One afternoon in November, a small, white-haired woman calling herself Claudia Parker stood before the Sunset Review Committee of the state Senate. When filling out her speaker card, Parker had described herself as a "survivor/victim of a psychologist" and as he called out her name, Senator Leroy Greene, the committee's chair, remarked wearily, "I guess we're going to hear some anecdotal information."
The Senate committee had just finished a fairly routine discussion of the licensing procedures for California psychologists, but the anecdotal information Parker had to share was only tangentially related. "I'm very unhappy with the Board of Psychology," she began, and then embarked on a disjointed but still astonishing tale about her former psychologist, who she alleged is a member of a cult led by a Berkeley-based palm reader. Parker's mouth was so dry that you could hear a click every time her tongue touched the roof of her mouth, and she seemed worried that she would run out of time before getting to the juiciest parts of her story. She listed a series of bizarre instructions that the palm reader had given her, raised the possibility of sexual contact between the palm reader and children, and alleged that she knew of at least five psychologists and four MFCCs who were still in the palm reader's thrall.
"What you're telling us," Senator Greene interrupted when Parker paused for breath. "Is in this world of ours there are some screwballs, which doesn't come as any shocking bit of information." He rested his head in his hand and stroked his balding, liver-spotted scalp. "There is no way we can legislate honesty, honor, or what have you. There is no way we can legislate an absence of sin or sinfulness or sinful activities. What is it you would have us do?"
"I would have you enforce the rules of the business and professional codes that are established in this state," Parker said. "I have no higher power to turn to. Except the press."
The first time I met Claudia Parker she was sitting at a table in a Montclair cafe, surrounded by a stack of articles, letters, and court documents. She is a compact woman with alert blue eyes, round spectacles and a rosebud mouth, and she speaks in a high, girlish voice that had made me expect her to be a few decades younger than she is. As I sat down at her table she gave me a startled, nervous smile, as if she were both relieved and disappointed that I had come.
Parker works with public school students, and nine years ago, a Lafayette psychologist named Ken Christian invited her to a workshop on the "enneagram,' a system of personality typing thought to have been discovered by the Russian mystic G.I. Gurdjieff. Parker knew Christian professionally, having referred some of her students' families to him for counseling, and she was intrigued enough by what she knew of the enneagram to attend. At the workshop, Parker found herself crying uncontrollably, and at the end of the day Christian invited her to come to him for counseling.
In therapy, Parker told Christian about an incident that happened when she was three years old; her parents had abandoned her for six months. She longed to be able to remember their faces from that time, to know what they looked like when they left her. Christian suggested that he hypnotize her. But instead of seeing her parents' faces, what Parker saw under hypnosis were graphic images of herself being sexually abused. "Is it true?" she asked Christian when she emerged from her trance. "Are you sure I'm not making it up?"
Parker knew that her two older sisters had memories of being abused, but she thought that she had escaped it. Now she began to work on the abuse memories in therapy, struggling with her own doubts and Christian's repeated assurances that her memories were genuine.
Parker had a friend who was also seeing Christian, and one day the friend reported that Christian had sent her to see a psychic who read the energy of her hand and told her what she needed to work on in therapy. The experience, she said, had changed her life. Parker was intrigued and she asked Christian about it at their next session. Christian, in his case notes from the session, observed that Parker seemed "pouty" and "angry" that he had not sent her to the psychic as well. Christian was also angry since Parker's friend had been supposed to keep her visit secret. He told Parker that she wasn't ready to see the psychic yet. She asked about it again a few months later, and again Christian told her it wasn't the right time.
Then, in January 1991, Christian told Parker that she was ready. The name of the psychic was David Rosenmann-Taub, and he lived in Berkeley. Before she could see him she was to purify her body by fasting and abstaining from sex, and strip her body of any metal. Then she was to bring him $285 in cash, and he would tell her whether or not she had been abused. Under no circumstances should she tell anyone where she was going.
Rosenmann-Taub turned out to be a Chilean man in his early sixties, with graying black hair and penetrating eyes. He gripped her by the shoulders, spun her around three times, and then led her to a chair. Through a translator, he instructed her to put her hands on her thighs with the palms upward. The hands must be kept perfectly still, he warned, or the information in them would be lost.
"I looked across the room," Parker recalled. "I saw my purse by the door, because of the metal, and I thought, 'I've got to get out of here - this is crazy.' And then I thought, 'I can't. Ken will be so angry if I leave his guru. I'll just sit here quietly.'"
"Tell me about yourself," Rosenmann-Taub demanded: "Well," Parker began. "I was abused--" But Rosenmann-Taub interrupted. The abuse' she remembered under hypnosis, he said, had never happened. "You have invented it," he said. "You have told it to yourself. It is a little bit of internal perversity .... You were very loved. You were not abused .... It is a way you have found to take away responsibility from yourself and to allow yourself to be more lazy."
"But what about my sisters?" Parker asked.
"Little girls making up stories," Rosenmann-Taub asserted.
In the rest of the session Rosenmann-Taub gave her a set of instructions. She should listen to music with only one instrument in it, grow her hair longer, limit herself to two activities a day, bathe only at night, and make sure that she never got cold. Finally, she should take the tape recording she had made of the session, transcribe it, hide the tape in a secret place, and bring the transcript to Christian.
From then on, Parker told me, her therapy changed. Though he had been encouraging her to work through the abuse memories and their aftermath for the past fifteen months, Christian now insisted that the abuse never happened. The important thing, he said, was for Parker to follow Rosenmann-Taub's instructions - if she did, she would have "a wonderful life." The majority of her therapy sessions were now spent listening to the tape or discussing the transcript, but Parker was still skeptical, and said once that she thought that Rosenmann-Taub's prohibition on getting cold was "stupid." What Christian said in response, she recalled was, "To get cold is to die."
