Do What Thou Wilt: A Life of Aleister Crowley [NOOK Book]

Overview


An exploration into the life and works of a modern mystic, occultist, poet, mountaineer, and bisexual adventurer known to his contemporaries as "The Great Beast"

Aleister Crowley was a groundbreaking poet and an iconoclastic visionary whose literary and cultural legacy extends far beyond the limits of his notoriety as a practitioner of the occult arts.

Born in 1875 to ...
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Do What Thou Wilt: A Life of Aleister Crowley

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Overview


An exploration into the life and works of a modern mystic, occultist, poet, mountaineer, and bisexual adventurer known to his contemporaries as "The Great Beast"

Aleister Crowley was a groundbreaking poet and an iconoclastic visionary whose literary and cultural legacy extends far beyond the limits of his notoriety as a practitioner of the occult arts.

Born in 1875 to devout Christian parents, young Aleister's devotion scarcely outlived his father, who died when the boy was twelve. He reached maturity in the boarding schools and brothels of Victorian England, trained to become a world-class mountain climber, and seldom persisted with any endeavor in which he could be bested.

Like many self-styled illuminati of his class and generation, the hedonistic Crowley gravitated toward the occult. An aspiring poet and a pampered wastrel-obsessed with reconciling his quest for spiritual perfection and his inclination do exactly as he liked in the earthly realm-Crowley developed his own school of mysticism. Magick, as he called it, summoned its users to embrace the imagination and to glorify the will. Crowley often explored his spiritual yearnings through drug-saturated vision quests and rampant sexual adventurism, but at other times he embraced Eastern philosophies and sought enlightenment on ascetic sojourns into the wilderness.

This controversial individual, a frightening mixture of egomania and self-loathing, has inspired passionate-but seldom fair-assessments from historians. Lawrence Sutin, by treating Crowley as a cultural phenomenon, and not simply a sorcerer or a charlatan, convinces skeptic readers that the self-styled "Beast" remains a fascinating study in how one man devoted his life to the subversion of the dominant moral and religious values of his time.


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Editorial Reviews

EBOOK COMMENTARY

"Sutin's perceptive study restores this controversial figure to his proper place in the history of modern spirituality."—Publishers Weekly (Starred review)

"A rich narrative . . . This is certainly the biography against which to measure the lurid claims and devout counterclaims prompted by the Crowley legend."—Kirkus Reviews

"Sutin wonderfully details the eccentricities of this puzzling man . . . The result is a fascinating, easily readable narrative about one of the most interesting cultural phenomena of the late Victorian period."—Library Journal

"The definitive biography . . . Sutin's work will remain a benchmark against which all future biographies of Crowley will be measured."—James Wasserman, author of Art & Symbols of the Occult and The Militia of Heaven
Library Journal
The name Aleister Crowley has generally been associated with hedonistic, self-absorbed, occult-infatuated Victorian English intellectuals. Sutin (creative writing, Hamlin Coll.; A Postcard Memoir) does much to expand upon this simplistic perception, showing that while Crowley was indeed all these things, he was also much more. Crowley was an arrogant misogynist, yet he was also a very gifted poet and visionary who painfully drove himself to seek deeper visions through drug-induced vision quests and rampant sexual experimentation. He was prominent in the movement to bring Eastern philosophies into Christian England and America and sought enlightenment in the rawness of nature. Sutin wonderfully details the eccentricities of this puzzling man while being careful not to overburden his narrative with academic psychological theories or personal observations and conclusions. The result is a fascinating, easily readable narrative about one of the most interesting cultural phenomena of the late Victorian period. Recommended for all libraries.--Glenn Masuchika, Chaminade Univ., Honolulu, HI Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\
From The Critics
Any who think of Aleister Crowley is a psychic alone will find Do What Thou Wilt to be an in-depth biography packed with revelations about the man: he was an upper class Englishman who not only had a psychic knack, but was a gifted poet and visionary. His psyche is probed in depth in this coverage.
From the Publisher
"Sutin's perceptive study restores this controversial figure to his proper place in the history of modern spirituality."—Publishers Weekly (Starred review)

