Andrew Cohen and Donations Under Duress
[Editors' Note: This is Jane O'Neil's second feature article on the What Enlightenment??! blog. Her first article was "Andrew Cohen and the Corruption of Power."]
The article, "A Revolution in Finance," is a brilliant and articulate analysis of Andrew Cohen's financial wrongdoing, and a call to action that I sincerely hope Andrew and his students will take to heart. In response, I feel compelled to reveal some more of the details surrounding my donations to Andrew and his organization.
But first, regarding "A Revolution in Finance", I was unaware and surprised to hear of the teacher training courses that Jeff Carreira is leading. I knew Jeff well while I lived at Foxhollow; he has a heart of gold and I know that left to his own devices he would have tremendous integrity. That said, and having myself been one of Andrew’s personal assistants for more than a year, I can testify that those close to Andrew employ tactics against fellow students in the name of evolution and ego-death that are potentially very damaging. Tough love? The techniques used under Andrew’s direction would not pass the smell test of your average intelligent person in the street, to whom they would appear as damaging as boot camp under the command of a pathological CO. In a similar way, I am sure that those responsible for the tactics used at Guantanamo Bay considered themselves comrades in a fight against evil, trained to use any and all means necessary to destroy it.
On the subject of Andrew returning donations solicited under duress, I obviously would be profoundly grateful if he would return the $2 million dollars that I gave him toward the purchase of Foxhollow. I have certainly asked, but so far have heard nothing.
Andrew always tried to maintain a cloak of secrecy around his securing of donations from students. Andrew’s desire for secrecy regarding his strategies to secure donations from students is related to the most critical issue surrounding them: whether the student, under immediate duress or otherwise, has the awareness and the objectivity to say no. In my case, there were tremendous secretive machinations behind Andrew’s solicitation of the largest of my donations (the $2 million for Foxhollow). The worst aspect of the situation was the fact that my communication about this decision was severely restricted in terms of the number of people I was in a position to discuss it with.
When I met Andrew in 1993, I had been seeing a psychotherapist four times a week for eight years. Andrew and many others in his community knew this. It’s clear to me in retrospect that in making my $2 Million and other donations to Andrew I was acting out some of the self-destructive issues that I had long been in therapy in to deal with. When I told my therapist about meeting Andrew, she warned me I that was vulnerable to potential brainwashing. In contrast, when I revealed to Andrew the insecurity and anxiety I felt about the prospect of joining his community, he told me how intelligent and bright I was, and how fully capable I was of making a mature decision on my own. Who was I going to listen to—someone who told me I was weak (my therapist), or someone who told me I was strong (Andrew)? At the time, the choice seemed clear, however misguided, and I left my therapist and fell deeply into the vortex of Andrew’s community—the amazing people, the happiness, the feeling of belonging.
Early on in my life as his student, Andrew benefited from my endless and ridiculous need to prove my love for him through gifts, both personal and to his Moksha Foundation. Before the end of my first four months as his student, I had ‘donated’ my house in Mill Valley, California, then worth over $300,000, to his community (after which I felt so sick that I promptly threw up at the Marin County Civic Center). I feared I would not be able to sustain the feelings of happiness I had discovered and remain in my ordinary life. I believed I had to give it all up for his world. During my first two years in his community I showered him with exquisite Tibetan rugs, furniture and clothes (Loro Piani, Armani, any beautiful and expensive Italian clothes that I thought would suit him), none of which he refused or seemed to regard as anything less than his due. I also bought a $4000 display system for trade exhibits of his books and a computer for his Marketing Department. Calculating the receipts over the years, these purchases amounted to well over $150,000 in gifts to Andrew and his Foundation.
