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Nik Stanbridge Psychic TV, Riverside. 1982. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0BY-NC-ND 2.0 / cropped)

Groupthink and Other Painful Reflections on ​Thee Temple ov Psychick Youth

TOPY and Genesis P-Orridge’s knowing adoption of cult iconography quickly slid from satiric emulation to full embrace — and we all went along with it.

Cultish Machinations

From the ashes of Throbbing Gristle—and while still enamored by the band’s unexpectedly zealous following—P-Orridge conceptualized h/er next all-encompassing, art-as-lifestyle experiment: the transmedia act Psychic TV, and its magickal cult fanbase, Thee Temple ov Psychick Youth. Despite initial appearances, Psychic TV functioned merely as the audio-visual “propagandizing” division of the larger TOPY enterprise, as reflected through their concertizing and record releases. Thus, TOPY deserves the lion’s share of our present-day discussion, simply because Thee Temple’s spiritual objectives and sociopolitical agenda wholly dictated Psychic TV’s schizoid brand of nostalgia-glazed “hyperdelic” music. More specific explorations of TOPY’s underpinnings and worldwide magickal campaigns are provided elsewhere. (See Works Cited.)

While subculture exists as a necessary outlet for healthy transgression, these same spaces have always been fertile ground for “cultish” mindsets to take root among the vulnerable.

Both TOPY’s structure and its esoteric tenets are commonly attributed to P-Orridge and h/er personal hobby-horses from transgressive culture. Thee Temple’s system of governance borrowed from stratified Victorian sects such as the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, Ordo Templi Orientis, or Astrum Argentum; its visual and symbolic branding lifted design elements from prior psychedelic cults fixed in the public imagination; and its ritual practices were cribbed nearly verbatim from the postmodern school of occultism known as chaos magick. So TOPY embodied the socio-cultural astroturfing of two very different yet imaginary movements, each intended to titillate rival audiences.

On one side of the coin: TOPY’s inductees, and the anti-establishment underground, witnessed the convincing revival of subversive touchstones they already glamorized, such as Victorian sorcery or psychedelia. On the other side: the humdrum, clean-living folk happily subscribed to the reactionary 1980s stared down the crazed bacchanalia of a “Satanic sex cult”. The seductive appeal of the TOPY/Psychic TV prototype quickly became evident, first in the UK among “industrial culture” aficionados, and later around the world. Indeed, beguiling prose brims with earnest tenacity and a utopian affect in their introductory leaflet. Thee Temple “act[s] as a catalyst and focus for … Individual development … Maybe you are … already feeling different, dissatisfied, separate from thee mass[es] … instinctive and alert? … [TOPY] offer[s] no dogmas … or easy answers … we offer only the method of survival as a True Being, we give you back to yourself” (TOPY 2010: 33-4).

But after lofty promises for a new kind of radical self-determination, TOPY rapidly mutated into “the autocratic religious cults they set out to parody” (Keenan 2016: 57; 63). The tracts circulated by Thee Temple morphed from espousing an individualistic, lone wolf doctrine to a centralized, top-down practice. This shift in demeanor appeared innocuous at first, particularly as TOPY bolstered its numbers: “With thee increased strength of Thee Temple … directed energy is being released within a common framework … [and] a unity ov Purpose. … it is in a modern tribal framework that we all progress” (P-Orridge 2010a: 98). Yet as P-Orridge proudly elaborates, this turn soon became poisonous for personal autonomy: ” … to expose flaws in behavior … and personality [for] revelatory and revolutionary breakthroughs … [TOPY members must] immerse themselves 100% in devotion to the group … even at the risk of personal disintegration and mental collapse. Transformation can only occur if the Individual is prepared to sacrifice all they have, including a previous personality, and place in a status quo. Smashing old loops … is essential” (P-Orridge 2008: 407).

Those pesky “old loops” that required smashing turned out to comprise an individual’s fundamental psyche—their ego; entrenched, constitutive characteristics; and distinctive emotional selfhood. So accordingly, TOPY’s leadership designed and enforced deliberate protocols to scrub out individual attributes, blot away intimate idiosyncrasies, and gloss over the contours of identity that render us recognizable to ourselves and one another. One such policy involved the replacement of disciple’s names with gender labels and numbers. All women were titled “KALI” and all men “EDEN”, with a corresponding numeral reflecting their order of arrival into the TOPY fold, e.g. KALI 68 or EDEN 44.

After several years of this flattening device, Temple leadership decided to jumble the number assignations at random, supposedly to thwart claims of primacy by those with lower digits and longer involvement (P-Orridge 2010b: 466). The erasure of lifelong names—and the allotment of faceless labels and numbers—is prima facie dehumanization, devised to destabilize one’s personal distinctiveness; unwind ties with family and friends who live outside Thee Temple; and inculcate loyalty to the cult, smothering any privately held belief systems or scruples. Randomizing these numbers periodically keeps the disciples disoriented; rendering them blank all over again and neutering their capacity for mounting any resistance.

