Sunday, July 31, 2016
The Progeny of Jane Wolfe and Phyllis Seckler (and My Path into the A.'.A.'.)
When the A.’.A.’. finally knocked at my door telling me my time had come to join, I was one of those people who wanted to make sure that I was getting the real deal. If you've read the blog posts over at Head for the Red, you can see that for the last decade or so, I make it my goal to find a complete system as close to the source as possible with as little corruption, divergence, or piled on make-believe. It worked well for me, I traced the KBL back to its pre-Sefer Yetzira origins to my satisfaction, and discovered in the 1st through 3rd centuries the Greek Magical Papyri, the Corpus Hermeticum, and the philosophical and practical roots that made sense of all the information found later in Agrippa's Three Books of Occult Philosophy.
You'd think finding the organization created, run, and passed on by Crowley less than a hundred years ago would be a lot easier than finding the foundational documents of the Western Mystery Tradition written almost two thousand years ago.
But you'd be wrong.
After a few weeks, I remembered every negative notion I'd ever had about the Victorian era systems of magical study and practice since I was 16. I'd gotten spoiled by working with the grimoires and Greek Magical Papyri, they were written so long ago, there were only manuscripts and academic studies. There were no personalities, figureheads, no records of the egotistical conflicts that inevitably manifest when two or more are gathered in the name of magick.
I feel sorry for Harper and a couple of my closest friends who witnessed me complain and rant and vent as I found dead end after dead end, one conflicting story after another, and all the rumors and innuendo.
But I'm stubborn. I tracked various groups and their leaders down, both active and defunct.
I started with a good friend I've known for years. He is a member of a claimant group that traces itself back through Ebony Anpu to Grady McMurtry. His claimant group, while still alive and active in at least himself and his direct supervisor, didn't concern itself with whether or not they "really" had documentable claims linking them to Crowley, which mattered to me a lot. He understood, and pointed me in the direction of the major claimant groups currently in existence, and suggested that I should probably take a look at the group led by Dr. David Shoemaker if I was serious about finding something that can track itself back to Crowley.
Following up on his tips and leads, I found myself speaking with the leader of a group that claimed to be providing the teachings of the A.’.A.’.. At some point, this group had started calling its local groups "Clerk Houses," a reference to a verse in the Book of the Law, and had diverged in several other ways from the original formula of the A.’.A.’.. This group is led by a person of character who has a long and documented history of interesting relations with the Ordo Templi Orientis (O.T.O.), and various members of the A.’.A.’.. This group also traced itself back through Grady McMurtry. I found it is no longer taking on new members, and the conversations I had with the leader about various topics led to more questions and concerns than answers, so I took notes and moved along to the next lead.
I also looked into another claimant group, descended from J. F. C. Fuller. While members of that organization continue their personal Work, they make no claim to "legitimacy" that met the standards I'd set for myself, though all the members I've interacted with have been awesome people I respect and admire.
I found a few other groups that were claiming to be A.’.A.’. as I continued my research, but they really aren't worth mentioning. Most have a small online presence, are very vocal in their own Facebook groups, but ultimately don’t add up to much more than empty claims on the internet, and a lot of regurgitation of new age tropes from the 1980s. For example, one group said they had established connections with the Secret Chiefs on their own, I think by doing Liber Resh daily. And if it's on the internet, it has to be true, right?
Well... I wasn't convinced.
So that left three options that seemed to have some kind of weight behind them.
The first was, of course, the A.’.A.’. group that is currently advertised by and publicly affiliated with the O.T.O.. Frater Sabazius made it very clear that the O.T.O. can only work with one administrative A.’.A.’. claimant group at a time, while also making it clear that it's not within the power of the O.T.O. to confer any kind of validity or authenticity to any of the claimant groups. The claimant group that is currently the partner of the O.T.O. is led by J. Daniel Gunther. Being an O.T.O. initiate, it was important to me to look into this group's history and practices. I really prefer to have all my eggs in one ecumenical basket, as it were.
I had assumed that Gunther's group, having been recognized by the O.T.O. as a partner tradition in the spread of Thelema and the Law which is for all, was led by someone involved in all three branches of Thelema as they operate in the current material manifestations of things: the A.’.A.’., the O.T.O., and the Ecclesia Gnostica Catholica (E.G.C.). It appears that Gunther is not, in fact, a dues-current member of the O.T.O., and has no affiliation with the E.G.C.
That really matters to me.
But I wanted to give them a fair shake, so I tried to keep an open mind and kept exploring. I'd heard all kinds of opinions about the various claimant groups by this time, and while I appreciated the opinions of my friends, I understand the nature of politics in organizations, and I really wanted to read something firsthand from the sources.
A few of my friends recommended that I read In the Center of the Fire, by James Wasserman. He had studied under Motta, and was in the A.’.A.’. claimant group led by Gunther. He'd written up his experiences around the time of the formation of the O.T.O., and spoke a lot about his interactions with the people that were the major players of the times when he started getting into the O.T.O. and A.’.A.’. aspects of Thelema. He'd met and worked with Motta, he'd met with Soror Meral and Grady McMurtry. He was present at the trials that ended up establishing the validity of the O.T.O., and he had written up his experiences with these people and he published it.
