A Hushed Death for Mystic Author Carlos Castaneda


Carlos Castaneda, the self-proclaimed "sorcerer" and best-selling author whose tales of drug-induced mental adventures with a Yaqui Indian shaman named Don Juan once fascinated the world, apparently died two months ago in the same way that he lived: quietly, secretly, mysteriously.

He was believed to be 72.

Castaneda died April 27 at his home in Westwood, according to entertainment lawyer Deborah Drooz, a friend of Castaneda and the executor of his estate. The cause of death was liver cancer.

Though he had millions of followers around the world, and though his 10 books continue to sell in 17 different languages, and though he once appeared on the cover of Time magazine as a leader of America's spiritual renaissance, he died without public notice, without the briefest mention in a newspaper or on TV.

As befitting his mystical image, he seemingly vanished into thin air.

"He didn't like attention," Drooz said. "He always made sure people did not take his picture or record his voice. He didn't like the spotlight. Knowing that, I didn't take it upon myself to issue a press release."

No funeral was held; no public service of any kind took place. The author was cremated at once and his ashes were spirited away to Mexico, according to the Culver City mortuary that handled his remains.

He leaves behind a will, due to be probated in Los Angeles next month, and a death certificate fraught with dubious information. The few people who may benefit from his rich copyrights were told of the death, Drooz said, but none chose to alert the media. The doctor who attended him in his final days, Angelica Duenas, would not discuss her secretive patient.

Even those who counted Castaneda a good friend were unaware of his death and wouldn't comment when told, choosing to honor his disdain for publicity, no matter what realm of reality he now inhabits.

"I've made it a lifetime practice never to discuss Carlos Castaneda with anyone in the newspaper business," said author Michael Korda, who was once Castaneda's editor at Simon & Schuster Inc.

Castaneda's literary agent in Los Angeles, Tracy Kramer, would not return phone calls about the Thomas Pynchon-esque author's death but issued this statement: "In the tradition of the shamans of his lineage, Carlos Castaneda left this world in full awareness."

Carlos Ce'sar Arana Castaneda immigrated to the U.S. in 1951. He was born Christmas Day 1925 in Sao Paolo, Brazil, or Cajamarca, Peru, depending on which version of his autobiographical accounts can be believed. He was an inveterate and unrepentant liar about the statistical details of his life, from his birthplace to his birth date, and even his given name remains in some doubt.

"Much of the Castaneda mystique is based on the fact that even his closest friends aren't sure who he is," wrote his ex-wife, Margaret Runyan Castaneda, in a 1997 memoir that Castaneda tried to keep from being published.

Whoever he was, whatever his background, Castaneda galvanized the world 30 years ago. As an anthropology graduate student at UCLA, he wrote his master's thesis about a remarkable journey he made to the Arizona-Mexico desert. Hoping to study the effects of certain medicinal plants, Castaneda said he stopped in an Arizona border town and there, in a Greyhound bus depot, met an old Yaqui Indian from Sonora, Mexico, named Juan Matus, a brujo, or sorcerer, or shaman, who used powerful hallucinogens to initiate the student into an occult world with origins dating back more than 2,000 years.

Under Don Juan's strenuous tutelage, which lasted several years, Castaneda experimented with peyote, jimson weed and dried mushrooms, undergoing moments of supreme ecstasy and stark panic, all in an effort to achieve varying "states of nonordinary reality." Wandering through the desert, with Don Juan as his psychological and pharmacological guide, Castaneda said he saw giant insects, learned to fly, grew a beak, became a crow and ultimately reached a plateau of higher consciousness, a hard-won wisdom that made him a "man of knowledge" like Don Juan.

The thesis, published in 1968 by the University of California Press, became an international bestseller, striking just the right note at the peak of the psychedelic 1960s. A strange alchemy of anthropology, allegory, parapsychology, ethnography, Buddhism and perhaps great fiction, "The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge" made Don Juan a household name and Castaneda a cultural icon.

