In the second episode of Cover Story, Lily Kay Ross recounts her trip to the Ecuadoran Amazon to the podcast’s host, iO Tillett Wright. Relating the multiple instances of rape and sexual abuse she experienced at the hands of an ayahuasca shaman and the aftermath when she decided to come forward, Ross portrays a community unwilling to support her or confront its own systemic issues.
Ross: People didn’t say, “This is your fault.” They said things like “You manifested this experience so that you could grow as a person. What if he did what he did to heal you?”
Not until someone reached out asking for information about the very abuse Ross had experienced did she realize she could find help outside the system that had silenced her. That someone was Dave Nickles, a moderator and editor who runs psychedelic-harm-reduction and education projects. Together, they began to investigate larger issues within the community alongside other testimonies like Ross’s. Nickles helped Ross realize that her story was part of a much bigger one — one dealing not only with sexual abuse but with power and manipulation in the psychedelic community. Together, they are ready to share what they uncovered.
To hear more about Ross’s harrowing experience in the Amazon, listen and follow on Apple Podcasts, or wherever you listen, and find the full transcript below.
Just a quick note: This series deals with sexual assault, so please keep that in mind when you decide when and where to read or listen.
iO Tillett Wright: Lily, I know you left the psychedelic world, and I would love for you to talk about the moment where it went from being something safe and something growthful and beautiful to something treacherous and bad.
Lily Kay Ross: Oh boy. That shit was dark … there’s so much. [Laughs.] The turning point was actually when I had been deeply hurt, and the response I got was if I told the story of what had happened to me, if I kept beating this drum, that I was going to single-handedly destroy the psychedelic renaissance.
Wright: On the off chance that you’ve never heard of Burning Man, picture 50,000 people in thongs and goggles and furry leg warmers on Technicolor Mad Max bicycles, dancing and tripping in the middle of the Nevada desert. All vehicles there have to be approved by the DMV, the Department of Mutant Vehicles. I am not kidding. Hundred-foot sculptures of sharks and fantasy creatures roll through a temporary city erected and deconstructed every year in celebration of radical self-expression. Naturally, it’s been a magnet for psychonauts of all kinds and a beacon of outsider culture. But just over a decade ago, tech people started flocking. They were interested in mind optimization, starting to microdose. They wanted shamans to come to their mansions to guide private journeys. That was all part of how the modern psychedelic renaissance started. And Lily was there for it. Literally. In 2008, she was at Burning Man. And slightly annoyed by this one tech guy.
Ross: And this creepy guy was hitting on me.
Wright: She’s there attending some lectures on cool, new psychedelic research.
Ross: One of the things he was puffing himself up about was like he was a wealthy guy, and, you know, funding, psychedelic research, and whatever. Oh, there are these researchers, and they’re trying to do blah blah blah.
Wright: At this point in her life, she’s already into critiques of money and power and authority. She’s thinking about how that stuff plays out in the psychedelic world — all these white people appropriating Indigenous cultures, questions about who profits. By 2011, that’s a lot of what she’s studying at Harvard.
Ross: I nerded out, hard-core, on postcolonial theory.
Wright: That’s when she hears about a project in the Ecuadoran Amazon that piques her interest. An Indigenous community wants audio equipment to tell their own stories.
Ross: Which I thought was cool. Even though it was tangential to the guide work and the things I felt called to and pulled to, it was something I was very passionate about and interested in.
Wright: In 2012, she got a grant to go for the summer. She’s going to be working with a local guy who is leading the project there.
Ross: The man who was hosting me was also an ayahuasca shaman, which I didn’t know until a few days before I was going down there.
Wright: Should we go to the Amazon?
Ross: Yeah, I guess so. So I got on the plane, it was like six in the morning, and then got into Ecuador late that night. Then I woke up in the morning, and I took a taxi across town to a bus depot. The taxi ride was like an hour. The bus was like eight. And we went out of the Andes and down the mountain into the Amazon.
Wright: This is when Lily first saw the guy she was there to work with, someone we’re going to call T. She describes him as wearing black jeans and a button-down shirt, a rainbow-beaded headband, and a giant anaconda-skin necklace. He takes her on another two-hour bus ride, they walk across a bridge, and then ride another bus up a mountain.