So I bought his book, and I read it, and in it he clearly states that all the founding members of the A.’.A.’. administration currently partnered with the O.T.O. had either been expelled by Motta before his death, or had, according to Motta, left the A.’.A.’. on their own. Furthermore, it was notable that Soror Meral had been administering A.’.A.’. continuously for decades before the formulation of the governing “Triad” of the Gunther-led group.
This was a nail in the coffin for me, as far as this group was concerned.
This left me with two options, the group led by James Eshelman, and David Shoemaker's group.
By this time, I had the chance to read some of the things that Eshelman had published, and I personally found his "corrections" and expansions to 777 to be less than useful. Also, as I mentioned earlier, it was important to me that I join a group that was led by someone in good standing in the O.T.O.. As with Gunther, that turned out not to be the case with Eshelman.
So I’d found several groups claiming to be “the” A.’.A.’., or who were being referenced as being an approach to the A.’.A.’., but every road had been a bust. Frankly, I was about done with the A.’.A.’. at this point. It was the Golden Dawn all over again, I thought. Schism, in-fighting, and expulsions at best, hollow claims on the internet at the worst.
So I figured, what the heck, everyone keeps telling me Shoemaker's the real deal, I'll give it one more shot.
I went into it with expectations that had been shaped by my experiences, so in other words, they were decidedly low.
I can only imagine how my early correspondences with David Shoemaker must have come across. I was tired and cranky from the experiences I'd had, and I just wanted to follow up on the Wasserman claims that Meral was really 5=6. I suspect I might have come across as a little, uhm, rude.
I honestly expected to discover in no time that she had been expelled, or hadn't actually been in the Order, or that she was a practitioner of Spiritism who channeled the Secret Chiefs through her Ouija board at parties after she'd had enough brandy.
Instead, he sent me a document that showed the correspondence between Karl Germer and Jane Wolfe (Soror Estai), and later with Soror Meral herself when he had taken over as her superior in the A.’.A.’.. It was excerpts, but he pointed me to where the full text and context had been published for reference.
I hopped on these books, and ate them up. It was a dream come true. Laid out in letter after letter were the things I had been looking for, in the kind of detail that you just can't make up.
Soror Meral was the student of Jane Wolfe, who was at Cefalu with Aleister Crowley. One of the things Shoemaker had made available publicly was her journal entries from her time at Cefalu. I had the journal in no time, and I read about her experiences, I saw her work, I saw her journal entries, and in the margins in Crowley's own handwritten admonishments, his personal advice, and his recognition of her accomplishments as she proceeded through the exercises he laid out for her. I saw her history through her own eyes, and tracked down more correspondence from the time. I saw that Crowley leaned heavily on Jane Wolfe, recognized her value (sometimes) and relied on her efforts in every way to keep Agape Lodge running the way he wanted it to be run.
I kept waiting to find the letter that expelled Jane Wolfe, or Phyllis Seckler. Almost all the women he worked with quit, or their relationships ended poorly. Many of the men too. He was a notoriously difficult person.
But that letter never came. He maintained his relationships and correspondence with Jane and Phyllis throughout his life. When I reached the correspondence from the time he died, I read about how Germer was saddled with being the head of both the A.’.A.’. and O.T.O., and how he handled himself in this new role. I saw the letters exchanged between Wolfe and Germer, and later between Seckler and Germer, between superior and student, letters of encouragement and instruction, the exchange of wisdom and of insight.
This stuff is all published, and is publicly available. Everyone interested in the historic account of what was going on between the Thelemites of that time should take a look at the bibliography at the end of this post, and add these books to your library so you can see the full story for yourself.
The preponderance of evidence was, for me, undeniable:
The Germer/Wolfe/Seckler claimant group is the only claimant group with an unbroken initiatory and administrative link extending all the way back to Crowley at Cefalu. The group never stopped initiating people, never stopped the grand experiment Crowley had begun, never disbanded, resigned, or gave up. They have simply endured, and did the Work of expressing the Law of Thelema into the world this whole time.
Not only that, but it became obvious to me that when Grady and Phyllis were working together to rejuvenate the O.T.O. after its long hiatus, there was an existing partnership and natural overlap between the O.T.O. and the A.’.A.’. administration that reflected exactly what I understood Crowley had wanted from the beginning: those people interested in the A.’.A.’. curriculum were studying it as designed, and at the same time serving in their local O.T.O. and EGC bodies, quietly and without fanfare. To this day that interpenetration of the A.’.A.’. within the O.T.O. continues. The more people I've met since my initial research into this subject and my entry into the system, the more I've found that we are everywhere, across the world, at every level of service stretching from the degrees of Minerval to Bishop, and beyond.
