retrospective accounts by apostates supplying new anti-cult narratives for past events.
When Celia Corona left the Centre in early 2009, she was identified as someone who might be willing to supply such a testimonial for public use. It took weeks of phone calls for Elizabeth Kracht to drag a wacky story involving some sort of lesbian misadventure out of her old friend, and even then Ms. Corona flatly refused to publicize it herself or even have her name associated with it. Nevertheless, the story was posted on an anti-cult message board in May 2009 by Elizabeth Kracht, who seemed highly motivated despite her friend’s reluctance. In its original form, the story was a model of discursiveness involving dreams in which an unnamed person might have been depressed because an unnamed guru might have done something wrong — interspersed with Ms. Kracht’s own complaints that a café she had opened in Forest Hills, New York circa 2001 didn’t get as much support as she had hoped for, and eventually folded. Her narrative was difficult to follow because it contained about three levels of hearsay, and was rife with Ms. Kracht’s own resentments about being a self-described “black sheep.”
A few months later, attorney Joe Kracht announced on his blog that Ms. Corona had finally given consent for her name to be connected with the anonymous story which his sister had previously posted on a message board. This announcement did not come from Ms. Corona, who remained silent.
To connect the story to Ms. Corona at that point in time (August 26, 2009), one would have to read the anonymous story posted by Elizabeth Kracht, and put that together with Joe Kracht’s announcement (on a different website) that the story actually pertained to Ms. Corona. Whether or not this constituted “outing,” the appearance is that over time, Ms. Corona was groomed by the Krachts to become one of the cherished “testimonial writers” whose accounts were used to try and discredit Sri Chinmoy Centre. Ms. Corona was in dire financial straits at the time, while her friends Lizzie and Joe had become successful white-collar professionals.
Ms. Corona was eventually persuaded to play a public role which she did not originally contemplate, and to take ownership of a story which (like Jackie’s) was never meant for public consumption. It appears to have been meant for James Doran, but was later used by Ms. Corona to apply pressure to her former employer — a follower of Sri Chinmoy whom she decided to sue for back wages. Of Elizabeth Kracht and Joe Kracht, Ms. Corona writes: “Without them I am not sure if my story would have been told.” This is one of her few accurate statements.
How did a story of such dubious provenance come to be published in Salon five years later? Through corruption and nepotism. Elizabeth Kracht subsequently became a literary agent with Kimberley Cameron & Associates. She describes Edwin Lyngar (author of the Salon piece) as “her” author. Elsewhere, Mr. Lyngar confirms that Ms. Kracht is his literary agent and that she’s tasked with finding a publisher for his memoir Guy Parts. According to her LinkedIn profile, Ms. Kracht is also experienced in fiction writing & editing, storytelling, ghostwriting, content development, and public relations. Over a period of years, she collaborated with her friend Celia (who works at a Trader Joe’s) to turn the fabricated ramblings concerning anonymous actors which were posted on a message board in 2009 into the story libeling real persons which Edwin Lyngar planted in Salon.
James Doran, previously from New Zealand, but now working in the San Francisco Bay area as a web designer with Jade Orchard, has undergone a bizarre inversion of views similar to his wife Celia’s. Like Celia Corona, in 2008 James Doran seemed to have no problems with the late Sri Chinmoy or with Sri Chinmoy Centre. Like Ms. Corona, he participated in the 2008 World Harmony Run, and wrote detailed articles for Inspiration-Sun such as this one about a “California Joy Weekend.” There he describes a pleasant dinner at Jyoti-Bihanga restaurant in San Diego, a jovial mood, an early start the next morning to put on a popular swim & run event, a picnic lunch, games, hanging out enjoying sun and water, and “many happy faces.”
However, in May 2014 James Doran turned up on the Internet spouting rhetoric accusing Dr. Kusumita Pedersen — a respected scholar and professor of religion who knew Sri Chinmoy for 36 years — of being “in a cult.” He seemed to be trying to “deprogram” her over the Internet — perhaps another case of Guru Alienation Syndrome (or GAS), a condition I’ve described elsewhere.
An objective reading of the available evidence is that neither Celia Corona nor James Doran encountered any type of abuse during their years with Sri Chinmoy Centre. Their only real complaint was that — as Elizabeth Kracht puts it on her blog — “the Centre was a celibate path and women were to look upon the disciple men as brothers only.” Celia Corona and James Doran wanted to be together sexually, so they circulated all this argy-bargy about Sri Chinmoy as a diversion, in order not to look like romantic idiots themselves.
This is not to discount the possibility that sometime after leaving Sri Chinmoy Centre, Ms. Corona may have begun to experience grief and depression. As I noted in my original comments in May 2014: “Some people feel a genuine spiritual need which is satisfied by joining a community where people pray, meditate, sing, laugh, run, read, study, work, and reflect. If people leave such a community after 20 years, they may become unhappy. But this unhappiness is not caused by the spiritual community.”
I have often encountered people who were happy when they participated in the life of a spiritual community, but became unhappy after leaving it. Such people may misattribute the cause of their unhappiness to the thing they left behind. There’s an obvious fallacy here: Suppose you’re taking a certain course of medicine which seems to be improving your condition. Then, you stop taking the medicine and your condition worsens. How can you blame the medicine, given that it was helping you?
