The Dark Side of Spirituality: The Guru Papers Unmasks Sacred Cows!

Via Julian Walker
on Jun 21, 2012
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A Map to Spiritual Empowerment

The Guru Papers: Masks of Authoritarian Power is essential reading if you are interested in questions of power, shadow, authority, spiritual growth and freedom.

Why do spiritual communities so often go sour? Why has the guru tradition spawned so many tragedies and scandals? What might a sustainable 21st century spiritual philosophy look like?

Originally published in 1993, the book is available for the first time in an e-book format on June 19th, 2012.

Since being published The Guru Papers has been widely acclaimed and is considered the ‘”go to” book for recovering cult members, families of cult members and anyone wanting to understand the shadow aspects of spirituality or the broader issue of hidden authoritarian power.

As a work of spiritual philosophy, the book is a masterpiece of lucid reasoning. It is written in easy-to-follow language and encourages a deep consideration of the path to genuine freedom and self-acceptance.

Along the way, authors Joel Kramer and Diana Alstad insightfully discuss how spirituality has co-evolved as an expression of human culture, and how the symbolic activities of language, symbolism and mythology have given rise to a complex web of symbolic abstractions, psychological maneuvers, moral codes and authoritarian power structures.

But don’t let the heady subject matter discourage you—this is a pragmatic and down-to-earth guide to understanding several of the central spiritual questions with which we all wrestle.

Below is a short trailer for their excellent  interview with Antonio Sausys who featured them on his show Yogi Views as controversy raged over the John Friend/Anusara Yoga scandal:

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Authoritarian Power

While Part One of the Guru Papers does focus in on the problems with the guru model in particular, the book is also concerned with how the guru model is a variation of the kind of authoritarianism we can see on every level of society, from politics to religion to the family to intimate relationships.

This provides for potent meditation, genuinely life-changing food for thought, and a real shot in the arm of bracing clarity for the yoga community.

Central to their thesis is that we need to find ways to go beyond authoritarian mental conditioning and systems if we are to truly grow up as human beings and survive on this planet together.

Though there have been many communities organized around the guru-disciple model, and though so many of these have gone horribly wrong, The Guru Papers does not focus on any particular communities. It does not name names, or make any personal critiques. Rather, it seeks to illuminate the underlying problem—that of giving away one’s power to an authority figure.

The book makes a case for authoritarian power structures as explicitly being ways to enforce control over people’s minds. I have never come a cross a more comprehensive treatment of both the various methods of enacting “spiritual” control and disempowerment, and how various belief systems and philosophical strategies make this possible.

The irony of course is that as seekers, we are in search of freedom, healing and personal awakening, but the very structure of the guru-model itself prevents such aspirations from being attained. In their place it exploits vulnerability and the need to belong, and assuages our existential anxiety by using ever more sophisticated forms of abstract belief to create a sense of having found an ultimate spiritual truth.

This “truth,” however, comes at a cost, and the authors masterfully point out how philosophies based on abstract conceptions of “oneness” and “non-duality” are often actually variations on familiar religious themes that encourage in-group identification and psychological fragmentation, while perpetuating an unwillingness to see reality for what it is.

The Dialectic

What then is this reality? Well, it is dialectical. Central to the lucid philosophical analysis here is that we human beings struggle to both comprehend and accept the dialectical nature of existence. In this life, there is always a blend of opposites: meaning and randomness, change and continuity, causation and free will, victimization and responsibility, joy and suffering, individuation and merging, oneness and multiplicity, control and surrender, selflessness and self-centeredness, competition and cooperation, unity and diversity.

Simply put, whenever we deny one side of the dialectic by over-identifying with its opposite, we have lost the plot.

The above statement is not as simple as saying, “Yea man—it’s all one,” or “It’s all perfect.” This would again fall into the pervasive and subtle dualism that denies half of the dialectic. Notice that if “it is all one,” this negates multiplicity, and if it is “all perfect,” this denies imperfection and distorts the reality of suffering. Not to mention the dualism hidden in dividing reality into oneness and illusion (or Maya)—that’s two things: spirit and matter, the spiritual and the mundane.

The point is that we are as much individuals as we are members of a collective, and both matter. We cannot sacrifice our individuality on the altar of the collective, nor should we just egoistically ignore the collective in the name of self-realization.

