Newspaper Articles



newspaper article from 1964

Floating High School newspaper article

Floating High School part 2

Kids Bussed instead of Tugged newspaper article

Fresno Bee December 13, 1966

Fresno Bee newspaper articel 1966



1986 newspaper article


(continued from article) both. Shimber Beris School, run by an American chiropractor, was like boarding school without vacations, a place you might never come back from, says Clay A___ of San Francisco, now 29.

Clay, who grew to adolescence in a Hillsborough mansion and the best local boarding schools, says his mother put him in Shimber Beris when he was 14 years old and sent his older brother, Linn “Alex” A___, now 30, there to join him two years later.

Clay says the school was run like a cult by David Burden, the charismatic headmaster who encouraged young wards to call him “Doctor” and seemed bent on keeping them there to establish a utopian society.

Burden, who still operates the school, says it was never a cult, and that Clay A___ is a troublemaker who was better off with him than in a society with such corrupting influences as drugs and rock’n’roll music.

“I think rock’n’roll music has a deteriorating influence on morals,” Burden says. “It refers to the drug culture and the sex culture.” Clay A____ says he spent 5 ½ years at the school, enduring downpours that lasted for weeks and left the floor and walls of his pup tent shelter covered with slime.

At the Shimber Beris of the 1970s, “students” lived in tents or thatched huts “champas.” Then, as now, they hauled their own water more than a mile from a river. There has never been plumbing, or electricity.

They were restricted to a diet mostly of corn mush, beans, rice and fruit. They suffered punishments that ranged from isolation and meal deprivation to something more physical, Clay A____ says. Once, he was chained to a tree, he says. Another time, several school staffers placed him down an old well for several hours.

Burden and his nephew ___, vice president of the school, say they don’t recall anyone being chained to a tree but admit Clay A____ was placed down a well into thigh-deep water. “Clay was always trying to run away,” ___ recalls. “We wanted to have a staff meeting, so we decided to keep him down the well to keep him from running away while we had the meeting.”

Clay’s brother Alex, who had suffered a nervous breakdown before being enrolled in the school, was unable to care for himself. For a while he was kept in a cage with no toilet facilities, Clay says. The A____ brothers’ story appears in sealed documents, filed with a San Francisco Superior Court petition for the psychiatric commitment of Alex A___ after his “rescue” from the school last year.

Clay persuaded his mother and Burden to release him from the school in 1977, then spent the next eight years and a $10,000 inheritance trying to free his brother, according to the court documents. San Francisco attorney Robert Belluomini filed two court actions for him before finally persuading Judge Maxine Chesney of San Francisco Superior Court to order the release of Alex A___ in May 1985.

Last October, Belloumini hired San Francisco private investigator Alan Nation to complete the rescue of Alex. Nation, a Vietnam veteran, went to Guatemala, hired a helicopter and, with a machine gun shoved under the pilot’s seat, flew into Shimber Beris and took Alex out. School officials were expecting him, had Alex packed and ready and turned him over without a fuss. The Burdens say they had been ready to return Alex for six months.

Alex, who had been at the school nearly 12 years, was brought directly to the psychiatric ward of San Francisco General Hospital, where doctors found him to be psychotic, disoriented and withdrawn.

He was overly cooperative, obeying all commands without question, according to a conservatorship investigation report to Judge Raymond Arata of San Francisco Superior Court from Susann Hooven of the Office of Mental Health Social Services of the state Department of Mental Health.

Clay A____ told the doctors at San Francisco General “the school the mother sent them to was in fact a Jim Jones-like cult, modeled as a utopian society. ...Sermons would be read in the evenings in hypnotic fashion. At the conclusion of each sermon, everyone kissed and hugged the leader...” according to Hooven’s report.

After a program of therapy suggested by a leading cult expert, Alex’s “’brainwashing’ appeared to be lifting.” Hooven said, but he remained in such a psychotic state that he was committed to a long-term care facility in Vallejo.

