Groupthink and Other Painful Reflections on Thee Temple ov Psychick Youth
TOPY and Genesis P-Orridge's knowing adoption of cult iconography and organizing principles quickly slid from satiric emulation to full embrace -- and we all went along with it.
Throughout the past several years, call-outs publicizing abuse in the music industries have reverberated far and wide. Activists of all stripes, inspired in part by the #MeToo movement, are broadcasting behavior by eminent artists ranging from the deeply unsavory to the gravely criminal. When put forward, these claims (some contritely acknowledged, others vehemently denied) often confirm the rumors and whisper campaigns that long lingered around the accused: from the respective "kings" of pop and R&B, to demigod conductors of Western art music, and from jazz's modern heroes, to idols of niche rock circles, such as Ryan Adams, Michael Gira of Swans, Ethan Kath of Crystal Castles, Jesse Lacey of Brand New, Twiggy Ramirez of Marilyn Manson, and Mark E. Smith of the Fall.
Many artists and fans are now forcefully demanding a creative playing field free from quid pro quos, coercion, and violence. But while public attention is primarily focused on the alleged abusers (and enablers) at the height of their stardom, other figures nearing the twilight of their careers are also undergoing re-appraisal, thanks in part to shifting societal norms that today reconsider the misdeeds that were previously written off. Music communities, and the industry writ large, are being asked to grapple with documented instances of past abuse, but this is especially challenging when the usual approach—a drive to "cancel" the prosperous career of an actively offending artist—is impossible. Furthermore, the misty-eyed nostalgia of fans, and years (sometimes even decades) of mythologizing often play a decisive role in blocking the renewal of meaningful scrutiny.
For those of us who venerate dark and extreme music scenes, perhaps no sacred cow is more deserving of such re-examination than Thee Temple ov Psychick Youth (TOPY), Genesis Breyer P-Orridge's counterculture project spanning the decade after Throbbing Gristle's (1975-1981) dissolution. TOPY was an artistic collective and occult lifestyle network that sought to mimic militant, cult-like dynamics in the public eye, borrowing from other infamous convergences of psychedelic culture such as The People's Temple at Jonestown, The Process Church of the Final Judgement, and the Manson Family.
With their home base in Brighton, UK, and a professed international membership of 10,000 followers at their height in the late '80s-early '90s, TOPY fashioned themselves as a youth resistance bloc that deployed chaos magick against the myriad forces of societal control and conformity prophesied by Williams S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin. In 1991, Thee Temple splintered following internal protests against the organization's elite circle, which had accumulated outsized power and prestige, and for an ensuing quarter-century, TOPY's legacy was consigned to the historical dustbin as an oddity that came and went.
But recently, Thee Temple—alongside their mouthpiece band, Psychic TV—have been re-discovered and even deified in the communal conversations of scenes such as coldwave, darkwave, goth, industrial, metal, noise, and neofolk. In particular, the "occult curious" artists and fans of these subcultures have amplified the standing of TOPY and Psychic TV by exclaiming them the precursors of their own creative visions. Thee Temple conglomerate is actively being lauded as a modern fountainhead of the arcane and anti-rational.
Seductive aspects of TOPY's legend—such as their ironic stylization,
or anti-normative intrigues, for which we celebrate their bête noire
status—conceal Thee Temple's very real injustices.
TOPY's imprint—and P-Orridge's magnetic yet fraught leadership—are also now lionized by a wide gamut of tastemakers, primarily music journalists but also academics. Examples of recent, adulatory coverage include museum exhibitions, edited volumes, documentaries, as well as dozens of web and print pieces. Music genres ( witch house) and labels (Sacred Bones, Dais) inspired by Thee Temple and Psychic TV's occultized aesthetics show the far-reaching influence of their mystique.
The current conversation, a slow-burn hagiography through and through, frames TOPY as a tongue-in-cheek, self-aware "anti-cult"—half esoteric art project, half culture-jamming prankster pagans who struck fear in the hearts of the Thatcher and Reagan regimes through parody of a radical youth crusade. But the primary sources—many long available for those willing to look, and others just now surfacing—reveal Thee Temple to have been far from puckish liberators. TOPY and P-Orridge's knowing adoption of cult iconography and organizing principles quickly slid from satiric emulation to full embrace, and many Temple apostates describe years of escalating exploitation: a guru with a sycophantic following; the systematic breakdown of individuality and autonomy; rigid hierarchies, disciplinary regimens, and incessant bullying; preying on the suggestible and vulnerable; explosive, tyrannical outbursts; and the appropriation of others' creative voices and ideas.