Likewise, healthy spirituality should be as much about being present to our true feelings of anxiety, grief, isolation, anger or powerlessness as it is about getting in touch with gratitude, communion, forgiveness and empowerment.

In becoming more comfortable with this dialectic —this recognition of the inseparable nature of opposites, we can think more clearly, live more honestly and come to greater self-acceptance.

Life and death are two sides of the same coin, and systems of thought that either deny death or make us yearn for death and deny life are essentially distortions of reality that promise us otherworldly rewards as a way to gain worldly control over us.

Why All The Fuss About Gurus?

The 1970s and 80s saw an influx of supposedly enlightened gurus from the East riding the wave of counter-culture, psychedelic-infused fascination with Buddhism and Yoga.  They promised  direct spiritual experiences to those who would become their disciples.

Though the book doesn’t engage in this kind of specific history, the gallery of gurus included characters like Baghwan Shree Rajneesh (later called Osho), Mharaj-ji (or Prem Rawat) the boy guru from India, Vajrayana Buddhist teacher Chogyam Trungpa, Adi Da Samraj (formerly Da Free John), an American, but a student of Indian guru Muktananda.

Osho had a fleet of Rolls Royces, wore outrageously expensive designer robes and diamond studded hats and bracelets and when asked about his sexual exploits with devotees laughed and said “Yes, it is true: I am the Blessed One!” His group, from behind walls protected by Uzi-toting guards ended up poisoning several people in a town close to their compound in Oregon, contaminating eight salad bars with salmonella infecting 751 people, with plans to infect the town’s water supply, so as to incapacitate voters and swing a county election toward their candidates.

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Prem Rawat encouraged complete submission to his divine authority, and had “Premmies” donate their cars to him, because they wouldn’t need such things any more. At his peak he was a multi-millionaire with property all over the world, and flashy sports cars. A massive party in the Houston Astrodome in 1973 announced him as the “Lord of the Universe” as he appeared on stage sitting on an elaborate throne wearing a crown straight out of Star Trek.

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Chogyam Trungpa had scandals swirl around him regarding sexual misconduct, alcoholism and drug use. He also appointed a successor who, while knowing he was infected with HIV had frequent unprotected sex with students—one of whom died.

Adi Da Samraj, hailed at times as the most realized being in history by philosopher Ken Wilber has so many court cases pending against him for sexual assault and physical violence that (prior to his death in 2008) he had to isolate himself and a core group on a Fiji-an island, donated of course by one of his devotees.

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Adi Da’s teacher, Muktananda, was accused of rape and the sexual assault of young women under the guise of “checking their virginity.” Former students who claimed to have witnessed these acts allege that they were subject to death threats. Muktananda’s successor Gurumayi apparently had her henchmen lock her brother in a room and beat him with a stick until he agreed to turn over the entire multi-million dollar international business of Siddha Yoga to her. Muktananda originally named them both as his heirs.

Ken Wilber, by the way, maintains close relations with and public endorsement of Andrew Cohen, a contemporary American guru who actually blogs on Elephant Journal. Former students of Cohen (including his mother who wrote a scathing book about him called “Mother of God”) accuse him of physical and verbal abuse as well as financial manipulation. William Yenner, longtime friend and student of Cohen has also published American Guru, A Story of Love, Betrayal and Healing —former students of Andrew Cohen Speak Out.

Of course, we shouldn’t leave out the bizarre Christian cult led by Jim Jones that ended in 1978 with 900 followers dead in a mass suicide in the jungles of Guyana. It is from this event that we get the term “drinking the Kool-Aid,” as this was the poisoned drink they all shared as a way to depart what they saw as a spiritually corrupted world.

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The opportunism, materialism, sexual manipulation, and cultish dynamics that were so often the rule rather than the exception with these teachers no doubt led thinkers like Joel and Diana to do some serious work on understanding and communicating the dynamics of unhealthy power structures.

But even now after the first few waves of charlatan gurus in the early decades of Eastern influence, the underlying beliefs and conventions of the guru model remain a ubiquitous feature of our spiritual zeitgeist.

In a way, the  The Guru Papers e-book couldn’t come at a better time.

