Another enlightening but difficult true story about the native influence of hallucinogenics in the life of everyday people and their positive and negative influences. Financial Times gets extra points for putting so much effort in this tale from Brasil.
So this is what the murder scene looks like. There, on the sun-dappled driveway, is where the shots were fired; here, at the top of the hill with its astonishing view of São Paulo, is the mausoleum where the bodies, currently in a public burial ground, will one day be laid; there, just beyond the children playing football on the lawn, is the murdered artist’s studio, since closed; and here, at the edge of the property, lies his church, still very much open. Beatriz, his widow, shows me all this when I visit her one day, and as we enter her house she stops by a giant poster hung on the patio wall. Two words are stencilled across it: “Glauco Vive!”
Glauco Villas Boas and his son Raoni, a university student, were shot and killed in their house at Osasco, a suburb of São Paulo, on March 12 2010. Glauco, 53, was one of Brazil’s best-known cartoonists. Lesser known, at first, was also his iridescent inner life as the leader of the Céu de Maria church, part of the Santo Daime congregation that treats ayahuasca, a psychedelic Amazonian brew, as a sacrament. Charged with the murder was Carlos Eduardo Sundfeld Nunes, known as Cadu. A troubled young man from an upper-class Brazilian family, Cadu, then 24, had joined the religious rituals directed by Glauco in search of relief and healing from his problems of drug abuse.
The story of Glauco’s murder had anchored itself in my mind when I first stumbled across it, and I had not been able to let it go. In part, my interest stemmed from Glauco’s fame. Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Brazil’s then-president, spoke of his great sadness and the “tremendous loss” of this “great chronicler of Brazilian society” when he learnt of Glauco’s death. More than 1,000 people attended the funeral, Beatriz told me.
But in large part my morbid interest in Glauco’s death stemmed from its ambiguous context (why had a friend shot him?), the role of the ayahuasca tea that Glauco administered as part of his faith and, in particular, the tea’s growing popularity outside Brazil. In the US and Europe, interest in ayahuasca has soared of late, creating a subculture of New Age spiritual seekers — and a following among not a few millionaire environmentalists. As a writer for The New York Times style section noted recently, it has become “exceedingly trendy”, a salve for those seeking dream-time in a world increasingly dominated by screen-time.
Among public figures, Isabel Allende, the Chilean novelist, has said ayahuasca helped her conquer writer’s block. Sting, the musician, and Oliver Stone, the film-maker, have made similar claims. Jeffrey Bronfman, a descendent of the family that founded the Seagram brewing empire, leads an ayahuasca church out of Santa Fe, New Mexico. “The tea is really an instrument to help us get in touch with our own spiritual nature,” he told US National Public Radio in 2013. When Kira Salak, a National Geographic reporter, described how an ayahuasca healing session in Peru cured her of a life-long depression, the article became the most read in the magazine’s online history.
There have been many other reports of mental and physical healing following ayahuasca ceremonies, as well as occasional stories of delusion, cultism and worse. Early last year, Henry Miller, a 19-year-old Briton, died after apparently taking part in a shamanic ayahuasca ritual in Colombia — a terrible accident which played in the British press as a cautionary tale of a gap-year adventure that went horribly wrong. And then there is Glauco’s story, largely unreported outside Brazil, although it is one of the most curious cases of them all.
When Glauco was shot, the news spread like wildfire across the Brazilian media. Commentators bewailed the death of a man whose bawdy cartoon characters had become embedded in the Brazilian psyche in much the same way that Charles M Schulz’s Peanuts cartoon strip defined the popular culture of a generation in the US.
“His drawings were very simple, almost 2D, like puppet theatre,” said Laerte Coutinho, a celebrated cartoonist and one of Glauco’s longtime collaborators. “They were also unique. Anyone could imitate his simple style but not his ideas. He was inspired.”
Amid the mourning that immediately followed Glauco’s murder — Folha de São Paulo, the national newspaper that published his work, left only white space where its cartoons normally appeared — news coverage at first maintained a respectful attitude towards ayahuasca and Glauco’s Santo Daime church. That changed abruptly after the police caught Cadu while he was trying to escape to Paraguay. Glauco’s captured murderer told TV reporters that he had wanted to kidnap the cartoonist to prove to his family that his younger brother was, in fact, Jesus Christ. Worse, Cadu’s father and lawyer both claimed that Cadu, whose mother was schizophrenic, had gone “psycho” after joining Glauco’s rituals.
What had been a national tragedy now turned into a heated debate about ayahuasca or daime as it is also known. Although legal in Brazil since 1992, because of its deep roots in indigenous shamanistic practice, ayahuasca is mostly only tolerated in what remains an essentially conservative country. Época, a popular glossy magazine, asked on its front cover: “Did daime provoke the crime?” Veja, another, splashed: “The psychotic and daime: up to what point should a hallucinogenic drug be used in the rituals of a sect?”
Five years later, Glauco’s tragic death can still be seen as just another confirmation of the risks of taking drugs. Yet his murder and its ensnarement with a potent psychedelic is also a story about the perils of first impressions, as became clear when I met Beatriz. She had been reticent to talk to a journalist again after so much heated press coverage, and it had taken me several months of emails before she agreed to see me. But now we were sitting in the tidy living room of the house that she and Glauco had built next to their church almost two decades ago.
“I am not angry with Cadu. How can I be? He was crazy,” Beatriz said, her cheeks flushed with emotion as she described the awful events of that day: how Cadu had burst into her home and pistol-whipped her around the head; how he had screamed that he wanted Glauco to confirm Cadu’s belief that, yes, his fair-haired and blue-eyed younger brother was Jesus, so obviating the need for Cadu to be sent into psychiatric care. Glauco had rushed downstairs when he heard the shouting, had tried to calm Cadu but was then forced to leave after Cadu held a gun to his head. It was the last time Beatriz saw her husband alive.