LOS ANGELES - THE PROCESS OF THE PROCESS
Throughout the 40-minute ceremony at the Silent Movie Theater recreating a mass by the Process Church of the Final Judgment, people wearing dark robes (of course!) and carrying lit candles (no doubt!) spend time extolling the virtues of both Christ and Satan ("May the water give me life, Jesus Christ; Purify me with fire, Satan") when they're not singing Jefferson Airplane-like songs played by a four-piece band of hippies.
An older man stands near the side of stage, not part of the performance but slapping enough people on the backs as they walk by that it's obvious he has something to do with the proceedings. He has a Christopher Lloyd as Doc Brown mane of white hair and a Christopher Lloyd as Judge Doom evil smirk, which is to say, he looks a lot like Christopher Lloyd. This man, as I later find out, is Timothy Wyllie. As he stands there watching the performance, he is no doubt bombarded with years of memories and constant déjà vu. Back in the 60s and 70s, he was a high-ranking member of this cult.
The Process Church of the Final Judgment was a religious group that lasted from about 1966 to 1974 and reportedly had ties to all of the big counter-culture names of the time, including Scientology, Mick Jagger, Marianne Faithful, and the entire Manson clan. Unfortunately, most of these links are either embellishments or complete fabrications: The Mick Jagger/Marianne Faithful connection were simply examples of the cult's star-fucking promotional tactics, trying to sell magazines by getting big stars on the covers; the Manson connection was an example of author Ed Sanders using a bit too much creative license in his book The Family.
This mass recreation was set up by the publishing company Feral House as a way to promote Wyllie's new book Love, Sex, Fear, Death: The Inside Story of the Process Church of the Final Judgment. The book offers a number of perspectives (including Wyllie's own, obviously) on the story of the cult and how life was lived in such a setting. While there are no stories of animal sacrifice or virgin-laden orgies (that stuff is cliche), the book is a worthwhile glimpse into how a cult forms, what goes on in such an inclusive and sheltered environment and, ultimately, how these things tend to dissolve (spoiler: it's not all Kool-Aid and Nike sneakers). Included in the book are reproductions of the beautifully-designed magazines and other handouts that the church used to sell on city streets. These conveyed The Process's complex views, for example: Christ and Satan were one in the same, meaning you have to worship equally; drugs are evil entities that should not be allowed in your bodies; Armageddon is, obviously, on the way. The sincerity of the message aside, these extreme views sure didn't hurt magazine sales.
Vice: How did you start this whole project?
Timothy Wyllie: I hadn't thought to write the book, but when Genesis P-Orridge, who'd been archiving Process Publications over the years, introduced me to Adam Parfrey of Feral House, the original concept was to simply publish a facsimile edition of the graphic art I created for Process magazines. As Adam and I got to know one another, I realized that I could tell the inside story of The Process Church. I was in at the beginning, and out in 1977, at the time when the group had effectively run its course. However, no one person would be able to tell the history of the group since so much went on in so many different places, over a number of years, everyone in the group would have to be extensively interviewed. No, my point of extreme interest was this strange woman, Mary Ann (MacLean), who no one on the outside ever knew was the one in charge of the whole operation.
Although I feel I have discharged or released the scars I carried from my 15 years of misplaced adoration – after all, I'd proved to myself Mary Ann was the incarnate Goddess – I was still curious about the nature of her personality and how she was able to have this extraordinary effect on so many of us. And since I was, on and off, a favorite of hers, this gave me unique access to much of what went on behind the scenes in this mysterious cult. It was this desire to know and understand the woman at the center of it that drove my interest in writing the book.
Can you please specify exactly what The Process believed in?
It's much too complicated a question to answer here. I can give you my own reading, what moved and appealed to me, since it was both an experiential reality (I felt it) and it fit in with much that I'd been studying, which was the reconciliation of opposites. It's an alchemical concept and I knew enough about myself by my early twenties to know I had to work on what I didn't know about myself; I had to deal with my darkness, it was having a negative influence on my life. Of course I didn't consciously know this at the time, but I was following my intuition, and my intuition- plus a number of significant synchronicities- was what got me into The Process, and Mary Ann's web.
