An Occult Memoir of New York: A Review of James Wasserman’s “In The Center Of The Fire”

An Occult Memoir of New York: A Review of James Wasserman’s “In The Center Of The Fire” June 23, 2012

My feelings regarding books sent to me for review are mixed. I don’t have a lot of free time for reading. Reading a book and then reviewing it requires a significant time and energy commitment on my part. So although I feel obligated to review the books sent to me for that purpose, most of them sit in what I term “the stack of good intentions.” It sits there boring a hole into my conscience. I feel a sense of relief upon being able to successfully remove a book from that stack, and a sense of doom on adding a book to that stack (or on deciding my review of the book is too negative to publish).

So it was with a heavy heart that I checked my mail and found Weiser had sent me a book to review. The folks at Weiser are good people who somehow still think it’s worth sending me books when I owe them so many reviews, and have given some significantly critical reviews of their books in the past. Yet my heavy heart lifted and found that in one of those amazing acts of synchronicity they had sent me a book that just days earlier I was bemoaning not being able to purchase for a few more weeks.

Into The Center Of The Fire: A Memoir of the Occult 1966-1989 is James Wasserman‘s very detailed, well-written account of the occult scene in New York and, to a lesser yet still significant degree, California. The day I received it and was buzzing happily over having received a copy of it, one of my elders came over for dinner. They expressed a perfectly natural cynicism that such books generally glossed over everything that really happened. I had already cautioned myself against that before reading the book. I’m glad to say that in this case our cynicism was proven wrong.

Wasserman’s candor in both delineating the faults and extolling the virtues of everyone in this book, including himself, is refreshing. If there was malice I could not detect it, and if a few people escaped his criticisms then I have to assume it is because he genuinely felt they had no faults worth criticizing. Having read my fair share of occult history, which is too often “revisionist,” I simply don’t think I can praise Wasserman’s approach to this book enough. This is how memoirs should be written. I hope elders in the Pagan and occult communities take notice of this work, and apply it’s approach to recording their own history.

James Wasserman is a longtime member of the Ordo Templi Orientis, which is one of those organizations that has a liminal relationship to the Pagan community. While their website states that they are explicitly not Pagan, they clearly share a great deal with modern Paganism. I suppose your take on their relationship to our communities depends entirely on the perspective from where you stand. This relationship is an interesting side thread in this memoir with appearances by Pagan luminaries such as Margot Adler, Herman Slater, Aidan Kelly, Ray Buckland, Carl Weschke and Isaac Bonewits (who might be pleased that the misspelling of his name is the only flaw I detected in an otherwise flawless book; I think he would enjoy having the distinction of being the single thorn on a rose).

One of my favorite references to the Pagan scene in New York City regards how much the social structure of Paganism has changed:

The (Magickal) Childe threw an annual Samhain/Halloween party for which Herman would get a permit to block off the street, where people would sing and dance, and eat and drink. Various groups performed rituals in the Temple. These were altogether refreshing gatherings, singularly devoid of competition and intra-group rivalry and hostility. The Internet was far in the future, so instead of the disembodied socialization process of Facebook and/or other e-groups, we actually showed up in person and interacted with each other the old-fashioned way. Wiccans like Ray Buckland and Margot Adler hobnobbed with O.T.O. magicians. Golden Dawn offshoots and Church of Satan members enjoyed whatever elements they shared in common with Santeria adepts, psychics and diviners. It’s hard to imagine the ease with which people interacted during that period, because it does not occur today. Urban shamanism was its own community and Herman Slater was its official ringmaster.

I have heard enough elders repeat similar sentiments that I don’t think this is merely the golden glow of nostalgia talking. We have lost something vital along the way, and I, for one, am at a loss as to how we could reclaim it.

Aside from the interesting stories touching on the Pagan community, and all the other luminaries that pop into the story like Allen Ginsberg, Jimmy Page and Judy Collins, is the interlacing of four significant stories that each on their own are quite valuable, and presented together as a rich tapestry make this book a real treasure.

Most spiritual traditions do not survive their founders, and if they do they will rarely thrive and grow but remain a pale shadow of what once was. This book begins when the O.T.O. was a pale shadow of it’s former self. Crowley is dead. The pre-WWII energy of the organization is long gone. The leader is a very quiet, unambitious man with a wife who’s mental state is such that she notifies no one in the organization of his death, and he was apparently so quiet that no one even noticed anything was awry for years. The chaos is such that at the time I don’t think anyone could have predicted the O.T.O.’s survival.

