Overcoming negativity is integral to the teachings of the Los Angeles-based Church of the Movement of Spiritual Inner Awareness, and its founder, John-Roger, whom followers believe is the embodiment of a Christ-like power called the “Mystical Traveler Consciousness” and something called the “Preceptor Consciousness.”
But in 1983, as the John-Roger Foundation prepared for its first highly publicized Integrity Day, to be held on J-R’s birthday, the founder called a meeting to respond to the decidedly negative “rumors and gossip” about him that had been circulating among staff and initiates.
About 500 people from around the country gathered at the Insight building on Wilshire Boulevard in Santa Monica to listen to the man many revered.
The people who had raised the allegations--that John-Roger had used spiritual promises to seduce key followers, had been hypocritical about the vow of poverty that kept him from paying taxes, and had been cavalier in his use of church funds--were banned from the meeting, several of them have said. Some of these people, John-Roger warned, had been infected by a powerful and contagious negative force known as the Red Monk.
Most of those who attended were overwhelmingly supportive of their spiritual teacher, singing happy birthday to him and repeatedly expressing their love for him.
John-Roger began his talk abruptly, explaining that the man who had been born Roger D. Hinkins in 1934 had left the Earth, leaving only “John the Beloved,” the spiritual entity that reportedly had entered Hinkins’ body following a kidney stone operation in 1963, when Hinkins was an English teacher at Rosemead High School.
” . . . Sept. 22, at 5:30 in the morning, the institute that was known as Roger, that occupied the body, left and is in the higher heavens now,” he said. ". . . He left about 5:30 in the morning, when most of all of our electricity and lights and everything went screwy in the house. And it’s a scary feeling to be driving down the road in a car with a driver who drives and is not there. . . .”
When John-Roger finished, a young man stood and addressed the man he considered his personal guru.
“My name’s Steve Sheridan, I’m chairman of the Northern California ministerial board,” he said. “Three days ago, I heard some very upsetting news about your conduct sexually and financially and otherwise. Increasingly I regard this day of celebration as a little premature.”
Joe Cavanaugh, coordinator of the John-Roger Foundation’s Insight Transformational Seminars in Northern California, also asked for an explanation of the accusations.
John-Roger never addressed either man’s questions directly, but later in the meeting, he said vaguely: “I will take authority and acknowledge all of these things and own them.” Supporters, however, quickly put the meeting back on a more positive track.
“I don’t feel that I have any need for any explanation of any kind. I love you and I support you in every possible way. . . .” one man said. “The beauty of the teachings of the Mystical Traveler are enough,” said another, echoing the sentiments that were voiced over and over again, sometimes tearfully, to passionate shouts and applause.
Toward the end of the meeting, John-Roger read two passages from the Bible.
”. . . I tell you, that men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every evil word they have spoken,” he recited. Then he read from James:
”. . . Consider when a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body, it corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell. . . .”
By all indications, the great majority of the audience heeded those words and went on to celebrate Integrity Day. A handful of others, however, were outraged.
Word of the meeting, as well as a videotape of it, spread through the movement nationwide.
Although in some distant areas of the country the clamoring remained dim, it reached a crescendo in California. At least 50 people, by most estimates, soon left the movement. The number represented only a small percentage of the people involved in the Church of the Movement of Spiritual Awareness at that time, but because many of those leaving had held key positions, their departure reverberated throughout the family of enterprises.
“One of the questions this all raised was whether this was in fact a monstrous breach of integrity on John-Roger’s part or on the part of 10 or 20 people who had made these observations,” said Sheridan, who is now a practicing therapist.
“As a psychotherapist I have a great deal of respect for massive denial. Freud said it was the primary defensive mechanism of humankind.”
And he believes the faithful followers’ reaction to the charges against their teacher was massive denial of the “negative” reality at hand.
Susan O’Shaughnessy was one of the many who had stood up at the Integrity meeting to offer her support. “I didn’t want to believe at that point,” she said. But after the meeting she and her husband, Terry, spoke several times to the staff members who said they had been seduced by John-Roger. “Then I had no choice but to believe. . . . And I had to leave. I could not support a man who was hurting people--emotionally destroying people.”
