The Anthropologist Who Turned a Shaman Cult Chief


Searching by way of an vintage bookstore in Quito, I chanced on a e book known as Shabono: A Go to to a Distant and Magical World within the South American Rain Forest, written by an anthropologist named Florinda Donner. Printed in 1982, I anticipated it to be like most educational texts: fascinating however long-winded and dusty. As an alternative, I acquired a gripping journey that places even Indiana Jones to disgrace. 

The e book opens with Donner, a German immigrant learning anthropology in California, feeling hopeless. She’s spent weeks on the border between Venezuela and Brazil shadowing Indigenous healers who refuse to disclose the secrets and techniques of their commerce. Getting ready to return to the U.S. empty-handed, she befriends a sort however loopy outdated lady who desires to introduce her to her village, positioned deep contained in the rainforest. The lady dies on the journey, and when Donner arrives on the village, she joins a ceremony the place she drinks banana soup seasoned with the lady’s ashes. 

And that’s simply the primary couple chapters. Later, Donner experiences existential hallucinations after snuffing epená, a tryptamine spinoff, and narrowly avoids getting kidnapped by one other tribe. 

The story of Shabono is so compelling I discovered it exhausting to consider it was true, which – it seems – it wasn’t. Whereas the e book was praised for its writing, it was torn aside for lack of educational rigor. Some anthropologists consider Donner made every little thing up, claiming she by no means left the U.S. and plagiarized the account of a Brazilian lady who had as soon as been held captive in the identical area of the Amazon. 

As shocked as I used to be to study all this, the rabbit gap proved to go a lot, a lot deeper. 

It’s exhausting to separate the story of Florinda Donner from that of Carlos Castenada. Castenada, like Donner, was a California-based anthropologist accused of fabricating his research on Indigenous therapeutic. He claims to have met Don Juan Matus, the Yaqui sorcerer on the middle of his bestselling 1968 e book The Teachings of Don Juan, while ready for a Greyhound bus in Arizona. Critics questioned Don Juan’s existence, and Castenada, who didn’t like being questioned, supplied no assist in making an attempt to find him. 

Though The Teachings was shunned in educational circles, it made a big impact on the final inhabitants. Castenada’s recollections of inhaling the mud of psilocybin mushrooms and turning right into a crow after smoking satan’s weed had been required studying for anybody concerned within the intercourse and medicines tradition of the late 60s.  

Although he might need been a awful anthropologist, Castenada was a masterful storyteller who knew the right way to use his present to bewitch these round him. Following the publication of his third Don Juan e book, Castenada – by then a multimillionaire – bought a two-story home in Los Angeles’ Westwood Village. That is the place his private writerly following would flourish into what some would now take into account to have been a full-blown cult. 

One in every of Castenada’s followers was Gloria Garvin, who sought him out after studying The Teachings underneath the affect of pumpkin pie laced with cannabis. 

“You may have at all times been like a chook, like slightly chook in a cage,” Garvin recalled Castenada telling her throughout their preliminary assembly. “You’re desirous to fly, you’re prepared, the door is open—however you’re simply sitting there. I wish to take you with me. I’ll assist you soar. Nothing may cease you for those who include me.” Staying in contact, Castenada urged her to review anthropology at UCLA, his alma mater. 

Additionally from UCLA Castenada recruited Florinda Donner, whom he helped write Shabono and The Witch’s Dream, amongst different books. 

Castenada referred to his favourite followers as his “witches.” The witches lived with him on the Westwood compound and wore equivalent, brief haircuts. Additionally they claimed to have met the semi-fictional Don Juan. Witches recruited different witches at Castenada’s L. Ron Hubbard-inspired lectures and seminars on shamanism and human transcendence – ideally “girls with a mixture of brains and wonder and vulnerability,” in response to ex-followers interviewed by Salon

To turn into an actual witch, they are saying, you needed to sleep Castenada, who offered himself as celibate in public.

Testimony maintains Castenada’s following had all of the traits of a cult. Followers had been pressured into chopping off contact with their family and friends. Solely Donner, who was thought of Castenada’s mental and religious equal, remained in contact along with her dad and mom, albeit sporadically. After being separated from their family members, Castenada inspired them to give up their jobs to make them financially depending on him. Conformity was rewarded, primarily within the type of his sought-after affection.

Regardless of his obsession with immortality, Carlos Castenada died of liver most cancers in April 1998. “Befitting of a person who made an esthetic out of thriller,” the New York Times reported when information of his demise was made public after being withheld for weeks, “even his age is unsure.” 

As quickly as one thriller left the world, one other entered. A day after Castenada’s demise, Donner and three different girls near Castenada disconnected their telephones and seemingly vanished into skinny air. Patricia Partin, Castenada’s adopted daughter, additionally went lacking. Her deserted Ford Escort was present in Dying Valley. Years later, her stays had been discovered there as nicely.  

Not one of the disappearances had been correctly investigated by the LAPD, and to date, each citizen journalist and web sleuth trying to uncover the destiny of the witches has run right into a lifeless finish. 

Ex-followers consider the ladies took their very own lives. In life, Castenada usually talked about suicide, framing demise because the gateway to a better plain of existence. When his well being started to say no, the witches reportedly acquired weapons. Taisha Abelar, one of many witches who disappeared alongside Donner, began consuming, however advised these round her she wasn’t “in any hazard of turning into an alcoholic” as a result of, Salon quotes, “I’m leaving.” Additionally per Salon, Castenada had advised Partin to take her Ford Escort “and drive it as quick as you’ll be able to into the desert” if “you ever must rise to infinity.” Suspicious, however in the end inconclusive. 

Those that survived Castenada are satisfied he genuinely believed every little thing he preached. As one ex-follower advised Salon, “he grew to become an increasing number of hypnotized by his personal reveries.” 

It appears the witches did as nicely. In Shabono, Donner parades fiction as truth. Whereas she might have initially tried to parade fiction for truth to be able to receive fame and fortune, readers get the stronger impression that, the additional the younger anthropologist ventured into her personal fantasy world of life and demise and medicines and mysticism, the more durable it grew to become for her to separate the actual from the imagined. 

At any price, it’s a very, actually well-written e book.

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