In the summer of 1980, when I was ten years old, a stranger sneaked through our trailer’s unlocked side door at 2 AM. He lifted a few gold-plated necklaces from my mother’s wooden jewelry box, then entered my bedroom. When I woke, the man pulled his hands out of my underwear.
I sat up and watched as he adjusted himself awkwardly, almost apologetically, in the chair he’d dragged from the kitchen to my bedside. His dark hair was illuminated by moonlight streaming through the windows. His wide eyes appeared lost. In a precocious act of self-preservation, I talked him into leaving my bedroom.
I had questions, but other than the detective who pressed me for every detail, no one wanted to talk about what had happened. So when my mother told me a psychic was coming to our house to give her a reading, I asked if I could talk with him, too. He was tall and, in his khakis and pink polo shirt, looked more like a golfer than a psychic. He sat before me, and the story poured out. After I finished, I asked: What had the man wanted? Why had he touched me there?
The psychic closed his eyes and moved his eyeballs back and forth, something I would later recognize as the telltale sign of psychic activity. When he opened his eyes, he explained that the information coming to him pertained to one of my past lives, when I’d been a leader in a witches’ coven in the fourteenth century. My dalliance in the black arts had involved sexual rituals, and I’d harmed myself vaginally with a knife, which apparently led to “significant health problems.” According to the psychic, I had attracted the child molester to help clear the sexual karma from that previous life. Did I understand?
I have a hard time remembering what I understood at the age of ten. I had been raised to believe in a hodgepodge of my mother’s New Age ideas: crystals and spirit guides and books like Jonathan Livingston Seagull. As a kid I devoured this stuff. Who didn’t want to believe they had lived before? My mother had charts with pictures of chakras — colorful, whirling energy orbs that supposedly resided within the body’s energetic field. When I’d learned that I had an aura someone could read, I’d squinted at my reflection in the mirror, but I’d never seen anything. Still I did understand my mother’s attraction to metaphysics. My father had taken off a year earlier. Ever since my mother had dropped out of college to have me, she’d worked two dead-end jobs. In the same way we needed money for groceries or a grandparent to babysit me, we needed magical forces in our life.
As for the psychic, his words — black arts, coven, sexual rituals — caught my attention, and his tone reflected a wistful acceptance of the evil deeds from my past life. I scrutinized his face for the slightest sign of judgment. Finding none surprised me. Children are inundated with stories about the dichotomy between good and evil, and the psychic’s attitude affirmed my own experience that the two forces coexisted, working in tandem: My clean body felt dirty. My warm house felt unsafe. My loving mother behaved in ways inconsistent with love.
When I stood to leave, the psychic cleared his throat and said, “You are an old soul, a very old soul,” as though reassuring me.
Being an “old soul” crashed into this separate idea that I possessed the power to attract a predator to my bedroom. For weeks afterward my mind shook with the reverberations from that meeting. I came to believe that being molested had meaning. Instead of feelings of violation, a dozen emotions arrived instead: Wonder. Curiosity. Strength, even. This karmic context was like the string of a balloon that lifted me right off the ground.
For the next thirty years I sought the advice of psychics, tarot-card readers, and “intuitive guides” whenever I was in need of emotional support — even when their advice seemed counterintuitive or downright unhelpful. Being exposed to psychics at such a young age was like being raised Catholic or vegetarian: you continue living out these belief systems even after they no longer serve you.
When I was fourteen years old, my mother took me to a psychic named Diana. Before she closed her eyes, Diana said I was lucky to have a mother who knew about reincarnation and didn’t waste time taking me to therapists who couldn’t help people get to the crux of their “issues.” I remember repeating the word crux and thinking that I’d been invited to sit with my whole self — not just my fourteen-year-old self, navigating depression, but an infinite, intelligent self who could guide me out of rural Ferndale, Washington.
