Thelma Moss (Obituary)

The Guardian
27 Feb 1997

Thelma Moss

Apostle of LSD

HUXLEY and Leary’s praise of LSD in the fifties pales beside a contemporary, best-selling account by a middle-aged woman, Thelma Moss, who has died aged 78. It took her from a marginal career in scriptwriting to prominence in a marginal branch of scientific endeavour.
After graduating from Carnegie Tech, she was a founder member of the Actors’ Studio in New York and appeared on Broadway. Prone to depression and scarcely assuaged by a happy marriage, she took up scrip/writing, notably that elegant movie in which Alec Guinness played Father Brown. Any such joy vanished when her husband died from cancer two days after the birth of their daughter. She could scarcely look at a child so closely associated with death, and made two suicide attempts, recovery brought potboilers for the movies and television: “slick fiction for which I was getting very well paid” and complicated by a relationship with a man “who was an amalgam of the men I had always found attractive; which is to say he was intelligent, dynamic – and unobtainable”.
Haunted by Huxley’s LSD book while working on Father Brown, “I determined to have the experience myself – sometime” – Doctors were finally persuaded by her confession of sexual frigidity “although I enjoyed the act of love immensely”.
In the waking dream of a dozen sessions in Beverly Hills, murderous, perverted cannibalistic, sadistic and masochistic tendencies emerged. “In the wake of these dreadful discoveries I lost my fear of dentists, the clicking in my neck and throat, arm tensions and my dislike of clocks ticking in the bedroom. I also achieved transcendent sexual fulfillment.” This joy was described under the pseudonym Constance Newland in My Self and I (1962), a best-selling work which the British Museum kept in its pornography cupboard. The chapter headings “The Return of the Full Bladder”, “The Bitten-off Nipple” and “The Scared Spermatozoon” suggest Anita Loos’s Lorelei, but she seriously relayed such Hieronymous Bosch-like images as a purplish and poisonous pea-pod.
She made it implicit that: “I did enjoy and admire the male body in reality. In psychic reality, I loathed and feared it”. After seeing her father naked, she was lumbered with a mutilation complex: ‘”My teeth, my teeth. I have killer teeth! That’s why my teeth are so sensitive!” When I heard myself cry these words, I sat up, shocked by my killer teeth and shocked by my fantasised act of – castration.'” So Oedepially-loaded a subconscious also saw “a tempting dish of kidneys au madeve” – her favourite dish, despite the death of her sister from cancer of that organ while a medical student (she could not remember the funeral).
Dosed up, she now had to attack the image of her father and snatch a kidney. “It was a healthy one. I took it for myself …” There and then, “for the first time in my life, I had achieved sexual release … Most of the next week I was in euphoria.” After which, the doctor said, “in the last fantasy, you went inside your brother to get your breasts back. What happened to them?”
For all these visions of rampant gorillas (and the mysterious, real constipation which had ended with her husband’s death), the sessions brought fresh creative fire. “Before therapy I was always groping – and futile groping it was – for the man who would fill the void within me . . . I no longer want a man just like the man who married dear old mom”. Rejoicing in her children rather than seeking impossible men, life had “new savor, new meaning – and new mystery” – the panoply of West Coast alternative studies.
“A middle-aged woman; back at college, I felt a little absurd, and more than a little bemused.” To gain a doctorate in psychology and an eventual professorship, she spent much of the sixties at the Neuropsychiatric Institute of the University of California at Los Angeles and as an intern at the Wadsworth Veterans’ Hospital.
“Most of us come to psychology to learn about Mother but all we learn about is rats,’ she was told; her rats were the subject of male ejaculatory behaviour, in which she became so expert that, when giving a gesticulatory talk on the subject, the tutor said: “there’s no need to demonstrate – just tell us”. This take on reality brought preoccupation with bioenergy, parapsychology, healing, levitation, ghosts, hypnosis and Kirlian photography.
HOWEVER sceptical her colleagues, she made several trips behind the Iron Curtain, where Kirlian techniques were also used in space research, in America likewise, she met Edgar Mitchell, the sixth man to walk on the Moon: invited by Nasa to discuss metal fatigue, she was forbidden to broach the transcendental matters which Mitchell’s experience had brought him and which his death soon curtailed.(Note this is in error, Edgar Mitchell is alive at the time of this article!)
Her UCLA laboratory became popular. Among its visitors was Uri Geller, who submitted himself to hundreds of photographs to see whether forces leapt from his finger tips. “After many more trials he produced three blobs in all. But what wonderful welcome sights they were!” When he appeared on television, she put an old watch on her set and, at the right moment, said “work!” – and it did. Trumpery or otherwise, the laboratory was felt in the world a large – with which it was duly closed, either from academic in-fighting or pressure of space.
Adamant that “none of us none of us, is made completely of matter” and the life’s great value is in “our own awakening,” she appears a turbocharged Doris Stokes, but took satisfaction in the’ 1976 Douglas Dean award from the UN for bringing the Soviets’ Kirlian photograph, to America.
Cured of those killer teeth she could even watch a film of a patient’s bad tooth being removed under acupuncture: no gas, just needles between the toes and in the hoku points. Such an awakening also brought a return to the movies, as adviser on The Exorcist, Poltergeist and Ghost. None is a patch on Father Brown.
The film Father Brown is being shown on Channel Four at 1.50 pm this afternoon.
Christopher Hawtree
Thelma Moss; psychologist, born 1918, died February 1, 1997.

Moss . . . scriptwriter and Actors’ Studio co-founder
Excerpt from Mysteries of the mind


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