An Original: Richard de Mille, Carlos Castaneda, Literary Quackery

An Original: Richard De Mille, Carlos Castaneda, and Literary Quackery

I was away in Nature – with a real capital N,  and decided to insert an allegory this week instead of a medical subject. The genesis here was a sweeping of the mind and brushing away of cobwebs and detritus called worries and other preoccupations.  The application to this here blog is – methodology. The experience is one of discovery, and of loss, and of bearing the burden of inaction.   


Some thirty or more years ago a family member became enamored of a new book, The Teachings of don Juan by an unknown author, Carlos Castaneda. But mention the name now and one gets one of two responses: Who is that?  Or, Oh, he is that literary fraud.  But in the late 1960s – 1970s, two social movements had captured imaginations of youth, academics, and much of the intellectual world. They made fantasy seem plausible, and fraud seem believable – psychedelics and postmodernism.

Advocates of psychedelics, most of whom experienced drug-induced alterations,  promoted revolutionary psychological ideas such as drug-induced multiple realities.  The other, postmodernism, was and is the intellectual and philosophical movement originating in academia that similarly views of reality(ies) as possibly multiple.  (The relation, if any, to alternate universes and relativity theories in physics I have to leave to philosophers.) But the ‘60s and ‘70s were decades of several revolutions in social and personal thought – paradigm changes – that brought fairy tales, delusions, and irrationality onto realms of plausibility, from which we are still reeling, and trying to deal with. 

Carlos Castaneda wrote eight books (or was it nine?) on the same subject. He related meeting Yaqui Indian seer and healer don Juan Matus at an Arizona bus station and following him through mountains of Mexican Sonora and a series of hallucinatory drug-induced episodes and lessons of life. Later books introduced different main characters (la Catalina, don Gennaro.) At least three books made the NY Times best seller list, and all netted him millions of dollars.  His books sold well even well after his exposure as a fraud and plagiarist.  The psychedelic and postmodern mental states apparently became dominant enough and entrenched enough in modern folklore that believers could not yield their comfort with fantasy.

Then, after mentioning the name Castaneda, state the name Richard de Mille, and chances are neither one questioned will know who that is. Richard de Mille (1924-2009 died April 9. I found this out after starting this post. Richard (most people were on first name basis with him, as was I) was author of two key books on Castaneda, both written in the 1970s: Castaneda’s Journey, the Power and the Allegory, and The don Juan Papers.

Through Richard de Milles’s diligence and intellectual power, Carlos Castaneda was exposed as a fraud, and his eight books describing psychedelic rituals and perceptions of Yaqui Indians of Sonora were proved to be mislabeled creative fiction. Castaneda did not deny the charge and never brought legal charges against de Mille. (After the first $1 million, who cares, might even have been good for business?)

I read Castaneda’s The Teachings on a ski trip in 1970 or so.  Fascinating.  Given the 1960s psychedelic experiences, don Juan Matus, the Yaqui teacher, who leaped vast distances and moved immovable objects or whose spirit could transform into an animal, kneaded and molded younger minds into trying to concurrently rationalize, imagine, and dream single experiences in differing forms. Castaneda described standard interpretations of reality as “ordinary reality” and a others as a “special reality.”  Another of his book titles was “A Separate Reality.”

The process of reading and following Castaneda’s odyssey required toying with mind-bending ideas.  One such was human perception itself being faulty in that it disallowed more than one form of reality at a time.   If this does not make sense to the 21st century mind, it didn’t make sense to this 20th century mind then, either, although not for lack of trying. .

I read the first Castaneda books, and was left in a limbo between, possibility and improbability and the author’s delusional thinking or drug-induced hallucinations. The confusion was aided by the appendix of the first book, The Teachings of don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge, which was the ostensibly real summary of Castaneda’s field work with don Juan for which he was awarded his PhD in anthropology at UCLA. The method used was ethnomethodology, in which the investigator is not a distant observer of a society’s social behavior, but an active participant in it. The investigation becomes experiential.  And, in the process, scientific method becomes something other than science. But that was the new standard of the time.  

Complementing such neo-ideation, was/is the takeover of academic departments and faculty by postmodernism, the neo-philosophy that formalizes varying perceptions and formulations of reality, going so far in some views to proclaim that language creates reality. It was and is an academic world where almost anything is possible, and there are no ground rules for determining the borders.

Castaneda’s PhD thesis had a ring of fantasy. Castaneda could not produce his original field notes – essential in supporting a PhD thesis – claiming that they were destroyed in a flooded basement of his Westwood residence. (Floods in Westwood?) 

I began heated discussions about the writings because I became more and more skeptical and found what I thought were some errors of timing and of psychedelic plant use (no, I never smoked, inhaled, ingested, etc.)  But just because of an error or two I could not dismiss the rest of it – a PhD, after all.  

