This article originally appeared in the March 2015 issue of The Biographer’s Craft.
In 2007, Robert Marshall, seeking to promote his debut novel A Separate Reality, wrote a lengthy piece about the New Age guru Carlos Castaneda for Salon. Among Castaneda’s books that claimed to impart the teachings of a Yaqui Indian shaman called don Juan was one also titled A Separate Reality. Marshall’s book tells the story of a ’70s teen who falls under don Juan and Castaneda’s sway—just as many real teens, and considerably older people, did during the height of Castaneda’s popularity, when he sold millions of copies of his books.
Researching and writing that Salon article, Marshall didn’t know that his quest to understand Castaneda’s life would lead to his writing the first biography of a person Marshall called “the twentieth century’s most successful literary trickster.” And Marshall certainly couldn’t have known that he would move beyond being a literary detective and become something of a real one, as he tried to find clues about the disappearance of five women who had been part of Castaneda’s inner circle.
Uncovering a Manufactured Past
Marshall began expanding on his original research and preparing to turn it into a book after everything he had collected didn’t make it into his 2007 article. He said, “I thought it would take two or three years.” Now, eight years later, Marshall thinks it may take several more years to complete the biography of a man who won praise from a wide range of admirers, from John Lennon to Federico Fellini. But even when Castaneda’s books were riding high on the best-seller lists, people began to publicly doubt Castaneda’s claim that his work reflected factual anthropological research.
Traveling to Peru, meeting with relatives there and in the United States, talking to true believers and former true believers, Marshall came away with this impression: “Everything that [Castaneda] does from the moment he arrives in the United States is a performance. He discovers he can say pretty much anything about South America, or Mexico… and ‘gringo’ just buys [it].” Castaneda had some exposure to anthropological research standards while studying at UCLA, and he managed to get his first book, The Teachings of Don Juan, published by the University of California Press. Its success earned Castaneda a contract with Simon & Schuster, which published A Separate Reality in 1971.
Marshall said that in Castaneda’s travels he did meet real shamans, but what he took from them and put in his books was incidental to the fictions Castaneda spun, with don Juan being the mouthpiece of the author. “Castaneda’s don Juan is Carlos Castaneda talking to Carlos,” Marshall said, with liberal borrowing, without attribution, from a host of other writers.
In 1973, Marshall wrote in his Salon piece, Castaneda went into semi-seclusion; he avoided the media but still attended Hollywood parties. In the years that followed, the writer created what can only be called a cult. Select true believers, some of them women who had been or would become his lovers, gathered around him, after first changing their names and renouncing all their ties to friends and family.
At one point, Castaneda thought of creating a religion, as L. Ron Hubbard had done with Scientology. And while Castaneda never achieved the wealth and influence Hubbard did, the parallels in their experiences are hard to miss—from almost completely fabricating their back stories to trying to rein in former followers who strayed. Marshall said true believers also have been known to send less-than-friendly letters to outsiders who pry or impugn Castaneda. He called the former true believers who talked to him “very brave people.”
The Mysterious Disappearances
The true believers who followed Castaneda until his death in 1998 included the five women who vanished after he died. One of them, Amalia Marquez, was the president of Cleargreen, the corporation Castaneda had established to promote his teachings. Another, Patricia Partin, was considered a magical being known as “the blue Scout.” She was also Castaneda’s adopted daughter and lover. Marshall and many former group members speculate that the five women committed suicide. In 2003, Partin’s remains were found in Death Valley’s Panamint dunes, though they would not be identified until three years later.
Since 1999, Amalia Marquez’s brother Luis had been trying to get the Los Angeles Police Department to open a missing-persons case on her. Although required to do so by California law, they refused until Partin’s remains were identified. Another family member, Dave Marin, contacted Marshall in 2012 after reading his Salon article. Marshall told Marin about a theory he had developed several years before. Two sources had told him that Castaneda had tasked Partin with finding abandoned mineshafts that might be suitable places for a group suicide. Marshall learned that Partin’s abandoned car had been found in the parking lot of one such mine near the Panamint dunes.
Marshall tried—perhaps not as hard he could have, he admitted—to push for a search of this mine. Becoming a full-time detective, he said, would have been far too time consuming. But with Marin’s urging, the Marquez family and Marshall arranged for a real search of one mine, recruiting a private investigator and specially trained dogs to help. After initially receiving approval to explore the mines, Marshall and the others were turned away in April 2014 when a park ranger claimed they had not followed proper procedures. Amid the threat of arrest and facing the park’s SWAT team, the searchers turned back. Marshall said Marin’s theory could have been all wrong, but not having the chance to pursue it was frustrating.
Marshall does not have a background as a detective, or even a journalist, though his parents were journalists. And since what he’s delving into now goes so far beyond the chronology of Castaneda’s life, he’s not even sure how much of the story of the hunt for the remains will make it into the biography. “But at this point,” he said, “I’m so involved… that it’s very difficult for me to separate myself from it, because I’m the person people come to for information on this group.” While his research makes him a useful resource for others, Marshall is quick to acknowledge the many people who have helped him learn the truth about Castaneda and his cult. “In my experience, [biography] is an absolute group effort.”
For the biography, Marshall said, it would be fine for him to end with a mystery, rather than having the disappearances resolved. But he feels a personal responsibility to promote the families’ cause of finding answers. In December 2014, he sent out an email to friends and family, asking them to contribute to a legal fund started by the missing women’s families so they can pursue leads they have gotten about the disappearances.
While helping the families, Marshall continues working on the book. He doesn’t think he needs to do too much more research, but he’ll follow up on any information that comes to him. He also wants to continue his extensive fact checking, given the serious allegations he makes throughout the book and the topics he writes about, such as anthropology, in which he is not an expert. Above all, Marshall said, he “wants to be honest when there’s doubt.”
You can find out more about Marshall and his work at his website.