A One-person Cult? A Japanese Dance Master Accused of Driving a Student to Suicide

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Sharon Stern.
Sharon Stern.Credit: Reproduction
Shany Littman
Shany Littman
Shany Littman
Shany Littman

A visitor must pass through two gates and by three guards at the entrance to the neighborhood where Hana and Tibor Stern live. Opposite the striking, spacious residence of these Israelis living in Hollywood, Florida, is a park with a lake. Many of the homes here have pools, and in some cases there’s a yacht anchored behind the house. The Florida weather is warm, even on a late-winter day, and a particularly calm atmosphere envelops the neighborhood. But for the Sterns, the comfortable, protected bourgeois bubble that they created for themselves with hard work fell apart one night six years ago.

On April 25, 2012, Sharon Stern, their younger child ended her short life not far from her parents’ home, in the area where she was born and grew up. In the two years that preceded her suicide, Sharon traveled the world, reaching as far away as possible, in every sense, from Hollywood, Florida. In those two years, her parents watched as she grew more distant from them, swept up in a swirling current whose nature they could not grasp. They saw her falling apart, physically and mentally. In the farewell note she left her family she wrote, “I’m sorry. I had to. Please tell my family I loved them. Can’t survive the storm.”

Since then, her parents have been fighting the person whom they allege fomented that storm in their daughter’s soul, and whom they are convinced bears ultimate responsibility for her suicide. They filed a wrongful death lawsuit against him in the United States, claiming that their daughter was a victim of negligence and neglect and was denied medical treatment.

“I never believed that it was possible to lose a child to hostile outside forces like this,” Tibor Stern says. “It’s what’s known as ‘undue influence’ – it could be hypnosis, brainwashing or happen through art. The result is that the family doesn’t exist and your former life doesn’t exist, only the guru exists. He is a supreme power. What he decides for you is what you do.”

Enter the guru

Sharon, known affectionately as Sharoni, was born in Florida in 1979. Her parents, who are in their late 60s today, immigrated to the Miami area from Israel more than 40 years ago. Tibor Stern had been born in Czechoslovakia to parents who survived the Holocaust, and as a youth he came with them and his two siblings to Israel. He left in a fury after participating in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, feeling that the country was exacting too dear a price from him. He had just married Hana Kobi, from an old and well-known Tiberias family, and persuaded her that a better life awaited them in America.

Hana and Tibor Stern.Credit: Shay Cohen

When they arrived in Miami, the Israeli community there numbered just a few dozen people, the Sterns relate. Presently some 80,000 Israelis live in the greater Miami area, most of them prosperously.

The Sterns opened a diamond business and were successful at it. They had two children, Ronald and Sharon, born four years apart. By all accounts, not least the family stories and photos, Sharon was a happy, creative and vivacious girl. On her phone, her mother has videos of her doing imitations in different accents. In every social event she was the center of attention, a girl endowed with self-confidence, a sense of humor and a great love of acting and dancing. After completing Hillel Day School in Hollywood, a modern-Orthodox Jewish school, she attended the University of Miami. As such, she always remained close to her family and to her childhood friends.

In her farewell note she wrote, 'I’m sorry. I had to. Please tell my family I loved them. Can’t survive the storm.'

Relations with her parents were close and unmarred by confrontations. From their point of view, she was perfect and obedient as a daughter, Daddy’s little girl. “She was the smartest girl I knew – intelligent, strong, there were never any problems with her. She was the pillar of the group, an artist, an actress, a singer, she stood out at university. Family was always the top priority for her,” her father says.

In her mid-20s, Sharon met Todd Siegel, a software engineer from a Jewish family in New York. They were married in 2007. It was a magical love story, their friends say. In 2008, Sharon decided to return to school and obtain a master’s in fine arts. She chose Naropa University in Colorado, where the family has a summer house, and the couple moved there.

