ICSA Today 2020, Vol. 11 No. 2, pg. 20-21
Book Review: Santa Fe, Bill Tate, and me: How an artist became a cult interventionist
Joe Szimhart, 2020. ISBN-10: 1676003886; ISBN-13: 978-1676003885; $16.00 paperback; Kindle, $5.99 (Amazon.com). 341 pages.
Joe Szimhart’s story begins in Santa Fe, where he became a working artist after completing his education at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. One of the first people he met was Santa Fe icon Bill Tate. Joe said, “Tate’s Santa Fe gallery felt genuine, a place where a collector might find something special” (p. 37). The first time Joe visited the gallery, Bill invited him to stay for coffee, and that was the beginning of a 12-year friendship. Joe saw Bill as a mentor and visited his gallery frequently. Joe’s art career blossomed as he became a fixture, doing portraits on the Plaza, selling the occasional canvas in Tate’s gallery, and receiving several major commissions.
The book shows Joe’s frightening romp through the world of theosophy-related cults. His journey began when he read the theosophy books he found at Bill’s gallery. He got into the local Santa Fe “I AM” group, which is an offshoot of theosophy. He asked Bill about "I AM," but Bill just scoffed. He knew he had theosophy books around, but he didn’t realize Joe had already become deeply immersed.
The only thing Bill could recall about “I AM” was the time the group protested in front of the Santa Fe New Mexican offices in the 1950s. The members were angry over an article about their leaders’ legal problems. One of the protesters decreed for the editors and publisher, “The flaming sword of St. Germain will be stuck in your guts” (p. 73).1
Theosophy followers believe in the power of mind, and they believe they harness metaphysical power when they decree. Decrees are chants, invocations. For example, they may decree, “I am I am I am rich and powerful today.” They decree in groups, speaking loudly at a rapid pace. “I AM” and other related groups have decrees for everything from manifesting money to assassinating disliked politicians. They believe in ascended masters they call The Great White Brotherhood (emphasis on white).
Not all “I AM” followers were white supremacists; but, Joe explains, the philosophy is based on the belief that only a limited number of people can get into heaven, with the clear implication that privileged white people are at the front of the line. Joe later learned that theosophy and Nazism were intertwined, as described in the study, The Occult Roots of Nazism: Secret Aryan Cults and Their Influence on Nazi Ideology, by Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke (1992, Chapter 2, “The Modern German Occult Revival 1880–1910, pp. 17–32). Joe was taken with the “I AM” organization and had no idea of its elitist philosophy; but he worried about the magical powers of decreeing. He hoped he would not abuse the powers, saying, “My inclination at the time was to believe that my God within would direct me to do right” (p. 64).
Ultimately Joe ran up against the “I AM” exclusionary rules when the members told him he had a hole in his aura and could not participate fully in “I AM” in this lifetime. Joe said, “I was stunned. Was this true? Did I have an actual hole in my aura?” (p. 72). He took the hint and drifted away from the group; but he continued to hone the same philosophy through Agni Yoga.
Agni Yoga taught Joe that a person’s thoughts were a powerful force that could bring good or bad karma. Psychic energy could accumulate in objects, people, creatures, or nature. After visiting the Agni Yoga Society in New York, he was driving home to New Mexico when his truck broke down. He blamed it on his doubting thoughts, which were accumulating as he drove. Joe acknowledges now that his truck had more than a hundred thousand miles on it; and in retrospect he sees through the rhetoric of magical occult powers, which is a way to make victims feel guilty and blame every bad thing on themselves.
From Agni Yoga, Joe stumbled into another theosophy group, the Church Universal and Triumphant (CUT), also known as the Summit Lighthouse. He later realized that, “Despite its grandiose claim to represent the essence of all religions, CUT had a paranoid, right-wing reputation after it amassed weapons for self-defense against marauding, Godless Liberals” (p. 184). Realizing the absurdity of it and feeling broken by it, Joe became disillusioned with CUT after about a year. He turned to Sister Theresa, a nun and friend of his, for advice. She listened to his story and offered to pray with him. This was his turning point. Within a few months, Joe bought a round-the-world plane ticket, a promotion available in the early 1980s, and went out to see the world.
His travels included Hawaii, Australia, Japan, Europe, Mexico, India, and Nepal. He wanted to visit places associated with theosophy, and he went to India because the infinitely complex world of theosophy intertwined with the beliefs of numerous Indian gurus. The most extreme example of this blending was when theosophy leaders Annie Besant and Charles Webster Leadbeater adopted J. Krishnamurti as a child and tried to raise him to become a world messiah. Joe also journeyed to Nepal to see the Himalayas, where his favorite theosophy-related artist, Nicholas Roerich (1874–1947), had painted his colorful and mysterious landscapes.
Joe also revisited his birthplace in Pocking, Germany, where he had spent the first 2 years of life in a displaced persons’ camp with his parents after World War II. The camp was gone; but with the help of people he met there, he found the church where he was baptized. This experience helped him make the connection between how the hardships the Nazis imposed on his family mirrored the dynamic of the cultic groups he followed as an adult.
After returning to Santa Fe, Joe struggled to acknowledge that theosophy was a made-up philosophy. He felt drawn to cult critics and eventually realized he was turning into a skeptic. Giving up his religion, he struggled with his identity, trying to reconcile his life as an artist and his new calling as a cult interventionist. In the last chapters of the memoir, he describes his collaboration with other cult interventionists and recounts his most memorable encounters with active cult members.
Besides being a valuable map to the theosophy universe, Santa Fe, Bill Tate, and me is an artist’s memoir. Joe explains how he sought the spiritual path to add soul to his art, but that it also led him to help others who had fallen into cultic traps. Besides being his own story, the book serves as a tribute to Bill Tate, Joe’s true friend and guide. Joe's narrative reveals Bill as a gentle, humble man who led a long life of adventure and hardship. The stories about Bill’s life are mesmerizing, offering humor and happy moments to go with the drama of Joe’s spiritual quest.
 The decree is cited in Turn Left at the Sleeping Dog: Scripting the Santa Fe Legend, 1920–1955, by John Pen La Farge (2006), p. 205.
Nori Muster, MS, is the author of Betrayal of the Spirit: My Life behind the Headlines of the Hare Krishna Movement (University of Illinois Press, 1997), Cult Survivors Handbook: Seven Paths to an Authentic Life (2010), and Child of the Cult (2012). She was an ISKCON member from 1978 to 1988, then earned her Master of Science degree at Western Oregon University in 1991 doing art therapy with juveniles. She is currently a freelance writer and adjunct professor based in Arizona. Her website for cultic studies information is norimuster.com/writing/culticstudies.html