A Death in the Desert
The promise of enlightenment is so powerful that some people are willing to offer complete devotion in exchange. For one outstanding seeker, that turned out to be the worst of all possible bargains.
By November 5, 2012 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016published
The remote, otherworldly terrain had been attracting seekers for generations: Coronado in search of lost cities of gold, Apache scouts for hidden streams of water, and most recently narcos seeking secluded mountain passes through which to smuggle drugs.
Thorson had come for enlightenment. A 38-year-old Stanford graduate who hoped to become a writer, he had once been a laid-back surfer and frat boy who liked to party. But the search for deeper understanding had taken him first to monasteries in Romania and Tibet and then to the inner circle of Diamond Mountain's founder, Michael Roach, a 60-year-old Princeton-educated gem merchant trained as a Tibetan monk and now forging his own brand of Buddhism.
Since 1998, Thorson had been following Roach around the world like a shadow, folding his Dalai Lama-like burgundy and gold robes, filling his tea cups, and hauling his luggage through airports to cities whose yoga studios hosted his teachings. He even helped Roach to translate ancient Tibetan texts. A model of supreme devotion, he had given up everything, save for an old Dodge Durango (and $30,000 in credit card debt).
Tall and wraithlike, the man whom college friends described as charismatic now seemed distant, brooding, susceptible to disappearing into himself—"passive and kind of compliant," his mother, Kay Thorson, says, although others report that he occasionally erupted in sudden, violent outbursts. Even his hugs seemed different. "They were like the shells of hugs," his sister Alexandra recalls.
In place of enlightenment, Thorson met early death. It took paramedics hours to rappel down a steep, sere slope hard by Diamond Mountain to retrieve his emaciated and dehydrated body from the well-hidden cave he was inhabiting with his wife, Christie McNally, a yoga expert and former Roach acolyte.
Exactly how Thorson spent his last days is a mystery. What is certain is that rejection by any group can do strange things to the human mind, as can the isolation of the desert and an extended vow of silence. Further, transplanting spiritual traditions deeply rooted in Eastern cultures poses the danger of distortion by distinctively Western beliefs about the self.
The spiritual path Thorson was on turned out to be less an ancient tradition and more the personal theology of one man who repackaged Buddhism with angels, magical thinking, a large dose of feel-good New Ageism, and lots of yoga. That same spiritual path encouraged Thorson to take what may have been the most dangerous step of all—to cede to others authority for his own well-being. Under such conditions, intelligence is no bulwark, even among the most cognitively sophisticated.
Thorson was on a spiritual quest, but his spirit died early in the search, his family insists. In the late 1990s, he had just returned from Tibet and begun taking classes in Tibetan and Sanskrit, which Roach was then teaching in New York. Roach had spent years at a classic monastery in India and then at a monastery in New Jersey run by a monk appointed by the Dalai Lama himself. His Buddhist lineage was impeccable, and his knowledge of languages made him appealing to the highly educated.
"Michael seemed to have a similar profile to Ian. He had gone to Princeton and then devoted himself to becoming a monk. He offered a chance to immerse oneself in Tibetan Buddhism in New York," says Kay Thorson, who sat in on some of the classes Roach taught.
Now part of Roach's inner circle, but more personal assistant than protégé, Thorson began traveling the world with him in 1998, with his parents' New York home serving as his base camp. But increasingly Roach was invited to yoga centers throughout the U.S. and around the world to present teachings, and donations soon flowed in. Those who followed him and his word lived off credit cards and loans from family members. "It was financially irresponsible, and that was another way Ian changed," says Kay Thorson. "Roach promised enlightenment in exchange for complete devotion, and that's what Ian gave."
Convinced she was losing her son to a cult, in 1999 she arranged an intervention and enlisted two specialists in cult dynamics to deprogram Ian. It seemed to work, at least for a time; not long after, the younger Thorson decamped to Europe for four years and became a language tutor for corporate clients in Germany.
Roach, meanwhile, left New York for Arizona, his home state, to start Diamond Mountain as a long-term retreat and meditation center. Among those accompanying him was Christie McNally, a young yoga instructor who, like Thorson, was one of his earliest followers. Unlike Thorson, she was accorded an increasingly exalted role in the community. Roach used McNally's connections in the yoga world as a platform to promote his ideas and drum up followers.