While I cannot hold Andrew responsible for this behavior, I do believe it is reasonable to ask whether a truly enlightened person would have failed to question—rather than perpetuate—the illusion that being showered with extraordinarily expensive gifts was about love and devotion rather than (as would have been obvious to any normal, sensitive human being) a symptom of a personal problem that needed to be addressed. The sad truth is that Andrew didn’t care one iota for my wellbeing, my ambivalence, or the general state of my mental health at the time. He cared for one thing and one thing only: to take advantage of an obvious weakness of mine and a clearly twisted situation. Why address these issues if it might ultimately mean gaining less than every possible advantage from the loyalty of a wealthy and gullible student? Thus the stage was set for the reeling in of the big bucks.
After learning from his close student Michelle Hemingway, in whom I had confided, of the imminent potential of a large family trust being dissolved and distributed to me five years earlier than scheduled, Andrew quickly communicated through her that he wanted these assets. Michelle, who at that time I regarded as a trusted friend and colleague, knew me well—my doubts, my aspirations, my plentiful neuroses and weaknesses, including my profound fear of being valued, by friends who knew of my wealth, for my money alone. Michelle was well aware of my fear that Andrew, too, valued me more for my money than for anything else. Acting on his orders, she sat me down in an office at the community’s headquarters and, vacillating between a nervous giggle and a serious tone, told me that Andrew needed this money for the purchase of a property in Massachusetts to establish a worldwide center for his teachings. I remember feeling sick again. She told me that she knew this pricked my deepest fears about Andrew ‘wanting me’ only for my money, but that I must ‘trust his vision,’ because it was for ‘the greatest good.’
By this time I had been a student of Andrew’s for three years and was now a formal student, a status in the community characterized by unconditional commitment and devotion. My life was completely consumed by Andrew and his teaching. His community represented my work, my friendships, my living situation, my inner life and my sense of self-worth. Without the real freedom to deny his request, I was suddenly and profoundly at risk of losing everything that, at that point in my life, I really cared about. Even I knew that Andrew had now gone too far. It was perfectly clear that there was no chance I could stay with him if I were to refuse. I was tormented; I didn’t believe for a second that I could say no and remain his student.
As I wrestled with this dilemma, the only people authorized by Andrew to speak with me about it were Michelle and Mimi Katz, and I was instructed not to discuss it with anyone else. Mimi was a close friend of mine as well as a Moksha Foundation board member co-responsible for its accounting office. After learning from Andrew that he had had Michelle solicit the donation, Mimi had advised Andrew that he had to be willing to accept no for an answer. I talked through the predicament I was in with Mimi many times. This ultimately led to her receiving a severe dressing-down from Michelle, who believed (along with Andrew) that in these conversations Mimi had given me ‘too much rope’ to indulge my doubts about donating the money. They must have feared that I was close to saying no and, not wanting to risk this, now closely choreographed who got involved. I was coached daily by Michelle, a few others, and on a few occasions Andrew himself, about how to proceed with the manipulation of my uncle, via my sister, to convince them of my urgent need for this money. At that point, the trust had not yet been dissolved; I didn’t have the money, nor had I yet consented to donate it. But the pressure was on because a suitable property, Foxhollow, had been found.
I couldn’t sleep. I was a mess. The formal students went on a retreat for a weekend in Marin County and I sat in my bed in the middle of the day, crying hysterically. I ran from meetings, unable to complete a thought or find my way. I was desperate. I didn’t know what to do or how I would survive the loss of this life that I’d found, which had brought me my first experience of real happiness, but suddenly none of my community friends seemed even to care enough to ask me how I was doing or why I was so obviously upset. I felt abandoned by them. I learned only this week—ten years later—that everyone had been told to steer clear of me, to refrain from speaking with me about this mysterious ‘personal problem’ I was having. God forbid that someone might actually reinforce my doubts and insecurities, or strengthen my inclination to say no.
Obviously, I did, in the end, say yes. By the conclusion of the retreat, no longer able to bear the separation and isolation to which I’d been subjected, and feeling so alienated from everyone that I simply wanted to be welcomed back into the arms of the community, I finally consented to the ‘donation’ of my inheritance—which, in case I haven’t made it clear already, had never been my idea in the first place. The condition I made with Andrew, communicated through Michelle and Steve Brett was that it remained anonymous (Andrew, the board of directors and the few responsible for securing the property were the only ones to know). I did not want my peers treating me differently. Andrew personally apologized for having told two editors of his magazine by the time he learned this and promised no one else would know.
