A Star is Born
Like most people I meet in the world of mediumship, James Van Praagh is accessible and personable, even agreeing to an interview over Skype before I get to Lily Dale. Still, no amount of research could have prepared me for the reverence he evoked in audience members attending his packed Lily Dale event.
Van Praagh has been interviewed by Oprah, Larry King and Barbara Walters. Walters, though, dished him after a show in 2008 for saying backstage that he sensed a problem with her back and blood. About two years later she had heart surgery, which Van Praagh claims is proof that what he said was correct. He served as a co-executive producer of the show Ghost Whisperer, which starred Jennifer Love Hewitt; and Ted Danson portrays James Van Praagh in the TV movie Talking to Heaven, based on his life. He also founded the James Van Praagh School of Mystical Arts. On Twitter Van Praagh has a respectable 57,000 followers, and his books, including Talking to Heaven, have been featured on The New York Times bestseller list.
Since Van Praagh rose to prominence, there is also a fair amount of negative content on the web dissecting his performances. This includes parsing out his readings to prove that he's using the technique of "cold reading," which involves throwing out a lot of names and facts in combination with reading inadvertent cues from audience members. Moreover, James Randi, a magician and self-proclaimed skeptic, has denounced him. In 2011 the James Randi Educational Foundation published open letters to Van Praagh, including on the Huffington Post, challenging him to prove his abilities in a controlled environment; Van Praagh has not responded.
Over Skype, Van Praagh's friendly and energetic persona comes through. He's a compact man with a thick but well-shaped moustache. As a very young child, he says, he had visions of spirits but didn't focus these abilities until later. In his twenties, he went out to Los Angeles to become a sitcom writer, because "I'm funny, I thought," he chuckles. There, Van Praagh asserts, he was dragged by a friend to an appointment with a medium who told him, "the Spirit world is going to use you to help change the consciousness of the planet." Since the medium also told him "things that no one would know about," Van Praagh's interest was sparked, and he sought out books on life after death and began to meditate. Two years, later he communicated with the spirit of his co-worker's relative.
He's a repository of catchy phrases. When I ask if he's a Spiritualist, he says he doesn't ascribe to any one religion. "God is limitless." The essence of his message is straightforward. "That love never dies, that there is no death, and that what you think, you create." When doing readings, he says it's important to keep the ego at bay. And what does ego stand for? "Edging God Out. E-G-O." He's disarming, calling me sweetie, and in making a suggestion for this article, he tacks on "which I think you'll do really well with." As we end our Skype call, he signs off with "OK sweetheart, if you need anything, just email me."
James Van Praagh signs books after 2015 Lily Dale event © Chester Higgins Jr.
At the Lily Dale auditorium on the day of his event, there are hundreds of people settled in metal folding chairs. Loud speakers hang on both sides of the stage, which almost spans the width of the auditorium. On one side is an organ and on the other is a large panel featuring the nine "principles of Spiritualism." At the back of the auditorium is cinema-style seating.
Next to me are Rick and Crystal Paninski from Syracuse, New York, an amiable and earnest couple. I tell them I am writing an article and would like to ask them a few questions. When I mention that I interviewed James Van Praagh before coming, Crystal smiles and says "perks of the job, huh?" They like mediums Sylvia Browne and John Edward. They tell me about their experiences. Rick says he's seen "things in the house, like the tail end of a white shawl." Crystal once hugged a friend only to see her get into a car accident. She knew her friend would be OK so she didn't tell her until afterwards. There "has to be something more," they both agree.
As Lily Dale's Executive Director, Sue Glasier, introduces Van Praagh, Crystal whispers to me, "so excited!" Glasier is remarking how funny Van Praagh is and saying he would "do anything for anybody" when Lady Ga Ga's "Born this Way" is pumped through the speakers. Van Praagh walks on stage chanting "Goo Goo Ga Ga," and then " Like her message!" He calls himself a "com-medium." There is a smattering of laughs in the audience but not everybody gets the pun right away. As he dances, cell phones shoot up to film him. When he sits the mike pops and everyone winces. He coolly takes a sip of water and drops in an offhanded "com-medium." The crowd laughs harder the second time.
He peppers the event with jokes vacillating between humor and more serious ideas. "Are there many first-time visitors to Lily Dale?" Van Praagh asks, and a fair amount of hands shoot up. The "dance moves are the same," he quips. And then "everyone came here with the hope of connecting with someone in the spirit world," but "I work for the spirit world, not for the living. Sorry!"
He pumps us up with metaphysical cheerleading. "This space will never be the same because of your presence and the room will never be the same." He urges the crowd to make the best of this experience "so the next group can have a good time."
He opens the floor up to questions from the audience, explaining that some mediums give message after message from spirits but they are not teachers; they are "good technicians." No matter how our loved ones die "there is no pain in death," explains Van Praagh. And then things happen for a reason; "coincidence is God's way of remaining anonymous." Later when I plug the phrase into Google, I see that it has been around for years with many sites, perhaps erroneously, attributing it to Albert Einstein.
