Varieties of authoritarian spiritual abuse

William Yenner’s book on the spiritual abuse happening at Andrew Cohen’s community, American Guru, has been the subject of a vigorous counter-campaign by his followers, yet no denial’s of the factual allegations have come forward, only the argument that they should be understood ‘in their context’.

For those readers who may not have read the book, a small sample of the happenings could be useful. It’s part of a longer excerpt which you can read here. After you read them, ask yourself, what possible kind of ‘context’ could justify such practices?

William Jenner:

“Regarding many examples of the extreme measures sometimes taken by Andrew Cohen at Foxhollow, students have since stated that far from being freed from their own ignorance, they had been subjected to a new and pernicious version of someone else’s. Cohen’s “acts of outrageous integrity” included disciplinary face slapping—usually in response to a student’s performance of some task failing to measure up to his expectations—in which it was difficult to discern any particular “lesson” other than “Shape up!” This practice began soon after our arrival at Foxhollow. In some cases, Andrew would direct one student to slap another; in others, he administered the slaps himself. I myself was slapped on two occasions, once by a woman and once by another man.

These practices—which some might well regard as instances of physical and mental abuse—were symptoms of the unprecedented degree of control that eventually came to pervade the atmosphere of the Foxhollow community, and “groupthink” was certainly a consequence of this atmosphere of control. It is a well-known and troubling fact that group mentality has the potential to override individual morality. I experienced this firsthand as a member of Andrew Cohen’s community—observing, participating in, rationalizing and excusing, at times, extremely harsh treatment of fellow members who had angered their teacher. When a student was slapped or evicted from a student household, I told myself that it was for that individual’s own good, chalking it up to my teacher’s passionate determination to free him or her from a confining limitation, or from the tyranny of the ego. I also sometimes rationalized such treatment as an appropriate consequence of failing to live up to Andrew’s standards and teachings. I do not regard the fact that there was no forum in which to question such behavior as an excuse for my failure to have done so. Even when, later on, I found myself on the receiving end of abusive treatment, I “compartmentalized” these experiences in my own mind, suspending judgment—and my own humanity—in an effort to adhere to the party line.

Face slapping and name-calling, while they were uncalled for and may have been damaging, were mild in comparison to other questionable manifestations of “crazy wisdom” that occurred at Foxhollow. One such incident involved a student (Mikaela) who was responsible for the marketing of Andrew’s publications and who had fallen out of favor by reminding him that something he had criticized her for doing had been his idea in the first place. He decried her as evil and ordered that the walls, floor and ceiling of her office (which had been relocated to an unfinished basement room) be painted red to signify the spilled blood of her guru. She was ordered to spend hours there contemplating the implications of her transgression, with the additional aid of a large cartoon on the wall depicting her as a vampire and the word “traitor” written in large letters next to it.

Andrew often employed red paint in this fashion to create environments designed to induce shame and guilt in students that he felt had questioned his judgment or disobeyed him. Another female student who had displeased Andrew and, after leaving the community, had returned to help out on a weekend painting project, was summoned to another basement room. There she was met by four female students who, having guided her onto a plastic sheet on the floor, each poured a bucket of paint over her head as a “message of gratitude” from Andrew. She left the property traumatized and fell ill in subsequent days (during which she was harassed by phone calls from another student who, at Cohen’s instigation, repeatedly called her a “coward”) and never again returned to Foxhollow. “Crazy wisdom” is the most charitable possible explanation for these often traumatic and disturbing incidents, many of which have already been related on the blog. Several of these student accounts of Andrew Cohen’s “acts of outrageous integrity,” employed to dubious or damaging effect, are reproduced below.”

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