Yes, this idea of intuition was pretty significant in this group. A lot of The Process was involved in various telepathic experiments.
What isn't generally understood is the empathic aspect of telepathy. Telepathy, as I've experienced and observed it, is not the picking up on everyday thoughts from peoples' minds, it's more the ability to empathize with another to the degree that one almost is the other. Metaphorically, like stepping into their physical vehicle and simply reading it from the inside through feelings. Thus, in practical terms, it's far more valuable to know what a person is truly feeling, underneath all the emotional disguises, than to know their grandpa's name and address.
I've had a number of telepathic moments over the years since I left the group that I've written about in my other books. I intuitively know that as a species we are heading for a telepathic future as we prepare ourselves for the impact of the extraterrestrial reality.
What do you mean by "extraterrestrial reality"?
It's my understanding that this planet has been isolated and quarantined for far longer than human history through no fault of our own. The cause of this isolation has recently been resolved and this planet is therefore about to be accepted back into the galactic community. This will be undoubtedly the most profound event in the history of the world. And the last 50 years of ET activity suggests that this transition could be a rather troublesome one. There are many vested interests who do not want to lose their power.
We know from our own deleterious impact on primitive undiscovered tribes what a tricky business it is when a culture at a higher level of development encounters one at a significantly lower level. Within the larger Multiverse context this must be a well-understood process. There's no landing on the White House lawn – The Day the World Stood Still showed us what would happen to that approach. Looking back over the last 50 years of ET activity it's clear that there is a large number of ET races here and that their overall program appears to be a gradual process of sensitizing individuals all over the world. Anyone who has had an NDE or an alien abduction will tell you that the ETs they encountered were telepathic. Telepathy requires a level of self-honesty (because of the emotional transparency needed) not many are ready for. That's why I suggest that people start giving credence to, and watching out for, incidents of telepathy in their lives.
Speaking of this kind of science-fiction stuff, there was some crossover between The Process and Scientology. How did the two relate?
Both Robert (DeGrimston, one of the cult's leaders) and Mary Ann were pretty disgusted with Scientology, especially with (L. Ron) Hubbard himself. Although they used two or three group processes lifted from Scientology, and the E-meter of course, they were insistent on being seen as different from Scientology. Which, of course, they were. So, if and when Scientology ever came up in conversation – which was rare – they'd always be dismissed with a cynical joke. Although Mary Ann always acknowledged Hubbard for coming up with those few early techniques that she found valuable.
What techniques do you mean?
Apart from the E-meter, which we used in a very different way from Scientology, I believe Mary Ann and Robert took about three of the basic exercises in the Communication Courses. I don't recall what we called them but one involved sitting opposite someone, knees touching, and simply remaining fully-conscious while looking directly in the eyes of the other for five minutes or longer, and calling out the other person when you see them zoning out – you can see it in the eyes. Then starting again. It's harder than it seems and is very helpful in life since being able to look someone in the eyes while talking to them communicates honesty and integrity. Second one, similar seating, only this time you take turns in insulting the other person as perceptively as possible; flip-side to that, you shower each other with sincere complimentary observations. Both exercises are designed to bring out and flatten emotional out-of-control responses. The third that I recall was when an individual was put in the center of the group and people take turns in insulting them – the worse the better.
There may have been one or two more things, but we very soon made these our own, as we did with the E-meter.
That sounds incredibly intense. What was the biggest mistake of The Process? Was there a decision that led to its ultimate "downfall"?
The downfall, if one can call it that, was incremental. I suggest in the book that it started with our losing the English court case against the English edition of Ed Sanders's The Family, in which the fallibility of our Goddess was first evident. And when I read the court records while writing the book, I was appalled at the cavalier attitude taken by Robert and Mary Ann to defending Robert's words, by ordering three of their underlings to appear instead of them and fumble the ball. The judge was clearly insulted by this and was justifiably cynical in his summary. But I've always believed that on a spiritual level it was when we started charging for spiritual healing that put the cap on it.
On a more subtle level, I believe the seeds of its demise were baked into the system from the start. Mary Ann's power-driven ambitions, her manipulative brilliance, and greed might have been effective for a while in driving The Process along, but in a sense it was always bound to implode and destroy itself.
