On Apostate Accounts or Testimonials, Part 2

How accurate are the stories told by ex-members about spiritual groups? Having discussed general concepts in Part 1, let us now turn to the case of Bithika O’Dwyer.

In wading into the thickets of the sordid Bithika O’Dwyer controversy, I thought it important to deal first with general concepts concerning apostasy, so-called ex-cult support groups, atrocity stories, and the like. (See Part 1.) This is consistent with the approach taken in understanding any complex phenomenon: First understand the nature of the thing, then see how general principles apply to specific cases.

In Part 1, we spent a long time going over the reasons why someone who leaves a well-organized spiritual path with no history of abuse may nevertheless begin telling over-the-top atrocity stories upon leaving. That is the crux of the confusion faced by many people trying to make sense of the phenomenon, and I daresay we made progress in understanding it, both intellectually and emotionally. Buried within Part 1 is this gem of wisdom from psychologist Sushmitam Rouse which I would like to repeat at the outset of Part 2:

I remember an experience I had when I was quite new on the path — a year or two perhaps. I was overwhelmed by the love, the peace and the experiences of God that I had gained on the path, but at the same time was struggling with some of the lifestyle aspects of the path. I realised at this time that my positive experiences far outweighed my struggles and that I definitely did not want to leave the path. However in dealing with this struggle, I came to the realisation that if anything ever pulled me away from the path, the only way I would be able to bear to leave, would be to destroy in my mind all the positive experiences I had gained — otherwise the grief of leaving would be completely overwhelming. Everything good would have to be made bad, everything pure made impure, in order to justify to myself such an action.

I have seen a number of people leave the centre over the years, and in my experience, it is those, like myself who have had tremendously positive experiences in their spiritual life, who resort to this destructive measure — and often they publicise their opinions, as if to further convince themselves they have left something ‘bad’ not good. On the other hand, people who never got much out of the path in the first place, just tend to drift away.

Lastly, I would like to say a word about the place of therapy in all this! The issue of abuse and therapy is such a complex and controversial one. It is well known in the psychological community that some therapists encourage patients to ‘dig’ for abuse that was never there, and that some patients completely unconsciously project their own impulses and traumas onto others who they then believe ‘abused’ them.

– Sushmitam Rouse from “Question For The Women” (discussion thread) 

I also want to repost this passage which I find helpful in navigating the spiritual, psychological, and ethical issues:

When someone studies with a spiritual teacher, the teacher becomes an important part of her life. Even if she ends her studies, her former teacher will usually be someone with whom she needs to live on comfortable terms. A healthy narrative truth emerging in therapy is one which doesn’t attempt to demonize the former teacher or alienate the former student. When therapists violate these principles, this may be seen as abusive, just as inducing Parental Alienation Syndrome is considered a form of parental abuse.

One of the universally recognized symptoms of PAS is lack of ambivalence. Quite simply, the parent from whom the child has been alienated is seen as completely bad and evil. Lack of ambivalence is unnatural behaviour in human beings. Rarely can someone of basic intelligence, maturity and emotional stability support the notion that one person is completely bad.

Yet, when people receive anti-cult counselling or participate in ex-cult support groups, they tend to undergo a pathological inversion of views. They are systematically alienated from their former spiritual teacher, to the point where they depict him/her as thoroughly bad and inhumanly evil. This may be described as Guru Alienation Syndrome, or GAS.

The reason such systematic alienation should be considered a form of abuse is that it effectively robs the former student of all the benefits of having a spiritual teacher, including the ability to interact positively with that teacher, and to enjoy loving memories of that teacher. Unambivalent hatred of the spiritual teacher doesn’t just harm the hated teacher, but also the former student.

While not everyone seeks out a spiritual teacher, for those who do — and who have studied for 5, 10 or 20 years with that teacher — there is an existing relationship which typically has many positive aspects and serves an important purpose in the student’s life. The loss of that relationship is a grievous loss. A wise and compassionate therapist, counsellor, or friend will therefore not attempt to destroy that relationship by circulating hate material vilifying the teacher.

However, just as divorcing parents sometimes play tug-of-war with the child, in anti-cult circles one often encounters manipulative people who want to play tug-of-war with the former spiritual student. They feel the only way for such students to prove their newfound loyalty to mainstream secular values is to loudly proclaim their hatred for the spiritual teacher. Circulating vilification material is one of the tactics used to fan such hatred; and willingness to publicly voice such hatred becomes a kind of loyalty test or perverse indicator of “cult recovery.”

These quotes help set the stage for Part 2.

Part 2: Bithika O’Dwyer

I would like to say at the outset that I wish Ms. O’Dwyer every happiness. That doesn’t prevent me from taking pains to correct the public record where she has acted purposefully to sully or confuse it by posting false and lurid depictions on the Internet.

Please recall from Part 1 that apostasy is not a private, personal decision. The apostate makes a great public show of her newfound rejection of faith, and actively seeks to persuade or influence others to join her in rejecting faith. The apostate “atrocity story” is a public relations tool used by anti-cult groups to vilify minority spiritual groups, leading to harassment or diminution of rights for such groups.

In the case of Bithika O’Dwyer, we have someone who followed a spiritual path for 35 years, wrote many detailed articles about her positive experiences, and was videoed and photographed participating in activities like singing, sports, fun excursions, etc. She’s an intelligent person and gifted writer who wrote clearly and unmistakably about the benefits of the spiritual life, its many challenges, and how she faced them with the help of her teacher, of whom she spoke glowingly. Her positive accounts during that 35-year period were viewed by her friends along the path as being accurate and commendable. Those positive accounts were written both before and after Sri Chinmoy’s death in 2007.

Yet, upon leaving Sri Chinmoy Centre in 2014, she gravitated towards an Internet based ex-cult support group started by attorney Joseph C. Kracht of the Lawton law firm of San Diego. I have been critical of Mr. Kracht for conducting Internet show trials of deceased spiritual figures where he is both judge and jury, exculpatory evidence is suppressed or ignored, and no genuine defence is permitted.

When Bithika O’Dwyer became associated with Joe Kracht’s ex-cult support group, she soon began churning out boilerplate anti-cult material which can only be described charitably as absolute bollocks. It simply doesn’t jibe with her own extensive prior accounts, with the accounts of close friends who knew her over a period of decades, with the available evidence, and with scholarly research on the spiritual movement in question. This raises a number of factual, ethical and legal issues which I may deal with elsewhere; but see (for example) this post discussing the problem of false accusations of a teacher in relation to the film Term of Trial.

One of the troubling features of the pop psychology movements of the 1990s (some of which survive today) is the belief that objective truth no longer matters. A person can create a new identity as a victim or survivor, and provided this is done in the context of counselling or a support group, the question of truthfulness is thought by some to be irrelevant. The ultimate indulgence of the Gen X’er is to claim: Whatever I feel emotionally is true. Don’t slow me down with the facts.

In the real world, however, to enjoy the luxury of painting oneself as a victim also requires that one fashion an abuser. The “memory wars” of the 1990s were fought over whether claims of abuse which seemed strange, farfetched, and at odds with reality should nonetheless be taken seriously enough to convict someone in a court of law, or in the court of public opinion.

The answer, in brief, is no, not without objective evidence. After a great many people were wrongfully accused (and eventually cleared), there emerged a recognition that people claiming to be victims — particularly in a polarized social, political, or legal context — often turn out to be victimizers. This includes former spiritual seekers who tell so-called “apostate atrocity stories” as part of their newfound anti-cult advocacy or return to secular society.

Not everyone who tells a false tale of abuse is an outright liar. The point about abuse-themed books, support groups, and counselling sessions is that they tend to wreak havoc with a person’s sense of identity. People begin to experience life so subjectively that what they feel emotionally becomes what they claim factually. In other words, they confabulate; and within the support group they’re emotionally rewarded for confabulating, because their claims ratify the underlying social and political beliefs being espoused, e.g. that all fathers are abusers, or all purported “cult leaders” are abusers, or all kindergarten teachers are secret Satanists.

In a Salon article and interview, Meredith Maran begins to get at the flavour of this gradual subjectivizing of experience until it becomes false:

“The lie that tore my family apart”
“Interview with Meredith Maran”

What she’s saying is that social cliques and feel-good psychological theories can make liars of us, especially if telling the truth that we were not abused would cause us to lose friends or loved ones who inhabit an abuse-centered universe.

A problem with reliance on emotional reality to the detriment of factual reality is that emotional reality can be extremely unreliable, especially when people are going through a whirlwind of changes in their lives. The causes of their unhappiness are complex, and may include having made poor choices reflecting ethical lapses — yet there can be a controlling figure (such as a counsellor with his or her own agenda) urging them to assign blame for their unhappiness to some external factor or person. This can lead to such stereotyped claims as: I joined a cult and me fanny fell off. Like me on Facebook!

It’s sad to see Ms. O’Dwyer join the ranks of such comic strip characters. Her motives are familiar to me in that I’ve often encountered apostates who feel a strong need for self-justification, and who hope to expunge any guilt associated with having left a respected spiritual movement by trying to make that movement appear outlandish and odious. Of course, many people leave spiritual movements, but most move on without the need to attach excessive blame, which can easily develop into a psychological complex.

My impression is that Joseph Kracht, on whose blog Bithika O’Dwyer’s bizarre “testimonial” appears, acts as a kind of Svengali figure for people (particularly women) with emotional problems who’ve somehow been persuaded that venting on the Internet is a valid form of therapy. It is not. I view Mr. Kracht as a kind of faux Sir Lancelot or White Knight who may actually harm the women he purports to be helping, by taking them public with stories which later turn out to be inaccurate. (Shades of Alton Maddox and Tawana Brawley.)

Most former members of spiritual groups quietly take their leave without much fanfare. A few may have unresolved conflicts about their participation, and may try out different retrospective narratives in order to arrive at a personal interpretation which satisfies them. This type of thing is sometimes done in therapy or a support group; and the reasons most therapists and support groups conduct their activities in true (offline) privacy are manifold: The material which comes up in therapy/support is often highly charged, and is not meant for public consumption. Privacy allows people to experiment with different narratives, including some which may place excessive blame on friends, family, colleagues, or mentors.

In a private therapeutic setting, the situation is manageable, and does not pose legal problems such as libel. But in a public setting, or any setting where anti-cult operatives are trolling for “atrocity stories,” the narratives constructed may undergo radical distortion due to social influence, and may bring participants into conflict with the law.

I doubt Mr. Kracht apprised Ms. O’Dwyer of the full ramifications of joining the “cult wars” — or what little remains of them in a world which is naturally evolving toward pluralism and religious tolerance. Acting wilfully to earn a reputation as someone who betrays former friends and colleagues and posts hate material on the Internet is really not so helpful to one’s C.V. Spiritual people are not the only ones who value loyalty. Secular people and business people also look for consistency and loyalty when considering whether to hire, befriend, or form a lasting relationship with someone who’s recently put themselves “on the market.” How one has treated one’s former friends and colleagues is likely to be an important consideration, and such consideration is reasonable.

By (possibly) following Mr. Kracht’s questionable counsel (whether personal or professional), Ms. O’Dwyer has burned her bridges not only behind her, but also in front of her, limiting rather than expanding her future options. Surely mature people preserve their options.

This is important, so forgive me if I should repeat it: As we move through life, if we are mature and ethical we act loyally toward those we have befriended and who befriended us. Our beliefs may change, but loyalty remains a constant. This is so because our beliefs — and the social groups to which we belong — may often change in the course of a lifetime. In maturity, we recognize that there exist a diversity of beliefs (especially in a spiritual context) about what is right and true, and what practices are beneficial. We move gracefully from social group to social group, from belief to belief, always trying to learn what we can and become better people. Others are doing the same, so there is no reason to demonize them for imagined wrongs.

Likewise, over a lifetime our goals may change. We can move from Goal A to Goal B without having to demolish or annihilate Goal A (and everyone associated with Goal A). To move between goals in a non-destructive manner is the mature, ethical, and psychologically healthy way to do so.

This approach also offers hope that we might one day integrate our spiritual experiences into our daily lives, even if we’re now living closer to the secular world. The anti-cult POV, which typically involves discrediting past spiritual experiences (and the teacher who engendered them), is not psychologically healthy, and doesn’t lead to a well-integrated personality.

When people join anti-cult groups (including Internet based ones like Joe Kracht’s deceptively-named “Abode of Yoga”), they’re inclined to forget these simple truths under the heady influence of social pressure. This includes pressure to unquestioningly accept and act on stereotypes which dehumanize minority faith groups, thus invalidating the ethical obligations that one would normally feel toward one’s fellow human beings.

Indeed, in hate groups a pathological lack of empathy develops towards the targets of the hatred, such that Joe Kracht claims his former church “might as well be burned to the ground.” However, to outside observers (such as potential employers) who have not steeped themselves in anti-cult ideology, the meanness and spitefulness of posting hate material on the Internet is thoroughly apparent — all the more so if the targets of the hatred have a reputation for volunteerism, healthy living, and doing good.

These questions concerning loyalty and ethics tend to be paramount in the minds of people making personnel decisions, because such people are keenly aware that most human relationships (including employment relationships) have a beginning, middle, and end. Trashing one’s former friends and colleagues on the Internet thus suggests a person who is immature and is unable to conclude a relationship in a civilized and responsible manner, without acting vindictively or destructively, and without intentionally causing embarrassment or harm. That’s certainly the impression one gets from Bithika O’Dwyer’s guest column on Joe Kracht’s blog (and the iterations appearing on other venues).

Now, why are anti-cult counsellors typically so obsessed with pushing people over the edge, getting them to publicly recant their faith in a dramatic and finalized manner that would tend to reflect poorly on their good judgement, and to limit their future options? Are such counsellors really acting in the best interests of their clients or protégés? These are questions I hope to tackle in future postings.

In the meantime, let us return to the theme of marriage and divorce introduced at the outset of Part 1. Why would one ex demonize the other? Sometimes to assuage strong guilt feelings, or to relocate blame for the failed relationship. Dr. Lonnie Kliever writes:

[T]here are some voluntary apostates from new religious movements who leave deeply embittered and harshly critical of their former religious associations and activities. Their dynamics of separation from a once-loved religious group is analogous to an embittered marital separation and divorce. Both marriage and religion require a significant degree of commitment. The greater the involvement, the more traumatic the break-up. The longer the commitment, the more urgent the need to blame the other for the failed relationship. Long-term and heavily involved members of new religious movements who over time become disenchanted with their religion often throw all of the blame on their former religious associations and activities. They magnify small flaws into huge evils. They turn personal disappointments into malicious betrayals. They even will tell incredible falsehoods to harm their former religion.

– Dr. Lonnie Kliever, “The Reliability of Apostate Testimony About New Religious Movements”

When one spends years following a spiritual path, it becomes like family. Then, if one chooses to leave or is asked to leave, it may feel like a ripping away. I am perhaps 1% spiritual, but one thing I know about seekers is that they are still human beings, with an emotional self and feelings that run deep. Our emotional selves also have defence mechanisms which kick in when the pain becomes too great. At the most hellish moment of a marital breakup, one partner says to the other: “You don’t love me. You never loved me. And I never loved you. I’ve hated every moment I ever spent with you. I hate you, and all your family and friends. What’s more, you abused our children.” Next comes the ritual burning of photographs, the running of the car off a cliff, and a neatly typed note to the spouse’s employer suggesting termination…

We are all too human, tragically human. And so when we leave a spiritual path, sometimes this slash-and-burn mentality kicks in as a defence. Then too, the world wants us to pay a tithe to be accepted back: “Many members of our church or temple were lured away by this Indian rogue. We all know that meditation is bad for you. We’ll accept you back if you just say you were abused or brainwashed. Then you can get on with the things that really matter, like career and dating…”

Someone who has sincerely followed a spiritual path for a few years will often have sublime experiences locked in the depths of their heart — experiences they told themselves they would never forget as long as they lived. Then, when the same person leaves that path, you see them try to perform a radical guru-ectomy on themselves. The light they saw, the joy they felt, these things never happened. It is a defence mechanism, like amnesia. However, amnesia is a purely involuntary ailment. It takes some conscious will to go on the Internet and malign someone.

Conclusions

These are some of the issues surrounding apostates and their accounts. These issues in turn point to functional problems concerning descriptions of spiritual groups which appear in the popular press, and which tend to be disproportionately shaped by apostate accounts. (See also James A. Beckford, “The Mass Media and New Religious Movements.”)

When I say “functional problems,” I mean something different than a simple question of “whom do you believe.” Apostates act in certain fairly predictable ways; the mass media also act in fairly predictable ways. The end result can be a skewing of data leading to false depictions. (For one example, see “Can Salon Learn From Rolling Stone’s Mistakes? Part 1.”)

In most Western nations, there is a secular sphere and a religious sphere. These two spheres ideally work in harmony, but in our present period there is often war between them. Apostates are typically people who’ve crossed over from the religious sphere to the secular sphere, and now seek to mobilize the secular sphere against the religious sphere. There’s a broad sense in which their reports constitute reports about the enemy during wartime, or characterizations by the secular sphere about what goes on in the religious sphere. Such reports are inherently prone to inaccuracy and bias.

These factors underscore the late Dr. Bryan Wilson’s imperative that “The first duty of those who wish to present a fair picture of a religious fellowship is to seek the views of those who are faithfully committed to it and to undertake a first-hand study of their lifestyle.” However, the mass media usually don’t have the time, interest, or resources to conduct such a study, and often can’t even be bothered checking with bonafide religious scholars. Therefore, the view of minority spiritual groups we get from the mass media is often little more than a crude stereotype. This in turn creates problems in society, such as harassment of spiritual groups, or the inability of people with genuine spiritual needs to connect with a group which could benefit them.

When individual apostates publicly hurl false allegations, this is similar to people throwing rocks at church windows. One might like or even love someone who does grievous harm, but it’s difficult to forgive them while the glass is still tinkling and people are checking themselves for cuts and bruises. As I discuss in “A Question of Forgiveness,” it’s easier to forgive people when their wrong actions have ceased and they show some signs of remorse. Hate the sin, not the sinner is good advice; but when compassion fails, justice-light is sometimes needed to solve a problem which endangers others.

Bhakti yoga is a very emotional path, and some people can easily be storm-tossed by their emotions of the moment — whether love or hate. Some problems may benefit from more steady reflection leading to insight, rather than simply choosing sides based on friendship or which in-group one hopes to join.

Within ex-cult support groups, codependent relationships may develop, with the women becoming faux victims, and the men becoming their “valiant” protectors. These assumed roles reflect a need to create an artificial world in which the apostate is viewed as an heroic crusader rather than a (possibly failed) spiritual seeker. If the person’s own conscience is telling them they could have acted better, could have been truer, donning the garb of victim or protector may be a salve for the conscience.

