Today, writing and studying strange beliefs has become somehow commonplace. Be it the flat earthers, the reptilians/illuminati/freemason conspiracy theorist, or my aunt who thinks she has cured her cancer with lemon, many journalists or bloggers have written about it, mainly to dismiss it, mock it without trying to understand what it really meant. Well, Donna Kossy was already doing it forty years ago. Her approach ? A precise and troubling understanding mixed with mild sarcasm of what she already, fondly, called “kook”.
A “kook” is someone who champions an unpopular idea or cause while frequently being schizophrenic or otherwise “insane.” Specialized in the history of “forgotten, discredited and extreme ideas,” Donna Kossy has made a passion out of “kookology.” As a matter of fact, I discovered her as I was searching for fellow crackpotologists, the day I stumbled upon an archive of the Museum of Kooks, a very old website where she stored her discoveries back in 1996. I managed to get my hands on her second book, >Strange creations : Aberrant Ideas of Human Origins from Ancient Astronauts to Aquatic Apes (2001), a brilliant follow up to her masterpiece, the Guide to the Outer Limits of Belief (1994), a collection of texts she published in her fanzines Kooks Magazine for the most part.
I decided to ask her a few questions by email even if she’s (sadly) retired from the kookology game.
How did you come to write Kooks ?
I had been editing and publishing Kooks Magazine for a few years and then ended up moving to Portland, Oregon in 1992. Only a few weeks after moving to Portland, through a mutual friend, I was invited to a party given by Adam Parfrey (author of Apocalypse Culture and owner of Feral House Publishers). I knew of his work, but I wasn’t sure he knew of mine, so I brought along some back issues of Kooks. Not long after the party, he offered me a book deal, to be based on the zine. I had contemplated a kooks book on and off before that, but having never written a book before, couldn’t really envision how I would pull that off. Now that I had an offer from a publisher — and Feral House was a perfect fit — I knew it was do-able.
What did you find interesting in the study of Kooks ?
I particularly enjoyed that the research led me to so many different areas of study: primarily art, religion, politics, sociology, psychology and history. After a short while patterns emerged in the ideas and the life stories of all the various people I was calling kooks. It turned out that many of the ideas that at first looked so outlandish and original had long histories that you could trace back centuries and sometimes millennia. I also found the graphical presentation of kook ideas on flyers, and in pamphlets and books to be extremely compelling, as they often involved complex charts and illustrations.
What can one gather from getting to know kooks, a bit of weird wisdom or just a laugh ?
You get pulled in for “just a laugh” but the longer you stay the more “weird wisdom” you end up gaining. I think the allure for me was in a large part comical. “Men Can Have Babies.” “Dinosaurs Created Mankind as a Science Experiment.” “The Moon Landing Was A Hoax.” etc. But as you look more deeply into those who espouse these things, you can’t help seeing the patterns of thought and dissemination of conspiracy theories that led to those ideas, which seem to get weirder as time goes on.
Were you alone in that study then ? How has it evolved since 1994 ?
I was never alone in my studies. Many people (friends, associates, zinesters) contributed to Kooks Magazine, and some were just as involved as I was. Much of my kooks collection was simply given or sent to me by my “colleagues.” It was always a collaboration.
How did you manage to find the good tone and distance towards Kooks, to the point you stated, in another interview, that « many people didn’t seem to mind being featured in Kooks magazine or Kooks the book » ? To my mind, publications like Vice Magazine treat and talk about Kooks the exact opposite way you did.
Well, my nature is to first always give an individual the benefit of the doubt. Also, if you’re communicating with an individual, requesting their material and contributions, or interviewing them, why would you insult them? I did walk a fine line in some cases though and didn’t always handle things properly. In any event, my goal was to explore, observe and report, rather than to judge.
Have you ever received hate mails or even threats by some of them, or from their organisations ?
Yes. William Cooper, the author of “Behold A Pale Horse,” wrote me to demand or threaten something, I can’t remember what, probably legal action. I was not surprised, because this is what he did with everyone. Also, the sister of Dan Scott Ashwander (author of “Am I Insane?”) sent me a “Cease and Desist” order to take down his writings from my website (many years after I had published his book and written about him, with his enthusiastic consent), evidently because she was worried about a blot on the family name. I think there were a few others — but those were from people who were lashing out at just about everyone. Nothing ever came of any of the threats. I think it comes with the territory. I’m surprised I haven’t received more.
Who was your very first Kook ?
