Memento Mori — October 15, 2013, 6:03 pm

Remembering David Sullivan

On the remarkable life of the subject of “The Man Who Saves You from Yourself”

David Sullivan

David Sullivan. Courtesy of Eric Brown

David Sullivan, the subject of my recent Harper’s feature, “The Man Who Saves You from Yourself,” died suddenly on the evening of October 11. I’d last spoken with him eight days earlier. Sully was utterly himself: hilarious, warmhearted, and bubbling with wild stories. We talked about the state of the California prison system, which he knew intimately from visiting clients for various murder cases he was investigating. He explained that the prisons have fallen under the control of the Mexican drug gangs, with the complicity of the guards, many of whom are Mexican nationals. But that’s a story for another time.

I told him, as I had many times before, that I regretted not being able to write about his life at greater length in my essay. By focusing on his investigations into religious cults, I had to exclude his investigative work in places like Juárez and Medellín, which had involved the world’s most powerful drug cartels; his adventures in North Africa in the early Eighties; and the decade he spent living in Brazil and Peru, during which he managed a nightclub in Rio de Janeiro, ran a language school in the Serra do Mar mountains, attended Candomblé ceremonies, and participated in Ayahuasca-fueled vision quests with Peruvian Indians.

There were countless other astounding episodes, many of which could not appear in print without putting him in physical danger or violating confidentiality agreements. It would take a book, or a series of books — a globetrotting tale of adventure, a hardboiled true-crime volume, a psychological drama, a Bildungsroman — to honor the richness of his life. I had been consoled by the fact that, several months ago, David had signed a contract to publish his memoir. He had just begun to work on it with the writer Joshua Jelly-Schapiro when he died.

He was excited about the Harper’s story, but it wore heavily on him. It was difficult for him to speak openly about subjects that he had kept private for decades. But when he did begin to speak, he was entrancing. David was a born storyteller. The transcriptions of my interviews with him run to nearly two hundred pages. (Readers interested in hearing David tell some of his stories in his own words can listen to a talk he gave at the Commonwealth Club in 2010.)

On the day that he died, he sent me a note about the Harper’s essay. He had received the issue the night before. He remained anxious about the story, he wrote, but he was appreciative and happy that it was out in the world. It is cheering at least to know that more stories will soon be published about David. Writers were drawn to him, and in the days and months ahead, the stories they tell about David will help to memorialize his brilliance, humanity, and generosity. I believe I speak for all of his friends when I say that I’ve never met another person remotely like David Sullivan.

Despite his cynicism about cults, David had a deeply spiritual quality to him. He empathized with people who were victimized by cults because he himself sought, in Saul Bellow’s phrase, “knowledge of the higher worlds.” When he attended prayer circles, religious meetings, and communes of every conceivable variety, he did so in a spirit of curiosity, and even yearning. This was why charlatanism infuriated him. He took it personally. Long after he succeeded in rescuing a client from a cult, he would continue to pursue the organization and its leader, often for years, on his own dime. David Sullivan did not only save lives. He raised everyone around him to a higher state of grace.

Single Page

More from Nathaniel Rich:

From the November 2013 issue

The Man Who Saves You from Yourself

Going undercover with a cult infiltrator

Postcard January 21, 2013, 10:30 am

Not Everyone Can Be a 49er

How Arena Football League players fare in the NFL

From the January 2013 issue

Opportunity Knocks

Is the Arena Football League ready for prime time?

Get access to 164 years of
Harper’s for only $39.99

United States Canada

  • Joseph Spohn

    The Man Who Saves You from Yourself – great article. Too little said about cults, I’d say.

  • Cherilyn

    Wonderful piece. I would add only that he also — another episode in the many lives of David Sullivan — had traveled through northern India with a couple of high-ranking Tibetan lamas and, in typical David style, protected them from hooligans. Some of the Buddhists on the road-trip bus were appalled at his language and ferocity, but the lamas disagreed. “He’s our warrior,” they said. “He is the warrior spirit of the dharma.” I don’t think David would have called himself a Buddhist per se though he had a lot of Buddhist books and objects in his house. He was a a deeply compassionate, always cursing, life-loving bodhisattva. It was a privilege to know and love him.

