27 August 2013


I still have the tapes, a shoebox filled with cassette tapes I was assigned to transcribe. Benjamin Fox recorded all of his talks, the group sitting on the floor in a circle, a few of us cross legged in the lotus position (the better to absorb his teachings), some lying on scattered mismatched cushions from local thrift stores or ‘borrowed’ from our parents’ homes. We’d give each other massages during these sessions, trying not to appear to enjoy the touch-fest too much, as Ben might suddenly pick on one of us, demanding an answer to a trick question related to his lesson. With Ben, you were either in his favor or out. And what each of us wanted most was his approval, to be in his light, his orbit, to be seen by him. The ones he chose to bed seemed to crackle with an electric current when he looked at them, the nipples on their small breasts stiffening, the downy hairs on the back of their necks raised like pin feathers. When he moved on, they folded in on themselves, baby birds, looking younger than they were at 14 or 15. 

You may’ve guessed that I was never one of them. Not in elementary school either, when Rick Rosner, the gym teacher, teased the girls and bought them Cokes from the machine, let them climb onto his lap and gave them rides in his yellow sports car. While I didn’t get spins in the MG, I did get close to Rosner. Discovering I had a talent for making myself indispensable, in later years I became wingman to the facilitator of the eating disorder group I joined (he preferred anorectics over binge eaters), foil to a notoriously narcissistic radio presenter addicted to the way I made him shine, and muse to a monstrously brilliant filmmaker I met while living in Rome. See, I knew things. I knew how to make myself useful. I knew what they liked, and how to get it for them. And I knew how to keep a secret. I was the Court Jew. Sensing I was too smart and not pretty enough, I earned Benjamin’s favor not by handling the group’s finances, as did Jewish bankers in the Middle Ages who wheeled and dealt on behalf of European nobility to gain social privileges, but by becoming necessary in other ways, like by volunteering to type up transcripts of Ben’s metaphysical lectures for a hoped-for book deal. Ben was big on archetypes; familiar with the writings of Joseph Campbell (The Hero with a Thousand Faces), he educated us on Jungian concepts – archetypal figures, the collective unconscious, mythic storytelling, and how we embody and shift archetypes throughout our own stories. Within the group, Court Jew was one of my faces. 

I didn’t know I was in a Cult until I was extracted from it. Before that, I thought I was part of the Mind’s Eye Shakespeare Company, a group of brainy freaks with an interest in acting, bored by high school drama. We met at a workshop given by a local ‘professional’ theater company, and, when offered the chance to form a new, breakaway troupe performing Shakespeare, we jumped. Skipping a grade, being chosen for the school’s ‘Enrichment’ program, participating in plays and musicals, selling light bulbs and greeting cards after school, babysitting for the wife-swappers next door from the age of eleven – none of that was enough to distract me from the hell at home. I had been a fast baby, pushing through my mother’s clenched thighs before the doctor arrived, before my father had spread his check stubs on the waiting room table, hoping to balance his checkbook during labor. Fast babies want out, and Mind’s Eye was my ticket. 

We rehearsed in a rec room in Pilgrim State Hospital, a state-run psychiatric facility on Long Island. When it opened in 1929, it was the biggest nuthouse in the world. Joseph Campbell might have posited, had he been able to observe our band of screwball players at work, that Mind’s Eye had found the perfect space in which to rehearse skewed versions of the Classics, from The Tempest to Ulysses, incorporating the unpredictable but always entertaining improvisations of the inmates. Helen sat in on our run-throughs, a long-term patient, lobotomized at a time when the procedure was considered of such therapeutic value, it garnered its originator António Egas Moniz a share in the 1949 Nobel prize for Physiology. Somehow, a frontal lobe crystal managed to evade the ice pick, because one day Helen sat down at the piano and began playing an endless medley: show tunes, Christmas songs, selections from the Great American Songbook and Tin Pan Alley ditties. She’d invariably end her recitals in the same way: by wrenching off her matted wig, and tossing it high into the air. There must’ve have been one, but I was always too exhilarated to notice a scar. 

Christian was never my boyfriend, though he did anoint my third eye with Tiger Balm, promising me a mystical experience, and showed me his cock, which got hard at a 30 degree angle, a leaning tower of penis. A printer’s son, he was a genius who balked at finishing high school and joining his father in the family business, choosing instead to become a clown. Mind’s Eye was his initiation – clowning was an important part of our training. We practiced juggling, mime, tumbling, and devised clown personae. I was the Court Jew Jester, keeping an eye on the change in the hat, ensuring Ben got the weekend’s face-painting takings. 

From the perspective of 2013’s self aware, self help culture, it’s hard to remember how threatening emerging New Age thinking was in 1975. I credit Mind’s Eye with instilling in me certain beliefs I still live by: you create your own reality, you can heal your own life, and, no matter how fucked up they are, you choose your own parents. Nothing happens by chance; there seems no end to personal responsibility. I became intolerant of illness in others: choose health, choose a cold, choose cancer! The thing about groupthink is how powerful a sway it has – given a choice between in or out, we choose in every time. When my mother, suspicious of how much time I was spending with the group and away from high school, at the mental hospital and Ben’s bungalow instead, she set out to uncover what was really going on, meeting with some of the other kids’ parents, calling on a few local political honchos to look into Mind’s Eye’s residency at Pilgrim State. Ben called an emergency meeting, and I went from Court Jew to Judas, with Ben playing Christ. I was out: thorn, side, extracted. 

The urge to belong, to someone or something, feels primal. Separation anxiety turns to independence to an almost insatiable hunger to merge. When I buy stuff from Cult Beauty, an online mail order house marketing A-list secrets and expert recommendations for the best women’s beauty products, I feel part of a tribe of sisters sipping from the same Grail. From the coffee I drink to the Facebook pages I follow and ‘like’, I am daily renewing my subscription to any number of cults. In The Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell said, “Society has provided [children] no rituals by which they become members of the tribe, of the community. All children need to be twice born, to learn to function rationally in the present world, leaving childhood behind.” 

I didn’t take to Scientology, even after I recognized myself in the list of personality defects detected by their initial survey. I enjoy reading Zen koans more than I respond to the plaintive davening of Rabbinical Kohens, but I am choosy about my cults. I joined the cult of Marriage in 1992; in An Open Life, Joseph Campbell says, “Marriage is an ordeal.  It means yielding time and again.  That’s why it’s a sacrament.” When my best friend joined The Children of the Divine Light, I went to a few meetings to see if I’d radiate with them. I didn’t, and stood by helplessly when, years later, she refused treatment for very treatable breast cancer and died, waiting for the Aliens to come for her, as The Children had promised they would. 

Benjamin is still out there, with or without a book deal, probably following his bliss as Joseph Campbell advised us to. “If you do follow your bliss you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living. Follow your bliss and don’t be afraid, and doors will open where you didn’t know they were going to be.” I may not be a Philatelist, but I know what I lick. If being a follower of the work of the late Joseph Campbell, American mythologist, writer and lecturer is considered cultist, well, count me in. 

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