Lost in Summerland
At the world’s largest gathering of psychics and mediums, two brothers confront a painful secret.
As best we can tell, the hauntings began after Andy’s traumatic brain injury. On Christmas Eve 2005, outside a scuzzy bar on the east side of Milwaukee, a drunk man sucker-punched my elder brother, bashing his head against the wall of a brick alcove and leaving him splayed on the snow-confected sidewalk, unconscious with seven brain contusions. For several days, my family sat vigil around Andy’s bed in the ICU, whispering prayers into clasped palms, wincing at the doctors’ ambiguous status updates. At first the prognosis was fatal. So extensive was the bleeding, the hospital felt sure it was only a matter of time before Andy slipped irrevocably into a coma. But he woke fortuitously on the morning of the 30th, wide-eyed and cogent, requesting, of all things, a meal from Boston Market.
After a nine-month-long odyssey of dizzy spells and aphasic episodes, my brother, then 22, regained most of his memory and, as we liked to joke, the better parts of his personality. He bought his own apartment and finished a bachelor’s degree, got married and took a corporate sales position. But something strange started to happen over the next couple of years. At night he heard creaky footsteps in the hallway and stray voices in the closet. Initially, we feared the worst and believed the head injury had jostled his brain into psychosis—a grim but not altogether unreasonable conclusion. Eventually, my dad flew out from Milwaukee to visit Andy at his new home in Houston, and when he arrived, he found my brother sitting meditatively cross-legged on the kitchen floor, with the lights of the chandelier above him flickering of their own accord. Without even the most cursory acknowledgment of my father’s arrival, Andy said, with a kind of holy calm, “There’s someone in the room with us.”
In time my brother began to insist that he could speak to the dead and receive dispatches from the spiritual realm. Whenever I visited him on the West Coast, where he had eventually taken a job in the tech industry, his friends would pull me aside at bars to confide that Andy had “summoned” their dead relatives, battering me with questions about what it was like to grow up with him. Most of my family grew convinced of his paranormal talents. (Bear in mind that up until that point my parents had been lapsed Catholics and flinty-eyed midwesterners, with little tolerance for the supernatural.) My father once gawked at water glasses that slid across the breakfast island—presumably the work of spirits—while Andy stood transfixed at the kitchen’s threshold. When my grandmother passed away, my sister-in-law reported seeing a green orb floating over Andy’s bedside, and upon shaking him awake, they both watched, dumbfounded, as the glinting emerald sphere drifted toward the ceiling and vanished. “Your brother,” my mother once said to me, in a solemn whisper, “has powers.” Things reached some sort of apogee when Andy said he was stopped for a traffic violation and, just as the cop began scribbling a ticket, he channeled the ghost of the officer’s mother, who had recently died from congestive heart failure. The cop let Andy off with a warning.
Naturally, I tended to regard these stories with smirks and sidelong glances. Andy, who is three years older than me, has long had a weakness for showmanship—his coworkers nicknamed him the Bull for his ability to B.S. his way through corporate presentations—and to those who know him well, it wouldn’t be inaccurate to suggest that he has coasted through life on the wind of his own charisma. I have seen him make barrooms come to life with karaoke renditions of “November Rain.” I have seen him dicker with car salesmen, performing such adroit campaigns of ingratiation that he invariably rolls out of the lot in a vehicle for which he has paid several thousand dollars below sticker. I once joined, very briefly, a rave at a club in Milwaukee, a victim of my brother’s coaxing. And so it was precisely this capacity for stagecraft and sweet talk that made me doubtful of—and amused by—his claims of paranormal élan.
But soon these “visitations,” as Andy likes to call them, began happening with a fervor and frequency that made his wife scared. Whenever he went on business trips to places like Amsterdam or Beijing, she’d receive odd transcontinental phone calls during the wee hours, with Andy sounding rattled and nonplussed, muttering darkly about spirits in the bathroom or unattributed thudding on the hotel room walls. Hoping to leaven the issue when I learned of it, I waggishly ventured that perhaps the noises were merely the clamor of some netherworldly tryst, lost souls reuniting in the honeymoon suite. But he dodged my attempt at humor and said, with absolutely zero irony, “You know, you might be right about that.”
I worry my tone will seem to gainsay what I mentioned before about maintaining a dose of utmost skepticism. But if you could only hear the earnestness of my brother’s testimony, then you too might entertain a squirm of doubt. You too might suspend your disbelief. Could it be that my brother, by fluke of grievous brain injury, had somehow become a maître d’ to the underworld, summoning wraiths to ease suffering and evade misdemeanor tickets? Was he some kind of a modern-day Charon, straddling the river between the living and the dead?
In the spring of 2018, he called out of the blue and asked whether I’d ever heard of a place called Lily Dale, a quaint hamlet an hour south of Buffalo, New York. It is home to about 275 residents, many of them registered psychics and mediums. Each summer, some 22,000 tourists descend upon the town for séances and drum circles, hoping to reunite with departed loved ones. “Imagine Wet Hot American Summer,” Andy said. “But with dead people.”
Initially, I begged off, claiming a busy summer of yard work and university teaching. “Oh, come on. It could be a bros’ trip,” he said. “Plus, you could watch me do my thing. By the end of the week, I guarantee you won’t think I’m full of shit.”
“I don’t think you’re full of shit,” I said.
A silence came over the line. Truth be told, I sensed that his bluster was Andy’s cover, that perhaps he was trekking to Lily Dale because he’d grown frightened by what was happening to him and was now desperate for an explanation.
Cursory groundwork on the Internet would later yield several reports of marquee figures who’d be heading to the camp that summer. There was the feral-eyed Michelle Whitedove, a fifty-something “angelic channeler” and “forensic medium” with a mane of autumn-colored hair, a woman who had been named America’s Number One Psychic by a reality TV show in 2007. On YouTube, I found a clip of the show, called America’s Psychic Challenge, in which Whitedove roams a ten-acre swath of desert and divines the exact location of a man buried six feet underground with a small tank of oxygen. Also in attendance would be Reverend Anne Gehman, a pearl-wearing, lid-fluttering medium who taught classes on bending spoons and whose clairvoyant abilities had allegedly helped investigators catch the serial killer Ted Bundy.
