The Witches Of Westwood And Carlos Castaneda's Sinister Legacy
In 2003, hikers discovered a woman's skeletal remains at the edge of the Panamint Dunes in Death Valley. The skull was missing, probably carried off by animals. Scraps from a pair of pink jogging pants with a small knife in one pocket littered the site.
Authorities had little doubt who the woman was. Five years before, in 1998, an immaculate red Ford Escort had been impounded at the end of a desolate road leading to the dunes. The car belonged to 41-year-old Los Angeles resident Patricia Lee Partin, aka Nuri (Nury) Alexander, a longtime disciple of "the godfather of the new age" Carlos Castaneda.
The discovery of Alexander's remains left more questions than answers. The coroner couldn't determine the cause of death and the scene provided no clues to the whereabouts of the four other women who had been in Castaneda's inner circle — Regine Margarita Thal (aka Florinda Donner), Dr. Maryann Simko (aka Taisha Abelar), Dee Ann Ahlvers (aka Kylie Lundahl) and Amalia Marquez (aka Talia Bey). They had all disappeared in the days following Castaneda's death from liver cancer on April 27, 1998. They have not been heard from since.
The Godfather of the New Age
Peruvian-born Castaneda had been a mysterious, elusive, counter-culture curio since 1968. That year, the University of California Press published his lyrical book, The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge. A masterful storyteller, Castaneda claimed the tome was a factual account of his decade of studies, conducted while he was a UCLA anthropology student, with a Native American shaman named don Juan Matus, who had taught him the ways of magic and the universe with the help of peyote and psychedelic mushrooms.
The book was a phenomenon. According to biographer Mike Sager, author of Shaman: The Mysterious Life and Impeccable Death of Carlos Castaneda, it sold 16,000 copies a week. Castaneda was embraced by everyone from Joyce Carol Oates to Jim Morrison ("Yoko is my don Juan," John Lennon once said). In his subsequent 11 books, Castaneda claimed to have become a shapeshifter who experienced the supernatural freedom of travelling between planetary dimensions.
Awarded a PhD by UCLA in 1973, the suave and charming Castaneda had already begun collecting young acolytes from the world of academia. He hated being photographed, meaning that almost no photographs of him exist, adding to the air of mystery and drama that swirled around him.
"In the '70s, there was a sense of this great excitement around him and there was this sense that they were part of this avant-garde cause," says writer robert(a) marshall, co-producer of the podcast Trickster and author of the upcoming book Carlos Castaneda: American Trickster. "But with Carlos, you never knew exactly what the cause was. They were going to bring about a revolution but exactly what that revolution meant, who knew?"
This vagueness was evident in every aspect of Castaneda's life. He refused to be photographed and rarely gave interviews. There was probably a good reason for this. Almost every story he told — from the details of his background to tales of his time with don Juan — was a fabrication. By the early 1970s, investigative journalists and researchers were finding massive holes in his accounts and questioning the existence of the mysterious don Juan.
In 1976, Richard DeMille, son of director Cecil B. DeMille, published Castaneda's Journey, a point-by-point repudiation of Castaneda's tale of don Juan. He noted that Castaneda kept no field notes, incorrectly used Native terms, inaccurately described Native practices and everything he claimed to have uncovered was already known to anthropologists and researchers.
For those who found meaning in Castaneda's work, these pointed critiques didn't matter. UCLA also stayed silent on the matter, although the university had promoted and published the work of a proven charlatan.
In 1973, Castaneda settled into a sparse but elegant 1920s Spanish-style compound on Pandora Avenue in Westwood, where he lived until his death in 1998. The best-selling author and Castaneda follower Amy Wallace, who died in 2013, described her first visit to the compound in her memoir, Sorcerer's Apprentice.
