Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Is It Not Time For My Painkiller?

If I say so myself, the best reviews I wrote for Gay Community News were of books related to religion. GCN spoiled me, partly because they depended so much on volunteer writers to fill up the pages, so I got to write extended essay-reviews that made me feel like a writer for the New York Review of Books.

This one, published in 1988 or so, is one I'm proudest of. The first title was supplied by my Significant Other at the time (is SO still in use?); it's a line from a play by Samuel Beckett, as he remembered it. The second, of course, is Satan's line from Milton's Paradise Lost, and it sums up my review of religious morality -- that religion too often manages to rationalize evil as good.

The review also earned a letter praising it from Joanna Russ, the lesbian-feminist sf writer and English prof, which appeared on the GCN Letters page. I was happy to see that Russ included that letter in the selection of her published letters that she included in her recent collection of writings, The Country You Have Never Seen (University of Liverpool, 2007). I think I may be justified in thinking that this piece holds up pretty well after 20-odd years.

Ecstasy Is a New Frequency: Teachings of the Light Institute
by Chris Griscom
Santa Fe NM: Bear and Company, 1987
180 pp.
$9.95 paperback
Plague: A Novel About Healing
by Toby Johnson
Boston: Alyson Publications, 1987
250 pp
$7.95 paperback
Although Protestant fundamentalism and the New Age movement are ostensibly antagonistic to each other, they are basically the same syndrome elaborated from different socioeconomic groups. Both are attempts to regress, to flee from the present into the womb of the past, to escape from the essential moral ambiguity of the universe, to reject autonomy and moral responsibility and the terrors thereof. Both piss on what they regard as human pride while simultaneously pissing on it – fundamentalism by placing humanity ‘a little below the angels’, the New Age by claiming that we are all really gods, sort of, who have fallen from our true glory. Both offer to the victims of natural disaster and human violence the cold comfort that their suffering is their own fault. Both are anti-intellectual. Both credulously embrace the supernatural. Both exploit the gullible financially. (Fundamentalism uses the mass media more effectively, but Shirley Maclaine’s TV movie Out on a Limb has shown that there’s no reason New Age couldn’t do the same with equal success.) Both even share a belief that we are on the eve of a new world: fundamentalism with its fantasies of Harmonic Convergences and the imminent dawn of a New Age. And while both give some kind of meaning to the lives of their adherents, both are ridiculous and fraudulent insults to the human mind, heart, and spirit.
The difference, as I mentioned, lies in class. Though there are undoubtedly exceptions, the kind of Protestant fundamentalism that has provided a spiritual rationale for the Reagan regime’s right-wing blitzkrieg flourishes mainly among upwardly-mobile white trash. New Age seems to be popular among college-educated and supposedly sophisticated middle-class types, who are often scornful of born-again superstition – definitely a case of the pot calling the kettle black.
I guess the reason a copy of Chris Griscom’s Ecstasy Is the New Frequency was sent to GCN for review is that it contains some carefully nonjudgmental comments on homosexuality. Griscom runs something called The Light Institute in New Mexico, publicized by Shirley Maclaine’s Dancing in the Light, where she helps people clear their emotional bodies by re-experiencing their past lives. Ecstasy Is the New Frequency is written “from notes taken … as she trained her colleagues and from talks she gave during 1986” (xi) in a style reminiscent of the speeches of Ronald Reagan: “Physicists are beginning to explore the fact that there’s something on the other side called negative space-time. There’s something on the other side of reality” (63). Her vocabulary is a word salad of computer jargon, psychobabble, and her own pet usage (this last helpfully collected in a glossary at the book’s end). Even with heavy editing Griscom is so incoherent that, as my roommate observed, you could rearrange all her sentences at random and they would make just as much sense.
For some readers, however, all that will matter is that at The Light Institute, “we don’t have to define or discuss homosexuality in terms of ‘Is that OK?’ or ‘Is it not OK?’ Instead, we see how someone is using it in relationship to the themes, or choices, they have made in this lifetime. … First of all, recognize that the choice of homosexuality, the choice itself or merging only with like kinds, is not as interesting as how it is teaching people to grow” (111). Griscom even says that “On some octave, on some level, homosexuality has to do with a spiritual understanding that can be very advanced” (112).
