January 1, 2014

Tom Wolfe on Skull and Bones

Skull and Bones logo
Q. What does "322" mean?
A. It's a secret.
The subject of secret societies and cults in Turkish politics got me thinking about American analogs. For example, the 2004 presidential election saw much partisan passion as supporters of George W. Bush and current secretary of state John Kerry turned out in large numbers to cast their votes for these very different candidates. Except ... I always thought it kind of interesting that both Bush and Kerry were members of the same Yale secret society: Skull and Bones.

 From Wikipedia:
In the 2004 U.S. Presidential election, both the Democratic and Republican nominees were alumni. George W. Bush wrote in his autobiography, "[In my] senior year I joined Skull and Bones, a secret society; so secret, I can't say anything more."[25] When asked what it meant that he and Bush were both Bonesmen, former Presidential candidate John Kerry said, "Not much, because it's a secret."[26][27]

The Tomb
Of course, there's nothing at all weird about Bonesmen holding meetings in a windowless temple / fortress / bunker / rumpus room called The Tomb.

Still, you might wonder what the Bonesmen do in there. Tom Wolfe explained in his 1976 New York article The "Me" Decade and the Third Great Awakening:
At Yale the students on the outside wondered for 80 years what went on inside the fabled secret senior societies, such as Skull and Bones. On Thursday nights one would see the secret-society members walking silently and single file, in black flannel suits, white shirts, and black knit ties with gold pins on them, toward their great Greek Revival temples on the campus, buildings whose mystery was doubled by the fact that they had no windows. What in the name of God or Mammon went on in those 30-odd Thursday nights during the senior years of these happy few? What went on was . . . lemon sessions!—a regularly scheduled series of lemon sessions, just like the ones that occurred informally in girls’ finishing schools. 
In the girls’ schools these lemon sessions tended to take place at random on nights when a dozen or so girls might end up in someone’s dormitory room. One girl would become “it,” and the others would light into her personality, pulling it to pieces to analyze every defect . . . her spitefulness, her awkwardness, her bad breath, embarrassing clothes, ridiculous laugh, her suck-up fawning, latent lesbianism, or whatever. The poor creature might be reduced to tears. She might blurt out the most terrible confessions, hatreds, and primordial fears. But, it was presumed, she would be the stronger for it afterward. She would be on her way toward a new personality. Likewise, in the secret societies: They held lemon sessions for boys. Is masturbation your problem? Out with the truth, you ridiculous weenie! And Thursday night after Thursday night the awful truths would out, as he who was It stood up before them and answered the most horrible questions. Yes! I do it! I whack whack whack it! I’m afraid of women! I’m afraid of you! And I get my shirts at Rosenberg’s instead of Press! . . . But out of the fire and the heap of ashes would come a better man, a brother, of good blood and good bone, for the American race guerrière. And what was more . . . they loved it. No matter how dreary the soap opera, the star was Me. 
By the mid-1960s this service, this luxury, had become available for one and all, i.e., the middle classes. Lemon Session Central was the Esalen Institute, a lodge perched on a cliff over-looking the Pacific in Big Sur, California, Esalen’s specialty was lube jobs for the personality. ... They were encouraged to bare their own souls and to strip away one another’s defensive facades. Everyone was to face his own emotions squarely for the first time. ...
Encounter sessions, particularly of the Schutz variety, were often wild events. Such aggression! such sobs! tears! moans, hysteria, vile recriminations, shocking revelations, such explosions of hostility between husbands and wives, such mud balls of profanity from previously mousy mommies and workadaddies, such red-mad attacks! Only physical assault was prohibited. The encounter session became a standard approach in many other movements, such as Scientology, Arica, the Mel Lyman movement, Synanon, Daytop Village, and Primal Scream. Synanon had started out as a drug rehabilitation program, but by the late 1960s the organization was recruiting “lay members,” a lay member being someone who had never been addicted to heroin . . . but was ready for the lemon-session life.

Cesar Chavez became addicted to Synanon encounter sessions in the 1970s.
Outsiders, hearing of these sessions, wondered what on earth their appeal was. Yet the appeal was simple enough. It is summed up in the notion: “Let’s talk about Me.” No matter whether you managed to renovate your personality through encounter sessions or not, you had finally focused your attention and your energies on the most fascinating subject on earth: Me.


Anonymous said...

So, basically Scientology auditing meets Maoist criticism/self-criticism sessions?

