Cult Rapture by Adam Parfrey

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

Book: Cult Rapture

Author: Adam Parfrey

Type of Book: Non-fiction, conspiracy theory, history, sociology, pop culture

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: Well, the cover was pretty much a dead giveaway, what, with the David Koresh angel of justice drawing. But then you factor in that Adam Parfrey, owner of Feral House and an all-around-odd-content kind of guy, wrote most of the articles in the book and you’ve got an odd book on your hands.

Availability: Published by Feral House in 1995, it’s out of print, but you can still get a copy relatively cheaply online:

Comments: Lord a’mercy, I love books like this. I love these sort of collections of whacked culture, weird theories and weird people. If you’ve read Apocalypse Culture or Apocalypse Culture II, you have a good handle on what to expect from this book, though I sensed a healthy amount of snark from time to time. Or maybe I was just projecting my own snark. But even if there was not any snark, it was still a fun, entertaining book.

Over 15-years-old at this writing, much of the book could seem dated to a person who needs to be up-to-date on their high weirdness and occult-goings-on. Luckily, I need no freshness when it comes to topics odd. But even taking into account the relatively dated elements of some of these articles, this collection was informative, interesting, saddening, silly, funny and in some respects quite disgusting.

So, to make it easy on myself, I’m just gonna discuss the articles in the order they occur, but I will group the ones that left me with literally nothing to discuss at the end. I think my verbosity where certain articles are concerned may be a very good look at my id at the moment. Clearly harmless crazies, Nazis, gross people and certain areas of feminist thought incite my love of typing.

The Source by Isis and Electricity Aquarian

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

Book: The Source: The Untold Story of Father Yod, Ya Ho Wa 13 and the Source Family

Author: Isis Aquarian with Electricity Aquarian

Type of Book: Non-fiction, memoir, history, religion, counter-culture

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: Well, it’s released by Process Media, Adam Parfrey’s newest publishing venture. So that’s a good clue to oddness. And while the topic is compelling, I suspect that this book will be of most interest to people who are vinyl-heads, seeking information about fringe music from the 1970s.

Availability: Published by Process Media in 2007, you can get a copy here:

Comments: As I mentioned in my entry about the Books I Thought About Most in 2010, when I finished this book I made flippant references to it in my Twitter and my personal blog. Someone directed Isis Aquarian to the entries and she wanted to discuss the fact that I called the Source a Jesus Freak cult and how I was in error. I clarified in detail the reasons I referred to the Source as both but I never heard back from her. Maybe she thought me too dense to deal with. It doesn’t hurt for me to remember that my blog will trigger a Google alert beyond my 200 readers in my personal blog and show my snark to people who don’t know me well enough to understand my snark is generally followed by some measure of sincerity.

But though I will explain myself here on the whole “Jesus Freak cult” comments and how, while they were flippant, they are apt and not necessarily insults, the reason I found this book fascinating is that as a person who is, for the most part, utterly faithless, I found myself deeply interested in the people who created a life as Father Yod’s acolytes. As I read, I felt a strange feeling that I can only assume is akin to longing, a sense that my faithlessness costs me dearly, though ultimately there is not a damn thing I can do about it. I will, however, be brutally honest that I did not listen to the CD that comes with the book. Largely, the music Ya Ho Wa 13 created, as well as the voices of Father Yod’s followers, didn’t interest me that much, but the fact is, this is a very pretty, interactive book, with tons of pictures of intensely attractive people from the early 70s. Those looking for a very immersive experience will find much to love in this book. As I was writing this discussion, Mr. Oddbooks picked up the book and began flipping through it and remarked that it was one of those books that is as much art as it is a conveyance of words and information.

Isis Aquarian, whom Father Yod appointed the record keeper for the Source Family, reconstructs the life of the group from beginning to end, using recollections from members interspersed with her own text to tell the compelling story of a man who was an interesting mixture of father, lover, trickster, and guru and the stories of those who followed him. Make no mistake, as interesting as the Source Family was, this book at its heart discussed a charismatic authoritative sect, and Father Yod was, any trickster tendencies aside, largely a benevolent charismatic authority, and that is why I feel comfortable dissecting the everloving hell out of this book. When charismatic leaders are malignant, there really is no room for discussion. There is no way to talk about charismatic religious authorities like Roch Theriault without talking about the manner in which naive and impressionable people are ripe for the picking by psychopathic and delusional madmen. There is no discussion other than the depths of suffering the followers of such people experience. That is not the case here. There is a tendency to assume all cults are negative and while I feel comfortable discussing the Source Family as a cult, it was not a malignant cult – though there were some alarming signs for me – nor was Father Yod a mirror of the sorts of men the popular imagination thinks of as cult leaders.

And though I definitely loved looking at all of the beautiful people in this book and found some of the stories in this book amusing, Father Yod is why we are here because it seems to me that it is nothing short of astonishing that so many years later, the vast majority of those who were members of the Source Family remember Father Yod with nothing but fondness and love for the lessons he taught them. Yet even as Isis Aquarian told the story of Father Yod and his family, she shows how even though he was their spiritual leader, he had definite feet of clay.

So let’s talk about Father Yod. He began life as Jim Baker in 1922 and even before he became Father Yod, he had an epic life and was sort of a badass. He served in the Marines in WWII, became a martial arts expert and worked for a time as a stuntman in Hollywood. When he died, Father Yod was on his virgin hang gliding mission and in the group, he had many wives who bore his children. In the 1960s he began to follow fellow travelers into a more natural lifestyle, becoming a vegetarian and opened the Source Restaurant on the Sunset Strip, serving vegetarian fare to hippies (and the Source Family emphatically rejects the label of “hippie” for themselves), burnouts and superstars.