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Rene Passet, “Psychic TV” (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Alongside various systems for exterminating ego, other cult organizing principles also resonated throughout TOPY. Thee Temple’s chieftains instituted “Ratios”, a formal caste system supposedly tied to one’s piety and advancement through the higher rungs of TOPY revelation. Spanning Ratios One through Five, those at echelon Five comprised a “dedicated inner circle” dwelling within TOPY’s primary compound in Brighton (P-Orridge 2010c: 423-424). Indeed, through dystopian practices like these, some TOPY members were very much “more equal than others”.

In addition, a policy of forced excommunication for various missteps was rigidly enforced. Disciples were designated as either “connected” or “disconnected”, with involuntary group exile being decided by Ratio Five for violations of “privacy”, “trust”, and “theft from the community, both material and intellectual” (P-Orridge 2010b: 466). Since Ratio Five were the sole interpreters of these slippery mandates, Temple members were forced to surrender their fates to the beneficence of the master caste. That TOPY shares this connected/disconnected label (and policy) with the exploitative cult of Scientology is not coincidence, and shows an uncanny kinship with L. Ron Hubbard’s frightening creation.

Akin to Scientology or other cults, TOPY extracted participants’ wealth in order to fund their sociopolitical activities. Members were commanded to yield a set proportion of their total assets, as determined by P-Orridge the guru (P-Orridge 2010c: 423-424). When this decree sparked consternation among the lower Ratio members—many already poverty-stricken, living in squats, and conscripted as street preachers—Temple leadership feigned distress at any insinuation that this forced tithe might be untoward. P-Orridge instead attributed any unrest with a “rebel faction” who were covetous of “the charisma and respect that tended to be associated with my SELF and … the Ratio Five inner circle … We seemed to have the more glamorous role, media visibility… and I had a nice house and car” (P-Orridge 2010c: 423-424).

This suspicion, in turn, fueled deep paranoia among TOPY’s gilded caste, leading to an atmosphere of communal distrust. Widespread security measures were introduced, and only Ratio Three individuals or above had access to certain publications and filing drawers, which led to further backlash as members openly labeled P-Orridge and others “egocentric and totalitarian” (P-Orridge 2010c: 423-424). Even the aggrieved (and thin-skinned) P-Orridge conceded that the TOPY rank and file felt “anonymous and invisible”, while their labor only girded the eminence of h/erself as Dear Leader. But rather than pursue reconciliation or redress, P-Orridge dug in, characterizing h/er Temple detractors as a “wolfpack” who were “organizing a coup of some kind”—while in the next breath, candidly admitting that “there was enough truth in that equation [of gross inequities] to feed their rage” (P-Orridge 2010c: 423-424).

To this day, P-Orridge seethes at how only h/er right hands in Ratio Five “lifted a finger to help … or publicly speak up in my defence”, while these wolves publicly savaged h/er. In h/er telling, the lower castes “hid or even gloated”, wallowing in a “small minded and bigoted parochialism” that came from leeching off the Temple’s edifice built through h/er blood, sweat, and tear alone (P-Orridge 2010c: 429). In fact, s/he insists that the guru-ship was a burden involuntarily foisted upon her; shackles worn as communal penance for daring to dream about Thee Temple’s potential.

P-Orridge ascribes h/er “purity of motive” to “a personal disinterest in the ego glory, but acceptance of it as a necessary cultural phenomenon” (P-Orridge 2010c: 423-424). This, of course, strains credulity. These events came to a head in 1991 on the eve of TOPY’s disbandment, but fractures were visible far earlier, as numerous people fought to extract themselves from Thee Temple’s grasp. Magnifying these individual stories gives depth to the generalities of abuse discussed thus far, and contextualizes TOPY’s methods for shielding themselves against any fallout.

Apostates

Present-day journalists and fans not only misread reports of TOPY’s injuries as equivalent to the casual abjection or debauchery of social media melodrama but actually ogle Thee Temple’s disciplinary machine—and the abuse itself—as hip and fashionably contrarian, even seductive.”

Dissension within the ranks of TOPY bubbled over only two years after its initial launch. The most prominent early defectors were Peter “Sleazy” Christopherson and John Balance—a former Gristle bandmate and superfan respectively—who each served as members of Psychic TV’s initial lineup, as well as prominent founding partners in Thee Temple’s conglomerate. They quickly grew suspicious of the road TOPY started down, and left in 1983 to form their own standalone music project, Coil. Throughout subsequent interviews, Balance and Christopherson drop hints about the kindling that fueled this messy, public schism. With a rueful tone, Balance describes the conditions behind his Temple initiation: “I read the right signs, did the right things, i.e. pretended to be in awe, submissive and pale. … [TOPY] draws in willing victims … I found things getting too autocratic and one-lined for my liking.” He further notes how P-Orridge’s personal obsessions were unblinkingly adopted as the official party line; when those views shifted suddenly, anyone slow to react found themselves ostracized.

