Texas probe doesn't shake faith in Terri Hoffman

The Dallas Morning News/January 28, 1990
By Pete Slover

Chicago - Terri Hoffman's mystic doctrines - narrowly circulated in her hometown of Dallas - are openly advertised and taught in Chicago among a loyal following of metaphysics students.

A pattern of nine deaths among Ms. Hoffman's Texas associates appears to extend to Chicago: A 33-year-old follower of Ms. Hoffman took a fatal overdose of pills in 1987, leaving her family puzzling over the whereabouts of a $125,000 divorce settlement she had received 10 days earlier.

Neither the ten deaths nor a pending Dallas district attorney's investigation has shaken the loyalty of Ms. Hoffman's Chicago associates.

Death and distress, they say, are occupational hazards for any counselor trying to pull people up from despair.

Ms. Hoffman said Friday that she did not receive any of the missing money from the Chicago woman, Mary Levinson, but she would not comment further on her Chicago following.

Those followers, though, expressed resolute support and concern for the woman they see as a victim of religious and spiritual bigotry.

Chicago hypnotherapist Gregory Paxson defended Ms. Hoffman, his teacher, and her metaphysical doctrine known as Conscious Development of Body, Mind and Soul.

"I still think that if you were to take the records of a psychiatrist in something other than a middle-class practice, you would probably find some suicides," he said. "You would probably find some accidental deaths, you would probably find some people whose deaths were a little bit iffy in terms of whether it was suicide or accident.

"Her powers to help people are tremendous. I've never seen her hurt anybody," he said.

Conscious Development teacher Shelley Amdur called the criminal investigation and a pair of civil lawsuits a "witch hunt" based on a series of coincidences.

If your radiator overheats and your home burns down, does that prove anything?" she asked. "Isn't that adding two plus two to get six?"

A Dallas follower planted the seeds of Conscious Development in Chicago's new-age subculture during a national recruiting touring the late 1970s, devotees said.

The new-age label is commonly applied to a wide range of spiritual and supernatural activities, often incorporating beliefs in past-life regression, out-of-body experiences, the occult, mysticism, astrology and concepts borrowed from Eastern religions.

Conscious Development, as taught by Mrs. Hoffman and her followers, relies heavily on beliefs in so-called masters, or spiritual guides, that can be reached through meditation. The teachings also stress reincarnation, time travel and the importance of "positive energy," color, various types of rays and karma.

Although difficult to detect in Dallas, Conscious Development in Chicago is as obvious as the health-food stores and new-age emporiums scattered throughout the northwest part of the city and suburbs.

Healing Earth Resources, in a storefront on Chicago's Lincoln Avenue, embodies the soft-sell flavor of new-age commerce: an incense redolent cornucopia of crystals, herbal lotions, books and tapes on self-improvement, astrology, metaphysics and massage.

Against a dreamy backdrop of contemporary new-age instrumental music, the browser faces several shelves of pamphlets and free literature, including The Monthly Aspectarian, one of several Chicago new-age magazines.

The January issue includes the following ad: "Conscious Development of Body, Mind and Soul: A spiritual teaching, based on balancing the esoteric with mundane practicality, developed by Terri Hoffman."

Conscious Development teachers, counselors and massage therapists in Chicago post business cards on the bulletin boards of Healing Earth -- and other new-age emporiums, crowded among the mosaic offering of services from enema therapy to "homeopathic veterinary care."

In a six-page interview in the August 1989 issue of The Monthly Aspectarian, Ms. Hoffman, 51, described 35 years as a meditation instructor and her first visits from spiritual masters when she was 3 years old. She ended the interview by offering the names of two Chicago Conscious Development teachers.

Her Dallas phone number was included in an advertisement offering phone consultations.

None of that overt, entrepreneurial verve prevails in Dallas, where Ms. Hoffman remains silent in the face of a district attorney's investigation, civil lawsuits and broadening publicity stemming from the deaths of nine followers and associates.

Lawsuits pending in Dallas state court accuse Ms. Hoffman of using mind control and hypnosis to encourage or cause the accidental deaths or suicides of seven people, including two late husbands, who gave or left her and her organization money over the last decade.

