Robert Earl Burton founded The Fellowship of Friends in the San Francisco Bay Area in 1970.

Burton modeled his own group after that of Alex Horn, loosely borrowing from the Fourth Way teachings of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky. In recent years, the Fellowship has cast its net more broadly, embracing any spiritual tradition that includes (or can be interpreted to include) the notion of "presence."

The Fellowship of Friends exhibits the hallmarks of a "doomsday religious cult," wherein Burton exercises absolute authority, and demands loyalty and obedience. He warns that his is the only path to consciousness and eternal life. Invoking his gift of prophecy, he has over the years prepared his flock for great calamities (e.g. a depression in 1984, the fall of California in 1998, nuclear holocaust in 2006, and an ominous, yet unspecified new threat late in 2018.) While non-believers shall perish, through the direct intervention and guidance from 44 angels (including his divine father, Leonardo da Vinci) Burton and his followers will be spared, founding a new, and more perfect civilization.

Many regard Robert Earl Burton a narcissist and sociopath, surrounded by a largely greed- and power-driven inner circle. The following pages offer abundant evidence supporting that conclusion.

This archive draws from official Fellowship publications and websites, news archives, court documents, cult education and awareness forums, the (former) Fellowship Wikipedia page, the long-running Fellowship of Friends - Living Presence Discussion, the Internet Archive, the (former) Fellowship of Friends wiki project, and the editor's own 13-year experience in the Fellowship.

Presented in a reverse chronology, the Fellowship's history may be navigated via the "Blog Archive" located in the sidebar below.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Ames Gilbert's Story

Ames posted the following on the Fellowship of Friends Discussion blog:
Hello, everyone!

I entered this conversation late; I am trying to find the time to give previous entries the attention they deserve, but there are so many! So, this subject may have been covered, and better, before.

My rhetorical question is: What is the nature of the acquiescence or permission that young men give when Burton demands sexual favors from them?

Most people defend Burton, and Burton justifies himself, by saying that the young men have given their permission freely. A necessary part of this defense is that the law says that they are of legal age to give consent (mostly true—the case of Troy Buzbee was an exception probably because Burton allowed his lust to overcome his need for a little basic pre-sex research). For a while, I used this argument myself. Here, in my opinion, are the fallacies.

The law can only be basic guidance. Different societies around the world have formulated their own laws, so the age and even the idea of consent varies globally, but we in the U.S. have chosen an age and embodied it into law based on custom and experience. It basically recognizes that before this age, most people are not qualified to make a sound judgment on their own behalf, and after this age, they are. But, of course, the law is a gross generalization. We can all find examples of precocious juveniles and adults who are irresponsible to an extreme. The law cannot take these into account. So we have to apply other factors to help us make a judgment.

To me, the major other factor is power, and the balance of power. It is a given, a presupposition, that people who enter agreements and relationships are empowered to do so. This means that they have roughly equal power. If not, there is coercion by one party, and some degree of force enters the equation. I’m pretty sure that most of us know this in ourselves, and have a flavor (we may disagree about degree) of what constitutes too much imbalance. We see this argument going on in society right now as to what constitutes rape, and most folks agree that because humans are sexually dimorphic, with the weight/strength advantage on average going to the male, the physical power imbalance calls for extra protection for the female. And so it goes with psychological power. Most of us are revolted by the bully, or the concept that might makes right, and we loathe someone taking advantage of someone else who has a degree of helplessness (unless one is a psychopath or sociopath, in which case it is silly weakness to be taken advantage of).

So here we have Burton, asking a young man to have sex with him. He chooses weak young men. He chooses vulnerable young men, who are perhaps here on questionable visas, have little money, and little wriggle room. Each of these young men has a choice, yay or nay. Each has ‘given up his will to the Teacher’. At the slightest hesitation, or even preemptively, Burton pronounces “C-influence wants you to have sex with me”, or “I am an angel, you must externally consider me”, or whatever. Heavy stuff! Often, the young man will be drunk. He may have been pre-pared by an older student (breakfast with Sheila G., anyone?) or another of Burton’s boys. And it is not as if Burton does not have charisma. He has tons, and can bring it to bear in an incredibly tight focus. He also has the support of the whole FOF, the permission given by thousands over thirty-five years. The entire culture of the FOF supports him and his actions; remember, the young man has deliberately thrown out the mores and traditions of the old “life” culture, and embraced wholeheartedly the new FOF culture (reprogrammed). And if at first the young man refuses, he is asked again and again, plied with wine and favors and flattery and the pressure from his peers. Who could resist? Few do. And who can blame them? Most in the FOF envy them, “getting closer to the Teacher”.