When Diana described a past life I’d had as a famous French chef — an abusive alcoholic whose harmful ways had created a complicated karma around my relationship with food — I heard mostly “French” and “famous” and “chef,” words that created an electric buzz in my body. I lived in a small house in a town where the big yearly event was Pioneer Days: bank tellers dressed in nineteenth-century dresses churned butter while men gnawed on fire-roasted turkey legs. At home my mother’s second husband was an embattled man, filled with intemperate desires to punch something or somebody. Afterward he’d grow somber, regretful, and apologetic, but the darker moods never failed to return. I often felt small, unseen, and untended to.
Anything independent of small towns or stepfathers might’ve sounded good to me, but food? My adolescent mind recognized an identity-affirming opportunity. How long had I loved cooking? As a young child I’d played with an Easy-Bake Oven, and only a few weeks earlier I’d checked out several issues of Gourmet from the Whatcom County Library. I did most of the food shopping and preparation in our house. Was it possible that Diana’s story explained a middle schooler’s eccentric interest in cutting up chickens? Despite growing up in a place where locals referred to the tasteless orange orbs at the grocery store as “tomatoes,” I inexplicably knew better. Coincidence? I thought not.
On the ride home from the session, my mother and I shared the details of our readings, as we always did, creating a precious moment of intimacy between us. Ordinarily my mother’s focus was on her husband and his irrational or unpredictable behavior. Now I asked her, “How do I avoid being an alcoholic?” She sighed ponderously and said, “Avoid alcohol?” We lapsed into a contemplative silence that appears comic in hindsight, but at the time it didn’t strike either of us as funny.
I recently found some worksheets from visits to psychics in the early 1980s. They remind me of teenage loneliness, family dysfunction, and the magical thinking that compelled us to seek out seers and mediums when we might have been better served by mental-health therapists or domestic-abuse advocates. Only now do I understand how these psychics’ words shaped my perceptions of myself.
When I had an eating disorder in my senior year of high school, I thought of it as karma. As an undergraduate, whenever I took off traveling or prepared meals for friends, I was channeling energies and talents from a previous existence. Diana’s story had given me strength and meaning, even if I wasn’t sure I believed it. Had I really been a chef in my last life? Or had I just absorbed Diana’s words so deeply that I ended up attending culinary school when I was twenty-six? If I had never talked to Diana, would I have become a chef?
In college I began seeing an intuitive healer named Eileen, whose number I’d found on a bulletin board in a metaphysical bookstore. Eileen received clients at her house, and when she opened her door to me for the first time, I felt blasted with a kind of benevolent force. When she closed her eyes to “read” my aura, the air around us thickened like a protective pudding.
Unlike other psychics or spiritual advisers I’d seen, Eileen talked about how sitting with physical discomfort helped release emotional pain. “Feelings are signals,” she said, “weather systems.” Finally, here was a message that helped me process the shame associated with sexual trauma. I saw Eileen monthly for the next few years.
Occasionally she impressed me with her observations. Once, she told me a boy I’d been dating had been molested as a child, leaving him with intimacy issues. “He can’t have sex,” she said. “He will probably try to make it seem like something related to you, but it’s not. The truth is he’s frustrated with himself.” I don’t know if she was right, but when that boy broke up with me not a week later, instead of feeling rejected, I nodded solemnly and wished him the best.
Afterward, whenever I was interested in someone, I always asked Eileen if she saw anything. But Eileen seemed more interested in sharing details I didn’t want to know. According to her, my mother and I had experienced several lifetimes together, each taking turns being the parent. Not unusual, she remarked, but this would be the last life we would have together. “Enjoy her while you can,” she said, chuckling darkly.
I once asked Eileen if she could sense anything about my being a sexually deviant witch in a past life.
Her eyes flashed, and she tilted her head, examining me. “You’ve been a deviant and a witch. You’ve been everything. We all have. Have you ever been a woman named Aris who stuck daggers up her vagina and nearly bled to death?” Then she laughed and changed the subject, leaving me stunned. I never asked her a question like that again.
I did, however, tell her that whenever a man I was romantically involved with touched me, I floated out of my consciousness for a few minutes. “Where do I go?” I asked.
She cleared her throat and said it was a trauma response.
