Neo-American Church

Chapter 17


I will say this much for the nobility: that, tyrannical, murderous, rapacious, and morally rotten as they were, they were deeply and enthusiastically religious.

I arrived one evening in a well-lubricated condition. The place was virtually overflowing with attractive young ladies of frivolous, lascivious and tolerant dispositions. Most were wearing “ecstatic clothes.” I knew only two or three, but the rest seemed to know me by reputation, and to have liked what they had heard.

Tim and his inner circle of the moment were away on a lecture and light-show date somewhere, but the partial resurrection of the furniture and the spirit and attire of the home guard made it clear that another ideological corner had been turned. I had no trouble finding drinking companions. I should have concentrated on Betsy Ross, Bob’s sweet, sensible and sexy sister, but when I woke up in the morning I was all tangled up on a mattress on the floor with a true air-head Learyite named Karen Detweiler, who, although far from repellent, wasn’t my type. A typical alcoholic misunderstanding. Oh well, any port in a storm and, as it turned out, this port had interesting connections.

Karen, in a way, wasn’t a troop after all. She was just visiting, on what might be called a vibe-gathering expedition, from a yoga ashram across the Hudson.

A complicated story unfolded. Karen’s ashram, Ananda, at Monroe, N.Y., had been started by a Dr. Rammurti Mishra from India, who was a psychiatrist, a yogi and, in Karen’s opinion, a “beautiful person.” Until the advent of the Psychedelian age, the place had potted quietly along supported by a gaggle of middle-class, middle-aged fogies in search of the kind of cheap miracle the less opulent sought at Madame Igapoo’s corner seance. When the acid hit the fan, however, the demographics altered radically. All kinds of young people showed up who could not be turned away, because they were willing, if not eager, outwardly anyway, to follow all the rules for full-time devotees. The older generation, known collectively as “householders,” basically treated the place as a weekend retreat.

Now, Karen told me, all “the kids,” such as herself, plus their new and groovy guru, a certain William Haines, were about to be evicted for general stonedness.

By the time the older crowd, who had firm control of the place administratively, discovered that all the kids were zonked and intended to remain that way, the kids had bombed Haines, who was about a year older than me and had been functioning for some time as Mishra’s right-hand man, or vicar or straw boss, or something.

Panic! The Devil was within the gates! As things stood, Karen told me, all the young people and Haines had been given thirty days to leave. The householders had hired an armed guard who was patrolling the property.

Mishra had refused to take sides. On one occasion, however, when asked his opinion of the drug movement by an older resident, he had replied, “Drugs? I love drugs!” so the kids had some hope, but less and less as time went by, that he might change his mind and save the day. Did I want to visit? I would love Bill Haines. He was just my type, Karen asserted, a jovial Sagittarian gorilla with a checkered past.

Of course I did.

At the Ashram, which turned out to be much more splendid than I had expected, with a small lake at the center and several pleasant wood-frame buildings, I was introduced to Haines, who was holding court in a small room jammed with Oriental objets d’art, and people crammed into every chair and corner. In the center of the floor a small person with a shaved head, whose sex I could not determine, was squirming around and giggling every time anyone said anything. Aside from this creature, I really liked the looks of the kids. They were happy, open-faced types. The girls were all pretty, with one or two knockouts.

I immediately liked Haines, just as Karen had predicted. He had spent nine years in India and was telling outrageous and hilarious stories about the private lives of the leading lights of modern yoga and Hinduism, although he himself, and most of the kids, were dressed in the proper robes, beads and sandals and were surrounded by authentic signs and symbols of the ancient Eastern traditions. A picture of Mishra, seated in the lotus on a rug near the lake, was on the wall, with fresh flowers under it. He looked dark, stern and well-barbered.

After a pleasant hour or two during which I heard, for the first time since Watts, someone who knew what he was talking about discuss the religions of the East, the speaker, none other than Bill, a.k.a. “Sri Sankara,” Haines invited me to join in the evening “meditation” and tell everyone all about the Neo-American Church, which sounded “perfectly reasonable” to him, he said.

On the way over to Mishra’s residence where the meeting was to be held, Karen told me it was obvious to her I had already made a big hit with Haines, because he was “the kind of guy who puts everything down, no matter what.” It was unheard of for him to say anything good about a visitor’s trip. Instead, he told everyone who showed up at the place how full of shit they were, right off the bat.

I could well believe it, and I could well understand it, and I have generally followed this policy myself, with the result that I am usually one step away from the poorhouse but rarely obliged to endure obnoxious company unless locked up with it.

After my presentation, which was well-received by one and all, Karen took me to her room in a dormitory close to the lake, where several Ashramites joined us in practicing, by inhalation, what I had just been preaching.