Sharon Stern on her wedding day.Credit: Reproduction

Naropa is a Buddhist-oriented private university that was founded in 1974 in the city of Boulder by exiled Tibetan teacher Chogyam Trungpa. In 1988, Naropa became the first recognized Buddhist university in the world when it obtained accreditation from the higher education authorities in the United States. Advanced educational methods are employed, studies are often informal and in any case inspiring, former students say.

But Sharon’s parents consider Naropa a very dangerous place. It was there that their daughter first became acquainted with butoh, a Japanese form of dance theater that developed in the late 1950s. She took part in workshops given by a butoh master from Kyoto, Katsura Kan, the stage name of Terugoshi Kotoura. Kan, now 70, is considered one of the world’s leading practitioners of the dance form, and was a visiting teacher at Naropa.

Tibor Stern’s anger spills over uncontrollably when he talks about Kan. “Kan had been a construction laborer in Japan, but when he came here it was a big thing. The guru had arrived,” he recalls. According to Stern, after his daughter’s suicide, he demanded that the university take responsibility for her death, but the institution said it could find no proof of inappropriate conduct by the teacher during the period when Sharon studied there.

Stern says he began to notice a difference in his daughter’s behavior in her second year at Naropa. Kan, he says, made her cut herself off from her family so that he could consolidate his control over her: “Before that she used to speak to us a few times a day: ‘Daddy, good morning, how are you, I miss home.’ And suddenly, a week or two could pass in which she ignored us. She stopped being the considerate, caring girl we knew. Sometimes she would yell at us and at her husband, and she became irritable and distant. There wasn’t much we could do – after all, she was already a married woman.

“We spoke to her husband and we warned him, and he said, ‘Don’t you trust your daughter?’ He loved her very much and believed that she needed to apprentice herself to this distinguished teacher. She thought it was a spiritual dance through which you see the essence of life.”

Katsura Kan performing in 2014.Credit: Antonio Nava / Secretaria de Cul

What did Katsura Kan promise her?

“He told her that she was very talented but not yet ready to dance solo, and that she would have to accompany him and learn from him. She became responsible for organizing their performances and trips internationally. I asked her if this was the goal of her life, to travel the world with him, and she said no, it was only until she could do a solo, which she could then put on her résumé. That’s how she also submitted to giving him money and sex. In her diaries she calls him God.”

‘Heartless manipulator’

In 2010, after concluding her studies, Sharon began to accompany Kan in his worldwide trips to give performances and hold workshops. They travelled to San Francisco and to France, Japan, Russia, Brazil and other venues. In March 2011, they came to Israel, where Kan conducted a workshop and performed with local butoh artists. The visit was organized by L., an Israeli (she doesn’t want her name to be used) who had studied at Naropa with Stern for two years and since returned to Israel.

L.: “I remember that they had very close relations, something with a great deal of light, happiness and movement, a kind of turn-on. Because she had an Israeli background and spoke Hebrew, we connected and truly loved each other. There was something pleasant in her voice and her body, something feminine and beautiful, with so much softness. From my point of view, one way, possibly superficial, to explain this story is the yearning for depth that many people have, especially in America and especially in Boulder.”

According to L., who kept in touch with Sharon after she returned to Israel, her friend talked about butoh with great reverence and said she wanted to go deeper into it and was very impressed by Kan. “I myself wasn’t wild about him in terms of the content of what he taught, it didn’t seem deep to me,” L. recalls. “But he gave Sharoni a platform. She created a performance of her own and asked me to dance in it. She devoted a great deal to it, but I felt that she still hadn’t fully grasped its essence. The question of what Kan would think of it was always hovering above.”

L. had kept in touch with Stern after returning to Israel. During the 2011 visit, L. says she had the sense that the relations between Sharon and Kan were close but at the same time tense. “She told me that it wasn’t possible for them to have a relationship, ‘but I always love him.’”

In L.’s view, butoh made it possible for Stern to create a new persona for herself, remote and different from the one she’d had since childhood, and thereby, effectively, become an autonomous person. “She always said, ‘I’m Sharoni, I’m the cutie.’ That was part of her identity. Then suddenly, when she encountered butoh, she realized that she could express greater depths, more complexities. And from her perspective, Kan saw that depth. I think the encounter with him thrilled her and gave her a feeling that she was special, along with the promise of a professional dance career. That’s a significant combination for a thirsty person. It’s hard for me to believe that his intention was to suck away her life, but I’m sure he enjoyed her submission to him. A teacher with integrity would not be willing to have his pupil submit to him like that.”

