In the Grip of the Guru was the extraordinary four-part series by Richard Read for the Oregonian published in 2001.
FR is republishing this ground breaking series, which likely prevented many people from joining the world of the strangulation swami. Sometime after it was published, the four-part series seemed to disappear from the web.
What it shows is that 21 years passed and nothing changed. The Swami hurt his followers then, as he does now.
Read is a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner.
Columbia University President George Rupp (left) presents (left to right) Julia Sullivan-Springhetti, Brent Walth, Kim Christensen and Richard Read, of The Oregonian, with the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.
Part 1: Securing a Spiritual Empire.
Part 2: Broken Trust
Part 3 The high price of enlightenment
Ex-disciples say Swami Chetanananda leaned on his followers to pay for the trappings of his spiritual organization and for investments that failed
After their faith in the guru is crushed, fearful ex-disciples face the prospect of life outside the church
Wednesday, July 18, 2001
By Richard Read of The Oregonian staff
Debi Moore recalls cringing as Swami Chetanananda joked and laughed at dinner in a villa where he stayed in Nepal in 1999.
Moore says she shifted uncomfortably as she sat with other disciples on floor pillows. She remembers watching closely as Chetanananda, a Kentucky-born guru originally named J. Michael Shoemaker, held forth on a couch far from the Northeast Portland manor where he lives with about 75 followers.
Moore, then a 46-year-old data analyst, says she had traveled with her boyfriend to Katmandu to decide whether to stay with the spiritual leader she had revered for 26 years. She says she was appalled by tales of violence during sexual encounters she had repeatedly heard were taking place between Chetanananda and women in his flock.
Moore says the whispered reports of violence shattered the belief system she had so carefully constructed during a quarter-century of meditation and worship. She recalls agonizing at the prospect of leaving the practice, believing that quitting would halt her spiritual development.
Chetanananda repeatedly declined requests for an interview with The Oregonian concerning disciples’ allegations of sexual abuse and other issues. Last Thursday, he submitted a typed statement in response to a summary of the accusations.
In the statement, the swami defended his sexual relationships with his students as appropriate. He did not specifically respond to an allegation that he had had violent sex with women who suffered injuries, including a disciple who appeared to Moore and her boyfriend to be hurt in 1998.
“I am not a sadist and I am not violent,” he wrote.
Moore says that in February 1999 she found the guru ensconced in a Spanish-style, Katmandu home.
She thought the house, with its marble floors, wide porches, manicured lawn and guarded front gate, stuck out from the poverty and simplicity of the ancient city. She remembers recoiling at what she viewed as excesses: A caretaker, a driver, two cooks and women doing laundry scurried around, and a barber stopped in.
On this night of the full moon, Moore recalls, two dozen disciples sat around a candlelit table on rich Oriental rugs. She says a young Tibetan woman interpreted between the swami and Wangdu, a Tibetan lama, as three little girls watched with the reverence of grandchildren.
Moore says Chetanananda made a crass joke, ribbing Wangdu about getting laid.
Laid. He used that word, Moore remembers thinking. She says she watched the translator squirm beneath a prim buttoned-up white blouse, dutifully interpreting while Wangdu glanced sideways.
Moore says that as the swami forged on, lacing his jokes with vulgar terms, she felt he enjoyed the young woman’s embarrassment. Finally she cut in.
“Swami,” Moore recalls saying. “The children.”
Moore says she returned to Portland after accompanying the swami and his entourage on a photo safari in a Nepali tiger reserve. She slipped her goodbye note under the swami’s door in the ashram April 9, 1999.
“I love you,” she wrote. “Every day I’m grateful for what I’ve received from you and the community.”
“I promise you, Shree (sic), the people who stand against me will be crushed, and their children and their grandchildren.”
— Chetanananda, autumn 1998, writing to Sree Chakravarti, a healer from India. In the letter, he accused her of trying to disturb his relationships with his students and supporting efforts to destroy him
Former disciples say that 10 longtime devotees, including Moore, left the ashram in spring 1999 as tales of sex and violence circulated.
