Castaneda's lover reflects
on shamanism and celebrity
Back in the crazed days of psychedelia, it was hard to find a bookshelf in Berkeley that didn't have a beat-up copy of the "Teachings of Don Juan" or "A Separate Reality" tucked between the cinder blocks.
Carlos Castaneda, an anthropology student at UCLA, had an incredible story to tell about his peyote-fueled adventures with an old Indian sorcerer he met at a bus depot on the Mexican border.
He first wrote it up as "field notes" and turned it in as his master's thesis. His magical mystery tour through the "Yaqui Way of Knowledge" was published in 1968, and by the early '70s Castaneda was a best-selling author and worldwide spiritual celebrity.
The Indian "brujo" who took Castaneda under his wing was Juan Matus, but Carlos called him "Don Juan."
On his way to shamanic enlightenment, Castaneda learned how to fly, talked to a bilingual coyote and encountered amazing columns of singing light. His early books, especially "Journey to Ixtlan," were full of vivid descriptions of the barren beauty of the Mexican desert and the American Southwest.
It was magical. It was inspiring. But was it true? Was it fiction? Was it symbolic? Or was it the hallucinogenic fantasy of a Latino con man?
Did Don Juan really exist?
Nobody knew, but we bought the books by the millions -- 10 titles in 17 languages.
Castaneda was on the cover of Time magazine on March 5, 1973, but his death on April 27, 1998, went uncovered by the news media. He was a cultural icon, but it took nearly two months for the news of his death -- in his Los Angeles home at age 72 from liver cancer -- to make it into the newspapers.
During his life, and into death, Castaneda went to great lengths to avoid the public spotlight. He scrupulously avoided having his picture taken, his background investigated or his personal life revealed.
For Castaneda, mystery was better than reality. Few envisioned this articulate author and "impeccable warrior" for what he was -- a short, pudgy Peruvian. His ex-wife once said he looked like a Cuban bellhop.
But he had charm and charisma and loved to appear at celebrity parties in Southern California. And that's where Castaneda met the writer Irving Wallace and his 17-year-old daughter, Amy, in 1973.
Thirty years later, Amy Wallace has written an intimate, engaging memoir of her life and love affair with the mystery man of the shamanic '70s.
"The Sorcerer's Apprentice -- My Life With Carlos Castaneda" (North Atlantic Books, 424 pages, $25) is the story of a spiritual seeker, troubled daughter, spurned lover, and, as Wallace describes herself, a "typical educated California hippie."
Her sexual affair with the sorcerer did not begin until the 1990s, when Castaneda resurfaced to lead pricey workshops for a small circle of devotees. Among the spiritual techniques taught in the sessions were "magical passes," an esoteric series of body movements supposedly passed down through Don Juan and 27 earlier generations of secret masters.
As it turned out, Castaneda had another sort of pass to make at Amy Wallace.
There were martinis, dinner and an awkward encounter in a seedy motel room in Los Angeles. Once they got in bed, Carlos Castaneda proved to be no Don Juan.
"Carlos was so nervous that he insisted we leave our clothes on. He seemed anxious to complete the act quickly and was strangely businesslike, evidently struck with performance anxiety," Wallace writes. "As he fumbled with buttons, I stopped him and whispered, 'Let's relax for a while -- Carlos, let's kiss for a while.' "
Wallace soon lost her "sorceric virginity" and began an on-again, off-again affair with her spiritual teacher.
Looking back on it now, Wallace sees herself then as emotionally damaged and adrift, struggling with the death of her famous father and literary collaborator.
"When the father I adored died in 1990, within two years I had found a surrogate in Carlos. I was 'engaged' to a substitute daddy -- virtually the same age as him, an equally best-selling and ground-breaking author for a generation. I was only half-aware of my motivations."
Wallace's portrayal of Castaneda as a manipulative, deceptive and often cruel lover echoes the 1997 portrait painted by his ex-wife, Margaret Runyan Castaneda, in her memoir "A Magical Journey With Carlos Castaneda."
Two other critical looks at Castaneda's career were published in 2000 -- "Castaneda's Journey: The Power and the Allegory" by Richard DeMille; and "Carlos Castaneda: Academic Opportunism and the Psychedelic Sixties" by Jay Courtney Fikes.
Wallace tells the tale from the perspective of devotee and lover, and that's both the book's strength and weakness. Her story is almost too raw. There's too much gossip and too many sour grapes. It's poorly edited, and 100 pages too long.
But it has many fine moments and hilarious anecdotes about the peccadilloes of a neo-pagan cult.
To her credit, Wallace doesn't turn her beloved guru into a crazed cult leader.
"Carlos was not a shifty huckster but a misguided philosopher whose experience of power was corrupting," she writes. "Thus he damaged many lives, at the same time exalting many others."
In the end, "Sorcerer's Apprentice" stands as a cautionary tale about the dangers of New Age charisma posing as true love and ultimate truth.
A Brief History of Peyote
The Peyote Gardens of South Texas
Peyote, Carlos Castaneda and the Anthropologists