“Well, what do you think?” Andy said. “Do you want to come with me?”
Over the next few months, whenever I mentioned my impending trip to “Silly Dale,” as online wags have rechristened it, colleagues at various universities would barrage me with paranormal tales. In the interest of leaving their reputations unbesmirched, I will refrain from uttering their names in print, but rest assured: These were highly credentialed members of their fields. In hushed tones, they told of dalliances with clairvoyance, about sourceless bumps in the night. One colleague, a poetry professor, regularly consulted psychics and mediums; another put her faith in the portents of Tarot card readings. All this seemed of a piece with the broader resurgence of heterodox traditions, for in the days leading up to our trip, it seemed like I couldn’t hop on the Internet without stumbling across stories about millennials turning to astrology, or CEOs embracing eastern religions, or covens of young witches casting spells in New York City. Even the renewed interest in psychedelics—see Michael Pollan’s How to Change Your Mind or Tao Lin’s Trip—felt like a quest to open up the doors of perception.
It’s telling that Spiritualism, the creed of Lily Dale, was born in the middle of the 19th century, a time when many Americans were suffering, in real ways, from a welter of epistemological disruptions—the Civil War and Darwinian theory, the death of God and the birth of capitalism. Spiritualism’s nativity scene took place in upstate New York in the 1840s, when a trio of adolescent sisters—Leah, Kate, and Margaret Fox—reportedly heard mysterious rappings on the walls of their parents’ house. Once news spread of their ethereal activities, the Fox sisters launched a whirlwind tour of New England and the Midwest, holding séances in town halls and hotel parlors, drawing audiences of all classes and backgrounds. What emerged over the next four years was a national craze for paranormal communication, with spirit circles—clubs for channeling the dead—forming in almost every city that the girls had visited. One newspaperman in Cincinnati claimed that some 1,200 local mediums came out of the woodwork in the wake of the Fox sisters’ performance.
The notion that spirits could intervene in worldly affairs was, of course, not new, but there had never been a formal religion based exclusively on the premise that humans could receive communiqués from the dead, particularly their dead loved ones. While the movement’s various sects quibbled over doctrinal differences, Spiritualists were united in the belief that a brigade of so-called spirit guides helped each individual find their way toward Summerland, a term that eventually became the religion’s sobriquet for heaven. And while we might expect modern science to have rinsed such thinking from the American imagination, the movement remained surprisingly durable, as evidenced by the political tumult of the 1960s—another period of narrative breakdown—when many people turned to New Ageism for balmy existential comfort.
Once again the center was not holding. By 2018, the country lacked a workable epistemology, and even our most cherished pieties were wobbling or already lay in smithereens. I’m not sure how many examples I should provide. Need I mention that The New York Times was running page-one stories about the existence of UFOs? Would it suffice to say that scientists were alleging, in peer-reviewed journals, that octopuses were aliens, that reality was nothing more than a pixelated shell game? Meanwhile, our nuclear codes were in the hands of a buffoonish real estate mogul, and millions of Americans had fallen under the sway of fake news and conspiracy theories. Perhaps this was why members of the commentariat began sounding the death knell, contending that, with the 2016 election, America had at last fulfilled John Adams’s 1814 disclaimer about the fate of any democracy. “It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself,” he wrote in a letter. “There never was a democracy yet, that did not commit suicide.”
It seemed that we had passed on to some bleak, dusky afterlife, a mist-swarmed purgatory of facts and alternative facts out of which emerged such fearsome ghouls as InfoWars, Stephen Miller, and Space Force. Given that our lives had essentially become posthumous, could you really blame me for wondering if my brother could summon ghosts?
The route to Lily Dale wended through a swath of upstate New York that once served as the fertile crescent of American utopian thinking—John Humphrey Noyes’s Oneida community, Frederick Douglass’s abolitionist newspaper—and yet the scenery itself was hardly so auspicious. Much of this area was waylaid by the 2008 recession, and husks of mills and factories still dotted the wearisome landscape. As Andy and I drove, we glimpsed remnants of the old Bethlehem Steel plant, and the Concord grape vineyards south of Buffalo looked like a postapocalyptic Napa Valley. So godforsaken was this neck of the country that Donald Trump, in the waning days of the 2016 election, had condemned it, not unfairly, as “a death zone.”
Hunched at the wheel, I snuck glances at my brother, whose face was sallow and draggy with fatigue. Most days he resembles a bald and musclebound Elijah Wood, but his flight the previous night was delayed by several hours, so both of us were running on no sleep and looked a bit like revenants.
“Here are just a few of the workshops on deck this summer,” Andy said, thumbing his smartphone and scanning the agenda from the Lily Dale website. “There’s ‘Fairyology: Finding Fairies 101.’ There’s ‘Orb Phenom—Orbs Are Among Us!’ Or we could check out ‘Getting to Know Your Spirit Guides.’ Plus, there’s a drum circle on Friday, and a séance tomorrow night.”
“You sure you’re up for this?” I asked.
“Yeah, man,” he said. “Let’s get weird.”
Mercifully, things brightened as we veered toward our destination. A sign read “Lily Dale 1 Mile Ahead.” We flew past three lakes rimmed with cottages, and when the clouds parted, the sky unleashed a bucolic, life-affirming blue. Nevertheless, I felt a burgeoning unease about our whole larkish adventure. Not only was this the first trip I’d ever taken with my brother, but I also wasn’t sure if I was prepared—emotionally, spiritually—for the week ahead. What if our cavortings with mediums caused Andy to have a psychotic break and I had to commit him to some remote upstate hospital? There were historical precedents for such crack-ups. In 1852, some 90 individuals from around the country were said to lose their minds and enter asylums after partaking in spirit rappings. Or what if I discovered that Andy had been lying about his abilities and this effected some irrevocable schism in our relationship, sundering our bond for all time? Then there was the possibility that he’d prove himself a bona fide medium, which would mean what, exactly, I had no idea. Yet for reasons I struggle to explain, I secretly hoped that my brother was the real deal, that he’d prove me wrong by the end of our voyage. Something lodged deep in our past—a moment long banished and left unspoken—seemed crucially to depend on it.
