Culture of the Imagination, Part 3

Last month, I wrote about the psychological dynamics behind the sacred spaces we create together and the ways we might utilize the power of sacred space to create a better world. This month, I'll be writing about what happens when the people to whom we have given power abuse it, and in doing so weaken both the internal and external cultures of the imagination we've worked so hard to build. Specifically, I'll be writing about the work of Marion Zimmer Bradley (MZB), its influence upon a generation of Pagan women and the destructive effects of the recent pedophilia allegations against her.

The younger Pagans among you might not recognize the name, but if you're a Pagan woman of a certain age, you'll remember that MZB is the author of a much-beloved novel called The Mists of Avalon. This novel tells the Arthurian story from the point of view of its women and follows the life of Morgaine, otherwise known as Morgan le Fay. It was released in 1983, just a few years before I left an abusive family of Jehovah's Witnesses to live with my grandmother, who was also a Christian conservative. An avid reader, I found the novel in 1986, and it changed my life in ways that echo even now. It was the world I wanted to live in; a place where women existed in community with one another, where they wielded the ancient power of the divine feminine, where the sacred was protected from the mundane. Because of that book, I was drawn to Western European Paganism, and then to Celtic Pagan spirituality, and then to a degree in Celtic Studies, and then to Cape Breton. In a very real sense, The Mists of Avalon shaped my own culture of the imagination and helped make me the woman I am now.

Many women of my generation came to Paganism with The Mists of Avalon in one hand and The Spiral Dance in the other, so many the experience might well be called a cliché. Separately, these books showed us how a community that valued the feminine divine might look and how it might operate in the world. Together, they were a heady recipe for transformation and empowerment. I certainly cannot imagine what my life might have been like without their influence, and while I have fallen out of touch with all of the young women with whom I shared The Mists of Avalon in particular, I do recall that one of the young men from our crew read the novel to his daughters in the years that followed. So for me and many other Pagan women my age, it was no mere novel. It was the foundational landscape of our internal Avalons, and as I've previously written, those internal landscapes help to shape the cultures of the imagination we create together as Pagan communities.

So it was especially devastating to me, and I'm sure to many other Pagans, to learn the author of that imaginary Avalon wasn't the woman I hoped she had been.

Early in June, posted a birthday tribute to the late MZB. Shortly thereafter, the post was removed because it neglected to mention her husband Walter Breen's trial and conviction for child molestation. In the fallout from this incident, I learned for the first time that an author whose work I loved had been married to a man well-known in the speculative fiction community as a pedophile. Worse, she had equivocated during his trial with a string of what appeared to be carefully-rehearsed "I don't recalls". Then on June 10th, Deirdre Saoirse Moen posted a blog entry containing Moira Greyland's allegation that MZB had physically and sexually assaulted her and other children for many years. Moira Greyland is MZB's daughter. With permission, Moen posted two poems Greyland wrote about her mother, and they are the stuff of nightmares.

MZB has been dead for nearly fifteen years, so she isn't here any longer to defend herself. However, there is ample record of her self-defense in the way of court testimony online, and it is important to remember that MZB's children and the adult survivors of Walter Breen's abuse have the right to speak about their own experiences and be viewed as credible reporters of their own lives. But while I am linking to the relevant information at the end of this post and have drawn my own conclusions about the matter, it isn't my intention to discuss the facts of the case here. Rather, I want to address with you what happens to us when the people who help to shape our internal and external sacred landscapes fall so far from grace.

It can be perspective-shattering, but the first step toward integration of the experience might be to acknowledge that we are the people most responsible for our internal and external lives. The Mists of Avalon was MZB's novel, but I was the author of its place in my heart, and so it is with every book. Once they leave the hands of their creators, they belong to the people who read them. The same could be said for any powerful work that shapes our lives, so it's important to claim and hold sacred the pieces of that shaping which belong only to us. From there, we can negotiate the place a flawed person's work comes to occupy in our lives. I'm not a great fan of the 'separate the artist from the art' advice, but your mileage may vary, and from time to time I do still read the work of authors whose personal lives and opinions I find distasteful. Finally, as a result of this integration, our internal and external cultures of the imagination can begin to heal so that we continue to be nourished by them and to nourish others with them.

Having said this, there are things that can stand in the way of this process of acknowledgement, integration and healing. Dishonesty with ourselves about the nature of the people in question can lead us to justify or excuse their behaviors in order to protect the influence they had on our lives, but that instinct for self-preservation often comes at too high a cost. Conversely, self-honesty doesn't require that we publicly condemn the people we once admired; it only requires that we tell the truth to ourselves and to others, when asked. In my case, I don't have to defend MZB on the grounds that she cannot defend herself, I don't have to malign her daughter's testimony and I don't have to engage in other evasion techniques in order to preserve the Avalon her work helped to create in my spiritual consciousness. I only need to look at the evidence, make an honest evaluation and move forward, however painful the movement might be. With time and care, my Avalon will remain intact, and my commitment to the creation of communities that honor the feminine divine will remain strong, since both of these things are part of me no matter how MZB behaved during her life.

Why is this so important? Because Marion Zimmer Bradley isn't alone. There are many people more directly associated with the wider Pagan community whose leadership we valued and who fell from grace. In some cases, that fall has indeed been an arrest on pedophilia charges, but in other cases the flawed behavior has been less egregious and gone unchallenged for years, even decades. This means these people are shaping the internal landscapes of others, which in turn shape the cultures of the imagination those others help to create in the Pagan community, where they might do harm along the way. And so the cycle repeats. This is why we must treat our Pagan leaders and writers honestly, just as I have endeavored to treat the allegations against MZB honestly. Without that honesty and the courage of our convictions, we cannot nurture a healthy internal landscape, nor can we cultivate a healthy community.

I hope you've enjoyed my three-part discussion of the culture of the imagination; its place in our hearts, the way it empowers Pagan communities and the challenges it can face. Merry Lughnasa! May you reap a bountiful harvest.

*Jim Hines' Blog Entry
*Marion Zimmer Bradley: It’s Worse Than I Knew
*Marion Zimmer Bradley Gave Us New Perspectives, All Right
*Marion Zimmer Bradley was a child abuser – says her own daughter
* Yanks MZB Birthday Tribute

And finally...

*Thoughts on Avalon, by Marion Zimmer Bradley

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