This essay publicizes the accounts of TOPY's victims and dissenters. But by doing so, I aim to explore larger issues surrounding Thee Temple's canonization in the present day, and the ways in which P-Orridge and h/er inner circle carefully immunized themselves against any lasting consequences for their abusive behaviors. Using firsthand chronicles of wrongdoing as evidence, I tease out three distinct explanations for how the apologetic (and often bewitching) narrative surrounding P-Orridge and TOPY has thrived for so long, despite insider knowledge of grave harms.
First, to distract from rumors of misconduct, they have been conning music journalists into laying the groundwork for Thee Temple's exaltation, and showcasing "Satanic Panic" child abuse allegations as a strawman. Second, to dodge accountability, they have been masquerading as consummate scene mouthpieces and sentinels, while practicing a style of control based on hijacking our aspirational subculture politics. And third, to deflect accusations, they have been utilizing TOPY's ironic visage so modern fandom conflates their past violations with the same empty grandstanding of today's digital-age iconoclasts.
Collectively, these tactics have been remarkably successful, and they placed TOPY on the pedestal of counterculture notoriety while shielding its leadership from voluminous proof of domination, coercion, and brainwashing. Indeed, P-Orridge and h/er coterie are now portrayed as lodestars for a mystical, artistic resistance to mainstream banality. Yet these same seductive aspects of TOPY's legend—such as their ironic stylization, or anti-normative intrigues, for which we celebrate their bête noire status—conceal Thee Temple's very real injustices.
My un-packaging of how P-Orridge and h/er ilk insulated themselves from repercussions also tugs at more abstract, but equally valid concerns surrounding the status quo's inevitability and routes for future reform. How might we cope with, and possibly repair, this apparent frailty of collective memory in our counterculture? Or, how can fan communities navigate these implied limits of accountability, particularly when up against a scene or genre's romanticized hype? Clearly, the tropes of subculture and scene were deliberately co-opted by TOPY and P-Orridge to provide cover for abusive behaviors. And this presents a thorny dilemma—because 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. P-Orridge simply carried these existing tendencies to their logical extremes.
So, another concern also looms: what is necessary to preserve these alternative spaces while prioritizing our critical appraisals of them? Here, the intrinsic tension between underground scenes and mainstream culture impeded the work required to keep these zones of opposition safe. The forthcoming discussion does not definitively answer these concerns head on, but frames the conversation around their implications.
Although this story is predominantly about the politics of art in the present, in order to arrive, we must first reach back—not only to the heyday of TOPY's flourishing in the 1980s, but further still, to the public start of P-Orridge's career in the late 1960s and early '70s. There, the seeds of Thee Temple's design, and its authoritarian stylings, were first sown.
Through-Lines to Thee Temple
A March 2019 article in Paper Magazine neatly epitomizes the TOPY and P-Orridge zeitgeist of the past several years. P-Orridge is characterized as "someone who has seen and done it all", "an absolute legend in their lifetime", "prolific and transcendent", as well as "[a person] who created 300 albums of genreless, but no less influential, music and art"—and that's only the first two sentences of the profile. Furthermore, the feature declares, "s/he co-founded in the '80s a radical group, Thee Temple ov Psychick Youth (TOPY), for those seeking individual liberation through community-building and magic. Unlike the cult it was publicly accused of being, the group consisted of 'only leaders, and not followers,' according to P-Orridge." Indeed, "s/he found a sacred calling, and the ability to express … a type of love both selfless and, ultimately, unconditional"; "voices like P-Orridge's have staked their reputations and legacies on promoting unity, as afforded by love of one another …."
One might be surprised to learn that the very same P-Orridge is the headliner of a December 2018 Guardian article that nuances this portrait, zeroing in on allegations of sustained, and in several instances, life-threatening abuse against Cosey Fanni Tutti, P-Orridge's former romantic partner, long-time collaborator, and an acclaimed performance/musical artist in her own right. Both Fanni Tutti and P-Orridge came to public infamy as members of Throbbing Gristle, but their entanglements date back to 1969, when they co-founded the performance art collective COUM Transmissions (1969-1976) in pursuit of subversive explorations.