Their mother, Adrienne M___ P___, says Clay and Alex had given her problems since the first grade and were impossible to control when she finally placed them in the school. She couldn’t find a boarding school that would take them. Both used drugs, she says. Burden had written her that “we doubt that Alex will ever improve. The damage he received from drugs and rock music, we feel, is irreversible and that he had permanent neurological damage.”

“They grew up in that period when there were drugs and marijuana all around. I just don’t know what happened.” said P___, who was known in the 1960s for the lavish parties she gave at La Dolphine, her Hillsborough mansion modeled after Versailles Petite Trianon. In verifying the A___ brothers’ story to court and mental health officials here, The Examiner read hundreds of pages of documents and interviewed more than 30 participants in the Shimber Beris experience, including the school’s founders, alumni and parents.

A reporter went to Guatemala, where he rode a mule 4 ½ hours up a steep and teeming jungle mountain trail to visit the school and the last two Americans held there. They were Jon, 30, whom school officials describe as a chronic schizophrenic from Duluth, Minn, and Cindy, whose mental retardation is so severe that her parents consider her incapable of caring for herself.

Their parents sent them to Shimber Beris about 10 years ago as an alternative to the sort of formal psychiatric commitment that might not be possible without their continued assent under laws in this country. In California, for instance, Jon or Cindy would be entitled to a lawyer and a jury trial if they wanted to resist their parents’ efforts to commit them. If they lost, they would be entitled to a new court hearing every year. Both Jon and Cindy told The Examiner they would like to leave the mountaintop camp but lack the resources.

Each is kept medicated – Jon on Lithium and Cindy on Stelazine. They move through camp slowly, as if in a stupor. Their words come slowly; their sentences have a beginning, but often no middle or end.

Richard Burden explains that Jon gets Lithium to counteract a potential for violence. Cindy is given Stelazine to keep her from being pushy and demanding. Others at the camp – David Burden still calls the “students” –include a middle-aged Honduran and three young Salvadorians, committed by family members concerned with their drug or alcohol abuse.

The dream that was Shimber Beris is all but over, says Burden. “Shimber Beris has been practically nonexistent for about five years,” he says. Most of the school’s alumni say the original idea for an alternative school disappeared early on, supplanted by headmaster Burden’s quest for a perfect society. His building blocks were the adolescents who came to Shimber Beris in the first years after he and his wife, Virginia, founded it near the tip of Baja California in 1962.

Many of these young men and women were captivated by the charismatic personality and utopian dreams of director Burden and refused to return home and 20th century society. They say now that the headmaster they affectionately called “Doctor” during their years with Shimber Beris exercised almost hypnotic control over their lives and seemed bent on keeping them there, as the core group of a utopian society he envisioned.

Days at Shimber Beris began with “Orientation,” a time of listening to classical music, then to a trancelike often moralistic sermon from “Doctor.” Midday brought another music session – usually something lighter like Gilbert and Sullivan or the Sons of the Pioneers – followed by a reading from the works of Charles Dickens, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle or Rider Haggard. In the evening, the chamber or symphonic music was followed by another reading from Burden, often from the moralistic novels of Marie Corelli, the 19th century British writer who was Queen Victoria’s favorite novelist.

Burden urged his young charges to look within themselves for strength and direction and believed that basic survival living would put them in touch with what was important in the world. Drugs and alcohol were anathema in Shimber Beris.

Boys and girls lived apart at the camp and the early sexual exploration usually associated with adolescence – hugging, kissing, even handholding – was forbidden. Eventually, the young people who stayed with Burden began to marry each other.

“My first marriage essentially came about because it was the only way I could have a relationship with this person,” says Bob  C___, who stayed at Shimber Beris about six years, moving with the school from Mexico to the Central American nation of Belize and on to the mountaintop in Guatemala.

He married Beth H___ and by the time they left at the end of 1974, they had two children. “Doctor” didn't believe in birth control. “These young people were the makings of his ideal society,” says Andrew M___ of Menlo Park, who went to the school to visit a friend and stayed 2 ½ years. “He encouraged them to marry and produce children as the start of that community.”

