By Christine Wicker
“Serving spirit” in Lily Dale doesn’t mean tending bar. It means forwarding messages from departed loved ones to the living. Lily Dale, New York is different. Only Spiritualists can buy houses here. This creates solidarity but depresses property values. Residents regularly report seeing ghosts strolling “the streets dressed in Victorian era clothes.” Just about anything goes in Lily Dale, at least in the broad confines of New Age thought. Well, almost. Once the leader of the Spiritualist Assembly was shut out of the annual meeting because he’d failed to pay his dues.
Lily Dale is grounded in many good ways. “Neighbors help one another. Old people are looked after…When someone falls sick, everybody knows it and helps. Children can play outside at night. There’s no crime to speak of.” And yet, Spiritualism dissuades its members from getting involved in politics. As a result, it’s much too other-worldly for most. Maybe that’s why the sewer never works well in the town.
Are these people weird? Scary? A friend asked me when I told him I was reading this book. No, dotty’s the best word.
Spiritualism once claimed anything from hundreds of thousands to millions in the U.S. Now there are about 400 very small churches. And if you look at the people who were captivated by it (for a wide range of reasons) William James, Jung, Edison, Houdini, Conan Doyle, Cornelius Vanderbilt, Upton Sinclair—you can see it had a great cultural life. James and Jung in particular are important to Christine Wicker, who keeps coming back to their ideas about how the mind can get into many modes and how the unconscious may be the explanation for the spirits.
Spiritualism was very big, but a series of fraud scandals reduced its numbers significantly. Today, happily, most members freely acknowledge their compromised past.
You read a book like Lily Dale for weird stuff. Wicker doesn’t disappoint. In one case, a spirit who looks like a man from the Homo Erectus period manifests itself. This might answer a question I had as a kid, “Are there cavemen in Heaven?” In another bit, a spirit announces it had been “a priest, an amoeba, a virus” by way of pulling rank on a living human. At a town meeting, one practitioner argues that just because a spirit guide says something doesn’t necessarily mean it’s profound. He admits that his guide often visits him while he’s on the toilet and once offered this advice: “Flush.” Another local goes to the doctor for a mental ailment. The doc asks him if he hears voices. He says,”Doc, where I live, I’m the only one who doesn’t.” You come in for weird and you get funny in the bargain.
While reading, I kept noticing the many similarities between Spiritualism and Shamanism. “Almost all the mediums suffered with chronic illnesses before taking up their gifts,” says the author. One medium writhes on the floor and hisses like a snake. Several locals encounter the spirit of an Andalusian stallion. A medium says no one needs to feel lonely because spirits are all around us. What may seem odd to modern Americans has been going on, more or less, since the Paleolithic Era. Everything old is new again. Wicker seems unaware of this. It would have added much depth to the book if she had been.
Christine Wicker is the former religion reporter for the Dallas Morning News. She keeps her feet firmly planted throughout her stay in the Dale. She allows herself reveries and gets transported several times. But she always comes back to a middle ground of skepticism mixed with openness and appreciation. She finds all kinds of inside dope, such as the fact that many mediums don’t allow their sessions taped because they’re afraid that false predictions may be used against them. Reach for the stars, but tether your camel. Wicker concludes that religion says that “people will be transformed into new beings. They aren’t. And faith sails right on.” This seems largely true. Harkening back to James and Jung, she asks, Can we know where the mind leaves off and the sprits start? No, says Wicker. She ends up in a space between belief and unbelief. I think this is a sensible choice. Many spend their lives there.
After all are said and done, people keep coming to the Dale. Most just want their fortunes told. They aren’t interested in talking to the dead. Lily Dale is highly readable, and very engrossing. Wise, witty and almost always well-informed, I recommend it to all on this side of the dark-or light-veil.