Friday 4 October 2013

An Interview with Michael G. Lloyd

Last week here at Albion Calling I interviewed Professor Emeritus Robert Mathiesen, a historian of witchcraft in the United States who has undertaken research into the origins of the Wiccan tradition propagated by Gwen Thompson (1928-1986). This week I talk to another historian of American witchcraft, the independent scholar Michael G. Lloyd, who is the author of an authoritative biography on one of Thompson’s most prominent initiates, Edmund “Eddie” Buczynski (1947-1989), founder of the Minoan Brotherhood. As regular readers might be aware, several months ago I wrote a review of this book, Bull of Heaven: The Mythic Life of Eddie Buczynski and the Rise of the New York Pagan (Asphodel Press, 2012), which was published in The Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies (you can read it online for free here). In that review, I described Bull of Heaven as “the finest independent Pagan studies scholarship to have been produced in the United States to date,” not a claim that I make lightly!  Hoping to learn more about the man behind this enlightening and enjoyable read, I invited Lloyd to discuss his magnum opus and his views on the state of Pagan studies scholarship today.

Photograph by Debby Drake

[EDW] In Bull of Heaven, you were open about your status as a practitioner of contemporary Paganism, and your role in the foundation of the Between the Worlds Men’s Gathering, a Pagan festival for gay and bisexual men. How did your involvement in this religious movement come about, and do you feel that it has influenced or inspired your scholarship within the field of Pagan studies?

[MGL] I’ve always had a love of ancient cultures, particularly those of Greece and Egypt. I voraciously read everything I could get my hands on regarding the religions and cultures of those two lands, but I was not myself religious. I was raised nominally Protestant, meaning we only went to church to marry ‘em and to bury ‘em. This was the 1960s and 1970s, when a lot of the religious straitjacketing of US society was beginning to be questioned (and to crumble under the scrutiny). I considered myself to be an atheist until college, and I still have a healthy skepticism of religion (and people’s claims therein).

In the late 1970s, I explored Catholicism because many of my college friends were Catholic, and even began adult catechism. But I dropped out when I became aware of the inner politics of the church, and as the church hardened its heart against gay people. I still enjoyed the ritual, however, and eventually found my way to a gay Protestant church. But even then I still maintained a healthy skepticism of religious claims. As I continued to read and compare religious practices, I realized that much of what we take for divinely inspired Christian practice was, in fact, adapted from ancient Pagan cults.

At that point (now the late 1980s), I shifted my focus to exploring Paganism. An increasing amount of information was becoming publicly available on different traditions and paths. I began hanging out at occult shops, making friends in the community, attending different types of rituals (including that hosted by Wiccan, Druid, and Norse groups). I still couldn’t find anything that spoke to me. In the summer of 1998, a gay witch and I started a discussion group on Randy Conner’s book Blossom of Bone, which is a historical overview of homoeroticism in spirituality across many cultures. When the group ended, I still felt the need to have group interactions. I ended up co-founding the Green Faerie Grove, a witchcraft coven for gay and bi men, with three other men at Yule of 1998.

Also in 1998, I heard mention on an AOL chat group of a tradition for gay and bi men called the Minoan Brotherhood. After making inquiries for months, a member of that tradition finally answered and I was eventually directed to a teacher. I became a third degree in the Minoan Brotherhood in early 2002. That same year, I co-founded Between the Worlds with another member of Green Faerie Grove. We had been attending Pagan Spirit Gathering for several years, and we paid attention to how a festival was planned, organized, and executed. Over the years, I’ve had the opportunity to meet many Pagan practitioners from across North America. This has allowed me a chance to expand my knowledge and my circle of friends and contacts.

I realize that this is the long trip to answering your question. Ultimately, however, without every step I took along this path, I don’t believe that Bull of Heaven would have been written. In particular, my own personal involvement in the community, and my contacts therein, gave me access to many people who may not have spoken with an outsider. It also gave me an understanding of the inner workings and practices of various groups, which allowed me to tailor my research and interviews effectively. Without these contacts and knowledge, it would have been virtually impossible to have written a good biography of Eddie Buczynski. And if you aren’t going to set out with the intention of writing a good biography (or any type of history), then you probably shouldn’t even attempt to start one in the first place.

Cover design by Carvin Rinehart

[EDW] Although definitely important in the history of contemporary American Paganism, Eddie Buczynski has been a largely neglected figure in pre-existing histories of Pagan Witchcraft; he for instance receives no mention in Ronald Hutton’s The Triumph of the Moon or Chas S. Clifton’s Her Hidden Children. That being the case, how did you first learn about him, and what was it that so interested you about this particular figure and the New York City milieu in which he lived?

