Community or Cult?

Spiritual Leader Draws Criticism

Daily Camera/October 5, 1997
By Clay Evans

Editor's note: Several sources for these stories asked that their real names not be used. In those cases, first-name only pseudonyms are used.

Roberta drove her Porsche up to Boulder one afternoon in 1979 to meet with a health "practitioner" recommended by her brother-in-law. She wanted to find out why she couldn't get pregnant.

The visit made a big impact on her. Raised in a middle-class, Midwestern home, she was long suspicious of the medical establishment and impressed with the woman's caring, personal manner. Within six months, Roberta had divorced and was living in "The Community,' a tight-knit group organized by Marc Tizer (aka Yousamien, Yo, and Yusef Amin), the man who trained the practitioner.

Not long after, Roberta was diagnosed with a pre-cancerous condition in her reproductive tract. A doctor told her she would die if she did not have surgery. Tizer - who went by the name "TH" at that time - disagreed.

"No way you need surgery, he told me," said Roberta, 43, who now works as an office manager. "He gave me a program, things to do to change my life to fight this. I followed the program, never had the surgery, and I've had a clean pap smear since then.

"That rooted me into him. My God, he cured me of life-threatening cancer," she said.

Sixteen years later, Roberta found herself on a mountainside in despair after the same man ordered her to abort a baby she had conceived with him during one of his daily sexual encounters with various women in The Community. That was the beginning of the end for Roberta.

"I came there so I could have a baby, not an abortion," she said.

Roberta is just one of many former members of the Boulder group who are now speaking out about their experiences after three former members filed a lawsuit in October 1996, alleging that Tizer manipulated, bullied, and coerced members. The suit, filed in Boulder County District Court, charges that Tizer used "emotional and sexual manipulation" to coerce and defraud members.

Some now label The Community a cult that used a variety of techniques - some say mind control - to take away their individuality, make them dependent, and incarcerate them in an unconscious prison of fear and intimidation.

Many who have left had entered an exciting group that promised health through Tizer's unusual "organ energy" healing technique and a radical new spiritual life, but left feeling they had been duped by a master of deception. Most of those now speaking out were formerly in Tizer's "inner circle," and he considered some to be his top students for nearly two decades.

Once awed by Tizer's wisdom, they now describe him as a sex-addicted, authoritarian - one says sociopathic - alcohol abuser who believes he is the only conduit between humanity and divine spiritual transformation. They say that over time, Tizer sought to control every aspect of members' lives, requiring women to sleep with numerous sexual partners, mandating less than five hours' sleep per night for some members, forbidding contact with "the real world," and banning them from reading any "outside" literature.

They charge that Tizer pressured his students into giving money - large sums in some cases - to maintain him and the community.

They also say he has largely abandoned the healing techniques that initially drew many members, and now lives a sycophantic, obsessive-compulsive life while being waited on hand and foot by his "students."

"He's either extremely evil, or totally off the wall," said former member Kim Mooney, who works with Hospice of Boulder County. On her own time, she works with ex-members trying to deal with grief after leaving a cult.

Tizer refused requests from the Daily Camera to be interviewed for this story. Contacted at Tizer's home at 7305 Baseline Road, where the group often meets, member Sarah Walker said both members and Tizer were too "uninspired" to speak with the press.

"We just want to live our lives," she said.

However, Margo Fried, a longtime student of Tizer's, provided the Daily Camera with a statement from the group - which now calls itself a running group named "Divine Madness":

"The allegations made by some former students and contained in the lawsuit, and the questionable motivations behind them, are fueled by an almost total distortion of fact and context that we find unbelievable and absurd. They also completely ignore the wholeness, comprehensiveness, practicality and value of a teaching, from which very many have greatly benefitted."

Mike Enwall, one of four attorneys working for Tizer on the pending lawsuit, emphasized that members' reluctance to speak does not imply that any of the allegations are true.

"It doesn't imply that Yo or others in the community would not very much like to talk about those allegations and give responses. Our feeling as lawyers is that right now it's better for our clients not to make public comments," he said.

Enwall denied ex-members' allegations that Tizer's group is a cult.

"In our view this is no more a cult than the Catholic Church. Our view is that The Community is a group of adult individuals who have freely joined together for what they perceive as a mutually beneficial alternative lifestyle. These are successful and intelligent adults who came and went freely over a period of decades," he said.

Recent national news accounts about Tizer have made much of his role as a coach for several successful "ultra-runners," people who undertake grueling, 50- to 100-mile races. But competitive running is a relatively recent addition to his repertoire, which has evolved from healing techniques, to spiritual teachings, to the adoption of a rigid lifestyle roughly modeled on teachings of Gurdjieff, an Armenian who lived in France in the early 20th Century.

