Book Review

 

Sorcerer’s Apprentice,

my Life with Carlos Castaneda

 

Amy Wallace

 

( Frog, Ltd., Berkeley, California, 2003)



As I often do, I sent a note to the author to tell her I posted a review.  Ms. Wallace was very nice and sent a note back and said I could post it if I wished, so here it is:

 

> Dear Abe,
>    Your review is staggering.  I consider you a fine writer, and bringing
> in Gnosticism, Cathars, etc. -- well, I studied these matters for the
> Jewish book Carlos wanted me to write -- and they are certainly pertinent.
> No one else has made the connections you have.
>     I'm honored that you chose to review my book, and in such thoughtful
> detail, and at such length.  I do agree its a tad cluttered with details,
> and you were even thoughtful about that. . . .
>    I want to you to know my favorite part of your review.  When you wrote
>"I didn't want to read a book by a vengeful lover" (sorry, not your precise
>words) "so I went straight to the end and read that Amy loved, and still
>does love, Carlos, so I bought the book," -- I thought, "This is really
>great.  I love this.  Sounds like something I would do.
>      -- many, many thanks,
>                     Yours,
>                     Amy
> P.S.  Your website is amazing.

So here is my review:

Long, long ago I was an avid reader of the series of magical books by Carlos Castaneda. I wondered if his cast of beyond-normal peoples and their exploits were truth or fiction, and was very surprised to find that his first book began as a doctoral dissertation from my own no-nonsense alma mater, UCLA.


That confused me as to whether his alternate view of reality was real or make-believe. Whatever Castaneda’s source, magical truth or fictional allegory, I was a believer in many of the more fundamental teachings regarding the existence of levels of reality, the importance of true intent, focused attention, etc.


One place I worked, since I could not go very far for lunch, I picked a place in the nearby desert as my own personal power spot where I would sit and feel the earth spirit well up in me and work on my attention. Reading Wallace’s book I just now learned that the way I practiced there is how women absorb power, from the earth, from below. But men are supposed get theirs from above, from the sky. Oh well. Since it did both quiet and invigorate me to meditate in that desert spot, what does that mean? Nothing, I’m sure. According to Wallace at one point while in his other world called the Second Attention, Carlos perceived as if he were a woman and really, really panicked at the prospect of returning to this world as a woman (in a man’s body). Wallace wondered to herself just what was so intrinsically horrible about being female? Last I checked we were the same species.


I was quite smitten with the Castaneda mystique and fondly visited bookstores to see if anything new had been produced by this genius. He deserves that title, and many others, most not too flattering. It was only some of his later expository/explanatory books that began to leave me cold: explaining things that previous books left unexplained took some of the magic away for me because I was disillusioned with his explanations, they sounded too much like what I had already read from other sources.


I felt he was lowering himself to reach a less intuitive, more intellect-driven audience. A wider audience, in other words, one that needed definitions to allow them to classify and categorize and then presume that meant they understood something.


Last Christmas (2005), armed with my usual gift certificates from my splendidly thoughtful kids, I made it to a local bookstore and bought several books. One of them was Amy Wallace’s “Sorcerers Apprentice, my Life with Carlos Castaneda.” I bought it because I was interested in Carlos as a human being. But I was not interested in a biased tell-all from someone who was in a revenge mode, so I jumped to the book’s conclusion and read it.


There I saw that this woman, Amy Wallace, whatever the book-jacket reviews said, was still in love with Carlos! So, now expecting a painfully honest account from a woman who experienced both love and horror, yet who was still sympathetic, I paid the price.


It was a very painful read. I thought there was much too much detail, but I also recognized that for a reader like me, had it not been for that detail, I would likely have misjudged the man.


Amy’s final judgment of him is fair, I agree with her in terms of his contributions to persons who studied him from afar, like me. But her book points out that he put people who got very close to him through hell, and knew it. It was part of his program for breaking egos so that the Second Attention could be attained (I use the word salvation from here on out for the state being sought, not because it is a true synonym, but because I want to).


Ms. Wallace’s conclusion is that Carlos was a sincere man, but absolutely corrupted by absolute power. Power that was given him by his community of followers who saw their salvation as being resident in him personally. He told them this was how it was, he was their key, and whatever he said or did to them was designed to bring them into the state-of-being necessary to make the jump from this life into a new way of being (salvation in a very real sense) with him.


I wonder if a reader who has never read any of Castaneda’s books will “get it.” Meaning, will they recognize the man for the powerful force and magnet that he was, and would they know that to be a true believer in his words and to also be a disciple was akin to being a Christian and walking with Christ? I do not say this flippantly, but Jesus also rebuked his closest followers at times and told them they were not ready to understand yet, yet they followed him submissively feeling he was their path to a better life here and in the next world.


