Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Dysfunctional Family

"Cosmic Synchromy" by Morgan Russell, 1913

Anyone who’s ever been involved in the management of an organization - whether it’s a garden club, a political party, a fan club or a labor union - knows that institutions can be like a large, extended family. And just like families, some are cooperative, supportive, and healthy.

Others are just a dysfunctional mess.

If the family is the first institution created by human beings, I would imagine that the second is probably the church. And the third is probably those people who decided to split from the church and form another one.

The enigmatic Madame Blavatsky

The Theosophical Society was founded in 1875 by Madame Helena Blavatsky, Colonel Henry Olcott, and William Quan Judge. It was incredibly popular worldwide.

Four years later, Blavatsky and Olcott moved to Adyar near Madras in India. Back in the U.S., Judge guided the growth of local groups in over 100 American cities.

When Madame Blavatsky died in 1891, there was a sudden crisis in the group, which is not unusual in families with a dominant matriarch.

Mrs. Annie Besant

A Blavatsky protégé, Mrs. Annie Besant, with as varied and as fascinating a life story as the Matriarch, had met her in 1890, just prior to her death. Yet, supported by Olcott, she claimed to be Blavatsky’s choice to take on the leadership . She wore Blavatsky’s signet ring, with a large green stone flecked with blood-red veins, engraved with symbols like a serpent swallowing its tail. It was said to have special powers.

Like a spurned younger brother, Judge disagreed, and at the Society’s Convention in 1895 he led 85 of the American groups to secede. The remaining Americans loyal to Besant included the founders of the Krotona colony in Hollywood.

Over the next 30 years, Theosophists fought turf wars. They merged and split, formed alliances, only to split again. The written history of Krotona is filled not only with aspirations of Utopian living, but also with nasty, backbiting gossip, accusations of disloyalty and threats of lawsuits.

Krotona Court, 1925

The definition of a dysfunctional family is one where conflict, misbehavior, and abuse occur regularly, and are accommodated by the family members – even considered normal. Reading about the Krotona Colony and the early Theosophists made me realize that they were an embodiment of this.

Though old Colonel Olcott and the charismatic Annie Besant did not have a sexual relationship, the family dynamic sounds much like that when Dear Old Dad takes up with a Younger Woman after Sainted Mom passes away.

Besant had a friend, Charles W. Leadbeater* – a British clairvoyant with whom she collaborated on occult research and co-authoring books. Unfortunately, Leadbeater was like another stereotypical family character – the Creepy Uncle. In 1906 he was accused of sexual misconduct with young boys under his spiritual guidance. Although protesting his innocence, he resigned from the group amid scandal..

When Colonel Olcott died in 1907, Besant solidified her power. Lest anyone doubt, the journals recounted a mystical visitation of the Masters at the deathbed, confirming Besant’s leadership.

Theosophic Society Headquarters in Adyar, 1890

The Masters conveniently forgave Leadbeater’s offenses, and he was taken back into the fold, setting off a new round of schisms.

Krotona’s founder, a Virginia lawyer named A.P. Warrington, was admitted to the inner circle in 1906. His correspondence with Besant and Leadbeater, published in Joseph E. Ross’s book “Krotona of Hollywood” reveals the intricate relationships between Theosophic leaders.

Due to the Theosophists’ belief in spiritual manifestations, reincarnation, and occult phenomena, interactions between them take on an unreal quality. The gossip, manipulation, airing of grievances, and guilt trips involve not only living humans, but also entities from the Other World.

An early journal edited by Blavatsky

Rebuking a member who criticized another, Besant puts him firmly in his place, asserts her authority, and warns him against future offenses:

I wrote to you the other day on the undesirable tone of your letter … If this matter becomes public, I must stand with my Brother… and you and I will have to work apart. I hope you will be able to make such amends to him and so prevent a severance which I should most deeply regret…You should realize that the fact [he] is an Initiate makes it the duty of [you] to follow his lead in all…matters, to help him in doing things in his way... You have not quite realized this…. This is the mistake that led to the late blunder, and the effects of the blunder were due to the hidden forces set going by a wrong attitude.