Originally from Philadelphia, the short, wiry Tizer (one former member described him as a "speedy little character, like a little wizard,") arrived in Boulder in the 1970s and eventually began teaching his "organ energy" concepts at small workshops. Later, he and newfound followers made their presence known with impromptu "guerrilla theater" performances in downtown Boulder.

"He was on a mission to get people to express themselves, to let go their inhibitions, live out the part of themselves that had been suppressed. He was into blowing people's minds, which was fun at first," said Peter, a quiet, bearded man in his "late 30s" who spent over a decade in The Community.

Many disgruntled former members still insist that Tizer was "onto something" with his healing techniques, also known as Harmonizing, and tell stories about miraculous recoveries.

By the late 1970s, Tizer's supporters had organized into communal households around Boulder. They lived together, attended regular sessions with their teacher, and began following his dictates. Various female members said they began to have regular sex with the married father of two, sworn to secrecy about their "special" liasons.

In those early years, ex-members recall that Tizar was warm, loving and brilliant. He often spoke to them about his personal goal to avoid pitfalls that other spiritual teachers had fallen into - sex, drugs, manipulation and authoritarianism - and urged them, a la Gurdjieff, to verify his teachings with their own experience.

"The guy, I think, is a genius, intellectually brilliant," said David Hazen, who joined Tizer before The Community formally existed and left in 1983. He now works for Americorps in Denver. "He's gifted in speaking, and he's obviously got something to be able to draw people."

But over time, many members began to feel that Tizer was the one person in The Community who didn't know how to love at all.

"He was a mastermind of sorts," said Celia Bertoia, who was in the group for more than 12 years and now lives in Montana. "I feel he does have some incredible knowledge, and he passes that on well. But he lost it. At this point he's not much more than an alcoholic egomaniac who has sex all the time."

Tizer's teachings seemed to shift emphasis over the years, but always he was the gatekeeper to "the truth." (He had no teacher himself, though at times has claimed that aspects of the late Gurdjieff live on in him.) At first focused on his healing technique, he would later announce that his goal was to radically reform intimate human relationships, and bring his students to "transformation," a term many ex-members say he left carefully unexplained.

Among his many teachings was a Gurdjieffian notion that successful students needed to move away from "attachment." He urged members to limit contact with "outsiders," including family, and frowned upon monogamous relationships. Eventually he began to require members to sleep with many partners each week, going so far as to dictate who slept with whom. Over time, his own sexual liaisons with virtually all women in the group became open knowledge. (Tizer's ex-wife, Lhasha, who now lives in Arizona, declined to be interviewed for this story.)

"There was one woman who was very shy, and he ordered her to sleep with as many guys as possible," said Linda, a Longmont woman who never joined the group but attended many functions with her ex-boyfriend, who was a member. "He had the whole group around yelling, encouraging her to go for it, real cheerleader stuff."

Ex-members say it was that group dynamic, with the charismatic Tizer at the helm, that slowly drew them into the more bizarre aspects of his regime. He always was fascinated with rigid discipline, and required students - including children of students as young as 10 - to rise for pre-dawn running exercises. He controlled members' diets, and demanded for a time that no member get more than five hours of sleep a night.

In their pending lawsuit, plaintiffs Georgiana Scott, John Hunt and Melissa Huntress draw a similar picture of Tizer, but also allege that he defrauded students about the services he provided.

The group also had weekly parties at Community houses around the city. The parties usually followed a familiar script. Members were instructed to drink alcohol before they came to the party after midnight. Eventually, there was euphoric dancing, a grand entrance by Tizer, perhaps some teaching, and at the end of the night, members paired off for sexual encounters. (Heterosexual: Yo believed that homosexuals were "not on the path," one ex-member said.)

Throughout the group's history, Tizer designated "Yo ladies," a special cadre of women who waited on him. Because he suffered a chronic intestinal condition, he required them to prepare his meals to exact specifications: Walnuts had to be shaved to a certain size; the spaces between circles of sliced banana on a peanut-butter-banana sandwich had to be filled with carefully cut pieces of banana. The women had to wake him in the morning, with sexual favors if requested, and carefully pour his nightly allotment of whiskey and beer.

Ex-members say Tizer grew increasingly intransigent over time, blaming others for problems, taking credit for all achievements, and claiming a kind of magical ability to "know all and see all."

Though he frequently talked about business ideas and ventures, few of them ever got off the ground. If a venture did begin to succeed, he would shut it down or rein it in without explanation.

But the group did have one success: The School, a private nonprofit education organization originally established to educate Yo's children and step-children. Members of The Community served as teachers, and children from outside the group were accepted as students. For years, the group sponsored the successful Chile Ole chile-cooking contest in Boulder to raise money for the school.