These charges against P-Orridge, detailed throughout Fanni Tutti's recent memoir Art Sex Music (Faber & Faber, 2018) are now embedded as online public record in a variety of book reviews and promotional interviews. But so far, only the Guardian article by Lottie Brazier addresses the elephant in the room: " … it seem[s] strange that the New York Times [among other fawning P-Orridge profiles] didn't [seriously] consider … Fanni Tutti's [public] allegations."
And these allegations are grave, including but not limited to: coercing Fanni Tutti into unprotected sex, resulting in an unwanted pregnancy; pressuring her to join orgies orchestrated by P-Orridge; wielding a knife, and repeatedly beating her during attempts to end their relationship; and most horrifically, nearly murdering her by hurling a cinder block that narrowly missed her head while she sunbathed. Other sundry episodes of casual brutality and calculated subjugation are also named, such as smashing her typewriters, hurling pet cats against walls, and clandestinely opening and replying to her fan mail.
Fanni Tutti is breezily mentioned in this obsequious New York Times article as "an old bandmate and girlfriend" [subtext: with an axe to grind]. This is despite the publication of her memoir six months prior, with its sordid accounts of abuse easily accessed both in print and online. However, the outrage coup de grâce may be P-Orridge's unchallenged rejoinder to the New York Times when lightly prodded about the allegations: "whatever sells a book, sells a book." By casually invoking the vile yet timeless counter-claim of cashing in through false accusations, P-Orridge closes the moral distance between h/erself and other alleged abusers who frequently wield this cudgel, such as R. Kelly. In another recent interview, h/er non-rebuttal to Art Sex Music's accusations is a more glib, but still inexcusable, "we haven't read it."
Other COUM Transmissions collaborators also observed P-Orridge's appetite for mastery over others. Ian Evetts, a.k.a. Spydeee Gasmantell, recounts how their self-anointed ringleader "just wanted followers, not people to contribute," while Greg "Foxtrot Echo" Taylor surmises that P-Orridge's talent lay not so much in creative invention, but in h/er capacity to charm and coerce those in h/er orbit. And as Fanni Tutti elaborates in Art Sex Music: "he [P-Orridge] placed himself in a guru-like position … If anyone questioned him on things he said or did … he'd recite a COUM slogan to counter the criticism—or make up a new one … he could never be wrong …" (Fanni Tutti 2017: 82). But these reports from former COUM and Throbbing Gristle colleagues are only the most recent installments of a long paper trail revealing P-Orridge's compulsions to control the wills and bodies of others. They also set the stage for the next decade of P-Orridge's career, which spans the joint TOPY and Psychic TV project, h/er most critically under-examined venture to date.
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.
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.
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.
Following the spread of unrest throughout Thee Temple's membership, P-Orridge concluded that TOPY had metastasized beyond h/er ability to pull its strings, and on 3 September 1991, pronounced the network dissolved. Though P-Orridge insisted that the "experiment" terminate through h/er force of will alone, some appendages of the global TOPY grid refused to give up the ghost; vestiges and enclaves exist to this day. The North American chapter (TOPYNA), which pushed back fervently against P-Orridge, became the most prominent rebel group and its "evolved" iteration—founded in 2008—currently persists online as the Autonomous Individuals Network, or AIN23. In AIN23's "Statement of Intent", they make no bones about their acrimonious birth, proclaiming how "[TOPY] collapsed after being built on a foundation of untruths and misguided ideals … TOPY was the design of ONE person, with a desire to CONTROL a CULT for his own personal pleasure and egotistical growth … ."
"...chaos magick [is] a lot of shit … if all these magicians
are so great and powerful, why are they all so broke and
don't have girlfriends?" (Keenan 2016: 305)
P-Orridge waged a public crusade for TOPYNA to cease all use of Thee Temple's name, symbols, and other elements of branding. But h/er dogged pursuit, in the wake of TOPY's forced euthanasia, confirmed the former membership's burning suspicion: that all along, TOPY unfurled, persisted, and ultimately withered with h/erself at its nexus, contradicting any insistence that individual liberation, or even egalitarian community, were the operational priorities. How could this vindictive demeanor square with the radically ecumenical, revelatory tone of the early TOPY tracts, which sold Thee Temple as an escape hatch from the dreary orthodoxies of Thatcher et al.?