"Taking my hand, he led me through a wrought-iron gate, into a verdant, mini-orchard of fruit trees — luscious figs, kumquats, oranges, peaches. One wall was covered with the climbing rosemary in which I had bathed, the plant born of don Juan’s cutting… The house was astonishingly spare. White plaster walls, wooden floors, and no furniture besides the simplest necessities… A quick peek into his bedroom revealed a largish, long room furnished with a queen-sized bed, a bedside table, and a long, simply-constructed desk covered with piles of papers, a book of 'Canciónes' (Spanish folk songs), and a voluminous Spanish/English dictionary."
Castaneda did not live in the compound alone. He had his students with him. "He had brickwork put in that mimics the brick work at UCLA… There was an idea of having a sort of alternate academy," marshall says.
The stars of this "academy" were attractive, intelligent young women who moved into the compound, which he nicknamed "the witches' house." Over the decades, dozens of acolytes would flow in out and out of Castaneda's orbit as he morphed into the leader of a high-control group that used sex as a weapon and cut off members from their families and past identities.
The five women who disappeared in 1998 had devoted their lives to Castaneda's needs and beliefs. "He wanted smart people and especially smart women he could subdue and control," marshall says. Taisha Abelar, one of Castaneda's "three witches," was precisely that — a talented and demure UCLA anthropology student who became one of his earliest followers.
Taisha wrote about her shamanistic journey in The Sorcerer's Crossing. She was classified by Castaneda as a "stalker," who participated in "the theater of the real." As fellow witch Florinda told Wallace:
"When a true stalker becomes free of ego, he or she assumes different personalities; none are more real than another. A stalker lives them in 'the Theatre of the Real,' with total abandon. It's no game — it's life or death to assume these roles."
Taisha claimed to have inhabited multiple lives on her journey to enlightenment, posing as a man in a Buddhist monastery, a tree-house dwelling "ape girl" and a debutante in Mexico.
Her opposite was the "dreamer" (who entered alternate worlds through her dreams), Florinda Donner. The magnetic leader of the witches, her writings, feisty lectures and charisma drew countless seekers into Castaneda's orbit. "She reminded me of a wild bird, alert and untamed. Her nickname, 'the hummingbird,' suited her to perfection, for she was a diminutive, beautiful creature in perpetual motion," Wallace writes in Sorcerer's Apprentice.
Perhaps one of Castaneda's greatest victims was Nuri Alexander, who joined Taisha and Florinda in the late 1970s.
"She was a high school dropout, a waitress. She was a talented and artistic young woman but she got pulled into the group at such a young age that she really did not have the chance to even have an adult identity," marshall says. Nuri was cast by Castaneda as a magical alien, his otherworldly "daughter," who he also slept with.
According to Wallace, Nuri acted like an overexcited, petulant child, playing with dolls into her 40s, and being constantly objectified by Castaneda. "You should see my daughter naked! Wowie Zimbowie," he told Wallace.
Even as Castaneda's star power dimmed and he retreated into his Westwood coven in the 1980s and '90s, he continued to attract followers. Talia, a whip-smart businesswoman and entrepreneur was president of Cleargreen Inc., which organized Castaneda's workshops and promoted Tensegrity, a spiritual system created by Casteneda, Florinda, Taisha and fellow witch Carol Tiggs.
Kylie Lundahl, who Wallace considered Castaneda's most honest, loyal and earnest devotee, was also constantly singled out for abuse and manipulation by Castaneda.
"She moved to California in 1985 looking for that person to take her to the next level," her sister writes on 4missingwomen, a website created by the lost women's families. "She found Carlos Castaneda. Within four years, she contacted me saying she needed to detach from all her worldly possessions and relationships in order to continue her life journey. I never heard from her again."
According to marshall, life inside the Pandora home had the air of a sophisticated monastery. "You might see them practicing karate in the backyard. There was a sense of a very artistic way of living and a very old-fashioned kind of living. You had to be gentle and very intelligent. There would be talent nights that happened somewhat later. He had something called the 'sorcery theater.' They put on performances. You did not do things like sit around and watch TV, right? That would have been hugely frowned upon."
Out in the world, members cut an elegant appearance. They wore sleek Armani suits, boasted severe short haircuts (cut by Castaneda if you were truly special) and were rail thin, since fatness was "not sorceric," according to Castaneda. The women frequented Beverly Hills restaurant Trumps (no connection to Donald) and shopped at Westwood's most exclusive stores, leading Wallace to dub them the "witches who lunch."
