Published March 17th 2015 by Gotham
Hardcover, 304 pages
Source: ARC provided by publisher
When thirty-eight-year-old Ian Thorson died from dehydration and dysentery on a remote Arizona mountaintop in 2012, The New York Times reported the story under the headline: “Mysterious Buddhist Retreat in the Desert Ends in a Grisly Death.” Scott Carney, a journalist and anthropologist who lived in India for six years, was struck by how Thorson’s death echoed other incidents that reflected the little-talked-about connection between intensive meditation and mental instability.
Using these tragedies as a springboard, Carney explores how those who go to extremes to achieve divine revelations—and undertake it in illusory ways—can tangle with madness. He also delves into the unorthodox interpretation of Tibetan Buddhism that attracted Thorson and the bizarre teachings of its chief evangelists: Thorson’s wife, Lama Christie McNally, and her previous husband, Geshe Michael Roach, the supreme spiritual leader of Diamond Mountain University, where Thorson died.
Carney unravels how the cultlike practices of McNally and Roach and the questionable circumstances surrounding Thorson’s death illuminate a uniquely American tendency to mix and match eastern religious traditions like LEGO pieces in a quest to reach an enlightened, perfected state, no matter the cost.
Aided by Thorson’s private papers, along with cutting-edge neurological research that reveals the profound impact of intensive meditation on the brain and stories of miracles and black magic, sexualized rituals, and tantric rites from former Diamond Mountain acolytes, A Death on Diamond Mountain is a gripping work of investigative journalism that reveals how the path to enlightenment can be riddled with danger.
I started A Death on Diamond Mountain soon after reading Into Thin Air and I think that altered my expectation from what this book would be about. The fault is totally mine. I expected more of a discussion about Ian Thorson’s decision to be on the mountain and in such rough conditions so it took me a bit to adjust to the discussion of enlightenment and spirituality. Once I realized what I was getting into the book’s path made much more sense to me and I was more into it!
Carney gives an abbreviated course of the history of Buddhism while also going back and giving Thorson’s personal history as told by his letters and diaries, his family and friends. Carney also gives a history of Geshe Roache and Christie McNally and what brought them to Buddhism and then to their leadership roles at Diamond Mountain. This was all intriguing and a bit shady at times.
This book left me feeling just sad for Thorson and his family. He seemed so earnestly in search of something greater and yet caught up in a world over his head. I feel like he was led astray by a fraud and it killed him. My education is all in mental health and so that side of me wonders what would have happened if he’d turned to therapy instead of to enlightenment. What leads people down one path versus another?
I wish Carney had been able to talk to Roach or McNally for their side of the story or to have more about where McNally is now. It felt like a piece of the puzzle was missing for me. However, this book definitely did leave me thinking. What drives someone to end up hiking rural India or Tibet for the path to enlightenment? What are you really searching for if you go? Also, how do you let someone go so far down this path like McNally:
“She worried about him hurting himself further. Then again, he was so close to greatness.”
Greatness but also death! This was an interesting read, but one that left me with more questions than answers.
Thank you Gotham for this advance copy in exchange for an honest review.