Love Sex Fear Death by Timothy Wyllie and Adam Parfrey (Feral House, 2009)

The Process Church, which started in 1966, was out of step with the times in many ways: the group eschewed drugs and drug use; their priests dressed all in black, with Mendes goats on their robes; they openly worshipped “Jehovah, Christ, Satan and Lucifer”; their logo, a cross between a cross pattée and a swastika, was out of step with the “peace and love” platitudes of the time.

Although they never reached the massive popularity of other new age movements, the Process Church attracted a small but persistent interest among musicians, artists, and other creative types since its inception. The cult published several magazines that are sought-after by collectors––a reprint of several is currently selling on eBay for the low, low price of $199.99.

Whether intentionally or not, Wyllie’s book reflects many of the patterns delineated in Rogue Messiahs. “The Process did have all the hallmarks of a cult,” Wyllie writes in the introduction, “charismatic and autocratic leaders, devotion to an unconventional ideology, personal poverty, obedience, celibacy (from time to time), and a strict hierarchy, with secrets held between the levels.” The end of the world formed a large part of their worldview––Processeans “viewed life through the lens of an impending apocalypse.”

Despite their reputation (the group was linked, erroneously, with Charles Manson and his “family”), Wyllie doesn’t mention any animal sacrifices, human sacrifices, blood oaths in the moonlight, or other Satanic melodramas. This doesn’t mean the group was sweetness and light. Mary Ann MacLean, the group’s autocratic leader, often forced her followers into distressing or even traumatizing situations in order to maintain control. For example, she forced her inner circle to have sex with each other in highly choreographed orgies (though this was not, as claimed in one book, a rite of initiation into the cult––most members had no idea this was going on). The impact of these orgies was devastating:

[C]hildren were conceived who didn’t know their true parents; pairs who had no desire for one another were shoved together; heterosexual men were persuaded to perform acts clearly distasteful for them; and the women were sometimes treated like goddesses and sometimes like whores.

Reading this book made me think of a Simone Weil quote: “Imaginary evil is romantic and varied; real evil is gloomy, monotonous, barren, boring. Imaginary good is boring; real good is always new, marvelous, intoxicating.” The Process Church’s magazines featured cutting-edge graphic design, unconventional interviews with celebrities (what does Muhammad Ali think of life after death?), provocative articles that tackled deep questions of being and belonging. The Process Church passionately opposed vivisection; they criticized the Church of England (in a concern-trollish way) for being too wishy-washy about their own beliefs. And yet the Processean reality was the same dreary one that many cult members endure, from the women of NXIVM to members of the Sea Org: despair, humiliation, and shame under control of a domineering leader.

If you want to get an inside view of life within a cult, especially in a cult’s inner circle, I’d recommend this book. Wyllie was with the cult at its beginning and, after a leave of absence, followed the cult through the turmoil of the late 1960s. Wyllie was also the art director for the group’s magazine, and a member of the group’s short-lived band, which gave him an interesting perspective on the Process Church’s attempts to spread their message to the wider culture.

The Haight-Ashbury: A History by Charles Perry (Wenner Books, 2005)

The Haight-Ashbury: A History is a detailed, in-depth history of the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, focusing on the late-1960s counterculture years. Perry shows how the neighborhood evolved during this time, and how the “hippie” subculture evolved with the neighborhood. The book covers every concert, every new venue that opened and closed, every “happening” on a week-by-week basis. This can make for arduous reading, but it makes the book a great starting point for more in-depth research.

Although Haight-Ashbury started as a student neighborhood, it quickly became the locus of a new artistic movement. Beginning in the mid-sixties, concerts, multimedia shows, student cafes, and other “happenings” bloomed in the neighborhood. Kids would parade around the neighborhood in outrageous costumes from the neighborhood’s many second-hand clothing shops. The remaining beatniks, now in their thirties and forties, called this new generation “hippies,” i.e. junior hipsters. The name stuck.

The police looked the other way––at first. Haight-Ashbury formed a “buffer zone” between the mostly-black Fillmore and the mostly-rich Pacific Heights. Some students want to wear costumes, put on a play, even smoke a little dope? Not a priority.

After 1967’s “Human Be-In,” though, the neighborhood attracted thousands of runaways, who in turn attracted many shady characters: dealers, pushers, pimps, hustlers, acid heads, speed freaks, junkies, crazies, and other ne’er-do-wells. Charles Manson lived in Haight-Ashbury for about six months, picking up girls who would later become part of his “family.”

I’d recommend this book to anyone interested in 1960s culture and counter-culture. Perry is a little too close to his subject matter to be objective, but it’s still an invaluable resource for anyone who wants to know what happened, and what it felt like.