The Church of Euthanasia
by Shari Roman
One reverend named Chris hopes to lead his congregation into the grave. She plans to wear a dress and string of pearls for the occasion.
It's another day in Boston, and another traffic jam is clogging the seedier side of Massachusetts Avenue. The road can't really bear another vehicle, but for a brief moment, there's an opening, and in pushes just one more beat-up red Mitsubishi. Here, motoring among his fellow drivers, hands on the wheel, is the 36-year-old Reverend Chris Korda. He is clothed from tip to toe in standard-issue clerical black, his slightly cat-shaped eyeglasses perch on a face possessed of the delicately boned architecture of a latter-day saint. He hasn't stopped talking since we met an hour ago. "Look around," Korda says, his voice rasping above the siren of a passing fire engine. He waves his hand, encompassing the known urban universe. "If you look carefully, it becomes very difficult to disagree with the Unabomber's point of view. The industrial state has become the new religion. And if we look carefully underneath all of our propaganda, there is one common assumption: Technology can and will march forward so that humans can realize their full potential. The result? Entropy! A desert planet! This, this is the new Catholicism."
Korda stops suddenly. It's not the traffic light. He indicates something through the car window. "Look," he says emphatically, dropping his voice to a half-whisper. His body has stiffened, pointing like a bird dog at three average-looking men in shirts and slacks, strolling the streets, minding their own business. "There," he says, his eyes narrowing to slits. "There go some Christians." He checks behind him; there's no time to reach for the bullhorn wedged in the back seat. Slowing down, he pokes his head through the window. "You fucking Christian homos," he yells hoarsely, "Homos!" The trio stops in its tracks. Heads swivel madly. But it's too late. Korda has already hurried Little Red off the main road. "Fucking Christian homos," he repeats slowly, a very satisfied Cheshire cat smile curling his mouth. His tone is defiant. "I know them." He clicks on his left-turn blinker. "They come around and knock on our door and try to engage me in foolish conversation about Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, and all the other fucking things. Give me a break."
Your friendly neighborhood reverend probably would not indulge such invective, but this particular, completely self-anointed reverend is the founder of the Church of Euthanasia (CoE). Officially registered in the state of Delaware as a tax-exempt educational institution, Korda's Church (which maintains a Boston-area membership of more than 250 and an on-line congregation spreading across 48 states and Europe numbering in the thousands) has but one mission: saving the planet by turning people toward the righteous path of evolutionary population reduction. The four pillars of the organization's insurrectionary canon are suicide, abortion, cannibalism, and sodomy. "Thou shall not procreate" is its solemn vow. "Grease it up, girls," offers Korda helpfully. "That's the way to go."
For the last seven years, he has diligently pursued his campaign of awareness. He has attempted (and failed) to set up a 976-suicide assistance line. He journeyed to the 1996 Democratic National Convention with his good friend America Hoffman (the son of the late yippie leader Abbie Hoffman) to lobby on behalf of the Unabomber for President campaign. CoE's staged "actions" (involving approximately 20 to 30 local members at any given time) read like a laundry list of dadaist extravaganzas: tormenting serious-minded pro-lifers by joining their demonstration of a sperm bank carrying a 15' hot-pink penis that squirted fake semen; hosting on-the-street blindfold cannibal taste tests on Boylston Street in downtown Cambridge, which featured a barely clad human being rotating on a rotisserie (the passersby seemed most offended by the "live meat model's hairy thighs")--"A hard sell," Korda admits. What was even more difficult, according to Korda, was obtaining those fresh human-flesh samples. Uh, how did he get them? "More trade secrets," he replies. And most satisfying, at least for him, was when he and a group of his faithful paraded on Earth Day, hoisting crosses featuring dead babies with a banner that read SAVE THE PLANET, KILL YOURSELF through the "baby-toting, hot-dog eating yuppies.... It was a great day."