"I went through that for another three months, thinking I was crazy," Parker told me, nervously rearranging her stacks of documentation: the tape transcript, Christian's case notes, a scholarly article that had been written about her experience. "And my husband didn't know any of this. I couldn't tell him. Ken asked me two or three times, 'Have you told him? Are you keeping your tape recording in a secret place?' And I looked at Ken one day and I said, 'How can we work together when you believe in David and I don't?' And I'll never forget what his response was. I don't need you in my practice. People come to me for a deeper meaning in their life.'"
At last Parker worked up the courage to tell someone what was going on. She confided first in a Buddhist priest she had met at a workshop, and then was bold enough to tell her husband. Both encouraged her to terminate therapy, and in April 1991, she did. But she still couldn't shake the experience. For one thing, she was terrified she would suffer the consequences of having told; she had been warned that something terrible would happen if she didn't keep her meeting with Rosenmann-Taub a secret. She kept her burglar alarm on night and day and refused to go outside unless she was with her husband. Distrustful of therapists but needing to talk about what had happened, she began seeing two therapists simultaneously, so that each could watchdog the other. "I was in a basket," she told me.
But, after many months of therapy Parker began to feel a little better, and as she did, she began thinking about reporting what had happened. First, she went to the ethics committee of the California Psychological Association and then waited for two years before being informed that the committee had found Dr. Christian in violation of its ethics code and taken "the appropriate action." What that action was, it refused to disclose, but it didn't seem to be interfering with Christian's practice. A month after the CPA informed Parker of its decision, Christian's Maximum Potential Project, a family counseling program designed for the underachieving children of successful parents, was profiled in the Contra Costa Sun, a Lafayette newspaper published by the Contra Costa Times. The sight of Christian's face in the newspaper, seated in an oversized armchair and smiling confidently, made Parker seethe.
In 1994, Parker took her story to the state medical board, which forwarded it to the Board of Psychology along with a complaint from another of Christian's former clients, who had also been sent to Rosenmann-Taub. In August of last year, three years after Parker first filed her complaint, the board came to an agreement with Ken Christian. Under the agreement, Christian could retain his license to practice psychology if he took and passed the oral portion of his licensing examination, participated in an ethics class, and stayed out of further trouble. The matter, as Senator Greene told Parker in November, had been dealt with. "There was an investigation," Greene pointed out. "And there was an action taken. Anything else, ma'am?"
There was, as it turned out, something else. The psychology board's action against Christian was accompanied by disciplinary action against two other psychologists, Luc Brebion and Kathleen Speeth, who had also sent their clients to David Rosenmann-Taub. All together, the board had received complaints from seven patients, some of them dating back to the late 1980s. While Parker's therapy had been fairly short-lived and her experience with Rosenann-Taub had been restricted to a single visit, others had experiences that lasted over a decade and had allowed Rosenmann-Taub to dictate every aspect of their lives. Taken together, the board's investigation painted a picture of a group of psychologists whose therapeutic practice was dominated by the pronouncements of Rosenmann-Taub, a man they publicly described simply as a poet, composer, and artist, but whom they privately considered to be something far more powerful.
Not long after meeting Parker, I met with two women I will call Mary and Diane at a café on Solano Avenue in Berkeley. They had chosen that particular cafe because they thought it was unlikely they would run into anyone they knew, but they were still nervous enough to select a table in the back room, and to fall silent whenever the waitress came by to refill our glasses of iced tea. Their wariness, and their request that they not be named in this article, stems partly from a fear that Rosenmann-Taub's followers might take vengeance on anyone who speaks out, and partly from a desire to keep this particular part of their past from being learned by more recent friends and colleagues. "Some of the others are afraid of violence; I'm not afraid of that," Diane said. "It would make me really pissed, but it wouldn't slow me down. I just don't want the notoriety."
Diane is a big exuberant woman with a throaty laugh and a reckless enthusiasm that she admits can get her into trouble. Mary is small and quiet, with a tight, cautious smile that belies an underlying firmness of will. Yet despite the contrast in personal styles, the two women share a defining trait. As long as they can remember, both have yearned for a deeper knowledge, the kind of knowledge that connects the human soul to the mysterious and infinite. "My whole life has been this quest," Diane told me once. Mary said, "I'm a searcher. Probably always will be."
Mary comes from a family of fundamentalist Christians, but she had left the church after her divorce and began exploring other spiritual practices, from t'ai chi to transpersonal psychology. Diane's mother was, in her words, "a religious fanatic" who had been converted to Catholicism while in a mental institution following a nervous breakdown. Diane herself had joined a convent just after graduating from high school, but left the convent five years later to throw herself into a series of political movements, each one more sectarian than the last. "I have to confess, I join cults," she told me and laughed one of her exuberant laughs.
So it isn't terribly surprising that both women would be attracted to therapists who blended psychological and spiritual techniques in an attempt to call forth a higher consciousness. There's nothing wrong with that. It was Berkeley in the 1970s, a time where only the most indolent citizen could resist the urge to know herself more thoroughly. All over the city people were following different gurus, swamis, shamans, senseis, and shrinks, each promising to lead them through the darkness to the top of the sacred mountain. One of those teachers was a Berkeley psychologist named Kathleen Speeth, who had begun schooling a small number of initiates in the self-remembering techniques of the Russian mystic G.I. Gurdjieff.
