7/28/87--I was sitting at Judy's house with the women's group tonight. Judy said she is not going to make a decision about her career change this month. Her astrologer advised against it. Her sun was conjunct Neptune; Mercury was in retrograde.
One friend after another related experiences of precognition, of trips to psychics and healers, astrologers and channels. They're meditating. They're talking about Seth speaking and spirits in their kitchens watching over their spaghetti sauce. One old friend said she is afraid to be alone in her house. She has a sense that her spiritual guides are trying to contact her.
/20/87--Forty-two percent of Americans now believe they have been in contact with the dead. Shirley MacLaine's books have sold more than eight million copies. If this surge in the popularity of the paranormal represents an honest search, what are they searching for? Validation? A new edge on the competition? A quick fix?
/29/87--Judy called with the name of a psychic. She knows I'm curious and want to go, but she doesn't know why. I want to hear what this psychic tells her.
9/2/87--Ruth Berger looked like she should work behind the lingerie counter at Marshall Field's. She was a secretary until she went to some university and got herself tested for psychic powers. The tests came back positive.
I sat in a rattan chair and stared at the corner, where Berger had some kind of altar arrangement over which she had scattered a few rubber lotus leaves. Who or what would you pray to there? Goodyear?
Berger told me she sees images and hears voices, that she's been deemed clairaudient and clairvoyant. She said she was going to read the images in my aura. Apparently, there are people in my aura who talk to her.
There was no visible change in Berger when she began the reading, although her speech became more rapid and began to resemble mine. She knew details about my life that she shouldn't have known--details about my children, private details about relationships, secrets about my silent preoccupations. She repeated things I had said to myself while driving alone in my car.
The more she seemed to know, the more I told her. The exchange became far more intimate than such a brief acquaintance would normally allow. And the more I told her, the more I looked to her for answers. It was disquieting.
"Who makes up your clientele?" I asked her.
"Doctors," she told me. She's no fool. "Aldermen, high-level executives, lots of nurses. The majority of my clients work in the helping professions."
"What do they want to know?"
"They want help in making a decision. 'Should I take this job or that one?' Some want tips on the stock market." She laughed. "Most ask questions about love. 'Will it last? Is he the right one? Will I ever find someone?'"
She said it was interesting to her that over the last few years people had begun to ask deeper questions. "It's not enough to have status, money, success. They know the principles of success, and yet they feel an emptiness. They want to know that they're OK inside. They want to feel that they are doing some good on this earth."
She solved Judy's career dilemma. Judy is going to make tape recordings that will quiet nervous dogs.
9/9/87--Astrologer Katherine de Jersey is a slight woman with a quick, bright smile who seemed to walk on tiptoe as she crossed her apartment on the 53rd floor of the Hancock building.
She has celebrity photographs on the wall, and she dropped a few names: Art Carney, Lauren Bacall, Judy Garland, Phyllis Diller, Cloris Leachman.
"The position of the planets at the moment of your birth created a pattern, a picture of the soul path you are to follow in this life," she said.
She took out a piece of paper and plotted my chart--the "map of my psyche," as Carl Jung might have said. She calculated quickly, like a mathematician, referring to an ephemeris--the astrologer's bible. Then she interpreted what the astral hieroglyphics said about my having been born in a specific place at a specific time.
She knew things about me a psychotherapist could take years to uncover. I stared out the window at the surrounding metal-and-glass buildings, which cut into the sky.
She knew about my childhood traumas, my relationship with my sisters. She knew I had two sisters. She knew the date I was married. She knew when my children were born.
She told me things about my future, some dreamed of, some dreaded. I wondered how long it would take me to shake this nonsense off, to put her predictions for the future behind me. I don't want to make my own bad luck.
"Scientists have finally come to the realization that we all have our own electromagnetic fields," she told me.
"Astrology is simply the study of the effect of the planetary positions on our electromagnetic fields."
9/10/87--I approached an astronomer. He was putting his little boy's jacket into the cubby at nursery school. I asked him if the planets do, in fact, exert some kind of force on us.
"The planets are neutral," he said. "They don't have any force except gravity."
"So," I said, "the basis for astrology is not scientifically sound?"
"Astrology isn't science."
"Right. Good," I said.
