March 14, 2018

An exploration into the life of the Scarlet Witch: Marjorie Cameron

Marjorie Cameron Parsons Kimmel (1922 – 1995), who professionally used the mononym Cameron, was an American artist, poet and actress. She was known for her vibrant artwork and starred in various experimental films, including some by director Kenneth Anger. However, Cameron is perhaps best known for something else entirely – her occultist beliefs in the Thelema religious movement, which she developed after the death of her husband, rocket scientist Jack Parsons.

Thelema was developed in the early 1900s by English writer, mystic and ceremonial magician Aleister Crowley. Whilst honeymooning with his wife Edith in Cairo, Egypt in April 1904, a voice – known only as Aiwass – dictated to Crowley the text known as The Book of the Law, which outlines the basic principles of Thelema. The main law of Thelema is “Do what thou wilt shall be”, which generally means that Thelemites should align themselves with her True Will and see to fulfil this. Crowley defined magick – with a ‘k’ to differentiate it from ‘stage magic’ – as the science and art of “a causing change to occur in conformity with Will”. He recommended magick as a way for Thelemites to discover and enforce their True Will.

Thelema draws its principal gods and goddesses from Ancient Egyptian Religion. The Book of the Law has three core “speakers” – Nuit, Hadit and Ra-Hoor-Khuit. Goddess Nuit is the night sky, arched over Earth. She is often depicted as a naked woman, and represents the ultimate source of all things. God Hadit is chaos, and is “the flame that burns in every man, and in the core of every star”. God Ra-Hoor-Khuit is a manifestation of Horus, an is depicted as a god of war and vengeance. Another deity worth mentioning is Goddess Babalon, who is the goddess of all pleasure. She rides on Therion, a beast and force of nature that represents the wild animals within man. 

Parsons and Cameron sometime in the mid-1940s

Cameron was only 23 years old when she met Parsons, one of the founding scientists of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in Pasadena, California. Parsons was a follower of Crowley and his Thelemic ideas – so much so that he developed a series of magical ceremonies, from his work, called the Babalon Working. Unknown to Cameron at the time, Parsons and his friend and Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard had performed Babalon Working right before they met. The purpose of the ritual is to invoke the individual incarnation of the deity Babalon, and Parsons believed the red-headed, blue-eyed beauty to be the “elemental” woman he had been trying to summon. Cameron and Parsons were said to be immensely attracted to one another and – after having 2 weeks in bed together performing sex magick – they soon got married. Parsons even wrote to Crowley himself, explaining that his ritual had worked. Of Cameron, he said: “an artist, strong-minded and determined, with strong masculine characteristics and a fanatical impendence.”

Cameron and Parsons had an unstable relationship throughout their time together, and were ultimately parted by Parsons’ early death aged 37 in 1952. The pair decided to travel to Mexico together for both work and vacation. However, a day before their planned departure, Parsons received a rush order of explosives for a film set. He began to work on them in his home laboratory when an explosion destroyed the lower part of the building, and the vital parts of Parsons’ body. He sustained critical wounds, though was pronounced dead upon arrival to the hospital. Cameron learned of his death from the reporters at the scene when she returned home after food shopping.

There was some dispute regarding Parsons’ death, which was ultimately ruled as an accident after police investigation. Some of Parsons’ colleagues rejected this explanation, arguing that he was very attentive when it came to safety and didn’t believe would be so careless. Some even speculated Parsons had took his own life as he had been suffering from depression for quite some time. One of Cameron’s friends – artist Renate Druks – later stated her belief that Parsons had died in a ritual designed to create a homunculus (a tiny human being). Cameron herself eventually came to the conclusion that Parsons had been murdered either by the police or anti-Zionists, considering he had been under FBI investigation for sharing military information with Israel.