'He drove her crazy, because she saw him as a god.'

During the visit to Israel, Stern and Kan met Stern’s extended family. Hana’s sisters called her after the visit to say they had been shocked by their niece’s behavior. To them, she seemed to demonstrate enslavement in the kowtowing attitude and the inordinate respect she displayed toward Kan. They told Hana that Sharon had paid all his expenses and carried their suitcases, even though she looked physically frail, and that he gave her orders which she carried out unhesitatingly.

Hana Stern: “My sister told him that it’s not right for a married woman to wander around the world like this. He told her that [Sharon’s] husband also traveled the world. Kan didn’t like my sister’s attitude and left her house. Ten minutes later, Sharoni said to my sister, ‘I hear him in my head, he wants me to come to him.’ People who were with them on his tour in Israel said that he ordered her to prepare supper for the whole crew after the performance and that Sharoni’s head dropped on her plate from sheer exhaustion, but she refused to eat. She said he needed the food, it was all for him.”

Sharon Stern in her final days.Credit: From Families Against Cult Teachings and Abuses

Maya Dunsky, a veteran Israeli butoh performer and choreographer, took part in a performance with Kan in Tel Aviv. She was not impressed by him, to put it mildly. “In my eyes, he’s a bloodsucking leech,” she says. “I found it revolting to be in his company. He is a tyrant, domineering, a heartless manipulator, a despotic show-off who’s full of himself.”

Dunsky recalls thinking that Stern, whom she had never met before, did not look healthy. “I wondered to myself what that girl was going through, she looked sick, her coloring, her physical manner. When I saw photos of her on Facebook, I was utterly stunned, because I realized that once she had been full of life and sweetness.”

Do you think that Kan is a charlatan as a butoh teacher?

Dunsky: “I don’t know if he’s a charlatan, but to be a master, as he terms himself, is far more than just to teach butoh. When you come to a teacher, you give up a great many things, and especially criticism, in order to remain open to what he can give. A true master will never take advantage of that. The fact that there was a love story between them only makes it more terrible.”

Thabatta Schwartz Mizrahi, Stern's childhood friend.Credit: Shay Cohen

Lost in Copenhagen

In July 2011, Stern and Kan traveled to Sao Paolo, Brazil, to perform. Living in the city at the time was a close childhood friend of Stern’s, Thabatta Schwartz Mizrahi, who was delighted to see her, after not having met her for some years.

“She looked like a homeless person,” Mizrahi recalls, “the way she was dressed and the way she was carrying her things, everything in plastic bags. She didn’t look well. She said that she was on this diet because she had stomach issues, since she was traveling in all these places. I remember thinking: what happened, she always took such good care of herself.”

During the visit, Stern told her that she and Todd, her husband, had gone through a difficult time, but she wanted to go back to the States and try again. She said nothing about her relations with Kan.

Later that summer, Kan and Stern went to Copenhagen to perform. While there, Kan called Ron, Sharon’s brother, to inform him that his sister had disappeared. Stern’s parents and her husband Todd, from whom she was actually separated at the time (they later divorce), immediately made arrangements to fly to Copenhagen. But even before they had boarded the plane, they were informed by the Copenhagen police that Stern had been located. She was in a psychiatric hospital, where she had been taken after wandering the streets, lost, and then entering a church and interrupting a mass.

In the hospital, her parents and husband tried to understand how Sharon had become so emaciated and feeble. “The police summoned Kan to the hospital, too, but he didn’t come,” Tibor Stern recalls. “He told the police, ‘She isn’t the only one who’s fallen in love with me, all the women students are in love with me. What’s the difference?’” The Sterns brought their daughter back to Florida, with a recommendation from the Danish hospital that she begin psychiatric treatment.

