The Satanic Ritual Abuse (or SRA) conspiracy fad of the 1980s may have torn apart families, destroyed the lives of innumerable innocent people and set the credibility of clinical psychology back at least 50 years — but for fans of sleazy, poorly researched, exploitative true-crime books, it was a godsend. While cognoscenti hold a special place in their hearts for such early fabrications as Michelle Remembers and The Satan Seller, the pièce de résistance of the genre was Maury Terry’s enthralling 640-page bestseller,The Ultimate Evil, which attributed the Manson, Zodiac and Son of Sam murders to a global satanic underground masterminded by a sinister cult known as the Process Church of the Final Judgment, led by the shadowy and charismatic Robert de Grimston, who had disappeared from public view in the early ’70s.
The only problem was that, by the time Terry’s 1987 magnum opus briefly rekindled the flames of the dwindling SRA media frenzy, de Grimston had reverted to his birth name of Robert Moor and was working an office day job on Staten Island, while the Process Church itself — from which he’d long been excommunicated — had morphed into the Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in Kanab, Utah, the largest no-kill animal shelter in America. Somewhere between these mundane and sensationalist extremes lay the truth about the Process Church and its role in the cultural upheavals of the ’60s, but reliable accounts were fragmentary and scattered.
Enter Adam Parfrey and Genesis P. Orridge. Originally teaming up to issue a facsimile collection of Process’s strikingly designed apocalyptically charged magazines (which remain highly sought-after collectors’ items), Feral House publisher Parfrey and Throbbing Gristle/Temple of Psychic Youth founder Orridge quickly realized that a number of Process insiders were prepared to go on the record about their years with the controversial sect. The result is Love Sex Fear Death: The Inside Story of the Process Church of the Final Judgment, titled after, and reproducing some pages from the group’s glossy underground zine — but dominated by 120 pages of autobiographical reminiscences by Timothy Wyllie, a.k.a. Father Micah, a.k.a. Mithra, a.k.a. Father Jesse, one of the original inner circle who founded the group in London in the early ’60s.
Wyllie was friends with former public-school boy and British army officer de Grimston (then Moor) at architecture school but had lost contact for a couple of years when, in 1963, he got a call out of the blue. De Grimston and his new wife, Mary Ann, had decided to leave Scientology and create their own program of psychological and spiritual development, based on the use of an e-meter and self-examination in an intensive interview scenario. In the course of his reminiscences, Wyllie reveals what has been rumored for some time — that de Grimston was more or less a dummy figurehead for the megalomaniacal schemings of Mary Ann.
Mary Ann MacLean’s childhood was defined by poverty and neglect in Glasgow, before she became a high-end prostitute in London, supposedly hooking up with Sugar Ray Robinson for a time, before she recognized that her particular talents could be put to more lucrative effect in other areas. As the de Grimstons’ “compulsions analysis” sessions attracted more and more disaffected protohippie types, the group had remarkable spiritual experiences, and began suspecting that they were not only on the cutting edge of experiential psychological research but were also in fact a chosen spiritual elite ordained to herald the endtimes.
According to Terry and his ilk, what followed was a rapidly expanding, systematic program of ritual sacrifice and atonal music, designed to precipitate the apocalypse through the summoning of a Celtic death god named Samhain. Wyllie’s account is somewhat more prosaic and farcical, following the Process Church’s random global peregrinations, incoherent channeled theology (which gave equal billing to Satan, Lucifer, Christ and Jehovah) and increasingly totalitarian bureaucratic hierarchy from the point of view of an overworked acolyte, de Grimston, who believed he was being guided along a path of spiritual evolution by an incarnate goddess, or at least a secret Sufi master.
While there are plenty of juicy bits — your flagellation, your sex orgies, your celebrity cameos (yelled at by Klaus Kinski and Miles Davis! Who’da thunk?) — most of the anecdotes in Love Sex Fear Death (abetted by numerous shorter memories and period documents) are sordid in a less titillating sense, a gradual unraveling of a seemingly sincere moment of collective inspiration into all-too-familiar routines of coercion and greed, charting Wyllie’s inevitable disillusionment with and departure from the New Religion he had helped to invent and define. It is an unglamorous saga of indentured panhandling, Dumpster-diving, child neglect, public-access proselytizing, and Heathers-level Machiavellianism — detailing the insidious banality of evil more convincingly than Process theology or Maury Terry ever could.
De Grimston was forced out by Mary Ann in 1974, and after unsuccessfully trying to start a Process revival, gave up and got a real job. Mary Ann kept revising and renaming the group, gradually removing all references to Satan and Lucifer before realizing that it was easier to persuade the rubes to part with their hard-earned jack for the protection of poor little defenseless animals than to facilitate the immanentization of the eschaton. Ultra-ironically, Wyllie recounts a rumor that her death in 2005 was the result of an attack by feral dogs that had broken out of their “sanctuary.” Who says Jehovah doesn’t have a sense of humor?