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.”
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!”
Cut to a sleeping David. He suddenly awakes, rushes to his truck, and is there in a jiffy. He and Shirley embrace. How did he know where to find her? Mayan told him.
On the drive back, the film’s most embarrassing episode now unrolls. Like Kevin’s blindfold act, it’s not in the book because, as Shirley has said on talk shows, her readers were not then prepared to believe it. Here’s what happens. David asks Shirley not to touch the truck’s steering wheel. He starts deep breathing, closes his eyes, and takes his hands off the wheel. The car speeds along the perilous roads, making all the turns, while a frightened Shirley huddles on the seat. After moments of sheer terror, she starts to laugh. Then, so help me, she bursts into her most famous song, “If You Could See Me Now!” Next morning, in a bathing pool, Dave explains how the truck did it. Mayan put “an invisible force field” around it.
Suddenly Shirley sees an aura enveloping a plant, then a brighter aura around David. This is followed by her first OBE. A thin silver cord keeps her soul linked to her body as she soars above the mountains and travels to the moon. Beyond the moon she glimpses a spiral nebula, no doubt the very galaxy where Mayan lives. The cord draws her back. Shirley awakes, kisses Dave’s hand, says, “Thank you.” Dave kisses her hand and says, “Thank yourself.”
David has to stay in Peru to finish whatever mysterious thing he has to do, but Shirley must go home to write the book that may save our planet. She cries while she packs. “When will I see you again?” she asks. Dave doesn’t answer. “Just remember that I love you,” he says. Shirley: “I love you too.”
Back in the Big Apple, in a taxi with Bella Abzug, Shirley tells about asking Maria, a Peruvian psychic, whether Bella will get the Democratic nomination for mayor she is seeking. No, said Maria, it will go to a “tall man with no hair and long fingers.” Oy, vey! Could this be Ed Koch? Up to now Bella has been a doubter, but now she phones her office to ask them to take another poll.
Gerry turns up in what Shirley, in the book, calls the “insane, sweet chaos that is Manhattan.” She and Bella meet Gerry just before he is to give a speech. When Shirley tries to embrace him she is pushed away. Can they get together later? No, he has to catch a plane. The affair is kaput.
In 1984 Shirley won an Oscar for her brilliant portrayal of the mother in Terms of Endearment. A photo of her doing a high kick appeared on Time’s May 14 cover. That same year Hunter College gave Miss MacLaine an honorary degree for, among other things, her “quest into philosophy and metaphysics.” The following year Shirley hit the jackpot again with her best seller Dancing in the Light. This time the romantic centerpiece is her tempestuous love affair with a Russian film maker. She calls him Vassily Okhlopkhov-Medvedjatnikov, but everyone in Hollywood knows his real name, Andrei Mikhalkov-Konchalovsky. In the book she addresses him as Vassy or Honeybear. He calls her his Nif-Nif, a Russian name for a small, adorable pig.
Unlike Gerry, Vassy shares Shirley’s views on reincarnation, but he has never escaped from his church’s teachings about Satan and evil. He even thinks Shirley is influenced by Satan when she’s angry. For Shirley, evil doesn’t exist. It is nothing but “energy flying backward.” Spell live backward, she writes, and you get evil.
Shirley’s spirit guides, speaking through channelers, tell of many occasions when she and Vassy were together in previous lives. They were pals in ancient Greece—she a man, he a woman—studying to be oracles, the trance channelers of the time. In at least four incarnations Vassy was her son.
A new spirit guide called Ramtha, or the Ram, now joins Tom McPherson as one of Shirley’s top spirit guides. Ramtha is the control of J.Z. Knight, currently the most fashionable channeler in the US. Mrs. Knight is a handsome, husky-voiced blonde, with an upturned nose, who lives in Yelm, Washington, a small farming town south of Seattle. My own opinion is that she’s a reincarnation of Aimee Semple McPherson, in turn a descendant of Tom McPherson. Aimee died in 1944. That would be just right for her to be recycled as J.Z.
When J.Z. goes into a trance, Ramtha takes over to lecture for hours to guests in hotel ballrooms who pay $400 each, or $1,500 if it’s a weekend seminar. According to The New York Times (November 11, 1986) Mrs. Knight admits she earns millions every year from her Ramtha performances, from sales of Ramtha audio and videotapes, and from her books. In Ramtha, based on tape recordings and edited by Steven Lee Weinberg, Ph.D., we are told the Ram was born 35,000 years ago in the slums of Onai, the major port city of Atlantis. Using a mammoth magic sword given to him by a “wondrous woman,” he assembled a vast army, invented war, and became the world’s first conqueror. Slowly he came to realize that he himself was part of the God he hated. After sixty-three OBEs his body vibrating faster than light, he became one with the wind. On the side of Mount Indus, in Tibet, free of weight, he ascended into the Seventh Heaven where he and God became one. He is now part of an “unseen brotherhood” of superbeings who love us and hear our prayers.
