City Paper is not for tourists
Sir Edward Michael Jagen isn’t a sauna kind of guy. He doesn’t belong to any health clubs or visit day spas. He doesn’t derive great pleasure from wrapping himself in a white towel and sweating in a cedar box. Jagen prefers the benefits of his sweat lodge, which is powered by an old potbelly stove.
“I’m not your normal 21st-century fellow,” he says.
The squat, black heater isn’t the prettiest of antiques, but Jagen, 55, insists it’s a prize— and not just because its steam draws sweat and toxins from the pores. The potbelly stove, he claims, is charged with good energy drawn from the magical place it inhabits and the positive people it encounters. Under certain conditions, Jagen says, something destined to decorate landfills can transcend its intended purpose. “It’s just junk for the planet,” he says. “But it’s programmable junk.”
The stove sits in a tiny room that is part of Jagen’s castle, a collection of plywood towers and hidden sewage-pipe passageways that rests on 2-plus acres of gated land in Beltsville, Md. The place is best known as the home of the Good Knight Child Empowerment Network, a nonprofit organization that trains children to fend off abuse and come-ons from adults. In keeping with the medieval motif, the organization deploys a program of fencing, confronting monsters, and other fantasy challenges to instill courage in children.
It also houses the lesser-known Castle Nirvana Rejuvenation Center, which offers holistic healing treatments such as therapeutic massage, reiki energy healing, and “Shamanic journeys” for adults.
Like many of the nooks of Jagen’s castle, which he calls a “museum of myth and legend,” the stove’s room serves both constituencies. With adjustments in description only, he is able to target fairy-tale-obsessed grade-schoolers and Dungeons & Dragons–enthusiast grown-ups.
The sweat lodge is called the Dwarf House and is designed to resemble the lair of Gimli, a character from The Lord of the Rings. Kids are encouraged to view the room as an exhibit, and adults are welcome to take advantage of its healing properties. “This is a museum piece, but on another level, it’s a sweat lodge,” Jagen says. “This potbelly stove, we can crank it to 250 degrees and do healing.”
But the Dwarf House also has an interesting third application—it creates an environment perfect for performing preconception massage and other fertility treatments. The room draws its baby-making magic in part from hieroglyphics and runes that glow in florescent colors under a black light.
Inside, there are three large platforms where women and men alike can undergo procedures to help them conceive through “energy work.” The caveat is that the couple must “really deserve children” in order for the process to work, Jagen says. But if they are a deserving couple, the treatments are extremely effective—and comprehensive. “They do everything but the deed right here,” Jagen says with a chuckle.
The compound also holds a multipurpose labyrinth, where children are knighted after completing the Good Knight program and adults are sent to heal. “I’ve seen people go in half-dead and emerge like a child,” Jagen brags. And the Survivor Amphitheater hosts sword-and-feather duels for kids of all ages.
The castle stands as a monument to a one-of-a-kind business model. Jagen is appealing to folks who are looking for child-safety information, alternative therapies, and fantasy adventures under the same roof. He says this mission is guided by an angel whom he calls Michael, a guiding presence he refers to as a “positive consciousness” who arrived when Jagen was 8, following a period of traumatic abuse and a near-death drowning experience.
“That’s when things changed for me,” Jagen says. “During the near-death experience there was an angelic being in a blue suit of armor, and he said it didn’t have to be my time to go yet. He said he needed a set of legs to do something.”
That something, it turns out, was to inspire Jagen to create a compound of man-made water features, baroque statues, and intangible healing properties. Jagen is committed to the cultivation and care of the place, but he knows enough to realize that his property, his philosophies, and his rituals can seem a little bizarre.
“I’m not schizophrenic. I don’t hear voices,” Jagen insists. “But I know things. And I do things that have positive results.”
From a great distance, the castle’s structures and the fence that surrounds them appear to be made of stone. But closer inspection reveals a wood façade, painted gray and covered in a black hand-drawn grid meant to invoke blocks. Jagen estimates that this task alone took hundreds of volunteer hours to complete.