Disciple Dana Swift recalls sitting in group meditation and seeing herself get up and leave. She says the vision came again, during another session, and again. On April 29, 1999, Swift quit the program, 11 years after signing up.
The previous month, Chetanananda and Nityananda Institute had entered a confidential legal settlement with Portland-area lawyer Melinda Mandell, a former follower who had filed suit accusing them of breach of contract, racketeering and other wrongdoing.
The Oregonian obtained records of the case later, before Multnomah County Circuit Judge David Gernant sealed them at Mandell’s request. Mandell’s attorney argued that allegations contained in the case file could damage reputations of the people involved. He added that Mandell thought that alleged thefts of personal property she had reported to police during the proceedings would be less likely to continue if the file were sealed.
Mandell, a Portland lawyer, declined to comment, and she objected to The Oregonian identifying her and reporting on the case.
Moore, Swift and other disciples who left Chetanananda that spring say that quitting the spiritual practice had once been almost impossible to contemplate. In one stroke, they say, a disciple would have to give up friends, community, religion, home — and in some cases, church employment — for an uncertain future.
Ex-members say people tended to leave after a cathartic event shattered their faith in the guru. Boston cook Marty Keady, an ashram chef and disciple for four years, says he felt disgust in 1996 when he realized he enjoyed seeing the guru castigate another follower.
Jim Hassan, a Massachusetts man who joined the ashram in 1989, says he lost faith after hearing that the swami was sleeping with a friend. ” ‘If you leave, you’ll be dead within a year,’ ” Hassan says the guru threatened him in 1994.
But former disciples say that it wasn’t until May 1999 that Chetanananda drew an explicit line between the ashram and the outside world. Moore recalls that her boyfriend, who had stayed with the swami, told her that the guru had forbidden his followers to talk with anyone who had left.
Chetanananda wrote in his statement last week that he had never threatened anybody who wanted to leave his community. He said he did not prohibit students outright from contact with former members. Today, in fact, not all members shun former disciples.
Moore says her boyfriend told her the swami’s directive that May gave him an impossible choice: Her or the guru. Moore says she felt scared.
“If he gives you the Kool-Aid,” Moore remembers asking her boyfriend, “will you take it?”
Moore recalls that in August 1999, fear gripped her as she clutched her steering wheel. She says she forced herself to turn into the parking lot of the ashram at 1021 N.E. 33rd Ave., for the first time since quitting.
Moore says she walked quickly toward the door on an errand stemming from her position as treasurer of the Kerns Neighborhood Association. She held an envelope containing cash for the annual neighborhood picnic, which disciples had helped build into a popular event drawing about 500 people.
She recalls glancing at the institute’s steel fence, afraid she might be charged by the Rottweilers, the dogs kept on the premises as pets. The big, brick manor loomed above her.
No one accosted Moore that day or threatened her. But she says her fear was palpable.
Moore remembers hearing similar expressions of fear when she attended the meeting of an informal support group made up of former members. The ex-disciples say they feared the swami because they knew his temper and his violent talk. They say they feared him because, even when they knew it was irrational, they had been told so long that he could read their minds. Most of all, they say they feared him because they felt — by staring into their eyes during meditation for years, and in other ways — he had penetrated the core of their beings.
Chetanananda disputed such impressions in his statement last week. “No harm has ever happened to any person who has left our community as the result of any action by me or anyone associated with me,” he wrote.
But one woman says she continued to experience nightmares every couple of weeks 13 years after leaving the ashram. Her then-husband had bad dreams just as often — every night, when he was under stress — seeing the guru coming after him, sucking him back inside.
Former members got unlisted phone numbers. They told friends not to reveal their addresses. They asked police to watch their homes.
They say they feared not just the swami but his most fervent followers, people they believed might do anything — as they felt they themselves once would have — to prove loyalty to a man who represented a higher law.
Former disciple Aurelia Navarro, who recalls enraging the swami by researching his sexual liaisons before quitting the ashram, says he told her, “If this were India, I would be found floating face-down in the Ganges” River.