Ross: And then finally, T kind of indicates to the bus driver who stops and lets us off. There’s no bus stop and there’s no city and there’s no anything. I don’t know if you’ve gotten this impression yet, but it was remote. We were out there.
Wright: There’s one last car ride, the only taxi around.
Ross: He’s agreed to take us out to the village. And we get out of this car and there I am with T in the dark, and the taxi drives off. Then we had to walk about a mile.
Wright: It’s literally four structures in the jungle.
Ross: I was tired. I was thirsty. I was hungry. I was a bit relieved that I didn’t have to travel anymore.
Wright: First, T sits her down and talks to her about the village — how their whole way of life is under threat and that her role is to document it. Then he takes Lily to a hut with nothing but a little bed and a pallet for her stuff, and she finally gets to sleep. Two days later, she finds T doing a kind of cleansing plant bath on some of the men in the community. It’s a ceremonial thing, and he wants to do one on her.
Ross: It was like, Well, this is a thing he does with people. I went into the hut, and I went to my bed. And I was wearing my undergarments, as he had said, and he came in and he had some kind of very aromatic liquid that he’d put onto these branches, like leaves. So he covers me head to foot in this stuff and then he says, “Just wait here and put your clothes back on. And I’ll be back in 30 minutes to come to talk to you.”
And then everything just became very, very weird. It felt like my eyes were drying and my mouth was drying and the walls were doing this pulse-y, wavy thing. And I was alone, so I got up and I walked to the door and I was having a really hard time standing up. He saw me standing in the door, and he rushed right over to me, and he kind of took me by the arm and led me back to the bed and kind of had me lie down.
Then he started on this whole thing where he was telling me about our relationship and how this was all meant to be and that … uh, that we’re in love? That was a thing that he declared at that time. And that this was all the will of God. I don’t even believe in God, what the fuck is going on?
I couldn’t move. I was physically incapable of moving my body, and I had no concept of what was happening. He was sitting behind me and had wrapped his arm around my neck, and he was humping me, he was trying to kiss me, he was … I was totally frozen. It took me about ten minutes, from my sense of time, to collect myself and to turn away from him, which I finally did. And then he kind of got up and laughed and got into his bed and went to sleep.
And there was silence. Then there were words, which is not how I usually talk to myself. And the words said, You have to run, you have to get out. You’re being brainwashed. And I heard those words, and I honestly felt paralyzed. I was not the same person after that.
Oh, this is hard. It was like he had commandeered my will. I would have done anything that he told me to do.
Wright: For the next few days, Lily felt like she was in a fog, not in control of her own thoughts. And totally attached to T.
Ross: I was utterly dependent on him, terrified to be away from him, terrified to be near him as well. Bewitched?
Wright: Lily was there 26 days, and T raped her six times, though it took her months to call it that. She told me he kept repeating that their love was the will of the god, the spirits, and his ancestors. That they were in danger, but if she stayed near him, he would keep her safe. He also started giving her ayahuasca.
At some point, an American family came to visit. They were taking their kids on a South American tour, and a local suggested they go off-road and visit an “authentic” village with a real-life shaman. The mom in the family, her name is Ainlay Dixon. Ainlay and Lily got friendly right away.
Ainlay Dixon: After a while, I realized that she was really out of it. She was really stilted and kind of stoned but in a kind of zombielike way.
Ross: I was a shell by that point. It felt like somebody else had taken over my brain.
Dixon: We had our conversation, and that’s when I realized something was really wrong.
Ross: I had pulled aside the mom at one point.
Dixon: We went up to a kind of crawl space at the top of the hut where no one could find us.
And she told me …
Ross: So I have this sexual relationship with this guy.
Dixon: And that the shaman had told her that he had four wives and that he was going to leave them all and marry her, and that …
Ross: It was like I was watching somebody else talk through my mouth.
Dixon: She explained that this is a person with whom she has a professional relationship but then has come into her bedroom at night. And this is what happened. And dah, dah, dah, dah, dah. I was very taken aback, not by what she was saying but the way she was speaking.
