People are walking around with little pyramids on their heads. It is disconcerting.
Reverend Douglas Sobel leans toward me and tries to figure out what I am thinking. I lean backward and try to keep him from reading my mind. Reverend Sobel, a psychic, is Assistant Pastor of San Diego’s First Spiritualist Church. He has organized “Exploring the New Dawn.” a convention of eighty-five “New Age” groups at the El Cortez this week-end in November – everything from numerologists, clairvoyants, yogis, and Rosicrucians, to breast enlargement through hypnosis. Reverend Sobel, who looks like an enthusiastic Jaycee, is a real organizer.
“What do you think of all this?” he asks, leaning forward, gesturing around him.
“Well, uh, I ... ”
“This has never been done before,” he announces proudly. There’ve been psychic fairs before, but we’ve brought in healers . . . holistic healers ... and as many of the New Age groups as we could cram into a nonthreatening environment, so people can come and feel what’s right for them. If you wanted a psychic, where would you go?” He doesn’t wait for an answer. “If you wanted a holistic healer, where would you go? We’re putting it all together, like a trade show.”
Or a supermarket, I think, then try to banish the idea. I keep seeing Alan Hamel in one of those Alpha Beta commercials, singing, “Tell a friend.” I look up one of the aisles. People are leaning over to pick up slick brochures, peering at the psychics. It looks as if they are squeezing cabbages.
“First time in San Diego,” Sobel barks. He heads down the aisle. “We expect 20,000 people this weekend! Now there’s a good healer from Solana Beach. If you ever get sick . . . and pyramids! What would a convention be without pyramids!” He throws out his arms, just like Alan Hamel.
“What we have here,” Reverend Sobel instructs, “is the total person concept.” He chugs through the crowd. “There’s Dr. Fred Wolf. He gives the Youniversc Workshop. He’s found a way of helping You get in touch with the Youniverse. Just fantastic.” Sobel points at a group of psychics dressed in long velveteen robes—two intense-looking women and a young man. They are giving readings to expectant listeners (ten dollars a shot). The young man is bent over a crystal ball. “There’s Carmella Coralla Haak,” says Sobel. “You can find anything you want at Carmella’s zoo.” Passing Dr. J.K. Jamieson’s Auric Photograph booth (he records your aura photographically), Sobel pronounces it “hot stuff.” Next he leads me past booths offering “fine Egyptian jewelry” and “T-shirts that affect your mood,” hair analyzers and herbal companies.
Reverend Sobel stops and explains: “Only the most reputable people display at this convention. Some of the people who aren’t here are charlatans. We wanted to present a professional front.”
What about the Satanists? Were they asked to be included?
He leans back and shakes his head violently. ‘‘No! We’re psychic enough to tune out those people. Absolutely no evil groups here. No witchcraft. They didn’t apply because we didn’t set up that kind of energy.”
“What does that mean?”
“We didn’t send them invitations.” “Oh.”
“No, listen, that witchcraft garbage is bullshit!” Sobel straightens his leisure suit. “There’s a lot of politics involved in who gets asked. I don’t want to get into that with you, but there are people here from all over the Western states. We figure there’s 10,000 people in San Diego alone involved in metaphysics, which isn’t as good a word as ‘spiritual enlightenment.’ ”
“Tell me the truth. Are all the presentations here for real?”
He raises his eyebrows and looks hurt. Peering over a shoulder, he sighs and leans forward again. “You really want to know?” Before he can answer, a woman who looks like an enraged Kate Smith charges up and buttonholes him.
“You got to come over right now,” she booms.
“I’m busy with this ...”
“Now!” She lets go of his lapel with a snap. “Something's up,” she says, and marches away, elbows pumping.
Sobel sighs again. As he turns to follow her, he shrugs. “One thing about psychics is they have the most incredible egos you’ve ever seen.”
I wander on alone.
Hours go by. The place is a jungle. Astro-Diagnosis, Eckankar Soultravel, palmistry. Fertility Awareness, Hair Mineral Analysis, a psychic who advertises himself as being ‘‘a million miles up the Nile,” and a holistic group that believes “death begins in the colon.” Wandering up an aisle. I meet two spiritualists who are checking out all the other spiritualists. Marty O’Camb, president of the Mandala Society of Healers, and Lydia Elliott, a member of the Energy Rhythm House, are having a great time.
