Those Who Don’t Study History… (Part Three of…several)

are, they say, doomed to repeat it. There’s a funny cartoon–probably from the New Yorker (I can’t make out the artist’s name, sorry–Thanks to Kate Laity, I want to give credit where it is due. The artist/cartoonist is Tom Toro/Torb)–that opines: Those who don’t study history are doomed to repeat it. Yet those who do study history are doomed to stand by helplessly while everyone else repeats it.

To talk about a single monolithic Pagan community is laughable, so expecting a new Pagan on the West Coast to know what Pagans that were prominent in the South in the 1980s is grossly unfair. There are, however, Pagan folk (usually authors) who are nationally known through their writings and their works on behalf of the religious movements we call modern Paganism. These people have public personas and reputations that precede them. Ask any festival or conference organizer about some of these BNPs (Big Name Pagans) and you’ll learn about their reliability as presenters, their idiosyncrasies and dietary needs, whether they are high maintenance or easy as pie to work with.

Those hard-working festival organizers have to decide if a given BNP has enough drawing power to be worth the pain they are in everyone’s ass. And–to be fair–sometimes a presenter is going through a rough patch in their private lives and they seem unfriendly and standoffish at one event but perfectly fine six months later in another place.

Ask other Pagans and you’ll start to hear the gossip about So-and-So and the time they were being an obnoxious jerk at the late night fire-and-drumming, whether they are “handsey” when drinking and they are always drinking. If you listen and learn and ask, you may be rewarded with the deeper levels of interaction. You’ll know who used to be partnered with whom and hear all about that Beltane when he found her in their tent with someone, practicing “the Great Rite.” You’ll be told who to avoid, who to look out for.

So, if we–as community members–know all that, why are we so reticent to share it publicly? There are legal liabilities, of course. If there’s no proof and are acting on second- or third-hand accounts, you would be foolish to announce what you think you know. Wouldn’t you? 

More than a decade ago, my community went through a terrible time. Following a child’s admission to her mom, a man who was mostly trusted (though thought “creepy” by many, especially in retrospect) admitted to the molesting the child. The parents called the sheriff, a warrant was issued and the man was tried, convicted and incarcerated.

But that was not the end of it.

Another member of our community rose in defense of the accused. He said that the man needed healing, not jail, and admitted that he himself had been an abuser years before and had gotten help.

The community exploded. Many of us shunned this second man and refused to be in ritual or sit in council with him. There were rounds of discussion, of counselling, in which the second man repeatedly admitted his past actions and even shared a song he’d written about it. He couldn’t understand why we didn’t believe him, why we no longer trusted him, especially with children.

When one of our number saw that this man was scheduled to staff the children’s area at a regional festival, she felt ethically bound to speak out. She wrote a letter to the greater community, in which she warned of this man’s past abuses and asked the community to be vigilant. Sides were taken and that part of the community was riven, angry, afraid.  She sent that letter out year after year for a  long time.  She hadn’t accused him of anything he hadn’t admitted to–that was key. She was brave to do such a thing in a time when lies were the fabric of so many personal mythologies, but her heart and her personal ethics would not allow this to be added to the growing heap of noxious secrets.

Neither she nor the second man are very active in the Pagan world any more. They have moved on to others things. And who is warning his new community of what he did so long ago?  Is he working with children now? And is it safe–as he insisted all those years ago–for him to be around them?


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