Father Yod became interested in many different branches of philosophy and religion, especially the Vedic traditions, combining them into a world view that had a decidedly Christian flavor (for example, Father Yod updated the Ten Commandments for his followers in anticipation of the coming of the new age and many elements of the cult were reactions to the Judeo-Christian ethos). The cult that built up around Father Yod happened almost accidentally. Young women were strongly drawn to him, as were young men, and the reasons varied from person to person. Some felt he was a paternal figure. Some wanted to be his lover (The Source Family was not anti-gay but the few homosexuals who were a part of the group in the early days were on the outside because the group emphasized the natural and mystical power of the male-female union). Some thought that in his presence they had found a man who would help them find the answers they sought. If you are age 40 or younger and look at the cover of this book and immediately think, “Dumbledore!” you are not alone. I suspect there is an archetype we all have of the Magus, a man imbued with strength, mysticism and moral wisdom and Father Yod fit that archetype. Father Yod’s physical appearance was one of strength and comfortingly paternal to me, and to many of the women in the Source Family, he was sexual force, as well (as is Dumbledore, if you read slash fan fiction and really, you shouldn’t…).

As people were ever increasingly drawn to Father Yod, the members of the Source Family developed a communal lifestyle, living in succession in two large mansions in the Los Angeles area, the Mother house and the Father house. At some times, the family swelled to over 100 members, and despite cramped quarters, the members of the group split work, sharing duties running the restaurant, keeping up laundry for all the members, cooking, cleaning and from the descriptions Isis and other members of the commune give, it worked relatively well. In order to achieve some level of privacy, some members created plywood cubbies that sound for all in the world like those compartment Japanese hotel rooms. Despite close quarters, the Source Family came up with creative and labor-intensive means of dealing with needs for privacy and the infrastructure problems so many people sharing one house caused.

Father Yod also maintained an inner circle of 14 women, the council of women, and as an inversion of the idea of Christian submissiveness, the Source Family promoted a female-centric community and women’s liberation. Of course, Father Yod’s word was important but as he evolved his message he took counsel from his council of women. Although, and I will discuss this later, Father Yod at times made it hard for women to remain in monogamy with a chosen man and the sexual rules of the commune had a decidedly uneven effect, women ostensibly chose their own men and had a strong voice in the commune. Women gave birth at home (and I had no idea home births were illegal in California at the time), breast fed their babies at a time when that was outre and children were homeschooled. The Source Family had a close relationship with another Jesus sect but as too often happens in sects led by charismatic leaders, minor differences caused fractures. And despite the fact that the Source Family lived a relatively healthy life, deep troubles began.

Despite being clean people, when you have 100 people in one house, bad things can happen. A staph infection ran through the commune and sickened a baby and when that child was taken for emergency care, the authorities descended up on the family. Because the group was afraid that the authorities were going to take the children, Father Yod decided to beat a retreat to Hawaii, a decision that had he lived longer, might have proved the undoing of the Source Family, as the locals in Hawaii were hostile to the “hippies” to the point of threatened violence, they had little experience doing the fishing and farming they would need to survive and Father Yod sold the Source restaurant when he left LA. That restaurant had been the primary source of income for over 100 people and without it, the cult suffered financial woes. Father Yod smuggled vans to Hawaii that had not been paid for, and he also smuggled the family’s cat. The drugged cat was taken onto a plane, stuffed into the dress of a female member who pretended to be pregnant – the cat was later eaten by a mongoose, which means this book also gets the “Oddbooks List of Books that Feature Dead Cats” tag. The situation degenerated so bad for the family that they ended up descending on the welfare office near them and more or less forcing the Hawaiian infrastructure to pay for them to leave (evidently there was a fund that Hawaii would use to return US citizens to the mainland if they did not have the money but the sheer number of tickets the family would require was problematic).

Some of the family returned to San Francisco for a bit then returned to Hawaii. It was there that Father Yod was killed during his maiden voyage hang gliding at age 53. Actually, he was severely injured and did not seek medical help, as the group largely did not put much faith in medicine, and was taken back to their home and died. There was a minor controversy concerning his death because Father Yod believed the soul took three days to leave the body and specific death rituals needed to be performed over his body. Since he died in an accident, authorities were concerned that his body was not immediately turned over to the coroner. When another member of the Source Family died in a hang gliding accident a year or so later, several members of the Source Family, including Isis, were arrested for failing to immediately turn his body over to authorities. They were later cleared of charges.

It is a testament to Father Yod’s message that the family struggled on after he died, but eventually, without the charisma of their leader to bind them together, members moved on and most of them moved on to have very interesting lives. But as I read this book, I felt a bit uneasy because I consider myself to have been victimized by a dopey religious cult – the Southern Baptist Church – and elements of the way the Source Family lived set off my “oh-no” meter. So let’s discuss that. First, to clarify, Jesus Freak now is a terrible appellation, akin to calling someone a “holy roller” or similar and it may have been a pejorative 40 years ago but I know many Jesus Freaks reclaimed the word and didn’t accept it as an insult. When I think of Jesus Freaks, I think of what the term meant by those who called themselves Jesus Freaks: adherents of the Jesus Movement who espoused a counter-culture lifestyle, with an emphasis on back to the land, social justice, communal living, and rejection of contemporary dogma. Many of these groups had a profound musical element to them. The Source Family was Christian in origin, though they carried cards professing Sikhism and the beliefs of the group had a synthesis of many Eastern religions and Egyptology. However, the core of the group appears to me to be Christian, though not as evangelical as some Jesus Freaks were, and their close association with a Jesus Cult and the way that Father Yod recreated Biblical commandments makes me lean towards thinking the group Jesus Freaks. Mileage varies and my terminology is just my interpretation and should not be read as an assertion of an absolute truth.

