By conservative estimates, there are currently enough wrongfully convicted people in prison in the United States to fill a football stadium.
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The day had started badly. After a week with my daughters, I was back at work but my heart wasn’t in it. Already I was missing them, and I was also wondering why a friend, a good friend, whom I loved almost like a father, was angry with me. Apparently, I’d disappointed him, but he wasn’t telling me why, wasn’t speaking to me at all.
Outside, the sky was dreary, a smudge of gray. I settled in behind my desk, but I wasn’t able to ignore my feelings long enough to get much work done, nor, on the other hand, ignore the work long enough to feel the real ache in me. What a sorry compromise! I was a fish out of the waters of my own life, gasping for the meaning of it all. Yet the more I reached for it, the more remote it seemed. Here I was, a prisoner of circumstance. Didn’t I know better? Hadn’t I read a thousand times, hadn’t I said a thousand times, that I create my reality, that my own beliefs keep me imprisoned, or set me free?
Nothing got resolved. The immediacy of phone calls, visitors, tasks that couldn’t be put off took center stage, while part of me sulked in the back row: my worst critic, his eye not missing a thing — the forced smile, the feigned interest.
At least the afternoon mail looked encouraging. Along with the advertisements for “new age” workshops and books and tapes, with claims grandiose enough to make a snake oil salesman blush, there were a few new subscriptions, some poetry submissions, and what looked like a personal letter, with an Elmira, New York postmark that immediately caught my eye.
The author Jane Roberts and her husband Robert Butts lived in Elmira. Several times, I’d asked her for an interview and been turned down, kindly but firmly. She valued her privacy and gave few interviews. Perhaps she’d changed her mind?
Jane was less well-known for her own writings than for the Seth books, in which a being named Seth — sort of a distinguished professor of higher learning, without portfolio, without a body — speaks through her about the nature of reality, God, death, reincarnation, health. “No one was more surprised than I was to find myself quite abruptly speaking for someone who was supposed to have survived death,” Jane writes. The idea was pretty unpalatable to me, too, when a friend waved a copy of Seth Speaks in front of me ten years ago. When she insisted it would change my life, I really balked; why are we always tinkering with each other’s minds, trying to improve what we don’t even understand? To top it off, the cover picture of Jane in trance while Seth spoke through her made her otherwise attractive face downright ghoulish. I’d never been drawn to the occult paperbacks; there was enough spiritual truth in books wiser souls than I had revered for centuries. Life was too short to read this kind of crap.
Perhaps it was the change I noticed in my friend — a deepening confidence in herself, something new in her eyes. Perhaps it was my own pride; I wanted to show her how open-minded I was. Anyway, one day I picked up the book — idly, a little arrogantly, the way you might deign to taste a particular dish you’ve never eaten and know you’re not going to like — and leafed through it, stopping here and there to read a paragraph, a page, suddenly unable to stop. What was this? With deepening fascination, stunned by the sheer power riding the words, their lucidity, their earthy good humor, I read on; here were no unpronounceable Hindu or Buddhist terms, no self-righteous cant, no gooey homilies about love. Jane, or Seth, was explaining life’s mysteries to me the way a kindly adult reveals to a child some simple, unarguable fact. Truth was ringing like cathedral bells at dawn. I’d already figured out some of this myself — on acid trips; in rare conversations with rare souls; during many hours spent alone trying to fathom who I was, why I was here. I had my notes, scribbled in the margins of my life, sometimes so scribbled I couldn’t make them out the next day. This was different. This was a syllabus. And here, in this something-or-other called Seth, was a teacher who didn’t ask me to kiss his feet — after all, he didn’t have any — but rather to kiss with a holy kiss the face in the mirror, the ancient being I was, the real Self behind the ego’s lurid and silly posturings. Such a teacher I’d never had!
I went back to the beginning and read the book all the way through — as I have, since, read every Seth book (there are five in all; Jane has written more than a dozen books of her own). Of course I wanted to interview Jane. Maybe I’d even get to speak to Seth himself. I still hadn’t figured out who Seth was — a part of Jane’s subconscious? perhaps the other way around? — but I no longer cared. As Seth himself says, we’d be better off asking ourselves who we are, for we can’t understand who he is unless we understand the nature of personality and the characteristics of consciousness.
But I wouldn’t get to interview Jane. The news from Elmira, from her husband, Rob, was that Jane was dead.
Rob had sent me a clipping from the Elmira Star-Gazette. It said that Jane had died, in the hospital, after a “prolonged illness,” on September 5. She was fifty-five.
There was no note from him, but that wasn’t surprising. They’d been getting THE SUN for several years, and had even given the magazine a generous gift in response to one of my fund-raising letters, but we’d never met or talked, and had only corresponded briefly. That he even sent the clipping touched me.
That Jane was dead touched me, too, and raised some questions. Some may get answered, such as the nature of her illness, how much she suffered, whether Seth’s constantly repeated idea that we create our own reality — that if we’re in poor health we can remedy it because we control our own experience — was of any use to her in the end. Rob, who collaborated with Jane on the Seth books — writing down what Seth said while Jane was in trance, adding his own notes about the sessions, then typing all the material — can shed light on this, and my guess is that eventually he will. But there are other questions that can’t be answered, questions that have a life of their own regardless of how they’re answered.