Was such posturing ever truly sincere? In documented harangues against TOPYNA, P-Orridge first attempts a moral appeal to some secret, long-standing plan for TOPY's dissolution. Thee Temple "was voluntarily terminated by its SOURCE with ex-dream prejudice … in accordance with their original intent. Any person … claiming Membership … is clearly either a fool or a charlatan. … Do not support them in their delusions" (P-Orridge 2010d: 506).
After openly naming h/erself the "SOURCE" for all of TOPY's artistic and intellectual fruits, ex-disciples felt even more jilted; despite winking attempts to insist otherwise, they had served Thee Temple as mere minions. What happened, they no doubt wondered, to the "modern tribal framework," a "unity ov Purpose," or "100% … devotion to the group"? When TOPYNA refused to capitulate after P-Orridge's initial screeds, the TOPY ceremonial patois dropped from h/er further correspondence. Instead, lawsuit threats were then wielded as cudgels: "… both the [TOPY] name and the logo are my internationally registered trademarks and/or intellectual copyrights which I have used continually for well over a decade. They also represent symbols that are closely associated with me in the public mind on a global scale artistically, commercially and personally" (P-Orridge 2010d: 507-9).
Evidently, "smashing old loops" now takes a backseat to the sanctity of (allegedly falsified) copyright enforcement. But just imagine: after a decade of ardent organizing, and accruing the fealty of thousands worldwide, the counterculture prophet who inspired this fervor cancels the entire sect with little more than an afterthought. And why? For h/er future merchandising and commercialization opportunities. This treachery cuts deep; TOPY's plebeians clearly believed they were traversing brave new plateaus of the human condition and changing the world through communal ritual magick. Yet Thee Temple outlived its usefulness for P-Orridge's machinations, and so its members were sloughed off, as a snake sheds its skin.
When TOPYNA replies to h/er cease-and-desist demands, the emotional devastation is palpable; as are the vestiges of an unquestioning reverence for P-Orridge: "I watched your [P-Orridge] video material, listened to your music, read your words … How was I not to believe in you? You were, to me, a friend that I simply hadn't met yet … I never misunderstood you Gen, everything you said was crystal clear in my mind. That's the only reality I know and understand… Was it [TOPY] a disinformation campaign? … Is anything REAL about you left besides dogma and control, which supposedly you are against …?" (P-Orridge 2010d: 512-513; 515-516).
When P-Orridge pulled the plug on Thee Temple—apparently to seek out greener pastures for monetization—ex-members realized that, all along, their guru and the Ratio Five leadership had been feigning (through one dramatization after another) the righteousness that the underlings were living out on a daily basis. On a larger scale, I think this callous turn also points to the tactics of emotional and narrative deception practiced by P-Orridge and h/er lieutenants to distract, dodge, and deflect credible allegations of abuse. Indeed, their efficacy is evident, since despite unmistakable brainwashing, and profound psychological injuries inflicted by Thee Temple on its disciples, the conversation around P-Orridge and TOPY remains largely obsequious and deferential. By examining these tactics, as well as the concerns they connote, I further aim to investigate what TOPY's mutated reception says about the present climate of subcultures and transgressive spaces.
Tactic #1 – Manipulating Journalists
TOPY's first tactic involves manipulating journalists to distract from abuse allegations. P-Orridge and h/er coterie deliberately targeted critics—some gullible, others just cynical—in order to sculpt public reception, propagating h/er preferred, often imagined version of a cultural memory. Most prominently, Thee Temple cast their '80s and '90s opponents—church, state, tabloid media, and even skeptics in counterculture—as relentless oppressors, and promoted caricatures of themselves as doe-eyed innocents, hounded largely for their eccentric lifestyle choices. In doing so, they dredged up sympathetic portrayals among modern journalists and academics, which in turn, discredited victim whistleblowing. Abuse call-outs would be conveniently conflated with this overblown story they helped sell as a misdirect (namely, misunderstood radicals under siege from all sides), and dismissed out of hand.
