On my years in CAYA CovenI first attended a CAYA Coven service in the summer of 2007. I had recently moved to the Bay Area, and was looking for a new pagan group: My partner and friend and I attended a Midsummer ritual, greatly enjoyed it, and quickly became regulars. CAYA was quite new at this point: they had only recently begun offering public circles in a public venue, and had yet to take their first group of initiates. I initiated into CAYA’s Wildflower tradition in 2009, was ordained a Wildflower Priestess in 2010, initiated as an Amazon in 2010, and was ordained a HPS in the Amazon (later Bloodroot Honey) tradition in 2011. I served, planned, organized, trained, and was in every other way a member in good standing with CAYA until I left in August 2015.
When I joined, CAYA was like many other small religious/spiritual groups: a little dysfunctional around the edges, but with a solid core of joy and excitement. I, and the other members of the group, poured our hearts and souls into it, and took our mission of worshiping the gods, providing good ritual and spiritual training, and creating an intentional spiritual community, very seriously.
In retrospect, there were red flags from early on, but it was easy to dismiss them as being misunderstandings, or over-zealousness, or the sort of gossip that just arises in small, active communities. However, as CAYA grew bigger, and as Yeshe Matthews, the main leader (yes, I know she was one of many founders, but she was always treated as the foremost authority, and held the title of “Visionholder” and “Visioning High Priestess” for the coven) went through personal events which contributed to her increasing instability, that sense of well-masked and tolerable dysfunction spiraled into blatant and systematic emotional, verbal, and spiritual abuse, along with financial and sexual impropriety, which I will detail below.
Why speak out now? I didn’t speak out sooner because, frankly, I’d spent enough time and energy on CAYA, and I simply wanted to move on with my life. I expected CAYA to implode (as it has- I realize it still technically exists, but it’s lost at least three quarters of its membership over the last five or so years), and Yeshe to drift into obscurity. However, as it has become clear that she is instead still actively seeking students, and is founding a new Temple, I think it is important for the details to come out in the hopes of preventing harm to new people.
Please note that, while there are many more issues of which I was aware than what I detail below, I am limiting myself to experiences which I had myself, which I directly witnessed, or which I was specifically told about by the person to whom they happened. Anything beyond that, however truthful I think it to be, I will leave out.
Peer pressure and outside life:CAYA could be insidious. The core of the coven, especially in the beginning, was a close-knit group of friends and colleagues who spent a tremendous amount of time together, and who did great religious work. It was easy to want to join that, and it was easy to consent to the work of initiation, even if it was a lot. Multiple rituals a month, each with their own multiple hours-long planning meetings; mandatory monthly day-long initiate meetings, additional “encouraged” time with your initiate group; online or self-study work with your sub-group within CAYA; your assigned role (social media! newsletter! organization of events!); mentoring new initiates after you’d been ordained; multiple yearly retreats; governance meetings; conflict resolution meetings; etc. If you were a person in CAYA with a full-time job, CAYA would very quickly suck up every ounce of free time you had, and many you didn’t. And, at first, you’d likely give it gladly! After all, this was The Work.
But, from early on, CAYA began to experience problems with member and clergy burn out. There was too much work, and not enough clergy to go around. This was compounded by the fact that Rabbit was never satisfied, and pushed the coven to grow every year, to add more and more responsibilities, to take more trips and host more workshops and increase our notoriety, and framed it all as a combination of your responsibility to your higher self, your gods, and your community, and also as a moral and spiritual failing if you indicated that you might need a break. The coven did have one year, 2012, in which it did not ordain any new initiates, and in my memory, it was the only year in which we achieved real stability; it was never repeated.
The problems with this are obvious: cutting people off from their existing social, emotional, and familial networks is textbook abusive behavior, and serves to create untenable group dynamics where everyone is completely dependent on the group’s success. Rabbit in particular would pressure people to commit more, to give more, and would shame them if they didn’t.
I remember one instance in particular where an Amazon initiate who had a colicky young baby was unable to attend a mandatory meeting, and instead called in by Skype to hear the teachings. This was initially approved, but as the meeting went on, Rabbit pressured her to get off Skype and drive the 40-60 minutes with her baby to attend the evening meeting, assuring her that all the baby needed was to be held by the circle of women, and when the initiate finally firmly refused, Rabbit castigated the initiate at length as uncommitted, flaky, and a poor mother. The initiate signed off in tears, and continued to be characterized by Rabbit and others as a “concern” and as an inadequate priestess, mother, and member of the coven until she left a year or so later.