Carlos did the same, made the same claim as Jesus allegedly made. Wallace quotes the famous saying, allegedly by Christ, that to follow him one has to give up everything both material (the rich man’ story) and family (following him will bring conflict, not peace). Castaneda took these words to an extreme. He was verbally, emotionally, sexually and even physically abusive with his inner circle. He controlled their material goods and sexuality, promising wondrous things to those whom he commanded to be celibate, and also those he chose to bed (women only as far as I can tell from Amy’s story, although she is not definitive on the subject and I believe she threw in some very faint hints in the other direction). All was done for the good of this inner circle, to break down their egos and its jealousies. Of course.


His sexual abuse was a flagrant style of polygamy, perhaps including a younger child as one of his sexual partners (but Amy says he most likely made this up just to shock her). His partners were legion. All were promised special powers from being his sex partner. This rang many historical bells with me. Mormonism’s first leader(s) also seduced young women into becoming plural wives with guarantees of salvation for them and their loved ones. Among them were some girls just a couple of years into their teens.


I have said elsewhere on this site that I did not give a hoot about polygamy except if it was part of a religious practice invoking God as its author, requiring a severe degree of patriarchy as the divinely dictated natural order. I objected to Mormon polygamy because it is inexorably tied to the need to lower the spiritual authority and self-expectations of women.  In the case of Carlos, his polygamy was exactly that: he gave special spiritual powers to women through his sexual acts, powers that made them into superior beings and gave them a chance at an eternity of life with him. If they then had sex with a normal man, they ran great risks. He made all whom he did not bed (or whom he was through with) be celibate to gain/maintain the same power.

 

Either way, he used and controlled his followers’ sexuality. This is the worst variety of polygyny in my opinion. Makes Mormon polygyny (multiple women, one man) seem good by comparison, since women claimed it freed them from dependency on a man and gave them sister-wives to help them with their child-raising, allowing some of Brigham Young’s wives, for example, to go to medical and law schools!


Amy Wallace’s story of her seduction into Carlos’ cult is heartbreaking and tragic, and most of the time I wanted to stop reading and step into the story and grab and shake her and yell at her (yes, I wanted to adopt Castaneda-style coercion!): “You are a very smart, brave, beautiful, capable, accomplished woman, walk away from this now, declare your independence and be happy, as you deserve to be. These people belong in a looney bin, what they teach may have some sublime aspects, but what they are doing to you is evil.”


But the reason the book is so effective is that Ms. Wallace now knows she should have walked out. But for a number of reasons, many based in the pathos of her own home-life, she did not. She tells the tale as she lived and experienced it, including acts and episodes that do not cast her in a favorable light. She allowed herself to become part of the madness, inflicting things on others that really bothered her, but doing so because she knew this nasty order had been given her as a test. She did resist imposing cruelty a few times, however, putting her at risk for herself receiving more cruelty. Beating yourself up for not knowing then what you know now is never useful.


Amy’s story about having to lose her former self to become a new self is another heartbreaker. Breaking with family was very important to being able to become a Warrior with pure intent, so, many followers made the break, some in a very cruel fashion. Amy played some games as she was instructed to be able to break away, but never really did break away, and a touching moment in the book is when Carlos tells her to reconcile with her mother, and she does, and they get along well from then on. I actually liked Carlos in that chapter.


There are some themes in the book besides the ones already referred to that were of interest to me because of my readings in history and experiences and readings in religion.  Amy Wallace was already an accomplished author before she jumped into Castaneda’s hell. Yet at several points he tells her to suffer through his prescribed bizarre experiences until she realizes that she is “worthless,” and “nothing.” Classic brainwashing, done to make the person totally dependent on the “superior” person in the relationship (spouse abuse often has this component to a greater or lesser degree).


Amy comes close to suicide at one point, and it is interesting that the book suggests that there were multiple suicides among his followers after his death.


Reincarnation was apparently not in Carlos’ belief system, and not unlike Mormons he believed past-life experiences were “generational memory,” ancestor memories. I found that interesting.  The notion also partakes of Jungian notions of a collective unconscious we can all tap into.


Perhaps the most macabre chapter, from a conceptual point of view, is the one on the creatures who devour human awareness and infect us all with ego, leaving us hungering for love and implanting a need to live to please God. This makes both love and religion the product of an alien will imposing itself within us. All will succumb to being eaten by these creatures, except those who are impeccable warriors, like Carlos. He said he could not save anyone, but no one among his followers stood any chance at all without him.


This aversion to human life as it is reminds me of both the Christian idea that the body is polluted by nature and one should strive to live in ones spirit now and look forward to, after death, living forever in spirit. Christians (witness the witch craze) also quite readily believed in possession by evil beings and influences.


This abhorrence of life as it is also reminds me of the classic dualistic/Gnostic idea that a demi-urge, an imperfect or even malevolent godlike being, traps our spirits in these bodies and our only real life-goal is to escape. Cathars taught that escape comes through obedience to rules and receiving a ritual absolution at the end of life, or becoming a prefect one, abstaining from meat and sex (sex is the entrapment mechanism drawing souls into this world, after all) and providing the saving ritual ordinance to others.