Once inside, after your eyes adjust to the glare of a quarry’s worth of crushed white and gray rock, you discover an equally startling salvage yard’s worth of knickknacks, refurbished bargain-bin finds, and unique crafts.
There are walls covered with Egyptian carvings directly behind Greek-style pedestals holding pieces of Roman sculpture. A trickling waterfall contains rocks painted with eyes and large plastic swans. A secular garden filled with fairy figurines and paintings lies near a tower with a large statue that Jagen refers to as Magdalene and Child.
Jagen believes that starting small is always the best approach. Before claiming this current sprawling compound, a former YMCA campus that was donated to the organization through a private trust in 1994, Jagen was the overseer of a moderately sized castle housed in a 10,000-square-foot commercial suite. Before that, there was another even more modest office-space empire. And back when there was no physical space in which to set up his structures, Sir Edward had only teeny replica dominions that he would, in time, will to full-scale.
“Everything starts small—in miniature,” Jagen says. “Once you make the miniature, everything explodes!”
Jagen has held on to the models that helped him realize his vision of a life-size magical lair. He stores them in an exhibit space inside of “the Citadel,” the largest structure behind the castle’s 8-foot wall. The models sit right behind a table surrounded by gold-painted chairs that serve as thrones for Jagen and his friends. These Lord of the Rings–style dioramas inspired Jagen to give the castle a thematic update based loosely on J.R.R. Tolkien’s trilogy and more tightly on Peter Jackson’s series of films.
“These are miniature props,” Jagen says, motioning toward the models. “Instead of making huge sets, they use miniatures—I could pull up [the] Lord of the Rings [movie] and show you….You can zoom in on areas and get detail or pull back—you can’t tell it’s Styrofoam from 40 feet.”
Like much of the castle, the dioramas seem impressive from a distance, a bit slapdash when viewed up close. They are large cubes filled with craggy dark stone, fake trees, and various dolls meant to be stand-ins for characters from LOTR. There are several crouching Gollums, tons of evil Orcs, and a Frodo doll that’s a perfect plastic replica of actor Elijah Wood.
Above the miniatures, large ghouls and goblins made out of latex, leather, and wire are suspended on ledges just below the ceiling. These dummies are what Jagen refers to as “bigatures.”
“This represents the progression from miniature to bigature,” Jagen says, waving at both the teeny-tiny Frodo and the creatures looming above.
The creepy figurines are a fair embodiment of Jagen’s work with children—his goal is to take young people and transform them into miniature grown-ups without robbing them of their innocence.
This job calls on Jagen’s past as a D.C. cop. From 1970 to 1984, Jagen was part of the Metropolitan Police Department’s Intelligence Section. “I was more or less a very gifted spy for the good guys who led the bad guys to believe I was worse than they were,” he says. Jagen bolted from the force after his cover was blown and Michael began sending him warnings about impending harm. “It was time for me to change course when the angelic presence was letting me know I’d be shot or blown up,” Jagen says. “I was shot at many times, and there was a bomb in my car once.”
He founded the Good Knight Child Empowerment Network in 1985. Since starting the program, Jagen has won a President’s Service Award from Bill Clinton for his work. Jagen’s program has been successful on the financial front as well. For fiscal year 2003, the Good Knight Network claimed more than $600,000 in direct public support.
Jagen says the program uses much of the knowledge he acquired while with the police department. Jagen says that he quickly learned the 10 tactics criminals use to outwit cops; as it turns out, strangers use a similar
bag of tricks to hurt kids. The castle’s
haunted walk, with its scary sound effects and fake monsters, was modeled after a stress-reaction assault course Jagen went through during training.
“What the police [department] does for cops, I do for kids,” he says.
On a warm Saturday in June, Jagen hosts a troop of Girl Scouts, ages 12 to 14, from Laurel. Everyone is gathered under the theater tent, which is called Gandalf’s Hat in homage to the witchy chapeau worn by Sir Ian McKellen in LOTR.