To work, this plan required a confluence of credulity, wishful thinking, and lazy regurgitation among tastemakers—provided in spades, as luck would have it. For instance: except Art Sex Music, every one of my primary sources were accessible to commentators throughout TOPY's recent rehabilitation. Cursory digging would have revealed the same unflattering and/or abusive portraits for those who took a few minutes to probe. So even after Art Sex Music's release, to press forward with P-Orridge and TOPY's beatification in spite of further highly credible allegations, is a moral stain on music journalism. Many voices in criticism—both fêted and obscure—earn their share of blame here. Early adopters of P-Orridge revivalism include a few mid-to-late '00s books and magazine profiles (e.g., Simon Reynolds' Rip It Up and Start Again and David Stubbs' essay in The WireWire).
But after 2015, journalist, fan, and artist adoration for P-Orridge and TOPY surged. Reverent features spread like wildfire in a variety of publications, such as the New Yorker, SPIN, The Guardian, i-D (1 and 2), Tiny Mix Tapes, The Quietus, Pitchfork, PopMatters, Vice Media verticals both active and extinct, self-titled, HERO, Dazed, CVLT Nation, CLRVYNT, local alternative weeklies, and even putatively authoritative sources such as AllMusic.com. Even my own academic writing joins this bandwagon.
As alluded by former COUM collaborators, expertly sculpting h/er own reception is perhaps P-Orridge's most prodigious gift, a thread that connects h/er disjointed career ventures more than any single artistic or intellectual undercurrent. Numerous P-Orridge contemporaries—"old hands" from '70s and '80s music counterculture—speak to how h/er knack is less musicianship, songwriting, or subculture organizing, and more the shrewd ability to induce historical rewrites; sometimes playing the lottery to see what sticks in the public imagination, and sometimes appropriating others' ideas as h/er own. And to that end, journalists and other interpreters have always been h/er marks. P-Orridge's self-aware peacocking to media outlets, particularly over the past decade, conjures a daring, even romantic stylization of h/er and other Temple leaders as cheeky yet charming "Merry Pranksters"—freethinking dissenters laying themselves on the line against the merciless Thatcher regime of control and conformity.
But criticism of P-Orridge's hypnotic hold over h/er interpreters is beginning to emerge. Lottie Brazier comments on how Marie Losier, director of the 2011 documentary The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye, allowed her subject to dictate the turf of the storytelling and whitewash any mention of past exploitation. Hans Rollmann similarly notes how Simon Ford, author of the first significant COUM Transmissions and Throbbing Gristle study Wreckers of Civilisation (1999), gave P-Orridge carte blanche to paint h/erself as Throbbing Gristle's preeminent instigator and artistic ringleader. Consequently, this portrayal circumscribed the 20 subsequent years of sympathetic (if not adulatory) reporting on P-Orridge's early career.
H/er mendacity with interviewers did not escape notice by TOPY-era collaborators, either. Gavin Semple describes how Thee Temple's core artistic and magickal components were collectively introduced by John Balance, David Tibet, and other early comrades, not assembled by P-Orridge ex nihilo as many profiles claim. Balance separately confirms how "'we all chipped in a lot of stuff to [TOPY's worldview] actually … [but] everything had to be reported back to [P-Orridge], nothing was allowed outside the net. It was really draconian" (Keenan 2016: 53-54).
And of course, this tactic of planned revisionism is also a tool for obscuring abuse. Case in point: P-Orridge and h/er apologists are all too keen to play up TOPY's "Satanic Panic" controversy as supposedly emblematic of claims levelled against them by adversaries. In their storytelling, the misrepresentation of TOPY's "First Transmission" video art tape (as depicting ritual child abuse, leading to the much-ballyhooed Scotland Yard raid on their Brighton compound) demonstrates the lengths to which their antagonists will go to smear and discredit the group. But while this police raid was no doubt in error, and alarming for all involved, Thee Temple subsequently used this event as a smokescreen to conceal their actual offenses.
Obviously, TOPY hid no basement dungeons, or depraved playgrounds of devil worship for the ritual torture of infants, as daytime talk shows of the era were eager to avow. Yet by repeating this flimsy distortion repeatedly, almost gleefully, their victimhood is built up as a red herring for distraction. They imply through self-righteous interviews that if a police operation, abetted by tabloid hysteria, persecuted Thee Temple using contrived abuse allegations, then what other cruel untruths stand to be leveraged against them?