When the Salon article appeared, and knowledgeable people began decrying its falsity, Elizabeth Kracht’s response was to claim that Celia Corona-Doran was “traumatized,” and that those doubting her story were “retraumatizing” her — as if the trauma theory (also invoked by Sabrina Erdely) would somehow patch the huge holes in Corona-Doran’s story (which constituted a complete about-face from her prior statements). Ms. Kracht also went out of her way to bait and insult Prof. Kusumita Pedersen in a highly personal and offensive manner (as if James Doran’s rude comments weren’t enough!).
Literary Reality vs. Factual Reality
So, we have an unconfirmed story about a deceased peace advocate, with no complaint and no witnesses. The story first appears on a message board under Elizabeth Kracht’s alias (Nirbachita), then later “her” author Edwin Lyngar is attributing it to Celia Corona-Doran, who is judgement proof, having declared bankruptcy to avoid credit card debt. If this story were a horse, I’d shoot it to put it out of its misery!
In the real world, if you’re harassed you complain about it. But in the socially constructed reality where Celia Corona-Doran and Elizabeth Kracht hang out, you spend a few years massaging the fictional manuscript, trying to make the story appear credible, then use your influence to get it published in Salon, perhaps as a prelude to wangling a book deal. In how many ways can you say publishing industry corruption? This story is as false as the day is long, and there’s not one shred of evidence in the real world to back it up — only collusion or confabulation (to use two of the kinder available terms).
Why is it a problem when material accusing a person/organization of committing crimes or improprieties turns out to have been massaged by a literary editor for five years, then planted in the press through nepotism? Because it confuses literary reality with factual reality:
Over the past year, I’ve learned from my brilliant editor, Elizabeth K. Kracht at Kimberley Cameron and Associates Literary Agency, that there are segments in every manuscript that need to be refined, segments that need to be amplified, and segments, no matter how wonderful, that need to be ditched.
Unfortunately, the parts Kracht ditched from Corona-Doran’s story are the parts dealing with factual reality, which I’m adding back through careful sleuthing. (All documents available on request.)
Ironically, in a Salon piece called “When narratives are so compelling that we don’t notice unbalanced reporting,” Erin Keane highlights this very problem: the blurring of lines between memoir and journalism. We expect memoirs to be biased, one-sided, fanciful, and delivered in the style of what-I-feel-is-the-only-reality. But journalists are supposed to care about balance and objective facts. A New York Times piece highlights the problem of nonfiction which turns out to be fiction:
In an extraordinary reversal of her defense of the author whose memoir she catapulted to the top of the best-seller lists, Oprah Winfrey rebuked James Frey, the author of “A Million Little Pieces,” on her television show yesterday for lying about his past and portraying the book as a truthful account of his life.
“I feel duped,” Ms. Winfrey told Mr. Frey. “But more importantly, I feel that you betrayed millions of readers.”
While the Random House legal department checks nonfiction books to make sure that no [living person] is defamed or libeled, it does not check the truth of the assertions made in a book.
Agents, publishers and authors are all going to have to be much more cautious in the way they approach the nonfiction market… Traditionally, publishers have not done fact-checking and vetting. But I think you are going to see memoirs read not only from a libel point of view but for factual accuracy. And where there are questions of possible exaggeration or distortion, the author is going to need to produce documentation.
— “Author Is Kicked Out of Oprah Winfrey’s Book Club,” The New York Times
To pose the problem of literary reality vs. factual reality in dramatic terms, suppose someone walks into a police station and says: “Here’s something I’ve been working on. It’s version 2.03a of my story of how I once belonged to an abusive cult. I’d like to thank my support group and my editor for all the help they gave me in moulding and shaping this story so that it makes good reading, packs an emotional wallop, and will help discredit the group I belonged to for 22 years. I’m sure you’ll want to investigate one particular incident as a crime, since it happened 8 years ago, doesn’t actually involve crime, and the person I accuse has been dead for 7 years.”
Now, the officer on duty probably doesn’t say, “Just one moment, I’ll escort you to the room where we take statements concerning Literary Blockbusters.” He probably says something more along the lines of “What the hell?” The gentle reader should do likewise.
The Salon Formula
Here, I’m not going through the Salon story line by line, but if you’re a journalist, editor, or scholar of religion I invite you to do so. It’s strung together with rumour, innuendo, and boilerplate anti-cult material. (Eastern guru? Why yes, we have a stereotype that fits your needs…) The binding agent is hate, and stories fueled by hate often turn out to be bad journalism. This one’s no exception. It’s a cesspool of open libel. The author claims that “Even if one decides not to accept the sex allegations at face value, the Sri Chinmoy cult has many crimes to pick from.” Not one crime is specified.
As discussed below in greater detail, Sri Chinmoy Centre simply has no history of any criminal activity. Quite the opposite. Members of Community Board 8 in Queens, New York (where the group is headquartered) credit them with cleaning up the Glenn Avenue area in Jamaica Hill and keeping it safe for over 30 years. The Board voted unanimously in 2010 to approve the sale of city-owned land to Sri Chinmoy Centre based on the Centre’s demonstrated good stewardship.
