The XX Factor

Dead Buddhist in the Desert

Hong Kong, CHINA: Geshe Michael Roach (L) and Christie McNally holds a yoga session during the Asia Yoga Conference TED ALJIBE/AFP/Getty Images)

Photo by TED ALJIBE/AFP/Getty Images

Three years ago my husband and I did an experiment based on a Buddhist couple, Michael Roach and Christie McNally. Supposedly they had spent the last decade together every single minute, never straying more than 15 feet from each other: reading the same books, taking the same bathroom breaks, inhaling and exhaling in synch. David and I wanted to see what would happen if we did the same, and we spent every minute together for an entire day. The experiment turned out to be a little romantic, a little creepy, and mostly funny. We got calls from a few producers who wanted to make a light-hearted rom-com about it. Otherwise, we mostly forgot about the tethered lovers in the desert.

Then today comes the follow-up about the couple, which reads less rom-com than freaky documentary, with a dead body in the desert, a samurai stabbing and the kinds of furious exchange of “open letters” that always accompanies the dissolution of a cult. It’s hard to piece together what actually happened, but it seems to be something like this. Roach was the main guru at the Buddhist retreat in the desert known as Diamond Mountain University, but a scary kind of guru (“narcissistic and dissociative delusions of grandeur,” is the phrase used by one of his followers). McNally got another husband along the way, Ian Thorson, and earlier this year they were both kicked out of the retreat. They too seemed to have spent all their time together but in a Hunger Games kind of way, since they wandered the desert with no water and Thorson ended up dead of dehydration. At some point before they were kicked out, McNally dropped into one of her lectures that Thorson had been violent toward her and she had stabbed him with a sword, although later claimed it was an accident, because swords are too heavy for her, she wrote. The Times story is pumped up with all kinds of Nightline-voiceover style details, such as a helicopter “swaying in the brisk April winds.” Honestly, I thought violent Buddhist cults had disappeared after the recording of Sgt. Peppers.

I’m sure there’s a lesson in there but I’m not sure what it is. Maybe just if things seem creepy, then they probably are.