Peyote Field of Dreams:
Carlos Castenada and the Cultivation of Family Therapy
In 1969, the University of California Press published Carlos Castaneda’s The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge. Castaneda was an anthropology student at UCLA who wrote about meeting a native shaman and pursuing psychedelic wisdom under his guidance. The book was an unusual product for an academic press, in two ways. For one thing, it made a real splash in the popular market: it sold well, spawned sequels, and propelled Castaneda into celebrity. Time published an admiring cover story three years later, in which Robert Hughes referred to Castaneda’s meeting with don Juan as “one of the most fortunate literary encounters since Boswell was introduced to Dr. Johnson.” At a time when the psychedelic age was beginning to lose its steam, Castaneda’s work reignited interest in hallucinogens as the gateway to a mysterious world of alternate reality.
There’s a second reason The Teachings of Don Juan is an unusual academic book, but it’s not something the University of California would brag about. The Castaneda books are now widely believed to be pseudo-nonfiction, not the authentic accounts of a student’s conversations and adventures with a shaman. Instead of Boswell and Dr. Johnson, in other words, we have something more like Macpherson and Ossian: a literary con man and the oracle he claims to have discovered. Some of the early skeptics included Gordon Wasson, an expert on organic hallucinogens, and Joyce Carol Oates, who knows fiction when she sees it. The most zealous of skeptics was Richard DeMille (son of Cecil B.), an editor at Skeptical Inquirer with academic credentials. DeMille made it his mission to expose implausibilities in the Castaneda oeuvre. After extensive research that appeared in two books, he argued that don Juan was not a real person, and that Castaneda’s writings about him were collages of borrowings and fabrications, not records of real encounters. Whatever their value as works of literature – and DeMille argues against their authenticity, not necessarily their literary value – they should now be labeled as fiction.
Like many people, I first read The Teachings of Don Juan as a metaphysical mystery story: the first hints toward a body of secret knowledge about human consciousness and the nature of existence. By now, though, the metaphysical mystery has pretty much played itself out. Castaneda’s climactic writings on the subject – a preface to the thirtieth anniversary edition of Don Juan, written shortly before he died – strike me as dull and commonplace, nothing that can’t be found in a number of other books on the shelf of unorthodox spiritualities.
However, there’s a new mystery surrounding Castaneda’s life and work: and I would suggest that his early books contain provocative clues about the secrets of his later career. According to Robert Marshall’s 2007 article in Salon, Castaneda spent his last several years running a cultish compound in Southern California. From Marshall’s account, the group resembles any number of California cults, drearily similar in technique. Castaneda constructed a new age program for expanded consciousness, encouraged initiates to free themselves from their biological families, installed himself as charismatic patriarch, and subjected his female followers to strict discipline. It’s possible that some of these women took their own lives in the latter days of the group, as Castaneda was dying of cancer.
As I look back at The Teachings of Don Juan, I see hints of a plot I barely noticed the first time around. It’s more about therapy than metaphysics, and as much like a fairy tale as an anthropology dissertation. Castaneda uses hallucinogens – especially peyote, personified as Mescalito – to sort out feelings about his family. Alongside the primary narrative of initiation into shamanistic knowledge, a subtler plot emerges about fathers, mothers, and sons. Mescalito helps Castaneda come to terms with his biological father and discover a more inspiring version of paternal power. At the same time, mothers and other females emerge as obstacles to be overcome or controlled by the man of wisdom. Set against the background of the cult family that Castaneda eventually shaped in real life, the subplot of family therapy becomes more compelling as well as problematic for readers revisiting this psychedelic classic.
The most crucial scene for the father-son plot comes in the second half of the The Teachings of Don Juan, when Carlos eats peyote for the third time and has a vision of his father. In order to analyze this scene effectively, it’s necessary to bring in elements from his first two peyote experiences, as well as a few passages from the third Castaneda book, Journey to Ixtlan, which covers the same early stages of Carlos’s tutelage under don Juan, but whereas the first book emphasized don Juan’s instruction in hallucinogenic visions, the third book focuses on other lessons in knowledge and power. Ixtlan tries to recreate the exotic shamanism of Don Juan but without the drugs; it domesticates the first book, in a sense, by severing its essential connection to the use of exotic intoxicants.
