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This personal blog is happily not about me and my daily life, but about things that fascinate and inspire me — including music, poetry, art, and spirituality. It’s also about finding time to laugh out loud at Britcoms, and speak up for truth on subjects that surely demand truth.
When I first started this blog in September 2014, I wondered if anyone would even read it, and whether I’d find the words to express my thoughts and feelings on issues I’ve subsequently tackled. As I limbered up the writing apparatus, I also narrowed down the focus and zeroed in on issues that are personally important to me, such as religious freedom.
Now that I find I do have at least a few readers, some of them are curious about the exact vantage point from which I write on certain issues. For the benefit of those readers, let me clarify that I’m not a member of Sri Chinmoy Centre or a spokesperson for the group. I am a fan, admirer, or well-wisher of Sri Chinmoy, with whom I did study meditation many years ago. That was a very enlightening experience which I’m proud to stand up and “own.” I remember countless beautiful meditations and concerts with Sri Chinmoy, and often being moved to tears in his presence. I will always remain indebted to Sri Chinmoy for teaching me the most important life-skills which I lacked: love of God, and gratitude to God.
Sri Chinmoy saved countless lives, and one of them happens to be mine. He saved my life by reaching beyond my pain, doubt and confusion, and simply opening my heart — as easily as you or I would turn a key in a lock. He was a genuine spiritual Master who had the power to give spiritual experiences, to put seekers in direct contact with the Divine. He did not merely speak about Peace. When he meditated, he filled the hall with Peace so that all those who were seeking Peace were divinely satisfied.
As an ordinary human being, I may find it difficult to live this truth 24 hours a day. But I feel honour-bound to at least speak up for truth, especially since I’ve noticed that some people speak falsely about Sri Chinmoy or try to discredit him. For me, to be true to my own experience is essential, or how could I ever hope to be true to myself? Conversely, I find that those who falsify their experience and portray Sri Chinmoy negatively tend to become increasingly troubled in their nature, being out-of-sync with their better angels.
In writing about many different subjects, lately I’ve been finding that posts about Sri Chinmoy and Sri Chinmoy Centre are especially dear to my heart. After all, there are probably hundreds of books about Picasso, and Chyi Yu has probably sold millions of albums in Taiwan, China, and the Chinese diaspora. I love writing about those topics (and hopefully finding new insights), but how much am I really adding to the existing store of knowledge?
By contrast, I like to believe that some of what I have to say about Sri Chinmoy is genuinely new and timely. Failing that, it at least weighs in on the side of truth — and I feel that spiritual truth has become hard to hear in our society due to excessive materialism.
Though not about my daily life, this personal blog represents a continuing effort to find out what moves and inspires me and what I have to say. Lately, I’ve been writing a lot about Sri Chinmoy. I have no idea whether that trend will continue, but if it does, well and good. That would represent progress for me in knowing what’s important to me, what I care about. I’m sure that even if I digress into other topics, Sri Chinmoy is someone I will always return to, because his teachings are deep (even if I am shallow), and there’s always more to discover about his music, poetry, and art.
There are no barriers to entry. No matter who you are or where you are, whatever your religion or non-religion, you are free at this moment to see things anew with fresh eyes. As Sri Chinmoy himself writes:
Beyond speech and mind,
Into the river of ever-effulgent Light
My heart dives.
Today thousands of doors
Closed for millennia
Are opened wide.
— Sri Chinmoy, as quoted by Alan Spence in a BBC article on Hindu meditation
About the image at top: “Cambodian Boatman” by Michael Howard, based on a video by Niriha Datta. This is a recoloured photograph, or more precisely a recoloured video frame to which art effects have been applied. I did three versions in Dynamic Auto Painter, then combined them in Photoshop, adding dramatic lighting to bring out the textures.
As someone who’s been familiar with Sri Chinmoy and the Peace Run for three decades, I’ve noticed that press coverage varies widely in reliability and accuracy. Here are some tips for journalists covering religious and ethnic minorities. These tips also apply to Sri Chinmoy, the Peace Run, and related entities (some of which are secular, but are inspired by spiritual beliefs).
Note: Many people would to be quick to point out differences between “religious” and “spiritual” — with “religious” perhaps connoting dogma and ritual, and “spiritual” suggesting a personal quest for meaning. Yet, there is a continuum between the two, and in this article the terms are used somewhat interchangeably.
Near the end, I include a list of resources which I find helpful in understanding Sri Chinmoy and the Peace Run.
I greatly respect journalists and journalism, and know there are practical reasons why some journalists don’t get a story quite right. There are time pressures, and difficulties making sense of an unfamiliar subject. Particularly if the story is considered low priority, there’s always the temptation to simply cut-and-paste material from the Internet, or to invoke a familiar meme rather than doing careful research. There’s also the problem of “false balance.” Rem Rieder writes:
No matter what the news media’s many critics believe, most journalists endeavor to be fair, to give both sides rather than choose sides. In that effort, there’s a tendency to print what someone says, print what the other side says and call it a day.
The trouble is, there isn’t always equal merit on both sides. So, in instances where one side is largely fact-based, and the other is spouting obvious nonsense, treating both sides equally isn’t balanced. It’s misleading.
Often journalists are reluctant to state the conclusions that stem from their reporting, out of the concern that they will appear partisan or biased. But just laying out both positions without going further in an effort to establish the truth can create [false balance]. And that doesn’t do much good for the readers and the viewers.
Journalism isn’t stenography. It’s not treating everything the same when it’s not the same. It’s about giving citizens information about public affairs that is as accurate as possible.
— Rem Rieder, “The danger of false balance in journalism,” USA Today
One of the curious things about our present-day world with its emphasis on the secular and the material is that when people make spiritual choices it’s almost as if they’ve fallen off the edge of the earth. They seemingly no longer exist to people who only measure secular activity. They become unpersons, particularly to hardline anti-cultists.