At the end of a secluded road, Lily Dale came into view.
“Look at my forearms,” Andy said. His skin was brailled with goosebumps. “The energy here is ridiculous.”
Threading through a warren of elm-studded streets lined with pastel Victorians, we saw a battalion of stone angels guarding the porch of one gothic-looking home, and a couple of blocks later, a bay window had been plastered campily with a decal of a cartoon ghost. Was it possible that I heard, from somewhere far off, a group of people singing Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind”? Soon we passed a hillock near the main auditorium where a scrum of aging tourists was performing the languorous waltz of tai chi. Near the pet cemetery, we made a wrong turn and had to swerve past an open field, which was already filling up with tents and RVs. My first thought was that Lily Dale looked like an old-fashioned summer camp, except that instead of trust falls and archery class, there were astrology walks and confabs with ghosts.
When it was our turn at the parking gate, the attendant met our eyes, then pressed his fingers to his temples, as though receiving a radio dispatch via dental fillings. “Welcome, welcome,” he said with an impish grin. “We’ve been expecting you two.”
Our first day on the grounds was a derby of occult activities. After meditating in something called the Healing Temple, we met a septuagenarian Reiki instructor named Pilar who had tufts of peacock feathers superglued to her spectacles. She called them her “eyeglashes” and explained that she was slowly transforming into a blackbird. On the patio of a coffee shop, Andy befriended an affable blond man named Jayson, who professed to be a medium in training from Brooklyn and whose first coup as a psychic came when he divined the future spouse for one of his clients. (The couple’s subsequent gratitude was noted in the Vows section of The New York Times.) He and Andy hit it off by making fun of my skepticism—God, he’s so emotionally closed off, isn’t he?—at which point Jayson scrolled through his phone, showing me grainy nocturnal photos of Lily Dale’s enchanted Leolyn Woods, an apparent hot spot for nymphs and orbs.
“OK, so these you could argue are bugs or whatever. But this,” he said, pointing to the relevant photo, in which a cricket was frozen wing-spread in the flash of a smartphone camera. “I mean, come on. That’s a fucking fairy.”
Throughout the day, people kept sharing their photos. A gray-haired pilgrim named Susan accosted us on a veranda. “Can I show you guys something?” she asked. Before we could answer, she riffled through her purse and unearthed a dozen photos, each of which she laid on the surface of a wicker end table. “I have a lot of activity in my house,” she said. One image showed a mishmash of Scrabble letters in which I slowly perceived the relevant message. “MOTHER LOVES SUSAN,” it said, “WHO IS MY DAUGHTER.”
“Automatic Drawing with Miss Bonnie” took place in the Octagon Building, not far from the Lily Dale museum. After a short prayer and some guided breathing, we were paired off and asked to close our eyes before “surrendering to spirit.” From across the room, I watched Andy blindly sketch a tableau of what looked, frankly, like a thicket of penises, which I was worried would offend his partner, a medium in training from Pennsylvania. When time was up, Andy relayed his message. “I know it’s strange,” he said, “but I keep seeing the name ‘Tom’ among all these phallic symbols.”
The woman gasped. “Tom is my husband’s name,” she said. “And that’s just his issue. I’m going through menopause right now, so let’s just say that he’s been frustrated with certain aspects of our marriage.” I watched as she and Andy erupted with guffaws, whereupon Andy turned to me and raised his eyebrows, simpering triumphantly. Yet it was hard for me to take this as ironclad evidence. Show anyone a hodgepodge of random images, and if they’ve thrown off the tethers of logic and good judgment, doubtless they’ll be able to conjure associations to their own interpersonal dilemmas. Still, that Andy had intuited the husband’s name did leave me somewhat dazzled.
Things on my side of the classroom were hardly so jovial. I was partnered with a rawboned blond woman named Ashley who looked to be in her late thirties and who had come to Lily Dale with her parents. Gravel-voiced and sullen, she worked full-time in a Walgreens warehouse, and while there was an Amazon distribution center down the road, it was hard to land a gig there. So far at Lily Dale, the messages she’d received “from spirit” had been spot-on and uplifting—exhortations to stop stressing. I asked what sorts of things she fretted about.
“Sometimes I wish I had gone to college and actually done something with my life,” Ashley said. “The problem was, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. So I never ended up doing anything.”
In the face of her weary candor, I couldn’t seem to muster the journalistic moxie needed to ask a follow-up question. But what I would discover in the coming days was that Ashley’s story chimed with many testimonies of the Lily Dale pilgrims. Hailing from beleaguered rural towns across New England and the Midwest, they were suffering from all manner of emotional or financial disaster and were desperate for a more hopeful story—that their lives were being guided by cadres of benevolent spirits, that though present circumstances were bleak, they shouldn’t give up the ghost.
That evening at the Maplewood Hotel, I unpacked my suitcase while Andy lounged on his bed, swiping languidly at his smartphone. Between responding to what appeared to be a deluge of work emails, he told me, with a baffling nonchalance, that he’d been having a recurring vision of a kidnapped midwestern girl whose face had colonized network news that summer. He was vague about what exactly these visions entailed, though the images he disclosed were not especially promising (cornfield, head injury). Then, without prompting, he said, “Whenever you travel, it’s always important to unpack. That’s what makes it feel like home.”
I wasn’t quite sure how to respond to any of this—the visions, the unsolicited travel advice—and so our conversation was full of awkward lapses and long moments of silence.
Not since childhood had Andy and I shared such close quarters, and even then, the propinquity usually resulted in a verbal skirmish or an all-out fracas. I suppose our relationship in those days could be best described as Cain and Abel–ish. This was owing, more than anything else, to our wildly divergent temperaments. Whereas he spent most nights hunkered in the basement and pummeling a Stratocaster, I would toil under the glow of a desk lamp, trying to make honor roll for another semester. Whereas he wore earrings and a leather jacket, I jogged across town in ankle weights, hoping to make varsity as a freshman. Our mother often explained the variance in our personalities this way: “Aren’t genes amazing?”