"A rich narrative . . . This is certainly the biography against which to measure the lurid claims and devout counterclaims prompted by the Crowley legend."—Kirkus Reviews

"Sutin wonderfully details the eccentricities of this puzzling man . . . The result is a fascinating, easily readable narrative about one of the most interesting cultural phenomena of the late Victorian period."—Library Journal

"The definitive biography . . . Sutin's work will remain a benchmark against which all future biographies of Crowley will be measured."—James Wasserman, author of Art & Symbols of the Occult and The Militia of Heaven

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781466875265
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press
  • Publication date: 7/8/2014
  • Sold by: Macmillan
  • Format: eBook
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Pages: 448
  • Sales rank: 825,763
  • File size: 986 KB

Meet the Author


Lawrence Sutin is a professor in the M.F.A. program at Hamlin College and holds a J.D. from Harvard University. His previous works include Divine Invasions: A Life of Philip K. Dick; Jack and Rochelle: A Holocaust Story of Love and Resistance; and A Postcard Memoir.

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Read an Excerpt


Chapter One


The Strange Transformation of One
Edward Alexander ("Alick") Crowley, a
Pious Christian Boy of the Late Victorian
Upper Class, Into Aleister Crowley, Poet,
Gent., and Magical Adept in Waiting
(1875-98)


It was in the heart of a peaceful and prosperous England, in the townof Leamington in the county of Warwickshire, at the genteel addressof 30 Clarendon Square, between eleven and twelve P.M. on the nightof October 12, 1875, with the astrological sign of Leo in the ascendant,that Emily Crowley bore a baby son, the firstborn heir to the fortune ofher husband, Edward.

    The son was given the name of his father and grandfather: EdwardCrowley. The newborn's middle name of Alexander was taken from a piousfriend of the father, and in very early childhood it was explained tothe boy that "Alexander" meant "helper of men," a meaning that left anenduring impress.

    In his autobiographical Confessions, Crowley sought to establish hisplace in the lineage of magi. One standard feature of the myth is the appearanceof special physical features at birth. In the third person, Crowleydescribes his newborn self:


He bore on his body the three most distinguishing marks of a Buddha. He was tongue-tied, and on the second day of his incarnation a surgeon cut the fraenum linguae [a membrane attaching the underside of the tongue to the bottom of the mouth]. He had also the characteristic membrane, which necessitatedan operation for phimosis [abnormal tightness of the foreskin which necessitated a late circumcision] some three lustres [fifteen years] later. Lastly, he had upon the center of his heart four hairs curling left to right in the exact form of a Swastika.


    This self-portrait reveals both Crowley's absorption with his lineageand, as well, the sort of shameless bluff that often lies concealed beneathhis assured tone. Of his birth in the county of Warwickshire he wrote: "Ithas been remarked a strange coincidence that one small county shouldhave given England her two greatest poets—for one must not forgetShakespeare (1550-1616)." In making the jibe (a tacit and wry acknowledgmentof his own frustrated yearning for fame as a poet), Crowley casuallyascribes the wrong birth year to the Bard, who was born in 1564.

    In the Confessions, Crowley declares that he will tell the truth, butinsists upon limitations: "The truth must be falsehood unless it be thewhole truth; and the whole truth is partly inaccessible, partly unintelligible,partly incredible and partly unpublishable—that is, in any countrywhere truth in itself is recognized as a dangerous explosive."

    With these caveats—which allow the memoirist an ample creativefreedom—we may turn to the Confessions with both interest and caution.As to his birth characteristics, for example, it is untrue that being"tongue-tied" is one of the primary distinguishing marks of a Buddha.Indeed, Gautama, the Indian prince who became the Buddha, is describedin the Buddha-Karita of Asvaghosha (whose first-century workremains the most revered biography within Buddhism), as having declaredhis mission eloquently at the very moment of his emergencefrom his mother's womb:" 'I am born for supreme knowledge, for thewelfare of the world,—thus this is my last birth,'—thus did he of lionbirth, gazing at the four quarters, utter a voice full of auspicious meaning."Not even Crowley dared to give himself so fine a speech at his ownnativity.

