Spiritualized Narcissism as Trauma Response: A Review of – and Meditation on – A Death on Diamond Mountain by Scott Carney
(This article first appeared in Yoga International.)
It begins with your family
but soon it comes ‘round to your soul
— Leonard Cohen
On April 22nd, 2012, Ian Thorson died in a cave in the Arizona desert.
The Cochise Country coroner ruled the cause of death as dysentery-induced dehydration. But members of the cult that effectively chased Thorson into the wilderness without the psychiatric help he needed still search for his cause of death in the garbled neo-Buddhist jargon of their leader, Michael Roach.
Due out tomorrow, journalist Scott Carney’s tangled probe into the tragedy points in a different direction: towards the dangers of spiritual striving. He begins A Death on Diamond Mountain with the question, “How much should someone strive to know their own soul?”
Full disclosure: I broke the news of Thorson’s death to the global media on May 4th with the first of three hasty, mostly accurate, and highly emotional polemics against the cult of Roach. I worked from local news reports, Roach’s deflective justification for the terrible decisions that drove Thorson to his cave, and my own vivid memories of the three years I spent in Roach’s community. So for me, reading through Carney’s book is like seeing old photos from novel angles in an album that I didn’t assemble, reading captions that stray from my own narrative just enough to make me doubt my recollections and illuminate the agendas that form them. This I know for sure: I’m too close to the story and too embroiled in how it has unfolded to have cleanly approached what Carney has succeeded with here.
I’m too close to it to simply review the book either, which is why I’m also calling this a “meditation” – although I’m sure it’ll carry a strong dose of “I would’ve done it this way, if I’d had the stomach for it.”
Carney and I have been in regular contact since he emailed me two days after I first published, and he cites my reporting in his book. I’ll admit that I’m biased in favour of his effort overall because I’m pleased that this cautionary tale has been given a sane treatment before the movie rights are optioned and someone lands Kevin Spacey to play Roach. But I have several reservations about Carney’s method – thick on historical digression, thin on psychology and direct sourcing, and at times overly credulous for subjects who spiritualize credulity – that I hope will make for a balanced account.
The hard facts of the Diamond Mountain tragedy are already as faded and threadbare as the Chinese-made Tibetan prayer flags fluttering over the empty retreat temple Roach built with his followers’ cash. But through dogged gumshoe work, Carney knits some flesh onto the skeletal outline he penned for Playboy a year ago.
He begins with a nuanced biographical sketch of Thorson, unearthing his high school mysticism, the hypergraphia that filled countless notebooks with poetry as wry as it was transcendent, the paradox of the intrepid world traveller who made it to Tibet but had to live with his mom when he returned, his hopeless idealizations of women and sex and India, and his strange eagerness, provoked by meeting Roach, to erase his body through radical fasting and his mind through compulsive meditation. Through the grief of Ian’s mother Kay, Carney is granted enough access to Thorson’s childhood home and his box of journals to tackle his lead question with gumption.
Unfortunately, Thorson’s disarmingly self-reflexive ephemera is as close as Carney or anyone will come to answering “How much should someone strive?” as it pertains to Roach’s inner circle, because none of the survivors are talking. Every principle in this momo[*] western – Christie McNally, the other four young women rumored to have had group sex with Roach during the first three-year retreat (funded by devotees convinced it was a celibate gig), the Diamond Mountain Board, and of course Roach himself – mostly refused to speak with Carney, or in some cases actively lied to him. Perhaps they have no choice psychologically, sunk-costs and cognitive dissonances being what they are. But many are also religiously obliged to their omertà, having taken pseudo-monastic vows against “idle talk” and “gossip”, and “harming the Sangha through negative speech.” The silence of a cult amplifies the drone of its leader’s voice.
Investigative journalism is only as good as its sources, and you can’t find out why someone starved to death in the shadow of their guru by reading their notebooks. You have to understand who was around them, the immediate culture they moved in, what they were transferring from their past onto the charismatic leader, and, perhaps, how they had been traumatized in ways they could never reveal, even to themselves. The Diamond Mountain faithful may confess such things to the ether of meditation, but spilling them to a journalist – or even a therapist – would necessitate returning to a world they’d fled long ago.