At about that time I was introduced to skeptical thinking through a local community college symposium at which several CSICOP members from Buffalo, NY spoke – and by an ensuing subscription to Skeptical Inquirer.  It was in an early SI issue that I read a review of de Mille’s book or books, which I promptly bought and spent weeks devouring.

The first book, Castaneda’s Journey, is itself an allegory as the title states.  Written as a partial imitation of Castaneda, de Mille introduces an imagined – or maybe not – meeting of himself and Castaneda, and an ensuing series of real-or-not meetings and dialogues in which de Mille is the student-seeker, and Carlos the mysterious shadow appearing-disappearing Teacher.  This short work is itself a masterwork of layered, allegorical story-telling.  This book is still in print, and I highly recommend it. Like good music or fine wine, enjoy the literary pleasure.

But Richard’s other major works were as different as phyla. The don Juan Papers traces Castaneda’s academic works in cultural anthropology at UCLA, through comments from his advisers, others who had input into the granting of the degree, and outside observers.  The conclusion of most: the thesis was a work of fiction, perhaps based in some personal experiences, but mostly in works of others, knowledge of other cultural rituals and myths, synthesized into a nearly plausible epic analysis of the occult mysteries of native American tribes.

Perhaps most fascinating for us types is the inability of some academics to discard their beliefs, or to resolve their cognitive dissonance in some rational way…they continued to rationalize the episode of being taken in as good illustrative methodology, containing kernels of truth, and other face-saving imaginings. Academia. Peer review. Not always what we would like them to be. Humans run them.

 The department chairman retains his silence in the matter, as embarrassing as it is. To complement the work is a series of analyses and commentaries by other prominent social anthropologists. It is at times heavy going through anthro-sociology jargon and working concepts. Four hundred pages of it, fortunately and mercifully punctuated at crucial points by de Mille’s interpretation, and identifying of contradictions. Indexed and notated in detail, this is the work of an accomplished academician researcher.

In both works, I marveled at de Mille’s attention to detail, to the lengths of comparing time intervals and dates of the same events in several books. It took a great memory and talent to see the contradictions, so often obscure and separated in place and context.

I asked Richard to contribute an article on his methods to Scientific Review of Alternative Medicine, which he did.  [De Mille R, How I Learned Not to Believe Carlos Castaneda. Sci Rev Altern Med 1999; 3(2):11-14.] He has a short section devoted to some of this in each book as well.

Richard’s method derived directly from his academic career, about which I had forgotten. He had both MA and PhD in psychology, spent brief times at USC and UC Santa Barbara faculties, and more time as an industrial and career psychologist, and had done considerable research in various related fields. He said to the effect of, “I merely strolled over to the UCSB library and applied what I had learned.”  He became an authority on social anthropology and ethnography – and a professional skeptic researcher along the way.

I later read his autobiographical and biographical portraits of himself and his prominent mother, (My Secret Mother, Lorna Moon.) a script writer in Hollywood, who bore him out of wedlock to Cecil B. de Mille’s brother, William. Sin and secrecy were the behavior modes at the time, not public confessions or live-in arrangements, so Cecil B. raised Richard as his son, not telling him his real father was Cecil’s brother until William’s death, when Richard was in his thirties.  Interestingly (to me) is that for part of his childhood he lived on the same L.A. street as my grandmother. We might have crossed “paths.” Perhaps not.  

The heart of this tale is that Richard de Mille, himself the guiltless player of a real life mirage, was the key who exposed the largest literary and academic fraud in history, using techniques of research, objective methodology, intelligence, and diligence.  Studying his methods I was able to construct techniques for teaching that I used years later, and that many other skeptics have developed as well.

Richard de Mille was a mild, retiring giant intellect with (insert superlative) writing talent. He was generous with time and a most gracious human being. 

The lament:  I wanted to write a re-review of one or both of Richard’s Castaneda books, but did not get around to it. I always wanted to visit him in Santa Barbara where he lived, but delayed in that also. A lesson re-learned all too frequently.     

Posted in: Book & movie reviews, Faith Healing & Spirituality, Medical Academia

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12 thoughts on “An Original: Richard de Mille, Carlos Castaneda, Literary Quackery

  1. Dacks says:

    The Castaneda books were touchstones of my teenage years, as I became involved with those who seriously (?) believed his writings. They were cool ( his writings, and the mushroom-eating believers.) Yet, long before I embraced skepticism I understood that his books were fiction. The ideas of that period faded away quietly, without causing the cognitive dissonance that so much anti-science thinking causes today.

    Thanks for the recommendation of de Mille’s works – they sound like an interesting read for a former Castaneda devotee.