Still, as adults, we somehow managed to construct a passable relationship as brothers, even if, at times, it could feel performative and falsely nostalgic. For instance, whenever our family got together for birthdays or Christmas celebrations, a preening one-upmanship tended to infuse our interactions such that, within minutes of him picking me up from the airport, we’d be quoting lines from old movies, doing our bad Al Pacino impressions, or making fun of each other’s hairlines, all of it delivered with the snappy banter of brothers on a network sitcom. Rarely did we spend much time alone, however. And while we had joked over the years about his psychic abilities, we had never once hazarded an earnest discussion about them.
Which was why it was so unsettling to find ourselves inside the cramped precinct of our hotel room, brushing our teeth or changing clothes only a few feet away from each other. Almost by reflex, I found myself curious about his habits of being—his shaving techniques, his pre-bed calisthenics—rather the same way I would creep into his room as a child to marvel at his possessions. I’d flip through his CDs—Nine Inch Nails, Spiritualized—or try on his flannels, occasionally summoning the courage to pluck out a few notes on his Fender. And so, even though I was a man in his thirties—a husband, a university professor—I somehow found myself becoming again my brother’s little brother.
Perhaps this was why I found it so gratifying that the merry denizens of Lily Dale kept referring to us as a unit. As we shuffled from one psychic appointment to another, or traversed campus on our way to a séance, they’d bellow at us from across the road, “Hey, hey, it’s the brothers!” One medium traipsed over while Andy and I were eating dinner at a picnic table and said, “Well, are we making any progress with this guy?” I assumed he was referring to my glacial incredulity, and I was curious to hear what my brother might say. “I think he’s weakening,” Andy said. “But I’m not sure he buys it.”
“Bah,” the medium said, waving his hand at me, like a Dickens character. Then he slapped Andy’s back with affectionate gusto and stomped off toward the Healing Temple. We chewed for some time in silence. Then Andy gave me a styptic look. “I know you think this place is nutty,” he said.
I reminded him that we’d just seen a man barf up jewels that he claimed were relics from the spirit world. This was at a demonstration of something called “apportations,” in which a medium will brusquely produce supernatural objects through a transdimensional portico (in this case, his mouth).
“It’s just, I was really hoping to get some answers here,” Andy said. He explained that his wife had become increasingly worried about him. Before he left for Lily Dale, there’d been a scene. They feuded in the car outside the airport, with finger-pointing and furrowed brows. Perhaps she doubted him, called him crazy, something like that. His prognostications had grown darker over the years, more unsettling, and she didn’t want to believe what he had to say.
“Things have gotten pretty grim, so I know that she wants me to get it under control,” he said.
In the mid-19th century, Spiritualism’s earliest practitioners were inclined to believe that technological advances like electrical wires could be divine portals to the spiritual realm. It was for this reason that Benjamin Franklin became the movement’s patron saint and that its flagship periodical was dubbed The Spiritual Telegraph. One early adherent believed that electricity was “the vehicle of divine mentality,” which could be harnessed to communicate with “all parts and particles of the universe.” At a distance of two centuries, it’s easy to malign these Americans for their naiveté, but we must remember that, within the span of two decades, they’d gone from waiting months to get a letter in the mail to somehow receiving a cross-country dispatch by telegraph within minutes. From there it was only a short leap of logic before supposing you could commune with ghosts.
Part of me wondered whether my brother’s job in the tech industry had made him susceptible to precisely this delusion. An evangelist for cloud software, he had decked out his house over the years with a whole flotilla of smart technologies: thermostats that respond to voice commands, a refrigerator that alerts him whenever the eggs are running low. Even Amazon’s Alexa had become a frequent interlocutor at family dinners, telling knock-knock jokes to his children or dispensing Jeopardy-grade trivia to him and his wife. To be ensconced in such an environment—one so seamlessly attuned to your whims and predilections—perhaps it was only a matter of time before you regarded yourself as similarly omniscient.
The reigning consensus at Lily Dale, however, suggested otherwise, because virtually all the mediums to whom I spoke insisted that my brother’s premonitions were likely caused by a cerebral hemorrhage. “That or a high fever can trigger it,” said fifth-generation Spiritualist Gretchen Clark. Lauren Thibodeau, a Lily Dale medium with a PhD in psychology, explained that it’s not uncommon with near-death experiences. “Depending on the study,” she said, “you find that between three-quarters to 100 percent of people who almost died will tell you that they became psychic, they became healers, they became mediumistic.”
This supposition is more or less in keeping with the findings of Diane Hennacy Powell, a neuroscientist trained at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. Powell has written a book called The ESP Enigma: The Scientific Case for Psychic Phenomena, which I brought with me to Lily Dale and had been reading surreptitiously whenever Andy went on jogs or bedded down for the evening. Though derided by critics as wholesale bunkum, the book is interesting in places, particularly when it conjectures a direct correlation between brain trauma and clairvoyant prowess. While some mediums are genetically predisposed to their gifts, Powell has said, “There are also cases where people haven’t had psychic abilities until they’ve suffered head traumas. What’s common is that these people who’ve had this head trauma, the structure and function of their brain has changed.”
Ordinarily, I would not be willing to lend these theories much credence. After all, as a dutiful child of poststructuralism, I’m well aware that science suffers from a dastardly case of confirmation bias, and one needn’t wander far to locate rigged experiments or cherry-picked data. But it turns out that modern researchers can replicate the results of parapsychological studies—those that supposedly prove the existence of clairvoyance and telepathy. Shortly before our trip to Lily Dale, I had dredged up an article from American Psychologist by Lund University professor Etzel Cardeña, who suggests that the most cogent and persuasive explanations for these phenomena involve fringe physics and quantum entanglement, which conceive of objects not as isolated and entropic but threaded together in a vast tapestry, where every movement is connected via gorgeously reticulated spindles, even across time and space. It gets weirder. Calling upon the research of Princeton physics philosopher Hans Halvorson, Cardeña has suggested that this “superentanglement” explains why an individual can sense, even across great distances, the abrupt death of a loved one. It was this theory, in particular, that I kept returning to in the days and weeks that followed. Was it possible that family members could be quantumly entangled?