However, the cult aspect of it is where I got uneasy. Of course, the word “cult” today has almost without question a negative bias though that is just connotation after years of malignant sects doing grave damage. Objectively, a cult is a group of people whose beliefs and actions seem strange when compared to more mainstream customs. Nothing nefarious or unhealthy in that and the Source Family falls largely within that definition. But the group also exhibited some of the more exploitative and damaging elements of a group built around the theories of one man. Here are some of my observations:

1) The Source Family was centered around a charismatic leader who “love bombed” people, resulting in the center of the religious experience being the leader and not the religion. In fact, even after reading this book so closely that I can quote passages of it, I have a hard time explaining the core mission of the Source Family, the core beliefs but I know a lot about Father Yod. Magus, who left the cult in early days, described a descent from a innocent beginning to an almost “Aleister Crowley type megalomania.”

2) There was an inability to leave with impunity or finality. Some people did indeed leave, but the problems were there. Magus says he was shunned when he left. When Rhythm left, the whole of the group went to fetch him back to show him that they loved him. But the end result was still that his desire to leave was not respected. When Galaxy was returned home to her parents by the police, Father sent an adult man to fetch her back then marry her so that her parents could not interfere.

3) The Source Family showed some disregard for family ties, making Father Yod the only real connection some members often had. For example, fetching back the underage Galaxy from her family using deception interfered directly with the relationship between parents and their minor-age child. Paralda described how Father Yod interfered in her marriage to Omne soon after he married them, pressuring her to have sex with him. Few people lived or worked outside the Source Family, ensuring the primacy of the relationship with Father Yod.

4) The tenets of the Source Family changed to suit the needs of a charismatic leader. One of Father Yod’s commandments was that nothing should come between a man and his woman… until he found women he wanted more than his then wife, Robin/Ahom. Quick evolutions of matters of faith are alarming especially when they seem to revolve around the sexual needs of the leader of the sect (and though Father Yod may not have begun with the idea of having sex with so many women, some of whom were underage, it did happen and many elements of group belief sprang up making Father Yod’s sexual belief a group belief.)

5). Father Yod created new identities for members, often based on his interpretation of their personalities. Not only did everyone get new names, some several times, but Father Yod also would revoke names to tamper with the idea of identity, as when everyone was called a number for a brief period of time. This was one of the fine line reservations with me as I can see both sides of the argument on diminishing the self and of course some religions emphasize selection of a new name, as Catholics select a new name during church rites. But Father Yod picked his acolytes new names and changed them again when he felt like it.

6) The Source Family exercised sexual control over its members. Men were given a very strict manner in which they could have sex – tantric sex – and if a man could not control the need to ejaculate for a specified period of time, he was looked down upon. Men who could “hold their seed” got all the women, entrenching their place in the The Source Family. But even though these rules created a group of men who could not attain a regular lover and helpmate, Father Yod would assign women to service and take care of these pariah men because their labor was needed in the cult and they could not afford for them to leave if they began to feel too alienated. The tension between have and have-not men was always there because the men without lovers felt they needed to work on themselves because the lack of a sexual partner was seen as a spiritual failing.

7) Members seldom had any control over money. Communal living is not that unusual, but when only a handful of people control the bank account for over 100 people, it can be a very negative thing.

8) The group substituted Father Yod’s common sense for their own. Though clean people, close quarters created a staph infection that ran through the group that was not treated medically and led to problems, the most obvious being Anastasia and her baby. Anastasia had a staph infection in her breast yet continued breast feeding, as the group did not approve of bottle feeding. Her infant fell very ill with staph but did not immediately receive medical care because Father Yod taught the rejection of conventional medicine. The child almost died and Anastasia almost lost her breast. Two children died in the cult. One baby who was clearly failing to thrive evidently never received any medical care before she died, or if she did, it wasn’t mentioned in the book. One of Magus’ sons became very ill with an ear infection and the treatment Father Yod recommended was to shine colored lights on the boy and chant for him. On a more ridiculous level, Father Yod told people to stop wearing their glasses in order to build their eye muscles. Father Yod proclaimed the group for a while would only eat fruits and vegetables whose colors reflected the rainbow. To have followed any of this indicates that Father Yod’s magnetism was more important than common sense.

9) The group had to operate in secrecy, though I openly admit that in a climate where home births were illegal and breast feeding was seen as odd, some secrecy was needed. However, this secrecy set up an us versus them mentality that created hardship. When Anastasia’s baby almost died and it looked like child protective services were going to act because the children in The Source Family did not go to school, there were home births that were illegal at the time, overcrowded living, etc., the answer was not to address these issues openly with either a legal stance to change law or an attempt to work with authorities. Rather Father Yod uprooted the group from LA, sold the restaurant that supported the group, and sent people to a remote Hawaiian island with little support because he hoped there would be little interference from the authorities there.

10) Most alarming to me was that towards the end of his life, Father Yod was beginning to trip down the old eschatology lane, positing about the end of the world, how it was coming soon, and how the family needed to be ready to survive and lead the survivors. That… Of all of the sort of wacky, new age bad decisions that came about, this was the most disturbing to me. Whenever any sect begins to assign an approximate date for the end of the world, it ushers in all kinds of problems.

Yet after reading all of this, still having the capacity to be flippant meant that I didn’t feel like I was reading a small scale People’s Temple that got averted by a tragic hang gliding accident. Despite my innate abhorrence for religion and my admittedly bizarre aversion towards spirituality in general, I found myself wishing I had, in my youth, been a part of something like this. I had a similar feeling when I watched the series Big Love, a feeling that being a loner was definitely working against me and that sister wives might be nice. But then I realized how completely unsuited I am for such a life, channeling Charlie from the movie Metropolitan, who, like me, wouldn’t want to live on a farm (or commune or conjoined houses in Utah) with a bunch of other people. Part of it may have been that the Source Family was a group that reveled in natural pleasure and enjoyed beauty and displays of flashiness and only became ascetics when circumstances forced such behavior, but that was not the whole of it because as a near hermit, I don’t care that much for the physical world and other peoples’ involvement in it.

