This past winter, my husband Adam brought up a news story about a cult leader in Brazil who had been arrested for sexual assault.
“That’s not the guy you went to see, is it?”
“Of course not,” I answered, “my guy wasn’t 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, whom I’ve credited with helping me find myself.
“Did you go there when you hit rock bottom?” Adam asked.
“My rock bottom was a decade long.”
It came out as a joke; we both laughed. But I wasn’t kidding. My current life as a wife and mother of two girls bears little resemblance to the decade in question — the period of hopelessness and stagnation that enveloped most of my 20s. I needed a good therapist and antidepressants (which I eventually got to). Before that, like many, I turned to spirituality.
I studied reiki and meditation. I 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 that trip as visiting an ashram. In reality, it was the compound of a medium who claimed to channel the spirits of doctors and saviors.
John of God wasn’t the first healer I sought out. During my “rock bottom” days, I dropped $200 on a charlatan in Queens, New York. She told me I’d been cursed and wanted me to cough up 200 more for her to de-curse me. Another time, someone recommended a Russian mystic to my mom, who was desperate to help me. He was a Soviet immigrant like us and lived in a dark Brooklyn apartment crammed 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, payed him and left.
John of God was seemingly on a level above everyone else. I got introduced to him through my uncle Misha, who was fighting cancer. Misha was more sarcastic than pious. He was well-read and took an interest in everything worldly. I would never have expected him to go the spiritual route ― until he got sick. My dad accompanied Misha to see the healer in Brazil. They returned hopeful and with an air of peace. Though I wasn’t physically ill, I wanted to go too. My spirit was broken.
My depression first took hold when I immigrated to America at age 8. I restrained sobs in my new, crowded Brooklyn classroom. I pined for the lost order and familiarity of my childhood in Riga, Latvia. It wasn’t a perfect place by any means. Most Jews there, like my own ancestors, were killed during the Holocaust. My family lived in a communal apartment with strangers. The infamous Soviet lines for food and toilet paper were very much a reality. But it was all I had known.
In America, I faced bullying and, perhaps, a lifelong identity crisis. Who did I have to be to be liked and accepted? I changed my name — Asya to Jessie — and I hardened myself. Or so I thought.
At 21, when I ended up in a bed I didn’t want to be in with an internship supervisor I didn’t even find attractive, I was bewildered. I had been miserably toiling away in business school, looking for an 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 naïve was I to think he would actually do what he said ― show me the film he was working on?
I buried that incident as best I could. But my trust in myself was gone. For the next few years, I struggled to find my footing. When a car ran a red light and crashed into mine, my concussed brain got a much needed respite. I barely minded the scar on my face. Living with my parents, I tried my hand at various jobs. Nothing stuck. I couldn’t make a relationship work, or friendships for that matter.
“You’re too high-maintenance,” my best friend told me as I gave her a hard time yet again for having a life away from me. “I need a break.”
I wanted my monkey mind to shut up. I wanted to stop picking my skin, making it bleed over every blemish. I wanted to be normal.
Using the insurance money I got from the car accident, I purchased airfare for my pilgrimage. I booked an English-speaking guide who would lead a group of us to “The Casa” where the healing took place. I read everything I could about John of God. I filled my suitcase with the light-colored clothing we were supposed to wear there. And I waited in anticipation to leave my broken self behind.
Alone in Abadiânia for two weeks, I settled in at a simple pousada (guesthouse) that was walking distance from The Casa. It was a small rural town — quiet, filled with untamed nature. I slept with a broom nearby because strange giant bugs liked to settle above my bed. There was no television or internet to distract me from what I came to do: 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 chemo. In an orderly line, we waited to go before him so he could prescribe our cures. 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 scribbled these directions on a small piece of paper.
I met many kind people, some of whom journeyed to see the spiritualist yearly ― folks who had dedicated their lives to a commune for the disabled, women with cancer who still had the most positive outlook … and myself, the original me who wasn’t eaten up by fear or loneliness or self-pity. I liked her.
For three hours a day, I sat in meditation in the “current room,” helping to conduct energy for healings. It felt special, purposeful. I napped, hiked, and stood under that freezing holy waterfall. I prayed in front of The Casa’s triangle — a big wooden wall hanging whose three sides represented faith, love and charity.
And then I went home.
I was ready to start anew, but it took a lot more trial and error to get myself together. I often appealed to the spirits that John of God purported to channel, surrounding myself with crystals from Abadiânia and with a replica of that magic triangle signed by the man himself. As an actress-waitress, I moved to Los Angeles — only to realize I longed for ordinary family life. I became a 30-year-old social media peon back in New York. I read the Tao Te Ching and lived simply. I found love.
Uncle Misha passed away a year after my trip. My mom had a photo of him on her mantle 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 on charges of rape and statutory rape. Hundreds of allegations were brought against him by women and girls from all over the world, including his own daughter. Even more shockingly, he was accused of running a baby trafficking scheme, where young sex slaves bore children he sold to hopeful parents overseas. Allegedly, the “handmaids” were murdered after 10 years of service.
In another disturbing twist, activist Sabrina Bittencourt, whose work led to John of God’s arrest, ended her life by suicide in February. She had left Brazil after receiving death threats from his followers and was living under protection in Barcelona, Spain. She was the mother of three.
The guru I sought after getting date-raped was likely a rapist himself — and a madman. I had fallen for him, but I was in good company. Renowned spiritual teacher Wayne Dyer sang John of God’s praises. My idol Oprah Winfrey interviewed him in 2012 and said she felt humbled and filled with a sense of peace. My father and my uncle believed in him, too.
When people are sick, whether of body or soul, they will do anything to get better. It was devastating that a “miracle maker” took advantage of those most vulnerable. I’d been a cog in a machine that gave power to a monster. My beatific memories of healing were a farce. I felt lost, yearning to recalibrate.
I began the process of erasing John of God from my psyche and from my home. I trashed his magic triangle, which hung in my daughter’s nursery. A delicate rose quartz crystal went in the garbage as well.
I kept another crystal from Abadiânia, though. It was heavy and solid. It made me think not of John of God, but of myself — the strong self I started to rediscover there. I remembered also the godly travelers who came together in hope — it was they who brought the peace.
I have realized that no one trip or person can fix those of us with demons. It takes a commitment we try to uphold daily — whether in an ashram, a therapist’s office or, like me, in a house in the suburbs, with a husband, two kids and a cat.