For her part, McNally fancied herself both a Hindu goddess and something of an angel, and, with her pixie-like looks and porcelain skin, cultivated that image by dressing only in white, flowing gowns. Although proclaiming themselves in a "spiritual partnership," she and Roach had become romantically entangled and secretly married in 1998.
In the winter of 2000, Roach decamped to Diamond Mountain with McNally and a small band of followers to hold the first three-year Great Retreat. Roach deemed it "the most rigorous and authentic Buddhist experience outside a Tibetan monastery." Those residing there would do as ancient monks had done: avoid any speech or contact with the outside world, communicate only by handwritten notes, and enter months-long periods of deep meditation.
To the shock of some of his followers, Roach entered his Mongolian-style yurt with McNally. He wasn't violating his vows as a monk, he insisted—he was engaging in sex not with a mortal but with a reincarnated Hindu goddess, Vajrayogini. In other words, he decreed, there was nothing carnal about their coupling; both he and McNally had achieved enlightenment.
Reportedly, when word reached the Dalai Lama, he dropped his teacup and issued a letter of reprimand. Prominent Western Buddhists urged Roach to acknowledge his apostasy. Enlightenment is not something one proclaims; it can only be lived.
Not only did Roach refuse, he told followers that he had discovered a new path to enlightenment, outlined in ancient Buddhist texts that had been lost for centuries. It wasn't Roach who was wrong; it was the Dalai Lama.
Early on, Roach had designated McNally a lama, a spiritual teacher in her own right. In classical Buddhism, it takes decades to earn such an honor. At Diamond Mountain, it meant that Roach, despite being a monk dedicated to celibacy, could have a sexual relationship with McNally as an enlightened creature.
As the pair traveled through Europe, Thorson would often catch up with them. And when Thorson returned to the U.S., in 2004, he joined them permanently at Diamond Mountain. By now, Diamond Mountain had been divided, physically and spiritually. Public facilities, including an adobe temple, a few low buildings and huts, and campgrounds, welcomed all comers. About a mile up, a steep and narrow pass was closed off to the public with a gate and housed the most devout—those meditators who would embark, in homes and huts they built themselves at their own expense, on the Great Retreats.
Vikram Gandhi is a young American filmmaker who became intrigued that Americans appropriate elements of Indian culture and repackage them into New Age philosophy. How, he wondered, could otherwise well-educated Americans shun conventional religion but flock to yoga centers to hear self-appointed gurus? To explore this conundrum he resolved to start his own religion—and film the entire process, capturing the absurdity of the phenomenon. But first, Gandhi set out to learn from the masters how they attracted followers. He went to Arizona to interview Roach.
Gandhi found Roach to be highly intelligent. Still, he was troubled by the man. "I was surprised by the way he imitated a Tibetan man's voice—for no apparent reason. There's a groaning sound. There's no need for it." It was the sound of spiritual authority—without the substance. Gandhi was equally put off by Roach's "fluctuation of clothing styles" between robe and suit, the convergence of diamond dealer and monk. "The justification of abundance through Buddhism is grotesque," Gandhi declares. "Buddhism has nothing to do with capitalism."
If Roach was moving away from his Buddhist beginnings, no less could be said for McNally. She became particularly fascinated with a Hindu war goddess named Kali, and in a display of growing personal authority among Roach's disciples, she demanded that Diamond Mountain's devout swear allegiance to the goddess by offering a blood sacrifice, carrying a Samurai sword to slay spiritual demons, and passing around weapons—including an AK-47 and a chainsaw—to prod imaginings of what it would be like to slaughter spiritual enemies.
Over time, Roach and McNally began moving away from each other as well, at least in their private lives. Sometime in 2009, McNally and Thorson decided to develop their own brand of partner yoga and work on a book about it. The poses and routines they developed fostered intimacy and sensuality.
Although insiders refuse to reveal any details about them, Diamond Mountain "had these really wild parties in the temple," reports Ekan Thomason, who devoted six years and her life savings to training with Michael Roach. In fact, Diamond Mountain may boast the only Buddhist temple to have a disco ball hanging from its ceiling. At one of the temple parties, in 2009, McNally spent the entire night dancing with Thorson. It was the first public acknowledgment that they had a personal relationship.
But the power imbalance that marked the newlyweds' status at Diamond Mountain had seeped beneath their skin. Despite the best of intentions, it can be especially corrosive to intimate relationships, almost always engendering deep—and often deeply hidden—resentment. It figured mightily in Ian Thorson's death.