Any complete account of Thorson’s fate certainly must closely examine his primary influence, Michael Roach. But without wiretapping a psychoanalysis that will never happen, no-one will know anything more about Roach than what Roach loves to say about himself whenever a patron or dupe hands him a microphone. Carney’s entire backgrounder on the Diamond Mountain leader is a composite of Roach’s countless self-narrations. That Roach is a well-documented, shameless confabulator of everything from his work history to his Tibetan studies qualifications to his philanthropic achievements to his celibacy is no small problem for a reporter on the desert trail.
Remember Brian Williams and that helicopter story? Imagine a guy who does that exaggeration-humblebrag thing with every story he tells about himself. Imagine Brian Williams, balding but for a long oily comb-over fringe, with diamonds in his teeth, lying every single day about his history, wearing the robes of a monk while sleeping with women half his age. Granted: this Brian Williams has a smaller televised audience. But he’s also in charge of the spiritual care of jobless and needy twenty-somethings. So it’s too bad that Carney wound up reading off of Roach’s cue cards, but without an interview, there’s little more he can do. Wading through the Roach chapter is like reading the transcript of a smiley ideologue on the Tibetan FOX outlet, typed out by someone as frustrated as you are that you can’t quite hear the strange shit you know is going on backstage.
Here’s the passage in which Carney records the entirety of his single meeting with Roach:
When it was my turn I stood in front of his throne in the New Age church and introduced myself. I tried to phrase a question about how he was dealing with Thorson’s death. He began to talk. “It was a very sad event, but why are people not interested in my teaching? One person dies in the desert and suddenly everyone pays attention. People should be talking about all the good works that I’ve done instead.
Eighteen months of work. Two hundred forty six pages. One measly quote of thirty-nine words. Priceless? Readers may not need to hear any more than this to instinctually stay away from Roach’s racket, or any racket like it, but the gullible cultures of modern Buddhism and Yoga would benefit from a closer look into the pathologies that drive a transnational guru to give the most absurd, tin-eared, megalomaniac answer possible about the death of his student to an investigative journalist.
In this split world where the witnesses are quiet and the perps sing talking-point narcaoke (karaoke for narcissists, featuring songs about themselves), Carney’s path to the truth slants as steeply uphill as the rocky trail that led to Thorson’s grave. Digging deep to scuttle up, he still uncovers achingly suggestive details. In Thorson’s effects Carney finds certificates of completion for two rounds of the solipsistic Silva Mind Control courses, which Ian began at the age of eleven. (What kind of pain prompts a boy to disappear within, to visualize himself as the controlling centre of his universe?) Then there’s Michael Roach’s altar boy service and his ascendancy within the Boy Scout’s appropriation of Native American spirituality – the Order of the Arrow – all against the backdrop of his parents’ alcoholism and early divorce.
Carney also pokes in the shadows of Roach’s diamond fetish, with which he extended his physical and metaphysical empire – diamonds being symbolic of “emptiness” in some forms of Buddhism. It turns out that Roach made millions in Gujarat, well known for its blood diamonds, which means that he funded himself as well as projects along a wide spectrum of neo-Buddhist legitimacy with money made through economic slavery and war. Then Carney tracks down anonymous sources who suggest that Roach superimposed the portrait of his high-school girlfriend onto a photograph of a gilded sculpture of a Tibetan goddess for the cover of Preparing for Tantra, which he self-published, sharing the author credit with his main teacher, Khen Rinpoche, with whom he lived in Howell, New Jersey. (The girlfriend is still alive, and many people know her name and where she is, but she’s not talking either.)
We learn of how the Thorson family hired ex-Maharishi devotees who’d become cult deprogrammers when they realized after ten years of forking over cult-cash that they weren’t really learning to fly. The Thorsons paid them $35K for a year’s worth of trying to yank him out of Roach’s shadow. Despite good intentions, the family and deprogrammers only succeeded in further destabilizing Ian’s sense of autonomy and empowerment. Thorson fled to Germany, fathered a son he was in no condition to care for, and then glommed back onto Roach as soon as the guru breezed through Berlin with McNally on his arm. On a stupider note, we also learn of Bumble and Bumble hair magnate CEO Michael Gordon, Roach’s co-author on the now-hilariously titled Karmic Management: What Goes Around Comes Around in Your Business and Your Life, who’s currently out on $4M bail for tax fraud. Gordon probably should have stuck with doing Roach’s hair.