Many still consider him the godfather of America's New Age movement. In one of the few profiles with which Castaneda cooperated, Time magazine wrote: "To tens of thousands of readers, young and old, the first meeting of Castaneda with Juan Matus . . . is a better-known literary event than the encounter of Dante and Beatrice beside the Arno."

After his stunning debut, Castaneda followed with a string of bestsellers, including "A Separate Reality" and "Journey to Ixtlan." Soon, readers were flocking to Mexico, hoping to become apprentices at Don Juan's feet.

But the old Indian could not be found, which set off widespread speculation that Castaneda was the author of an elaborate, if ingenious, hoax.

"Is it possible that these books are nonfiction?" author Joyce Carol Oates asked in 1972. "I realize that everyone accepts them as anthropological studies, but they seem to me remarkable works of art, on the Hesse-like theme of a young man's initiation into 'another way' of reality. They are beautifully constructed. The dialogue is faultless. The character of Don Juan is unforgettable. There is a novelistic momentum."

Such concerns have all but discredited Castaneda in academia.

"At the moment, [his books] have no presence in anthropology," said Clifford Geertz, an influential anthropologist.

But Castaneda's penchant for lying and the disputed existence of Don Juan never dampened the enthusiasm of his admirers.

"It isn't necessary to believe to get swept up in Castaneda's otherworldly narrative," wrote Joshua Gilder in the Saturday Review. "Like myth, it works a strange and beautiful magic beyond the realm of belief. . . . Sometimes, admittedly, one gets the impression of a con artist simply glorifying in the game. Even so, it is a con touched by genius."

Drooz agreed, saying it was an honor to represent a man with Castaneda's high moral purpose and impish charm. "I'm a very cynical, skeptical, atheistic lawyer, and I was deeply, deeply touched by Castaneda," she said.

To the end, Castaneda stubbornly insisted that the events he described in his books were not only real but meticulously documented.

"I invented nothing," he told 400 people attending a 1995 seminar that he conducted in Anaheim. "I'm not insane, you know. Well, maybe a little insane."

Even his death certificate, apparently, is not free of misinformation. His occupation is listed as teacher, his employer the Beverly Hills School District. But school district records don't show Castaneda teaching there.

Also, though he was said to have no family, the death certificate lists a niece, Talia Bey, who is president of Cleargreen Inc., a company that organizes Castaneda seminars on "Tensegrity," a modern version of ancient shaman practices, part yoga, part ergonomic exercises. Bey was unavailable for comment.

Further, the death certificate lists Castaneda as "Nev. Married," though he was married from 1960 to 1973 to Margaret Runyan Castaneda, of Charleston, W.Va., who said Castaneda once lied in court, swearing he was the father of her infant son by another man, then helped her raise the boy.

The son, now 36 and living in suburban Atlanta, also claims to have a birth certificate listing Castaneda as his father.

"I haven't been notified" of Castaneda's death, said Margaret Runyan Castaneda, 76, audibly upset. "I had no idea."

When he wasn't writing about how to better experience this life, Castaneda was preoccupied by death. In 1995, he told the Anaheim seminar:

"We are all going to face infinity, whether we like it or not. Why do we do it when we are weakest, when we are broken, at the moment of dying? Why not when we are strong? Why not now?"

But when interviewed by Time in 1973, he was more succinct about the end, directing the reporter to a favorite piece of graffiti in Los Angeles that summed up his view:

"Death is the greatest kick of all. That's why they save it for last."

Times researcher Edith Stanley and staff writers Patrick Kerkstra and Scott Glover contributed to this story.


Castaneda's Way

Some key titles by Carlos Castaneda:

* The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge, University of California Press, 1968

* A Separate Reality: Further Conversations With Don Juan, Simon & Schuster, 1971

* Journey to Ixtlan: The Lessons of Don Juan, Simon & Schuster, 1972

* Tales of Power, Simon & Schuster, 1974

* The Second Ring of Power, Simon & Schuster, 1977

* The Eagle's Gift, Simon & Schuster, 1981

* The Fire from Within, Simon & Schuster, 1981

* The Power of Silence: Further Lessons of Don Juan, Simon & Schuster, 1987

* The Art of Dreaming, Harper Collins, 1994

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World