Today, I Name Names about the First Coven I was in. #timesup #metoo

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 hereI 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.

Hanging out in Malkuth and other Witchy Things

Hello again.

I know it’s been awhile, but settling in here in Chicago has taken some time. I’ve also been doing a lot of discernment and thinking about where my ministry is going, which is, as those of us who are clergy know, an ongoing process.

Lately I’ve been working on an initiation series based on the magickal Kabblah, and recently wrote the first of the initiations, which is based in Malkuth.

And apparently, I’m also there until I start writing the next one. (This is where all the witches say “duh!”)

What’s been interesting about this, though, is that being in this sphere has made me really look at this plane of existence and just how much we really do live here. Or, at least, how much I can really live in the here and now.

How do I explain this?

There are times where I can see and feel everything: all the sorrows, all the joys, all the fear, anger, happiness. The present, past, future. It’s as if it’s all laid out in front of me in a long line, or like a film reel. Sometimes it’s all of the possibilities, too. All of the futures, all of the pasts. So my spiritual practice allows me to be here, in the present. In my present.

Then, sometimes, I become too “stuck” in the here and now, especially is something emotionally bad is happening, and can’t see beyond where I am.

I know that clinically, this is my anxiety and depression, but there is a magickal component to this, too. Being stuck magickally generates a lot of the same symptoms.

So, being stuck in Malkuth isn’t a great thing for me, even being the Earth Girl that I am. Working on it, though…

***

The other night I was talking with the wife about the latest pagan blogosphere things. The first being that paganism is dying (not really true), theist pagans telling atheist pagans that they can’t be pagan (totally not true), and people getting it in their heads that all paganism has to be Earth Centered Spiritually (not always true).

Here’s the big point: “Paganism” is an umbrella term that is a really really REALLY big umbrella. It’s not really dying, it’s just changing, especially away from excessive dogmatic paganism, or any paganism that is exclusionary in its practice. I know I’m pretty tired of the witchcraft/paganism that is of the “I’m a real witch/wiccan/pagan and you’re not!” variety.

Seriously, it’s 2017. It’s time folks got over themselves about that kind of crap. Yes, an atheist can be a pagan. Yes, someone who’s Christian can also have a magickal practice. Yes, someone can be pagan without being Earth Centered.

If someone says they’re pagan, then they’re pagan, whether they have a lineage, or a teacher, or are just reading from books. This is true for any religion, regardless of what I, you, or other practitioners, think.

Some folks don’t consider me a “proper” or “real” pagan because I practice both Wicca and Christianity. So what? These days, the wife and I think of ourselves as sorcerers more than “Earth Based Spirituality” because we focus a lot more on magick and magickal systems. It’s not that we don’t care about the Earth, or honor the Earth’s turning, etc., it’s just not our primary focus. And if it is someone else’s primary focus? That’s all good. We need witches and pagans who have that as their focus. Again, so what?

Seriously, people need to stop expecting that all paganism should look and practice like theirs. That way lies the very thing many pagans say they are running from when they talk about Fundamentalist/Evangelical Christianity (or other oppressive religious traditions). Just like those traditions, specific pagan traditions don’t corner the market on truth and enlightenment.

(And IMNSHO, if your social justice demands that I have to do my spirituality a particular way, then your social justice isn’t very inclusive, is it?)

Dancing in the Dark

I was reading an anthology about people’s experiences with Ereshkigal the other day, and I realized that I must be kind of weird when it comes to the “dark” Goddesses. Ereshkigal is new as a patron, but I’ve worked with Her before. I’ve also worked with Hecate, the Morrigan, Cerridwen, Lilith, Kali, and several other of this class of deity, and while I have a healthy respect for Them and what They can do, I don’t fear them. Most of the anthology had people talking about how “scary” Ereshkigal is. Other adjectives were terrifying, hard, cold, angry, etc.

It may be weird, but when I work with Them, Their realms feel comfortable to me. Binah on the tree of life feels more like a sanctuary when we do work there than an echoing emptiness. Sure, Ereshkigal may be cold and stern, and even angry at times, but Her cuttings are purposeful. She can be comforting, but doesn’t coddle you when you’re not doing what you should be doing. Same thing with Hecate. She’ll be honest with you while you’re standing at the crossroads, making sure you know the gains and consequences of each road, but She’ll gladly dance with you and cheer you on once the decision is made. As hard as the Morrigan is, she also shows the ultimate compassion and mourns the waste that war can bring.

My wife says that it’s just who I am and how my particular calling manifests (I do work with the dying). I know that there are many folks who don’t work with these deities, and sometimes what you don’t know about can be scary. For me, these deities aren’t scary, they’re beautiful.

I will say, though, my heavy metal playlist is getting a good workout these days while I’m getting to know Ereshikigal…

Last Week of Lent: Social Justice Work Comes At A Cost (Paganism, Christianity, and Me)

I want to be able to say something profound here about my working, but I just can’t. At least, not in any way that’ll make sense to people other than myself. Most of what I’ve learned this week is that I shouldn’t read any social media until after I’ve done my morning prayers, had breakfast, and done my writing for the day. I’m writing about social justice, and reading other people’s social justice stuff, or about the election, before I get into my own work makes things difficult. My wife says “Social justice work comes at a cost.” and that’s quite true.

In my meditations, Jesus keeps telling me that even He had to go find solitude while do His public work. Gethsemane, the desert, and many other times He would go alone somewhere to pray. I think that’s one of the biggest lessons from Him: that quiet prayer time isn’t a bad thing to schedule into the day. Or, rather, schedule my day around the prayer time. Public work is hard, especially when you feel like you’re banging your head against the wall.

