Isness Is Her Business

Out on a Limb

by Shirley MacLaine
Bantam, 367 pp., $4.50 (paper)

Out on a Limb’

an ABC TV miniseries written by Colin Higgins, by Shirley MacLaine

Dancing in the Light

by Shirley MacLaine
Bantam, 405 pp., $4.50 (paper)

Ramtha

edited by Steven Lee Weinberg
Sovereignty, Inc., 217 pp., $19.95

In the halcyon days of spiritualism, psychics whose vocal chords were seized by a spirit, or in whose presence the dead were able to speak without using a live mouth—often by talking through a floating trumpet—were called “direct-voice” mediums. In the United States the most gifted direct voicer was George Valiantine, of Williamsport, Pennsylvania. His entities had more than a hundred different accents, and spoke in half a dozen languages. One of his “controls,” as the directing spirit was called, was Confucius. Valiantine’s followers were typically undismayed whenever he was caught in fraud. After a luminous trumpet was found warm on the side and moist at the mouthpiece, doubters were told that spirits couldn’t use it without materializing warm hands and wet lips.

Today’s direct-voice mediums, now called trance channelers, no longer float trumpets. Some even speak in their own voices without troubling to acquire strange accents or personality changes. For decades the occult shelves of bookstores have been crammed with volumes supposedly dictated through channelers, notably the popular Seth books of the late Jane Roberts, of Elmira, New York. Jane liked to fling her thick glasses on the table when Seth, in a deep booming voice, took over her body. Tam Mossman, her editor at Prentice-Hall, edits a quarterly about channeling, and himself now “channels” an entity called James.

Among those who are into New Age trends, searching for occult alternatives to Judeo-Christian faiths, there is a growing hunger for evidence of reincarnation. In response to this demand, channelers are popping up all over the nation, especially on the West Coast. In California, a former lady singer of country-western, Jamie Sams, channels the entity Leah who lives on Venus six hundred years in the future. In Malibu, Ron Scolastico channels a group called the Guides. In North Hollywood, Darryl Anka channels Bashar, from the planet Essassani. Jack Pursel, another California medium, channels Lazaris. Nobody knows how many hundreds of other mediums are now channeling here and there.

Trance channeling got its biggest boost in 1983 when Shirley MacLaine’s third autobiography, Out on a Limb, became a top seller. Out on a Limb has two startling main themes: Shirley’s undercover romance with a married member of the British Parliament—she calls him Gerry Stamford—and her rapidly exploding enthusiasm for reincarnation and the paranormal.

Among dozens of eminent thinkers and writers cited by Miss MacLaine as believing that we lived before on Earth, many actually opposed this view—Kant and Milton for instance. John Dewey would be amazed to find himself among those who “deeply believed in metaphysical dimensions that would ultimately explain the mystery of life.” At the same time, Shirley missed philosophers who really did believe in reincarnation, such as F.C.S. Schiller and C.J. Ducasse, and writers like William Butler Yeats. Somehow she did discover Cambridge University’s great eccentric John McTaggart Ellis McTaggart, a Hegelian of sorts who managed the extraordinary trick of combining reincarnation with …

This article is available to subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

Print Premium Subscription — $94.95

Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.

Online Subscription — $69.00

Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.