The largest family belonged to Robert and Margaret K___, who now live in K__, O__. He went there right after college. She had been with the school off and on since the early '60s, when her father, a U.N. Economist and university professor, sent her there at age 13. By the time they left in 1980, the K___s had seven children.

“I went there at age 14 and came back with two kids,” says Beth H___. “It was more than going out of the country. It was more like going out of the world and coming back, really a mind-blower. Like not being able to be involved with the music of the time. People talk about the Beatles and other popular groups of the '60s. We were fed nothing but classical music, classical literature. You come back so naïve it's a little intimidating.”

Boys and girls who came to the school at age 13 reached adulthood as resolute Shimber Berians, convinced that the society they were creating was good and that the world outside, including the families they had left behind, was evil.

Ann H___ of Palo Alto, who sent her daughter to Shimber Beris in the early '70s for the alternative school experience, said she spent enough time with Burden and his students about a year later to decide her child should leave the school. “It seemed Dr. Burden felt our society was very evil. His attitude wasn't going to be helpful for the kids unless they withdrew from our society altogether.”

Her husband, Dr. George H. H___, a Stanford University clinical professor of psychiatry, wrote a letter recommending the school “as a small community where young people with adjustment problems, learning disabilities, borderline personality disorders or drug problems can be sent to find a new and constructive approach to their lives.

“The school suits best and benefits most those young people who are able to accept a benevolent authority.”

Today, H___ says, he would not recommend the school, not after what he heard of it from his daughter and others who attended. “In talking to the kids, that's when we were able to find out more about the kind of cult-like quality of this place,” he said.

“We felt we wouldn't want to carry on much further with it. We felt it was an interesting experiment, but we didn't know quite how to judge. We wondered why these people would stay there for years and years and years. I think this is because of this guy's almost hypnotic hold on them.

Virginia Burden, who founded the school with her husband in 1962 and left him almost 20 years later, says his responsibility for and authority over the children made him a changed man. When she met David Burden in Santa Monica in 1950, she said he was a struggling chiropractor, “a timid man who couldn't find his way too much in America. He couldn't carry on a conversation with adults, but ‘caught on like fire’ with the teen-aged children they sent him.”

The problem was that he also became extremely authoritarian and possessive of the children, she says. “He wanted to have the kids come and stay in the group. It began to verge on something like a family style that I always disapproved of,” she says. “I said the kids should stay three years and then go back.”

David Burden exercised enormous control over the lives of his wards. They were in an isolated area, in a foreign country where he spoke the native language and they didn't. He lectured them on the evils of the society they had left behind and tried to be the source of all information on what was happening back in that world.

Virginia Burden says one of the last arguments she had with her husband was over her bringing magazines and other printed material into the mountaintop camp in Guatemala.“He didn't want those magazines in the camp. He felt it would corrupt the students. I said ‘They have a right to see what's going on in the world,’ and he said he would tell them what they needed to know.“He was a man who could almost weave a spell. He gave a sense of great inner strength, almost tactile. We were arguing about the magazines and he stood over me and said, 'Yield! Yield! Yield!'”

David Burden says he doesn't remember the specific incident but knows he didn't want the magazines in camp “because we wanted to make a break with that world.” Ultimately, the economics of maintaining a commune in a remote area of a foreign land led to the end of Burden's attempt to build a new society.

About 20 of the original students became unpaid staff, but they and their families had to be fed and sheltered. The only source of income was tuition from new enrollees and, increasingly, these were problem teenagers. Burden charged what he thought the parents could afford and tried to keep the children as long as he could. S___ who used to play the principal on the television show “Fame” mortgaged his home to send his daughter to Shimber Beris when he found she was using drugs.

She was just experimenting, she says, but her parents were of another generation and frightened.. “Mom was afraid I would die.”

“You try everything, and pretty soon you get to the end of the line.” Says S___. “Love, threats, nothing works.”

Shimber Beris, where clothes didn’t seem to dry for weeks as a time, where poisonous coral snakes haunted the jungle just beyond the camp’s edge, was the end of the line for S___’s daughter. She arrived one day and wasn’t allowed to leave for two years.

