Why is Mary Murphy chasing an elderly woman down the street? The answer to that mystery next!
Forgive the tabloid TV come-on, but I assure you it’s entirely appropriate to the subject matter, which is muckraking journalism (not the good kind, which I respect). We’ll also be discussing cyberstalking, net kooks, apostate atrocity stories, and how these topics are related. We’ll take a look at a couple of well-known net kooks who engage in cyberstalking: Anne Carlton and Gary Falk. If you thought you knew all about cyberstalking, this article will cover an important angle often missed: the effect of cyberstalking on spiritual minorities. But let’s begin with a few quotes:
Cyberstalking is defined as the repeated use of the Internet, e-mail, or related digital electronic communication devices to annoy, alarm, or threaten a specific individual or group of individuals.
— “A Study on Cyberstalking: Understanding Investigative Hurdles,” D’Ovidio R & Doyle J, FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, March 2003
Stalkers are setting up websites that threaten victims or encourage others to contact, harass, or harm the victim. Some abusers encourage others to stalk their victim by posting erroneous and harassing information on websites.
— “A High-Tech Twist on Abuse,” Tucker, Cremer, Fraser, & Southworth
The woman who has stalked David Letterman for five years truly believes she is his wife. She has been discovered on Mr. Letterman’s property numerous times, has been arrested driving his car and has even appeared at his residence with her own child in tow — each time insisting that she is David Letterman’s wife.
Love obsessional stalkers not only attempt to live out their fantasies, but expect their victims to play their assigned roles as well. They believe they can make the object of their affection love them. They desperately want to establish a positive personal relationship with their victim. When the victim refuses to follow the script or doesn’t respond as the stalker hopes, they may attempt to force the victim to comply by use of threats and intimidation.
— “Stalking Questions and Answers,” The University of Vermont
But what happens when the victim of stalking is a member of a minority faith?
Exploitation by Exit Counselors and Anti-Cult Groups
Most stalking situations are fairly black-and-white. However, the situation is sometimes complicated by societal problems of bigotry and intolerance. Cyberstalkers may be encouraged to continue their stalking behavior by certain therapists and anti-cult groups, provided that the victim of the stalking is a member of a minority faith. The quirky rationale is that the stalker must have become deranged due to “cult abuse,” and that by using the Internet as a virtual weapon, the stalker is regaining his or her self-esteem, and performing a useful function for society, which (according to this rationale) would be better off without minority faiths.
It’s a little like a joke sometimes attributed to Groucho Marx: “This guy goes to a psychiatrist because his brother has a problem. He thinks he’s a chicken. The psychiatrist answers simply: ‘Why not tell him he’s not a chicken and be done with it?’ To which the man responds, ‘I’d like to, but we need the eggs.'”
Like this, some exit counselors and anti-cult organizations exploit former members of bona fide spiritual groups. They encourage delusional thinking and troubled behaviour, as long as it advances their agenda of opposing “cults.” If a love-obsessional stalker going through the hate stage is saying vile things about a minority spiritual figure, some exit counselors and anti-cult groups will publish this material, because it helps create a climate of fear which will boost sales of anti-cult books, videos and “counseling” sessions. Never mind that the material is false, and that it will needlessly alarm parents. A frightened parent is a parent willing to shell out big bucks for a “cult intervention.”
When a member of a minority faith becomes a victim of cyberstalking, this places the victim in a double bind — first, because he or she is being stalked; second, because he or she may be non-white and non-Judeo-Christian. In such cases, the stalker’s method of harassing the victim may be to pander to stereotypes about the victim’s ethnic and religious background, and to try and enlist the less reputable media as surrogate harassers. In other words, if the victim is David Letterman, everyone will believe him when he says, “This is not my wife.” If the victim is non-white, non-Judeo-Christian, and not a media darling, some of the media will side with the stalker!
