Ramon Medina Silva waterfall balancing (click picture for full image)
Conjuring Brujos: Did don Juan
and don Genaro Exist?
by Sandy McIntosh and Randy Stark
Did don Juan and don Genaro exist? While the weight of evidence suggests that they were never flesh-and-blood persons, we still might be able to learn something instructive about the people on whom they were modeled. Richard de Mille researched this question, first in his book, Castaneda's Journey (1976) and later in The Don Juan Papers (1980). Thirteen years later, Jay Courtney Fikes, building on de Mille's research, was able to offer new insights and necessary corrections to de Mille in his book, Carlos Castaneda, Academic Opportunism and the Psychedelic Sixties (1993).
Why were these researchers, de Mille and Fikes, particularly interested in examining Castaneda's work?
Richard de Mille, who has been the most rigorous delver into the question of Castaneda's literary honesty, is the son of the director, Cecil B. de Mille. In the early 1950's, L. Ron Hubbard lured him into becoming his right-hand man for a time, until de Mille began to smell a rat. Once he'd convinced himself that Hubbard was a fake and that he had wasted his time as his apologist, he vowed he'd never again be trapped by a false guru. With the publication of Castaneda's first book, de Mille thought he was onto something genuine. But then, with Castaneda's refusal to produce field notes or satisfactorily explain inherent contradictions in his books, de Mille grew alarmed. He soon decided to pursue Castaneda with the idea of getting at the truth, seemingly, with a vengeance.
Jay Courtney Fikes was inspired to become an anthropologist after reading Castaneda's first four books. He imagined that he might become a shaman while earning his doctorate at the University of Michigan. With the help of the Mexican government, he set out to live and work with the Huichol Indians. In the course of his fieldwork Fikes began to harbor suspicions about Castaneda's honesty. "My ethnographic research on aboriginal Huichol ritual, and study of the 'ethnographic' anomalies infecting the work of Castaneda prompted me to conclude that [his] 'findings' are best interpreted as a manifestation of the American popular culture of the 1960s" and not works of genuine anthropology.
The following excerpts from de Mille and Fikes focus on the origins of don Genaro's breathtaking demonstration of "shamanic balance" as detailed by Castaneda in A Separate Reality (1971).
Let's start at the waterfall . . .
[Richard de Mille (1976) (pages 112-113)]:
In the summer of 1966 Ramón Medina showed Peter Furst what it meant to have balance. Knowing his anthropologist friend lacked the power to see the narrow bridge a Huichol shaman must walk to cross the great chasm separating the ordinary world from the otherworld beyond, the curandero determined to give him a concrete demonstration of physical balance in this world standing for spiritual balance in that world.
Ramón led his party to a spectacular waterfall, from whose edge the water dropped hundreds of feet to the valley below. As his Huichol companions sat in a semicircle to watch, Ramón took his sandals off, gestured to the world directions, then leapt–or flew–from one rock to another with arms stretched wide, often landing but a few inches from the slippery edge. Now he vanished behind a boulder, now he stood motionless on the brink of destruction, but never did he or his Huichol observers show the slightest concern that he might fall, though the visitors from California were terrified.
On [Castaneda's] narrative [date] 17 October 1968 don Genaro led his party to the bottom of a roaring waterfall, where don Juan, Carlos, Nestor, and Pablito sat down in a straight line to watch. Genaro took his sandals off, then climbed the hazardous 150 feet, several times seeming to lose his footing and hang in the air by his fingertips. Reaching the top, he leapt out upon the edge of the fall, where he seemed to be standing on the water. There he perched for a long time, occasionally leaning out into space with no visible support, but mostly standing unaccountably still, resisting the rushing current. Though his performance struck terror to Carlos's heart, the watching Indians evinced no concern for his safety. At the end Genaro turned a lateral somersault to vanish behind a boulder.
In the spring of 1970, having been Associate Director of the UCLA Latin American Center since 1967, Peter Furst organized a series of lectures on the ritual use of hallucinogens, during which he and Carlos Castaneda presented their respective accounts of shamans manifesting agility or magic atop lofty Mexican waterfalls. Though Castaneda's version had the observers sitting in a straight line at the bottom rather than a semicircle at the top, though it added levitation and Bolivian somersaulting, and though the rocks Ramón landed on were easier to make out than Genaro's (possibly because of the observers' different location), Furst recognized Castaneda's account as "strikingly similar" to his own. In Flesh of the Gods he reproduced it as a footnote, with no further comment.
