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Sally Kempton, Rising Star Journalist Turned Swami, Dies at 80

She attended Sarah Lawrence instead of Barnard, she wrote in her Esquire essay, because her boyfriend at the time thought it was a more “feminine” institution. There, she co-edited a magazine parody called The Establishment. She was hired by The Village Voice right after graduation and began writing pieces, as she put it, about “drugs and hippies” that she said were mostly made up because she had no idea what she was doing. (Her writing belied that assertion.)

She had her first ecstatic experience, she later recalled, in her apartment in the West Village, while taking psychedelics with a boyfriend and listening to the Grateful Dead song “Ripple.”

“All the complexities and the suffering and the pain and the mental stuff I was concerned with as a downtown New York journalist just dissolved, and all I could see was love,” she said in a video on her website. When she described her new insight to her boyfriend, she said, he responded by asking, “Haven’t you ever taken acid before?”

But Ms. Kempton had had a transformative experience, and she continued to have them as she began investigating spiritual practices like yoga and Tibetan Buddhism. She went to see Baba out of curiosity — everyone was doing it — and, as she wrote in 1976 in New York magazine, if you’re going to get yourself a guru, why not get a good one?

She was instantly pulled in, she wrote, charmed by his matter-of-fact persona as well as something more potent, if hard to define. Before long she had joined his entourage. It felt, she said, like running away with the circus.

Her friends were appalled. “But you were always so ambitious,” one said. “I’m still ambitious,” she said. “There’s just been a slight shift in direction.”

Ms. Kempton spent nearly 30 years with Baba’s organization, known as the SYDA Foundation, for two decades of which she was a swami. Baba died in 1982, following accusations that he had sexually abused young women in his ashrams; since his death, the foundation has been run by his successor, Gurumayi Chidvilasananda. In 1994, when Lis Harris, a writer for The New Yorker, investigated the foundation and wrote an article that noted the accusations against Baba and questions about his succession, she quoted Ms. Kempton as saying that the accusations were “ridiculous.” Ms. Kempton never spoke publicly about the issue.

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