Like any strong matriarch, she has the last word:

just has I have often thanked you for your good work, so I must tell you when you are in error, else were I a poor occultist and a poor teacher. In all this we need say no more. It is past.

When the collusion of two members to gain power is discovered, one person comments :

There seems to be a curious conspiracy (astral, I presume) in connection with American affairs just now; for the same extraordinary idea…has occurred (apparently simultaneously) to Dr. V___ and Mrs. R___. I need hardly say that I should never approve of such an action…and regard it…as a fraud against the Section. We know all the people concerned, and we know that under ordinary circumstances they would not do anything dishonorable; so I feel sure that their action is being dictated by some astral entity, probably masquerading in the form of some Master whom they revere…..There is some curious confusion in the minds of our friends; I am sure that it is unintentional, but I cannot quite understand how it arose.

It’s hard for me, at the remove of a near-century, to decide whether his words are tongue-in-cheek or actually serious about the astral entity – or whether he is subtly threatening his correspondent for his supposed role in the business.

One who, after a misstep, makes amends, is nevertheless made to eat a little psychic crow:

I am glad that you understand our feelings so well…Personally, I cannot but regret that you [said what you did], but the Great Ones harbor no petty resentments, and no doubt They perfectly understand that your intention was good. Of course, there is a certain practical karma attached to a remark like that; but we must just take it as a fact and start anew on that basis….

Although the society had a charter and by-laws, and named its officers with parliamentarian titles like General Secretary and President, Mrs. Besant ruled like a monarch. She did not brook dissent, and those loyal to her defended her by dismissing her opponents’ abilities:

One ally defends Besant against accusations:

No one who sees and speaks about her can doubt that the present opposition to her is fundamentally opposition to Them, and originates from those who are as yet unable to make the utter sacrifice of the lower self which is necessary before one can follow in Their steps.

People who overreach their given place were judged to be deceived by wicked spirits, the thought-waves of other people, or, simply, frauds.

H___’s proceedings are wicked, and should be repressed. He is inflated with overweening conceit, and supposes himself to receive messages from the Master Jesus through poor deluded Miss ___. He is doing much evil.

Even stranger, one correspondent contemplates winning the argument in the next world :

I know that as soon as he dies I can make him see the truth, but if he would only come to his senses before he dies it would save him agonies of remorse.

In a world so populated by spirits, one could blame almost anything on them. During a nation-wide lecture tour, blame for a burned-out light bulb for the magic lantern presentation was laid at the feet of a “little elemental” spirit.

Besant and Leadbeater became increasingly fixed on the return of one of the Masters in carnate form, as the Great Teacher. This time, they thought the Teacher would come from the West, not the East as Christ had.

"Dream of Life" by California painter Mabel Alvarez, who stayed at Krotona during the 'teens.

They were so excited about his coming that Leadbeater wrote a book called “Rents in the Veil of Time.” He identifies other people the Great Teacher, named Alcyone, encountered in his past lives, during as span ranging from 22,662 B.C. to A.D. 624. These entities, identified by code names such as Heracles, Sirius, and Orion, were none other than the leading members of the the inner circle themselves!

In Mary Lutyens’ book “Krishnamurti: The Years of Awakening” she tells how

this gave rise to a great deal of heart-burning and snobbery when once [the book was] published. ‘Are you in the Lives?’ became the question most often asked by one Theosophist to another, and , if so, ‘How closely related have you been to Alcyone?’

They considered several young men to be the incarnated Alcyone, including young Hubert van Hook, the son of a Chicago Theosophy leader.

Finally, they decided on a ten year old Indian boy named Krishnamurti, whom Leadbeater had seen playing on the beach.

It left poor Hubert in the lurch, even though Besant had persuaded his mother to bring him to Adyar for training. He remained there, sharing lessons with his rival, but, for fear of infecting Krishnamurti with his jealous vibes, he was not allowed to touch the other boy’s tennis racket or bicycle.