Then there’s this tender gem: Carney performs the great public service of recounting the exploits of Arizona native Theos Bernard (1908 – 1947). Theos was the better-behaved nephew of neo-Tantrik sex addict Pierre Bernard (1875 – 1955), aka Oom the Omnipotent (a name that evidently inspired several Muppet Show characters). An avid prospector of esoterica, Theos was the first American to travel in Tibet, as Carney describes,
…taking thousands of photographs and hundreds of feet of film with an early movie camera. He toured the Potala Palace and hired important lamas to perform elaborate ceremonies that he could record. When he returned to the West a year later, he appeared in public wearing the crimson robes and yellow hat of a Geluk monk. Despite his very brief stay in Lhasa, he declared to the Daily Mail, ‘I am the first White Lama – the first Westerner ever to live as a priest in a Tibetan Monastery, the first man from the outside world to be initiated into Buddhists’ mysteries hidden even from many native lamas themselves.’
He toured across America for the next ten years, claiming that the Dalai Lama recognized him as a reincarnation of the eight-century saint Padmasambhava, who is arguably the most important teacher in the entire religious history of Tibet.
Does this sound like the rap sheet of anyone we know? Douglas Veenhof – a long-term devotee of Roach – thinks so. (Or at least he did: he refused to talk to Carney for the book.) When Roach emerged from his first three-year love-in in 2003, he asked Veenhof to pen a biography of Bernard, which he faithfully completed in 2011. Carney’s note on Veenhof’s White Lama: The Life of Tantric Yogi Theos Bernard, Tibet’s Lost Emissary to the New World records that it “begins with a tribute to Geshe Michael Roach and extols Bernard’s mystical abilities and tantric teachings…. Multiple sources have suggested to me that Michael Roach may consider himself a reincarnation of Theos Bernard.” [Emphasis mine.] Bernard disappeared somewhere in the inferno of the India-Pakistan border in 1947, four years before Roach was born.
To recap: Roach asks student to compile the biography of his previous American incarnation – a well-intentioned exaggerator at best, a cynical charlatan at worst – who splashed money around Lhasa for a few weeks in the late 1930s and came home claiming to be a reincarnation of the patron saint of Tibet. Student shows a divine lack of critical thinking by taking Bernard’s self-reporting of his travels and attainments at face value. Student doesn’t pause to consider the incredible pathos of suggesting that his fake American lama might be the reincarnation of the original fake American lama. Book is presented to Roach and the community as an act of mutually-validating devotion. Tableau.
Carney’s gold nuggets are hard-won, and they glimmer in the pan. But in the absence of the psychoanalytic rigour that might bring the real pressures of cult dynamics to light, he often lets them pass through the sieve. Casting around for a coherent narrative, he pulls on two historical threads that in some ways are more distractive than explanatory, and regrettably play into the mystifications of his subjects.
The first produces an account of the greatest hits of Tibetan Buddhism and its original European Theosophical distorters. Though replete with reductions that will provoke a flurry of scholarly facepalms, the chapter does a decent job of setting the stage for Roach’s Tibetification of the American dream, and is an entertaining way of filling out a page-count. But at two-thirds of the way through, I think Carney loses the plot with an entire chapter on the brutal encounters between the Chiricahua chief Cochise, his successor Geronimo and the U.S. Army on the desert washes that Roach’s group has settled.
Why the digression? Carney writes:
Stories of Geronimo and Cochise were never far from the lips of people at Diamond Mountain. At times it felt to them as if the new university was following in Indian footsteps and bringing spiritual existence back to the land of the vanquished Indians.
I suppose it’s good to know what the Mountaineers say about what they’re doing, but by devoting twelve pages to a history that does little but inflate the group’s self-importance, Carney tacitly endorses the geo-historical grandiosity essential to any cult. In cult-world, correlation is causation, maps are the territory, poetry is destiny, and intuition is fact – as long as it comes from the top. Everything is pregnant with meaning. The guru’s real estate fortunes in the austere land of his birth are unfolding with cosmic significance. There are saints and angels everywhere, but the Chinese have chased them from Tibet and the U.S. Army chased them from the desert. How fortunate that we have the opportunity to save both by appropriating two cultures for the price of one on land that our guru owns mortgage-free and is re-invigorating with his magical power!
