John Whiteside Parsons 1914-1952
Next to Aleister Crowley, “Jack” Parsons is probably the best known principal advocate of Thelema. One might make some argument for James Patrick Page OBE, but he is not best known for his association with Thelema; Parsons, however, is often cited as “also having helped found JPL” aside from discussion of his esoteric work. Parsons is enough well-known to rate his own short-lived television series, Strange Angel on CBS All Access, which ran for two seasons.
For those totally unfamiliar with his story, Parsons was a rocket scientist and a principal founder of Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), a federally-funded research and development center managed by Caltech for NASA. One of the leading biographies of Parsons is Sex and Rockets: The Occult World of Jack Parsons, by John Carter, published in 1999 by Feral House.
Along with other early and mid 20th century figures like Nikola Testla, Parsons has become somewhat iconic in the countercultural media and world, accumlating glancing references in places as obscure as “The Secret History of Twin Peaks.” Some joke that JPL actually stands for “Jack Parsons Laboratory.”
Parsons was both a darling of, and condemned by, Crowley, who trusted him for a time with the operation of the only functional O.T.O. Lodge anywhere in the world at that time, the Agape Lodge in Pasadena, California. In historical terms outside the latter day O.T.O., Agape Lodge is principally identified with Parsons and his partnership with Cameron; other core contributors included Jane Wolfe, Phyllis Seckler, and Wilfrid Talbot Smith. People in the world outside Thelema who know anything about Agape Lodge have probably heard the story that Parsons praticed magick there with Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, before Hubbard left with Parsons’ wife. While this was part of a business venture taking place with his blessing, it became an attempt to cheat Parsons of a boat they had jointly purchased.
Parsons was what would today be called polyamorous. His ethics in the matter can be called into question, and he quarrled with partners over his relationships. These included Cameron, whom he married and then divorced, though the two reconciled before his death.
It is difficult for modern people to fully understand the pressures on the Thelemic groups of the early 20th century, and most particularly on Agape Lodge in California. Many of us, particularly those living in metropolitan areas where there have been strong LGBT and Kink communities in recent decades, have little contact with a world in which the “breath” of scandal can result in persecution or loss of jobs.
The fact is that Agape Lodge probably couldn’t have existed anywhere outside of Los Angeles or possibly New York until the early 1960s. There are numerous accounts of sexual activity in relation to the Lodge, though it is important to understand this does not necessarily mean scenes from “Eyes Wide Shut.” Any sort of sexual activity outside of a closed bedroom and marriage was outre by the standards of the day, so a polyamorous relationship that would excite little comment or surprise now was scandalous. Morever the sort of privacy we enjoy today did not exist. Sexual conduct outside of marriage was a crime in California until 1975, and in many places laws remained on the books until Lawrence v. Texas. Where there is criminal conduct, there is automatically a right of the press to know and report.
By the 1930s these laws were selectively enforced, and well to do Hollywood elite had a near immunity, but there were no certainties.
In The Unknown God, W. T. Smith and the Thelemites, by Martin Starr (2003), the author recounts how Agape Lodge had operated for less than a year when a Mass honoring a leader in the “New Thought” movement led to charges that the lodge was too “sexually open.” Later that year Smith was demoted at work for his involvement in the Lodge. This forced a long term suspension of private activities.
Parsons joined the Lodge in 1939 because it was popular with Science Fiction authors, and he helped recruit the man who would later become Crowley’s “heir apparent,” Grady McMurtry. Another press flap in 1939 led to another lengthy suspension of activities.
The O.T.O. at the time had what we’d now recognize as an early polyamorous culture, rife with all the issues of practicing polyamory in a place and time where the vast majority of people have been raised never to question monogamy. That there were blunders and likely abuses is without question. Crowley, writing from England, took a distinctly puritanical tone. He believed his openness and frequent changes of partners to be part of Thelema and his “great work,” but now in his late sixties he found the libertinism at Agape Lodge as a threat.
