Lay Down all Thoughts, Surrender to the Void.
The million dollar question that most people ask themselves about the Manson story is: how did he do it? How did he take a group of young people whose attitudes of alienation from their parents and society weren’t at all atypical of people of their generation, and instil in them a degree of obedience and loyalty so extreme that some would ultimately commit acts of extraordinary brutality, and many others acquiesce to those acts? How did he instil in his followers a conviction of his personal purity, sincerity, and divinity, which would endure for many years after the Tate/LaBianca murders? But people are always asking questions of this type. How did Hubbard do it? How did Jim Jones do it? Why do cults work? On the other hand, we never, or at least very rarely, ask ourselves why we acquiesce to the myriad things which have been presented to us as societal norms by our dominant culture. In the same way that average or “normative” physical relationships contain subtle elements of domination and submission which are reflected in an extreme fashion in the practises of sadomasochism, the cult reflects in miniature the ordinary habits of coercion, conditioning, and control exhibited by cultures and societies everywhere. The dirty secret of society’s loathing of cults is that it is the loathing not of an aberration but of a rival. To paraphrase Ismael Reed, the history of the world is the history of the warfare between cults of varying degrees of general acceptance.
Cults work primarily for two reasons. The first of these is that there is always an extraordinary degree of private dissatisfaction seething under the surface of apparently smooth-running societies. The discontented members of a society always out-weight its more contented grazers, however silent this majority frequently tends to be. At its most basic level, this discontent expresses itself as a feeling that the individual does not sufficiently exercise their will over their lives and environments – the feeling of life happening to them, as opposed to being something which they can actively shape in order to meet their needs and desires. This pervasive sense provides the bread and butter of the various self-help cults and publishing fads which have proliferated since the New Thought movement emerged in the early 19th century. (The self-help industry was estimated at the beginning of this century to be worth about 2.48 billion annually in the US alone.) This feeling of a lack of autonomy and control, of dissatisfaction with one’s position within society, is very often merely the indicator of a far deeper malaise: the feeling that all the roles and activities proscribed by society are somehow insufficient or unsatisfactory, however successful we may become within their parameters. This is perhaps why so many of our most envied icons wind up more neurotic, depressive, and self-destructive than ourselves; having acquired the carrot that dangles over the rest of our horizons, they realize its essential insufficiency. The social revolution in which Charles Manson found so many willing subjects was, as Theodore Roszak points out in The Making of a Counterculture, a revolution of plenty and abundance:
What I have called “the counter culture” took shape between these points in time as a protest that was grounded paradoxically not in the failure, but in the success of a high industrial economy. It arose not out of misery but out of plenty; its role was to explore a new range of issues raised by an unprecedented increase in the standard of living.
A revolution of plenty is the most threatening kind to a society because it does not emerge from grievances which can be annulled within the existing societal framework, but rather is directed against the whole value structure of the society itself. It cannot be bought. It is precisely this kind of existential estrangement from the whole structure of society which makes the cult’s offer of an alternative miniature society so persuasive.
The second reason why cults work is the same basic impulse which allows societies, however flawed and corrupt, to function. Arthur Koestler used to argue that the great calamity of the human species was not its propensity towards selfishness and aggression, but rather the opposite:
We are then driven to the unfashionable conclusion that the trouble with our species is not an excess of aggression, but an excess capacity for fanatical devotion. Even a cursory glance at history should convince one that individual crimes committed for selfish motives play a quite insignificant part in the human tragedy, compared to the numbers massacred in unselfish loyalty to one’s tribe, nation, dynasty, church, or political ideology, ad majorem gloriam dei. The emphasis is on unselfish. Excepting a small minority of mercenary or sadistic disposition, wars are not fought for personal gain, but out of loyalty and devotion to king, country or cause. (Janus: A Summing Up.)
The urge then to follow, to subjugate one’s self totally to a cause, leader, or ideology, is already present in the subject when the cult acquires them. It is a very basic and strong human impulse and forms the raw material which the cult’s conditioning methodologies attempt to maximise. Ironically, the subject shows considerable autonomy and independence in rejecting and turning their back on their initial society, but quickly find themselves merely replacing the old programme with a new one. The new programme becomes the truth and the old one the brainwashing from the perspective of the subject, while the new programme is the brainwashing from the perspective of society. A lot of conspiracy theorists start out by realizing that much of the information they receive through mainstream news channels is a pack of lies; they then replace the initial programme with a series of conspiracy scenarios which they now regard as uncritically as they once did the mainstream news channels. The same principal is at work where overzealous atheists apply the same kind of uncritical sectarian commitment to the atheistic programme which they decry in those who subscribe to the older theistic programme. Swapping one programme for another, like lovers on the rebound; it’s the oldest con in the world.
Tapes and Programmes: Manson and Scientology.