Carney may be unaware of being distracted by this strange brew of motivated reasoning, culture-pimping and white guilt, but he’s totally transparent about being seduced by the occult world of his subjects. While on writing retreat to complete his first draft, he succumbs to paranoia and seeming hallucinations as he listens to hours of Roach’s droning lectures. He wonders if the project has attracted a curse from the nouveau White Lama. Desperate, Carney feels compelled to literally breathe out “the black mist of Roach’s influence” with an improvised meditation oddly resonant with several of the purification techniques taught by Roach himself.
Finally, a concerned Tibetophile he’s been interviewing offers to broker a protection puja for Carney from the Tibetan monastery that has now disowned Roach. Carney sheepishly agrees, and wires cash to pay “eighty monks to chant a protection spell in my name for a few hours.” He feels better when it’s done. So here we have a journalist shelling out to a monastery for a ritual that will protect him from the magical dangers of reporting on a phony cross-dressing monk who’s scandalizing that monastery’s name by claiming to teach under its authority.
I totally identify with writers who both genre-jam and immerse themselves so completely in their task that their objectivity is stretched to the breaking point. But Carney must know that Roach doesn’t have magical powers, because no-one does. The monks at Sera Me can’t protect him with mantras any more than they can resurrect Ian Thorson with Tibetan sculptures made of butter. The only magic at play here is the mystery of intergenerational trauma. So I hope this book provides a solid foundation for an extended study of the deep-seated psychological abuse that spins its ochre shame and crimson guilt into seductive religious costumery.
In the prologue, Carney describes how he was drawn to the events of Diamond Mountain by a haunting memory. Several years after I toured in Roach’s dysfunctional retinue through Kathmandu, Bihar, Karnataka, and Goa, Carney was working as an administrator for a college travel company that brought American students to Buddhist pilgrimage sites. On one terrible night, in the very same ashram where I’d once hung out with Thorson, one of Carney’s charges leapt from the roof and died on impact. Meditating on death, which is a standard beginner’s task in many Tibetan schools, had clearly provoked her mental health. Finding her, reading her journal, and then being in charge of bringing her embalmed and iced body back to her family stateside swerved Carney’s life path towards investigative journalism. He elided this undertaker-chaperone experience into researching his book on the black market for human organ trade. I imagine he’s been waiting a long time for a story that would help him make his student’s psychotic death meaningful.
Carney approaches Thorson’s story as most kind souls would, but perhaps with a layer of survivor’s guilt. In many passages he seems less like Columbo and more like a pilgrim, trying so hard to understand his subjects in their own terms that he buys their enlightenment narratives while hall-passing other motivations. Except for a small foray into cult-analysis literature in his account of the Thorsons’ failed attempt to deprogram Ian, Carney resists framing Roach’s group as a cult. The omission is at once generous anthropology and good marketing. Focusing on cult analysis will draw a voyeuristic eye, and it seems that Carney most wants this story to provoke readers towards a sober assessment of their own spiritual drives. But avoiding the C-word can affect a lack of skepticism as Carney recounts the goals of Roach and his group, but glosses over their spin.
The goals and spin of Diamond Mountaineers are undoubtedly cultish. They feature but are not limited to the following. They are trying to rejuvenate Tibetan Buddhism – apparently by FUBAR-ing it. They’re carrying on the teachings of the Dalai Lama – by grossing out the entire Tibetan hierarchy. They’re trying to build heaven on earth – by sponging cash off Chinese and Russian oligarchs. They’re creating a “feminist” model of Buddhism – by installing female teachers initiated by sex with the guru. They’re giving away the “technology” for having perfect relationships – by hawking the virgin/whore dialectic, gender essentialism, and sacralizing partner-swapping. They’re building an intellectual hub for Buddhism unseen since the days of Nalanda University – by running diploma-mill courses in magical thinking. They’re conjuring the ghosts of the Apache for a strength that will heal Arizona – by talking a lot about Indians. And of course they want to save the world – by building air-conditioned retreat huts in the desert for rich people.