Think about it:

* This year’s John Friend/Anusara Yoga scandal. (Small potatoes by true guru standards, but worth looking at through this lens.)

* The death last year of perhaps the world’s most famous guru, Sai Baba. He called himself a god-man, proved it by doing cheap magic tricks that were exposed by running video footage in slow motion, and spent his free time molesting his devotees young sons. Sai Baba left an estate valued at $9B.

* The ongoing pedophilia charges against the Catholic Church —now adding up to $2.5 B in court-ordered payouts.

* Last year’s sentencing of New Age teacher (famous for being part of the mega-selling Oprah-endorsed DVD “the Secret”) James Arthur Ray to 2 years in prison for negligent homicide.

* The recent tragic death of Ian Thorson involving Geshe Michael Roach‘s Diamond University.

* The new documentary film, Kumare about a man who pretends to be a guru,

* Revelations regarding sexual abuse suffered by boy-monk Kalu Rinpoche, believed by Tibetan Buddhists (but not himself) to be the reincarnation of a venerated Tulku.

* My own friend Shyam Dodge’s harrowing tale of growing up in a guru cult and being declared enlightened himself at 21, only to receive death threats after leaving the group. His ensuing experiences with a Tantric cult that uses teenage runaways as “sacred prostitutes” is also quite sad.

* Most of all, the ongoing threat of extremist Islamic terrorism and its death cult of suicide bombers that has changed all of our lives since 2001.

If these types of events make you feel as unsettled as I think they should, if they create in you the urge to understand more deeply what often goes so badly wrong in spiritual communities, and what the seeds of such rotten fruit could be, then this book is for you.

It is a bracing, illuminating, well-written, comprehensive, brilliant look at what needs to be grasped and corrected in order for spirituality to live up to its promise as a force for healing, genuine growth and responsibility and positive change in the world.


About Julian Walker

Julian Walker is the founder of where he supports new and established yoga teachers in living their dreams through business development. He is a writer who has been teaching yoga since 1994, and co-teaches the Awakened Heart, Embodied Mind Yoga Teacher Training in LA with Hala Khouri.Julian's writing is featured in the book 21st Century Yoga available on


76 Responses to “The Dark Side of Spirituality: The Guru Papers Unmasks Sacred Cows!”

  1. Thanks for this, Julian. Just downloaded the ebook. I've never understood the appeal of a guru—spiritual or otherwise—or the draw of celebrity, but I've seen a few people close to me wrestle with it. It's something we need to keep talking about, keep being aware and keep questioning and examining. As long as there are people who seek an external guru, there will be people who rise up and take advantage.

  2. Powerful stuff, Julian. I've been hoping this critical topic would get grade A treatment on elephant for years now (ever since I read "Stripping the Gurus", a very different kind and quality of book, but about the same topic). I knew I wasn't the right person to do it, and I'm very glad to see this collaboration between you and Diane and Joel.

    I hope this will be the first of a series of articles on this book or topic. Many thanks to all of you. I know how hard to worked to make this as good as it is. Will be posting widely tomorrow morning.

    Bob W. Associate Publisher
    facebook, twitter, linkedIn
    Yoga Demystified, Gita in a Nutshell

  3. \mb says:

    Pretty thorough list there, Julian. One guy you didn't mention was Roshi Richard Baker of the San Francisco Zen Center, who was forced to resign in 1984 after it was discovered he had multiple affairs with female sangha members.

    Regarding Adi Da, all of the lawsuit stuff had pretty much settled down about a year after it broke (1985). There were private monetary settlements made in exchange for silence and signed confidentiality agreements from the plaintiffs, and although he and his inner circle did relocate to the Fijian atoll of Naitauba partly to escape the erupting legal issues of the mid-1980s, the island was mainly a place where they could do their "thing" mostly unmolested and unobserved by the world at large. Think of Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now. In the last decade of his life, he did make sojourns back to the U.S. in an attempt reinvent himself as a fine arts photographer, complete with exhibits at prestigious galleries in L.A. and Venice. And the core group that survived him still live on Naitauba. What they're up to these days and whether they were able to siphon any of his vast personal fortune that was stashed in Swiss bank accounts is a big mystery, but the organization lives on in the shadows even to this day.