Thanks, but no thanks. Though Griscom may have made the happy discovery that by adopting this stance she can make money off of self-accepting gays, she makes it clear with this “example from a past-life session” that she doesn’t know a damned thing about male homosexuality:
A being from the planet Saturn volunteered to participate on a mission to Planet Earth to help seed a more advanced civilization. On Saturn, sexual procreative activity never includes penetration on physical levels, but instead is produced by mutual thought-form. For the purpose of this mission to Earth, the being exchanged an androgynous body for a male body in order to impregnate the Earth beings with the proposed genetic coding. The horror of actual penetration of another being was so intense for the Saturnian that he joined a homosexual group rather than continue the sexual practices predominant on Earth. Communion with like kind was more tolerable than participating in an unthinkable, interpersonal affront from the perspective of the Saturnian culture at that time … [102].
Oh sure, there have been sexually active gay men who have gone through their whole lives without penetrating or being penetrated by another man’s body. But it’s just a tiny bit naïve to assume, as Griscom clearly does, that “communion with like kind” necessarily excludes such penetration. (It’s also naïve to understand homosexuality simplistically as “communion with like kind.”) Still, naiveté is no crime, and neither is Griscom’s enthusiastic embrace of every quasi-spiritual fad of the past fifty years, from Edgar Cayce to acupuncture (for accessing past lives!) to fantasies about the intelligence of whales to Hindu versions of Oral Roberts (“There’s a great guru in India named Sai Baba who manifests ashes and jewels and whatever” [31]). Whether someone this dumb should be taking money to play with other people’s heads, however, is a fair question. Maybe she makes some of them feel better for a while; quacks often do. And if psychiatrists and their ilk (whose track record is bad enough) are allowed to fatten on the miseries of others, why not Chris Griscom? No reason I can see.
But Chris Griscom’s ideas are not just ignorant and silly; they are also contemptible. She begins the book by telling how, as a Peace Corps volunteer during the 1960s, she witnessed the death of a little girl in a village in El Salvador. Her first reaction was anger: “Where was justice? How could God show such cruelty to an innocent child?” But that first reaction seems to have been followed by thoughts of her own fate: “Nothing made sense or had any value if cruel death was our only certain future” (2). Gradually, she says, she learned that she witnessed this and other deaths because “God just wanted to test me on my capacity to surrender blame – the projection of injustice”, and “Compassion became a flood coursing through my being” (3). And now she realizes: “That tiny child gave up her life and freed me … she picked that moment in my arms for me” (6).
There’s a sort of sequel to this story. Flying back to the U.S. some years later, “I should have been feeling a sense of elation, but instead I felt heavy and lifeless. … I began to look at my fellow passengers. Ill health, depression, cancer, addictions were oozing out of the auric fields of almost everyone. … These were the living dead! … As I passed up and down the aisles, no one raised his or her eyes to meet mine” (65f). But just as all seemed lost, Griscom noticed a blond blue-eyed little girl of about six: “We talked to each other with our eyes. I felt such recognition from her, such profound compassion. I knew I was in the presence of a teacher, a very wise soul, a loving friend” (66). Perhaps I am overly cynical, but it isn’t it interesting that although the death of a child is nothing to get excited about, Chris Griscom’s anxiety attacks get fast fast fast relief from the universe? Indeed, it turns out that everything that happens is just God’s audiovisual aids for Chris Griscom’s spiritual training. And for yours, too: “You’re not accidentally reading this book” (6).
And the lesson God wants us to learn? Simple: “There are no victims” (37, emphasis in original).
Sympathy is something that’s very important to understand. In our society, we are trained to be “sympathetic.” But, it’s the most destructive thing you can do for an emotional body. Feel this difference. When somebody’s ill or has had something happen, and you say, “This is awful; that should not have happened to you,” what you’re doing is triggering that person’s emotional body’s crystallization of itself, of the view from itself: “Yes, I’m the victim, and I deserve to be in this spot” [57].