Unfortunately, this leads to a state of affairs in which some men will go to the wall defending a story which is absolute bollocks, and which contradicts their own knowledge and experience acquired over many years. Whether in a courtroom trial, or even the type of sleazy Internet show trials conducted by Joe Kracht, truth shouldn’t depend on who’s sleeping with whom.

People who are misled by false accounts often want to be misled for the same reasons that these accounts were formulated in the first place: because some people wrongly feel that they can only build up their own ego by tearing down their former spiritual path.

Those who have returned to worldly life may need a certain type of ego build-up, but this is achieved by doing good things, not by becoming obsessed with “proving” that one’s former path or teacher were “bad.” One doesn’t have to look far to see people who left a spiritual path over 35 years ago, but are still trying to discredit their former teacher in order to feel good about themselves. This type of false ego build-up has turned them into extremely troubled and unhappy individuals. Someone like Bithika O’Dwyer who’s only been at it for 2-3 years might learn from such old profligates that this is not the right way to proceed, and does not lead to either worldly happiness or spiritual happiness. Better to adopt a live-and-let-live attitude, and get on with one’s life! Better also to leave all one’s bridges unburned and passable, so that one might freely choose any option in the future.

In the final analysis, to become embroiled in the controversies fomented by apostates is a losing proposition for sincere spiritual seekers. It is like quicksand which constantly draws people in until they’re in over their heads and cannot escape from all the concentrated negativity that apostates generate.

If you’re following the path of love and devotion, then it is your devotion, not somebody else’s devotion (or lack thereof) that will sustain you. You will gain strength by looking to those who are more devoted than you, not less so.

Suppose you have gone to a shop for many years. The shopkeeper has always been nice to you and has given you the things you need. He is very kind, though he does have a few rules about what goes on in his shop. Then you meet someone who tells you the shopkeeper is the very worst! He cheated them, he treated them unkindly, he is simply unbearable. Well, you do not know what transpired between the shopkeeper and that person. But he has always treated you fairly. So there is some sense in remaining loyal to that shopkeeper, based on your own experience.

No spiritual teacher, no matter how good and great, is immune to the proverbial “barking of the dogs” of which Swami Vivekananda spoke. Sri Chinmoy has said:

A real genius is not bound by any convention. A genius is a genius. He has to go forward like an elephant, without paying attention to the barking of the dogs. Swami Vivekananda used to say that when an elephant is on the way to the market to eat bananas, the dogs bark and bark. But the elephant does not pay any attention. He goes to the market and eats the bananas and then he comes back home. The dogs are unable to enjoy the bananas.

– Sri Chinmoy, from A Mystic Journey in the Weightlifting World, Part 1, Agni Press, 2000

Combating false views prevalent in society is like trying to straighten “a dog’s curly tail” (Vivekananda) — it just curls up again. There will always be people spreading hate material. Sometimes they’re good at demagoguing an issue, and may have more funding and resources than spiritual groups, so their message is easier to hear. They can temporarily drown out the true message offered by sincere spiritual teachers.

Yet, spiritual genius that he was, Sri Chinmoy continued to move forward confidently, offering his precious Darshan to those seekers who approached him with an aspiring consciousness. What is said by critics is largely, ahem… irrelephant.

By studying the writings of apostates or disgruntled former members, we don’t get any enlightenment. For that we need spiritual practice, such as prayer, meditation and service.

The more we study doubt, the more we will experience confusion-mind. Doubt does not have the power to dispel itself. Only faith has the power to dispel doubt, just as Light dispels darkness.

There are many tracts criticizing people who study under the guidance of a spiritual master and join in the life of a spiritual community. The authors usually advocate secularism, individualism, rationalism, and a pragmatic view of life. To them God is just a mental hallucination, or a remote deity who deserves no more than Temple on Friday or Church on Sunday.

Yet, when one sincerely meditates with a teacher of Sri Chinmoy’s calibre, one has deep inner experiences which prove their own reality in the fertile field of the aspiring heart. One discovers a living God ever present in the temple of one’s heart, a God who is one’s own highest Self, and therefore one’s constant companion.

This is a discovery rooted in faith, not doubt. And so there comes a time when one closes one’s ears to doubt and criticism, and tries to proceed only through faith, finding this to be a higher teaching. (Perhaps doubt is the kindergarten of the spiritual life, and faith the advanced doctoral work?)

As spiritual seekers, we can learn to value Light more. When we become lovers of Light, this will lead to right views, and such views will eventually transform society, lessening the hatred and intolerance which arise from a wrong understanding.

Those who take the negative approach don’t travel far, and ultimately bring suffering on themselves, if not the entire world. Just look at Judas!

Bithika O’Dwyer (bottom row, left) with friends from the Cambridge Sri Chinmoy Centre on a fun excursion to Thetford Forest, 2009

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization. See my About page for further disclaimers.

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On Apostate Accounts or Testimonials, Part 1

How accurate are the stories told by ex-members about spiritual groups? What are some factors which can lead to inaccurate accounts, and what effect does this have on society? Wading into the thickets of the Bithika O’Dwyer controversy…

I do want to discuss Bithika O’Dwyer, but it’s neither reasonable nor necessary to reinvent the wheel every time a particular individual goes off the rails. Some people have already discussed the core issues at length here. There’s also a collection of essays and anecdotes called “Dealing With Negativity” which offers further insights.

I want to spend some time going over general concepts before turning to the individual case of Bithika O’Dwyer in Part 2.

Part 1: General Concepts

In a free and open society filled with people who possess inquisitive minds, and hearts seeking after truth, it’s fairly commonplace for people to join and leave spiritual groups. In fact, it happens every day, not unlike marriage and divorce. As in cases of divorce, the breakup can be amicable, respectful, and mature; or it can be acrimonious, spiteful, and marked by childish behaviour. We’ve all probably known a divorced couple each of whom is a decent enough person in themselves, but one of whom makes their former partner out to be the devil incarnate. Yet we know from personal experience (knowing the individuals) that it simply isn’t true.

Scholars of religion have studied this broad phenomenon as it applies to leave-takers from spiritual groups. The stories told by ex-members in this context are sometimes referred to as apostate accounts, atrocity stories, deconversion narratives, or testimonials.

The term “apostate” is likely to come up repeatedly in any discussion of religious movements and their detractors. The term has a generally accepted meaning among religious scholars. That meaning is not, in itself, derogatory. An apostate is someone who, after leaving a religious or spiritual group, actively opposes that group, often by speaking publicly against it. Thus, an apostate differs from an ordinary “leave-taker.” There are thousands of religious or spiritual groups, and people come and go from them every day (usually in non-dramatic fashion). Most leave-takers either quietly rejoin the secular majority, or perhaps join a different spiritual group. Most don’t publicly apostatize.

However, media stories defining how the general public views religious movements are often disproportionately shaped by apostate accounts, which can be inaccurate and may reflect certain motives or biases which have become familiar to scholars of religion. Anti-cult material describing religious movements tends to be constructed almost exclusively from apostate accounts, pointedly omitting accounts by the current faithful describing their own beliefs, practices, and lifestyle. For these reasons, apostate accounts (and questions about their accuracy) have become a major focus in the study of religious movements, even though apostates make up a relatively small percentage of ex-members.

As noted above, the term “apostate” is not by definition derogatory. For example, if we were to define the group Al-Qaeda as a “religious cult” (rather than a paramilitary organization which uses Islam as an excuse to commit terrorist acts), then an apostate from Al-Qaeda who speaks publicly and accurately about Al-Qaeda’s known terrorist activities would presumably be doing something positive and beneficial, warning the public about a genuine danger. But if an ex-Jehovah’s Witness or ex-Hare Krishna devotee claimed those groups are terrorists, we should call that foolish alarmism.

The biblical story of Jesus and Judas Iscariot presents an (obvious) example of apostasy viewed negatively. Jesus was a man of peace who tried to usher in a new era in which ideals of compassion might triumph over greed. When Judas lost faith in Jesus and his teachings, he did not quietly fade away, but targeted Jesus for persecution, taking thirty pieces of silver to identify him to the chief priests, leading ultimately to Jesus’s crucifixion by the Romans.

Thus, while the term “apostate” is not necessarily negative, the Judas archetype in Western culture signifies one who betrays a benevolent teacher or teaching due to some self-serving motive. How one views any particular apostate depends on how one views the spiritual teacher or group from which the apostate is a defector, and what precise form his/her apostasy takes. If apostates are sometimes viewed negatively, it may be due to instances in which they’ve cast false slurs on teachers or movements which are essentially benign.

These are not binary concepts. A religious movement may be open to legitimate criticism on some grounds, but apostates may engage in extreme tactics similar to yellow journalism. In a familiar pattern, the site jehovahswitnessblog.com turns out to be an anti Jehovah’s Witness site, and asks such illuminating questions as “Would it be fair to compare Jehovah’s Witnesses to Terrorist Organisations?” (This is accompanied by a graphic of a bearded, turbaned Middle Eastern man holding a bomb with a lit fuse.) “Many say that the Jehovah’s Witness religion is a cult. Do you think it’s a cult? In this section, we’ve housed all the blog posts that show you if it is a cult or not. You might be shocked at what you find.” (Not really.)

Scholars of religion tend to visit a huge number of sites, and the above is more or less the boilerplate approach found on many anti-cult sites started by apostates from a wide variety of faiths. It’s this type of crude demagoguery which can lead to the view that apostates are something less than accurate, unbiased sources of information.

The scientific study of religion is (at least in theory) ethically neutral; but much public discussion about spiritual groups is not scholarly at all (in fact it’s quite emotional!). It often entails making subjective value judgements about particular teachers and faiths, and about those who actively apostatize against them.

The problem of making such judgements fair is in turn complicated by the problem of locating accurate resources, the problem of media bias, the problem of moral relativism, the problem of majority versus minority beliefs and values, and the postmodern problem of settling on objective truth even when accurate resources are available. John Leo, who is often a stickler for facts over emotions, points to

… the postmodern notion that there is no literal truth, only voices and narratives. If so, who can object if you make up a narrative that expresses the truth you feel?

— John Leo, “Lying Isn’t So Bad If It Makes You Feel Good”

Among those scholars who approach religious movements with an attitude of tolerance, there’s an awareness that apostates sometimes circulate narratives or “testimonials” which are designed to communicate an “emotional” truth (how they feel about past involvement in a religious movement), rather than a “factual” truth. Where so-called “atrocity stories” told by apostates turn out not to be factual, this contributes greatly to the credibility problem with apostates as a class.

Notwithstanding the high degree of freedom and mobility shown by the populations of most Western nations to try out different spiritual groups (joining and leaving more or less at will), the accounts circulated by apostates often take the form of “captivity narratives.” Such narratives stress the powerlessness of the individual in both matters of joining and leaving a spiritual group. They joined because they were “brainwashed,” stayed because they were “brainwashed,” and only left when someone such as a therapist, anti-cult activist or new romantic interest rode in on a white horse and forcibly “rescued” them from their imprisoned and debilitated state. Scholars of religion tend to question such accounts, and have largely dismissed the brainwashing thesis as a serious explanation.

In Western nations, it’s extremely rare that a spiritual group would hold anyone captive. When interviewed, most spiritual adherents can give a reasonable accounting of why they joined a spiritual group, what they hope to achieve, and what they perceive to be the benefits. One can disagree with particular choices that they make, yet recognize that these are choices.

Many spiritual groups have a probationary period where new members can get their feet wet, learn more about the group, and decide if it suits them before making a stronger commitment. Few spiritual groups want members who join on a whim today, and leave on a whim tomorrow. This phenomenon was satirized on the TV sitcom Seinfeld. In an episode titled “The Conversion,” George Costanza wants to become Latvian Orthodox merely to pursue a romantic interest. But before he’s accepted as a convert, he has to demonstrate his sincerity, study a thick stack of religious texts, and pass a conversion test (which he cheats on by writing the answers on his hand). He quickly loses interest when he learns that his paramour is leaving New York to live in Latvia for a year.

In many cases, people write extremely detailed accounts of their lives while with a spiritual group, and these accounts reflect a thinking, feeling individual who is living out their spiritual choices, consciously reaffirming those choices day after day, year after year. But later, after exiting the spiritual group, the same individual may supply a “captivity narrative” in connection with participation in an ex-cult support group. The captivity narrative often seems contrived, formulaic, and scripted in comparison to the same person’s prior narrative describing spiritual experiences with uniqueness, and in detail.

Captivity narratives are retrospective accounts delivered to a new audience which has radically different expectations than the old one. When speaking to a new secular peer group, the apostate may ratify his/her affiliation with that peer group through exaggerated criticism of the spiritual group left behind. This may take the form of a “confession” to friends, family, or an Internet audience that the speaker was once a “cult victim” who experienced horrible abuses, but has now seen the light of critical thinking, and become a true believer in baseball, apple pie, and motherhood. This then symbolically purges the former “cult” member’s reputation in the secular world. Such public purgative activities involving confessions or anti-cult testimonials are known collectively to scholars as rituals of denunciation. The accounts produced are not viewed as highly credible owing to the underlying pressures. Quoting from The Oxford Handbook of Religious Conversion:

Conversion and disengagement both represent significant shifts in personal identity and situated meanings. As such, biographies are defined and redefined in light of ongoing experience and narrative in an effort to make sense of past decisions and provide legitimacy for current ones. Retrospective accounts must be understood in this context and interpreted accordingly. For example, ex-members may need to justify their departures by finding fault with, or attributing blame to, their former groups. Presentation of the emergent self after NRM disengagement often requires a defense against a “spoiled identity” in the face of stigmatizing efforts by significant others. To save face, the ex-member is compelled to negotiate a new identity (apostate, whistle-blower, penitent ex-member) that plays to a new audience and is calculated to defend the self. The new associates in an external or oppositional group may be slow to fully accept the defector until he/she participates in appropriate rituals of denunciation (testimonials, confessions). After all, the newly exited person has a lot to live down from his or her “unsavory” past involvements.

The Oxford Handbook of Religious Conversion [footnotes omitted]

The scholarly language might throw some readers. What does it mean that “biographies are defined and redefined in light of ongoing experience and narrative in an effort to make sense of past decisions and provide legitimacy for current ones”? It means that a person changes their story to correspond to their new world view, new secular peer group, and newfound interest in (for example) a secular business career.

What do we make of the phrase “stigmatizing efforts by significant others”? After leaving a spiritual group, the leave-taker may be subjected to pressure from friends, relatives, or a romantic partner to “denounced the cult” in order to be accepted back into worldly life. The leave-taker may leave with good memories of the spiritual group left behind, but subsequently feels pressured to adopt a new identity as an “apostate, whistle-blower, [or] penitent ex-member.” (“Oh, I’m so sorry Mummy and Daddy that I stayed with that awful cult! Won’t you please put me back in your will now?”)

The leave-taker may fall in with other ex-members who have been strongly influenced by anti-cult ideology which portrays spiritual groups as abusive rather than beneficial. Some such ex-members may have received formal deprogramming or exit counselling. They then introduce this ultra-critical-cum-activist view into the ex-cult support group, where it becomes the dominant view reinforced through readings from a closed universe of anti-cult authors who see involvement in a spiritual community solely through the lens of trauma and abuse. This ignores thousands of years of history in which people have explored living in spiritual communities as a joyful way to grow, evolve, and put their cherished beliefs into practice in concert with others.

So, what does it mean that “The new associates in an external or oppositional group may be slow to fully accept the defector until he/she participates in appropriate rituals of denunciation (testimonials, confessions)”? It means that a typical initiation ritual for someone who joins an ex-cult support group is that they’ll be asked to read highly negative “testimonials” portraying the spiritual group as abusive, and to voice their agreement or even write their own testimonials based on existing models. For the lonely ex-member seeking “support,” this is the price of admission to a new social clique. The testimonial of abuse is a fashion accoutrement donned when visiting an ex-cult support group, and eventually becomes part of the apostate’s permanent wardrobe.

The apostate is eager (perhaps even desperate) to “prove” that she’s no longer a member of a stigmatized group (i.e. no longer a “cult” member), and therefore may act much like a cooperating witness in a government trial, ready to accuse former friends and colleagues in order to escape conviction herself.

The secular majority is not always kindly disposed toward minority adherents, even those now trying to rejoin the secular majority. Hence the need to rehabilitate one’s reputation by talking trash about a group one had previously extolled. This may be done in preparation for marriage or a secular career, or simply to enhance one’s social standing.

In this way, pretending to be a “cult victim” becomes a social lubricant or business lie told without regard for ethics or consequences. In many cases people begin by deceiving themselves, then come to deceive others. Their desperation to rejoin the secular world and gain worldly advantage leads them to project a stereotyped view of themselves which they feel will help them fit in and not be blamed for their spiritual past. Former seekers are often counselled to follow this approach. Pretending to be a cult victim becomes their cover story for returning to the world.

However, Occam’s razor slices thin here. When someone leaves a well-organized spiritual path with no history of abuse, it’s usually for very conventional (even prosaic) reasons. Spiritual work is challenging but rewarding. There is always a pull to revert to the mean and to lead a life which is most ordinary, requiring relatively little effort, able to be coped with on brain base.

Someone leaves because they lost their spiritual aspiration, interest, or intensity, the figure who originally inspired them is no longer there in the physical to lift them up, they have grown tired, have run into a rough patch in their own nature, or they still have unfulfilled desires and ambitions which take them back to worldly life. (Or a combination of all these factors.)

Then too, a person may have started a spiritual business, but finds it quite challenging to keep it afloat. People can love each other dearly, but working together on a daily basis may bring out personality conflicts; and rather than resolve these conflicts, some people prefer to move on. (See Sri Chinmoy’s story “Why the Disciples Don’t Come” about those who leave due to personality conflicts.)

In one sense it’s reasonable to want to relax after working hard for a number of years. But in the spiritual life, when people relax, their own worst nature may ambush them, so that they lose all the progress they have made, and may for a time become unfit to lead the spiritual life. This is sometimes called a “hostile attack.” Sri Chinmoy writes:

It is not the spiritual life that increases your undivine qualities. On the contrary, the spiritual life wants you to conquer all the undivine forces once and for all so that they cannot come and disturb you. Otherwise, two or three undivine forces you will conquer today because of your intense spiritual aspiration; and then, after a few months, there will be again an attack by some other forces. So, if you know that all the forces are going to attack you either today or tomorrow, then you will be fully prepared. You thought that you had only one enemy. How is it that you now have ten enemies? But this should not make you discouraged. On the contrary, you should be happy that all your enemies, all your weaknesses, are coming forward. Only if they come forward can you conquer them.