“Trauma response?” I echoed. The truth seemed so simple: That stranger’s touch in 1980 had traumatized me. The silence that had followed had erected walls around the experience, barriers my consciousness hadn’t been able to permeate, but now the acknowledgment of the trauma was like a private suite to which I could retreat in upsetting times. That was what my mother and I had been seeking when we visited psychics. But recognizing and sitting with pain is therapeutic work, as opposed to spiritual. I would still need years to make those distinctions.
I don’t know when I learned that Eileen had a master’s degree in mental-health counseling. I remember her saying she didn’t advertise herself as a mental-health counselor because she couldn’t turn off the flow of psychic information: sometimes she lost track of what the client had said as opposed to what just came to her.
Once, Eileen rolled a shopping cart into the bakery section of the grocery store where I worked, and she reported, in her typically officious manner, that she was giving me a psychic healing. My chakras, which accumulated energy from other people, required a cleaning. I asked if I should pay, but she said this one was on her. Then she wheeled her cart away.
I spent the afternoon rearranging maple bars and boxes of day-old doughnuts, trying to tell if I felt lighter or clearer or more peaceful. Eileen told me that everyone, to a smaller or greater degree, possessed intuitive powers and could be trained to develop them. I wondered if I could do what she did. But life seemed troublesome enough without seeing or knowing things other people didn’t.
Not long after that day in the supermarket, I departed to Paris to spend three months studying French. I did not see Eileen again for a long time. I didn’t see my mother either. And though I kept her apprised of my whereabouts through phone calls, we didn’t engage in what anyone would call meaningful conversation. This years-long separation didn’t remedy my pain, nor wipe away the vague fear, thanks to that first psychic, that I might “call” another predator to me. But it did make me aware of two things: despite the love between my mother and myself and an abiding interconnectedness, there was a me distinct from our we, and I had questions.
Did it help me to know, as a child, that I had been a sexually deviant witch in a previous life? I did not have regrets about that experience with the psychic but rather a new curiosity about my beliefs, now that they were separate from my mother’s hodgepodge of spiritual ideas. Did I think that learning about my past lives always helped solve conflicts in my life now? Did I actually believe I’d been a chef in a previous incarnation?
Some days I thought, Yeah, absolutely. Other days I thought of past lives in the same way I did winged men in Greek myths. Did the story of Icarus need to be real in order to be meaningful? Asking myself what I believed created space for an overdue skepticism about psychics in general. I suddenly saw them as human beings: people who might read information wrong, or mix up certain details, or even lie about having psychic powers.
My mother and I would discuss the relative strength of different psychics’ abilities — how some seemed to offer keener insights than others — but we had never discussed the possibility that a psychic might be fake. We believed we knew better. I could ask my mother now how she feels about all of this, but I won’t. The irony is not lost on me: that two people preoccupied with recalling past lives don’t care to revisit the experiences they can actually remember.
In 2001, when I was thirty-one years old, I found myself looking for psychic advice once more. In desperation I flew all the way from Italy to Mount Shasta, California, because I’d read that it was a “spiritual community” where people often reported metaphysical phenomena. It also happened to be near where my mother lived, so I could swing by for a visit, and then disappear into Mount Shasta the way an ascetic disappears into a Himalayan cave.
I didn’t see angels in Mount Shasta. I came down with a terrible flu and mostly saw the four walls of the room I had rented. Several nights of migraines forced me to reexamine my priorities. I needed a psychic less than I needed a good mattress and place to live for a few months. Psychics have knowledge, but bodies possess intelligence, too.
I eventually saw an intuitive named Jennifer, who kept saying, “You are in a transition.” She had long blond hair, blue eyes, and a master’s in business administration. When I told her that I’d often consulted a psychic as a way to address conflicts in my personal life, she laughed gaily, as though I’d told a witty joke. “An intuitive reading can help someone identify a pattern of behavior,” she said. “But help someone break a pattern?” She shook her head.
On Jennifer’s advice, I hired an actual therapist. Though I did not care for it in the beginning — I found the matching of feelings to words, and words to experiences, puzzling — the therapist had kind eyes and a soft voice. And who doesn’t need softness and kindness in confusing times?
