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Jack Parsons: The real-life, whacked-out rocket scientist in 'The Department of Truth'

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Jack Parsons: The real-life, whacked-out rocket scientist in ‘The Department of Truth’

And you thought Scientology was weird.

Consider if you will: the case of a rocket engineer and a science fiction writer traveling together to the Mojave Desert to engage in sexual acts as part of a magic ritual to bring about the incarnation of a goddess, and how it unexpectedly helped birth one of the largest cults in the world. A tale this bizarre can only be found in the pages of the comic book series The Department of Truth … and in one of the stranger corners of reality. Because what’s most shocking about this story at the center of The Department of Truth #14, is just how much of it is true.

Jack Parsons

Parsons in 1938, holding the replica car bomb used in the murder trial of police officer Captain Earl Kynette

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Jack Parsons was a rocket engineer and chemist who was among the founders of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and the Aerojet Engineering Corporation. He was also an occultist, a close friend of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, and a practitioner of sex magic rituals.

In 1939, Parsons and his wife converted to Aleister Crowley’s religious movement called Thelema and joined the Agape Lodge, the Californian branch of the Thelemite Ordo Templi Orientis (O.T.O.), an organization devoted to sex magic. Parsons rationalized this as having its origins in quantum physics. See? It wasn’t about getting his rocks off. He was doing it for the science, dammit!

It was during this time in the early ’40s that Parsons also fell in with the Mañana Literary Society, which met in science fiction novelist Robert Heinlein’s house in Laurel Canyon. In 1942, at Crowley’s request, Parsons took over as the Agape Lodge’s leader, which didn’t sit well with JPL and Aerojet, eventually contributing to his removal from both in 1944.

Jack Parsons: The real-life, whacked-out rocket scientist in 'The Department of Truth'

Aleister Crowley

One of Parson’s next ventures, a company called Ad Astra Engineering, became the brief subject of an FBI investigation when security agents from the Manhattan Project discovered that Parsons “had procured a chemical used in a top-secret project for a material known only as x-metal.” During this time, Parsons purchased a mansion where he carried out O.T.O activities and rented out rooms to artists and bohemians. One such renter was sci-fi author L. Ron Hubbard, whom Parsons soon befriended.

Hubbard’s now-famous cult, Scientology, began with Dianetics, a book he originally conceived of as a branch of psychiatry. When the psychiatric world rejected it, Hubbard rebranded it as an alternative to psychiatry, with anti-psychiatric propaganda becoming an increasingly prominent element of Scientology as it evolved.

But before the days of Hubbard’s “cult of greed” and Tom Cruise jumping on Oprah’s couch, Parsons wrote to Crowley that while Hubbard lacked formal training in magic, he already lived his life consistently with Thelema principles. “Parsons showed Hubbard a way — a kind of format for forming a religion,” says Parsons’ biographer George Pendle.

Jack Parsons: The real-life, whacked-out rocket scientist in 'The Department of Truth'

L. Ron Hubbard

The polyamorous sex magic lifestyle of the O.T.O. already drove Parsons to leave his wife Helen for her younger sister Sara (nicknamed Betty, for some reason), but when it eventually drove Betty into the arms of Hubbard, a jealous Parsons started to experiment with black magic, which concerned his fellow members of the O.T.O. Parsons reported poltergeists and other paranormal activity following these black magic experiments, though Pendle attributes the phenomena to a prank Hubbard and Betty played on him.

“After his girlfriend ran off with Hubbard, he decided to create his own girlfriend and summon an elemental,” Pendle said. In December of 1945, Parsons began a series of rituals which involved masturbating on tablets that “would last more than two hours while Prokofiev’s Second Violin Concerto played in the background.” This was part of a larger project that came to be known as Babalon Working, an attempt by Parsons and Hubbard to manifest the Thelemite goddess Babalon. According to Richard Metzer in his book, Book of Lies: The Disinformation Guide to Magick and the Occult, “Parsons jerked off in the name of spiritual advancement” while Hubbard “scanned the astral plane for signs and visions.”

A Wired article recounts the events following one fateful Babalon Working session that occurred in the Mojave desert:

After one such ritual in 1946, Parsons decided that he had managed to conjure up his perfect woman. So when he came into contact with Marjorie Cameron, he was convinced she was the one. “He felt as though his elemental had arrived,” says Pendle. Cameron had no idea that she had been “invoked” in this way. She became his muse and was the subject of a book of poetry Parsons wrote at the time.

Parsons engaged in sex magic rituals with Cameron, who initially knew nothing about the O.T.O. or his magical intentions to use her body to produce some sort of Thelemic messiah. It reportedly left even Crowley baffled.

Jack Parsons: The real-life, whacked-out rocket scientist in 'The Department of Truth'

Image Comics

In his book, Sex and Rockets: The Occult World of Jack Parsons, John Carter recounts the incident in which Parsons discovered that Hubbard guy might be a two-bit conman. In February of 1946, Parsons co-founded a company called Allied Enterprises with Hubbard and Betty, in which Parsons invested $20,970. The money was used for a variety of things of an “eclectic nature,” one of which was buying boats on the east coast, which they would sail to California and sell for a profit. In April, Hubbard and Betty split with $10,000 of the company’s money. It took a little time, but eventually, Parsons caught on that he’d been cheated.

“He threatened to chase them, but a call to Hubbard soon calmed him down. Astrologer and initiate Louis Culling overheard the call and couldn’t believe the formerly angry Parsons could be so easily swayed. Parsons ended the call with, “I hope we shall always be partners, Ron,” a comment that made Culling cringe.

On May 22 Crowley wired to Germer, “Suspect Ron playing confidence trick–John Parsons weak fool–obvious victim–prowling swindlers.”

Parsons chased Hubbard and Betty to Miami and found two of their three boats, but they escaped on the third. When the U.S. Coast Guard caught them, the couple pretended to have survived some desperate situation at sea. Parsons sued Allied Enterprises and the case was swiftly settled, after which the company dissolved. Parsons got two of the boats back while Hubbard was granted ownership of the third, and was forced to pay Parsons’ legal fees.

Parsons never heard from Hubbard and Betty again. Eventually they married and Hubbard went on to found The Church of Scientology. Scientology officially denies Hubbard’s involvement with the O.T.O. and Parsons, claiming he was an undercover agent for the U.S. Navy, sent to investigate black magic. Which totally sounds super-duper plausible.

Jack Parsons: The real-life, whacked-out rocket scientist in 'The Department of Truth'

Image Comics

And in case you thought Parsons’ became less interesting after the period of time when he was masturbating in the desert trying to manifest spirits with the founder of Scientology, the final chapter of his life would see him cleared of federal charges ranging from being a Communist (after he named names to the House Un-American Activities Committee) to being a spy for Israel, before his eventual death in 1952 “in a mysterious explosion at his home laboratory.”

AIPT Science is co-presented by AIPT and the New York City Skeptics.

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