Haines, the kids said, didn’t smoke grass, but ever since his bombardment at a big weekend religious festival, he had been taking large doses of acid at least once a week. I signed up boo hoos and bee hees right and left, and met a couple of older Ashramites: Tambimutto, a relic of the old Greenwich Village literary scene, who conned me out of a six-pack; and a guy who was recovering from several years in a Buddhist monastery, using that well-known tranquilizer, lysergic acid diethylamide, to make a smooth adjustment to the outside world. I also met my future wife, Wendy Williams. She flitted in and out, but didn’t make much of an impression on me at the time.

The next morning, hearing that I needed a bottle, Narad, the “man of iron,” offered to drive me to town. Narad was famous as the young lover of a well-known female teacher of hatha yoga described in a fairly popular book of the day by Jess Stearn called Yoga, Youth, and Reincarnation.

Narad, Karen had informed me, was “quite a character.” According to her, he spent much of his spare time rolling huge stones around the property and welding furniture out of steel parts so heavy that a coffee table, for example, might require six men to move it from one room to another. He was also incredibly horny but none of the girls would have anything to do with him. His basic technique was to cast horoscopes which invariably demonstrated that the young lady in question must either submit to his embrace or, in consequence of her failure to obey the stars, miss out on her only crack at Nirvana.

“I used to live next door to him,” Karen said, “and he drove me crazy. You’ll see.”

Haines told me later he had once heard Karen, who claimed to have distinct memories of prior lives, including one tour as Queen of the Nile, or something similar, slam a door behind her in the middle of the night and flee the building screaming,“No, never! I didn’t love you in the sixteenth century and I don’t love you now!”

Narad lived up to his reputation. During the trip to town and back he didn’t stop talking for a minute. This kid, if there was any truth in what he said, should have been ruling the universe with an iron fist and steely nerves since he knew exactly how it was screwed together down to the last etheric nut and metaphysical bolt. Oddly enough, for someone who could tell you in exactly what “vibration zone” anything was located, Narad apparently had a lousy memory. He made three wrong turns in the short trip to town and back.

One should not be too hasty in ejecting irritating but harmless paranoid characters like Narad from Psychedelian communities. It’s probably better to have one severe case who will serve as a bad example than six mild cases who will hide or disguise their delusional systems. Enlightenment is impossible for anyone caught up in “metaphysical” ideation. Give me a naive realist or an old-fashioned supernaturalist any day.

It was clear to me that Bill Haines had to meet Timothy Leary. I got on the phone, after Bill said he would be delighted, and set it up. We were all invited to the Big House for dinner. All the Ashramites were excited about it.

Sarasvati, the girl who was rolling around on the floor the night before, had to be locked in her room lest she throw herself in front of Haines’ car as she had on a prior occasion when he left the property without her. Sarasvati, so called by her own election, had first appeared a few weeks earlier at a wedding Haines had attended at a fashionable synagogue in New York City. She was a junkie, a hooker, and obviously stoned on acid. In full view of the crowd on the sidewalk after the service, she had thrown herself at Bill’s feet, calling him “guruji” and begging to be accepted as an Ashramite. She would do anything he said, she said. Haines had accepted her, sort of, but had made several attempts to dump her after she appeared in Monroe.

One fairly serious attempt to do so, after she had been found taking a bath in Mishra’s apartment, which was sacred territory, had resulted in her cutting all her hair off. Haines seemed resigned to his fate. Although he grumbled and growled at Sarasvati constantly, he had acquired an industrious housekeeper at the cost of her room and board.

I later discovered that Sarasvati took “the teachings” very seriously, which explained much of her mirth about lesser matters, her own fixation on Haines included.

Sarasvati was always asking good questions like, “Is this for real or am I going crazy?” or, “Who’s doing it, that’s what I want to know?” or, “If I’m God, how come you all aren’t scared out of your wits?” and then giggling uncontrollably until Bill told her to go mop a floor or do some laundry.

Everyone dressed up, some of us took a little acid and Haines took a lot, and we drove over to Millbrook in two cars and a VW van. High drama, I thought, as we crossed the Hudson River in the fading light.

At the Big House, which was all lit up and looked like a gigantic and fantastic ornament set in the unbroken darkness of the trees, Haines immediately demonstrated his ability to hang on to his sense of humor while elevated on the Supreme Sacrament. When a scrawny Ashramite named Jean-Pierre emerged from the van wearing a bed sheet, Haines, who had also alighted, boomed out, “Ah, Jean-Pierre! You look like Jesus Christ after a hard night!”

I wish someone had taken a group photograph at the first meeting of the Ashram and the League. Everyone except me seemed to be dressed to kill in the best beads and batik money could buy. Flowers, candles and incense galore. The meeting was held in the dining room, which the Leaguers had arranged and decorated for the purpose. Tim’s people sat on one side of the low table, Bill’s on the other.

Bill and Tim bowed to each other with fingertips together at the forehead, as was then the fashion. Everyone sat down and several lit up and passed joints. Bill puffed on his pipe. Pleasantries were exchanged. Finally, Bill opened the serious part of the proceedings by announcing, “I often think, Dr. Leary, that if we could only get rid of the Holy Mothers we would solve all our problems, ho, ho, ho.”