Whoa! Maybe viewing oneself as a victim is unhealthy, but by definition a victim does not deserve to be in that spot. It’s Griscom who says that victims deserve their plight, since she holds that they have chosen it. Not only that, they have chosen their victimizers:
If they are now the victim, then they have been the victimizer of that same soul before. Beyond that linear balancing is the balancing of the scales. You do it to me, and I’ll do it to you, and we’ll keep this going forever and ever. … Nobody else is going to dirty their hands on an idea you have about some punishment that you think you deserve. No other soul will do it for you. Your enemy will not kill you, I promise you [!]. Your enemy is moving into the light and will not move backwards into evil or darkness for you. It takes a profound love to say, “Do you really feel that you can learn by being abused by me?” [37]
If this is spiritual wisdom, I’d rather be a fool. But I say it’s spinach, and I say the hell with it. Nowhere in Ecstasy Is a New Frequency – and I struggled through all of it – could I detect any real intelligence or compassion, or any reason for this book to exist. What I did find was considerable stupidity, sentimentality, callousness, and Chris Griscom loving the sound of her own voice. Translated into more concrete terms, what Griscom is saying is that, say, a nine-year-old Nicaraguan girl who is gang-raped and then disemboweled by a Contra brigade is not a victim; that in a previous life she tortured them; that they butcher her out of a profound love in order to further her spiritual development. Think I’m being unfair? That Griscom doesn’t really have such things in mind? Wrong. She does.
Perhaps the soul says, “You need to understand permission, so go in and kill a few people, and you will begin to understand the cosmic law of permission.” We go in and get the sword … but what happens is we are so imprinted by the experience of it – the intense imprint of pain and torture – that we don’t release it. We don’t let it go. We hold it in the seat of our emotional body, and then we pass judgment on ourselves. We forget that our soul is saying, “There is no good and evil. There are no victims. You are just experiencing this so that you understand permission, so that you understand cosmic law.” Instead, we imprint the guilt, fear, and anger [15].
Christianity has similar ideas in its repertoire. On one hand, there’s Original Sin: you’re an abominable sinner, and the most terrible suffering is too good for you. On the other hand, there’s Heaven: no matter how much you suffer now, when you view it from a cosmic perspective in the afterlife you’ll see that it was necessary to make you a better person. The jargon is different, but God is still saying: This hurts me more than it does you, you brought it on yourself, and someday you’ll thank me for it.
So let’s talk about AIDS. Griscom says that “part of the new understanding is that limiting sexual expression only to the lower chakras without access to our spiritual, heart chakra (especially with multiple partners) invites disease. Through our addiction to immediate gratification, we have been avoiding this teaching for eons. Witness syphilis, gonorrhea, herpes, chlamydia, AIDS!” (76f). Nonsense. You can catch STDs as easily from an infected lover as from a trick. And what, pray tell, is the moral significance of AIDS transmission through blood transfusions? Or of an air-vectored disease like influenza, which killed millions of people in the great epidemics of this century? Under the pseudo-yogic jargon, Griscom’s sentiments are those of the Moral Majority. “However, in terms of evolutionary leaps of consciousness, AIDS is a perfect healing tool. … When we have mastered the mystery of death, we will be able to participate in the divine plan of the universe. We are ready!” (77). But don’t get your hopes up – “In truth, we are not yet in the era of healing” (ibid.). I’m reminded of the time I saw Pat Robertson suggesting on the 700 Club that, just maybe, no promises, we’d see God healing cases of AIDS: those who cynically hold out false hope to the desperate are the scum of the earth, whether they do it in the name of Jesus or a New Age.