It’s true that there are many Roach adherents who earnestly believe in the goals and can’t see through the spin, and perhaps more than a few who have arrived at Diamond Mountain with relatively intact psyches and a simple passion for adventure. It’s also true that some of Roach’s self-regard isn’t unwarranted: he has in fact spearheaded a laudable project to gather and scan Tibetan texts scattered during the fall of Lhasa, and he’s contributed generously to the struggling infrastructure of the Sera Me and Sera Je monasteries in Bylakuppe. But for the majority who orbit Roach’s inner circle, the explicit goals of the cult – from preserving Tibetan culture to gaining an angelic body – can also provide sanctimonious cover for the exercise of intense psychological entanglements that perhaps only recovered insiders and the psychologists who work with them can understand.
Citing Daniel Shaw’s Traumatic Narcissism: Relational Systems of Subjugation might have led Carney to a less forgiving portrayal of the psychic hamster wheel of the Mountaineers:
In cults… the stated, typically grandiose goals of the group are not met, because the group’s energies and resources are constantly directed toward the actual goal, which is always the self-aggrandizement of the leader and his organization through the subjugation and exploitation of his followers. This of course is precisely the same goal as that of the traumatizing narcissist. (Loc. 1428)
Shaw knows what he’s talking about. He’s a cult-survivor like I am, but way more hard core: he did ten years under the volatile thumb of “Gurumayi” Swami Chidvilasananda, the inheritor of Siddha Yoga from the Tantrik polymath and sex abuser Muktananda. Shaw’s humiliation was so deep it propelled him into a career as a psychotherapist. I’ll return to his cogent framework of “traumatic narcissism” and how it plays out generationally in families and social groups in a bit. For now, just imagine contrasting Carney’s approach with the yet-unwritten book of the insider-who’s-now-outside: the person who has felt such confusion, objectification, inadequacy and self-hatred in the shadow of incomprehensible demands that she brought herself right to the edge of that deadly ashram roof, but at the last minute, pulled herself back with some inner fortitude she didn’t know she had, which she would use to restore a self so viciously ravaged by a guru or ideology she considered it redeemable only through erasure or sacrifice.
I can set all of my reservations aside to affirm that A Death on Diamond Mountain provides a solid introduction of the main themes and events leading up to Thorson’s demise. Anyone interested in how strangely creative and corrupt the appropriation of Tibetan Buddhism into American culture can be will find it a fascinating read. Anyone with an inkling that meditative practices can be as dangerous to one’s neuropsychology as they can be liberating will be grateful at how many doors Carney opens with this book. His references to Brown University researcher Willoughby Britton in his chapter on the emerging research into meditation-related mental illness are particularly prescient.
But to my eye, the fuller Diamond Mountain story isn’t about Tibetology, or the haunted Arizona desert, or sex rituals that could either be “spiritual” or abusive. It’s not about lost texts, the dangers of meditation, or the fantastical quest for enlightenment. It’s about what people do to each other when they’re trying to escape both the world and their past.
One of the assertions that Roach made in pretty much every one of lectures I attended from 1996 through 2000 was that no-one seriously came to the Buddhist path without having suffered some kind of horrible loss. He would say things like (I’m paraphrasing from a memory here I can’t shake):
Something terrible needs to happen to you to show you exactly what this world is. My mother died of cancer. Then my brother shot himself in the head. This lady [points to someone in the front row] watched her husband get run over by a car. I have a student in Manhattan whose newborn baby died in her arms. Nurses and doctors are the best students, if they haven’t gone numb, because hey know we’re living in a slaughterhouse. Possessions can’t help you, because you’ll lose them. Relationships can’t help you, because people leave you or die. Psychotherapy can’t help you, unless the therapist knows the way out of this world, but I haven’t met any therapists who do. You should be praying for a disaster to happen to you, because then you’ll finally get it! You’ll start studying Buddhism like there’s no tomorrow, because guess what? There is no tomorrow! All these people here [distinguishing the front row from those of us in the back] – they’re the lucky ones. They’ve had some tragedy, and they know they have nothing left to do in life but to figure out how to stop their suffering, and your suffering [waving to the back row]. They’ve got one purpose. They know there’s no turning back.