However, The School (now entirely separate from Tizer and The Community) offered glimpses that The Community was not as benign as it seemed. Parents of outside students sometimes complained that teachers were tired and less-than-attentive, and rumors began to circulate that Tizer required them to stay up into the wee hours of the morning.

But Tizer didn't need much in the way of business to keep his dream going. Instead, he persuaded many members to give money to the group. One woman paid cash for the group's 160-acre "retreat" in Reserve, N.M. Another, according to a report in Newsweek, gave him $140,000 when he told her it was necessary for her "transformation."

Though many students were diligent in following his teachings and regime, none ever seemed to reach that "transformation." Students absorbed more and more, but still he maintained his stance that he alone held the key to moving past earthly attachment. "I think his biggest fear was that people would go beyond him," said Cornelia, 45. "And as people did get more and more going internally in their lives, he got more and more paranoid."

"His basic idea was to devote life to our spiritual growth," said Peter. "What that really translated to was devoting your life to him."

Group pressure orchestrated by Tizer heightened the atmosphere of coercion for many ex-members. They were required to reveal personal secrets as an exercise, and sometimes were put on a "hot seat" to be grilled by as many as 20 of their fellows.

Elizabeth, 45, a former Catholic who Tizer considered a star pupil for years, recalled a group confrontation after she refused to have sex with him. At Yo's order, the group of women veered from the usual policy of taking volunteers, and voted unanimously that Elizabeth had to sleep with her teacher that night.

"I died. But it wasn't as if I never slept with the guy before, so I stayed with him. People said "pretend he's someone else.' They advised me to drink," she said. "So we did it, but when he came at me again, I said, "Yo, this is horrible, this is terrible, we're friends.' He said, "It's just like life, deal with it.'"

Even for long-time, devoted students such as Elizabeth, such incidents began to chip away the trust in - and fear of - Tizer that had held them there so long. Ex-members cited in particular Yo's increasing need to control all aspects of his members' lives, his sexual compulsion, and his alcoholism. One former "Yo lady" remembered that the last time she slept with her teacher he was so drunk he couldn't find the bathroom.

"I realized, here is supposed to be this spiritual teacher, and he's peeing on the floor," said Bertoia. "It was just gross."

Some ex-members cite the clear contradiction of Tizer's heavy alcohol use as a factor in deciding to leave. Alcohol frequently played a role in his rituals and meetings. One member recalls a mock "last supper" in which Tizer soaked his shirt in a bowl of Jack Daniel's whiskey and gave strips of it to his students.

While women in the group dealt with what they perceived as sexual excess and exploitation, men often felt that Tizer was trying to emasculate them. He wouldn't allow them to have monogamous relationships, actively working to sever couples who seemed too close. He dictated where and how much they worked, and generally demoralized them. About nine years ago, when several men left The Community, Tizer reportedly said "when a real man leaves here, then I'll start to worry."

In other words, not to follow his dictates was to be less than a man.

"He treated me like I was insufficient," said Peter, who said the powerful combination of "free sex" and spirituality drew him into the group. "I'm sure sick that I accepted that as long as I did in The Community."

Though Tizer virtually forbid members to have children (he claimed a psychic contraceptive ability but required several women to abort pregnancies he had caused,) the children who were in The Community were not always treated well, ex-members say. Tizer recommended pulling one little girl's hair to make her eat properly, and another girl was shut outside in the freezing cold as punishment, David Hazen said. Others remember Tizer striking children and threatening to throw another into a river.

"The upbringing of kids was incredibly authoritarian," said Hazen, whose daughter grew up part-time in The Community with her mother. "Take the kids out of the equation and I don't even know how harmful it all was."

Tizer may have exercised great influence over members, but in some cases met his match in Mother Nature and the biological clock: Several long-time members left The Community to have the children he forbade.

"He became more wrapped up in his own little world, less loving. He was harder to commit to. When it became clear children were not part of his agenda, I got out," said Susan, now living in Boulder and raising her first child.

Some ex-members who are now speaking out believe current Community members will brand them as bitter because they no longer have access to Tizer. But most say their intention is to let others know what life is really like behind the glamor of ultra-running and lure of spiritual guidance.

"I have no respect for (Tizer) any more. I'd love to see him stopped," said Cornelia.

Many ex-members still have nightmares about their experience.

"The main one I have is I'm at a meeting (with The Community) and I'm going around asking "why isn't anybody saying anything, why doesn't somebody say something is wrong?'" Roberta said.

Others, while still battling the legacy of their experience, say leaving the group has made them stronger.

"I'm closer to God now than ever," said Mooney. "There's no middle man left."

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