In the Center of the Fire: A Memoir of the Occult 1966-1989by James Wasserman
In this daring exposé by a survivor of a unique era in the New York occult scene, James Wasserman, a longtime proponent of the teachings of Aleister Crowley, brings us into a world of candlelit temples, burning incense, and sonorous invocations. The author also shares an intimate look at the New York Underground of the 1970s and introduces us to the company
In this daring exposé by a survivor of a unique era in the New York occult scene, James Wasserman, a longtime proponent of the teachings of Aleister Crowley, brings us into a world of candlelit temples, burning incense, and sonorous invocations. The author also shares an intimate look at the New York Underground of the 1970s and introduces us to the company of such avant-garde luminaries as Alejandro Jodorowsky, Harry Smith, and Angus MacLise. A stone's throw away from the Velvet Underground and Andy Warhol's Factory, William Burroughs' "bunker," and the legendary Chelsea Hotel was a scene far more esoteric than perhaps even they could have imagined.
When James Wasserman joined the O.T.O. in 1976, there were fewer than a dozen members. Today the Order numbers over 4,000 members in 50 countries and has been responsible for a series of ground-breaking publications of Crowley's works.
The author founded New York City's TAHUTI Lodge in 1979. He chronicles its early history and provides a window into the heyday of the Manhattan esoteric community. He also breaks his decades of silence concerning one of the most seminal events in the development of the modern Thelemic movement -- detailing his role in the 1976 magical battle between Marcelo Motta and Grady McMurtry. Long slandered for his effort to heal the temporary breach between the Orders of A.'.A.'. and O.T.O., James Wasserman sets the record straight. And, he meticulously chronicles the copyright contest over the Crowley literary estate--of which he was an important participant.
This is also a saga with a very human tableau filled with tender romance, passionate friendships, an abiding spiritual hunger, danger, passion, and ecstasy. It also explores several hidden magical byways including the rituals of Voodoo, Tibetan Buddhism, and Sufism. Finally we are given a bird's eye view of the 1960s hippie culture and its excesses of sex and drugs, and rock n roll--along with the personal transformations and penalties such a lifestyle brought forth.
Reconstructed from personal memories, magical diaries, multiple interviews, court transcripts, witness depositions, trial evidence, and extensive correspondence, this book elucidates a hitherto misreported and ill-understood nexus of modern magical history. It also shares tales of a mythical moment in American life as seen through the eyes of an enthusiastic participant in the hip culture of the day.
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In the Center of the Fire
A Memoir of the Occult 1966—1989
By James Wasserman
NICOLAS-HAYS, INC.Copyright © 2012 James Wasserman
All rights reserved.
Antioch College and the World of the Spirit
When I was a boy of eight or ten, my parents took me to the Cafe Figaro at the corner of Macdougal and Bleecker Streets in Greenwich Village. I proclaimed that I wanted to be a beatnik, one childhood ambition I seem to have realized. When I visited Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio during my high school college-search period, I was sold. Long hair and beards on the boys and the coolest looking girls I'd seen since Greenwich Village.
I met my cousin Paul during that visit. We had not known each other previously because of my parents' discomfort with his parents' overt Communist affiliation. While my parents had been Depression-era socialists, and later committed Roosevelt/Stevenson Democrats, they were not Communists. Paul's parents apparently were and my red-diaper baby cousin was a committed radical activist and SDS campus leader. Students for a Democratic Society, founded in 1960, was the most successful of the New Left groups of the decade. Its socialist ideology spread like wildfire on college campuses, fueled in large part by the unpopular war in Vietnam and the mandatory military draft. Carl Oglesby, to be mentioned later, served as president from 1965 to 1966.
Paul had trampled a flag, perhaps accidently, in a demonstration and gotten himself in some trouble at school. But I liked him. He was bright and had a sense of humor. He introduced me to his friend Jeff Jones, a year younger than Paul and a year older than I. Jeff was another charismatic student who later became a fugitive in the violent Weather Underground. He would emerge decades later as an environmental activist and consultant to the New York State governor's office. Go figure.