To understand the mindset behind the Salon hatchet job, it helps to know where Edwin Lyngar’s coming from. He has virtually no experience in investigative journalism. 99% of his published work consists of personal confessions or opinions on news events. He describes himself as an “aggressive atheist” who is “hostile to religion,” and who writes “often self-indigent [sic] shit.” In a January 2015 Salon piece, Lyngar berates the left for not fighting dirty. He encourages “rhetorical bomb throwing” and putting out “really crazy stuff … even if you only half believe it. … See if it flies. If it doesn’t, screw it — just fix it up next time.” Is this what journalism has become?
Lyngar was used as an attack dog by Elizabeth Kracht. As his literary agent, she knew his pet peeves and obsessions, knew how to handfeed him false depictions which would push his moral outrage button and set him barking. There was no craft here, just Lyngar acting as a stenographer for a fabulist source, then adding his own pheromones to the mix.
The resulting libel would be of harm to any innocent person, but that harm is multiplied in the case of Sri Chinmoy, who had earned a good reputation in over forty years of service, and who moved and inspired thousands of people with his kindness and his love. Sri Chinmoy Centre likewise enjoys a good reputation in the community.
This was not investigative journalism or serious media criticism. The story was planted in Salon by Edwin Lyngar as a favor to his literary agent so she would find a publisher for his manuscript Guy Parts. It was a shameless quid pro quo that resulted in libel per se. Elizabeth Kracht had twisted personal motives for wanting to do a hatchet job on the kindly Sri Chinmoy, who was once her teacher and who always acted with integrity. She admits that in her sixteen years with Sri Chinmoy Centre, she never observed (or even heard of) any sexual abuse — unless it was her own “hot pursuit” of male followers, which she recounts with gusto on her blog. According to Ms. Kracht, that pursuit continued until the boys’ mother told her “in no uncertain terms” to “stay the hell away from her sons.”
Salon never tried to contact Sri Chinmoy Centre prior to publication. But when Dr. Kusumita Pedersen — a Professor of Philosophy and Religion at St. Francis College, and co-chair of the Interfaith Center of New York — strongly objected to the published story’s falsity, Salon then updated the story to include an edited version of her comments. Salon also changed the title from “accused sex criminal” to “alleged sex criminal” (which is still both incorrect and libelous). Salon didn’t change the URL, which still reads “accused_sex_criminal.”
As Dr. Pedersen clearly indicated at the time, the Salon piece was not just an exaggeration, but a complete inversion of the narrative which defines Sri Chinmoy and Sri Chinmoy Centre. (See sidebar on inverted narratives.) Hundreds of women and men who studied with Sri Chinmoy say that he helped them turn their lives around, by shining a spotlight on the good and noble part inside themselves. The outpouring of love at the time of his death in October 2007 was huge, and a memorial service held at the United Nations was attended by numerous ambassadors, dignitaries, and interfaith leaders.
Who Was Sri Chinmoy?
This question goes to the heart of the Salon libel, which was meant to paper over the real Sri Chinmoy with a version more palatable to special interests. In truth, Sri Chinmoy was an agent for positive change — someone who stood for spiritual freedom and had a unique ability to create the sacred space around him, so that people who met him often experienced spiritual joy firsthand.
The Salon piece was not only factually wrong, it was also based on a false premise: that Sri Chinmoy had somehow gotten a free pass from “the media” and had never been subjected to critical examination. A broad survey shows that Sri Chinmoy received mixed press coverage, some of it tough — certainly nothing resembling a “love affair.” He was, after all, a counterculture figure — an Indian guru who came to America in 1964, who taught meditation and devotional yoga, and was a poet, artist, musician, and peace advocate. There are articles treating him with the ridicule and scorn often heaped on Eastern gurus, particularly in Murdochian tabloids.
Yet, by and large, Sri Chinmoy developed a reputation as one of the good ones. If meditation has become a household word — a recognized method for dealing with modern ills like stress, angst, materialism and meaninglessness — then Sri Chinmoy is one of those we have to thank. A 1976 piece in People Magazine noted that even among folk who weren’t inclined to accept an Indian guru, Sri Chinmoy stood out as being genuine.
He was a consistent, reassuring presence in the interfaith community for nigh on forty years, always active, always teaching, always setting a good example through his own high standard of conduct and comportment. He was beloved not because he was untested, but because he passed the test for authenticity with flying colors. His 1993 appearance opening the Parliament of the World’s Religions is particularly well-remembered. He did not speak, but only offered a meditation in silence.
Sri Chinmoy found many allies in the interfaith community. Monsignor Thomas J. Hartman, in his introduction to The Wisdom of Sri Chinmoy (first published in 2000 by Blue Dove Press), writes:
Sri Chinmoy’s deep love for God is known worldwide. Long revered as a spiritual force for peace at the United Nations, this humble God-directed author asks people of this planet to look within, to rediscover the essential truths of spirituality that have so blessed his extraordinary life…
He is a champion of peace, attracting believers from all religions to see the oneness of the world. He suggests that true religions are recognized by forgiveness, tolerance, compassion, oneness and brotherhood. His work lends itself to a wide audience. Christians, Jews, Muslims and other believers will find many passages in his works of deep insight and helpful suggestion…
I find his works to be personally helpful. In an age when stress is real and it is hard to find the proper amount of time to pray, Sri Chinmoy reminded me that placing God at the center of my life, my work and my prayers will help me to make this a better, more peaceful world and to become the person of faith and love that I am called to be.