The argument carried hints of the more orthodox presentation – with which most Buddhist paths begin – of the necessity for sobering up to the facts of life and renouncing mundane consolations. But Roach cranked it to a fever pitch unseen in the more austere exegetes of the Tibetan, Theravadin, or Zen methods – weeping as he spoke, stoking the otherwise healthy existential despair of his listeners into a fire of dependency. The world was “insane”, humans were lost, and normal life was intolerable to anyone with a heart and brain. Luckily, there’s a solution, Roach would say, and if you come to my next lecture, buy my book – or if you’re really serious, follow me into the desert – I’ll tell you all about it.
Roach’s ultimate punch-line was about as distorting and abusive as one could imagine. According to his infantile misunderstanding of Buddhist philosophy, all of the suffering you have experienced – your mother dying, your divorce, the patient who flatlined on your table – is your own karmic fault, and yours alone. There’s no vulnerable physical body, no outside world, no other people, no diseases, no political power structures, no rape culture, no capitalism. Or if there are – those are your fault too. Reigning supreme over all horror is your own perverse mind, projecting the trash of your debauched behaviours into the future in an unending tape-loop of mayhem. Roach used a manipulative appeal to empathy and then convinced those who cried along with him to “drive all blame into yourself”, as his favourite verse from the Lo-jong teachings states.
I watched his following swell and finally overflow every temple and lecture hall we rented as he shed the same tears literally hundreds of times in those years. When the Dalai Lama’s office publicly castigated Roach for having the arrogance to stage a event in Dharamsala during His Holiness’ annual public teachings, the secretary showed more cultural savvy in his pinkie than Roach carries in his oversized noggin by slyly addressing the letter to “Reverend”, instead of “Geshe” – his disputed title. The Tibetans have his number as a bombastic sutra-thumper in old-timey, snake-oil-faith-healing American style.
But as far as I know, Tibetan Buddhist psychology doesn’t have the non-esoteric tools needed to deconstruct where Roach might be coming from, why people might follow his charisma while insisting to the very point of death that they are following the path of the Buddha.
I think the tools exist. Roach clearly markets to what a colleague of mine, inspired by Melanie Klein, describes as a “failure of ambivalence”, in which the baby cannot learn to accept that the mother both provides and withholds, and hence the world both gives life and takes it. Via neo-Tantric visualization, Roach commodifies the fantastical internal object relations that Ronald Fairbairn describes as substitutes for healthy experiences of intimacy with others. Roach amplifies in his followers the tortured self-blaming that Fairbairn describes as the “moral defence”, in which the child finds it less painful to consider himself bad than to acknowledge the world as chaotic, or blame his caregivers for their neglect or abuse.
Consider this morbid note from Thorson to a baffled friend:
I am responsible for lots and lots of evil. Every child murder I hear about on TV: I made them all. The perception of a bad thing can only come from the imprint made in the past of having done something bad.
These aren’t just Thorson’s words. They were on the lips of everyone in Roach’s circle, including myself for a short while, until I sensed something was really off. How did we get there, and who led us to such an impossibly grandiose and self-erasing precipice?
Through personal experience and extensive research, Daniel Shaw believes that those who readily internalize the moral defence are vulnerable to traumatizing narcissists who exhibit a four-point profile: 1. The wounds of “cumulative relational trauma throughout the developmental years, in the form of chronic shaming at the hands of parents and/or other significant caregivers who are severely narcissistically disturbed.” 2. “Delusional infallibility and entitlement” in which he is “obsessed with maintaining a rigid sense of omnipotent superiority”. 3. “Externalization of shame” in which “dependency and its accompanying shame [is] assigned to belong only to others, so as to protect himself from self-loathing.” 4. “Suppression of the subjectivity of the other”, in which the identity and agency of those who the traumatizing narcissist relies upon for self-validation must be erased in order to stabilize a safely vertical power relationship. (Loc. 1110-1142)
Shaw summarizes the impact of this profile in a passage exquisitely descriptive of the ultimate differences between Thorson’s and McNally’s response to Roach’s shadow:
The developing child [here we can substitute “student”] of the traumatizing narcissist takes one of two possible paths for survival in the face of being raised [by them]: 1. externalization of shameful dependency (the badness) through the subjugation of others; and 2. internalization of the badness the traumatizing narcissist parent [teacher] has projected. Number 1 becomes much like his traumatizer…. Number 2 becomes the post-traumatic, objectified, and self-objectifying person who repetitively finds himself in relationships in which he is subjugated by the other. (Loc. 1147)
McNally could be Number 1 here, dealing with her subjugation by rising up to mimic it. And Thorson could be Number 2, quivering to death in post-traumatic disarray.