    If Crowley was imaginative in terms of his spiritual lineage, he wasutterly sincere as to its significance to him. The same is true of his paternallineage. The Crowleys, he asserted, were of Celtic origin, withbranches in Ireland and Brittany. Family tradition had it that the Crowleyswere strong supporters of fellow Welshman Henry Tudor, the Earlof Richmond who became Henry VII; the Welsh Crowleys fought forhim at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485, and established themselves inEngland in the wake of his triumph.

    The adult Crowley would draw from this Celtic ancestry as it suitedhim: for example, during World War I, he preferred to be Irish ratherthan English, for reasons to be examined in due course. But the moreprosaic facts as to family finances and religion would exercise the mostenduring influence.

    Crowley was heir to the luxurious life that the British Empire couldoffer to its fortunate upper class. Father Edward came from a wealthyQuaker family. His own father Edward, Crowley's grandfather, made hisfortune as a brewer, establishing a number of public houses that soldCrowley Ale and sandwiches. Edward, who had no necessity to make aliving, became a self-appointed preacher of the word of God—and aformative role model.

    Wealth affected the spirituality of both father and son. It is a truismthat class affects character. But in Victorian England class distinctionswere severe enough—even for the white domestic population—to createwhat would now be called a "third world" level of poverty and despairamongst the lower classes. As historian E. J. Hobsbawm observed,"In the 1870s eleven- to twelve-year-old boys from the upper-classpublic schools were on average five inches taller than boys from industrialschools, and at all teen-ages three inches taller than the sons of artisans."Fellow historian Barbara Tuchman described the ruling class ofthe 1890s (the decade in which Crowley came into manhood and familyfortune): "Fed upon privilege, the patricians flourished. Five at least ofthe leading ministers in [Conservative Prime Minister] Lord Salisbury'sGovernment were over six feet tall, far above the normal stature of thetime. Of the nineteen members of the Cabinet, all but two lived to beover seventy, seven exceeded eighty, and two exceeded ninety at a timewhen the average life expectancy of a male at birth was forty-four andof a man who had reached twenty-one was sixty-two. On their diet ofprivilege they acquired a certain quality which Lady Warwick could defineonly in the words, 'They have an air!'" These stark realities enableone to appreciate the extreme importance to Crowley—through all themagical transformations of his psyche—-of his status as an English gentleman.

    Religion was the second great influence that flowed through his family.His parents were devoted to an intensely sectarian creed, that of thePlymouth Brethren. Plainly, Crowley grew to despise the Brethren as hecame of age. Yet his new religion of Thelema recapitulates the Brethrenworldview in several vital respects. The paradoxical truth is that Crowleywas an astonishing emulator of the creed he professed to hate.

    The Brethren sect was founded in the late 1820s by John NelsonDarby, an Irish-born Anglican priest who became vehemently disenchantedwith the Church of England. Darby had come to see all churchlyinstitutions as unjustified by Scripture and hence as false custodians ofthe teachings of Christ. The name Plymouth Brethren emerged fromthe early influence of the meetings at Providence Chapel in Plymouth.By 1848, there were roughly six thousand Brethren adherents in Britain.From the first, the movement attracted primarily educated membersof the upper classes, such as Edward Crowley. Its lure consisted, in largemeasure, in the pared-down simplicity of its three central precepts: (1)An insistence on the literal truth of Scripture (as embodied strictlyin the King James Translation); (2) Elimination of all priestly authority—allworshippers were equal at Brethren meetings, and free to speakas the Holy Spirit moved them; and (3) An imminentist belief in theSecond Coming so strong that, as Crowley later observed, "preparationsfor a distant future—such as signing a lease or insuring one's life—mightbe held to imply lack of confidence in the promise, "'Behold, I comequickly.'"

    It was in this highly charged atmosphere—set between the fervid expectationof Christ's coming and the vigilant shunning of Satan—thatCrowley the boy was raised. When one compares the structure ofBrethren beliefs with those of the new religion of Thelema establishedby Crowley, the parallels are fundamental and unmistakable. Such wasthe impress that the earnest and dedicated Edward, and the fond butfearful Emily, made upon their son.