Carlos’ vision of his father in Don Juan comes directly from his use of peyote. First he sees Mescalito, a green “manlike figure” with “a head pointed like a strawberry.” Mescalito asks Carlos, “What do you want?”
I spoke very loudly. I said that I knew there was something amiss in my life and in my actions, but I could not find out what it was. I begged him to tell me what was wrong with me, and also to tell me his name so that I could call him when I needed him. He looked at me, elongated his mouth like a trumpet until it reached my ear, and then told me his name.
Suddenly I saw my own father standing in the middle of the peyote field; but the field had vanished and the scene was my old home, the home of my childhood. My father and I were standing by a fig tree. I embraced my father and hurriedly began to tell him things I had never before been able to say. Every one of my thoughts was concise and to the point. It was as if we had no time, really, and I had to say everything at once. I said staggering things about my feelings toward him, things I would never have been able to voice under ordinary circumstances.
My father did not speak. He just listened and then was pulled, or sucked, away. I was alone again. I wept with remorse and sadness.
Although some of Carlos’s other hallucinogenic adventures are more exotic (talking with prophetic lizards, for example, or metamorphosing into a crow), this one has the strongest emotional charge: in fact, it’s downright sentimental, a Peyote Field of Dreams. After Carlos asks about “something amiss” in his life, the answer comes as a scene with his father at his childhood home. Interestingly, just before the vision, Mescalito tells Carlos a special name by which to call him. According to don Juan, this is the turning point in any person’s relationship with Mescalito. Don Juan always speaks of Mescalito as a paternal figure who protects and teaches, and the granting of the name seems like a version of blessing. If Carlos is indeed receiving a new father and patronym, the ensuing vision implies that his relationship with his actual father and patronym remains problematic. After all, Carlos did change his original surname when he moved to the United States. Carlos had already displaced his father before don Juan and Mescalito became available as substitutes.
Carlos’s account of the visionary meeting with his father is too elliptical to reveal much about their relationship. “I said staggering things about my feelings toward him,” but no specifics are given. During the peyote trip that preceded this one (two years earlier), Carlos had a vision that was even more enigmatic, but it helps to set up the later scene with his father. After Mescalito asked the same question (“What do you want?”), “I knelt before him and talked about my life, then wept.” The confessional situation is similar to the later scene, but Mescalito offers him a different vision: "There was a round hole in the middle of his hand. ‘Look!’ said the melody again. I looked into the hole and I saw myself. I was very old and feeble and was running stooped over, with bright sparks flying all around me. Then three of the sparks hit me, two in the head and one in the left shoulder. My figure, in the hole, stood up for a moment until it was fully vertical, and then disappeared together with the hole."
The image of old Carlos prefigures the appearance of his father in the later vision. At this point, however, he sees only himself as the problem, projected as some sort of feeble repetition of the life defined by his lineage – at least until the sparks jolt him.
It isn’t until Journey to Ixtlan that we get an account of Carlos’s emotional difficulties with his father. It’s hard to distinguish fact from fiction here: it appears to be a mixture of memory and invention. Carlos lived with his grandparents for most of the year (while his father was teaching in the city), but his father would spend time with him over the summer. Carlos tells don Juan about his father’s “endless lectures about the wonders of a healthy mind in a healthy body.” There are interesting parallels between the father and don Juan: both are teachers, both are close to Carlos but don’t live with him ordinarily, and both try to improve his mind/body through discipline and ritual. Carlos tells don Juan about his frustration with one of his father’s rituals. Every evening he would plan to swim with Carlos at 6 a.m., but each time he would fail to wake up early enough, and eventually Carlos gave up believing in the swim. He came to view his father as “weak” and “not truthful to himself”; thinking about his father always gave him “a consuming feeling” of “emotional turmoil.” He complains that family and friends had come to view Carlos himself as untruthful and unreliable, when in fact these were his father’s faults.