This refrain is a narrative sleight of hand, asking journalists and fans to look in one hyperbolic direction ("here are your so-called TOPY 'misdeeds'") while obscuring or downplaying TOPY's many actual abuses against their own members. P-Orridge de facto suggests that we write off nearly all indictments of TOPY as just the latest false invective stemming from this original miscarriage of justice against h/er chosen people. And thus, the canard of satanic ritual abuse covers for the disturbingly mundane, day-in-day-out exploitation that did occur. By focusing on the sensationalized fearmongering of TOPY's few actual antagonists, journalists and fans (unintentionally or not) carry water for Thee Temple's reputational repair.
Tactic #2 – Corrupting Subculture Leadership
TOPY's second tactic involves corrupting subculture leadership to dodge abuse allegations. The inner circle carefully self-branded as spokespeople for castoffs and outlanders, particularly those adrift or alienated from the industrial West's 1980s "greed-is-good" mainstream. Their proselytizing missives and devotional texts characterize Thee Temple as both awakening sleepwalkers and safeguarding helpless bohemians against the grip of church, state, and corporate power. So TOPY posed as the champion of kids on the margins, but not just as allies doing a good turn.
In this mimicry, they are the transgressives, the queers, the bullied and abandoned; they set the mold for summoning a more liberated version of oneself, and a more just version of the world, using artistic ventures and ritual magick. Indeed, through this posturing façade, acolytes and fans saw their hopes and anxieties—even themselves—reflected in Thee Temple's combative stance and claims to counterculture authority.
TOPY persuaded the bleary-eyed Generation X that their cult epitomized an audacious breed of subculture—one with teeth, one feared by the normative establishment, but most importantly, one that its admirers wished existed. Today's disenfranchised "creative class" of Millennials holds P-Orridge and h/er coterie in similarly high regard, as the living exemplars of an (imaginary) moment, since past, when youth rebellions involved bravery and danger beyond dragging antagonists on Twitter. Now, as then, underground communities project their aspirational values onto TOPY; an embodiment of the scene's fictive former glory.
TOPY is meant to stand for safe spaces that fans and followers might thrive in; to embody the moral clout for calling-out oppressors and defending the tribe against external threats. Yet that faith—so hard to give freely in our cynical and broken world—was thoroughly debased. TOPY cultivated a communal status of guardianship, and promptly cashed in for coercive power. These trespasses—emotional domination, systematic destruction of identity, tyrannical bullying, and the (nonsexual) predation of minors—were entrenched and sweeping; a bureaucracy of abuse in a ten-year global cult apparatus reaching 10,000 individuals. The sheer gravity of betrayal has yet to be fully contemplated or processed.
By harnessing self-doubt, Thee Temple
neutered outside probing or criticism.
This tactic's present-day success connects with how music scenes recognize and react to exploitation. #MeToo and its allied movements name and shame gendered or identity-based coercion in the public sphere. But while (admirably) taking a page from these grassroots justice groups, music factions are torpid, or fumble, when reacting to exploitation when outright bigotry—e.g., misogyny, transphobia, racism—is not the apparent motivator. TOPY's abuses fly under our collective radar because we lack the vocabulary to frame, mobilize around, and punish another species of coercion: one that infiltrates and hijacks our aspirations as a counterculture community.
TOPY's exploitations never hinged on identity for their power, but rather, on warping and repurposing the internal narrative(s) of subculture itself—that, through solidarity as an out-group, we create a seat of protest and action against the somnambulism and inequities of the modern world. As the evidence shows, this alternate method of control, however subtle, also binds the wills and bodies of others, exacting a traumatic, dehumanizing ordeal on its victims.
Here, TOPY engaged in what I call "scene-sploitation": playing off our insecurities and idealization of what subcultures genuinely represent or accomplish, beyond just underground fashion cliques. By harnessing this self-doubt, Thee Temple neutered outside probing or criticism; with no apparent prejudice or discrimination, suspected abusive behaviors were written off as just part and parcel of their beguiling cultish fervor and steely organizing acumen.
Indeed, P-Orridge offered up a prefab, saccharine vision of what we wished our scenes were actually doing: bringing determination to the demoralized; gifting voice back to the unsung; striking against cultural hegemonies; and refusing our preordained roles as bit-players in the ant colony of the industrial West. And the TOPY "template" simply leveraged already-conditioned behaviors in our scenes: the mystique of stardom or guru-status; the corresponding thrall of fandom; and the smug belonging of the secretive in-crowd, to name a few. Amidst the gleeful accelerationism of contemporary politics, and the fracturing of subculture's unspoken pact, Thee Temple's promised utopia is simply too tempting to pass up.
