Last winter my husband Adam brought up a story about a cult leader in Brazil who was arrested for sexual assault.
“He’s not the guy you went to see, is he?”
“Of course not,” I replied, “my guy was not a cult leader.”
It took several more mentions before I decided to read this story for myself. The predator turned out to be “my guy”, indeed – John of God, who I credited with helping me find myself.
“Did you go out there when you hit rock bottom?” Adam asked.
“My rock bottom lasted a decade.”
It came out as a joke; we both laughed. But I wasn’t kidding. My current life as a wife and mother of two daughters bears little resemblance to the decade in question – the period of despair and stagnation that enveloped most of my 20s. I needed a good therapist and antidepressants (which I ended up with). Before that, like many, I turned to spirituality.
I studied reiki and meditation. I have read Eckhart Tolle, Abraham Hicks, Gary Zukav, and countless others. And I traveled from New York to Abadiânia, Brazil, to meet João Teixeira de Faria, known as João de Deus or John of God. For years, I referred to this trip as visiting an ashram. In reality, it was the compound of a medium that purported to channel the minds of doctors and saviors.
John of God was not the first healer I sought. During my “low” days, I dropped $ 200 on a quack in Queens, New York. She told me that I had been cursed and that she wanted me to spit 200 more to un-curse me. Another time someone recommended a Russian mystic to my mother, who was desperate to help me. He was a Soviet immigrant like us and lived in a dark Brooklyn apartment filled with Russian Orthodox depictions of Jesus. When I went to see him, he offered to “manually release” my curse, as he held his hands alarmingly close to my crotch. I politely declined, paid it and left.
John of God was apparently above everyone. I was introduced to him by my uncle Misha, who was fighting cancer. Misha was more sarcastic than pious. He was educated and interested in all things worldly. I never would have expected him to take the spiritual path – until he got sick. My father accompanied Misha to see the healer in Brazil. They came back full of hope and with an air of peace. Even though I wasn’t physically sick, I wanted to go too. My mind was broken.
My depression first set in when I immigrated to America at the age of 8. I held back the sobs in my crowded new Brooklyn classroom. I longed for the lost order and familiarity of my childhood in Riga, Latvia. It was by no means a perfect place. Most of the Jews there, like my own ancestors, were killed during the Holocaust. My family lived in a shared apartment with strangers. The infamous Soviet lines for food and toilet paper were indeed a reality. But that was all I had known.
In America, I have faced bullying and, perhaps, a permanent identity crisis. Who do I have to be to be loved and accepted? I changed my name – Asya to Jessie – and I got tough. Or that’s what I thought.
At 21, when I found myself in bed I didn’t want to be with an internship supervisor who I didn’t even find attractive, I was bewildered. I had worked miserably in business school, looking for a way out. This film production internship was a godsend.
I cried as he took off my clothes, the word “No” stuck in my throat. Why did I go to his claustrophobic apartment in the first place? How naive was I to think he would actually do what he said – show me the movie he was working on?
I buried this incident as best I could. But my self-confidence was gone. During the following years, I struggled to find my footing. When a car turned on a red light and slammed into mine, my concussed brain had a much needed respite. I barely cared about the scar on my face. Living with my parents, I tried my hand at various trades. Nothing is stuck. I couldn’t make a relationship work, or friendships for that matter.
“You are too demanding when it comes to maintenance,” my best friend told me as I still gave her a hard time trying to have a life away from me. “I need a break.”
I wanted my monkey mind to shut up. I wanted to stop plucking my skin, causing it to bleed over all the blemishes. I wanted to be normal.
Using the insurance money I received from the car accident, I bought a plane ticket for my pilgrimage. I booked an English speaking guide who would lead a group of us to ‘La Casa’ where the healing took place. I read all I could about John of God. I filled my suitcase with the bright clothes we were supposed to wear there. And I waited impatiently to leave my broken self.
Alone in Abadiânia for two weeks, I settled in a simple pousada (guest house) which was within walking distance of the Casa. It was a small rural town – quiet, filled with wild nature. I slept with a broom nearby because strange giant insects liked to settle above my bed. There was no television or internet to distract me from what I had come to do: to heal.
Meeting the medium was a solemn process. Hundreds of people in white flocked to the Casa every morning – some in wheelchairs, others frail from chemotherapy. In an orderly line, we waited to go before him so that he could prescribe our remedies. Mine was as follows:
- Five trips to the local sacred waterfall
- Four months without sex, alcohol or black pepper
- Four bottles of blessed herbal capsules
A translator quickly jotted down these instructions on a small piece of paper.
I met many nice people, some of whom traveled every year to see the Spiritist – people who had dedicated their lives to a disabled community, women with cancer who always had the most positive outlook … and me – even me, who was not originally plagued by fear, loneliness or self-pity. I loved her.
For three hours a day, I sat in meditation in the “present room”, helping to conduct the energy for healings. It seemed special, useful to me. I took a nap, hiked, and stood under this icy blessed waterfall. I prayed in front of the Casa triangle – a large wooden wall hanging with three sides representing faith, love, and charity.
I was ready to start over, but it took a lot more trial and error to pull myself together. I have often called upon the spirits that John of God claimed to channel, surrounding me with Abadiânia crystals and a replica of this magic triangle signed by man himself. As an actress-waitress, I moved to Los Angeles – only to realize that I wanted an ordinary family life. I became a 30 year old social media person in New York City. I readhe Tao Te Ching and lived simply. I found love.
Uncle Misha passed away a year after my trip. My mother had a picture of him on his coat that was taken in Brazil – he was resting his chin on his fist like Rodin’s “The Thinker”. He looked whole.
Then, in December 2018, João Teixeira de Faria was arrested for rape and statutory rape. Hundreds of allegations have been made against him by women and girls around the world, including his own daughter. Even more shockingly, he was accused of running a baby trafficking program, in which young sex slaves had children he sold to hopeful parents abroad. The “maids” were reportedly murdered after 10 years of service.
In another disturbing twist, activist Sabrina Bittencourt, whose work led to the arrest of Jean de Dieu, committed suicide in February. She had left Brazil after receiving death threats from her supporters and was living under protection in Barcelona, Spain. She was the mother of three children.
The guru I searched for after being raped by a date was probably a rapist himself – and a madman. I had fallen in love with him, but I was in good company. Famous spiritual teacher Wayne Dyer sang the praises of John of God. My idol Oprah Winfrey interviewed her in 2012 and said she felt humble and filled with a sense of peace. My father and uncle believed in him too.
When people are sick, whether in body or soul, they will do anything to get better. It was devastating that a “miracle worker” took advantage of the most vulnerable. I had been a cog in a machine that empowered a monster. My beatific memories of healing were a joke. I felt lost, eager to recalibrate.
I began the process of erasing John of God from my psyche and from my home. I ransacked her magic triangle, which was hanging in my daughter’s nursery. A delicate rose quartz crystal also went in the trash.
However, I kept another crystal from Abadiânia. It was heavy and solid. It made me think not of John of God, but of myself – the strong self that I began to rediscover there. I also remembered the godly travelers who gathered in hope – they were the ones who brought peace.
I realized that no trip or no one can mend those of us with demons. It takes a commitment that we try to live up to on a daily basis – whether in an ashram, a therapist’s office or, like me, in a suburban home, with a husband, two children and a cat.
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