We need our secret societies
Da Vinci Code is hardly the only lasting conspiracy Assassins, Druids, even Shriners
May 21, 2006
Shadow People: Inside History's Most Notorious Secret Societies
by John Lawrence Reynolds
Key Porter, 320 pages, $36.95
Let's face it.
Ours is an era of rampant TMI (Too Much Information) and chronic "oversharing." Thanks to such reality TV shows as The Surreal Life and The Flavor of Love, the few of us left who aren't celebrities know way too much about people like Tawny Kitaen. Memoirists such as James Frey and Jonathan Ames invite us not only into their lives, but also their mouths, colons and veins — as if being seen from the outside were not enough.
Wouldn't it be nice to think there are still a few secrets left? Wouldn't it be great if there were still some individuals and organizations that actually shun the limelight, that operate in secret, in the shadows, with ulterior motives, bizarre initiation rituals, strange costumes and (hopefully) really complicated secret handshakes?
This yearning, this longing to believe there are still some secrets out there that can't be unearthed by typing a few words into your Google taskbar, has fuelled the surprising success of a woodenly written, far-fetched little thriller by the (formerly) obscure author Dan Brown, called The Da Vinci Code. Perhaps you've heard of it? It's sold 50 million copies in hardcover alone (the original acquiring editor, I heard, just wanders around in a daze going "Ka-ching! Ka-ching!") and has spawned a global industry that includes everything from documentaries to bus tours, and now a feature film starring Tom Hanks and a bunch of French people. All this about a clandestine society willing to go to extreme lengths to protect a secret the church really doesn't want you to know (hint: rumours of the death of a certain Someone may have been exaggerated).
But what were those real secret societies really like? Are they really the way they are in the movies — all mysterious and determined and mastermind-y?
In Shadow People, John Lawrence Reynolds draws back the veil to show what some secret societies — such as the Assassins, Druids, Gnostics, Freemasons, Illuminati, Yakuza, Mafia, Rosicrucians, the Kabbalists, the Shriners and members of Yale's Skull and Bones Society — were and are really like.
"The truth is stranger than fiction," they say, but if Shadow People is any indication, it's also considerably sadder. Reynolds makes a strong case that the members of these various organizations are just as confused, deluded, frazzled and desperate as the rest of us; plus their leaders are often charlatans, mountebanks and snake-oil salesmen.
Take the Rosicrucians. They "owe the origin of their society to two men, only one of whom actually lived. He was a trickster whose youthful fraud developed into a global organization."
Or The Kabbalah Centre in Los Angeles, which numbers among its followers Madonna, Mick Jagger, Paris Hilton and Posh Spice. It was founded by Feivel Gruberger, later Berg, with his new wife/former secretary Karen, in order to (according to Reynolds) fleece credulous Californians with $26 pieces of red string (supposedly from a strand wrapped around the tomb of the Hebrew matriarch Rachel (how-to-tie-it-for-maximum-protection-from-Rachel's-holy-energies instruction manual included); an endless stream of books (which, it's specified, followers don't have to read: to achieve Kabbalistic wisdom, they simply run their fingertips over the text in a process known as "speed meditation" — perfect for Posh's and Paris's busy schedules, I would think); and the modern-day equivalent of Pet Rocks — 72 stones, "each invisibly imprinted with a different name for God."
Of course, it's also a "test of faith" to believe anything is on the stones ...
Reynolds also touches on some of the material covered in The Da Vinci Code, which apparently has its origins in the local legend of a small French town. Folklore has it that a certain priest named Sauniere (also not by pure coincidence the name of a character in Dan Brown's book) discovered, while renovating an old church, not only the body of Christ but certain documents tracing his genealogy through the centuries, through various highly influential and powerful families and people.
Reynolds explodes this myth as based on fraud and hucksterism — and it's fascinating reading. There's much fascinating material in this book, and although it is at times quite clunkily and melodramatically written — in the forward, for example, he declares that secret societies "deserve to have their dark cloak of secrecy yanked away with a brilliant light shone upon them as they wriggle and squirm in the unfamiliar beam of exposure" — Shadow People is, overall, quite a page-turning experience.
Of course, it operates under the assumption that you want your secrets exploded and myths debunked. For some of us a little bunk helps make the world go around.
There's another problem with a book like this. The subtitle, Inside History's Most Notorious Secret Societies, is a bit of a misnomer. There's no internal evidence Reynolds ever infiltrated any society more sinister than his local library — and any information available even to an assiduous researcher such as Reynolds is no longer secret.
I mean, maybe the Druids were just a gentle, simple, peace-loving folk who had nothing to do with Stonehenge and who allowed just about anyone who felt like it to join; and maybe the Christ's bones were never found interred in a pillar of a church in France, along with a detailed genealogy, and it was all a fraud, a hoax, a canard.
Or maybe that's just what they want you to believe.
David Eddie is a Toronto writer and novelist.