In a Newsweek article, Rabbi Marc Gellman similarly writes:
There are days when my hope wanes and when doubts corrode my faith. On those days I say that faith without reason is blind. But there are other days when I see miraculous things, and on those days I believe that faith without miracles is empty. When I awaken I am never certain what kind of day it will be. However, today I am standing behind Sri Chinmoy. On this day I remember the miraculous day of May 23, 2001, when Sri Chinmoy lifted me, my pal Father Tom Hartman, and a platform up into the air. Together — with the platform — we weighed more than 500 pounds (I had a very heavy cell phone in my pocket!). Sri Chinmoy took a seat underneath us and pushed up. With his two 70-year-old arms, he lifted us up into the air. … I am sad to see him go, but I know his journey continues and his strength endures in all those he lifted up into the air — either because he was really strong or because he knew the miraculous source of all true strength.
— Rabbi Marc Gellman, Newsweek
While press coverage of Sri Chinmoy was mixed, it does reveal a striking pattern: The most positive coverage was typically from news organizations who (unlike Salon) actually did the legwork: They sent reporters to cover a Sri Chinmoy related event, such as a meditation, concert, art exhibit, foot race, or charity drive. They scoped out the action and interviewed the people, finding out what they believed, what they practiced, and whether it all passed the smell test. They found the people to be sincere and the activities reflective of a genuine concern for the human condition. See this Newsday article about kids making dolls for children orphaned by AIDS. See also The New York Times, “Their Leader Gone, Devotees Gather at Spiritual Home” and NY Daily News, “Sri Chinmoy, spiritual leader, dies in Queens.” Also the Chicago Tribune, “Guru inspired harmony, French toast” (updated link to follow).
However, such stories based on sound journalistic technique found themselves in tension with a pre-existing narrative. This was a narrative crafted in the 1970s which portrayed all Eastern gurus as charlatans and abusers, a bad influence on our youth and a menace to society. This nativist stereotype became so prevalent that it was even satirized: “Santa Claus: A Dangerous Cult Leader!” (he abuses the elves).
As the once accommodating youth culture of the sixties split into political and spiritual factions which didn’t see eye to eye, left-wing media became all too eager to buy into the stereotype. If sixties youth considered it part of their mission to become both politically and spiritually aware, later generations tended to accept materialism as their default view, and to see politics through a materialist lens. This led to the view that all human problems could be solved through social activism alone, with no need for spiritual enlightenment. Partly due to its tussles with some right-wing Christians, the left began to associate all spiritual groups with constraints on freedom.
A Voice for Freedom
A paradox here is that Sri Chinmoy stood for freedom — not just spiritual freedom found through meditation, but also political freedom: freedom for East Timor. In nominating him for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007, Prof. Utsahi St-Amand of the University of Ottawa cited this as one of his outstanding achievements. Now known as Timor-Leste, the new nation recently unveiled a statue of Sri Chinmoy at its National Parliament in honour of his contributions to their journey to independence. They had previously awarded him the Medal of Freedom in 2004.
For those familiar with that nation’s history and struggles, the moment when leaders who had fought each other so bitterly joined hands around the peace torch was truly a miracle of peace.
Sri Chinmoy also championed freedom in art. He drew innumerable “soul-birds” symbolizing the freedom of the soul, a theme he also explored in lyric poetry, song, and thunderous keyboard improvisations. One of the sayings by his friend Nelson Mandela which Sri Chinmoy set to music was: “I am not truly free if I am taking away someone else’s freedom.” In a letter marking the August 2008 (posthumous) exhibit of Sri Chinmoy’s paintings in the lobby of the U.N. Secretariat Building, President Mandela wrote:
We are a single humanity. We must work together, united as one, to build a world of justice and harmony for all. Within each of us lies the power to build a world where we respect each other’s beliefs, understand each other’s culture, and support each other’s values — a world where hatred, pain and suffering have no place. This is the great cause of world peace to which my dear friend Sri Chinmoy devoted his life, and to which his Paintings for World Harmony at the United Nations are dedicated.
— President Nelson Mandela
Writing for Newsweek about the same exhibit, Katie Baker said:
With military scuffles breaking out from the Caucuses to the Philippines, it’s hard not to be cynical when the U.N. hosts an exhibit entitled “Paintings for World Harmony.” But in this case, the artist warrants a suspension of disbelief: the acrylics are by Sri Chinmoy, the recently deceased humanitarian who campaigned tirelessly for tolerance and peace. In the course of his travels, Chinmoy also found time to complete thousands of paintings — mostly airy and free-spirited bird prints — which have found permanent homes in London’s Victoria and Albert Museum and the Museum of Modern Art in St. Petersburg. The current show, which will go on a world tour after its stint in New York, displays 25 miniatures by Chinmoy on the theme of getting along globally.
— Katie Baker, Newsweek
Sri Chinmoy also championed women’s freedom and helped women to excel in new areas, such as breaking down barriers in women’s sports. Female members of the Sri Chinmoy Marathon Team have chalked up numerous English Channel swims, including this July 2011 one by Abhejali Bernardová.
They’ve also garnered renown in ultra distance running, with Suprabha Beckjord challenging distances few men would dare attempt. In 2009, indie filmmaker Jessie Beers-Altman made a film called The Spirit of a Runner about Beckjord’s participation in the Everest of distance racing: the annual Self-Transcendence 3100 Mile Race. In August 2014, Sarah Barnett became the first Australian woman to complete this race.