After her husband’s death, Cameron began reading through some of her husband’s papers, where he’d written about Thelema and his belief in her as a supernatural deity. This raised a lot of questions, but Cameron ultimately believed, too, that the spirit of Babalon had been incarnated into herself. She also became fascinated with the religion of Thelema, and started performing blood rituals and attempted astral projection in hopes of communicating with Parsons’ spirit. By the end of these rituals, Cameron claimed to have a new magical identity named Hilarion. It was at this period that people noticed her mental state was worsening and, after two months alone in Mexico, she returned home to California and attempted suicide. It’s speculated that Cameron served some time on a psychiatric ward.

By December 1952, still deep in grief, Cameron had moved to a derelict ranch in Beaumont where she eventually gathered a following of magick practitioners who she called “The Children”. They were intentionally made up of people of various races, and they performed sex magick together in order to create a breed of mixed-raced “moonchildren”, who would be devout to Horus. Cameron fell pregnant and deemed the child “The Wormwood Star” – a name taken from Parsons’ writings about a dark star that crashes to Earth – but she later miscarried. Over time, many members of The Children began to distance themselves as Cameron continued taking drugs and began prophesising the apocalypse.  By June 1953, Cameron visited Los Angeles to attend a Gerald Heard lecture on the mind-expanding effects of hallucinations. It’s perhaps because of her drug use that Cameron started suffering from auditory hallucinations, frequent bouts of depression and dramatic mood swings. During this time, she began correspond with actress and fellow Thelemite Jane Wolfe, whilst other Thelemites deemed her insane.

Cameron had a brief affair with African-American jazz player Leroy Booth – a relationship that, at the time, would’ve been illegal – and the pair lived together until they were arrested for possession of illegal drugs. When she was released on bail, Cameron moved into her friend Druk’s home in Malibu, and was eventually introduced to Thelemite filmmaker Kenneth Anger. After a party titled “Come As Your Maddness” - organised by Druks – Anger produced a film featuring Cameron and others in the group, the result of which was Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (1954).

Through common friends, Cameron eventually met Sheridan “Sherry” Kimmel, a veteran of the Second World War, and the pair entered a relationship. Kimmel suffered from post traumatic stress disorder, which often caused him to experience severe mood swings. He was unstable enough that – after spending some time on a psychiatric ward – he was allegedly the main inspiration for the McMurphy character in Ken Kesey’s novel One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest. Kimmel himself developed an interest in the occult, and became insanely jealous of Parsons’ continuing influence over Cameron even after his death. In a fit of rage, he destroyed Parsons’ notes on Babalon Working that she had kept. Cameron eventually became pregnant again and gave birth to daughter Crystal Kimmel on Christmas Eve in 1955, though she remained unsure of who the father was. She allowed her daughter to behave how she wanted, believing this was the best way for her to learn. Cameron and Kimmel had a rocky relationship, and rekindled after his released from the psych ward, remarrying in 1959. However, they separated again soon after.

“Peyote Vision” by Cameron (1955)

In 1956, with her friend and filmmaker Curtis Harrington, Cameron starred in a short film titled The Wormwood Star, which now serves as a tribute to her life. It was filmed at the home of British poet and art-collector Edward James. The surrealist film features beautiful shots of Cameron and her vivid, proactive artwork, in addition to Cameron reciting some of her own poetry in voiceover narration. The poetry itself taken from the book “Songs for the Witch Woman”, which was compiled by Cameron and Parsons – it features poems, drawings and diary entries. The film evokes both beauty and evil in a truly eerie delve into Cameron, her artwork and her belief in the occult. It’s perhaps more eerie to know that Cameron burned all the paintings that Harrington captured in The Wormwood Star. It’s speculated that Cameron destroyed them in a ritualised suicide performance with Kimmel, which she later regretted and described as “a fit of madness”. Only a few pieces of Cameron’s work have survived her, and so The Wormwood Star serves as the only thorough documentation of her older artwork. 