So how come I find myself wishing I could have a talk with Father Yod and hear what he has to say? As a person allergic to authority and spirituality, why did I find him so deeply interesting? I think, at the end of it, I liked Father Yod because he knew he was not god. He may have been a man who had an enormous ego. He might have enjoyed being followed more than leading, and he definitely had all kinds of issues with his libido (and, frankly, I think he introduced tantric sex as a means of controlling himself and to prevent descending into a priapic orgy, and you can take that about as far as you want given my degree in armchair psychology), but even as this book showed how he had feet of clay, I don’t think Father Yod ever lost track of that himself.

This scene from when a group of men from The Source Family arrived in Hawaii, deeply influenced my belief about Father Yod, showing me his humanity in the midst of what could at times be fawning adulation. This passage comes from Zinaru, who arrived at Kauai to be met with a bowl of magic mushrooms:

It was around this time that a lot of discussion on YHVH began, and there was a shift in Father’s deep commitment to spiritual development and observance of natural laws to seeing himself as the Avatar–the actual incarnation of God. I noticed the women around him reinforced this direction in his perceptions, maybe because this God incarnate status for Father stimulated their own egos and reinforced their own special position as “wives of God incarnate.”

Back to our arrival day in Kauai. After about 40 minutes, the effects of the mushrooms were becoming very strong and it was suggested that we all go take a walk. About 20 of us followed a trail through the property and up the closest hill. Some Family members wanted us to observe the “Sleeping Lady,” a description that local Hawaiians had given to a group of gently rolling hills visible from the highest point on our land.

Due to our brisk walk up the long hill and the blood circulating rapidly in our bodies, the power of the mushrooms really began to peak. Father began to speak, and it was obvious that he was very affected psychologically. Father made a comment about the power of nature while we observed the “sleeping lady.” The sun was starting to go down, and we all stood for a moment in silence appreciating the tropical beauty, our surroundings, and the power of nature.

It was then that Father said in a soft voice, “I am not God. I am only a man.” Immediately Makushla [Father Yod’s wife, sort of a first wife among equals] said, “No, no, you are God,” and several women agreed. And he said, “No, I am just a man trying to understand God.” He continued. “I am nothing. I am just a man. I am not sure what to do, really.” Father turned and looked me in the eyes, and I could see he was deeply moved emotionally. I saw his insecurity manifest in his eyes in a way I’d never seen before. He dropped all pretense and was deeply humbled by his augmented state and honest self-perception.

This passage was the most important in the book, I think. It showed me that Father Yod was a guy with some interesting insights who got caught up in an echo chamber and in his moments of extreme clarity, he was under no illusions as to who he really was: a man searching for truth, a man who ended up with many people relying on his judgment, and a man whose responsibilities hung heavily on his shoulders.

And that makes for compelling reading, learning all about this man via the words of others, as well as learning about the people who tell the story. There is a whole lot I can’t really touch on because this discussion is already too long, like the affront Father Yod’s perspective on the name of the creator must pose to Jews, and the band Ya Ho Wa 13 didn’t interest me much. But I hope this discussion shows how deeply interesting this book is. Not only is it quite pretty (the pictures of a time past are amazing — Sunflower bears a striking resemblance to Mr. Oddbooks before he cut off all his hair and I wish more information was given about Snow, the beautiful albino girl who drew my eye in every picture she appeared in), but with the CD, and the participation of so many past members of the Source Family, this book is a well-documented look at a complex man who lived an amazing life during a turbulent time in America. I recommend this muchly.

The Spinster and the Prophet by A.B. McKillop

This post originally appeared on I Read Everything

Book: The Spinster and the Prophet: H.G. Wells, Florence Deeks and the Case of the Plagiarized Text

Author: A. B. McKillop

Type of Book: Non-fiction, biography, history, feminism

Why Did I Read This Book: Like any book fiend of long term addiction, I often buy books in frenzies. I have no idea where or when I purchased this book, so I no longer know what initially drew me to it. But once I noticed it on my shelf, it still went unread for a couple of years because though I didn’t have any feelings for H.G. Wells one way or the other, I had a feeling that I would have pretty strong feelings once I was finished reading this book. I was correct.

Availability: Published in 2000, you can get a copy here:

Comments: I am not a big science fiction fan, so H.G. Wells, while I certainly read him and was socially aware of him, was not an author for whom I had any great affinity. But it was nevertheless disappointing to realize that he was a completely unlikeable, self-absorbed, trivial, priapic worm. Add to it that he may well have been a plagiarist who stole words knowing the person whose words he stole would likely have no recourse because she was not famous, had little money of her own, and most importantly, because she was a she and not a he, and it would appear H.G. Wells was a vile little man in many respects.

I often do my best to avoid biographies of writers or performers I have any sort of respect for. Like I said, I had little opinion about H.G. Wells before reading this book and knew this book was unlikely to paint him in a favorable light. Yet I was shocked at how much I disliked him at the end. I had once read about his affair with Rebecca West and their child in a different book, but I had no idea how he more or less rubbed his wife’s nose in it, how very young West was when the affair began, how Wells used his literary status and genius as an excuse to fuel and justify his sexual id. I haven’t felt such disappointment learning about the life of a literary figure since I found out what a repellent human being Robert Frost was. At least I had far less literary heart invested in Wells when I read about him.