At the opening ceremony of the 2008 World Harmony Run — an international relay run for peace founded by Sri Chinmoy — tennis legend Billie Jean King received the Torch-Bearer Award and held aloft the torch for peace.
Women’s progress takes many forms, and can’t be limited to only the secular. Writing on Feministing, Kimberly George observes that “When we assume women of faith are ‘irrational,’ we elide their agency, and worse yet, we tend to marginalize important players in women’s history — because the truth is, women’s history is infused with super smart religious women who are writers, peace-keepers, reformers, and political agents.”
Students of Sri Chinmoy perform devotional songs at a church in Zermatt, nestled at the foot of the Swiss Alps.
To understand a thing we need to look at the thing itself and see it for what it is, freeing ourselves from prejudice. These women are not the enemy — unless, of course, you’re trying to form a circular firing squad. Liberal freedoms include the freedom to devote one’s life to peace and beauty. Anti-cult material which attempts to criminalize minority choices or falsely portray such choices as abusive is inconsistent with freedom and egalitarianism.
To understand a spiritual group requires basic human empathy. If we begin by “otherizing” spiritual groups or are obsessed with discrediting them, this will act as a heavy-handed filter of information and an impediment to understanding (and thus to journalistic accuracy). A helpful way to respond to unfamiliar faith groups is through tolerance and by learning firsthand what they believe and practice.
Sri Chinmoy helped people around the world set up spiritual communities where they can devote themselves to the things they love and which matter to them most. Many of these communities were founded by women and have women in strong leadership roles. These women have come to exemplify a new type of feminism. They are strong in mind, strong in heart, strong in limb, and would not put up with abuse from anyone.
Sri Chinmoy’s teachings are an open book thanks to his huge literary output, the many talks and interviews he gave, the thousands of questions that he answered, and the visual record of his activities and the activities of his followers. There are also numerous articles in bona fide encyclopedias of religion verifying that what he taught was consistent with yoga philosophy and practice. One would labour in vain to find any trace of hatred or sectarianism in his teachings. Throughout his life, he stated and restated the principle that:
Spirituality is not merely tolerance. It is not even acceptance. It is the feeling of universal oneness. In our spiritual life, we look upon the Divine, not only in terms of our own God, but in terms of everybody else’s God. Our spiritual life firmly and securely establishes the basis of unity in diversity. Spirituality is not mere hospitality to others’ faith in God. It is the absolute recognition and acceptance of their faith in God as one’s own.
— Sri Chinmoy, Yoga and the Spiritual Life, Agni Press, 1971
To society, Sri Chinmoy was a gentle voice of inspiration. To those who applied to study with him and were accepted, he was a spiritual guide. This is an important distinction, because Sri Chinmoy never tried to impose his views on society or tell worldly people how they should think or act. His counsel was reserved for those who eagerly sought it out, and who identified themselves as spiritual seekers. He was the leader of a voluntary spiritual community, and that community was never large because — as Philip Goldberg implies in American Veda — relatively few people were prepared to lead the modest, chaste lifestyle known traditionally as brahmacharya.
Many of his faithful students who remained with him and did not abandon their studies have written books or articles about their lifetime of experiences with Sri Chinmoy. These are not always as easy to locate as populist accounts written by apostates, but are far more accurate, and more consistent with scholarly material and with the visual record. To interview only those few former students now associated with anti-cult groups is a type of media bias.
The Salon piece reads like a compendium of bad stereotypes and mischaracterizations strung together by hate. It’s impossible to refute everything in just one article, because Salon appeals to a bumper sticker mentality, while the truth is subtle and complex.
I would note that Sri Chinmoy encouraged parents to be extremely loving, caring and responsible toward their children. His book A Child’s Heart and a Child’s Dreams is filled with love and concern for children and good advice for parents.
The notion that followers of Sri Chinmoy shun medical treatment is absurd. Some of them are medical doctors themselves, and in addition to their regular practice, they often help out their fellows with medical advice and treatment.
A Criminal Organization?
Who is actually harmed by the Salon libel? Not Sri Chinmoy the person, who died in 2007, though certainly his legacy is harmed. In the strict legal sense, it is Sri Chinmoy Centre which is harmed.
Who are the people of Sri Chinmoy Centre? To answer this question, we need to understand how the spiritual landscape has changed since the 1960s. When Sri Chinmoy first began teaching, a roughly equal number of men and women were drawn to his “path of the heart.” Men felt empowered to seek spiritual knowledge, to go on a vision quest. Even the word “devotion” could take on a masculine quality.
But in recent decades, while women’s interest in meditation and devotional yoga has continued or even increased, men’s interest seems to have waned. In some male circles, Vedanta philosophy has been replaced by Viagra philosophy. Power tools and ultimate fighting have regained their lustre as masculine image-enhancers. Courses in meditation are often attended by more women than men.
This phenomenon is also reflected at Sri Chinmoy Centre, where women have come to outnumber men and to assume strong leadership positions. Hate material vilifying Sri Chinmoy Centre also targets this demographic, by falsely claiming that women who follow Sri Chinmoy’s teachings are forced to become concubines or lesbians. The people most harmed by this libel are women — women who have the courage to make minority spiritual choices, and to stick by them even when harassed.