After saying “yes” there are many extra reinforcements. There may be actual pleasure (I am the last to claim that there is less pleasure getting a blow job from a man than a woman. I don’t know, but I can’t think of any reason why it would be the case. Same with prostate stimulation, and so on.). The approval of peers. The rewards, money and favors (though that may link into another disempowering pathology of Burton’s—the reduction of the young man to Prostitute, a negative archetype in our culture). The increased attraction to women in the FOF who want to bask in the aura second-hand. The sense of specialness and self-importance. And so on.

Who in his heart of hearts could claim that the power in this relationship is equal? It is manifestly not so. It has to be unequal to overcome the natural resistance of the young man (that equation thing again). Remember, Burton is not seeking homosexuals, he is seeking straights, because he enjoys overpowering them. But, I’m not getting into his pathologies or sexual practices here, just discussing the unequal power thing.

Any psychologist or psychiatrist worth his or her salt has studied human dynamics and power deeply. They know all healthy relationships are based on give and take, which is another way of talking about the distribution of responsibilities and power. But, all healthy relationships are based on roughly equal power and mutual agreements. It seems perfectly amazing that psychiatrists in the FOF have not stepped forward and educated the laity about the imbalance of power between Burton and his young men, for surely they have recognized it for what it is. But seems their consciences are quiescent, and they have to bear the consequences. The job of some of the psychiatrists and doctors in the FOF is clear; it is to prescribe Viagra and act as procurers for whatever other drugs and medicines are needed to keep the show on the road.

Now for the fair-and-balanced part, which concerns my personal history.
I am one of the young men that Burton chose, and I refused. That’s probably only because I misunderstood the situation, as the patient reader will see. I didn’t even know I was being courted, until things clicked into place, much later. When I joined in London (with my girlfriend, Frances) I was specifically told by Peter Bishop and Christina Neilson (soon to marry each other) that Burton was celibate. I also read it in the Via del Sol papers and in the Mt. Carmel Journal, which I bought complete back issues of soon after joining (still have them—waiting for offers!). So, I took it as gospel. (And imagine my shock when fifteen years later, Peter Bishop told me that he was having sex with Burton at the time I joined and asked that question!). Soon, I went to Renaissance. Burton was fascinated with King of Spades people at the time. I accepted an offer from him to stay at Renaissance, and the invitation extended to my girlfriend. He started bringing me over to the Blake Cottage to work on projects, like cleaning a fountain and polishing his silver, and took to watching me all the time, paying little compliments, and making pronouncements like, “You are on C’s (another King of Spades) ladder, but you are further along than him”, or “You have beautiful hands”, or “Negroes are a criminal octave”, or “C-influence wants us to become friends”, or “It is significant that you are the only person in the school born in the Southern Hemisphere” (which I was, at the time). I contributed nothing after he told me that being silent would be an act of external consideration to the teacher. So, I was muddled by the random pronouncements, but flattered by the single-minded attention.

Then he starts taking me on trips, and taking to holding my hand (and wiping it with a Swiss lace handkerchief when my nervousness makes it sweat mightily). Fine dining. Shopping. One day, a trip to L.A. and the Bel Air hotel. Colin leaves us to go to his room, bids goodnight. Burton tells me to sleep on the floor, near his bed. At dawn, I hear his voice, “Come here, dear”. I wake up and get up, dressed only in my underpants. Luckily, after a horrible night’s sleep on just some hotel cushions, I don’t have my morning woody! “Get into bed with me”. So, I do. His back is turned towards me, and I am having thoughts from a D.H. Lawrence novel—no kidding—about men mature and strong enough to hug and cuddle other men, to give strength and support in a totally non-sexual way, and pitying Robert who has no one because he is celibate and nursing his energies for higher work, and so on. I get into bed and put one arm around him, and hug him chest to back, but keeping an inch away lower down, sending warm thoughts and encouragement, drowsing off. After ten minutes: “That will be all, dear. Go back to your bed”. So that was that.