“I love the energy here today,” says Marty. “But it is a little too commercial.” She starts laughing and throws up her hands. “It’s actually weird! You know, swamis floating up and down the aisles.” Behind us arc the Kundalini Yoga men and women dressed in white robes and turbans. They’re selling sprout sandwiches and ice cream.
“People keep walking up to me and looking me in the Third Eye,” announces Lydia. She points to the place above her nose and goes cross-eyed.
“Yeah!” agrees Marty. “I’m just now getting used to it. And they do this, too.” She walks up close to me, her eyes glaze over, and she moves her head around, looking at the space all around me. “Everybody’s looking at everybody’s aura.” She continues gazing, Lydia goes cross-eyed again, and they both break up. laughing.
“I feel so inferior,” says Lydia. “I’m not selling anything.”
“I think a person’s aura is his own business,” says Marty. They walk off giggling, arm in arm.
Many of the booths are elaborate. Several of them proselytize with the aid of films or video demonstrations. One booth is showing video tapes of “rebirth-ing” exercises, during which nude men and women hold each other and relive the traumas of birth, hopefully to exorcise them.
The David Lionel Television company offers television programming packages to New Age groups from S50 to $2,000. Lionel points out that the cable TV systems in San Diego County represent “the largest cable television system in the United States, with over 201,000 subscribers and 720,000 potential viewers. It’s time for television, the most powerful medium of our day, to join in the spiritual midwifery of this New Age.” The specter of all the New Age groups swarming the mass TV market is impressive. Lionel has already recorded programs on the rebirth experience, living foods, contact healing. Bates eye training (so you can throw away your glasses), yoga therapeutics, Jin Shin Do. acupressure. Native American ritual, and others. And he’s planning programs on soul regression (past lives), iridology (diagnosing a person’s health by looking at the blotches in the eyes). Shiatsu, and more.
About halfway through the afternoon, though, the bored-looking man stationed at the David Lionel Television company booth has gotten restless. He shoves aside all the High Enlightenment video tapes, pushes a cassette into the playback, and sits back with his hands behind his head, his back to the aisle. The program draws his biggest crowd of the day; it is a videotape of a body-painting contest at Black’s Beach during the last of its swimsuit-optional days. A security guard walks up to watch. He is grinning. “A little porno never hurt anybody,” he says with a sly grin. The crowd in the aisle starts making moneyless bets on who will win the contest. The winner is a long, slinky man with mushroomed hair. Painted green with gold-flecked scales, he does a belly dance, impersonating a lizard, as the people at Black’s Beach cheer. The spectators at the “Explore the New Dawn” convention laugh.
The most blatantly commercial presentations at the fair involve ^pyramid power. Several booths (where pyramids can be bought in any size) offer glossy, full-color brochures which expound on how the form of a pyramid is “capable of capturing and focusing a quantum of what has been called ‘biocosmic’ energy with its structure.” Pyramid-ologists insist that if frozen foods, for instance, are placed under a pyramid to defrost, the natural freshness will be restored. Meats become more tender. Coffee is rid of its bitter taste. Tobacco becomes stronger but loses its bite. Liquor gets quicker, fruits and vegetables don’t rot, milk won’t curdle, water is purified, plants thrive, and on and on. Meditation is claimed to be greatly assisted if you sit, sleep, or work under a pyramid. One of the psychics at the convention, dressed like an Egyptian, conducts her readings under a huge, tubular steel pyramid.
A short, thick, serious-looking man who calls himself “Doc” mans one of the pyramid booths, at which he sells all kinds of pyramid gadgets. An American Indian sitting next to him is meditating a “prismatic electronic vibrator, strapped to his forehead. Doc is also peddling hot potato holders (I fail to ask him why). A sign on his booth announces, “Free pyramid power demonstrations.”
“You want a demonstration?” He saw me looking at the sign.
“Come over here where we’re away from all this pyramid power. Now put out your arms, straight out.” He places a small tubular metal pyramid over my head. People look on.
“Now try to resist me.” He tries to separate my hands; the veins in his neck start bulging, his shoulders tense, his eyes swell.