In the later part of the nineteenth century, Gurdjieff had left his home in Alexandropol to search Europe and Asia for remarkable men, men who could teach him the secret knowledge that he knew existed, that had been hinted to him from boyhood by a few mysterious and profound events in his own village. His conclusion was that most human beings are in a waking sleep, moving like automatons through their lives, and it takes enormous effort to achieve even a few moments of the energy and clarity that is real consciousness. That effort, which Gurdjieffians call "the work," requires a combination of rigorous study, self-observation, meditation, physical discipline, and menial labor. The work is both private and secret; those who practice it do not try to win converts, nor do they remove themselves from the world. At the same time, the work cannot be done alone, but must be done in a group, guided by a teacher.
Gurdjieff was a strange and mysterious man, who exercised such tight control over his followers that he could compel them to freeze in any position he chose and stay motionless as long as he commanded. He was believed to have psychic powers, and his disciple and fellow Russian P.D. Ouspensky declared that he sometimes conversed with Gurdjieff telepathically. In addition to being stern and sometimes terrifying, Gurdjieff could also be gentle, particularly with children. When Kathleen Riordan Speeth was a little girl, he used to read her his own incomprehensible writings as a bedtime story.
Speeth was born in 1937 in New York, to parents who had been immersed in the work for thirteen years. Her love for them, and her childhood encounters with Gurdjieff himself, "contributed to my almost obsessive preoccupation with the Gurdjieff literature...and my search for a teacher of Gurdjieff's stature," she wrote in the 1976 introduction to her book, The Gurdjieff Work. She went on to thank a number of teachers -- Claudio Naranjo, Baba Muktananda, Gyalwa Karmapa, the Rinpoche Tarthang Tulku, and a man named David Rosenmann, who, she wrote, "embodies the pattern my heart is yearning for."
Mary began working with Speeth in 1977, having met her at a transpersonal psychology conference in which Speeth had been a presenter. Diane began working with Luc Brebion, Speeth's colleague and protégé in 1979; he'd hired her to type his doctoral dissertation for him the year before, and she was impressed enough by both him and his thesis to seek him out when she needed therapy. Both saw the psychologists individually, for therapy, and also participated in weekly groups, which combined therapy with Gurdjieffian self-remembering techniques, the enneagram, and the reading and discussing of Sufi stories. Diane, who attended both, remembers Brebion's groups as lower key, more supportive, while Speeth's were more confrontational.
"It sounds odd, but people were not allowed to talk to each other," recalls a man I'll call Max, who joined one of Speeth's groups around this time and stayed until 1994. "At the very beginning Kathy said people were not capable enough to talk to each other without attacking each other. So we would write her letters about the work we were doing on ourselves. She would look at the letters at the beginning of the meeting and then run the group, interweaving all the things that were written to her. The groups were exciting that way, so that you knew that what was being talked about related directly to what you were working on, but you weren't quite sure how it worked. It was very powerful."
It's hard to be objective about any therapeutic experience, and most of the people I've interviewed about the techniques explored by Speeth and Brebion waver between admiration and fury. "It was a good experience," Diane insists. "This is what I'm so pissed about. He was doing beautiful work and so was she." Max credits Speeth with changing his life, allowing him to feel good about himself for the first time; Diane describes Brebion as having "a deep-seated wealth of goodness." Both were so inspired by what they were learning in the groups that they went back to school and became therapists themselves. Max began taking on other members of the group as clients, and counseling them under Speeth's supervision.
Certainly Speeth had an enviable professional reputation. Throughout the 1980s, she made a name for herself as an expert on both Gurdjieff and the enneagram, and she was in the habit of dropping the names of the famous psychologists she counted among her friends: Claudio Naranjo, who had taught her the enneagram; James Fadiman, her colleague at the Institute for Transpersonal Psychology; Daniel Goleman, with whom she co-edited a book called The Essential Psychotherapies. In 1988 she was one of 38 members of the human potential movement to be interviewed on the PBS series Thinking Allowed: Conversations on the Leading Edge of Knowledge and Discovery. Other guests on the show included Rollo May, Virginia Satir, Joseph Campbell, Fritjof Capra, and Ram Dass.
What the former members of her groups remember about working with her in the late '70s and early '80s was how thrilling it was, how much they felt they were part of something fresh and purposeful and elite. The forty or fifty people involved were literate and successful; one person familiar with the group described them to me as a kind of "Bloomsbury set." The work was hard, but part of the attraction was proving you were strong enough to take it. "There are so many paths to the development of one's essence," one former client of Speeth's told me. "They deliberately took a path called the via negativa -- you work with the dark. You reduce, or in some cases decimate or explode the ego. Trusting and relating were never even talked about. It was about seeking the truth."
One Sunday a month, the members of Speeth and Brebion's groups would gather at the psychologists' houses to do gardening, carpentry, cleaning, and other home improvements. "How much better for you if you were to scrub one floor consciously than to write a hundred books," Gurdjieff once told a novelist, and Speeth and Brebion's patients set about to do exactly that. They built walls, tore out blackberry brambles, painted houses, and they did all these things silently and slowly, trying to maintain an awareness of themselves and the task instead of letting their minds drift. "I would call them moving meditations," Mary told me, some what defensive on the subject. "Yes we built things and did yard work, but the outcome of the task was not the reason for doing it." Still, there's no away around the fact that Speeth, Brebion, and later Christian all had their homes improved by this meditative work, a fact that the Board of Psychology would later describe as a "dishonest, corrupt or fraudulent act."
