Why Did Larry Harvey Burn the First Man?

People look for meaning by examining origins. Perhaps this is why Larry Harvey was reluctant to share the origin story of the first effigy on the beach with the press. He understood that initial motivations may have little connection with ultimate meanings.

Larry Harvey consistently told the same story of the Burning Man origin, at least in private, through the mid-90s. Here it is:

Dan Miller, Larry’s long time Alamo square roommate, had been dating a woman who went by Chrylu. Chrylu’s roommate was Paula Peretti. Larry, still fairly fresh off his divorce from Patricia Johnson, began dating Paula. The relationship was unstable from the beginning, and Larry was cognizant that falling for her was risky.

Nonetheless, Larry did fall for Paula. A favorite moment, and the height of their relationship, was the day he took her and his son Tristan to one of Mary Grauberger’s Baker Beach gatherings that was on or around the solstice. Larry recalled writing their names in the sand in fire using lighter fluid. This day in particular felt like the birth of a new family to Larry, but he remained weary. He later noted “I said to myself, 'Don't look at her that way.' And of course I did. And I felt my soul seep out the corner of my eye."

A short time later the relationship ended, on an ugly note, and Paula became involved with another man. This, combined with financial challenges Larry was experiencing and a general loss of direction, contributed to a nearly two-year funk for Larry. Larry’s brother Stewart recalls being concerned for Larry during this period, and in 2000 Larry noted “It was two years since we broke up, and I still lived with that pain every morning. I'd wake up and feel fine, and then I'd be looking at my books and I'd remember her, and then I'd be ruined.” In 1987 Larry had further noted that Paula was “the first thought I had in the morning. The last thought I had at night. I had never been through anything like that. The solstice came around, and when you’re in that state of mind, the anniversaries kill you. You put it out of your mind, but when it comes up, there it is - all this pain anew. Mary had ceased her celebration so I decided I would re-create a fire on the beach, but on my own terms. I wouldn’t suffer passively. I would act.” Larry decided to try to erase the painful memory, or at a minimum get out of the house with purpose, and used the idea of burning the effigy as a means to accomplish this.

Larry massaged the story throughout the years. He once noted:

Seventeen years ago, I started Burning Man on a beach in San Francisco.  This is frequently the first thing that people ask me about. They want a myth, and I was once incautious enough to tell a reporter that it corresponded to the anniversary of a lost love affair… One day in 1986 I called a friend and said, let’s build a man and burn him on the beach.  I did this on an impulse. There was really nothing on my mind. I’ve thought about it over the years, because they keep asking, and the best I can say is that some passionate prompting, some immediate vision just had to be embodied in the world. Call it radical self-expression… I Am.

The origin story first appeared in press in Outside Magazine in 1993. Jerry Jones has referenced the story publicly on several occasions, and Larry’s brother Stewart also has confirmed the story in print in 1995. Why Larry change the story a bit in later life is anyone’s guess.

My suspicion is two-fold. First, while the impulse was related to Paula, Larry and Jerry James both have consistently noted that Paula may have been the spark, but the entire event was very spontaneous. Jerry remembers the call to build the man occurring on the day of or the day before the solstice. Second, perhaps Larry didn’t want people to confuse motivation with meaning. The catalyst for the first effigy was a painful break up. The inspiration for it was Mary’s prior gatherings, and perhaps the Wicker Man or having read the Golden Bough. But the meaning of the event was a blank canvas for individual participants to paint themselves. In the same breath as acknowledging the origin of the impulse to burn the man was his struggles with a past relationship he also noted:

[W]e never assigned any meaning to [the burns]. We didn’t have to. We had labored together, funneling our efforts directly into it. By the time we had constructed that giant and lugged him to the beach, people had invested so much of their immediate energy that it didn’t need to represent anything. It just embodied what we were. The whole point is that from the beginning it was based on activism. It wasn’t about community. It was community. The one essential notion at that time was that our only salvation was to be had through this activism appeal to immediate experience over doctrine, ideology. We ween’t producing a symbol or a spectacle. We were creating an initiation.

Larry often noted that the reason the second burn occurred in 1987 was the reaction the first burn created in 1986. People came running to it. One woman reached out to touch the hand of the effigy. Another woman kissed Larry on the cheek after the burn. Larry, who had been feeling isolated and depressed had begun to create a sense of community, and perhaps a sense of personal accomplishment.

One point that remained insistent upon through his life was that the burn was not overtly inspired by the movie Wicker Man. Larry bristled at suggestions to the contrary, and was irritated that on one early video a person (who Larry referred to as “an idiot” or worse) was yelling “Wicker Man”. Larry consistently maintained he had not seen the movie until several years after the first Burn. Jerry James, however, notes that the two of them saw it together before the first burn.

We saw the move [the Wicker Man] way back then, actually. Which I think Larry didn’t really want to [clears throat] confirm that we had seen that, cause we might have lifted the idea or something. It’s kinda how he operated. ~Jerry James, Burning Man Founder

He did concede that there may have been a subconscious influence from the pop culture impact of the movie, but Larry viewed the world through a Freudian lens and would generally concede that almost anything may have had a subconscious impact on him.

Jerry James notes that Larry had been reading at the time Sir James George Frazer’s book the Golden Bough, and has suggested that it may have motivated the impulse to build a human figure. Again, Larry’s response to questions around this line was non-committal, although he didn’t seem to be repelled from the idea in the same way he was about any influence of Wicker Man. While Jim Mason once flippantly remarked that Larry may have read the dust jacket to the book, at most…, Stewart Harvey once wrote that while Larry was undoubtedly intimately familiar with the Golden Bough, Larry was “out to create a more personal gesture of fiery expression than to imitate a hoary legend from the distant past.”

A footnote. Joe Fenton (aka JD Boggman) added an additional twist to the story noting:

I didn’t go to the burns on the beach, but I did a paper about them for a college course on the anthropology of festivals. Larry told me very specifically that the figure was an effigy of his ex-girlfriend, the mother of his son. He told me he wanted to burn her out of his memory. He moved off that soon afterward. I guess he figured it wasn’t very politically correct, and now that idea is actively suppressed.

While the idea that the first effigy was to represent his ex-wife Pamela Johnson has been universally dismissed, others have supported the idea that the first Man, was indeed a woman. On the other hand, others, including Jerry James, who affirms the story that the first burn was motivated by erasing the memory of a woman, specifically remembers the woman to be Paula, but the effigy being that of a man.