How will you do it? It is through your constant inner cry. Do not be disturbed, do not be agitated, do not be depressed, do not surrender to these attacks. You simply should be happy that all your weaknesses are coming to the fore. Otherwise, each one will take its own time and bite you and pinch you. Then you will suffer like anything. So let them all attack you. Your faith in the Supreme — who is my Guru, your Guru, everybody’s Guru — has infinite power to conquer these undivine forces.

You want to go one step ahead and become totally divine. But the moment you enter the spiritual path, all the undivine, hostile forces attack you. Before, you never had doubt, you never had fear, you never thought that anything named jealousy existed on earth. But where did they come from? They did not come from above. No, they were all dormant inside you. The tiger within you had all these undivine qualities. But the tiger did not use all its power. It had only to use a little power, just a small quantity of its power, in order to frighten you. But now that the tiger knows that you are trying to leave its den, the tiger is ready to show you all its capacity. It will muster all its strength. But at that time, you have to be very devoted to your spiritual life, to the divine life within you, and say, “This is a great opportunity to conquer all my enemies all at once.” So you should be courageous and, at the same time, totally surrendered to the Will of the Supreme.

– Sri Chinmoy, from Illumination-World, Agni Press, 1977 [emphasis added]

To stay afloat in the spiritual life, one has to do battle with ignorance. If one becomes lax, then all the old problems may resurface, or even new problems may come. So some people leave because they no longer wish to do battle with their own nature, or for many other conventional, unremarkable reasons.

Now, why do some people disguise these very conventional reasons for leaving by telling an outlandish story of abuse, a so-called “atrocity story”? We’ve already discussed this, but here’s another powerful reason given by psychologist Sushmitam Rouse:

I remember an experience I had when I was quite new on the path — a year or two perhaps. I was overwhelmed by the love, the peace and the experiences of God that I had gained on the path, but at the same time was struggling with some of the lifestyle aspects of the path. I realised at this time that my positive experiences far outweighed my struggles and that I definitely did not want to leave the path. However in dealing with this struggle, I came to the realisation that if anything ever pulled me away from the path, the only way I would be able to bear to leave, would be to destroy in my mind all the positive experiences I had gained — otherwise the grief of leaving would be completely overwhelming. Everything good would have to be made bad, everything pure made impure, in order to justify to myself such an action.

I have seen a number of people leave the centre over the years, and in my experience, it is those, like myself who have had tremendously positive experiences in their spiritual life, who resort to this destructive measure — and often they publicise their opinions, as if to further convince themselves they have left something ‘bad’ not good. On the other hand, people who never got much out of the path in the first place, just tend to drift away.

Lastly, I would like to say a word about the place of therapy in all this! The issue of abuse and therapy is such a complex and controversial one. It is well known in the psychological community that some therapists encourage patients to ‘dig’ for abuse that was never there, and that some patients completely unconsciously project their own impulses and traumas onto others who they then believe ‘abused’ them.

– Sushmitam Rouse from “Question For The Women” (discussion thread) 

It could also be said that the lies some people tell about their former spiritual path are like a bandage which they apply to the wound of leaving — leaving something which they actually love, or which their soul loves.

Leaving a spiritual path can be painful, just as divorce can be painful. This leads to a temptation (or even unconscious reaction) to simply throw all the blame on the other person (in the case of divorce) or on the teacher or path (in the case of leaving a spiritual group). But there is great potential for misattribution of cause and effect here. People may become unhappy after leaving a spiritual path which they followed sincerely for decades of their lives. But this doesn’t mean the spiritual path is the cause of their unhappiness. As I write in “Making Sense of the Spiritual Life”:

When people suffer a hostile attack, they end their spiritual practice, and then blame the spiritual life for all the problems which ensue. This is clearly a misattribution of cause and effect.

I have personally seen people become unhappy after making a sudden, abrupt change in their lives — a change where they cut themselves off from people and activities which had once sustained them emotionally and spiritually. Then, in their unhappiness, they misattribute the cause, blaming the people and activities from which they cut themselves off.

I’ve also had occasion to quote from this TIME magazine article:

By all accounts, the descent into delusion is gradual. Everyone has experienced slights, insults or failures at one time or another, and most people find some way to cope. Or, if they don’t, a trusted friend or family member may persuade them to forget the past and get on with their lives. But if they cannot shake off the sense of humiliation, they may instead nourish their grudges and start a mental list of all the injustices in their lives. Rather than take a critical look at themselves, they blame their troubles on “the company,” for example, or “the government” or “the system.” Often these aggrieved people fall in with others sharing the same point of view. The group helps them to rehearse their grievances, ensuring that the wounds remain open, and exposes them to similar complaints. As a result, paranoia blossoms and spreads.

— Christine Gorman, “Calling All Paranoids,” TIME magazine

This applies in spades to so-called ex-cult support groups, and I hope regular readers of my blog will forgive me if I once again quote this passage from “The ACLU and Religious Freedom, Part 2”:

When someone studies with a spiritual teacher, the teacher becomes an important part of her life. Even if she ends her studies, her former teacher will usually be someone with whom she needs to live on comfortable terms. A healthy narrative truth emerging in therapy is one which doesn’t attempt to demonize the former teacher or alienate the former student. When therapists violate these principles, this may be seen as abusive, just as inducing Parental Alienation Syndrome is considered a form of parental abuse.

One of the universally recognized symptoms of PAS is lack of ambivalence. Quite simply, the parent from whom the child has been alienated is seen as completely bad and evil. Lack of ambivalence is unnatural behaviour in human beings. Rarely can someone of basic intelligence, maturity and emotional stability support the notion that one person is completely bad.

Yet, when people receive anti-cult counselling or participate in ex-cult support groups, they tend to undergo a pathological inversion of views. They are systematically alienated from their former spiritual teacher, to the point where they depict him/her as thoroughly bad and inhumanly evil. This may be described as Guru Alienation Syndrome, or GAS.

The reason such systematic alienation should be considered a form of abuse is that it effectively robs the former student of all the benefits of having a spiritual teacher, including the ability to interact positively with that teacher, and to enjoy loving memories of that teacher. Unambivalent hatred of the spiritual teacher doesn’t just harm the hated teacher, but also the former student.

While not everyone seeks out a spiritual teacher, for those who do — and who have studied for 5, 10 or 20 years with that teacher — there is an existing relationship which typically has many positive aspects and serves an important purpose in the student’s life. The loss of that relationship is a grievous loss. A wise and compassionate therapist, counsellor, or friend will therefore not attempt to destroy that relationship by circulating hate material vilifying the teacher.

However, just as divorcing parents sometimes play tug-of-war with the child, in anti-cult circles one often encounters manipulative people who want to play tug-of-war with the former spiritual student. They feel the only way for such students to prove their newfound loyalty to mainstream secular values is to loudly proclaim their hatred for the spiritual teacher. Circulating vilification material is one of the tactics used to fan such hatred; and willingness to publicly voice such hatred becomes a kind of loyalty test or perverse indicator of “cult recovery.”

Owing to wretched excess in the anti-cult movement, it’s nearly impossible to be too over-the-top in one’s denunciation of a purported “cult leader.” The situation is analogous to that described by singer-songwriter Arlo Guthrie in his 1967 signature piece “Alice’s Restaurant.” At one point in the monologue, Guthrie is trying to avoid being drafted and sent to Vietnam. His strategy is to appear so gung-ho that he would be viewed as undesirable:

I went up there, I said, “Shrink, I want to kill. I want to kill! I want to see blood and gore and guts and veins in my teeth! Eat dead, burnt bodies! I mean: Kill. Kill!”

And I started jumpin’ up and down, yellin’ “KILL! KILL!” and he started jumpin’ up and down with me, and we was both jumpin’ up and down, yellin’, “KILL! KILL! KILL! KILL!” and the sergeant came over, pinned a medal on me, sent me down the hall, said “You’re our boy.” Didn’t feel too good about it.

— Arlo Guthrie, “Alice’s Restaurant Massacre”

Those members of anti-cult groups willing to tell over-the-top atrocity stories may receive status elevation within the group (similar to having medals pinned on them). If they can supply bodice-ripping drug store fare, this has the potential to be used in anti-cult publicity campaigns, and may even find its way into a courtroom. The writers know this, and so tend to compete in a “race to the bottom.” It’s therefore difficult to escape the conclusion that these stories are being told for self-serving motives, especially where they diverge significantly from the known facts about a spiritual teacher or group, and are not supported by objective evidence.

We should keep in mind that apostasy is not a private, personal decision. The apostate makes a great public show of her newfound rejection of faith, and actively seeks to persuade or influence others to join her in rejecting faith. The apostate “atrocity story” is a public relations tool used by anti-cult groups to vilify minority spiritual groups, leading to harassment or diminution of rights for such groups (or in extreme cases, crucifixion).

As I discuss in Part 2, when apostates hurl false accusations, this is similar to people throwing rocks at church windows. One might like or even love someone who does grievous harm, but it’s difficult to forgive them while the glass is still tinkling and people are checking themselves for cuts and bruises. If the hurlers will not stop, then it may be necessary to invoke lawful due process. See also this post discussing the problem of false accusations of a teacher in relation to the film Term of Trial. The links at the end concern UK libel law as it applies to Facebook, Blogspot, and other social media sites.

This concludes Part 1 covering general concepts. In Part 2 I’ll discuss the particular case of Bithika O’Dwyer.

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.

* * *

PIX11’s Mary Murphy: So You Think You Can Lie

5 Pinocchios are the latest awards racked up by this tabloid TV reporter

With my wee personal blog, I sometimes go up against the lies told by big evil money. Not that money is always evil, or big media always lie. But with conglomeration in the media industry, there are whole segments concerned not with truth-seeking, but with pandering.

Like Donald J. Trump, New York’s PIX11 apparently loves the poorly educated, perhaps because they’ll believe anything — from Syrian Muslims invading Louisiana, to a mysterious cult discovered in quiet Jamaica Hills. Who can say it didn’t happen? PIX11 likes exploiting the poorly-educated by running hoax news stories, or stories which are actually paid advertising. Read on for examples of both.

Truth-seeking is what journalists are supposed to do; it’s the highest ethic taught in j-school. But an article in The Economist notes that “Journalism is a commodity. There is always a need for more ‘inventory’ on which to place ads. Journalism, real journalism — the pursuit of truth — also creates inventory, but not as much, and it is difficult, costly and time-consuming.” So just as we become accustomed to eating junk food with no nutritional value, we also become accustomed to consuming infotainment with no truth value, served up on the cheap.

PIX11 doesn’t only film news stories, but also commercials for sponsors, referred to euphemistically as “native advertising,” or “sponsored content.” PIX11 gives this material the same visual treatment as actual news stories, and uses the same voice-over announcers or on-air personalities, so some viewers wouldn’t know they’re watching a commercial. This just in: Depending on your mood, you can now choose the perfect cocktail made with Larceny Bourbon. Wow! Isn’t that interesting? I bet that would give Craig Allen something to do on a rainy night. His mood often changes with the weather. Not that he’s a manic-depressive or anything, but– [continue disarming banter, then cut to ”story” about cocktails made with Larceny Bourbon].

PIX11 even brags how easy it is to produce “native advertising” consisting of “man-on-the-street” interviews. Their gentrified guide doesn’t mention Mary Murphy’s time-honoured tactic of being rude as hell, cornering the target, and shouting insulting questions. If the target can’t run fast enough, that apparently constitutes “implied consent.” 😉

Anyway, we’ve gotten so used to information meant to entertain us, pander to us, or sell us stuff that we’re unable to locate truth when we really need it. It’s a little like the old saw that even the worst sinner will go to heaven if he or she thinks of God at the moment of death. The problem is that at the moment of death we will have no control over our thoughts. Whatever we spent our whole lives filling our minds with, such will be our thoughts at time of death. So if a man spent all his life lusting after gold, then at the moment of death he will think: “What is going to happen to all my beautiful gold?” He is still consumed by thoughts of gold, and since he has never thought of God, God is like a complete stranger to him.

In the same way, when we come to depend on media which don’t reflect or seek after truth, but merely entertain us, pander to us, or cleverly target our consumer selves, then how will we locate truth when we need it? Truth will be like a complete stranger. Why is truth even important? After all, you can’t eat it, drink it, or smoke it. Does truth have any value in a consumerist society?

The answer is that truth is important — I’ll leave it to the reader to discover why. Try listing some reasons and see what you can come up with. If you’re stumped, think about why truth is important in a jury trial, or in a claim about whether a foreign nation possesses nuclear weapons, or in a relationship based on trust.

Journalists ask us to trust them, but not all are equally trustworthy. In Part 1 and Part 2 of this series, I began discussing the problems which ensue when tabloid media reproduce false first-person accounts intended to discredit a spiritual figure or group. To recap:

A 15-second teaser for the PIX11 News boasts that Mary Murphy will expose a mysterious cult found right here in New York, and closes with a salacious sound bite. The only problem is that the “mysterious cult” is a respected spiritual group with a 45-year history of good citizenship and strong roots in the community. It conducts its benign spiritual, athletic, and cultural activities in full daylight, and anyone wanting accurate information about them can easily acquire it from reliable sources.

According to The New York Times, Jamaica Hills is a tranquil haven for many ethnic groups. A synagogue, a Greek orthodox church, and a meditation garden are each attractions to different people who live side-by-side in peace. Residents say that followers of the late spiritual master Sri Chinmoy are good neighbors because they’re quiet and law-abiding. Community Board 8 has nothing but praise for the group, crediting them with cleaning up an area which the city had abandoned, keeping it safe, clean, and crime-free.

Sri Chinmoy was originally from India, but moved to New York City in 1964 and soon began teaching a philosophy based on meditation, inner peace, and service to the world. By 1971 he had garnered praise for his meditations at the United Nations for diplomats and staff. (See “Many at U.N. Find Guru’s Message Brings Peace” in The New York Times.)

A 1976 People Magazine article lauded the guru’s genuine achievements, and noted that his followers opened up a row of businesses on Parsons Boulevard, including a health food store, a stationery store, and a café. Forty years later, those businesses are still standing and have been joined by a constellation of others. Over the decades their presence has become a familiar, non-threatening staple of life in a diverse community, a point of interest in articles describing local color.

These are facts, and these facts point to an “established truth” about Sri Chinmoy and his followers. They live a clean lifestyle based on meditation and inner peace. For decades they’ve contributed to the low crime rate and economic revitalization of the Queens neighborhood where they reside. They have zero history of criminal activity.

Why then the teaser from PIX11 News promising to reveal something sleazy and sexual? Why Mary Murphy chasing an elderly woman down the street and shoving a camera in her face?

Due to religious bigotry, and low ethics at a tabloid.

In going up against the lies told by big evil money, I recently had occasion to produce a short documentary (or mashup) which helps illustrate the mechanics of media smear campaigns:

Don’t you love it when William Shatner plays a baddie? His character in the Colombo clip reminds me a lot of Mary Murphy preparing a hoaxer in advance, then ambushing an unsuspecting victim and going for the jugular.

When innocent people are maligned through this type of smear, it represents a corruption of the democratic process and an abdication of the media’s responsibility to engage in truth-telling — not lie-telling. Sadly, Mary Murphy is one of those corrupting the process, leading to the dumbing down of America and the rise of vigilantism. If followers of Sri Chinmoy are harassed or their shops vandalized due to the totally false claims in her story, Mary Murphy bears considerable blame.

The anti-cultists she interviewed — who circulate salacious material on the Internet — are what are commonly known as kooks and cranks. No one at WPIX bothered to check whether any of them were on psychiatric medication, or had ever been fired from a job for sending threatening and abusive e-mails, and therefore bore an obsessive grudge. The answers to such questions would have been revealing. These are people who try to harass a spiritual group by spreading disinformation.

In a populist society, rights, freedoms, and the enforcement of laws intended to protect people come to depend on popularity. If you can make a spiritual group look unpopular, you can do a great many things to them before anyone will sound a note of protest. That’s why accurate definitions, descriptions, and information are not merely of abstract interest to scholars. These things affect how people are treated (or mistreated) every day in society. Where hate material is successfully injected into the public discourse, this spurs acts of hatred and harassment, and also encourages local law enforcement to ignore pleas for help from victims, despite top-level policies intended to foster respect and tolerance. That’s why truth matters.

In her Washington Post series “What was fake on the Internet this week,” Caitlin Dewey observes:

Where a willingness to believe hoaxes once seemed to come from a place of honest ignorance or misunderstanding, that’s frequently no longer the case. [False] headlines go viral via old-fashioned schadenfreude — even hate.

There’s a simple, economic explanation for this shift: If you’re a hoaxer, it’s more profitable. Since early 2014, a series of Internet entrepreneurs have realized that not much drives traffic as effectively as stories that vindicate and/or inflame the biases of their readers. Where many once wrote celebrity death hoaxes or “satires,” they now run entire, successful websites that do nothing but troll convenient minorities or exploit gross stereotypes. Paul Horner, the proprietor of Nbc.com.co and a string of other very profitable fake-news sites, once told me he specifically tries to invent stories that will provoke strong reactions in middle-aged conservatives. They share a lot on Facebook, he explained; they’re the ideal audience.

Walter Quattrociocchi, the head of the Laboratory of Computational Social Science at IMT Lucca in Italy, explained: “Institutional distrust is so high right now, and cognitive bias so strong always, that the people who fall for hoax news stories are frequently only interested in consuming information that conforms with their views — even when it’s demonstrably fake.”

So is PIX11 News now jumping on the bandwagon with its fake story about a “mysterious” (NOT!) “cult” (NOT!) in the middle of Jamaica Hills? Apparently. The story gets 5 Pinocchios because it’s based on the claims of serial fabricator and well-known net kook Anne Carlton (a.k.a. Joyce Carlton, Betty, Ladyliberty13, Penny1300, Satyahara2002, Monalisa19011, Phulela, et al.). One of her scams involves starting a sexual rumor under one alias, then pretending to “confirm” it under a different alias. Her theatrics remind me of this classic X-Files clip:

Fake as it is, and old as it is (it’s been festering on Internet message boards for 15 years), Anne Carlton’s story was pushed by PIX11 News because it panders to hate and attempts to vindicate and/or inflame the biases of viewers — to troll a convenient minority and exploit gross stereotypes. And while the story may have whizzed by quickly on broadcast TV or cable, leaving only a cloud of funk behind, true to form it brought a Facebook audience of haters out from behind the wainscotting, celebrating the fact that Mary Murphy finally told the truth about a secret conspiracy — a conspiracy so secret that no evidence of it can be located. (And aren’t those just the best kind for tabloid TV?) The same people probably tried to convince Murphy that if you type “Google” into Google, you’ll break the Internet (while laughing into their hands).

