Occult memoirs are uncommon, interesting ones even moreso. With In the Center of the Fire: A Memoir of the Occult 1966 – 1989 (Ibis Press, 2012), author James Wasserman has added to the small canon of the latter.
Wasserman will be known to many of the Disinformed as the gent with enviable facial hair who has written and edited dozens of books (and regularly appears in documentaries) on Freemasonry, the Templars, Aleister Crowley, and other such esoterica. He is also a long-time practicing magician and member of the Ordo Templi Orientis, and was a key player in some of the events which have led to the O.T.O.–currently celebrating its one hundredth anniversary–still going strong today.
The years covered in this memoir begin with him as a freewheeling hippie, dabbling with decreasing commitment in political activism, and with increasing zeal in the occult (and, separately, drugs). Against the backdrop of late-sixties and early-seventies New York City, Wasserman chronicles his winding path through the occult with stops including yoga, Voodoo, and other, more obscure practices. (He relates how, in 1968, he briefly looked into Scientology, but was told he could not start classes because he wanted to smoke one last joint before quitting marijuana to join. “Pot saved me from Scientology.”) Attracted by the philosophy of Thelema (the oft-misinterpreted “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law”), he was eventually initiated into the O.T.O., a magical brotherhood founded in the early twentieth century, and re-organized in its current form by Aleister Crowley in 1912.
At the time Wasserman joined, the Order, having experienced various degrees of popularity (and cohesion) in the years since its formation, was contending with various splinter groups over ownership of Crowley’s writings. The question of copyright was not one of financial benefit, but to prevent the circulation of dubious editions from dubious personages. Because the legal battles which ensued provide a sort of narrative climax to the period covered in the memoir, In the Center of the Fire could almost be considered a courtroom drama.
During this period, Wasserman’s other chief occult/O.T.O. activity was co-founding New York City’s TAHUTI Lodge, a chapter which still functions today, after more than three decades. Thus does Wasserman not only provide a glimpse into the international workings of an established magical order; he also gives the reader a look at the nuts and bolts and one-person-at-a-time evolution of a smaller local body.
Herein lies some of the most interesting insight In the Center of the Fire offers: the day-to-day life of practicing magicians and functional (and some dysfunctional) magical organizations. Beneath the robes, wands, and incense, even the most most powerful wizards have rent to pay, and strong organizations–magical or otherwise–require a healthy administrative backbone. Magical bodies tend to sputter and die quickly; the ongoing administration any organization requires–scheduling meetings, filling out tax forms, cleaning the Lodge bathroom–is not half as romantic as flitting about tossing pixie dust on passersby. (A magician friend of mine once counseled, “Sometimes, the most magickal thing you can do is the laundry.”)
The book is exactly what it claims to be–a memoir; it is not a history of the Order, not a primer on magic, not a tell-all expose. Sure, plenty of history is related, some magical operations described, and some “all” is told; but we also see Wasserman’s growth in his trade as a book designer, the growth of his family, and the growth (and eventual defeat) of his addiction to drugs and alcohol. His tone is measured and even-handed, no criticism or praise is unqualified, and he freely acknowledges his errors in judgment alongside his successes.
This is the memoir of someone very comfortable with who he is today, and very aware of what made him that man. The lack of sturm und drang, so abundant in occult writings, can at times almost make the book feel too slight, but by avoiding the melodrama he also avoids the bloat that comes with it, and this makes In the Center of the Fire a brisk, pleasant read.
This briskness means events and rituals are sometimes mentioned without enough context to be meaningful to those unfamiliar with the practices described, although this is largely alleviated by the inclusion of a glossary. And sometimes there is no elucidation at all–the word “important” makes a few unsupported appearances over the course of the book (“She introduced us to a local Qabalist who did an important Tarot reading”). The book does not attempt to enlighten the casual reader, and it seems to be focused on no specific target audience. But we do live in the age of Google, so illumination is not hard to find on any topic. And would someone drawn to a book because of appearances by the likes of Harry Smith, Alejandro Jodorowsky, and Simon (of Necronomicon infamy) ever qualify as a “casual” reader?
I recently overheard two people discussing several magicians–O.T.O. and otherwise–from the second half of the 20th century. One mentioned that she didn’t know enough of the people being discussed. “I need to read more books about them.”
Her colleague responded, “The books need to be written.”
In the Center of the Fire is a solid–and enjoyable–step in that direction.
Mark Reynolds is the editor of the magickal review, Scroll of Thoth. He lives in New York City and makes a racket with his band, Some Awful Bridge.