[MGL] I have great admiration for both Hutton and Clifton. To be fair, I would have been shocked if Buczynski had registered on the radar of either author. As I explained above, I had become a member of the Minoan Brotherhood, which Eddie Buczynski had founded in 1977. Had I not taken that step, the chances are good that I might never have heard about Buczynski either, as he was only spoken of within certain groups in New York City. Buczynski left the limelight right before public interest in Paganism really took off in the 1980s (he died in 1989), and that is why he disappeared so quickly from the rolls. If he had remained publicly active for even a few more years, he would likely have been more widely remembered.

I had originally just planned on writing a short biographical paper on Eddie’s life. Early into the project, I realized that this approach would be woefully inadequate given the complexity of his story. It was several years into the project that I realized that, if I didn’t include a large measure of what was going on in NYC and in the US, Eddie’s story would simply lose all context, as readers today would be scratching their heads wondering why folks did what they did back then. It was my good friend Christopher Penczak who later suggested that I change the subtitle of the book to reflect this expanded scope.

I love New York City. It’s such a whirling maelstrom of humanity. You will encounter a cross-section of the world there. And its place as a center of media, finance and culture was absolutely crucial to the blossoming of the occult/Pagan movement in the US in the late 20th Century. I could never live there - its simply too much for this former farm boy. But I was named an honorary resident of the city by the NYC Gay Men’s Open Pagan Circle in 2011 for my work on behalf of the city’s Pagan community, and I am very proud of that honor.

[EDW] Your research was copious and must have taken years to complete. You communicated with hundreds of people and examined a huge array of documents from the period. It is this thorough research that is a big reason why Bull of Heaven is such a good book. What was it like doing that research, particularly without a university support base that many academics perhaps take for granted? Furthermore, how did you get started on such a daunting project; were you always thinking about writing a book?

[MGL] I’m an engineer, which surprises some because I’m sure that we’ve all known engineers who cannot craft a decent sentence to save their lives. But that career has given me the income and leisure to conduct research separate from a university and its own wealth of resources. I didn’t have to rely on a book advance, nor was I on anyone’s timetable but my own. And thank the Gods for that, because two of the things which took the greatest amount of time were tracking people down and convincing them to cooperate with the project.

That’s not to say that I wouldn’t have welcomed the resources of a university! (I should note here that I did receive input from the faculties of both Hunter College CUNY and Bryn Mawr College) But I am a university graduate and thus have a nominal understanding of how to conduct research. I also produced a GLBT public affairs radio program in the late 1980s, and have had training in industrial accident investigation. Both of these experiences have given me some rudimentary interview skills.

If you want to pursue a project of this nature, you need to be prepared to get your hands dirty (sometimes quite literally). I spent days and weeks digging through archives stored in barns and basements, pawing through stacks of old magazines and books in used bookstores, or bent over microfilm readers in libraries and copying machines in stationary stores. If you are allergic to dust, molds and mildews, you may want to rethink your path or else get your hands on a strong allergy prescription.

All of that aside, I don’t think that I could have successfully completed this project without the use of the internet. And by internet, I don’t just mean Wikipedia – which has some limited uses, but only when it is appropriately sourced (which wasn’t nearly often enough for my purposes). I mainly used the internet to track down people, organizations, books, and magazines, as well as for things like perpetual lunar calendars, which can tell when full and dark moons have fallen in the past (a useful tool when researching Witchcraft traditions). I found a number of people using the internet, which is somewhat creepy on one hand, but absolutely necessary if you are trying to locate people to interview and have nowhere else to turn.

As I noted previously, the book started out as a paper, and then sort of grew organically. I know that some folks believe that it is too big, and that there are places where Eddie fades into the background. However, I still believe that I told the story that needed telling, and not just the one that folks were expecting of me. I worked on Bull of Heaven for the better part of nine years. I had originally thought that I would be finished in 2005. Then 2006. Then 2007. Had my future self popped back in time to tell me that I wouldn’t complete it until 2012, I probably would have quailed at the prospect. As it was, I believe that the book took as long as it needed to take. And I am glad that I didn’t wait to start it, as seven people who I interviewed for the story passed away in that time. And some of the stories I uncovered were fascinating in their own right – for example, a previously unpublished account of the Stonewall riots from someone who was in the bar during the raid.

[EDW] Independent scholars like yourself have added much to our knowledge of contemporary Pagan history over the past few decades; here in Britain we have Philip Heselton, who has extensively studied the life and times of Gerald Gardner and the early Gardnerian Wiccans. This being the case, what role do you see for the independent scholar in Pagan studies?

[MGL] I adore Philip. He was unstintingly kind and helpful in my own research, and is such a wonderful resource for the community both in the UK and over here. It takes a special breed of person to be able to do this kind of work, whether one is independent or is associated with a university program. You need to be polite. It seems strange to have to state that, but many people simply aren’t polite. They don’t say please and thank you nearly often enough. They have an unwarranted sense of entitlement. They are not gracious when sources say no, nor grateful when they say yes. Those people skills are absolutely essential because, when all is said and done, the writer in this field is dependent to a large extent upon the kindness of strangers. You are asking them to take their time to speak or correspond with you. You are asking them to divulge sensitive, perhaps even embarrassing, details of their lives, and to relive what may be uncomfortable memories. It takes a lot of chutzpah to ask such of strangers – and to answer such strangers who ask.

