Marilyn Ferguson, the author of the 1980 bestseller “The Aquarian Conspiracy” and a galvanizing influence on participants in scores of alternative groups that coalesced as the New Age movement, died Oct. 19 at her home in Banning. She was 70.
The cause was believed to be a heart attack, said her son, Eric, of the adjacent Riverside County city of Beaumont.
In 1975, Ferguson turned an interest in human potential into an influential monthly newsletter, Brain/Mind Bulletin, which reported on new discoveries in neuroscience and psychology. That work led her to discern that a massive “cultural realignment” was occurring, a conspiracy in the root sense of disparate forces all breathing together to produce personal and social change.
“The Aquarian Conspiracy” was the era’s first comprehensive analysis of seemingly unconnected efforts -- scientists investigating biofeedback, midwives running alternative birthing centers, politicians encouraging creative government, a Christian evangelist promoting meditation, an astronaut exploring altered states of consciousness -- that were “breathing together” in their break from mainstream Western practices and beliefs in medicine, psychology, spirituality, politics and other fields.
The book’s message was optimistic. “After a dark, violent age, the Piscean, we are entering a millennium of love and light -- in the words of the popular song ‘the Age of Aquarius,’ the time of ‘the mind’s true liberation,’ ” Ferguson wrote. Aquarians, by her definition, were people who sought a revolution in consciousness, to “leave the prison of our conditioning, to love, to turn homeward. To conspire with each other and for each other.”
Some critics found her views simplistic. R.C. Bealer wrote in the journal Science Books & Films that Ferguson offered “hyperbole of the ‘positive’ thinking huckster.”
Others accused her of undermining Christianity by embracing alternative religions. The book was a favorite target of Lyndon LaRouche, the political extremist whose followers held public protests against it and called it “a challenge to the nation’s grasp on reality.”
But as the activities she chronicled moved from the fringe of society toward its center, Ferguson was embraced as a beacon. Her book became “the most commonly accepted statement of Movement ideals and goals,” wrote J. Gordon Melton in the New Age Encyclopedia.
“Marilyn Ferguson was a very important communicator and networker in this whole movement” to create an alternative consciousness, Fritjof Capra, the Berkeley physicist and New Age figure who wrote “The Tao of Physics,” said last week. Capra’s 1975 book fueled the new thinking by showing parallels between modern physics and Eastern mysticism.
Ferguson grew up in modest circumstances in Grand Junction, Colo., where she was born April 5, 1938. Her father was a bricklayer who was also a concert pianist; her mother was a homemaker who later ran an antiques store.
Ferguson attended Mesa College in Colorado for two years and the University of Colorado for one year before launching herself as a freelance writer. Her first book, “Champagne Living on a Beer Budget” (1968), offered financial advice and was co-written with her then-husband, Michael Ferguson. She also wrote short stories and poems that were published in women’s magazines such as Cosmopolitan and Mademoiselle.
After moving to Los Angeles in 1968, she began studying psychology and collecting the information that formed the basis of her next book, “The Brain Revolution” (1973), which explored new research on such topics as hypnosis, meditation, extrasensory perception, memory and genetics. She began practicing transcendental meditation herself.
As she expanded her contacts with others who were engaged in similar practices, she found herself becoming a clearinghouse for “everything from more humane attitudes to holistic medicine,” she told The Times in 1980.
She began to publish the Brain/Mind Bulletin, which at its peak had an eclectic mix of about 10,000 subscribers who included academics, celebrities and pizza parlor operators. For 21 years, until she ceased publication in 1996, it compiled news from journals and conferences and featured interviews with vanguard figures, including Capra.
“It was tremendously helpful because it bound people together and informed us of each other’s work,” Capra said. “Marilyn Ferguson’s main achievement -- and it was a tremendous achievement -- was that she sustained this networking of the alternative culture and New Age movement long before there was an Internet.”
Another subscriber was publisher Jeremy Tarcher, who specialized in books about health, philosophy and human potential. He was fascinated by her reports. “I called Marilyn and said, ‘What else have you got?’ ” Tarcher recalled. “She said, ‘I’ve got a folder with stuff I’m not quite sure what to do with.’ ”
Tarcher remembers clearly how he reacted when she showed him the information she had collected: He began to cry.
“I had one of those moments of epiphany when you feel you are hearing or reading something that is going to be a guide for a significant part of your life,” he said. “That doesn’t happen to publishers every day.”
After she turned those notes into “The Aquarian Conspiracy,” readers shared with her a similar reaction. She received thousands of letters from people who were relieved to discover that others shared their passion for Sufism, dream journals, Rolfing or solving world hunger. The most common reaction, she told the Christian Science Monitor in 1984, was “Thank heavens you wrote that book! I thought I was crazy until I read it.”
As she began to lecture around the world, she found loyal readers in a surprising range of fields. As she told the Boston Globe in 1988, one night she addressed 500 farm wives in Alberta, Canada, and the next morning she gave a lecture for members of Congress. Al Gore was a fan of the book and invited Ferguson to the White House, her son said.
Ferguson lived in Los Angeles for 37 years, until 2005, when she moved to San Bernardino. That year she also released a follow-up to “The Aquarian Conspiracy,” called “Aquarius Now.” Last year she moved to Banning to be closer to her son.
She is also survived by two daughters, Kris Ferguson of Los Angeles and Lynn Lewis of Oakland; and six grandchildren.
Woo is a Times staff writer.