Ross: I was trying to get somebody to help me, but I wasn’t in a place where I could articulate “I think I need help.”
Dixon: I mean, this is the ultimate isolation. She saw nobody. She only saw the three or four people who were in this little compound.
Ross: Meanwhile, he was telling me overtly, “I’m going to get you pregnant, and we’re going to have all these children and you’re going to live in the Amazon.”
Dixon: And I was like, “You know, honey, I think you might not trust everything he’s telling you.”
Ross: She seemed a bit like, “Oh yeah, I mean, he’s handsome. I could see it, just be careful and don’t get too caught up.”
Wright: So Ainlay and her family leave, and Lily’s still in the village. A couple of days later, T takes Lily to his wife’s house in a city about an hour away. She borrows his computer to check her email and sees that she has a message.
Ross: I got this email from Ainlay Dixon, and it says, “Hey, Lily, I’ve been wondering about sending this email for a while and finally decided to do it.”
Dixon: We met some people, and they seemed to have a very different impression of T and not a good one.
Wright: Ainlay lays out that once she left the village, she couldn’t get Lily out of her mind. She’d started poking around, asking questions about T. And what the locals told her was really dark.
Dixon: [Reading the email.] The Indigenous group he is part of, themselves find him to be a disgraceful charlatan wearing a jaguar skin, exaggerated feather headdress, exaggerated face paint, and playing supposed native music with non-native guitars and charangos.
Ross: Some of what they said was too fantastical to believe, such as being “mixed up in trading shrunken heads” and a “local leader being killed when he tried to investigate.”
Wright: T was investigated in connection to that killing, but he was never charged. Some Ecuadoran papers had covered it.
Ross: As I was finally getting to the point of going, Holy shit, like, I think this guy is a murderer, I started to hear his footsteps walking up the footpath.
Wright: This is where this becomes like an escape scene in a movie. In a split second, Lily comes up with a story about her dad being sick.
Ross: “I’ve just heard from the doctors, and my dad’s in the hospital and there’s something wrong with his prostate and I’m scared and they don’t know what’s wrong.”
Wright: She tells T that she needs to stay in the city for the night to sort out the details. She convinces him. She frantically makes a call and gets American Airlines to waive the change fee and put her on the next flight she can catch. And in the morning, she makes a break for it.
Ross: I was looking over my shoulder every step of the way, thinking, Is somebody following me?
Wright: With nothing more than her purse — which, at the last minute, she’d thrown her passport into — Lily hops on a bus, gets herself to the airport, on a plane, and to her family in L.A.
Ross: The further I got away from him and the village, the more that I felt that, This is real. And some really bad stuff has just happened.
Wright: That whole escape saga was all very dramatic. But it’s what happened next that changed the course of Lily’s life.
Ross: My dad picked me up from the airport, and I remember how warm his hug was. I got home, took a shower, and did everything I could to just feel normal. I put on my favorite clothes and my favorite earrings and tried to do what I could to have a sense of my identity and feel like myself again.
Wright: For a while, Lily was just trying to make sense of what happened to her.
Ross: Like, Was this a consensual relationship? There were periods where I did resist it. I was really clear, like, This is not what I want. When I went to the crisis center for my intake, I was sort of like, Are they even going to take me? Because I don’t know if what I went through counts.
Wright: It took Lily months and months before she even talked to her dad about what happened.
Ross: I remember what I said to him. I said, “During my time in the Amazon, T was raping me.” And my dad was there for me. He said, “You know, Lily, I’ve tried to say this before, but I think he drugged you.” At first, I was very resistant. I was like, Well, I took ayahuasca, but that was after. And it was this whole other thing, and he kept pressing the issue. That was when something started to dawn on me: Well, there was that one night where I was paralyzed, and everything was going all wompy and wonky and weird. Then I remembered that he had covered my body with this liquid thing.
I had this conversation with Dad, realized I had been drugged, and did some research. I went, Holy fucking God, this is so much worse than I thought it was. This makes so much more sense. This asshole drugged me and brainwashed me.
