Hook, Line & Sinner

A harrowing evening with the church of body modification, where parishioners reclaim their bodies and have gory tug-o-wars - then something goes wrong

And the worst part, Gomes says, is Burson's comments about wanting to please him. It doesn't look proper in the Church community for his girlfriend, a relative newbie to fleshplay, to attribute a negative experience to him. That's not what a suspension is supposed to be like; it's not what the Church is supposed to be about.

"I don't think she should suspend anymore," Gomes concludes. "If she's saying that shit, then she's thinking it, and if she's thinking it, maybe that's the reason [she's suspending] -- and that's the wrong reason."

A couple weeks later, Gomes says Burson has moved out of his place and quit her job. She took off to find a new scene, he says.

Ashley Burson gets high with a little help from her 
Kathleen Mary Flynn
Ashley Burson gets high with a little help from her friends.
Swing set: Tattoo artist Don Gesaman hangs around 
Haworth's backyard.
Swing set: Tattoo artist Don Gesaman hangs around Haworth's backyard.

Fakir Musafar is a practicing shaman in the Bay Area and publisher of Body Play magazine. Musafar coined the term "modern primitives" to describe the emerging body modification movement. He says negative consequences should be expected from the way the Church of Body Modification conducts its suspensions. He says Church suspensions, especially public exhibitions in clubs and on television shows, are a sort of cosmic violation and that spiritual payback is inevitable.

"I feel strongly that one must honor the traditions, spirituality and purposes of the ritual in the cultures from which they were taken, and not cheaply exploit them for exhibitionism," he says. "Suspensions and similar body rituals are not art. This is magic. . . . You don't do this to show other people how brave you are. An out-of-body experience takes 10 to 12 hours, not 30 to 60 minutes."

Musafar says Church of Body Modification leaders have been "trying to get the Fakir stamp of approval," but he disagrees with Haworth's modification business and the public display of flesh-hook suspensions. Musafar compares the suspensions to when sailors brought back the mechanics of tattooing from tribal civilizations without regard for the culture it came from.

Haworth counters that the meaning of the suspension depends on the individual, that it would be wrong for him or anybody else to force his interpretation onto somebody who is suspending.

"When you do a performance, it's not the same as what we do in our backyard," he says. "People sing in the shower -- does it cheapen it if they pick up a microphone and let other people hear it?"

Both agree that people who suspend should be prepared for the experience. But Haworth stresses "pain conditioning," whereas Musafar emphasizes spiritual readiness and the presence of a shaman like himself.

In other words, Musafar says, "Don't fuck with the medicine man."

One last thing: Gesaman's suspension.

He took the hooks like a champ. They dangle from his body, looking like painful Christmas tree ornaments.

Gesaman's hooks are fashioned to a red steel cross. He is lifted off, into the air. The whole process takes about 30 seconds, one of the quickest suspension lifts the Church has ever witnessed. There's no bleeding, no trouble. The group is impressed.

"This is Don's first suspension," Haworth announces, and witnesses applaud.

Haworth gives the cross a gentle shove, sending it and Gesaman into a gradual spin.

"The middle of his back is beautiful," Haworth says, admiringly. "It's a great stretch."

Gesaman's girlfriend Fox stares at her hanging, rotating boyfriend, wide-eyed.

She approaches him carefully, as if trying to decide what she thinks.

"If he likes it," she says slowly, "then I love it."

"I'm glad you're here," Gesaman replies.

Fox leans up and kisses him a few times, then sits on the dirt. She smiles up at her boyfriend, watching him turn slowly in space.

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