This is my second article about the followers of New Age guru Carlos Castaneda. My first article (here) was a profile of the five women, followers of Castaneda’s, who went missing shortly after he died of cancer in April 1998. One of the surviving members of Castaneda’s inner circle, Amy Wallace, wrote a book in 2003 about her experiences, entitled Sorcerer’s Apprentice: My Life With Carlos Castaneda. This fascinating and terrifying book is absolutely mandatory for anyone who wants to know the real story of the Castaneda cult, or who wishes to gain a greater understanding of how such groups work in practice.
Amy Wallace is the daughter of pop novelist Irving Wallace, who wrote pulpy but insightful books like The Prize (1962, about the awarding of the Nobel Prize) and The Man (1964, about the first black president, predating Barack Obama by 44 years). Growing up in a talented family, on the edges of stardom, Hollywood and the intelligentsia of the 1960s and 70s, Wallace first met Carlos Castaneda in 1973 when she was still a teenager. Castaneda, formerly an anthropology graduate student at UCLA, claimed and wrote several books about various spiritual travels in the company of a Yaqui Indian shaman called Don Juan. In 1972 and ’73, these claims were researched and refuted–Don Juan did not exist. Castaneda, though famous and prosperous from his bestselling books, retreated into seclusion, bringing with him several women who were his disciples, collaborators and lovers.
Although Amy Wallace knew Castaneda for years, she did not become one of his core group until after 1990, in the final phase of the guru’s career. He was by now living in a compound in the Westwood neighborhood of Los Angeles and a number of followers lived with him. Amy did not, although she began a sexual relationship with Castaneda–many years older than she was–about 1991. Although choppy at first and rather slow to get started, her memoir Sorcerer’s Apprentice begins to take off in the middle, as Wallace is drawn into the insular world of Castaneda’s “witches,” who ran his Tensegrity seminars and classes, cared for him, and believed they shared his power to connect to a realm of spirituality that most others could not access. The “sorcery” of the title was, for them, literal.
Four of the five missing followers of Carlos Castaneda. Left to right: Amalia Marquez, Florinda Donner-Grau, Patricia Partin, and Taisha Abelar.
This is the hardest part of the Castaneda phenomenon for me to understand. Castaneda’s New Age babble is more in-depth than your usual self-help type of thing, and he seems to have claimed that he and his followers had actual powers emanating from their minds, but no one seems to have been very big on proving this or even being very specific about what these powers were. The usual benefits that people receive from new religious movements–belonging, empowerment, community, love, special knowledge–are necessarily intangible, but Amy Wallace is surprisingly circumspect about exactly what Castaneda’s teachings were supposed to do for those who followed them. Maybe it was never really defined for her, which makes the devotion of his followers even harder to comprehend. What would make you disconnect from your family, cut your hair short, and go live with a 60-something New Ager in the hills of Los Angeles? It would have to be pretty compelling, right? Exactly what this benefit was seems strangely undefined here.
Nevertheless, the roller-coaster of life with Castaneda is vividly portrayed. Amy Wallace describes bizarre cycles of rejection and fawning by Castaneda and especially the other women who became her closest friends–and worst enemies. Ms. Wallace was never as deep into the group as the others were, which could account for why she got out. Her account of her growing doubts, as Castaneda grew increasingly erratic and self-contradictory, is very illuminating.
This is a book that hinges very heavily on personalities. It would make an excellent and a very gripping movie. Javier Bardem (Skyfall) as Carlos Castaneda would be the performance of his lifetime. This is a very personal story, and especially toward the end of the book it’s a page-turner that you can’t put down.
So what does Amy Wallace think happened to the five missing women? (A reader of this blog reminded me that it may be six; Carol Tiggs, although she did not vanish with the other five, may also be missing). She seems pretty convinced that they committed suicide. As I explained in my previous article, that’s a pretty reasonable hypothesis. I doubt seriously we will ever see any of them alive again, but I guess it is possible.
Sorcerer’s Apprentice is a fascinating book. Despite its uneven quality, it’s pretty illuminating, and leaves you with a lot to think about. I enjoyed it.
Grade: A minus