At Secret Transmissions, The Process Church of the Final Judgement has been a source of endless fascination. The dense intellectual teachings, the groundbreaking publication graphics, the Aquarian-Age hippie look – outfitted in dread inspiring fashions, down to the harsh looking logos and heavy jewelry worn. Processions knew how to make an impression and capitalized on the zeitgeist of interest in all things occult and counterculture during the late '60's and early 70's. When most kids were espousing peace and love, the Process drew spiritual seekers into a communal lifestyle dedicated to preparing for a lost humanities inevitable destruction. Humanity had doomed itself through self-aggrandizement and hidden compulsions, so they taught. But the Process had a solution. They hit the pavement around the world with magazines in hand, offering humanity an EXIT that would led to a rebirth into a new golden age of true peace and freedom. With a seemingly endless Vietnam War, racial strife and a breakaway from the traditions of the past, it's easy to see how that message took such a strong root.
|'EXIT', a key Process text|
|The four equally balanced archetypes of God|
It all started when husband and wife Scientology members, Robert and Mary-Anne de Grimston, unhappy with L. Ron Hubbard's authoritarianism, broke off to further develop their own therapeutic studies. That psychological work soon evolved to incorporate an esoterically challenging, spiritual component that redirected their work. Robert would be the writer and public face of the group's teachings, with Mary-Anne behind the scenes dominating the inner-group dynamics and social hierarchy. Among cult groups, the Process was very unique in both philosophical underpinnings and calculated visual aesthetic. A relatively small group of dedicated followers came together to produce books, magazines, run coffee shops, host public classes, write and perform music and take care of their various chapter houses.
|Hagar and Olivia in the stark gray uniform look (Photo:William Bainbridge)|
What is often overlooked about the Process are the written teachings themselves, which are admittedly, hard to come by. Most casual observers latch onto the use of the Satan archetype and run with trumped-up fantasies of blood and human sacrifice. There are plenty of books and online materials that will theorize that angle to all sorts of unproven ends. Anyone who thoroughly studies Robert's writings, from the 'Logics' onward, will come away with a much different concept of the group's intricate belief structure. While there are plenty of fiery apocalyptic essays of doom and destruction, there are equal passages of spiritual transcendence and love. It's this tension which many curious researchers find so tantalizing.
|Co-Founder, Robert de Grimston|
In 2009, after decades of speculations and hearsay, key original member and group designer, Timothy Wyllie wrote an insiders autobiography titled, 'LOVE SEX FEAR DEATH.' Published by Feral House, this work drew a refreshed interest in the group as well as helping to illuminate exactly what the group practiced, how they lived together and what they believed.
The truth of whether the Process teachings were divinely inspired or not remains a mystery. If they were, it's also clear from Wyllie's accounts that the members of the group, (especially the co-founders themselves) were certainly not without their flaws. After Robert and Mary-Anne's controversial separation in 1974, the group splintered and The Process officially fell off the scene. Mary-Anne died in 2005 and Robert is rumored to be living anonymously somewhere in New Jersey, no longer wanting to add anything more to the story.
It was to the excitement of many fans of the book that a documentary showcasing the men and woman who were actually there came to be. 'Sympathy for the Devil', directed by Neil Edwards is slowly making it's way around the world, screening at festivals and special showcases. The film not only promises to let the members speak for themselves, it also features prominent creative personalities like George Clinton, Gary Lachman, John Waters and Genesis P-Orridge. While I anxiously await the opportunity for a screening in my hometown, Edwards was kind enough to speak with me about his experiences and thoughts about the themes detailed in his film.
What’s your point of entry for a topic like an esoteric, hippie-era cult?
I’ve grown up immersed in 60s culture. I was part of a generation of teenagers and young folk in 80’s/ early 90’s Birmingham that, I think, wished they’d been born in another era. Some flirted with the fashions and the music, but for most my friends it worked its way into our DNA. Not all of us wear the clothes anymore but I’m pretty sure none of us can shake the effect the music, art, culture had on us. I’ve never lost my interest in the era, and I guess if you stay interested in a subject for long enough you’ll eventually stumble into some obscure areas.
Do you naturally gravitate towards dark and mysterious subjects?
I think I gravitate to interesting subjects (although who would ever claim to gravitate to boring stories?) – if they are dark and mysterious then ‘so be it’. But, certainly not exclusively, I like pretty flowers and smiling babies too!
Would you call the making of this documentary a labor of love?
Oh god yes! It’s consumed most of my spare time (of which I don’t have loads as I have a busy day job making straight TV). But I have genuinely loved the ‘process’ of making it and screening the film. Somehow, I suppose because I was so close to it, I’ve ended up doing an awful lot it myself (filming, editing, the soundtrack) and that has made it a fabulous creative outlet and terrific learning experience. Best of all, I’ve met some wonderful people along the way. Not only the film’s subjects (whom I love) but also fabulous festival folk and film fans. So I’ve given it a lot of love and I’ve had a lot of love back in return.
|Filmmaker, Neil Edwards|
The counterculture of the late 60’s seemed to breed a spirit of ultra-provocation against tradition and a bold belief that the youth could change the world with the right set of ideals. The ingredients of rebellion, rock n’ roll, drugs and consciousness expansion laid the perfect groundwork for cultism. Was the Process phenomena a matter of striking at the right place at the right time?