Here are the nuts and bolts of the book: Florence Deeks, a middle-aged Canadian spinster, began to research and write a history of the world focusing on how women had shaped the world, from ancient matriarchies to the then current roles of women in societies. It took her five years of research and writing, beginning and roughly ending with the first World War. She submitted the manuscript, which she called The Web, to the North American branch of Wells’ publisher, Macmillan. She had long conversations with a particular editor about the book but did not receive it back, rejected, until almost two years had passed. The manuscript, when returned, was a mess, smudged and showed signs of heavy wear, wear that would become crucial in the court case that showed how some of the worn pages contained plagiarized passages. It seems very likely from the evidence that McKillop presents in the book that the editor that Deeks dealt with at Macmillan obfuscated the location of the manuscript and sent it to Wells, who had himself been discussing writing a history of the world. Indeed, Wells, to that point a man who wrote mainly turgid, lightly veiled autobiographies of himself, according to his assertions, managed to write a massively researched book in record time, a book that bore similar amateurish marks as Deeks’ endeavor. Despite many expert witnesses who showed the distinct similarities between Wells’ book and Deeks’ book, despite many appeals, the courts consistently decided against Deeks in her court cases. Wells’ book, The Outline of History, a best-seller then but now largely ignored, made Wells’ fortune secure.

Deeks herself immediately saw similarities between Wells’ work and her own rejected manuscript, similarities that several experts echoed. In fact, the entire outline of Wells’ work echoed her own, unique outline. Moreover, Wells used references to works Deeks had agonized over whether or not she should quote but ultimately did not. That Wells used the same source that Deeks in her inexperience had not cited, himself not citing the author, was particularly damning. That Macmillan could not prove where the manuscript resided when it was in their custody – indeed, there is a record that indicates it was received twice at the office when Deeks only submitted it the once – also lends credibility to Deeks’ belief that Wells altered her manuscript.

The proof that Wells likely did not write his 1,324 page history without pilfering Deeks’ work seems likely on its very face and despite all the compelling examinations of the similarities between the texts, the most damning evidence to me was the timeline involved. Though Wells was an undeniably erudite man, he had only written fictional novels and did not have experience as a historian.

Three of the most experienced and prolific professional historians in the world, James Harvey Robinson, Charles A. Beard and James Henry Breasted, had required several years to research and write their collaborative history of Western civilization. Wells and his ever-faithful wife ventured into their first and only exercise in the writing of history with few research notes and little intensive help from others, and somehow managed to accomplish the task in a span of time so short it beggars the imagination. In mid-November 1918, nothing on the project had advanced as far as the typescript stage. By February 15, 1919, Jane [Wells’ wife] had produced 50,000 to 60,000 words in typed form. Twenty days later her husband… had written between 75,000 and 80,000 [additional] words, researching along the way. At the end of the year, the whole manuscript was complete.

This is all I am going to quote from the book on the topic of the investigations and the trials that compared The Web to The Outline of History. That part of the book is extremely interesting, a sort of literary CSI. But I will say that after reading about the number of bad acts on the part of Macmillan employees, the analysis laid out by Deeks’ witnesses and Wells’ own response to the accusation (attempting to smear Deeks), I believe H.G. Wells stole large parts of the book that made his fortune.

But despite learning about Wells’ nasty and underhanded disputes with literary icons like Henry James and many other acts that shed a bad light on him, his utter need for and complete contempt for women almost overtook the plagiarism claim this book puts forth (and in my opinion, proves). But in a sense, that is what this book is about. The book’s topic is plagiarism in a specific sense, but the overarching theme of this book is how one man, the publishing industry and court system deprived one woman of her voice and work but also deprived all women of having access to a book that would have described their own unique role in history. You see, when Wells plagiarized The Web, he removed all of the work that Deeks did to show how women had indeed played a role in shaping the world. Not content just to steal, he stole the work and stripped it of all its original intent.

Yet worse was the fact that even as ambitious as his plagiarism was, it would never have been possible without the toil of his wife, Jane. Jane, of all the women Wells used in his life, suffered the most. She wasn’t even permitted the luxury of using her own name. He called Catherine Wells “Jane” during their entire marriage, a name she did not encourage but could not dissuade him from using. His two-named wife clearly played a role in getting The Outline of History ready.

By all accounts, Jane Wells, once more a silent voice at a crucial point in her husband’s career, was his saving grace in the creation of The Outline of History. “Without her labour in typing and retyping the drafts of the various chapters as they have been revised and amended, in checking references, finding suitable quotations, hunting up illustrations, and keeping in order the whole mass of material for this history, and without her constant help and watchful criticism, its completion would have been impossible.”

The theme of how Wells played a role in silencing and marginalizing two women is the theme that stuck with me above all the injustice, all the proof of plagiarism, above all the sexual indiscretions and bad behavior on Wells’ part. Even as the reader feels perhaps a modicum of pity for Wells, as he at times was indeed pitiful, this book simply serves to remind the reader that in addition to being a fair science fiction writer, a terrible literary fiction author, a man of many affairs, and probably a plagiarist on more than one occasion, Wells can best be remembered as a man possessing such monumental ego that he would not permit his own wife to have her own name.

The Spinster and the Prophet is meticulous researched, and while it includes recreations of what the author thinks may have happened in some scenes, he makes it clear that he is using this writing approach, and his recreations never seem fanciful or forced. A literary tome about literary crime, it was both erudite and accessible. I enjoyed reading it and definitely recommend it for those out there who enjoy biography, history and a good, down in the dirt expose on what really happens when the socially privileged close ranks.

The Lives They Left Behind by Darby Penney and Peter Stastny

This post originally appeared on I Read Everything

Book: The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases from a State Hospital Attic

Authors: Darby Penney and Peter Stastny

Type of Book: Non-fiction, biography, history, photography, psychiatry

Availability: Published by Bellevue Literary Press in 2008, you can get a copy here:

Comments: This book was an unexpected comfort for me. I walked an interesting road in psychiatric medicine (I can call it interesting now with some distance – at the time it was an unrelenting nightmare from which I feared I would never wake) and the stories of the patients in this book, the psychiatric fads that doomed many of them to inappropriate care, showed me that in many ways the more things change, the more they stay the same, which may sound horrible in a sense, but really it put my own experience into perspective. And despite some similarities between my own care and the care of one of the patients in the book, I feel incredibly lucky to live in the present age, current deficiencies in mental health care notwithstanding.