Then more trips, now with lots of “C-influence wants us to be friends”, but no more invitations for anything more. On one trip to S.F. Robert tells me that he wants me to have the orange Mercedes, go tell Kenneth. I go to the consigliore and main driver of the Rolls, Kenneth W. and tell him. He nods, then says, “Are you sure you can pay the price?” I am in shock. What does that mean? Mechanically, I say, “I don’t think so”. I take it as a gift and a warning (really, what could I possibly do to deserve a Mercedes, on any level?), and don’t pursue it (later I find out that the same car was given to a number of favorites in turn).

Time passes, and at the completion of the Academy, the downstairs rooms are ready. Burton asks me to move there. Now he is very, very insistent that “C-influence wants us to be friends”. I protest weakly that I don’t know how to be friends with him, but he says, “Yes you do, and C-influence want us to be close. Come and live with me in the new house”. I say, driven by something I can’t understand that says this is imperative, “No, I can’t, Robert”. He turns away with a cold, stern look. That’s it. I’m dropped. No more trips, no more energy, though a polite nod from time to time. The girls who fawned on me, invited me to dinner, praised how I read poetry before dinners, fade away. The guys who sit next to me and who ask me what it is like to be close to Robert, and can I share angles he has given me, cease to do so. I’m not “in”. I can’t understand it. I talk about it with a couple of older students. “You refused to go live with him? You idiot!” These students turn out later to have full knowledge, at the time, of what the invitation would have probably meant.

So, Burton’s overwhelming psychological advantage was balanced by something else in my case. In the scheme of things, something integral seems to be looking out for me. Some sense of knowing, including but larger than the instinctive center What made the difference? Did I refuse, not from knowledge of the situation, but because I was especially naive, and that acted as a sort of armor? Was there some knowingness that giving in would mean the death of something essential? Or is this just another way of describing ‘common sense’?

A couple of postscripts. I promised myself I would not mention the story to anyone (it wouldn’t lead to anything but gossip). A few months later, my friend John M. from the London center, referred to in a previous post, flew over to visit. One evening, he asked me, “Do you think Robert is a homosexual?” After I got over the shock, I said, “John, I have reason to know he is not. I’m not at liberty to tell you why, but I can assure you from my own knowledge he is not”. John left soon after. Burton had appeared in his bedroom in the London teaching house and told him that he was an angel and that C-influence wanted John to have sex with him. I heard the details about this eight years later, when rumors of Burton’s homosexuality started to circulate more strongly, and conversations ensued. Each time, I protected Burton’s reputation with the same patter, and I guess I was convincing, as I believed it completely myself. I cringe…

Years later, after I interviewed some of the “boys” to get first-hand information, it turned out that Burton probably wasn’t really even trying hard with me, or had in the meantime become quite pitiless. And it was certainly obvious they didn’t have whatever it was that I had, had no internal support. Some, more honest perhaps, admitted to losing their essential integrity, and were sad and lost. Some said, it seemed with an air of bravado, that it had been great, a huge aid to their evolution. I wish I could believe them, but of course, it may have been true.

So, to the young men facing the choice today or tomorrow, I paraphrase Ouspensky. He said one has to give up one’s will to a teacher, temporarily. He also said you have to retain common sense. He said common sense is the sense common to all centers. If the moving-instinctive center, the emotional center and the intellectual center all agree, that is common sense. Common sense is given to protect you until you can distinguish conscience. If common sense says, “No!” to a suggestion of the teacher, do not fall for the line that it is willfulness, or that C-influence wants it, or that it is good for your evolution, or that you should be externally considerate of the teacher. Run, don’t walk from that situation, preferably right out of the Fellowship.

To the young men who are hurting. There are estimates of a couple of million sociopaths just in the U.S. They all leave a trail of harm behind them. Seek professional help; there are many, many experienced counselors available, dedicated to service, who have made it their life work to try to clean up some of the mess sociopaths leave behind. Some will work for free if you cannot afford it. Do NOT go to psychiatrists or doctors in the Fellowship. They have already betrayed you and their explicit and implicit oaths to help you; they are partners in crime. The same goes for “older students”, especially those in positions of power. Get outside help.

