Monday, March 14, 2011

Book Review: The Prankster and the Conspiracy

Author: Adam Gorightly
April 5th, 2010

Type of Book: Non-fiction, biography, conspiracy

Why I Consider This Book Odd: Well, Robert Anton Wilson wrote the foreword. That’s sort of a clue right there. But overall, this book covers almost all the bases of oddness: Kennedy assassination conspiracy, Jim Garrison, the 60s in general, Discordianism, CIA spooks, and, Jesus help us all, Sondra London.

Availability: Published in 2003 by Paraview press, you can get a copy here

Comments: You know, I still sort of love the Discordians, even though the whole riff often wears thin for me now. Twenty years ago, I was an avid member of a Discordian offshoot, The Church of the SubGenius. (My SubGenius names were Lady Helena Burningbush and later Lady Helena Burningbook, and Google away – I am lucky that most of my asshattery as a young person occurred before the Internet came to make sure our every act of silliness is recorded for eternity.) But as I got older, I just didn’t see the point anymore. I still see some value in the sort of social satire that such parodies permit, but in the final analysis, I’m pretty earnest and cloaking one’s self behind so many layers of sarcasm and inside jokes in order to make a point ultimately is more work than I am willing to do to prove I am not one of them.

But when Kerry Thornley (Lord Omar Khayyam Ravenhurst) and Greg Hill (Malaclypse the Younger) created Discordianism and co-wrote the Principia Discordia, it was a natural rebellion against the postwar rage for order that permeated life in the 1950s, and the tricksterism had a profound point, one that has become diluted over time, especially now that the Internet makes being a trickster almost mandatory. But 50 years ago, before 1960s rebellion embraced chaos and dissent, Discordianism was a precursor and perhaps catalyst for serious social change. Kerry Thornley, as described in this book, is a man who inspired and in many senses created the counterculture in the United States and while some of the assertions of Thornley’s influence seem overstated to me, he is a person whose role in creating the counterculture has been overlooked in many quarters, and one has to wonder how much his unwitting and unwilling role in the assassination of John F. Kennedy contributed to Thornley’s name being forgotten more than it is remembered.

This book is both Thornley’s biography and an examination of conspiracy theory, and I think that Gorightly’s refusal to settle on a specific opinion, to analyze and give the facts that he does, gives this book far more impact than had he just put on a tinfoil hat and delivered the standard “Warren report bad, Garrison good, Oswald patsy” line that has tarred those who truly worry that there was a CIA conspiracy to kill John F. Kennedy (hi, I am one of them). According to Gorightly, Thornley, who served in the Marines with Lee Harvey Oswald and wrote a book about him before the JFK assassination, and lived in New Orleans during the appropriate times, may have been manipulated by the CIA, and he may not have. (As some may or may not know, the infamous picture of Oswald holding a rifle and a copy of a Communist rag, supposedly taken in his backyard, is very likely Oswald’s head grafted onto Thornley’s body.) Given how insane and paranoid Thornley became later in his life, it is hard to tell what really happened.

For example, Thornley knew a very creepy man, Gary Kirstein, whom he mostly called Brother-in-law, who was an unsettling influence in Thornley’s life, and planted ideas that made Thornley think that perhaps he was subject to mind manipulation by the CIA. Thornley specifically believed this because he somehow or another (if at all) picked up rogue radio waves with his mind, an activity that Brother-in-law seemed to know all about. However, the only person who could have proved that Brother-in-law really existed, Greg Hill, died before anyone could question him on the subject. Others who lived in New Orleans at the time and knew Thornley could not verify that Brother-in-law existed. Thornley later believed Kirstein was E. Howard Hunt and Gorightly is of the opinion that Brother-in-law could have been Hunt but does not stake his reputation on it.

And with the mention of E. Howard Hunt, creepiest of the creepiest of spooks, you can tell that this is one helluva fun conspiracy tome, and one of the better because the author, while clearly subject to interesting beliefs (aren’t we all) maintains an air of interested speculation without ever confirming or denying anything. I left the book with the feeling that Thornley was very likely on to something, that perhaps he was an unwitting participant in one of the darkest moments of history, but his subsequent mental illness makes it impossible to know the truth. One of his friends at the time, then Grace Caplinger, now better known to some as character actress Grace Zabriskie, adds to the idea that Thornley’s memory, or at least his interpretations of memory, are to be held in doubt. Thornley described himself as having a long affair with Grace. Grace recalls one incident of not-very interesting sex that never happened again. His ex-wife Cara said that she never experienced some of the things Thornley claimed, like three black helicopters flying over their home. As Thornley drifted further and further into psychosis, it is impossible to know what happened and Thornley’s life does not make it any easier to parse out.