Sometime in the early 1980s, people began hearing from Brebion and Speeth about a Chilean poet named David Rosenmann-Taub, who was reputed to have extraordinary powers. "He had such a huge build-up," Mary recalls. "You were in awe. Kathy supposedly knew Carlos Castenada and I remember her saying that David was much superior to Carlos."
Diane remembers Brebion first mentioning Rosenmann-Taub to her around 1981. "There's this person coming that does hand readings - not palm readings, he reads your life," he told her. "I'm not recommending it, I'm not recommending it, I'm just telling you about it. Let me know if you want to go." "Luc's method was to put something out there, and act a little protective and secretive about it," Diane recalls. "I don't know how other people react to that, but it made me want it."
It was right around this time that Diane had a remarkably vivid dream. She dreamed she was standing among a crowd of people and she was filled with a sense of profound joy. "You are one of us," the people said, draping gold and silver necklaces around her neck. But then the necklaces turned into chains, and Diane found herself in a monastery surrounded by armed guards. At first she thought that the guards were there to protect her but then she realized they were there to keep her in, and she ran, clawing her way down a steep mountainside in the darkness until she was finally free. "What's really weird," she says now, "is that was right at the beginning."
A couple of months ago, I went to hear Luc Brebion give a lecture on Rosenmann-Taub's compositions at the Berkeley Jewish Community Center. The lecture is a part of a series that Brebion calls "the aesthetic self: contemplations." He gives them on Sunday evenings every two or three months, publicizes them hardly at all, and charges an admission fee of $30.
Brebion stood at a podium at the front of the room, a worried-looking man in his late forties with light brown, oily looking hair and a short beard. The lights had been turned off at the start of the program, leaving the thirty or so members of the audience in darkness, but Brebion was lit by a yellow-ish spotlight that made his flesh look as if it were made of wax. For a moment the room was entirely hushed. Then the sounds of piano music filled the room. Brebion lifted his chin slightly, listening with acute sensitivity. His lips quivered a moment; he opened and closed his eyes. We were hearing the first of five nocturnes by David Rosenmann-Taub.
We heard the five nocturnes in turn, without any interruption. The first was somber, the second agitated, the third thundering, the fourth jaunty. When they were over, Brebion told us what they were about. The first set the scene: the composer looking at the night sky through a picture window. In the second he calls to the stars, and the farthest star says to him, "Don't you see me?" In the third, the world plunges through space. In the fourth, the night mocks him. In the fifth he realizes that existence is a shooting star. "Let's hear them again with these ideas in mind," Brebion said.
We heard them again, this time with Brebion accompanying the music with lines that interpreted each musical measure: "The night is mocking me. Touch a star, just try, says the night." Then we heard the nocturnes again. Somewhere in the middle of this third performance, a fuse blew and the music fell silent. Brebion looked disapprovingly at the sound man, who fiddled around with the cords for a while without success. At last the lights came up and various people gathered around the equipment plugging and unplugging things. As I watched them, a young woman with short blonde hair approached my chair and asked if I had been to one of Brebion's lectures before. "This never happens," she said when I told her that I hadn't. "Usually it's very scripted, almost an art experience, with no pauses."
I asked her a few questions about the sessions, and she told me that Rosenmann-Taub is a "genius" who can tell "if art is really art." She is a painter herself, she continued, and he has been helping her with her watercolors. She's been working with him for about eight years.
"Not many people would do what you've done," she said. "Come to something like this after just hearing about it. People are very closed minded, even in Berkeley."
"Are his ideas unconventional then?" I asked.
"Oh yes, very unconventional. Anticonventional."
"Is he here?" I looked around the room.
A secretive expression crossed her face, like a door closing. "He rarely goes out in public," she said. "He's very reclusive." And with that, it seemed, our conversation was over.
In 1979, a reporter from a Chilean newspaper visited Rosenmann-Taub who was living in Santiago at the time. The reporter came away puzzled by a man "so incredible he seems invented." Cloistered in a house that was kept perpetually bereft of natural light, the poet was absorbed in composing commentaries on his own writing, a task that had enlarged his last book, a sixty-page volume called El Cielo En La Fuente, into something close to 350 pages. As he scribbled away, he was attended by a woman named Maria Mancia Sancho, a former psychotherapist who had "given up everything" to serve as his secretary and who confided that the poet was "the most marvelous man" she had ever known.
Born in Chile in 1927 to Jewish immigrants from Poland, Rosenmann-Taub seems to have had some modest success with his poetry in his youth, publishing Cortejo Y Epinicio, the first of his four books of poems, at the age of 21. The poems were praised for their formal complexity and mystical subject matter, but the poet never became particularly well-known in Chile, and it is somewhat of a mystery how he became the darling of a small number of American psychotherapists. At the time the article was written, Rosenmann-Taub was already lecturing in New York, to members of "the most sophisticated circles of thought," with translations provided by Claudio Naranjo. "To some, he is a genius," the reporter observed. "To others a charlatan. But one cannot leave with him simply appearing an interesting man."
In those early days Rosenmann-Taub would come to town for a few weeks at a time, and Speeth and Brebion encouraged their clients to have a hand reading while he was there. Then in 1983, Speeth and Rosenmann-Taub were married, possibly with the aim of getting him American citizenship. (They were divorced five years later.) A year or so later, Rosenmann-Taub moved to Berkeley. Diane was asked to help him find a house that was large enough to hold all of his books, which filled up two semi trucks. The house had to be outfitted with special solid steel bars because Rosenmann-Taub was worried about theft; he claimed that a Chilean housekeeper had stolen thirty years of writing from him and that sorrow about the robbery had killed his mother. "He would say that he was so much of the light that evil and darkness were always pursuing him, and that fires would break out spontaneously where the evil was trying to come in," Diane recalls.
