In the Center of the Fire with Hippie Commie Beatnik Witches

I am very interested in the early days of Paganism and the 1960s occult revival in the United States. As a result I was glad to see James Wasserman’s In The Center of the Fire come out recently. I also noticed that Aidan Kelly’s Hippie Commie Beatnik Witches: A History of the Craft in California, 1967-77 was available on Nook for something like three bucks. I got both of them, and here’s my take at the present moment.

I will tell you now that Wasserman’s book is the better of the two. He has the benefit of many years of magical diaries to draw on. His methodical approach and love of research pay off here. He wanders off track a little, but very briefly, far less so than most memoirists.

The book is, in many ways, Wasserman’s view of the rebirth of the OTO and how it happened, from Wasserman’s East Coast view of things. (It is said that Lon Milo Duquette is going to come up with a book that covers what was happening on the West Coast, which I cannot wait to read.) Duquette made a joke one time that when he joined the OTO, it consisted of four people, all of whom hated each other. It is a joke but it’s not terribly far from the truth.

I think that some of the most fascinating material in Center of the Fire is the account of Marcelo Motta, who Wasserman originally studied under. Motta, at one time, was a serious contender for the head of the OTO, and the author describes the struggle between Motta and Grady McMurtry for the right to represent Crowley’s work and teachings. That struggle eventually ended in court, where McMurtry was able to definitively prove that he had been deputized by Crowley to represent and promulgate the teachings of Thelema (Crowley’s name for his philosophy/religion).

This, however fascinating, is only one aspect of the book. Wasserman also outlines his struggles with addiction, and is genuine and honest about his other personal failures and successes as well. The book is rigorously honest, as would befit someone who is both a member of the A:.A:. and AA. Wasserman’s view of himself is unflinching; he is very willing to admit his shortcomings and is not shy about his history of substance abuse and its consequences.

His reminiscences of his friend Richard Gernon (“Gurney”) are especially moving. Gurney was his fellow traveler and dear friend, and Wasserman’s account of their descent into the abyss is compelling. The account of Gurney’s dissolution and death is painful, and you can tell that Wasserman’s heart still hurts over it. It is the most moving part of the book.

Wasserman also talks about his move from being a liberal to a conservative. Wasserman is pretty well known in the Thelemic community for his conservative views, which are often at variance with current Thelemic culture (to say the least). I was happy to understand how, and why, this happened. I have met James Wasserman and he is an enormously likable guy, but sometimes his political views freak me out a bit. Being able to understand how this transition occurred is interesting to read, and helps me understand his viewpoint a little better.

Wasserman’s book also delves into the personalities and culture of the occult culture of New York in the mid-to-late 20th century, which is also fascinating. Harry Smith, Herman Slater, Ray Buckland, and Margot Adler (among many others) make an appearance. Apparently everyone, in those days, hung out with anybody and everybody. People who went to a Gnostic Mass one night would go to a Wiccan ritual the next night. There seemed to be many fewer barriers between occult practitioners in those days. I think that’s a great contrast with how things are today, and I think those of us in the occult community, no matter what our label, could learn from this.

To sum up, In the Center of the Fire is a marvelous book. I recommend it highly for occultists, witches, and Pagans of any tradition. It is an important work that fills in the blanks about an important era in the history of occultism in the United States.

On the other hand…

I have to be honest here and say I had my misgivings about Aidan Kelly’s Hippie Commie Beatnik Witches. Unfortunately, all those misgivings were well-founded.

This is a very sloppy book. It bounces from topic to topic and follows only a very vague chronological order. There are also multiple authors and voices here; Kelly did not write this all himself and his friends contribute to the book. Unfortunately, it is not clear, in most cases, where Kelly’s voice ends and his other authors’ voices begin, making things quite confusing. The authorial voice changes tone several times and it becomes hard to keep up.

I have to say right here that I am a Feri initiate, and Kelly is well and truly disliked among the Feri and Gardnerian traditions for being an oathbreaker. I wanted to give him a chance to speak for himself here. Unfortunately, in this very book, he reveals material that, in my branch of the Feri Tradition, is deeply oathbound. This was deeply disappointing and disturbing to me, and it seems to confirm what has been said about him.

There are also several stories told here which are completely at variance from what I have heard from other initiates. The most egregious example of this is when Kelly tells the story of Gwydion Pendderwen and friends confronting the “evil” Hans Holzer.

Holzer is a mostly forgotten author from the 1960s/1970s who wrote a number of books on occult and arcane topics. All of these books were designed to titillate and shock a middle-class audience. Now they look very quaint and funny to us. Back in the 1960s all it took to outrage moralists was to talk about naked hippies dancing in a circle and people worshiping Aphrodite. Holzer was taken in by a lot of people who played him for a fool and provided him with a lot of false information.