"Creation wasn't science either."
9/13/87--Judy called today. She said, "I found a channel."
I said, "A channel for what?"
She said, "For the spirit."
I said, "Wait a minute, my mind is becoming like a corkscrew from all of this. How can these people know what I'm thinking?"
She said, "Think of it as intuition."
"I don't believe a word they said about the future."
"You're not there yet."
"Judy," I said, "megaintuition is one thing. Communicating with spirits is something else."
"Just think of a channel as a shy psychic," she said.
9/26/87--Fred Rosen--the channel--closed the blinds in his study. He said the spirits don't like bright light.
He's an elementary-school principal on sabbatical who wants to devote his full energy to acting as a channel for the entity Jeshiren, or Jeri. Sometimes he worries about money, Rosen told me, but in the end the universe provides.
Rosen became involved with meditation after his wife of 20 years, the mother of his seven children, told him she had found another man. He was living in a rented hotel room, with nothing more than a clock radio to show for his life's effort, when he began to look to other dimensions for something to hold onto.
Rosen is clean-cut and trim, with salt-and-pepper hair. He's wearing a wool crew-neck sweater straight from L.L. Bean. He looks like the kind of guy who would gulp down supper to get to a PTA meeting.
Rosen begins each reading with a body scan. He went into a light trance, raised his hand from across the room, elevated it to the level of my head, and barely moved it through the air. The room seemed to be infused with some kind of current. The headache I had been sitting there with was suddenly gone, and there was a warmth, a feeling of light crossing me as he moved his hand down the length of my body.
He closed his eyes and took a few exceptionally deep breaths. He had said the moment before the spirit entered his body, he would give a little jerk. "It's just the ego letting go," he said. "It is a little weird." Yes, indeed. It was.
Now you have to like a spirit who enters singing. Jeshiren spoke with an imitation oriental accent. He seemed to know why I had come without my telling him, which was handy. And he seemed easy enough to get along with. "You can call me Jeri, or nothing. It is fine."
Jeri was a cheery guy--serving nurture and wisdom like hot hors d'oeuvres. He gestured a little too grandly and dramatically, but he talked about things that were relatively important. Like my life.
I asked him a few questions. For 50 bucks, why not? He gave me key dates, impending turning points. He said within three years I would move west, and then something about my work.
"Have you heard from them?" he asked softly.
"You will, he said, and smiled.
He described my idiosyncrasies as I have never even attempted to. He knew about that problem, the one I considered telling Judy about but didn't. He said, If your awareness is there, your stumbling blocks can be stepping stones for you. Your soul has everything planned so that you can grow spiritually." Then he said he'd be happy to help me, however he could.
"Always follow the truth within you, and you will never falter, and you will never fail," he said. "We wish you the highest of blessings from your highest of selves." Then he was gone, and Fred and I looked at each other self-consciously. I felt like a ninny, but I missed the little guy.
9/27/87--I don't know about this Jeri concept. It gives me the willies. What if he's real? I do know that when I left Fred Rosen's apartment yesterday, I felt lighthearted and soothed, peaceful and tolerant for no good reason at all.
Fred Rosen also said the voice he hears told him in 1980 about an impending train wreck and told him so insistently that Rosen called Amtrak and convinced officials there to inspect a wheel on a particular car of a particular train headed for Miami. Debbie Marciniak, a public affairs representative for the firm, remembered the incident. She said they did find a thermal crack in one of the wheels of the specified dining car. The order for the train to leave the station was countermanded and the dining car was pulled off the track.
10/10/87--I had lunch with a fellow named Andrew. He's proud to call himself a professional charlatan. The guy looks like somebody who's trying not to look like somebody who works for IBM. He's a consultant to the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal. Ghostbusters with CAT scanners.
I told him I didn't believe in psychics, but I couldn't understand why Charlie Chan and the psychic had been on target a few times. I wanted him to tilt the scales back toward reality.
"Did you ever notice how the spirits don't like bright light?" he asked.
He told me psychics are like magicians. "They make use of trickery. The patter, the staging are a way of preying on people's hope, that we can possess supernatural powers." The 60s generation wants to believe in magic.
"Why are all these people going to psychics?" I asked him.
"They want to get back some kind of control in their lives."
"By investing it in spirits?"
