When a person lives their entire life in denial about the world around them, the world can start to fade away. In a world of monsters, resurrections, and orgone wars, a world where vaccinations lead to horrible diseases and the government is constantly out to get you personally, a world that is only one of an infinite number of possibilities, maybe you can pull the trigger without consequences.
Sherry Shriner was an Ohio housewife who led a cultlike online ministry via her radio show and Facebook. She preached about reptilians (the alien race who have infiltrated certain world leaders and government officials, in case you weren’t in the know about these yet) among other conspiracy theories that have gained a lot of traction in recent years. And some lesser-known ones: Shriner’s followers called themselves orgone warriors, and orgone is a subject as fascinating as it is perplexing. We’ll get to it in a minute.
Journalist Tony Russo worked on the second season of the VICE TV series The Devil You Know about Shriner and her cult, and has done extensive research into what murky information is available around her life and ministry. He writes that “beneath the accounts of crazy beliefs, ritual shunning, and tragic deaths is a look at a dying culture. In a time when it is common to talk about two Americas, I worry that we are talking about two realities.”
He’s not wrong. We’ve seen that in the post-truth Trump era: reality is whatever you say it is, and others are expected to conform to your version of it.
Then there’s the change he identifies happening in subsects of Christianity, a disturbing but unmistakable shift:
“As loud as they tend to be, the old-time religions are dying, or at least changing. Reality is raining down upon them. Since so many people are seeking justification where none can be found in accepted reality, they’ve carved out their own — where the God of the Hebrews and science fiction cohabitate, and the truth it what you say it is.”
Russo centers his journalistic account of the group in what feels like three parts: what’s known of Sherry’s own background, then the time leading up to the suicide of a follower named Kelly Pingilley, and finally the story of another follower named Steven Mineo. These two tragedies have led recently to a bigger spotlight being shined on the bizarre, insular internet-based group.
Pingilley committed suicide in December 2012, although she may have believed, in accordance with Shriner’s preaching, that she was only moving temporarily to another plane to continue the fight as an orgone warrior. Like so much in this story, it is deeply sad and very confusing. Mineo eventually got a girlfriend, Barbara Rogers, who Shriner didn’t care for. Shriner began an active campaign against Barbara, accusing her of being a witch and siccing her followers on the pair. Mineo eventually left the group, and a few months later in 2017, Rogers called police from their home in the Poconos region of Pennsylvania to say he’d told her to shoot him in the head. She had, he was dead and she was hysterical.
Now’s as good a moment as any to sidebar into what orgone is: it’s tricky to explain, but the basics are that it’s “a mystical energy that was a gift from God” which you can make yourself for fighting reptilians and creating protection against alien evils. It was discovered/invented, depending on perspective, by a man named Wilhelm Reich, who was “deputy director of Freud’s Vienna Ambulatorium”. His theory was that the afterglow of orgasm came from “tapping into an elemental force like gravity,” which he attempted to harness so this power(? I guess) could be used for generating wellbeing. Copper and crystals are involved, and beyond that I get a bit confused about the details. But I was greatly fascinated to learn it had anything to do with Freud’s Vienna.
Like many in his time and place, Reich fled wartime Europe for the United States, and even managed to bring his theory of orgone energy to Albert Einstein. But Reich’s energy readings were quickly debunked by a lab assistant and Einstein lost any interest he might’ve had. As Russo explains, “this is how science and religion part ways.”
The problem with Shriner (I mean, obviously there are many, but related to telling this story) is that actual information, outside of what she spouted extensively for years on her radio show, is tough to come by. She was notoriously secretive, only sharing one photo of herself with her followers shortly before her death of a heart attack. And as Russo puts it so well, understanding the rules undergirding this group’s beliefs is not easy: “I struggled to navigate the murky rules for how and when reptilians take over a person’s body, but since that doesn’t ever happen, I leave the nebulous reasoning untouched.”
I found myself hitting that wall over and over again in reading this; there were so many things I couldn’t grasp but then again, they’re not real and this is all made-up logic, so how could I? It can make the entire thing a bit frustrating though, and occasionally hard to follow, but the benefit here is Russo’s commentary, which is sensible and very non-judgmental, instead seeking to put these beliefs into cultural, religious, and political context.
We can ask ourselves how people succumb to such eyebrow-raising beliefs, but Russo argues they weren’t crazy; this was a “Christian subculture where aliens disguised as humans fight on the side of evil and New World Order cabals trade in pedophilia and mass cannibalism.” We can turn away from these things or write off any greater influence, but we’ve witnessed how much conspiracy theories and fringe beliefs have bled into the mainstream (never forget that nutball Alex Jones had Trump’s ear!), affecting our politics and even public health, as we’ve seen with Covid-19 over the last year, and now with the reluctance among many to get vaccinated. These ideas aren’t springing up in a vacuum and it’s to our advantage to try to understand where this thinking comes from, how it’s developed and why it gains believers.
Russo frames this succinctly: “Followers accepted this for the same reason most of us believe whatever we believe — someone they trusted told them or personal experience did. It’s less mental illness than an oversensitivity to disinformation.”
This was page-turning, and although it left me with far more questions than answers and could occasionally veer into unverified speculation, it’s well researched, sensitively written, and almost uncomfortably fascinating. It’s a great companion read to the podcast The Opportunist, which covers some different angles of Shriner’s preaching and the lives of her followers, including Mineo and Rogers.
published May 25, 2021 by Secant Publishing
I received an advance copy courtesy of the author and publisher for unbiased review.