  • JayDee

    So sad to hear the news of David’s death. Had literally just finished the story in Harper’s yesterday and thought to myself, “Man, I wish I knew that guy. He sounds like a good man to have on your side – smart, funny, and brave. ” Thanks to Harper’s for the story and good thoughts for all David’s friends and loved ones. I’m sure they are many.

  • Jamabu

    Terrific story about an exceptional man. He had the Irishman’s gift of gab, lived a thousand fabulous stories brilliantly, and will be sorely missed by those who had the privilege to know him, to love him, to call him a friend.

  • Jennifer Stalvey

    I’m deeply saddened by this news tonight. The world has lost a passionate, adventurous, truth-seeking, storytelling man. I am so appreciative David’s story will be shared with the world through this Harper’s story. I worked with David for four years. He apprenticed me as a private investigator, and I worked undercover in his cult cases requiring a woman. I won’t forget our long lunches together where he regaled me with his stories, musings and insights. Sending love to all the many others who were privileged to know and love him.

  • Charlie Stanford

    What was the cause of death?

    • Standoff


  • John F. Thompson

    David and I first met when we were 6 years old in Salina, Kansas and remained close friends for over 50 years. Nathan Rich said it best that in that time frame I never met another person remotely like David Sullivan. Having struggled through the catholic school system together, I remember one day during religion class the Nun told us that if you were not baptized your soul would not go to heaven. David looked at me, and whispered ” that means my mother and your father are not going to heaven”. Then she added that dogs do not go to heaven either. With that David stood up and announced ” I do not think I want to belong to this religion”, and walked out of the room. The seed was planted.

  • Steven A. Cuevas

    Thanks for this great
    piece Nathaniel. I worked for David off and on in the late 90’s – including one
    notable cult case that actually turned out to be kind of comical. But I did
    crack the case after a genuinely ridiculous but successful piece of undercover
    work so David was happy about that. I’m a full time journalist now in LA and I frequently thought of him and
    credit him with helping discipline me as a writer and interviewer – two basic
    skills that David really prized. I often thought of calling him to see if I
    could pick up some occasional freelance investigation work. He was a tough and disarmingly
    warmhearted and hilarious man. I know he’ll be missed by many.



April 2015

The Joke

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Abolish High School

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Beat Reporter

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Going It Alone

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Rotten Ice

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Life After Guantánamo

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content


Photograph by the author
Rotten Ice·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“When I asked if we were going to die, he smiled and said, ‘Imaqa.’ Maybe.”
Photograph © Kari Medig
Life After Guantánamo·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“I’ve seen the hell and I’m still in the beginning of my life.”
Illustration by Caroline Gamon
Going It Alone·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“The call to solitude is universal. It requires no cloister walls and no administrative bureaucracy, only the commitment to sit down and still ourselves to our particular aloneness.”
Photograph by Richard Misrach
No Slant to the Sun·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“She didn’t speak the language, beyond “¿cuánto?” and “demasiado,” but that didn’t stop her. She wanted things. She wanted life, new experiences, a change in the routine.”
Photograph © Stuart Franklin/Magnum Photos

Acreage of a Christian nudist colony under development in Florida:


Florida’s wildlife officials decided to remove the manatee, which has a mild taste that readily adapts to recipes for beef, from the state’s endangered-species list.

A 64-year-old mother and her 44-year-old son were arrested for running a gang that stole more than $100,000 worth of toothbrushes from Publix, Walmart, Walgreens, and CVS stores in Florida.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!


Driving Mr. Albert


He could be one of a million beach-bound, black-socked Florida retirees, not the man who, by some odd happenstance of life, possesses the brain of Albert Einstein — literally cut it out of the dead scientist's head.

Subscribe Today