This book discusses the lives of 10 people whose suitcases were left behind at Willard Psychiatric Center in upstate New York. Painstakingly researched, the identities of the people whose belongings were found in the hospital attic long after their deaths are explored not only in terms of their lives in the hospital, but also in terms of who they were before they ended up at Willard. Though we in our modern ways may see old psychiatric homes as barbaric – and they were in some respects – they were society’s attempt to deal with people who may have had profound problems, most of whom had no where else to go. Many who were considered “incurably mad” found themselves in poor houses, where their behaviors made them subject to terrible abuses. In 1869, Willard took in patients who had been deemed unsuitable for poorhouses and workhouses (and a pox on every person who thinks a return to either is a good idea).

… Willard received only patients from across the state who had already exhausted the public resources of their counties. Even paupers did not want to witness people kept in tiny cells and iron locks, being fed through openings in their doors, never let out until their limbs were crippled. Women were regularly abused by all comers, and the whole business had turned into a matter of public disgrace.

But even as the mentally ill were shipped to the countryside, it bears mentioning that the hospital’s goal was to be self-sustaining, meaning that the patients were required to work in fields or in workshops in order to fund Willard. Moreover, the institution had the perspective that they needed to provide a “morally” correct place for the mentally ill, giving them certain stigma while attempting to help them. Masturbation was cause for alarm and at times confirmation that the patient was in fact quite mentally ill. A sex life was completely off limits to the mentally ill at Willard.

Because of the psychiatric fads of the time, most of the people in this book and likely many at Willard were diagnosed with schizophrenia or various forms of hallucinatory dementia when the fact is few actually had the condition. In a similar parallel to a lack of early understanding of how some psychiatric drugs affect blood sugar and cause diabetes, many patients were put on drugs that caused them permanent neurological damage. Some neuroleptic drugs caused tardive dyskinesia and some doctors did not understand the causation between the drugs they prescribed and the uncontrollable fidgeting they saw in patients.

The psychiatrists who first introduced neuroleptics noticed rather quickly that the drugs caused symptoms not unlike Parkinson’s disease, but saw this as evidence that the medication was working effectively, rather than as an indication that it caused neurological damage… Nevertheless, decades later, when the full extent of the problem had become quite obvious, psychiatrists continued to prescribe these drugs for most patients in institutions, despite their limited effectiveness and the disfiguring and disabling side effects.

If this sounds primitive, we needn’t pat ourselves on the backs too soon for our improved medications.

Second generation neuroleptics, also called “atypicals,” were considered more effective and less likely to cause side effects than the older drugs, which are significantly less expensive. The NIMH study showed that these highly praised medications were no more effective than the cheaper drugs they replaced, while causing a new slew of side effects, including diabetes and heart disease. A 2006 British study had similar results…

People who know well those who are mentally ill, especially those with bipolar disease, often remark that they just don’t understand why sufferers don’t take their medications. Well, you see, the meds often don’t work as well as one would hope, they make you gain untold amounts of weight, can give you permanent neurological problems, diabetes, as well as creating addiction to the drug that makes withdrawal a dicey prospect. The behavioral problems these drugs are supposed to address often are dwarved by the health and further mental problems they cause. Some benefit from atypical antipsychotics, to be sure, but many walk into taking such drugs without a full picture of what the drugs may do in the long run.

Of the ten stories, several were heartbreaking. For example, the Russian emigre who escaped from a WWII internment camp with his wife to New York, where he began creating an excellent life, only for his wife to suffer and die from a catastrophic miscarriage. He broke down and became psychotic after her death, and ended up at Willard, where he spent the bulk of the rest of his life. A folk artist of no small talent, he painted scenes from his native Ukraine. In his suitcase, he kept the flowers his wife had carried during their wedding ceremony in Austria in 1945.

But the person in this book whose story most affected me was that of Margaret Dunleavy, an orphan who left Scotland and was an accomplished nurse in the United States until the intrusion and a complete lack of understanding in the medical and psychiatric world left her confined to Willard for the rest of her life. Margaret had contracted tuberculosis and worked in a tuberculosis hospital, but she suffered several setbacks in her life, setbacks that cost her the job and the lodging that came with it. She was placed at Willard for what was supposed to be a temporary stay that became permanent. She entered Willard with 18 trunks, the contents of which she was seldom allowed access to, her car was repossessed, she was seldom able to see her companion and perhaps boyfriend of many years, and all the accomplishments in her life were dragged from her as her life became that of an institutionalized patient. She described being sent to Willard as being “like a fly in a spider’s web” and she was right. She was ensnared in psychiatric faddery and a tendency by some doctors to dismiss a patient’s pain and to diminish the addictive properties of the drugs they prescribe.

Her trunks were filled with her life’s possessions – linens, carefully wrapped china, diplomas, many pictures of the road trips she took with friends. Her immigration papers, her medical certifications and letters from friends and her male friend, embroidery, patterns, and most importantly, pictures of her with her car. An independent woman, Margaret never married and rare for the time, she owned her own car, traveling on vacations with female friends, her mobility giving her freedom. And unlike many at Willard, she had friends who stuck by her until the end. The depth of her friendships, the loyal bonds that those who are extremely mentally ill enough to be institutionalized for life often have a hard time forming, should have been a clue she was not schizophrenic, but the dogma of the time said she had the disease and she was treated for it until she was a shell of a person.

