Sharoni Stern was doing everything she wanted to do in life.
The daughter of impoverished immigrants who became successful diamond merchants, she grew up in Miami, attended private school, and took art and dance lessons. Despite the advantages of wealth, she was a humble, free spirit who didn’t care about the clothes she wore or the car she drove.
She had her sights set on acting, appeared in local and national theater productions, and earned a bachelor of arts degree from the University of Miami. In 2007, she married a tall and striking computer software designer and made plans to attend graduate school.
“When Sharoni did something, she did it 1,000 percent,” said her best friend since childhood, Thabatta Mizrahi.
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But five years after getting married and moving to Boulder, Colo., 33-year-old Sharoni Stern committed suicide. It was her third attempt over two years. In 2010, Stern underwent a radical personality change after studying a controversial form of dance under a teacher who, her family alleges, brainwashed and mentally abused her.
Stern’s death prompted her parents, Tibor and Hana Stern of Hollywood, to file a wrongful death lawsuit in Broward Circuit Court against her teacher, Katsura Kan. They say that Kan, who is also known as Terugoshi Kotoura, used cult-like tactics to exploit and manipulate her for his personal gain.
An internationally recognized master of a modern, avant-garde form of Japanese dance known as Butoh, Kan, 63, has denied he abused or brainwashed Stern. In an email to the Miami Herald, he said he was in contact with her up until her April 25, 2012, death. He called Stern’s last emails “a bit negative,” but nevertheless said he had not worried about her welfare since they were planning dance workshops in the months to come.
“She still had lots of hope,” Kan wrote the Herald.
Hundreds of emails between Kan and Stern, however, over a four-year period, indicate that Kan’s influence — over her art and her life — led Stern to abandon everything she once treasured: her husband, her parents and her closest friends, according to the lawsuit.
“You told me to lose my identity and authenticity in order to be a better Butoh dancer,” Stern wrote Kan in an email before she died. “You turned me against my family, husband and society.”
Pain, suffering, passion
Known as “Dance of Darkness,” Butoh is a modern form of dance that originated in Japan in 1959. It combines dance, theater, improvisation and traditional Japanese performing arts with German Expressionist dance to create a unique and often haunting form of expression.
Performances feature near-naked, chalk-faced dancers contorting their bodies and clenching their facial and body muscles in silent, sometimes grotesque puppet-like movements. Butoh teaches the concept of an “empty body” where there is no conscious self-expression or emotion; rather, artists are like a blank slate, encouraged to summon up their darkest, raw emotions and use their body movements alone to communicate feelings such as pain, suffering, passion and death.
Stern was introduced to the dance while pursuing her master’s degree in fine art at Naropa University in Boulder.
The school, founded in 1974 by a Tibetan Buddhist teacher, is known for its Eastern studies like yoga, sitting meditation, Japanese flower arrangement, tai chi, psychology and other forms of “contemplative education.”
Stern became acquainted with Kan in 2008, when he was a guest artist at the university.
She was thrilled when, as a student in 2008, she was asked to assist Kan, who was considered an internationally renowned “master” who only took a small number of students under his wing.
Stern wouldn’t be paid, but she was offered free lessons from the practitioner in exchange for helping him arrange his workshops and performances around the world.
Within a year, Stern had become more than his assistant. She was one of his principal performers, his mistress and one of his financial supporters. In emails, he promised to love her for “40 years and beyond.”
In the beginning, Stern’s words read like those of a giddy school girl as she wrote emails to her husband, family and friends about her new-found love of Japanese dance and culture and her travels with Kan all over the world.
After graduating from Naropa in 2009, Stern continued traveling with Kan. He promised her a life of enlightenment and artistic success as long as she adhered to the precepts of Butoh and his creative direction.
A native of Kyoto, Japan, Kan was married with a young daughter. He acknowledged in emails to Stern that he lived a “gypsy life,” traveling from one Butoh festival to another, often not knowing where he was going to stay or how he was going to pay the plane fare.
By 2011, Stern was estranged from her husband, Todd Siegel, and her emails to her family and friends had changed from bubbly, chatty descriptions of her life and work to short missives. She was working as a bartender part-time to earn money, but was draining her bank account and borrowing money from her parents to continue her travels with Kan.
Italy, France, Thailand, China, Japan, Mexico, Brazil, Denmark, Israel.
Wherever Kan went, Stern followed.
Emails show that she was distressed that Kan was seeing other women. He still professed his love and asked her to continue to work on her art, and to arrange his workshops and festivals.
If she strayed from his wishes, intruded in his other affairs or he doubted her devotion, he was quick to warn her: “If you do not listen what I say, game is over! Do not make me angry anymore!”
Her parents, who have a vacation home near Boulder, became concerned when Stern stopped returning their emails and phone calls in mid-2011. Her friends also noticed a radical change. Though she had no prior history of mental problems, by then she had lost so much weight that she appeared ill, her skin was peeling, her clothes were soiled and she was exhausted. One friend described her as looking like “a bag lady.”
“I saw a very broken, very sad, very lost you and it scared me,” Mizrahi wrote to Stern shortly after seeing her perform in Brazil in 2011.
“I found only darkness in it,” she said of her Butoh performance. “I was also concerned about how you talked about your teacher.
