Content Warning: Emotional and physical abuse, gaslighting, financial abuse, mention of kink abuse
I’ve been reading a lot of blog posts in the wake of Moira Greyland publishing her book about her life and the accusations she made against Isaac Bonewits. You’ve got the usual spread of folks who don’t believe it, folks who do, and folks who are somewhere in between. There are also getting writings about what leaders and groups should do about harassment, and about preventing these types of things from happening.
This isn’t about what folks should or shouldn’t do. You need to follow your own moral compass in that regard. This post is my #metoo post about a cultist, abusive pagan leader and how he flourished in the East Coast pagan community for a time, and what I did after when I started my own tradition. It’ll be 20 years at Yule since I first stepped into that coven, and in all that time, I’ve never really named names, especially, for a long time, I was afraid of my ex-coven leader. These days, I look back on a lot of that time with a mixture of sadness, regret, and sometimes joy. Not everything was horrible, but the bad things outweighed the good.
I did write a good deal of the details about what happened with my first coven on LiveJournal when I first moved out to California in 2005. The posts are still on my Dreamwidth journal, or you can read the whole thing via Google Docs here. I must admit, it was strange reading those posts again, especially since I’m in a very different, and much stronger space.
It was several years before I stopped jumping at red jeeps (because he had a red jeep) and large, bald, mustached men. And I didn’t necessarily feel completely safe from him in California, either, since I knew he had lived in the Bay Area before and could have come to visit. Even in my writings about what happened with my first coven, I even avoided using his name because I was afraid of him coming after me, magickally or legally.
But, #timesup. And it’s time that we named this for what it is: abuse, harassment, and cult behaviour.
Micheal Desplaines owned Tribalways Body Piercing and Tattoo in Boston, MA. Attached to that was a pagan shop called Spiritways. They were located on Massachusetts Ave at the beginning of Newbury Street. Micheal was a nurse as well, but quit nursing to do body piercing (to be fair, he had one of the best body piercing shops in the country). He ran a coven called the Earth’s Children coven, which I joined in 1998 and left, under duress, in 2003.
Micheal was charming to those who weren’t close to him, and emotionally abusive to those of us who did get close. I also think he was physically abusive (under the guise of kink) to his husband at the time, Stephen, but I don’t know it for sure. Micheal claimed that our coven was part of the Feri tradition (with lineage via Starhawk), but in doing some research later, I found that this wasn’t true. In fact, all of the rituals, especially the initiations, where straight out of Alexandrian and the Witches’ Bible. We did, as a group, interact with folks from some other east coast groups, such as Earth Spirit and Pagan Pride Day. However, what they knew of his abusive and cult-like ways, I don’t know.
If you were in his coven, especially if you were an initiate, it was expected that you were there for every full moon and holiday, regardless of your own plans. He basically told us that he expected us there unless we were in the hospital. You had to do what he said or else he would because he was The Crone. If you messed up, at minimum you’d get yelled at, in the worst case, you’d be kicked out. You also had to keep everything that we did a secret, nor could you work with any other group or tradition (well, you could, but only with Micheal’s permission, which he never gave).
I witnessed him kick out a straight man just because he was straight. I received a “black circle” because I challenged him about behavior. I witnessed him and his family members dealing and using illegal drugs like cocaine. His husband came to me several times saying that he was going to leave him and that he was worse when the rest of us weren’t around. When I lived with him, I was treated as an idiot, gaslit, told I was a bad priest, and treated as a servant to his whims. He insisted that I was strictly a lesbian, and tried to convince me that I was delusional about my identity. He never touched me sexually, but I have a good suspicion that he was sexually abusive to his husband..
I was witness to a lot of things that I didn’t know what to do about at the time, but which I still regret not speaking up about. But like many other folks in this situation, I didn’t do anything because I was scared of him and scared of losing the community I had in the coven.
In 2003, I made the mistake of agreeing to move in with him and his husband. During those six months, he tried to separate me from family and friends by suggesting that they would never understand me, or that they were being bigoted about me being a witch. I got to a point where I lost my own identity because it was subsumed by Micheal’s assumptions and ideas about what my identity should be.