Wright: Lily came to believe that the plant bath contained this drug called scopolamine, which, after our interview, I had to look up. I highly recommend you give it a Google yourself because this drug is batshit. They call it “the zombie drug” because high doses can put you in a state where it’s hard to assert your free will. Gangsters love it because people will just hand over their bank cards or car keys when they demand them.
By the way, New York Magazine called T, and he denied drugging or raping Lily. He basically said in his culture it was “natural” to have sex with lots of women but said it was never by force.
But after that conversation with her dad and her research, Lily was clear: This man had used his authority as a shaman, in combination with drugs, to control and rape her. The idea of someone, anywhere, of any culture, using these drugs to control another person makes me think of something Dr. Grob said. Remember that UCLA researcher who took us to Mr. Rogers’s Psychedelic Neighborhood? He was telling me about some research he did in ’93, observing how ayahuasca was used in religious ceremonies in the Amazon, and he noticed this particular way this minister would use the drug. Once his congregants were in a suggestible state of mind from the ayahuasca, he would give them life tips.
Charles Grob: To be responsible to their spouses, their parents, their children, their employers, across the board. I remember one night, I was at a ceremony and my translator had kind of snoozed off, so I gave her a nudge and asked what they were talking about. “Oh,” she said, “they’re talking about how important it is that if you say you’re going to be somewhere, you are there.” And I thought, This explains a lot. Individuals who had started at the bottom rung of the socioeconomic ladder had risen to be successful in their jobs, in their family lives. I thought, Wow, so much has seemed to do with this heightened receptivity they must have had.
Wright: These drugs can give a person so much power to influence others. So the thing to look at is how do they use that power, and what are they influencing others to do? In the next breath, Dr. Grob was reminding me of a story I already know, that you probably know too, about a famous group of Californians in the 1960s.
Grob: You have an old example of the Manson Family. He would dole out LSD to his followers and then he would launch into these bizarre fantasy-ridden speeches that eventually led to their following his instructions to go commit murder and mayhem. It was a horrible situation, but I think probably a telling example of what could happen when these compounds are employed by an unscrupulous, unethical, immoral cult leader.
Wright: Basically, Dr. Grob was warning me that these drugs can be tools to manipulate people, whether among all the different groups in the Amazon or in the overwhelmingly white underground world of psychedelics that Lily was part of. And that was the worry that started to bubble up for Lily after she came out of the very dark hole she was stuck in.
Ross: I was quite fixated on what had happened. I was not sleeping at night and sleeping during the day. I am in a lot of pain and I am drinking too much whiskey and it was just all pain all the time.
Wright: Eventually Lily started talking to her circle of friends a little about it, and it went fine. They were sympathetic and horrified. But then she started to go and tell people in the psychedelic community.
Ross: At that point, I considered psychedelics part of what was helping me heal. So it seemed to me like a way to be nuanced and be like, Look, there’s this potential and then there’s this other, darker potential. Let’s consider that. But it was the people that I knew through psychedelics and psychedelic conferences and the Guild of Guides who were responding in really weird ways.
Wright: The Guild of Guides — a.k.a. the Convivium — is that underground conference where people who practice psychedelic therapy met to discuss their work. Some of these people were saying things that messed with Lily’s mind.
Ross: I was on the phone with somebody I had met at the Guild of Guides. He said something like, “You can’t call it rape because if you call it that, then you’re giving all your power away. If you call it rape, then you make yourself a victim.”
Wright: It did not get better from there.
Ross: People didn’t say, “Well, this is your fault.” They said things like “You manifested this experience so that you could grow as a person. What if he did what he did to heal you?” That reshapes it as a positive thing. Oh, good on you. Aren’t you such a brave soul? You gave yourself this opportunity for growth and healing.
Wright: And she thought about that. Like, maybe there was some weakness in her that he exploited.
Ross: I wanted to figure out if this was mommy issues? Was this daddy issues? Was this me looking for safety? Was there something about the fact that my mom had died that meant I was seeking something that I thought he could provide?
Wright: Lily went around and around like that for a while. Is it me? Do they suck? Or is it me? And eventually, it was this one particular line she heard from a few people that set something off in Lily.