They brought her up the mountain by mule – at night so she would not know the way out. The next morning, she met her first schoolmate.

“He said ‘Hi,’ then he said ‘Tell me something. Has Alice Cooper come out with any more records?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ and started to sing him some. And he goes, ‘Shhh, shhh. Be quiet or we’re going to get in big trouble.’ At that point, I knew I was in a very strange place,” she says.

Every new arrival at the school experienced intense culture shock, says Sarah F___ of Los Altos, who went to the school as a student in 1967 and stayed as a staffer through the 1970s.

“It was a different sort of prison.” she says. “There were no walls, but you still couldn’t get out.”

Adolescents who had been such a problem to their parents, who rebelled against authority, suddenly found themselves isolated, both physically and culturally, in a remote section of a foreign land. They were totally dependent on camp staff for information, shelter and nourishment.

If you misbehaved, says F___, there was punishment, called consequences. Gary Goodman of Austin, Texas, now married to Burden’s daughter Daphne, recalls being chained to an outside wall every night for a month after he and another boy escaped from the mountaintop and were caught in Guatemala City. Stephanie S___ says she fought the system all the time she was at Shimber Beris. She patterned herself after the protagonist in Ken Kesey’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” she says. “I faked insanity.”

As a result, she says, she was “on a silence” (forbidden to talk) and locked in a cage at night for most of the time she was there. The cages, called “separos,” were located out in the jungle, away from the main camp, she says. One night, she says, she awoke to find a male staffer had unlocked her cage, climbed in and was sexually molesting her. She pretended to awaken and frightened him away.

Once, she says, she tried to dig her way out through the cage’s dirt floor and hit concrete. S____ has bitter recollections of the morning and evening educational and music sessions with 'Doctor.' “I’d be locked up. Wouldn’t be able to get to the river to bathe. He’d be there in perfectly ironed, clean clothes while we walked around in our rags.”’Handel’s Messiah’ would play.

Then he’d come down these little steps and walk into the orientation room. Very grand. He’d have a few notes. He’d turn on his little light in front of him and he’d speak to us about the meaning of life, as Dr. Burden saw it. A lot of these staffers thought he was God. It was definitely cult like behavior. After his talk, we’d all file out, one by one.”

In the evenings, she said, everyone had to hug “Doctor” before going to bed. “One time – it was amusing – I decided to put my hands around his neck and see what he would do. I pretended I was having a psychotic moment and choked him. People saw it and pulled me off. Thank you, Ken Kesey.”

Stephanie S___ might still be at Shimber Beris if Daphne Burden Goodman hadn’t visited her parents in Southern California and warned them that they should take their daughter out of her father’s school. “She really wanted to leave. She needed to leave.” says Goodman. “She was having to be restrained by armed guards. He (Burden) wrote her parents and said she needed five or 10 years more. He made her out to be totally mentally incompetent.” (Burden denies there were ever armed guards at his camp, but says he once employed an ex-policeman who carried a gun.)

“She may have had some problems, but a lot of us have problems,” Goodman said. “She was a little spoiled, irresponsible. She was just a spoiled American kid who got into drugs. I think what she needed by then was some vocational schooling, someone to teach her some skills rather than try to change her soul. He (Burden) was more interested in changing her soul. He was not concerned with giving anyone the tools to get along in society.”

Ken S___ remembers Daphne Goodman’s visit and her advice to get his daughter out of there. He had just gotten word from a Burden emissary that he should see his banker and borrow all he could.

“Burden told us she was brain-damaged and should stay there forever,” S___ recalls in an angry voice. “He said she was a paranoid schizophrenic who didn’t know the truth. He was talking about an indefinite stay.”

Meanwhile, Stephanie S____ says, Burden was trying to make her want to stay. “He tried to convince me I couldn’t make it in the United States,” she says. “He said the only thing I had to look forward to was failure. He said if I stayed longer, I’d make a very good staff member. I said if I was going to fail, I’d rather do it in the United States.” Ken S___ told Burden he wanted his daughter returned immediately.

The transition, she recalls, was difficult. She had not read a newspaper for two years. She was out of touch with her friends and her culture.