A High-Control Hotbed
Behind the polished sheen and collegiate air was a hotbed of mental abuse, sexual manipulation and cruelty.
"Castaneda loved complexity and tricks and the most elaborate kind of mind games. Everybody wants his approval and he's constantly playing people off against each other. Elevating one, then denigrating the other… just constant mind games. It's a general kind of thing in a culture of any kind of totalitarian regime," marshall says.
Acolytes were encouraged to play mental games with their families if they hadn't cut them off completely. They often got in trouble for the slightest, most nonsensical infractions and were constantly told to perform tasks that they could never complete correctly in Castaneda and the Witches' eyes.
"Gaslighting loved ones was an act of bravery, worthy of a warrior who had renounced the repugnant social order. Stories should be forever changing, proof positive of a disciple's 'fluidity,'" Wallace writes. She had known Castaneda since the 1970s and was lured into the group in the early '90s, when he convinced her that her recently deceased father, Irving, a best-selling author, had willed them to be together.
Wallace soon became one of Castaneda's many lovers but only after she had purified herself using plants he gave her to remove the worms he claimed had been implanted in her womb by other men.
"When Carlos was having an orgasm, he repeated his command to 'pull the sperm' to my brain, and thereby alter my mind's composition. He said that I was already a witch, having made love to him, and that any man who had sex with me henceforth would receive magical benefits — a sort of free pass to Infinity and freedom. I called it 'the MileagePlus Program,' but Carlos didn't laugh," she writes.
Despite Castaneda's claims that women were more powerful than men, marshall thinks the notion that the women were in control is ludicrous.
"The only one in my view… who really had a shot of doing anything independent was Florinda because, among other things, she really had the goods on Castaneda. He would say, 'Oh, Carol is so powerful. I can't do anything without her!' But that's all bullshit. He was controlling everything," marshall says.
Indeed, the witches parroted Castaneda's patriarchal beliefs, which placed him at the center of their enlightenment. "Men have to travel upwards, step by step, as if ascending a ladder. They are meticulous, and more sober-minded, which we are not. This is because they have to struggle in a way that we don't. This is why the leader of our group, the nagual, is always a male. Men have sobriety and women need that," Florinda told Wallace.
They also excused Castaneda's extreme verbal abuse. He often screamed at Wallace, calling her a whore, a fuck-up, a puta and a woman "raised with a silver spoon up your culo." When Wallace confided in Florinda about Castaneda's cruelty, the senior witch was unimpressed. "It was only abuse, she insisted, if I viewed Carlos' attack from the human perspective, believing him to be a mere mortal," Wallace writes.
Most of the women, who had been pitted against each other by Castaneda for decades, did not get along, according to marshall. In her memoir, Wallace says they also verbally and mentally abused each other, constantly excluding and including eager followers, often acting like the meanest of mean girls.
Into The Void
As the '90s progressed, the tenor of the group grew darker and more fatalistic. "Well before he's sick, Castaneda's talking continually about taking the leap, that we're going to have to do it. We're going to have to do it together. It's absolutely essential that this thing that they're going to do is almost never clearly defined. It's always in metaphor," marshall says.
These talks intensified as Castaneda, ravaged by diabetes and liver cancer, started to fade away. As he realized he was dying, Castaneda's cruelty increased, according to Wallace. "As he became increasingly ill, Carlos' plots to subvert his apprentices' relations with their families grew ever more perverse," she writes.
A follower named Bill told Wallace he was disgusted with the way Castaneda was treating his inner circle: "He'd always been hard on the women, but it was turning into something else, something terribly abusive. I couldn't stand to watch it."
In the early months of 1998, the group was in shock, watching their guru not burn from within — like a true sorcerer, like the mythical don Juan — but die a slow, painful human death.
