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There’s probably no better illustration of Weed’s divisive reputation than the case of two women who both arrived on her land in the late summer of 2020 to participate in a shamanic herbal apprenticeship program that Weed has been offering for more than 30 years. The apprenticeship, which is only open to women, as she defines them, is meant to be an intensive mixture of herbal education and what Weed describes as a carefully orchestrated shamanic initiation, designed to shepherd the participants into a heightened sense of their own power and agency and their connection with the natural world. (There are also shorter, less spiritually intense “Green Goddess” apprenticeships.) Over the years, and perhaps in response to the kinds of events that have made her a heated topic of discussion in the herbal community, Weed has also gotten much clearer about the fact that the apprenticeship program involves yelling and intense confrontation.
The first woman, Katie, said that for her, the experience was transformative.
“Being there in the woods with goats and plants and Susun and moving around so much and being active and spending time alone in the woods,” she told Motherboard recently, “I felt really healthy in my body. I felt strong. I felt nourished.” (Like many people in the herbal community who spoke to me for this story, Katie asked to use only her first name. “I don’t want the mob after me,” she wrote in an email, referring to Weed’s detractors. “I’m just living my life in gratitude!”)
The other woman, who asked for anonymity to tell her story, and whom we’ll call Jane, had a nearly opposite experience, saying she was worked to the bone, not given enough to eat, and verbally abused. Her six days on Weed’s land ended with her fleeing on foot, she said, only to end up in the hospital, delirious and severely dehydrated. She believes she was drugged on Susun’s land—a charge Weed adamantly denies—and says she now struggles with “mild cognitive dysfunction” due to the trauma of the experience. Of the six days she spent apprenticing, she remembers only three, she said.
“I want her stopped,” Jane told Motherboard. “I do. I want her to not be allowed to be able to hurt people anymore. She’s hurt so many people.”
Weed acknowledges that she’s an intense person, but she denies being emotionally or physically abusive to anyone. She is autistic, and said that her blunt communication style is a result of how her brain works. “I’m going to be clear,” she told me. “But that’s not abusive. You have to have power over someone to be abusive. I have enough power of my own.”
In the end, the discussion in the herbalism community is about both Weed herself and a much larger set of concerns about how to create safety and accountability in a community outside the mainstream. Herbalists tend to be a self-reliant group of people, who believe in literally healing themselves, and that philosophy is echoed in how they approach problems within their community. “This is the way of the forest,” herbalist and teacher Sarah Wu told me. “Organisms keep each other in check.”
Herbalists, for a variety of very good reasons, resist any kind of centralized governing body, and point to a long history of mainstream institutions attempting to suppress or cast doubt on the legitimacy of their field. Many of Weed’s supporters see the criticism of her as an attack on herbalism itself as a free and nonconformist space, an attempt to homogenize or regulate them in a way they think will harm the field as a whole.
“There’s not a cohesive herbal community unit,” one herbalist, who asked for anonymity, told me; she has publicly criticized Weed’s behavior in the past and says she faced social media threats and harassment as a result. “There’s not a licensing body that we all have these homogenized standards we have to abide by. So that’s made it somewhat interesting—made it difficult—to figure out the response, other than individuals telling our students not to study with Susun because it’s not safe.”
“There’s no licensure for this,” said another herbalist who’s been critical of Weed on social media and requested anonymity to speak freely about the situation. “And I don’t want there to be required licensure for herbalists. Any time professionalization has happened in this field, it punishes who you think it would: Indigenous people, Southern Black folk herbalists, women, midwives. So I'm very wary of that being the answer to this.”
(While one can become a registered herbalist with the American Herbalists Guild, that’s a professional association, not a licensing body. It’s also one Weed doesn’t belong to, meaning even if it issued a statement or censured her, it would hold no real meaning.)
Weed’s critics say her behavior also shows that there has to be a better way to warn students about unsafe teachers. They say that a whisper network about Weed’s treatment of apprentices hasn’t helped to warn everyone, especially people outside the herbal community—like Jane—who might stumble onto her land without knowing the rumors that have swirled for years about her behavior.
For Weed herself, the current debate over her behavior is “a non-issue,” a mostly fictional creation of her opponents in the herbal world and a small group of former apprentices who refuse to take responsibility for themselves, and who failed to heed her repeated warnings about the intensity of her program.
“It’s not for everyone to be a shaman,” she said.
Regarding the numerous allegations against her, she at times sounded serene. “You can share all of their made-up stories, their fantasies,” she told me at one point, in the six or so hours of interviews we conducted together. “Not a problem. Everyone has the right to make up anything they want to make up. But I'm not going to pay attention to it.”
But Weed was also concerned that any story about the allegations against her could kick off a new round of what she acknowledges has been an acrid debate. “Nobody’s even talking about it anymore,” she said, the first time we spoke. “I’m concerned you’re going to stir something up that’s better left to rest.”
Since the 1970s, Susun Weed has been one of the biggest names in the world of Western herbalism—which can be defined, broadly, as the use of plants to address medical issues or promote healing. She’s a central figure in what’s known as the Wise Woman tradition, which uses herbs, storytelling, and “simple ceremony,” as she calls it, to ground women as they move through their life stages. Weed writes especially powerfully about the age of the Crone, a woman’s elder years, and, she has written, a period in which herbs can help smooth the passage into a time of tremendous wisdom and spiritual power. Weed’s six books are some of the herbal world’s most foundational texts, found on the shelves of natural foods stores the world over. She often stresses that herbal medicine is “people’s medicine,” free and available to everyone.
Weed’s style of teaching and working with apprentices has been, for many women, powerful and life-changing. Her former apprentices have gone on to found some of the largest herbalism conferences in the country.