  2. lippard says:

    Less well-known about Richard de Mille, with whom I corresponded briefly in the mid-1990s, is that he was the author of one of the earliest publications describing Scientology, _An Introduction to Scientology_ (1953), for which he was awarded a Ph.D. from the diploma mill Sequoia University. He also wrote and edited other Scientology works for Hubbard, but they parted ways in 1953. He earned a real Ph.D. in psychology from USC in 1961.

    This is partly recounted in chapter 12 of Russell Miller’s biography of Hubbard, _Bare-Faced Messiah_, which can be found online, as well as on his Wikipedia page.

  3. HCN says:

    The only thing I remember of Castanada was this:

    A young female student in my dorm was being harrassed by a follower of Castaneda. At that time in the mid-1970s magic mushrooms were the drug of choice (they were , and are still, available in abundance in the local parks).

    At one point the young man took to pounding on this young woman’s dorm room door, and she was too scared to come out. After one of these late night disturbances the campus police intervened when he threatened violence, and he ended up in the local psyche ward.

    As a teenager in the early 1970s I had already seen classmates trip out and fall out of society. I had even seen high school classmates go trhough re-hab. Having seen how drug use would make a normally intelligent person turn into a simpering idiot, this definitely made me think very little of Casteneda.

  4. TsuDhoNimh says:

    In the mid 1980s I was chatting with a elderly Yaqui religious leader from the Sonoran branch of the tribe who had come to Arizona to visit family.

    We had had a sporadic acquaintance, meeting at public ceremonies and art festivals because I translated for his grandsons who were selling various things they brought up from Mexico. He bossed me around like he would any grandchild, and I refrained from inquiring into any cultural practices or showing signs of being a wanna-be shaman. We discussed many things, from the best place to get chocolates in Guadalajara to how to pack pottery for shipping.

    Finally he asked me if I had read any of Carlos Castenada’s books … I had (yes, I was hoping for an intro to this conversation), and summarized the “Teachings of don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge”.

    If the Yaqui hadn’t been 90+ years old and arthritic, he would have ROFLed all over the lawn!

  5. Newcoaster says:

    I too, read a couple of Castaneda’s books in the late 70’s but I don’t think I ever considered them as anything other than fantasy, or at the most an exaggeration for literary purposes. They did at the time seem more of a literary version of psychedelic music and art that was popular in the era, and looks dated and silly when we look back on a lot of it today. Ironically, I was introduced to the books by a friend who was an engineering student…who are known more for beer induced pranks like assembling a Volkswagen in the Dean’s office, than for an appreciation of exploration of “alternate realities” or “mind expanding” drugs.

    I enjoyed the books at the time, but put them away and forgot about them. They certainly weren’t works that I ever considered inspiring, or worth re-reading. Unlike some other commentators who are coy about their drug use, or HCN who gives the typical anecdote about somebody going crazy, I confess to experimenting with hallucinogenic drugs in my youth (hey, it was the 70’s, give me a break) but have no bad experiences to report. Hallucinogenics were safe, enjoyable and fun drugs, and it is too bad they were demonized along with everything else in the “war on drugs”.

  6. HCN says:

    Sure it was an anecdote, but it was my introduction to Casteneda. So that colored my opinion.

    Newcoster said “Hallucinogenics were safe, enjoyable and fun drugs, and it is too bad they were demonized along with everything else in the “war on drugs”.”

    To which I say “meh”, safe or not… personally I am not impressed with those who need extra chemical substances to enjoy themselves.

    I also despise the “war on drugs.” It would be better to legalize the stuff. Then they can be regulated and taxed. Criminalizing recreational chemicals has never worked, as was experienced in the early 20th century during Prohibition. It just creates a criminal underground, and the chance of getting something with unwanted ingredients.

    Altered mental states should be fine if done without impacting anyone else. Just as much as I hate drunk drivers, I also hate drivers who are under the influence of other drugs (many happen to be legal prescriptions, like sleep aides and narcotics). Just as I hate the smell of tobacco smoke, I also hate marijuana smoke (even if it is legal, I don’t want to smell it).

    Also, there is nothing special about altered mental states, as noted by certain writers (there are others, like a sci-fi writer a friend likes that glamorizes altering the mind with external forces, it is not just through chemicals). It is just another way to avoid reality. If you don’t like your reality, do something to make it better. I have family, hobbies and exercise, but that does not work for everyone (like a relative who is bipolar and requires real medication).

  7. Newcoaster says:

    HCN said “personally I am not impressed with those who need extra chemical substances to enjoy themselves.

    As I said it was the 70’s, and I wasn’t trying to impress you or anyone else. All enjoyment is chemical my friend, whether its your own adrenalin and endorphins, or mescaline from eating Peyote. I wasn’t promoting drug use, or driving while high…that was a bit of a left turn strawman on your part. I don’t think people who never took a trip would react to Castenada in the same way as those who did. Thats’ all.