A giant fan is blowing, but it’s still blazing hot under Gandalf’s hat, and Jagen, wearing white-and-gold wizard robes, is sweating. Doc Malinowski and massage therapist Sophia Key West, the volunteers helping with today’s program, are wearing just as much costume as Jagen, but he’s the only one who’s damp.
Although he is the lord of Castle Nirvana and the Good Knight Network, Jagen’s sweat glands don’t appear to be under his rule. The heat is a huge factor, but Jagen is also prone to excessive moisture when things aren’t just so—whether a volunteer has skipped an important step of the program or, more often, a child is displaying less-than-knightly behavior.
“I love children, but I don’t let them get away with anything,” Jagen says. “I used to be a cop. I say, ‘Who do you think you are?’”
Today, West is dressed as the Elven Lady Arwen, and Malinowski is Faramir, another central character from the LOTR trilogy. Jagen himself is channeling both Lord Eru and Gandalf the Gold, two powerful characters in Tolkien’s universe.
A tall, weathered man with grayish blond hair and gigantic blue eyes that are agog when he’s talking about something passionately—which is often—Jagen has the vocal inflections of a cartoon wizard. His speech is all formal language and grand pronouncements, delivered with a nasal twang that is the product of a childhood spent in South Florida and the East Side of Chicago. He is carrying a large staff with a curled end that looks like a curtain rod with a single finial.
And today his face is red. He is frustrated because, although this is a LOTR program, most of the girls haven’t seen the movie. When he explains that his costume is based on Gandalf, he gets blank stares. Other LOTR references similarly fall flat. Jagen decides that the only way the girls will get the full benefit of the day’s activities is through a trilogy update.
He reaches toward the top of Gandalf’s Hat, pulls down a screen attached to a ship’s mast, and has West-as-Arwen cue up the DVD player. A maxitrailer filled with highlights from all three of the LOTR movies rolls.
The young ladies sit politely and watch, and a few even chuckle and appear to understand the reason Jagen cringes when Gandalf falls into the Mines of Moria.
“I hate that part,” he says.
After the trailer, the girls are taken to the Survivor Amphitheater, where they fence. Divided into Gold and Silver teams, they take turns knocking velcro-attached feathers off one another’s fencing helmets, whooping and hollering the whole time.
Everyone loves a good duel, but the subsequent haunted walk isn’t as much of a crowd-pleaser. The spooky trail is in yet another plywood structure that sits behind the amphitheater—a short, enclosed path adorned with all manner of dollar-store creep-out gags.
Malinowski, who takes the first team through, says that he’s seen grown men go through the maze and “fall to their knees” when faced with the giant plastic rat and black felt spider inside. Junior-high-age girls, apparently, don’t scare as easily.
Jagen, who is in a central control room where he can monitor the girls’ every move, gives a warning as they enter: “In this place everything that looks real is fake—and everything that looks fake is real!”
“I guess everything is real, then?” says an especially unimpressed scout named Aeris.
The girls of Troop 5865 were brought to the Good Knight Child Empowerment Network by their leader, Dawn Lewis. Lewis says she used to live in Beltsville and always figured that there were some Knights of Columbus gone wild holed up behind the castle’s tall fence.
But she did some poking around, learned about the Good Knight Network, and four years ago organized a trip for another troop. Lewis liked it so much that she decided to bring these girls back, although they’re a bit older than the last set.
“At their age, it’s ‘Why are we here and why are they dressed like that?’” Lewis says. Groups like Lewis’ make a reservation and then pay $10 per person to enter the castle and go through the program.
After the haunted walk, the young women go to the Citadel and watch the movie that is the cornerstone of the Good Knight program: ABC’s of Safety, a 22-minute flick. The film is narrated by MacAroni, a cartoon mouse with a Sean Connery brogue.