“There’s a certain strength and leadership ability that women who study with Susun—some women—are able to access,” said Linda Conroy, a former apprentice. Conroy studied with Weed 30 years ago, and founded the influential Midwest Women’s Herbal Conference, which has been going on for the past 11 years. (Weed will speak there this year, which has generated some amount of backlash—though, Conroy says, it hasn’t ultimately affected registration numbers; 400 people attend in any given year.)
At the same time, Weed’s behavior has long been a topic of discussion in itself: Whether she’s a transformative teacher or an abusive bully is a debate that has been ripping across the herbalist community, not for the first time.
Reports of Weed abusing apprentices have circulated for years, with the claims involving her subjecting them to screaming tirades, calling them names, and making outrageous and ever-changing demands. Online denunciations of her came to a head in 2018, when she was charged with criminal obstruction of breathing and blood circulation after an apprentice accused her of choking her for incorrectly tying off a bag of lettuce. (The charge was ultimately reduced; Weed’s attorney Josh Koplovitz told Motherboard, “Susun pleaded guilty to harassment in the second degree and was sentenced to a conditional discharge,” meaning she didn’t serve any jail or probation time and essentially just had to agree to behave herself. In New York state, second-degree harassment is a violation, not a crime.)
In 2020, another apprentice accused Weed of threatening to kill her, telling her, “I’m going to kill you” and threatening to “flatten” her if she asked more questions. Weed was charged with misdemeanor second-degree harassment, according to the Ulster County News, but she said that charge, too, was dropped.
A worker who answered the phone at the Saugerties Town Justice Court, where Weed’s criminal cases would have been heard, at first said—incorrectly—that there were “no cases” associated with Weed; the same person eventually admitted the cases do exist but claimed they were sealed. Linda Conroy told Motherboard that she asked Weed to ask the court to unseal her criminal cases in late December or early January, so that they would be part of the public record amid the ongoing discussion of her behavior. After several weeks of discussion with Motherboard, the court clerk said there are records of three cases against Weed—dating to 2009, 2013, and 2018—in which she was convicted of second-degree harassment. One is clearly the lettuce incident; the records do not include the 2020 case reported on by local media.
Weed is not an entirely linear narrator when it comes to outlining the previous charges against her. She does not, for instance, recall precisely how many people have taken her to court (“maybe two,” she told me, at one point). But she was clear that apprentices have filed restraining orders against her in the past and made other criminal complaints, none of which have resulted in her being convicted of a criminal offense. She’s had no problem agreeing to the restraining orders, she told me, even from “people I had no connection with,” she said.
“It cuts down on the work of my little local court,” she explained. “I live in a small town. In order to make cases move through the courts more easily, if I agree to a restraining order—which does nothing because I want nothing to do with these women—they love me for greasing these through the system.”
Stories also abound about Weed verbally laying into people in environments like conferences and daylong workshops. Several people related anecdotes about Weed yelling at someone for posing a question in a way she didn’t like; for using the term “guys” to refer to a group of women, which Weed finds deeply objectionable; or for defending the use of an herb that Weed doesn’t support. (Weed says she does object to the use of the term “guys” in that context and has raised her voice at people in the past who use it after she asks them to stop. “I won’t be referred to as a guy,” she said. “I’m not being insulting or rude, but if they keep pushing me, I will get overloaded and I’ll get louder and louder, and I think that’s OK. I think they need to take some responsibility. For the past 25 years I’ve been telling women if they allow themselves to be called guys, they’ll lose all their reproductive rights. I hate to be right.”)
At conferences, there have been some heated exchanges over turmeric, specifically: One woman, Norma Fisher-Mixon, recalled having an exchange with Weed over the herb during a conference, and then having Weed pursue her out of the lecture hall where they’d just been. “I use a cane and I'm not the fastest walker,” Fisher-Mixon told me. “She grabbed me by the wrist and she said, ‘You have not been helped by turmeric. I don’t care what you or anybody else says, you have not.’’’
Fisher-Mixon said that Weed then asked “what was wrong” with Fisher-Mixon—in other words, why she was using a cane. She responded that she has rheumatoid arthritis and lupus, to which Weed replied, as Fisher-Mixon remembered, “That is your own fault for bringing it on, you're the one who caused your own disease.”
“I looked at her and she’s right in my face, holding onto my wrist,” Fisher-Mixon said. “She was hissing and spitting like a cat. Talking very vehemently. I said, ‘No, ma’am, I did not,’ and she kept insisting. Then she got personal and said something to the effect that I was ugly and everything in me was ugly. I cut her off and said, ‘I’ll remember everything you said,’ and walked away.” (Weed doesn’t remember this specific incident, but she denied anything like it has ever occurred; she said that several times during lectures at conferences, she’s said linden is a better anti-inflammatory drug than turmeric, which sometimes inspires people to argue with her or even grab her. In that instance, she told me, “I would definitely remove their grip from me. And I would definitely not be ready to talk or to be nice since they are accosting me.”)
Conroy, who’s hosting Weed this year at the Midwest Women’s Herbal Conference, told me she asked Weed to bring a “support person” to assist her if she feels overloaded. “Her needs don’t get met and she has a difficult time being able to express them,” Conroy told me. Weed, she said, has been “nothing but amenable to my requests.”