Don Juan criticizes Carlos’s attempt to blame his father. Earlier in Ixltan, when Carlos brought up the question of parents, don Juan had snapped, “Don’t waste your time with that crap.” A little later, he put it more formally: “It is best to erase all personal history . . . because that would make us free from the encumbering thoughts of other people.” Don Juan’s message here runs contrary to the peyote vision from Don Juan in which Carlos tearfully reconnects with his father. This is one of the inconsistencies that DeMille finds suspicious, but it might be seen as a fruitful complexity: in Ixtlan Castaneda returns to the materials of his first book and revises them away from their original emphasis on drugs and filial reconciliation. Instead, Ixtlan ends with an extended parable about the impossibility of returning to home and family. After don Juan and don Genaro deliver the moral, Carlos asks, “What about the people I love? Is there no way I could retrieve them?” The answer is simply no. The book ends with Carlos giving up his original father and replacing him with don Juan, who “gently put his hand on my shoulder.”
In Don Juan, don Juan becomes not only surrogate father but surrogate mother to Carlos. The most telling scene comes during Carlos’s first attempt with “the little smoke” (a mixture of hallucinogens including mushrooms). Carlos finds the experience terrifying, as if his body were melting away. Don Juan steps in and offers maternal comfort. He sings a lullaby in Spanish, which for Carlos stirs “the forgotten memories of childhood.” He feels a “joyous affection” for don Juan, who embraces him and says, “Get inside my chest.” Although don Juan stands in for Carlos’s mother here, Don Juan suggests that mothers and women – and the threatening desires associated with their bodies – present obstacles to wisdom. Mescalito once appears to him as a disembodied shaft of light to save him from some vaguely maternal, chthonic power trying to “dissolve” him by “secreting digestive acid.” More literally, three female characters emerge in the narrative as problems for Carlos: his mother, a minor figure in Don Juan but more prominent in the next two books; a friend whom he refers to as “H.”; and “La Catalina,” a Mexican woman whom don Juan identifies as a sorceress.
Carlos’s mother comes up only incidentally in Don Juan. But in A Separate Reality, the sequel, Carlos has a vision of his mother to complement the vision of his father in the first book. This time he has decided not to eat peyote but to observe others doing so. Near the end of his vigil he nonetheless senses peyote visions coming. He remembers a childhood scene with his mother, which he dismisses as “distracting and very inappropriate,” but “the thought recurred; it was stronger, more demanding, and then I clearly heard my mother’s voice calling me.” Each time he refers to his mother’s voice or image he construes it as oppressive. Her voice “had almost trapped me . . . I was trembling and wanted to escape. The vision of my mother was too disturbing, too alien to what I was pursuing in that peyote meeting. . . . A very peculiar feeling enveloped me as if it were an outside force, and I suddenly felt the horrendous burden of my mother’s love.” If it’s not entirely clear at first why mother’s love should be so problematic, he concludes the scene with a “shocking realization”: “When I examined her I knew that I had never liked her.”
The contrast between this visionary moment and its counterpart in Don Juan is striking. In the first one, Carlos poured out his heart to his father, yearning for answers and reconciliation. When the vision of his mother comes, he fends her off as a threat to his freedom and focus. One little detail from Don Juan reinforces the peyote hero’s disdain for mothers. After Carlos’s first peyote trip, when he played with a dog, don Juan was persuading him that the dog was in fact Mescalito. When Carlos doubts this, don Juan “chuckled, shook his head as if he couldn’t believe it, and in a very belligerent tone he added, ‘A poco crees que era tu—mama’ [Don’t tell me you believe it was your—mama]? He paused before saying ‘mama’ because what he meant to say was ‘tu chingada madre,’ an idiom used as a disrespectful allusion to the other party’s mother. The word ‘mama’ was so incongruous that we both laughed for a long time.” Evidently, there is something hilarious about linking a mere mother – whether you happen to like her or not – with Mescalito and the quest for wisdom.