Speaking of that, one thing this week I commented on (yes, yes, I shouldn’t have bothered, but I was feeling ornery), was a post on Patheos where Gwion Raven was ranting about his identity as a pagan. Mostly about what it is, what it isn’t, and what he didn’t like about Christianity. This isn’t anything new, really, and when I challenged him on his wording, there was a “oh, well, I didn’t mean it that way” kind of response.

Gwion made it pretty clear that he wants anarchy for paganism. But here’s the thing: that’s fine for your tradition. That’s what works for you. You don’t want institutions or churches? Ok, then don’t build any. No one’s forcing you to build any or go to any. Just like no one’s forcing you to accept Christian lore or ritual in your practices.

My problem isn’t really with any of that. My problem is with the unspoken assumption that multi-faith pagans, especially those who are Christo-pagan, are somehow less than “real” pagans. I get it. I get that you don’t want to look like Christians, act like Christians, or have anything to do with Christian ritual. (Although I think that’s tough to do, given that any Gardnerian based tradition, which is the model for most witchcraft in the US and parts of Europe, has Judeo-Christian roots. I’d say that it’s a bit too late to be complaining about that. Doubly so if you’re in a Golden Dawn tradition. But I digress.) Again, that’s fine…for you.

But don’t insinuate that Christo-pagans are “fence sitters,” or delusional, or are only Christo-pagans because they don’t want to be “fully pagan.” While being neopagan and Christian is somewhat relatively new, traditions that combine magick and Christianity are not. And, really, many of those are seriously bad-ass magickal traditions in their own right. I wouldn’t want to tell a practitioner of one those traditions that they are somehow “doing it wrong.” Never mind the Euro-centrism of denying mystical Christian traditions.

Again we have a case of someone saying “All pagans should do X.” or “A proper/real pagan is…” I know the pagan community is full of humans doing stupid human tricks, but for once, I’d really be happy if people would really take a good look at and think about what they’re saying.

These lines are familiar aren’t they? Here, let me spell it out for you: “All Christians should do X.” and “A proper/real Christian is….”

Or what about: “You aren’t really bisexual, you’re either gay or your straight.”

Or: “It’s just a phase. You’ll get over it eventually.”

*sigh*

Yeah, we’ve been down this path before. Many people became pagans to run away from this type of thinking, and yet, here we are. Saying the same things that we came to paganism to avoid.

Why people don’t seem to see that they are guilty of this, no matter what progressive community they’re in (since this happens in any movement), while they loudly proclaim that they aren’t being exclusionary, boggles the mind. It’s as if the people they are railing against are the “them” and not really humans!

Oh, wait…

WIP snippet “What is most feared: Church burn and the Neo-Pagan”

This is an excerpt from the book I’m writing on radical inclusion for the pagan community. Given some of the posts I’ve seen floating around recently, I thought I’d post this here. (I’m hoping that I’ll finish this book in time for Pcon next year.) Also note, that this is from very much a first draft…

“Before we can dig deeper into questions of inclusion, we need to understand how people convert to paganism. Most people who are in the pagan community are converts, or people who have come from a different religions or atheism into paganism. This creates a challenge to paganism as a whole because much of the outer work that groups have done have been reactionary to mainstream religion, and Christianity in particular. As Yoda says: “Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”

What I see a lot in the Pagan community as a whole is a strong backlash against anything remotely Christian. It’s really not surprising, especially since a lot of new pagans come from Christian backgrounds where they have experienced significant “church burn.” Church burn is a concept that I learned from Bishop Yvette Flunder, and it is the result of abuse caused in a church or spiritual environment. This definition is used particularly in reference to Christianity, and is what will make up the bulk of this chapter, but it’s important to realize that “church burn” isn’t exclusive to Christianity. In fact, when talking to most people who are involved in coven-based traditions, you’ll inevitably have the conversation about coven explosions and most people in the room will roll their eyes and nod in understanding. These explosions can be just as damaging as any of the abuse coming out of Christianity. The difference being that Christianity has more history of it and on a larger scale. In other words: witches, Wiccans, pagans, etc are not immune from their own extremism. We are a group of humans after all.

But back to those who come into witchcraft from Christian traditions. There are a few stages that I think most people go through when finding a new spiritual path that fits their particular needs. The first stage is a honeymoon or zealot stage where one is learning all they can about their newfound religion and is super excited to tell everyone all about it. The second stage is where it becomes incorporated into one’s identity as part of their sense of self and is also incorporated into one’s uniqueness. And third is the integration stage, where the tradition is a part of one’s identity, but they have a more expansive worldview, tending to regard it as one of many aspects of their being. In other words, their sense of self, while strongly influenced by their tradition, is not reliant on their tradition. In my experience, it’s easy for many people to get stuck in the zealot and identity stages for a long time, sometimes never managing to get to a more tolerant and expansive worldview. This, I think, is highly influenced by past religious experience, particularly if one has experienced a great deal of church burn. Also note that these phases aren’t necessarily linear. A person can revisit these stages at any time when new knowledge creates change. There are plenty times in life when a person can find out something new about themselves that they didn’t have words for that can set off the process anew.

In this chapter we’ll look at these phases and how they can be good and detrimental to the individual, the group, and the community as a whole. We’ll also look at some of the hypocrisies that arise in the pagan traditions around these phases that can lead to conflict. Yoda’s words at the beginning of this chapter, while simple, are quite correct. And the suffering that comes from it does more than just harm others, it harms the self.”