People fear the weird. Although we belong to a seemingly unshockable generation, we avoid real-life outsiders, preferring to examine them from a safe distance: on talk shows, in ’zines, and on the Internet. When an honest-to-god oddball intrudes on our personal space—when a street preacher approaches or a rubber fetishist shows up at a nightclub—we shake him or her off with a burst of ritual mockery.
Or we practice tolerance, which works even better than laughter to dispel unease. A controlled taste of life’s seamy side—a visit to a drag lounge, say, or the perusal of one of RE/Search’s magabooks—actually reinforces one’s self-image. It redraws the lines of normalcy, clarifying just who’s holding the opera glasses and who’s stuck in the freak show.
Adam Parfrey’s Cult Rapture, an anthology of articles from the San Diego Reader, the Village Voice, and Hustler, works on all these levels. Parfrey’s attitude toward his subjects alternates between mockery, titillation, and medicinal tolerance. The author’s politics are tough to pin down; he mentions that he spent some time in a feminist commune but doesn’t explain how he got from there to a writing stint at Hustler. Likewise, Parfrey’s definition of the weird doesn’t follow any clear-cut ideological lines—his interviewees include gun nuts, new agers, and a Nazi. Suffice it to say that he’s impelled toward society’s margins. His book is nominally concerned with the apocalyptic urge in American culture (thus the biblical reference in the title) but is really about one man’s fascination and discomfort with strangers and their strangeness.
Parfrey struggles to master his subjects, sneering at some, shaking his head at others, and meticulously cataloging their words and gestures. But he can’t manage to either laugh these people off or explain how they captured his interest in the first place. Caroming from shock-treatment proponents to militia organizers, from paraplegic sex activists to Elvis fans, he seems somehow helpless in his bafflement. When he focuses on Linda Thompson, an Indianapolis attorney who’s trying to raise an army to attack Washington, his question is the same as that of a radio call-in host he quotes: “Why do so many of you guys believe this stuff?”
Why indeed? That’s the real puzzle behind these probings. What motivates these believers? Is there something here that’s lacking in so-called “ordinary” people? Some would say so. RE/Search publications like Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist are written in affirming, if detached, tones, and numerous ’zines simply laud any and all experimentation. But Parfrey isn’t so accepting. He wonders what he’s missing, then almost immediately decides, “Nothing.”
These essays would be far less interesting if nonchalance were his only response. But Parfrey isn’t a comfortably disengaged scholar; he can’t seem to keep his subjects from getting under his skin, and his squirming is evident. Time after time, his objectivity gives way to expressions of suspiciously intense rejection. The anti-government Thompson is “hysterical and overwrought,” a “kamikaze,” Parfrey writes. Jonathan Haynes, an Aryan separatist on Chicago’s death row for two murders, is, lest we doubt it, a “lunatic,” and Ruth Gordon, an elderly religious leader who calls herself “the Archangel Uriel,” is just “a spacy granny from El Cajon.”
Parfrey’s fearful fascination reaches its melodramatic zenith in “Please May I Touch Your Scar?,” a look at a pro-sex group for the disabled called I CAN. Parfrey visits the group’s founders, David and Violet Brandenburger, in their home, which he depicts as a messy, decadent, and dangerous lair. He comes in fighting: Even wheelchair-bound Violet’s “gnarled” and “shriveled” limbs don’t save her from a measure of desperate mockery for referring to herself as “a kind of Goddess” or “the Main Attraction.” But it’s the hulking David who really excites Parfrey’s disgust:
Chainsmoking David Brandenburger, capacious belly protruding beyond his t-shirt, testicles visible below his shorts, stands sentinel at the front screen door. White trash furnishings inside: worn shag carpet, glass case displaying ceramic figurines, unicorns and clowns. Stale, uncirculated air, the smell of mineral oil, sweat, farts and cigarette smoke.