There are other claims of physical violence: Shannon Berke, who apprenticed with Weed in 2008, told Motherboard that Weed threw a bucket in her face after she walked on a patch of grass that had just been planted. Another apprentice, Elizabeth Dieleman, who was also on Weed’s land in 2008, recalled Weed twisting the skin of her arm because of how she was handling some salad greens she was preparing for their communal dinner. “She runs over to me and told me I was harming the plants and that they could feel what I was doing to them.” Weed, she said, twisted the skin so hard in opposite directions that it caused pain. (Dieleman told me she came to believe there is “some dark spiritual stuff going on” on Weed’s land, and among other things related a terrifying experience of sleep paralysis she experienced in the Nettles Patch where she envisioned herself levitating off the bed while a sinister figure cackled at her. After years of exploring Wicca and herbs, Dieleman went through what she called a “dramatic spiritual journey,” was re-baptized as a Christian, and is today a religious singer and songwriter.)
Weed denies being physically violent with apprentices or anyone else. “Why on earth would I ever hit anybody?” she said. Past apprentices, she claimed, have in fact been the violent ones: “I’ve had apprentices hit me, jump on me, take me to the ground, try to pull my hair out, slap me, kick me, attack other apprentices, knock holes in the wall, rip things apart.” When that happens, she said, she tries to help women redirect their anger, for instance designating a pillow for punching.
“I believe in women’s anger,” she said. “I think women’s anger is an untapped resource.”
Some women told me they’ve come to see what Weed does as little more than a pretext to get manual labor out of them, accompanied with a heaping side of verbal abuse, bizarre mind games, and baroque punishments. One apprentice, who was just 18 when she worked with Weed in the early 2000s, recalled being told by Weed that she had scooped rice from a pot incorrectly at dinner, and that the rice had to be thrown away. “She was full volume screaming, name calling, insults,” the woman remembered, and told the apprentice she was a “fucking idiot.” Another time, she said she washed Weed’s napkins and towels but was told she’d folded them incorrectly. “We drove an hour back to town at midnight and rewashed them and folded them the way she wanted.”
Several women also said they’d been promised by Weed that they could earn back a portion of the money they paid for their apprenticeship program—usually $2,500—through chores, caring for the goats, and other work. But the women who didn’t formally graduate were never paid back; two said that when they decided to leave, Weed tore up their time sheets in a rage and screamed at them. The woman who was there at 18 said that Weed had sent her a packet of papers in the mail before the apprenticeship began, with a carefully outlined rate of how much in refunds an apprentice could get, week by week, if they left early. (The refund system as it previously existed is outlined in a 2003 version of Weed’s apprenticeship webpage.)
When the woman decided to leave, she remembered, “Susun said, ‘You don’t deserve a refund and you're not getting one.’ I lost my cool and started screaming back. I was like, ‘You have no right to take my money.’ She disappeared and came back with a piece of paper that was the same color, font, and format as the refund policy she’d sent in the mail, but this piece of paper said no refunds under any circumstances. She had that ready in her office.”
Weed countered that she has not allowed any refunds for a very long time. She said that apprentices “get paid the day they graduate,” and don’t receive any of their money back otherwise, which she says she clarifies both verbally and in writing before the apprenticeship starts. She says that she doesn’t provide refunds because her work with an apprentice begins the moment they agree to work together, after an initial phone interview.
“A shamanic apprenticeship is one thing,” she explained. “It’s not a series of things. That one thing is already done as soon as I accept that apprentice. That is a linkage that I make available to them. I would say over half of them report to me that after they make that commitment, I start appearing in their dreams. Not because I'm going there, but I'm making that available to them, and if that’s what they need, I'll appear in their dreams. This is why there are no refunds. It’s not like something we can parse out.”
Weed says that her apprenticeships involve carefully-staged steps which are, she says, “consistent throughout the world in every Indigenous culture that I've been in, this is the way you become a shaman.” (Weed is white. She says she has been an initiated witch since 1976, ”a high priestess of Dianic Wicca,” and claims to be an “initiated member” of the Seneca Nation’s Wolf Clan, initiated by an elder named Twylah Hurd Nitsch. Weed does not claim to be Native American or an enrolled member of any tribe. A press officer with the Seneca Nation wasn’t immediately familiar with Nitsch’s name or any formalized way that a non-Seneca person could be “initiated” into a clan. Weed says that Hurd Nitsch, whom she calls “Grandmother,” faced pushback from initiating non-Native people. “Further, Grandmother made me a “Peace Elder,” she told me. “As a Peace Elder, I was accepted at many Native gatherings and fully accepted as a member of the Wolf clan.”)
As Weed explains it, the shamanic initiations she’s been trained in begin with having a teacher you deeply admire, and having that teacher push back on your desire to emulate them, which can frustrate the apprentice.
“I am a mirror to everything they’re in denial of,” Weed told me. “And so they begin to see me as the things they most hate about themselves. But of course they don’t recognize it has anything to do with them. They think it’s me.”
If the apprentice works through the stages appropriately, Weed said, “They can move through the shadow self,” and come to recognize themselves as independent “women of power,” she said.
Weed says 322 women have graduated her apprenticeship; many more leave early, she says, but they often come back, after months or even years, to finish. And when women leave without completing the program, she says, “It’s not a failure for me. It’s not my work. It’s their work.”
But it’s also not just failed apprentices who are left with a sour taste around Weed’s methods. “There's nothing shamanic about the apprenticeship,'' said Shannon Berke, the apprentice who was there in 2008 and graduated from the program, staying for a full six weeks. “I don’t know what shamanic means to her. I think she thinks it means she’s trying to teach you valuable lessons and to become a more powerful female by experiencing her fucked-up mind games.”
That said, Berke added, “I still have a soft spot for her.” Berke worked as Weed’s personal assistant for several months after her apprenticeship ended, before recognizing that it wasn’t a healthy environment for her and quitting. “I think for a long time I didn’t see what she was doing as abusive. I really kind of believe that she was trying to help women become more powerful and strong. But her methods are not—that’s not how you help women and uplift women, by screaming and yelling at them and demoralizing them all the time.”