— “Cyber-Stalkers and Net Kooks”
In fact, that’s exactly what happened in February 2016. Anne Carlton and Gary Falk (most recently of Willow, New York) are troubled people who’ve been cyberstalking Sri Chinmoy and Sri Chinmoy Centre for 25 years between them. (This even continued after Sri Chinmoy’s death in 2007.) They recently enlisted Mary Murphy of WPIX-TV as a surrogate stalker. Murphy was actually caught chasing an elderly woman down the street and shoving a camera in her face. The woman being harassed was a devotee of Sri Chinmoy who was walking a dog on a quiet street in Jamaica Hills. She couldn’t run very fast because she was wearing an Indian sari, which is a modest spiritual garment.
So while Anne Carlton and Gary Falk usually use the Internet to stalk and harass their targets, in this case they managed to get Mary Murphy to escalate things to physical harassment. Murphy’s style of ambush journalism is hardly distinguishable from stalking. Emily Spence-Diehl writes:
For many stalkers, the line between fantasy and reality is either blurry or nonexistent. The fantasy themes often revolve around entitlement (“you’re mine”), anger (“you’ll pay for this”), and/or destiny (“we’re meant to be together”). In some cases, the belief that the fantasy is real is so strong that the stalkers may appear more reliable and insistent than the victims. Law enforcement officers may call a stalker in for an interview who very convincingly spins a tale about the love relationship between he or she and the victim, right down to the insignificant details. Yet in reality no romantic relationship ever existed. These particular types of stalkers are referred to by psychological experts as sufferers of “erotomania;” they delusionally believe they’re in a romantic relationship with the victim that does not actually exist.
— Stalking–A Handbook for Victims
In Anne Carlton’s case, she makes up a bewildering variety of stories about Sri Chinmoy; and while these stories are ever-changing and mutually inconsistent (not to speak of being inconsistent with reality), they all feature Ms. Carlton in the grand role of love interest. She’s a shameless publicity hound who’s been trying to retail her romantic fantasies to the tabloids for time out of mind. When Sri Chinmoy was approached by a tabloid in 2004 regarding Ms. Carlton, he issued a full denial, stating that he maintained celibacy. “You’re going to have disgruntled people,” said attorney Ed Hayes. “His philosophy attracts many people, and some of them are deeply troubled, some in a sexual way.”
No reputable news outlet will touch the material circulated by Ms. Carlton, but some of her more salacious and hate-filled screeds do appear on anti-cult sites — particularly those run by deprogrammers or exit counselors who charge a few thousand dollars a pop for euphemistically named cult interventions.
One can feel sorry for Ms. Carlton because she’s a troubled and unhappy person, but she is NOT a victim. In truth, she victimizes others with her false accounts, which are used to incite ethnic and religious hatred.
She and her husband Gary Falk are well-known net kooks who are typically unavoidable for comment on the Internet, and will hijack any thread about Sri Chinmoy in order to post nasty comments or links to hate sites. Mr. Falk is the owner/moderator of a site which publishes material referring to the kindly (and much-respected) Sri Chinmoy as a “Bengali bastard” and a “cocksucker,” and which discusses “knocking his little head off clean from his Indian shoulders.”
Simon and Schuster author Sri Chinmoy
In the twilight of his life, Sri Chinmoy was ruthlessly harassed by such grubby folk. Even as he continued to earn tributes and commendations for his numerous good works, he had to endure harassment forming a consistent pattern: absurd accusations endlessly repeated and recycled under different aliases, but absolutely zero evidence of wrongdoing. (I have elsewhere described this as a form of information terrorism.) This type of multi-year harassment comprising multiple incidents is a violation of civil rights and due process. And it’s not only the late Sri Chinmoy who is harassed in this manner, but the surviving nonprofit which he founded, and living followers by name.
I want to stress that there’s a connection between individual cyberstalkers, and hate groups which base their activities on anti-cult ideology. The group dynamics of hate groups engender victimhood, creating a demand for someone to “come forward” and willingly play the role of a victim, in order to fuel hatred and justify vigilantism. In an anti-cult context, atrocity stories portraying former minority adherents as victims are used to assuage apostate guilt, relocate blame, and justify harassment of spiritual minorities.