Throughout the piece, it’s David of the visible testicles who speaks most often, David whose cigarette smoke, “thick and acrid,” burns Parfrey’s eyes and increases his claustrophobic anxiety. The picture of the subtly unmanned explorer is complete when the Brandenburgers usher Parfrey into their bedroom and conduct a low-key orgy with several of their devotees. “The entire I CAN gang is fondling each other, cooing, fingering and rubbing. Oily flesh starts to heat,” Parfrey notes. Meanwhile, he sits stiffly against the wall, diligently quizzing the orgy participants on their worldviews.
Parfrey leaves little doubt as to the ugliness, goofiness, and general sense of scuzz that pervades the Brandenburgers’ lives, but it’s impossible to buy his pose of unmitigated repulsion. After all, there is all that oily flesh to consider. It’s hard to believe any display of uninhibited sexuality, however icky, could be entirely devoid of temptation. But Parfrey never lets himself wonder what it would be like to join the orgy. More importantly, he never asks why, if it disgusts him so much, he wants to write about it.
Take another case, the world of Russian mail-order brides and their American sponsors. The industry as Parfrey depicts it is as archaic and sleazy as one would expect. In the pages of xeroxed magazines like American Russian Matchmaker, “Kohl-smudged nubiles stare uncertainly and even grimly at hope of a ‘better life.’”
Their Princes Charming are gloriously retrograde characters. One writes form letters to six or seven women at a time; he plans to meet them all before making his choice. Another refers to women as “stuff” or “source”—as in, “I found that of all the countries they [the matchmaking agency] were promoting, the one I saw the best source from was Russia….[T]he other countries weren’t getting the prime material.” At one organization’s banquet in Moscow, “a flotilla of tarted-up females surround painfully ordinary American bachelors like starry-eyed groupies.”
No, there’s nothing tempting here. Just hordes of women enthralled with even the shoddiest representation of American cosmopolitanism, women desperate to meet—and, it becomes clear, happy to satiate—obvious losers. It may be a grotesque parody of male fantasy, but the original outlines are still visible. Again, though, Parfrey refuses to admit to any feelings beyond scorn. Even if that is truly the extent of his reaction, an attempt at empathy with these hopeless bachelors would ring truer than his worldly scoffing.
Many of Cult Rapture’s essays end with the subjects reaching out to Parfrey as he backs away from their tentacles like a horror-movie heroine. Whether it’s something about Parfrey in particular, or merely his ready ear, these people can’t resist him. The Brandenburgers suggest he join them for a period of “Sanctuary,” an impassioned Elvis fan sends him love letters, supporters of rightist presidential candidate (and recent Freemen negotiator) “Bo” Gritz fax press releases. They’re like less lethal versions of the Unabomber, whose unwelcome parcels are the ultimate symbol of chaos’s persistent fingers. And like the Unabomber—still somehow inhuman despite acquiring a possible face and name—these people are never quite real. They’re too cartoonish, too much like a sophomore novelist’s symbolic sirens. Parfrey may be truly disgusted by his subjects’ rhetoric and grime, but if these people are so marginal, so far outside the normal person’s purview, then why write—or read—about them at all?
The usual excuse—that outsiders reflect some truth about society—applies only patchily. It’s doubtful that Parfrey’s readers will experience his book as an “antidote to the Hallmark Card reality of America” or an “emetic for the soul,” as he claims. These slices of life are far too rich and strange to cleanse the palate, much less the soul. Instead they offer brief, dense tastes of secret wishes—of starting one’s own country, romping priapically through a series of sexual “perversions,” or simply abandoning cynicism for the simplicity of apocalyptic faith.
Cult Rapture opens with a caveat emptor: “This collection delves into the rapturously cultic experiences of groups you’re going to wish you never heard of.” But the book doesn’t really dispense the stiff medicine Parfrey promises. These tonics may be sour and may cause grimaces as they go down, but they’re taken willingly. For some reason, normalcy gives you a taste for the hard stuff.CP