How strange that people whose days are filled with activities and whose lives are filled with meaning are simply written off as “lost” by those who take an extreme worldly view. Yet, when people make spiritual choices, they continue to breathe oxygen, to eat food and drink water, to plan and dream, to care for others and be cared for. That they do these things in a broader context of service to God or pursuit of spiritual enlightenment does not lessen their humanity.
When Ketan Goldman Tamm passed away in March 2014, it marked the end of a life filled with activity and service. He ran the Panorama of My Silence-Heart Café, which offered more than lattes and loving-kindness: it became a hub of community activity. According to reviewer Julia Lofaso:
Events held there have ranged from community board meetings, elementary school class plays and meatless barbecues to demonstrations by local raw food devotees, performances by Brazilian opera singers and a dramatic President’s Day reading of writings by the founding fathers. Local musicians come to play at Panorama’s recurring Edible Jam while listeners partake in a tasting menu of desserts, all of which feature jam. And, of course, there’s always a chance that [Guinness record holder Ashrita Furman] will walk in and start snapping celery stalks in half or cracking eggs against his forehead in rapid succession.
Ketan was first and foremost a spiritual seeker. Before settling down to run the Panorama Café, he traveled the globe, arranging meetings and events for his teacher, Sri Chinmoy, with the goal of inspiring a more harmonious world. Ketan also loved theatre, and enjoyed directing and acting in plays.
Because Ketan was very devoted to the spiritual life, his closest friends and family were those who shared his spiritual interest and remained true. This is how his friends and family at Sri Chinmoy Centre remembered him.
—– Continue reading
I previously blew the whistle on blogger Edwin Lyngar and his agent Elizabeth Kracht for planting a false story in Salon libeling the late meditation teacher and humanitarian Sri Chinmoy (1931-2007). I analyzed the false Salon story in relation to a false story (on a different subject) appearing in Rolling Stone. (See “Can Salon Learn From Rolling Stone’s Mistakes? Part 1.”)
I’ve recently been beating the bushes, making a nuisance of myself, trying to track down what people said at the time in rebuttal to Salon. I remembered people wrote some good things, but realized they were scattered in different places and somewhat difficult to access. So I hope no one minds that I’ve collated what different people said and presented it in a single blog post, where the whole may be greater than the sum of the parts. The purpose is to resolve a matter of public concern.
Section 1 collates different people’s responses, Section 2 presents a few letters and commendations received by Sri Chinmoy, and Section 3 summons earlier published statements and articles by Celia Corona-Doran (a.k.a. Suchatula Cecelia Corona) which massively contradict her claims in Salon. In Section 4, I’ve taken the liberty of reposting some reviews of Jayanti Tamm’s book — including one by David Serlin, who is Ms. Tamm’s uncle, watched her grow up, and was a member of Sri Chinmoy Centre for 45 years. Mr. Serlin claims that Cartwheels in a Sari is 99% fiction. The Conclusion adds closing comments.
Why is this material important? Because subsequent to his death, there have been efforts to discredit Sri Chinmoy. His spiritual message was and is timely and transformational; he was a harbinger of joy and progress; but the very spirituality he helped to awaken is also an inconvenient truth to those wedded to secular materialism, those convinced that politics alone can solve all human problems, and those who find it difficult to be true to their own highest selves. As a poet, musician, artist, and spiritual teacher, Sri Chinmoy is one of America’s great natural resources. That resource is being polluted by people who have no inkling of its value. It needs to be protected so that it’s always available to those in need.
Over the years I and other members of the Sri Chinmoy Centres have read and respected Salon as a valuable source of news and commentary from an enlightened liberal perspective.
It was therefore a painful shock to see the piece posted by Edwin Lyngar on May 9, “The media’s love affair with accused sex criminal Sri Chinmoy.” The headline jumped out at me not just because of its lurid tone but because it condemns a person I knew well. When did Salon become the jury, judge and executioner of a person never under investigation?
The article falsely and recklessly refers to Sri Chinmoy as an “accused sex criminal,” notwithstanding the total lack of any complaint to that effect filed anywhere at any time in any jurisdiction with any body having relevant authority.
Sri Chinmoy was a distinguished Indian-American who took American citizenship and lived the better part of his life in the United States, from 1964 until his passing in 2007. Throughout that time, he was never under investigation for any crime (sexual or otherwise), and indeed received numerous commendations for good citizenship. See this “Tribute to Sri Chinmoy” from the Congressional Record dated Thursday, July 27, 2006. He was honored with many other proclamations and numerous awards in this country and internationally.
I am directly involved because I am quoted in Mark Oppenheimer’s “Beliefs” essay in the April 29 New York Times, “Legacy of Spiritual Master Endures in Healthy Meals Served by His Followers.” It seems that Mr. Lyngar thinks Mr. Oppenheimer is naïve because he took seriously his conversations with me and two other students of Sri Chinmoy, whose collective experience spans nearly 100 years of study.
Because of the usually high journalistic standards of Salon, I and many others would have hoped for something better. We would expect that a libelous attack on a person’s character and on a whole spiritual community, with mistakes on basic facts, would not have passed the scrutiny of your editors so easily. Salon should not let a piece like this stand as a blemish on its reputation.
Edwin Lyngar did not contact me or any of the other current members of the Sri Chinmoy Centre quoted by Mark Oppenheimer. Had he done so, he would have learned that the bizarre allegations he published are without merit. It is ironic that he mocks Mr. Oppenheimer’s Times piece – which was based on solid interviews with three reliable sources – while he himself makes a cardinal error by failing to contact the Sri Chinmoy Centre for comment. He also makes factual mistakes, such as that members of the Centres are vegans or that we oppose conventional medical treatment. Overall the article panders to negative stereotypes of Asian spiritual leaders that remain entrenched in American culture, but which enlightened educators are trying to overcome.