I credit talk therapy with helping me recognize and metabolize feelings, but it has done nothing to ameliorate my anger and disappointment — feelings I do not have any affinity for, though I am told they play an important role in our evolutionary design. Although I have grown to prefer stories rooted in my own experience, I don’t feel ashamed of my need to see psychics. I credit them with helping me understand that I am more than what has happened to me, both as a child and an adult.
One Sunday morning, seven months pregnant with my first daughter, I was strolling through the Fremont street fair with my husband when I impulsively plopped down in a chair across from a woman with reddish-brown hair and freckles and a deck of tarot cards. I slapped a twenty-dollar bill on her table and said, “Deal,” smiling like a seasoned poker player.
The tarot reader turned over the queen of cups and an upside-down seven of swords. “Oh,” she said, nodding at my belly. “That child you’re carrying is going to be difficult.”
I shivered and said, “Difficult?”
Seeing my furrowed brow, she put her finger on the swords card and assured me: “She will calm down after seven years, though.”
She slipped another card from the deck — the four of wands — and placed it on the table. “The conflicts between the two of you will be challenging,” she said, “but important.” Then she glanced at the customer waiting behind me. I thanked her and rejoined my husband. As we drifted through the crowd, I wondered, How difficult?
As a baby, my daughter didn’t sleep. At the age of three, she tore off her clothes in shopping malls. When she was four and I took her by the hand, she cried in public, “Where are you taking me, lady?” and a police officer asked to see my identification. Over those years I cherished the tarot reader’s words, which validated difficulties that might have otherwise enraged me. My daughter’s challenges felt meaningful, like a snippet of a gigantic story I’d somehow been entrusted with.
On a referral from a friend, I took my “difficult” daughter, age seven, to see a couple from Mongolia who traveled to Seattle once a year to teach movement practice and perform healing sessions. I was hoping they’d offer me advice about her refusal to sleep, eat, or behave. Instead they described my daughter as sensitive, stubborn, and resilient. They counseled me to understand that her uncompromising nature would prove invaluable to both her and the world in ways I could not see now.
“You, on the other hand, could use help,” they said.
Over two sessions they performed something called “body scanning.” The wife spent a long time touching my head. The sadness that arose in me at her touch felt ancient, like emotions pulled from another existence. I had a vision of our trailer from the early 1970s, the house I still thought of as home, the same house in which the molester had entered my bedroom and the psychic had told me I’d been a witch in a past life.
“Release the pain,” the wife said.
I told her I was trying, but it felt like a lie. I don’t easily release pain. I hold on to sadness like a child holds on to their stuffed animal. The wife told me that releasing our emotions around traumatic events didn’t make the events less ours. Since I did not know the difference between holding pain and remembering pain, I had to think about that for a while. If I released my emotional pain of being molested, wouldn’t the experience fade? And wouldn’t that mean a part of me would fade, too?
After the session I didn’t feel lifted out of my life, but I was lighter, as though I’d taken off wool socks and could feel the floor again.
That husband and wife are the last psychics I saw. My daughter is eighteen now, studying to be a professional dancer, and thriving. Her younger sister plays soccer. A few months ago I was driving my younger daughter and her friend to soccer practice, and when we hit Lake City Way, a long boulevard curving through northeast Seattle, we passed a house with a neon eye and PSYCHIC blaring in the window.
My daughter and her friend debated the validity of psychics. “Don’t you ever think about what happens after you die? Like, where you go?” my daughter said.
Her friend said she didn’t.
“You don’t think about what happens afterward?”
Again, the friend asserted that she did not.
Maybe my interest in psychics was as simple as that, I thought: I wanted to know what happened after I died. But that didn’t ring true. Then I realized I hadn’t been looking to intuitives and readers for answers so much now that I was a mother. Once I’d begun mothering my daughters, and myself, the urge to see psychics had disappeared.
Which is not to say I don’t believe in psychics. I do. I believe in psychics like I believe in God, or the goodness in people, or the role food can play in nurturing mental health. These are fundamental ideas I rely upon without needing evidence or continual engagement to confirm them.
If the need to see a psychic arises again, I will find another Eileen. Or she will find me. And she will deliver her message. Whether I will believe that message is up to my future self.