You make a good point. I also think the fact that religion was still present in society might have played a part. Although lots of people might have been rejecting traditional religions, they had often grown up with ‘church’ surrounding them.
I suspect there might be just as many cults around the world today, but they’re less well styled.
A lot of The Process core were very bright and creative people – they certainly tapped into what was going on at the time and for some people they were the right thing at the right time. Then again, I’m sure for some they were the wrong thing at the wrong time. I think a number of factors need to line up at the same time in order for a person to join a group like that. I think it’s good to remember that many thousands I’m sure would have gone through their ‘Satan’s Cavern’ coffee shop or attended their psychic sessions or communication courses, decided it wasn’t for them, and moved on.
What is left behind is mysterious. It is wonderfully exotic. It is seductive. I still often am surprised and find it hard to put my finger on what they were doing. I think what their materials evidence is a group on a journey. They are growing, developing, changing, modifying as they go.
It was also an era of rapid change. From ‘love me do’ to ‘helter skelter’ in 6 years. So, The Process left behind an amorphous body of materials and I don’t think can be looked at and understood without understanding their history. Hopefully the film goes some way towards doing that.
The exterior of the Process signaled towards a free-spirited, long-haired, hippie-commune experience. But members within the Church relate how strict and grueling it was to produce their materials and pound the pavement making sales and panhandling. Did the members you spoke with understand the commitment they were making when they initially got involved?
I get the impression that the self-discipline and gruelling service was probably quite a turn on to begin with. Imbuing a feeling of righteousness and great resolve. But it seems, for many, but not all, the day to day drudgery of selling magazines on the streets in all weathers soon wore thin.
|Processians working the streets|
The Process philosophy is extremely esoteric and nuanced. Because of that, they are highly misunderstood and often taken out of context. At what point did you realize this was not a simplistic and one-dimensional group like the campy Church of Satan?
I really don’t know enough about The Church of Satan to make a comparison. But it was clear to me as soon as I started speaking to former members that what they were doing was very complex, varied, and experimental. Each of them have their own take on the experience and it’s clear the Process was different for each of them and involved much personal interpretation. A lot of esoteric ideas were thrown into the pot and I think members focused on the bits that resonated with them.
Former members have often followed different forms of spiritual personal paths since.
Have you internalized any aspects of the process philosophy as a result of working on the film? For instance, Jodi Wille (who directed another brilliant Aquarian-Cult documentary, The Source Family), has an ongoing relationship with a former member of that group and seems really enamored with the Source ideology.
Working on the film, reading original materials, and talking with the former Processeans has certainly made me think about myself and the person that I am. I’ve found that useful – as it can only be if you try to understand yourself further. But do I consider myself Luciferian, Jehovan, or Satanic? No. Do I think I might be the reincarnation of a former deity? No. Do I think I’m special and have been given a mission of world importance? No. But, on a wet Wednesday afternoon in the office, I can certainly imagine how that my give one a bit of a lift.
|The Process magazine issue on Death|
Did having Timothy Wylie’s book LOVE, FEAR, SEX, DEATH as a source help guide you in terms of the story arch? Was it also painful to make decisions on what to cut?
Indeed. Timothy’s book was a great resource, and I certainly wouldn’t have been able to make the film without him. He has been generous with his time, contacts, and encouragement. But there were also other books that I found tremendously helpful. Sabrina Verney’s book ‘Xtul: an Experience of The Process’ is terrific and gives a great insight into such an important period in the group’s development. I also found William Bainbridge’s book ‘Satan’s Power’ fascinating, and a studied account of The Process and its members spiritual development, rituals and design.
|Timothy Wyllie's Process Church ID Badge|
Timothy certainly is an extraordinary man. I like him tremendously and feel honoured to call him my friend. Do I believe in everything he believes? Probably not. But, I respect his intelligence and inquiring mind enough never to dismiss what he says. That he was instrumental in recruiting so many members to The Process surprises me none. His charm and charisma is abundant.
Several key former members have told me what a unique and inspirational figure he cut, even in the early sixties. They considered him way ahead of his time. I’ll admit I was a little nervous when I first went to meet him even though I’d read nothing during my research to suggest I should be. Nevertheless, those conspiracy theories never quite leave the back of one’s mind. And he lives in such an isolated place on the outskirts of a tiny desert town!
In his book he mentions the hotel he used to live in having ancient occult symbols on the outside walls – what it doesn’t say is that they are swastikas (forward and backward facing). Even though, it is of course an ancient symbol and the hotel was certainly built pre-Nazism, it added a certain frisson to the trip and reminded why The Process’s own logo could have such a powerful effect on other faint-hearted people like myself. Then driving through dusty dirt roads to pull up outside his extraordinary self-designed home and be presented with the vision of Timothy on the raised balcony, long white hair blowing in the wind – it was quite something.
How difficult is securing screenings and distribution for a niche film like this and when might we expect a DVD release?
It’s niche, but I think it’s a great story. So I think that makes it universal. I know I am not alone in finding it interesting, and that has been borne out by the offers to screen it and distribute it and by the audiences that turn up. In a way, it’s ‘nicheness’ helps as those kind of subjects tend to have a dedicated and engaged following. Keep an eye on the website, facebook and twitter for details on screenings and releases. The next two soonest are a cool screening on July 19th 2016 at The Barbican Centre in London, and great multisensory event we’ll be running in London on August 18th with live music, and readings etc.
|A happy Neil at a screening|