The result is a smear of both Sri Chinmoy and the spiritual community he founded, to which I have belonged since 1971. Lyngar’s false and reckless claims constitute a type of disparagement which has far-reaching consequences for many decent people around the world who make minority religious choices. The Sri Chinmoy Centre is an organization existing in many countries. In the United States the consequences of being associated in major media with criminality and being tarred as a “cult” are emotional pain and a stain on the reputation of our members. In some countries, however, where there are few laws protecting religious minorities and such laws are not enforced, Lyngar’s misrepresentations can result in persecution and threats to life and livelihood.
The Lyngar article also casts doubt on my own personal truthfulness and mental balance, since it implies that anyone who still belongs to such a group must be engaged in deliberate deception or deeply deluded, or both.
As a woman and as a feminist, I am always greatly concerned about the mistreatment of women and girls throughout the world, as well as any neglect or repressive measures which would silence their testimony. But as a woman concerned about justice, and as a scholar familiar with the history of spiritual communities, and as someone who knew Sri Chinmoy personally, I must point out that the allegations floated by Lyngar are categorically false. They are being used to stigmatize an innocent person, and by extension those who remain loyal to him.
In the article it is actually the students of Sri Chinmoy who have been neglected and silenced, their own direct experiences replaced by a crude media stereotype. This is especially an injustice to women in the Centre like myself, since it implies that we lack any sense of discrimination or moral judgment, engaging in wrong and outlandish practices. Our teacher led a life of the utmost purity and integrity, which he also commended to us. I was in constant contact with him for thirty-six years and witnessed his impeccable conduct day after day, year after year. We who knew him best were not consulted about our experiences.
I am trained as a historian of religions, with a doctorate in Buddhist Studies from Columbia University. I have spent my professional life since the 1970s teaching in colleges and universities and working in interfaith organizations. I have studied religion and spirituality and have been in contact with people of all religious traditions for my whole adult life. I practiced Zen in Japan and the United States before starting to study with Sri Chinmoy. In my own spiritual search and in interfaith settings over many years, I have met spiritual teachers of many different paths, both men and women, and have had extensive personal interactions with them. I think it is fair to say that I am not naïve about religious and spiritual life, as I am not ignorant of it.
I became a disciple of Sri Chinmoy in 1971, after meeting a number of spiritual teachers and reading the works of others. I judged him to be a completely genuine and enlightened teacher. Such judgements have to be constantly tested and renewed. In the years that followed, I never had any reason to question my deeply, carefully and continually considered judgement. Perhaps some people think that I am part of a cover-up conspiracy; I find this laugh-out-loud ludicrous – but it is also part of the libel.
I do hope to have the opportunity for an in-person conversation with you about how the false and harmful content of Lyngar’s article and its headline can be corrected. I look forward to hearing from you promptly, as this matter is most serious from both a journalistic and a legal perspective.
With many thanks for your consideration,
Kusumita P. Pedersen
Professor of Religious Studies
St. Francis College
The Interfaith Center of New York
I am an attorney and am writing you concerning a defamatory article originally published by Salon on May 9, 2014 entitled “The media’s love affair with accused sex criminal Chinmoy” (the “Article”). This letter constitutes a formal request to retract and remove the Article, together with any associated URLs.
The Article purports to report on the Centre and its founder, Sri Chinmoy, following three articles in “two of America’s most prestigious newspapers” – The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal – that “praised” Chinmoy and “affiliated creations.” The Article, by self-identified atheist Edwin Lyngar, is riddled with untrue and unsupported statements that defame the Centre and its founder.
Most fundamentally, the Article’s headline and associated URLs state that Sri Chinmoy was an “accused sex criminal” or “alleged sex criminal,” and the Article repeatedly states that Sri Chinmoy and the Centre were involved in “crimes.” These statements are undeniably false, defamatory and malicious and, under New York law, are libel per se.
The Centre’s mission is to promote peace through meditation, the arts and sports. Its founder, Sri Chinmoy, was a beloved world figure who has been praised by the likes of Mother Teresa, Nelson Mandela, President Mikhail Gorbachev, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Princess Diana and President Bill Clinton. For 37 years, Sri Chinmoy directed peace meditations at the United Nations; hundreds of UN staff, ambassadors, members of Congress and representatives of various religions paid tributes to him following his death, during a posthumous celebration at the UN headquarters* in New York.
But regardless of whether Mr. Lyngar or Salon wishes to afford any respect to Sri Chinmoy’s legacy and the Centre’s mission, nothing in Ms. Corona-Doran’s account or Ms. Tamm’s book supports Salon’s statements that the Centre was involved in “crimes” or that the Centre’s founder was an “accused” or “alleged sex criminal.” Nor do any supposed undisclosed “Google search[es]” or “internet” posts. The mere fact that the Article would purport to rely on such anonymous and defamatory rumor and innuendo speaks volumes about the quality of the reporting and Mr. Lyngar’s journalistic bias.
Mr. Lyngar’s comparisons to convicted criminal Warren Jeffs are equally reprehensible and defamatory. Mr. Jeffs was placed on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted Fugitives List in 2006 and, among other things, was convicted in 2011 of felony child sexual assault. By contrast, Sri Chinmoy and the Centre have never been investigated, indicted or convicted of any crimes.
Given that he was a world figure, Sri Chinmoy occasionally faced baseless and defamatory allegations. He did, in fact, categorically deny such allegations during his lifetime. Those who work to preserve his memory, and the Centre he founded, will continue to deny them, including through legal action.
Karen M. Asner
*Note: For more on the posthumous celebration at UN headquarters see this commemorative booklet.
I have followed this story with sadness, an occasional smirk, but most of all with my heart crying and crying. I have been a disciple of Sri Chinmoy for 43 years. The people who have made these accusations know me, and I know them. They would know that I have had more personal access to Sri Chinmoy than almost any other disciple. And I know that in writing what I am about to write, I am also inviting their attacks, their wrath. So be it. But I must say what must be said. I will not waste time with explanation. I simply must say this: these accusations are patently false.