"At least somebody's in control."
According to Andrew, you can plot the popularity of psychics against the rise and fall of social unrest and find the two lines levitate together.
"Aliens or entities speaking through channels come with platitudes, Eastern mystical pabulum," said Andrew.
"But talking about the sound of one hand clapping isn't going to solve our problems. We need to confront our problems with the tools of scientific inquiry."
He wanted to demonstrate his own powers.
"You're a very independent person," he said. Perhaps I had been too forceful in insisting on the squid salad. "But you're afraid to be alone."
"Well, I suppose that might be true," I said. "How do you happen to know that?"
"I told you, I'm psychic," he said.
I was beginning to feel completely out of control.
"Well, who wouldn't that be true of?" he said, and smiled. "You see? Trickery."
He asked me for my keys, held my office key in his hands, and closed his eyes.
"I see water," he said. "A small building like an outhouse. Orange. Wait. Men working, construction, a construction site."
He was really enjoying the heck out of this.
"I see telephone books, piles of telephone books."
I felt a little sick. The construction men outside my office aren't always fighting back Lake Michigan. Sometimes they take a break to use the portable john.
He held up my house key. He gave me a few details about my existence, enough to give me that same creepy feeling I had after the house was broken into. He was on a roll.
"I did a little detective work," he smirked.
He had called people about me. He had looked up my address in the phone book. He had been snooping outside my office building, and he had had to drive all the way from the city to get there.
Why would anybody work so hard to disprove what he dismisses as ridiculous?
10/15/87--I was sitting in a straight-backed aluminum chair in an overheated room in the Learning Annex. The chair didn't explain my discomfort.
A slim woman with clear blue eyes walked to the podium. Her face seemed oddly lit--as if she was standing under a track light. But she was not. She was a little nervous as she began to address her audience, which was there for an evening class on crystal healing. I smiled at the mailwoman still in uniform. Shared a pencil with the heavyset black woman beside me. Noticed the teenager wriggling his foot and eyeing his mother with something resembling contempt. Businesswomen rested expensive briefcases on the floor. There were fewer men. The audience is as easy to define as a moving crowd on a city block.
They have one thing in common, Susan Denenberg said. They are moving in the same direction. They are in the process of becoming.
Denenberg made it clear that there were no gurus there. There weren't, I agree. There were only crystals lying in a red plastic toolbox from Sears.
She reached into the box and began to show us the "archaic microchips" she uses for healing. She turned a flip chart with a light hand. Amethyst, rose quartz, turquoise. "The malachite can be powerful for those in the process of becoming." She was looking at me. "It purges the negativity and fear."
There was a composure about her--a luminous, diaphanous quality. It was a little nerve-racking.
Denenberg talked about chakras, the seven centers of the "etheric" body through which energy from a higher plane enters us--if we're open to it. The chakras are important in crystal healing, she said. When emotions or fears are repressed, they clog up the chakras like hair in a drain. Then our energies can't flow evenly, easily through our bodies, resulting in symptoms. Denenberg said she lays the crystals on the blocked chakras of her clients and then goes into meditation, "stepping aside" to allow healing energy, magnified by the crystals, to flow from the "source" to the client.
She said she would give examples to skeptics, but preferred that we accept what she was saying on faith. "No one," she said with a soft smile, "was more skeptical than I."
She talked about how we have given our power away to materialism, to politicians, to talk-show hosts. "Our egos have been in control," she said. Her voice is kind and certain. Our egos have gone power mad and have dragged us through the streets of our lives like horses whipped by fear. She said that now, in an enlightening age, we want our power back.
"We are each powerful," she said. "This yearning is a longing to heal ourselves, to love ourselves. We simply don't believe we deserve to be loved."
Sometimes when she works with a client, she said, she absorbs the negative energy. She protects herself by closing her eyes, as she did then. She asked us to visualize a white light coming through the ceiling of the Learning Annex, shining from the heavens on each of us. She asked us to say to ourselves with her: "I am protected in the white light of God. I am protected in the white light. . . ."
Denenberg used to live in a mansion in Glenview. Four years ago she left a husband and two children she said she loves deeply to follow her belief that we are here solely for a spiritual purpose. She doesn't live in a mansion anymore.