Other things began to click in her mind. “I realized that so much of what I thought was psychic power was good old electronics,” she said, refering to revelations made to her (and reiterated to The Times) by initiate Michael Hesse, who said he had installed recording devices on the telephones at the Insight headquarters, and O’Shaughnessy’s husband, Terry, whose service as an initiate had included extensive work on the wiring at Insight headquarters.
In the course of installing sound equipment, Terry O’Shaughnessy said, he and a co-worker would frequently work in the building’s crawl spaces. “In every room in that building,” he discovered very small microphones, “a quarter inch in diameter” and learned that they had been installed by members of John-Roger’s personal staff, he said.
“They were placed inconspicuously, right up against the ceiling tiles; a couple were actually set in cracked corners of the tile,” he said. Later, while in John-Roger’s personal office working on equipment, he attempted to tune-in a microphone he’d placed in a training room, but pushed a wrong switch and found himself listening to staff members talking in another room, he said. “I got looking at it--it’s a real nice switch arrangement where he had access to all those mikes.”
Although few people saw the microphones O’Shaughnessy alleges he discovered, many say they saw, in retrospect, that John-Roger had many ways of finding out things about people, including what people revealed to him about themselves and others in letters and counseling sessions. “What people thought was clairvoyance was just J-R’s cunning and deceitful information gathering,” former staffer Wesley Whitmore said.
Insight facilitators report, for instance, that they knew when John-Roger was monitoring Insight Trainings, because the remote control video cameras connected to his private office would begin swiveling in the training room.
John-Roger said any suggestion that he has surreptitiously eavesdropped on rooms “is a lie.” He said he can tape some rooms and he can tape phone conversations, but that he never has done so without informing the other party.
The Red Monk
To many people who left the movement, John-Roger’s most blatant attempt at manipulation was his resurrection of the “Red Monk.” Many former ministers and initiates report that people in the movement would run to the other side of the street or flee a supermarket when someone alleged to be infected with the Monk approached.
“The Red Monk . . . seemed to me to be a scare tactic to keep people from talking to each other,” said David Welles, a chiropractor who worked at the John-Roger Foundation’s holistic health center before leaving the movement in 1984.
As the Red Monk scare grew, several former members of MSIA, including former Insight facilitator Jack Canfield, the Whitmores and East Coast organizer Michael Bookbinder, said they were besieged with threatening phone calls and bizarre, harassing letters. They believe the calls and letters came from church insiders and, in some cases, John-Roger himself.
John-Roger denied that he has ever threatened anyone, adding that “I don’t really care to impugn any of these people’s character.”
As they broke away from the movement and talked to each other--some attended informal rap sessions with a self-styled “cult transition” person--many began to see similarities between their experiences and those of people who had fled other cults.
With MISA’s levels of initiation, its devotion to a single man and what some see as its secrecy and suspicion of outside information and the way it treats those who attempt to leave, and with Insight’s graduated structure and, some would say, fanatical volunteer commitment, John-Roger’s organizations seem to fit cult criteria, many former followers believe.
“Knowing what I know about how cults work, they make it hard to get in on a certain level, they make you jump through hoops, so that when you’re in, you’re more solidly in,” said Georgia Noble, 40, of Santa Monica, who has gone on to develop, with her husband Jack Canfield, their own series of self-esteem seminars.
Like others who have left the group, Tris Roost, who was for a time coordinator for Insight trainings in the San Francisco area, believes that MSIA’s spiritual exercises, in which initiates sometimes envision John-Roger while chanting, is a form of brainwashing. “When you meditate on the form of an earthly person, it gets confusing. . . . It becomes a form of control.”
Others say that they realized they had been afraid to tell people the bad things they’d seen happening in the movement because of the same sort of loyalty that prevents children from turning in parents who abuse them.
Like several former followers of John-Roger, however, Jim Weed, now a sales manager in Virginia, refuses to blame the man he came to revere as a “father figure” for involving him in what he now believes is a cult. “It’s more honest to say I discovered a community I wanted to join and sought it out. I went after it aggressively. I think lots of people do.”
When the break finally came, several former initiates ritualistically burned or destroyed their movement tapes and books.