About a year before our trip to Lily Dale, in the midst of an unremitting depression, I began to contemplate suicide. I will resist the sentimentality of describing the causes. Enough to say that I had been plagued by a neurochemical glitch since childhood, and some periods of my life were worse than others. I had tried everything: Prozac and CrossFit, yoga and therapy. Routine occurrences prickled my thoughts like wind against a burn scar, and most days were less endured than climbed. For the first time in two decades, I found myself down on my knees, my hands threaded in unstudied prayer, whispering pleas and apologies to the God-shaped hole in my mind. I told no one—not even my wife—of my plans, that the escape offered by leather belts and ceiling beams had begun to strike me as inordinately appealing.
Then I awoke one morning to a voice mail from my mom, telling me to call as soon as I got up. Naturally, I worried that someone had died, that our family had been visited by yet another disaster. But it turned out that Andy had called her in the middle of the night, terrified and inconsolable. There were tears in his voice. Out on the West Coast, he’d been barhopping with friends when he got the most unnerving presentiment.
“What did he say?” I asked.
“He—” my mom started, her voice wounded with concern. “Oh,” she said. “He just drank too much. I’ll tell him you’re fine, honey.”
On our second afternoon at Lily Dale, Andy and I wandered to the Forest Temple for one of two daily “message” services. It featured a round-robin of seven or eight mediums standing at the front of an outdoor amphitheater and haphazardly beckoning spirits. We sat below a sun-dappled canopy of hemlock and elm, amid roughly 200 other tourists, and watched as, one by one, the mediums did their thing.
Like all niche communities, the Spiritualists at Lily Dale have evolved their own extensive lingua franca, rife with daffy euphemisms for the brute facts of life, the most representative of which are their various phrases for death. These include “passing over,” “in spirit,” “going from the earth plane,” and “departing for Summerland.” So much of the ethereal argot is gooey and granola crunching, but at times its poetics attain a distinctly erotic mood, especially when a medium approaches a member of the audience and asks, “May I come to you?” Other idiomatic expressions amplify the carnal entendres with shades of penetration. “May I step into your vibrations?” or “May I touch in with you, my friend?”
This consent seeking seems proper. After all, the communiqués can get fairly intense. Toward the end of the service we attended, one of the mediums brought forth a message for a shaggy-haired twentysomething named Bobby, who was sitting in the back pews with his friends, a cluster of raffish-looking bohemians. The medium described the spirit of a gaunt, pallid man who’d been pacing across his apartment in the moments before he died and over whom “a river of tears had been shed.” After the service, Andy caught up with Bobby and asked whether the medium’s description had meant something to him.
“Yeah, man, that’s my cousin, who OD’d on heroin,” Bobby said. “The last couple days, he’s been following me around.”
That evening we met up with Bobby and his friends under the gazebo of Lily Dale’s dock, which jutted into the moon-glazed shallows of Cassadaga Lake and offered us shelter from a pinprick drizzle. Soon cans of Budweiser were slugged and packs of American Spirits were torn open. There were seven friends altogether, gregarious and in their early twenties, wearing hemp fibers and various configurations of tie-dye. One got the sense that their Birkenstocks had treaded the grounds of many outdoor music festivals. Each introduced themselves with a fun fact and their astrological sign, as was their special custom whenever meeting new people. Bobby was a Taurus who was slogging through a master’s degree, penning a thesis on agricultural-reform movements in postcolonial West Africa. His girlfriend, Erica, was a grad student with a pixie haircut whose fun fact was that she was a rabid fan of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. But the obvious ringleader of the group was Mekenna, a big-eyed, fast-talking hairstylist with a Harry Potter tattoo. A Pisces, naturally, she said, and everyone laughed.
It turned out that Mekenna and her cousin Meredith came from seven generations of Spiritualists, and their distant ancestors helped found Lily Dale at the crack of the 20th century. They grew up coming here every summer, studying the Fox sisters and playing tag among the crystal-clutching tourists who thronged the streets from June to August. Mekenna’s grandmother is a longtime Lily Dale resident, and her mom is a practicing medium in Milwaukee. For a moment, I tried to imagine a childhood where your parents routinely nattered with spirits—where nightly prayers might involve the ectoplasmic manifestation of your dead grandpa. Reckoning with such phenomena as a digital native must have been a trip. Consider the impulse to post about family séances as a sullen, irascible teen: FML, Mom is channeling grandpa again. He says I’m too boy-crazy for my age. LOLZ. But growing up, Mekenna and Meredith tried to keep the theology under wraps. Turned out their peers weren’t exactly accepting. Often recess featured a hail of vicious schoolyard epithets: Demon! Satanist!
Of course, now that nearly every strain of American occultism had experienced a sudden renascence, the group didn’t much witness this kind of opprobrium anymore. If anything, they said, there’d been a growing consumer market for all things esoteric: jade stones for Kegel exercises, crystals for off-kilter chakras. Even a mainstream lifestyle brand like Goop could get rich by peddling New Age curios. It was enough for me to wonder why occultism had come into vogue again.
“Look at what’s going on in the planetary alignment,” Meredith said. “That would help explain things. The outer planets are generational, so when we think about big movements or certain decades as having unique characteristics, it’s probably because Pluto was in Libra then.” Pluto in Libra turns out to be a quintessential astrological formation among stargazers, who believe it to be responsible for the upswell of divorce throughout the 1970s.
Despite whatever coldhearted materialism I professed to endorse before our trip, I nevertheless found myself enthralled by a worldview that could so neatly explain massive social disruptions. Part of me worried that the group would think I was baiting them, but I asked anyway: “So why is Trump happening?”