  4. Padma Kadag says:

    The view of a Guru being portrayed here is the view of those who have proclaimed themselves guru and vigorously supported by devotees who proclaim the guruness of their guru publically and frequently. They attract the personality type who wants to blindly support something and the "guru" knows this and relies on this. This is not the intent of an authentic Guru or Lama of course, Nor does the authentic Guru want control over people. There are many more Gurus or Lamas right now than you could imagine who do not fall under the criteria to which you refer. The percentage of "bad" Gurus to authentic Gurus is miniscule I would guess. Most of these Gurus and Lamas you will never hear of. We in the west are targeted for money and sex by charlatans and politicians and corporate CEOs….tell me something new. But certainly your call to be on the look out for false Gurus is a legitimate endeavor. But to throw all Gurus or Lamas as heirs to legitimate spiritual lineages in the trash is forgetting where all of your spiritual ideas have originated. These gurus are responsible for your yoga, the survival of your Gita, the words of the Buddha, and so on. Now we don't need them because you think you completely understand it all?

  5. Nikki says:

    Have read Wilbur and Cohen's publications at times, liked some of the articles, but found their writings to be self-congratulatory drivel. They are not enlighted in the context of having cosmic conciousness and transcendant experience. As a truly enlightened (and humble) master Paramhansa Yogananda said "God is the Guru". He also visited various holy men as recounted in his Autobiography looking for enlightened masters, he found most were not as enlightened nor had more realization than he himself had. He also said that "solitude is the price of realization" Looking for gods in these intentional communities is very dangerous. Yogananda recounted a story of visiting a guru who looked down upon him from his perch and proclaimed "I am God." Yogananda replied "You don't say." and he then took out a small mirror from his pocket and held it up to the guru and said "Look, look there at your god, face all screwed up with sourness." One little brick on the head and your little god will escape." Do not give your power to any human.

  6. yogasamurai says:

    Julian et al.

    If there are no actual gurus, then on what basis does any contemporary yoga teacher assert or presume any spiritual authority to teach yoga – or anything else for that matter?

    Once the spiritual trappings – and the presumed spiritual legacy, lineage, and legitimation – are removed , what are yoga "teachers" actually teaching?

    Fitness? Wellness? How to stretch and look cute in tight pants?

    If there's no spiritual authority, and no sanctioned "intercession," no "ordination" with any credibility, why is anyone teaching at all? And charging money for it to boot?

    Once you take away the guru, in fact – his presence in the background, at least – there is no yoga. That's how Hindus would look at it, I believe.

    YES OR NO?

  7. Terry Post says:

    The exposing of full frauds and half frauds is very important, and I'm fascinated by it. From your perspective the supernatural does not exist. But, from other perspectives (such as mine) it has been experienced. Is your perspective the only correct one on this? Thank you.

  8. arj says:

    I just ordered the book. I have always been interested in cults. The story of Chogyam Trungpa is very enlightening, particularly since I've been going through the Shambala meditation program for a couple of years. It explains allot about some of my teachers and the program which has been considerably transformed since his death. I stay away from the more traditional program. I don't have a guru. I don't want one…

    I've also studied at Kripalu and watched them hang on after kicking their guru out. They adapted. Eventually allot of the more cultish aspects of Kripalu, even those that were appealing such as wearing white and eating all meals in silence, fell off and it became more of a commercial enterprise.

  9. Mark Ledbetter says:

    Have enjoyed this article and comments a great deal.

    In the for what it's worth dept, here's a couple of impressions…

    I think Shyam Dodge was mentioned in the main article. He's written contributed some excellent observations to Ele. Also, check out his book on his fascinating true life story of being raised to guru-hood. Very cheap on kindle:

    There's a bit of a controversy here on whether magic really happens. My take… At its worst, it's a sham closely tied to fake gurus (leaving aside the question as to whether there are any non-fake gurus). At its best, it's a distraction. It's not important. The point is spiritual advancement, not amazing tricks.

    And, in one of the comments, someone wondered whether we need squeaky clean politically correct gurus. That sounds to me like it's edging towards a simple defense of bad behavior. I see tons of political correctness here on ele, but being a decent person is a completely different issue. Anyone who poses as having some level of understanding beyond what most of us have should not be wallowing in the senses and building defensive walls of self-justification the way most of us do. Again, being a decent person is not a question of political correctness, it is simply a question of being a decent person. Guru, at the very least, should be a decent person.