11/8/87--There was a storm outside. I woke at 3 AM. A cold wind was whipping through the dark upstairs hallway. I could taste electricity in the air. The trees were beating the cedar shakes like palms whipping in a tropical gale. "They are coming," I thought. "My guides." I walked down the hallway half awake, half believing these higher beings had deemed me worthy of a visit.
The storm had simply blown open the hinged window in Jessie's room. I stood there, surprised that along with feeling foolish I felt some shred of disappointment. I covered Jessie with her quilt.
11/10/87--I called the University of Chicago to speak with the chairman of the behavioral psychology program. I said, "People are going to psychics and channels for advice. This can't be good. People are going to crystal healers for very real physical problems." Maybe I sounded desperate.
Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi said that in this year's supplement to the Encyclopedia Britannica there are cases reported of people who had very real physical problems who had gone to psychic healers and had come back completely cured. Encyclopedia Britannica.
"People whose immune systems are so gummed up with psychic problems seem to be helped by this," he said. "I don't think it works for the same reason they think it works, but it works."
He said that people with a psychological or physical disturbance often suffer because they don't love themselves enough.
"If you go to a person whom you believe has powers, and this special person gives you an infusion of high attention, it changes your attitude about yourself. It's essentially the same as therapy," he said.
"Well," I said, "what about these people who are making major life decisions based on the guidance of psychics, for God's sake. Wouldn't it be better for them to decide for themselves?"
"Ideally you should decide for yourself. But people are at times at such an impasse, they have no basis for choice. They can't decide. Somebody telling them what to do may get them moving again."
"But they are relying on the judgment of a complete stranger." I think I was beginning to sound a little like Andrew.
"If you are that bad off that you are willing to follow the advice of someone you don't know, maybe following somebody else's advice is better."
11/12/87--I wonder, given the number of seekers, whether it's possible that people are turning to the paranormal out of something other than desperation?
11/13/87--I sat cross-legged on the rug in the ballroom of the Marriott Hotel in Schaumburg. The 299 people around me were doing exactly the same thing. It was a kind of pilgrimage. There was a woman here who would bring them to God.
The woman walked back and forth with a microphone. She looked like Colleen Dewhurst, only with bangs. She wore a caftan. She is well credentialed: past president of the Association for Humanistic Psychology, codirector of the Foundation for Mind Research, Educator of the Year in 1985 (as designated by the National Teacher-Educator Association), friend and protege of the late Margaret Mead.
Jean Houston, PhD, has conducted workshops in human development in more than 35 countries. This weekend's workshop was titled "The Mystic Path: Finding a Way to Re-Enchant the World by journeying With Fools and Saints." The jacket on her 11th book says that she "provides a passport for those who yearn to bring their spirits into attunement with psychological depths and spiritual heights." Each year more than 100,000 travelers take that journey with her.
A show of hands defined this audience. More than half worked in the "helping professions." There were therapists, schoolteachers, physicians, and nurses. There were biologists, lawyers, artists, and dancers. There were two priests and more than ten nuns. The ages ranged from 16 to 71. Half of the group was once Catholic. They had something in common.
"How many of you have recently been in a period of intense crisis?" Jean Houston asked. She talked like a psychologist, only she was wearing a nightgown. The nun beside me had her hand raised.
Houston told the group that last year she had traveled to every continent but Antarctica. "All over the world," she said, "the concerns are the same--planetization." We are the world.
The hefty older man on the other side of me said he had been feeling happy lately. "I'm opening up to new experiences." The guy looked like a truck driver.
Houston began to talk about the Middle Ages: "the time of the great mystic quest, a time when people were going about their knightly tasks with no passion, a time when people began to ask, then as now, the deeper questions.
"We are in a time of colossal breakdown. The masculine principle of the day has gone berserk. All over the world, nothing is working--the economy, family life, corruption, Nicaragua, El Salvador. Nothing is working. The plague, leprosy, AIDS. The great questions are once again yearning to be asked. 'Where is the goodness? Where is the God-ness? Where is the grail?'"
Where in the hell were my car keys, since they weren't in my handbag?
She lowered her voice. "I realize there have been other times in history when people thought they were living in the most interesting times. They were wrong. This is it. This is the time to re-source, to reseed, to come home again." She turned her microphone to the group. No one was laughing.