It was when I was in my early 20s, struggling to survive my first few months in San Francisco in 1981. I had been having no luck finding a job and would go around to punk and art-oriented shops trying to sell my color xerox postcards which were made from my collages. I’d had some success at this during my brief stint in Seattle. San Francisco was a much tougher market, and I was feeling pretty hopeless one afternoon after having no luck with either finding a job or selling postcards. I was in the trendy North Beach area and sat down on a bench in a park rather than spend precious money by sitting at one of the numerous cafes in the area. Suddenly I was confronted with a tall, thin, long-haired street guy who looked like one of the many “Sixties casualties” that proliferated in the city. He handed me a flyer and walked away. It began something like, “I drink Yuban Instant straight out of the bottle,” and I was hooked. It went on to demand that people send the author “women and women only,” which he restated multiple times. In my own somewhat desperate circumstances, I felt a kinship with the author. I felt much better after reading the flyer and thereafter kept it in a safe place. The flyer was soon joined by others, also similarly handed to me on the streets of San Francisco.
If you had to pick 2 or 3 favorites Kook supreme in your library, who would they be, and why ?
Well, nothing compares to the rants of >Francis E. Dec, Esquire. They were disseminated on flyers and then performed by an LA radio personality, Doc on the Roq, who totally understood and conveyed their otherworldly essence, even amid the rather bigoted paranoia. Some of his repeated phrases, about “Frankenstein radio controls,” “Gangster Government Eyesight Television,” “Earphone Radio,” “Worldwide Gangster Computer God,” “Frankenstein Slave Parroting Puppet,” etc. stick in my mind and the minds of some of my friends, the way lines of poetry do for others.
Another favorite is >Alfred Lawson whose all-ecompassing philosophy was called “Lawsonomy.” He was quite the opposite of Francis E. Dec, in that he was able to rack up some achievements and amass a following in the 1930s. He was an aviator, social reformer, publisher and author of numerous self-published books. He even founded a (short-lived) University of Lawsonomy. My friend Lyell Henry, a retired Political Science professor in Iowa, wrote a book-length biography of Lawson and owns a large collection of his works and papers.
Are there Kooks you avoided, because their ideas or actions had been “too much” for you ?
Well, I avoid certain kooks more because they are already well-known, rather than because of their ideas. Everyone asks me why I didn’t include figures such as L. Ron Hubbard, or Joseph Smith in the book or the zines. The answer is because there was really no need, as there was so much out there already.
We talked about the booming of Kook studies, but we have to talk about the international booming of Kooks. Don’t you think internet has brought about some kind of Golden Age of Cranks ? The President of the United States of America was interviewed several times on the Alex Jones show !
Yes definitely. In fact, with the rise of the Internet in the 1990s, I began to scale back my own research when it became clear that anyone with an Internet connection could in one day access more kook ideas, kook home pages and conspiracy theories than I had during the entire life of Kooks Magazine. At first, the change was merely that kooks that formerly had to resort to paper flyers, pamphlets, self-published books and in-person harangues, now had a newer, cheaper and more efficient medium. The changeover was almost instantaneous and immediately we began to see kook sites that paralleled bundles of papers by containing pages that scrolled endlessly, used a thousand different fonts and colors and contained multiple endless sections. Also, immediately several meta-kook sites sprung up to track all the kook pages.
I created my online Kooks Museum which was mostly based on my book, but also had some links to live sites. I got more exposure via the Kooks Museum by far than through either my book or my various zines. At one point I was forced to scale it back because the traffic was too much for my ISP to handle. In any event, by now, as we all know, kooks have entered the mainstream. I blame the Internet 100% for this. Most people are not trained to evaluate information they’re exposed to. And given that all points of view, no matter how fallacious get equal billing, it’s not too surprising that so many have fallen for formerly marginal ideas, including the current President of the United States. Now that kook ideas as well as outright lies are part of mainstream discourse, kooks have lost much of their mystique.
Why have you stopped ?
As I said above, the Internet proliferation and mainstreaming of kook ideas have made my researches mostly unnecessary. I also broadened my interest to weird books and publications in general, not just kook material, and I began collecting and selling weird and rare books (which is in part how I make my living these days). For a few years I was publishing a new zine, Book Happy about collecting weird books, but it became too expensive and time-consuming. I’m happy now to be an online book dealer (Book Happy Booksellers) and in my spare time I create digital collages.
Source : https://medium.com/tryangle-magazine/cranks-weird-sciences-and-crackpot-theories-meet-the-pioneer-of-kook-studies-667c5b413366