One woman stands up. She asks, "When the soul passes over to the other side, does the best part stay on the other side and the part that needs to learn goes back to earth?" Van Praagh eyes the audience complicitly, "she sounds crazy." But switching to a grave tone he comments that this was a "complex and mindful question." He talks about her soul coming back and then somehow arrives at a point where he is saying, "you are God." Van Praagh posits "religion has it wrong, by praying to something outside ourselves," because, whether we are talking about God, Allah, Yahweh, Jesus, "everything is inside."
He then leads the audience in meditation, introducing it by weaving a tapestry of phrases: "the soul lived through ions of time," "bring you to a gold city," "show you worshipping yourself." He tells us in meditating that he has seen his "higher self." When we inhale, we're to bring in love and when we exhale to let go of "old belief systems." He tells us of the singer he's about to play a recording of "when she sings the highest order of spirits and guides comes through." "Find yourself," he urges.
The music is piped through the speakers on either side of the stage. The lyrics float in: "It's by thy Grace that I sing your Holy name," "it's by thy Grace that I feel your Holy name." It is beautiful. Next to me Rick holds Crystal's hand while she taps her foot lightly to the music. In our row, a man in a straw hat and neon green T-shirt has folded his hands over the top of his cane and is resting his head. A woman in front of me is holding her palms up. There are rows of relaxed faces in every direction as Van Praagh sways on stage.
There seems to be little transition from the meditation to the readings. Van Praagh sketches out a scenario and asks with whom it resonates. He's talking about a woman who left before her husband. "Slow down," Van Praagh tosses to the empty space over his shoulder. "She worries about him with laundry." When he asks if there is a man who lost his wife in the audience, a few gentlemen stand up. I'm surprised it's not more given the hundreds of people. He eliminates some by indicating that the man he is looking for is still wearing his wedding ring.
A man called Jim is left standing. Van Praagh asks if he ever runs. "I like to snow ski," the man replies. "Weren't you responsible for her medication?" Van Praagh asks. "Yes," says Jim. He presses further asking if there was one time when Jim had to "carry her to a car." When Jim confirms, Van Praagh announces that this "was an act of love." The messages are positive and affirming and I think that even if it's all sham it seems harmless, until Van Praagh feels the presence of a young man who committed suicide.
He talks about a young man in his 20s. Mothers of sons who committed suicide stand up. Then he proceeds by process of elimination, including sifting by the tool used. Was it a bungee cord? And by the place in which the suicide was committed. At your house? He does this until one woman is standing. He speaks from the point of view of the young man. "I'm not dead," and "stop filling things with flowers." Van Praagh tells the woman "he passed away once and he is still around you, don't make him die everyday." I'm shocked by the painful details explored so publicly, but people around me are visibly moved, their gaze fixed on stage.
Van Praagh finishes off with what I've come to understand is his characteristically positive messaging. He encourages the audience to hone their own mediumistic skills and communicate with their deceased loved ones. "You may feel thoughts from them. You know them better than I do," he affirms. "Invite whoever it is to come close to you," Van Praagh urges, because "love never dies."
Practicing Mediums of Lily Dale
Unlike James Van Praagh, most of the some fifty registered mediums in Lily Dale are not in the public eye, so you've probably never heard of them. All the same residents and staff at Lily Dale will decline to recommend a medium, since that would infringe on your individual free will. Instead, you will be told to walk the grounds where you might see a sign or a house or a person that speaks to you. You will be encouraged to use your intuition to choose a medium that suits you.
In the Spiritualist narrative, mediums are charged with bringing proof of the afterlife and so play a singular role in their faith. Mediums stress that their role is not simply to bring through facts and descriptions from deceased loved ones. They assert a transformative power attached to speaking with spirits, which entails bringing through life lessons from those who have passed.
Nonetheless, one medium specified that not all spirits are worth listening to. "Just because you're dead," says John White "doesn't mean you know a lot." White believes in reincarnation and refers quite a bit to the incredible feats of yogis in India. His house is slate green clapboard; a peacock themed wicker chair is suspended on the left side of his porch. To show me what happens when we pass, he asks me to close my eyes. Almost immediately, he tells me to open them again. "This is it," he pronounces. And then explains. Of course the afterlife is a "different world that has different natural laws - there is no such thing as age, your body will not physically disease - but if you're biased now, you'll be biased after you pass on." Therefore you need to learn and understand "as much as possible while you're here."
Lily Dale medium John White on his front porch © Chester Higgins Jr.
One way to do that, according to Spiritualists, is to listen to the lessons passed on by certain spirits or guides. I wondered whether mediums would be open to discussing the mechanics of this, but several tell me in detail about the experience of communicating with spirits. One medium tells me that her strongest sense is her hearing or clairaudience. "So I can have a full-blown conversation with someone." Another puts it simply, "I use most of the clairs," including clairsentience and clairvoyance, but she clarifies the most common is that she hears spirits. "They communicate just very similar to how we're communicating."