Sexual behavior and concerns:There was a standing joke which was oft-repeated in the early years about how the Amazon tribe was only ever a hot tub and a bottle of champagne away from an orgy. It was funny, kind of, but also way closer to true than was ever appropriate for the leadership of a public religious organization. Let me be clear: though I am in a monogamous hetero-sexual relationship (and have been for seventeen years), I have zero problem with what other consenting adults do with each other. What I do have a problem with, and what often came up in CAYA, are sexual situations in which there is an unbalanced power dynamic which calls that consent into question.
I never directly experienced what would be legally characterized as sexual abuse, nor did I see any myself, but I have no difficulty believing that it happened. I was definitely aware of sexual pressures, particularly from Rabbit toward various people to either sleep with her, sleep with each other, or to generally “free themselves” from patriarchal sexual mores ie: sleep with people at her behest. She at least twice to my knowledge engaged in sexual relationships with people under her spiritual authority, including initiates, and routinely trivialized others’ sexual and romantic choices, particularly those that did not reflect her own. The Amazons, especially, could create problematic situations as we held our meetings and performed our rituals skyclad. If you were an initiate, you were only allowed to wear underwear if you were bleeding, and if you covered up with a blanket or shawl because you were cold (as I often was), you were lectured at length about your need to overcome your puritanical and patriarchal prudishness. (I was a nude model for years; literally hundreds of people have seen my bare ass. I was just cold.) Sex and sexual behavior was also framed as offerings to the deities (in private or in private groups, not in public ritual), especially to Aphrodite and Oshun, of whom Rabbit was a priestess, and any perceived reluctance on this front, especially from women who also dedicated to those goddesses, was treated as a spiritual failing.
Financial issues:As with many pagan communities, CAYA had some members who had full-time jobs and incomes, and many who did not. Those who didn’t were encouraged to become dependent on Rabbit and “her” store, or later on the coven, in the guise of the community supporting itself. However, this then led to the dysfunctional situation of many coven members being chronically under-employed, underpaid, and unable to search for or accept other work because to do so was seen as a “betrayal.” Those who did leave The Sacred Well for better financial offers were shamed, shunned, and subjected to intense emotional scenes. Meanwhile, those who worked “mundane” jobs were alternately scorned and berated for not contributing enough time and energy to the coven and yet also expected to help fund the coven through donations, the purchase of supplies, and subsidizing less fortunate coven members’ “needs” (I don’t mean things like bills or food, I mean things like coven field trips). There was also a lot of pressure to purchase all of your magickal goods through TSW, to take classes there, and to patronize the staff there for magickal work.
Much of this, on the surface, is innocuous: sure, if I’m able, I’m happy to help out my community member in paying for things, and sure, if a friend of mine owns a store, I’m going to make a point to buy things there. The issues came in the censuring that occurred if you stepped out of line, and the ways in which the organization systematically preyed on its members, both on the time and energy of the under or un-employed and on the financial resources of the financially solvent. Further, a culture of financial irresponsibility was fostered, up to and including the broad social acceptance of defaulting on loans, declaring personal bankruptcy, and tax evasion. All of these institutional systems and responsibilities were seen as symptoms of the patriarchy*, and while it was never spelled out or dictated that we should do these things, they were presented as normal and reasonable behaviors. Meanwhile, everyone was simultaneously encouraged to line Rabbit’s and TSW’s pockets with whatever they could spare in exchange for a new trinket or a divination.
Relationship issues:Rabbit was famous for breaking up relationships, especially monogamous heterosexual relationships. I saw her succeed in dissolving several marriages and partnerships, cause real instability in others, and try to undermine many more. I don’t fully understand why this was a habit of hers, but it was particularly intense in the years before she herself got married. She would target the women of the coven, first making them so busy and over-committed with coven responsibilities that the quality of their relationship was strained, then suggest that their (invariably male) partner didn’t support them, didn’t see them as the goddess and queen they were, and tell them that by continuing to bind themselves in a romantic relationship with a man, they were succumbing to the patriarchy and denying the goddess. The pressure could be intense, and sadly several relationships fell, including several with small children involved. At least one of the couples went on to remarry after the woman left CAYA, and is happy to this day; others were not so fortunate. I suspect it was just another piece of creating dependency on herself and the coven, but that’s speculation. I was fortunate to escape the brunt of this, as my partner was already in CAYA, and was not seen as a “threat” by her.