You have to be willing to pay your own way. I cannot tell you how irritated it makes me when someone asks me to copy and mail stuff to them without so much as a mention of recompense for expenses. So why, then, should I expect someone else to foot the bill for my project? I always offered to reimburse individuals and organizations for the costs they have incurred to help me. It is not only polite, it is ethical. Speaking of ethics, this is a point which should be noted. A writer needs to be up front with his sources about what he intends to do with the material/information s/he is given, and to work within the limitations which have been set for its use as best as possible. There are almost always ethical means by which one can work within these limitations. Access to arcane information is a trust, and is probably the biggest advantage that the independent scholar – albeit, one with the proper bona fides within the Pagan community – has over the academic scholar who does not have those references.

It is essential for the writer in this field to have some critical thinking skills. And I think that this is truly where the writer associated with a university has the distinct advantage over many independent scholars, particularly those associated with the Pagan community. One must be willing to – sensitively – cull the facts from the lore if one is to produce a defensible story that honors the truth (or is, at least, as close as one is able to get to it). This can be hard for the writer who is embedded within the Pagan community, as there is always some pressure not to contradict the stories that everyone has come to know and accept as “gospel.” This isn’t to say that all Pagan scholars are predisposed to shade the truth, or that all academic scholars are meticulously objective. But the Pagan scholar must be willing and prepared to sustain criticism from the Pagan community when their conclusions touch on sensitive topics (which they all must, given the underlying humanity of both one’s subject and one’s readers). In contrast, the scholar from the academic world, generally speaking, has a built-in system of professional checks and balances (advisers, referees, journal reviewers and the like) which make it somewhat more difficult for them to get away with “soft” thinking should the writer choose that route. Except, of course, when it doesn’t.  It is important to remember that no one is perfect, and that no system is fool-proof.

The ideal writer in the field of modern Pagan studies is one who has both the connections to obtain the information which sustains the research and the critical thinking skills necessary to analyze it and craft a story that aligns with the facts as they are known. This is, as one might imagine, easier said than done. Nevertheless, the independent scholar can be a crucial player in this field if s/he has the requisite skills and resources. I can also see the potential for partnerships between independent and academic scholars in this area which would allow both to play to their inherent strengths.

It is also absolutely vital that one be capable of slinging sentences with a fair degree of technical ability and even charm. This needs to be said because we are speaking in part about non-professional writers, and those writers in particular tend to greatly overestimate their technical writing abilities. Over the years I’ve heard a number of people say that they were going to write a book, but the samples of their writing that I’ve seen would send the ablest of editors off screaming in terror. If you want to write, first read! And then learn from what you read with regard to sentence structure, the ordering of ideas and themes, and – for Gods’ sakes – spelling and punctuation. You may have the greatest idea in the world for a book, but if you cannot skillfully communicate it who is ever going to read it?

Finally, it helps to have a healthy appreciation for the absurd. After all, we are dealing with human beings, which are the most absurd of creatures. A sense of humor (along with respect and politeness), when properly wielded, can be an awesome tool for disarming uncomfortable interview subjects and for placing serious topics in perspective. At any rate, that’s how I use it in my own writings.

[EDW] With Bull of Heaven now published, do you have any future research projects or publications either in the pipeline or on the horizon?

[MGL] I do. I have been working on a volume dedicated to ancient and modern Dionysian ritual and worship that I am writing with an archaeologist and an anthropologist. That project had been on the back burner for some years while Bull of Heaven was being written. I have written a screenplay based on Bull of Heaven and am working on yet another screenplay based in my experience in the Pagan community. There is a series of novels which I have been toying with for some time. And I have been offered the opportunity to publish a revised second edition of Bull of Heaven that will include some additional information and interviews.

[EDW] This is a question that I ask all of those whom I have interviewed in this series, but I would be particularly interested to hear your take on the issue. Where exactly do you think the field of Pagan studies is headed in future?

[MGL] One of the reasons that I wrote Bull of Heaven was in the hopes that I could interest more scholars to study the history of modern Paganism in the US. There is such a wealth of information out there just waiting to be explored. My own native state of Ohio here in the US has had a very active involvement in Paganism dating back many decades, and yet nothing substantial has been written on the subject. As to the history of the occult and Paganism in New York City or of gays in the Pagan movement – I’ve only just scratched the surface. I challenge other scholars to take up that ball and run it further down the pitch.

[EDW] On behalf of both myself and my readers, thank you very much for this interview Mr Lloyd, and I hope that it serves to inspire more independent scholars to delve into the study of modern Paganism.