Ramtha’s God is not “out there” like the transcendent God of Christianity. He is the impersonal pantheist deity of such “process” philosophers as Samuel Alexander, Alfred North Whitehead, and Charles Hartshorne. He is the Absolute of Hegel, the Tao of Taoism, the Brahma of Hinduism. God is simply Everything. All he “knows how to do is be.” The Ram likes to tack “ness” on words, and his favorite word for God is isness. God is “the isness of All That Is.”2 The word occurs hundreds of times in Ramtha, often accompanied by God’s ongoingness and foreverness. God is the great I AM. He is pure thought, pure joy, and the “cosmic glue called love” that holds everything together.
God is neither good nor bad. He is entirely without morals and unjudgmental. There are no divine decrees. Isness is his only business. Hell and Satan are the “vile inventions” of Christianity, a product of “your insidious Book” which Ramtha advises his listeners not to read. There is no such thing as evil. Nothing you can do, not even murder, is wrong. The slain go on to better lives, but the slayers will endure remorse for eons. To all this God is totally indifferent. I AM never weeps. He “does not even have the ability to judge you.” There is no forgiveness of sins because there are no sins to forgive.
“Every vile and wretched thing you do,” says the Ram, “broadens your understanding.” Everything we do is done because we needed to do it:
If you want to do any one thing, regardless of what it is, it would not be wise to go against that feeling; for there is an experience awaiting you and a grand adventure that will make your life sweeter.
Regardless? Suppose a man feels the need to rape and kill a child. You might expect Ramtha would invoke karma to explain how such crimes are punished, but no—he is down on karma. It no more exists than hell and Satan. Murder is not a sin to be expiated, it is a teaching experience. You never have to pay for anything. Why the guilt a murderer feels is not a payment, or how a deed can be called vile if there is no evil, are questions that Ramtha, at least in this book, leaves unanswered.
In light of the above sentiments, it is hardly surprising that the Ram has nothing to say about helping the poor and suffering, the starving millions in Africa, the wretched Untouchables in India:
Everyone…whether he is starving, or crippled…has chosen his experience for the purpose of gaining from it…. When you become a master, you can walk in the murk and mire…and maintain your totality, because you understand the teeming masses and why they are the way they are.
To love the masses “does not mean you must go out and teach them or succor unto them. Simply leave them alone and allow them to evolve according to their own needs and designs.”
This, together with belief in karma, is precisely how the rich and powerful, in Western countries where reincarnation flourishes, have tended to look upon the suffering masses.3 And why not? If a child is starving because of bad karma, or (as the Ram teaches) because its soul has chosen starvation as a teaching experience, why interfere?
Ramtha’s main message is simple. You are God, and therefore capable of creating any reality you desire, if not now, then in a later incarnation. To support this notion, Ramtha provides a mythology that comes straight out of the science-fiction fantasies of Scientology. God was originally a “void without form,” but he wanted to experience all possible emotions and sensations. You can’t smell a flower unless there is a flower and a nose. So what did the great Isness do? He “expanded himself into light,” which in turn fractured into billions of “light beings” or gods. These spirits were all formed at the same time, and endowed with a free will so that through them God could create a universe in which he could play endless games that would continue his “expansion into forever.”
We are those gods. We created the universe. We made the stars. It is through us that God experiences the joys of creativity and adventure. To play the games, we first had to make what Ramtha calls “electrum” (his neologism for electromagnetism). The electrum “coagulated” into matter, and the matter coagulated into the cells of living bodies. The great game of evolution was underway.
We now come to Ramtha’s version of the Fall. After thousands and thousands of incarnations, we the great gods of light have forgotten who we are. We no longer remember that we created the universe, that we invented all our adventures and dreams. The Ram’s mission is to ram us into remembering.
Once we realize who we are, we must stop worrying about right and wrong, relax, go with the flow, and love God by loving ourselves. Even now we have the power to reverse aging and live forever in our present bodies. We have the power now to heal any disease, even to grow a new limb if one is cut off. What prevents us from doing these things? It is our “altered ego,” the “antichrist” within us who keeps telling us we are not God. In our present amnesiac state, most of us will have to die and go on to adventures in other bodies, but many enlightened souls will conquer their altered egos and ascend like Ramtha, Jesus, Buddha, and Osiris. Omeka, Yukad, and Rackabia (whoever they are) also ascended, as well as thousands more we never heard about.
Because of impending natural disasters predicted by Ramtha—quakes, floods, and so on—he has recently recommended that everyone move to higher ground, especially to the mountains of the Pacific Northwest. According to The New York Times (cited above) up to fifteen hundred people have already moved to the Yelm region, something Mrs. Knight hadn’t anticipated. A 20/20 television show about J.Z. (January 22, 1987) interviewed a tearful housewife whose husband, smitten by Ramtha tapes, had abandoned her to live near J.Z.