Still another medium walks me through the way he deciphers images that come to mind. He tells me about the first time he did a reading during which he had a breakthrough. He'd been taking a course in mediumship, but was skeptical about his progress. When the reading started, he says that he saw the image of the Capitol building followed by a childhood memory of his brother playing with plastic soldiers. Spontaneously he spoke, telling the woman for whom he was reading that she had Washington on her mind and was worried about her son in the military. "Exactly!" she exclaimed.
To learn mediumship, there is a plethora of courses on offer during Lily Dale's summer season. All the same, there doesn't seem to be unanimity within the community on whether communication with spirits is teachable. In fact, it's something of a hot button issue, particularly since Spiritualists often refer to mediumship as a gift.
Two mediums I spoke with drew an analogy with music, noting that some people have an immense gift for singing or playing an instrument and it just needs to be honed; so to, they say, with mediumship. In contrast, one highly-regarded medium categorically told me that the ability to communicate with spirits can't be taught; what can be conveyed is the philosophy and teachings of Spiritualism, but with regard to the gift of communicating with spirits, either you have it or you don't.
The question of payment for readings is also somewhat debated. Most agree, though, that mediums should charge for their services. "If you went to a doctor, you'd expect to pay," one medium tells me. "A doctor has a gift for heart surgery; you expect to pay for his gift."
But what about the vast difference in hourly rates? In Lily Dale, I notice the pay scale runs from around $150 per hour to $850. Across the board mediums tell me that quality cannot be measured in price; some very good mediums were not charging that much. Yet, there didn't seem to be any efforts to standardize prices. Everyone chooses the price they feel they're worth or what they feel they need to live. One medium pointed out that she lives in the DC area, which is expensive; it's a sensitive point. Another recounted an exchange he had recently during which someone argued that priests are not paid; frustrated, he shot back with priests are housed and fed. He told me that he has to put his child through college. Finally, a long-time Lily Dale resident pointed out that many people are taking courses and investing in honing their skills. "They put a lot into it, not only monetarily, but of themselves, and if you don't put a value on something then it's worth nothing," she concluded.
To earn a living as a medium, Lily Dale offers a platform, but only to mediums who have been tested and registered by the town's management. Teresa Schaeffer who owns the Jewel of the Lake Guest House walks me through the process since she's just gone through it herself. In the year leading up to submitting an application, a potential medium is required to do fifteen outdoor readings including at Inspiration Stump, and deliver readings at the Lily Dale Auditorium. The individual then submits a dossier, including a letter from his or her Spiritualist Church president, three letters of recommendation from other mediums, a list of classes the candidate has taken at churches or other institutions, an application fee of $150, and a personal statement. As part of the final evaluation, candidates do three private readings. To me, it sounds strangely like a tedious college application.
Teresa Schaeffer, now a Lily Dale medium © Chester Higgins Jr.
Once tested and registered, several mediums I met had practiced their trade for many years full-time. Some had other careers before they began. A few continued their career alongside their mediumship. The one I found most interesting, in that respect, is Dr. Neal Rzepkowski, a medical doctor who has been living with HIV for over thirty years. Dr. Rzepkowski is compact in shape with a rugged lined face. He grew up not far from Lily Dale and as a teenager visited a medium there who impressed him, sparking a lifelong interest in Spiritualism; Neal became an ordained Spiritualist reverend one month after graduating from medical school.
Lily Dale medium Neal Rzepkowski on a bench at Inspiration Stump © Chester Higgins Jr.
As a gay man and medical doctor in the 1980s, he watched as many of his friends became sick. In 1985 he tested positive for HIV. There were few drugs or means to support HIV patients at that time and he credits his faith with keeping him healthy over three decades. He says he regularly consults his spirit guides for advice. When I ask how he reconciles his Spiritualist faith with practicing medicine, he says it's taken some time. If patients are ready, "I can try and combine the two a little bit," for example "sometimes I will just know what's the matter so then I'll do the right test to prove it," but "I don't force it on anybody."
High-profile medium Lisa Williams © Chester Higgins Jr.
In contrast, medium Lisa Williams actively aspires for a world in which mediumship is mainstream. Williams tours abroad including in Australia and has appeared on Oprah. She explains that she intended for Lily Dale to be her summer home but was in tears every time she left town. "I live here now, full time," she says. "I've surrendered." She makes an impassioned plea for taking the "sensation" out of mediumship. Beyond the "Hollywood, glamour, glitz, lights, touring, all of that stuff," she asserts that there are "real people," like herself, who are "trying to put it out there into the world" as something "normal." She calls herself a "high profile medium" and as such she wants to bring the history of mediumship to a large audience. She asserts, "I want people to understand about the Fox sisters" and "the rappings of the murdered peddler." She wants "people to understand there is a religion." Ultimately, she hopes "to bring mediumship back to its original state."
* You've reached the end of Part III. Part IV in which I speak with Lily Dale visitors will be published next week. You can check back then or sign up here to have Part IV delivered right to your inbox.