The most recent True Noir article details the mysterious deaths of several followers of a popular 1970’s spiritual leader in Dallas, Texas: The Deaths Surrounding Terri Hoffman.
Though she was never directly implicated in the six suicides, four mysterious deaths, and one unexplained disappearance plaguing her followers between 1977-1989, lawsuits filed against Conscious Development founder, Terri Hoffman, contend that she played a major role in them. The demise of those Conscious Development followers was later attributed to Terri using “hypnosis, behavior modification, mind control, and manipulation of emotions” for “profit or material gain.”
Terri has simultaneously been described as “possibly the most successful, unprosecuted serial killer-for-profit in the history of Texas” and a little, cherub-faced lady much more “like somebody’s grandma” than an evil cult leader. Terri’s supporters insist that her “followers [left] her money and property as would the devout members of a traditional church” and that the unrelated deaths were “occupational hazards for any counselor trying to pull people up from despair.”
Terri Hoffman’s particular amalgamation of various religious and philosophical beliefs provided followers with “acceptance and love,” and was ruled by “the Law of Karma, which held that ugliness begets ugliness and beauty begets beauty.” However, it seems that Terri was also hawking complex interpretations of these concepts which discouraged her followers from appreciating their lives. And, may have also contributed significantly to mental illnesses.
Examples of harmful Conscious Development beliefs are detailed in the following:
- Death doesn’t matter because one will be reborn. As followers did not appreciate the finality of death, they also, subsequently, did not value their lives or material existence.
“You will also become conscious of the continuity of life. Death, then, will not exist in reality; for you will realize that your existence is not dependent upon the mere maintenance of your physical body… the result of noble death is rebirth.”-Conscious Development lessons written by Terri Hoffman in the late sixties (detailed in the “Conscious Development” section of the 1990 Texas Monthly article).
- Karma was taught as the idea that if bad things are happening to someone, it may be because they are a bad person. Arbitrary misfortunes pulled followers deeper into the Conscious Development ideology as they attempted to sort out their bad karma.
“…people who have been killed in volcanic eruptions and dire catastrophes have deserved these violent deaths.” -A printed Conscious Development lesson. .
“He says energies are going to start coming in pretty soon that are going to change things. He says if they don’t have Conscious Development to turn to throughout the country, there’s going to be a possibility we could incur karma by not doing it.” -Terri, in a taped conversation with Sandy Cleaver, during a personal consultation (detailed in the “Terri’s World” section).
- One’s nonphysical body in the astral plane is ungoverned by the conscious person. Therefore, regardless of one’s actual disposition or actions, they may still have an evil nonphysical body on the astral plane, wrecking havoc on other innocent people’s lives. It appears that this concept was utilized to create division within the group (fostering further dependence upon Terri) and to emotionally manipulate members (like Robin Otstott) towards feeling of guilt and self-loathing.
“I have made the decision to stop talking with you… In looking back at the numerous things that have befallen me, I was able to determine that on many occasions I had talked to you and given you information which was then used against me by your other bodies following our phone call.” –Note to Robin Otstott from her best friend, Tammie, in March 1987 (a month before Robin’s suicide).
- Paranoia is justified. Followers should distance themselves from outside influences. Fostering a sense of importance and mission among followers, this belief also encouraged isolation and distrust of the outside world.
“Curtail most of your social contact with those outside this group – it’s for their protection, the Black Forces may use them to get to you … Keep your sword near you, especially when you go to bed … Protect your animals, car, place of work and your home with the protection rituals.” –Instructions distributed to Conscious Development teachers (detailed in the “Black Lords and Slimy Garbons” section).
The aforementioned concepts and beliefs cannot be disconnected from the propensity towards suicide which followers of Conscious Development experienced.
The Modern Cult, Mind Control, & Meditation
The modern definition of a cult applies generally to “groups that use manipulative techniques and mind control to heighten suggestibility and subservience.”
Though it makes for an eye-catching headline, the science fiction notion of mind control isn’t necessary within the confines of a group like Conscious Development. Mind control, in this instance, is defined as “a process of either unconscious or intentional change of an individual’s behavior, thought, and emotional patterns through subtle, deceptive, and damaging means.” The kind of coercive persuasion that permeates cults can alter both “attitude and behavior,” and “can be even more effective [at controlling people] than pain, torture, drugs, and use of physical force and legal threats.”
In an article by psychologist, Margaret Thaler Singer, it is argued that “if most of Robert Jay Lifton’s eight point model of thought reform is being used in a cultic organization, it is most likely a dangerous and destructive cult.” Terri Hoffman and the Conscious Development group objectively met the criteria for at least seven points, including environment control, mystical manipulation, demand for purity, cult of confession, sacred science, loaded language, and doctrine over person.
In addition to the harmful ideologies of Conscious Development, Terri Hoffman’s heavy emphasis on meditation may have also encouraged “psychological and physical problems ranging from muscle spasms to hallucinations.”