“Generating a vision . . . That’s having a very, very deep and profound commitment to something bigger than you. For me, it was my teacher …”
— Chetanananda, during a talk in Santa Monica, Calif., June 14, 2000
Inside the ashram, the routine continued. Ashram resident Michelle Lawson, a former San Francisco lawyer who became a disciple in 1996, said last July she was incredulous at the hostility and fear. Lawson and Cynthia Brown, a 27-year disciple and chairwoman of Portland State University computer science department, said they believed the swami had attained enlightenment.
“There’s no coercion in our group,” said Brown, who acknowledged the institute was not a democracy. “If we had 15 enlightened people, then we could all decide, but we’ve only got one.”
Some former members, who cited negative aspects of their experience in the ashram, also describe benefits. Melanie Rubin, a disciple from 1985 to 1998, still remembers meditation classes with the swami as some of the most powerful, heart-opening and beautiful experiences of her life.
Rubin, a documentary video producer, says the swami’s sexual conduct and autocratic style created an unhealthy environment for her. But she says she appreciated the structure that let her pursue her spiritual development, and the chance to participate in a community of warm, intelligent people.
Ashram teacher Ruth Knight, a 23-year devotee, smiled blissfully last July as she introduced a reporter for The Oregonian to the meditation practice.
Knight reclined on an easy chair in an ashram living room beneath a painting of Rudi, the swami’s late guru, pictured sitting naked on a leopard skin.
“To really have a guru is an amazing and rare event,” Knight said. “A student has to have a master in order to progress.
“A teacher needs to be from a lineage. A lineage can sort of be thought of as an energy field.” Energy comes down from guru to guru.
Knight led the reporter through the meditation routine.
Breathe in through your nose. Feel the breath enter between your eyebrows. Feel it come down to the throat chakra, or energy center, past the heart chakra and into the abdomen.
“In spiritual work, you’re asking to grow and change. But the ego tries to maintain the status quo,” Knight said. “People are very clever at finding ways to justify no longer growing . . . and quit their practice.”
Sharon Ward, the institute’s executive director and general counsel, dismissed former members’ fears as outlandish.
Ward said during an interview last September that the group was not a cult but a spiritual community, and she described the swami as an open and compassionate man.
“If you want to really understand who we are, come and meet me, meet us. You may or may not want to practice yoga and meditation here. But in either case, know, from within yourself, who we are.”
— Chetanananda, Sept. 18, 2000, in a public statement sent to The Oregonian after refusing numerous requests for an interview
On Dec. 21, 2000, an e-mail from an outsider alerted Ward to a new Web site, launching a battle that continues. Former members had created the site — http://www.leaving-nityananda-institute.org — that featured an anonymous statement about Chetanananda by 11 people.
“He told us the only thing we had to surrender was our tensions,” the open letter said, “when in fact we were expected to surrender everything to his program: our families, our girlfriends if we were men, our bodies if we were women . . . our money, our former religious beliefs and morals, and our sense of belonging in the society at large.”
Soon afterward, institute members registered Internet domain names, such as http://www.leaving-nityananda-institute.com, resembling that of the former members’ site, to steer Web surfers their way. The sites accused the former members of using hate-group tactics to incite prejudice and intolerance.
Six members posted a signed statement describing the institute’s philosophy. “Neither students nor teachers are required to practice celibacy,” they wrote. “Everyone is free to make his or her own choices regarding personal relationships.”
This week, former members updated their Web site with results of a recent survey of several ex-disciples, many of whom reported behavior described as abusive.
In his typed statement, the swami said accusations were being made by “a small but vocal circle of former members who regularly meet to distribute malicious gossip via the Internet. . . . The allegations that are not outright lies are distortions so gross as to be impossible to respond to.”
“Interpersonal experience . . . while full of caring, may also be full of chaos and clutter. Many religious rules, such as celibacy, are established to save us from that clutter.”
— Chetanananda, Institute newsletter, January 2001, explaining that rules don’t apply to his religion of love
Dana Swift, who spent 11 years following Chetanananda, has moved to another state and found a new job. She shuns spiritual teachers. But she continues meditating occasionally, and does Tibetan and Hindi chanting.