"This is not the death of a nagual! He's not supposed to die this way!" Taisha told Wallace. "It isn't right, something has gone wrong. It must be… be — his karma. He's paying for the bad things he did… There's no other explanation!"
It became apparent to Wallace that some of the inner circle were planning on dying by suicide. There was talk of guns and pills and Florinda began asking certain people if they would "leave" with their leader into the next world.
"It's right there in the books. You don't have to go too far. He's laying out how, if you have sufficient intent and will and train yourself, you will take the leap and you will not have to die. You will be able to navigate infinity with Carlos," marshall says.
In the spring of 1988, obsessive Castaneda fans, known as "the Followers," who often staked out the compound on Pandora, noticed a huge increase of activity in the usually serene headquarters. In Shaman: The Mysterious Life and Impeccable Death of Carolos Castaneda, Sager writes:
"People came and went in shifts several times a day, bringing with them supplies and covered dishes of food. The members of the inner circle all got new cars, mostly mid-sized Fords. A new roof was put on the house… the Followers got the feeling the place was being readied for sale. When landscapers arrived and began tearing up the internal courtyard… the Followers couldn't help but wonder if they were digging a grave."
According to Wallace, the last time she saw Kylie (who she called Astrid) was when Kylie appeared at Wallace’s apartment and burned the galleys of Castaneda's books and her own personal letters and journals.
"She wrapped her muscular arms around me and lifted me up like a little girl, as she had done so many times over the years. I was tiny in her embrace, gaily airborne. "My little elf!" she laughed, radiant. Astrid's hugs were famous among us and I knew it was our last hug. So did she. As she walked out the door, smiling, our eyes met for a long, long time."
As unknowing motorists sped by, Carlos Castaneda died on April 27,1998, in his Pandora Avenue compound. It was not announced until June 19, when the Los Angeles Times reported on the death under the headline “A Hushed Death for Mystic Author Carlos Castaneda.” By that time, the five women were long gone.
The day after the news hit the press, Cleargreen, Inc. issued a statement on his passing. According to Sager:
"Carlos Castaneda left the world the same way that his teacher, Don Juan Matus did: with full awareness," the statement read in part. "The cognition of our world of everyday life does not provide for a description of a phenomenon such as this. So in keeping with the terms of legalities and record keeping that the world of everyday life requires, Carlos Castaneda was declared to have died."
The delayed announcement of Castaneda's death and decades of estrangement meant that the missing women's family members were unaware of their disappearance for many months.
"Maybe a year later or so, some people called and told us all the women had disappeared. They might have killed themselves. So we immediately went to Los Angeles and we tried to approach Cleargreen… Nobody wanted to help," Talia's brother told the Pahrump Valley Times in 2014.
Over the years, there have been sightings and rumors regarding the women's fate. Neither Taisha's van nor Kylie's Taurus have ever been found.
"Rumors said they left Los Angeles by plane, boat and car, on their way to Death Valley, Mexico, South America or the Netherlands," the families state on the 4missingwomen website.
marshall believes the idea that the women went to another state or country to start a new life is highly unlikely.
"People who were close to them very understandably want to believe that, but there are a number of problems with that. One is that there's no record of any kind of financial transactions happening… For most of them, their job since the early '70s had been to be a witch or a cult member. They did not have skills other than that. Yes, they appear to be these amazing powerful women but only within a very specific context. The other thing is, they didn't get along with each other."
Cleargreen, which continues to promote Castaneda's Tensegrity teachings, did not respond to requests for comment on this story.
marshall hopes his new book on Castaneda, which is being published by the University of California Press in 2022, will finally force UCLA to face the fact that the university promoted and supported a dangerous fraudster.
"Hopefully, this will be a moment in which they take some ownership of what occurred. Once you get people to buy into something and they have spent a sufficient amount of time defending it, it's really hard for them to admit they were wrong, and he knew that," marshall says.
Perhaps the fate of the four missing women will someday be uncovered through forensics, genealogy or by accident but signs point to their earthly lives ending around the time of Castaneda's death.
"At the end of book four, Carlos jumps into an abyss," marshall says. "And I think that's what they did."