Tactic #3 – Weaponizing Irony
TOPY's third tactic involves weaponizing irony to deflect abuse allegations. Thee Temple's aesthetic designs, organizing principles, and quasi-spiritual tenets all occupied a liminal zone of esoteric strangeness and pop culture remix, where for outsiders looking in, the line between glib satire and true belief (or mass delusion) remained intentionally blurry. This wavering, off-kilter visage fronted their public pretensions, and by offering explanations to journalists and fans that always hedge in a strategic manner, one rumor of coercion after another seemed to wash away. P-Orridge and the Ratio Five became masters of projecting plausible deniability, and in turn, camouflaging their exploitative tendencies.
TOPY's calculated irony is even more powerful today, thanks to the proliferation of Internet edgelords and the numbing effect of their caustic antics. This dynamic is exceptionally pronounced throughout the gloom-laced music subcultures where Thee Temple is most celebrated. 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.
One such example is the nonchalant repetition of "anti-cult", P-Orridge's preferred tagline for TOPY; as if Thee Temple were some risqué anti-hero in the cinematic imagination. Indeed, they depict TOPY's wrongdoing as just a rarified, vintage version of the same subversive grandstanding we're all familiar with (let's say, during a black metal press junket), and then sugarcoat these exploitations by granting the presumption of parody. What's the big deal, they imply, if P-Orridge's game plan relies on playing footsie with autocratic and authoritarian tendencies (not unlike the right-wingers TOPY claims to oppose)?
Consequently, a functional cult with a documented track record of dehumanization, brainwashing, bullying, and other torments is being portrayed as a quirky experiment into the outer reaches of iconoclasm. And when brief mention is made of TOPY's harms—characterized as missteps of exuberance, if anything—the horrific reality of cult entrapment is glossed over or reconciled because TOPY and P-Orridge were always on our team, in the trenches alongside us. Tribal "us vs. them" thinking in subculture politics demands that we excuse, or even defend their extreme approach as a necessary evil against the ascendant right wing of the 1980s—just as many rationalize drastic reprisals against reactionary forces today. But like most tin-pot insurrections, TOPY invariably began to devour their own.
How did cults become chic in underground music? David Keenan points at industrial culture itself, noting that the scene's fascination with both left- and right-wing totalitarianism led to proverbial "lightning raids behind enemy lines … [as] the best way of gathering information. Some [artists and provocateurs] went further, equating totalitarian ideas of discipline with freedom. … TOPY's rhetoric was based on this seemingly contradictory equation" (Keenan 2016: 131; see also Reed 2013). But a cult's basic premise—coercion—is always, already broken, no matter how dire the outside threat appears. That any debate is required around TOPY to prove this truism again is stunning, and our collective failure to shout this out loud in the era of #MeToo (and adjacent movements) is especially noxious. There is no art, introspection, or mobilization that justifies a cult, or emerges untainted from its crucible.
Photo of Genesis P-Orridge courtesy of © Scott Simpson. Photo may not be redistributed without permission of the photographer.
P-Orridge and the TOPY leadership have been pursuing three specific tactics to distract, dodge, and deflect the allegations of coercion and abuse that have hounded them for decades. But their uncommon success thus far is due, in no small part, to how they leveraged the structural problems already permeating industry, media, criticism, and fandom circles. They closed all the right loops, in just the right ways, to preclude the conditions required for any explicit call-out of their exploitative behavior, while simultaneously enabling their current exaltation.
An ironic sadness permeates this story. TOPY began with so much promise, yet the almost poetic betrayal of its founding principles is worth an essay all its own. Similarly, time and time again, P-Orridge professed a lifelong mission to, in the parlance of Burroughs, "smash the control machines". But by Thee Temple's formal conclusion, s/he evidently never so much detested control as was utterly captivated by it; h/er public statements plainly belied what lurked behind the veil in h/er personal life.
The tragedy of TOPY no doubt mirrored the larger failings of the 1980s occult counterculture revival, including its lofty promises to participants. As a disenchanted David Tibet later declared, "chaos magick [is] a lot of shit … if all these magicians are so great and powerful, why are they all so broke and don't have girlfriends?" (Keenan 2016: 305). David Keenan himself mused, in a more somber tone, about how "I've yet to meet a self-described practicing magician who was able to secure even [their] own most basic happiness" (Keenan 2016: 429). There is a truly lamentable aspect of Thee Temple's arc that warrants our pity as well.