In practical terms it was. He sent Karl Germer to the U.S. to see that dues were sent to him, and replaced Smith as the U.S. leader and heir apparent. By this point in his life, Crowley saw publishing as his primary goal and salvation from obscurity, and had no sympathy for others doing precisely what he’d done only a few years earlier.
The center of weight in Agape Lodge moved to Parsons when a number of Thelemites began a communal living situation in 1942 at his Orange Grove Blvd house. Parsons was popular, though not with all the original members. Parsons created a regular Thelemic Journal, Oriflamme, but Crowley was unimpressed. The publisher of Diary of a Drug Fiend in 1922 had been well punished for his sins, and references to drug use by Parsons worried him.
Parsons would also suffer for his adherence to Thelema. When his security clearance was revoked by the FBI, he speculated to Germer that his publication of Liber OZ was at fault, though history has shown he was a victim of the “Red Scare.” For all the attempts of latter-day Thelemite leaders to classify him as a “Libertarian,” he was not, at least in the Anarcho-Capitalist sense of the 21st century political party. He was as much a Socialist, very much at home in a commune of interesting people. Certainly he was a social libertarian, but would have scant tolerance for white supremacy.
From 1946 through his death in 1952, Parsons, like many freethinking intellectuals was hounded by the FBI. At various points he was reduced to menial work, and by 1950 he began plans to move to Israel, where he believed he could work in rocket science unsupervised by the oppressive U.S. Government. He was planing to depart for Mexico in June 1952 when he died as the result of an explosion at his home laboratory. Argument over whether or not Parsons may have been assassinated persists today. The Pasadena Police investigation was cursory, and not enough information remains, absent an evidenced confession, to ever close the matter. If Parsons was indeed the victim of an assassination, the motives were more likely his incipient work with Israel than anything having to do with the occult.
Parsons principal contributions to Thelema come in the form of his lifestyle and writings. Crowley lived as a poet and had many relationships. Parsons was a sybarite, but his aspiration was a normal career and day job, not exile and literary immortality. For many of us, Parsons is a far more relatable figure.
In terms of writings, his magnum opus was Liber 49, The Book of Babalon, principally received on February 28th, in the Mojave, with additional elements through early March. While Cameron was absent during this time period, her influence lies heavily on the work.
Parsons believed the Book of Babalon made up a fourth book of Liber AL. Over the years there have been many “additional books” of Liber AL, but Parsons’ Book of Babalon is without question the one taken most seriously.
The companion to the Book of Babalon is the Manifesto of the Antichrist, which is shorter and less graceful, more a declaration than an inspired work along the lines of the Book of Babalon.
This along with a self-analysis of his attainment of 8=3 formed the majority of his magical legacy.
A collection of his essays on self-determination were published by Cameron and William Breeze in 1989. Freedom is a Two-Edged Sword is a landmark work, though it may have done more to establish Parsons as a “Libertarian” icon than to prompt serious thought regarding his teachings. The book takes its title from the quote, “Freedom Is A Two-Edged Sword of which one edge is liberty and the other responsibility, on which both edges are exceedingly sharp,” Parsons has made a poor icon for the modern day Anarcho-Capitalist and Nationalist run of Libertarians as his work is socially liberal, but devoid of the sentiments that would make it good fuel for intolerance and hate which is likely why despite being branded a “libertarian” he has generally remained more iconic to the Progressive Thelemic movement.
Parsons is a fascinating figure, as deeply flawed in his own ways as Crowley, but also an intellectual giant, whose very real accomplishments are beyond dispute. He is the recipient of one of the most significant inspired texts in the Thelemic realm outside of Liber AL, and his legacy provides a waypoint between the era of Crowley, and the explosion of Thelema into the gestalt of the 1960s and beyond. Parsons’ passion made Thelema accessible to those who found Crowley’s 19th century sensibilities inaccessible, and he has been an entry point for many first embracing Thelema.