I was both convinced... and totally relieved. The richness of the materials, the unadulterated presentation of what was going on - warts and all - in everything I read made it clear that this wasn't some sugar-coated fantasy reinterpretation of events. Crowley could be a real jerk. Germer got angry, just like everyone else. Jane went through some horrifying personal experiences. Phyllis endured social prejudices and things we wouldn’t put up with at lodge today, and had a strong set of opinions that she didn't hesitate to express as she saw fit.
These were real people doing the real Work, and they faced the same kinds of struggles we face today. The historical research I had seen, and the work I'd done myself was fleshed out in details that made the people more than just characters in a story or in a Wikipedia article. Things I went through in my own work were reflected in the conversations between mentors and students, and in the journals of my predecessors in clear black and white, going all the way back to the source. I wished I'd had that kind of feedback as I was stumbling my way through things.
So it was an easy decision for me to join the Shoemaker claimant group. I didn't think it would matter much to anyone else, so I signed up, got the list of reading materials, and when it was time, I began the Student curriculum. It's been great. I've had confirmation of things I thought I'd understood, which made me feel good, and I've come to realize that I had totally missed some really obvious things along the way, and that's proven to be even better. My experiences doing the Work of the grades has been awesome, and I have no qualms encouraging anyone feeling like they are hearing the knock of the Order at their door to join with me in our group, it's got it going on.
And that's basically my story, and how I ended up where I'm at with this whole A.’.A.’. business.
While I made the choice that seemed best to me, I also want to make sure I mention that along the way I've spoken to a lot of members of different claimant groups. It is clear to anyone who interacts with them that a lot of important and thoughtful work is being done by initiates in the various claimant groups.
Please, refer to the Bibliography below to research things for yourself. It's all there in black and white. I'd leave it there, but...
There's always a "but" in these things.
This "but" is about what happened to me as I went along, and continued to advance through the Man of Earth triad of the O.T.O.. I started to notice a trend. Whenever I would talk about joining the A.’.A.’. publicly, I got a lot of feedback.
Also, when I announced to my old blog audience that I'd joined the A.’.A.’. in a post with a link to onestarinsight.org, within my circles of friends and acquaintances in the O.T.O. I was asked some interesting questions by some people. Others came out and directly challenged my choices. It didn't take long to find that a lot of people had a lot of misinformation and had formed some very adamant opinions as a result.
And, as those who know me are aware, this is exactly the kind of thing that I think I was born to do: set the record straight about how things actually work in a way that everyone can understand, with references for further research and cited sources that should be researched so you come to your own conclusions.
So going forward, I'm envisioning the following posts to present the questions, rumors, and allegations I've heard, and the answers, truth, and documented rebuttals to these things respectively.
First, I think the history of the A.’.A.’. that led from Cefalu to Sacramento, the Crowley-Wolfe-Seckler/Germer-Wolfe-Seckler/Germer-Seckler-Shoemaker history of succession is really important to understand. It's a simple core narrative that makes sense when you look at it. There's no questionable practices, challenges, or blatantly false claims to be found in the story, and that alone speaks volumes. Without attacking anyone else, it simply presents the story of the A.’.A.’., its members, its leadership over the years, and provides the foundation necessary to understand where we are today.
The role of Motta in this history can't be ignored, since his personal history, involvement in the A.’.A.’., and subsequent claims continue to influence some public opinions today. I'll at least reference some simple and straight-forward published correspondence that addresses his role in this process according to Germer, and later in his life, James Wasserman.
Once the actual history is laid out, the next thing I'd like to address are the basic pieces of misinformation I've come across since I've started this process. I picture this post as a simple "This is what I've heard, but this is the truth" list of what people say verses the truth. I'll stick to documented things, because that's the easiest way to address this stuff.
My hope is to put a lot of these rumors and accusations to bed once and for all. There's a lot of confusion around how the A.’.A.’. claimant group Phyllis led worked in practice, and the roles of the International College of Thelema and the Temple of the Silver Star. I heard a lot of people use the word "recensions" in reference to things Seckler had done, and a lot of blatant lies about theft of library materials, allegations of profiting off the teachings of the A.’.A.’., and suggestions that this claimant group that goes directly back to Crowley without interruption is somehow a newcomer, when it's never stopped.
And then finally, I'd like to wrap up this series of posts with an opinion-editorial piece addressing the relationship between the O.T.O. and the A.’.A.’., some recent rhetoric, and how I'd personally like to see things shake out over the rest of my lifetime.
Seckler, P. (2003). Jane Wolfe: Her Life with Aleister Crowley Part 1 (Red Flame Journal #10). Berkely: Red Flame Productions.
Seckler, P. (2003). Jane Wolfe: Her Life with Aleister Crowley Part 2 (Red Flame Journal #11). Berkeley: Red Flame Productions.
Seckler, P. (2010). The Thoth Tarot, Astrology, and Other Selected Writings. Sacramento: Teitan Press.
Seckler, P. (2012). The Kabbalah, Magick, and Thelema: Selected Writings Volume II. Sacramento: Teitan Press.
Wasserman, J. (2012). In the Center of the Fire. Lake Worth, FL: Ibis Press.