“I spent the next three years trying to put my psyche together,” Sheridan said. “I went through what St. John of the Cross called ‘a dark night of the soul.’ ”
“Without the . . . exodus, I might not have had the impetus to get out,” said Catherine Solange, now 40 and a Marina del Rey therapist. “Prior to the exodus, I think it would have taken enormous courage.”
For Joe Cavanaugh, a former Soul Initiate who is now a West Coast therapist, the break came at the Integrity day meeting, and was particularly wrenching.
After the meeting, Cavanaugh and former staff member Michael Sun, who was said to be under the negative influence of the Red Monk--went back to the San Francisco area and met with about 30 Insight and MSIA people to discuss what had happened in Los Angeles, Cavanaugh said.
Cavanaugh believes that one of the people surreptitiously taped the meeting and sent the tape to J-R. Soon Cavanaugh got a telegram from MSIA telling him he was “disconnected from the Soul Realm,” was no longer a minister, no longer an initiate and no longer receiving Discourses, he said.
A few days later, he was told that the remaining staff members were coming up to the Bay Area “to straighten everything out.” They all met at the Claremont Hotel in Oakland.
“I started crying,” Cavanaugh said. “I was in a primal state. I did everything I could to get to what the truth was inside.” He told the staff why he and so many others had come to doubt John-Roger. The staff, in turn, called the doubters “wolves in sheep’s clothing.”
“I was in that room with them for four hours. It felt like a brainwashing session. I was torn down to my raw being. I surrendered to everything just to get to the truth,” he said.
Finally the staff called John-Roger and conferred with him for a half hour or so, Cavanaugh said. They relayed questions from John-Roger. Then, Edgar Veytia, president of MSIA, said “J-R wants to know if you’d be willing to come to the meeting tonight (with the local MSIA and Insight people) to say everything’s OK,” Cavanaugh said.
Cavanaugh agreed. “I went out. I was exhausted,” he said. “I was just so raw and shaken up. So vulnerable. Confused. I felt this thing inside of me saying, ‘Don’t do it! Don’t do it!’ ” He reeled out onto the terrace of the hotel, where “the sun was setting; the sky was orange and a array of colors.”
Looking out into the Northern California evening, he saw couples playing tennis, and was taken by an epiphany of sorts. “I looked down at those people, and I thought, they’re not initiates of the Traveler, but they still seem happy. . . .
“Suddenly I broke free of whatever that thing is that was holding me, which is what I think a cult is. The threat of God being held over my head was gone. I felt so free and so beautiful and so good.” He called the staff back. “I told them ‘I’m not coming tonight. . . .”
Others who left had similar feelings of “liberation.”
“For such a long time I thought J-R and his teachings gave me all the answers to all the hard questions about life and death,” said a 34-year-old woman who served as editor of the Movement newspaper in late ‘70s. “When I realized he didn’t know the answers to everything, all the sudden the universe was this wonderful, mysterious, complicated place that I had a small place in again.”
MSIA minister Randy Garver, who owns a successful Santa Monica landscape business, said he has seen people put John-Roger on a pedestal despite his admonitions not to do so. He has also seen John-Roger’s teachings help people overcome drug dependencies and improve their lives in innumerable ways.
“I’ve seen thousands of people come and thousands of people go,” Garver said. “What do I do? Take someone else’s experience over the experiences I’ve had myself? I’ve been uplifted. I’ve been helped.”
Initiate Annette Lawrence, like many John-Roger admirers, feels “totally inadequate to communicate what he does.” But she and her husband, Howard, also an initiate, have helped build and sell two multimillion-dollar food corporations, and she credits John-Roger with their success.
“Unequivocally, everything I know he has shown me how to do,” she said.
To show her appreciation, Lawrence said she raises funds for various John-Roger organizations and that she and her husband also make personal gifts.
“At one time we turned over one check for $500,000,” Lawrence said. Although she doesn’t recall exactly where in “the family” of John-Roger organizations that check went, she said it doesn’t matter. “It was for them to use in any way they needed to use it, because when we give to them it’s unconditional.”
Throughout the Integrity Day turmoil, staff member Victor Toso remained loyal to John-Roger, even though he was certain that at least some of the charges against his guru were true, he said.
Toso grew up the son of a Lutheran missionary, traveling around the world. After graduating from college in 1975, he went to the Bahamas “to find himself,” he said, and spent six months debating what to do with his life. Finally he decided to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a Lutheran minister.