The house where Rosenmann-Taub lives is on McGee Street in Berkeley; a cream-colored stucco structure badly in need of fresh paint, and notable mainly for the bars that cover every opening, and the sign warning away solicitors. It is here that Speeth and Brebion's patients were instructed to deliver $200 each month, in cash, whether they saw Rosenmann-Taub or not. They were also told to keep detailed journals of their thoughts and actions, and to deliver these to him as well. Max estimates that between 40 and 50 people were regularly delivering letters and money at the time he left the group in 1994.
Rosenmann-Taub would let members of the group know when he wanted to see them, and in addition to reading their hands or giving them information about the state of their souls, he might do magical exercises with them. Sometimes he would tell them to close their eyes and when he touched their hands or forehead they would see colors. "I would say, 'You know, I don't really see the colors a lot,'" Mary recalls. "And he would say, 'Well, you don't see them because it would be dangerous to you to see them a lot.' It was always a lot of hocus pocus."
Still, the seekers put their doubts aside, believing that the therapists who had taught them so much truth about themselves would never entrust them to someone false. "I really trusted Kathy," Max says. "I believed in what she was doing. I would actually have given my life for her. But she said, 'You know, I only teach kindergarten. David's the real teacher.' So there was this sort of slide from Kathy to David." He remembers that one day, as they were walking to one of Rosenmann-Taub's poetry readings, Speeth turned to him and said, "You know, David's Jesus Christ." Max wanted to ask her what she meant, but something stopped him and he kept silent.
By now Max had become part of Rosenmann-Taub's inner circle. Sometimes the poet would call him and a few other trusted members of the group and tell them to all be lying on their beds with their eyes closed at a prearranged time, so that Rosenmann-Taub could do something special for them. He spoke of mysterious events -- a light shining from a fixture that had no light bulb in it, machines that didn't work properly in his presence, tape recorders that mysteriously turned themselves off during his hand reading sessions. The world, he said, was an evil place. The only people who could be trusted were the ones in the group, because they were the only ones aware enough to keep their dark sides in check.
"There is a feeling of being superior,'' Max says. "We're in this secret group, we have this secret knowledge, we do all these secret things -- incantations and spells and meetings. These are fifty chosen people working with this avatar of knowledge and he's got these special powers. Man, you're going straight to the top, and the top is enlightenment."
To Max it seemed that everything was going perfectly. He was progressing intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually, and he had fallen in love with a woman in the group who was also in love with him. But one day Rosenmann-Taub asked to see him. Max should not see his girlfriend anymore, he said, because it would be better for the woman to be involved with another man in the group who was interested in her. Max wasn't certain he was willing to comply, but his girlfriend was, and by the next day, the relationship was over. "I tried to talk to her, she didn't want to talk about it," he says. "Nobody wanted to talk about it. There was no recourse. So I was quiet about it, but deep down in my gut it felt wrong."
Part of the bind, of course, was that everything Rosenmann-Taub said in his sessions was supposed to be kept secret. The work was mysterious, dangerous, unpredictable, and it was said that even a whispered word of criticism could harm Rosenmann-Taub. "The fear was so much part of it, it was like a fish swimming in water," one former member of the group told me. "And the problem with fear is that it can only be passed on."
By now Rosenmann-Taub was firmly in control. When he lectured, expounding with great lyricism on the quest for self-knowledge, the room seemed to tingle with the deference of his listeners, and the charisma of the speaker. "The universe knows itself," he told them. "It functions. It functions perfectly well .... And the heart knows what it's doing, and the blood knows what it's doing, and the brain knows what it's doing. So we can know who we are.... When we want to know ourselves, perhaps the first light, the first spark, is to recognize that we're the same as anything -- that we are a cosmos."
He told people in the group what books to read, what music to listen to, what food to eat, and how to behave in bed. He told some to have affairs, others to be celibate. And some of the male members of the group say that he performed a sexual ceremony with them that he said would teach him their true vocation.
Max recalls being told to come to Rosenmann-Taub's house freshly showered and carrying a white handkerchief. He stripped down to his shorts, lay down, and shut his eyes. The next thing he knew, Rosenmann-Taub's hand was on his penis, masturbating him. When he came, Rosenmann-Taub caught the ejaculate in the handkerchief and examined it carefully--"like reading tea leaves," Max recalls. Then he was told to hide the handkerchief in a place where it would never be moved or touched, otherwise the information in it would be lost.
What each of them says to me now -- Max, Diane, Mary and the others that I interviewed -- is that by this time they had lost, or at least submerged, their ability to sort out what was acceptable and what wasn't. "One of the things you have to remember is that this is not just a random group of people,'' Diane points out. "Almost everyone got into it because they sought out counseling, and most of the people sought counseling because their families were dysfunctional. These were not people whose lives had been great and then suddenly they lost their job. The self-esteem has been eroded, belief systems were always a little bit shaky, norms are a little bit shaky. For me, I always had feelings of needing a family, wanting a family. So you find your way into counseling and what seems like a family, a wonderful family."
All of which makes people in therapeutic communities like this one particularly vulnerable to what the cult literature calls "thought reform" -- the subtle and gradual remaking of a group's understanding of the world. John Winer, a lawyer who specializes in psychological malpractice, puts it this way: "If the patient is being encouraged to act like a child, they really are like a child -- a child with an abusive parent. Most of the patients that have been abused by therapists had been abused as children. They've lost the ability to recognize abusive situations. They're sitting ducks."