The Barnum-and-braggadocio approach proves a real attention getter, which is precisely what Korda wants. Add to this Korda's fondness for cross-dressing as well as last year's splash into lowest-common-denominator ratings with his appearance on the Jerry Springer show (episode title: "I Want to Join a Suicide Cult") in which he and other "cult members" proved their point by gorging on a large, gelatinous baby. There is also Korda's parallel career as a techno artist, with three CoE-doctrine-filled releases to his credit. The title track of his fourth album, jointly produced by a German label and the Church, is Six Billion Humans Can't Be Wrong.
But this particular attention seeker has the taste for the spotlight in his blood. Korda is the privileged only son of New York City literary-circle icon Michael Korda, who in 1968 became the influential editor in chief of the publishing house Simon & Schuster. Michael Korda went on to become a best-selling author (Power! How to Get It, How to Use It; Success!; Queenie; Charmed Lives; Man to Man: Surviving Prostate Cancer). Michael himself is scion of the famed Hungarian filmmaking brothers Zoltan, Vincent, and Sir Alexander, whose savvy and sheer immigrant chutzpah revived London's flagging film industry in the 1930s and '40s. Alexander was the husband of film actress Merle Oberon. Michael's father was Vincent, the Academy Award-winning art director of The Thief of Baghdad.
With this kind of bloodline to live up to, young Chris dutifully attended the snooty Grace Church School. A self-professed teacher's pet, he was also a bully magnet, always getting beat up and having his glasses smashed during recess. "I also had a Latin teacher in grammar school who, now that I look back on it, was definitely a pedophile. He liked spanking us," drawls Korda. "With rulers. He also told us his idea of a good time on Friday night was to bathe in brine. Had the parents known, his career would have been a lot shorter." He was 14 when his parents divorced in 1976. After bouncing around several private schools, he landed for a short time at Sarah Lawrence, then at the Berklee College of Music. Dropping out, he began working as a freelance computer programmer for companies such as American Express and Chase Manhattan Bank, adding to his income by playing jazz guitar in Harvard Square. In private he also began dressing as a woman.
There was nothing truly unusual to remark upon until October 1990. Korda and his roommates threw a Halloween party, and he walked slowly down the stairs, in full drag. His alter ego, Reverend Chrissy, was born. I've seen many photos of her in press clippings sent to me in the mail. She is lovely in all of them, in her perfect Mary Tyler Moore flip, earrings, and classy makeup. "If you still want to refer to me as she," he says with a shrug, "I don't care...."
It was summer 1992 when, he has said, he was awakened from a sweaty slumber, dressed in his pink nightie, by an alien intelligence called the Being and handed the daunting task of saving the Earth's failing ecosystem (Korda says he has always had these visions of change, this rage against human selfishness). Korda swears that "it's the absolute truth. And I heard it," he says with unblinking sincerity, "in perfect English."
We park on a leafy side street. Korda crosses the street, and unlatches the side door of an old Methodist church that houses CoE's offices. He climbs the rickety steps, which lead to a single top landing. Inside the office, the confusion of files, bumper stickers, and buttons emblazoned with preachings such as PREVENT AIDS, AIM FOR THE CHIN; HONK IF YOU NEED AN ABORTION; and EAT A QUEER FETUS FOR JESUS give the space the aura of a particularly brutal political campaign.
I ruffle through issue number two of CoE's zine, appropriately called Snuff It. There is a photo of Korda, handsome in a tux, smiling, right next to Henry Kissinger, a good friend of his father's. Right above the photo is a recent snapshot of Korda, lying naked in the tub save for a pair of goggles. The surrounding text tells of the benefits of urine therapy. Among its many uses, it seems gargling with pee is good for the gums. He shows me collected snapshots of Church members. There's one with the group holding crosses outfitted with fake hanging dead babies; another with the CoE gang smiling in fetish gear, in the process of auctioning off a goat (it was a revenge prank on the leather-wearing vegetarians shopping at the local Fetish Flea Market). "They could eat it, kill it, and have sex with it," says Korda. "We didn't specify the order."