Whiskey said...

AA does this too. Its very Protestant Christian. No Catholic would think this is a good idea.

You sin Monday through Saturday. You go to Mass on Sunday. Any extra sins are gotten rid of in Confession. No public ritual or humiliation. Everything private, or done by ritual in Mass.

But ANYONE familiar with Revivalist Protestantism, I'm not talking staid mainline groups like the Presbyterians (I was raised nominally such and there was nothing like that in Sunday School or Church Service) but a Baptist Revival meeting ... personal sin confession and self-criticism to achieve a spiritual cleansing in front of strangers in a emotional performance is pretty standard.

See Jimmy Swaggart here doing just that in 1988. Protestant Politicians do this too. But Catholic (and here I mean culture as much as religion) politicians abroad don't. Berlusconi didn't. Neither has any French leader ever. Polish leaders don't do that. The public self-confession of sin seems innately revivalist Protestant. [I could not imagine for example any Scandinavian leader ever doing such a thing -- even as they've moved past Christianity to post-Christianity they retain the cultural affinity for reserve.]

Steve is right too. It's all about "Me" the most important subject in the world. Sigh.

Anonymous said...

"Drive to succeed: Bobbi Lancaster to be first transgender golfer to play in ladies professional tournament"


"A transgender golfer from Arizona is teeing up for the competition of her life after qualifying for the Ladies Professional Golf Association tour.

Dr Bobbi Lancaster credits golf with helping her as she struggled with her identity before having gender reassignment surgery in 2010.

The 63-year-old doctor, born Robert Lancaster, will be the first transgender player to take part in a tournament since the LPGA's historic vote just over three years ago."

Anonymous said...

well, those who participated can't talk about it ... but one could read ron rosenbloom and get a good idea

Steve Sailer said...


Wikipedia says 322 for Aristotle, also Demosthenes. Alexander died the year before

Anonymous said...

Obama seems to have been an ideal candidate for lemon session therapy. I have always maintained that he and Michelle must have been deeply involved in the Forum, a reincarnation of EST, which was very popular in the 80's and 90's among hard charging business and political types in Chicago.

SFG said...

I heard it also gives them info to blackmail each other with, binding them to each other and Bones. Or something like that.

DCThrowback said...

@SFG Great point.

Then, let's develop the NSA so we can get everyone's else's flaws while *not* revealing our own. Perfect vehicle for nepotistic/elite permanent power grabbing.

Anonymous said...

As Whiskey mentioned above, these "Lemon Sessions" seem very much like public, secular analogues to Catholic Confession. There are other examples, too- Freudian-style psychoanalysis definitely appears to owe a certain debt to the sacrament (if memory serves, Freud used to study Medieval exorcism manuals). Is there any parallel to this stuff (whether of the public, "Lemon Session" variety, or the private Freudian-style session) in the ancient world, before the advent of Christianity, or in any non-western cultures? I'd be genuinely interested to know. Off the top of my head, I can't think of anything similar in ancient Rome or Greece, but then again, this may just be a function of the secretive nature of a "Lemon Session"- perhaps the mystery cults that were popular in the Roman army did this stuff, but they were mystery cults, so we'll probably never know. Can anybody else with a stronger Classical background think of an early analogue? It'd be interesting to know if this is a cultural pattern that was adapted from Christianity, or if it's one of those social phenomena that humans just seem to undertake innately.

anon from turkey said...

> Let me add the cynical side of me says that the Gulenist/Erdogan split is all about ... gasp ... THE MONEY!

It is rather superfluous to say that Whiskey is wrong.

The source Gulen Erdogan fall out is source of many other fall outs:
Both Gulen's following and Erdogan's core constituency are personality cults.
And as Erdogan's demand more and more of allegiance real estate from his followers' souls as he consolidates his hold on power more and more, arrival of some point of break is inevitable.

Examples of this abound in history (and lore):
Jesus said "Ye cannot serve God and mammon."; but the full verse is: "No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon." As can be seen he assumes "No man can serve two masters" as the self evident and more general rule. "God and Mammon" is the consequent and even a little metaphorical at that.

We see this as the frame story is that Annas gets Jesus executed;
For the same reason Herod kills John.
And that's why the Holy Roman emperors and Popes didn't get along;
why the Catholic church and various states (British, French, American, Mexican, Italian) had -ehm- problems.
Also why you cannot be a catholic and a freemason,
or a loyal subject of Kingdom of bavaria and a member of bavarian illuminati.