    HCN also said “… there is nothing special about altered mental states…It is just another way to avoid reality. If you don’t like your reality, do something to make it better. I have family, hobbies and exercise, but that does not work for everyone (like a relative who is bipolar and requires real medication).”

    Spoken like someone who has never had a dream or a nightmare. I enjoy reality just fine. Hobbies and reading are both ways of exploring alternate realities and mental states. So is watching a movie. People with bipolar disorder have chemical imbalances that give them an altered mental state which they tend to really enjoy (well the manic side anyway) and most dislike taking chemicals to make them “normal”

    I agree with you that the government has no right to prohibit people from taking drugs if they choose to, and that the “war on drugs” is a huge waste of time and money pursuing a narrow politico-religious agenda.

  8. HCN says:

    Newcoaster said “Spoken like someone who has never had a dream or a nightmare.”

    That is a normal brain/mental activity, and is not truly an altered mental state. I should clarify that I meant using outside chemical means or even other ways like sleep deprivation.

    Dreaming is a necesary for a healthy mental state.

  9. Dacks says:

    “To which I say “meh”, safe or not… personally I am not impressed with those who need extra chemical substances to enjoy themselves.”

    Well, my morning espresso and my afternoon pale ale certainly enhance my enjoyment of reality.

    Tripping on LSD and psylicybin mushrooms was fun, although I didn’t feel the need to do it more than a few times. (The mushrooms make you feel pretty queasy, which might have been why they lost their appeal.) I probably was lucky that I never had a “bad trip,” but my faulty memory doesn’t remember any particularly bad experiences among my friends. In fact, I came to understand the dangers of drugs by seeing the effects on my friends of the more addictive drugs like coke and pot – not the hallucinogenics.

  10. Calli Arcale says:

    People with bipolar disorder have chemical imbalances that give them an altered mental state which they tend to really enjoy (well the manic side anyway) and most dislike taking chemicals to make them “normal”.

    Oh, you know a lot of bipolar people, do you? You’ve *asked* them how they feel about meds, and haven’t just assumed that they really enjoy having blackouts, being unable to hold down a job or even maintain normal friendships, and being at the mercy of emotional mood swings that come with no warning?

    I admit I don’t know a *lot* of bipolar people. I know two. Both sing the praises of lithium. And they don’t just hate the depressive state. They hate the manic state too. And of the two bipolar people I know? One of them doesn’t get the blackouts. That means she gets tortured doubly — after returning to normal, she *remembers* what she did, what she said, and what she thought while she was like that.

    Don’t flippantly assume that people with mental disorders enjoy their involuntary altered states of consciousness, just because you have enjoyed *voluntarily* altering your state of consciousness. Don’t forget about that key word, “voluntary”. Bipolar mood disorder is no picnic.

  11. Wallace Sampson says:

    Thanks to the commenters. Although the direction went a bit adrift on psychedelics, I found your comments to trigger the kinds of discussions long behind us in the 60s-80s. Nevertheless, the experiences were crucial to the understanding of Castaneda, and to the socio-mental status of those decades.
    I spent enormous amounts of time and effort trying to understand what was going on and I think many others did as well. How did such imagination and pranking become greeted with such belief and success, and how did they seduce a generation?
    I carried the lessons with me to my dotage, and the skepticism engendred affect my attitudes still. Fakery I hope becomes easier to detect – from refrigerator repairmen to presidential candidates – and we have had some whoppers in that last category. And yet so many people still go along. Just as they do with chiropractors and medical quacks.
    Richard de Mille belongs on a stamp, a bill of some denomination – if one can be found that won’t be devalued in a year or two – or even on a capital building.
    BTW, a fellow named Cashill wrote a nice book in 1995 on recent literary hoaxes. He’s working on some more recent ones also. WS

  12. myotis says:

    “How did such imagination and pranking become greeted with such belief and success, and how did they seduce a generation?”

    I would guess that Castaneda’s skill as a story teller coupled with his insight into the human condition allowed him to give us a sense of hope that we badly needed.

    the fact that through his allegory he was able to connect to some desire or longing that many of us could relate to.

    “The ideas of that period faded away quietly, without causing the cognitive dissonance that so much anti-science thinking causes today.”

    Unfortunately it hasn’t really faded away. Just take a quick look at the New Age section of your book store and you will see what I mean.

    Authors like Wayne Dyer, Deepak Chopra and “don” Miguel Ruiz, author of the suprisingly successful book “The Four Agreements”, are some of the more famous individuals who have managed to take Castaneda’s ideas, repackage them, and sell them to an audience that is filled with fear and longing and desperate for some kind of solution.

    In fact, I don’t even remember there being a New Age section in my bookstore when I bought my copy of “The Teachings of Don Juan”. You could argue that Castaneda spearheaded the entire industry.

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