One woman’s online mission to blow the cover of false prophets around the world is becoming more and more taxing. Anke Richter talks to guru hunter Be Scofield, who is determined to bring sexual abuse in spiritual disguise to light.
BE SCOFIELD. PHOTO: SUPPLIED
On our first meeting, via video link, Be Scofield was somewhere on the east coast of the United States. She wouldn’t say where exactly, but it was rural and peaceful. Her wood cabin, where she lay on a bed munching blue corn chips from a bag, was dimly lit. The scarf wrapped around her head was simply Scofield’s look, not a sign of religious devotion.
Her undisclosed location was fitting for the anti-cult activist who seems to find a story of abuse wherever she goes, oscillating between trailblazing superhero and enemy number one for many spiritual seekers.
“I’m willing to stand up and fight against harming people,” said the 38-year-old journalist, who is transgender and queer. “So it’s a very interesting path I have developed, because I’m not going after the right-wing fundamentalists. Everyone I target is on our team, so to speak, part of the progressive left. I’m shooting myself in the foot, but no-one is going to do it otherwise.”
Scofield has become a one-woman weapon, wielding electronic media skills and a rapidly expanding network of sources who have helped her pull a dozen people around the world from their thrones.
While New Zealanders are watching Wild Wild Country on Netflix and are equally fascinated and appalled by Gloriavale or still grappling with the aftermath of Bert Potter’s Centrepoint community, there are about 2,000 to 3,000 cults in America alone. Not all of them are dangerous or destructive, Scofield said.
“Cults are not illegal. I’m not just after weird belief systems for no reason. But there are so many forces at play when someone gets involved in a closed system like that. Many people don’t understand how powerful and seductive those group dynamics are.”
Emboldened in part by the #MeToo movement, former and current cult members and spiritual seekers have begun to come forward to accuse famous healers like Brazil’s “John of God” (João Teixeira de Faria), the leaders of Buddhist groups Rigpa and Shambhala International, and self-help star Tony Robbins of sexual misconduct or abuse. In June, Keith Raniere, founder of Californian MLM scheme NXIVM, was found guilty on all counts in a sex cult case. Last year, the international school Agama Yoga was brought down by rape claims – the work of Scofield.
“This is such a fascinating moment in history,” she said. “Some of the most powerful men on the planet, who are supposedly untouchable, are being exposed.” But some of her marks have been women. Teal Swan, known as the “Gucci Guru”, is according to Scofield’s report “a sexy, sultry, spiritual New Age sensation taking the world by storm. This sage is a fox and she knows it.”
Swan runs a YouTube channel with half a million subscribers from Europe to South America. A “posh prophet in killer heels”, according to Scofield, she claims to have the knack of astral travel and x-ray vision due to being a sixth-dimensional Arcturian alien. Swan also sounds blatantly racist or makes dangerous medical claims in her videos. Some of her followers, called “Tealers,” tattoo themselves with her symbol.
After Scofield revealed Swan’s narcissism and quest for global domination, the leader of the Teal tribe ended up on the front page of the Daily Mail and in a podcast series. Her name disappeared from the line-up for the Hay House World Summit 2018 – a reputable global symposium for inspirational speakers. “There is now a ceiling to how far she can take herself,” explained Scofield.
Scofield doesn’t get paid for her articles, which can bring up to 100,000 readers apiece; her supporters donate money. Nor does Scofield rely on police records or affidavits. She gets constant requests for help but only kicks into action if she has four or more sources accusing a group or a guru. “If I have 17 testimonials against you, then I’m sorry. What you’re getting is not going to jail. I’m a rogue person, fighting justice in my own way.”
At the annual International Cultic Studies Association conference in the UK in July, her name came up in a talk by a British man who left a Hindu cult 15 years ago, citing her mercenary work as “absolutely invaluable” because she is “cutting off the head of the snake of various cults”. Alexandra Stein, Britain’s leading cult academic, also commented on Scofield: “the cult phenomenon is real, it’s harmful, and we need people like her who can give it a voice.”
Other voices are largely anonymous – a positive in the eyes of many cult survivors who are often traumatised or paranoid and want the truth to come out without being in the spotlight. However, Scofield’s critics discredit her for not revealing her sources or telling both sides of a story. She has been accused of sensationalism, witch hunting, assembling quotes out of context to fit her narrative – and of building her own following on top of ruining cults. She is a “hostile sociopath,” according to an angry blogger who claims to be a psychologist: “Don’t read, or at the very least, don’t believe her stories. You won’t find the truth there … Many of the people she has hurt have offered their lives into a service of helping others heal, grow spiritually, or self-empower.”