In a separate chat, Balance sketches how Thee Temple veered onto treacherous terrain—in pursuit of P-Orridge’s authoritarian stylings, TOPY intentionally adopted the mantle of Jim Jones, The Process Church, and other organized sects as a kind of cultural camouflage. This soon became a self-fulfilling prophecy, yet few attempted to extricate themselves from the trap.

Balance also details the toxic prostration that P-Orridge both craved and created among h/er followers. While acknowledging that TOPY was ripe for misinterpretation and lured people in with “an exterior attractiveness,” Balance and Christopherson were aghast at the unyielding obedience exhibited these acolytes, which P-Orridge did nothing to discourage. They recount how the already damaged and vulnerable gravitated towards Thee Temple, and fell furthest and fastest into zealotry, shunted along by TOPY’s “naïve oversimplification of how the world actually is” and their conversion of initially loose tenets into pure dogma.

These inductees exhibited spine-chilling levels of fervor, and “a psychological need for being told what to do, no matter what the consequences would have been”—connected, no doubt, to the mental illness that many exhibited. Eerie trends like these—belying TOPY’s public pronouncements of liberated consciousness and free thought—weighed heavily on the duo. Indeed, Christopherson is unequivocal: “[TOPY became a] horrible sort of manifestation … a cult with a leader, whose followers did whatever [P-Orridge] said” (Keenan 2016: 64).

Balance and Christopherson were far from the only notables who departed once TOPY’s authoritarian turn began. David Tibet—another early collaborator who went on to launch the influential neofolk band Current 93—read similar tea leaves. Balance remarks on this grim comradery: “It’s funny, [P-Orridge’s] charisma goes a long way, and when you’re young and excited and things are happening … you stick with it … [but] David saw through it first” (Keenan 2016: 61-62). Initially an eager participant, Tibet attributes his change of heart to not only feeling “unnerved when … [TOPY] seemed to be becoming a cult,” but also the collapse of his relationship with P-Orridge—”I think [Genesis’] character changed. Why, I don’t know” (Keenan 2016: 60-61). Tibet relates the story of Simon Norris, a.k.a. Ossian Brown, to illustrate the TOPY rabbit hole that many drifting young provocateurs of the 1980s tumbled down.

Shortly after his departure from Thee Temple, Tibet found himself in the strange position of mentoring and rehabilitating several younger, more impressionable apostates who also fled. Brown became one of these derelicts taken under Tibet’s wing, having been previously so meshed with TOPY that P-Orridge christened him “the perfect warrior priest” (Keenan 2016: 305-306). P-Orridge extolled the abandon with which Brown devoted himself to the cause, having “submerged himself totally into the matrix of TOPY”, from manning propaganda tables at large public gatherings to rabidly proselytizing Thee Temple’s ideologies. Brown even established a “ritual house” in Brighton renowned for its highly rigorous and ascetic practices—a 24/7 TOPY “think tank”, according to P-Orridge (Keenan 2016: 306). But Brown—born in 1969—served P-Orridge and the Ratio Five during his tender early- to mid-teens, while P-Orridge was in h/er mid-to-late 30s. TOPY plainly recruited gaggles of impressionable teenagers to serve as their magickal shock troopers, preying on the guileless and susceptible.

Brown’s own recollections were decidedly less rosy than P-Orridge’s. Though his relationship with h/er was “parental in a bizarre way” due to their age gap, P-Orridge regularly transformed into a “tyrant, [with] lots of lectures and screaming fits … everything had to be in its right place, at the right time,” a messianic yet terrorizing demeanor confirmed by Cosey Fanni Tutti’s even more disturbing testimonials (Keenan 2016: 307). Brown attests to the atmosphere of backstabbing and paranoia that gripped the TOPY community, including “destructive mind games, bullying techniques, and pecking orders.” A modern-day Lord of the Flies, “there was a mob mentality … where someone would fall out of favour and a pack would form, and slowly they’d get pushed out of the circle” towards permanent estrangement or exile (Keenan 216: 307).

Yet Thee Temple honed another method of pernicious manipulation during its lifespan; one more subtle than obvious cult tools such as erasure of identity or extraction of worldly wealth. As evinced by the rampant fanaticism of TOPY’s rank and file, this alternate method is brainwashing to inculcate belief in TOPY’s fundamental sincerity—the conviction that, all along, the cult’s inner circle is driven by the same piety and zeal as you; that they lead because they carry, in their hearts, the truest feelings of the group. But when TOPYs leadership disbanded the cult in 1991, giveaways started to emerge suggesting that P-Orridge and the Ratio Five were far from faithful to Thee Temple’s own doctrines. And among many TOPY disciples, this duplicity became the most grievous violation of all.

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