Thought to be entirely dependent upon the meditator’s physiology, it has been established in various scientific studies over the past 30 years that meditation has significant and damaging effects on some practitioners. While practicing meditation, some people are predisposed to later experiencing “involuntary meditation” which consists of “feeling emotionally dead and seeing the environment as unreal, two-dimensional, amorphous.” According to one study, which compiled potential health considerations associated with meditation throughout the years, “adverse effects on mental health are the most frequently reported negative consequences from meditation.”
Other practitioners experience paradoxical “relaxation-induced anxiety” which can “aggravate conditions, such as schizophrenia, depression, asthma, and bleeding ulcers, that were previously stable.” In fact, in one study on the effects of mediation on “chronically anxious” people, over half of the participants “indicated that their anxiety got worse.”
Involuntary meditation may have plagued the many Conscious Development followers who committed suicide. The pervasive feeling of disconnection from reality may have also provided a means of easy disconnection between those struggling practitioners and their families and/or material goods. In addition, the exacerbating effect of relaxation-induced anxiety may have worsened preexisting conditions in other followers and created an environment in which paranoia and mental illness flourished.
If Terri truly were a counselor that attracted mentally unstable followers and was only “trying to pull people up from despair,” as her defenders argue, then her intense focus and advocation of meditation may have further harmed many vulnerable members.
Malignant Pied Pipers
Though suspicious, prosecutors asserted that the control which Terri Hoffman exerted over her followers “[didn’t] translate into a grand jury proceeding.”
However, the questionable deaths of both Devereaux Cleaver and Jill Bounds assign further frightening implications to the group. Setting aside what Conscious Development followers did to themselves, what were they also capable of doing to others? The nonbelievers? The former members? The detractors?
Also, what interaction or situation created the unsubstantiated claims of terminal diseases by Robin Otstott and Don Hoffman before their suicides? It seems reasonable to consider these illogical convictions a symptom of Terri Hoffman’s influence, as she is the prime connection between the two unique suicides.
In American society, authorities have always had difficulties in addressing the implications of one individual influencing another person’s suicide. Manslaughter is the most commonly applied charge for obvious and extensive influence which results in the suicide of another. As a recent and controversial example, Massachusetts teen, Michelle Carter, was charged in 2016 with involuntary manslaughter after emphatically suggesting (/ordering) her boyfriend to commit suicide. Evidence of Michelle’s undue authority in the relationship were presented by prosecution in extensive text message exchanges between the two.
For a conviction of manslaughter, prosecutors must prove three qualifications:
- The defendant intended to commit the act.
- The act the defendant intended to commit was wanton or reckless.
- The act caused the victim’s death.
The inherent secretive and protective nature of any cultic group would make proving these qualifications problematic. Though manslaughter can be used to prosecute the encouragement of suicide, cases like that of Terri Hoffman simply do not fit well into the legal definition of this crime. As such, it is difficult to ascertain or uphold a legal precedence for the charge and the punishment.
However, unlike Michelle Carter’s case (which is sometimes attributed to Michelle herself being mentally ill), Terri created an elaborate and systematic philosophy which encouraged suicide, and arguably created situations in which followers felt they should die. In addition, Terri and her group also profited financially from many of the deaths.
The thoughtful dissemination and promotion of (potentially harmful) ideas such as “death is meaningless” or “karma is justice” is not inherently unethical. However, the systematic formation of ideologies for the explicit purpose of creating abject and lucrative benefit to a specific leader or group is undeniably immoral. Though members may have truly acted independently, Terri Hoffman certainly did her part to facilitate an environment in which she was able to reap the benefits. As such, should this malignant pied piper be held accountable for their promulgation of harmful belief systems?
- Is it possible that the suicides, accidental deaths, murder, and disappearance of people related to the Conscious Development group were truly coincidental?
- Considering the criminal element of the disappearance of Charles Southern, Jr., the murder of Jill Bounds, and the potential murder of Devereaux Cleaver, do you think that Terri Hoffman and her inner circle was more of an example of organized crime than an influential cult?
- Was the evolution of Conscious Development, and it’s promulgation of harmful beliefs, intentional or misguided?
- Her philosophies and [perhaps inadvertent] exacerbation of mental illnesses considered, can Terri Hoffman be disassociated from the many deaths of her followers?
- Should people who exercise immense influence over suicidal individuals be held legally responsible for the impact of their influence?
- Where does the responsibility for one’s influence end? Where does the personal accountability of other individuals (who are possibly suicidal or mentally ill) begin? Can, and if so- should, the legal system recognize these dynamics?
As always, please do not hesitate to leave thoughts, answers, theories, criticism, or more questions in the comment section. Please also remember to check out the first True Noir article on The Deaths Surrounding Terri Hoffman. And, most importantly, thank you for reading True Noir!