I entered Antioch just after my high school graduation and eighteenth birthday in June 1966, chomping at the bit to get on with my life. I took a class from famed civil rights activist Larry Rubin. I liked him. Soft-spoken and humble, he carried the scars of the beatings he had received from Southern sheriffs. He opened up racial consciousness to white, middle-class kids who knew few blacks, and to black kids who knew few whites. I think we all learned a lot from him.
Antioch was set up on the quarter system as a five-year work/ study program. Since I had entered in the summer quarter, I would go off to my first co-op job in the fall. A civil rights attorney named Bill Higgs came to campus to recruit. He was the last white lawyer working for SNCC, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. (Stokely Carmichael had proclaimed Black Power that spring.) Higgs had been a courageous civil rights activist and suffered greatly before leaving Mississippi, ca. 1963, to continue his work in Washington, D.C. During his inspiring talk, he asked for volunteers, promising room and board and $15 a week or something like that, and I leapt at the opportunity along with three or four other students.
That summer, I also smoked pot for the first time. Like many of the ideas and experiences of that period, pot was wrapped in a messianic mystique. It seemed a real path to Higher Consciousness. For me, it required several sessions to begin to get the more in-depth effect of the drug.
Jesse Colin Young and the Youngbloods came to campus for a concert that summer. It's difficult not to smile when considering the lyrics of their most popular song, which expressed the idealism and innocence of my generation to perfection: "Come on people, smile on your brother, everybody get together, try to love one another right now." A few short years after these touching sentiments were embraced and hymned by many thousands of flower-power advocates, a bomb-making factory located in a Greenwich Village townhouse exploded. Three Weathermen (named after Bob Dylan lyrics, "you don't need a weatherman to tell which way the wind blows") were killed, while several others—including Jeff Jones—fled into hiding for over a decade.
I went to work for Bill Higgs in Washington, D.C. doing legal research at the Library of Congress. I met some of the real luminaries of the contemporary civil rights movement—including William Kunstler, whom I despised, and Fannie Lou Hamer, for whom I had a great deal of respect. Some of the people who walked through that door should have been in a zoo. I was becoming increasingly uncomfortable, realizing that I was essentially working to substitute one group of power-mad sociopaths for another. Things were going from bad to worse with Higgs. He was a depressive and totally disorganized in the food and money department. I started selling hot dogs and beer at the local football stadium to earn money to eat. One day, I had a rare conversation with him while we stopped in a park and sat on a bench together. I asked him if he was concerned that our efforts against the Vietnam War might really be helping the Communists as many people were saying. He told me that he didn't care and that he did not automatically reject Communism. I did.
During the summer of 1966, I had written a statement to my parents about my acceptance of socialism as a means of achieving social justice. I wrote them again to say that I now rejected politics as the way to improve the human condition. Instead, I believed the only true means of redeeming humanity and ending suffering was through individual spiritual development with meditation and inner-directed awareness. I left Higgs under less than ideal circumstances and went to visit friends at nearby St. John's College in Annapolis, Maryland—a small school devoted to a true classical education. At the time, it was inhabited by a lot of very brilliant potheads, many of whom would be expelled as the college sought to hold back the cultural tide of the Sixties.
I returned to Antioch after the Christmas break and took one of the most important intellectual and philosophical excursions of my life with visiting professor Carl Oglesby. A past president of SDS, Oglesby was teaching a class on Existentialism called Absurdist Morality. We read Camus, Sartre, Borges, and De Sade. Oglesby was brilliant, if troubled. He described himself as a Marxist.
Oglesby posed a question for the class: Imagine we are given a personal audience with U.S. Secretary of State Dean Rusk, who tells us America is in Vietnam because of the resources it holds. Forget about stopping the spread of Communism or helping the people. It is simply about greed and power. We are there because we can be. The class assignment was to give Rusk one absolute moral principle to convince him we should withdraw. Well, I tried amphetamine that night for the first time, drinking it mixed in a glass of water. I stayed up all night pondering the assignment. I realized that, even though I knew what the "right" thing to do was, there was no absolute principle I could quote to Rusk that everyone agreed upon—one that could make an evil or cynical person do the right thing. It was that simple. Oglesby then took us to the next level by explaining that the Existentialist accepts this position of absurdity as a given, then decides on a moral principle for himself and lives his life passionately as if it were true. This has been my position ever since.