Katsura Kan leading a butoh workshop.Credit: per egevad

It’s evident from the exchange of emails between Tibor Stern and Kan from that August that by now, Sharon’s parents were openly accusing Kan of causing their daughter harm, alleging to him that he had given her drugs that had unbalanced her. Kan rejected the accusations, writing that they were, a “stupid father’s hallucinations,” and claimed in an email to Tibor in poor English that, “I did proof Sharoni got drug check and never took any kind of drug from the Doctor in hospital ... My most concerning is Sharoni’s safe and then creative life as she is very talented woman ever I met ... so I give suggestion and help you for your childish action as you are 63 years old and I shame as you are same age with me how such a thoughtless 63 years old human still exist as a company president in US.”

In mid-September, Sharon again met with Kan, having followed him to Thailand. Before she left, Kan wrote her, “All your relative including Katsura Kan are worry so much, but once you come, I will help you as no body seems can’t help so I will be your personal psychotherapist [sic].”

Sharon’s parents say that their lawyers sent Kan warnings after the incident in Copenhagen, and asked him not to see their daughter again, as she needed psychological treatment and rest. “He didn’t reply,” Tibor Stern recounts, “and afterward he claimed that he didn’t get our emails. But he’s a liar. He wrote her that he didn’t believe she was sick, that the American psychologists and psychiatrists were stupid. I tried to get her admitted to a private hospital here, and he wrote her that he alone could cure her. So she went to him.” Her mother was with her on the night she left for Thailand and tried to talk her out of going. “I asked her to stay with us, and she said, ‘I can’t.’”

After a few days in Thailand, Kan and Stern went to Indonesia, followed by Japan. Her parents say that Kan realized very quickly that her mental state had deteriorated and that he could not cope with it. “He saw that she was suffering mentally,” says Stern, “so he tried to send her back, and accused us of sending him a sick woman.”

In the civil suit against Kan, Sharon’s parents accuse him of neglecting their daughter, and of preventing her from receiving treatment. The email correspondence between Kan and Sharon shows a tormented, unstable relationship – but also one with its own internal codes that weren’t always fully understood by outside observers. Sharon’s parents see the relationship as one big manipulation whose only purpose was exploitation.

'A teacher with integrity would not be willing to have his pupil submit to him like that.'

“He drove her crazy, because she saw him as a god,” Tibor Stern explains. “When she was already in love with him, as a person or as a guru, he abused her physically, financially and mentally. She asked him why he was also with other girls, and he said he didn’t love anyone, for ‘my truth is that I love myself.’ On the one hand, he wrote her, ‘we are long life partners for sure’ and that he was the only thing she had in her life, and on the other hand he suddenly stopped answering emails. She wrote him that she wanted to die, and he asked her to send him money via a Kyoto bank.”

Darkness and eroticism

It’s not only Kan that the Sterns blame – they also accuse butoh itself. In their lawsuit they describe butoh as a collection of actions created to explore the taboos of pedophilia and homosexuality. “Butoh is a dance of pain, suffering and death,” Tibor Stern asserts repeatedly. “The goal is to lose your personality and your authenticity.” The website Families Against Cult Teachings, which Hana and Tibor Stern established, contains many photographs of Katsura Kan in performance, his body smeared in white, making seemingly threatening faces. But dancers who do butoh completely reject the idea that it is a cult or a dangerous art.

According to Dr. Eilat Zohar, an expert in Japanese visual culture from the Tel Aviv University’s art history department, butoh was part of a cultural movement that developed in Japan in response to the trauma of World War II. It assailed modernity and nationalism, which were perceived as European conceptions that had brought about the ruination of Japanese society.

Zohar: “There was a fantasy of a return to the country, to rootedness, to regions which had not undergone modernization. Tatsumi Hijikati and Kazuo Ohno, the founders of butoh, returned to those regions, which supposedly had preserved an ‘authentic’ culture. The first butoh performances took place in almost complete darkness. It was a synthesis of deeply rooted and erotic elements. In their first dance, they also slaughtered a chicken on the stage.”