"What do you want to come home to?" she asked a middle-aged woman in a black dress.
"I want to come home to the God within me, to be of service to mankind."
A buxom woman with a Polish accent stood. "I want to come home to a feeling of being connected."
A heavyset man stood. "I want to come home to the glory that is the child that has been empowered by the suffering of the adult."
"Very nice." Houston was breathy. "Very, very nice."
I thought of Jim Jones.
A 71-year-old woman stood up slowly. "I want to come home to peace," she said softly.
We were told to stand around in a circle and to face a stranger. Someone chose me for a partner. We were told to look him or her in the eye. We were about to do the African meeting dance, I just wanted to go home.
The music began, and we moved around the room, staring each other in the eye for interminable periods. Then I saw something I hadn't seen until then: people working hard at making contact. Chemists and businessmen tossing logic to the wind. Old married couples, teenagers, flaky artists, and priests, all groping around together in the darkness, unashamed.
I passed the truck driver. He seemed genuinely happy that I had stayed. The nun gave me a look that warmed me like hot cocoa.
"They think I'm one of them," I thought.
I stayed for the whole weekend. I didn't care much about the grail. I wanted to get to know a few of the people.
I talked to an older woman from Milwaukee. She had cured herself of cancer of the colon and now runs a group for other cancer victims. "It was stress," she said. "I was so isolated."
I talked to a battle-weary Chicago schoolteacher who plays New Age music in her classroom and uses crystals. "I teach the children to be concerned for each other," she said. Her principal has no idea what she is doing.
"Let him fire me. I have to do something that works."
I talked to a pretty young woman wearing clothes from the Limited, who said she just wanted to have some positive impact on how people relate to each other in her workplace.
Some therapist type with a gold neck chain wanted to get touchy-feely with me. Anyone in the room would have done, apparently. There's always somebody who takes the talk of oneness too far. I don't know if he got what he was after, but a lot of people who had come in search of something much less tangible found a bit of what they were looking for.
I made a friend, a would-be farmer from outside Detroit. He drove to a distant shopping center to get me a book he thought I'd I enjoy. He was just an ordinary banker from Michigan who was taking flying lessons. He said he was completely unaware of his spiritual side until a year ago. He and his job were riveted; evenings and weekends he worked on a farmhouse he planned to move his wife and five children into. One day his wife told him she was having an affair with the parish pastor and wanted a divorce.
"I laid a real guilt trip on her for about five months," he said, "but she has her own path to follow. I hope it's the right one for her."
I could hear him behind me during the last exercise. He was weeping uncontrollably. We reached our hands up toward the ceiling during some kind of meditation. We imagined ourselves moving toward a great white light, the source, Buddha, Jesus--it didn't really matter. People were sobbing.
"Touch my hands," the banker said from beside me. His hands were hard--like plastic and cold. I tried to separate his fingers, but they seemed stuck together. "They were paralyzed," he said. "They're coming back now." Then he smiled warmly. "I guess I'll be staying down here for a while."
"Great," I said. "I mean I'm glad you're not going yet."
1/11/88--I found a book lying on a desk at work. Minding the Body, Mending the Mind by Dr. Joan Borysenko of Harvard University. "We are entering a new level in the scientific understanding of mechanisms by which faith, belief and imagination can actually unlock the mysteries of healing," she writes. Empiricism and spirituality are beginning to merge.
1/25/88--I wasn't going to write this in the first person. I was going to write about those other people out there who are jumping desperately onto another bandwagon, submerging themselves in a Jacuzzi of psychic "meism," justifying self-indulgence by calling it trendy names. I expected to find seekers avoiding responsibility for their lives, looking for some higher power to shift it onto, some god who would rescue and direct them.
That is not, for the most part, what I found. I found people whose lives have crumbled and who are picking up the pieces. I found some charlatans spouting heresy for profit. I found pilgrims lost along the highway to personal development, who douse themselves with Ho Jo cola and call it holy water. I also found many honest seekers who, in a singular, nearly amnesiac quest for self-awareness, have haphazardly fallen into a vat of universal balm. The fakes don't invalidate the highway or the journey. God knows, I've made a rest stop or two along the way.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Tom Herzberg.