“Couldn’t do it,” he says. “Now I’ll take the pyramid off and try.” He parts my hands easily, then smiles and walks away. A woman standing nearby shakes her head. Her name is Jean Frieburger, and she is with an education group in North County that offers courses in various spiritual endeavors. I ask her what she thought of the pyramid demonstration. She squirms uneasily. “He was faking.” She hates to say it. “I don’t know. Who am I to say?”
The New Age’s credibility isn’t helped much by pyramid power, or by some of the other visionaries at the convention, like the nervous marriage and family counselor who took me aside and told me a story about a “spiritual leader” who went scuba diving for treasure in the Bermuda Triangle. The man whispered secretively, “He found a huge pyramid city with a huge metal hand in the center of the pyramid holding a crystal ball. He brought the crystal ball back, and he’s a famous psychic now. I can’t tell you who he is.”
One craggy-faced man comes up and shows me a pyramid medallion necklace that he claims he never takes off. “See this?” he says, holding up the ornament. “I’m a truck driver. If I take this off, I can drive for only a few hours at a time. When I’m wearin’ it, I can drive thirty-six, forty-eight hours. Truth. My wife (a psychic) works under a six-foot pyramid. We use ’em under our chairs for relaxation. Got two on the headboard of our bed. You take the Doc’s test?” “Urn, yes.”
“Good, wasn’t it?”
The calmest, most serene healer this day at the convention is Jessica Macbeth, who performs free healings in an undecorated booth. It is a quiet spot in a sea of noise and color. She closes her eyes and runs her hands across the shoulders, backs and heads of volunteers. I get in line. When it is my turn, I shut my eyes. Her hands feel hot, and I experience the sensation of falling. I sink into the chair. “That’s common,” she says later. “Some people slide right down on the floor. The reason you think my hands are hot is not because they are— they aren’t-but because you interpret my kindness that way. See, the difference between myself and a lot of healers is that I teach people that anybody can do this. You don’t have to be a nice person; you don’t even have to like your mother-but it helps.
“I hate to use the word ‘love,’ but that’s all this is. You do to yourself what you feel you have coming. That’s why I don’t believe in accidents, and that’s why I believe that a hundred percent of illness is psychosomatic.”
A crowd is forming up ahead. Everybody is standing around looking reverent, and a few people look mildly fearful. The focus of their attention is a whirlwind, fainily caterwauling. Hair is swirling around, clouds of chalk dust drift out of the whirlwind. In front of the whirlwind sits a small child, smiling calmly. On the wall above the frenzy is a sign which reads: “Barbara Soblewski, Psychic Artist.” There is a woman inside the tornado. Now and then you can hear soft murmurs from her direction; a hand reaches out as if to urge something from the child. Minutes pass and no one says a word. Then suddenly Barbara Soblewski stops drawing and falls back in her chair. The trance dissipates as she slowly pushes the hair from her face, careful not to touch herself with her chalk-smudged lingers. She stares at the ceiling for a moment, sighs, then picks up a spray can and coats her drawing with preservative. She leans forward and gently talks to the child. Everyone strains to hear what she is saying, but only the child can hear. It was something about the child’s guardian angel. The child smiles beatifically and stands up relaxed, almost dazed. There seemed to be nothing phony about Barbara Soblewski; watching her made the hair on my neck stand up.
She gives the child the drawing. She looks exhausted.*I ask her if I could talk to her and she responds, “Lord, I need a cigarette.”
We went out of the hall and sat on a pedestrian bridge looking down at the street. She rubbed her eyes for a while, then sat, smoking, watching the traffic. Finally she said, “You’re okay; you’re just curious.”
She started talking: “Somebody wants to buy a new car, they come to me and I draw the car they should buy. A lot of people come to me for that kind of reading. Others want to know about their spirit guides or about a friend or a place. The paintings help people understand the consciousness they’re in. The colors and the shapes of the figures in my paintings change sometimes when people take them home. It’s funny ...
“One time I drew myself in an accident. It scared me a lot, so I projected it no happening, but I’m still leery of driving.
I saw the left side of my leg damaged badly.”
She looked down and touched her leg.