Margaret, who had tuberculosis and was diagnosed with gastric problems, had a doctor she preferred, driving far out of her way to see him. She was given belladonna and codeine, both of which were addictive to some extent and made any psychological problems the chronically ill woman had even worse. Her worsening health, the worsening health of her male companion, combined with worry about her family in Scotland at the outbreak of WWII, caused her to show signs of fray. Her employers at the tuberculosis hospital intervened in a way that now seems outrageous – they terminated her care, her personal relationship with her doctor and forced her to see a more local doctor. Losing contact with her trusted physician, combined with an abrupt termination of her drug regimen, caused Margaret to break down, landing her forcibly institutionalized for life on the following, extremely insubstantial grounds:

“Annoys people. Accuses people of persecuting her and talking about her. Says switchboard operator listens in on her conversations and that people on other floors can be heard talking about her.”

Once at Willard, her physical ailments were often dismissed as hypochondria, she was diagnosed in the face of all known reason with dementia praecox (an archaic term for schizophrenia) of long-standing, and was prescribed medication that ensured her frail health degenerated more and that if she was not mentally ill before entering Willard, she was certainly mentally unwell when she died there.

Her story is so resonant with me because in the summer of 2008, my mother almost died, I lost two beloved cats within weeks of each other, and I knew I was losing my job. I was in distress, sought help, and in the face of all that I know about myself, accepted a bipolar diagnosis and began to take atypical antipsychotics. What began as an emotionally difficult time morphed into physical misery that I hope I never face again. I was placed on Geodon, within days was shaking, felt snakes under my skin, stopped eating and started hallucinating. I asked the psychiatrist for help and he prescribed me enough Xanax to ensure a terrible addiction. It all culminated in a stay at a psych ward after the voices in my head told me to kill myself. The four day stay in the locked down ward did stabilize me until the voices stopped, but I also left the place on Prozac, Wellbutrin, Xanax, Valium, Trazedone and Ambien. I developed an addiction that almost cost me my marriage because the drugs made me so crazy I wanted to leave my spouse of 15 years. I have shared my experience and while it is certainly not the norm, too many have shared similar experiences of being shoe-horned into inappropriate diagnoses (most often bipolar, the 21st century answer to schizophrenia and dementia praecox), crippling addictions, and doctors who pile medication on top of medication with seemingly callous disregard as to what such drugs may do as they fine tune their patients’ brains.

(And though it goes without saying, I must say anyway that meds help a lot of people. I would never tell anyone not to take meds if they had a realistic diagnosis, understood all the ramifications of taking psychotropics and made an informed decision. My descent into hell had none of those elements involved, and that was the problem. My experience is not a testimony against psychological pharmacology, but rather an encouragement to approach one’s mental health care with information and caution.)

In the course of reading Margaret’s chapter, I was introduced to the idea of the chaos narrative, which helped me make sense of what happened to Margaret as well as what happened to me in the bowels of the psychiatric system.

The chaos narrative is essentially an anti-narrative, because the self in the midst of chaos has no time for reflection or the ordering of narrative in a way that makes meaning. As Frank [Arthur Frank, the creator of the idea of a chaos narrative] puts it, “A person who has recently started to experience pain speaks of ‘it’ hurting ‘me’ and can dissociate from ‘it.’. The chaos narrative is lived when ‘it’ has hammered ‘me’ out of self-recognition.” Chaos stories are hard to hear, both literally, because, in their lack of sequence and causality, they may not be apparent as stories to the listener, and figuratively, because they are anxiety-producing, even threatening, to the listener, a reminder that anyone of us may find herself in this painful state.

In this age when doctors barely have time to get your basic history, it is unlikely many know a chaos narrative for what it is. They hear a rambling patient, who may be fidgeting with nervousness and tension, who cannot sleep, who is plagued by a sense of doom and may be acting out, and the narrative seems indicative of the psychiatric disorder du jour. In the midst of most of these stories, chaos narratives were at play – illnesses, life upheavals, and misfortune – and doctors did not hear the stories they were told.

Modern psychiatric life is different now, to be certain. A heavier emphasis is placed on pharmacology than long-term therapeutic care and those whose mental illness is severe will not have their possessions discovered in disused attics because many are homeless now due to the drastic termination of funding mental facilities experienced in the Reagan administration. It is hard to say which is worse – being in an institution your entire life when you don’t need such care, or being on the streets, unable to get such care if you do need it.

I suspect most people will read this book and feel a kinship with one of the people described through the possessions they left in their trunks, possessions they were denied while they were at Willard because the people in this book, all quirks and bad behavior aside, are so very ordinary, very prosaic. Each trunk represents a life truly interrupted, and in their cases, generally never to be resumed again. Truly a heartbreaking work. I highly recommend it.

Voodoo Histories by David Aaronovitch

This post originally appeared on I Read Everything

Book: Voodoo Histories: The Role of the Conspiracy Theory in Shaping Modern History

Author: David Aaronovitch

Type of Book: Non-fiction, sociology, history, conspiracy theory

Why Did I Read This Book: I am an avid reader of the odd, as my other book discussion site should prove, and eat conspiracy theory with a spoon. When I saw this book as I wandered through a Barnes & Noble, it was a gimme that I would buy it. That conspiracy theory might actually shape contemporary historical belief seemed too interesting to pass up.

Availability: Published by Riverhead Books in 2010, you can get a copy here:

Comments: I liked this book but not for the reasons I purchased it. As someone who has spent a lot of time wallowing in conspiracy at different times in my life, there was little new for me in this book (though this is not to say there was not some content unfamiliar to me – there was and it was fascinating). Moreover, this book is more a debunking attempt than really a look at how conspiracy theory has shaped modern history for the average person. No one can walk away from this book and feel that any of the examples of conspiracy, their formation and later belief, has affected the modern canon of history, aside from the JFK assassination. Of course people whose personal beliefs lie on the fringe of reason hold conspiracy theory close to their hearts, but I think it is overblown to seriously suggest that the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the “plot” to kill Princess Diana in a random car accident with a drunk driver, or Hillary Clinton supposedly murdering Vince Foster is ever going to achieve the level of mainstream belief that will reflect these fringe beliefs as history.