Cameron appeared to put her grief over Parsons into her artwork, and continued working as an icon in the underground film and art world of Los Angeles. In autumn 1956, Cameron’s first art exhibition was held at Walter Hopp’s studio in Brentwood, but several paintings were destroyed when the gallery caught fire. She also exhibited her infamous drawing “Peyote Vision” (a serpent-tongued woman performing a sex act with an alien) a year later at Wallace Berman’s exhibition at the Ferus Gallery. However, the LAPD shut it down, deeming Cameron’s painting “lewd” and charged Berman with obscenity. Cameron rarely showed off her artwork, but after this incident she – and even Berman – vowed to never show it again, and seemingly dropped out of the commercial art work.

In 1961, Cameron worked with Harrington again, appearing in his feature-length film Night Tide. She also delved further into poetry, finally publishing a book of her solo work titled Black Pilgrimage (another phrase taken from Parsons’ writings). Cameron also began corresponding with mythologist Joseph Campbell, explaining her interest in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces. She also had fascinations with fiction authors, many of whom inspired some of her line drawings. Campbell served a mentor to Cameron, yet Cameron came to serve as a mentor and influence many people herself. These included mystical filmmakers Alejandro Jodorowsky and Kenneth Anger, and younger artists and poets such as George Harris, Wallace Berman, David Meltzer and Aya.

Cameron in 1969

In Cameron’s later life, she developed health problems including chronic bronchitis and emphysema, which were both worsened by her chain-smoking. She also suffered with hand tremors which prevented her from painting for four years. Cameron was living in New Mexico with her daughter Crystal until they finally settled into a bungalow in a run-down part of West Hollywood, where Cameron remained for the rest of her life. She focused on her family and in her spare time played the Celtic harp in her garden and walked her dog. She also continued smoking marijuana, and took part in tai chi group sessions which later earned her in a teaching certificate in the subject. She was influenced by various spiritual writings, but Cameron ultimately retained her faith in Thelema. In the mid-1990s, Cameron was diagnosed with a brain tumour and underwent treatment until the tumour turned cancerous and spread to her lungs. She died at the age of 73 and underweight the last Thelemic rites, carried out by a high priestess at the Ordo Templi Orientis (the Thelemic religious organisation). Her body was cremated and her ashes were scattered in the Mojave Desert, which is where she had scattered Parsons’ ashes.

Cameron was near the beginning of various important religions, including Thelema and Scientology. She even brushed paths with Anton LaVey, who established the Church of Satan in 1966, and published The Satanic Bible in 1969. He was delighted to have met Cameron as he was a fan of her films, namely Harrington’s Night Tide. Whilst Cameron’s artwork was never fully appreciated when she was alive, it has now been gaining the attention it deserves – the most important of her remaining work are now on display at the Pasadena Museum of California Art. Cameron made waves within the Thelemic community and Thelema had quite the influence, paving the way for Wicca, Modern Paganism and Satanism. She was the Scarlet Witch – a true performer in the art, film and occult worlds. 

Photos taken from the Cameron-Parsons Foundation.

April 16, 2017

My Thoughts on '13 Reasons Why'

Since it’s announcement the series 13 Reasons Why has caused a lot of controversy. The show already had an audience for those who had read the book of the same name by Jay Asher from which it is based on, but it soon grabbed the attention of others. I am someone who has not read the book but the series really caught my eye. I’ve been reading comments and articles online giving positive and negative reviews of the show. A lot of negativity is coming from those who have experienced some of the things depicted in the show: suicidal feelings and attempts, depression, rape and bullying.

Before you read any further, I want to give a trigger warning for the aforementioned subjects as I will be discussing them in depth. If you do still wish to read, there are tw's for rape and suicide below in front of the paragraphs that discuss these in detail. Also, massive spoiler's ahead as I will be talking about major plot points of the entire show. In addition to these, I also think it’s important that whilst reading my thoughts on this show, you know that I have been bullied, I’ve been severely depressed and suicidal, and I’ve also experienced verbal and sexual harassment. I’ve never been raped. I’ve got friends who have tried to kill themselves. This is important because it gives you a background that may help you to understand where my viewpoints come from and who the hell I think I am giving my opinion about a show depicting such serious subject matters. Oh and here is an article a rape survivor wrote about the way it depicts it in the show as this is something I feel I cannot fully comment on.

