Cults and religions exist on a continuum, not in clearly delineated categories. It's even hard to claim that the distinction between the two comes down to "knowing it when you see it." For the most vulnerable people, the victims of groups that sit nebulously on the divide between cult and religion, that kind of clarity is what's often lacking.
Ian Thorson, the central subject of Scott Carney's A Death on Diamond Mountain, became one of those victims in 2012. He died in a mountainside cave overlooking Bowie, Ariz., after getting involved with an unorthodox group of Tibetan Buddhists led by an American monk named Michael Roach (who'd previously been in the diamond business).
Thorson ended up marrying Roach's ex-wife, Christine McNally, and dying next to her in that cave. They had been on a three-year silent retreat at Roach's compound, Diamond Mountain University, but they were evicted after McNally had a falling out with Roach. Instead of returning to society, she and Thorson dedicated themselves to finishing the retreat apart from the group and achieving enlightenment in isolation.
Isolated in the wilderness, both became weak and ill as they used up their supplies and relied increasingly on murky rainwater they collected in a jug. McNally was the only person with Thorson when he died, holding in her hand the satellite personal tracker that, had she activated it earlier, could have alerted friends and family to their location and saved him.
Death on Diamond Mountain recounts Thorson's path from his childhood on Roosevelt Island in New York to his tragic death in Arizona. It also goes deep into the history of Diamond Mountain, detailing Roach's rise to the top of this million-dollar Buddhist organization, his controversial marriage to McNally — at one point he declared her a goddess and vowed to never be more than 15 feet apart from her — and the eventual collapse of their union.
Carney never denounces any of these characters. Instead, the book benefits from his curiosity — layered with concern, and at times anger — about how Thorson's desire for self-improvement and radical self-awakening became self-destruction. But deciding whether Diamond Mountain is a cult, as Thorson's family believes, or if Thorson simply took his spirituality to a fatal extreme, is central to figuring that out.
Roach was the first American and second person in the Western world to receive the title of geshe, the equivalent of a doctorate in Tibetan Buddhism. As he worked toward that title, he donated a majority of the salary he earned working in the diamond trade to the New Jersey monastery where he studied.
Then, as Roach began giving his own lectures on Buddhism and taking on his own students, the connection between his espoused faith and official Tibetan Buddhism grew weaker. Even before he married McNally, rumors circled that he was not strictly following his vow of celibacy. Eventually Roach even got into a dispute with the Dalai Lama, who refused to endorse Roach's teachings. In a letter, the Dalai Lama's secretary questioned Roach's spiritual credentials, doubting whether he had "reached the path of seeing."
Carney is more diplomatic. As he details the miracles that Roach and McNally allegedly performed, he isn't dismissive. In fact, he argues that concentrating too much on whether Roach and McNally actually walked through walls might be part of the problem. "The original Yoga Sutras of Patanjali," he writes, "openly state that such things are possible with intense devotion but that cultivating powers does not make someone innately closer to ultimate truth." Focusing on miracles could be superfluous to a religious life, not to mention dangerous, since it instills the kind of tunnel vision that makes other concerns — physical health, mental stability, family — fall by the wayside.
Carney situates that danger in the larger context of Buddhism in Western culture. To many, he writes, Buddhism is more about process than final results — it's the striving for Nirvana that matters, not the achievement. But Westerners can be "too driven and too focused on attaining a final spiritual state." In Roach's case, an element of showmanship crept in as well, turning serene ceremonies into lengthy, haughty displays of emotion and commitment.
It's hard to read Death on Diamond Mountain and not reach a definite verdict: Cult! But Carney lets this and other questions linger to the end. Was Thorson mentally unstable apart from his involvement with Roach? Do Roach's teachings completely differ from Tibetan Buddhism or only draw out its more dangerous elements? Rich reporting and addictive writing turn Death on Diamond Mountain into something of a page-turner, but when it comes to ultimately drawing a line in the sand, Carney remains demure — perhaps too much so.
Tomas Hachard is an assistant editor at Guernica Magazine and a film and book critic for NPR and The LA Review of Books.