We should not be misled by the fact that anti-cult groups frequently use third party technique to try and discredit bona fide spiritual groups. Just as some anti-feminists flaunted by the right are women, some apostates flaunted (or made mascots) by anti-cult groups are also women. This doesn’t make the libel published by Salon any less false or any less destructive.
As for the idea that Sri Chinmoy Centre is a criminal organization, this is completely ridiculous, and (again) is an inversion of the narrative which accurately defines them. Sri Chinmoy Centre is headquartered in Jamaica, Queens in the middle of New York City. Writing about the sub-neighborhood of Jamaica Hills, Diana Shaman noted in The New York Times that it’s a “tranquil haven for many ethnic groups”:
Local houses of worship often had an influence on who settled in the area. Jewish families arrived in the 1930’s with the construction of nearby synagogues. A large influx of Greek families came in the 1960’s because of the St. Demetrious Greek Orthodox Church on 152nd Street just west of Parsons Boulevard, which opened in 1963.
In the last decade, followers of Sri Chinmoy, an Indian spiritual leader who lives in neighboring Briarwood, have moved in. Residents say sect members are good neighbors because they are quiet and law-abiding. In general, residents say, crime is not a concern here though some homeowners say that students attending Jamaica High School and the Thomas A. Edison school litter and create noise.
— Diana Shaman, The New York Times
In July 2011, The Wall Street Journal did a video piece about the 3100-mile race being held by the Sri Chinmoy Marathon Team. It included an interview with a neighborhood resident who talked about how safe she felt with the Sri Chinmoy people being out from 6 AM to midnight for the race. The report also suggested a good working relationship with the Police and Parks Departments. (See also “Ultra Marathon is a Winner for the Neighborhood” in the Queens Free Press.)
But the capper is this 2010 article in the TimesLedger:
CB 8 takes step to allow Sri Chinmoy land buy
Community Board 8 passed a resolution last week that brings the Sri Chinmoy Centre Church’s plan to purchase city land considered sacred by members one step closer to reality.
Board members unanimously passed the proposal to de-map Glenn Avenue in Jamaica Hill, which must happen before the city can sell the land to the Jamaica Hill church. Church members have maintained the Glenn Avenue area for the past 30 years, when the place had originally fallen into disrepair.
“It was a terrible eyesore, and Sri Chinmoy adopted it and became a very good steward of it,” said Steve Konigsberg, chairman of the CB 8 Zoning Committee. “They sort of turned it into a utopia.”
Glenn Avenue is located next to land the group already owns on which there is a tennis court and a meditation garden.
“It’s sacred area for us because our teacher used it,” said Ashrita Furman, the Sri Chinmoy Centre Church’s treasurer. “Because years ago we cleaned it up, it’s now a nice, open green space and we want to keep it that way.”
Sri Chinmoy was a spiritual teacher from India who died in 2007.
Church members have wanted to own the area, located around the intersection of 85th Avenue and 164th Street in Jamaica Hill, for decades, but Furman said they have been caught up in bureaucracy and have been unable to purchase it. The area was once riddled with problems, when it was a gathering spot for drug addicts, but 30 years ago church members cleaned it up despite the fact the city would not sell it to them.
“Once the city stopped using it 75 years ago, when it was used for a trolley track, it fell into disrepair and people would go there and engage in illegal dumping and drug activity,” City Councilman Jim Gennaro (D-Fresh Meadows) said. “People would use it as a lover’s lane. There would be mattresses back there. It was a blight, but then Sri Chinmoy cleaned it up at their own expense. They have protected the area from these tawdry people.”
— Anna Gustafson, TimesLedger
This area is mostly residential homes, and these board members know their neighborhood! They would not vote unanimously to sell land to Sri Chinmoy Centre if they didn’t know from decades of personal experience that these are good, law-abiding citizens who open up small businesses like vegetarian restaurants and flower shops which brighten the area and lessen crime. One such is Annam Brahma restaurant, a neighborhood pillar for over 40 years, owned and operated by two sisters: Nishtha and Pranika Baum.
Sri Chinmoy was a noble soul whose contributions to the world culture of peace, the upliftment of women, and his own Queens neighborhood were well-documented. For Salon to portray him as a criminal in order to generate clicks is offensive to those who knew Sri Chinmoy and know the integrity of the organization he founded. It’s also offensive to anyone who cares about journalistic integrity and preserving the public trust. Truth matters.
Salon and Corruption
While Salon criticizes The New York Times for remaining committed to fact-based journalism, with the Sri Chinmoy story Salon has sunk to new lows in what Paul Krugman calls “post-truth politics … in which no argument is ever dropped, no matter how overwhelming the evidence that it’s wrong.” Given that the Salon piece was so massively wrong, how did it even see the light of day? To borrow a meme from MST3K, “They just didn’t care.” But publishing industry corruption also played a role.
In Part 2 of this series, we’ll take a closer look at the corruption factor, and the obsessions of a woman scorned (Elizabeth Kracht). Plus a stopover at bankruptcy court with Celia Corona-Doran! (Start hiding your assets now.)