Dr. Pedersen’s eloquent rebuttal is representative of thousands of people who came to know Sri Chinmoy well, and knew the measure of the man. He was popular with the media and in the interfaith community because he was a kind, wise, and true teacher. For 40 years he offered a clear, consistent message of universal tolerance. When reporters met with him and covered his diverse spiritual, athletic, artistic, and humanitarian activities, they typically went away with a sense that here was a remarkable man who stood for something noble and was able to impart a spiritual vision that inspired people to do good works.
Sri Chinmoy maintained celibacy throughout his life, and always upheld the highest standard of personal conduct. He was greatly beloved by those who opened their hearts to him, and whose hearts he opened. The motives of those who now want to conduct an Internet show trial (ex post facto) of this great and good teacher can only be guessed at. That apostates often provide inaccurate accounts is well-known to scholars of religion, but apparently not to Mr. Lyngar.
What we need is a peaceful world where everyone is free to pursue their own interests — political or spiritual, secular or religious. 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.
To make sense of the spiritual landscape, we need basic human empathy and a tolerant attitude. Where Mr. Lyngar falsely stereotypes people who make minority choices, this is not ethically right. By consulting only anti-cult sources like Jayanti Tamm, he ended up producing a hateful screed. In truth, alternative spiritual choices are both reasonable and progressive, and are a type of allowed behavior in a free society.
Like Obamacare horror stories, anti-cult horror stories are often eye-catching and fictional. They’re used as bait to draw media attention, and to justify harassment of spiritual groups. Where they form a cognitive dissonance with the known facts and record of a deceased spiritual figure, they should be taken cum grano salis.
For 40 years, Sri Chinmoy lived and taught in the heart of New York City, where there is no shortage of police or lawyers. He has a clean record because he lived a clean life. He taught a familiar type of bhakti yoga which the Gale Encyclopedia explains clearly and concisely:
Bhakti yoga is the path of love and devotion. An individual with an emotional temperament can transform those emotions, to be absorbed in spiritual service instead of being attached to physical or sensory gratification. Love can be centered on a familiar form of God, a great saint, or some great task in life. In bhakti yoga, the whole universe, whether animate or inanimate, is seen as permeated by divinity. Bhakti (meaning loving devotion) is the practice of self-surrender for the purpose of identifying with the source of love, the higher self.
Naturally, a community based on bhakti yoga will differ from the mainstream, but difference does not equal abuse. Nor is it “magical thinking” to take up time-honoured spiritual practices which (as it turns out) work really well, or to believe in a teacher who has proved his worth to one’s own satisfaction — and indeed, beyond one’s imagination.
One problem with an Internet show trial is that it quickly degenerates into an exercise in what sociologists call a “moral panic” and lawyers call “hearsay.” People who, on a witness stand, would be forced to admit that in 20 years following Sri Chinmoy’s path they never observed a single instance of sexual abuse, can nevertheless go on the Internet (often pseudonymously) and imply that there was widespread abuse, despite the lack of evidence.
I have personally seen people float a rumor under one alias, and pretend to “confirm” it under a different alias. When I complained about this, another member of the anti-cult group told me “We’re trying to get her to stop doing that.”
I concur with Dr. Pedersen that it’s the female members of Sri Chinmoy Centre who suffer most when hate material casting aspersions on their pure lifestyle is circulated. They deserve an apology from Salon for running such a poorly sourced and rabidly anti-religious article.
The reason publications like The New York Times and Wall Street Journal have often published positive stories about Sri Chinmoy Centre is simple: They sent reporters to interview the people and scope out the activities with a careful eye. They found the people to be sincere and the activities reflective of a genuine concern for the human condition. Reporters visited the Centre on numerous occasions and didn’t find any abuse. Quite to the contrary, they found the people to be energetic and enthusiastic. When interviewed, they could easily explain why they chose a spiritual lifestyle and how it benefits them. Some reporters may have been aware of vilification material, but upon investigation they didn’t find it credible.
There’s a lot of “astroturfing” going on, and reputable news outlets need to be wary of uncritically accepting stories with a “cult abuse” angle, which can easily turn out to be libel bait from tainted sources.
In the real world, Sri Chinmoy was an exemplary citizen who received numerous awards for his outstanding contributions to American life. He was never under investigation for any kind of crime, and no one has given any “testimony” against him. Posting “stuff” on the Internet is not testimony — or if it is then I’ve seen testimony showing how you can use an eggplant to recharge your cell phone.
Filing false police reports is a crime. Lying under oath is a crime. Posting “stuff” on the Internet people sometimes get away with, and that is how some anti-cultists spend their time. It’s similar to political dirty tricks like leaving flyers on car windshields falsely claiming that a candidate was embroiled in scandal.
In the real world, Sri Chinmoy was a much beloved teacher who always remained true. His passing was mourned by thousands who wept at the loss of such a noble soul from this benighted earth. I know. I was there to weep.
If Person A posts “stuff” on the Internet, this does not require Person B (who has better things to do) to “investigate” it. This is especially true if Person A has earned a reputation as a kook, pest, or provocateur.
Nevertheless, when bizarre claims began to surface on the Internet, a few people did investigate. As someone who did so myself, I can state categorically that this material is false.
In the real world, Sri Chinmoy denied that there was any truth to the rumors, and his strong denials were printed in the appropriate public fora. Those who claim otherwise are simply deceiving the public.
Female members of Sri Chinmoy Centre have been especially vociferous in denying that they’re “abused” or “victims” when they in fact feel safe, happy, free and are pursuing spiritual goals which they find meaningful.