The individual strategy of cyberstalkers, who pretend to be victims avenging some imagined wrong, converges with the broader strategy of hate groups, who use atrocity stories as a propaganda tool to influence the media. The following quotes begin to get at the flavour of these interconnected relationships:
Dr. Lonnie Kliever:
There are some voluntary apostates from new religious movements who leave deeply embittered and harshly critical of their former religious associations and activities. Their dynamics of separation from a once-loved religious group is analogous to an embittered marital separation and divorce. Both marriage and religion require a significant degree of commitment. The greater the involvement, the more traumatic the break-up. The longer the commitment, the more urgent the need to blame the other for the failed relationship. Long-term and heavily involved members of new religious movements who over time become disenchanted with their religion often throw all of the blame on their former religious associations and activities. They magnify small flaws into huge evils. They turn personal disappointments into malicious betrayals. They even will tell incredible falsehoods to harm their former religion.
— Dr. Lonnie Kliever, “The Reliability of Apostate Testimony About New Religious Movements”
By all accounts, the descent into delusion is gradual. Everyone has experienced slights, insults or failures at one time or another, and most people find some way to cope. Or, if they don’t, a trusted friend or family member may persuade them to forget the past and get on with their lives. But if they cannot shake off the sense of humiliation, they may instead nourish their grudges and start a mental list of all the injustices in their lives. Rather than take a critical look at themselves, they blame their troubles on “the company,” for example, or “the government” or “the system.” Often these aggrieved people fall in with others sharing the same point of view. The group helps them to rehearse their grievances, ensuring that the wounds remain open, and exposes them to similar complaints. As a result, paranoia blossoms and spreads.
— Christine Gorman, “Calling All Paranoids,” TIME magazine
The Jargon File:
Net kook is a term used to describe a regular poster who continually posts messages with no apparent grounding in reality. Different from a troll, which implies a sort of sly wink on the part of a poster who knows better, kooks really believe what they write, to the extent that they believe anything. The kook trademark is paranoia and grandiosity. Kooks will often build up elaborate imaginary support structures, fake corporations and the like, and continue to act as if those things are real even after their falsity has been documented in public. While they may appear harmless, there are several instances on record of journalists writing stories with quotes from kooks who caught them unaware.
— The Jargon File
Consciously or unconsciously, hate groups draw on a number of basic psychological mechanisms to attract and indoctrinate believers. It’s important to teach young people to recognize the elements that distinguish ideologies of hate from legitimate discourse: the characterization of one or more groups as “the Other,” and a narrative of victimhood.
“The Other,” which is dehumanized and portrayed as being simultaneously inferior and threatening, is at the heart of all messages of hate. These groups justify their hatred by portraying themselves as being victimized by the Other; the ultimate example of this is often the accusation that the Other is responsible for the loss of the group’s proper place in the world at some time in the past. Besides teaching young people critical thinking skills, we can also fight online hate by helping them to develop empathy.
— Matthew Johnson, “Preparing youth to deal with hate on the Internet”
Elissa Lee and Laura Leets:
Increasingly, hate groups have used the Internet to express their viewpoints, sell their paraphernalia, and recruit new members. According to William Pierce, “Fiction or drama gets much more inside the head of the person who is experiencing it because the reader or viewer identifies with a character.” Pierce’s enthusiasm for fiction displays how hate groups have begun to use narratives to influence others and to promote their vision. Historically, narrators have often intended to persuade their audiences of their points of view or the legitimacy of their claims with stories. The power of storytelling lies in its ability to make an argument without eliciting mental resistance. Empirical studies have supported this claim with findings that narratives elicit fewer counterarguments and less resistance to persuasion. Narratives, especially fictional stories, may raise less scrutiny and suspicion through suspension of disbelief and identification with the protagonist’s mental perspective.
— Elissa Lee and Laura Leets, “Persuasive Storytelling by Hate Groups Online,” American Behavioral Scientist
It’s clear that both individual cyberstalkers and hate groups use fictional stories to target their victims. The Internet is particularly prone to socially constructed realities (or hoaxes) which simply don’t jibe with the fact-based reality journalists are supposed to be concerned with. This converges with the problem of “confirmation bias,” in which a reporter buys into a false story because it confirms her ingrained prejudices about a minority group or spiritual figure.