“I can’t remember a drawing after I do it.” She has been doing psychic drawings since she was fourteen, but professionally for only two years. “The first time I saw a spirit was my mother. I saw her dead, and it spooked me for weeks; I kept a light on at night. I started seeing things around people, visions. My family sent me to psychiatrists, and all the attention turned me into an introvert. So I kept quiet about this gift until recently.” She shivered. “I saw my first husband in an accident, and he later had a terrible accident and was hurt so badly that it would have been better if he’d died. After that I went through a period of questioning whether this thing I do was good or bad. See, I didn’t even know what clairvoyant meant. I only got this psychic artist label recently when the demand for my work got heavy. I’m not introverted anymore. I accept the drawings. I wish now I would have had study. Even now I don’t know the words that other people use to describe what I do.”
I asked her what she experienced when she was locked into what she called a “semi-trance.”
She narrowed her eyes and thought.
“I can’t really describe it. I just ... something comes out of the person and across the space between that person and me and then comes into me. As soon as I know the something is in me, I ask it to let me go. I talk to it, and ask it to help me. And then I start to draw.”
Her face went soft and she smiled. ‘‘I love those paintings.” Then something darker crossed her mind, ‘I’m going to tell you something ... I probably shouldn’t tell you this because a lot of the people in there would be offended. But . . . some of the spiritualist reverends have asked me to give them a reading. They want me to tell them about their ‘spirit guides’ (I don’t call them spirit guides; I just call them spirits, for lack of a better word). Sometimes I really do feel there is a spirit nearby, but other times . . . um, I don’t think the spirit guides really exist.” She looked at me intensely for a moment. “Some of the most religious people just want to believe in spirits so much that they concentrate on what they think is there and then send a thought projection of it. I know when it’s a thought projection and not a real spirit. The spirit doesn’t really exist in those cases, except to the person who wants to believe in it, and that’s beautiful. About sixty percent of the time I feel the spirits are really only thought projections-wishes-and maybe forty percent are actually spirits, or whatever you want to call them. Of course, nobody’s going to talk about that. But that’s the way it is.”
If a psychic artist is smart, said Barbara Soblewski, she won’t fool with someone’s dreams. “If I feel I’m getting a thought projection from someone who wants badly to believe in a spirit, I draw the thought projection. I don’t want to shatter anybody’s dreams.”
I asked her if she could tell psychically which of the booths contained honest parapsychology, and which did not. She thought for a while and then took my arm and offered to.lead me up and down the aisles for a psychic’s tour of the psychics.
On the tour, she stopped near a booth, cocked her head, and listened to her inner senses. Sometimes she would shake her head and move on quickly. “He was a fraud,” she would say. “This one, this man is clairaudiant ... he knows I’m tuning in on him.” The man into whom she was tuning was Jason, a well-known Southern California psychic. His hair was cropped close, he wore a three-piece suit, and on his table sat a bowl of money, endorsements by Mae West, National Enquirer articles.
She sensed about forty percent of the demonstrations were authentic. Of a man selling pyramid power, she said, “He’s a businessman. Period.” Passing one booth, she whispered, “That guy is a great healer, but he’s a playboy.” The man whistled at Barbara and muttered something suggestive. Everywhere we went people watched her closely. She was the star of the convention, the only psychic to draw large crowds. “Last night David Sobel came up to me and said, ‘Hey, Barbara, you’re the star of the show. I should charge you a commission on your paintings.’ ” She headed back to her booth. Several people were waiting. “ ‘Not me, baby,’ is what I told him.”
Back at her booth, Barbara sits down and welcomes a child. The child’s mother hovers nearby.
David Sobel has escaped from Kate Smith. He wanders by with a pretty blond woman. “Hey, you get everything you need?” he asks me.
“Yes. Good stuff.”
He eyes the woman. “We’ve got booths here for everything . . . well, almost everything.” He wiggles his eyebrows and looks her up and down. “Maybe next year.”
Barbara Soblewski turns into a whirlwind again. When she stops, and the drawing is finished, she looks particularly tired. I squeeze through the crowd and crouch beside her. “This was the real thing,” she whispers, with her eyes closed. “There was a spirit guide with this child, but the child is being pushed by his parents into some kind of religion. Pushed.” She opens her eyes and gazes directly at me. “When that child gets to be sixteen, he’s going to awaken from that pressure, and it will be terrifying to him. He will be hurt very badly.” She pauses and shakes her head. I ask her if she told this to the child.
“No,” she says sadly. “Can you understand why? Can you understand what is happening here?”