Sandy Fallis, a good friend of J.Z. when she was Judy Hampton, a girl growing up in Artesia, New Mexico, told 20/20 about a prayer meeting in which Judy suddenly began speaking in a male voice that called himself a demon named Demias. (Mrs. Knight denied that this ever happened.) Steven Bakker, formerly J.Z.’s advance man, told how devastated he became when during a desert hike he observed Mrs. Knight smoking and practicing the Ram’s gestures, slipping in and out of her Ramtha personality without bothering to have trances.
Now divorced, Mrs. Knight continues the hobby she and her former husband had of raising Arabian horses. According to 20/20 she began selling them to followers who were told that the Ram had recommended the purchases. One woman paid a quarter of a million dollars for a horse. Washington State issued a cease and desist order which J.Z. accepted. Naturally she sees nothing wrong about such trance chiseling because she sees nothing wrong about anything.
In Dancing in the Light, Miss MacLaine gives dramatic accounts of her many sessions with Mrs. Knight. When she first heard the name Ramtha, she writes, it aroused such a “strange soul-memory” that she broke down and sobbed. Using Mrs. Knight’s arms, the Ram once picked her up bodily. On another occasion Shirley says she saw “him” pick up a two-hundred-pound man. Ramtha frequently laughs and weeps, and enjoys kissing the laughing-weeping women who sit transfixed in his audience. Sometimes he gets drunk on wine and poor Mrs. Knight has to suffer the hangovers.
Dancing in the Light comes to a climax in Galisteo, New Mexico, a village near Santa Fe where Shirley goes to see a woman called Chris Griscom. Chris uses acupuncture to help people remember past lives. Her long sharp needles jab into various “galactic points,” especially into the third eye. The third eye is a term used by theosophy and some Eastern religions for the pineal gland (occasionally for the nearby pituitary gland)—a small knob about the size of a cherry pit that lies behind the forehead between the eyebrows. In Hinduism the region is called the ajna chakra. The seven chakras are psychic centers associated with Kundalini, a cosmic energy said to be responsible for sexual potency and higher awareness. It is often pictured in India as a serpent coiled asleep at the base of the spine, in the muladhara chakra. Some far-out parapsychologists believe the third eye is responsible for psi powers. The Hindu god Shiva uses his third eye to see the future.
While Chris waggles her needles in Shirley’s chakras, and gushes over the shifting colors of Shirley’s auric field, Miss MacLaine has kaleidoscopic visions of her past lives. Shirley is a pirate with a wooden leg. She dances in a harem. She is a Buddhist monk. She lives in a jungle where she communicates with elephants by telepathy. She has a hand in framing the US Constitution. In talk-show interviews Miss MacLaine likes to recall her many incarnations as a prostitute. She thinks they gave her empathy for the hooker roles she has played. Louis XV had her beheaded because, as a court jester, she told improper jokes. Shirley’s only child, her daughter Sachi, was her sister in one life, her mother in another.
Her most hair-raising incarnation was as a Mongolian nomad. After she is captured by a bandit, a jealous suitor slits her throat. Who was the murderer? Shirley recognized him as none other than her ex-husband Steve Parker!
During her sessions with Chris Shirley has a momentous meeting with her Higher Self—a tall, imposing androgynous figure with high cheekbones and deep blue eyes. He is more masculine than feminine, more Oriental than Western. The Higher Self, or H.S. as Shirley prefers to call him, reinforces what she has learned from the Ram. She is identical with her H.S. and he in turn is identical with God. To love God you must love yourself.
Well, there’s no denying that in this sense Shirley has an overwhelming love for His Royal Isness. Egoism and altruism, intelligence and gullibility, curiosity and willful ignorance—it is a droll mixture. But Shirley MacLaine’s obsession with herself is accompanied by a canny (and highly profitable) capacity to touch the same qualities in the American public. All four of her autobiographies are available as a boxed set, and she is now working on a fifth. Who can guess what new astral adventures she will have to report? What will she learn next from Ram and other friendly spooks, from the occult junk books she keeps reading? Miss MacLaine is now on tour through sixteen cities, giving weekend seminars ($300 per person) on how to get in touch with your Higher Self. She is also teaching how to heal yourself by visualizing colors—blue for throat problems, orange for the liver, green for the heart, yellow for the solar plexus.
April 9, 1987
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. ↩
Did Ramtha steal this line from one of Robert Service’s poems? ↩
The best discussion I know of this and other reasons for not believing in reincarnation is a three-part series of essays by philosopher Paul Edwards, “The Case Against Reincarnation,” in Free Inquiry (Fall 1986, Winter 1986/87, and Spring 1987). ↩