  10. Michael says:

    THANK YOU – just thank you !

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  12. […] need? In an early draft of my first article I characterized this pressure as “apocalyptic”, but Diana Alstad persuaded me to withdraw the word, in the absence of technical evidence. But I’ll bring it back […]

  13. Chris Fici says:

    I just had a piece posted on this same topic today at Huff Post Religion

    Perhaps I'm "throwing myself to the wolves" here, but do all the justifiably bad seeds here totally deny the guru-disciple relationship? I know many people in my own tradition and beyond who have healthy, meaningful, enlightening relationships with their teachers.

    It goes both ways for sure, but bad seeds don't deny or define the essence of the guru-disciple relationship.
    I think a total write-off of the guru-disciple dynamic is intellectually weak unless you've made an honest attempt to see where it has been successful.

  14. […] assertions of absolute authority are a product of his tutelage within the guru tradition. Not unlike competing factions of fundamentalist religions, Indian gurus often like to claim sole […]

  15. vikram says:

    no yoga class can begin without guru prayer invocation – ask yourself why ? experience will answer this question.

    who is this guru ? ask yourself this question, may take some time to answer … but persevere – that sounds like an advise a guru will give.

    and then maybe you can continue to do yoga classes without the guru prayer, but you dont know what you missing ?

    experience will direct the way of understanding – that is science and that is yoga – so what is this science-yoga conflict ?

    who says listen to gurus and follow gurus – not yoga – practice, experience and then realize – try it ? every decent guru says that – blind faith is not yoga – that religion i think.

    guru – most people dont understand the word itself and use it rather offhandedly …

    as a hindu / indian – we are used to fake gurus / babas / sadhus, and really most intelligent people ignore/stay away from the likes of Sai Baba and the bunch of circus political money laundering mafia type of gurus who become popular in the west – why is that ?

    and if you meet funny people on the way teaching yoga and being guru, hey as an indian i can laugh at them and tell them off on their face to take their trade somewhere else … its quite simple really.

    a thief is a thief … why call him a guru ?

    and yes, the west can define their new yoga in any which way they want to – but are you guys really missing the point somewhere ?

  16. […] The Dark Side of Spirituality: The Guru Papers Unmasks Sacred Cows! ( Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like this. This entry was posted in Inspiration and tagged Buddha, Daily Inspiration, Enlightenment, Religion & Spirituality.Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment […]

  17. […] As a work of spiritual philosophy, the book is a masterpiece of lucid reasoning. It is written in….read more on Elephant Journal. […]

  18. […] I have experienced the vicissitudes of elation, letdown and equilibrium. The process first included buying into authoritarian styles where I practiced accepting and absorbing the teachings I received, and then started to feel a lot better. I experienced disappointment with teachers, and have inquired within to try to understand. I think I’m still discovering how to learn and grow on my own terms. “’Guru’ is a metaphor for anyone who manipulates under the guise of ‘knowing what’s best’ for them, whether leaders, mothers, or lovers.” ~ Joel Kramer & Diana Alstad, ‘The Guru Papers, Masks of Authoritarian Power” […]

  19. […] Concern with the self is indispensable for intimacy and creative living, and central to artistic achievements and scientific discoveries, as I (JR) suggest in The Art of Flourishing. And there are unacknowledged costs to religious/spiritual attempts to eradicate or renounce self-centeredness because it is an irreducible part of being human, as Joel Kramer and Diana Alstad illuminate in depth in The Guru Papers: Masks of Authoritarian Power. […]

  20. […] and group hysteria is not uncommon. many gurus have done this, megachurches do this, and most people who study cults are familiar with the technique called “love-bombing” in which new potential members […]

  21. Maria says:

    Has anyone had any negative experiences with either Inner Journey Canada, Oneness University (Deeksha Giving) and Swami Shyam in Kullu???? I would appreciate any information you might have… thank you…

  22. Auki says:

    Excellent article and discussion! I just ran across this article today, thanks to an e-link sent from Diane Alstad, co-author of The Guru Papers. I read Diana & Joel's book some twelve years ago. At the time I read The Guru Papers the focus of my inner work was processing my shadow, e.g., reintegrating and "eating" or owning the split off parts of my psyche. Having lived in more than one cultish spiritual community, The Guru Paper's was a very useful read and I would recommend it to anyone on a conscious spiritual journey.