Cult dynamics:The first big red flag for me came in my Amazon initiate year, and in retrospect, I should have left then, but I didn’t. My father , who lives several states away and whom I see maybe every other year at most, let me know that spring that he would be in my area for about 36 hrs on a work trip in the early summer. Unfortunately, his visit coincided with one of the mandatory all-day Amazon meetings. This should have been fine – in our manual, it said that we could miss one of the four mandatory meetings, provided we gave sufficient notice and made arrangements to make-up the work, so I contacted Rabbit and let her know that I would need to miss this meeting, and asked what sort of make-up work I needed to do. Rabbit, however, told me that I would not be allowed to miss it, and when I protested, cited the manual, and pointed out that I would not see my father again likely for years, she called a meeting of me, her, my Amazon “big sister” and two of the other Amazon priestesses (one of whom was another Elderflower).At this meeting, she spent hours explaining to me how in order to be a successful Amazon priestess, I needed to free myself from the patriarchy and repudiate my father. I remember having to leave the room several times so that I could be quietly hysterical in the hallway, completely overwhelmed with shock at what was happening. They were unmoved, and I was informed in no uncertain terms that if I missed even a portion of the meeting to see my father, I would be expelled from the Amazons. To this day, I carry deep regret and shame that I gave in, but I did. I did not see my father, and I attended the meeting. This is just one example of the sort of alienation from existing relationships and support structures that was practiced in the coven, and these grew worse as time went on.
The systems of the coven also encouraged secrecy and shaming: our only mediation and remediation process, called “Conflict Resolution”, took place in secret meetings between the complainant, the accused, and representatives for each as well as adjudicating Council members. No one besides those involved were allowed to know about it, and those involved were forbidden to speak of it. It was not considered finished until both parties agreed that it was resolved in full.
This sort of system, of course, is deeply flawed: what of the danger to the coven of someone who is being brought up repeatedly on ethical or behavioral complaints? What of the inherent pressure on the complainant to give in to whatever solution or redress is presented in order to not have to continue indefinitely facing the person who has mistreated them? And, most importantly, what happens when the accused is in fact the highest-ranking person in the coven, from whom all the representatives and adjudicators take their cues?
Intracoven social dynamics:CAYA quickly became a series of cliques. The governing body was in its own pocket, quite literally- most of them worked at “Rabbit’s” store; several of them lived in the same building, and those that didn’t lived very nearby. They had exclusive chat groups, took trips together, had regular communal meals, and saw themselves very much as the best of the coven. In addition to creating an insurmountable Us/Them dynamic, this added to the cult-like phenomenon of inability to leave: If your High Priestess is also your employer, also lives in your building, and is also one of your closest and only friends (because remember, you’ve now spent years neglecting the rest of your relationships), how are you reasonably supposed to extricate yourself? This inner circle not only was used to consolidate Rabbit’s control of the coven and validate her own personal needs, it served as a tool by which to alternately exhort (don’t you want to be as good at this as these people are?) and berate (look how much work these people are doing! what have you done for the coven lately?) the rest of the group.
Sexism, transphobia, and appropriation:I am a feminist. I believe feminism is crucial to fixing our society, I believe intersectional feminism is absolutely necessary, and I believe transwomen are women. “Feminism” means treating people of all genders equally, providing them with equal access, equal opportunity, and doing away with gender-based power and reward structures.
This is not what Yeshe Matthews believes. To her, men are an inferior group of people who exist to provide money, service, and children (preferably girls). To her, transfolk are out of touch with their own true self and transwomen are really men. To her, other cultures exist to be borrowed from, “resonated with”, and used as a bludgeon to prove her own superiority over others. Weirdly, she also subscribes to very traditionalist tenants of womanhood, including seeing motherhood as the ultimate expression of goddesshood- this resulted in pressure on the women of the coven to have babies, whether they were able and willing or not, and also in very unhealthy situations in which Rabbit would often publicly berate the mothers in the coven on their child-raising, particularly the ways in which they were doing it wrong.
I can say all these things because I witnessed all of them over the years I knew her. She can talk a good talk, and I think she convinces herself of whatever she needs to in any given moment so that she can play whatever victim card is called for in any given situation. But her actions – the routine disrespect, disenfranchisement, and dismissal of the men in the coven; her waffling positions and hatespeech toward transfolk (and gay men, too); and her frequent appropriation of non-white cultures to serve her own religious self-aggrandizement – speak for themselves.