As unkind and untrue as was the original Mary Murphy story, its offense is compounded by the Mary Murphy Mystery page on Facebook, which embeds the video and welcomes comments from a clique of anti-cult ideologues. Any negative, tabloid-style story about a spiritual minority is going to have the boo birds descending from their eyries, dropping their guana, and flocking in support of negativity. It’s the nature of the Internet to amplify such negativity. Mary Murphy’s Facebook page became a focal point for expanding what was already a false and unjustified attack on a small, defenseless minority.

Murphy might claim she’s not legally responsible for the libelous comments which appear on her Facebook page, or the links to extreme hate material containing lurid sexual depictions. But no one could deny she’s morally responsible. The same lack of moral compass which led her to become a surrogate stalker also results in her Facebook page being used to escalate the harassment and compound the original libel with additional allegations of a sci-fi nature.

The form taken by this harassment is use of the Internet and tabloids to endlessly recycle false allegations under different aliases, where there is not one shred of evidence of wrongdoing. This robs the targets of due process, since the goal of the harassment is to convict them of crimes in the media when there is not even a complaint in the real world.

The latter fact can hardly be overemphasized. Sri Chinmoy taught meditation for over 40 years in the heart of New York City, where there is no lack of police or lawyers. He has a clean record because he lived a clean life. Ask community leaders and they’ll tell you that Sri Chinmoy was an upstanding citizen. Needless to say, he was never under investigation for any kind of crime, and indeed received much praise for his contributions to American life and the world culture of peace.

If there were crimes being committed, why wouldn’t anyone file a complaint? The answer is simple: Filing false police reports is a crime. Lying under oath is a crime. Feeding nonsense to the tabloids or Internet machine 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, as was done to Sen. John McCain during the 2000 presidential campaign.

Unfortunately, Mary Murphy’s standard is Someone said it on the Internet — it must be true! It’s time she learned that a mountain of hearsay or postings on anti-cult message boards doesn’t add up to one true fact. There are danger zones on the Internet where people create their own alternate reality by endlessly repeating and embellishing the same nonsensical claims, e.g. that President Obama is both gay and Muslim. These people are not truth-tellers, but attention-seekers.

Obviously, there are good journalists who risk life and limb to bring back truthful stories which need telling. These journalists are genuine heroes. Others who broadcast garbage are not merely rare, misguided individuals. There are whole segments of the media whose economic model is based on pandering to the lowest common denominator of viewers — a form of institutionalized corruption ratified by awarding Emmys for tabloid TV.

Such Emmys demonstrate that the dogs like the dog food; but wouldn’t it be better to treat people like human beings and insist as a matter of professional pride on giving them news which doesn’t pander to their worst prejudices, but instead raises them up and reflects their noblest ideals? For every Emmy awarded to a slop-peddler like Mary Murphy, somewhere there’s a good journalist whose truthful stories aren’t being heard, no less rewarded.

There’s a difference between journalists who simply aren’t that good at what they do, and those who expertly manipulate the devices of telejournalism in order to get the biased results they’re after. Mary Murphy is of the latter type. In “Better Reporting on Religious and Ethnic Minorities,” I discuss the problem of false balance:

According to Katrina vanden Heuvel in The Washington Post, the distorting effect of false balance entails “presenting fiction on par with fact.” In USA Today, Rem Rieder writes: “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.” Margaret Sullivan, Public Editor at The New York Times, says that “In general, The Times tries to avoid letting two sides of a debate get equal time when one of them represents an established truth.”

The established truth about Sri Chinmoy is given by reputable sources such as those I’ve linked to, including articles in bona fide encyclopedias of religion like the Encyclopedia of Hinduism.

False balance may occur when a reporter lacks the resources to locate the established truth, and inadvertently lets fly with a lopsided story. But at its most venal, false balance is the result of intentional manipulation by an unscrupulous reporter. In Mary Murphy’s case, she carefully prepped the anti-cultists she was interviewing ahead of time, to make them look sympathetic and their absurd claims appear credible. Those she interviewed actually have a history of mental illness, substance abuse, cyberstalking, and posting extreme hate material on the Internet. She cleaned them up and gentrified the material they’re peddling, so they would look less like crackpots. She interviewed Anne Carlton in her home with a wood fire burning, as if to say “fireside chat” (though “padded cell” would have been more appropriate).

By contrast, Murphy then ambushed followers of Sri Chinmoy as they were walking down the street, or barged into their shops demanding immediate answers. This was intended to give a false appearance of balance. When someone from Sri Chinmoy Centre knowledgeable about the issues approached her, Murphy flatly refused to interview them. She didn’t want to speak to someone who could provide a detailed rebuttal to the false claims she was promoting. She pretended instead that Sri Chinmoy Centre was unavailable for comment.

For this type of fraud upon the general public, Murphy deserves unemployment not Emmys. She intentionally rigged her piece to mislead and misinform. The real “mystery” is why fellow journalists don’t drum her out of the profession. The real “secret” is that as long as she keeps viewers glued to their seats until the next commercial, few people care that she’s selling a pack of lies.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but there aren’t enough Pinocchios in Gepetto’s workshop to award Mary Murphy the requisite number here. You don’t do a story this biased and this hateful by accident. You do it because you want to, because you think you can get away with it, because you think you can lie. You do it because you think your bosses won’t notice or won’t care because they’re preoccupied with other matters…

What’s keeping WPIX execs so busy?

Richard Graziano, President and General Manager of WPIX-TV, certainly can’t be bothered checking up on reporter Mary Murphy, making sure a hoaxer’s story isn’t aired. That ought to be News Director Amy Waldman’s job. Waldman, considered “clueless” by some, is reportedly more concerned with ordering lunch. But her actual brief may be to continue the trend at PIX11 of using “native advertising” as a new (if ethically questionable) revenue stream. Not to be confused with Maasai carrying signage, native advertising is advertising disguised to look like news:

The partnership between a news station and an ad agency brings together different types of media companies that historically have maintained a wall of separation but are increasingly intertwined, as news outlets seek alternative revenue streams and marketers try to embed their messages in the programs and pages people want to consume — a strategy known as native advertising or sponsored content.

The growing use of native advertising threatens to leave viewers confused about whether they are watching unbiased reporting or promotional material, according to some media specialists.

“What they’re doing is blurring the lines between news, entertainment, and advertising,” said John Carroll, a former advertising and television news executive who is now a professor of mass communication at Boston University. “The whole idea is to keep it up in the air: What exactly is this?” The format is just newsy enough to disarm people who have built up a subconscious defense against marketing.

— Callum Borchers, “Advertising? Journalism? You be the judge,” in The Boston Globe

According to The New York Times, a too-cosy relationship with advertisers — one that interfered with news-gathering — was already a problem at the Hartford Courant — Rich Graziano’s old stomping ground and another Tribune Media/Tribune Publishing property. Now, at PIX11 News things have gotten so bad you almost expect Kaity Tong to open the broadcast by singing the Rice-A-Roni theme song.

PIX11 produces sponsored content for brands like Four Roses Bourbon. September just happens to be National Bourbon Month, and PIX11 News feels that any kids up at 6:56 in the a.m. need to know how to mix cocktails using Four Roses and nothing but Four Roses — bottles and bottles of the stuff! Comments heard in the following PIX11 News segment include:

Kori Chambers: Be patriotic here and have some bourbon.
Franky Marshall: It’s never too early for a little bourbon!

View the video on PIX11.com for now. (I’ll embed it in the post when I have time.)

PIX11 News: It’s 7 a.m. Do you know where your bourbon is?

PIX11 News: It’s 7 a.m. Do you know where your bourbon is?

I understand that for the cable version, PIX11’s Kori Chambers is wearing nothing but a slingshot thong emblazoned with the Four Roses logo. “Although I’m not allowed to drink on air,” he reportedly says, “I’m going to inject this delightful concoction intravenously. Mmm mmm good!” (Just kidding.)

PIX11 does brag that 400,000 Facebook users have seen this ad they produced for Larceny Bourbon, which features icons that look like cartoon characters. It was posted on YouTube by PIX11 News, which claims that “These three amazing cocktails made with Larceny Bourbon are so good, it’s a crime.” (I can think of others!)

The ad equates “feeling playful” with afternoon drinking and getting “a rush you’ll remember.” If the voice-over guy commanding you to “Get some Larceny wheated bourbon” sounds familiar, it’s because he’s the same guy who does the teasers for PIX11 News. Does this strike anyone as a tad incestuous?

With a wink and nod, PIX11 notes that of course those 400,000 Facebook viewers of the bourbon ad are all over 21. But according to ABC News, Consumer Reports says that 7.5 million Facebook users are under 13. So I guess you’re never too young for a little bourbon, either! (See also this iMediaEthics story: “WPIX-TV airs ‘Best Sex Ever’ Sunday at 10 AM when kids seek cartoons.”

PIX11-larceny-bourbon

Am I annoying department: PIX11’s Larceny Bourbon ad (modified version)

For other examples of PIX11 News using “native advertising” to promote hard liquor in the a.m., see this segment for Bombay Sapphire Gin, or this segment specifically targeting kids with Halloween cocktails, or this Earth Day segment hawking Casa Noble Tequila (and matching accessories). Starts to look like the Home Shopping Network, doesn’t it?

Here’s a page where PIX11 News mixes a heady cocktail for kids that includes Facebook, baseball, and a fun meetup with sportscaster Andy Adler:

PIX11 sportscaster Andy Adler

PIX11 sportscaster Andy Adler

Sponsored by Larceny Bourbon, the meetup takes place at American Whiskey, which claims that it caters to curious amateur drinkers by offering over 375 different varieties of booze.

Now, I like baseball and used to watch the Yanks on WPIX-TV back in the day. I’ve even been known to hoist a glass or two. There’s always been a strong connection between the liquor industry and sports, but I wonder if things have gotten out of hand.

These days, it seems like even news stories are trying to sell me something — if not a product, then a point of view. Drinking is good, baseball is good, minority religions are bad. Start drinking Four Roses at 7 a.m. and by the time 5 p.m. rolls around, you’ll be so stoned you’ll believe Mary Murphy when she says she’s uncovered a mysterious cult in quiet Jamaica Hills. The poor viewer or consumer (is there a difference these days?) is placed in the unfortunate position recounted in this immortal anthem from the 90s:

Smelly cat, smelly cat,
What are they feeding you?
Smelly cat, smelly cat,
It’s not your fault.

Why is it that PIX11 News has a seemingly infinite budget to promote drinking and sports, but can’t be bothered fact-checking a libelous story about a minority spiritual group? Mr. Graziano? Ms. Waldman? Anyone?

From left to right: President and General Manager of WPIX-TV Richard Graziano; News Director Amy Waldman; and reporter Mary Murphy

From left to right: President and General Manager of WPIX-TV Richard Graziano; News Director Amy Waldman; and reporter Mary Murphy (here shown giving her cell phone the stink eye)

Still, I suppose once you’re in bed with Larceny, libel seems like sauce for the goose. Having made its bed of Four Roses, I hope PIX11 is prepared to stew in it. Perhaps its executives need to “rejigger” their priorities.

As a lone citizen, I try to make sense of the media behemoth that’s out there — the nature of the beast. With vertical integration between news, entertainment and assorted industries, the world view we get from mainstream media tends to occupy a narrow frequency band that centers around production and consumption, and is hostile to spiritual groups. Our founding fathers believed in an America where the secular sphere and the religious sphere could complement each other, but today it seems like the secular sphere often wages war against the religious sphere, viewing spiritual groups as a threat to the primacy of secular materialism. Maybe they don’t drink enough bourbon. 😉

Anyway, a handful of people meditating, singing spiritual songs, and leading a pure lifestyle in Jamaica Hills are no threat to PIX11 News and its pixilated sponsors, so there’s really no reason to harass them with hoax stories or send witchy woman Mary Murphy to chase them down the street. Such social control measures are unnecessary and uncalled for.

As for where PIX11 News should hold its meetups, instead of seedy bars how about a really classy location like the Tomb of the Low Information Viewer? That’s the entity upon which PIX11’s ratings ultimately depend.

pix11-news

* * *

This post is Part 3 in a series. Read Parts 1 and 2 here:
“Mary Murphy and WPIX-TV, Part 1”
“PIX11’s Mary Murphy: Stalking The Truth (but lies will also do)”

After a break, I hope to be back with Part 4, where I’ll give some examples of deceptive framing and faulty reasoning used by Mary Murphy to “cook” a false story. Some might say, “Why bother? She’s a bigoted jerk, leave it at that.” Still, when big evil money lies, all we can do as individuals is to stick up for truth, and tell the truth in detail so that other people of intelligence and conscience would see the truth for themselves.

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.

PIX11’s Mary Murphy: Stalking The Truth (but lies will also do)

Part 2 in a series on tabloid TV (Part 1, Part 3)

An elderly woman is walking a dog in the tranquil neighborhood of Jamaica Hills, Queens when suddenly she’s chased down the street and accosted. Is this some new menace plaguing a generally low-crime area? In a way. It’s PIX11’s Mary Murphy practicing her peculiar brand of ambush journalism. What makes it especially peculiar is that in this case she’s become a surrogate stalker.

Anne Carlton and Gary Falk have been cyberstalking Sri Chinmoy and Sri Chinmoy Centre for 25 years between them. Neighborhood residents or readers of local Queens papers would recall that Sri Chinmoy was the kindly, genial spiritual leader who lived in the area for the last 35 years of his life. See “Kids learn to help others at Sri Chinmoy Centre,” in Newsday, or “So Sorry To Lose Sri Chinmoy” in the Queens Courier.

According to The New York Times, Jamaica Hills is a tranquil haven for many ethnic groups. A synagogue, a Greek orthodox church, and a meditation garden are each attractions to different people who live side-by-side in peace. Residents say that followers of Sri Chinmoy are good neighbors because they’re quiet and law-abiding. Community Board 8 has nothing but praise for the group, crediting them with cleaning up an area which the city had abandoned, keeping it safe, clean, and crime-free.

Sri Chinmoy was originally from India, but moved to New York City in 1964 and soon began teaching a philosophy based on meditation, inner peace, and service to the world. By 1971 he had garnered praise for his meditations at the United Nations for diplomats and staff. (See “Many at U.N. Find Guru’s Message Brings Peace” in The New York Times.)

A 1976 People Magazine article lauded the guru’s genuine achievements, and noted that his followers opened up a row of businesses on Parsons Boulevard, including a health food store, a stationery store, and a café. Forty years later, those businesses are still standing and have been joined by a constellation of others. Over the decades their presence has become a familiar, non-threatening staple of life in a diverse community, a point of interest in articles describing local color.

Followers of the late guru are health & fitness buffs, and hold many races in the area, including the Self-Transcendence 3100 Mile Race. In 2011, the Wall Street Journal did a video piece about the race, including an interview with a local resident who said she felt safe with the runners and support staff out from 6 a.m. to midnight. Writing in the Queens Free Press, Vejai Sahadeo noted that this “Ultra Marathon is a Winner for the Neighborhood” because “the determination, resilience, and endurance the runners exhibited motivated some people to search their own life for meaning and inspired them to reach a goal they thought was not achievable.”

Sports isn’t only for the men at Sri Chinmoy Centre. The women have been breaking records right and left, including ultra runner Suprabha Beckjord and channel swimmer Abhejali Bernardová. In fact, the Sri Chinmoy Marathon Team has racked up numerous channel swims by both women and men. Consummate sportswoman Vasanti Niemz speaks about her experiences in this YouTube interview.

But there’s more going on here than road racing or channel swimming. Art, music, and poetry play an important role in the guru’s “path of the heart,” and he was known to be prolific in these areas. In August 2008, nearly a year after his passing, followers held a 10-day exhibit of his “Paintings for World Harmony” in the lobby of the U.N. Secretariat building:

World leaders sent letters of support, art curators eagerly attended, and singer Roberta Flack spoke of the guru in glowing terms:

Sri Chinmoy is a man who came to walk the talk. Everything that he said, everything that he proposed, every solution that he imagined as a way for us to get closer to each other was in fact a part of his entire being. It was not a struggle for him to lead us and to guide us as artists and as thinkers. Sri Chinmoy indeed gave me the opportunity to prove that art and music are the most eloquent balms for the challenging times that we live in. His work you see here tonight is an indication that he was a creator of peace. So he was walking the talk. Again, through his words, music and art he lived every day, every second, every minute of every hour of every year of all the time striving for world harmony — he never tired. And he also never tired of encouraging everybody to do the same. I look at his art with you tonight and I hope you can see and feel as I do his strong message of peace, his ability to walk that talk, his message of peace and harmony, and love that will always be here and will continue to ring clearly and purely for generations to come.

So what’s with the cyberstalking by Anne Carlton and Gary Falk, and physical stalking by Mary Murphy? Well, almost since its birth America has partaken of a dual nature: strong ideals of religious freedom, but also a strong nativist backlash against newly arrived religious groups, including Roman Catholics in the mid-nineteenth century. The burning of convents, synagogues, and black churches is a shameful aspect of American history, even as the hope and striving for religious tolerance is a proud one.

When John Fitzgerald Kennedy ran for president in 1960, he had to overcome a tide of anti-Catholic sentiment. Speaking to a large group of Protestant ministers who were initially hostile to him, Kennedy said:

I believe in an America where religious intolerance will someday end; where all men and all churches are treated as equal; where every man has the same right to attend or not attend the church of his choice; where there is no Catholic vote, no anti-Catholic vote, no bloc voting of any kind; and where Catholics, Protestants and Jews, at both the lay and pastoral level, will refrain from those attitudes of disdain and division which have so often marred their works in the past, and promote instead the American ideal of brotherhood.

Even before coming to America, Sri Chinmoy was a great admirer of President Kennedy, and wrote of him:

Hope is strength. Hope is progress. When the sun of hope is eclipsed, the inevitable fear of bondage looms large. Kennedy, with his breadth of outlook and depth of insight, can help immensely to restore this hope to man.

— Sri Chinmoy, Kennedy: The Universal Heart

On the subject of tolerance, Sri Chinmoy wrote:

True religion has a universal quality. It does not find fault with other religions. Forgiveness, compassion, tolerance, brotherhood and the feeling of oneness are the signs of a true religion.

— Sri Chinmoy, World-Destruction: Never, Impossible! Part 1

Sri Chinmoy was active in the interfaith community, and often met with leading figures of other faiths, from Mother Teresa to Pir Vilayat Khan. He composed songs honouring both of them, as he also did for his friends Monsignor Thomas Hartman and Rabbi Marc Gellman, whose respect he earned.