The gazebo resounded with their collective groans. But Meredith had an answer at the ready: “So, last year’s solar eclipse lined up with his chart exactly, in countless ways.”
“But astrology is not determinist, so it didn’t make Trump happen,” Bobby cut in. “There’s plenty of socio-political underpinnings to our societal problems.” Unlike Meredith, who had been raised in the cradle of Spiritualism, Bobby became interested in this theology as an adult, and I got the sense that he was worried I might see them as witless yahoos, clutching maladaptively to backward explanations.
Again Meredith countered, looking toward the stars. “You can do charts of countries or events—anything that has a time and place—and the birth chart of America is, like, very, very Cancer,” she said. “So why is the United States so concerned about defense? Why are we about protecting the homeland?”
“Well,” Bobby said, “whomever we elect is a symptom of a larger disease—that being our economic system of capitalistic exploitation. Obama was a symptom of this larger disease as well. He came at his particular time and his particular place. And we didn’t get a whole lot different from Obama.” He quickly sketched the last decade of geopolitical woes—Syria, Libya, Turkey—before eventually concluding with syllogistic finality: “So all of this is part of a larger disease that exists in the United States.”
“But that’s been going on way before Obama,” Meredith said.
“Oh yeah,” he said. “That’s how we’ve been operating since this country’s inception.”
“Obama’s a Leo,” Mekenna said, “in case anybody’s curious.”
As the evening unraveled and the lake boiled with rain, our talk shifted, and the group became curious about the origins of my brother’s mediumship. “I would hear stuff,” Andy said. “And I would be like, I’m going fucking insane. I’m losing my mind.” A few years ago, when his wife’s uncle died, freakish things started happening in their house. Furniture would move. They were lying in bed one night when a picture frame skated across the dresser. “Every time we fought, something would intervene,” Andy said. “We would walk into a room screaming at each other—two Scorpios, right?—and the lights would start flickering, or the volume on the TV would go wildly up and down.” One night he woke up and saw the apparition of his wife’s uncle loitering in the bedroom’s corner.
“I didn’t understand any of it. I didn’t know what the fuck was going on,” he said. “But eventually I got to a point where I was like: I get it. And I could start hearing the messages. I would pray, and I would actually hear responses.”
I had heard bits and pieces of this story before, but always in the elusive, half-joking manner in which Andy tended to relay them. To hear him speak so earnestly now was a little unnerving, and I glanced at the kids to see whether they might roll their eyes or snicker at him. But they never did.
He started transmitting dispatches from his wife’s dead relatives, which was difficult, he said, because they were Dutch and only spoke broken English. (At this point, my skepticism flared—what, they can break through the time-space continuum but have no access to Google Translate?) He began doing readings for his wife, predicting that certain events would happen on a given timeline, and to her astonishment, they consistently panned out. Soon she was dragging friends home on girls night—“when they were all hammered at two o’clock in the morning”—so he could do readings for them, too. Sometimes he’d find himself wandering out of the house and driving to the grocery store for no apparent reason. It wasn’t until he saw a particular shopper that he’d realize why he was there: “I’d be walking the aisles and find myself saying, ‘Is your name Mandy?’ And I’d be like, ‘Uh, your mom’s here.’”
“That’s some Long Island Medium shit,” Mekenna said.
Andy turned to me and, seeming to register my skepticism, remarked, “Barrett thinks I’m full of shit, because he’s never seen it before.”
“Analytical Aquarius,” a girl named Fargus said, rather wearily.
“All weekend, I think he’s been googling ‘How to test your psychic brother,’” Andy said.
I felt, for the first time, somewhat ashamed of my hidebound incredulity, perhaps because I was newly aware of how desperately my brother needed this story—an Iliad in which his injury wasn’t random misfortune but a godsend that endowed him with spiritual purpose. Perhaps this was related to the wider cultural appeal of a worldview like astrology. After all, at least some of these millennials were professing to read our worldly turmoil by the stars, which offered the tantalizing prospect that if I could understand such celestial oscillations, then maybe I could rest assured in knowing that Saturn would soon be in retrograde, that Trump would be ousted, that words like truth and facts might one day mean something again. Given the grief we’ve endured at the hands of this administration, to say nothing of the head-swiveling instability caused by our most recent recession, one could be forgiven for pursuing such a totalizing narrative, with the reassuring plot twists of conflict, climax, and feel-good denouement. What united my brother and these kids was that they were looking for a benign, large-hearted way of being in the world, a story that could cleanly explain what was happening and why, and I couldn’t help admiring the sheer blamelessness of that.
As the rain slowed to a drizzle, we headed back to the encampment, where the air was flavored with bonfires and lights were still glowing in the Maplewood Hotel. Perhaps a séance or two was yet underway? Our farewell was full of hugs and promises to hang out tomorrow. Maybe it was owing to the day’s marathon of activities, but I found myself weirdly enamored of these Spiritualist kids, who were now somewhat adorably counseling my brother on finding a New Age community. Mekenna offered to put Andy in touch with her mom. Fargus and Meredith were confident that there were Spiritualist churches in California. But Andy confessed that he was scared to come out publicly as a medium. “The energy here is really safe,” he said. “But back home I’m just a freak at 2 a.m. for drunk friends who want to talk to dead relatives.”
The next morning, I woke at dawn to tunnels of sunshine blaring through the window. Songbirds chirped metallically in the trees. My sleep had been scanty and thin, not only because of Andy’s prodigious snoring, which resembled the flatulent-sounding horn of a sea freighter, but also because our accommodations were decidedly rustic. Our narrow room boasted two twin beds, each monastically appointed with scratchy blankets and crick-inducing pillows. Indeed, the bedding seemed to have been last updated during the Reagan administration.
Likely, part of my sleeplessness could be attributed to our upcoming class with Reverend Mychael Shane, a medium who offered an eight-hour(!) workshop on enhancing your mediumistic skills. If ever there were a test that could prove my brother’s claims, this would be it, which was why I hurried us across campus, admonishing Andy, who was still dripping from a brisk shower, as we veered toward the Assembly Hall.