“They were getting new cars and things while I was hauling firewood in the middle of a jungle. It was hard to get back into the mainstream of life,” she says.

Today she has nothing but bitterness about her experience with Shimber Beris.

“When you have a school where you have 16-year-olds locked up in cages in the middle of a jungle, I think there’s got to be something wrong with the person running it.” she says.

Today “when things get bad, I can always say to myself, I could be living in a cage in a jungle waiting for my exciting atole (corn gruel) breakfast with one teaspoon of powdered milk. Nothing could ever be that bad.”

Many of Burden’s former staffers say that cases like that of Stephanie S____ contributed to the end of Shimber Beris, to an awakening that their social experiment was failing.

“That was one of the sort of watershed difficulties we had. Where someone wanted to go home very badly,” says Peter S___, one of the last of the volunteer staffers to leave Burden.

“I felt the kids should be there voluntarily,” says Robert K____, who finally left Shimber Beris in 1980 because of this conviction and the concern that the school was taking people like Alex A____, whose mental problems were too much for the young and unskilled staff.

“I had doubts in my mind whether we should try to take people like (him) K___ says. “There were times when we were all sort of scared. We were lay people, and I wondered in my mind if we should be working with people who were definitely disturbed. Some were really psychotic. They should have been hospitalized.”

One of those hard-to-handle cases was the son of Los Angeles banking executive Arnold G___ and his wife, Elizabeth. They sent him to Shimber Beris in 1972. He stayed 13 years.

“He’d been hospitalized in the best places,” says Elizabeth G___, “but there was no place else for him to go. He was in such a flagrantly psychotic state that there was no place else the doctors could recommend. “Shimber Beris took him and he lived a life of isolation on a mountaintop. It probably saved his soul.”

After her husband’s death, Elizabeth G___ brought her son back and put him in a residential care facility in Santa Barbara last year. She hopes the therapy available there will eventually allow him to live an independent life.

One problem at Shimber Beris was that, regardless of how loving and caring the staff, they had no psychiatric training, no therapeutic skills. R ___ describes the school’s methods as “non-traditional therapy.”

Still, G___ says, “if (her son) couldn’t make it here in the United States and his alternative was life in a state hospital or on the streets, I would send him back in a minute. I know he would get loving if limited care there.”

That is the thinking of the parents whose children have grown to adulthood under long-term commitments to Shimber Beris.

The parents of Cindy, the retarded woman, said through Elizabeth G___ they would love to have their daughter back in the United States but cannot find the care she needs at a price they can afford. “They would feel better if Cindy were here,” says G___, “but they don’t have an alternative.”

It’s probably costing them less than $10,000 a year to keep her at Shimber Beris, she says, and a comparable placement in this country would cost at least $30,000. “So Cindy writes occasionally and they worry all the time. It’s killing them” she says.

Jon’s parents have been paying $12,000 a year to Shimber Beris and figure the cost would be about four times that in this country, according to a relative.

Elizabeth G___, whose son suffers the same illness as Jon, says she paid Shimber Beris $10,000 a year and now has him in a California facility at an annual cost of $48,000. She’s paying the money in hopes the institution can prepare her son to live an independent life, outside of institutions.”

I’m able to do it for a year,” she says, “but I’m going into principal to do it.”

State mental health officials say that good, full-time care like that being given Alex A___ now, is available at no cost to anyone under 18 years old and without funds, like Jon and Cindy. Alex’s care, being paid for by the state and federal governments, might cost a private patient $30,000 a year, they say.

Jon’s mother shows no surprise that her son had told a reporter he wanted to leave the school. “He tells people what they want to hear.” she says. “Schizophrenics do not control their brains.”

“If you know anything of the mental health situation in the United States of America, you will realize that for someone to be away from the terrors of society, from the potential of meeting hundreds of thousands of street persons, it is fortunate to have some place to be.”

Other family members recall the troubles the parents had with Jon before he went to Shimber Beris and say they must wonder if they could ever again get him to accept commitment if he left the school and returned to this country.