I’ve just finished watching the last episode of 13 Reasons Why. I’m left feeling uncomfortable at what I’ve witnessed and also unsatisfied at what they left unanswered. I don’t mean this as a bad thing though. I think overall the show has mostly done a good job at portraying bullying, depression, sexual abuse (including rape) and suicide which are tough subject matters.

I’m sure many people will agree with me when I say that the show is an uncomfortable watch, but honestly I’m glad that it is. I mean, it should be considering what it’s about: Hannah, a teenage girl, kills herself and leaves behind 13 tapes explaining what led her to do it. Bullying, rape and depression aren’t easy things to experience. They weigh you down so much that you may as well be carrying a bag full of stones everywhere you go. If you’re lucky enough to have not experienced anything as horrific as rape or depression and suicidal feelings, then perhaps the portrayals in the show will give you some insight into how horrific those things truly are. Maybe you know someone.

There are things the show gets right and things the show gets wrong. This was always going happen. It’s rare that everything is perfect and, like I’ve already mentioned, suicide is a tough and complex thing. It’s always difficult to portray this correctly and in a way that everyone is going to be happy with. But overall, yes - the entire show is a hard watch because of the topics it explores. It would still be hard to watch even if everything was displayed perfectly.

Something I found strange about 13 Reasons Why when I first started watching was the tapes Hannah left behind giving 13 reasons why she decided to kill herself. I felt that anyone who was feeling truly suicidal would not have the energy to prep for and do such a thing, especially when she had to relive all of the horrific things that happened to her as she recorded them. However, I do understand that Hannah did care about her reputation, which was ruined by about three people. She was a sweet and innocent girl, who became known as “easy” and “a slut” just because teenage boys spread around comments they didn’t think were going to be harmful. Also, the tapes dramatise everything and even romantise the suicide to some extent. But of course the show is entertainment and it’s a good plot device to help us explore Hannah's world as she recounts her experiences in an intriguing way that leaves us wanting to know more.

Hannah’s tapes give 13 reasons why she killed herself, but all of these reasons are people. She puts a lot of blame on people for what they did to her whilst she was alive. At first I thought this seemed ridiculous because the 13 people have done things that vary in weight yet they all have affected Hannah to some extent. I don’t think it was fair that Hannah did this to certain people who barely did anything or were good people who made stupid mistakes. But the others, well everything does add up and become overwhelming – especially when you’re depressed. It doesn’t matter how big or small something may be to you, because you have no idea how it will affect someone else. Guilt and blame are big themes for this series, and I think it’s one of the more subtle reasons why people may find this show hard to watch.

Above I touched upon how some people on Hannah’s tapes were good people who made stupid mistakes. I think this is something the show does really well. It shows that everyone can be a huge arsehole, whether they’re a huge one or a little one doesn’t matter. This is real because nobody is perfect and the littlest things can cause the worst reactions in some people, particularly if they’re already going through something. It reminds me of this quote: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about” – Wendy Mass, The Candymakers. Examples of characters like this are Alex who made a stupid “Hot List” because he was angry, and Ryan who published an intimate and personal poem of Hannah’s without her permission, just because he believed it was so good that people needed to see it. It also shows that even the most normal looking people can be capable of horrific things. For example, Bryce who rapes Jessica and Hannah and Tyler who went around taking photographs of people in their most intimate moments without their permission.

Whenever mental illness is depicted in media, it seems as though they all tend to make one simple mistake. Any guesses? Yes. It’s the romanticisation and glamorisation of mental illness. People with mental health issues in film and television are often depicted as cool, deep, attractive and fascinating solely because of their mental illness as though it’s that which gives them these qualities. They are also often shown as needing to be saved by someone. And what’s the only way to do this? For someone to love you. This is what 13 Reasons Why gets wrong. Thankfully, I don’t think it glamorises mental illness or suicide (though the tapes do a bit), but I do think there is some romanticisation in there. After Clay hears his tape, he feels overwhelmed with guilt. He thinks he could have saved her if only he had the courage to tell her he loved her when she was alive. It’s wrong that Hannah uses her tapes to put the burden of her death on, when they don’t deserve it. Clay is a kind and caring person who will always live with this guilt. In reality, love doesn’t save the mentally ill. Yes it can help a hell of a lot. It really can. But it’s not a cure. You can still struggle and feel depressed and suicidal even when someone loves you. Mental illness is complex. There’s no immediate cure.