Ames Gilbert

More of Ames Gilbert's story

Ames Gilbert posted the following on the Fellowship of Friends Discussion blog:
To Prior Young Worker (#9-348)[blog page and post]
Your post seem to me to be overly angry and judgmental. I have to ask, what were you doing during YOUR time in the FOF? Obviously, not asking the right questions or hunting for answers—until it was the right time, then you found the answers that you could by then absorb and left. You left for your own good reasons, in your own good time. Please grant the same to us.
Dear Young Worker, you know what it was/is like, surely? You know what buffers are, how they work, not just for others, but for you personally, don’t you? You know what it is to refrain from asking questions that in hindsight seem obvious, don’t you? And surely you know what it is like to accept the easy answers, the ones that quell anxiety, soothe the troubles, don’t you? And you must know all about self-calming. Didn’t you love the ideas of the Fourth Way too, and accept, at least at first, that others who had been working with the ideas for longer had some idea of what they were talking about, were suitable guides; you trusted that they loved the Fourth Way as you did?
What a topic for a face-to-face meeting! A group of us, in satsang, talking about how we give ourselves away, how we abdicate responsibility, how we hook ourselves… What is the learning process, how can we see ourselves and others without judgment, with clarity? What can we teach each other, truly? How can we help others, can we help others, what is the nature of help, why does some help in fact hinder, while other help, if received correctly, actually help? In the meantime, we have this blog…
(This gets into the nature of what being human is. We are not tigers, we are monkeys, we are tribal. We want to fit, we want to be valued, we want to know our place. Part of the human wants to be an individual, part want to be part of the pack. How can we resolve these socially and spiritually? Powerful forces indeed are at work, tugging this way and that. Let us have mercy on ourselves!)
Speaking for myself, I am not here to justify myself or my actions or inactions, but to record them. I can tell my story, as truthfully as I can. And the beauty of this medium, Young Worker, is that you don’t have to read it, unless you want.
When, usually by accident, I got a hint of things, I did try to get more information. In the earlier days, I was easily ‘put back to sleep’. For example, I tried to find out about Samuel Sanders and his letter. Since my search soon took me into the ‘influence field’ of ‘older students’ who gave me official ‘sleep–inducing angles’; I learned that the lawsuit was an “expression of extreme negativity” on Samuel Sanders’ part, “criminal activity”, no less, and that the letter was just another way of expressing negativity (some ‘older students’ said that it didn’t exist at all). So, I was satisfied, and left it at that. And, the records were sealed (as an aside, does anyone know how to get them unsealed? It seems a miscarriage of justice, i.e., justice not seen to be done, for them to be hidden from the light; can we petition the court to unseal them?). I don’t know when you were in the FOF; if you were there at the time; what were your memories, what were your actions at the time, what results did you obtain?
When Miles Barth left, I did get a copy of his letter (someone made sure it was well distributed, maybe Miles himself). Well written—in my opinion—(I was in tears at the time with the shock and sorrow), he said that he was leaving because his conscience told him to, and that was sufficient unto itself. He gave no details. I asked around, could get nothing. But I did enquire into his ‘school’, and was sent a copy of the first meeting. There was no clue I could find into why he left, or why I should leave the FOF and go join his group. But, there was a subliminal clue. He left during or just after the Samuel Sanders case; presumably he found out something so disturbing or revolting that he had to leave. I understood that he was involved in the case, had attended meetings if not the court. I understood that there had been depositions. Miles knew something, if not everything. I admired Miles for his straight talk out of meetings, and something in me trusted that he had acted for the best; but still, this was not enough to motivate me.
So, I let sleeping dogs and students lie (in both senses of the word).
And on it went, little bits and pieces here and there, not enough to jolt me into action, not enough evidence. It is true that I was all along hardening my heart against evidence from the emotional center. The sense that things were not right, that there was a heaviness at the core. That impressions were all very fine, but there was no humanity. That it all seemed so selfish, so self–centered. Burton spending what had to be millions per year ‘nurturing his essence’, ‘gathering impressions to refine his soul’, ‘studying works of art to save for the ark’, ‘healing his spirit because he bears so many of our burdens’. But, the official angle-givers were really excellent at their job.
So many decent people. So many interesting people. So many valuable lessons and insights; one of the best for me was that I made contact with people who I’d normally go to great lengths to avoid because they grated on my mechanics, and found that we are all humans with much more in common than differences; many valuable lessons like these learned.