Gulen movement itself had similar falling outs with ALL of the two previous PMs who held office with a single party majority since the movement's beginnings in 70s.
In fact Erdogan's predecessor as the leader of political Islamists in Turkey, Necmettin Erbakan, also had a similar falling out with the leader of the religious order he himself adhered to.

To summarize: this is the rule not the exception, hence does not require any cynical explanation.

Just Another Guy With a 1911 said...

You sin Monday through Saturday. You go to Mass on Sunday. Any extra sins are gotten rid of in Confession. No public ritual or humiliation. Everything private, or done by ritual in Mass."

I save my sinning for Wednesdays.

Public confession is alien to the Roman Catholic, but it was not always the case.

At one point confession was public but, because what person in their right mind wants to undergo ritual humiliation in front of their neighbors, it became private sometime before 1000 AD, although the communal tradition still lingered on in some monasteries.

Of course, in the Medieval period, it wasn't all "Say three Hail Mary's, two Our Fathers, and go sin no more - see you next year, Mr. O'Leary". It was - "only cut your hair three times a year", "fast 3 times a week for 3 years" or "take a pilgrimage to the Holy Land - hope the musselman don't get ye." I know "musselman" in the Medieval context in an anachronism, but I'm taking it back Randell Graves' style in the new year.

EST and its progeny are an interesting phenomenon in comparison. On one hand, you have a very homogenous and regimented society (Medieval Europe) rejecting what would seem to be a very effective method of social control, but it was consistent with the RC church position that it holds the keys to the Kingdom and the priest has the power the basis of his sacerdotal office to administer the sacrament of reconciliation, which, of course, did have a tendency to invest control of the Church over the community , which is why Luther did away with it; on the other hand, towards the end of our Culture's allotted 1000 years, you have people living their pointless, meandering and peripatetic lives, in a society being torn apart under centrifugal force, seeking to expiate their sins in front of complete strangers in order to achieve some sort of self actualization, acceptance or catharsis in what Whiskey rightly identifies as a ginned up new-age revival meeting.

I mean, if they had any sense, they'd just drink a lot of Jim Bean and, then, when they hit rock bottom, go an AA meeting and confess it.

Greg Pandatshang said...

Nothing about this sounds like a bad thing. Turns out successful inner-circle types had been doing “lemon sessions” for years (and it was so terrible for them that they ruled America for generations!), and then in the 1970s everybody got access to the same techniques. Correct me if I’m wrong, but Tom Wolfe seems to say “Let’s talk about Me” as if it were a bad thing. But finding an appropriate setting in which to talk about yourself (as opposed to imposing yourself on others at inappropriate times) hardly seems like a bad thing; potentially, quite the opposite.

I was involved in a group similar to est/Landmark Forum for a couple years (not currently). It had its upsides and downsides (like, y’know, just about anything) but, on balance, was a really good thing for me.

Chicago said...

Shows how buddy-buddy the political class really is with one another even when they posture against each other in public. Like actors in a cops and robbers movie, when the filming is over they all go hang out together. Looking at pictures of the Bushes and Obamas fraternizing with each other after the Mandela extravaganza I noticed just how chummy they all seemed to be. They all bond with each other, not with the plebeians out there who are just their draft animals.

Mr. Anon said...

I think the Bonesman conduct obscene and eldritch rituals involving sodomy, human sacrifice, and hallucigenic enemas. At least that's the rumor I hope to start.

Honestly - screw those Harvard/Yale f**ks - they have done so much to wreck this country, the least we can do in return is to wreck thier reputations.

Anonymous said...

>I heard it also gives them info to blackmail each other with, binding them to each other and Bones. Or something like that.

I heard that, too. But who cares if Kerry masturbated in a coffin or GWB stole Geronimo's skull from a museum? No one cares about the homoerotic shenanigans of Bohemian Grove members, why would they care about the same when it's done by some frat-boys. If some of them did something really serious why would they confess it in the first place? Would Robert Hanssen confess his treason to his priest?

James Kabala said...

It always bothered me that the elder George Bush became a Bonesman and participated in this nonsense at a time when he was already a married father and a decorated war veteran! (William F. Buckley, although not yet married, was also in his mid-twenties and a veteran when he became a member.)

Anonymous said...