(TW: Rape) Besides the obvious suicide theme in the show, the next big thing that is portrayal is rape. Clay finds out that Bryce raped Jessica and then eventually finds out that he raped Hannah too. Clay is of course mortified when he finds these out and he confronts Bryce. Their conversation reveals a disturbing, yet realistic representation of rape culture. Bryce says to Clay, “Go get yourself laid, or try to. And then we’ll talk like grownups.” He also says “If you wanna call it rape, call it rape. Same difference.” This shows that Bryce is immature and has no real grasp on the effects of what he did both Jessica and Hannah. And he probably never will unless he is prosecuted as he never heard his tape. Clay skipped him, giving the tapes straight to the school counsellor, Mr Porter, along with an extra recording Clay added at the end: Bryce confessing. As Bryce has committed the most serious crime on the tapes, the rest of the group consider using him to get out of their own mistakes. Courtney adds that Hannah could be lying and it takes Ryan to say that he can’t believe she would take that stance, especially as the only girl who was present at the time. Courtney later corrects someone calling Bryce a rapist by saying “alleged rapist,” in which Ryan says “Fuck off Courtney.” This is a perfect depiction of varying attitudes towards rape in today’s society and the show does a brilliant job at portraying that. It also shows the outrage and upset Hannah felt when Mr Porter told her it’d take months for anything to happen and he can’t promise that the person responsible would go to jail. Clay tells Mr Porter that he believed Hannah and it only took that belief in her to confront Bryce and he ultimately got his confession. This says a lot about victim blaming and the lies and rumours that come out of rape cases. Some of the students already mentioned that they think Hannah is lying about some parts in the tapes. I do find it especially rewarding that it took a teenage boy to make the overall point of believing a rape victim though, as it’s stereotypical for guys to be the first ones to jump to asking questions such “how do you know? do you have proof?” and “what if she’s lying?” as opposed to believing someone and offering support. Then they wonder why rape victims don’t come forward straight away and such. Well it’s because you never believe them. 13 Reasons Why did something that I think was clever. Others may disagree, but this is something that I noticed. The show highlights how easy it can be to miss the signs of suicidal tendencies. Everyone realises they missed Hannah’s signs and so the school puts up posters to try and prevent it from happening to someone else. Hannah’s parents become concerned about what could have driven their daughter to end her life and put their focus on bullying. But what was clever was everyone was too busy fretting over Hannah and themselves to actually take notice and to notice to signs in someone else: Alex, who shoots himself and is left in critical condition at the hospital. No one noticed how he was feeling, acting and looking. And I honestly believe that this is the main point of the entire show. It comes full circle.

The most controversial thing that happened on the show is that they showed Hannah’s suicide. Naturally, this is the thing that most people have an issue with as it’s been credited as a scene that almost serves as a “how-to guide” for suicide. According to articles I’ve read, the producers of 13 Reasons Why contacted suicide prevention experts for guidance on what they could show in the series. They were advised not to show Hannah’s suicide but they did anyway. The developer of the show, Brian Yorkey, said it was a deliberate choice to show it. “We worked very hard not to be gratuitous, but we did want it to be painful to watch because we wanted it to be very clear that there is nothing, in any way, worthwhile about suicide.” There are guidelines for reporting on suicide which advise journalists to avoid sensationalising headlines or describing a suicide in graphic detail as studies have shown this can lead to copycat suicides.