Of course one can’t prove a negative, so if someone says they were vacationing in Greece when the ghost of Elvis stole into their hotel room and sang “Blue Suede Shoes,” who can say it didn’t happen? But it’s nonsensical on its face; all the more so if the person telling the tale is associated with an interest group with its own bizarre agenda.
I have little sympathy for Jayanti Tamm and the American Family Foundation (ICSA), who circulate false and alarmist “information” in an effort to discredit respected spiritual figures. Sri Chinmoy’s legacy has withstood the test of time because it’s a solid legacy built up in over 40 years of teaching and impeccable conduct. His enduring wisdom and surviving organization are valuable resources for anyone seeking greater knowledge about meditation and inner peace.
In recent decades, most Americans have come to accept that people make a wide variety of spiritual choices in their search for a livable set of values. Yet the anti-cult viewpoint remains reactionary, rejecting change and seeking to vilify spiritual minorities.
The Internet is not an investigative or judicatory body. Pretending to take “testimony” and then publicly flaying some person or organization is a type of vigilante activity carried out by an unruly mob. Neither politics nor social cliquism can justify it. Any attorney participating in such abuse of process should be disbarred.
Nor are memoir writers above reproach. We should not confuse emotionalism with honesty, or creative writing with accurate reportage. Some people write memoirs not to tell the truth, but to evade it, whitewash it. We all want to be the heroes of our own story, but when someone has betrayed a kindly mentor and acted badly, how do they deal with this painful truth? Often it’s by blaming and demonizing the person they betrayed — a kind of psychological inversion intended to salve their own guilty conscience.
As a student of human nature, I’ve seen this happen time and time again. People can’t live up to a noble truth that once inspired them — that some saintly figure helped them to discover — so they proceed to cut that saintly figure down. Such lillipution behavior, trying to feel tall by cutting the legs out from under a deceased mentor, is truly shameful — all the more so when someone like Ms. Tamm uses it to write her own personal meal ticket.
As publications have grown increasingly skeptical of atrocity stories circulated by anti-cult groups, such groups have turned to third party technique as a means of spreading disinformation. Salon should not allow itself to be astroturfed by interest groups whose fundamental message is one of intolerance toward progressive change — the type of change which Sri Chinmoy helped foster by providing people with tools they could use to empower themselves spiritually.
Sri Chinmoy’s only crime was bringing to light the inconvenient truth that despite great advances in science and technology, some people still experience spiritual hunger. One of the remarkable features of his life is that when he held public events like meditations, concerts and art exhibits, he was able to create a sacred space in which people felt their own personal connection to the sacred. His message was non-political and non-sectarian, but nevertheless had profound implications for creating a better world.
This comment is directed to Jayanti Tamm — I knew your brother better than most people on this planet — including you. I know that when your mom left the Sri Chinmoy Centre, her condition to her son for maintaining relations with her was for him to leave his teacher. He was 40 years old and he made his own choice — to stay — and ultimately be free from the attempts at control from his own mother.
In 2006 when he heard you were writing a tell-all he was mortified at the lies you would tell about him. And indeed when that book came out in 2008 and he read your take-down of him, he was shaken to the core. He never stopped loving you but you betrayed him. From what he told me and what I saw, that was the beginning of the end for him — your book, which you and your mother wrote together. So hearing you talk about him as if you knew him or cared about him makes me sick to my stomach. You abandoned him and betrayed him in the most public of fashions and to presumably enrich yourself. Shame.
I remember in the early 2000s Ketan got into a car accident. His car was wrecked but he looked and felt fine and didn’t want to go to the hospital. Sri Chinmoy called him personally and demanded he go right away. And in fact he had internal bleeding. But of course you wouldn’t know any of these details because you abandoned him for a decade. Those of us who knew him and actually cared for him were devastated by his passing. And believe me, many of us were totally in shock by the rapidity of his demise. He told me for years about the regular physical check ups he was getting and even named the doctor. I realize now that he wasn’t getting any treatment — at least not what he claimed.
And it was a disciple who in the end begged him to go to see a doctor, that his “cold” was not a cold but something worse.
If you had an ounce of compassion for him, you would show some respect for him, his friends and his choices, even in his death.
I’m no longer in the Centre and I have moved on in my life but I haven’t resorted to lies to maintain a sense of self.
Shame on you. Shame on you. Shame on you.
I was Sri Chinmoy’s student for 15 years and knew Ketan well. Ketan’s death was very sad and I know that he struggled with his sexuality within the environment of the Center. What is not mentioned in this article was the very close bond that Ketan shared with Sri Chinmoy and the fact that Ketan chose to remain Sri Chinmoy’s student because of it.
I always found Sri Chinmoy’s actions to be in complete alignment with his teachings. Anyone could leave the Center whenever they chose to. I will always cherish my time with a genuine spiritual teacher who asked only that I be sincere in my practice and in return guided me in my meditation life.
There has been a concerted campaign during the last decade to discredit Sri Chinmoy by ex students based on lies and fabrications. Unfortunately, ridiculous, baseless accusations can be hurled at people on the internet in fora such as these and even though there has never been any evidence of wrongdoing, authors such as this one can recklessly smear the memories of good people like Sri Chinmoy.
In a prior post, I included documentation establishing the good reputation which Sri Chinmoy earned in decades of teaching and humanitarian activities. Here are additions which underscore that those who care for freedom, religious tolerance, and ecumenism have warmly embraced Sri Chinmoy’s contributions to American life and the world culture of peace:
The City Of New York
Office of the Mayor
New York, N.Y. 10007
August 27, 1976
Mr. Sri Chinmoy
United Nations Meditation Group
United Nations Secretariat Building
New York, N.Y. 10017
Dear Mr. Chinmoy,
It gives me great joy to extend the official appreciation of the people of the City of New York to you on this, your 45th birthday.
During the 12 years you have been a resident of our City, you have selflessly offered hundreds of public meditations — attended by thousands of New Yorkers of every age, race, and religion — conducted dozens of free concerts and opened your art gallery to the people, and never have you charged a fee.