As discussed earlier, when a member of a minority faith becomes a victim of cyberstalking, the stalker’s method of harassing the victim may be to pander to stereotypes about the victim’s ethnic and religious background, and to try and enlist the less reputable media as surrogate harassers. It’s the duty of responsible journalists not to allow themselves to be used in this manner, and certainly not to actively join in the harassment, as PIX11’s Mary Murphy did. In “Better Reporting on Religious and Ethnic Minorities,” I write:
There are organizations which seek to “educate” the public that minority religions are to be hated, feared, discriminated against, and generally treated like lepers. Journalists sometimes uncritically accept and reproduce this type of material because it resonates with their own beliefs, or because they fail to identify the genre and investigate the source. In short, journalists are sometimes taken in by people who claim to be “cult experts,” but are not regarded as such by bona fide scholars of religion.
As publications have grown increasingly wary of atrocity stories circulated by anti-cult groups, such groups have turned to third party technique to drive home their message. Particularly where claims are potentially libelous, journalists need to drill down to ensure that sources are credible — not engaged in astroturfing or merely repeating what they’ve heard.
Suppose you locate Internet material claiming that some minority spiritual figure is a “criminal.” Well, in what jurisdiction was the criminal complaint filed, and what was its outcome? 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, then clearly the rhetoric doesn’t match the reality. A person may be portrayed hatefully on the Internet, but articles in local newspapers may establish him or her to be a jewel in the community, through the recitation of facts not rhetoric.
Good journalists know that people claiming to be victims can lie as much as anyone else. Like Elvis sightings earnestly recounted, false stories of abuse take on an increasing air of reality to people who endlessly repeat them to each other within the closed environs of an anti-cult group. This is a psychological phenomenon known as “imagination inflation.”
Claims by individuals who are (explicitly or covertly) engaged in anti-cult activism need to be carefully checked and verified. This is so because activists often take actions which make them major stakeholders in a narrative. They can easily reach the point where they’re so personally invested in a false narrative that they reflexively insist on its truthfulness, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding. They may want to be seen as heroes or avengers, but if the underlying narrative is false, then they’re vigilantes harassing an innocent person or group. Their willingness to believe the narrative thus becomes bound up with their own self-esteem and professional reputation.
As in the Tawana Brawley case, some people may incorporate a false narrative of victimhood into their personal biography. This can lead to a web of lies from which they find it difficult to extricate themselves, because the lies have been externalized (there now being an interest group which bases its activism on the lies).
Yet, some people do manage to disentangle themselves and admit that their claims of victimhood were actually confabulations produced by suggestive therapy or support group pressures — or that they hurled false accusations out of anger. In a 1998 New York Times article, Joseph Berger writes:
Stacey Hoehmann said her accusations against her father grew out of a lie she told a friend in her simmering anger at her father’s strictness. That lie, she said, “spun out of control.” Soon, she said, she felt compelled to invent lurid details so she would not be branded a liar. “They kept wanting more and more details,” she said. “I didn’t know what they were looking for, so I made stuff up.”
See also Meredith Maran, “My Lie: Why I falsely accused my father.”
Attorney-activist Alton Maddox, Jr. was eventually suspended from practicing law for his role in the Brawley case, essentially because he continued to push a false narrative even after he had reason to know it was false. See “The Lawyer’s Duty to Check Facts,” where Joel Cohen notes that “a lawyer cannot be ‘intentionally ignorant.’” Unfortunately, reporter Mary Murphy may face little penalty for airing a false story which she should have known was false (since she was unable to confirm it, and it flies in the face of reliable sources). Long live tabloid TV!
Why do reporters keep acting in such a low and unethical manner? Because sensation drives ratings. If we want a more civil society, we need to stop giving out Emmys for crap. We get the behavior we reward.
Note: Anne Carlton and Gary Falk are two of a handful of people involved with anti-cult groups who mercilessly cyberstalk Sri Chinmoy and Sri Chinmoy Centre. Celia Corona-Doran (a.k.a. Suchatula Cecelia Corona) is another about whom I have written previously. Her modus operandi is similar in that she tries to entice journalists into publishing anti-cult hate material which is false, but which appeals to a certain bigoted mindset. See:
“Can Salon Learn From Rolling Stone’s Mistakes? Part 1”
“False Salon Story: What was said at the time”
“Understanding Media: The Smear Campaign”
The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.