Which brings me to Toby Johnson’s Plague, the second novel I’ve read this year which postulates that AIDS is a CIA germ-warfare plot. That’s two too many. In Plague, which is set in “the possible near future”, a young woman working for a right-wing Washington D.C. think-tank stumbles onto evidence of CIA responsibility for the creation of the AIDS virus, and for the existence of an “antidote” to its effects. Her fiancé, a former computer hacker who had in adolescence been the lover of a man who later died of AIDS, breaks into the think-tank’s files to recover the information. They pass this dossier to a gay psychiatrist from San Francisco who counsels PWAs and is exploring philosophies of “attitudinal healing”; the psychiatrist is on the East Coast to appear on the Donohue show, where he argues that it isn’t surprising that AIDS, which is “a condition of vulnerability … would show up among gay men, or for that matter, that it would show up at this time in history when we’re all feeling so vulnerable because of things like toxic waste and pollution and, of course, nuclear war” (132). While trying to confront the man responsible for the concealment of the CIA project, the psychiatrist has a mystical experience in which God tells him that he must forgive, and so he does. In an epilogue we learn that the psychiatrist, the ex-hacker and his fiancée have founded the Twin Peaks Center for Attitudinal healing; that a sort of vaccine has been developed; and that the bad guy has died in a plane crash. Everyone is forgiven, and it’s the best of all possible worlds.
Suppose for a moment that someone managed to prove that the CIA was behind AIDS; what then? Those responsible would never be brought to justice, of course; nor would the CIA itself be dismantled. The dead would not come back to life, the sick would not rise from their beds, bigots would not have a change of heart. If it’s true, I want to know it, but so far no one has shown that we do know it. And when a lot of people cling so desperately to a fantasy, it’s legitimate to ask why that fantasy is so attractive to them. Could it be that they cannot face the thought that no one is to blame for AIDS? That there has to be a human villain to give the disease meaning?
For antihomosexual bigots, AIDS had a ready-made meaning. They had been yearing all along for something in this life to correlate with the damnation they promised us in the next, and with the loathing they felt for us for reasons of their own. Suicide was cited as a punishment we allegedly inflicted on ourselves, but it had a way of backfiring, since people might legitimately ask why so many gay people found life so unbearable that they tried to end it; our promiscuity was noted, but the idea of having many sex partners is downright attractive to most people on some level, so it didn’t work too well either. So when gay men began dying of a mysterious and terrible new disease, the bigots were overjoyed at having been vindicated – and, of course, at seeing us die.
AIDS threw us once again on the defensive when we were still battling accusations of child recruitment / molestation. But this time it wasn’t just a lie: we were, indeed, dying. So we panicked, looking for our own scapegoats. The ‘excessively’ promiscuous were blamed for their own deaths; some gay men who had denounced others’ lifestyles with the fury of a Falwell found themselves vindicated too, and despite the service they rendered their dying brothers could not help exuding a certain satisfaction. Cautious warnings to avoid exchange of body fluids were denounced as anti-sexual propaganda, though the suggestions were reasonable enough. Early on someone suggested that the whole thing was a CIA plot, and although no real evidence has surfaced that I know of, the notion caught on. Although it did not save one person’s life, people seemed to feel better having someone to blame, denounce, revile. And one mark of the absurdity of the fantasy was the accompanying daydream: the CIA had, locked away somewhere, an antidote, a cure. After all, they had made it, so surely they could make it go away. Right? Wrong.
The strange thing about Plague is that it offers three separate explanations for AIDS, of which the CIA connection is only one. The second is that the bigots created AIDS with their hatred. The third is that gay men did it to ourselves, our shame and guilt over being gay made us sick. It’s bad enough having to live in a world where we are the object of nearly universal loathing by people whose morals make a barracuda look like Mother Teresa. But when gay people spew out this kind of stupidity and then expect to be congratulated because they are spiritually enlightened enough to understand these strange paradoxes and you aren’t – well, then I begin to suspect that there is no hope for the human race. But that suspicion isn’t going to keep me from publicly denouncing this kind of ‘spiritual teaching’ for the mushbrained swill that it is.
