Tag Archives: religion

The Baysiders: Cults Within Cults

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A while ago, I was trying to explain the Bayside movement to a couple of friends. My mother was quite involved with the group for most of the 1980s and even in the first half of the 1990s. I think she still considers herself part of it, though she’s not actively involved to the extent she was.

For those not in the know, The ‘Baysiders’ came about in the late 1960s and early 1970s, based around the ‘visions’ of Veronica Leuken, a housewife based in Bayside, a neighbourhood of New York City. Leuken claimed to start having visions of Mary, Jesus’s mother, in 1968, just before the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy. After that, the visions came thick and fast and soon, according to Leuken, she was speaking with Mary and a host of Catholic saints. They gave her messages about the state of the world and future predictions (none of which ever happened within the time predicted). She had her ‘ecstacies’ recorded on tape and transcribed, which were then distributed as flyers or newsletters by her rapidly growing group of followers.

The followers gathered at Leuken’s local parish in Bayside, until the crowds started to disturb the neighbourhood and were moved on by the local government. Eventually, they were granted a site which was part of the 1964 World’s Fair pavilion in Flushing Meadows. Leuken and her followers would gather for ‘Rosary Vigils’, in which they would say the rosary for the duration of the night, while Leuken would “channel” Mary or whichever saint chose to speak to the crowd.

That’s the basic gist of what they’re about. Ideologically, they were (and possibly still are) very conservative and were committed to oppose the ‘modern’ changes to the Catholic Church, specifically the Vatican II Council, held in 1962. According to Leuken, Mary and the others were very disappointed with the changes. In fact, if you read even a smattering of the ‘prophecies‘, Mary and the other celestial, omniscient beings sound a lot like garden-variety John Birch Society members. They’re obsessed with Communism, with ‘Satanic’ infiltration in the Church, the U.N., homosexuality, the wayward youth and the minutae of how to say the Mass (“No communion in the hand”, deacons can’t have priestly powers). It also seems that Mary & Co. aren’t that big on equal rights for women, or allowing women to wear trousers, in another ‘traditionalist’ bent. Add to all that a lot of apocalyptic warnings about comets and wars and natural disasters wiping out large swathes of the planet’s populations and you’re left scratching your head about Leuken’s “God” and his benevolence and loving nature. To me, ‘God’ sounds batshit crazy and conspiracy-theory prone: he warns about the Illuminati and the Freemasons, a conspiracy to replace the ‘Pope’ with an ‘anti-Pope’, about record companies being under control of Wicca (???!!) and a ‘one-world government’.

Bear in mind that the Baysiders never separated themselves from Catholicism, prefering to protest from within. They would wear their blue berets to Mass and, instead of having the communion wafer handed to them, would kneel down in front of the priest and have the wafer placed on their tongues (as allegedly instructed by the ‘Virgin Mary’, via Leuken). They were also notable by their conservative dress, with ankle-length skirts and formal trousers (trousers only for the men, though – women were forbidden to wear trousers).

I don’t remember how my mother became part of this cult – I was still really young and in the haze of childhood. I didn’t really pay much attention to the ‘grown-ups’ and their doings. Suddenly, it seemed, she was spending time with a few Baysiders and adopting their views and mannerisms. She be-friended a strange old woman, who would bring over photo albums full of Polaroid photos with different coloured squiggles on them which contained ‘messages’, according to this woman. You see, they were taken at the World’s Fair site during these rosary vigils and ‘God’ had caused the shapes to appear on the film. It is interesting to note that Polaroid attorneys never really released a statement saying the photos were faked. The ‘zines printed by the group starting appearing in the house and my mother began to stock up on ‘holy water’ (water blessed by a priest).

My mother would tell my older sister and I (our other siblings were deemed too young, at that time, to understand) about prophecies like the “Plague Of Children” and “The Warning” and “The Chastisement”. It sounded scary as shit, but for some reason, it didn’t really bother me that much. My sister was really frightened and, it seems to me, carried around that fright for a long time. When I was 11, my mother asked if I wanted to go to a vigil. I agreed, mainly as an excuse to stay up late. We got on a coach in Hartford and on the two-hour trip to Flushing Meadows, I was sat with my mother and surrounded by Baysiders. At one point, someone shouted “Look at the sun! It’s spinning!”, everyone immediately looked over to the setting sun and agreed that it was indeed spinning. I didn’t see it spinning, but it did seem to change from a orange-ish to green colour for a few seconds. That may have been my eyesight, though. I didn’t count it as a ‘miracle’.

At the pavilion – there were hundreds of people setting up deck chairs and blankets and clutching rosary beads. There was a statue of the Virgin Mary at one end of the pavilion and that end was already crowded with believers. Then, they started saying the rosary…and saying the rosary…and saying the rosary. This went on until midnight or maybe 1 a.m. I can’t quite remember because I grew bored and fell asleep. It definitely wasn’t worth getting to stay up late for. I can’t remember if my mother had brought our Polaroid to take ‘miraculous photos’. I was woken by my mother and wearily got back on the coach to go home.