It was on behalf of the Brethren cause that Edward Crowley became alay preacher. But it was Emily who enforced the ways of the Brethren athome, and it is to her that we shall turn first.

    Emily Crowley, who first bestowed upon her son the epithet of"Beast," was born Emily Bertha Bishop. Little is known of her earlyyears. Crowley tells us that she was raised in a Devon and Somersetfamily, had an oriental appearance that won her the nickname of "thelittle Chinese girl" during her school days, and had a talent for watercolorpainting. Beyond this, his judgments upon her were uniformly severe.Crowley wrote of how, in his late teen-age, he saved his mother(whom he heard crying out from a distance, by way of what he termedinexplicable "psychic phenomena") from slipping down a precipice. Thisaction he described as a "regrettable incident of impulsive humanitarianism."At the heart of Crowley's complaints was his conviction thatEmily had been ruined by her religious beliefs. Upon marrying EdwardCrowley in 1874, Emily had converted to the Plymouth Brethren creed.Crowley felt keenly the barriers she posed to his childhood reading:


My intellectual avidity was enormous, yet I was absolutely cut off from literature. [...] David Copperfield was barred because of Little Em'ly, for she was a naughty girl; besides, Emily was my mother's name, and to read the book might diminish my respect for her. One of my tutors brought down The Bab Ballads [by W. S. Gilbert], one of which begins:

Emily Jane was a nursery maid.

My mother threw the book out of the house and very nearly threw him after it.


With a trace of sympathy, Crowley allowed that "her powerful naturalinstincts were destroyed by religion [...] Yet there was always a struggle;she was really distressed, almost daily, at finding herself obliged byher religion to perform acts on the most senseless atrocity."

    This element of reluctant understanding bespeaks a more subtle degreeof feeling for his mother than Crowley ever expressed directly inhis writings. The Confessions contain one scene that testifies particularlystrongly to this. At roughly age sixteen, Crowley explained, the repressiveatmosphere of his home made him "prepared to go out of myway to perform any act which might serve as a magical affirmation ofmy revolt." This "magical affirmation" proved to be sexual intercoursewith the family parlor maid. "And I had her on my mother's very bed!"Crowley was an admirer of Freud and aware of the theory of the Oedipalcomplex. One need not insist on the truth of that complex to find itodd that Crowley failed to consider—at least in his writings—how itmight apply to exultant sex on his mother's bed.

    For all of Crowley's bluster against her in the Confessions, there remaineda difficult love and even spiritual kinship between them. Emily,it would seem, was not quite so hidebound a bigot as Crowley wouldhave us believe, nor was he quite so thankless a son. We are compelledto go abruptly forward in time to find testimony in support of these assertions.The English poet Ethel Archer, who was a close friend of Crowley'sin the years prior to World War One, wrote a novel, TheHieroglyph (1932), in which the main protagonist, occultist VladimirSvaroff, is (by Archer's own testimony) modeled entirely upon hermemories of Crowley in that period. Here is an account of a meeting betweenmother and son circa 1910: "To hear Vladimir being chided by hismother like a very small and naughty boy, and to see him calmly acceptingthe situation, was both humorous and quaint. [...] ThatMadame Svaroff adored her son there could be no question; that sheequally believed him to be entirely given over to the Evil One was beyondquestion likewise. She prayed for him without ceasing, but sherefused to have in her rooms a single article of his personal belongings—evenhis pipe and a few books being banished to the attics."Archer's narrator goes on to insist, surprisingly, that Madame Svaroffpossessed, along with her piety, an admirable sense of humor, "and inthis trait one could see the unmistakable likeness of mother to son."

    Beyond the humor, there was tenderness outright. There survives aletter by Emily dated December 12, 1912—the same period as the fictionalizedevents of The Hieroglyph. Referring to Crowley as "Alec"(Crowley himself spelled his childhood nickname "Alick"), Emilywrites, with more pathos than asperity: "I very much wish that hewould treat his mother better & give her a little more of his company."She goes on to note with approval that her son is following the advice ofher lawyer with respect to investments—hardly a sign of intransigentfilial rebellion.

