Featured image: Benjamin Britten memorial, Aldeburgh, Suffolk, England
Isaac Bonewits was the first (and to date only) student to receive a Bachelor’s degree in Magic. His 1970 Berkeley degree sports Governor Ronald Reagan’s signature and his thesis, republished as Real Magic, remains in print. Created after the Jonestown suicides, the Advanced Bonewits Cult Danger Evaluation Form (ABCDEF) is still frequently cited. Bonewits was perhaps best known as the founder of Ár nDraíocht Féin: A Druid Fellowship (ADF), one of America’s largest Neopagan organizations: he created ADF in 1983 and served as its Archdruid until his 2010 death.
In 2018 Moira Greyland’s The Last Closet: Surviving the Dark Side of Avalon detailed years of childhood sexual and physical abuse at the hands of her mother, author Marion Zimmer Bradley, and various family friends. Among Greyland’s claims was a report that Isaac Bonewits molested her when she was six. The allegations raised by Greyland (and others) are troubling and Isaac’s widow Phaedra has declared them credible. On November 7, 2019 the Mother Grove of the ADF publicly repudiated its founder in a Facebook post:
To preserve the health of our organization, we must cut out the blight that is Isaac Bonewits’ legacy. We sever the ties both historical and spiritual that bind us to him. For his actions against children, Isaac Bonewits will no longer be named as a beloved ancestor of ADF, nor is he welcome at our sacred fire.
May his memory and his dark actions fade with the rising of the sun.
As can be expected, some complain ADF’s response goes too far and others complain they haven’t said or done enough. There is no good way to respond to this sort of situation, but ADF has avoided the most spectacularly bad ones. Like Robespierre before him, Isaac Bonewits faces the condemnation of those he once inspired. ADF hopes to save their group with an official declaration and a public execution. And as with Robespierre, the sentence is not unjust.
Revolutions eat their young. A generation that distrusted everyone over 30 now gets dismissed with a terse “OK, Boomer.” Yesterday’s feminist heroines are today’s transphobic bigots: yesterday’s spiritual eclecticism is today’s cultural appropriation. No forest can thrive without an occasional fire to clear away the deadwood. Yet while the ADF is chopping down the blighted tree, they may want to take some time and examine their roots.
[Life in the Abbey of Theleme] was spent not in laws, statutes, or rules, but according to their own free will and pleasure. They rose out of their beds when they thought good; they did eat, drink, labour, sleep, when they had a mind to it and were disposed for it. None did awake them, none did offer to constrain them to eat, drink, nor to do any other thing; for so had Gargantua established it. In all their rule and strictest tie of their order there was but this one clause to be observed,
Do What Thou Wilt
because men that are free, well-born, well-bred, and conversant in honest companies, have naturally an instinct and spur that prompteth them unto virtuous actions, and withdraws them from vice, which is called honour.
François Rabelais (and a discarnate entity named Aiwass) inspired Aleister Crowley to declare in 1904 “There is no law beyond Do what thou wilt.” For the rest of his life Crowley did what he Willed as the Magus of Thelema and grand poobah of the Ordo Templi Orientis. For Crowley “the word of Sin is Restriction.” Every man and every woman is a Star, or, as Uncle Al explained “each human being is an Element of the Cosmos, self-determined and supreme, co-equal with all other Gods.”
Among the people who passed through the OTO’s lintels was a civil servant, nudist and spanking enthusiast named Gerald Gardner. By 1964 Wiccans were presenting a qualified Thelemic imperative, “An it harm none, do as ye will” as an “Anglo-Saxon witch formula.” (Pseudo-history would become an embarrassing hallmark of Neopaganism. Isaac Bonewits was one of its first and loudest critics). While these new Goddess worshippers drew their mythology from Robert Graves, Margaret Murray and Joseph Campbell a great deal of their theology came from Aleister Crowley.
Neopaganism was also influenced by another great mid-century movement — the Sexual Revolution. In Eros and Civilization Herbert Marcuse spoke of a “polymorphous sexuality” that would transform the human body from an instrument of labor to an instrument of pleasure. Wilhelm Reich’s The Mass Psychology of Fascism presented sexual repression as the root cause of authoritarianism. Asceticism gave us napalm and Zyklon B. Hedonism promised us a brave new world where we could all be well-housed and well-fed and well-fucked. And where prayer and fasting only offered heavenly rewards, the Sexual Revolution promised a better future for our world and our children.
Today we chuckle at Victorian pamphlets warning of masturbation’s dangers. Most midcentury Americans grew up learning that masturbation was wrong: some may even have had their hands tied to the bedposts to stave off night-time temptations. Homosexuality was something people gossiped about in whispers and laughed about in crude jokes. A girl who “put out” risked her reputation and, before the Pill, an unwanted pregnancy. These social taboos and pressures led to inhibitions and “hang ups” that caused us to feel bad about our bodies and ourselves.