Sidebar: Reconciling claims made by different Tribune Media properties
Tribune Media owns/has owned a number of different properties. Some of them, like the Chicago Tribune, engage in “legit” news reporting, and have a staff of reporters covering specialized subjects. Others, like WPIX-TV, are more tabloid-oriented and tend to evoke the old line about general assignment reporters being equally ignorant in all areas.
Manya Brachear Pashman is the Chicago Tribune’s religion reporter. Her qualifications include a master’s degree in religious studies from Columbia University. She has covered two Popes, and the Dalai Lama’s visits to Chicago. When Sri Chinmoy passed away in October 2007, she wrote:
Guru inspired harmony, French toast
I am hungry and heartbroken. Victory’s Banner, a popular Roscoe Village brunch spot run by the disciples of a New York-based guru, will remain dark this weekend as the sari-clad restaurateurs observe an eight-day vigil of meditation, song and poetry recitation in memory of Sri Chinmoy, their spiritual leader. The world peace advocate died of a heart attack at his home Thursday while awaiting word on whether he had won this year’s Nobel Peace Prize.
A spiritual guru to thousands around the world, Chinmoy opened scores of centers to spread his gospel of peace and harmony around the world. As a facilitator of peace meditations for the United Nations, Chinmoy was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in recognition that his “ceaseless work … crystallizes his belief in the unity and affinity among nations and the individuals who inhabit them.”
Chinmoy, who was 76 when he died, wrote more than 1,600 books of prose and poetry, composed more than 20,000 pieces of music and played more than 800 Peace Concerts in venues like Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall. But he never claimed to be a master musician. In fact, he often would falter and improvise on stage. For him, music was a gateway to meditation. Physical fitness was a path to harmony.
That’s why at the age of 55 he picked up a barbell and soon after founded the Sri Chinmoy Marathon Team, which sponsored events that included the world’s longest footrace, the 3,100-mile Self-Transcendence Race.
A tennis player, long-distance runner and eventually champion weightlifter, Chinmoy credited his inner peace and strength to an outer strength demonstrated by his ability to lift thousands of pounds. With the aid of a special contraption, he raised trucks, elephants and single-engine planes inches off the ground. He also lifted celebrities including Rev. Jesse Jackson, comedian Eddie Murphy and several Catholic bishops. The Wall Street Journal labeled him the “Stunt Man of the Spiritual World.”
But more notable was Chinmoy’s ability to uplift people spiritually with his poetry, prose, music, meditation and yes, menus. He promoted a vegetarian diet. In Roscoe Village, his disciples run Victory’s Banner restaurant and a bookstore where they offer meditation courses and friendship.
In fact, few weekends go by when I don’t stop at Victory’s Banner for “my usual,” a tasty tofu scramble called the Eggless Wonder. Not only are their breakfast specials worth the wait, but so are the intriguing conversations that almost always unfold before I pay the bill.
While I never had the opportunity to meet Chinmoy, I have gotten to know his followers over the years. I will miss breakfast on Saturday. But my heart goes out to them as they mourn a man whom they credit for having a profound influence on their lives—a legacy that hopefully will last for many years to come.
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Comment: You see, she just gets it because she has the chops in religious studies and is a genuine seeker herself, whereas Mary Murphy is totally clueless. Murphy’s massive blunder believing Anne Carlton is the equivalent of believing that the woman stalking David Letterman was really his wife.
One of the differences between reputable publications and tabloids is that reputable publications are concerned with accuracy, even when (or perhaps especially when) covering spiritual minorities. But tabloids tend to pander to hateful stereotypes about the religious Other, and to portray minority adherents as “folk devils” in order to spur reader interest.
Tribune Media also publishes the God Squad articles by Rabbi Marc Gellman, which he used to co-write with the late Monsignor Thomas Hartman, affectionately known as “Father Tom.” To see what Rabbi Gellman and Father Tom had say about Sri Chinmoy, please browse to “Father Tom, The God Squad, and Sri Chinmoy.”
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