Others react in more serious ways. Gano Grills, a member of the rap group Wu-Tang Clan that toured New Zealand last year, reinvented himself as the leader of “Galighticus”, an obscure sect on a mission to usher 144,000 people off the planet. After Scofield exposed his crude ideology in May 2018, he rang her up. “You’d be surprised who I know,” Grills told her before he hung up, she said.
Her exposés also invite legal trouble. In June, Sounds True author and meditation teacher Aaravindha Himadra filed a US $250,000 defamation lawsuit against Scofield, alleging that she had lied and acted with “reckless disregard” of the truth in a January 2019 article that explored the mysterious death of one of Himadra’s students 13 years ago on Orcas Island in Washington, where the master of the spiritual group Sambodha (formerly “Children of the Light”) owns a home.
“It’s an attempt to punish me for uncovering suspicious elements,” said Scofield. “The sole intent of this frivolous lawsuit is to block my right to free speech around facts of this case they don’t want exposed. It’s meant to financially drain me and stop other journalists from going near it.”
Some of her attackers resort to transphobic insults or worse. Scofield had to delete photos and old posts from Facebook. “These people are going to find anything they can about me. I feel stunted to share my own life story openly and honestly.”
To stay out of range of trouble, Scofield’s site, The Guru, is hosted in Iceland, where the content is less legally exposed. For that, she has been called lawless, a criminal. In the past, defamation claims didn’t bother her. “Who’s going to find me to serve me papers? I move around. I just ignore them all.” That was until the Sambodha lawyers found out her former name and a family member’s address.
Scofield doesn’t bring spiritual leaders down because she hates the woo world. She understands it more than most. She even believes in reiki and astrology. The “guru hunter” – a term she dislikes because “not all gurus are bad or do harm” – has her own cult history.
In 2006, as a cultural anthropology student at the California Institute of Integral Studies (CIIS) in San Francisco, a hothouse for the human potential movement, Scofield fell under the spell of two professors who were later fired for creating a cult-like environment, exploiting students and causing serious dysfunction.
Scofield finally walked out of the course and started to write about it, putting pressure on the faculty to investigate. After the group unravelled, she experienced wrenching emotional distress and spent one night just screaming in pain. “Many of us were deeply wounded and brainwashed. For years I had PTSD and probably still have it today.”
Despite these scars, Scofield attended an interfaith Unitarian Universalist seminary. But instead of becoming a minister, she explored social issues and abuse in alternative movements, writing about transphobic feminists, violent Buddhists and the controversial teachings of new-age heavyweight Andrew Cohen.
Her past, she said, makes her attuned to subtleties that the common public might not pick up. “Cults don’t only exist in far-off places where the members wear strange garb and chant in tongues. The mechanisms of control and authoritarianism can seep into our most modern, ‘conscious’ structures and institutions.”
Scofield is not interested in “straight-up” cults like Scientology or the Moonies, which have had decades of public scrutiny. “I’m looking into emerging groups who want to have a live-in community around their teaching to gain power.”
In 2017, she stumbled upon Bentinho Massaro, aka the “Tech Bro Guru”, in Sedona, Arizona – a town full of psychics, UFO spotters, ashrams and crystal shops. “His devotees were everywhere,” Scofield said. “They believe he can control the weather with his mind. I googled him that night and then immediately went in. He brilliantly uses start-up principles to create a legitimately dangerous, real-life, 21st-century cult.” She claims he was brainwashing people, that they were yelled and screamed at and told to kill themselves if they didn’t have a purpose in life.
To infiltrate his network, she used an alias, Shakti Hunter, and introduced herself as a web designer and marketer. “I told them I was impressed with their digital game.” They invited her to volunteer. Before long, a former staff member told her that she feared Massaro was setting people up for mass suicide, calling it “The Harvest”.
Scofield published her findings in December 2017 on the blog platform Medium. “I’ve never received so much blind hatred from thousands of people who I’ve never had a dialogue with,” she said.
Nine days later, one of Massaro’s followers committed suicide, and the guru shut down his Sedona operation and fled with his two girlfriends. “He’s probably more on the edge now,” said Scofield. “Their propaganda still outweighs my warning.” A Vice documentary and Playboy article followed, based on her initial insight.
