Looking for Isaac Bonewits

The Berkeley Bucket List

In 1970, Isaac Bonewits graduated from UC Berkeley with a bachelor’s degree in magic. According to his biography, he’s the only person ever to graduate from this or any other accredited university with that particular honor. If you search a list of UC Berkeley’s notable alumni, his name probably won’t be on it. But in my own small community, Bonewits was a leader, mentor and good-humored role model until his death in 2010. When I came to UC Berkeley, I was proud to follow notable alumni Jennifer Granholm and Joan Didion, but I was looking for Isaac Bonewits.

Bonewits came to UC Berkeley in 1966. Then, as now, the stretch of bricks between Sproul Plaza and Telegraph Avenue was home to a colorful assortment of mad men with megaphones. Like every freshman, he was bewildered at being shouted at about love and damnation on his way to class, and he took up the less-than-productive habit of heckling the preachers. This progressed to a bit of performance art in which Bonewits set up his own soapbox, secured his own megaphone and made himself a sort of devil’s evangelist. This act attracted the attention of the San Francisco Church of Satan of the time, led by Anton LaVey. Bonewits dabbled but did not join them.

Bonewits was just a kid from Michigan, but he saw through the racist and conservative (at the time) Church of Satan and knew it wasn’t what he wanted. His sophomore roommate Robert Larson was a Druid and invited Bonewits to worship with them in the woods near Berkeley. The young magician combined his experience chanting in circles in the forest with his intended major of psychology and signed up for an interdisciplinary studies major. Through the rigorous combination of anthropology, sociology, folklore and mythology, as well as a quick and careful unwatched hand on his graduation paperwork, Bonewits got his BA in magic. The university was so embarrassed, they disavowed any future individual course of study in magic, witchcraft or sorcery.

The conferral of this degree was so unusual a story about it was printed in the New York Times. Bonewits was quoted in a brief article explaining his choice: “I’m not studying something dead and historical. I’m studying something that’s been very badly confused and mixed up over the years, but still has application today.” After graduation, Bonewits published his first book, “Real Magic,” which the San Francisco Chronicle called “scholarly and readable” in its review. I found “Real Magic” at a tiny occult shop when I was 14. It was not my first book on magic and witchcraft, but it was different than most. Bonewits was a pedant with a sense of humor and little to no tolerance for the bullshit that often weaves its way through books on neopaganism.

Like many pagans, I moved to the Bay Area to be among more of my people. We’re a religious minority in this country, coming in at around 1 million in the last count. Most of that number is concentrated around San Francisco, Austin and New York. I remembered that book from when I was 14 and that Bonewits’s bio listed him as a UC Berkeley alumnus. I decided I would find some trace of him here and connect with at least one pagan Bear who came here before me.

Finding records of a student who attended a university before the digital age is nearly impossible. A paid membership to a site that offers poor-quality scans of ancient yearbooks revealed that Bonewits was not listed in his senior year. There are no library records extant of the books he checked out for his magic thesis. No photos surfaced in my desperate rummage to find his “Devil’s Advocate” stand on Telegraph. The druid graduated before the Daily Cal became independent of the university – no luck in our online archives. All I could lay my hands on was Bonewits’ autobiography, laid out on a site that will always look like 1998, and the piece in the New York Times.

The process was frustrating, but my frustration quickly turned to a kind of existential dread. I realized that when we are gone, another wave of students take our places. They scrawl new obscenities on bathroom walls, they paint over our co-op murals, they pull their own stunts on Sproul Plaza. There is very little Bonewits could have left behind that I would have found here and felt like we shared something. It’s too late for me to get my own major switched to magic — but I’m still holding out for the New York Times to call me.

As a graduate, Bonewits left behind about a dozen books. I looked over my shelves, and I have most of them. He wrote and recorded two albums, established organizations in the pagan community and inspired me and countless others to have both a sense of humor and duty about our faith. He is part of the reason I came to UC Berkeley, and I was saddened that I could find no trace of the magician here.

As I check things off my Berkeley Bucket List, I notice quite a few of them are things I’ve written: an acrostic, an advice column, a long-form piece, short fiction, honest essays and articles that contain in them something of myself. This isn’t 1970; I’m graduating with the class of 2014. My records and my works will be digitally preserved, and if in 40 years another young pagan comes along looking for signs of me, she’ll find them.

Writing is its own kind of magic. I think Isaac Bonewits would approve.

Contact Meg Elison at [email protected].