Review of In the Center of the Fire: a memoir of the occult

Copyright 2012 Freeman Presson, all rights reserved
This is a very nicely-produced, standard-sized hardcover: tightly-sewn signatures, good paper, and a very tight crimson cloth/board cover with gold embossing. The dust jacket features a picture of the author squatting on a fire escape with a friend, looking appropriately “out there somewhere” as befits the subtitle, “A memoir of the occult.” A generous number of personal photographs, occult sigilae, and other illustrations are provided. This book records the author’s personal and spiritual quest from the psychedelic years through 1989, when a certain stability was achieved with the end of litigation over Crowley copyrights, and the establishment of the author as an independent professional in publishing and book production (hence his ability to get his own book produced so well). This book also has its own website.

A large part of my reaction to this book comes from finding myself in it. James Wasserman was born in 1948, I in 1950; we were psychonauts during college (but he did enough psychedelics for five of me); we both had significant interests in an Eastern tradition (Sant Mat for him, Zen for me); and we both landed in Western magic and political libertarianism. Wasserman, of course, is Thelemic, where I am decidedly not.

You’re just going to have to be interested in “the occult” in some capacity to want to read all of this book, but the subtitle warned you of that. As long as you have some sympathy for alternative spirituality, you will easily “find yourself” in this book, as I did. I haven’t heard a reaction from any of my Thelemic friends yet; I imagine they might feel as if they were gazing into a dark mirror.

The book is structured as a chronological memoir. There are appendices and a glossary of occult terms. The author notes that it was harder than it sounds to sit down and “define your terms.” I did not look at all of his defnitions, but I approved of the ones I did see.

Because one of the fires the author was in the center of was the Crowley copyrights case, there is a lot of coverage of that. Wasserman had a special challenge, because Marcello Motta, the principal contender for the Crowley legacy, was his first Instructor in A.: A:.. I did not have a dog in this hunt, but it does make an interesting study of characters under stress, and it was an important episode in the history of the occult revival.

Overall, I have to recommend this book, since I had a lot of trouble putting it down. I also experienced a revelation of the importance of the Magical Record and of consistent practice, and decided to kill all of my excuses for lapses in both. Wasserman is unsparing in his self-portrait; he doesn’t make excuses for mistakes or for his long history of substance abuse (thankfully over, at least for many “days at a time” now). Let’s don’t let Crowley off the hook for that: apparently many Thelemites were influenced by Diary of a Drug Fiend to overestimate the ability of the refined Will to control addictive drugs (or underestimate the damage the drugs do to expression of the Will).

Since the author was so deeply involved in O.T.O., this book is much more a memoir of Thelema than it is of the broader occult movement. Wiccans, Pagans, and other Magi appear in the book, but most of them are bit players, demonstrating that the traditions mixed in New York (as they do here in Birmingham today), and then moving on. The memoir covers almost exactly the same years as the rise and cresting of first-wave Chaos Magic, but mentions this not at all.

Because of the effect of the Stoned Years, some of the middle part of the book is flat in affect, as if the author would not have remembered it without his diaries.

Wasserman was involved in the production of the “Simonomicon,” and gives a fairly favorable report of it and of “Simon.” He’s also quite hagiographic in his portrayal of Grady McMurtry. From what I have heard, both of these characterizations could use some balancing.

I found four lapses of copy-editing in the book; I didn’t log them, which is unfortunate, as I believe the author would actually care.

In summary, this is an amazing book based on its scope and the blinding honesty of the self-portrait, and I think everyone involved in the Western Esoteric Tradition should read it. I may have dwelt on its faults more than I do on some books, but that’s a measure of its complexity and the depth of the impression it made. Approach this book like life: pay attention and allow yourself to be surprised.

[Complimentary review copy from Red Wheel/Weiser gratefully acknowledged, opinions my own, your mileage may vary, usw.]

About freemanpresson

Healer, Celto-Cherokee Pagan, Priest, Frater of the Church of the Hermetic Sciences, sometime writer, astrologer.
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1 Response to Review of In the Center of the Fire: a memoir of the occult

  1. For the record: I have lived up to my declaration of intent to practice regularly and keep up my magical record. It hasn’t been daily, but pretty close. Having a Magical Record in Evernote is great. I can access it from any computer, including my phone, and it’s searchable.

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