Scofield said she feels a responsibility to those left in the wreckage of cults she has exposed. Agama is such a case – a popular international yoga tantra school on Koh Pha Ngan in Thailand that has had thousands of students from around the world in the last 15 years, including Kiwis. It was also a breeding ground of sexual transgression and misogyny, all in the name of wellbeing and spiritual growth. There were allegations by 31 women against tantric guru Swami Vivekananda Saraswati, originally Narcis Tarcau from Romania, who had been hosting seminars in New Zealand as well. Some of his male teachers were accused of rape.
Long-term students were groomed to sleep with the yoga master, claiming he could heal them. Scofield’s exposé sent the “Swami” temporarily on the run, put the island community in turmoil, alerted international media to the scene and led to two more women from Australia filing rape complaints. Local police raided the school and a yoga hall burned down. Agama was kicked out of the international Yoga Alliance. A six-part documentary about the “rape cult” is currently being shot on Koh Pha Ngan.
Scofield has set up a website that supports the victims. “It’s not just about the people who step down. There’s a whole community that gets destroyed with them. Even if some of them have turned awful, they’re still brainwashed and controlled victims.”
Scofield’s most shocking and controversial report to date detailed allegations about how the founder of The New Tantra (TNT), Australian Alex Vartman, controlled a Dutch sex and self-development organisation that is popular in Europe.
This time, the pushback had more dire consequences. Hours after the TNT story broke and shook up the tantra scene, Scofield was suddenly banned from Medium, where her work had almost one million views – at the end of a year that has seen more cults and questionable gurus come into the spotlight than ever before.
Despite the setback for Scofield, TNT was damaged: they cancelled their first course that was planned for New Zealand in March 2019. New Zealand has also been the registered home and listed “country of origin” of TNT since April 2011 (company number 3363513), with one of their directors living in Omaha. First director and sole shareholder Vartman, under his legal name Sanford Lance Perret, is listed as living in Ubud, Bali.
Last week, the Dutch newspaper Volkskrant published an article about TNT that repeated many of Scofield’s original accusations. Vartman, who stepped back from his leadership position three years ago, replied in a 35-minute video, dressed as a woman called “Alexa”, flat-out denying all the accusations. He also referred to Be Scofield’s “slanderous” portrayal of him: “we had that removed from Medium.” Medium did not offer comment on this.
One of the original testimonials of Vartman’s alleged actions came from Matthias Schwenteck, who once was the sex guru’s co-teacher. The somatic consent coach from Berlin experienced the other side of Be Scofield’s work when a friend of his, Bali-based ayurvedic healer Uma Inder, came into the firing line last year as the “Yoga Barn guru”. “Just because I only know the good side of someone doesn’t mean these things don’t happen,” said Schwenteck. “In her case and others, I have seen it lead to more accountability. It’s a cleansing process.”
More accusations of sexual transgressions against four well-known American and Australian tantric healers have emerged through Scofield’s research. One victim took an abuser to court but lost. Another alleged perpetrator stepped down. The latest controversial work was about Mooji, a popular spiritual guru in Portugal, the biggest out of all the names on Scofield’s target list so far.
Again, once Mooji’s manipulation was revealed and the bubble around his multimillion-dollar enlightenment industry burst, the backlash by his followers was immense. But what was new this time was that several people also spoke out on YouTube about their bad experiences. “There has been a real shift in the way these stories are perceived now, also in the context of #MeToo. However, there is still so much spiritual bypassing and victim shaming going on.”
According to Canadian author Matthew Remski, who researches cult dynamics and institutional abuse, it’s hard to tell what long-term impact Scofield’s “gonzo-vigilante work”, as he calls it, will have on the specific groups she outs. “Be is a survivor telling survivor stories in the first way they ever get heard: by someone who knows that where there’s smoke there’s fire, and who knows that trauma will only be disclosed if it is believed. Every established fact begins as an intuition, and Be’s intuition is lit.”
Soon she will be moving again, while writing her first book. It’s a nomadic existence. She’s single, and practically broke. She finished her Orcas Island story in the Joshua Tree desert in Southern California while living in her car, writing on the backseat, sleeping with the engine running all night to stay warm. But Scofield has a Hollywood agent. “There is interest in the Bentinho Massaro story for a film,” she said. There’s also a law firm helping her pro bono to fight the SLAPP suit. Shakti Hunter might not need a bodyguard yet, but she might need a new alias.