The Dallas County district attorney is investigating those deaths and those of former SMU professor David Goodman and his wife, Glenda, clients of Ms. Hoffman who were found shot to death in their Lake Highlands home in November.

Areas of investigation include whether Ms. Hoffman influenced the changing of wills or life insurance policies, whether she obtained gifts or payment by fraud, whether she participated in the deaths or encouraged them and whether illegal drugs were used in her counseling work.

Ms. Hoffman incorporated Conscious Development of Body, Mind and Soul Inc. in Texas in 1974. During the late 1970s and early 1980s, Ms. Hoffman's meditation classes in Dallas reportedly attracted hundreds. In 1982, Ms. Hoffman settled a probate dispute with the family of a student who had died and left her entire estate to Conscious Development.

By the mid-1980s, the Conscious Development group in Dallas reportedly had few, if any, formal classes or meetings, although Ms. Hoffman continued to counsel individuals.

In the meantime, Conscious Development was growing in Chicago, thanks to Janine Schneider, a Conscious Development teacher who toured the country in 1979 and 1980 to promote Ms. Hoffman's teachings, according to teachers in Chicago who attended those early sessions. Ms. Schneider, who could not be reached, has since dissociated herself from Conscious Development, according to various Conscious Development students.

Several people in the Chicago area were intrigued by Ms. Hoffman's teachings and went to Dallas to study with her, said Ms. Amdur, one of two Conscious Development teachers who advertises in Chicago. Those teachers and others have offered Chicago classes ever since, she said.

Conscious Development of Body, Mind and Soul Inc. was incorporated as a not-for-profit corporation in Illinois in December 1987. The incorporators were not listed with the state, and the Chicago-area lawyer listed as registered agent refused to discuss the company.

Ms. Amdur, 39, and other Chicagoans said they have traveled to Dallas to consult Ms. Hoffman during crises. Ms. Amdur also said she has telephone conferences with Ms. Hoffman about twice a month.

Among the wide range of subjects discussed, she said, are the names of the spiritual masters assigned to Ms. Amdur's students, divined through Ms. Hoffman's' spiritual insight.

Ms. Hoffman, reportedly averse to travel, has visited Chicago three times in 1979, 1980, and 1989, Ms. Amdur said. The most recent visit was for Wesak, a Buddhist holiday celebrating the birth of Buddha, marked by Ms. Hoffman since at least 1980 as a time of great metaphysical healing, rebirth and positive energy.

Ms. Amdur, who said she holds a master's degree in business, said she ditched an unsatisfying career as a corporate professional to begin her counseling practice a decade ago and continues it today from her home in a middle-class neighborhood in west Chicago.

Inside the house is a display of scented and colored bath oils – for sale as part of a treatment known as "aromatherapy" – and a collection of figurines in various stages of painting. The statuary, mostly gnomes and gremlin-like characters, are products of an arts-and-crafts hobby picked up from Ms. Hoffman, Ms. Amdur said.

Ms. Amdur, who is conversant in philosophy, religion and history, also is a columnist for the Monthly Aspectarian and writes regularly for other new-age publications and her own newsletter, Cycles. Her work touches on a broad range of subjects -- addiction, coping with stress brought on by supernatural experiences -- and draws on conventional and new-age theories.

Ms. Amdur said her status as an approved Conscious Development teacher was decided by Ms. Hoffman, through consultation and teaching, and not through any formal certification process.

Ms. Amdur said she and another Chicago teacher, Rachel Stahlka, were trained by Ms. Hoffman. Ms. Stahlka, who could not be reached for comment, advertises as a practitioner of "Krashada" massage therapy, a technique developed by Ms. Hoffman.

According to her literature, Ms. Amdur charges $90 for a six-session beginner course, $150 for a 10-session intermediate course and $30 for four-hour workshops on subjects including "Psychic and Mental Shields" and "Time Travel." Classes usually have fewer than 10 students, she said.

Half of the net proceeds from classes go to Ms. Hoffman's Conscious Development company and, Ms. Amdur said, she keeps the other half.

Ms. Hoffman also offers phone consultations for $60 an hour plus long-distance charges, with payment in advance and as long as a two-month wait to get an appointment, according to a flier distributed by Ms. Amdur.

