The Church of Satan by Blanche Barton

bartonb-churchofsatanThis book is quite hard to find, not for any particularly esoteric reason. I imagine there simply weren’t that many copies printed and no one has yet produced an ebook of the text. The publisher is Hell’s Kitchen Productions, which might be the Church of Satan’s own self-publishing imprint. I was lucky to find a second-hand copy on eBay for £20, but the lowest price among the current ten copies listed on Amazon’s used books is £60. Owning this book now completes my collection of official Church of Satan literature. The other works are five books written by Anton LaVey, a biography on LaVey by Blanche Barton, and one book by Peter H. Gilmore (LaVey’s successor).

Blanche Barton, the author of the work under review, was Anton LaVey’s live-in partner for the latter part of his life, and the mother of one of his children. LaVey was, of course, the founder of the Church of Satan. This slim volume of 170 pages provides a brief history of the Church, beginning with some short biographical notes on LaVey’s carnival and occult background, leading to his reasons for forming a new religion based on man’s carnal nature. The growth of the church is catalogued, from its beginnings as a Friday night get-together at LaVey’s home, where he would lecture on the occult, to the eventual implementation of a nationwide “grotto” system. One of the most unfortunate aspects of LaVey’s earlier life is some of the claims are provably legendary. I personally find it a bit insulting that Barton reiterates these legends for her readers, especially when her intended readership seems to be Church of Satan members, rather than the general public. Michael Aquino’s Temple of Set gets a few jibes, as Aquino was responsible for splitting the Church of Satan in 1975. LaVey and Aquino spin that event in different ways, and its hard to tell who is entirely honest about what went down. Aquino’s claim that the Church of Satan ended in 1975 would seem to be a tad pretentious.

There is much material in the book that I have encountered before, but also some interesting new material, such as clarifications on the practice of ritual magic. The timing of the book’s publication puts it right in the middle of the Satanic Panic, a period of unprecedendent public hysteric about occult crimes against children. The phenomenon is rationally and effectively debunked.

The real strength of the book is the huge amount of direct quotes from LaVey himself. These are not from other printed works and public interviews, but presumably from Barton’s own conversations with the man himself. The quotes are so voluminous that LaVey could really be considered a co-author.

If you’re already familiar with Satanism, this book will serve as a refresher on the fundamentals, with perhaps a few new insights. For those who are not familiar with the philosophy, this is definitely one of the better books to read initially. Shame it’s so obscure.

The Secret Life of a Satanist by Blanche Barton

This is the authorised biography of Anton LaVey, the founder of the Church of Satan (1966) and author of The Satanic Bible (1969). It is written by Blanche Barton, LaVey’s long-term lover and a high-ranking member of the organisation, so high-ranking that administration of it passed to her upon LaVey’s death in 1997. Certainly, no one is more qualified to write a biography. The book was first published in 1992, which serves to give us a fairly comprehensive look at LaVey’s life.

Unfortunately, some of the claims in the book can be sourced elsewhere as outright lies. For instance, LaVey’s real name is Howard Stanton Levey, whereas the biography claims that Anton LaVey was his name by birth and that he was called “Tony” in his early years. He also gives false names for his parents.

According to the book, Anton LaVey was something of a misfit from his early years, a fact which led him to leave home early in life and join the Clyde Beatty circus – and later the carnival. After that he worked as a crime photographer. The insights he gained from leading his unusual life were instrumental in shaping the man he was to become. For instance, working in the circus as a lion tamer gave him an affinity for animals, so much so that later in life he would keep a lion as a house pet! In the carnival, he would play the organ for the strip shows, then play for the church services, where he would see the very same men who had attended the strip show attending church the next day, only to return to the strip show the following week, in a neverending cycle of hypocrisy. LaVey learned that “Man’s carnal nature will out.” He saw man as an animal, no different in nature from any other animal. In his work as a crime photographer, he saw the very worst in mankind. All of this shaped his views of man, God, and the nature of human existence. LaVey could be described as one whose views were shaped by living outside of the typical boundaries of the common herd of humanity.

Contrary to the above claims, the Beatty archives show no record of a “Levey” or “LaVey” as lion tamer or musician (source: Beatty 1947 Route Books, Circus World Museum, Baraboo, Wisconsin). That said, the biography does feature a photograph of a young LaVey posing with a clown and dwarf; the words “Lou Jacobs” are prominantly visible. San Francisco Police Department past employment records include no “Howard Levey” nor “Anton LaVey”. Frank Moser, who was a SFPD photographer in the early 1950s, said that LaVey never worked for the Department (source: SFPD records, Frank Moser).

LaVey developed an interst in the occult and held regular meetings with other interested friends at his home, the Black House (6114 California Street). The book alleges that LaVey purchased this house after learning that it was a former brothel of Barbary Coast madam Mammy Pleasant. It was honeycombed with trapdoors and secret passageways, built by Pleasant to elude police raids. LaVey’s home meetings eventually evolved into the Church of Satan, the first above-ground organisation to embrace the term Satanism in public.

In reality 6114 California Street was originally LaVey’s parents’ home. It was never a brothel. LaVey’s parents allowed Anton and his first wife Carole to live in the house, then transferred ownership of it to LaVey and his second wife Diane in 1971. The secret passages and hidden rooms that exist were constructed by Anton LaVey (source: San Francisco property records; Michael & Gertrude Levey [parents], Joint Tenancy Grant Deed, July 9, 1971).