"Carlos Castaneda and I often talked about shamans and sorcerers, and his deep understanding of these matters contributed greatly to my own thinking," wrote his fellow graduate student Barbara Myerhoff, whose mother had wisely taught her a rather unusual idea ?that dreams were real ?and who had been present that day in 1966 when Ramón balanced on the waterfall. Myerhoff's photo of Ramón's birdlike stance shows the shadow of a semicircular cloud like the one Castaneda describes. Myerhoff's field notes from 1966 contained other likely models for persons and events in Castaneda's books: a Pablo was younger than a Carlos; an old man named Francisco was quite as impish as dG; Ramón, like dG, knew of ten levels of knowledge; and Huichol shamans were materially poor but spiritually rich, as the urchins Carlos felt sorry for were just as well off as he because any one of them could become a man of knowledge. Myerhoff's dissertation on the Huichol peyote hunt was accepted at UCLA in 1968.
[de Mille (1980) (Preface)]:
Barbara G. Myerhoff, pilgrim in Wirikuta, witness at the waterfall, warrior in the jungle of Academe, turned to the study of her own people, saying: "I will never be a Huichol Indian . . . but I will be a little old Jewish lady." She was wrong about the second part. With scarcely a word of warning, fierce, implacable death overtook her at 49, in the midst of her work, unwilling to go, a mournful loss to all who knew her. On reading Alvaro Estrada's oral autobiography of Maria Sabina and contrasting it with the eclectic audacities of her friend Carlos Castaneda, Myerhoff wrote:
Indigenous traditions deserve accurate and respectful preservation, and these records must be distinguished from imaginative works . . . It is the obligation of the lettered to make written records of the lore of the unlettered simply a record ?not a mirror of ourselves or our needs and fantasies.
RdeM: Do you still feel some reluctance to talk about Carlos for the record?
BGM: I really have never talked about him in public before, largely because the subject seemed so ripe for dissension and controversy, and I thought there was so much value in what he was doing. I didn't want to simply debunk it.
RdeM: You felt a conflict about it?
BGM: Yes, between my loyalty to Carlos ?and to some of my friends at UCLA who were involved with him ?and my profession as an anthropologist.
RdeM: What made you change your mind about discussing it?
BGM: Your book, which put the whole thing in a new light. I began to see Carlos as doing a massive, half humorous teaching operation, and I thought he wouldn't mind my talking about him, because I think he really wants comment from those he has fooled.
RdeM: If that's so, why did it take you a whole year to get round to talking to me?
BGM: For a long time it was hard for me to make my peace with the foolishness I felt about being so naïve, about being completely taken in.
RdeM: You felt foolish.
BGM: Yes, and on a lot of levels, personal to professional. But then I thought about how I had really only had delight and amusement from Carlos and, in the long run, enlightenment, which is more than you get from most people. So I decided it was okay to feel foolish.
RdeM: Most people who play a trick on you don't give you pleasure and information as a compensation.
BGM: That's right.
RdeM: I suppose his biggest trick on you was feeding your waterfall story right back to you.
BGM: That was a very interesting incident. I mean, it never crossed my mind that his description of don Genaro on the waterfall proved anything except that I was doing good fieldwork because I had come up with an observation and interpretation so much like his. When he said, "Oh, that's just like don Genaro," it was very validating for me.
RdeM: How do you feel about it now?
BGM: The feeling of validation remains, the feeling that we were both talking about the same serious and important manifestation of Mexican shamanism.
RdeM: Even though his part of it was made up on the spot, the feeling of mutual understanding and significance remains.
RdeM: He must have a remarkable ability to resonate to things people tell him.
BGM: Oh, he does.
RdeM: The stories he makes up exactly fit the person he is talking to.
BGM: They're mirrors. It's happened over and over. So many people describe their conversations with Carlos, saying, "I know just what he's talking about." But each one tells you something different, something that is part of his or her own world, which Carlos has reflected. "It's all really sexual," they say, or "it's all psychological," or "mystical" or "shamanic" or whatever they're into. His allegories, the stories he tells, seem to validate everybody.
RdeM: Paul Radin said Trickster was everything to every man.
BGM: Exactly. You remember the dedication in The Teachings: "For don Juan ?and for the two persons who shared his sense of magical time with me." It's completely anonymous. Anybody who had known Carlos in the sixties could put himself or herself into that dedication, and a lot of us did.
RdeM: In Castaneda's Journey I called Carlos a Rorschach man, a man on whom people project their inner worlds.