Cult experts like Margaret Singer and Janya Lalich have studied dozens of so-called "psychotherapy cults" with as few as fifteen or as many as four hundred members, what distinguishes these cults from legitimate therapeutic groups is not the therapeutic doctrine, they concluded, but the extent to which patients are controlled and exploited; nonetheless, the traditions of secrecy and strict authoritarian control seem to make Gurdjieffian groups particularly vulnerable to cult-style abuse. Even Speeth has observed that certain Gurdjieffian groups "have not been above the cult phenomena of rationalized violence, coercion, and sexual exploitation."
Part of the trouble is that in this realm conventional ideas about how to behave are, by definition, irrelevant. This was an esoteric path -- unconventional, anticonventional. Diane remembers Brebion showing his patients the movie The Poseidon Adventure, in which the only people who escaped the wreck were the ones who knew how to operate upside down. "That's the way David says you should operate," she explains. "It's a complete inversion of traditional values. But once you've agreed to unconventional ways of looking at things, you relinquish conventional modes of criticism.'' As time went on, Rosenmann-Taub kept pushing the limit of what was acceptable. If you accept the instructions on what to eat and when to bathe, he seemed to be saying, if you accept the white handkerchief and the loss of your lover, is there anything you won't accept?
Not long after she joined the group, Mary had introduced her daughter Terri to a group member named Lyle, and Lyle and Terri soon became romantically involved. Before long, Terri was in therapy with Speeth as well. She had just come out of a painful divorce and had two young sons, but she says her therapy with Speeth helped her come to terms with both her own divorce and that of her parents. Terri and Lyle later married and moved to Illinois, but they stayed close to both Speeth and Rosenmann-Taub, flying across country at least once a month for psychic consultations, and earning as Terri jokes now, a lot of frequent flyer miles in the process.
Rosenmann-Taub saw Terri differently than she saw herself. She had always considered herself quiet and easily intimidated -- "mealy-mouthed" in her words--but Rosenmann-Taub told her she was argumentative and destructive, that she had to learn to master her anger. He promised her that if she followed his instructions she would become beautiful and erotic; everything about her would improve, he said, even her sense of taste. "I am truly glad I was able to see your hands now," he told her at the close of their first session. "Because without that information your life was going to become something horrible. Now you have the tool to do it perfectly -- but more than perfect."
Terri followed all of Rosenmann-Taub's instructions. She wrote him letters, telling him not only about herself, but also about her husband, her sons, and her parents. She sent him money, $250 each month, took five-minute baths, stayed out of the sun, drank orange juice only in the morning before peeing. She did exercises with her arms and legs, read "one thin book" simultaneously with her husband (Rosenmann-Taub suggested a novel by Sigrid Undset), had acupuncture treatments for her anger, even modified the way she and her husband made love. Still, there was always more to do. Once Rosenmann-Taub told her that he had paid a psychic visit to her home and was repulsed by what he saw.
Then Rosenmann-Taub began to be interested in Terri's sons, and he extended his instructions to them. Absolute silence should be maintained when the family was driving in the car, he said. (Terri remembers trying to enforce this rule during one of her son's birthday parties, and finally making all five nine year olds crowd in the way back of the minivan, where they would at least be muffled.) When Michael, the elder of the boys, did poorly in school, Rosenmann-Taub told Terri that if he didn't improve his grades, she should send him to boarding school. If one of the boys swore at her, he said, Terri should refuse to speak to him for a year. And any instruction she gave them, he continued, should only be given twice. If they disobeyed a third time, Terri should slap them across the face. Afterwards she should tell them, "You have forced me to hit you. That's terrible. Don't do it again. Don't make me suffer."
Terri carried out some of these instructions, but it seemed to her that nothing her boys did pleased Rosenmann-Taub. Even after Michael's grades improved, the psychic maintained she should send him to boarding school, and after a time Lyle, who'd helped raise the boys since the youngest was three years old, began distancing himself from them. He didn't play with them the way he had before, Terri says, and he once told her that the boys were only nice when they wanted something.
Then Rosenmann-Taub asked to see the boys. On his next trip to Berkeley, Lyle brought Michael with him.
Terri told me her story over the telephone, and for much of the conversation she was direct and funny, despite feeling jittery about opening up these old wounds. But when we got to Michael's visit to Berkeley, her voice became suddenly quiet. Rosenmann-Taub, she said, had told her what he was going to do with Michael. "He told me," she says. "That he was going to try and jack him off. I was just not thinking about what that really meant. I'm real ashamed to say this. I allowed it."
Michael never said what happened in his session with Rosenmann-Taub, but Lyle told her that the masturbation ritual hadn't happened because Michael was too young. But when Joey, the younger boy, returned from his visit to Berkeley a month or so later, he announced he wasn't going back if it meant being touched like that again. Later, Terri asked Joey to write down exactly what had happened. "David did circles around his body with his fingers," she says. "And then he did it also on his penis. And from what he wrote in the letter, he did it more on that spot."
It was then that Terri says she remembered her anger, the anger that Rosenmann-Taub had told her would destroy her, the anger she had kept at bay with acupuncture and five-minute baths. It came to her slowly at first, in glimpses, like the first pale green shoots of a prodigious vine, but it made her talkative. She told her mother what had happened, and another friend, and their outrage made her less convinced that Lyle was right when he said that what had happened to Joey was no more sinister than a visit to the doctor. Terri says Lyle called Speeth to tell her about Terri's concern, but Terri got the impression that the psychologist was more concerned about the information getting out than she was about Terri's children.