Whether or not you think Korda is out of line, a surprising number of people have been paying a great deal of attention. Thousands have been adding to the cause's coffers by buying those buttons and stickers. Others snap up the Church's journal or visit its Web site (www.churchofeuthanasia.org), which is helpfully cross-linked to other like-minded organizations such as First Church of Christ, Abortionist (www.contrib.andrew.cmu.edu/org/fcca/), created in 1994 by Carnegie Mellon University students and staff. Over on the side wall, a photograph of a moody man resembling New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani with a tan has a prime position. "That is St. Kevorkian," Korda points out proudly. In his view, Dr. Jack Kevorkian's mission to help individuals gain relief from pain through assisted suicides aligns with Korda's pitch for environmentally friendly population reduction. The reverend beams at the photo. "He is, of course, the Church's saint. He's already making himself into a martyr. He told the police if they were to arrest him that he would starve himself in jail. If that doesn't merit canonization, I don't know what does"
Korda suddenly bursts into song. "Latin is a dead language/As dead as it can be/First it killed the Romans/And now it's killing me." His face has brightened. He laughs. His father used to sing it to him when he was young. "That," he adds with great finality, "just about sums up my theory." After locking up the office, he tromps down the stairs. He carefully avoids physical contact with the two children playing at the bottom. As he heads for the door, he continues to speak at high volume. "People say, 'Why worry about the planet when the Earth is going to be toasted by a red giant star in the next zillion years?' Justify that and you can turn Jews into lamp shades" says Korda, his tone becoming more militant. He pulls the door shut sharply behind him.
There have been variations on Korda's message throughout the ages. Rome's fall, according to some historians, was caused by the empire's being spread too thin with all its new conquests. The Caesars lacked the natural resources to fund or feed their expanding Empire. Whole Earth patron St. Francis of Assisi, often pictured standing in a leafy glen surrounded by his friends the animals, preached that attachment to materialism above nature is a sin. Here in present-day United States, the hallowed green halls of the Sierra Club, in line with Zero Population Growth, has agreed and, as early as 1965, has stated that the population explosion has "severely disturbed the ecological relationships between human beings and the environment." And to this end, in 1969, the Sierra Club recommended that "the individual states of the United States legalize abortion, as population growth is directly involved in the pollution and degradation of our environment." The United Nations Population Fund has dubbed October 12, 1999, the Day of 6 Billion, the moment at which 6 billion of our species will be devouring the Earth's dwindling global resources.
Curtis Eckhert, a professor of environmental health sciences at UCLA, points out that the U.S. is number seven, behind Nigeria, Pakistan, China, and India, on the most-reproductive-nation list, but Eckhert disagrees that reducing the population--either through suicide, non-procreation, or any of the methods Korda advocates--can really help save the planet. Eckhert says that historically, whenever humans have gone through a vast reduction in numbers through famine, plague, or war, as nature reputedly abhors a vacuum, what emerges is a period of immense creativity in which we breed like bunnies: "There are jobs to be filled that need new workers to fill the empty positions." The Dark Ages birthed the Renaissance, and more recently, the post-World War II baby boom created the largest age group on Earth. To ward off fear of the grave, driven toward achieving immortality, humanity goes instinctively toward creating life. "Sure, population reduction would help ease the burden, but no small group" such as the CoE "is going to be able to determine for everyone else the direction of our population curve." And it's never going to happen, says Eckhert, certainly not in significant enough numbers to make the necessary impact. "This is a tremendously emotional issue. It's the kind of is- sue that always brings out the extremists and the crazies, which is good. Any healthy discussion involves many different views."
Obscuring a genuinely worthwhile cause with outrageous dog-and-pony shows is precisely Korda's point. "I believe every individual human is lending their psychic energy to making this monstrous reality" he says. "And in pursuit of that awareness, my objective is to get out there every day and fuck with people's heads. Oscar Wilde said if you tell people the truth, you better be able to make them laugh or they'll kill you." The Church of Euthanasia is famous, if for nothing else, for using black humor, sarcasm, and irony to convey truth. "That's why the Church's slogan, SAVE THE PLANET, KILL YOURSELF, was a huge hit. I think we sold 70,000 bumper stickers."