In 1961, Charles Manson was transferred to the McNeil Island Correctional Centre, and it was here that his story first started to get a little weird around the edges. On McNeil Island, Manson encountered Alvin “Creepy” Karpis, a legendary figure from the Great Depression golden era of American crime. The mastermind behind the so-called “Ma Barker Gang”, Karpis was the last of the “Public Enemy Number 1’s” on the loose until his FBI arrest in 1936 which was personally overseen, for publicity purposes, by J Edgar Hoover himself. In McNeil Correctional, Karpis was sympathetic to Manson’s troubled and institutionalized past, and agreed to teach him how to play the guitar. Inadvertently, the final volley of Tommy-gun shells blazed at law and order from the Great Depression would be Karpis giving Manson’s decidedly dark Orpheus his lyre. Manson was convinced at this point that he would be as big as the Beatles. In Terminal Island, he also encountered a convicted marijuana smuggler who would become a remarkable figure in the footnotes of rock history: Phil Kaufman. Kaufman gave Manson the name of a contact in Universal Studios which played a significant role in his pre-Helter Skelter bid to establish a musical career.
Gram Parsons at Joshua Tree.
Via his friendship with Keith Richards, the same Kaufman later became very close friends with Gram Parsons. (Parsons had visited Stonehenge with the Stones, during a period in which Richards owned a house near the site. This must have been around the time that the Stones were enthralled by John Michell’s psychedelic earth mysteries trip.) In the states, Parsons developed a mystical attachment to the Joshua Tree National Monument, having been out there many times with Keith Richards and others to get high and watch the sky for UFOs. (The area held a strong significance to the pre-beat bohemians and occultists of the 50s, having once been haunted by the considerable presence of Marjorie Cameron.) At some point, Parsons made a pact with Kaufman that whichever of them died first would insure that the other’s body was taken out to Joshua Tree to be cremated. In September 1973, Parsons, just a year shy of the mystical 27, died of an overdose of alcohol and morphine while staying in the Joshua Tree Inn. Parsons’ stepfather made provisions to have the body flown to New Orleans to be buried there. Phil Kaufman, polluted with vodka and self-recrimination, decided to make good on his promise. Together with a friend named Michael Martin, Kaufman commandeered a hearse, and stole Parsons’ body from Los Angeles International Airport. They then drove it out to the desert, and attempted to cremate Gram by pouring five gallons of gasoline on the open coffin and lighting a match. This caused a massive fireball and only partially charred the remains, but the pair had to flee the police. They were arrested a few days later, and fined just 750 dollars for their nobly intentioned, albeit chaotic memorial to their friend. Kaufman paid the fine with the proceeds from a party which he called Kaufman’s Koffin Kaper Koncert. (Bonus Mansonoid connection: Gram Parsons lived with Terry Melcher for a brief period in 1970, a mutual fondness for heroin and cocaine rendering their musical collaboration largely unproductive.)
Back to McNeil Island in the early sixties. Along with music, Manson also concerned himself with a variety of more esoteric subjects. According to Sanders in The Family, “It was while counting the days at McNeil Island that Manson began studying magic, warlockry, hypnosis, astral projection, Masonic lore, scientology, ego games, subliminal motivation, and perhaps Rosicrucianism.” He was particularly fascinated by subtle methods of suggestion and control, as though planning to be a cult leader – or Madison Avenue tycoon or member of the CIA – when he got out. Scientology, however, was his biggest kick in the joint. According to Alvin Karpis, ‘Charlie was hooked on this new thing called “Scientology”. He figured it would enable him to do anything or be anything. Maybe he was right. The kid tried to sell a lot of the other cons on scientology but got strictly nowhere.”
At this point, scientology was not the universal hate object it is today, but rather a quasi-religious psychotherapy programme which was making healthy inroads into the popular consciousness. The root of scientology at this point was dianetics, and at the root of dianetics was the idea of the engram. The term engram was initially coined in 1904 by the influential German biologist and memory researcher Richard Wolfgang Semon. According to Semon, the engram was a physiological memory trace written or engraved in the cellular matter of the brain which would be reactivated whenever a similar stimulus to the cause of the initial overwriting was encountered. In Mother Hubbard’s system, the engram occupied a similar role to that of trauma in Freudian psychoanalysis; according to Jean Leplanche, Freud characterized trauma as an “event in the subject's life, defined by its intensity, by the subject's incapacity to respond adequately to it and by the upheaval and long-lasting effects that it brings about in the psychical organization." In essence, Freud’s concept of traumatic events meant that we could never really live in the present; our lives are tyrannically controlled by events in the past which we haven’t properly processed. Hubbard’s engram was based on a similar sense; to quote an earlier post:
According to Hubbard’s system, the Freudian unconscious became the “reactive mind”, which he contrasted with the rational, calculating aspect of the psyche, labelled the “analytic mind.” The reactive mind created precise “mental image picture” recordings of traumatic and painful events in the individual’s life. These were called “engrams”, and the purpose of the dianetic process was to erase the traumatic content of these memories, until the subject was clear of “engrams” and free to exist rationally and analytically in the present.