Afterward, Tatsumi and Ohno went their separate ways and each developed a different style of butoh. Their personalities were also radically different, Yael Gaathon, an Israeli butoh dancer, who founded the Blue Cliff dance group in Aarhus, Denmark, explains by phone. “Tatsumi came from a poor, hardscrabble background, his father was an alcoholic. He had a dark personality and drank a great deal himself. He tormented his students and starved them, they worked in a striptease joint to make a living. He died at 57.

“Ohno,” she continues, “was far more poetic and gentle, and lived until the age of 104. Their teaching methods were also very different. Tatsumi claimed that you had to do something until you broke. Ohno was softer with his students. For him, the soul dances and the body follows the soul. Tatsumi’s students often display vestiges of total devotion and unbounded loyalty.”

Sharon Stern. Credit: Reproduction

In interviews, Kan refers only to Tatsumi’s tradition, not to that of Ohno. The people I spoke to for this article who are knowledgeable about butoh and have met Kan formed the impression that he belongs to Tastumi’s tradition.

In January 2012, Sharon continued to wander, this time to Israel. She stayed with a good friend of her mother’s, singer Ruthie Navon, in her home in Givat Olga. According to Navon, Stern was extremely depressed. She tried to find a job and occupy herself, but her behavior was abnormal. Even though it was winter, she went out in summer clothes flip-flops, and when Navon took her to one of her performances she behaved erratically.

“We’re ahead of the show and the audience is already in the hall, and she sits down at the piano and starts to play,” Navon recalls. “We asked her to leave the stage, but she didn’t. I went over to her and very slowly took her off the stage and seated her in the hall. After the show she suddenly took a broom and started to sweep the hall obsessively. Then we went to see a performance by a friend of mine in a café, and when she started to sing Sharon started to cry and cry, and I didn’t know how to help her.”

The exchange of emails between Stern and Kan during this period time reveals a highly fraught relationship. In January 2012, she wrote short lines to him, arranged in a column, haiku-like. She too had started to write about herself in the third person: “Sharoni is very sorry. She cannot helping KAN anymore. If everything is secret, if everything is HIDDEN, I cant interpret your mystery. I AM MORE than imperfect. I am fat, ugly, stupid girl. I have nothing left but desire to connect with human race, escape time and subconscious. I guessing I must let go of attachment to KAN. KAN has wife and child. SHARONI has garbage, piles of garbage everywhere. I have only one very honest very sincere wish left. TO GO WITH KAN to some countryside and FAST, no food, no water. Need no bed. No shower. NO TIME. TO become empty. Want to shake this curse away.”

And so it continues, lines packed with love and despair, devotion and loss, and no little self-hatred.

When her parents asked her about the nature of her relations with Kan, she insisted that they would not be capable of understanding.

“He wrote her, ‘You’re stupid for following me, you’re blind from love, and you’re pursuing danger.’ And he wrote her, ‘You’re following a gypsy, you stupid girl.’ And the more he said these things, the more she followed him. Reverse psychology,” says her father.

From Israel, Stern traveled to San Francisco to meet Kan. “He sent one email and she dropped everything and went,” he continues. “After she’d been there a few days he understood again that there was no hope, and wrote us to come and take our daughter, as though we’d been the ones who sent her. He told her to ask her brother to send her money to his bank in Kyoto. Kan taught her how to steal, and she took my credit card and used it to pay for her flights and his.”

Swing and suicide

After 10 days in San Francisco, Stern returned to her parents’ home. They met her together with a psychologist, but say now that he could do nothing because he had no experience with brainwashing. “I tried all kinds of things. There were better days and days that were not so good,” Tibor Stern says. “My hope was that with the help of a loving family she would come out of it, but it was too much for her to cope with.”

Ron Stern remembers well the last time he saw his sister. “On the evening before she committed suicide, we stood here outside in the parking area and talked about my 2-week-old son. She said she would probably never have children. I saw in her eyes that she’d given up. As if she’d already actually departed. My feeling is that she was determined to do it.”