Weed argues that yelling doesn’t inherently create an unsafe environment for the apprentices. “Yelling has nothing to do with safety,” she told me. “Yelling is about waking somebody up.”
Over the years, the apprenticeship page on Weed’s website has also gotten clearer and clearer about the fact that the apprenticeship involves yelling. An archived version of the page shows that in 2003 it gently warned that “change” and “intense emotions” will occur.
Today, the site now reads, in part: “Shamanic herbal apprenticeship is the most difficult way to study with Susun. When you agree to be a shamanic apprentice, you are hiring Susun to scream at you, to tell you when you are not in truth, to bite off your excuses, in short, to kill the part of you that prevents you from claiming, and living to the fullest, your power, beauty, strength, and healing abilities. You will cry. You will be pushed. You will at some point think you have made a terrible mistake. You may leave. And you are welcome to return. Susun commits to her apprentices for life.”
“I thought it would be sort of a Jedi training, spiritual fortitude,” said Elizabeth Dieleman. In the end, she said, she left after Weed demanded that she kill a goat she’d grown particularly close to, named Horus. Killing goats or rabbits in a formal ritual is a recognized part of the apprenticeship; Weed calls it “giving death.”
“I don’t have any problem with killing an animal,” Dieleman said. “I eat meat. I understand that has to happen. But I found it very twisted the way she was doing it… She didn’t tell me it was going to be the baby goat. If you’re on a farm and you’re going to killl your animals, you don’t name them and become pets. I had bonded with this baby goat, and I would have had to kill it with my own hands. It was very ritualistic.”
“Every apprenticeship includes giving death,” Weed told me in response. “You’re not a shaman until you give death.” If Dieleman had come to her, she said, she would’ve found a solution, she said. “We’ve given death to animals that I’m deeply involved with and I walk in the woods while that happens. Whenever there is a difficulty, we do have a remedy.”
Weed knows about difficulty. Her life has been colorful, intense, and more than occasionally traumatic. She was born in Cleveland and grew up in Dallas, left home at 16, and moved to New York City at 19. By then, she was married to a man named Southworth Swede, and at barely 20 gave birth to their daughter, Justine. She and Swede opened the Psychedelicatessen, a hippie deli near Tompkins Square Park that one source has identified as “the first head shop in New York.” Swede was also said by the tabloids to be the pastor of something called The Church of Mysterious Elation, which used psychedelic drugs as sacraments. The police raided the Psychedelicatessen in 1968; they said they confiscated heroic quantities of magic mushrooms, LSD, cocaine, and hashish. At the same time, the couple’s home was also violently raided, Weed told me. “They came in, broke through the windows, guns drawn, chased us out of our beds, my daughter screaming her head off.” (The Daily News reported, with fascination, that Weed had long black hair and “was wearing a blue velvet, floor-length gown, open at the back, when she was taken to the police station.”)
After the Psychedelicatessen was raided, it soon closed, and Weed and Swede moved upstate. They settled on land near Delhi, New York, that Weed refers to as “my Eden”: a property at the end of a dirt road with flower beds, a pond, and a “huge organic garden,” she remembered. Then, someone living on the property—not Weed or her husband—“decided to mail a small amount of cannabis to someone,” she said, and the couple were violently raided for the second time; Weed awoke in bed, she said, with a cop’s gun at her temple. “They poured the food in a pile in the kitchen and took axes to the wall,” she remembers. Swede was charged with disturbing the peace, she said.
Soon after, when Weed was 24, she said, she told Swede “that I needed some time by myself,” and that she’d arranged with a female friend to be at her place in the city three or four days a week. On her days off, she said, she offered to take Justine, or to leave Swede to take care of her, whatever he preferred.
As Weed remembers it, Swede replied, “Who’s going to cook for me? Who’s going to do my laundry? Who will pick up my dirty clothes? That’s what a wife does.”
Weed responded, “I resign as a wife.” (Swede died in 2020 and thus could not comment on how he remembers this conversation.)
After the couple divorced in the early ’70s, Weed never remarried. She has a longtime “consort,” as she calls him, Michael, who, as numerous former apprentices said, cooks for them during their stays and helps to milk the goats.
As a struggling single mom, Weed started teaching community college classes about whole wheat bread baking and homesteading. When a friend teaching herbalism moved her family into a van and went on the road, Weed took over that class too, learning as she went. She didn’t actively choose to start taking apprentices, she told me: “I didn’t decide. No one decides.” In the early 1980s, a friend announced she needed to live with an herbalist to graduate from an herbalism course, and informed Weed she would be acting as her live-in teacher.
Weed told me she’s been a disciple of Elizabeth Kübler-Ross, the Swiss psychiatrist best known for conceptualizing the five stages of grief, and the author Jean Houston, a pioneer of the human potential movement. (Kubler-Ross died in 2004, and Houston’s office did not respond to a request for comment.) She also derives inspiration from the works of Carlos Castaneda, a writer who, in a series of influential books, claimed to have undergone training from a Yaqui shaman in Mexico. Castaneda’s books are now widely considered to be fabricated. Weed says she is part of the Sisterhood of the Shields, a purported secret society whose members reportedly have included women who were former disciples of Castaneda.
Weed is unbothered by the notion that Castaneda’s work may be fabricated. “They’re all stories,” she told me. “Does it live where you live? If it does, maybe it has something of value for you. If it doesn't, keep looking.”