I think I may have gone one other time about a year later, but after that, I eschewed any involvement with the gatherings. I couldn’t see the point in saying prayers over and over and nothing seemed to happen. The problem was, I still couldn’t escape their influence on my mother. I went to a Catholic middle-school and in my sixth-grade year, my mother kept me out of sex education class (in a Catholic school!!!) – which was pretty humiliating at the time. She used to hector my sister and brother and I about listening to rock music (which she claimed was ‘the devil’s music’). She tried to keep me from hanging out with a friend who lived down the street because his family were a bit too secular and liberal for her liking (at least, that’s what I suspected back then).

Eventually, as I grew into my late teens, I was finally able to shuck off any trappings of Bayside. My mother continued to see her ‘Sider buddies and go to the vigils – but I stopped taking any of it seriously (not that I had taken it that seriously in the first place). While I still considered myself a Catholic, I was a liberal Catholic and getting moreso all the time. In my mid-twenties, I gave up on the Church altogether, having decided that I really didn’t believe in it’s teachings anymore. I chose agnosticism as my path and have strived to keep to it as much as possible – getting rid of any long-held dogma.

Leuken passed away in 1995, which led to a schism in the Bayside movement. Her husband continued the vigils, but ousted one of his wife’s assistants – who promptly formed a rival Baysider sect. Mr Leuken passed away in 2002 and another woman has stepped up to lead the ‘original’ group. The Catholic Church still denies any authenticity to the prophecies…and the beat goes on. The strangest thing about the Baysiders, it seems to me, is that they’re more conservative than the main religious organisation they branch off from. Unlike certain sects of Sufism, which branches from Islam and Zen, which parts ways some from Buddhism – the Baysiders seem to want to turn back the clock with Catholicism and return it to a perceived earlier, ‘better’ period. They’re sincere, but ultimately misguided, as the world is passing them by. I suspect they’re all up in arms about the recent gay marriage vote in Ireland and still predicting that ‘great comet of fire’ is just around the corner. But hey, at least they probably agree with the current ‘Pope’ regarding the matter.

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Cinema Corner #315: “Dear Zachary” & “Bitter Lake”

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I was doing a bit of Wiki-hopping. You know, where you look at one Wikipedia page, then follow a link to a different page and so on. I bought a used copy of Spiritualized‘s Songs In A&E last week. Running through the other tunes are short tracks all named “Harmony” (with slight variations on the title). I thought I’d check the Wiki page for “Songs…” and discovered that the tunes are named that after Harmony Korine, the actor/screenwriter (most famous for writing the screenplay to the 1995 film “Kids“, a bleak look at da yoof in 1990s New York City). I then looked at the page for Korine and remembered reading about his film “Gummo” a while back. Apparently, it’s quite a difficult film to watch. That led me to one of those list-articles on Buzzfeed, about the “25 Films That Will Destroy Your Faith In Humanity“. Now, it is Buzzfeed, so expect a lot of hype – but some of those films seem to be really draining on the psyche, just from the descriptions. Amongst the violent revenge flicks like “Oldboy” and “I Spit On Your Grave“, is a documentary called “Dear Zachary“. Unlike a lot of the films on the list, it’s available to watch on YouTube. I was curious as to how it ended up on the list, so I gave it a go.

Essentially, it’s the story of Andrew Bagby’s murder in 2001, carried out (or so the evidence seems to show) by his ex-girlfriend, Shirley Turner. Bagby had a relationship with Turner while they were both in medical school. Bagby broke it off and Turner, unable to take being jilted, drove from Iowa to Pennsylvania and (again, as the evidence seems to show) killed him in cold blood after he agreed to meet her one last time. Kurt Kuenne (which he pronounces “Kenny”) was a childhood friend of Bagby’s and Bagby acted in a lot of Kuenne’s amateur films when they were students. There are several talking-head interviews with Andrew’s school friends and work colleagues and even his relatives in England, describing his personality in glowing terms.

Bagby’s parents, Kate (an ex-pat English nurse) and David, are given special focus, as they were the main campaigners to get Turner brought to trial in the States (Turner was a Canadian citizen and fled to her native Newfoundland after Bagby was murdered). Turner then revealed she was pregnant with Bagby’s child (she also had three other children from previous relationships). Bagby’s parents moved to Newfoundland to work on Turner’s extradition and then to get custody of ‘Zachary’, as the baby was eventually named. The Bagbys are awarded (very tenuously) joint custody of Zachary and Kuenne drives up to Canada to meet and film The Bagbys and the child.

Tragedy then happens a second time when, realising that her extradition may be imminent and that another episode involving a man jilting her caused Turner to become unstable – she strapped Zachary to herself and jumped into the Atlantic Ocean. Both drowned within minutes. It’s made obvious that the film, while being a tribute to Andrew and Zachary, is more of a tribute to The Bagbys and their resilience in coping with the loss of a grandson and a son and taking on the caprices of the Canadian justice system.