I enjoyed meeting you at the official city welcome home for the Liberty Torch Runners and look forward to seeing you again as each of us continues to do our very best to serve the needs of New Yorkers.
With best wishes to you on your Bicentennial year birthday,
Abraham D. Beame
M A Y O R
View scanned document of Mayor Abraham Beame letter on Digital Citizens area of Scribd.com.
On behalf of the City and County of San Francisco, I would like to offer congratulations to Sri Chinmoy Ghose on the occasion of the completion and publication of his 300th book entitled Aspiration-Tree. Since this book is a collection of questions asked of Sri Chinmoy by his students at the San Francisco Sri Chinmoy Centre, it is appropriate to acknowledge the association of this accomplishment with our city.
I would also like to acknowledge the many activities which Sri Chinmoy has sponsored and presented in San Francisco for the public benefit, including the Liberty Torch Bicentennial Run, the Jharna-Kala Art Exhibition, and his lectures at California State University at San Francisco and other universities in the Bay area. Acknowledgement is also given to the Sri Chinmoy Centre of San Francisco for its numerous educational, musical, and civic programs which have been presented for the benefit of residents of the city.
George R. Moscone
View scanned document of Mayor George Moscone proclamation on Digital Citizens area of Scribd.com.
Daniel P. Moynihan (New York)
United States Senate
Washington, DC 20510-3201
April 29, 1999
Dear Sri Chinmoy:
Great congratulations! Word has reached me that on April 13, you celebrated the 35th anniversary of your arrival in the United States of America.
As an accomplished poet, author, artist, musician, athlete and spiritual leader, you have lived your life to the fullest and your achievements are innumerable. Whether it be your service to the UN, the Sri Chinmoy Oneness-Home Peace Run, the Peace-Blossoms, or your numerous university and literary awards, you have not only been tremendously successful, but inspirational.
Your tireless effort to promote peace around the world is not only exemplary, but testimony to the indomitable human spirit. May you continue to change the world with your simple message of peace and love.
I close with a quote from Benedict Spinoza that I feel echoes the spirit of your teachings:
Peace is not an absence of war, it is a virtue, a state of mind, a disposition for benevolence, confidence, justice.
Daniel Patrick Moynihan
View scanned document of Sen. Moynihan letter on Digital Citizens area of Scribd.com.
Missionaries of Charity
13th April 2004
Dear Sri Chinmoy,
Heartfelt congratulations on the 40th anniversary of your beautiful work of peace and service for the glory of God and the good of all His children!
May God bless you, dear Sri Chinmoy, for all the good you have done, the gifts you have shared and the joy you have given these last 40 years and grant you long and healthy life so that you may continue spreading His peace and love wherever you go.
We remember you in our prayer today with affection and deep gratitude for your friendship and generosity over the years toward our Mother, the Missionaries of Charity and the poorest of the poor we serve. I am certain that your dear friend, our Mother, Blessed Teresa of Kolkata, is praying for you and asking the Lord to bless you and your mission of peace.
God bless you
View scanned document of Sister Nirmala letter on Digital Citizens area of Scribd.com.
These published statements and articles by Ms. Corona-Doran — written both before and after Sri Chinmoy’s death — are necessary to resolving matters of public concern which she created. They constitute exculpatory evidence (and powerful evidence at that).
Sun Mar 21, 2004 6:52 pm
Re: Question for the Women – from Suchatula
Thank you for your question. I do not consider myself a “writer”, but I was inspired to answer your question. I have been on Sri Chinmoy’s spiritual path for over 17 years now. That is nearly half my life. I joined when I was 18 years old in December of 1986. I was in my first year of college and did not really have a plan for my life just yet. When I started reading Sri Chinmoy’s books I was so moved. I felt, “This person is a real holy and very spiritual person.” His philosophy struck me in an all-new way, and yet I felt very familiar with it. This was something that I believed in, yet was never taught, that the world is one and we are all God’s children, all at different stages in our spiritual evolution. The question of safety never crossed my mind. In my heart I feel the teachings of Sri Chinmoy are the truth. Over the last 17 years I feel I have really grown up with Sri Chinmoy as my father and at times as my dearest friend. One poem that has always struck me is:
In the universal heart, all hearts are one,
inseparable, I know.
Yet knowing this, I hurt the hearts of others
day and night.
We are all the slaves of fate;
It dances on our foreheads.
In peace sublime is the extinction-sleep of fate.
I know this secret.
O Jewel of my eye, pour into my heart
Your golden Silence.
I feel on Sri Chinmoy’s Path, all his spiritual children, my spiritual sisters and brothers, are trying to live in the universal heart. There the question of safety is put to rest. I remember a few years back my mother telling me that of all her children, I am the only one she never has to worry about.
Gratitude to the questioner and all those who have inspired me to reply with all their inspiring replies.
In oneness, Suchatula
“My heart’s victory over my mind’s doubts” by Suchatula
On March 15, 2008 Paree’s group, also known as “My Rainbow-Heart,” celebrated its 21st anniversary. This turned out to be a very special day and weekend for me – and I nearly missed it. Had I listened to my mind instead of my heart, I would have not gone. It has always been that, when I made a wrong choice, Guru let me know it loud and clear. Although He has left the body He is without a doubt very much here, guiding me!
I have heard quite a few people say, “Since Guru is not here we have to make our own decisions.” Well, Guru is either getting a very good laugh or a very sad cry. All I can say is that, in my own experience, He is making it very clear what I should and should not do. It is up to us to listen. If we do our part then we will hear Him. I am not saying that I always do my part or that I always listen but, by His grace, this time I did. I had decided long before our singing group’s anniversary that I would not go to New York, mainly because of money. But I was also thinking, “Guru is no longer there in the physical.” About two weeks before the anniversary I told Govinda on the phone that I was not coming. But as I was telling her this, inwardly I knew it was wrong. If you have ever had the experience of your heart kicking you, then you know what I am talking about.