“Admiration is good, it’s healthy but not when we start to lose our self-worth, when we lose sight of who we are I feel like you are losing yourself in this art as a result of this relationship with this man.”
On July 8, 2011, Stern was truly lost. She disappeared in Copenhagen, Denmark, after having the first of what would be several mental breakdowns.
Her parents said they found her a week later, incoherent, emaciated and suicidal in a Copenhagen mental hospital.
From that point on, they fought to get her help, as Kan, emails show, continued to ask her to arrange his travels to the far corners of the world.
“I will help you as nobody seems can’t help [sic] so I will be your personal psychotherapist. I am expensive,” Kan wrote to her two months after her breakdown.
Stern sold her car and diamond engagement ring so that she could continue being with Kan. Her family estimates that she gave Kan about $30,000 over a two-year period.
“She paid for his massages,” her father, Tibor Stern, said. “It was like she was his slave.”
In August, Kan asked Stern to borrow money from her brother, Ron, and, in an email, provided his bank account number, telling her to handle the transaction “carefully.”
“Again, if you escape from your duty and responsibility,” he wrote, “I am not involve you for my future work let me recover my trust and have strong courage to build your new life with me. Love, Kan.”
Though she asked for far more money, Stern’s brother would only lend her $250, which she arranged to deposit in Kan’s bank account.
In late 2011, her father called police all over Europe and Japan try to locate their daughter. Her parents and their lawyer emailed Kan repeatedly, imploring him to cease sending her plane tickets and inviting her to continue touring.
Stern’s husband and brother also emailed Kan, asking him to send her back to the United States for medical treatment.
But Kan insisted that his pupil was fine, writing she was “healing” and traveling of her own free will.
In October 2011, Stern had another breakdown in San Francisco, and the Sterns managed to get her to Boulder, where she was admitted to a hospital psychiatric ward.
But the family’s battle to separate their daughter from Kan was far from over.
Dignity, free will
In his lawsuit, Tibor Stern claims that under the guise of molding his daughter into a performance artist, Kan inflicted “extreme emotional distress,” stripping her of her “dignity, free will and self-respect.” Furthermore, even after he was told by her family, doctors and lawyers that she was suicidal and acutely ill, he continued to take advantage of her, the suit alleges.
Kan was given the opportunity to comment on the lawsuit but did not respond to questions sent to him by the Herald.
Mind control takes many forms, but even personal one-on-one brainwashing by a person of authority is destructive.
“We actually adapt to our environment a lot, and we believe what we want to believe. If we are given a role, then reality fades,” said Steve Hassan, a mind control expert and author of Freedom of Mind. Actors and performance artists, by the very nature of their work, are even more susceptible to losing their sense of reality, he said.
Miami attorney John Leighton, who has brought a lawsuit against Kashi Ashram, a religious group based in Sebastian, Fla., whose members have been accused of rape and child abuse, said it’s difficult to prove that an adult was the victim of brainwashing .
“The biggest problem you have here is an adult and not somebody who is just 18. [But] if he knew she was mentally ill and she was dependent upon him for approval, he might be liable, maybe, but there has to be a breach of duty of care,” Leighton said.
‘Tired of life’
Tibor Stern petitioned a Boulder judge to have his daughter involuntarily committed on Nov. 28, 2011, but by the time the judge signed the order, Stern had already flown to Hawaii with Kan, and the couple planned to travel next to Japan.
Her emails showed that she was unraveling.
“I’m tired of life. No one helps me to help them. So now you please tell me how please. Need way to DIE. Really,” she wrote Kan on Jan. 25, 2012.
Kan and Stern traveled to San Francisco in February for a workshop. During that trip, one of her closest childhood friends, Rachel Coxon, who lived outside of the city, received a hysterical call from Stern’s mother, telling her that Stern had disappeared.
Coxon tracked Stern down and brought her to a hotel.
“She was in the hotel room, stark-naked, talking and not making any sense. She was asking questions about the universe and looking for money.”
Kan’s emails in January 2012 encouraged her to keep following him.
“We shall plan India or Thailand very country side between May-June pray to keep going step up for your partner’s development with respect,” Kan wrote.
Upon returning to Miami, Stern was very sick but refused to seek help. The second week in April, she traveled to Brazil in hopes of seeing Kan, who had been scheduled for a performance.
“We just couldn’t stop her from going,” her father recalled. “We tried everything.”
When Kan didn’t show up in Brazil, she returned to Miami on April 20. She had already purchased a helium tank, which she kept in a room she was renting at a friend’s home in Plantation.
On April 23, she wrote Kan, in what was perhaps one of her last letters:
“Love you. That’s all. Thank you for all your important lessons wish I knew what else to do. You were my angel.”
Stern’s roommate, Kelly Kopf, found her body about 8 a.m. April 25.
The Broward County medical examiner ruled that she asphyxiated herself using a suicide method she had found on the Internet.
She also left a suicide note.
“I’m sorry. I had to. Please tell my family I loved them. Can’t survive the storm.”
In the aftermath of her death, her parents formed “Families Against Cult Teachings” (F.A.C.T.), a support and educational nonprofit foundation, based in Hollywood, to help victims of mind control.
Kan has rarely toured since her death and is no longer a guest teacher at Naropa. He occasionally lectures and choreographs Butoh performances overseas. His most recent appearance was in April 2014 at a Butoh conference in Guadalajara, Mexico.