It isn’t difficult to see the potential appeal of all this to Manson, whose mother once reputedly gave him to a childless waitress in exchange for a pitcher of beer. He clearly had some heavy engrams to clear. We can also see that Manson’s later preoccupation with the “Total Now” derived from his study of scientology. Just as the clearing of engrams allowed the scientological “clear” to be utterly unencumbered by the past, Manson’s conditioning was designed to erase all the automatic and unconscious programs which society had engendered in his subjects since birth. While working on Spahn Ranch, the girls happily walked around barefoot in horseshit, as part of their general programme to erase conditioned responses and binary good/bad thinking. In many respects, Manson was playing the classic Western guru game, albeit on a small scale and in a shambolic and ultimately tragic fashion. The Western guru offers his followers the opportunity to shed the inauthenticity they perceive in the roles society has allotted them; to transcend the limited, utilitarian societal identity, and discover a Higher Self, a more authentic way of being. Thus for Crowley, the goal was to attain communion with one’s Holy Guardian Angel or Higher Self, and live thereafter according to the dictates of one’s own true nature or Will. For Gurdjieff, it was to discipline the mind so as to awaken it from its habitually robotic thrall to societal convention and its own fitful, fleeting moods and fancies. Both systems contained a failsafe, in that it was assumed that in order to reach the higher state, the initiate would have to have gone well beyond the mental propensity to do evil. Gurdjieff believed that it was impossible for a fully conscious individual to commit an evil act; Crowley’s maxim do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law had its less often quoted rejoinder love is the law, love under will. But the programme is only as good as the programmer, and this is why gurus can be a very dangerous habit.
Underlying both dianetics and Manson’s occult conditioning was the idea that the mind can be manipulated like magnetic tape; that it can be rewound, erased, and ultimately re-recorded with a new programme. In The Family, Sanders claims that this idea was very common among some of the more sinister late 60s occult groups:
The hype was similar to other groups including Manson’s: tearing down the mind through pain, persuasion, drugs and repetitive weirdness – just like a magnet erases recording tape – and rebuilding the mind according to the desires of the cult.
Brion Gysin gazing into the Dream Machine
Interestingly, during the early sixties, William S Burroughs became obsessed with both the dianetic auditing process and the subversive potential of tape-recording. Burroughs was a long-time connoisseur of unusual fringe ideas, having previously explored Korzybski’s General Semantics and championed the orgone heresies of Wilhelm Reich, two obsessions later passed on to Robert Anton Wilson. The precise circumstances of Burroughs’ discovery of Scientology are not known, but at some point he encountered John Starr Cooke and his wife Mary in Brion Gysin’s 1001 Nights Restaurant in Tangier. Cooke is a fascinating character in his own right, a lifelong mystic who travelled the world at the behest of a Ouija board, and designed three acclaimed Tarot decks. The Cooke’s were also significant figures in the early Church of Scientology, with John reputed to have been one of the first “Clears”. To Burroughs’ obsession with circumventing control, the engram was another control system to demolish. Scientology had a huge influence on the “cut-up” trilogy: The Soft Machine (61), The Ticket that Exploded (62) and Nova Express (64). Burroughs was much preoccupied during this period with the idea of language as a constrictive virus which had colonized human consciousness, and he further associated this idea with the calendrical control systems of the ancient Mayans, and the mind control barrage of modern electronic media technologies. In the same way that Scientology proposed that psychically harmful engrams could be erased by means of repeatedly rewinding them, Burroughs proposed to attack the societal control system by means of repeating certain crucial control images and words (until they lost their power) and cutting them up until they formed anarchic new juxtapositions. The Cut-up trilogy can be read as an a form of positive artistic brain-washing or de-conditioning, with its long sections of disjointed, white noise prose designed to disorient and de-pattern the readers thoughts. Burroughs’ fascination with Scientology and tape manipulation can be seen in this short Bill and Tony aka Who's Who (1972):
Sanders’ description of the occult/Mansonoid conditioning method - tearing down the mind through pain, persuasion, drugs and repetitive weirdness – just like a magnet erases recording tape – could double up as a perfect summary of the goals of the CIA’s MKUltra programme, which was running contemporaneously with Burroughs and Manson’s experiments with Scientology. The MKUlra programme also envisioned the mind as being akin to a roll of tape which could be rewound, erased, and re-recorded. Hence, we find some very strange bedfellows converging on a core of similar ideas during the same time period: the CIA to produce advanced interrogation methods and zombie mind control methodologies; Burroughs to break up and demolish the same coercive technologies that the CIA sought to enhance; and Manson, the wildcard in the pack, to create avid followers to fellate his LSD expanded ego (and cock), and participate in his increasingly hare-brained criminal hustles. This strange overlap between the counter-culture and the underworld of the national security apparatus would continue well into the seventies. It is worth remembering that Manson, so often presented as the bogeyman and Pandora’s box of the counterculture, largely succeeded where the CIA appear to have failed: in using LSD and conditioning to create lasting obedience and loyalty in his subjects. Maybe they should have tried sex and rock and roll as well.
Burroughs and Scientology.
Soft Machine cover from a great selection of vintage Corgi covers here.