And as I wrote in my earlier description, the Goddess gave me a choice: I could stay and die or leave and live. I chose to leave. He tried to extort money from me after I left them. I had to get a lawyer to get Micheal to stop harassing me and demanding I still pay rent and utilities to them after moving out. I moved to a nearby town, and since I was still close enough to run into them on the street, I spent nearly a year in near seclusion when I wasn’t working. Because of all of the drama with Micheal, I eventually got fired in November 2004.
In early 2004 I had reconnected with my friend Patrick, and when I got fired in 2004, he convinced me to move to California. I took him up on that, and he came on the road trip with me to Oakland. When I got to the Bay Area it took me nearly 5 years (2009) before I felt up to doing anything publicly as a priest again. It took another year of work, and the help of my now wife, to undo the magickal ties that I had to that coven. When my wife and I started our own tradition and coven, there were several things we new that were important to establish at the beginning so that we didn’t end up like my first coven. Many of those ideas ended up reflected in our tradition’s founding principles:
- Our degree structure is based on Sanders’ original version as reported in Farrar, What Witches Do, and Farrar & Farrar, A Witches Bible, with some clarifications and modernization.
- It is a fundamental founding principle of our line that magickal polarity is unrelated to gender. Our rituals are not gender specific, nor are separate roles ascribed to a High Priest or High Priestess. People of any and all genders, and none, are welcome.
- We regard sexual preference as entirely irrelevant to one’s ability to practice magick.
- We have no secrets. All of our rituals, where practical, are published for the benefit of all, regardless of their initiatory degree or lack thereof. We have no oathbound material.
- We honour all gods, and no gods. There are no gods that are specific to our line, nor do we preclude working with gods, spirits, angels or daemons from any other tradition.
- We do not, and shall never, charge for teaching or initiation.
- We have no founding myths. The material stands on its own merits, and requires no invented justification or falsified lineage.
- We practice open-source syncretism. Though we have utmost respect for others’ privacy and for the integrity of all systems of magick and religion, we operate on the principle that, if a technique is openly described, it works, and it serves our purpose, we reserve the right to use it and, if we so choose, to teach it.
- We do not use a prescribed Book of Shadows. All rituals are our rituals. All gods are our gods.
We have never tolerated harassment in our coven, and we have tried our best to be as open as possible about our decision making. We try to use consensus as much as possible, too. We consider that having no secrets and having our rituals, especially our initiations, is our way of doing informed consent. We will also modify rituals to the needs of coven members, especially if there is any for of PTSD around a particular element of the ritual.
I have strived to not be like Micheal. In fact, he is the model I use for what NOT to do in a coven, and I’m glad that there are people in my life who won’t let me go down that road. I absolutely know that I haven’t gotten it right all the time. I know I’ve screwed up more times than I can count. I’ve had to make decisions as a leader that I wish I hadn’t had to make which skirted that line. I know that our coven isn’t perfect, but we strive to do the best I can, and to be as inclusive as we can.
The worst part of being in the coven with Micheal was that, for all that he was horrible and abusive, he also knew a great deal, which taught me a lot of good things about being a witch. He taught me a lot of Craft skills and ritual that I still use (even though it took me awhile to be able to reclaim them as my own). In some ways, this makes me pity him more than hate him, since he was on the way to becoming a lonely, bitter old man. He could have been a good teacher, but wasn’t.
I don’t know where he is now, and frankly, I don’t much care to see him again. Last I had heard, his husband had left him and he had moved to Connecticut, and then to Maine. He’s disappeared from public pagan life. I’m actually kind of relieved by that, because I hope that he’s not abusing another coven full of people the same way he did ours.
One final thing: If you were in that coven with me between 1998 and 2003, I’m sorry if I didn’t stick up for you or didn’t believe you. I regret that, but to be honest, I’m happy for those of you who left quickly, and I hope that you found a better spiritual teacher. And if Tracy ever reads this: you were right about him and for getting out when you did.
The pagan community tends to see itself as “better than those horrible Christians [or other mainstream religion]” but, to be frank, we’re not. We have our abusers, harassers, cultists, fundamentalists, bigots, racists, and so on. While I totally agree that we need to fix our attitudes towards harassment, I also think we need to let go of the idea that paganism is somehow more enlightened than any other set of religions out there. We’re human. There is no “better than” just “different from.” The more that a sense of entitlement and superiority is asserted, the more evil that can be hidden behind that superiority. #timesup for us, too, and we need to get our shit together.