(TW: Suicide) I think sensational headlines and describing suicides in detail in news reports is wrong. However, I think what they showed in 13 Reasons Why was a good call. Now honestly I’ve never seen anything depicting suicide as graphic as what this show did. You see Hannah slit her wrists in a bathtub. You see how sad she is. You see how much pain it causes her when the razor cuts deeply into her skin. You see the blood begin to pour out. You see her parents finding her. It’s painful to watch. It’s uncomfortable. It’s upsetting. But it’s real, and it’s raw. There are no stupid montages or dramatic, emotional ballads playing over this scene. It is what it is and I’m glad they showed it, because I hope it makes people who have little to no understanding about mental illness and suicide realise how truly horrific it really is. This scene raises awareness. I’ve been suicidal in the past and I know that I would never want to end my life in this particular way after seeing that. It looked painful and disturbing. But of course everyone is different. I’m pleased certain episodes have content warnings at the beginning, as I definitely don’t advise this being watched if you’re feeling depressed and/or suicidal because it’s upsetting and won’t help. And yeah, maybe it will serve as a how-to guide. It’s a difficult thing because depicting mental illness is hard.

I think the end scenes of the show are pretty powerful, where Clay is talking to Mr Porter about suicide prevention and Hannah’s last day.
Clay:I think we all could do better.
Mr P:You could know all the signs and understand the issues and still come up missing something.
Clay:That’s not good enough. What about the next kid who wants to kill himself?
As mentioned earlier, the irony of how everyone is trying to figure out why Hannah killed herself and how they didn’t realise she would that they missed the signs of Alex. After Clay leaves, someone comes in to tell Mr Porter that Alex shot himself the night before and is in critical condition. Mr Porter’s face is priceless, especially as he’s had Clay asking him about the next kid who wants to kill himself. And also why he didn’t do anything when Hannah basically told him she had been raped and clearly wasn’t happy. Mr Porter is on the tapes. He will feel guilty, and he will again about Alex. Spotting the signs of suicide is vital, but that doesn’t mean it’s always easy. That’s life.

“We all could have stopped it. But we didn’t.” That’s something Clay says at the end to Mr Porter after explaining Hannah’s last day, after she left his office. “That’s powerful. And painful” is what he responds, wiping a tear away from his cheek. I agree. It is powerful and painful. That’s what I thought when I saw the scene showing Hannah’s suicide. However, afterwards Clay adds “I cost a girl her life because I was afraid to love her” which further adds to the romanticisation.

Another issue I have is that the last thing Hannah says on her tapes is “No one is coming to stop me. Some of them cared, but not enough.” This is interesting because, with Hannah, she never really did show any signs of killing herself. In what we see, she never did seem upset enough and she never did explicitly tell anyone how she felt, apart from the school counsellor at the end. Hannah never told anyone she felt low or upset. It just came out in little things such as the poem which no one knew belonged to her, only the odd person who didn’t really take it seriously or didn’t know how to handle it. How were they ever supposed to know?

It’s good that Clay’s response to hearing everyone’s tapes seems human. He’s angry and upset that Hannah killed herself. He confronts everyone about what they did and why they did it after each tape. He’s angry he or anyone else couldn’t have saved her. Although, it's questionable that we experience Hannah's life through flashbacks which are through Clay. It's all told from his perspective; a boy who loved the dead girl deeply, which is an issue for a whole other essay. At least at the end, it seems that Clay tries to save someone else just by being there. He reaches out to Skye, who has scars on her wrists which he noticed in an earlier episode, to become friends again. He's seen what happened to Hannah and has become very vigilant of other people.

I hope from watching the show people take into account how fucking nasty teenagers can be. I hope people realise that certain actions and comments, no matter how big or small, can affect people tremendously. I hope people feel uncomfortable when they watch scenes of rape and suicide. I hope people see that sometimes it’s not easy to talk about what they’re going through. I hope people can tell when mental illness is being glamorised and romanticised. I hope people understand that suicide isn’t a sign of weakness and shows that someone has exhausted their coping mechanisms for dealing with pain. I hope people realise that suicide isn’t the answer. I hope you never have to go through it and I hope you take care of yourself if you are. Someone will always listen.
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