This April I celebrated my 62nd birthday and also the birthday of the activist and trickster Kerry Wendell Thornley. He was a remarkable man whose purpose in life seemed to be to challenge nearly everything that he came across and not to take any received wisdom at face value. My first encounter with Kerry Thornley, the only person to write a book about Lee Harvey Oswald,The Idle Warriors, before John Fitzgerald Kennedy was assassinated, was via the pages of the Illuminatus! trilogy of books written around 1969-71 by Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea. The novels were, in my particular case, life-changing. Although the main thrust of any message that the novels contained was to think for yourself, the journey that the authors created to get to that point was mind-bending to say the least. Indeed, recreational and mind-altering drugs such as marijuana and LSD were often referred to in the body of the text. Along with this constant intention to influence the reader to think outside the box were messages from the movement known as Discordianism, which, on the surface at least, promotes worship of the Greek goddess Eris: “Eris, Roman Discordia, in Greco-Roman mythology, the personification of strife”. This is also known as chaos and is referred to as such throughout the trilogy. Therefore the reader is encouraged to embrace the concept that, instead of the ordered universe that mainstream human thinking seems to be steered to believing, viewing existence as a state of chaos may be a more realistic way of understanding our existence and looking at why things happen the way that they do. These books were dedicated to challenging widely-held, preconceived notions about authority of any kind, but especially state and religion, and how we stand in relation to them. Thus it was so with one of the most original works of literature ever.
Kerry Thornley met Lee Harvey Oswald whilst they were both serving in the United States Marines. Thornley and Oswald found that they shared common intellectual interests especially concerning politics. Therefore, when Thornley read of Oswald’s defection to the Soviet Union via the pages of Stars and Stripes, the newspaper for the US Forces, it stimulated him sufficiently to write The Idle Warriors. It is a novel about the normal lives of other ranks in the Marines, albeit informed by the unusual step taken by Oswald to defect to the USSR.
Thornley was not one to settle for another person’s received wisdom or worldview. Originally showing the direction that he would go in by developing Discordianism with fellow-traveller Greg Hill, this turned out to be a major exercise in attempting to break millenia of conditioning both imposed from above and set into ‘the system’ from long habituation. Ostensibly examining our relationship with religion, rather than spirituality, Discordianism called into question the hierarchy and layered power of organised religion by setting itself up as a religion dedicated to the goddess Eris, as mentioned earlier. To quote the Wikipedia entry for Discordianism: “In discordian mythology, Aneris is described as the sister of Eris a.k.a. Discordia. Whereas Eris/Discordia is the goddess of disorder and being, Aneris/Harmonia is the goddess of order and non-being.” The next stage from Discordianism was a project known as Operation Mindfuck (OM). Note the similarity of the initials of the Operation to the Buddhist mantra (OM, or AUM). It is worth noting that, when Thornley died he had a Buddhist service. OM was planned with other Discordians, notably Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea, the authors of the aforementioned Illuminatus! trilogy. Wilson and Shea were associate editors of Playboy magazine, and it was in the letters page that mention of the Bavarian Illuminati was first made. The first stage of OM was to plant seeds in the underground press of the time. Both left- and right-wing publications had letters placed to suggest the continuation into the present day of the secret society, the Bavarian Illuminati. This particular group was created mainly to oppose the Jesuit control of Bavaria and to usher in values more in line with the Enlightenment. Although there was not (and, indeed, is not) a scintilla of evidence for the continued existence of the society beyond 1785, the group was occasionally invoked by various commentators, typically of the excited right-wing variety. Accordingly Thornley and Hill contacted publications deemed to be far-right and -left-wing, attributing various events to the ‘resurrected’ Illuminati, who were made out to be an overarching secret society who controlled the world and was composed of captains of industry, aristocrats and others from what we now call the “elite”. The thinking behind OM was to break the mental circuit that kept people consuming, thinking in the ways of their bubble and not questioning the status quo. This meant challenging everyone’s assumptions, be they left-wing, right-wing or those who didn’t question their environment in any way. Bringing in an almighty conspiracy in the form of an anticlerical movement that failed by 1785 was their weapon of choice.
Whilst this was one thing that brought Thornley to some people’s attention, the other much more devastating event was the assassination of US President John F Kennedy. In the aftermath of Kennedy’s killing Jim Garrison, the District Attorney of New Orleans, got wind of Thornley’s antipathy to John F Kennedy, which was considered sufficient for him to be seriously considered as part of a conspiracy to kill the President. He was subsequently subpoenaed to appear before a grand jury. Thornley opposed the subpoena and was then accused of perjury by Garrison. The subpoena was dropped by Garrison’s successor, Harry Connick Sr. The most fascinating part of Wendell’s experiences preceding the assassination were the conversations he recalled having with two men about various subjects including how one might go about killing John F Kennedy, the rise of Charles Manson and his cult, the hippy movement and Richard Nixon’s presidency years before it happened. As a result of these unusual conversations, Thornley believed that the US government was manipulating events behind the scenes. This caused him to rethink some of his earlier writings and to consider that there may actually be some truth in a wider controlling conspiracy.
The rest of his life did not capture the public imagination; certainly not in the way that the events that orbited John F Kennedy’s most public of killings did. He continued to examine unusual (some might say countercultural) ways of both viewing and relating to the world and broadcasting his reactions by writing newsletters that he circulated locally. He passed away at the age of 60 and he never replicated that assault on the wider consciousness that he achieved with what are now his monuments; the resurrection of the Bavarian Illuminati in the public mind and the creation of modern Discordianism.