For me personally, the only way to write about this debacle is to inject a little humour, as an antidote to the very real pain experienced by the Sri Chinmoy community (for which I do not speak) in response to Salon’s unfair cyber attack. This is different than when Salon ran a false story claiming that comedian Steve Martin sent a racist tweet. Steve Martin is not in a helping profession, and does not rely on a pristine reputation or a relationship of trust with the public in order to carry out his day-to-day activities. Sri Chinmoy Centre does.
Elsewhere, I’ve written extensively about the problem of harassment of minority spiritual groups, including the circulation of vilification material as a de facto means of curtailing their civil rights. I’ve often quoted cyber civil rights advocate Danielle Keats Citron, and do so once again:
Cyber attacks marginalize individuals belonging to traditionally subordinated groups, causing them deep psychological harm. Victims feel helpless to avoid future attacks because they are unable to change the characteristic that made them victims. They experience feelings of inferiority, shame, and a profound sense of isolation. … Such attacks also harm the community that shares the victim’s race, gender, religion, or ethnicity — community members experience attacks as if the attacks happened to them. Moreover, society suffers when victims and community members isolate themselves to avoid future attacks and when cyber mobs violate our shared values of equality and pluralism.
— Danielle Keats Citron, from “Cyber Civil Rights”
Here in Part 1, I’ve tried to lay the groundwork for discussing issues which can be complex and subtle. On the one hand, media entertain and inform us, and some of the information they provide is genuinely useful. On the other hand, media can be manipulated and may be unreliable on certain issues due to excessive populism, or a tendency to filter information through a pre-existing commercial, political, or materialist mindset. Extremely biased reporting can reach the level of a cyber attack.
In Part 2, we’ll get into more specifics about how the Salon story went wrong. We’ll examine other material written by Celia Corona-Doran which contradicts her statements in Salon. We’ll consider the history, motivations and biases of the protagonists, with an eye to understanding the mechanics of the fraud. And since the Salon piece seeks to demonize the “religious other,” we’ll explore the question: How do I otherize thee? Let me count the ways… (Be sure and read the sidebar (below) on “inverted narratives.”)
If time permits, we’ll also tackle the often baffling phenomenon of apostasy. For a preview of that discussion, see “Self-Interest, Self-Giving, Low Ethics, and High Ethics.” See also:
If you can help with this story, please do. Help is desperately needed, and the Rolling Stone debacle provides a teachable moment for debunking another story gone horribly wrong, one which vilifies innocents.
The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.
Sidebar: Inverted Narratives
In her “Hate On The Net,” sociologist Evelyn Kallen points out that hate propaganda frequently employs “invalidation myths” meant to “dehumanize” the targets “and thus to legitimize violation of their human rights.” Such myths may present a contrarian, inversionist, or caricaturized view of the targets in order to achieve the objective of vilifying them. This is true whether the target is an individual or group; or the shamed individual may then be used as a stand-in or “avatar” for the group itself (e.g. the pseudonymous “Ryan” used as a stand-in for the whole Phi Kappa Psi fraternity).
Mary Anne Franks, an important writer on cyberspace freedom, discusses how people often turn to the Internet in hope of discovering “a utopian realm of the mind where all can participate equally, free from social, historical, and physical restraints.” Yet, cyberspace reality has its dark side, often unacknowledged. She writes:
Cyberspace idealism drastically downplays the Internet’s power to activate discriminatory stereotypes and social scripts. This Article focuses on the particular discriminatory phenomenon of the unwilling avatar. In stark contrast to the way users exert control over their online identities, the creation of unwilling avatars involves invoking individuals’ real bodies for the purposes of threatening, defaming, or sexualizing them without consent. Sometimes the creation of unwilling avatars takes a very literal form: for example, hacking into the account of a gamer and using her avatar as though it were your own, or creating a false profile of a real person on a social networking site. Other examples of unwilling avatars are more figurative. For example, women have been targeted for ‘revenge porn,’ a practice where ex-boyfriends and husbands post to the web sexually explicit photographs and videos of them without their consent. … Female law school students also become unwilling avatars when they are targeted by graphic and violent sexual threads at message boards such as AutoAdmit.com. In most cases of cyberspace harassment, the perpetrators use pseudonyms while identifying their targets not only by name but often also with private information such as home addresses and social security numbers. This informational asymmetry further aggravates the inequality resulting from cyberspace harassment.
— Mary Anne Franks, “Unwilling Avatars: Idealism And Discrimination In Cyberspace”
I would hasten to add that men are also targeted, though not with the same frequency as women. And not all revenge porn is photographic or videographic. A sub-genre is the use of fictional narratives, storytelling, or negative “testimonials” by hate groups to portray real persons as committing sexual acts which they have never committed in real life. This is a way of “sexualizing them without consent” — fake revenge porn using words instead of pictures.
This points to parallels between the Rolling Stone and Salon stories: The detailed, graphic, but fictional portrayal of Phi Kappa Psi members engaging in sexual violence was a type of generic revenge porn, punishing innocent young men for the crimes presumed by the author to have been committed by some fraternities somewhere. That story invoked fraternity members’ real bodies for the purpose of sexualizing them without consent. Likewise, Salon’s false portrayal of Sri Chinmoy as a “sex criminal” was a type of revenge porn which sought to punish him for the crimes committed by a generic stereotype ingrained in popular culture: the abusive guru who is a charlatan and a scoundrel. A false image of the real Sri Chinmoy was invoked in order to sexualize him without consent.