Soon we made our way toward the rostrum, over which a large stained-glass window read “Church of the Living Spirit.” There sat Reverend Shane, a beefy heap of a man with wisps of silver hair and soft, bearish eyes, wearing a lavender polo and ecru slacks. Sitting in a horseshoe of folding chairs around him were our fellow classmates. There were Mark and Allen, a couple from a Spiritualist church in Florida; Karen, a local medium who served in the Healing Temple; Reverend Jane, an “international medium” with feathered bangs and disco-era makeup; and Margaret, a self-avowed “Mychael Shane groupie.” Over the subsequent eight hours, we were offered a whirlwind tour of physical mediumship, including things like apportations and “trance channelings.”
During introductions, Andy told the group the story about his brain injury, at which point Shane launched into a personalized sermon.
“You know, there’s nothing wrong with you,” he said.
Andy laughed. “Can I get that in writing, please?”
“I’m really trying to be serious here, OK?” Shane said, noticeably peeved. “There’s really nothing wrong with you. Who has a right to say even that there is? Who can say that you have a problem or something’s not working right? Maybe you’re thinking, Why did these things happen to me? Only you are gonna find out the answer. Luckily, you have the support of your family. I mean, your brother is sitting right there.”
Andy looked at me. The rest of the group looked at me. I gave a little sheepish wave. Suddenly, I felt like some scurrilous gate-crasher, here only to poke fun at some downtrodden individuals, my own brother among them. Soon I had a memory of Andy splayed on his hospital cot, his forehead gashed and bleeding, a nest of IV tubes snarling up his arms.
Then, almost as an afterthought, Shane advised Andy to invest in PepsiCo and Aflac.
My brother turned to me, his eyes throttle-popped and spooked. Later he would tell me that he’d just closed deals with both of those companies.
“You’re always going to appear off to others,” Shane continued. “That’s never going to change, but that’s OK. Because you are a divine, beautiful entity that has purpose and is necessary and needed in this world.”
The next segment of class involved billet readings. Shane explained that, one by one, each of us would come to the front and have silver dollars duct-taped over our eyes, which would then be covered by an eye mask and a bandana. Everyone else in the room would jot a question on a note card, and on the other side we’d scribble a number. “Could be 11, could be 10,043. Doesn’t matter,” Shane said. Everyone’s note cards would be placed in a wicker basket, which would then be handed to the blindfolded medium, who in turn would “read” both sides of the cards. Feats like these, Shane told us, can be “the worm on the hook to get people interested in this stuff.”
The early results were pitiful. Reverend Jane went zero for six. Mark and Allen batted about .300. I got two of the numbers right and felt momentarily cocky—do psychic abilities perhaps run in the family?—but then flubbed every subsequent card.
“Can you see through there?” Shane asked Andy after I’d blindfolded him. There was something ceremonial, if not eerily religious, about this tableau, with Andy sitting before me, eyes closed, humble as a monk, waiting to be tested.
“No,” Andy said. “I wish I could. I actually have a fair amount of anxiety in claustrophobic spaces. Ever since my injury, I don’t do well with tight spots.”
I returned to my seat and watched as Andy began shrugging in a jerky, vaguely Tourettic way, and when he reached for the first card, his hand quavered noticeably, reminding me of the spasms he’d suffered from cerebral edema during those long, anguished nights in the ICU. For a moment, I wanted to call this whole thing off, but then he placed the first note card against his forehead and inhaled deeply, audibly. “Nine,” he said. “And uh, I’m not sure if it’s my claustrophobia or something I’m picking up, but the number nine and a question about space.”
He handed the card to Reverend Shane. “The number is a nine. And the question is: ‘What is a sacred space for me to go to?’”
“Good job,” said Karen, the healer.
“Not bad,” Shane said. “Well, my job is done. See you all later.”
Andy rummaged through the basket before extracting the next card. “I see a one and a seven, so maybe 71, but I’m not getting the question.” He passed the card to Shane. “Seventeen,” the reverend said. “So that’s what’s called spiritual dyslexia. The question is: ‘Where are my shoes from?’”
For the next card, my brother said, “I don’t know if it’s the answer to the question or the number, but there’s only ‘one.’”
“There is a circle with a one in it,” Shane said. “Not bad. OK, a couple more.”
Even with the blindfold, I could tell my brother was distressed. His cheeks were flushed, a paddled crimson, and his forehead was a geyser of sweat. Shane’s assistant, Cynthia, noticed this, too. “You’re almost there,” she said. He bungled the next one, which was my card, but I didn’t reveal this. Then, unbidden, he said, “Well, that was my brother’s card.”
I shook my head, happily perplexed, but before I could unleash a cynical rejoinder, he was plucking another card from the basket. “I see the number 2019. And I see my tattoo”—inked on his left arm was the symbol for infinity.
“Your tattoo is on there,” Shane said. “And the question is, ‘What will be the big news story for 2019?’”
At this point, people in the room were shaking their heads, their eyes mirthful and guileless, astonished in a childlike way. I turned around to gauge the reactions of two Lily Dale facilitators, who had been hovering in the back throughout the proceedings and who now gave Shane a covert thumbs-up, as if to certify that my brother was the real deal, the genuine article. The next afternoon, one of these women would suggest that Andy give readings at the 4 p.m. message service. Another would urge him to get certified by the Lily Dale board. Even Reverend Shane would offer to be Andy’s mentor at the end of the night.
Andy couldn’t read the last card, but even with a couple of blunders, the room was still full of swift converts to his cause. Karen the healer said, “Could you tell me your last name again, so that when you’re rich and famous I can say I met you?”
“That made me really uncomfortable,” Andy said.
“You got every number right,” Mark said. (And most of the questions, too, I think.)
“That’s one for the records,” Allen said.