So right after I hung up with Govinda I called the airline and booked my flight. I had not been in New York since October and when I got to San Francisco airport I was just as excited to be leaving for New York as I have always been. I had the same feeling that I was going to see Guru and I was really happy. Bihagee and I flew together and we got in just before midnight. When we arrived at the baggage claim we had a great surprise! Govinda was there waiting for us and Saroja was out in the car. It was very kind of both of them to go out so late and pick us up, especially since we had a long wait for our luggage. We were very happy to see the girls again. I told them that I could feel Guru so powerfully in New York.
Saturday started with a short visit to Aspiration Ground and Guru’s Samadhi. It is so beautiful there! Projjwal and Shashanka gave a fantastic description of what it looks like in the last issue. All I can add is that in the stillness I could feel Guru so powerfully. As I write this, my heart swells and tears fill my eyes just as when I stood there in front of the shrine. Not tears of sorrow because Guru is no longer there, but tears straight from the heart and the soul because Guru is very much there. There is nothing greater than when you feel Guru so powerfully inside your heart. You do not need anything else. It was a perfect way to start the day.
From there we went to the race. I can sum that up in one word: Ouch! After the race we had time to play. Breakfast at the Smile of the Beyond with Aruna, Vasudha, Kalyanika, Palash, Adarini and Bihagee. What wild group! We were all a bit toasted, but we still managed to have fun! The day flew by with a singing practice, the afternoon meditation (which again was very nice) and more eating. It was Annam Brahma’s anniversary and I was happily surprised to see the owners working the floor. They are very good workers.
Soon it was Saturday night and time for our performance. Paree chose 21 beautiful songs for us to sing. As we were singing I was imagining Guru sitting in His chair meditating on all of us. Then I thought of Him driving His chariot around the court. It was a very sweet feeling. There were plays and singing and a video of Guru giving a talk and answering questions at a bookstore. It is very inspiring. It would be a great video to show in classes.
Sunday! Aruna’s 32nd birthday!!!! And Tyagani’s too! So, we had twice as much fun celebrating both their birthdays together. Yippy! What a fun day it was. The party was at Panorama and Ketan did a superb job organizing the food and drinks. Oh yes and the cakes! There were some 30 girls there and we had the back half of the café reserved. We had a blast! Vasudha put together a game of Centre Jeopardy! I do believe that everyone there had a jolly good time. I gave it a fantabulous three snaps up! (That translates into “really good.”) Monday morning we were back on a plane heading to San Francisco. Our visit to New York was short, but it was inspiring in the fullest sense. With our batteries completely charged we were ready to return home and do the needful. Of course it helped to know that we would be back in just a few short weeks! Gratitude to Guru for being here for us.
Source: Inspiration-Sun magazine, Issue #2 – April 2008
View source document “Suchatula Testimonial 2” on Digital Citizens area of Scribd.com.
“Great Celebrations” by Suchatala
It is Sunday morning. I returned from our April Celebrations in New York last Thursday. I am sitting in my room drinking my yummy cup of coffee substitute, eating a delicious piece of very berry pie and reading my copy of Inspiration-Sun. I take a moment to think about what I should write for the next issue. Projjwal was really trying to encourage everyone to write.
The only problem is that I am not sure what I liked best. What was the one thing that touched me the most? It could have been the bhajans during the birthday celebration of Guru’s Mother Yogamaya. That was, indeed, a very special day and a perfect way to start the April Celebrations. It could also have been the 12-Hour Walk or the April 13 celebration itself, with a walk-past in front of Guru’s Samadhi followed by a walk-past at his house.
Maybe it was the start of the World Harmony Run with Billie Jean King blowing our hearts’ doors wide open with the love that poured out of her own heart for our beloved Guru. Maybe it was the fantastic concert tribute to our dear Guru, or maybe it was just sitting quietly at Aspiration Ground having an inner conversation with Guru.
There were so many beautiful moments during the Celebrations that it is very difficult to choose just one topic to write about. So, I am choosing all the events together, because that is what Celebrations are, not just one event or one person, but the collective effort of everyone to make it special. It is being together with all our friends, whether it was laughing together or crying together or just talking and hanging out. Guru put great importance on friendships. He personally encouraged me to call my friends often to either inspire them or to get inspiration from them.
I had the opportunity to speak with Guru on the phone in July 2007, and one of the things he said was that it gave him joy when his disciples talked to each other. He always gave us such simple ways to please Him.
Thank you to all the disciples who came together to make it a very special Celebrations. I offer an extra special thank you to all the New York disciples who did such a great job as the host centre. Gratitude to Guru for being ever-present in all of our lives and inspiring us to “do the needful.”
Source: Inspiration-Sun magazine, Issue #3 – May 2008
View source document “Suchatula Testimonial 3” on Digital Citizens area of Scribd.com.
Life Is Good!
Skipping, playing, laughing
Four sisters and I
One night under a vast
A crescent moon and
Stars so bright
“What is the occasion?”
A voice cried out
in the night.
“What is that you say?”
Life is good!
Our happy reply.
“Oh” with a melting
Heart he sighed
“God Bless you”
was his final goodbye.
Source: Panorama, the poetry of Sri Chinmoy’s students, April 2004 Edition
These reviews are relevant to the question of whether Ms. Tamm is an accurate source on Sri Chinmoy or Sri Chinmoy Centre.