Talking to Weed is an intense experience. Over the course of two or so weeks, she and I spoke extensively by phone and email, at one point talking for three solid hours while Weed—who is, again, 76, and a recent cancer survivor—took a vigorous seven-mile walk. She speaks in a fusillade of intense, precisely focused sentences; she raises her voice for emphasis and lowers it to a whisper, or occasionally, a growl. We argued, specifically, over whether Weed’s attitudes toward trans women could be considered transphobic, another concern about her approach that’s cropped up for the younger generation of herbalists. Weed has been attending the online meetings of a British group called Women’s Declaration International; formerly known as the Women’s Human Rights Campaign, the group has been widely identified as transphobic or trans-exclusionary. (It denies being transphobic, saying that while it doesn’t believe trans women are women, “all persons who act in ways which do not conform with sex stereotypes should be protected from discrimination.”) The group has claimed transgenderism is “a social and historical construction, not a biological one,” and that nonbinary identity is little more than a fad; it’s part of a growing number of anti-transgender groups in the UK.
“What is a trans woman? I don’t recognize that term,” Weed told me at one point; she is, she said, “totally and completely against the trans agenda. But I'm for trans people.”
Weed stressed that she respects trans people, and that one of her apprentices was someone whom she read as male but who told her she was female. “My inner guidance told me to say yes” when that person asked to be an apprentice, she said. Her commitment to women-only spaces is part of a desire to protect what she called “women’s culture.”
“That culture requires safe space for XX chromosome holders,” Weed said. “The culture of women requires safety for the most delicate of us.”
In our conversations, Weed was forthcoming, voluble, and took well to being challenged; if anything, she seemed invigorated by it, thanking me repeatedly for asking her challenging questions and giving a voice to her accusers. There was one exception: I told her I wasn’t sure she’d like this article since, after all, it deals extensively with allegations of abuse against her. A few moments later, she called back and asked, with trepidation, if I had been “threatening” her. When I assured her that was not the case, she brightened immediately, told me several more colorful stories about her life, and hung up with a cheery “Green blessings!”, her usual sign-off.
Soon after, two women who work for Weed sent me the same document: a six-page series of glowing testimonials from past apprentices. “I apprenticed with Susun in 2006, when I was 55,” read one from a New Zealand woman named Adrienne. “I make no bones, it was the hardest thing I have ever done. Susun’s fierce teaching, laced with loving kindness, has an essential honesty and truth to it that I have not met anywhere else. No artifice, no stage dressing, no bullshit.”
“I trust you are also including instances of my generosity and caring,” Weed wrote to me in an email. “I trust that unsupported claims from failed apprentices are balanced with the gratitude of successful apprentice. Graduating 322 apprentices who have lived with me for two weeks to two years is a massive feat. I trust you are praising me for all that hard, hard work of supporting these women, then and now.” One instance she pointed to is an apprentice who, in a horrible accident, burned down Weed’s barn after failing to extinguish a candle. (The apprentices milk the goats in the evenings by candlelight.) The fire killed eight of Weed’s goats and five rabbits and utterly destroyed the barn, but Weed said she and the apprentice are still in regular touch.
“She destroyed things I loved very much,” Weed said. “If I was an abusive person, wouldn’t I abuse her?”
Weed has compared herself to Baba Yaga, the ferocious, feral, supernatural figure of Slavic folklore. Baba Yaga lives in a house on chicken legs, deep in the woods; those who find her there are sometimes helped and sometimes devoured.
“Baba Yaga is the keeper of the eternal fire, the spark of divine consciousness that informs the best of every profession, that lives in the best healers and the most intuitive herbalists,” Weed has written. She is, she added, “not averse to sharing, but she is demanding. You must give to her, must do her bidding, before she will do yours and give to you.”
Not everyone finds this comparison—or the idea that Weed is simply being punished for being a powerful woman, in a field dominated by powerful women—persuasive.
“I am a scary person,” she wrote. “There is a reason the witch lives alone.”
Lisa Fazio is an herbalist in the Northeast, one of many who have written statements critical of Weed’s approach. “I know Susun compares herself to Baba Yaga,” she wrote on Facebook earlier this year. “But Baba Yaga is a mythical being in a very specific cultural context whereby everyone knows she is dangerous. Baba Yaga doesn't hide herself behind the guise of ‘healing’ and ‘nourishing infusions.’ Baba Yaga has human skulls staked right at the entrance of her property and her house spins on chicken legs. There's no lure about learning herbal medicine, whole foods, and yoga classes or books that make it sound like she's well when in fact she is deeply disturbed.”
After the 2018 lettuce incident became public, Weed also issued a lengthy statement on Facebook, again likening herself to Baba Yaga. “I am a scary person,” she wrote. “Please stay at a distance if you are frightened of me. That is the best way to deal with Baba Yaga. There is a reason the witch lives alone. Her friends are few, but they are real friends.”
Also after the choking allegations in 2018, a number of other prominent herbalists felt compelled to make public statements about not studying with Weed.
“I do not believe it is safe, physically or emotionally, to study in person with herbalist Susun Weed,” wrote one, Juliet Blankespoor, in a widely shared Facebook post. “For over 25 years I have heard dozens of similar stories about her emotionally abusive behavior from apprentices and students, and I’ve witnessed it myself firsthand. Susun publicly shames, berates, and intimidates students for having different beliefs or even for asking a simple question. Her treatment of apprentices is worse.”
The same year, a group of concerned activists in the herbalism world tried to make a “coordinated effort,” to raise the alarm about Weed’s behavior, one of them told me. (That person asked me to use only her first initial, J, saying she was concerned about facing harassment.)
