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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)


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.1 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 outright atheism.

Profound McTaggart,” as Yeats called him in a poem, deserves a digression. Bertrand Russell recalls attending student breakfasts at McTaggart’s gay bachelor lodgings where the food was so meager that guests took to bringing their own eggs. When Russell decided that stars existed even when no one looked at them, McTaggart asked him to stop coming. Shirley MacLaine has a long quote from McTaggart, rightly calling him the greatest philosopher of this century who defended reincarnation. If you’re interested, there’s a good section in Paul Levy’s book Moore about McTaggart’s curious crablike walk, his penchant for riding a large tricycle, his Tory opinions, and his inexplicable influence on the early views of G.E. Moore. It’s hard to believe that this now forgotten sage was once so respected that his colleague C.D. Broad actually devoted two volumes (1,250 pages!) to refuting McTaggart’s bizarre metaphysics.

In Out on a Limb it is David Manning, a young occultist, who initiates Shirley into a smorgasbord of fashionable paranormal beliefs. Shirley later disclosed that David is a composite of “four spiritual men,” each claiming to have known extraterrestrials from the Pleiades. The book swarms with occult shibboleths: energy vibrations (of which love is the highest), karma, other dimensions, auras, OBEs (out-of-body experiences), synchronicity, ESP, precognition, holism, Atlantis, Lemuria, UFOs, the Shroud of Turin, and a hundred others. “Discarnates,” disembodied spirits, who tell Shirley about her past lives, get their data from the Akashik records. These are archives, theosophists have long maintained, on which are stored the vibrations of every event that has occurred since the universe began. “Akasic records of all that ever anywhere wherever was” is how Stephen puts it in Joyce’s Ulysses.

Channeled entities, consulting the Akashik records, inform Shirley that she and Gerry had been married in a previous incarnation—a stormy marriage because Gerry was too preoccupied with “important work involving cultural exchanges with extraterrestrials.” In his present body, Gerry is a socialist who wants to be England’s prime minister. (After the book was published, Shirley revealed that he too is composite, a blend of two political leaders she knew.)

A film dramatization of Out on a Limb, in which Shirley plays herself, was shown on ABC-TV on January 18 and 19 of this year as a two-part miniseries. Charles Dance took the role of Gerry. John Heard played David, and Anne Jackson was Shirley’s longtime friend, the big-hatted Bella Abzug. Apart from the film’s paranormal poppycock, its dialogue is hard to bear. Over and over again Shirley murmurs “I love you” or “I missed you” to Gerry, and he comes back with “I love you too” or “I missed you too.” Twice Shirley says “I love you” to Bella. Bella responds with “I love you too.”

Other highlights:

Shirley: “Intelligence has become my new erogenous zone.”

In an occult bookstore a volume entitled Dwellers on Two Planets magically hops off a shelf into Shirley’s hands.

Shirley and David face the surf on a Malibu beach, arms outstretched like Jesus on the cross. They repeatedly shout in unison, “I am God!”

Miss MacLaine’s first conversation with a spirit entity is through channeler Kevin Ryerson. As a youth in Sandusky, Ohio, Kevin steeped himself in occult literature, later studied at the Edgar Cayce Institute in Virginia Beach. He became a medium after he discovered that while he was meditating, entities from the astral plane would grab his body.

Kevin plays himself in Shirley MacLaine’s miniseries. Both he and Miss MacLaine have since insisted that on the set he went into a genuine trance. Young, tall, with dark hair and blue eyes, handsomer than Uri Geller and, from my impression, twice as smart, Kevin shows up at Shirley’s Malibu house wearing a slouched hat that makes him look like Humphrey Bogart. First he removes his jacket, loosens his tie, seats himself, and says, “I’ll see you later.” After several deep breaths and a few coughs he goes into a trance. “John,” a contemporary of Jesus, takes over. He speaks English, not Aramaic, in a slow, scholarly fashion, with lots of biblical ye’s and thou’s. “Ye are co-creator with God,” he tells a wide-eyed Shirley, reminding her of the time on the beach when she shouted, “I am God!” Miss MacLaine is floored by this revelation. How could John possibly know? It never occurs to her that since Kevin is acquainted with many of her friends, he easily could have obtained this information.

After more coughing, John is replaced by Tom McPherson, an earthy Irish pickpocket from Elizabethan England. The light bothers McPherson, so he asks Shirley for something to cover Kevin’s eyes. She finds a black cloth and Tom, or rather Kevin, ties it around his head like a blindfold. Kevin now goes into what magicians call an “eyeless vision” act. (If you want to know how they do it—by peeking down their noses—see the relevant chapter in my Science: Good, Bad, and Bogus.) Kevin stands up blindfolded, gets a mug from the pantry, then returns to pour himself tea. Don’t worry, he says in his Irish brogue, he won’t spill any. Shirley is dumbfounded. How can Kevin’s body do these things when his eyes are covered?

After the brief return of John, who tells Shirley about her life with Gerry in Atlantis, Kevin wakes up and asks, “How did it go?” (Channelers profess not to recall anything said while channeling.) When Shirley tells him about the blindfold bit, he is amazed. He didn’t know, he says, that Tom could manipulate his body like that. Shirley feels herself “vibrating with a strange magnetic energy.”

David, who has been painting pictures of UFOs, invites Shirley to go with him to Peru to look for some real flying disks. Shirley accepts. Unfortunately, the cameras were never able to photograph a single UFO while on location in Peru, but the natives assure Miss MacLaine that flying saucers constantly land in the area.

Although the relationship between David and Shirley is platonic, they constantly bathe together nude in icy mineral-water pools. During one such immersion, Shirley stares at a candle flame until she feels she and the universe are one.

Observing Shirley’s spiritual progress, Dave decides the time is ripe for some darker secrets. He tells about his “cosmic love affair” with Mayan, a small girl with big black eyes who was in Peru disguised as a geologist. The Earth, she told him, is close to self-destruction. Because our planet is “important to the cosmos,” her mission is to give David “scientific information” to pass on to Shirley. After much prodding, Dave finally reveals the stupendous truth. Mayan came from another planet.

Shirley becomes furious at the news of this cosmic love affair and wants to go home. Has she been duped? The pair drive back to their lodgings in silence. Next morning Dave tells how Mayan once asked him to go to a foothill and observe a certain peak. He went. A flying saucer emerged and landed near him. It was so beautiful—all white and iridescent. Then it shot upward and vanished. “After that,” David says, “I listened to Mayan.”

The world awaits the truth, Dave rattles on, and you, Shirley, have been chosen to provide it. Miss MacLaine is angry again. She calls it all “metaphysical mumbo-jumbo,” and accuses David of setting her up to write a book just so he’ll be in it. “I was wrong about you. You’re a nut.”

David, who never gets mad, quotes Mayan as saying that if you want to get to the fruit on a tree, you have to go out on a limb. Gerry once made the same remark when he and Shirley were lovers. Shirley weeps while David slips on her wrist a metal bracelet Mayan had given him. In the book he says it amplifies one’s thoughts by drawing on what Mayan called a third force.

Shirley, hopelessly confused, drives alone into the Andes mountains to think. Is David crazy or for real? Night falls. It grows freezing cold. Birds and animals make weird sounds. Winds blow. The car won’t start. On the verge of total panic, Miss MacLaine massages the magic bracelet and cries, “David, see me!”

  1. 1

    Her first, Don’t Fall Off the Mountain, was about her travels abroad and early life in Hollywood; her second, You Can Get There From Here, concerned her work for the presidential campaign of George McGovern and the making of her documentary film on Mao’s China.

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