The film, despite it’s depressing content, is well-made. Kuenne probably could have relied less on the musical score for emotional cues (such as the Bernard Hermann “Psycho”-like music for the parts where Turner is shown). Turner is never really investigated, either – her family aren’t interviewed, her background isn’t researched or presented at all. She becomes mainly a cypher and a villain for viewers to project all sorts of ‘evil’ onto. Now, she was more than likely guilty of murdering a man in cold blood and she took the life of a child in a ghastly selfish way. Still, we never know what motivated her to behave that way. She clearly had mental health problems and was quite unstable. Also, the Canadian justice system seems quite flawed – but was this a case of a small community protecting one of its own? Particularly in the wake of 9/11, was there a broader link between the foot-dragging of the extradition trial and the central Canadian government (vis-a-vis: distancing itself from the U.S. government)? I suppose that may be veering into conspiracy theory, but it could be an interesting avenue to explore.

Adam Curtis, the UK documentary film-maker, announced on his blog a short while ago, that he was producing a doc to be shown strictly on the BBC iPlayer. It was to be about Afghanistan and its relationship to Russia, Saudi Arabia and The West.

It finally arrived (called “Bitter Lake”) on the iPlayer in January and I watched it as soon as I had a couple of hours to really absorb the film. It starts with Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s meeting with King Abdulaziz of Saudi Arabia, on an American warship in 1945. The U.S. needed oil to run it’s growing industrial complexes and fuel it’s new-found military might. Abdulaziz agreed to produce the oil, but his condition was that the U.S. not interfere in the Saudi faith. That faith is Wah’habbism, a very conservative branch of Islam. F.D.R. also agreed to a massive dam project in Afghanistan, that would help work to ‘modernise’ that country and create a Western-style democracy in the Middle East.

The film then presents a dizzying lesson in Afghan history since 1945, using archival footage, interspersed with unedited BBC news footage shot after the 2001 invasion by U.S. and UK forces. The West, seeking to create a Middle East idyll in Afghanistan, runs afoul of the Saudis after the U.S. overtly supports Israel in the 1950s. The democratic Afghanistan does well in the the 1960s, but then Western student visitors bring leftist ideas with them in the early 1970s. A few years later, after the 1973/1974 oil crisis, which gave the Saudis even more leverage in world affairs, due to ‘petrodollars’ flowing into their coffers – Communism (with a capital ‘C’) started to flourish in Afghanistan. This didn’t sit too well with the Saudis.

Russian citizens, encouraged by this development, started to move into the country. There was a backlash, however, and soon things started to get ugly. The Soviet army invaded Afghanistan in 1979 to back the failing Communist regime. Groups of disparate tribal fighters (with Wah’habbists among their ranks) rebelled against the Soviets. The U.S., seizing an opportunity to fight a proxy war, trained and armed (via the C.I.A.) these groups, who came to be known as the ‘mujahedeen’. The roots of what then morphed into the the Taliban were formed in the mujahedeen.

Some of the uncut footage is extraordinary, unsettling and shocking, sometimes all at once. Footage of then-President Karzai’s motorcade wends it’s way through Kabul. Three men sidle up to Karzai’s SUV to greet him – suddenly automatic gunfire rings out and seconds later, the men are laying heaped in the street. U.S. soldiers are shown boasting about being ‘born killers’ and ‘off command’ kills (presumably that means civilians or people the soldiers themselves suspected being Taliban combatants, but weren’t confirmed as such). In one really lovely bit, a British soldier holds a small bird that has landed on his rifle, while a Middle Eastern pop song plays as a soundtrack.

The British presence in Afghanistan, particularly Helmand Province, after 2001 is shown to be largely an exercise in futility, as the soldiers couldn’t tell who were the ‘real Taliban’. Curtis argues that many of the locals were fed up with Karzai’s corrupt police forces and saw the British as backing the police. The locals decided to attack the British, which emboldened the Taliban to return from Pakistan – so essentially, the British were fighting on two fronts at once.

Things changed yet again after the 2008 financial crash, when the ‘bankers and techno-crats’, trusted by the leaders in The West to work out the complexities of the markets, failed to do so. Money was flooded into the U.S., UK and Afghanistan economies in an effort to prop up the system. A lot of the money injected into the Afghan economy was siphoned out to Dubai, further frustrating the Afghan people.

In the end, Curtis argues, despite many different leaders trying to imprint their version of Islam on radical groups, Wah’habbism was still the driving force behind even the newest group of fighters, ISIL (the Islamic State of Syria and Levant), or ISIS. The original strain of Islam that the king of Saudi Arabia tried to wipe out in the 1940s is alive and very much kicking. Curtis also states that The West had to confront the notion that all of its efforts to transform Afghanistan amounted to nothing, but like the lake on the planet in the 1972 film “Solaris”, Afghanistan has left an effect on the Western psyche.

You can watch “Dear Zachary” online here

You can watch “Bitter Lake” here (UK only) and here (rest of the world)