    And yet, there is the stark fact that it was Emily Crowley who bestowedupon her son the sobriquet that would dominate his own inneridentity: that of the Beast. How could a mother love her son and yet seehim as the Adversary? Crowley offers his own explanation. "In a way,my mother was insane, in the sense that all people are who have watertightcompartments to the brain, and hold with equal passion incompatibleideas, and hold them apart lest their meeting should destroyboth. [...] But my mother believed that I was actually Anti-christ ofthe Apocalypse and also her poor lost erring son who might yet repentand be redeemed by the Precious Blood." Crowley never tells us if therewas a specific incident in his childhood that inspired this maternal belief,but he does confide that, at a very early age, he himself was drawn to thefigure of the Beast. Crowley (again writing of himself in the third person)takes pains to argue that this identification was nothing out of theordinary for a child whose only allowable reading was the Holy Scripture.Its most bloodcurdling prophecies served as his fairy tales—deliciouslyforbidden fantasies:


The Elders and the harps seemed tame. He preferred the Dragon, the False Prophet, the Beast and the Scarlet Woman, as being more exciting. He reveled in the descriptions of torment. One may suspect, moreover, a strain of congenital masochism. He liked to imagine himself in agony; in particular, he liked to identify himself with the Beast whose number is the number of a man, six hundred and three score six. One can only conjecture that it was the mystery of the number which determined this childish choice.

    Perhaps it was this fascination shown by her son that inspired Emilyto dub him the Beast. But however this originated, it was no minortease, coming as it did from a woman who believed in the literal truth ofthe Bible. To a remarkable extent, Emily foresaw and believed in the destinyof her son, however much she fought against it. If the bond betweenmother and son seems intact, even after the studied vitriol of theConfessions (written after her death), the secret of its strength liesinthe mother's knowing recognition of what her son might become.


There is a sharp dichotomy in Crowley's feelings for his parents, statedwith fervor in the Confessions: "His father was his hero and his friend,though, for some reason or other, there was no real conscious intimacyor understanding. He always disliked and despised his mother. Therewas a physical repulsion, and an intellectual and social scorn. He treatedher almost as a servant." As vehement as is Crowley's contempt forEmily, the tribute to his father reads, in its hesitant way, as more troublingstill. Hero worship can thrive as a distant emotion, but friendshipwithout "intimacy or understanding" is a difficult friendship indeed.Nonetheless, the parallels between Crowley and his father are as strikingas one could wish. The one key distinction—that the son reviled thefaith his father devoted his life to preaching—seems, in retrospect, relativelyunimportant when compared to the cognitive patterns that endured.

    Edward Crowley was born in 1834 and, as previously mentioned, cameinto a fortune by way of his Quaker father's brewery. Edward not onlyfailed to enter the family business, he also rejected the family's pietistfaith, devoting himself instead to writing and preaching on behalf of theBrethren. Edward did not omit to teach the faith at home: by age four,young Crowley was a fluent reader of the Bible, which was studied dailyin the home, just after breakfast. The theme of momento mori was anobsessionfor Edward. Crowley recalled accompanying his father on evangelizingtours in which they would go from village to village on foot:


He would notice somebody cheerfully engaged in some task and ask sympathetically its object. The victim would expand and say that he hoped for such and such a result. He was now in a trap. My father would say, 'And then?' By repeating this question, he would ferret out the ambition of his prey to be mayor of his town or what not, and still came the inexorable 'And then?' till the wretched individual thought to cut it short by saying as little as uncomfortably as possible. 'Oh well, by that time I shall be ready to die.' More solemnly than ever came the question, 'And then?' In this way my father would break down the entire chain of causes and bring his interlocutor to realize the entire vanity of human effort. The moral was, of course, 'Get right with God.'

    The reason for Crowley's choice of magic as a lifework was to escapethe mortal coil and to achieve something undying—like unto the Christianheaven of his father. He once wrote of the magical quest for divineunion: "The adventure of the Great Work is the only one worth while;for all others are but interludes in the sinister farce of Life and Death,which limits all merely human endeavor."

