At a Retreat Dedicated to Love, a Young Truth Seeker Starves Himself to Death
Once you have come to me and have become a link in the chain, it becomes a responsibility on my part…to maintain the well-being and strength of each link.
Yogi Amrit Desai, founder of the Kripalu Yoga Ashram
Robert Stuart Wallace spent most of his young life accumulating the heedless credentials of middle-class excellence. His Southern California boyhood was an American idyll of good grades, the swim team, Saturdays spent with Dad. He prepped at Phillips Exeter, where he played soccer and served on the student council, and graduated from Princeton in 1972. But by then his life was changing directions. He studied yoga and worked for a while as a teacher and organic gardener. Then, in the summer of 1976, came a fateful visit to the Kripalu Yoga Ashram (Hindu for spiritual retreat) north of Philadelphia. “It was practically love at first sight,” his mother, Ann Wallace, recalls. “Here was the place where there was love and affection and no one would ever let you down.”
Entering the ashram in January 1977, Wallace submitted uncomplainingly to the community’s discipline. Known by the Sanskrit name Jyram, he rose daily at 4 a.m. to begin a demanding regimen of exercise, meditation, celibacy and Spartan vegetarian meals taken in silence. Wallace had always had trouble maintaining his weight, and by last fall, after several months on a diet bolstered by extra helpings of wheat germ, sunflower seeds, brewer’s yeast and cottage cheese, his body had become shrunken and wraithlike. He grew irritable, frequently was ill and missed several days at a nearby hospital where he worked as an orderly. One morning his roommate at the ashram found him loudly snoring, with his eyes open and his hands waving slowly in the air. Another disciple said not to worry; he’d seen people sleeping that way before. Three hours later, 27-year-old Bob Wallace, still in his sleeping bag, was transported to a Quakertown, Pa. hospital. He was pronounced dead on arrival. Cause of death, the coroner said, was “starvation.”
Had no one detected Wallace’s morbid transfiguration—from the 150-pound former athlete who had entered the ashram to the 60 pounds of bone and tissue carried out 11 months later? “He never mentioned a problem with his weight,” says chiropractor Robert E. Jenkins of Quakertown, who had treated Wallace repeatedly for a sinus condition—and pronounced him fit to return to his job just three days before he died. “I knew he was working in a hospital, and I figured the doctors and nurses there could see he needed to shape up his health. But they didn’t examine him either.” On the contrary, Wallace’s supervisor, North Penn Hospital nursing director Rosella Burcin, accepted the chiropractor’s opinion that the young man was fit. Finally, when Wallace missed work once too often, she mailed him a letter of dismissal. That was on Nov. 15, the day Wallace died. “I look back and say, ‘If only I had done something,’ ” says Burcin regretfully. “But I just assumed he was getting medical attention.”
No one suffers the agonies of hindsight more than Wallace’s mother. Determined never to interfere in his life, she had heeded an inner prompting to call him just three days before he died. “I had the kind of long-distance signal mothers get,” she remembers, “and when I had him on the phone I knew something was wrong. He could hardly talk. I asked him, ‘Are you well?’ and he said, ‘No, I’m not. I think I’m going to lose my job. I’ve had problems with my stomach for several weeks now.’ Why I wasn’t on an airplane in 15 minutes I don’t know. But how does a mother tell a 27-year-old son to get the hell out of there? I guess we all waited too long.”
Spokesmen for the ashram, meanwhile, speculate that his death was due to a preexisting undiagnosed illness. “I know this sounds strange,” says counselor Robin Johnstone, “but we thought he was eating too much. Bob knew he had lost weight—he was preoccupied with it—and he had more things in his lunch box than anyone.” Bucks County, Pa. Coroner Stanley Goodwin, who examined Wallace, finds such testimony incredible. “Either they are stating an incorrect fact, or what they think is a lot of food is not,” he declares. “Even skinny people have some fat, but Wallace had none—absolutely none. You could see the dark fluid in his intestine through his belly wall. This guy obviously starved to death.”
But why? His family searches its memory for even the scantiest clues—like the time young Bob broke his shoulder in a swimming meet and waited stoically until his parents came to pick him up. “Bob had a great sense of character,” an old girlfriend, Leigh Anne Grossman, recalls. “If he believed in something, he’d wear himself out to do what was right.” At Princeton, classmate Craig Stevens remembers, “Bob was part of the counterculture, but never super-political. He smoked some marijuana, but was never heavily into drugs.” Some nights he commuted to Newark to teach ghetto kids how to swim.
Adrift as a postgraduate, Wallace returned to California, where he moved in with his girlfriend and several other young people. “We called him Bobaloo,” says Stevens. “He was an easygoing guy, not intense, but he was looking for some higher truth, maybe a sense of community.” Never did Wallace’s search become the patricidal rebellion of some of his peers: The month before he joined the ashram he went home to Pasadena to give his father, Walter, some help in his industrial supply firm. “Bob was the kind who wore his hair in a ponytail,” says his older sister Kristi, “but still played golf with Dad.” Or, as a friend recalls of that time, “Bob was taking a yoga class and getting into Eastern religion, but he was still watching football on TV.”
At the ashram it was different: Total devotion was expected, and the return in love was both promised and perceived. “It is like no other relationship that I have ever experienced,” Wallace wrote in his journal of the guru Desai. “I have been empty and filled with his love to overflowing…” Such spiritual enthusiasm has led some of the disciples, who now number 150, to such esoteric practices as neti, in which long gauze strips are swallowed and then pulled out to cleanse the esophagus. Even Wallace’s death was accepted by some with chilling serenity. “It upset me tremendously at first,” says former disciple Jane Fryer, “but I feel now that this is what he wanted. He probably saw it coming and accepted the way the flow was taking him. I think he wouldn’t consider it dying.”
Wallace’s friends and family, of course, can hardly consider it anything else. “In one sense, it’s a dramatic story,” says Bob’s old classmate Stevens. “He was taking a risk to create a new life-style. Either that, or it’s just pathetic—he was getting sicker and sicker and no one accepted responsibility for it.” His mother subscribes to the latter view. “There’s a popular tune out,” she says, “and the title is driving me crazy: Where Is the Love? They flap on forever about what a loving brotherhood the ashram is. But where was the love to let that man starve to death right under their eyes?”
As a tribute to their son, the Wallaces have established a memorial in his name—the Robert Stuart Wallace Fund for World Hunger—to which some 400 of his friends have contributed. But their anger remains. “Just because you bring a religion over from India, distill it so it sounds like est and make it attractive to the widest range of people, doesn’t mean it’s a panacea,” Bob’s sister Kristi says bitterly. “Gurus who take responsibility for their followers had better meet that responsibility.” Adds Stevens as a sorrowful epitaph: “Bob was one of many people who came out of Princeton at that time and didn’t follow the traditional paths. Some of us eventually found ourselves. Bob was still searching. You could say he was a casualty of our generation.”