Hone Ames, who spent 10 years as a disciple, has moved away from Portland, renewed friendships and family ties and resumed her career as an author. Ames says that a medical doctor and a therapist diagnosed her as suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. But she says she now enjoys a full life free of manipulation and fear.
One of 11 women who told The Oregonian that Chetanananda had sex with them is now a medical practitioner.
“I went through a period of time when I wanted to cut him up in little pieces,” she says. “I don’t think if I was somebody with a good childhood, that had a lot of support, I would have gotten into it.”
Current Nityananda Institute members reject the authoritarian label. “Nobody worships him; he’s just a very, very fine and extremely caring person,” said Pat Tarzian, a 13-year member. “I’m not in a cult, wearing orange,” said Carolyn Morgan, a member for more than 20 years.
Ruth Knight, who teaches in The Movement Center, the institute’s yoga school, which has provided a source of new disciples, said recently that the program had a record 300 students. Knight dismisses public criticism as the product of a vendetta by a handful of disgruntled former followers.
“I wish them well,” Knight says. “I think they’ve created a hell for themselves that they can’t get out of.”
Debi Moore heaved a chunk of seasoned maple out her barn door last winter and pulled a maul off a wall rack. Deftly, she tipped the log on end with her right foot, stepped back and swung the maul in an arc over her head.
Almost two years after quitting the ashram, Moore was continuing to rebuild her life, settling into a rural routine far from Portland. She and her boyfriend bought acreage and a run-down house in a mountain range where no one would think to find them. They stayed together after each emerged separately from Chetanananda’s influence.
“I didn’t know he’d get out,” Moore says of her boyfriend. “You can’t talk someone out. It occurred in him.”
She grieved over lost friends inside. She met with a therapist. She read about cult psychology. Gradually, she says, she overcame paralyzing fear of the guru.
She began a new job, started exercising and took a pottery class.
She and her boyfriend installed windows and insulation. They framed walls, planted 200 trees and watched deer come down from the mountains.
Moore still felt a hunger for something deeper, a thirst for spiritual meaning. But she knew that when she returned to that quest, it would have to ring true in her mind, her body, her emotions and her relationships with others.
The maul hung in the air. Moore flexed her arms.
Moore knew that some other ex-members still felt victimized. But after 26 years with the swami and nearly two years free of him, she considered herself a survivor.
The steel wedge neatly cleaved the firewood with a satisfying clunk. Moore tossed the pieces on a sturdy cart and hauled it toward the house.
You can reach Richard Read at 503-294-5135 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Researchers Gail Hulden and Lynne Palombo contributed to this report.
Cannot wait for Michael shoemaker to sit down for an interview with Frank. It will be eye opening. There’s no doubt Shoemaker is talented, powerful and persuasive. No I’ve is all bad.
Looking forward to it!
I find it highly improbable that Chet would ever speak to Frank. Good theory though
But I am available to do so.
Many have accused me of making unsubstantiated accusations. You want some real info?
Swami Chetanananda blew his relationships up with the entire Coyle Family. Due in large part to his highly inappropriate and ineffective ways of so called mentoring of young people. He also blew his relationships up with Mary Grace, Jesse Sweeney and, Megan. Sadhvi–you know damn well what happened with Megan. You cover up artist ,you. The list goes on and on, of fine, good people whom Swami “nuked” in his dealings with them. Krystyn Wong and her Mother. Karen Krieger who is the Daughter of the former chief cult facilitator in LA, now, no longer Swami’s student.
The list of people who felt in some way betrayed or mistreated by this guy is too long to list here.
And–Swami is never in the wrong. Nope. He is ONLY serving people in their highest, and best interest. Right?
Wrong. Fuck you. And, I am accused of making snide remarks, and insulting remarks. OK., Fair observation.
The movement Center was presented as something life changing, and enriching, and about being the best person one can possibly be. Yeah, well when one looked closely one saw lots of games being played. At others’ expense. So, does that warrant insults, and being snide? I think it does.