Ross: It was, Oh yeah, that’s an old story. Shamans or people sleeping with their clients or whoever is an old story. Oh, this has been going on since the beginning.
Wright: An “old story”? That’s been going on from the beginning? Meaning there are rapists in our midst? And everyone knows it? When she put that chain of thoughts together, another part of Lily’s brain kicked in. The skeptical, questioning part. The part of her that, throughout all her years in the psychedelic underground, had been a little concerned about certain dynamics between guides and their clients.
Ross: Who are these people that are dispensing these drugs to a roomful of people? What kind of training do they have? Is this wise? Is this safe? Is this a good idea? People would call themselves shamans; is that a thing that one calls themselves? Are these people doing a good job? And who decides? Is there somebody that authorizes this? That says you have the seal of approval that we know you’re not a dick and you’re competent in this? Where do people go if they get hurt or if somebody does something wrong?
“To my mind, these realms are real and good. Intentions are not enough when it comes to claims to shamanic power because power is seductive, and without proper guidance, claiming power is a slippery slope.”
Wright: Lily gave this talk a couple of months after she got home from the Amazon. And it’s weird to listen to now because it’s from a period when she was still in a daze and hadn’t processed anything or even figured out the basics of what happened to her. But in her words, you hear hints of a future Lily — the one who is past looking inward, inward, inward.
“There are a few reported deaths now from ayahuasca in Peru and Ecuador and increasing reports of sexual transgressions and rape. If we are not willing to address this, what does this say about us as a community who love psychedelic plant medicines and what they have to offer us? If we don’t talk about this, if we are silent, are we not then complicit?”
Wright: To Lily, these questions felt more important than ever. Because the psychedelic renaissance was becoming an actual thing — which meant that more and more vulnerable people might be turning to psychedelic guides. Which meant that what happened to Lily could happen to them. But the guides themselves, some of them seemed focused on a different danger, which became clear to Lily during this one last twisted conversation she had with a woman who was known as a teacher and a scholar. An adviser to a lot of important groups. A well-respected elder. Lily told her she wanted to speak to the press about the danger of abuse.
Ross: She gave me this whole lecture about how if she was a young woman and saw this opportunity for the spotlight herself, she probably would have taken it. She said what an opportunity it could be for me, and she understood why I was tempted by it. But that if I told this story in a public way, I would be single-handedly re-instigating the war on drugs and undoing decades of research. I would pretty much just kill the psychedelic renaissance or revolution, and that would be on me. I said to her, “This is happening to hundreds of women.” And she said, “I know.”
Then she just went right back to say, “You’re doing this for your ego. You want the spotlight, but you have to think about the wider consequences here and what you stand to destroy if you tell this story.” I was devastated.
Wright: When we talked to this woman, she said that none of this sounds like something she would say and that, at the time, she didn’t know that many women were being victimized, though she added that the more she’s looked over the years, the more she knows. Her memory of this specific conversation is different, but Lily went to some of the heaviest hitters, some of the central people in pushing psychedelics into the mainstream — and across the board, she remembers, they responded more or less like this: “Don’t play into the war on drugs. They will take your story and twist it, just like they did in the ’60s and ’70s. And there’s too much at stake, Lily. Healing for the millions.”
Françoise Bourzat, the woman from the Guild of Guides, later referred to this period in an email as Lily’s “community rejection.” Lily tried one last person. Someone she’d been close to for years. Lily told her how angry she was at this other elder, the one who’d just told her she was going to kill the psychedelic renaissance.
Ross: She said, “Don’t be mad at her. She was only worried about you and what you were going to do. We all were.”
It hit me like a ton of bricks. What I heard at that moment was All of y’all have been talking to each other to try to figure out how to manage me. This feels like I am at my most vulnerable, and I’m trying to address this in some way that’s going to help me stay alive. I suspect that if she heard my account, she would be horrified. She probably has a very different telling of what it was like for her and what she was trying to do and why she was trying to do it. But I was so hurt, and I felt so betrayed and I felt manipulated and managed and deceived. I was fucking done. I deleted all my social media. I got off the ayahuasca-researchers listserv. I was done with the psychedelic community. I was just done. Bye-bye, no more, good job. All gone.