    There are so many fake guru's around… not just from the east… but homespun American ones — as Julian outlined above with precision. And there is so much New Agey bullshit flying around in the airwaves these days that it makes this book a timeless and exceptionally relevant read.

    All that being said, Julian Walker has a brilliant intellect, but in my opinion Julian lives entirely in his head. Maybe Julian lives in his body to — but his perspective is ego or head-centered. I will own that comment as entirely my own judgment.

    My long, winding and thorny spiritual path has led me to the realization that to understand matters of the Spirit one must live in ones heart. And honestly, I wasn't able to make the transition from ego or head identity to living in my heart center without my Guru's grace and blessing. What more can I say? I admire Julian, but ultimately disagree with him that spirituality can be successfully approached on a purely rational or scientific basis. Many spiritual truths, in my view, are of a higher science that even the greatest intellects cannot wrap their minds around. Everyone is either God-centered or ego-centered. To center oneself in God one must humble the shrewd intellect and become as a little child (not childish, but child-like) resting at the feet of God (in one's heart center.) That's not the type of scientific fact that I could ever prove to Julian or anyone else, but it is certainly a truth that I have proven without a doubt to myself.

    God bless!! :)

  23. […] The Guru Papers: Masks of Authoritarian Power by Joel Kramer & Diana […]

  24. Gabreal Jones says:

    Hi/malaya, Julian

    You write:
    (…) * Most of all, the ongoing threat of extremist Islamic terrorism and its death cult of suicide bombers that has changed all of our lives since 2001 (…)

    Read: Solving 9/11 – The Deception that Changed The World by Christopher Bollyn:

    CIA O

  25. […] need? In an early draft of my first article I characterized this pressure as “apocalyptic”, but Diana Alstad persuaded me to withdraw the word, in the absence of technical evidence. But I’ll bring it back […]

  26. I recently gave a talk at a cult awareness conference in New York entitled "Making Sense of Post Cult Trauma."
    I've posted the text and video of that on my website; I thought you may be interested to see it.
    I hope this finds you well,

  27. […] Walker wrote in elephant journal last summer that the 1993 book The Guru Papers: Masks of Authoritarian Power by Diana Alstad and Joel Kramer, […]

  28. […] Shree Rajneesh (later called Osho) are examples of this – you can read more about this in this book summary on Elephant […]

  29. Sheri says:

    I came upon your article as I was exploring information for a psychotherapy client who is in a repetitive pattern of being preyed upon by charming psychopathic men. In fact she married two of them. As a psychotherapist and interfaith minister I've been working with her to reclaim her instinctual aggression while accessing her faith as a source of guidance and strength. What I see in her and in so many others is a reliance on new age fundamentalism as a way of spiritually bypassing the dark painful process she needs to embrace in order to ultimately heal. The polarization in 'goodness' to the exclusion of self-preservation and the wisdom of the sensory world is a common theme in spiritual and religious circles. It seems like a dictum that replicates the Stockholm syndrome where the victim makes the perpetrator her redeemer. It's couched in self-delusion. My client reiterates that she doesn't want to be an 'angry' person on the heels of being lied to and incessantly betrayed. The guise of spirituality supports her terror of integrating her rage and keeps her in this splintered state. Very tragic how early trauma bonds establish an indoctrination of power and submission and set people up to defer to perfidious spiritual dogma that instructs them to deny their own humanity.

  30. mayur ramswaroop says:

    rajneesh is the true master,,,,

  31. Noel says:

    Osho and Da Free John = most enlightened words I know. Both of course feet of clay. Tradition tells is truth may come through saint or rogue. Why not rogue as saint? May take some intelligence on our part…

  32. Jeannie Thompson says:

    Um, I've just gotten out of a guru-student relationship with Antonio Sausys and he is dangerous.

    ANY help you can give on
    stripping him of his license
    recompense to me to get my life back

    and what connections to make to move back into health
    would be greatly appreciated.


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