Ron Stern, Sharon's brother.Credit: Shai Cohen

In April, Stern rented an apartment with a girlfriend in Plantation, Florida, not far from her parents’ home. On April 24 she went dancing in a swing club she often frequented. Tibor was in Israel at the time, and Hana relates that she woke up in the middle of the night and wasn’t able to get back to sleep. Her roommate found Sharon's body the following morning.

“I think that when she danced swing that evening, with her old friends, she suddenly realized her mistake,” Tibor Stern says. “She felt that she had been left with nothing.” To which Hana Stern adds, “As far as I am concerned, she was murdered.”

Since Sharon’s suicide, her parents have channeled their enormous grief into two fields of action: one is Families Against Cult Teachings, the organization they set up to confront and sometimes initiate charges against cults and their leaders on legal and financial grounds; and the other is the lawsuit against Kan, which in Tibor Stern’s aspiration will end with Kan no longer setting foot in the United States and with other venues also ceasing to invite him to perform and teach. He is certain that after he wins the civil suit he will also succeed in bringing Kan to criminal justice.

'I must let go of attachment to KAN. KAN has wife and child. SHARONI has garbage, piles of garbage everywhere.'

Is it possible to prove that Kan is a dangerous guru who brainwashed Sharon Stern in order to exploit her, even though the relationship was between two people only, and to all appearances, at least, there is no cult with followers? In recent years, says psychotherapist and social worker Dr. Gabi Zohar, who treats families that have been hurt by cults, he has increasingly come across the phenomenon of a “one-person guru.” “In the past decade,” he notes, “I have had a few requests for treatment of this sort. They are difficult, complex cases but similar in their essence to an authoritarian group in which a guru manages dozens or even hundreds of people.”

Sharon Stern.Credit: Reproduction

Recently, Zohar says, he worked with a couple from the center of Israel who brought into their home a person who took over their lives completely for two years. He is certain that there are thousands of other cases like this in the country. “The one-person guru, like the guru in the authoritarian group, has narcissistic elements in his personality, an extreme need for control, a total blurring of the demarcation of personal and interpersonal boundaries, a faulty perception of reality and flawed norms.”

I wrote to Katsura Kan, now living in Japan, via Facebook to get his response to the accusations and learn his version of the events. He asked me whether I had been sent by Tibor Stern and whether Stern was paying me to write the article – otherwise he couldn’t understand why the newspaper would want to run an article on a “just not famous dancer.” He added that he would only answer questions about butoh or art. “Are you interested in butoh. Or are you interested in gossip?” he asked.

Kan claimed that he performed and lectured in Israel about butoh often, beginning in the 1990s, and that he’s also planning to visit the country this summer. I sent him a series of questions about how he perceives butoh and the teaching of the dance form. He replied that he didn’t have time to reply at the moment but was attaching an article he’d written on the subject and that he hoped I would find someone to translate it from the Japanese.

Indeed, quite a few people in the Israeli world of butoh know Kan. For example, he gave a workshop in the theater department of Tel Aviv University in 2003. None of his many female students agreed to talk about him, or at all, for this article. They all reiterated the question/accusation that Kan himself put forward, regarding the possibility that I was being paid by Tibor Stern. Still, there is evidence that other women also suffered from Kan’s abusive attitude.

In his response to the lawsuit against him in Florida, Kan told the court that Stern had suffered from mental problems even before she met him at Naropa University. He claimed that her mental condition worsened in 2011, when she suffered several nervous breakdowns and even tried to commit suicide more than once, and that at that stage he and other dancers in his troupe tried to help her. When they saw that her mental condition was serious, Kan stated, they asked her parents to take responsibility for their daughter’s wellbeing and look after her.

Kan also claimed that even though Sharon was removed from the troupe, she was an adult with financial reserves of her own, and thus went on following them around the world – even when she wasn’t invited. Kan completely rejects the allegations in the lawsuit, to the effect that he took over Sharon’s mind with the aim of exploiting her and that his actions ultimately led her to take her life.

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