By this time Mary had left the group, largely in response to a financial dispute with Speeth. Speeth had asked her to act as her real estate agent in a house she was buying, but wanted her to give Speeth the commission on the sale. What was particularly upsetting to Mary was that in her therapy sessions with Speeth they had spent a lot of time talking about how hard it was for Mary to stand up for herself, and how that allowed other people to take financial advantage of her. It seemed to her that Speeth was using Mary's therapeutic confidences for her own financial gain -- a charge the Board of Psychology would later agree with -- and when Speeth and Rosenmann-Taub continued pressuring her for money, she decided to end therapy and leave the group. "It was a body sensation," she says now. "I felt in my body that this was it, I couldn't go back."
The next time Terri came to California to see Rosenmann-Taub, Mary told her what she had done. The two of them had gone shopping together at the Hilltop Mall, and Terri remembers the story coming out as they sat drinking coffee in the mall cafe. It was the first time in years that they had talked frankly about their experiences in the group, and now Terri's anger began to bloom. "In the end," she says, "that's what saved me."
Still, it wasn't easy to disengage. Mary received a death threat that she believes came from someone in the group. And at his birthday party that year, always the occasion for a large gathering of the group, Rosenmann-Taub gave a lecture about a disciple who stopped working with him and ended up raping his daughter -- a tale that Terri felt was a warning to her that something terrible would happen to her if she followed in her mother's footsteps.
And in fact, leaving the group meant losing nearly everything she had. Lyle was still a firm believer, and as Terri withdrew from the group, he withdrew from her. Torn, and still hoping to save her marriage, she says she capitulated to his suggestion that she sign a letter saying nothing inappropriate had occurred between Rosenmann-Taub and the children, that she had invented the whole story. The marriage ended anyway, and there followed a vicious divorce battle that drove Terri into bankruptcy. Lyle hasn't contacted the boys since.
For a couple of years, Terri didn't know if she would survive the loss. She remembers lying on the floor in a fetal position, crying herself hoarse. "I lost a belief system, a husband, a home," Terri says. "I lost my best friend -- she told me because I hurt Kathy she would no longer speak to me. But I was going to be damned if I was going to let them get to me. I thought, They took everything else from me, I'm not going to let them take my soul."
Terri and her sons had counseling, but they've never really talked about what happened. For years she wouldn't talk about it with anyone. "I was so ashamed of it for a long time," she says. "I felt that I really betrayed my sons. I thought I was helping them, and what I discovered was that I was really hurting them." The boys are doing well now, despite having had some rough times. Joey's in college; Michael has returned to the fundamentalist faith of his great-grandparents and become a missionary. As for Terri, she still considers herself deeply spiritual, but her spiritual longings are tempered by a lasting suspicion of any organized faith. "I don't go whole hog with anything," she says. "I think that's healthy."
One by one, a few others left the group as well. Diane says she left after Rosenmann-Taub told her he wanted to dress up in a white doctor's coat and give her a bath; when she said that the suggestion seemed strange to her, he threw her out of the house. She tried to tell Brebion what had happened, but he said he didn't want to hear about it, and at the end of their next session, she terminated therapy. Afterwards she was wracked with grief, mourning not only Brebion's betrayal but the injury to her own spiritual convictions. "It was hideous," she says now. "I'd be shopping in the Co-op and I felt I could just fall over from the pain -- I could die, I could die from the spiritual pain. And this went on for a couple of years."
Max was one of the last to leave. He'd been in the group for nineteen years, but he was finding it increasingly difficult to match the fervor of the others. He was skipping some of Brebion's lectures, slacking off on his letters to Rosenmann-Taub, but there were always new meetings to attend: an artist's group, a writer's group, a reading group, a friendship group, even a group to discuss doubts people had about Rosenmann-Taub's all-pervading wisdom. Any disagreement between members of the group had to be adjudicated by Rosenmann-Taub, and it seemed that people were spending days writing him letters and fulfilling his assignments. Max began noticing that all the women in the group were dressed in white, because Rosenmann-Taub had once said that he liked women in white, and that when he left a meeting everyone would be getting into a white car. "I saw people getting pulled in more and more," he says. "And I just said, Whoa, this doesn't feel right.'"
Max began developing migraines just before meetings of the group. He had never had migraines before, never even believed they existed, but now the headaches had him on his knees, vomiting into the toilet bowl and then crawling into bed. The last meeting he went to, he had a 102-degree fever. He remembers watching the clock move past the hour when the meeting was supposed to end, and the group still talking, on and on, as if they were filibustering his departure, hypnotizing him with their words. When he got up to leave, he knew he wasn't coming back. He could barely muster the energy to say goodbye, and when he did, nobody replied.
"When I left," he says. "It was as if I was dead. I was totally cut off. Which is part of what had kept me in -- I had seen it happen before with other people. People had come and gone and we never talked about them, they were like the disappeared. So I realized that was going to happen if I left the group, but I didn't know how it was going to affect me. And how it affected me, I have to say, is that it felt like I was having a nervous breakdown. I felt absolutely isolated and alone. People I had known since the '70s, people I had been a therapist to, not only did I not see them, but nobody called me, nobody talked to me." Once he ran into someone he'd known from the group who said to him, "I knew you wouldn't make it. You didn't have it in you."
And so Max began searching out the other disappeareds. He called Mary, and Diane, and a few others, and he called people he knew from another Gurdjieffian group that had sprung up in Berkeley around the same time as Speeth's, with similarly disastrous results. It was exhilarating to be able to speak honestly at last. Rosenmann-Taub had been right about the power of negative talk to damage him; the more they compared notes, the more their belief in his abilities diminished. "He's a big time manipulator, a big time charlatan," Max says now. "I don't care if he has powers; he's misusing them."