In the mid-1980s, as I walked past SnB on the way to class, the front door was often wide open. Rarely was anyone visible inside that windowless cube. At one point I walked inside and was disappointed to find only a few chairs and little art on the walls.

Perhaps the basement has stories to tell, or the upper chambers.

I'll never know.

As a young woman -- at that time -- I was too afraid someone would trap me within that spooky building to wander inside again.

J said...

In Kabbalistic Numerology, called Gematria, the number 322 can be transliterated (in Hebrew) to XX, Long live to the futbol team HaPo'el Haifa, Sons of the Priests, Many Children, etc.


This method may be not less valid than looking up 322 in wikipedia.

Dutch Boy said...

The conspiracy guys think these lemon sessions serve as blackmail fodder for later use when the alums get to be big men.

nice cake said...

Obama seems to have been an ideal candidate for lemon session therapy.

Why ideal? The whole point of 'blackness' is that you're intrinsically cool and will never be judged on performance. Nobody in the Choom Gang would ever feel a need for EST or the like.

5371 said...

In the mysteries of Samothrace, those being initiated did have to confess the worst thing they had ever done, but privately. They were not an especially exclusive group, nor did they share close bonds from then on.

James Kabala said...

By the way, I can't find a record on Google of anyone other than Wolfe or someone referring directly to Wolfe using the term "lemon session." Where did it come from?

Steve Sailer said...

Perhaps some girl he dated went to the one boarding school where the term was used, while other schools had other phrases.

Slang differs a lot between schools. For example, that recent NYT accent map survey asked what you call an easy college course. I didn't see the Rice U. term "jellyroll" in the choices. I recall that "jellyroll" was not used at other Southeastern Texas colleges -- a transfer student from Sam Houston St. said he'd never heard it before.

Full-Fledged Fiasco said...

"What does "322" mean?"

Worth reading, Steve.

Anonymous said...

re: blackmail
what could a 20yr old college student possibly have that would be blackmail material? wait 20yrs, THEN put them in the coffin again!...

Anonymous said...

Perhaps some girl he dated went to the one boarding school where the term was used, while other schools had other phrases.

He dated guys back then though. he probably meant lemon party.

Anonymous said...

It always bothered me that the elder George Bush became a Bonesman and participated in this nonsense at a time when he was already a married father and a decorated war veteran! (William F. Buckley, although not yet married, was also in his mid-twenties and a veteran when he became a member.)

A major difference between the two is that Bush actually saw combat-Buckley didn't, for all his later posturing about being "in the infantry in the last war."

-Anonymous Non-fan of WFB

anony-mouse said...

Doesn't that building look a lot like the home of Springfield's 'Ancient Order of Stonecutters'?

Felix M said...

A little realism in comparing Catholic consession to fraternity lemon sessions.

In Catholicism, you confess your own wrong doings. There's no prosecutor, let alone a gang of them.

And the exercise is limited to actual moral transgressions. Not your other shortcomings, lack of dress sense, funny nose, or whatever.

AWC said...

My response here:


Anonymous said...

The best discussion I have seen of hazing is in the social psychologist Robert Cialdini's book, Influence.

The major idea is that the more you sacrifice for group membership, the more you value it.

It more or less takes on a life of its own within social groups and is virtually impossible to eradicate from a group. The more you sacrifice to join a group, the more commitment you have to the group. Think of loyalty of competing groups as engaged in constant competition. A person in the US, for example, tends to be nominal or potential members of a huge number of groups. Religion, political party, college alum, professional associations, local sports fans, some sort of participant sport (golf, cycling), and on and on. Groups that cost the most to join are more valued and become stronger.

The single most interest thing is that the more extreme versions of hazing become virtually impossible to modify. And every year, a handful of the hazed are going to become seriously injured or worse.

The amount of abuse a high school student must take to get admitted to an ultra competitive college has become a form of hazing. Who in their right minds would spend their free times going to schools that teach how to take standardized tests?

I have Googled 'hazing' and noticed that there is a tendency for colleges to see it as contrary to their values and an abuse of power. Instead of a 'micro aggression', it is deliberately frightening and humiliating someone.

From a college web site:

"Alternatives to Hazing
Organizations and teams should design education programs and activities for new members or teammates that focus on the mission, purpose and function of the organization or team."

Sort of like reciting the pledge of allegiance has an impact on anyone. Except maybe kids that refuse to do it.

Political correctness doesn't stand a chance against the inherent power of group dynamics.