At one point Wallace has Carlos likening life to a never-ending river of sewage which pulls you back if you try to escape it. As some get pushed to the side, sorcerers (like Carlos and his closest followers) will try to clean them off so they can see a new life possibility. Few can stand the discomfort of the unfamiliar, and most jump back into the river. Once fully out, however, life becomes infinitely interesting and one can travel to wherever one desires (as he and his true sorcerers do).


Carlos explicitly stated that he and his true followers are above humanity, humanity which is being eaten and taken over by these alien creatures and therefore is not worth anything. This is why such extreme measures have to be taken to bring an acolyte up out of their old selves and into the new way of being.


Although human love was made light of and caricatured, Carlos still played his women with their need for and desire for love. At one point he teases Amy with the possibility they may be in love. Cruelty was an art-form with the man. Setting up situations with the intent to cause intense jealousy was what he was very good at. All for the salvation, of his disciples. of course.


Toward the end of her book Ms. Wallace repeats her assertion that Carols began something in all sincerity, and contributed to the expansion of the imagination and spirituality of several generations. But over time he was seduced by the absolute power his teachings gave him over those who were on life’s fringes seeking his brand of salvation. At the very end of the book she cites some very accurate and enlightening statements from an observer who pointed out that while the enlightened ones were trying to crush the egos of those in the lower ranks, they had already achieved their ego-less state and were thus free to do anything they pleased, setting up some of the tensions that confused and dismayed the lower ranks.


This is not a very astute observation except that it is quite typical of many autocratic organizations (religious, secular, and even commercial/industrial) where the lower ranks suffer to keep the higher ranks in the state of luxury to which they have become accustomed and to which they feel entitled. Carlos had all his creature comforts taken care of by his devotees, everything from a clean house and well kept garden to daily food, clean clothing, clean and pressed sheets for his bed, and bed partners. At the same time he was instructing all his newer devotees to give up all they had in terms of possessions (usually to be given to Carlos for him to distribute) and family toes, and even their names. All were expected to work tirelessly on the community’s behalf. Rumors of huge amounts of money in Swiss bank accounts surface several times in the book. Seems credible given the astonishing success of Castaneda’s books (to which I have contributed).


The Free Spirit heresy of the middle ages teaches this same idea: one has to carefully live by all the rules until one is made perfect, and then the rules are no longer needful to keep. This same idea creeps up in many religions, in fact. Christianity’s faction that believes one is saved through faith alone and once and for all is similar in essence: you are not powerful enough with your puny sins to break God’s promise of salvation to you once you have obtained it through sincere confession of faith..


To reiterate something I said at the beginning: I choose to agree with Amy Wallace’s final assessment of Carlos Castaneda. He contributed to the spirituality of generations of the world’s citizenry, but took away much from (a few hundred?) devotees who got close enough to him to be drawn into his narcissistic whirlpool. To those closest to him, once he became part of them and they gave up their selves to him, it was he who was the devourer from within that he allegedly saw hovering around and eating away at humanity. It was he who reduced at least some humans to powerless, mindless, suffering puppets. Then, once they were reduced to the nothing he had been telling them they were, they were elevated and made fellow torturers of others, and the rules began to apply less and less to them.


I am very glad I read this book. I am disillusioned. In his inner circle Castaneda was a horrible human being. Rather than empower and build people, he strove to make them see themselves as truly nothing and worthless (something he has in common with some Christians who feel that man is nothing and merits nothing). Once they realized this about themselves, the good news was that if they followed his commands they would be raised above all humanity. Another Christian theme, except in Christianity it is a bit more inclusive (a bit only, the popularity of the believers being raised off the earth as the wicked –everyone else– are destroyed is not all that different from Castaneda’s view in my opinion).


I feel very bad for Ms. Wallace’s very real and very long period of suffering. I am very glad she has moved on from where she was. I wish her a wonderful and fulfilling life. And I thank her for writing this book.

Postscript:  I have received two messages in the first day's replies to my announcing this book review. Both were from persons who had loved reading Castaneda's books long ago, one was married to someone who lived his life in imitation of Castaneda's seeking total dominance and control, and one has already ordered the book.  Amazing, I have known these people for some time and would have never guessed they were Castaneda fans several decades ago!  His teachings reached and still reach deeply into our societal fabric.  

 

Most of us enjoyed his books because they expanded our awareness of life's mysteries, taught us there was more to reality than what we could see, touch, smell, hear and taste.  There is another sense, another awareness, that detects additional dimensions of what is still reality.  That is a good thing.  As Ms. Wallace states it on her page 391, those who came  close but then walked away with insights, teachings and practices and kept their previous personal lives intact benefited greatly from their exposure to Castaneda and his teachings.  Their lives were enriched.  Those who got too close suffered greatly and were drained, impoverished at many levels unless they were a part of a very, very small inner circle.  And judging from my emails, some who stayed far away but tried to live the life of an impeccable warrior/sorcerer too literally made hell of the lives of those closest to them.

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