You mentioned at the Q & A following the mass recreation that it's interesting "cult" and "culture" are so similar words because cults and their ability to be on the outskirts of culture are necessary and important for societies to move on.
It's actually a riff on sociologist Phillip Slater's statement to the extent that prophets are extruded from a culture in order to explore living arrangements and spiritual or psychic realities with which they then return to their society to tell what they have found. Some of the information is useful to the overall culture and is maintained; other [information] is deemed irrelevant or too advanced and is rejected. I saw cults in much the same way. Cults can explore social engineering, which, if the entire culture tried to do it would be to throw everything in the mix to the detriment of the overall culture. Some cults, for example, went to town exploring "free love" with all its unintended consequences. By their examples we can see more clearly what the effects on a social group of sexual love and learn the lessons derived from that.
What kind of lessons we talking about?
Let's look at the cult of spiritualism that swept Victorian England and America. Very similar to some cults today, although perhaps less organized, but the practitioners, sincere or fraudulent, were passionate in their beliefs. Spiritualism turned out to be something of a blind alley, not because people didn't survive death, but because they never said anything interesting or reliable enough on which to build a cogent theory. Now, think what would have become of a country if it wholeheartedly got carried away by spiritualism – we'd be back in the jungle of superstition. So, in this case, the cult of spiritualism could be said to have explored that avenue, found out its benefits (People love to hear their relatives are happy in the afterlife) and it's limitations, and report back to society overall. From then on, if people are drawn to practice it, they already know what they are getting into. That's the idea anyway.
There have been free-love cults and communes throughout history and yet the sexual freedoms and responsibilities in almost all cultures remain pretty restricted, in spite of a slow and gradual move towards more openness and personal freedom. This I interpret as society as a whole knowing that the sort of sexual freedom practiced in the communes would quickly fracture social relationships if practiced generally. Perhaps, the sixties showed us that too.
Are there specific things in culture you can point to today that are direct results of The Process?
It's hard to point out specifics, but from a quick survey of the internet, it's clear that there is still a lot of interest in it. Perhaps it's more relevant to point out that many of the beliefs we espoused have become significant causes over the subsequent years; animal rights, anti-vivisection, organic food, vitamin supplements, extraterrestrial possibilities, interest in angels and spiritual healing, parapsychology and an increasingly popular involvement with esoteric spirituality. While none of these approaches originated with The Process, that they've subsequently become so generally accepted points more perhaps to our adventurous curiosity and the fact the we were a little ahead of the curve, than to any direct effect, or some more subtle morphogenic influence.
It was the graphic approach I took in designing Process magazine, that I'm told has had the most lasting influence on progressive magazine design. I believe the magazines are being hailed as being a key progenitor of modern (psychedelic) magazine design. I can frequently, for example, trace some of the wild graphics in a current copy of Wired, back to the work The Process art department created so laboriously with Rubylith, acetate layers and Letraset.
You mentioned this – and it's become kind of well known – that members of The Process are now the controlling interests of Best Friends, the popular animal society in Utah. Is it your belief that there's some kind of ulterior motive for The Process to open this up?
No devious ulterior motive that I've seen or know about. The point I made in the book concerned the way they have become the victim of their own propaganda. Of course, we always loved our animals. Having been so heatedly rejected by human judgment from back in the early years, there was a natural tendency to turn to animals. So that when we were donating out on the street, essentially begging, it was asking for money to help animals that was the most lucrative.
I suspect this is one of the very few factors that still gives me a tinge of regret, although my older self knows better. When we started off back in the 1960s we all felt thoroughly committed to changing the world for the better. What I believe was discovered over the years was the virtual impossibility of influencing the world, which then led to a certain cynicism about humanity and a turning inside to focus on the community itself. When the group fractured in 1978 and floated for a while before establishing Best Friends in Utah, they evidently became fully committed to the care of animals.
So I do feel there is a bit of the spirit of disappointment hanging over those who were there from the start, the remaining inner circle.
Would you let them take care of your dog, I guess is the question.
Yes, I would. They genuinely love animals. But I'd prefer they didn't know it was mine!