Carney’s great gift with this book is to have assembled a functional outline for a sequel that could open with a far less mystical question than that with which he begins A Death on Diamond Mountain. Reaching beyond “How much should someone strive to know their own soul?”, the sequel might open with: “How far must we go to erase our trauma?”
It’s the first question I would ask about Ian Thorson, who began disappearing into spiritualized anorexia and dissociative meditation – and erupting in compensatory bouts of rage – from the day he met Roach. Why was he so eager to vanish? What in his early circumstances led him to devalue his own body, intentions, and desires with such hostility? I’m haunted by a scene Carney relates early in his book: after Ian’s death, his mother went through his journals and cut them to shreds, removing names and ideas that pained her grieving memory. What else cut away at his voice, his subjectivity? How much of the rest of his life did he spend in a penitential cave, exiled by force or his own necessity?
I would ask it about Roach, to understand how rewriting his history through a mashup of Tibetan mythology has helped him recover from a childhood with alcoholic parents. To understand why he needs to twist Tibetan philosophy so completely as to convince himself that he stands alone in a world that exists as a projection of his will. To understand what drives his need to accept or enforce the subjective erasure of those around them as vociferously as he preserves the texts of devastated Tibetan monasteries – as if digital files of ancient books could substitute for functional relationship. To understand the interaction between his dual drives towards erasure and appropriation and how they play out along a macro-political to interpersonal to intrapersonal spectrum. Roach appropriates and erases Tibetan and Apache culture. Roach appropriates and erases the human intellect, sexuality, speaking voice, and even name of Christie McNally, dubbing her “Vajrayogini”, “immortal”, and the “Angel of Diamond”. Not content with erasing her agency, demanding that they eat from the same plate, and keeping her on a 15-foot psychic leash, Roach appropriates her very body via Tantric fantasy, mimicking her gender and appearance. Carney didn’t secure an interview with McNally. None of the old crowd knows where she is. But would we recognize her if we did?
I’ll let Shaw have the last word on cult leaders. He seems much closer to the heart of the matter than Carney or I may ever get:
This narcissist in real life, a myth in his own mind, is so well defended against his developmental trauma, so skillful a disavower of the dependency and inadequacy that is so shameful to him, that he creates a delusional world in which he is a superior being in need of nothing he cannot provide for himself. To remain persuaded of his own perfection, he uses significant others whom he can subjugate. These spouses, siblings, children, or followers of the inflated narcissist strive anxiously to be what the narcissist wants them to be, for fear of being banished from his exalted presence. He is compelled to use those who depend on him to serve as hosts for his own disavowed and projected dependency, which for him signifies profound inadequacy and is laden with shame and humiliation. To the extent that he succeeds in keeping inadequacy and dependency external, he can sustain in his internal world his delusions of shame-free, self-sufficient superiority. (loc. 561)
On Carney’s second-last page, we read about Roach teaming up with Tony-Robbins-type Ming Feng Wu to teach businessmen in Hong Kong and Beijing how to get even richer by manipulating the laws of karma. I wonder if the translations of Carney’s book will be out in time for Roach’s next tour through China, which begins in April. If Carney is done for now, I wonder who will ferret out this next episode, in which Roach seems to perfect a loop of vicious irony by selling a fictional Tibet back to the same oligarchs who’ve plundered the actual Tibet. Will we discover that Roach is becoming, consciously or not, a de facto instrument of Chinese propaganda against the Dalai Lama, from whom he once claimed lineage?
But as far as Carney limits his scope here, I don’t think the Diamond Mountain story is about international intrigue, or the wanderlust of Gen-X and Y-ers in the Himalayas or the Arizona desert. I don’t think it’s about Ian Thorson, Christie McNally, or even Michael Roach. Nor is the story about Tibetan Buddhism in particular or religion in general. Unless we’re viewing that aspect of religion that functions as a sublimating conduit for intergenerational trauma – then we might be getting warm.