By the time the workshop had ended, it was midnight, and a big moon loomed overhead, washing the campus lawns with a thin ethereal light. Somewhat predictably, our walk back to the hotel was punctuated by sprees of unmitigated fraternal boasting (“So, bro, how do you like them apples?”—that sort of thing), and I was worried that my brother’s laughter, as it ricocheted across the courtyard, would rouse some angry spirits or perhaps a few pilgrims trying to catch some post-séance shut-eye.
I asked Andy what he felt as he was blindfolded, how he was able to identify so many cards.
“I could feel these different energies approaching me,” he said. “So I just asked them to make it go fast.”
A silence fell between us as we shuffled under a vault of wind-hissed elm trees, and without really thinking it over, I found myself asking the question that had been grating at me all week and that, I realize now, was the whole reason we came.
“A year ago, Mom called me in the middle of the night and said you were worried about me. Do you remember that?”
“Yeah,” he said.
“Do you remember why you were worried?” I asked.
As soon as I posed the question, I regretted it. The truth was, I didn’t know what to make of what I’d witnessed that night, and suddenly, I was leery of what he might say.
“I kept seeing visions of you killing yourself.”
I stopped and looked at my brother, who kept walking and peering around. Even in the twilight, I could see that his eyes were darkened with stress and little sleep, the oncoming erosion of middle age, and on the other side of the continent, there was a whole other life waiting for him. It was a minor cruelty to remember that this week wouldn’t last, that somehow we had become men in our mid-thirties, duty-bound to jobs and the burdens of our own families. The next day, we’d drive back to Buffalo, and at some point that night, he’d vanish without a trace, taking an Uber to the airport, leaving me to wake alone in the pre-dawn stillness of a sullen July morning.
But right then, in the dark of the Spiritualist campus, I was ready to believe my brother knew something that I simply could not fathom. If he intuited my past struggles—if he could divine the place in my life where the narrative began to break down, where the plot took a swerve—then maybe he could also foresee the future, which had come to seem ever more uncertain, a monstrous void of flux and foreboding. Given what I’d just seen him do, I wanted to believe my brother knew the ending to this story. I wanted to believe that I would listen. But all I could manage was a blithering acknowledgment, a little brother’s sheepish confession.
“That was a really lonely time for me,” I said.
He was quiet for a moment. Then he shrugged. “Well, you weren’t alone,” he said.
The next morning, pilgrims were queuing up at the doors of the Healing Temple. There were elderly people inching toward the entrance with the help of metal walkers, plus a posse of young women with slovenly topknots, their tote bags emblazoned with “Feminist Witches.” A maroon-haired woman from Cleveland rapped with me about LeBron James’s recent move to the Lakers, then offered to balance my chakras with the swings of her pendulum necklace. The line moved slowly. And eventually, the early parishioners who were already inside the temple emerged from its heavy oaken doors—their faces were radiant and changed.
Next to the temple’s walkway was Lily Dale’s gnarled and stunted prayer tree, whose crown of spired branches had been tessellated with thousands of ribbons in every possible shade of teal and magenta, orange and pink. On them, lonesome Americans had scribbled abridged prayers, hopeful bulletins, little valentines to the dead. “Mom, I miss you every day. Enjoy Heaven!” and “Love + Light to Those in Need” and “Unify My Family.”
Back home this effusion of wishful thinking would’ve struck me as saccharine and pathetic. But here, under gentle wind chimes and blue sky, I found myself shorn of cynicism, earnestly moved by these barefaced gestures of pathos and heartache. When future historians try to understand how we reckoned with our cultural and political disasters, they’ll need only to comb through these variegated streamers to see how desperate and mournful we’d become. I thought of Susan, waiting for more Scrabble-letter dispatches from her mom. I thought of Ashley, back home in Connecticut, stocking product for Walgreens. And I thought of those bright-eyed millennials, our spirit guides—Erica and Mekenna, Kate and Fargus, Meredith and Bobby. Six of the colored tassels I affixed to the prayer tree were for them. Then my mind turned to my own mom and dad, to the rest of my family, all of whom were worried about me and Andy, hoping against hope that, despite everything, we’d be OK.
Inside the temple, nine healers stood at the altar. They wore bright white smocks, like special envoys from heaven. Seated before each of them, in a wooden chair, was a congregant with upturned palms and shuttered eyes. The healers waved their hands over each congregant’s body, their movements mime-like and untouching, a silent legerdemain. A tall man with a gray ponytail stood at the back of the room and played a wooden flute whose soulful, dirgy tones were both solacing and elegiac. Piquant incense perfumed the air, and eventually, the temple commandant pointed me toward the altar. I took a seat in front of a soft-voiced, bespectacled man who directed me to close my eyes. Put at the front of your mind, he told me, all your dead, all those who’ve passed into spirit. “We believe in everlasting life,” he said, “so know that those people are with you right now.”
You’ll think I’m exaggerating, but something started happening to me. As the man performed his arcane ministrations, some trapdoor on the left side of my brow flew open, and ages of stratified blackness were leaking out. Soon there were tears running from my eyes.
Somehow I was transported to a moment from 20 years ago, when I was standing at the edge of a river in the midst of my first adult-grade depression. Twelve years old, with a dark, spinning brain, I had wandered away from our family’s camp and was peering into the depths of a river, watching the brunette water froth and churn over a herd of jagged stones. I cannot tell you what came over me next, but in a moment I was there, disappearing into the violence of a brown crystalline burst.
The current was alive, a man’s hands, and almost immediately I was regretting my decision. But when I managed to breach the river’s surface, I could see my brother appear on shore, a blur of dark jeans and red T-shirt, entering the water just as soon as I went under. Somehow I was being tillered toward a raft of downed branches, where my brother had pulled us to refuge, where I had a moment to calm down and wipe the water from my eyes. I found that I was crying, still terrified, still boyishly confused about what I had done and what I still might do. How near that story of total obliteration had been, of following my dead to the other side of the river, of wanting so desperately a final and irrevocable exit.
My brother said nothing. His face was full of a terrible understanding. Always, even across time and distance, his face has been full of this terrible understanding. Then he was telling me it was time to go, and with our heads barely above the surface, he reached out to me, and I held on to him, and he ferried me back across the water.