In the video, MacAroni walks the girls through the ABCs of stranger danger. For every letter of the alphabet—up to J—there is a corresponding trick strangers use to harm kids. B, for example, is for the self-explanatory “bribe.” The letter E is for “ego,” as in telling a kid that he is especially cute, smart, or talented in order to get close to him.
Jagen estimates that by 2006, his program will have reached 18 million children. The estimate is based on both Jagen’s travel to schools across the country and the high pass-along rate of the movie. Whenever Jagen & Co. give programs, they pass out copies of the video or DVD and ask each child to show it to 10 friends. “It’s been a great success,” Jagen says. “A lot of kids don’t stop at 10.”
After the movie and an informal discussion, the girls are led outside and toward the cinder-block labyrinth, where they will be knighted and asked to share what they’ve learned with other kids.
But the troop is distracted by the Temple of Isis, a structure between the Citadel and the labyrinth that is covered in hieroglyphics. The building, which is carved into the side of a hill, is used for adult treatments such as inversion therapy, where people are put on a rack and flipped upside down. But Jagen decides that, for this group, a look at the Egyptian temples might be worthwhile.
“Go in and look,” he tells the girls, who are primarily African-American. “There’s a lot of your history in there,” he says to one as she ascends the steps to the entrance. Every girl who cares to goes inside to look at the Styrofoam, wood, and resin carvings of pharaohs, spray-painted silver or gold.
The girls then walk to the labyrinth. They line up at its opening, and West asks them questions about the ABC’s of Safety. When they answer correctly, they are admitted into the labyrinth to walk and think. Sir Edward climbs to the top of the tower at the center of the labyrinth and monitors them to make sure they’re practicing mindful meditation.
“What are you thinking about?” he barks at a young woman named Chaneice.
“School on Monday,” she shouts up to Jagen, causing his face to redden.
“I want you to think about how lucky you are to walk this garden and leave your energy behind,” he says. “That’s what I want you to be thinking about—not school.”
Every June 10, the castle’s pool must be charged. The waters of the Mineral Pool of the Evenstar are healing, Jagen says, because they are rich with salts, essential oils, and the energies of his volunteers. Every so often, though, the pool’s power needs to be replenished. Jagen does this by throwing a pool party, LOTR style. No one actually swims, but there are many activities that take place around the pool, which is an in-ground job covered by a gigantic plastic dome that keeps out environmental impurities.
“Remember the movie Cocoon—remember that pool?” asks Jagen. “This is that pool.”
Tonight’s party is strictly for adults. Despite the countless children’s programs Jagen has conducted, both at the castle and in schools, he insists that the Good Knight compound isn’t an amusement park. “This is not a kids’ place—that’s one small facet,” Jagen says. “We want to draw more adults. The real magic is the metaphysical side. First and foremost, this is a place of rejuvenation.”
There are only 10 people gathered for tonight’s event, all of them in some way affiliated with the castle. Among them are West; Malinowski; Jane DeVane; Mary Cascio, who usually plays Cinderella during “princess parties” that teach the program to tiny tots; Cascio’s husband and fellow volunteer, Robert Vrbensky; and Leah Robinson. Each came to the castle in a different way. Some met Jagen at Maryland Renaissance festivals, others found Castle Nirvana through the holistic community, and a few learned of Jagen’s work through their children.
“I collect people,” Jagen says of the crew that keeps the castle up and running.
The only person to show up who doesn’t work directly with the castle is Jagen’s wife of 30 years, Linda Jagen, who happens to hate all things associated with LOTR. “She’s the only one here…who has no idea what’s going on.” Jagen says. He adds that Linda isn’t metaphysical, but she’s accepting of the path he’s chosen. “She isn’t always asking questions—she knows that it works,” he says.
Jagen says that he invited 30 people to the gathering, promising a night filled with LOTR fun, including a late-night romp through the woods and a screening of the film What the #$*! Do We Know!? But no outsiders opted to pony up the $25 suggested donation.