Loyalists in the ranks played the leaders off one another. When one person overreached, Besant wrote:

It seems likely that while Mrs. R___ was at Krotona, the strong psychic influence which surrounded her may have overpowered you a little. Fritz… wrote to me that many of the people of Krotona were being swept entirely off their feet, and that the strength of the members was being drawn away from definite Theosophical work in to lines of psychic development and emotionalism. No doubt that is to a large extent true; and if it were so, it must have reacted upon you also. I gather that Fritz and Marjory were not in high favour with Mrs. R___ because they declined to be impressed by wild assertions about psychic phenomena.

While a strict hierarchy kept the inner circle dominant over non-initiates, there would always be exceptions – and it was convenient to conjure up occult reasons for such deviations from the rule when a wealthy donor showed up:

The appearance of Mr. Barnhardt upon the scene with his large promise of money and his very deep devotion has made me wonder if he be not in the camp of those missing ones that I have been looking for, for certainly he feels very close to the Master….I asked him to give me some little object bearing his magnetism…to send it to you…so as to link him with you. He responded by handing me that which is within [enclosed]. When you psychometrize it, you will no doubt find him to be one of our useful workers of the past….

Besant, in her later years

History has taught us to beware of false prophets. Perhaps it’s because I am a non-believer, but when I read the letters, I don’t get the sense that these people were concerned with the spiritual realm, but rather that they were right down there mixing it up, with the back-biting and the lawsuits. The only difference was that they recruited their imaginary spirit allies to amplify their disputes. If you can imagine the biggest Drama Queen in your life, then think about how these folks took it to a whole ‘nother level.

This is the background of the Krotona colony. It became the intersection of this culture of dramatic, secretive paranoia, the creative and profane impulses of the arts, and the wheeler-dealer hucksterism of Hollywood. We’ll continue to explore.

*Mr. Leadbeater's story is treated lightly here, but it is not a pleasant one for his victims. We'll revisit this story later.


Anonymous said...

What an incredible amount of research you have put into this for us! Do you think that perhaps there are echoes of this belief in Scientology?

Glennis said...

I don't really know anything about Scientology, Karen. My take on it is that Theosophy and Scientology are very different as to how individual followers are treated. But I don't really know.

Remember, the correspondence I quote here is between the elite leadership of the Theosophic Society (think the Pope and Archbishops) - what mainstream members do or think is probably quite different.

ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

think the Pope and Archbishops

Email from Pope to Archbishop...yep, I think we're going to have to move that priest to a new diocese, yet again.

Big Bad Bald Bastard said...

Thanks for putting this post up- I LOVE anything about secret societies/esoteric groups... it's like candy for my brain!

Sunyata said...

Jiddu Krishnamurti telling a joke...

“There are three monks, who had been sitting in deep meditation for many years amidst the Himalayan snow peaks, never speaking a word, in utter silence. One morning, one of the three suddenly speaks up and says, ‘What a lovely morning this is.’ And he falls silent again. Five years of silence pass, when all at once the second monk speaks up and says, ‘But we could do with some rain.’ There is silence among them for another five years, when suddenly the third monk says, ‘Why can’t you two stop chattering?”


Anonymous said...

You have done an incredible job of collating and presenting the information of what went on during Annie Besant’s days.

After the Leadbeater crisis, the next major world-wide crisis that Theosophical Society faced was the 2008 election of the International President. Many long time members feel that this crisis was far more serious that any in the past including the Columb crisis. This time a well-planned orchestrated effort was made to defeat the sitting President by alleging she is ill both mentally and physically, in spite of three independent physicians certifying to her physicial and mental fitness. Failing to defeat her, allegations were made about the votes cast in India - which has the largest membership - and when this failed, an ultra secret ill fated attempt was made to seize the Presidency by disenfranchising all members world-wide. This attempt was made by a Quartet led by the Head of the American Section and was discovered and publicized with the help of independent Internet Forum. All the details are accessible in the yahoo archives of theos-talk mailings list.

In the future, more scintillating details are likely to be discovered.