I met someone recently, a poet in his early fifties, who several years ago was mugged in New York City, beaten nearly to death with a steel pipe. He was a brilliant man, tremendously exuberant, yet strangely innocent. I don’t mean naive or unworldly. Rather, that he seemed to have virtually no emotional defenses. He said what came to mind; if what came to mind was wonder or surprise or simple loathing for “the punk” who almost killed him, that’s what came out, without the varnish, the stifling vocabularies of contemporary psychology, or such language as those in the greatest confusion use to appear more “spiritual.” (The friend who introduced us said Jean wasn’t nearly so guileless before the mugging; he had suffered greatly, yet somehow was more at peace.) What I remember most from that evening was something Jean said when the death of his father was mentioned: “I don’t believe anyone should die.” Silence around the table. What did he mean? “I take it as an insult when someone I know dies.”
How amazing to hear someone say it! This is something nearly everyone feels but nobody admits. Who graciously accepts death? Most people I know can’t graciously accept a parking ticket. Perhaps that’s not a good analogy: a parking ticket is a punishment, and death isn’t, though most of us seem to think of it that way. And no wonder: we’re taught as children that our life is an arrow released at the moment of birth that flies irrevocably toward that far-away target, that black hole, that bull’s-eye, death. Perhaps we’re also told that eternal life awaits us on the other side — if we believe strongly enough in it, that is, if we’re dutiful and say the right prayers — but the architect’s renderings of heaven are notoriously sketchy; and the notion that poor schnooks like us get to cavort for all eternity with God merely by virtue of being corpses — well, it strains the imagination of those who dare to imagine, and most avoid even that.
Contemplating Jane’s death, it’s ironical to me how wide a gap there is between what I believe about death — much of it learned from Jane herself, speaking for Seth — and what I feel about it. On the one hand, there’s Seth’s assurance that consciousness isn’t dependent on physical matter, that we’ve lived before and we’ll live again, that death is another beginning. Yet still there’s this ache, this feeling that death is wrong, that Jane’s death diminishes me, as would any death in the family, and aren’t those we love family?
It’s embarrassing. You’d think, after having read and re-read all the Seth books, I’d have learned something, really learned it. What good is all my knowledge if, in the face of death, all I can do is wet a handkerchief — or, if it’s the prospect of my own death, my pants? Why, despite everything Seth convincingly says about the eternal validity of the soul, is the fear of death so real to me?
And what about the fear of life? The demise of a friendship, the hollows of longing — these, too, strike the timid heart. I make a life of what is familiar; then when life knocks on the door with new questions, new demands, I don’t want to open it.
Wait a minute. I started out to eulogize Jane and celebrate Seth, but this is faint praise, isn’t it? I seem to be saying these books aren’t very important, after all. I mean, who cares what you’ve read? Can you read the lines on faces, the trail you left when you ran from yourself, the dismay in another’s eyes? What do we learn from books, anyway, that we don’t learn better from a little pain? If you don’t like a book you close it. But when pain speaks, you listen. The heart is a library that never closes. All night long you can study yourself, night after night, year after year. Who needs books? Who needs a ghost like Seth, telling us what’s what?
That we don’t need Seth, Seth would emphatically agree. This, in the end, is as important to me as his ideas, and keeps me coming back to him — though often burdened with myself and weary, in no mood for philosophy, for Truth, for hearing from on high what’s wrong with me. Seth doesn’t scold. His compassion for our humanness is astoundingly deep, for he knows just how enchanted we are by the illusion of our own powerlessness. To set himself above us, as so many teachers do, would serve nothing; how can unquestioned loyalty to a teacher like that enhance one’s self-respect? I see them, these devotees, shining brightly, but like the moon they shine with another’s light, not their own. Maybe I’m being too harsh; it’s not for me to judge. I just know it’s not my way. The reminders I need are the ones Seth gives me: that I am powerful beyond my wildest dreams; that I’ve been given the gift of the gods, to create reality according to my beliefs; that there are no limitations to the self, except those I believe in.
I need these reminders because I’m human, as I grieve because I’m human, as I shuttle back and forth between knowing and not-knowing, looking for meaning in the stars and looking for it in books, in the newspapers, in the obituaries.
In Issue 109, I wrote about the death of Jane Roberts, author of the Seth books. Robert Butts, Jane’s husband, wrote to me after the essay appeared, and gave me permission to reprint part of his letter.
I was with Jane when she died. Her death was the result of soft-tissue infections, stemming from a form of rheumatoid arthritis. Of course, that’s only part of the reason she died, and I hope to go into it all in a book — perhaps a biography. Jane’s death was peaceful, though half an hour before she had been in great pain.
I got home from the hospital a couple of hours later — about 4:00 a.m. It was a warm starlit night, just beautiful, and as I got out of the car and looked up into that depthless sky I felt Jane right there, above the car. She’d followed me home. “Thank you, Jane,” I said aloud, and went into the house.
I went back to work on a long-overdue Seth book the next day, but as I wrote a friend last week, “Don’t let my determination to carry on Jane’s work fool you. A cave has opened up inside me, and I can only trust that the wound will heal itself. I still cry for my wife several times a day, fifty-seven days after her death. From watching Jane for 504 consecutive days in the hospital, I learned that human beings have tremendous, often unsuspected reserves of strength and power, yet I still don’t understand how I can feel such pain and still live.”
Thanks for writing about Jane in THE SUN. It’s a fine job, and I’m grateful. Jane is too, I bet.