The couple seemed at first to be breaking from Roach and becoming spiritual gurus in their own right. Their book on partner yoga, Two as One: A Journey to Yoga, was released in April 2010. Kay Thorson attended a book signing and joint teaching her son and McNally gave in New York. "The group would tell me how much Ian had developed as a spiritual teacher and how Christie and Ian were becoming more equal." Thorson mere had never been comfortable with the idea of students being subservient to their lama.
Despite their divorce, Roach and McNally were reconciled enough to plan a second Great Retreat, to begin in late 2010. The devout would build their own huts in the retreat valley and finance their three years of silence and meditation. Volunteer caretakers would be recruited to live in the public part of Diamond Mountain and support the retreat-goers by cooking and (silently) delivering meals, doing their laundry, and performing other tasks. The only difference this time was that Roach ceded the role of spiritual director to McNally. He visited the Diamond Mountain campus only periodically and never set foot in the retreat area.
In late December of 2010, McNally paused at the gate of the retreat valley with Thorson and 38 other participants. The valley was dusted with snow. "It was very quiet and calm," she later recalled. "The wind stopped when we passed through the gate; it was completely silent."
As the retreat progressed, mornings at dawn found McNally sitting on a rock, communing with birds who, she claimed, taught her how to make the sun rise through song. She talked to mice, too, and believed that an invisible diamond wall extending from the blue Arizona sky to the ground below protected her and the others from the outside world.
Such magical thinking was at ominous odds with reality. Caretakers who dropped off food and supplies soon began complaining about Thorson. A quiet and brooding presence, he nevertheless physically assaulted a caretaker, one alleged. The staff also began receiving reports that Thorson was beating McNally.
McNally regarded it as divine play. "My love was learning how to be in a relationship with someone who had a lot more power than him," McNally wrote in an open letter to the Diamond Mountain community after Thorson's death. "At the beginning it was difficult, and he broke down on occasion," she said of his sudden, violent outbursts.
Seeking to penetrate the "desperate fears and desires" she felt were in her husband's heart, driving his aggression, McNally turned to what she calls the martial arts. Actually, she picked up her Samurai sword. "Thus began our dangerous play," McNally wrote.
At the time of Thorson's death, McNally told police she had inadvertently stabbed Thorson's hand and then he had rushed up to her to hug her—at which point the sword accidentally penetrated three inches into his torso.
"Why didn't you stop me?" a stunned McNally asked the bleeding Thorson. "I totally trust you," he reportedly replied. Diamond Mountain's resident nurse was summoned to treat the wound.
Nearly a year later, on February 4, 2012, McNally, delivering one of the periodic teachings held during the Great Retreat—the only times she was allowed to speak—shared the story for the first time. She was perched on a dais in the billowing white tent, blindfolded so she could not see the outsiders in attendance, who included Roach, Diamond Mountain board members, and others not officially part of the retreat.
Dressed in angelic white and in a soft, melodic voice, she spoke of evil spirits in the valley and the karma of violence, which, she said, she sought to understand through experience. With Thorson sitting just below her on the cold desert floor, she described what sounded less like play and more like domestic abuse, including picking up a sword and causing a deep gash that barely missed his vital organs.
At least one attendee, Sierra Shafer, who still lives at Diamond Mountain as a caretaker, wasn't sure of the point of the story. But she gave McNally the benefit of the doubt. "You have to imagine, if you're in retreat and you're meditating all day and you're silent, you get loopy. Reality probably gets really different. I see how in their play something could happen."
But most others found the story deeply troubling. The next day the Diamond Mountain board asked McNally to explain the incident in greater detail. Roach "felt people might be in danger." McNally refused. As spiritual leader of the Great Retreat, she then decreed that there would be no communication in or out of the retreat for the next year.
"The place that had been my home for nine years, the place I founded and poured all my heart and soul into, the place I had dreamed into existence after becoming a different kind of being, was suddenly and without warning being ripped away from me," McNally later wrote in her letter.
Cast out of the only world she had known for most of her adult life, on February 20, 2012, McNally, with Thorson, packed up their few belongings and, in the middle of the night, disappeared. They camped briefly in a cow pasture, then moved to a cave on a steep slope overlooking the retreat valley. Officially, the slope was on federal land, just beyond the retreat valley. But to McNally, it was holy ground, as she had consecrated it before the retreat began to allow participants room for hikes and exploration.