Reading between the lines of the pranks can be difficult. But Marilyn Fontenrose, an attractive, seemingly well-grounded 31-year-old who has been Korda's steady girlfriend and a church follower since their meeting more than two years ago, asserts that at the core, Korda's message "is the real deal. He's not doing it all as a big joke. It's just one more take on the problem, which I think warrants extreme measures." Lydia Eccles, a 44-year-old old political artist who spearheads the Unabomber for President campaign and allowed Korda and Hoffman to accompany her on her Unapack mission to the Democratic National Convention, says Korda's ministry "is the ultimate heresy which turns all of society's values upside down. Chris is redefining procreation as an act of selfishness. It is amazing as a woman to have someone patting you on the back for not having kids."
Slipping into the car, Korda turns on the lights and steers toward his Somerville, Massachusetts, home. His constant companion--anger--has returned. His sudden memory of a recent sermon he gave at MIT, which he feels fell on deaf ears, is the cause. "There is an order," he begins intensely, "and that order is expressed in every part of the natural world. I tried to communicate this to people at MITERS [MIT Electronic Research Society], who are at the very top of the intellectual pyramid." His voice cracks. "Geniuses! And yet they are absolutely unable to perceive the biological diversity that is inherent in every aspect of this planet." It was May 15, 1998, when he preached, "I founded the Church of Euthanasia [to make] people aware that it's humans that are the problem.... Take a lifetime vow to not have children, do that much, if nothing else.... You, the brightest, the best, the smartest, the educated, people who went to MIT, you have learned everything there is to fucking know about every technology in the world, you are the only people who can stop it from getting worse. And the first fucking thing you can do is make an example of yourself...by not having any more of yourself."
When Tim Anderson, the MITERS organizer, met Korda six years ago, "he was pretty much in suburban-housewife drag. In fact," Anderson says affectionately, "one time we got locked out of my car during an ice storm, and some local alcoholic who helped me break into my car thought Chris was my girlfriend. He was definitely passing. Now he's in man-drag." The 33-year-old Anderson, who works by day at Cambridge's Z Corporation, the manufacturer of model-making machines, feels that any "college-educated middle-class white technocrat" is pretty much going to be in agreement with Korda's program. "No matter how bizarre he makes it seem, it is a completely reasonable thing. Even Al Gore spouts the same rhetoric, although he doesn't dress it up in such an exciting way."
Why does Korda emphasize the population aspect over everything else? Anderson can't say, but certainly Korda's actions fall in line with the theology of the acceptable big picture. "He recycles, buys bulk food, he doesn't buy a new car [every three years], or throw a lot of stuff in the garbage, so aside from moving to [another] country, he does the best he can." He agrees that sometimes Korda's taste for shocking can confuse the issues, but, he stresses, "That's something that works for him on a very personal level." The thing is, "that kind of desperation wears you out if you maintain it. If you have desperation of that level, it's hard to function."
Korda finally parks the car in the driveway of a large, gray three-story clapboard house. He points to the sky. "As [the environmental economist] Jeremy Rifkin said, 'If you look up into the heavens, you can see the Earth's history, written there in the heavens. Fluorocarbons, ozone holes, every conceivable kind of discharge, all up there. And we haven't even begun to pay." Pushing open the front door, he darts inside and runs downstairs to the laundry room, calling back, "I have five roommates, and I'm always afraid my stuff is going to be thrown somewhere on the floor." Inside, the two downstairs rooms are cluttered with records and worn pillows. On the couch, one of Korda's roommates, a clean-cut fellow, is smoking pot and watching the news. Meanwhile, upstairs, his bedroom, chaotic but cozy, is stuffed with books, photos, fetish gear, and memorabilia of family and Church events. In his closet the hanging clothes are neatly demarcated: one side is men's; the other, women's.
Later that evening, he is waiting patiently for his favorite meal of rice and beans to finish cooking. His girlfriend, Fontenrose, snuggles for a moment on his lap, whispers into his ear, and heads out of the house on an errand. Korda, meanwhile, is very hungry and not a little grumpy as he offers his most unsympathetic slice of CoE persuasion. "There are a lot of impressionable teenagers out there. The great tragedy is none of them have killed themselves," he says without a trace of irony. In fact, he sounds rather peeved. "Ever since the Church began, we've been underwhelmed by our ability to influence impressionable young people to kill themselves. And it isn't for lack of trying. We have a Web site. We publish a magazine." Korda is getting increasingly agitated. "I've been on radio, TV, and to this day, nothing! It's like we don't even exist! If only they would do it and leave something around that would credit it to us, it would catapult the Church into the national limelight."