After I consented I was welcomed back with an overwhelming sense of acceptance. And now Andrew himself and a few others carefully coached me in my dealings with my uncle. As the Foxhollow purchase documents were to be signed within weeks, the daily pressure to get the funds released was immense. They were pushing so hard for the liquidation of the trust that my uncle and sister became suspicious and there appeared at one point to be a ‘risk’ that he might change his mind. Once the trust’s assets were released to me, under continuing pressure, I was subsequently forced to sell the underlying assets at a considerable loss, incurring a huge tax liability that fell on my shoulders. Once the Foxhollow purchase had been finalized, Andrew then decided that it would be best for me to move to the London community! Why? So as not to raise suspicion among my family members that the timing of the community’s relocation to a new $3 million property in Massachusetts was in any way connected with the release of my inheritance.
Despite an overwhelming sense of approval from Andrew and all the thrill that comes with proximity to him, I felt utterly traumatized. I left the community the day after the purchase was complete, until I was manipulated into returning for what turned out to be another two years of community life. A great deal more transpired subsequently in my life with Andrew, much of it no less outrageous, which I intend to document in some other forum. During this time, Andrew continued his careful orchestration of appearances, doing everything he could to prevent my family from discovering his despicable conduct and taking legal action. Details of these efforts will also be fully documented elsewhere. But more to the point of this discussion is the fact that during the remainder of my time in the community I was to witness countless additional demands for money, no longer from me personally (my well having pretty much dried up, providing only what I needed to pay my Foxhollow room and board, student dues and the like) but from groups of students collectively after each alleged ‘screw-up’ that Andrew accused them of.
Andrew’s words, ‘put your money where your mouth is,’ accurately characterize the venal pattern of manipulation that permeates the culture of his community. Whether to prove one’s love and devotion, or to make up for some individual or collective infraction of the code of guru worship, the injunction is always to ‘pay up’—pay whatever you can, as much and as often as you can—and it has taken me years to see through this. If you are currently in Andrew’s community, then I entreat you to watch out, because it really can take years for the fog to clear.
And in the meantime Andrew has his arsenal waiting. Whether it is a gag order or multiple copies of devotional letters stored in several places as ‘proof’ of consent, Andrew has covered his bases. Further, he will ensure that his legal counsel (one of whom advocated on behalf of Japanese cult criminal Aum Shinrikyo) also have such letters on file to ‘prove’ in the event of litigation that your donations were given rather than extorted. Because of the devotion expressed in my ambivalent parting letter, written before I fled Foxhollow for the last time, Andrew is known to have had it photocopied and secured at several secret locations as insurance against a lawsuit.
On the issue of Andrew's promise of confidentiality, as I and others on this blog have described, Andrew spoke publicly of my contribution two days after I left the community for the second and final time. This betrayal of confidentiality burned. But not nearly as painfully as learning from an ex-formal student who told me he had known about the donation within a year of the Foxhollow purchase when Andrew told a large group of men in the sauna at Foxhollow. It was his understanding that all the men had known. Andrew claims in his "Declaration of Integrity" that he has never lied to his students. Really? I consider this a lie; a violation of a clear, perhaps legal, agreement; and generally something a "mensch" would NEVER do. He lied to me and he had a dozen or more men lie to me for many many months.
When I consider how behavior of this sort appears to the average person, I now have surprisingly little trouble arriving at the conclusion that Andrew is simply clueless as to what this all looks like in the real world, and how staggering, according to any standard other than his own, his compromises of integrity actually are. And I am quite certain that sheer momentum will keep him successfully peddling his teaching to individuals who don’t bother to concern themselves with these issues. A lot of folks can ignore the blatant character flaws of a messenger and listen only to his message, but I for one can not do so.