I think there is a final dimension of this predicament to consider—one with far more to say about us, than about anything P-Orridge and h/er coterie did or did not do. Namely: TOPY is protected from any kind of serious call-out because we're already in too deep as a music community, and we stand to lose too much if we cut P-Orridge and Thee Temple's narrative legacy adrift. I say this because the seismic impact of a call-out campaign disrupts not just abuser privileges, and not just apologist indignation.
It also unsettles an amorphous and insidious power dynamic: a scene's unspoken groupthink, invested in protecting the sacred cows and hallowed stories that echo back the shared beliefs, identifiers, and bonds of the subculture itself. Among dark or extreme music aficionados, this is the fictive glue explaining why we are all in this dark, dank venue together, drinking overpriced beer with a rotating cast of patches and pins on our battle jackets. Invariably, these origin myths coalesce around (or are drummed up by) one or several artistic figureheads, whose compelling biography, astounding feats of stagecraft, or creative gifts from realms beyond our ken, jumpstart the scene and inscribe how it unfurls.
When our figureheads are sometimes toppled by allegations of abuse, the legends about the scene itself—wound up in the brand of the now-smashed idol(s)—fragments as well. Indeed, these accusations set in motion an additional set of dire questions: how did we submissively buy into the mythic posturing, the cult of personality, or the glamorous shock and awe? And how does a scene take that sobering look in the mirror, begin to put the pieces back together, and trudge forward?
The threat of painful reflections like these forestall any honest re-appraisal of TOPY and P-Orridge's four-decade legacy. Too many of our counterculture through-lines, we imagine, are wrapped around the axle of P-Orridge and h/er ilk. To defer any candid soul searching, our only option, we think, is to keep gunning forward, breaking point be damned. This, more than any other reason named thus far, is ultimately why we're paralyzed with respect to TOPY and P-Orridge. It's not that we fear what may happen to them; rather, we fear what we stand to sacrifice, we fear squandering the sunk costs in our own scene's narratives, to which we're helplessly wedded. Doing so would dredge up a slew of other embarrassments to ponder.
Why have so many scene impresarios and artist-activists—while demanding exploitation's removal, root and branch—abetted the consecration of a cult and its guru? Why did said cult, despite its documented abuses, enjoy complete deference in the public square when it winked at its audience and professed to be playacting? And finally, what should an honest reckoning look like in 2019? How can our present values be applied to redress this unsettled legacy, since for TOPY and P-Orridge, a final verdict on their legacies is really all that still hangs in the balance?
These must all be contended with, but only through the public conversations that hopefully come soon. And here, I argue, is the point of departure for any deliberate reform of subculture politics that accounts for concerns of collective memory, accountability, and alternative space preservation.
Long defanged, TOPY and P-Orridge can't harm anyone else right now. But there are still significant stakes for how we, as music lovers valuing restorative justice, choose to tell their story 28 years later; our choices here either reaffirm or break faith with those ethics. If transgressive yet conscientious artists, critics, and fans are serious about redressing the abuses that were previously tolerated in counterculture spaces, then we must be willing to re-examine the aspects of our scene which have calcified and taken on mythic status.
The tastemakers who fawn over P-Orridge and TOPY by regurgitating uncritical discourse should carefully reflect on the implications of doing so, given the sheer volume of sources documenting career-long coercion and exploitation. Their careless praise exemplifies just how much effort is still required to think through oppressive behavior in scenes beyond the single, sensational call-outs that have become weekly occurrences, and to apply the insights of anti-abuse activism to both our informal fan-feelings and historical assessments of past legacies. If we avert our eyes from staring down evidence and rendering a judgment because of how deeply it cuts, then the entire project of musical subculture may be more harmful than empowering. I am still convinced that the work of reform can be done.
* * *Note: Genesis Breyer P-Orridge's preferred pronouns are we, s/he, and h/er to reflect their pandrogyne gender identity, but many quotes herein use masculine pronouns to refer to P-Orridge if the speaker's statement and/or historical events occurred before the Pandrogyne Project's start in 1993.
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