And what if the kid was just momentarily depressed? "Give me a break," he says sourly. "There are 6 billion people on the planet. We can spare a teenager. They're already slaughtering themselves right and left. Vermin Supreme [the moniker of another Church member known to wear a bondage-style face mask during public appearances] actually suggested at one point that we look in the paper for teenage suicides and send them a CoE information pack that says, 'Thank you for your suicide effort; in the hopes that the parents will get it and go to the media and say, 'What the fuck is this?'" Korda's eyes shine with the thought of using this ploy. "The only case [Vermin] gave which would've worked was unfortunately in South Boston, and I'm not up for that much hassle. I don't really want the kids' parents banging on my door looking to lynch me." And even if that is a paradoxical ideology, Korda bounces back with the answer. "So what! I also drive a car. I have a computer. Paradox is the antidote to totalitarianism. Besides, Abbie Hoffman said, The first duty of every subversive is to not get caught; I am out there every day, getting this message out. And to piss on everyone's cherished ideals and values takes some serious gall. Maybe my gall is just about damn-near used up. There are some days when I think, 'I'll just stay home and make rice and beans.'"
Later that evening, at Gallery Insekt, an art space cum secret rave site near Boston's Chinatown, Korda enters as Chrissy, wearing a lovely, floaty summer dress, earrings, no shoes, and a ravenous expression. Stepping behind his programming keyboard, he throws himself into his music. Jerking forward and back, his fingers pounding the keys, he sings the glories of population reduction to an exultant, sweaty collegiate crowd. Eccles is there. Fontenrose is right up front. She dances wildly and cheers him on, as do all the CoE members who have shown up to give their support to their beloved prophet.
A few months have passed. Korda has just returned from Germany, and he's feeling hostile and depressed. The recording of his latest album hasn't gone as well as he had hoped, and heading into 1999, the Church of Euthanasia's impact seems to him negligible. His voice is hoarse, hopeless. "When I look around me, I see a world on fire," he says. "I want people to be horrified, to feel the same shame and horror that I feel. If that hasn't happened, I have grave doubts about all of this. I'm not sure anymore what I believe in."
While his ancestors succeeded in entertaining the masses (and making a buck or two in the bargain), Korda is thwarted. "I've done my bit," he says, "I am tired; I've packed a lot of living into a few years. If you look at my life after 1991, big changes. Quiet computer-programmer curmudgeon to female impersonator to suicidal cult leader to techno artist. I still have years ahead of me. But I have to pace myself. I'm not ending up like Jim Morrison," a revered vision of excess for extremists everywhere, "in some damn bathroom somewhere."
As to plans for a published thesis, Korda says he hasn't had the time. Still, he says dryly, as extreme as he may appear at first glance, "my dad's Michael Korda, the man who published all the Nixon war criminals. If I can't get a book published, I don't know who can. I'm his son, and he wants me to be successful at whatever I do. Don't get the wrong idea," he interrupts himself, "we're not going to be taking father-daughter pictures together. But I think he's already been persuaded that I'm somewhat successful. I haven't hit him up for money, right? And what's more, I've managed to get four records released, published a magazine, gone on national TV, and embarrassed him repeatedly by appearing in Page Six of the New York Post. There's no question I've made a dent somewhere."
To a larger extent, Korda confides grimly, he thinks he's doing what he is doing because right here, right now, "I don't know what else to do. And in the end, all I'm left with is my own rage and my own powerlessness. Both feelings aren't going away. I have certain limited options. I could take Prozac. I could kill myself."
I can't help it. I stifle a chuckle. After all the proselytizing about suicide, I point out that at least he'd be falling in line with his own rhetoric and saving the planet. "We could make grim jokes about that," says Korda, overriding my argument, "but in the end the sad truth is, my only option is to go forward into this, whatever it is. To continue saying what I'm saying no matter how much it annoys people in the hopes that maybe someone, somewhere will understand."