Most of you have noticed that stimulating your genitals feels good. In the right circumstances someone else stimulating your genitals feels even better. Why do we teach our children to treat this like a sinful secret? Why not teach them sex is something that should be shared as freely as we share warm hugs and kind words? Instead of making it something frightening and shameful, why not show them how much pleasure it can bring? And if the idea makes your skin crawl, it may be a sign of how deeply you have been brainwashed by the pleasure-hating Puritanocracy.
Or perhaps you understand the consequences of inappropriate early sexualization and childhood sexual abuse. Even during the Me Decade’s hedonistic heyday pedophile acceptance was a radical idea. But in an era when Leonard Bernstein held an Upper West Side fundraiser for the Black Panthers and Jane Fonda made war propaganda for North Vietnam, the opprobrium of squares was often a badge of honor. Can anybody say (with a straight face) that contemporary Neopagans are less given to trendy political causes than their forebears? And are the Sexual Revolution’s beneficiaries ready to give anything more than lip service to its victims?
History concerns itself more with achievements than morals. Many a scoundrel has changed its course: many a saint has been crushed in its path. Isaac Bonewits will be remembered as a major figure in a minor American religious movement. (And yes, it was minor. Theosophy inspired Wagner, Scriabin and Piet Mondrian: American Neopaganism reached its high-water mark with The Craft). It remains to be seen how those who have rejected him will be remembered, or if they will be remembered at all. Neither can I tell you how the future will reconcile Bonewits’ achievements with his failings. All I can do is tell you a story about one of my favorite composers.
You’ve probably heard Benjamin Britten’s Variations on a Theme by Purcell, also known as “The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra.” Many of Britten’s works are staples of the classical repertoire worldwide. With his life partner Peter Pears, Britten transformed a small Suffolk sea town into a major cultural center. The Aldeburgh Music Festival has seen the world premiere of many modern works: the Britten-Pears Young Artist Programme has educated up and coming musicians since 1977. Benjamin Britten was also a serial pedophile who molested many of the young boys he worked with.
On the Aldeburgh beach there stands a four-ton scallop erected by sculptor Maggi Hambling. Through its edge are carved words from Britten’s first and greatest opera, Peter Grimes. The line chosen comes from the opera’s final act. Alone on the beach, running from the angry townspeople and haunted by the boys who have died under his care, Grimes cries out “I hear the voices that will not be drowned.” Those words stand on the beach where Britten walked; they stand as a testimonial to his work; they stand as an indictment of his character.
2 thoughts on “The Voices That Will Not Be Drowned: for Isaac Bonewits”
I’d recently heard about this and had thought about writing a post, but honestly you’ve done such a great job I can’t really think of anything to add.
When I first heard the accusations I leaned towards them being false (‘innocent until proven guilty’ is still a thing for me, and we’ve had so many situations where a famous person is accused of sexual misconduct simply because the current group doesn’t like something about them politically/religiously). Though I suppose with what you’ve put here it is more than likely he did do it, but as you point out it probably wasn’t seen as an immoral or unhealthy act by him. The problem with judging people morally lies within the morals of the judge and the one being judged.
I think the ADF is stupid to just cast him out and expunge him. He did found them, after all. If the tree is poison, the fruit is poison, no matter how much the fruit protests. I’m sure most of those screaming to the sky in outrage have their own sins worthy of condemnation.
Several thoughts. One, everyone knew about Bonewits sexual proclivities. I remember hearing stories from people who were at festivals about his harassing them and their teenage daughters. So, this is nothing new. It is a matter of being shocked, shocked, shocked after the fact. So, this repudiation is actually an act of silliness in my opinion. It is one of those political acts of moral grandstanding to save face.
Two, organizations have the DNA of their founders. I witnessed this with several U.S. government agencies and local groups. No matter how removed the founder was from the group in years, the group still has their character traits. For example, the Federal Reserve has Woodrow Wilson’s racist ideas embedded in it. No matter what they do, it is still there under the grand words.
Three, Bonewits is an Ancestor. You cannot turn ancestors off like a water spigot. They are a part of you, no matter what. Depending on your tradition, there are ways to deal with problematic Ancestors. Since ADF says that the Ancestors are included in their Kindreds, then they will have to come up with a ritual to deal with this particular Ancestor. Piety is a virtue that they espouse to, and that includes nasty Ancestors. For me, the Romans generally made offerings and asked them to politely leave them alone. They also asked the other Ancestors for help in the situation.
Four, you repudiate an Ancestor, and there is going to be serious blowback. If ADF is a religious organization and not a secular humanist one, they would have understood this. In other words, what ADF actually is differs from what they say they are.
It is a most impious action, and will have severe consequences. The Pax Deorum has been upset.
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