Before they placed him in the Guatemala camp, they tried several times to enroll him in institutions here. He always failed to show up, and they could not force him.

David Burden, who is now 71 and married to a 30-year-old woman who came to his school as a teenaged student, says that despite the presence of the two Americans on the mountain, the days of Shimber Beris are over.

They ended, he says, at the time five years ago when most of the original student-staffers left.

He is aware of criticism of the school, of the suggestion by some that he ran a Jonestown-type cult and brainwashed his students.

“Some years back during the Carter administration we were investigated by the State Department.” he says.

Someone had mentioned Jonestown...The US consul himself arrived by helicopter and, we learned later, fully expected to be greeted by men armed with machine guns The only arms we had at the center was a  .22 used to worry the hawks that bothered the chickens...” (An Examiner reporter noticed no firearms during a one-day visit to the camp.)

Members of the delegation stepped nervously from a helicopter, memories of Jonestown fresh in the minds of all, and declined an offer of lunch, David Burden said. Eventually, all at the camp were questioned privately by State Department officials and specifically asked if they wanted to leave. One did, and he returned a couple weeks later.

Two weeks ago, just before an Examiner reporter visited the camp, U.S. Consul Dora Trujillo, flew into the camp by helicopter on “a routine visit to see about the conditions of the American residents at the facilities,” according to Julie Gianelloni, U. S. Embassy press officer.

Jon and Cindy recalled talking with Trujillo, but both said she never asked if they wanted to leave.

Press officer Gianelloni declined to answer questions about the consul’s talks with Jon and Cindy, citing privacy privileges.

Reports on the 1981 visit to Shimber Beris are in storage and not immediately available, a State Department spokesperson told The Examiner.

A report of private investigator Debbie D’Innocente, filed in San Francisco Superior Court during attempts to free Alex A___, contains a characterization of that visit by Vice Consul Diane Graham of the U. S. Embassy in Guatemala.

In 1983, according to D’Innocente, Graham told her: “It is a school designed for young adults with drug problems. She said that most students came from affluent families. She said that there had been concerns over the school’s policies with regards to students leaving, and in 1981 the American consul general went to the school to check on the conditions. She said that the students were observed to be in bad straits, some not able to respond. There was an analogy by her of another Jonestown situation.”

“I was offended in being associated with Jonestown,” says Burden. “They had millions. We had to grovel around to try to eat. We are not a cult. Call me a religious man, but not of a particular type. We want to be universal, not a cult. We tried to base our rules on the Beatitudes, the 10 Commandments, the Sermon on the Mount and the Golden Rule.”

As for charges that he brainwashed his students, he says “All teachers do a bit of brainwashing, don’t they?” None of the original Shimber Berians or their parents think the school ever became a true cult. Some say it was nothing like that. Others wonder, though, about the direction in which their community was headed.

“We were not that blindly following and yet we were definitely following.” Sarah F___ says. “It does sound a lot like a cult. Maybe that’s why we all left, too, because the only way we could have continued was on a cult basis.” Burden concedes he did dream of a special community, a place where people could work and live together without fighting.

It would have been a place where people were guided by the basic moral standards of an earlier time, where people tried to lead the pure lives described in the romantic novels of Marie Corelli, where rock music and its “deteriorating influence on morals” was unheard.

The dream ended when the staffers who had been the first students rejected his authority and left five years ago, he says.

“Rule had to be by law, not people’s opinions and votes,” Burden says. “It had to be directed by that person or body of persons who accepted total responsibility for its existence. Most of our staff was unwilling to accept this. I alone legally assumed the responsibility and had to make the decisions.”

Recently, Bob C___ received a letter from Heather G____, who went to Shimber Beris as a young girl, married the doctor’s nephew, Richard, and is one of the few original Shimber Berians still associated with the school.

“’Doctor’ has changed quite a bit.” she wrote. He blamed no one for leaving. He saw it as a necessary thing. The experiment in reality had failed. The fond remembrances last and last. For each, it was a profound experience for good and ill, a bit of both.”

Copyright ©2011 Shimber Beris Archives. (All rights reserved.)