But, the balance was tipping. Once I became curious and listened harder to the ‘gossip’, and asked questions to see if there was any basis, I started to see that yes, Burton did give a ‘leave of absence’ to the wife of his personal secretary and sex partner, a woman who presumed to have an affair of her own because she became so lonely. That Burton did give an expensive sweater to a man who tattled about the sex life of his landlady because she demanded he pay his rent. That the chief sex police officer did have sex with two separate vineyard workers the same week she turned in others for breaking the no sex outside marriage exercise. And so on, dozens upon dozens of examples of ‘things that didn’t fit’. The scandals and inconsistencies mounted, the evidence accumulated. Seeing some person’s pay stub by accident; that person was paid thousands of dollars, yet was in the same penury as any other worker. Asking the question. Yes, the FOF does pay certain people much more than others, they are expected to ‘donate’ the surplus back, and why–so Burton can get income at the lower rate of tax of the worker, rather than as a millionaire. And so on, and on… Charles R. and James B. left—the usual reasons, “they’ve lost their work, they’re negative”, and so on. But these were good people, and they were not negative.
And finally, every camel has a straw, the special straw that breaks its back. No different from any other straw, yet that’s the One. In my case, it was more like a whole bale. The Richard and Troy Buzbee case… Richard’s instance didn’t interest me so much, it seemed he knew more than he told, was less na├»ve than he claimed. But his son, that was another matter. Underage, primed by his dad to regard Burton as a god, he was led to the slaughter. One ‘older student’ said that “everyone knew, why the outrage?” as some sort of justification. But, I hadn’t known. So, I started asking, sometimes directly, sometimes in a roundabout way, just like a detective, the people who would know. The boys, the people who had suffered ‘injustice’, the ‘procurers’, the ‘older students’. I studied the work books, the directors, the meetings, my fellow students, with the critical eye that had been so long lacking. I let the stew simmer, then took a taste. I enjoyed the feeling of empowerment, taking back my own power. My conscience spoke up. I asked questions publicly. And, after sixteen years in which I never once offered an angle (outside of ‘small groups’), I ended my career by offering two in my last two meetings. The first was a suggestion that we change the form of the meetings so we could exchange more personal energies and deal with personal problems rather than theoretical and intellectualized questions, and the last in response to what I perceived was a brush-off by Linda of a student’s question; I asked that we deal with her question instead of seeking one that suited Linda’s agenda that night. The next day I got the Boot.
Young Worker, that’s why it takes time. It’s a process, different for everyone. It is much easier now to exchange information. Back in ‘my day’, I did it by publishing a little newsletter of encouragement (three issues), by copying letters that came my way and distributing them, by asking questions and telling everyone who would listen what I had found out. Others did the same. The letters were easy to intercept, I never imagined until late, late, late that folks like Girard regularly ‘swept’ the mail of what they deemed offensive or subversive material. I never imagined that the leaders coordinated policy and damage control. I never imagined that Abraham Goldman so ruthlessly attacked all criticism, or made settlements under condition of seal to avoid total defeat and then claimed victory to the FOF. Before ‘my day’ (the day of laser writers and personal publishing but not the web as we know it today), others like Thomas Easley (one of the earliest to speak up about his abuse) had to try to distribute their typewritten letters by hand. There was no Internet, no blog, no website to distribute information. Hopefully things can now happen faster.
Young Worker, folks like James B. and Charles R. are much braver than the anonymous you gives credit. They are getting up in public. Everyone knows who they are. They are telling their truth, which includes putting them in real jeopardy. They ARE taking responsibility; they just have a different timetable for themselves than you have for them.
I finish by saying to you, Young Worker, that I do apologize. I now know that I was something I never overtly claimed to be, an ‘older student’. I had no important role, but I now know that by simply ‘staying on’ I encouraged others to stay on past their time. If I overstayed, and I did, because “all those decent, hard-working folk can’t be wrong”, then others did because they perceived the same in my case. I had my ‘good student’ acts. I worked hard, stoically. I didn’t cry out, I didn’t demand. I didn’t have enough being, it’s that simple. But, I have to forgive myself, and I hope you do, too, as I forgive you for the your weaknesses. Now, out of true remorse, I try to make amends, and one way is to contribute to this blog; I hope that it will help and en-courage others in their time of need, present or future, when they have to make the difficult decisions.
With love to you and all, ‘in’ and ‘out’,
[ed. - I recommend you also read the Ames Gilbert Letter.]

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