There is a vital difference between saying that the bigots wanted us to die, were glad to see us die – and saying that they made us sick with the vibrations of their hatred. There is a vital difference between saying that a PWA’s mental and emotional attitude is essential in fighting the disease, and saying that he or she got sick because of a bad attitude. People who say that they are ‘into spirituality’ often accuse me of being to literal-minded in dealing with their fatuous paradoxes and platitudes; but usually it is they who are taking metaphorical and mythical statements literally, and I sometimes suspect that this mistake constitutes the core of spirituality.
Now, HIV may not be the actual or sole cause of AIDS. But the hemophiliacs, surgical patients, and babies of IV drug users who got AIDS didn’t get it from guilt or other people’s ill-will: there was some biological, medical, material cause as contemptuous of human volition as an earthquake. Similarly, it may be that New Age and other ‘attitudinal’ therapies have something valid to contribute to the treatment not only of AIDS but of many diseases – but their practitioners must not be allowed to defend stupid and hateful theories about those therapies with anti-rationalist obfuscations. Reason, like any tool developed by human beings, certainly has its limits, but they are not the limits these retrograde geeks recognize.
The author claims in a prefatory note that that his novel’s “teachings about attitudinal healing are accurate.” In what sense does he mean “accurate”? Does he mean that Plague accurately represents the teachings of attitudinal healers? (I hope Johnson is better informed on attitudinal healing than he is on the teachings of Jesus. Plague contains many pages of embarrassingly shallow and ill-informed ‘spiritual’ dialogues, which present a picture of Jesus as one-sided and misleading in its own way as any televangelist’s.) Or does he claim that their teachings are as effective as the novel shows them to be? One character in Plague says that he cured himself of AIDS by techniques he learned from A Course in Miracles. Maybe this is possible. But before I will concede that it happens, I want to know:
a) that people who’ve used such methods really have recovered from AIDS;
b) that they remain healthy to this day;
c) that more people who’ve used such methods experience such remissions than people who’ve undergone standard medical therapy, or no therapy at all.
It should be easy enough to document such facts, if they are facts. Until I see some kind of documentation, I will continue to equate attitudinal healing with faith healing, and to consider its claims at best disingenuous and at worst fraudulent. (And by documentation, I mean results of clinical tests to prove the diagnosis in the first place. In other words, if someone ‘knows’ that the bout of flu he had last November was really pneumocystis, and that he ‘cured’ himself by applying the techniques in A Course in Miracles, he doesn’t qualify.) Unless Toby Johnson can point to real cures, then he is not only guilty of having contributed to the needless death of many trees by writing a lousy novel, but also of trying to send PWAs and PWARCs off on one more wild-goose chase after a worthless treatment. In which case he can put on his dunce cap and go sit in the corner with Pat (“I see a Presidential campaign! That campaign is healed!”) Robertson.
Personally, I’m tired of hearing believers in various kinds of spirituality sneering at atheists like me as humorless, literal-minded killjoys who want to reduce the mystery and beauty of the universe to a mindless, soulless machine. As far as I can see, it is the believers who hate mystery: they have to an explanation for everything, and their explanations have all the poetry and beauty of the Los Angeles phone directory. They spit on the loveliness of the human body because it isn’t eternal – when it is beautiful precisely because it isn’t eternal. They despise the material world because they can’t see the soul in it. And their attempts to find an underlying justice in the tragic fragility and brevity of life end up reading like operating manuals for a concentration camp.
Surely we can do better than this. Surely it must be possible to have a spirituality which recognizes that, though on a cosmic scale our lives have no significance, it is the human scale which really matters to us. We have to fuse the personal and the political, the cosmic and the microcosmic, the poetic and the scientific. I’d like to think that the trouble doesn’t lie in the spiritual quest itself, but rather in the way it’s usually conducted. ‘Spiritual”-minded friends have often accused me of excessive skepticism and cynicism; to them I reply that until skepticism and even cynicism are recognized as cardinal spiritual virtues, spirituality will continue to be the domains of fools and frauds. I wouldn’t be cynical if I thought we couldn’t do better.