He had been accepted at the seminary in Minneapolis, but a few days before he was scheduled to begin studies he attended a seminar John-Roger gave in Minneapolis. John-Roger’s creed that “No soul shall be lost” captivated the young man who’d lived his life hearing of eternal damnation.
Toso called the seminary and said he wouldn’t be attending. A year later, he moved to Los Angeles to be closer to the hub of movement activity. He was attending a movement conference when John-Roger invited him to a retreat at church-owned property in Lake Arrowhead.
At the retreat, John-Roger asked the relative newcomer if he would like to live at the Mandeville house, the greatest honor in the movement. “I felt, Hey, I’m special,” Toso said.
“To be in J-R’s graces was the most important thing for me,” Toso said. “His blessing, his nod was what I lived for.”
In July of 1977, John-Roger put Toso on staff, and he joined the rarefied ranks of “the guys.” But things didn’t go smoothly. “He kept telling me I didn’t have what it took to be on staff,” Toso said. Finally John-Roger told him that he would have to move from the hillside estate to the movement’s Purple Rose Ashram of the New Age in downtown Los Angeles, he said.
Toso says that he dropped to his knees and sobbed, begging John-Roger to tell him how he might become a better servant of the Traveler.
“It dawned on me what I had to do,” he said.
To stay on staff, Toso said he knew he would have to engage in sexual relations with John-Roger. “I decided to make the Faustian pact,” he said. “And, indeed, I was admitted into the brotherhood.”
But the pact didn’t sit well with Toso, even as he found his life with the Traveler vastly improved. And one day “I walked in on another staff member having sex with J-R. I had been naive enough to believe I was the only one,” Toso said.
In last year’s interview, John-Roger denied he had sexual relations with Toso or any other staff member.
Other discrepancies loomed in Toso’s mind. “In the early days, John-Roger didn’t try to hide the fact he borrowed much of his teachings from other people,” Toso alleged. But increasingly Toso had seen John-Roger stop acknowledging other teachers’ material, an accusation, among others, that David Christopher Lane, a graduate student at UC San Diego, addressed in a self-published 1984 research paper titled “The J-R Controversy: A Critical Analysis of John-Roger and MSIA.”
In a letter to The Times last October, an attorney for MSIA stated: ". . . Synchronous beliefs in spiritual matters are not evidence of plagiarism. They are evidence of deeply felt truth.”
In 1985, while traveling with J-R in Israel, Toso learned that his father was dying. John-Roger told him he would be “putting personal matters ahead of your work,” if he went back to see him, Toso said. He went anyway and shortly thereafter, as the remaining staff members watched, John-Roger defrocked him in a Minneapolis hotel room, he said.
“They took my watch off my wrist, they took my wallet and credit cards, they took my airline tickets, the ring off my finger, and I walked out the door with the clothes on my back,” he said. One of his many regrets, he now says, is that he later allowed John-Roger to persuade him to write, in exchange for the return of his personal effects, a “dishonest” letter to the flock, making his leaving seem temporary and innocuous.
Many of the people who left the movement are still actively involved in other aspects of what might be termed the New Age. Toso is deeply involved with the teachings of the early 20th-Century psychologist and metaphysican Rudolf Steiner.
John-Roger says Toso was fired for teaching Steiner’s ideas to MSIA members.
Today, Toso says “the whole movement is a step-by-step manipulation.” He shares the view of many who have left: That Insight serves, in part, to draw people more deeply under John-Roger’s influence, and can itself be psychologically dangerous because the facilitators generally lack meaningful psychological training.
“We don’t offer psychological experiences, we offer educational seminars,” Candy Semigran, CEO of Insight said in an interview in March. And, in fact, sometime after October of last year, the word Transformational was peeled off the door of the Insight building in Santa Monica and ordered removed from Insight literature, because, Semigran said, “it doesn’t accurately reflect what we do, at least based on how everyone else out there is trying to use it.”
People who are currently involved with Insight don’t care much whether it’s referred to as an Insight Training or Insight Transformational seminar. “It taught me to really stand in my power and go for what I want,” said Wendy Grinstein, a 25-year-old advertising person, who has taken various trainings and assisted at Insight I, II and the “Children’s Trainings.”