The story of its survival, of how the organization as well as the initiates grew into maturity, how they pulled the Order from the precipice, and turned it into the thriving, stable, international spiritual and magickal institution that Crowley envisioned, is admirable. Any religious community can learn from this story, both the things they did right and the mistakes they made. The lawsuit over the copyright on Crowley’s work, the incorporation and legal recognition of the Order being the inheritor of Crowley’s legacy, and the building of individual Lodges is fascinating. Great things are sometimes not so much accomplished by great men with great ideas doing great things, but by flawed human beings finding themselves in a chaotic mess and doing what they tentatively hope is the right thing to extricate themselves without simply walking away.

At 100 years old, the O.T.O. boasts thousands of active members, owns property, practices fiscal responsibility and has physical temples around the world. The story of how they managed that when in the 70’s they were in such a disastrous disarray is simply fascinating. That it was not an intentional master scheme plotted out wholecloth, but a series of events that bit by bit forced them to become more disciplined and professional makes for compelling reading.

Aside from the story of the O.T.O. rising like a phoenix from the ashes is an honest and sobering account of the author’s alcoholism and drug addiction. Wasserman details his own experiences with the drug scene in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s in a straightforward way. The narrative threads regarding drug use in the counter-culture and among alternative spiritual communities is unapologetic in its description of both the highs and lows. The casual existence of drug culture alongside the great spiritual burgeoning of the 60’s and 70’s has always fascinated me. Today in most Pagan and occult communities recreational drugs are anathema, but that was not always the case. I think the “sobering up” of the Pagan and occult communities is a fascinating subject that could probably fill a well-researched book.

As I said before, the stories of overcoming addiction and the renaissance of the O.T.O. are each worth the purchase price of the book, but it was the third narrative strain that resonated with me the most: Wasserman’s spiritual struggles.

I’ve written before about my own spiritual struggles within Paganism, and about the subject being rather taboo in contemporary Pagan culture. So amidst a sea of self-assured authors and a chorus of “What, me worry?” it is refreshing and deeply satisfying to read an occult author so frank about his doubt, his false-starts, his feelings of guilt and “sin,” his missteps, his failings, his small successes, his striving, and his slow journey towards a spiritual home.

Reading of his devotion to “false” gurus, and to spiritual adepts who were not fit to be teachers, or of studying with people he admired but had to break off studies with for personal or political reasons, very much resonated with me. When Wasserman described the events surrounding his Saturn return, I completely understood and empathized having currently gone through that myself. Wasserman’s use of the same unapologetic frankness and candor regarding his spiritual experiences and revelations was also invigorating after reading so many grandiose accounts by other writers.

The fourth narrative thread, and the one most likely to interest my colleagues and fellow writers, is first-hand accounts of the Pagan and occult publishing scene. Weiser Books, Llewellyn, Inner Traditions, Falcon Press and other publishers are featured throughout the book. Publishing has changed so dramatically since this book was written that it was riveting to read what it was once like, and how it evolved in the pre-Internet era. The work and detail that went into some of the old classics is really interesting, and the difficulty of finding occult books is as bizarre and fascinating as life on Mars to a Millenial like myself. At one point Wasserman was advised to wait a year for a new edition of a book to come out. While perfectly reasonable at that time, it is almost incomprehensible to someone who is used to having the Internet Sacred Text Archive at her fingertips.

Wasserman’s humility, frankness and self-awareness, along with his clear, strong writing and innate understanding of layout, narrative flow and typography, make this an easy book to love. This story is very human as well as extremely well-written and that’s something we need more of in our communities. I sincerely hope this book inspires other occultists and Pagans to write memoirs in the same vein. Our history is precious and we must record it, or it will be lost forever. This isn’t merely a good occult history or a tome of fascinating trivia, this book is a genuinely good read. I recommend it to anyone.

There are a few interesting books on the O.T.O. coming out this year as the organization officially celebrates it’s 100th anniversary. Another is Richard Kaczynski’s Forgotten Templars. I expect we’ll be hearing more about the Ordo Templi Orientis this summer.

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