Sadhvi- what the hell kind of sadhana is it to go find dead bodies in the woods, yet turn your back on so called loved ones? Michelle-you little worm. You left Portland, and instantaneously became secretive, and became a spy for an orge. Feel good about your life choice? Manson Sisters, wild eyed, lunatics, who will do anything to harm others. Theresa–a walking, talking joke of a woman. Pay your fucking bills you dead beat.
And, Swami to you: you have all this spiritual power, and yet your ego has been completely corrupted by this power. Just like all spiritual teachers. It all goes south. You are a screwed up guy, who is so sick as to not be able to see your own corruption. Go do some cocaine. Michelle–go tell him I said so.
ahh Deb Moore.
– the vibe in the ashram was definitely shifting from “eccentric” to something very dark from the early 80s in Bloomington to the early 90s in Boston. shame that it had gotten sooo dark by the early 2000s in Portland when the oregonian articles came out, and then even darker still 20 years later by 2022.
The article captured the portland times well. Funny that in the 70s/80s it was just a bunch of college kids who didn’t know a thing about Kashmir Shaivism, they only knew of Rudy’s double breath exercise. From the 90s on, SC, Boster, and crew seemed to leverage more and more of Kashmir Shaivism as a way to give their bizarro group an air of legitimacy…
I’m still shocked reading these articles, thankfully i’ve stopped having the creepy nightmares of SC and crew … if they were only still around, i can imagine all the Shaivite saints getting a good lawyer and suing SC and crew for desecration of their religion, no one could blame ’em. Thanks for reposting frank!
Thank you for posting these here, Frank. At least no one can get them taken down now.
I heard Richard Read was happy it was republished. It’s been off line for 15 years. His work is so exquisite. So well written and so journalistically pure. He reminds me of another great – Mr. Jim Odato.
It was. Beautifully interposed with quotes of the hypocrisy in action.
Mr. Read’s extensive investigative reporting laid the groundwork for
Joe Michael Shoemaker’s demise.
I’m so tired of hearing “well if Richard Read couldn’t take him down it can’t be done…”
This is a different time. You cannot escape stories about cults and cultic abuse by self-appointed holy men of the same ilk as Shoemaker. It’s mainstream news these days. The criminal cult leaders are falling like dead leaves and ending up in prison or ending up dead, which will also be the fate of Shoemaker and his accomplices.
Thank you, Richard Read.
Thank you Frank Parlotto for taking up the cause.
And thank you, Jayne Lyons, for your endless pursuit of justice for the the victims of J. Michael Shoemaker and his cronies.
It’s just a matter of time.
Richard Reed did incredible reporting and still nothing happened. These psychopaths are so charismatic and clever that they manage to fool and manipulate the majority. Once in their web it’s nearly impossible to escape.
Liz Bazzini helped someone escape and she paid the price. No forgiveness from swami Chet.
FR will take this sadistic pumpkin down – May Sharon Wards Rottweilers turn on them both.
I want to interview Ward and the Swami. And I suppose the Rottweilers too.
You would have a better chance of getting Hannibal Lechter to eat a Happy Meal.
The internet is a tool to allow Joe Biden, the FBI, the CIA and the Department of Homeland Stupidity to control Gullible People’s Minds.
Elon Musk has the documents that the government told Big Tech what news and thoughts to censor.
You are the one who seems to have your mind controlled by what you read on the Internet, shadow state. You never ever once in years have commented with an original thought. It’s always a link to or reprinting of someone else’s bullshit. Why don’t you unplug the Internet and sit down in a quiet room and see if you are capable of having one single thought of your own. You are so brainwashed and you don’t even realize it. It’s sad
Frank Get ReaL
The Evil US Government monitors and censors the Internet to control the narrative that people receive on the internet.
The US government is as evil as Keith Raniere who used the Knife of Aristotle to control what people believe.
America is living in George Orwell’s “1984”.
DHS Leak Proves Government Conspired With Big Tech To Subvert Elections, Censor News
Must you continually spam the Frank Report with gargantuan garbage posts? Scrolling past everything you post is wearing me down.
Agreed. It’s so boring tedious and completely unoriginal