Some of the others had sent complaints to the Board of Psychology in 1989, but by the time the board reached a settlement with Brebion, Speeth, and Christian more than eight years later, they had given up expecting any results. The Board of Psychology charged all three psychologists with "gross negligence in the practice of psychology," citing a variety of ethical violations including the work days, the blurring of boundaries between psychologist and patient, the referrals to Rosenmann-Taub, and the use of the psychic's pronouncements in therapy. Clearly outraged by what they had learned, the board's attorneys described Rosenmann-Taub's hand readings as "quackery," and noted that the psychologists had given "an unwarranted patina of authority and validity to Rosenmann's nonsensical incantations." Yet despite the tone of the board's complaint, two of the three psychologists are still practicing. Under the terms of an agreement reached last summer, Speeth voluntarily surrendered her license, while Brebion and Christian are on probation until they retake the oral portion of the state licensing exam and complete a class in psychological ethics.
All three psychologists were represented by Penny Cooper, widely regarded as one of the best criminal defense lawyers in the state. Good lawyers get good deals for their clients, and given the severity of the charges, I doubt Speeth, Brebion, and Christian had any complaints about the outcome. Christian has passed his oral examination and continues to practice out of his Lafayette office; the Maximum Potential Project, his counseling program for low-achieving students and their families, currently has between nine and twelve students. Speeth has moved to Chapel Hill, North Carolina, but she continues to give workshops in the Bay Area. In November she led a weekend workshop at Esalen entitled "Grace Under Pressure," a topic she's doubtlessly thought a fair amount about. None of the three psychologists, nor Rosenmann-Taub, responded to my requests for interviews.
Most of the former members of the group feel at least partially vindicated by the fact that the psychologists were disciplined at all, but Parker remains unappeased. She feels that the punishment was too mild, and she has written letters to the psychology board, the Attorney General's office, the American Psychological Association, and even her state and congressional representatives, demanding more serious action. "To this day, I am unaware that Dr. Christian has ever apologized to a single client or ever acknowledged that he mistreated or harmed a client in his professional care," she wrote to the Board of Psychology last summer. "If Dr. Christian is unconscious of his unprofessional conduct, how can the consumers be assured that similar events will NOT occur again?
It does seem amazing that Brebion and Christian are still permitted to practice, but such is the nature of plea bargains. And while the California Board of Psychology has been beefing up its enforcement division over the past few years, earning it a reputation as one of the more aggressive psychology hoards in the nation, out-and-out license revocations are still relatively uncommon. "My experience is that if there isn't sexual abuse, discipline is fairly light and fairly rare," observes psychological malpractice attorney John Winer.
The sad fact is that psychological malfeasance is extremely difficult to root out, Winer says; the victims are often emotionally unstable, they rarely know the rules therapists are supposed to play by, and even when they figure out that something isn't right, they may be too traumatized by the therapist's actions to report them to the authorities. "I wish there was a way that therapy could be monitored more closely," he says. "It really only gets monitored one time, which is when the therapist is given a license. But for therapy to work you have to have privacy, and you have to have trust."
While Parker wants to see Christian lose his license, the others are just hoping that the board's decision will be a wake-up call -- if not for the psychologists themselves, then at least for their patients. "I'm worried about friends I had for nineteen years who are still entranced in the group," Max says. "I wonder how they are." As far as anyone can tell, there has been no repudiation of Rosenmann-Taub. Brebion is still lecturing on his compositions, and when I attended his lecture in October -- three months after the disciplinary action -- Christian was in the audience. As many as nine other Bay Area therapists are disciples as well, and the former members of the group I've interviewed say that at least some of those therapists have sent their clients to see Rosenmann-Taub in the past. "It's a shame," Mary says. "Even after all this stuff, they're still pushing David. It's just that more and more people will get hurt."
Last fall, in the hope of getting independent corroboration of what I had heard from the others, I placed an ad in the classified listings of the Express, asking to speak with anyone who had worked with Speeth, Brebion, Christian, or Rosenmann-Taub. Two people responded. One was a woman I'I1 call Laura, who had received a hand reading from Rosenmann-Taub just a few weeks before, on the advice of a friend who was in the group. The whole ritual was much as it was for Parker -- the fasting, the spinning in circles -- all of which, Laura noted, can be used for trance induction. But she had listened carefully, quieting the part of her that wondered how much of what was happening was theater and how much hypnosis, because she had been told that he was never wrong, and that meeting him would be like having "an audience with God." But gods, even real ones, are not necessarily benevolent. In following Rosenmann-Taub's instructions, Laura said, she had hurt someone close to her in a way that could not be mended, and that she could not bear to describe. "I did something I regret intensely," she told me. "And I will regret it for the rest of my life."
The second call was from a woman who had been a client of Speeth's, and thus of Rosenmann-Taub's, close to ten years ago. We got together on Halloween, which was appropriate, she said laughing, because it was time to exorcise some old ghosts. Her story, like Laura's, was tragic -- she had been deeply hurt, and badly frightened, and for a while she had even lost her mind. She had spent the day thinking about the experience, and as she read me what she had written in her journal that morning, I felt that she was trying to find a resting place inside herself, a place that didn't accept what had happened, but understood it, a place that could even find compassion for those who had misused her trust. Toward the end of our conversation she dug out a photograph of Speeth that she had kept along with some other mementos of that time. "I used to have so many dreams of Kathy," she told me as I handed it back to her. "In the past several months, I had a dream in which we made peace. I don't know if that's true in a psychic way. Or if it's just that I have made peace with her."
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