“We reached out to major herbalism [social media] accounts urging them to speak up,” J said. “Nobody wanted to address it head-on, partly because of potential harassment. Nobody wanted to put their brand on the line.” When they emailed organizers of conferences where Weed was due to speak, J said, at least two simply said not to contact them again.
In response to their pressure campaign, J said that one major herbal company did take action, scrubbing Weed’s presence from their website and sent a statement to anyone who emailed them about Weed saying they were “deeply concerned” about the allegations. (The company did not immediately respond to a request for comment.) For the most part, though, the experience was dispiriting and many of the people involved got “burned out,” she said. “It was closed door after closed door.”
The matter wasn’t settled, however, and the debate over Weed’s apprenticeships broke into view yet again this January, when the 2020 apprentice we’re calling Jane posted an anonymous account of her time on Weed’s land on the website Ripoff Report.
Jane told me that she’d been a regular listener to Weed’s radio show and had even called in a few times with questions; she was interested in becoming a clinical herbalist, after many years of running another business. She said she’d become interested in herbs after using them to deal with a serious infection she got from antibiotics, and figured Weed’s program was a logical next step.
“I thought it would be two weeks where I could rest and relax and figure out the next chapter of my life,” she said.
She was also motivated to try out the apprenticeship, ironically due to a VICE article from 2017, for which former Broadly reporter Callie Beusman visited Weed for a day to learn about coping with anxiety and existential dread; the piece describes Weed as “eternally serene” and “a benevolent forest-dwelling witch.” (Several people told me that rumors have abounded in the herbal world that VICE as an organization knew about the abuse allegations against Weed and “chose” to run a more flattering story instead. That is not true, and Beusman confirmed she was not aware of any abuse allegations against Weed at the time she went to her land. Nor does the piece whitewash what Beusman knew at the time of Weed’s behavior; she mentions that Weed devotes a whole section of her website to the fact that she yells at apprentices. )
In her account on Ripoff Report, Jane alleged that the Nettles Patch, the house where apprentices stay, was filthy, with a shower caked in what she called “blood, feces, rust, rotting something.” (Weed responds that those were iron deposits from the mineral-rich water in the area.) She also said she had been drugged with “some type of psychedelic,” although she doesn’t make any claims about who she specifically believes drugged her. (She wrote in her post that things appeared “hazy and slow,” and “I was very impressionable, more than I have ever been in my life.”)
Jane also wrote that Weed screamed at her constantly, that she spent most of her time doing yard work and other manual labor, and that Weed charged her and Katie if they did something incorrectly.
“I have since learned that this is human trafficking and illegal,” she wrote. “She would tell us to do something a certain way (scream at us), then she would say we did it wrong and punish us.” It was a departure from how Weed had described the apprenticeship to her, she said: “I’m expecting yoga and tai chi and meditation and organic meals, and it was not that at all. It was like a boot camp for a soldier.” Jane felt unable to leave, because she didn’t have a car, and because she was worried about how Weed would respond if she tried, and, she told me, because she felt unusually docile and suggestible while there, adding to her impression that she’d been drugged.
“The normal me would’ve been trying to punch someone and get out of there,” she said. “But the me on her farm was trying to live minute by minute.”
After six days, Jane said, she fled from Weed’s property on foot; she said so many women had left personal belongings behind at the Nettles Patch, she was left with the impression that leaving in a hurry was not uncommon.
Jane was then was rescued by a passing jogger, who saw her disheveled state and offered to call the police. Two responding officers arrived, a man and a woman; according to her, the man told her, “It sounds like you were just unhappy with your accommodations,” and they left without taking further action. Jane then called a cab, whose driver was so concerned with her appearance that he took her to the hospital, where a new round of police were called.
A medical assessment, documentation of which Jane shared with Motherboard, found that she had a bladder infection and a high respiratory rate, from being in distress. She also said the doctors suspected she was having a drug reaction; a line on her medical report reads, “Altered mental status. Substance use disorder. Psychoactive substance abuse.”
Jane said she spent the next two weeks, in the midst of the pandemic, recovering in a hotel room. She filed a police report against Weed and worked with the Ulster County Crime Victims Assistance Program. She shared documentation showing that the organization told her she “met the criteria for confirmation” as a victim of human trafficking in New York state, allowing her to get financial assistance with her medical bills. But she didn’t ultimately choose to go to court against Weed, she said, saying the DA “strongly encouraged” her to work on her recovery and mental health and try to pursue a case “down the road.” She said she obtained a six-month restraining order. (The Ulster County District Attorney’s office acknowledged a request for comment from Motherboard but did not provide comment before publication.)
Weed says she screens all her potential apprentices with a one-on-one phone call, where she warns them how demanding her program is. She tells them, as she put it to me, “You’re not my equal and I will not treat you as my equal. You’re agreeing that I’ll tell you what to eat, drink, what to wear, what jewelry you should take off.” But due to her autism, she said, “I have difficulty knowing that people are lying to me,” which is what she believes happened with Jane.
After Jane left the Nettles Patch, Weed called and left her a message, which was subsequently uploaded to YouTube.
In the message, Weed angrily told Jane, “You are making a real fool of yourself,” and said the two had agreed on the terms of her apprenticeship over the phone.
“I reminded you that you were agreeing to everything,” Weed said in the message. “Let me quote, ‘As a shamanic herbal apprentice, you agree to allow Susun to use her full power and vision to guide you. Furthermore, you understand that shamanic apprenticeship is extra-legal and you’re agreeing not to involve Susun in legal proceedings of any kind. And if you do bring any legal action, you agree to give Susun $5,000, due the day you file, to cover her expenses.’”