Later in that quarter, I took LSD for the first time with my good friend Brian Crawford. We read The Joyous Cosmology by Alan Watts at the more experienced Brian's suggestion. Brian was the quintessential long-haired hippie and something of an acid evangelist. I had some difficulty with the trip. Acid was a mixed blessing for me. While I took it several hundred times, I was never particularly comfortable. I did make continuous progress in self-awareness with the drug, but often at the cost of considerable personal agony. When I was offered STP by someone years later—smiling and telling me it was like a three-day acid trip—I shuddered and politely declined.
That winter, I met Dennis Deem, another significant character in this story who long remained a friend. (He died during the writing of this book.) Dennis was visiting from California and had some very pure acid. He dressed in a corduroy sport jacket with leather-patched elbows, carried a carved walking stick, and sported a beret atop a shaved head. I was intrigued. I left campus soon after for my co-op job in New York.
The next period at Antioch was made up of six-month stints, either at work or school, alternating each year. As I had entered in the summer quarter, my first double-quarter rotation was a work session. I was majoring in psychology and began working at Wiltwyck School for Boys, a residential treatment center for disturbed eight-to-fourteen-year-olds sent there by the courts. The boys could not be either homicidal or suicidal, but were otherwise a severely disturbed bunch. Their personal stories of abuse were absolutely heartbreaking. The book Manchild in the Promised Land by Claude Brown describes the school. I was assigned to work with the chief psychiatrist, Dr. Mishikian, to write a paper on psychological defense mechanisms in order to help the counselors better understand the boys' often erratic behavior. I was also to pay particular attention to one extremely disturbed boy named Julian, who had been institutionalized since the age of five.
Julian was a brilliant youngster who had just turned fourteen. The staff was concerned because he was becoming too old for the program. Julian and I did become friends quickly and talked about many things. Among these were his psychic powers. He had been at a dance, met a girl, and felt that they could communicate at a distance. I was a firm believer in such matters, with some little amount of experience at this time. The problem was that Julian was also deeply schizophrenic and prone to hallucinations. It was a fine line, but I was honest with him. I unfortunately lost touch with him after I left Wiltwyck.
I was living in an apartment on Jones Street and West 4th in Greenwich Village with three fellow Antioch student roommates. One worked at Newsweek, another at Time, and the third at Wiltwyck with me.
I saw the Fugs, one of the all-time great bands, at the Players Theater on Macdougal Street. They represented a transition between the beat and hippie phenomena. Ed Sanders and Tuli Kupferberg ran the Peace Eye Bookstore on the Lower East Side and were involved in The East Village Other underground newspaper. Many years later, I found myself riding in the same subway car as Tuli and reflected on just how much I loved living in New York. (Many years after that, in 1992, Ed Sanders and Tuli Kupferberg, along with Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky, and other bohemian luminaries, would attend the Gnostic Mass we performed to honor Harry Smith at Saint Mark's Church.) During that long-ago summer, I sat no more than fifteen feet from the stage when Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead played at the small and intimate club, The Bitter End on Bleecker Street.
On my nineteenth birthday, I took a very strong acid trip. I was accompanied by my friend Charlie, who was deeply involved in psychology. Charlie was a brilliant but extremely neurotic person with many deep-seated conflicts. He was my "guide" for the trip, but was really more like a babysitter protecting me from the urban environment of New York City than a Leary-like leader through the byways of LSD. There was an underlying tension between us concerning his girlfriend, Jean. She and I had met at school the previous summer and there was a mutual attraction. But we had each gone off to our co-op jobs and she had hooked up with Charlie.