Emotional abuse:Rabbit was always prone to dramatics; it’s part of what makes her such an effective charismatic leader. She is able to fully feel, fully emote, and fully share a tremendous range of feelings at any given moment. This, though, combined with her ever-growing paranoia, made her increasingly unstable. What started out as peer pressure and lecturing turned into systematic shaming, shunning, gaslighting, and manipulation. The entire coven was under her thumb, and she was especially awful to the Amazons/BRHP. I have seen her scream litanies of abuse at covenmates, including insults, swears, and threats; she was often petty, vicious, and cruel to anyone who showed any resistance to her, only to claim either that it was “tough love” and “for their own good” or else that she had only said it because she was in such a terrible state herself, and if they really loved her, they’d understand and forgive her. She moves instantly between invective and martyrdom, cursing members one moment while seeking their comfort and reassurance the next. As her persecution complex deepened during 2014 and 2015, you just never knew when you were going to put a foot wrong: everything was a loyalty test, and if the meeting didn’t end with multiple people crying and apologizing and professing their undying devotion to her and to the coven, then you’d better believe we’d make up for it at the next one.
Again, though, this was only ever an escalation of a thread which was always present: very early in my Amazon initiate year I remember her, in the context of discussing my purported reservedness (I’m not a big public display of emotion person) with another priestess, looking me straight in the eye and saying, “Just wait. I’ll break you.” Easy to awkwardly laugh off in the moment as a joke, but it was ultimately her goal- she wanted to break all of us, because if we remained fully ourselves, we didn’t need her the way that she craved.
The difficulties of leaving:It is technically true that you could leave, and many did. However, it was very difficult for many because CAYA had become your entire social circle, and often your primary, if not only, emotional and financial support. When I left, people with whom I had been close, intimate friends for years cut me off entirely. You would be blocked on social media, unfriended, emails would go unresponded to, calls ignored. This was demoralizing at best, and shockingly hurtful and depressing to many.
Though many of us “retired,” and were in good standing at the time we decided to leave, we were welcome to attend rituals, we were purged from email lists, and all trace of us was erased from the CAYA website. If you worked in “Rabbit’s” store, which many coven members did over the years, you needed to be able to provide for yourself financially in other ways before you could even consider getting out. Once you’d made the decision, you had to make a full plunge, with no looking back, because you would not be allowed to recant or negotiate your return.
Leaving was also seen very much as a punishment or a surrender, as Rabbit over the years systematically targeted individuals for abuse and eventual expulsion from the group. This, of course, served to make the remaining group even more committed, because they didn’t want to be forced out against their will, and didn’t want to undergo the losses and smear campaigns that would result from our departure. (Everyone who left got a narrative of some kind: “the one who was just in it for the attention”; “the one who wanted to steal Rabbit’s position”; “the one who was poisoned by the patriarchy”- we used to speculate while we were still in the coven about what our inevitable narrative would be.)
So, as with any cult or other abusive relationship, it’s very easy to look at it from the outside and say “why didn’t you just walk away?” The answer, of course, is that it was much harder to do so than it seemed.
There’s more, of course there’s more. Years and years of more. But anyone who’s read this far either is convinced or is not by now, and many of the stories are not mine to tell. I’m sure she will deny all of this, should she become aware of it. I’m sure I will be denounced by her and her followers as resentful, petty, slanderous, and many other things. They will produce stories of my manifold failings, claim that I was never dependable or reliable, and discredit me in every way possible. I don’t care- I know and the gods know that it’s true, and that’s enough for me.
I loved Rabbit, and CAYA, and it grieves me deeply what all of it has become. I feel deep compassion for her, and I hope that she gets the help she needs, and I hope even more that her many targets and former friends find the healing that they need. As for CAYA, it was all hers from the beginning to the end- I can’t imagine how it can continue as is, and I encourage anyone who remains to burn down the remnants and start fresh. There’s nothing salvageable at this point; learn from what was, and make something new.
Please note that while I have left comments on, I will happily delete any vitriol or victim-blaming, and none of this is up for debate. I’m happy to answer what questions I can, but this is not a court of law, and I will not be attempting to “prove” my experiences or otherwise convince skeptics.
May any ill-will directed at me for speaking the truth return to its wisher three-fold.
T. Drakos, 3/2018
*I do think that many of our financial and governmental institutions are part of the toxic patriarchy in our culture, and need to be reformed or overthrown, but I don’t think promoting personal bankruptcy and loan fraud constitutes sound financial advice, regardless of what you think of the morality of the system.