    As befitted the notion of his father as hero, Crowley sought—in hisConfessions—to make of him as great a paragon as possible, given hisrepugnant Brethren beliefs. How else could the Prophet of the NewAeon exonerate a father who so embodied the Old? Crowley stressedthat Edward was, for all his misguided religion, a gentleman and a "natural"aristocrat. In Crowley's view, this was evidenced by Edward's pronouncedleadership qualities, which shone forth amongst the Brethren.But Crowley inflated his father's deeds in the way adoring sons do. NeitherBrethren chroniclers nor outside scholarly researchers have adjudgedEdward Crowley as a principal figure in the Brethren movement.Indeed, his name does not appear in the standard volumes on the sect. InCrowley's eyes, however, Edward towered over his peers and "swayedthousands by his eloquence." Given the small number of Brethren inGreat Britain, and the cramped meeting room settings in which Edwardtypically preached, the claim of "thousands" lacks any credibility. In afurther telling passage, Crowley describes his frustration in watchingEdward "ostentatiously" avoid the assumption of authority with his fellowBrethren. Not even their puritanical shunning of the flesh galledCrowley so much as their failure to grant Edward his due. And Crowleywas determined not to fall victim to his father's fate:


The boy seems to have despised from the first the absence of hierarchy among the Brethren, though at the same time they formed the most exclusive body on earth, being the only people that were going to heaven. [...] The Plymouth Brethren refused to take any part in politics. Among them, the peer and the peasant met theoretically as equals, so that the social system of England was simply ignored. The boy could not aspire to become prime minister or even king; he was already apart from and beyond all that. It will be seen that as soon as he arrived at an age where ambitions are compelled to assume concrete form, his position became extremely difficult. The earth was not big enough to hold him.

    The fervor of his convictions drove Edward—as it would his son—toself-publish spiritual tracts that could edify the "common man." Thesetracts were issued in pamphlet from throughout the 1860s and weredistributed by Edward himself. There is no resemblance in prose stylebetween father and son; Edward was a staunchly pedestrian explicatorof his creed. But there are surprising parallels between the father'sBrethren beliefs and Crowley's magical creed of Thelema.

(Continues...)


Excerpted from Do What Thou Wilt by Lawrence Sutin. Copyright © 2000 by Lawrence Sutin. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.


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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments vii
Introduction 1
An Overview of the Magical Tradition, in Which It Is Suggested
that the Raging Battle Between Jesus and Satan Be
(For the Moment) Set Aside in Order that the True
Nature of the Magus Be Understood
One 15
The Strange Transformation of One Edward Alexander ("Alick")
Crowley, a Pious Christian Boy of the Late Victorian Upper
Class, Into Aleister Crowley, Poet, Gent., and Magical Adept
in Waiting (1875-98)
Two 49
In Which Aleister Crowley Takes the Magical Name Perdurabo
("I Shall Endure to the End") But Appears to Lose His Way
Amidst the Schisms of The Golden Dawn and the Temptations
of the Vale of Tears (1898-1900)
Three 80
Years of Wandering in Which Crowley Pursues the Heights
of Magic and Mountains, Embraces Buddhism, Then
Abandons All for the Love of a Woman and the Life
of Country Laird (1900-04)
Four 117
The Birth of the New Aeon (1904-05)
Five 148
The Assault on Kanchenjunga, the Establishment of a
New Magical Order, and the Wanderlusts of a Magus
(1905-08)
Six 192
The Creation of The Equinox, the Rites of Eleusis,
and a Confrontation in the Sahara with the God
of Chaos (1909-14)
Seven 242
In Exile in America, Crowley Endures Poverty and
Accusations of Treason as Ordeals Necessary to Becoming
a Magus (1914-19)
Eight 278
The Founding and the Ruin of the Abbey
of Thelema (1920-23)
Nine 310
Ten A Staged Suicide, an Unavenged Libel, and the
Equinox of the Gods (1930-36) 351
Eleven The Final Years of a Magus in the Guise of a
Disreputable Old Man (1937-47) 382
EPILOGUE An Assortment of Posthumous Assessments and
Developments 421
Endnotes 425
Selected Bibliography 465
Index 467
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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 5, 2007

    very nice...

    whether you know who aleister is or you dont, this is a good book, whether you like black magik or not, it is a good book. Everyone needs to know about this man.!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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