Both Weed and the other apprentice, Katie, who was on the property at the time Jane was there, strongly deny that Weed forced Jane to do inappropriate amounts of manual labor or that she was starved, and say the drugging allegation is outrageous. Weed said Jane wasn’t in a good state when she arrived at her property. “She told me she’d been in a car accident and had a concussion, that her brain wasn’t good, that she couldn’t remember things, and that she had a diagnosis of schizophrenia,” Weed told me.
Jane said the part about schizophrenia is flatly untrue: “[I] never said that, ever. I did, however, tell her I was healing from a concussion from the previous year,” she wrote in an email. “I wanted to make sure it was still a good idea to attend her workshop... she said yes it was.”
Katie, the other apprentice, didn’t want to speak directly to Jane’s claims. “It wouldn’t be appropriate for me to comment on this person’s health and wellbeing,” she told me. But Katie added that she found the food to be plentiful and the amount of work she was asked to do appropriate, given that the property is an active homestead, with animals to care for and chores to do. “I had no issues at all with the amount of labor that I was doing. It’s part of the rhythm of living on a homestead.”
Eliane Molina has been studying with Weed for a few years as a correspondence student, and spent a week with Weed in August 2020 for a Green Goddess apprenticeship, which is meant to be a shorter and less intense course than the shamanic herbalism apprenticeships Weed also offers. She and Katie are now close friends, and she wrote to me after Katie and I spoke. “I learned so much from Susun about plants but also about animals, health in general, nutrition, mindful movement, ecology, spirituality, women’s history, and myself,” she wrote. “I feasted on the most delicious, nourishing foods that I have ever had (a lot of which we harvested ourselves), and seriously had a really amazing time.”
Katie also said she didn’t find any issues with the Nettles Patch, the house Jane found filthy. Other former apprentices told me that the house was run-down, and some found it not particularly clean. Elizabeth Dieleman, who was there in 2008, told me that it was “disgusting,” adding, “The room I was given was full of dead bugs. Rat traps or mouse traps. And, like, you’re sleeping on like—a straw mattress? A mattress on the floor. Very, very crude. Very little furniture or anything like that.” Weed says apprentices are responsible for the condition of the Nettles Patch: “If they don’t like the way it is, they need to clean it up. It’s their space, not mine. I’m not running a bed and breakfast… They need to be prepared to take care of themselves.”
In response to the Ripoff Report allegations, the activists from 2018 who’d organized against Weed revived their efforts, creating an Instagram account called Weed Out Abuse, meant to be “an organizing hub and story collection” for those with allegations of abuse. (They have not made contact with Jane, J told me, and don’t know her name or where she lives; in other words, they’re not coordinating with her.)
Jane’s allegations, and those of other past apprentices and conference attendees, were also picked up by a podcast called Love and Light Confessionals, hosted by Katya Weiss-Andersson, a holistic wellness practitioner. Weiss-Andersson has been interested in how a desire for an influential, all-powerful teacher is a breeding ground for abuse across all kinds of New Age spaces.
“They’re looking to be told what to do, to be enlightened, looking for figures who hold some great wisdom,” she said. “There are so few checks and balances.”
But Jane’s report has itself proved divisive; even some people who believe Weed’s approach to training apprentices is harmful are skeptical of some of the specifics. Namely, they’ve struggled with Jane’s claim that she was drugged, which is not something any previous apprentice—even those who had profoundly negative experiences—has publicly claimed.
“It’s a really serious allegation,” said one herbalist, who asked for anonymity to freely talk about the controversy, and who said she’s faced social media and email threats for speaking out about Weed in the past. “I don't think any of us are questioning the survivor. At the same time, there’s a lot of people I've spoken with who won’t hesitate to call out Susun for verbal or psychological abuse but have seen that particular accusation, and it’s paralyzed them from speaking out.”
For her part, Jane said she decided to post on Ripoff Report because she’d finally healed enough from the experience to want to warn other people. “It was a wild, painful experience,” she said, and one she’s still healing from; she’s moved states, and is undergoing treatment for chronic migraines.
“One thing I want to be clear,” she told me, when we spoke on the phone. “I’m not a victim. I stood up for myself. I fought back. I really tried to get her in jail.” But, she added, ruefully, “I’m having a hard go for sure.”
Some of the old guard of herbalists see the tenor of the discussion about Weed’s behavior as a disturbing example of cancel culture run amok. Rosemary Gladstar is a contemporary of Weed’s and a powerful figure in the herbalism world herself; she helped found two of the central conferences in the herbalism world, the International Herb Symposium and the New England Women’s Herbal Conference. She also founded the famed Sage Mountain Botanical Center in 1987 and taught apprentices in California and New England starting in the 1970s, though she no longer does.
Gladstar told me she’s disturbed by the tone of the discussion about Weed and other herbalism controversies. The world is so agitated and to turn that on ourselves as a healing community seems a tragedy,” she said. “We need to be mindful of not using social media to have these conversations because there’s no opportunity to look someone in the eyes and speak from the heart”.
Gladstar worried that it was leading to a “vigilante” mindset that didn’t leave room for compassion, she added. She was referring, in large part, to the Facebook factor. For the most part, denunciations of Weed have happened in the fervid environment of social media, which doesn’t lend itself to fact-checking or true conflict resolution. Discussions of Weed’s behavior tend to spiral into accusatory comment threads with hundreds of people weighing in.
“She’s made important contributions and has introduced thousands of people to herbalism over the past several decades.”
Gladstar has a nuanced relationship with Weed herself, who was for years a regular speaker at the conferences she organized. “In spite of what people may say, she’s made important contributions and has introduced thousands of people to herbalism over the past several decades,” Gladstar told me.