“There just wasn’t enough notice,” Jagen explains.
With limited turnout, Jagen gets the most out of those assembled, including this reporter. I’m told that the evening is not only a pool party, but also my 111th birthday. “I wanted to do something that you would never experience again,” Jagen says, addressing me and the other guests.
To retain its healing properties, the pool must be fortified with special salts at certain times. And these certain days and times fall on June 10. “Not June 9, not June 11,” Jagen says.
“It’s a bit of science, but not a science you can learn—it comes with a lot of experience,” he tells me as everyone heads outside for dinner. “It’s what’s known in the business as ‘the knowing.’”
After eating stuffed shells and salad prepared by Linda, several people pull out bags of sea salts that they’ve had since last year. One former volunteer, a Navy commander, Jagen says, has moved away. But he managed to retrieve her salts before she left.
The group trudges over to the pool and enters its dome through an air-locked passageway designed to seal in the pool’s energy. Jagen instructs them to spread out across the pool’s edge and dump their salts a bit at a time. He chants in words that he later says are a mix of Latin, French, and English taken from “Mea Culpa,” a song from the Ibiza-based group Enigma, which mixes New Age music with club beats. Jagen can’t explain exactly why he was inspired to use these words, but he knows each syllable is significant. “Some things, I don’t know why I do them. I just know that they work,” he says.
While everyone else is dumping, Linda manages to find a cool vent to stand over, which makes her white outfit float all around her.
“You look like an angel!” Jagen tells his wife.
“I’m trying to stay cool,” she responds.
After the pool is taken care of, it’s on to the labyrinth, which is programmed by putting crystals and gold coins charged with positive thoughts into hollow, hooded statues perched at each of the circular maze’s 12 stations. After the volunteers drop their tchotchkes into the statues, Jagen offers a prediction: “Two of the three hostesses tonight are pregnant,” he says.
No one pays much attention to these words until the end of the night, when—after swordfighting, a walk through the woods, magic tricks, and a movie—everyone gathers for a dessert of brownies and grapes on the Citadel’s patio. Some of the volunteers duck into the restrooms to change out of their hot medieval costumes, but Cascio takes a bit longer than most. After disappearing for several minutes, she emerges with news that she shares with Jagen.
“Today is stick day,” Jagen says in a festive voice, referring not to a fencing sword or a tree branch but to a home pregnancy test.
“Mary took her test and it was positive,” he says smugly. “Now Sophia, you will take yours, and Linda, you will take yours to see if you’re pregnant.”
“Fat chance,” Linda replies.
Jagen doesn’t get to see his prediction fulfilled in total, as neither Linda nor Sophia opts to take a pregnancy test. But a couple of weeks later, in an e-mail, he will brag that his prophecy has been realized.
“Lady Sophia announced that she has been to the doctors and she is 8 weeks pregnant,” he will write.
Long ago, Jagen predicted that his castle would exist for 1,260 years, and that a woman would come in from the wild and make the grounds a place for her and her child. Jagen isn’t religious—only one tiny room of the castle, which boasts an upside-down Christmas tree, among other symbols, is entirely devoted to the religions of the world. But he believes that the creation of the Good Knight realm is referred to in the New Testament’s Book of Revelation: “And the woman fled into the wilderness, where she hath a place prepared of God, that they should feed her there a thousand two hundred and threescore days.”
Jagen isn’t convinced that West is that woman, but he leaves much of the work of the castle in her hands, nonetheless.
The raven-haired masseuse not only is a calming balance to Jagen’s exuberance, but also backs up some of his ideas about how the body functions and heals with a more concrete brand of science. She’s less into the black lights and pregnancy predictions and more about the healing power of touch. Yet she’s just as committed as Jagen is to helping people discover the magic of this kingdom. Although they both participate in every aspect of the castle, Jagen is more interested in the kiddie services, and West is focused on the adult offerings.