Yet, even as many leaders were striving for greater tolerance and understanding between religions, and diverse communities were learning to live in harmony, there was also a rise in hate groups based on anti-cult ideology. While hostile to religion in general, these anti-cult groups especially targeted new arrivals who taught meditation and Eastern philosophy. Such spiritual groups varied greatly in beliefs, practices, and quality of leadership, but tended to be lumped together by anti-cultists. Sociologist Dr. Joseph E. Davis writes:

Lumping disparate groups together serves the purpose of creating the specter of conspiracy and of a stereotypical enemy. All of these elements — organized opposition, brainwashing theories, atrocity stories, calls for governmental action, combining of unrelated groups with an overarching xenophobia and religious bigotry — are a part of the anti-cult movement that appeared in the 1970s. Furthermore, with the establishment of formal anti-cult organizations, publishing enterprises, and educational programs, the anti-cult movement now has a considerable stake in keeping the cult scare alive.

In his final years, Sri Chinmoy continued to garner praise for his outstanding achievements in the fields of spirituality, art, athletics, and world peace. Rep. Gary Ackerman, a Queens congressman from 1983-2013, knew Sri Chinmoy personally and visited Sri Chinmoy Centre on numerous occasions. In 2006, he offered this “Tribute To Sri Chinmoy” published in the Congressional Record. In 2007 — the final year of his life — Sri Chinmoy was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. It was not the first time, but the number of people and groups supporting his nomination was larger than ever before.

Yet, Sri Chinmoy also had to contend with increasing levels of harassment from anti-cult groups, some of whom engaged in trademark infringement. The situation got so bad that as a last resort, in 2003 Sri Chinmoy was forced to file a complaint. In it, he attested that he was a celibate yogi, but that anti-Hindu deprogrammers were registering websites in his name, using them to publish false and scurrilous attacks, some of a sexual nature, while at the same time making commercial offers to “deprogram” students of Eastern spiritual studies. Indeed, despite the good reputation which Sri Chinmoy Centre enjoyed in the community, members were sometimes kidnapped and subjected to forced “deprogramming” in what is generally considered a violation of civil rights. According to Shelley K. Parker writing in the Western New England Law Review:

Removing devotees from their chosen sect and unduly scrutinizing their religion violates the first amendment rights of freedom of religion and as­sociation. The free exercise clause of the first amendment protects the right of the individual to hold any religious belief, provided that belief is sincerely held. Beliefs may not be questioned nor put to any test of proof of validity. Even beliefs which seem irrational to most people are entitled to constitutional protection. More important, all religions should be treated equally.

Scrutinizing an individual’s religion not only interferes with the right to religious freedom, but also interferes with an individu­al’s freedom of association. To insure that this right is protected, any state action forcing an individual to reveal, explain, or defend associations, regardless of whether the association is for political, economic, cultural, or religious reasons, should be closely scru­tinized. Denying freedom of association not only frustrates the individual, but also inhibits the growth of religious groups. All reli­gious groups need a climate of full freedom of association to grow and develop. The Supreme Court has recognized that this constitu­tional protection is especially important when the beliefs and ideas which the group advocates are not those of the majority.

The possibility of being subjected to “deprogramming” may deter individuals from joining unpopular religious organizations. Present members may not wish to chance open and continuous devotion to their religious sect. Such a chilling effect is in clear contradiction to the first amend­ment’s purpose of protecting both freedom of religion and freedom of association.

To anti-cult groups, Sri Chinmoy’s actual teachings and record of achievements mattered little, as did the clearly voluntary process by which seekers applied to become his students and subsequently adopted a modest spiritual lifestyle. Rather, the main focus of anti-cult groups was on locating disgruntled ex-followers who could be persuaded to portray the guru in negative stereotypic terms — in effect replacing the real person with a hateful caricature. This is similar to harassment of Roman Catholics in the mid-nineteenth century, when so-called “convent tales” in the form of false first-person accounts were used to portray the life of Catholic nuns as one of captivity and rampant abuse. According to religious scholar James R. Lewis, convent tales “typically consisted of the recounting of one atrocity after another — a litany of evil held together by a thin strand of narrative.”

Today, anti-cult groups continue to circulate atrocity stories in an effort to discredit Eastern gurus, and to send a strong message that notwithstanding ideals of religious freedom written into the U.S. Constitution, participation in minority faiths is still stigmatized. Anti-cult groups may subject the minority adherent to shaming and harassment, using the less reputable media as surrogate harassers. (Hence, Mary Murphy chasing an elderly woman down the street and peppering her with insulting questions, cameras rolling all the while.)

Harassment by anti-cult groups or their surrogates makes the barriers to entry intolerably high, as citizens may fear to follow their conscience in spiritual matters, dreading the punishment meted out by aggressive majoritarians. As Shelley K. Parker noted, “Such a chilling effect is in clear contradiction to the first amend­ment’s purpose of protecting both freedom of religion and freedom of association.”

This highlights the often stark contrast between ideals of religious freedom we learn as schoolchildren, and the reality that when people make minority choices they may be harassed and ridiculed. We teach Frost to schoolchildren, but when someone actually takes the road less traveled by, they’re subjected to name-calling and hatred. Anti-cult groups feed the media disinformation about minority spiritual figures. This material is not fact-checked the way a piece about a Senator or corporate head would be. Such disparate treatment is the hallmark of discrimination.

In a media-dominated society, it’s not necessary to make a spiritual group illegal in order to suppress it and greatly limit its ability to function. It’s only necessary to demonize its leader and followers so as to discourage participation by sending a clear signal that such participation will be stigmatized. This leads to a climate in which peace-loving and law-abiding citizens may be falsely portrayed as criminals in order to feed the media frenzy for scapegoats or “folk devils.” There’s a confluence of interests between anti-cult groups obsessed with discrediting Eastern gurus, and tabloid media who capitalize on fear and suspicion. The net result is to fuel moral panics and inflame a reactionary mindset.

The problem, then, with PIX11’s Mary Murphy is that she often ends up being a crusader for stupidity and intolerance, not for the values of brotherhood which actually make America great. She barges in on a quiet neighborhood which is a model of people getting along, and tries to sow suspicion and religious hatred — based on ridiculous lies which she seems predisposed to believe, perhaps due to some narrowness or bigotry in her own upbringing. She does not see the people she targets as individuals with rights; she sees only a cult meme which she’s intent on commercially exploiting.

Just as it’s joked in Washington that the most dangerous place to stand is between certain politicians and a camera, the most dangerous place to stand in Queens is between Mary Murphy and an Emmy. Her treatment of Sri Chinmoy and his followers was ruthless, heartless, and inhumane. Where she opts to believe serial fabricator Anne Carlton — who is a modern day Maria Monk figure — this is a massive blunder tantamount to believing that the woman stalking David Letterman was really his wife.

A 15-second teaser for the 5 O’Clock News boasts that Mary Murphy will expose a mysterious cult found right here in New York, and closes with a salacious sound bite. The only problem is that the “mysterious cult” is a respected spiritual group with a 45-year history of good citizenship and strong roots in the community. It conducts its benign spiritual, athletic, and cultural activities in full daylight, and anyone wanting accurate information about them can easily acquire it from reputable sources (which do not include PIX11!).

Sri Chinmoy’s followers are people who buy homes or rent apartments in the Jamaica Hills area, and open up small businesses like cafés and flower shops. For decades they’ve contributed to the low crime rate and economic revitalization of the area. They have a well-earned reputation for clean living, inspired by their teacher Sri Chinmoy, who passed away in October 2007 at the age of 76. His loss was mourned by thousands of people worldwide. To state the obvious, he was never under investigation for any kind of crime. Why would he be, since he was a model citizen?

As for those who circulate salacious material (mostly via the Internet), they’re what are commonly known as kooks and cranks. No one at PIX11 bothered to ask whether any of them were on psychiatric medication, or had ever been fired from a job for sending threatening and abusive e-mails, and therefore bore an obsessive grudge. The answers to such questions would have been revealing.

Mary Murphy’s story was untruthful and unfair. Sri Chinmoy got kinder treatment from the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and from the late Sister Nirmala Joshi. Closer to home, he got fairer treatment from the late Monsignor Thomas J. Hartman, born in Richmond Hill and affiliated with the Rockville Centre Diocese. Father Tom penned the introduction to The Wisdom of Sri Chinmoy. So many good people of Sri Chinmoy’s generation who knew him and could speak for him have sadly passed on, leaving his memory open to shark attacks from the likes of Mary Murphy.

Deep in our hearts we all want to live in a world where there is peace and harmony. Sri Chinmoy strove each day to help create such a world. That’s why false material vilifying him is especially offensive to those who knew him, knew his good works, and knew him to be a kindly soul.

Like John F. Kennedy, I believe in an America where religious intolerance will someday end.

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.

Read Parts 1 and 3 of this series here:
“Mary Murphy and WPIX-TV, Part 1”
“PIX11’s Mary Murphy: So You Thunk You Can Lie”

Mary Murphy and WPIX-TV, Part 1

Why is Mary Murphy chasing an elderly woman down the street? The answer to that mystery next!

Forgive the tabloid TV come-on, but I assure you it’s entirely appropriate to the subject matter, which is muckraking journalism (not the good kind, which I respect). We’ll also be discussing cyberstalking, net kooks, apostate atrocity stories, and how these topics are related. We’ll take a look at a couple of well-known net kooks who engage in cyberstalking: Anne Carlton and Gary Falk. If you thought you knew all about cyberstalking, this article will cover an important angle often missed: the effect of cyberstalking on spiritual minorities. But let’s begin with a few quotes:

Cyberstalking is defined as the repeated use of the Internet, e-mail, or related digital electronic communication devices to annoy, alarm, or threaten a specific individual or group of individuals.

— “A Study on Cyberstalking: Understanding Investigative Hurdles,” D’Ovidio R & Doyle J, FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, March 2003

Stalkers are setting up websites that threaten victims or encourage others to contact, harass, or harm the victim. Some abusers encourage others to stalk their victim by posting erroneous and harassing information on websites.

“A High-Tech Twist on Abuse,” Tucker, Cremer, Fraser, & Southworth

The woman who has stalked David Letterman for five years truly believes she is his wife. She has been discovered on Mr. Letterman’s property numerous times, has been arrested driving his car and has even appeared at his residence with her own child in tow — each time insisting that she is David Letterman’s wife.

Love obsessional stalkers not only attempt to live out their fantasies, but expect their victims to play their assigned roles as well. They believe they can make the object of their affection love them. They desperately want to establish a positive personal relationship with their victim. When the victim refuses to follow the script or doesn’t respond as the stalker hopes, they may attempt to force the victim to comply by use of threats and intimidation.

“Stalking Questions and Answers,” The University of Vermont

But what happens when the victim of stalking is a member of a minority faith?

Exploitation by Exit Counselors and Anti-Cult Groups

Most stalking situations are fairly black-and-white. However, the situation is sometimes complicated by societal problems of bigotry and intolerance. Cyberstalkers may be encouraged to continue their stalking behavior by certain therapists and anti-cult groups, provided that the victim of the stalking is a member of a minority faith. The quirky rationale is that the stalker must have become deranged due to “cult abuse,” and that by using the Internet as a virtual weapon, the stalker is regaining his or her self-esteem, and performing a useful function for society, which (according to this rationale) would be better off without minority faiths.

It’s a little like a joke sometimes attributed to Groucho Marx: “This guy goes to a psychiatrist because his brother has a problem. He thinks he’s a chicken. The psychiatrist answers simply: ‘Why not tell him he’s not a chicken and be done with it?’ To which the man responds, ‘I’d like to, but we need the eggs.'”

Like this, some exit counselors and anti-cult organizations exploit former members of bona fide spiritual groups. They encourage delusional thinking and troubled behaviour, as long as it advances their agenda of opposing “cults.” If a love-obsessional stalker going through the hate stage is saying vile things about a minority spiritual figure, some exit counselors and anti-cult groups will publish this material, because it helps create a climate of fear which will boost sales of anti-cult books, videos and “counseling” sessions. Never mind that the material is false, and that it will needlessly alarm parents. A frightened parent is a parent willing to shell out big bucks for a “cult intervention.”

When a member of a minority faith becomes a victim of cyberstalking, this places the victim in a double bind — first, because he or she is being stalked; second, because he or she may be non-white and non-Judeo-Christian. In such cases, the stalker’s method of harassing the victim may be to pander to stereotypes about the victim’s ethnic and religious background, and to try and enlist the less reputable media as surrogate harassers. In other words, if the victim is David Letterman, everyone will believe him when he says, “This is not my wife.” If the victim is non-white, non-Judeo-Christian, and not a media darling, some of the media will side with the stalker!

“Cyber-Stalkers and Net Kooks”

In fact, that’s exactly what happened in February 2016. Anne Carlton and Gary Falk (most recently of Willow, New York) are troubled people who’ve been cyberstalking Sri Chinmoy and Sri Chinmoy Centre for 25 years between them. (This even continued after Sri Chinmoy’s death in 2007.) They recently enlisted Mary Murphy of WPIX-TV as a surrogate stalker. Murphy was actually caught chasing an elderly woman down the street and shoving a camera in her face. The woman being harassed was a devotee of Sri Chinmoy who was walking a dog on a quiet street in Jamaica Hills. She couldn’t run very fast because she was wearing an Indian sari, which is a modest spiritual garment.

So while Anne Carlton and Gary Falk usually use the Internet to stalk and harass their targets, in this case they managed to get Mary Murphy to escalate things to physical harassment. Murphy’s style of ambush journalism is hardly distinguishable from stalking. Emily Spence-Diehl writes:

For many stalkers, the line between fantasy and reality is either blurry or nonexistent. The fantasy themes often revolve around entitlement (“you’re mine”), anger (“you’ll pay for this”), and/or destiny (“we’re meant to be together”). In some cases, the belief that the fantasy is real is so strong that the stalkers may appear more reliable and insistent than the victims. Law enforcement officers may call a stalker in for an interview who very convincingly spins a tale about the love relationship between he or she and the victim, right down to the insignificant details. Yet in reality no romantic relationship ever existed. These particular types of stalkers are referred to by psychological experts as sufferers of “erotomania;” they delusionally believe they’re in a romantic relationship with the victim that does not actually exist.

Stalking–A Handbook for Victims

In Anne Carlton’s case, she makes up a bewildering variety of stories about Sri Chinmoy; and while these stories are ever-changing and mutually inconsistent (not to speak of being inconsistent with reality), they all feature Ms. Carlton in the grand role of love interest. She’s a shameless publicity hound who’s been trying to retail her romantic fantasies to the tabloids for time out of mind. When Sri Chinmoy was approached by a tabloid in 2004 regarding Ms. Carlton, he issued a full denial, stating that he maintained celibacy. “You’re going to have disgruntled people,” said attorney Ed Hayes. “His philosophy attracts many people, and some of them are deeply troubled, some in a sexual way.”

No reputable news outlet will touch the material circulated by Ms. Carlton, but some of her more salacious and hate-filled screeds do appear on anti-cult sites — particularly those run by deprogrammers or exit counselors who charge a few thousand dollars a pop for euphemistically named cult interventions.

One can feel sorry for Ms. Carlton because she’s a troubled and unhappy person, but she is NOT a victim. In truth, she victimizes others with her false accounts, which are used to incite ethnic and religious hatred.

She and her husband Gary Falk are well-known net kooks who are typically unavoidable for comment on the Internet, and will hijack any thread about Sri Chinmoy in order to post nasty comments or links to hate sites. Mr. Falk is the owner/moderator of a site which publishes material referring to the kindly (and much-respected) Sri Chinmoy as a “Bengali bastard” and a “cocksucker,” and which discusses “knocking his little head off clean from his Indian shoulders.”

Simon and Schuster author Sri Chinmoy

Simon and Schuster author Sri Chinmoy

In the twilight of his life, Sri Chinmoy was ruthlessly harassed by such grubby folk. Even as he continued to earn tributes and commendations for his numerous good works, he had to endure harassment forming a consistent pattern: absurd accusations endlessly repeated and recycled under different aliases, but absolutely zero evidence of wrongdoing. (I have elsewhere described this as a form of information terrorism.) This type of multi-year harassment comprising multiple incidents is a violation of civil rights and due process. And it’s not only the late Sri Chinmoy who is harassed in this manner, but the surviving nonprofit which he founded, and living followers by name.

I want to stress that there’s a connection between individual cyberstalkers, and hate groups which base their activities on anti-cult ideology. The group dynamics of hate groups engender victimhood, creating a demand for someone to “come forward” and willingly play the role of a victim, in order to fuel hatred and justify vigilantism. In an anti-cult context, atrocity stories portraying former minority adherents as victims are used to assuage apostate guilt, relocate blame, and justify harassment of spiritual minorities.

The individual strategy of cyberstalkers, who pretend to be victims avenging some imagined wrong, converges with the broader strategy of hate groups, who use atrocity stories as a propaganda tool to influence the media. The following quotes begin to get at the flavour of these interconnected relationships:

Dr. Lonnie Kliever:

There are some voluntary apostates from new religious movements who leave deeply embittered and harshly critical of their former religious associations and activities. Their dynamics of separation from a once-loved religious group is analogous to an embittered marital separation and divorce. Both marriage and religion require a significant degree of commitment. The greater the involvement, the more traumatic the break-up. The longer the commitment, the more urgent the need to blame the other for the failed relationship. Long-term and heavily involved members of new religious movements who over time become disenchanted with their religion often throw all of the blame on their former religious associations and activities. They magnify small flaws into huge evils. They turn personal disappointments into malicious betrayals. They even will tell incredible falsehoods to harm their former religion.

— Dr. Lonnie Kliever, “The Reliability of Apostate Testimony About New Religious Movements”

Christine Gorman:

By all accounts, the descent into delusion is gradual. Everyone has experienced slights, insults or failures at one time or another, and most people find some way to cope. Or, if they don’t, a trusted friend or family member may persuade them to forget the past and get on with their lives. But if they cannot shake off the sense of humiliation, they may instead nourish their grudges and start a mental list of all the injustices in their lives. Rather than take a critical look at themselves, they blame their troubles on “the company,” for example, or “the government” or “the system.” Often these aggrieved people fall in with others sharing the same point of view. The group helps them to rehearse their grievances, ensuring that the wounds remain open, and exposes them to similar complaints. As a result, paranoia blossoms and spreads.

— Christine Gorman, “Calling All Paranoids,” TIME magazine

The Jargon File:

Net kook is a term used to describe a regular poster who continually posts messages with no apparent grounding in reality. Different from a troll, which implies a sort of sly wink on the part of a poster who knows better, kooks really believe what they write, to the extent that they believe anything. The kook trademark is paranoia and grandiosity. Kooks will often build up elaborate imaginary support structures, fake corporations and the like, and continue to act as if those things are real even after their falsity has been documented in public. While they may appear harmless, there are several instances on record of journalists writing stories with quotes from kooks who caught them unaware.

The Jargon File

Matthew Johnson:

Consciously or unconsciously, hate groups draw on a number of basic psychological mechanisms to attract and indoctrinate believers. It’s important to teach young people to recognize the elements that distinguish ideologies of hate from legitimate discourse: the characterization of one or more groups as “the Other,” and a narrative of victimhood.