Jayanti was an instructor at a tiny community college teaching “Creative Writing.” Her school decided that, to continue to teach writing and keep her job, she would need to be a published author. So she wrote a memoir that was based on real people but 99% “creative” in its content. That by itself is fine. What isn’t is that she does not mention that the book is a fictional account. Nearly all the incidents in her book are either distorted beyond recognition, or fabricated out of “whole cloth.” How would I know? I was her uncle, married to her father’s sister and I was there. I was there when her father first introduced Ms. Tamm’s soon-to-be mother to Sri Chinmoy in a tidy middle class house in a Queens residential area not far from where the “All in the family” TV show was supposedly set. I spent an evening talking to a woman who was a friend of her father and present when her father actually met her mother in San Francisco, well before either knew Sri Chinmoy existed. I was at the hospital in Connecticut when she was born. I watched her grow up in a very ethnically diverse community in Queens where women in Saris, Hijabs and an occasional Chador, co-mingled with those in tight jeans and mini-skirts. Because of a legend about her birth created and fanned by her own father to enhance his own social status, Jayanti was treated with extreme respect her whole life. Why that is now seen as terrible is a mystery to me. I watched as she hit puberty and her hormones started to bubble. I saw the stress she created flirting with the young men who were also struggling with their own hormones. This happens in conservative cultures all over the world and right here in the US, be it Mormon, Mennonite, Amish, Orthodox Jewish groups, whatever. Condemning that from the perspective of over sexualized Western “Culture” is naïve. As many teenagers do, she chose to rebel against the norms and values of the community she grew up in. When her behavior became too disruptive (by that community’s standards) she was not punished. She was not flogged, stoned, mutilated, or shot as she might have been in some cultures. Rather she was just asked to leave. To now malign the memory of people who treated her with enormous love and respect her entire childhood just to squeeze out the one book she needed to keep her job is, to say the least, sad.
I find it remarkable that people can take this book seriously. I met Sri Chinmoy on a number of occasions in a professional capacity and had reason to carefully and objectively examine his activities and character, including the views of his detractors. What is so frightening in this age of the internet and global media is a growing mass hypnosis where people so easily relinquish their objectivity and critical faculties and simply accept what is read as fact.
Tamm’s book is colored in with all the predictable clichés and pejorative terms that have everyone tut-tutting at this latest awful ‘cult’ and her own repressed childhood — but there is a certain ignobility of character in those who crusade and profit by vilifying others, especially when this spiritual teacher’s life was so deeply and demonstrably committed to the welfare of others. Tamm’s ‘poor me’ ramblings make Sri Chinmoy the real victim, not herself, and the willing suspension of disbelief and objectivity by most of her readership will drive the last nail home. Disturbing too is the blatant shallowness of magazine and media reviewers in the U.S. — their fawning collaboration in this long whine is saddening and reprehensible. But then historically the great men and women down through time have always been persecuted — imagine the online barrage against Christ had the internet been available then! “Who is this cult leader who claims that he and ‘the Father’ are one? Who sympathizes with prostitutes, claims to have divine healing powers, throws the legitimate merchants out of the temple and demands that his disciples are unworthy if they will not give up everything to follow him!” And the criticisms of Swami Vivekananda; the attempts on the life of the Buddha; the years of warfare Sri Krishna endured against the Kauravas; the 27 years in jail of Nelson Mandela before the tide of opinion turned to favor him. Miss Tamm, discard your imagined victimhood and get on with your life — lest you be remembered as just another Judas.
I don’t want to interfere with your enjoyment of any book that entertains you. But you should known that in an increasingly secular and materialistic world, there’s a bigger commercial market for books which try to discredit genuine spiritual teachers than for books which extol them.
Cartwheels is a mostly fictional account written by an imposter who was never the “Chosen One” (as she claims)*, though she did grow up a child of privilege in Connecticut. She left Sri Chinmoy around the same time she discovered dating, and has few if any spiritual insights.
If you’re interested in accurate accounts, then look for books by people who never broke with their faith and stayed around long enough in their adult lives to get to know Sri Chinmoy and understand his teachings. These books are harder to find because they’re not as commercial as accounts which pander to populist prejudices and a materialist view. But from books by real disciples you’ll get a sense of inspiration, and you’ll also get information which is consistent with the historical record and with scholarly material about Sri Chinmoy. The choice is yours.
Because so few people take courses in comparative religion, they often have no baseline knowledge to help them tell fake memoirs from real ones. The guru in Cartwheels is not Sri Chinmoy, but a bad stereotype drawn partly from boilerplate anti-cult material, and partly from Ms. Tamm’s own imagination — but it’s simply not Sri Chinmoy, who was an extremely kind and caring person, and a genuine spiritual teacher.
*Note: The notion that Jayanti Tamm was the “Chosen One” is a publicity gimmick to sell her book. Sri Chinmoy never designated anyone in that manner, and in his absence Sri Chinmoy Centre is run by a committee of responsible adults who’ve demonstrated both willingness and ability to do the job.
I hope the comments and documentation provided here help to correct the false Salon story. In some respects, the issues transcend the individuals concerned. As I’ve noted elsewhere, the false Salon story represents an example of the demise of fact-based journalism and the ascendance of the politics of personal destruction. Similarly, Cartwheels in a Sari represents an attempt to replace the true biography of a spiritual figure with a false account more pleasing to special interests — namely, Ms. Tamm’s minders at the American Family Foundation (a.k.a. International Cultic Studies Association). In both cases, we’re confronted with writers who have little regard for truth; and as I’m fond of saying, the need for truth is not liberal or conservative, female or male, religious or secular, but something universal. We all need truth. Truth matters.
Disclaimer: The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization. Texts/media are quoted for purposes of education and criticism in keeping with principles of fair use in creating a transformative work and resolving matters of public concern. Quoted material does not imply agreement by the quoted sources with this article or with anything else found on my blog.
This post is a work of independent research by the author, reflecting the author’s personal beliefs and opinions. No third party sources were personally consulted prior to publication. For further information, see “Code of Best Practices in Fair Use for Scholarly Research in Communication.”
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”
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).
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 Virginia 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 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…
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.
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 exploitation. 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!).
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.