The brochure notes the broad range of subjects -- relationships, health, family, career -- on which Ms. Hoffman can advise.

"Through much discipline, work and assistance from very high beings she calls "Masters," Terri has developed an ability called spiritual sight ... The process is too complex to explain, except to say that a psychic reads what you want; spiritual sight looks at what your soul requires -- what is in your best interest over time," the brochure explains.

Conscious Development students and teachers in Chicago said they were intrigued and impressed by Ms. Hoffman's teachings and attracted by her kindness, wisdom and spiritual powers.

Ms. Amdur recalled an episode that she said illustrates that Ms. Hoffman is not a purveyor of doom, as alleged in the lawsuit by her late husband Don's children.

"I talked to her after Don died, and she was just destroyed, beside herself," she said. "She was really in love."

Ms. Amdur's eyes drifted to one of her plaster statues, a smiling hillbilly with a rough-hewn guitar, standing slightly out-of-place amid the army of gnomes. She painted it in memory of Ms. Hoffman's late husband, she said, remembering his slightly "country" manner.

Mr. Paxson, the hypnotherapist, a said he remains confident of Ms. Hoffman's metaphysical abilities, which range from counseling to physical healing.

"I can't think of a human being who's contributed as much to my life as she has, no other one who comes close," he said. "That's not to take away from my parents. It's just that they're regular folks."

Mr. Paxson, 44, was married to former Conscious Development teacher Monica Paxson in a ceremony performed by Ms. Hoffman in Dallas in 1983. They separated in 1986 and divorced in 1988; Ms. Paxson severed ties with Ms. Hoffman at the initial breakup.

Ms. Paxson recalled her husband's regular contact with Ms. Hoffman. "He wouldn't take a step without consulting her," Ms. Paxson said. "But more often than not, he would disagree with her and go against her advice."

One former Conscious Development student said that Ms. Hoffman spoke vaguely of her connections to the CIA and claimed some measure of government protection.

Ms. Amdur said she had no specific knowledge of those claims, but speculated that the CIA may have sent students to Ms. Hoffman for metaphysical training, or that some CIA employees may coincidentally have been Conscious Development students.

Ms. Amdur said it is impossible to estimate the number of people involved with Conscious Development in Chicago because there are no formal membership lists, and she has taught numerous people who borrow from or incorporate the teachings into other philosophies.

Mr. Paxson estimated the number of Chicago devotees in the hundreds, judging in part from attendance at last year's Wesak festival

But his ex-wife said there were fewer than three-dozen hard-core, active Conscious Development students when she broke contact several years ago.

"It's a loose-knit association: poorly organized and really a bit sloppy," Ms. Paxson said. "But it was benign, as far as I could tell."

Guy Spiro publisher of The Monthly Aspectarian, interviewed Ms. Hoffman for the article last year. He said he knew of fewer than one dozen active devotees of Conscious Development.

"Conscious Development is one of countless groups like it in Chicago," said Mr. Spiro. "It's certainly not one of the major schools of thought."

Mr. Spiro said he was skeptical of any theory that attributes deaths to metaphysical teaching.

"Anybody who commits suicide after beginning to explore metaphysics was unbalanced before," he said."

Likewise, Ms. Hoffman's associates in Chicago overwhelmingly rejected the notion that Ms. Hoffman was involved in the deaths of her Texas associates or Chicago student Mary Levinson. Ms. Paxson described Ms. Hoffman as, at most, a well-intentioned victim of her attempts to pull people from their murkiest moods.

"If she's guilty of anything, it may have been getting in over her head with counseling really disturbed people," she said.

Ms. Amdur said that questions about Ms. Hoffman's counseling techniques are ones of professional ethics, not of criminal law. She expressed concern that Ms. Hoffman's teachings are being turned into freak-show fodder, a symptom of mainstream bigotry and intolerance for new-age thought, she said.

"It's bigger than Terri. What they are trying to do is to set a legal precedent that has occurred nowhere else," she said. "It puts the whole new-age thought -- alternative thought into disrepute, and threatens to make certain beliefs and practices illegal."

Staff writer Lori Stahl contributed to this report.

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