“The Other,” which is dehumanized and portrayed as being simultaneously inferior and threatening, is at the heart of all messages of hate. These groups justify their hatred by portraying themselves as being victimized by the Other; the ultimate example of this is often the accusation that the Other is responsible for the loss of the group’s proper place in the world at some time in the past. Besides teaching young people critical thinking skills, we can also fight online hate by helping them to develop empathy.

— Matthew Johnson, “Preparing youth to deal with hate on the Internet”

Elissa Lee and Laura Leets:

Increasingly, hate groups have used the Internet to express their viewpoints, sell their paraphernalia, and recruit new members. According to William Pierce, “Fiction or drama gets much more inside the head of the person who is experiencing it because the reader or viewer identifies with a character.” Pierce’s enthusiasm for fiction displays how hate groups have begun to use narratives to influence others and to promote their vision. Historically, narrators have often intended to persuade their audiences of their points of view or the legitimacy of their claims with stories. The power of storytelling lies in its ability to make an argument without eliciting mental resistance. Empirical studies have supported this claim with findings that narratives elicit fewer counterarguments and less resistance to persuasion. Narratives, especially fictional stories, may raise less scrutiny and suspicion through suspension of disbelief and identification with the protagonist’s mental perspective.

— Elissa Lee and Laura Leets, “Persuasive Storytelling by Hate Groups Online,” American Behavioral Scientist

It’s clear that both individual cyberstalkers and hate groups use fictional stories to target their victims. The Internet is particularly prone to socially constructed realities (or hoaxes) which simply don’t jibe with the fact-based reality journalists are supposed to be concerned with. This converges with the problem of “confirmation bias,” in which a reporter buys into a false story because it confirms her ingrained prejudices about a minority group or spiritual figure.

As discussed earlier, when a member of a minority faith becomes a victim of cyberstalking, the stalker’s method of harassing the victim may be to pander to stereotypes about the victim’s ethnic and religious background, and to try and enlist the less reputable media as surrogate harassers. It’s the duty of responsible journalists not to allow themselves to be used in this manner, and certainly not to actively join in the harassment, as PIX11’s Mary Murphy did. In “Better Reporting on Religious and Ethnic Minorities,” I write:

There are organizations which seek to “educate” the public that minority religions are to be hated, feared, discriminated against, and generally treated like lepers. Journalists sometimes uncritically accept and reproduce this type of material because it resonates with their own beliefs, or because they fail to identify the genre and investigate the source. In short, journalists are sometimes taken in by people who claim to be “cult experts,” but are not regarded as such by bona fide scholars of religion.

As publications have grown increasingly wary of atrocity stories circulated by anti-cult groups, such groups have turned to third party technique  to drive home their message. Particularly where claims are potentially libelous, journalists need to drill down to ensure that sources are credible — not engaged in astroturfing or merely repeating what they’ve heard.

Suppose you locate Internet material claiming that some minority spiritual figure is a “criminal.” Well, in what jurisdiction was the criminal complaint filed, and what was its outcome? If someone is portrayed on the Internet as committing crimes left and right, but in the real world there’s not a single police complaint, then clearly the rhetoric doesn’t match the reality. A person may be portrayed hatefully on the Internet, but articles in local newspapers may establish him or her to be a jewel in the community, through the recitation of facts not rhetoric.

Good journalists know that people claiming to be victims can lie as much as anyone else. Like Elvis sightings earnestly recounted, false stories of abuse take on an increasing air of reality to people who endlessly repeat them to each other within the closed environs of an anti-cult group. This is a psychological phenomenon known as “imagination inflation.”

Claims by individuals who are (explicitly or covertly) engaged in anti-cult activism need to be carefully checked and verified. This is so because activists often take actions which make them major stakeholders in a narrative. They can easily reach the point where they’re so personally invested in a false narrative that they reflexively insist on its truthfulness, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding. They may want to be seen as heroes or avengers, but if the underlying narrative is false, then they’re vigilantes harassing an innocent person or group. Their willingness to believe the narrative thus becomes bound up with their own self-esteem and professional reputation.

As in the Tawana Brawley case, some people may incorporate a false narrative of victimhood into their personal biography. This can lead to a web of lies from which they find it difficult to extricate themselves, because the lies have been externalized (there now being an interest group which bases its activism on the lies).

Yet, some people do manage to disentangle themselves and admit that their claims of victimhood were actually confabulations produced by suggestive therapy or support group pressures — or that they hurled false accusations out of anger. In a 1998 New York Times article, Joseph Berger writes:

Stacey Hoehmann said her accusations against her father grew out of a lie she told a friend in her simmering anger at her father’s strictness. That lie, she said, “spun out of control.” Soon, she said, she felt compelled to invent lurid details so she would not be branded a liar. “They kept wanting more and more details,” she said. “I didn’t know what they were looking for, so I made stuff up.”

See also Meredith Maran, “My Lie: Why I falsely accused my father.”

Attorney-activist Alton Maddox, Jr. was eventually suspended from practicing law for his role in the Brawley case, essentially because he continued to push a false narrative even after he had reason to know it was false. See “The Lawyer’s Duty to Check Facts,” where Joel Cohen notes that “a lawyer cannot be ‘intentionally ignorant.’” Unfortunately, reporter Mary Murphy may face little penalty for airing a false story which she should have known was false (since she was unable to confirm it, and it flies in the face of reliable sources). Long live tabloid TV!

Why do reporters keep acting in such a low and unethical manner? Because sensation drives ratings. If we want a more civil society, we need to stop giving out Emmys for crap. We get the behavior we reward.

Note: Anne Carlton and Gary Falk are two of a handful of people involved with anti-cult groups who mercilessly cyberstalk Sri Chinmoy and Sri Chinmoy Centre. Celia Corona-Doran (a.k.a. Suchatula Cecelia Corona) is another about whom I have written previously. Her modus operandi is similar in that she tries to entice journalists into publishing anti-cult hate material which is false, but which appeals to a certain bigoted mindset. See:

“Can Salon Learn From Rolling Stone’s Mistakes? Part 1”
“False Salon Story: What was said at the time”
“Understanding Media: The Smear Campaign”

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.

This post is Part 1 in a series. Read Parts 2 and 3 here:
“PIX11’s Mary Murphy: Stalking The Truth (but lies will also do)”
“PIX11’s Mary Murphy: So You Think You Can Lie”

Sidebar: Reconciling claims made by different Tribune Media properties

Tribune Media owns/has owned a number of different properties. Some of them, like the Chicago Tribune, engage in “legit” news reporting, and have a staff of reporters covering specialized subjects. Others, like WPIX-TV, are more tabloid-oriented and tend to evoke the old line about general assignment reporters being equally ignorant in all areas.

Manya Brachear Pashman is the Chicago Tribune’s religion reporter. Her qualifications include a master’s degree in religious studies from Columbia University. She has covered two Popes, and the Dalai Lama’s visits to Chicago. When Sri Chinmoy passed away in October 2007, she wrote:

Guru inspired harmony, French toast

I am hungry and heartbroken. Victory’s Banner, a popular Roscoe Village brunch spot run by the disciples of a New York-based guru, will remain dark this weekend as the sari-clad restaurateurs observe an eight-day vigil of meditation, song and poetry recitation in memory of Sri Chinmoy, their spiritual leader. The world peace advocate died of a heart attack at his home Thursday while awaiting word on whether he had won this year’s Nobel Peace Prize.

A spiritual guru to thousands around the world, Chinmoy opened scores of centers to spread his gospel of peace and harmony around the world. As a facilitator of peace meditations for the United Nations, Chinmoy was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in recognition that his “ceaseless work … crystallizes his belief in the unity and affinity among nations and the individuals who inhabit them.”

Chinmoy, who was 76 when he died, wrote more than 1,600 books of prose and poetry, composed more than 20,000 pieces of music and played more than 800 Peace Concerts in venues like Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall. But he never claimed to be a master musician. In fact, he often would falter and improvise on stage. For him, music was a gateway to meditation. Physical fitness was a path to harmony.

That’s why at the age of 55 he picked up a barbell and soon after founded the Sri Chinmoy Marathon Team, which sponsored events that included the world’s longest footrace, the 3,100-mile Self-Transcendence Race.

A tennis player, long-distance runner and eventually champion weightlifter, Chinmoy credited his inner peace and strength to an outer strength demonstrated by his ability to lift thousands of pounds. With the aid of a special contraption, he raised trucks, elephants and single-engine planes inches off the ground. He also lifted celebrities including Rev. Jesse Jackson, comedian Eddie Murphy and several Catholic bishops. The Wall Street Journal labeled him the “Stunt Man of the Spiritual World.”

But more notable was Chinmoy’s ability to uplift people spiritually with his poetry, prose, music, meditation and yes, menus. He promoted a vegetarian diet. In Roscoe Village, his disciples run Victory’s Banner restaurant and a bookstore where they offer meditation courses and friendship.

In fact, few weekends go by when I don’t stop at Victory’s Banner for “my usual,” a tasty tofu scramble called the Eggless Wonder. Not only are their breakfast specials worth the wait, but so are the intriguing conversations that almost always unfold before I pay the bill.

While I never had the opportunity to meet Chinmoy, I have gotten to know his followers over the years. I will miss breakfast on Saturday. But my heart goes out to them as they mourn a man whom they credit for having a profound influence on their lives—a legacy that hopefully will last for many years to come.

* * *

Comment: You see, she just gets it because she has the chops in religious studies and is a genuine seeker herself, whereas Mary Murphy is totally clueless. Murphy’s massive blunder believing Anne Carlton is the equivalent of believing that the woman stalking David Letterman was really his wife.

One of the differences between reputable publications and tabloids is that reputable publications are concerned with accuracy, even when (or perhaps especially when) covering spiritual minorities. But tabloids tend to pander to hateful stereotypes about the religious Other, and to portray minority adherents as “folk devils” in order to spur reader interest.

Tribune Media also publishes the God Squad articles by Rabbi Marc Gellman, which he used to co-write with the late Monsignor Thomas Hartman, affectionately known as “Father Tom.” To see what Rabbi Gellman and Father Tom had say about Sri Chinmoy, please browse to “Father Tom, The God Squad, and Sri Chinmoy.”

* * *

False Salon Story: What was said at the time

Collecting good rebuttals to bad journalism

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.

sri-chinmoy-salon-3

Sri Chinmoy

Section 1 — Rebuttals to Salon

Dr. Kusumita Pedersen

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,

Sincerely yours,

Kusumita P. Pedersen

Professor of Religious Studies
St. Francis College

Co-Chair
The Interfaith Center of New York
—–

Karen M. Asner (excerpts)

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.

Sincerely,

Karen M. Asner
—–
*Note: For more on the posthumous celebration at UN headquarters see this commemorative booklet.

Pradhan Balter

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.
—–

Michael Howard (Comment #1)

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.

Michael Howard
—–

Michael Howard (Comment #2)

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.

Michael Howard
—–

LetTheTruthBeTold

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.
—–

CandidHeart

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.
—–

sri-chinmoy-salon-6Section 2 — Letters and Commendations

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:

Letter from Mayor Abraham Beame to Sri Chinmoy

The City Of New York
Office of the Mayor
New York, N.Y. 10007

August 27, 1976

Mr. Sri Chinmoy
Director
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,

Sincerely,

Abraham D. Beame
M A Y O R

View scanned document of Mayor Abraham Beame letter on Digital Citizens area of Scribd.com.
—–

sri-chinmoy-salon-5

Mayor Abe Beame visits Sri Chinmoy at the Jharna-Kala Gallery, 1977

1976 Proclamation by Mayor George R. Moscone, and Bearing the Seal of His Office

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
Mayor

View scanned document of Mayor George Moscone proclamation on Digital Citizens area of Scribd.com.
—–

Letter from Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan to Sri Chinmoy

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.

Happy Anniversary!

Sincerely,

Daniel Patrick Moynihan

View scanned document of Sen. Moynihan letter on Digital Citizens area of Scribd.com.
—–

Letter from Sister Nirmala Joshi to Sri Chinmoy

Missionaries of Charity
Calcutta, India
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

Sr. Nirmala
[Superior General]

View scanned document of Sister Nirmala letter on Digital Citizens area of Scribd.com.
—–

Sri Chinmoy with Mother Teresa and nuns of her order, Rome, 1994

Sri Chinmoy with Mother Teresa, Sister Nirmala, and other Sisters of the Missionaries of Charity, Rome, 1994

Section 3 — Celia Corona-Doran (Suchatula Cecilia Corona)

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).

Celia Corona-Doran (Suchatula Cecilia Corona): Testimonial 1

#3104
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

Source: https://groups.yahoo.com/neo/groups/Sri_Chinmoy_Inspiration/conversations/topics/3104
—–

Celia Corona-Doran (center) with the World Harmony Run in 2008

Celia Corona-Doran (center) with the World Harmony Run, 2008

Celia Corona-Doran (Suchatula Cecilia Corona): Testimonial 2

“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.
—–

Celia Corona-Doran (in light blue) with friends from Sri Chinmoy Centre

Celia Corona-Doran (in light blue) with friends from Sri Chinmoy Centre, 2008

Celia Corona-Doran (Suchatula Cecilia Corona): Testimonial 3

“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.
—–

Celia Corona-Doran (right) with her friend Agnikana

Celia Corona-Doran (right) with her friend Agnikana, 2008

Celia Corona-Doran (Suchatula Cecilia Corona): Testimonial 4

Life Is Good!

Skipping, playing, laughing
Four sisters and I
One night under a vast
    clear sky.
A crescent moon and
Stars so bright
“What is the occasion?”
A voice cried out
    in the night.
    Life!
“What is that you say?”
Life–
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
—–

Section 4 — Reviews of Jayanti Tamm’s Book Cartwheels in a Sari

These reviews are relevant to the question of whether Ms. Tamm is an accurate source on Sri Chinmoy or Sri Chinmoy Centre.

Unintended Consequences of Publish or Perish, by David Serlin

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.

Source: http://www.amazon.com/review/R3GG7SAMLI7ZQ5
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cartwheels of banality, by J R Kirby

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.

Source: http://www.amazon.com/review/R2LMN29E4VQKOY
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A Child of Privilege, by Michael Howard

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.

Source: https://lipstickandplaydates.wordpress.com/2015/09/15/take-five-qa-jayanti-tamm-author-of-cartwheels-in-a-sari/#comment-2516

*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.
—–

Conclusion

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.

Michael Howard

See also:
Jayanti Tamm Rebuttal, Part 1
Jayanti Tamm Rebuttal, Part 2
Ketan Tamm Memorial
Paint It Black!
Making Sense of the Spiritual Life

sri-chinmoy-salon-4

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.”

Can Salon Learn From Rolling Stone’s Mistakes? Part 1

The Rolling Stone/UVA debacle was preventable but not unique. Salon had a similar breakdown in early 2014, likewise due to somnolent editors and fabulist sources, plus a hidden element of corruption.

The essence of Columbia Journalism Review’s critique of the Rolling Stone campus rape piece boiled down to these three things:

1. Relying on a single source, and failing to interview subjects who might reveal a different perspective or show the original source to be inaccurate.

2. Failing to provide people accused by the reporter of committing crimes with detailed information about the allegations and an opportunity to respond.

3. Failing to locate a person who was deeply implicated in the story, and whose existence, non-existence, or strong denial would cast the story in a different light or even argue for its non-publication.

Another issue was “confirmation bias,” or the tendency to fall hook, line and sinker for a single source’s uncorroborated story if it corresponds to a “prevalent narrative” or one’s own cherished beliefs. A false story is embraced because it strikes a political or emotional chord, or fulfills a need to believe certain things about groups in conflict. (Of course, a false story may also be embraced as a means of boosting circulation.)

In the case of the Rolling Stone article, the underlying conflict was between feminists concerned about campus rape, and the Southern old boy network — thought to be represented by UVA’s “elite” Phi Kappa Psi fraternity. The reporter, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, sought out a story that would fit a pre-existing narrative, would be emblematic, and would advance views shared by her editors (and which I also share): that sexual abuse of women and girls is a serious worldwide problem (including on college campuses).

The story, “A Rape on Campus,” focused on the pseudonymous “Jackie,” who claimed to have been brutally gang-raped at Phi Kappa Psi; and on the likewise pseudonymous “Drew,” who was portrayed as the ringleader, but was never contacted by Erdely.

As events unfolded, it became clear that Jackie was a troubled fabulist, and that Phi Kappa Psi didn’t conform to Erdely’s stereotypes. In the current universe of UVA fraternities, they seem to be known as nice guys. They hadn’t even held a party on the night Jackie claimed to have been gang-raped. A months-long police investigation (in which Jackie declined to cooperate) turned up no evidence of wrongdoing. The plain facts contradicted Jackie’s story, and Rolling Stone issued a retraction.

The CJR report didn’t blame Jackie, reasoning that had Rolling Stone reporters, editors and fact-checkers followed Journalism 101 procedures, the story would never have seen the light of day. (It’s the publisher, not the source, who’s responsible for what gets printed.) Still, Jackie’s inaccurate claims are at the heart of the harm done to innocents. Her motives remain unclear.

There are whole segments of the media (both left and right) obsessed with “advocacy journalism,” where the purpose is to float allegations for political ends, with little concern for truth or accuracy. Such journalism tends to reflect what people want to believe rather than reality, as with stories in WorldNetDaily that President Obama is both gay and Muslim. It’s easy to play “spot the deficiency” in such stories, where a tainted source or crucial questions never asked by the reporter lead to implausible results.

In “A Rape on Campus,” there were questions Sabrina Erdely never asked, perhaps on principle. Could Jackie have some motive for confabulating? The politically correct answer is that no woman ever has a reason to lie about sexual abuse; yet this does happen. The statistics are so bogged down in politics that no one’s sure how often. In “Are We Manufacturing Victims?” psychologist Tana Dineen points to the prevalence of “advocacy data: numbers created to make a point or support an argument.” She urges careful investigation of each claim, rather than over-reliance on statistics. Cathy Young’s analysis in “Crying Rape” is particularly clear-headed and balanced. Leaving aside the details and quoting her broad conclusions:

Rape is a repugnant crime — and one for which the evidence often relies on one person’s word against another’s. Moreover, in the not-so-distant past, the belief that women routinely make up rape charges often led to appalling treatment of victims. However, in challenging what author and law professor Susan Estrich has called “the myth of the lying woman,” feminists have been creating their own counter-myth: that of the woman who never lies.

A de facto presumption of guilt in alleged sexual offenses is as dangerous as a presumption of guilt in any crime, and for the same reasons: It upends the foundations on which our system of justice rests and creates a risk of ruining innocent lives.