As for the claims of former participants that people become “junkies for the trainings,” she said, “there are a lot of personalities out there that are very dependent. My attitude is, what a wonderful thing to abuse. . . .”
“My friends, family, everyone are as big of fans of Insight as I am, because it’s made me into a better person than I was before,” said John Frank, a 31-year-old product manager, who is involved with Insight and MSIA. “I think that as an investment in time, Insight ranks among the highest of things that have made me successful.”
By most accounts, the most tangible way in which people connected to John-Roger are working to help others is through the Heartfelt Foundation. The Heartfelt Foundation, which grew out of Insight, receives relatively little funding from other John-Roger-affiliated organizations, but volunteers in Heartfelt service projects unanimously declare them inspiring and uplifting.
Similarly, many of the charitable organizations the John-Roger Foundation’s gilded and embossed promotional literature lists as being supported by Heartfelt are enthusiastic about the cheerful, efficient volunteers who collect and pass out donated food to the homeless, paint the walls of centers for abused children, deliver presents and food baskets on holidays or just hug and console people in rest homes.
In last summer’s Rod & Staff, George Cappannelli, then director of the John-Roger Foundation, refers to the foundation and MSIA as “kissin’ cousins.” But Cappannelli told The Times that the “secular” organizations and the church of MSIA are “totally separate.” It is a contention stated in similar terms by Candy Semigran and Russell Bishop of Insight.
Financial records, however, indicate otherwise.
In 1985, Golden Age Education, which was the parent organization of Insight, merged with Koh-E-Nor University, an alternative school founded in 1976 with John-Roger as president and “dedicated to instruction in the practical application of the spiritual teachings of the Mystical Traveler,” according to the Movement Newspaper.
The June 30, 1985, Koh-E-Nor tax return lists notes payable at 12% interest to MSIA of $50,000, and $25,000 to the John-Roger Foundation. Another Koh-E-Nor return lists a debt of $81,270 due to MSIA at 9 1/2%. Both forms state: “There is no relationship between lenders and any officer, board member or key employee.”
And the John-Roger Foundation, which became the umbrella for Insight and Insight Consulting Group, lists on its Sept. 30, 1985 tax return an Oct. 30, 1984 contribution from MSIA of $2.5 million.
Semigran said that John-Roger “is not involved” in Insight or Insight Consulting Group management decisions. But copies of EasyLink computer network correspondence obtained by The Times demonstrate that as late as last summer, Semigran sought John-Roger’s approval on such matters as hiring decisions and $14,000 bonuses for executives of Insight Consulting, and she and staff members from other organizations regularly sought his advice and consent on everything from the car phone he requires when he travels to matters such as actress Sally Kirkland’s request to be initiated into MSIA’s “Soul Realm.”
Several former corporate clients of the Insight Consulting Group said they knew of no connection between that productivity training organization and John-Roger, and a recently revised ICG brochure no longer offers the list of clients in last fall’s brochure, which included the U.S. Army, Navy, the Social Security Administration, McDonnell Douglas, Polaroid, Jaguar Cars, the Bank of Boston and Scott Paper among others.
Insight Consulting Group brochures also used to list testimonials from executives at American corporations, a practice that stopped this spring. One testimonial was signed by Martha Ringer, a vice president in the Real Estate Division of Chemical Bank, New York. No mention was made of the fact that Ringer, who has since left to become ICG regional representative for New York, is also an MSIA minister. (Another testimonial by Ringer, which appeared in an MSIA publication called Tithing Times, reads in part: “It’s so much fun every time I write a check because I am giving back to God.”) Ringer declined comment.
Chemical Bank spokesman Ken Herz said the corporation is no longer a client of ICG. “We evaluated the program and it did not meet our standards for a training program,” he said.
But other clients said that ICG is excellent. More than 1,500 people at Lockheed in Burbank have gone through the program, said Jane Stallman, administrator of management and professional development there. Although the company hasn’t formally tracked the results of the program, she said that it was very popular, that the accompanying time management system is highly utilized, and that Insight Consulting is “very professional.”
Many people in MSIA and Insight, including several people in key positions, refused to be interviewed for this article, saying that they had been told not to talk or that they had heard that The Times was doing “a negative story.”