I think the story is really about cruelty – unintentional as the weather, and as close as the flesh – toileted from parents to children and teachers to students. Diamond Mountain provides a diorama of a primal scene: children needing love, attention, and support, adult survivors of abuse both denying and manipulating these needs out of blind revenge, and how the cycle repeats.
So it might just be about karma after all, but more material and intimate than Roach may ever understand. And more complex, as love and monstrosity become indistinguishable.
References and Selected Resources
Fairbairn, W. Ronald D. Psychoanalytic Studies of the Personality. London: Routledge, 1994.
Feuerstein, Georg. Holy Madness: The Shock Tactics and Radical Teachings of Crazy-wise Adepts, Holy Fools, and Rascal Gurus. New York, N.Y.: Paragon House, 1991.
Klein, Melanie. The Writings of Melanie Klein. New York: Free, 1984.
Kramer, Joel, and Diana Alstad. The Guru Papers: Masks of Authoritarian Power. Berkeley, Calif.: North Atlantic /Frog, 1993.
Oakes, Len. Prophetic Charisma: The Psychology of Revolutionary Religious Personalities. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse UP, 1997.
Shaw, Daniel. Traumatic Narcissism: Relational Systems of Subjugation. New York: Routledge, 2013.
[*] A momo is a Tibetan dumpling.
It’s unfortunate that neither of Shaw’s projected scenarios for the victim of traumatic narcissism shows any aptitude for healing, and what is glaring at me here is the unstated assumption of an incurable condition. I’m not familiar with Shaw’s book, and so I wonder if there is more rational ‘light’ at the end of Shaw’s dialectical tunnel for the victim-or merely more emotional ‘heat?’
Well the fault is mine for not illuminating Shaw’s thoughts on how the tensions are approached psychoanalytically. (The review was long enough!) He goes into it in fair detail, focusing primarily upon mindful awareness of the transference/countertransference energies at play in therapy. He does say that the traumatizing narcissist himself rarely presents for treatment. Personally, I was far more moved by Shaw’s illumination of the problem rather than any light at the end of his tunnel.
Living next door to Roach world has made me long for the honest fraud practiced by Amway salesmen.
i appreciate you writing this.
Thank you for clarifying that the question is not what caused Ian’s death, but who caused Ian’s death.
Thank you so much for this.
I appreciate this piece. As a long-lost high school friend of one of the four women closest to GMR (O.M.) , I am impressed with the acuity of your observations. Thank you for addressing the re-perpetuation of trauma as an essential force of the cult’s dynamics .
First let me say I’m a seventy three year old human being. I’ve had several “teachers” and have now come to regard everything as my teacher. And everything can be a harsh master.
The direct experience of everything has led me to believe;
Everything is connected
Everything is an opportunity
Everything is necessary
Everything is becoming
Nothing is broken
Nothing is an excuse
I do not offer this as a teaching for anyone else, it is the expression of my direct experience.
The manifestation of our unique human realities causes ripples of influence in each of us. There are more and less powerful influences, but aware of these influences or not, they happen between us all, all the time and this in my mind is a necessary part of our becoming. All if it and I do mean all of it, wars, atrocities, cruelty, ignorance, suffering, is not the expression of a fault or mistake in the way we are as human beings but necessary parts of our becoming. As such I cannot and do not blame anyone for the acting out of karmic seeds, karmic ties, karmic knots etc. Geshe Michael and Lama Christy are only known to me as fellow travelers on the path, I do not know them but I recognize the unfolding of their actions, their becoming. And I blame no one for death or the ultimate responsibility of their actions. You on the other hand, by your own admission, acknowledge your anger, disappointment and your blame. You mention objectivity in there somewhere but I really don’t see it in your review. What I do see is a kind of confirmation bias. A see I’m right, geshe Michael is guilty of irresponsible cultish behavior that led to someone’s death. He’s a bad man, a faker, etc. Right or wrong, you are entangled in the karmic knot yourself. As half a Buddhist myself I say there is only one way out of a karmic knot. Even though in the moment of the knots power over us, we believe right and/or wrong is what it is all about. It is always about wisdom, compassion and understanding. Or as somebody said “what goes around comes around” when blame goes around the knot is tightened and understanding is not the result. Sorry to get all up in your stuff like that but I feel your pain and this relieved it a bit for me. My hope is it might offer the same for you