Our focus on getting justice for women who are sexually assaulted is necessary and right. We are still far from the day when every woman who makes a rape accusation gets a proper police investigation and a fair hearing. But seeking justice for female victims should make us more sensitive, not less, to justice for unfairly accused men. In practical terms, that means finding ways to show support for victims of sexual violence without equating accusation and guilt, and recognizing that the wrongly accused are real victims too.

— Cathy Young, from “Crying Rape”

90s Conflicts Revisited

Though the press is treating the Rolling Stone controversy de novo, many of the underlying issues hearken back to the repressed memory cases of the 1990s. At odds are some truths difficult to reconcile in practice:

1. Women in crisis need unquestioning support, and a therapeutic community where they can talk about their experiences with others who may have had similar experiences.

2. “It is inappropriate to be unconcerned with the truth of a client’s experience during psychotherapy. In the case of a person with no memory of sexual abuse, it is also inappropriate to engage in group counseling with other victims of sexual assault because of the danger that another patient’s problem or experience will be inappropriately suggestive to the client.” — Judge William J. Groff

3. Survivor groups are not politically or factually neutral. While at their best they can be a source of much-needed comfort to a genuine victim, at their worst they can encourage a non-victim to create a new social identity based on victimhood, in order to reap the emotional rewards of attention and sympathy, and to advance a political agenda.

4. It is necessary to distinguish between real victims and faux victims, since victimhood is sometimes used as a rhetorical platform from which to launch attacks which may be motivated by politics, personal grievance, or personal gain.

There would seem to be inherent conflicts between the therapeutic process, the legal process, the political process, and the journalistic process of gathering facts. In the instant matter, Sabrina Erdely may have acted too much like an advocate and not enough like a journalist. Had she been willing to ask more questions and interview more people, she would have discovered that Jackie was “catfishing” her friend Ryan, and had apparently made up a non-existent person, Haven Monahan, as part of her machinations. This would have been a red flag.

MSNBC’s Ronan Farrow recently interviewed Liz Seccuro, a genuine survivor of a UVA campus rape 30 years ago, and the author of Crash Into Me. Seccuro was mentioned in the Rolling Stone piece as if to bolster Jackie’s account, and Farrow questions whether Jackie might have co-opted Seccuro’s story:

Liz Seccuro: Anonymous people, blog commenters, my friends, and my family all called me, or commented, or wrote to me and said, “This is your story.” I can’t comprehend how someone would co-opt someone else’s pain and story for this.

Ronan Farrow: Do you think there’s a chance that that’s what happened, that Jackie co-opted your story?

Liz Seccuro: I think, as I said it’s been suggested to me so many times that I have to allow it to be a possibility.

Ronan Farrow: I understand the crisis management center [at UVA] gave out your book to survivors.

Liz Seccuro: Yes.

Ronan Farrow: Do you think that Jackie perhaps believed that your story was hers?

Liz Seccuro: I think that somebody who has now told this story so many times, and stuck by her story even after being discredited, I believe that that person would have some mental issues, and would believe that.

Ronan Farrow: If this is true, if by some happenstance Jackie co-opted your story (to use your words), what’s your message to her?

Liz Seccuro: Well I think right now, my message to her is to get some help and to understand — and I’m not ruling out that nothing happened to her. I think something traumatic has happened to her in her life, and I think she needs to get some help to address that. It’s very easy to become enamoured with the survivor community and dive into that. But unless you’re willing to talk to the police and to file a complaint, you can’t level these sort of allegations. It was hard for me, and we had evidence. You can’t make these sort of allegations that live on forever, because look at the mess we’re in now.

MSNBC interview with Liz Seccuro

Seccuro’s comments underscore points 2-4 above, since the implication is that Jackie may have gravitated toward a survivor group and adopted someone else’s prefab narrative in order to qualify for the emotional support, friendship, and camaraderie which the group provided. She may also have wanted her friend Ryan to develop a protective attitude toward her as the basis for forming a romantic relationship. This doesn’t necessarily mean she was “lying.” She may be emotionally troubled and trying to cope as best she can, perhaps by confabulating.

Confabulating is different than wilfully lying, though there may be a continuum between the two. The subject is controversial because we live in a period when we’re still negotiating the boundaries between behaviour which is pathological and in need of treatment, versus behaviour which is unethical and deserving of blame. I feel some sympathy for Jackie, because you don’t hang out with a survivor’s group unless you feel like a survivor. But of course, the true victims are those who were wrongfully accused.

Sometimes when people feel emotional pain, they want to externalize it, force it into a victim/abuser paradigm which is pre-scripted, ready-made, and supported by an interest group. But not everything fits into that paradigm. Sometimes the pain is real and is the result of emotional conflict, but there is no abuser.

This again hearkens back to the repressed memory cases of the 1990s. In response to false claims of abuse proliferating at that time, the British Psychological Society issued May 2000 guidelines stating:

Psychologists must be alert to the dangers of suggestion. Potential sources of suggestion include subtle cues about the psychologist’s attitudes and beliefs that may be inferred from the therapeutic context (e.g. particular books on the shelf) or client contact with “survivor literature” and subcultures of abuse. Psychologists must be aware that there may be situations in which clients are motivated to recall memories of abuse for a variety of ends.

The subtext here is the possibility of coaching, but none of this is an argument that sexual abuse (and even gang rape) doesn’t occur; we know it does. It is an argument that journalists have to be extremely careful when dealing with people who’ve immersed themselves in “survivor literature” and subcultures of abuse. And just as psychologist attitudes can influence what a client will recall, so can sessions with a journalist determined to impose a pre-existing narrative. If “A Rape on Campus” turns out to be a borrowed scenario from Liz Seccuro’s book, then who borrowed it: Jackie, Sabrina Erdely, or some combination of the two?

If there was collusion, then what type of collusion? I seriously doubt the two women engaged in a deliberate conspiracy to lie. Far more likely is the type of psychological collusion in which people and groups gradually take on each others beliefs and attitudes, leading to a socially constructed reality which is at odds with factual reality. This problem knows no gender or politics. It could just as easily affect “your crazy uncle who watches FOX news all day” (a figure popularized by Rachel Maddow).

Implications and Cautionary Notes

Events in the real world often have political ramifications, but journalists, media critics, and the general public should beware of the tail wagging the dog. When a too-perfect story pandering to populist stereotypes emerges in tandem with political ax-grinding and journalistic grandstanding, this should raise concerns about truthfulness. See, for example, Paul Krugman on Obamacare horror stories as a means of attacking the ACA.

The need for truth is not liberal or conservative, female or male, religious or secular, but something universal. We all need truth. Truth matters.

Another cautionary note is that while our justice system is imperfect, it has a more rigorous set of checks and balances in place than either trial by tabloid or trial by Internet (both of which can easily descend into vigilantism). When a person appears in the tabloids or on the Internet claiming to have been abused some years previously, but has never (and will not now) file a police report, there’s reason to be skeptical — especially if their claim surfaces in connection with a social control agenda (e.g. closing down fraternities, or discrediting spiritual groups). I believe there’s a higher incidence of false claims when the claim is not freestanding but is allied to a movement ideology, or is meant to be the smoking gun that “proves” one side right on a hotly contested social issue. (Remember the Tawana Brawley rape hoax.)

The implication, then, is that statistics concerning false claims of sexual abuse are not flat across the board, but vary according to the scenario. A person who promptly goes to the police station to file a rape complaint and doesn’t show an inordinate interest in publicity or politics is more likely to be telling the truth. A person who pointedly avoids filing a police complaint, but who seeks attention and publicity — and whose claims leverage a social or political cause — is less likely to be telling the truth. If there’s a span of years between the disputed events and the first report of them, this should also raise concerns; likewise if the person being accused is long dead and can’t possibly defend themselves. (Some people look for an unfair fight.)

Filing false police reports is a crime according to both federal and state laws. But nursing false claims of abuse in the tabloids or on the Internet may carry a civil penalty at most, and would require that the injured party file a lawsuit, which is often expensive, inconvenient, and subject to the Streisand effect  (as well as other legal loopholes). Thus, haunting the tabloids and Internet has become an easy way for opportunists to score political brownie points or wreak personal vengeance at minimal risk to themselves, particularly if they’re judgement proof.

To be fair, there are genuine victims of abuse who may find it difficult to engage with the justice system (which is not always friendly). It’s possible that a person could be raped, feel embarrassed and ashamed, never go to police, but become persuaded years later that “something must be done.” If there’s no evidence, they could conceivably decide that attention and publicity make a good substitute for legal justice. But do they? We should be extremely wary of trial by tabloid or Internet. There’s just too great a risk of destroying innocent people’s lives.

Twelve minutes into Hanna Rosin’s interview with Sabrina Erdely, Erdely claims that Jackie was too traumatized to go to police, but not too traumatized to have her story published in Rolling Stone. This logic troubles me. Richard Bradley, who is often a heartless critic of both Erdely and Jackie, writes:

All of Jackie’s dissembling — her failure to return phone calls, her evasiveness, her refusal to name names, her threat to pull out of the story — were behaviors that should have set off alarms in any good reporter. Not Erdely. To her, Jackie’s “behavior seemed very consistent with a victim of trauma.” In other words: Every single thing that Jackie did that would, to most reporters, suggest she was an unreliable source, actually confirmed to Erdely that Jackie was a reliable source. In that scenario, there is literally nothing that Jackie could do that would not then be evidence of her credibility. If she swore on a Bible that she was lying, it would only prove how “traumatized” she was.

Richard Bradley

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…

The Salon Article

In May 2014, Salon.com ran a false story claiming that Sri Chinmoy (1931-2007) — the genial Indian-American meditation teacher and humanitarian who had often received favorable coverage in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and other papers — was really a “sex criminal.” The newspaper of record (which had covered Sri Chinmoy since 1971) had it wrong, and only one lone blogger at Salon knew the real skinny. Salon’s headline was: “The media’s love affair with accused sex criminal Sri Chinmoy.”

Simon and Schuster author Sri Chinmoy

Simon & Schuster author 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.

Sri Chinmoy Centre - sample poster

Sri Chinmoy Centre – sample poster

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.

Celia Corona-Doran a.k.a. Suchatala - Screenshot 1

Celia Corona-Doran a.k.a. Suchatula – Screenshot 1

Celia Corona-Doran a.k.a. Suchatala - Screenshot 2

Celia Corona-Doran a.k.a. Suchatula – Screenshot 2

Celia Corona-Doran a.k.a. Suchatala - Screenshot 3

Celia Corona-Doran a.k.a. Suchatula – Screenshot 3

Her cheerful demeanour, glowing descriptions of “Guru,” and detailed accounts of fun activities certainly raise grave doubts about anti-cult material which later appeared under her name in connection with an Internet-based ex-cult support group. Since she seemed so happy in 2008, the obvious question is: what changed in 2009?

In 2009, she got into a labor dispute and some credit card debt. She eventually declared Chapter 7 bankruptcy and sued her former employer, who was a follower of Sri Chinmoy, for back wages. She also fell in with old friends who had left Sri Chinmoy Centre some years previously and who took a hard apostate stance. Their modus operandi involved posting uncorroborated “testimonials” of abuse on the Internet in order to “rescue” purported “cult victims” who (apparently) could not be relied upon to make their own decisions in spiritual matters. In this context, claims of abuse take on a rather utilitarian purpose, as a means to an end.

Enter James Doran, Elizabeth Kracht, and Joe Kracht

There were other factors which led to Celia Corona’s radical volte-face. While still with Sri Chinmoy Centre, she became involved with a male follower, James Doran (a.k.a. “James D”), partly via the Internet. Mr. Doran’s peculiar way of wooing her was to familiarize her with extreme hate material circulated on anti-cult sites which portrayed Sri Chinmoy as a fiend in human form (which is certainly counterfactual).

Sri Chinmoy holding the World Harmony Run torch

Sri Chinmoy holding the World Harmony Run torch

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!).

Literary Reality vs. Factual Reality

So, we have an unconfirmed story about a deceased peace advocate, with no complaint and no witnesses. The story first appears on a message board under Elizabeth Kracht’s alias (Nirbachita), then later “her” author Edwin Lyngar is attributing it to Celia Corona-Doran, who is judgement proof, having declared bankruptcy to avoid credit card debt. If this story were a horse, I’d shoot it to put it out of its misery!

In the real world, if you’re harassed you complain about it. But in the socially constructed reality where Celia Corona-Doran and Elizabeth Kracht hang out, you spend a few years massaging the fictional manuscript, trying to make the story appear credible, then use your influence to get it published in Salon, perhaps as a prelude to wangling a book deal. In how many ways can you say publishing industry corruption? This story is as false as the day is long, and there’s not one shred of evidence in the real world to back it up — only collusion or confabulation (to use two of the kinder available terms).

Why is it a problem when material accusing a person/organization of committing crimes or improprieties turns out to have been massaged by a literary editor for five years, then planted in the press through nepotism? Because it confuses literary reality with factual reality:

Over the past year, I’ve learned from my brilliant editor, Elizabeth K. Kracht at Kimberley Cameron and Associates Literary Agency, that there are segments in every manuscript that need to be refined, segments that need to be amplified, and segments, no matter how wonderful, that need to be ditched.

Barbara Donsky

Unfortunately, the parts Kracht ditched from Corona-Doran’s story are the parts dealing with factual reality, which I’m adding back through careful sleuthing. (All documents available on request.)

Ironically, in a Salon piece called “When narratives are so compelling that we don’t notice unbalanced reporting,” Erin Keane highlights this very problem: the blurring of lines between memoir and journalism. We expect memoirs to be biased, one-sided, fanciful, and delivered in the style of what-I-feel-is-the-only-reality. But journalists are supposed to care about balance and objective facts. A New York Times piece highlights the problem of nonfiction which turns out to be fiction:

In an extraordinary reversal of her defense of the author whose memoir she catapulted to the top of the best-seller lists, Oprah Winfrey rebuked James Frey, the author of “A Million Little Pieces,” on her television show yesterday for lying about his past and portraying the book as a truthful account of his life.

“I feel duped,” Ms. Winfrey told Mr. Frey. “But more importantly, I feel that you betrayed millions of readers.”

While the Random House legal department checks nonfiction books to make sure that no [living person] is defamed or libeled, it does not check the truth of the assertions made in a book.

Agents, publishers and authors are all going to have to be much more cautious in the way they approach the nonfiction market… Traditionally, publishers have not done fact-checking and vetting. But I think you are going to see memoirs read not only from a libel point of view but for factual accuracy. And where there are questions of possible exaggeration or distortion, the author is going to need to produce documentation.

— “Author Is Kicked Out of Oprah Winfrey’s Book Club,” The New York Times

To pose the problem of literary reality vs. factual reality in dramatic terms, suppose someone walks into a police station and says: “Here’s something I’ve been working on. It’s version 2.03a of my story of how I once belonged to an abusive cult. I’d like to thank my support group and my editor for all the help they gave me in moulding and shaping this story so that it makes good reading, packs an emotional wallop, and will help discredit the group I belonged to for 22 years. I’m sure you’ll want to investigate one particular incident as a crime, since it happened 8 years ago, doesn’t actually involve crime, and the person I accuse has been dead for 7 years.”

Now, the officer on duty probably doesn’t say, “Just one moment, I’ll escort you to the room where we take statements concerning Literary Blockbusters.” He probably says something more along the lines of “What the hell?” The gentle reader should do likewise.

The Salon Formula

Here, I’m not going through the Salon story line by line, but if you’re a journalist, editor, or scholar of religion I invite you to do so. It’s strung together with rumour, innuendo, and boilerplate anti-cult material. (Eastern guru? Why yes, we have a stereotype that fits your needs…) The binding agent is hate, and stories fueled by hate often turn out to be bad journalism. This one’s no exception. It’s a cesspool of open libel. The author claims that “Even if one decides not to accept the sex allegations at face value, the Sri Chinmoy cult has many crimes to pick from.” Not one crime is specified.

As discussed below in greater detail, Sri Chinmoy Centre simply has no history of any criminal activity. Quite the opposite. Members of Community Board 8 in Queens, New York (where the group is headquartered) credit them with cleaning up the Glenn Avenue area in Jamaica Hill and keeping it safe for over 30 years. The Board voted unanimously in 2010 to approve the sale of city-owned land to Sri Chinmoy Centre based on the Centre’s demonstrated good stewardship.

To understand the mindset behind the Salon hatchet job, it helps to know where Edwin Lyngar’s coming from. He has virtually no experience in investigative journalism. 99% of his published work consists of personal confessions or opinions on news events. He describes himself as an “aggressive atheist” who is “hostile to religion,” and who writes “often self-indigent [sic] shit.” In a January 2015 Salon piece, Lyngar berates the left for not fighting dirty. He encourages “rhetorical bomb throwing” and putting out “really crazy stuff … even if you only half believe it. … See if it flies. If it doesn’t, screw it — just fix it up next time.” Is this what journalism has become?

Edwin Lyngar, famous for throwing out really crazy stuff he only half believes. But does he ever really fix it?

Edwin Lyngar, famous for throwing out really crazy stuff he only half believes. But does he ever really fix it?

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.”

elizabeth-kracht-kimberley-cameron-and-associates

Elizabeth Kracht of Kimberley Cameron & Associates

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.

Interfaith leaders gather at the U.N. to remember Sri Chinmoy

Interfaith leaders gather at the U.N. to celebrate the life of Sri Chinmoy

Who Was Sri Chinmoy?

This question goes to the heart of the Salon libel, which was meant to paper over the real Sri Chinmoy with a version more palatable to special interests. In truth, Sri Chinmoy was an agent for positive change — someone who stood for spiritual freedom and had a unique ability to create the sacred space around him, so that people who met him often experienced spiritual joy firsthand.

The Salon piece was not only factually wrong, it was also based on a false premise: that Sri Chinmoy had somehow gotten a free pass from “the media” and had never been subjected to critical examination. A broad survey shows that Sri Chinmoy received mixed press coverage, some of it tough — certainly nothing resembling a “love affair.” He was, after all, a counterculture figure — an Indian guru who came to America in 1964, who taught meditation and devotional yoga, and was a poet, artist, musician, and peace advocate. There are articles treating him with the ridicule and scorn often heaped on Eastern gurus, particularly in Murdochian tabloids.

Sri Chinmoy painting

Sri Chinmoy painting

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 at the Parliament of the World's Religions, 1993

Sri Chinmoy at the Parliament of the World’s Religions, 1993

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.