Expulsion from Diamond Mountain notwithstanding, McNally and Thorson were determined to honor the commitment they had made to talk to no one and to stay in the area for three years despite the real danger it held. Rattlesnakes were the least of it. The couple had no support system and little tether to any external reality.
No one at Diamond Mountain knew where they were—except for two of McNally's former personal attendants, who were sneaking the couple water and food and leaving it at the base of the slope for them to retrieve. The attendants secretly furnished McNally with a cell phone and a beacon to deploy in case of emergency. On April 22, McNally, delirious and dehydrated, picked up the phone and called a caretaker to say that she and Thorson had run out of water days before. Thorson had now stopped breathing.
It took Diamond Mountain directors hours to find the cave where Thorson and McNally were holed up. Inside were some dirty sleeping bags and a bucket of brown drinking water filled with leaves. Clean water awaited the couple at the bottom of the hill, but the two had been too weak to retrieve it.
When a search-and-rescue helicopter finally spotted the cave and two paramedics rappelled in, Thorson was dead. Rescue workers concluded that both McNally and Thorson were exceedingly naive about the harshness of the desert. With their urban and suburban upbringings, they had had little experience in the outdoors. Nor had either been encouraged to think pragmatically for the past 15 years. When Thorson got sick—a result of the contaminated water, rescue workers speculate—all McNally had had to do was hit the button on the beacon. But she failed to recognize the danger.
"I think she felt that she could save him," says Jerry Kelly, a rancher who lives next to Diamond Mountain. "She really believed that she was an enlightened being. As long as she was honest, she believed she had magic."
Roach has little to say about recent events. He told his followers that it was time to lie low for a while, as reporters were swarming around. By next year, he suggested, things would be back to normal; maybe they could even have their annual Cinco de Mayo party.
"I don't blame people for being upset," says a Roach follower now living at Diamond Mountain. "We were stunned, we were completely devastated by what happened. But people have gotten into a frenzy and are saying things and drawing conclusions that are anywhere from incorrect to fabricated. One finds cultlike behavior in all sorts of places. And maybe that was something that was beginning to happen here, which was a problem we were all looking at."
There are no maybes for Kay Thorson. "We had concerns about absolutely everyone in the group because it was a cult," she insists. "But we had to go along with it to stay in contact with our son."
"The power structure Roach created suppressed independent thought," notes Matthew Remski, the former Roach follower. "You look at what happened here, and there's a possibility of cultlike religious fanaticism, delusions of grandeur, and maybe even mental illness."
Recalling his time at Diamond Mountain, Remski remembers once asking McNally what her parents thought about her traveling the world on the arm of "this weird monk." As he wrote recently on the yoga blog Elephant Journal, "she laughed and said, 'Oh, they think I'm in a cult.' Roach smiled ironically and said, 'Well you are in a cult.' She giggled, I believe, nervously."
As Remski immersed himself in Buddhism—which teaches that life is suffering—Roach's you-can-have-what-you-want message began to unsettle him. He noticed that fellow disciples were mostly interested in gaining Roach's personal attention, as validation. "People were just hanging on for a crumb of his attention. And then he'd ask you to work for him."
After two years, Remski departed. "I worried he was setting up a pretty dangerous dynamic, where people would do almost anything he asked. It seemed like something could go very wrong." Remski concedes that in Roach's world, a violent attack or mutual spousal abuse could be seen as something positive, a "difficult teaching" from one's spiritual superior. Enduring an assault becomes noble and virtuous. In his opinion, both McNally and Thorson had likely entered a state of mind that had little to do with consensus reality.
The isolation of Diamond Mountain didn't help either, says rancher Jerry Kelly. "Out here in the desert, that isolation can crack people up. And if you cut yourself off from the world, it can become dangerous." Roach's followers disagree. They contend that critical thinking is a key element of Roach's teaching.
In the documentary film he made, Kumaré, released in the spring of 2012, Gandhi grows a beard, assumes an accent, invents a mantra, dons robes, and acquires a Moses-like staff to become a guru in Arizona. To his surprise, people didn't question his backstory or care if it was made up. But even as the fake guru Kumaré, he always spoke the truth to his followers—that they are the real gurus. They have the power they are projecting onto the guru. The real guru is within each of us.
Behind a locked gate in the Arizona desert, the 34 remaining members of Diamond Mountain's Great Retreat carry on. They wake at dawn to meditate. And they still believe they live in a magical realm protected from the pains of the outside world.