Charlie and I wandered around the Village—me in a rather ecstatic positive state, possibly wearing on his nerves as I proclaimed my newfound birthday unity with the cosmos. We entered a tourist head shop and I saw a distorted glass novelty Coca-Cola bottle. It set off a paranoid reaction because it mimicked reality in an unnerving way. My state of joy darkened. We left the store and began walking down the street. Things grew worse. Every aspect of the street began to repeat itself in my perception. I began to feel as if I were in an endless loop and would never get off that street—with the same people forever passing me in both directions.
We returned to my apartment. Everyone was gone. Charlie and I walked into the kitchen. My fear was growing out of all proportion. He tried to help me analyze it. That only seemed to deepen it. We discussed it as fear itself, rather than as fear "of." At one point, I was leaning against the stove, with my back pressed to it and hands placed behind me gripping the edge. I fell. The logical explanation is that I slipped, but I am not sure that is what happened. I believe I was in so much terror that I ceased to believe in the solidity of matter. If that is true, it would not be technically inaccurate. Matter is made up of atoms and molecules separated by relatively enormous distances. Reality is a common agreement between each of us and three-dimensionality. I believe I may have entered a state of cellular consciousness in which my agreement with reality was momentarily superseded by my fear. The many stories in mystic literature of people who walk through walls is exactly what I think happened to me—the drug and the fear substituting for the firmly disciplined, calm concentration necessary to achieve that state on purpose.
After that trip, I moved out of the communal apartment and took a place by myself on 7th Street between Avenues C and D, a sixth-floor walk-up. The Lower East Side was a part of town that was definitely not the gentrified neighborhood it is today. My rent was $46.75 a month—bathtub in the kitchen with a living room and bedroom. As I was lugging my cartons of books up the stairs, a neighbor named Junky George asked why I kept books I had already read. How often I've reflected on that question! He was part of a scene that turned the disappearing remnants of the middle-class kid from New Jersey on his ear. I remember George standing in front of a mirror picking at his face with a Bowie knife when his jacket parted to reveal a revolver tucked in his waistband.
My new neighbors included Leo, a long-haired Puerto Rican, living with Janie, a leather-jacketed, hard-edged woman with an infectious laugh that melted her roughness. And I won't forget Rita, who used to be Ronnie, walking into Leo's apartment one day and offering anyone a case of the clap with which she had just been diagnosed. Adam, an efficient dealer and student from the University of Colorado in Boulder, was another member of the scene whom I would meet again in Boulder. He seemed to hover above the turbulence that engulfed his many customers.
It was an amphetamine universe with opiates liberally thrown in the mix. One day, I was in Leo's apartment and he was in a fury trying to find a vein to inject himself. The scene was so appalling and incoherent that I can only defer to the memory of anyone who has ever witnessed anything like it. It is virtually impossible to describe the chaos. In any case, Leo's ordeal went on for over an hour. Finally, he achieved his goal. An older black junky named Brother John stood near him with a calm look on his face and a melodious richness in his voice. He gave an approving nod, and intoned: "Drive on in, Brother, drive on in."
I was terrified of needles in that spider-to-fly modality. I arranged to get the materials together to inject myself for the first time, having carefully observed the technique. I did it alone in the kitchen at the Jones Street apartment. The horror reversed into obsession.
Excerpted from In the Center of the Fire by James Wasserman. Copyright © 2012 James Wasserman. Excerpted by permission of NICOLAS-HAYS, INC..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
James Wasserman has been a member of Ordo Templi Orientis since 1976. He has been described as a "founding father" of the modern O.T.O. and has played a key role in numerous seminal publications of Aleister Crowley's literary corpus. He is responsible for the widely celebrated Chronicle edition of The Book of Going Forth by Day, The Egyptian Book of the Dead. His numerous writings and editorial efforts maintain a focus on spirituality, creative mythology, secret societies, history, religion, and politics. He is a passionate advocate of individual liberty.
He has appeared in numerous documentaries on The History Channel and The Discovery Channel, addressed the National Press Club on esoteric symbolism in 2009, and has appeared on numerous radio broadcasts and podcasts.
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