Tim refused to bite. Instead, he readily agreed to Bill’s thesis. Meetings between established teachers are, in the ancient traditions of Oriental gurumanship, highly stylized performances put on, presumably, for the benefit of the audience. There is supposed to be an argument which continues until one party admits he is wrong or drops from exhaustion. On later occasions, as we shall see, Bill and Tim had no difficulty finding things to argue about, but on their first meeting, everything was sweetness and light, even though Tim’s group included three or four women who probably regarded themselves as “Holy Mothers,” one of whom, Bhavani, had actually consulted primary sources and seemed to know what she was talking about.

Tim, immediately aware of Bill’s condition, asked some questions about how Bill reconciled yoga with the use of LSD and Bill responded for fifteen minutes or so with an earnest and sensible account of his feelings and attitudes on the subject. He stressed the idea that the whole purpose of yoga was to reach Enlightenment and that this could only be done through intense personal experience of the kind the psychedelic drugs provided.

Good show. Tim seemed satisfied he was dealing with a fellow maniac, and suggested that everyone just do as they pleased and we would all have dinner together in a couple of hours. Bali Ram led some women from both groups into the kitchen, where, he said, he would show them how to prepare a vegetarian feast worthy of the King of Nepal. The boys started milling around checking out the girls and the girls started milling around checking out the boys.

Dinner was delightful, as Bali had promised. Later, I found Bill in the library, staring moodily at the fire, and took a seat near him. “Did I make an ass of myself, Kleps?” Bill asked, in a childlike way. Among his other attractive characteristics, Bill became emotionally vulnerable on trips. So did Billy Hitchcock. Tim, in contrast, became cold, brilliant and decisive. I think I’m somewhere in the middle, but such things are for others to judge.

“Hell, no, Bill,” I said. “You did beautifully. It was just right for the occasion.”

“Well, it’s hard to tell when you’re on this stuff,” Bill said. “Did the kids tell you how they bombed me the first time? The place was jammed with straight Ashram members from New York, all the Holy Mothers, and all kinds of visitors and it was up to me to organize everything and there I was on my first trip, and it was no baby dose either, let me tell you. I had only two thoughts: Who is high and who isn’t, and who did it? … because I’m going to kill the son of a bitch!”

Bill laughed ruefully and shook his head, “What really got me was that these dumb little buggers had been doing it for years, some of them, and the whole time I was trying to tell them where it was at. Why did they listen to me?”

“Just because they take a lot of acid doesn’t mean they have learned much from it, Bill,” I said. “That was a mistake I made for a long time. I’m not sure I’m enlightened either. I’m sure I am sometimes, but then at other times I seem to forget, or at least I don’t live up to it. I guess I’m enlightened in a half-assed way.”

“You’re enlightened, Kleps,” Bill said. He seemed a little embarrassed at having made this pronouncement. “Well, I guess I had better go find the Mad Scientist, swallow my pride, and beg for sanctuary. You really think I did all right, huh?”

“You’ve got just the style that’s needed around here,” I said.

Bill went off to find Tim.

A couple days later, J.D. and her husband, whom she would shed shortly, dropped me off at Steve Newell’s house, a few miles from Princeton and Humphry Osmond’s New Jersey Neuro-Psychiatric Institute.

Before we take our leave of J.D., whose name appears to be forever enshrined in American legal reference books as a representative of the Neo-American Church (United States of America v. Judith H. Kuch, Criminal No. 1473-67), I must mention that this ignorant, wealthy, creepy little occultist, who in appearance so much resembled a moldy dumpling, had a character to match. She attracted creeps and creeps attracted her. Along with her closest associates such as Donald Mead and Kevin Malone, all she actually represented was an occultist-creep network extending from Boston to Washington, D.C., which degraded the image of the Neo-American Church in many places in the early years of the movement. I didn’t know. If I had, I would not have been asking for or accepting favors from her. It was appropriate that it was J.D. who delivered me to a place where I was to suffer the worst blow of my Psychedelian career up to that time.

Steve’s setting was in perfect keeping with his mental set: an isolated old house in the country with a crumbling graveyard behind it and an old stone barn next door inhabited by an incommunicative “mad” inventor whose large and incomprehensible constructions Steve had only glimpsed through briefly opened doors.

Steve seemed to be in fine fettle, and thought it likely he could find me a job for the winter. He introduced me to his boss and lover, who struck me as a nice, sensible woman who didn’t have the slightest idea of what acid was all about. She was one of the few members of the research staff of the hospital who had never tripped. I filled out a questionnaire and was interviewed by a staff sociologist. I met Humphry Osmond. Instant feelings of affiliation.

Sure enough, two days later I had a job at another nuthouse right up the road from Osmond’s place. I noticed, however, as we drove back and forth, that flocks of blackbirds constantly appeared on our left. A sign of impending murder, according to the Thugee superstitions of India.

Did this apply in New Jersey, and if so, to whom?

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