Thursday, June 02, 2005

Andrew Cohen and the Corruption of Power

By Jane O'Neil

[Editor's Introduction: The author of this piece, Jane O'Neil, is a former close student of Andrew Cohen. It was her devotion to him and her contribution of $2 Million that made possible the purchase of Foxhollow, Cohen's residence and the headquarters of EnlightenNext in Lenox, Massachusetts. After she left the group, Andrew Cohen betrayed his promise to her to keep her contribution confidential by publicly discussing it while severely disparaging her for leaving him. This part of her story is briefly recounted in Dr. Andre van der Braak's book Enlightenment Blues (page 210-211):

"In December 1998, Andrew is in Amsterdam again for his semi-annual visit….During his talk Andrew gives an example of the viciousness of the ego by talking about another student of his that left him a few days before, a rich American woman. He calls her a narcissist and speaks about how she once gave him two million dollars for his Foxhollow center, but was unwilling to give up her ego. I am shocked and upset by his derisive and aggressive tone of voice. He's throwing a tantrum in public at a student who gave him two million dollars! I find the whole thing unbecoming, to say the least. As a matter of fact I know the woman in question, and a few days later I manage to speak with her on the phone. She is devastated and outraged by Andrew's public treatment of her, not only because of the humiliation, but in particular because she had believed and trusted that Andrew would keep the two million dollar donation confidential. Listening to her story, a chilling picture emerges. Andrew had actually solicited the two million dollars from her, which amounted to over 80% of her total assets. She had been deeply upset and confused about what to do because she felt she could no longer continue to be his student if she said no. She loved the community, Andrew, and the spiritual path. Two of Andrew's students had talked to her repeatedly over several weeks. Finally she had given in and promised to donate the money. She believed it would be serving the world, since the estate of Foxhollow would allow others to have access to Andrew's teachings. Complicating matters, the money was not immediately available from a family trust. Andrew exerted pressure on her to rush the donation as he had already proceeded with the purchase of the property. The rushed transaction resulted in a loss of a great deal of money and she seriously risked losing her family relationships. In retrospect she described his request as a corruption of power. It's a story that makes me nauseous."

This is Jane's first contribution to the What Enlightenment??! blog.]

A flood of responses to this blog, its articles and to its subject lie inside waiting to explode out of me.

It is important to have a venue for individuals like us to express our perspectives on Andrew. It seems this blog has provided a valuable forum for that. However, what has made me reluctant to jump in and join the dialog has been the various personal attacks on the people who chose a life with Andrew. We are all complex individuals with very mixed experiences. It is discouraging to read over-simplified gross generalizations and assumptions about both students of Andrew's and former students. It is also a bit unnerving to hear about the angle of “taking Andrew down” via Bill O’Reilly and Fox News. Why, because it is not a simple matter to understand and dissect the complexity of a situation like this. I think those looking at students or ex-students from the outside need to have a bit more openness and compassion for their experiences. And I am pretty sure the sensational media outlets are not the answer. Looking from the outside, in, the world will have a difficult time understanding or appreciating the context that we lived in.

I left Andrew's community over seven years ago. I was a student for only five years. Though I have been gone longer than I participated, I don't think I have really even begun to unravel the complex motivations that led me to him and kept me there for five years. Nor have I unraveled what the truth is about what I discovered and experienced there. I do know that my experience can shed further light on Andrew's corruption of power.

I am moved by the courage of those who have written of their experiences in his community. I think it is important for each individual to discover their own path to bear the light of truth on the situation.

Andrew is the most masterful individual I have ever known-a master of discerning the hidden and not so hidden weaknesses and character flaws of all those that come to him, and he exploits them, knowingly or not, always and ultimately to his own advantage--serving to feed his endless hunger to perceive himself as a great master.

Power Corrupts and Absolute Power Corrupts Absolutely.

I look back on my 5 years in his community with mostly shame and regret. I recall the amazing people, some of the most talented and intelligent people I have ever known. Many of whom I miss deeply. It has become very hard for me to maintain any contact with those who are lucky enough to have left. I have wanted to move on with my life, put the past behind me. But the fact is, I really hope that there is some way I can have an impact. I would love to prevent someone from following the path I took. Though, at the time I joined Andrew's community, there was virtually nothing anyone could have said to me that could have moved me away from the momentum I was on. But perhaps as some of you have done, I may be able to reach someone who is not as easily blown away and sold a fantasy of Andrew’s enlightened teaching.

