LEGEND HAS IT that a young L. Ron Hubbard once bragged to his friends that he was going to start a religion and make a million dollars. We all know how that went. Less known is a far smaller rogue offshoot of Scientology that exerted disproportionate influence on late-1960s and early-’70s bohemian culture in London, San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles, and other epicenters of radical chic: the Process Church of the Final Judgment, or, simply, the Process.
Formed in 1963 in London by two disenchanted Scientologists—Mary Ann MacLean, a former call girl from Glasgow, and Robert DeGrimston, a well-educated Englishman of more noble birth—the group made unauthorized use of Hubbard’s “E-meter” to identify and exorcise compulsions and complexes. By 1966, the tightly knit group began to believe they were in touch with “Higher Beings” and decamped to an abandoned salt mine in Xtul, Mexico, where the last-minute diversion of a powerful hurricane confirmed to the couple’s followers that they were indeed connected to divine forces.
Returning to England, the Processeans (named after their “processing” of one another during their encounter-group days) quickly attracted the attention of the hipoisie of Swinging London, Mick Jagger and Marianne Faithfull most famously. (It’s likely that the Rolling Stones’ Their Satanic Majesties Request and “Sympathy for the Devil” were inspired by Jagger’s flirtation with the Process.) As with any successful cult or totalitarian state, aesthetics were key to their appeal. The Process Church regularly published a truly bizarre, groundbreaking magazine—full of lurid, hand-cut four-color collage graphics and baffling yet seductive apocalypse-theology writings by DeGrimston—with blunt issue titles like “Sex,” “Fear,” “Love,” and “Death.” Church members would sell the magazines in the street dressed in full-length black robes bearing the Process logo, originally four thick lines inside a circle intersecting to form a small square at the center, later the same pattern composed of four trumpet bells. Routinely condemned as diabolical Satanists, blamed for the Manson Family and the Son of Sam, and assumed to have high-level connections to the intelligence community, the Process Church also had a formative influence on Funkadelic’s George Clinton (who reproduced DeGrimston’s writings inside his band’s album covers) and Throbbing Gristle/Psychic TV ringleader Genesis P-Orridge.
So what the hell was I doing at Anthology Film Archives on a Sunday night for a Processean “Sabbath Assembly Ritual and Salon” in 2009? Well, partly to see what all the fuss was about back in the day and partly because the magazine was a fascinating high-water mark of DIY publishing. Hosted by Feral House publisher Adam Parfrey, who first heard of the Process while researching his book Apocalypse Culture, and “starring” Ms. (née Mr.) P-Orridge, Process magazine designer Timothy Wyllie, and the Sabbath Assembly Band, the first half of the sold-out evening was a reverent re-creation of a Process service, with prayers, songs, chants, declarations, convocations, prophecies, etc. The surprisingly young crowd, composed of ex-hippies, goths, hipsters, and Process veterans, was rapt as Genesis led the service and the youthful band—a talented acid-folk combo fronted by two female singers (Jex Thoth and Sophie Gontier) and a striking male falsetto (Lichens’s Robert Lowe)—performed Process “hymns” with high sincerity.
After the service, Parfrey ascended the stage, described his past research into the Process, and showed a fragment of a film in progress about the Church by Skinny Puppy member William Morrison. Parfrey then introduced Wyllie himself, who is the partial author of the new book Love Sex Fear Death: The Inside Story of the Process Church of the Final Judgment. Tall, slim, and with long white hair, Wyllie has the air of an English aristocrat who somewhere along the way fell into a vat of LSD. One of the many rumors dispelled during the second half, however, was that Processeans (like Scientologists) abhorred drugs and that MacLean would banish any member caught using them. Hearing this, Parfrey quipped, “Tim is the most psychedelic person I know.” “I made up for it afterward,” Wyllie explained with a wink.
Other tidbits from Tim included the revelation that while DeGrimston was the scribe and spokesperson of the Process, MacLean really called the shots (“It was a matriarchal cult”); that they declared themselves a church for tax purposes; and that MacLean died of emphysema and DeGrimston now works for Verizon.
Process editor Malachi McCormick chimed in from the audience and was invited onstage. Long-winded and rambling, McCormick took a dimmer view of his former gurus, claiming that MacLean and DeGrimston exploited church members for personal gain. Genesis followed, defending DeGrimston’s writings and recalling that Psychic TV was an effort to honor those “scriptures” while eschewing the rigidly hierarchical power structure the Process ultimately became. Other lower-level former Processeans in the audience said that it didn’t matter whether the Church was a con, as some of the best years of their lives were spent living in Process communes and selling magazines in the snow.
Finally, McCormick attempted to clear up the biggest misconception about the church: that Charles Manson was directly influenced by the Process. This rumor was propagated by Ed Sanders’s sprawling Manson tome, The Family, which included a chapter on the Process that the church successfully sued to have excised from the American edition of the book. (It remained in the UK edition.) As McCormick explained, when Manson was in prison in the mid-’60s, his cellmate was a con man who also happened to be a Scientologist. When Manson was released, he went to the Celebrity Center to join Hubbard’s organization and was rejected. McCormick claimed that it was the Church of Scientology that spread the rumor about Manson’s Process connections after the murders because MacLean and DeGrimston had “stolen the tech” (the E-meter) and were considered apostates by Hubbard.
Comforted by this knowledge, I went outside into the East Village night, thinking about Satanists, Scientologists, and the end of The End. 2012 is around the corner, but somehow I suspect it will be 1969 all over again.