BGM: That's right, and the first day we met he did it with me. I was telling him about the sprinklers on the VA hospital lawn near UCLA. They're the old-fashioned kind that send sprays whipping around, sparkling in the sun. I told him about driving down the freeway and almost feeling I was being drawn into it, and then he described it to me from above, the way he had seen it as a crow, when he was flying over it.
RdeM: Right after you had said it.
BGM: Yes. (Laughing) We saw a lot of each other toward the end of that summer, because we were both working everyday in the library. And this is where my feeling of deep gratitude and affection for him comes in, because my father was dying of cancer, very horribly, and Carlos was kind and very helpful to me. We were two vulnerable, pitiful, impotent, confused little creatures together in that horrible time and place.
RdeM: How was he kind? He let you talk about it, and he understood?
BGM: More than that. He was genuinely giving and consoling. He talked to me about things I didn't know anything about. About death "being with you, beside you on the mat."
RdeM: He helped you to cope with the impending death of your father.
BGM: Yes, very much. And I helped him too. He was struggling ?and I really think he was; I don't think that part was bull. He was struggling with the idea, as he put it, that he was somewhat crazy. He kept saying he was struggling with madness. I never saw him look so miserable. He didn't think he was going to make it through UCLA. He had lost his little boy. Many of his colleagues and associates on campus were cold, stuffy, positivist types. He wasn't being well treated. Every day he'd come chugging up to the campus with his briefcase, and no matter how poor he was and in the hottest weather he always wore proper, three-piece, dark flannel suits. All day, every day, he'd sit from nine to five in one of those little carrels in the library writing his book, looking like a businessman.
Replica Watches Replica Watches
RdeM: Did you ever get any idea how he made a living?
BGM: He told me some stuff. He had investments or something like that.
RdeM: No job?
BGM: I think he had a part-time job coding in a research project for the ethnomethodologists, at the Neuropsychiatric Institute. He used to go down there often.
RdeM: Were you married during that period?
BGM: Oh yes. But my husband and I were both absorbed in our dissertations, and we didn't have much left over for each other. Carlos seemed so lonely and wretched and panic-stricken himself that I found consolation in his company.
RdeM: Did you ever feel physically attracted to him?
BGM: Yes, but not in the usual way. He was not an ordinary man. He was a pixie.
RdeM: Well, how did you feel attracted to him?
BGM: It's hard to put into words. It wasn't a simple erotic man-woman bond. It was as though we entered a bubble of pretending and playfulness together. It was an intimacy made out of impossibility and weirdness. And it was an escape from the ordeal we were going through.
RdeM: Was it like children playing together?
BGM: Uh-huh. There was a lot of poking and giggling. Romping almost. We had a kind of omnipotent, aggrandized view of ourselves, which we also laughed at.
RdeM: While at the same time you felt miserable, wretched, powerless . . .
BGM: Yes. We kept telling each other we were the serious, important, imaginative, powerful ones, and all those others, those idiots who were torturing us, were the crazy ones. We said one day we'd show them, and our biographers would laugh at them as we were laughing. It was a grand conceit. You can imagine the fun we had years later when we met and told each other it had come true. In a way. More for him than for me, of course. But we exulted in the partial realization of our childish vision of omnipotence. By then we had both completed our degrees and published our books.
RdeM: When did you first see the manuscript of The Teachings?
BGM: That August. He was so disgusted with it he threatened to burn it. I took it home with me for a few days and told him I was going to xerox it and keep a copy. I was afraid he might actually destroy it. We went over a lot of it together. I remember telling him it was pointless to put in that awful "Structural Analysis." And the term "sorcerer," which I felt he misused. And "Yaqui," for which there seemed no cultural justification. I didn't like the name "don Juan," which I thought was too much like the literary prototype and therefore confusing. I wanted him to call the book A Path with Heart, and leave out "sorcerer" and "Yaqui" altogether. We argued endlessly about those things, but he went ahead and did everything his own way. I think history has proved my criticisms right, but that's another story. Anyway, it was the beginning of a long and curious friendship. Later we would have sporadic, intense meetings every six months or so, when we'd talk all day or through the night.
The central figure in Huichol religion is the mara' akame, or shaman-priest, and the mara' akame best known to outsiders is Ramón Medina Silva, whose teachings and leadership were chronicled by anthropologists Barbara Myerhoff and Peter Furst.
To "Conjuring Brujos, part 2"