Monsignor Thomas J. Hartman

In a Newsweek article, Rabbi Marc Gellman similarly writes:

There are days when my hope wanes and when doubts corrode my faith. On those days I say that faith without reason is blind. But there are other days when I see miraculous things, and on those days I believe that faith without miracles is empty. When I awaken I am never certain what kind of day it will be. However, today I am standing behind Sri Chinmoy. On this day I remember the miraculous day of May 23, 2001, when Sri Chinmoy lifted me, my pal Father Tom Hartman, and a platform up into the air. Together — with the platform — we weighed more than 500 pounds (I had a very heavy cell phone in my pocket!). Sri Chinmoy took a seat underneath us and pushed up. With his two 70-year-old arms, he lifted us up into the air. … I am sad to see him go, but I know his journey continues and his strength endures in all those he lifted up into the air — either because he was really strong or because he knew the miraculous source of all true strength.

— Rabbi Marc Gellman, Newsweek

While press coverage of Sri Chinmoy was mixed, it does reveal a striking pattern: The most positive coverage was typically from news organizations who (unlike Salon) actually did the legwork: They sent reporters to cover a Sri Chinmoy related event, such as a meditation, concert, art exhibit, foot race, or charity drive. They scoped out the action and interviewed the people, finding out what they believed, what they practiced, and whether it all passed the smell test. They found the people to be sincere and the activities reflective of a genuine concern for the human condition. See this Newsday article about kids making dolls for children orphaned by AIDS. See also The New York Times, “Their Leader Gone, Devotees Gather at Spiritual Home” and NY Daily News, “Sri Chinmoy, spiritual leader, dies in Queens.” Also the Chicago Tribune, “Guru inspired harmony, French toast” (updated link to follow).

However, such stories based on sound journalistic technique found themselves in tension with a pre-existing narrative. This was a narrative crafted in the 1970s which portrayed all Eastern gurus as charlatans and abusers, a bad influence on our youth and a menace to society. This nativist stereotype became so prevalent that it was even satirized: “Santa Claus: A Dangerous Cult Leader!” (he abuses the elves).

As the once accommodating youth culture of the sixties split into political and spiritual factions which didn’t see eye to eye, left-wing media became all too eager to buy into the stereotype. If sixties youth considered it part of their mission to become both politically and spiritually aware, later generations tended to accept materialism as their default view, and to see politics through a materialist lens. This led to the view that all human problems could be solved through social activism alone, with no need for spiritual enlightenment. Partly due to its tussles with some right-wing Christians, the left began to associate all spiritual groups with constraints on freedom.

A Voice for Freedom

A paradox here is that Sri Chinmoy stood for freedom — not just spiritual freedom found through meditation, but also political freedom: freedom for East Timor. In nominating him for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007, Prof. Utsahi St-Amand of the University of Ottawa cited this as one of his outstanding achievements. Now known as Timor-Leste, the new nation recently unveiled a statue of Sri Chinmoy at its National Parliament in honour of his contributions to their journey to independence. They had previously awarded him the Medal of Freedom in 2004.

For those familiar with that nation’s history and struggles, the moment when leaders who had fought each other so bitterly joined hands around the peace torch was truly a miracle of peace.

Sri Chinmoy also championed freedom in art. He drew innumerable “soul-birds” symbolizing the freedom of the soul, a theme he also explored in lyric poetry, song, and thunderous keyboard improvisations. One of the sayings by his friend Nelson Mandela which Sri Chinmoy set to music was: “I am not truly free if I am taking away someone else’s freedom.” In a letter marking the August 2008 (posthumous) exhibit of Sri Chinmoy’s paintings in the lobby of the U.N. Secretariat Building, President Mandela wrote:

We are a single humanity. We must work together, united as one, to build a world of justice and harmony for all. Within each of us lies the power to build a world where we respect each other’s beliefs, understand each other’s culture, and support each other’s values — a world where hatred, pain and suffering have no place. This is the great cause of world peace to which my dear friend Sri Chinmoy devoted his life, and to which his Paintings for World Harmony at the United Nations are dedicated.

— President Nelson Mandela

Sri Chinmoy with Winnie and Nelson Mandela

Sri Chinmoy with Winnie and 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.

Runners in the Self-Transcendence 3,100 Mile Race

Runners in the Self-Transcendence 3,100 Mile 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.

 Bille Jean King holds the peace torch at the opening ceremony for the 2008 World Harmony Run

Bille Jean King holds the peace torch at the opening ceremony for the 2008 World Harmony Run

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.

British devotees of Sri Chinmoy

British devotees of Sri Chinmoy

Sri Chinmoy’s teachings are an open book thanks to his huge literary output, the many talks and interviews he gave, the thousands of questions that he answered, and the visual record of his activities and the activities of his followers. There are also numerous articles in bona fide encyclopedias of religion verifying that what he taught was consistent with yoga philosophy and practice. One would labour in vain to find any trace of hatred or sectarianism in his teachings. Throughout his life, he stated and restated the principle that:

Spirituality is not merely tolerance. It is not even acceptance. It is the feeling of universal oneness. In our spiritual life, we look upon the Divine, not only in terms of our own God, but in terms of everybody else’s God. Our spiritual life firmly and securely establishes the basis of unity in diversity. Spirituality is not mere hospitality to others’ faith in God. It is the absolute recognition and acceptance of their faith in God as one’s own.

— Sri Chinmoy, Yoga and the Spiritual Life, Agni Press, 1971

To society, Sri Chinmoy was a gentle voice of inspiration. To those who applied to study with him and were accepted, he was a spiritual guide. This is an important distinction, because Sri Chinmoy never tried to impose his views on society or tell worldly people how they should think or act. His counsel was reserved for those who eagerly sought it out, and who identified themselves as spiritual seekers. He was the leader of a voluntary spiritual community, and that community was never large because — as Philip Goldberg implies in American Veda — relatively few people were prepared to lead the modest, chaste lifestyle known traditionally as brahmacharya.

Many of his faithful students who remained with him and did not abandon their studies have written books or articles about their lifetime of experiences with Sri Chinmoy. These are not always as easy to locate as populist accounts written by apostates, but are far more accurate, and more consistent with scholarly material and with the visual record. To interview only those few former students now associated with anti-cult groups is a type of media bias.

The Salon piece reads like a compendium of bad stereotypes and mischaracterizations strung together by hate. It’s impossible to refute everything in just one article, because Salon appeals to a bumper sticker mentality, while the truth is subtle and complex.

I would note that Sri Chinmoy encouraged parents to be extremely loving, caring and responsible toward their children. His book A Child’s Heart and a Child’s Dreams is filled with love and concern for children and good advice for parents.

The notion that followers of Sri Chinmoy shun medical treatment is absurd. Some of them are medical doctors themselves, and in addition to their regular practice, they often help out their fellows with medical advice and treatment.

A Criminal Organization?

Who is actually harmed by the Salon libel? Not Sri Chinmoy the person, who died in 2007, though certainly his legacy is harmed. In the strict legal sense, it is Sri Chinmoy Centre which is harmed.

Female followers of Sri Chinmoy mourn his death in October 2007. New York Times photo.

Followers of Sri Chinmoy mourn his death in October 2007. (New York Times)

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.

Sri Chinmoy with two of his early followers at the time, Mahavishnu John McLaughlin and Devadip Carlos Santana. November 1975 photo from a free concert held at the Central Park Bandshell.

Sri Chinmoy with two of his early followers at the time, Mahavishnu John McLaughlin and Devadip Carlos Santana. March 1975, Central Park Bandshell.

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.

The Sri Chinmoy disciple experience: blissing out on a Christmas trip to a far-off land

The Sri Chinmoy disciple experience: blissing out on a Christmas trip to a far-off land

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.

Annam Brahma vegetarian restaurant

Annam Brahma vegetarian restaurant

Sri Chinmoy was a noble soul whose contributions to the world culture of peace, the upliftment of women, and his own Queens neighborhood were well-documented. For Salon to portray him as a criminal in order to generate clicks is offensive to those who knew Sri Chinmoy and know the integrity of the organization he founded. It’s also offensive to anyone who cares about journalistic integrity and preserving the public trust. Truth matters.

Salon and Corruption

While Salon criticizes The New York Times for remaining committed to fact-based journalism, with the Sri Chinmoy story Salon has sunk to new lows in what Paul Krugman calls “post-truth politics … in which no argument is ever dropped, no matter how overwhelming the evidence that it’s wrong.” Given that the Salon piece was so massively wrong, how did it even see the light of day? To borrow a meme from MST3K, “They just didn’t care.” But publishing industry corruption also played a role.

In Part 2 of this series, we’ll take a closer look at the corruption factor, and the obsessions of a woman scorned (Elizabeth Kracht). Plus a stopover at bankruptcy court with Celia Corona-Doran! (Start hiding your assets now.)

For me personally, the only way to write about this debacle is to inject a little humour, as an antidote to the very real pain experienced by the Sri Chinmoy community (for which I do not speak) in response to Salon’s unfair cyber attack. This is different than when Salon ran a false story claiming that comedian Steve Martin sent a racist tweet. Steve Martin is not in a helping profession, and does not rely on a pristine reputation or a relationship of trust with the public in order to carry out his day-to-day activities. Sri Chinmoy Centre does.

Elsewhere, I’ve written extensively about the problem of harassment of minority spiritual groups, including the circulation of vilification material as a de facto means of curtailing their civil rights. I’ve often quoted cyber civil rights advocate Danielle Keats Citron, and do so once again:

Cyber attacks marginalize individuals belonging to traditionally subordinated groups, causing them deep psychological harm. Victims feel helpless to avoid future attacks because they are unable to change the characteristic that made them victims. They experience feelings of inferiority, shame, and a profound sense of isolation. … Such attacks also harm the community that shares the victim’s race, gender, religion, or ethnicity — community members experience attacks as if the attacks happened to them. Moreover, society suffers when victims and community members isolate themselves to avoid future attacks and when cyber mobs violate our shared values of equality and pluralism.

— Danielle Keats Citron, from “Cyber Civil Rights”

Here in Part 1, I’ve tried to lay the groundwork for discussing issues which can be complex and subtle. On the one hand, media entertain and inform us, and some of the information they provide is genuinely useful. On the other hand, media can be manipulated and may be unreliable on certain issues due to excessive populism, or a tendency to filter information through a pre-existing commercial, political, or materialist mindset. Extremely biased reporting can reach the level of a cyber attack.

In Part 2, we’ll get into more specifics about how the Salon story went wrong. We’ll examine other material written by Celia Corona-Doran which contradicts her statements in Salon. We’ll consider the history, motivations and biases of the protagonists, with an eye to understanding the mechanics of the fraud. And since the Salon piece seeks to demonize the “religious other,” we’ll explore the question: How do I otherize thee? Let me count the ways… (Be sure and read the sidebar (below) on “inverted narratives.”)

If time permits, we’ll also tackle the often baffling phenomenon of apostasy. For a preview of that discussion, see “Self-Interest, Self-Giving, Low Ethics, and High Ethics.” See also:

False Salon Story: What was said at the time
How far would you go to get a book deal?
Understanding Media: The Smear Campaign
Ketan Tamm Memorial

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.

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.


Sidebar: Inverted Narratives

In her “Hate On The Net,” sociologist Evelyn Kallen points out that hate propaganda frequently employs “invalidation myths” meant to “dehumanize” the targets “and thus to legitimize violation of their human rights.” Such myths may present a contrarian, inversionist, or caricaturized view of the targets in order to achieve the objective of vilifying them. This is true whether the target is an individual or group; or the shamed individual may then be used as a stand-in or “avatar” for the group itself (e.g. the pseudonymous “Ryan” used as a stand-in for the whole Phi Kappa Psi fraternity).

Mary Anne Franks, an important writer on cyberspace freedom, discusses how people often turn to the Internet in hope of discovering “a utopian realm of the mind where all can participate equally, free from social, historical, and physical restraints.” Yet, cyberspace reality has its dark side, often unacknowledged. She writes:

Cyberspace idealism drastically downplays the Internet’s power to activate discriminatory stereotypes and social scripts. This Article focuses on the particular discriminatory phenomenon of the unwilling avatar. In stark contrast to the way users exert control over their online identities, the creation of unwilling avatars involves invoking individuals’ real bodies for the purposes of threatening, defaming, or sexualizing them without consent. Sometimes the creation of unwilling avatars takes a very literal form: for example, hacking into the account of a gamer and using her avatar as though it were your own, or creating a false profile of a real person on a social networking site. Other examples of unwilling avatars are more figurative. For example, women have been targeted for ‘revenge porn,’ a practice where ex-boyfriends and husbands post to the web sexually explicit photographs and videos of them without their consent. … Female law school students also become unwilling avatars when they are targeted by graphic and violent sexual threads at message boards such as AutoAdmit.com. In most cases of cyberspace harassment, the perpetrators use pseudonyms while identifying their targets not only by name but often also with private information such as home addresses and social security numbers. This informational asymmetry further aggravates the inequality resulting from cyberspace harassment.

— Mary Anne Franks, “Unwilling Avatars: Idealism And Discrimination In Cyberspace” 

I would hasten to add that men are also targeted, though not with the same frequency as women. And not all revenge porn is photographic or videographic. A sub-genre is the use of fictional narratives, storytelling, or negative “testimonials” by hate groups to portray real persons as committing sexual acts which they have never committed in real life. This is a way of “sexualizing them without consent” — fake revenge porn using words instead of pictures.

This points to parallels between the Rolling Stone and Salon stories: The detailed, graphic, but fictional portrayal of Phi Kappa Psi members engaging in sexual violence was a type of generic revenge porn, punishing innocent young men for the crimes presumed by the author to have been committed by some fraternities somewhere. That story invoked fraternity members’ real bodies for the purpose of sexualizing them without consent. Likewise, Salon’s false portrayal of Sri Chinmoy as a “sex criminal” was a type of revenge porn which sought to punish him for the crimes committed by a generic stereotype ingrained in popular culture: the abusive guru who is a charlatan and a scoundrel. A false image of the real Sri Chinmoy was invoked in order to sexualize him without consent.

In both stories, problems ensue when the targeted individuals or groups turn out not to resemble the stereotypes and not to have engaged in wrongdoing. Their wrongdoing only exists in the tabloids or on the Internet, but not in the real world. In other words, they’re only guilty of wrongdoing in someone else’s socially constructed reality, not the fact-based reality journalists are supposed to live in and be concerned with.

When Edwin Lyngar berates The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal for not publishing hate material about Sri Chinmoy, he’s only displaying his own ignorance of the journalistic process, including the need to question and corroborate stories considered “too good to be true” (such as those pandering to his anti-religious bias). The Internet is particularly prone to false stories which are socially constructed and are meant to serve as “invalidation myths” a la Kallen. People may become emotionally invested in such stories, but that doesn’t make them any truer. (See this post for more on the use of fictional narratives by hate groups.)

One of the ways that people are harassed on the Internet is by locating the narrative which would normally define them and inverting it in cruel and offensive ways. So, in the case of young women attending Yale Law School, we would normally think of them as bright and capable. But in the AutoAdmit scandal (see this Washington Post article for starters), they were misportrayed as brainless, sexually promiscuous, and only getting into Yale by performing sexual favours for female admissions officers.

Pick a minority and there are ready-made inversions available. In the case of minority spiritual groups, if they lead a pure lifestyle and are devoted to some saintly figure, they may be misportrayed as leading a depraved, immodest lifestyle, and as enslaved to a dangerous “cult leader” who is caricaturized as both a fiend and a charlatan.

There’s a connection between the AutoAdmit.com scandal and the Salon.com scandal. Forgive me if I wax Rachel Maddowish to explain it: You know those young female lawyers who got into Yale? You know it’s just because they’re lesbians, right? No straight woman wants to be a lawyer. And you know those women who pray and meditate and sing spiritual songs? You know they’re lesbians too, right? They don’t wanna be, but the cult leader forces ’em. They’re brainwashed to become lesbians and open up vegetarian restaurants. It’s partly the lack of beef that does it…

The serious point to be made is that this type of anti-cult material harasses women, and does so by trying to attach negative stereotypes associated with one minority group (lesbians) to a different minority group (Eastern spiritual seekers). The harassers don’t even have the decency to add the standard Seinfeld disclaimer (“Not that there’s anything wrong with that…”).

The difficulty of escaping such inversions and caricatures for minority spiritual groups is that there’s typically no one in society looking out for their interests. College-educated segments of the population who’ve been exposed to a broad range of views may easily recognize and reject sexist or racist depictions, but may never have had a course in comparative religion, and may tacitly accept hateful stereotypes of religious minorities when fed them, not having learned to do otherwise. That’s why it’s important to teach tolerance as a universal principle, rather than working from a short list of approved minorities. (See Andrew Kutt, Living In Harmony.)

Salon’s attempt to use Sri Chinmoy Centre for clickbait and make them the Liberal Outrage of the Week is idiotic considering that when women make minority spiritual choices, they’re exercising hard-won liberal freedoms — the freedom to be different, and to engage in community-building on their terms, not somebody else’s.

Temple-Song-Hearts, a women’s music group started by followers of Sri Chinmoy, now in its 26th year.

As the Supreme Court has said, freedom of mind encompasses the “freedom to be intellectually and spiritually diverse,” and the “right to differ as to things that touch the heart of the existing order.” Those who have truly understood Jeffersonian freedom of mind will therefore celebrate spiritual diversity and not attempt to suppress minority faiths by foul means.

The liberal left (to which I happen to belong) includes many Catholics, Jews, and other spiritual minorities who believe in working toward a more tolerant and compassionate society, and who believe that government can help. Liberal values are not about destroying faith, but about balancing faith with freedom and tolerance so that each person can find the space they need to survive, thrive, and choose what’s right for them. For some people that might mean making mainstream secular choices, while for others it might mean choosing spiritual alternatives.

Hate propaganda falsely portraying spiritual alternatives as abusive is meant to rob people of their free choice by artificially closing off spiritual pathways. Yet, reality is a rich enough phenomenon to accommodate both secular and sacred lifestyles. Those who work toward peace and freedom through primarily spiritual rather than political means are also making a meaningful contribution. There’s no reason to vilify or harass them.

Both the Rolling Stone and Salon stories were highly propagandistic. In both cases, the technique used by the writer was to try and reduce real people to cultural stereotypes. In Erdely’s case, this entailed fudging the data to make Phi Kappa Psi out to be a group of brutal gang-rapers. In Lyngar’s case, it entailed fudging the data to make Sri Chinmoy out to be an abusive guru straight from central casting, and the peace organization he founded to be a criminal enterprise.

One important difference is that in the Rolling Stone debacle, the groups in conflict were somewhat evenly matched — the power differential between them was not huge. So when Erdely engaged in over-the-top stereotyping of a Southern fraternity and falsely accused them of being sex criminals, there were people who noticed the misrepresentations and cared enough to debunk the story.

Sadly, in the year since Salon published its false story about Sri Chinmoy, either no one noticed or no one cared. That is very hard, and does point to a power differential. I’m making a personal plea to mainstream media, media watchers, and influential bloggers to please investigate this matter and help right the wrong. I can’t do it alone.

Michael Howard