Peripatetic, even when he remained in one city for a while he never seemed to live in the same place for long, Thornley was truly a man who both brought about change and was subject to it. Like a Whitman poem, his mind contained inconsistent multitudes. He initially believed the Lone Gunman theory of the JFK assassination and wrote a book, Oswald, explaining this theory. He later recanted this theory. He became convinced Oswald was a CIA plant who was assigned to ferret out Communist sympathizers in the military and was later a part of a fringe CIA conspiracy to assassinate JFK. Jim Garrison, no small loon himself, called Thornley to a grand jury in order to recount the testimony he gave to the Warren Commission, and was so angered with Thornley’s testimony that he charged Thornley with perjury, though the charges were later dropped.

Though this book does speak of a mentally healthy Thornley (relatively speaking), much of the book documents his decline into mental states even the odd like me find unnerving. Thornley, after his divorce from his wife Cara, went through an exhibitionist sexual phase, which seems normal enough in some quarters. People experiment with all forms of freedom when long term relationships end. But in the manner of many biographies these days, it is revealed that perhaps Thornley had pedophilic tendencies, though if he had them, they were of a short duration and he regained his sense of restraint and decency. One can see this man becoming so mentally adrift that the sexual freedom he in part helped herald in could, in a drug haze, cause him to misapply his sexual freedom to children. If it seems like I am using too many words and dancing around the topic, it’s because that’s exactly what I am doing. I hate the idea that even unhinged Thornley would become so far afield that he could not see the lack of morality in sexual interaction with children. Though this is a very small part of the book, it stuck with me. Everyone these days is either a pedophile or a closet Nazi when their biography finally comes out.

Thornley died in 1998 of complications from a rare disease called Wegener’s Granulomatosis, and though his madness cleared enough at times to permit him moments of humor and clarity, one of the ways I know he was probably deeply entrenched in psychosis is that in his last days, he evidently had a friendship, if not relationship, with Sondra London. My distaste for London runs hard and deep. She has become such a scourge in her by now routine attempts to cozy up to violent murderers for a chance at love, renown, and potential book fodder that she has caused death row inmates to call her a skeeve. She pissed on the memories of the brutally murdered as a self-admitted serial killer lovingly serenaded her in court as she beamed like a teen girl being courted for the first time. I never really saw her as a person much interested in telling the stories of the insane, the broken or the criminally violent as much as someone who would do anything for money, publicity or to satisfy her admitted hybristophilia (or, to paraphrase her, she likes bad boys).

She is a loathsome human being who has made a career out of manipulating deeply mentally ill or sociopathic if not psychotic killers into collaborating with her on books (her collaboration with the disturbed and completely ill Nicolas Claux is truly disturbing – asking that man to illustrate a book on vampire killers is in no way subversive or in the spirit of Discordianism – just exploitative and completely callous). That Brother-in-law set off Thornley’s creepometer but London did not speaks of deep psychological pathology on his part. Gorightly had her number though, stating that even though London has recordings of Thornley important for any biographer, her status as his one true love prevented her from sharing them. Until she was offered money. And poor Thornley, to be on that woman’s list of “true loves”: Gerard Schaeffer, Danny Rolling, Keith Jesperson… Interesting that even they revile her now.

Back to Thornley: No matter what your opinion is of the JFK assassination, or even Thornley’s role in it, it is safe to assert that the madness and paranoia that plagued him in his later life was sparked in no small part by those who were either involved in the assassination or used the assassination to push their personal agenda. He started off as a sparkling trickster and died sick and paranoid, a very sad ending to be sure. I think this was one of the finer biographies and conspiracy books I have read in a while. Complex, interesting, mildly skeptical and interested in the truth but willing to admit it may never be known, and most importantly, evenhanded, open, scrutinizing yet ultimately kind to its subject. I highly recommend it. Gorightly has a book about the Manson Family that I think I will give a go soon.

1 comment:

The Pope of Pop said...

It's always seemed apparent to me just from reading his testamony to the Warren Commission and the Garrison materials that the onset of his mental illness was early and progressive. I think it was just an interesting set of coincidences that put him in New Orleans and Mexico City at the time Oswald was there. I trust you are aware that as his condition progressed, he came to believe that his family had been the subject of Vril breeding experiments for 900 years... that sometime around the 11th century, they set into motion the events that would result in Kennedy's assassination. To conspiracy theorists there are no coincidences, and conspiracy theorists are expert at picking up on things that they want to believe, and ignoring things they don't. They hate facts and arguments that don't support their beliefs, and they hate the messenger even more, so the only thing I ever expect to convince them of is that I work for the CIA. Which of course I don't. I'm interested in reading this book, to fill in the gaps of my understanding of the arc of his life. It is sad, he was obviously a brilliant, if somewhat ungrounded young man. Is it so hard to believe he fell by the wayside like so many others like that, without a big push from the mind control machine?