LaVey codified modern Satanism as an atheistic religion/philosophy which utilised Satan as a symbol for an adversarial stance towards spirituality, and the triumph of the flesh. Satanism sees man as an animal, who is perfect just as he is, and not in need of any redemption, spiritual growth, or hypthetical reward hereafter. Satanism is not a religion of hedonism or violence, but of indulgence in our own nature, taking into the account the consequences of our actions. The occult side of Satanism was in the incorporation of magic as a reality – as something which is not fully understood, but which can be used to benefit the practitioner. Although Satanism is atheistic (denial of deity), it is acknowledged that there is a “dark force of nature” – not a God, not a being, not a consciousness; something beyond all of this, which can be tapped through ritualistic means. Some claim that LaVeyan Satanism is not true Satanism (because there is no actual Satan), but what expression of Satanism deserves the name more than the very one that has the brass to publicly call itself by that name?

LaVey’s biography alleges two romances of particular note. The first occurred in LaVey’s pre-Satanism days; he courted Marilyn Monroe when she was working in strip clubs before she became famous. Later, post 1966, he was involved with actress Jayne Mansfield, who became a priestess in the Church of Satan. Mansfield died tragically in a car accident with her “public” lover, Sam Brody. It was a complex relationship, with Mansfield trapped in a relationship she didn’t want with Brody, while besotted with LaVey. Brody’s jealously caused a great deal of trouble for LaVey, who eventually cast a curse upon Brody and warned Jayne to stay away from him. In one of Hollywood’s famous curses, Jayne died with Sam Brody in a car wreck.

According to Marilyn Monroe’s 1948 agent Harry Lipton, she never knew LaVey, and the particular claims in LaVey’s biography that the Mayan Theatre (where Monroe allegedly danced) was a burlesque theatre are false, as are the claims that LaVey and Monroe worked there. Diane LaVey has admitted to forging Monroe’s inscription on LaVey’s copy of her calendar (sources: Diane LaVey, Harry Lipton [Aquino-Lipton conversation 12/1/82], Robert Slatzer [letter to Michael Aquino 11/27/82], Edward Webber [interview by Aquino 6/2/91]).

Regarding the Jayne Mansfield affair, publicity agent Tony Kent arranged a meeting between Jayne Mansfield and LaVey as a publicity stunt. LaVey was smitten with her. Mansfield, who made no secret of her many affairs, denied knowing LaVey intimately, and no associate of hers has ever confirmed any supposed romance with LaVey. In a 1967 interview she said, “He had fallen in love with me and wanted to join my life with his. It was a laugh.” According to LaVey’s publicist Edward Webber, Mansfield would ridicule her Satanic suitor by calling from her Los Angeles home and seductively teasing him while her friends listened in on the conversation. LaVey’s public claims that he had an affair with Mansfield began only after her death, likewise the claim that Brody’s death was the result of a curse (source: Edward Webber [interview by Aquino 6/2/91]; interview with Mansfield quoted in Jayne Mansfield by May Mann, Pocket Books, 1974). In defence of LaVey’s own claims, the biography features LaVey posing in a familiar and friendly manner with Jayne Mansfied and her four children plus a handwritten letter that reads “To my Satanic friend, high in the eyes of orthodox religion. My probing for truth may be satisfied by my High Priest. Jayne.”

On the one hand, LaVey was a man with a deep insight on life, allowing us to sweep a great deal of pretentious nonsense out of ourselves, to our own benefit. On the other, he sometimes seemed to break his own Satanic principle, “Responsibility to the responsible,” paying back others far more than their crimes deserved. For instance, Togare, LaVey’s “big cat” eventually had to be removed from his home and housed in a zoo, due to neighbours’ complaints. Some time later, the zoo-keeper had Togare sent to Africa, without even notifying LaVey and giving him a chance to say goodbye. LaVey cursed the man, resulting in his death. Of course, it now appears that such claims are probably nothing more than exercises in myth-making by a man who wished to appear larger than life.

LaVey’s life was less eventful than I had anticipated. Aside from the alleged curses, there are no great Satanic crimes to speak of, or anything of a world-shattering nature. But that’s fine, and in fact, it paints Satanism to be much tamer than Christian hysterics would have you believe. For the most part, LaVey was a man who wished to quietly pursue his own interests, to communicate genuine insight, while falsely portraying himself as a powerful and dangerous man to the public. I have to ask, to what end? For it strikes me that there is something tragically pathetic about a man who once penned a work of deep insight (The Satanic Bible) now reduced to peddling lies about himself. What kind of insecurity drives this? Even worse to tell these lies to a universal readership, regardless of whether the reader is a Satanist or outsider.

I have one last criticism of the biography: there’s way too much hero-worship woven through the pages. From Barton’s perspective, LaVey can seemingly do no wrong. I think perhaps an autobiography might have been better in this regard, as speaking well of oneself comes less naturally than praising others. I originally read this book without knowing how deceptive it was. I took it at face value and liked it a great deal. But now that the myth has been exposed, this volume mainly just irritating. Its only lasting value is as example of how to manufacture a legend.

In fairness, it should be asked, are the counter-claims in the sources quoted any more valid than LaVey’s own claims? We may never be sure of all, but it’s clear that in some cases the evidence against LaVey is indisputable. For a full list of inconsistencies, see the sources at the bottom of the following Rolling Stone interview with LaVey. Also consult Michael Aquino’s massively detailed history of the Church of Satan, downloadable from the Temple of Set web site.