In fact, sources in the movement say that since The Times began work on this story last October, hurried efforts have been made to distance--at least publicly--the foundations and Insight from MSIA and John-Roger.
In the last few months, for instance, the names of virtually every John-Roger-affiliated organization have been changed. The John-Roger Foundation has become the Foundation for the Study of Individual and World Peace, doing business as the Institute for Individual and World Peace. The Movement Newspaper has become the New Day Herald. Prana Theological Seminary (which grew out of the Purple Rose Ashram of the New Age) became Peace Theological Seminary, and Koh-E-Nor University (which means “mountain of light”) became the University of Santa Monica.
In addition, at least four people have resigned from the most important jobs in the empire, including George Cappannelli, the head of the John-Roger Foundation, and Edgar Veytia, who was president of MSIA for 15 years, and who, according to many insiders, was generally considered the “heir apparent” to the role of “Mystical Traveler.”
Veytia’s farewell letter in the spring issue of the ministerial journal Rod & Staff states “I am moving to South America to concentrate on the development of Insight there. . . . My relationship with J-R remains strong and clear and my venture south simply reflects an expansion of it. . . .”
Reached by phone in Bogota, Colombia, Veytia further explained that he had devoted his life to the movement since meeting John-Roger as a teen-ager. Now 34, he said, “I realized I have to explore certain things inside of me, get married, have babies. . . .”
Cappannelli said that he wanted to move in “new directions,” and that he still believes deeply in the “solid, terrific” work being done by Insight.
Among other changes, sometime last year, facilitators and volunteers were told to curtail any references to MSIA in Insight trainings and to stop the MSIA ritual of “calling in the Light” before trainings.
And on June 19, at an emotional meeting of initiates in Los Angeles, John-Roger passed “the keys of the Mystical Traveler” on to a longtime staff member, with whom he will share the responsibilities, although John-Roger alone still holds the even rarer mantle of “Preceptor Consciousness.”
Sources in and out of the movement were uncertain what this would mean.
But no one doubts that J-R’s work is continuing to spread.
As of last spring, John-Roger could still be seen winding up Mandeville Canyon in a Lincoln Continental bearing a license plate that reads: “M TRAVLR.”
But he isn’t around much these days.
The Prana Theological Seminary’s spring catalogue, for instance, offered students a chance to accompany John-Roger on a PAT IV training in the Holy Land ($4,873 from Los Angeles) and to join John-Roger in bringing “Light, love and peace to East and West Berlin, Moscow, Leningrad, and other distant cities.” ($5,000).
The spring ’88 issue of the minister’s journal Rod & Staff listed John-Roger and his associates giving seminars and New Age healing treatments in Las Vegas, Aspen, Denver, El Paso, Austin, Miami, Washington, D.C., New York City, Greenwich, Conn.; Boston, Chicago, St. Louis, Minneapolis, Kalamazoo, and Ottawa, Canada.
The July MSIA News lists John-Roger presenting MSIA and Insight seminars in Stockholm, London and Paris in August, (and the summer Insight Newsletter lists other offerings in 21 cities across the country and around the world, including Teen and Children’s trainings, Insight II, the Opening Heart ($750 as of spring) and Insight III, Centering the Heart ($775).)
John-Roger’s television show is now seen in at least 40 cable markets across America, and fund-raising to develop a John-Roger affiliated Center for the Study of Individual and World Peace on 140 acres near Santa Barbara is reportedly going well.
Also, at last year’s Integrity Awards gala, John-Roger received enthusiastic applause from the crowd when he announced that the next big project in the continuing saga would be an International Integrity Youth Program in the Los Angeles-area public schools.
The Insight-conducted training is called Achievement and Commitment to Excellence (ACE!), and in June, 100 seventh-graders at Nightingale Junior High in Los Angeles graduated from the six-month pilot program, in a ceremony that included prizes for an essay contest. Assemblyman John Vasconcellos, state Self-Esteem czar, selected the winners.
A spokesperson for Nightengale said the self-esteem training was “wonderful” and Insight literature predicts a “major expansion” into other public schools in the fall.
So, in a sense, the former school teacher has come full circle.
Researchers Doug Conner and Peter Johnson in The Times editorial library contributed to this story.