Wright: Lily spent the next few years out of the scene, basically researching why even nice people who mean well will blame rape victims.
Ross: I think part of how I have survived this experience is by putting my brain on it and trying to understand and eventually shifting the focus away from me.
Wright: She got into a Ph.D. program. She was reading a lot, testing out her ideas. Trying to figure out why things that seem so helpful and healing turn inward, get stronger, are a problem.
Ross: Often, the language of the journey comes in. People make a journey away from victimhood and towards survivorship that’s focused on them as a person overcoming whatever bad things happened to them. My main issue with that is it focuses on individuals solving social problems by healing themselves.
Wright: Heal this within yourself. As in: Don’t think about the system. During her studies, years after she left the psychedelic world, Lily came to understand it as total bullshit. And then, one day, deep into her Ph.D. research, she gets this email from a stranger. It was a group email sent to a bunch of people, but it landed hard with Lily. And it’s the reason this show exists.
Ross: Presumably, I was sitting in my office and opened my email.
Dave Nickles: “Hi, there, if you’re getting this message from me, it’s because I value your opinions and perspectives within the psychedelic arena and quite likely beyond.”
Ross: It said something about sexual misconduct in psychedelic spaces.
Nickles: I’m shocked and horrified at how successful they’ve been at this attempt to shut down communal discourse and keep awareness of these events to a minimum.
Ross: Here was a person that was saying like, I’m here for this conversation. Be in touch if you want, no pressure.
Wright: Lily had given up on all this stuff. She’d sworn it off. But something about the tone of this email stuck with her. And six months later, she found herself on Skype with the person who sent it — a guy named Dave, about her age — who’d also been deep in the underground.
Ross: We had a good conversation. He cared a lot about the issues; he seemed to know quite a lot.
Wright: Dave had remembered the talk Lily gave after she came back from Ecuador, and he wanted to tell her about other things he knew. Not just about shamans or the Amazon but about people Lily had schmoozed with at the Guild of Guides, like this one guy who had surrendered his medical license back in the 1980s. Several of his clients accused him of sexually abusing them after he gave them MDMA or ketamine as part of their treatment. The Boston Globe reported in 1989 that he told one woman that sexual contact was necessary to cure her cancer. And yet there he was at influential psychedelic gatherings, hosting conferences, and inciting Lily to join along.
Ross: I don’t understand why nobody from the Guild of Guides was giving me any warnings about this person.
Wright: Long story short, Lily did get involved.
Ross: How do I introduce you?
Nickles: You were just all gung ho about it two seconds ago.
Ross: I know, but …
Nickles: Now you gotta reduce me to a handful of words.
Ross: That’s right. Well, Dave is the love of my life. Dave is an anarchist and a drug nerd and a person who’s been willing to brawl for victims.
Wright: His full name is Dave Nickles. And he’s a brawler. He talks a lot. Even when what he’s saying pisses people off. Plus, he’s a menace at collecting proof and data and testimonies. He made Lily see the scale and urgency and how this was not at all an old story but something that was still happening right now. So Dave and Lily became a couple. Then a team of investigators.
Ross: But this is how it is. This is how it’s always been. The people who were silencing me when all I wanted to know was how do I do this in a way that doesn’t damage psychedelics …
Wright: And together — just as the whole world seemed to be staring into psychedelics’ spirally eyeballs, hailing it as a silver bullet for our most vulnerable — Dave and Lily started digging. Dredging up a whole bunch of stuff. Not just about sexual abuse. But about power and manipulation and cults and the medical Establishment and a whole bunch of other crazy, weird shit.
During Lily’s whole long effort to get people talking about the potential for abuse in psychedelic therapy, there was one person who did seem open. It was the same woman who had brought up her own transgression at the first Guild of Guides meeting Lily attended. Françoise Bourzat. She said she’d crossed boundaries in the past and had learned her lesson.
Ross: It was one of the few conversations where I didn’t feel attacked or minimized.
Wright: It seemed like Françoise was one of the good guys …
Françoise Bourzat: Nice to meet you!