“It’s a natural meld,” says West. “We teach children how to avoid being traumatized and victimized, but then we send them home to their parents—the child heals, but the parents don’t always. Instead of continuing that cycle of abuse, they jump off of the merry-go-round and follow a straight path of healing together.”
West performs massage, craniosacral treatments, reiki, crystal therapy, and watsu and is a certified instructor as well as a practitioner. She has a Laurel office space but says that some clients, even if they just want an old-fashioned rub-down, prefer to undergo treatments at the castle.
“If you go to a lot of the spas, you’ll find a theme—Egyptian, ancient Greece, Ayurvedic—but we’re so unique,” West says. “We have Lord of the Rings, the Elven healing chambers; we have the serene labyrinth, the waterfall; we have the Egyptian thing going on….There are so many different things.”
Because the land that the castle stands on was donated to a not-for-profit agency rather than a business, West says that every cent she makes from clients is pumped right back into the organization.
But although West can get people to write checks to the Good Knight Network, she can’t always get them to buy into its philosophies. “One woman I have comes to me for massage, and she has severe emotional issues she has chosen not to heal from. At one point I was going to do hypnotherapy for her [pains]—I said, ‘This is not just physical.’ She could be healed, but she doesn’t want to. I said, ‘That’s fine.’ She chooses to come and feel good twice a month with a massage.”
One healing treatment guests can’t buy at the castle is a cold beer. In the mid-’90s the county denied the organization’s application for a license to sell alcohol. “To bring your kids, drink, then drive them home—to me it was ridiculous,” says a castle neighbor.
The Good Knight Child Empowerment Network’s public hearing before the board some 10 years ago didn’t result in a license, but it did produce an interesting spectacle—Jagen decked out in his custom-made suit of “armor,” crafted from leather and metallic paint.
“He was in full regalia,” says one community member, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Jagen says he wore his costume with good reason. “I knew it was going to be a circus, so I wore my armor,” he says.
He says that he never intended to serve alcohol on a regular basis but wanted the license so that he wouldn’t have to get temporary permits for the rare special event at the castle. A clerk in the office of the Board of License Commissioners, which issues liquor licenses in Prince George’s County, confirms that the Good Knight folks have obtained one-day temporary permits to serve alcohol for special events but haven’t filed an application for another long-term license.
Residents seemed concerned at the time that an organization founded to serve children would attempt to serve liquor, but their concerns about the present-day compound run deeper than whether the campus is dry or not.
“They have a good publicity program—a lot of agencies take note of what they’re doing,” says the neighbor. “But it’s so…queer.”
Jagen is confident that, given enough time and exposure, he will be able to help adults in the same way that he has helped children over the years. Still, he’ll always agonize over the one that got away—the important adult whom he thinks he could’ve saved from self-destruction.
“When Michael Jackson was a Childhelp USA ambassador, I was one of their consultants,” Jagen says. “This was back when he was playing with chimps….”
“They were trying to supplement his needs with a pet—there were rumors that he was fondling a chimpanzee,” Jagen explains. “A dog wouldn’t do. It doesn’t have that human quality.”
Jagen says that in 1990, he sent Jackson seven copies of his children’s book A Good Knight Story, a special letter, a sword, and a gauntlet.
“We sent it, and I found out that it went unopened by his security,” Jagen says. “We got a letter saying he couldn’t receive gifts over $100 because of tax reasons. I sent him a hand sword—I have the foot sword that is its partner.”
Despite the letter he got declining the gift, Jagen says he never received the sword back; he imagines that it went to one of MJ’s minions, along with the books.
Given all of the trouble that Jackson has been in over the past decade or so, Jagen can’t help but wonder if his materials and his energy might have helped Jackson, whom he sees as being very similar to himself, save for one important factor.
“Michael Jackson is a prophet, but he has the wrong people around him—they always say what he wants to hear,” Jagen says. “That’s why I make sure to have the right people around me. They won’t let me get away with anything.” CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Darrow Montgomery.