In both stories, problems ensue when the targeted individuals or groups turn out not to resemble the stereotypes and not to have engaged in wrongdoing. Their wrongdoing only exists in the tabloids or on the Internet, but not in the real world. In other words, they’re only guilty of wrongdoing in someone else’s socially constructed reality, not the fact-based reality journalists are supposed to live in and be concerned with.
When Edwin Lyngar berates The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal for not publishing hate material about Sri Chinmoy, he’s only displaying his own ignorance of the journalistic process, including the need to question and corroborate stories considered “too good to be true” (such as those pandering to his anti-religious bias). The Internet is particularly prone to false stories which are socially constructed and are meant to serve as “invalidation myths” a la Kallen. People may become emotionally invested in such stories, but that doesn’t make them any truer. (See this post for more on the use of fictional narratives by hate groups.)
One of the ways that people are harassed on the Internet is by locating the narrative which would normally define them and inverting it in cruel and offensive ways. So, in the case of young women attending Yale Law School, we would normally think of them as bright and capable. But in the AutoAdmit scandal (see this Washington Post article for starters), they were misportrayed as brainless, sexually promiscuous, and only getting into Yale by performing sexual favours for female admissions officers.
Pick a minority and there are ready-made inversions available. In the case of minority spiritual groups, if they lead a pure lifestyle and are devoted to some saintly figure, they may be misportrayed as leading a depraved, immodest lifestyle, and as enslaved to a dangerous “cult leader” who is caricaturized as both a fiend and a charlatan.
There’s a connection between the AutoAdmit.com scandal and the Salon.com scandal. Forgive me if I wax Rachel Maddowish to explain it: You know those young female lawyers who got into Yale? You know it’s just because they’re lesbians, right? No straight woman wants to be a lawyer. And you know those women who pray and meditate and sing spiritual songs? You know they’re lesbians too, right? They don’t wanna be, but the cult leader forces ’em. They’re brainwashed to become lesbians and open up vegetarian restaurants. It’s partly the lack of beef that does it…
The serious point to be made is that this type of anti-cult material harasses women, and does so by trying to attach negative stereotypes associated with one minority group (lesbians) to a different minority group (Eastern spiritual seekers). The harassers don’t even have the decency to add the standard Seinfeld disclaimer (“Not that there’s anything wrong with that…”).
The difficulty of escaping such inversions and caricatures for minority spiritual groups is that there’s typically no one in society looking out for their interests. College-educated segments of the population who’ve been exposed to a broad range of views may easily recognize and reject sexist or racist depictions, but may never have had a course in comparative religion, and may tacitly accept hateful stereotypes of religious minorities when fed them, not having learned to do otherwise. That’s why it’s important to teach tolerance as a universal principle, rather than working from a short list of approved minorities. (See Andrew Kutt, Living In Harmony.)
Salon’s attempt to use Sri Chinmoy Centre for clickbait and make them the Liberal Outrage of the Week is idiotic considering that when women make minority spiritual choices, they’re exercising hard-won liberal freedoms — the freedom to be different, and to engage in community-building on their terms, not somebody else’s.
Temple-Song-Hearts, a women’s music group started by followers of Sri Chinmoy, now in its 26th year.
As the Supreme Court has said, freedom of mind encompasses the “freedom to be intellectually and spiritually diverse,” and the “right to differ as to things that touch the heart of the existing order.” Those who have truly understood Jeffersonian freedom of mind will therefore celebrate spiritual diversity and not attempt to suppress minority faiths by foul means.
The liberal left (to which I happen to belong) includes many Catholics, Jews, and other spiritual minorities who believe in working toward a more tolerant and compassionate society, and who believe that government can help. Liberal values are not about destroying faith, but about balancing faith with freedom and tolerance so that each person can find the space they need to survive, thrive, and choose what’s right for them. For some people that might mean making mainstream secular choices, while for others it might mean choosing spiritual alternatives.
Hate propaganda falsely portraying spiritual alternatives as abusive is meant to rob people of their free choice by artificially closing off spiritual pathways. Yet, reality is a rich enough phenomenon to accommodate both secular and sacred lifestyles. Those who work toward peace and freedom through primarily spiritual rather than political means are also making a meaningful contribution. There’s no reason to vilify or harass them.
Both the Rolling Stone and Salon stories were highly propagandistic. In both cases, the technique used by the writer was to try and reduce real people to cultural stereotypes. In Erdely’s case, this entailed fudging the data to make Phi Kappa Psi out to be a group of brutal gang-rapers. In Lyngar’s case, it entailed fudging the data to make Sri Chinmoy out to be an abusive guru straight from central casting, and the peace organization he founded to be a criminal enterprise.
One important difference is that in the Rolling Stone debacle, the groups in conflict were somewhat evenly matched — the power differential between them was not huge. So when Erdely engaged in over-the-top stereotyping of a Southern fraternity and falsely accused them of being sex criminals, there were people who noticed the misrepresentations and cared enough to debunk the story.
Sadly, in the year since Salon published its false story about Sri Chinmoy, either no one noticed or no one cared. That is very hard, and does point to a power differential. I’m making a personal plea to mainstream media, media watchers, and influential bloggers to please investigate this matter and help right the wrong. I can’t do it alone.