Gafni’s also has defenders in the New Age world. My article in the Times quoted Gafni supporters Ken Wilber and Sally Kempton defending him on various grounds having to do with his nature, or his innate energy, which they believe in time he’s learned to control better. There were others I spoke with who believed either that Gafni’s past had been exaggerated, or that he had changed, and often both.
The men’s rights advocate Warren Farrell is in a monthly men’s group with Gafni, author John Gray, and others, and he is the third author on Gray’s planned next sequel to Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus. Farrell is also associated with Gafni’s think tank, the Center for Integral Wisdom. “Marc is able to bring people in, see what their gift is, and then co-create with them,” Farrell said in an interview.
“I’ve looked into it,” Farrell said, when asked about Gafni’s controversial past. “People who know me say the single thing that stands out most with me is word integrity. Marc was very open about telling me and sharing with me what his background was. I did do some research on it. I knew one of the women he was involved with at the time I met him.” Farrell said that while he had only “Marc’s perspective on it,” he had concluded, “What feels pretty accurate to me was that Marc was basically in an Orthodox community and he tends to behave in unorthodox ways … Orthodox communities are pretty sexually repressed, and Marc is not sexually repressed.”
That line of argument—that Gafni suffered from an imperfect fit with the Orthodox Jewish world in which he was raised—was also put forward by Kempton, who writes about Eastern wisdom traditions and yoga, who is revered in certain precincts of the New Age world, and whose endorsement was instrumental in helping Gafni rebuild his reputation after he left Jewish life. She suggested that there was something in the hothouse of boys’ yeshiva education, or in his Jewish “lineage,” that explained why he turned to a 13-year-old for sexual release.
“I recognize,” Kempton said, “that particular heart-to-heart transmission in Marc, that he is able to offer in a large group, and that I think is very connected with one of the Hasidic lineages—I don’t know enough about Jewish lineages to understand it, but it’s a felt sense that I recognize … As you probably know, those highly, incredibly high-energy, smart young yeshiva boys are just filled with energy that spills over in super-, hyper-talking, obviously, in their hyper-sexuality. And I don’t think that in that sense Marc is that different from a lot of young Orthodox guys that I have known who are trying to stay celibate until they got married, and it was killing them.
“So the early relationship that started this whole thing,” Kempton continued, “was with a freshman in high school, he was 19, I think it was his first serious girlfriend. They made out, and he was very persuasive. He is a high-energy person. She was 13 or 14—it is not exactly clear which—but having been a 13-year-old girl with an older boy, I know how 13-year-old girls are kind of polite when somebody is kissing them, and they don’t really love it. And I think a lot of what is called abuse in teenage interactions really comes from girls being over polite and boys thinking that if a girl isn’t kicking them in the balls, that means [it’s okay].”
…Not all of Gafni’s new supporters come from the New Age world. Adam Bellow is an editor at HarperCollins known for working with conservative authors, including Sarah Palin and Ted Cruz. He is now advising Gafni’s think tank, the Center for Integral Wisdom, and helping Gafni plan future publications. He is one of the talking heads in Rise Up, a short movie that seems to be a preview for a planned longer movie for the center. (Motivational speaker Tony Robbins, Whole Foods CEO John Mackey, and Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus author John Gray are also in the five-minute movie.)
Bellow—who in 1993 published David Brock’s The Real Anita Hill—believed that the charges against Mr. Gafni may have been exaggerated over time, in part due to contested, and politicized, definitions of “rape.”
“We obviously cannot know for certain what occurred between two people—as the Hill/Thomas case amply demonstrates, memory is a very tricky thing and an experience that might seem benign or acceptable at one time in a person’s life may look very different in hindsight,” wrote Bellow in an email to me.
“Clearly there is something about Marc that elicits strong reactions, some of them harshly negative, but many others strongly positive. Can all these people who love and admire him really be completely wrong? Are they under some weird kind of spell? I think when you meet him you will see that he has no such magical power of enchantment. If he does, I am certainly immune to it. And yet in your position, I would be reluctant to dismiss the deeply felt and no doubt convincing claims of women who insist they have been harmed by him.”
In the end, Bellow suggested that Gafni was in part a victim of his own unconventional energy. “I can tell you from my own experience that the fire of Eros is a real thing,” Bellow wrote. “In recent years I have myself developed a capacity to experience and channel this energy in a series of tantric relationships. I have no doubt that it is real, that it has been experienced and described by many great poets and mystics, and that Marc himself is a powerful receiver and transmitter of it. I also have no trouble believing that in his early life he had little understanding or control over this powerful gift … Anyone who has gifts of this kind needs to learn to handle them responsibly and ethically. This can take some time, and even in the best of circumstances, people can get burned.”
Gafni has had a repeat gig lecturing at Phillips Exeter Academy, known as Exeter, the elite boarding school in New Hampshire. He is brought to campus by Kathy Brownback, who teaches religion at Exeter and is also affiliated with the Center for Integral Wisdom. She said that she finds Gafni’s writing extremely useful, and has included one of his articles on her syllabi. And according to a blog post she wrote, in 2012 Gafni spoke to students, met with a faculty book group, and led a retreat for the whole Exeter religion department.
“He’s come [to Exeter] two or three times,” Brownback said. “In person, he’s very intense, and he’s got a bit of, some would say more than a bit of, the charismatic evangelical preacher about him. He is really forceful about his ideas—some kids were completely drawn to that, and some kids were put off by it. In person, he’s not as helpful as the ideas are. The ideas really speak to kids.” She uses one Gafni article in her class Interdisciplinary Approaches to Epistemology, where he is taught alongside Plato, Aristotle, and Kant.”
“I have learned a lot from him and talked with him on a bunch of occasions, and been involved with the Center for Integral Wisdom board, so I know his work pretty closely,” Brownback said.
I asked if she worried about the sexual allegations against Gafni.
“I don’t,” Brownback said. “He’s never alone with any kids anyway, so that’s not an issue. It feels to me like there’s not a lot of distortion with him. But I don’t have any direct knowledge of that stuff, so I can’t say.”
Later, Brownback sent a follow-up email in which she wrote, in part: “I know about the stuff on the web, and as I mentioned in my earlier email people at Exeter have sometimes asked me about the web. I’ve talked with Marc and with others involved who have reviewed all the material. I trust them and I trust Marc. I know him well and have full confidence in his integrity.
Later in the email, Brownback wrote: “In a way Marc reminds me of Jacob—not always orthodox (though more than the rest of us), and most assuredly wrestling with God. If his work had ever been thought to be racist, or sexist, or anti-Semitic, or anything else along that line, the criticisms would land completely differently with me. But the attacks on him are of a very different nature, and I am not concerned about them. I trust him and trust the very strong group that he has gathered.”