A second problematic female is H., Carloss’ former friend. He has a vision of H. during his first trip on jimson weed. At this point, don Juan is instructing him in hallucinogenic divination by means of lizards. The vision of H. is intriguing because it seems irrelevant to the question Carlos had posed to the lizards (about a book thief). H appears unbidden as a threatening female: "I was at the top of a stairway and H., a friend of mine, was standing at the bottom. Her eyes were feverish. There was a mad glare in them. She laughed aloud and with such intensity that she was terrifying. She began coming up the stairs. I wanted to run away or take cover, because ‘she’d been off her rocker once.’ That was the thought that came to my mind. I hid behind a column and she went by me without looking. ‘She’s going on a long trip now,’ was another thought that occurred to me then; and finally the last thought I remembered was, ‘She laughs every time she’s ready to crack up.'"
Carlos admits only that she was a friend, but his reaction suggests a deeper connection. As usual in Don Juan, Castaneda gives us scant information about his personal history. His fear suggests that he may feel some guilt over H.’s instability. Or perhaps he has exaggerated the idea of an unstable H., either as a projection of his fears about himself, or as an expression of his anxiety surrounding relationships with women. The vision of H., like the vision of his mother in A Separate Reality, temporarily preempts the proper vision he seeks. Both women pose a threat to his spiritual progress commensurate with their power to engage his bodily desires.
In Ixtlan, don Juan questions Carlos about his “blond friend . . . that girl that you used to really like.” Although neither don Juan nor Carlos identifies her by name, it seems plausible that H. is the same person, the only female friend ever to come up in their conversations. In this passage, Carlos says that “the girl in question was not such a fine person . . . in my opinion she was rather weak.” Don Juan persuades him to realize the dangers of “accessibility.” Carlos became bored with his girlfriend because he made himself too available to her: “You lost her because you were accessible; you were always within her reach and your life was a routine one.” This lesson sounds fairly innocuous, but it does add another bit of evidence to suggest don Juan’s and Carlos’s uneasiness with women. You don’t want them to get any power over you.
The most dangerous woman in Don Juan and Ixtlan is “La Catalina,” the supposed sorceress. Don Juan first mentions her as the cause of his injured foot: “I have an enemy nearby. A woman. ‘La Catalina.’ She pushed me during a moment of weakness and I fell. . . . She is a fiendish witch! Her intent to kill me is so strong that I can hardly fight her off.” Near the end, don Juan terrifies Carlos by making it seem that La Catalina has taken over don Juan’s body in an attempt to snare Carlos. Don Juan aggravates the fear when he gives him this advice: “The best instance is to find a male helper lest one become the prey of a diablera, who will make one suffer in an unbelievable manner. Women are always like that.” In Ixtlan, don Juan leads Carlos to a confrontation with the real La Catalina, who has been “interfering with [Carlos’s] hunting.” She both tempts him sexually and usurps him as a warrior. When Carlos briefly lets his guard down and starts flirting, don Juan shouts a warning, and soon Carlos feels threatened by the parts of her body that first attracted him: “She was smiling; her teeth were big and white and very clean. There was something eerie about her smile, however. It was not friendly; it was a contained grin; only her mouth smiled. Her eyes were black and cold and were staring at me fixedly.” Later, he sees the same dark woman and hears her “eerie, gruff, inhuman howl.” The more he sees her, the more he transforms her from an ordinary woman into a fairly conventional monster of the sort that populates so many mythic narratives.
I have suggested that the Castaneda series reads as much like a fairy tale as an anthropological report. At the heart of this fairy tale we have two monsters. One is the diablera just described, created from an overwrought Gnostic imagination, who snares men with corrupted flesh. The other monster, however, is Mescalito himself. For all of Castaneda’s efforts to transmute him into an ethereal deity, he certainly looks the part: body of a man, head like a strawberry, hopping like a cricket. The monstrous power he transmits to Carlos is more or less the reverse of what diableras do. La Catalina dissolves men by trapping them in women’s bodies; Mescalito dissolves women by trapping them in men’s minds.
If Castaneda found something therapeutic in all this, so be it. But for someone like me who first read The Teachings of Don Juan as an intriguing psychedelic quest, it’s a letdown to see Mescalito pointing the way to a garden variety cult. My younger sister has been living and working in one of those for years: I know that story. It’s not nearly as interesting as the one I thought Castaneda was telling back in 1969.
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