But Weed had a habit of blowing up at conference organizers and support staff like kitchen workers, Gladstar said, and in the past few years that Gladstar was organizing the conference, it began to require too much of her time and attention to mediate those conflicts. “I felt very burdened and sad and had to say to her, ‘It’s gotten too hard, Susun.’”
Though Weed was no longer invited to teach at the conference, Gladstar said, she still stayed with the teachers in their lodging, out of respect for her. (Weed denies she was ever asked to stop teaching at one of Gladstar’s conferences. Gladstar doesn’t recall whether it was the International Herb Symposium and the New England Women’s Herbal Conference, specifically.)
Linda Conroy, Weed’s former apprentice and the founder of the Midwest Women’s Herbal Conference, thinks the focus on Weed is misplaced.
“Susun is a very easy target. She’s a fierce woman. I think she is very assertive and speaks—her style can be off-putting for some people,” Conroy told me. Even “valid concerns,” she added, aren’t well-handled on social media. “I think the concerns should be handled quite differently than they are. I don’t think social media is the place for the herbal world to have these dialogues.”
“This is bigger than Susun Weed,” Conroy said, adding she thinks it’s more about the ways a lack of compassion and a zest for punishment has overtaken herbalism. She referred to another senior herbalist, Stephen Buhner, who’s been critical of what he calls the “woke mob” in herbalism (and who penned an impassioned essay on the subject, entitled “The Day the Woke Mob Came for the Herbalists”). In response, an herbalist in Toronto burned books of Buhner’s in a show of displeasure, an incident Conroy and others found disturbing.
“This is bigger than Susun Weed.”
“Why are we focusing on Susun? This is what I'm saying,” Conroy told me. She’s far more concerned with what she sees as bigger, more pernicious issues in the world of herbalism than one difficult woman: male herbalists preying on female students, the growing commercialization of the herbal world, and people trying to trademark herbal products that have been available for thousands of years.
“There are so many things to talk about,” Conroy told me. “This is a distraction, ultimately.”
Some of Weed’s former apprentices don’t agree; they think the discussion about Weed is long overdue. But that doesn’t make it any easier to figure out what to do next.
“The best resolution and the one we’ve been calling for after talking to survivors is that she retires from apprenticeship and stops bringing people to her property,” said J, the activist who began organizing against Weed in 2018 and who administrates the Weed Out Abuse account. “Because she can’t create a safe environment for everyone.”
The idea of bringing Weed into some kind of frank dialogue or restorative justice conversation about the abuse allegations has come up before. But as Lisa Fazio, the herbalist in the Northeast, pointed out, those take time, money, and willingness not everyone is going to have. “Restorative justice processes are difficult,” she told me. “They take a lot of conversation, which is a huge time commitment, usually unpaid. How do you keep up with your bills, especially if you're an entrepreneur? Herbalists don’t get paid a lot usually. Most of us aren’t raking in the bucks here.” Real accountability, she added, “falls not just on the individual but on the whole community. To have that happen, we’d have to dismantle everything” and rebuild a different world.
On a more practical level, Weed’s critics also don’t think she’s likely to be swayed by polite requests to stop teaching. “I think—a strongly worded letter with 1,000 signatures on it, Susun is going to burn it in a bonfire,” one of the herbalists who’s spoken out against Weed’s behavior in the past told me. “Anyone trying to tell someone like that what to do—who’s been rebellious against all forms of authority, for the history of her teaching—I don't know what the path is.”
This seems true; in February, as the allegations began to circulate again, Weed issued a statement equating them to blackmail, seeming to refer mainly to Jane. “No to blame, no to shame,” she wrote. “No to bullying, no to blackmail. Stand with me or stand with those who lie. Trust me or trust people with grudges who live to destroy others.”
Sarah Wu, the herbalist and teacher, is an admirer of Weed’s work and has hosted her in the past at conferences. She told Motherboard in an email that Weed has been a “kind and active participant” in the events they’ve participated in together if, as she put it, “a little dominant” in discussions. Wu also publicly called for Weed to stop taking in-person students after the 2018 choking allegations. This was ultimately, she told me in an email, “a plea for adaptation,” and for Weed to continue writing and sharing her work that way. Personally, she added, “I would not be able to recommend a student taking her in-person courses because of the potential risk. But I would suggest they read her material and listen to her talks.”
“I hope Susun can reflect on the nature of harm,” Wu added. “And while the forest has no mercy, human beings do.”
At some point, I began to wonder if Weed was talking to me so extensively because she was concerned about her legacy, or the effects these allegations might have on it. (She assured me that was not the case: “I've spent enormous amounts of time talking to journalists and other people.”) She told me that she doesn’t think the abuse allegations ultimately figure into a larger discussion about her work. The Wise Woman tradition, Weed said, “That’s my legacy. I have defined an entire tradition and now they can't take it away from us—even if I’m the biggest piece of shit on the planet, and I’m not.”
“What is real,” she told me, in another conversation, “is my success at taking herbalism out of the hands of the elite and restoring it to the hands of the common person. My goal of making herbal medicine people’s medicine is accomplished. Everyone benefits.”
Throughout, Weed told me, she’s been comfortable with the concept of power, hers and that of others: “My power is mine. I have no need of anyone else’s power. The cultural norm is to be powerful over others,” she wrote (emphasis Weed’s). “The Wise Woman way is to be powerful with others. We live at a time when any woman who dares to be powerful is a target. I dare.”
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A very good article on Susan Weed. I use to go to her classes on another group years ago. She is very intuitive and intelligent when it comes to working with herbals. I always trusted her teachings and still do.