I remember when Andrew asked me to read Luna’s book [The Mother of God, by Luna Tarlo,] Andrew Cohen's mother, not long after she wrote it and tell him what I genuinely thought. At the time, I was so blinded by his perspective, I am sure I wasn’t particularly objective. But what stayed with me was a moment of clarity I had. He was wondering how she was able to get the media attention with her book at the time. The Boston Globe, LA Times and quite a few London tabloids were writing about him. I sat with him and remember telling him that even Jeffrey Dahmer’s mom stood by him, telling the world she supported him. It was newsworthy that a woman was calling her son a monster, and particularly newsworthy that he is theoretically a spiritual leader.

I used to feel ashamed that I fled before any really heavy pressure was put to bear on me. I fled in the darkness of night (a hard thing to do, given I was scheduled to begin my one-thousand daily prostrations to Andrew’s picture followed by 3 hours of meditation with a whole crew of others—mostly women). It was the departure of another Formal Student that influenced me to flee that way. I did not want to go through the humiliation, interrogation and virtual house arrest the other woman had experienced. Not two days after leaving, Andrew attacked me (my name/intentions and motivations) publicly in a 20 minute unleashing of accusations in an Amsterdam teaching calling me the essence of ego, the essence of evil.

What is evil is the misogyny and inhumanity that underlies Andrew’s world view.

Wendyl’s memory of that Rishikesh retreat is so much fuller than my own. But memories of the endless, obsessive, manic attempts by the group of women to reclaim some approval from Andrew came flooding back to me. And a memory of the special treatment I remember receiving despite the fact that I had committed the same “crime” of apologizing. You see, any woman that said “I’m sorry” to anyone for any reason was kicked out of the retreat to join the other women in the private hell Wendyl described. The women were desperate, doing anything that they could to get out from under the boulder of accusations of being subhuman, and “I’m sorry” is the refrain of individuals who either are wholeheartedly sorry for their behavior, trying to end a personal conflict or, as in our case at the time, in that context, and under those circumstances, profoundly sorry for our own existence.

But I was treated differently, I believe because I had given Andrew well over 2 million dollars by then-nearly all of my money.

I regret the time I spent with him, ashamed at some of the outrageous competitive behavior I engaged in, vying for proximity to Andrew. But what I regret more than anything is allowing Michelle Hemingway and Steve Brett, among others, to coerce me into giving Andrew my money. It is that act that helped give him a power base and some semblance of legitimacy. It was at the time about two-thirds of the purchase price of Foxhollow.

It is all about understanding the context as someone put it. In the context of the world outside Andrew's community or cult, what he did was illegal, something called "undue influence." It is akin to a therapist seeking sexual company from a client or a priest who manipulates a parishioner into donating to the church. I imagine if it wasn’t me, there would be others like me who would have and I am sure continue to give away their money and soul to him as I did. If someone still within the community reads this and considers giving away their wealth, please reconsider. It was the greatest mistake of my life. The genuine human tragedies that have happened in our world since then, 9/11, the human rights abuses throughout the middle east by us and others, the AIDS crisis in Africa and the world, the illiteracy in the world, the Tsunami, the flood in the South, the earthquakes…each would have been an opportunity to give my money to and actually served a greater good.

I have spent the last seven and a half years creating a life for myself. I have sought peace and truth in my life as a mom, wife, friend and ordinary person in the world. Since leaving, I considered legal action, I considered drawing the media's attention, and I considered simply writing my story. But what is the ultimate goal? Personally, I am interested primarily in gaining a full perspective on what my experience was, if possible. And I am interested in seeing if my experience could help prevent someone from walking down the same path I did, with the same consequences or perhaps destructive consequences. Even if it is simply helping a family member who has someone they love in Andrew's or any other guru's community to gain understanding and, most critically, compassion for the individuals who choose that spiritual path. But I believe it is deluded to think one can "take someone down." I also believe NO ONE could have stopped me from diving into Andrew's world at the time I did. I only wish I had had the maturity and insight to find a less destructive forum to nurture my spiritual aspirations.

I don’t know if I will write again, but thank you for the opportunity to vent.

Not as an afterthought, but I am not sure how to even begin to express my sadness at the news of the death of Caroline Franklyn. I feared there would be a tragic outcome from Andrew's behavior.


Originally published December 6, 2006
Original article on WHAT Enlightenment??!, with comments:
Andrew Cohen and the Corruption of Power