Of course there are always some who believe all manner of odd things. Michael Shermer has shown us that, as well as any other number of debunkers. It often seems as if those who have fringe beliefs are greater in number than they are because the proliferation of conspiracy theory sites on the Internet make the information seem more common place and because the press loves nothing more than a crank with a misspelled sign, wearing a costume and yelling about injustice. The Tea Party (Teabaggers, as they are known to people like me) has shown this in spades in the United States. Get some loud, bombastic, angry, and, in some instances, completely insane people in one place and the press is all over it because crazy is a close second to sales behind sex. But the numbers of Teabaggers are statistically insignificant and recent polls indicate that these people who have received so much press recently as a new force in politics don’t have enough numbers even to impact the 2010 midterm elections. Fringe beliefs among the Truthers and Birthers and Teabaggers will end up as a foot note to history, not history itself.

Aaronovitch does a relatively sound job of showing how, for the fringe, certain myths will not die and will always be a part of a certain zeitgeist regardless of the proof given to debunk these myths. Like the idea that Princess Diana was assassinated or that the Kennedys had Marilyn Monroe killed by an overdose of barbiturate suppositories. There are those who will believe this no matter what, and Aaronovitch shows clearly how the seemingly unbelievable, like the President of the United States is a foreign born citizen or that 9-11 was an inside job, gains some credence. Aaronovitch discovered similar traits that enable otherwise sane people to believe weird things.

1) Historical precedent: If you can show that other conspiracies happened in the past, it is easier to believe they happened now.
2) Elite them against us: All conspiracy theory at its heart shows actions of an elite few – rogue CIA agents killing JFK (which is not that unbelievable for some of us), Jews plotting a world takeover – against the mass of people. Those who do not believe are seen as sheep, people who are so mass deluded they cannot believe.
3) “Just Asking Questions”: Many purveyors of conspiracy theory assume the role of an innocent questioner instead of a provocateur.
4) A circle jerk of “experts” who all quote each other in order to give the theory legitimacy.
5) A veneer of academic credibility, much of which gets echoed by established media but when examined up close, credentials are always suspect.
6) Errors in the theory are explained as disinformation from the forces that the theory hopes to out.
7) Assumption of the role of an endangered victim – those who discuss the theory claim to be under constant surveillance. This assumption of persecution makes outsiders wonder what the subjects of the conspiracy have to hide.

But at it’s heart, this book never convinced me that aside from contemporary news media dropping the ball occasionally that conspiracy theory really is shaping how we perceive history. There may be a sizable minority who have bought into the propaganda of 9-11 conspiracy but where most of the sources are concerned, like the movie Loose Change, I have never heard a single sane person speak of it favorably, and the only places where it is discussed favorably is on sites where conspiracy is the sole topic. Most people (unlike me, for the record), do not think there was a CIA conspiracy to kill JFK, though the evidence in that case has been so muddied and mishandled that differing theories as to what happened were inevitable. Most people, despite the media attention Birthers get, do not think Barack Obama is a Muslim foreigner sent to destroy the United States. While the Kennedy assassination is a different kettle of fish in some respects and has, in fact, affected history, it is hard to see the connection between the actual history of this nation and fringe belief. I cannot say the same about the UK, where a couple of the theories in the book are germane, like the idea that Princess Diana was assassinated, an anti-nuke protester murdered in a conspiracy, or the details surrounding the likely suicide of a Parliament crank. I cannot make that leap mainly because my experience with conspiracy theory exists in an American realm.

But if you get past the notion that history has been deeply affected by conspiracy theory, let alone shaped by it, this book is an incredibly informative, fascinating read. I think anyone interested in conspiracy theory will find much to like in this book. Like many, I knew that the Protocols of the Elders of Zion was fake, a scurrilous attempt to pass off fiction as a historical document exposing a Jewish plot to take over the world. Aaronovitch takes this one step further and shows that not only was it a fake, but it was a bad forgery as well, showing the original sources from which the PotEZ was taken, showing side by side analysis. Moreover, I did not know that the men at the heart of publicizing all the supposed crimes committed by President Bill Clinton are the same men behind the attempts to prove that Barack Obama is a Muslim, non-American, socialist/communist/fascist. Joseph Farah and Christopher Ruddy evidently got an 8-year break when George W. Bush took office after Clinton, but got back up to speed in a heartbeat when Democrats took the office back. There were also two British conspiracies that I was not as well-versed in. All in all, this book was worth it for the information I did not know, the connections that show how these conspiracies were created and managed for the new information age.

However, I think reason is not in as short supply as the evening news wants us to believe. Nor is it in as short supply as this book would lead one to think. People believe outrageous things, that cannot be denied. Conspiracy theory is, indeed, a cultural force. I just don’t think it is a force that shapes history and that in a large part comes from my personal experiences with conspiracy immersion, but if it were, the official line would be that Marilyn was murdered, Princess Diana was assassinated by the British royal family, Jews are out to get us and Obama is a Muslim foreign agent. If the fringe had anything more than Internet innuendo, Loose Change would not be derided in every sane circle for all the factual errors it makes. Affecting how elements of history may be perceived to certain individuals is not the same as shaping history as a whole. There is no denying that the fringe affects people who believe it and the history they subscribe to, but fringe belief has not shaped history, modern or otherwise, and in trying to prove it, this book fails.

But it succeeds in telling about some extraordinary delusions of the crowd and how they shaped perception for certain groups (and my local conspiracy expert Alex Jones gets a couple of shout outs). That it does not meet its thesis goal matters less to me than it should because it was simply so damned entertaining – Aaronovitch has an engaging writing style and an amusing, at times caustic wit, and the book is just fun to read. All in all, for a book that missed it’s mark, I can’t believe I am telling you to read it, but I am.