The story that I have heard, from people I believe are quite reliable, is that Holzer contacted Gwydion Pendderwen, looking for a Feri initiation. (Holzer had already received many “initiations,” most all of which were bogus, from other “witches.”) Pendderwen, who had no intention of initiating Holzer, made up a huge and fake initiation ceremony full of nonsense. When he told Victor and Cora Anderson about Holzer and his prank on the man, they disapproved, and Cora is said to have told Gwydion, “He’s not an enemy, he’s a fool. Don’t lead him on, it’s not right.” As a result, Gwydion reconsidered and told Holzer he would not be receiving an initiation of any kind.

In Kelly’s book, this story takes on some twists and turns. For one thing, Kelly places himself firmly in the action as a “friend” of Gwydion’s, very involved and in the center of the affair. More seriously, he reverses Cora’s statement to Gwydion: “He’s not a fool, he’s an enemy,” according to Kelly. I have spoken to several initiates who knew Cora personally. Not only does this disagree with what they say occurred, they add that this kind of statement is not like something Cora would say.

The end result of Kelly’s story is a dramatic confrontation in a hotel lobby, where the “evil” magician Holzer is confronted and repulsed by Gwydion and his followers (an unfortunate term, but it is the only term that can be used in the context of how Kelly presents it) in a very dramatic manner.

It is hard for me to believe that Holzer was a magician of any sort. I have read several of Holzer’s books, and they are junky exploitation books, akin to the kind of books that Colin Wilson writes or the kind of stuff that Time/Life books used to put out. Hans Holzer seems like a genuinely curious and very, very gullible person, and his life and work show absolutely no trace of any real esoteric achievement. His most famous books are the ones on the Amityville Horror, which he popularized. He was the sort of person who would appear on “In Search Of,” pontificating on ghosts, aliens, the Bermuda Triangle, life after death, and the like. He was no black magician, and it’s impossible for me to believe that Cora would nominate him as an “enemy” of any sort. I feel it is more likely that she reined in Gwydion Pendderwen from playing a prank that she viewed as being cruel.

Kelly admits to his alcoholism, but fudges the details, unlike Wasserman. It may be because of memory gaps, or it may be because this area of his life is rather sensitive, which is understandable. But after a certain point I found it hard to believe anything that Kelly was saying in the book. I had serious questions about the reliability of his memory, and after reading the oathbound material revealed, I had even more serious questions about his ethics.

Research outside the book reveals that he was indeed a very key person in founding NROOGD and later the Covenant of the Goddess (COG), in conjunction with many other people. He did a lot of writing of the basic documents for both organizations. There are some good rituals appended to the end of the book, which some people may find useful.

However, the flaws of the book are too glaring to ignore, and the sloppy writing, the messy layout of the book, changes in authorial voice and tone, the inability to establish a coherent timeline, and the author’s inability and/or unwillingness to fill in the blanks historically, make this book something that I’m glad I didn’t pay more than three dollars for.

The electronic layout of the book is, to be frank, terrible. Line breaks occur at strange intervals throughout; code error messages pop up in the text; and none of the footnotes link to the text in spite of the fact they are highlighted as if they are supposed to. I cannot hold this against Kelly. this is the fault of his publisher and whoever formatted the book for e-book readers. But it makes the book hard to read on E-readers.

There are a lot of details about the revival of Paganism and occultism in the United States that remain to be filled in. The period from the early 1960s to the late 80’s was an absolutely fascinating time, with many outsized personalities, grand successes and horrible failures. Many books remain to be written about that era. In this respect, Wasserman’s book can be recommended; but sadly, it takes a great deal more patience, and more than a few grains of salt, to make it through Kelly’s book. I can recommend Wasserman’s book, but Kelly’s book needs further revision and a good proofreader – and a good fact-checker.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “In the Center of the Fire with Hippie Commie Beatnik Witches

  1. John

    I couldn’t resist taking a look at Kelly’s book at that price. I see what you mean – what I’ve read looks more like something from amateur zines of the time than something from someone with a Ph.D.

    From what you say here, it sounds like he’s had a lot of behaviors similar to what he speaks of regarding Holzer. I’d love to know more of what “the real story” of those times were – though I’d think that’s open to a lot interpretation, even without the extra layers of filters, memories, etc. And I know I’m often not very good at sorting out what may have actually happened from varying descriptions – or even taken stuff from Time/Life books at face value when I don’t have any personal knowledge to the contrary. I can be rather credulous at times – I want to trust people.

    I’m finding it’s really interesting to go through the edit history of articles in Wikipedia, looking at the discussions and who made what changes when.

    Anyway – thanks for the reviews. Sounds like I should pick up “Center of the Fire” at some point (and actually read it!)

  2. Carrie

    I have been curious about what others thought of the content of Kelly’s book. No one, to this point, has ever gotten past telling me what terrible things he did, in an effort to give an opinion upon what’s actually in the book. 🙂 I had a really similar opinion of the flakiness of the details and the formatting.

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