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CHAPTER ELEVEN

“THE GREATEST MYSTIC WHO EVER LIVED IN AMERICA”

And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not Love, I am nothing.

—1 CORINTHIANS 13:2

He came to Edgar Cayce a broken man—with an ugly past. He had been the business manager for the mystico-fascist order the Silver Shirts, and, though he withheld as much from the psychic, he had also been a Pennsylvania organizer for the Ku Klux Klan. Most recently, he helped build the Mighty I AM movement of Guy and Edna Ballard, the mystical sect marked by prosperity teachings and ultrapatriotism. All seemed to be going his way until the early hours of January 13, 1935, when he stepped from the Ballards’ car while driving from Washington, D.C., to Baltimore and was struck by an oncoming vehicle.

Suffering from a broken skull and a shattered left leg, he could no longer work, and the Ballards dropped him. The couple spread the story, he told another ex-follower, “that my accident happened because I wasn’t in the circle of Light with which they had surrounded the car.”

Still in pain and searching for work six years later, the man wrote to Cayce, a reputed miracle worker living in Virginia Beach, Virginia. Cayce was said to be able to go into a sleeplike trance and diagnose and prescribe cures for the illnesses of people he never met; he also gave psychic counsel and advice. Between the opening years of the twentieth century and his death on January 3, 1945, Cayce (pronounced casey) delivered more than fourteen thousand documented trance readings. Literally thousands of correspondents, many of whom were diagnosed from long distances away and were known to Cayce only by their names, swore to the effectiveness of the treatments prescribed by a man with no medical training and little schooling. Cayce also performed “life readings” in which he was said to peer into a person’s past—including past lives—and help the subject find his proper calling and direction in the present. This was why his new correspondent got in touch. He was having trouble caring for his family and was in desperate need of guidance. He could not even afford the $20 Cayce typically charged for a reading. Could the psychic, he wondered, see a way to help him?

“A reading,” Cayce replied on January 9, 1941, “would possibly help and you can arrange to take care of the fee at some future date—no one is ever refused here because of lack of money.” The following month, Cayce, in his usual preparation, loosened his tie, belt, cuffs, and shoelaces, and reclined on a lumpy gray-green sofa in the study of his Virginia Beach home. With observers and a stenographer looking on, Cayce uttered a silent prayer and drifted into a sleeplike state from which he transmitted the words of an ethereal intelligence called “the Source.” While he claimed to have no recollection of what occurred during his trances, he made detailed responses to questions, often speaking in the vernacular of the King James Bible. His statements could be stilted and difficult to follow, with none of the lucidity of the later “channeled” literature that Cayce inspired. But on scrutiny, the intent could usually be found.

Cayce counseled the man to “[keep] self unspotted from condemnation of others.” Condemnation must be “eliminated from the expressions,” for “as ye condemn, so ARE ye condemned,” he told the former Klansman. “Know,” Cayce concluded, “as the choice is made, that it must be only ‘The Way.’ For, as given, he that climbs up some other way is a thief and a robber.”

The recipient was unsatisfied. “Frankly,” he wrote Cayce, the reading at first “did not make a very favorable impression on me.” Oblivious to the reading’s ethical dimension, the man felt he had been misunderstood and wrote back: “I have no desire to make money for money’s sake.” Cayce twice wrote him to urge that he discuss the reading with one of the clairvoyant’s longtime friends and supporters, a New York furniture manufacturer named David Kahn. Like Cayce, Kahn had grown up as something of a misfit—a Jewish grocer’s son raised in Lexington, Kentucky, where the pair met in 1907. Cayce came from a small farming town and was still unsure what to make of his psychic “gift.” In a clairvoyant reading for one of Kahn’s neighbors, he prescribed little-known osteopathic treatments that restored the health of a woman who had been severely hurt in an automobile accident. Kahn became a source of encouragement and a tireless promoter of Cayce, telling journalists he was “the greatest mystic who ever lived in America.” It could not have been lost on Cayce that he was now sending a former organizer for the anti-Semitic Silver Shirts to ponder his “life reading” with a Jewish man.

But Cayce was not always so deft or so wise. While in a trance state, Cayce was on rare occasions himself heard to utter racist nostrums. Contrary to his waking behavior, such remarks seemed to bubble from the recesses of his rural childhood under a notoriously bigoted father. He suggested from a trance state on June 18, 1923, that people of African descent had no soul. During another reading, on November 4, 1933, he heralded Hitler as a man “psychically led.” Other times, Cayce could make prophecies that were just wrong—predictions of earthquakes and environmental cataclysms, social upheavals and political swings, which never occurred.

Then there was the more familiar Cayce: the man who people of all backgrounds said was marked by unusual personal decency and warmth, who often gave psychical readings for free, at times leaving himself and his family in a state of near poverty. More typical of Cayce’s trance statements was this one from June 16, 1939, when he was asked about black Americans: “He is thy brother! … For He hath made of one blood the nations of the earth.” This Cayce had an influence so vast that the accumulated record of his readings ultimately altered the American vocabulary, making words like reincarnation, clairvoyance, meditation, channeling, past lives, and psychic into household terms. The cures he prescribed—involving herbs, whole foods, and mind–body therapies—laid the bedrock for the revolution in alternative medicine that swept the country years after his death. Cayce’s readings formed the sourcebook for a generation of spiritual writers and seekers. More than anyone else, this contradictory figure, whose childhood was marked by the traditions of deep-woods Kentucky, became the chief catalyst in opening the nation—and in some ways the world—to the religious–therapeutic ideas of the New Age.

“Help the Sick”

Cayce was born on March 18, 1877, in a town called Beverly in Western Kentucky. It was a place that didn’t see its first paved road until 1932. Tobacco was the major crop, and nearly everyone owned farmland or worked for someone who did. Memories of the Civil War ran deep, and the line between blacks and whites was like a razor fence. Although Cayce’s childhood could be harsh—his father was known to drink and sometimes mete out beatings—there was unmistakable closeness and trust in the family. Even when Cayce was well into middle age, his father, Leslie, would address him in letters as “My Dear Sweet Precious Boy.” Outside of home, school, and church, there were few activities or distractions. Even visiting the larger neighboring town of Hopkinsville required a buggy ride of more than twelve miles.

In this insular world, Cayce grew up as a sensitive, awkward child. Thin and tall for his age, he liked playing and spending time alone and was given to wandering through the meadows and woodlands that surrounded his home. Adults found him distracted and distant. He reported visitations from fairylike “friends” and communications with deceased relatives. At nine, when other boys became obsessed with fishing or sports, Cayce grew enthralled with Scripture and begged his father—a man never quite possessed of steady work—to buy a Bible for their home. He began reading through the entire book each year. One night at age thirteen, this boy who talked with hidden friends and consumed Scripture knelt by his bed and prayed for the ability to be of help to others. Just before going to sleep, he recalled in his memoirs, a glorious light filled the room and a feminine apparition appeared at the foot of his bed, telling him: Thy prayers are heard. You will have your wish. Remain faithful. Be true to yourself. Help the sick, the afflicted.

Cayce first discovered his power for trance readings in 1901 when, stricken by chronic laryngitis, he entered a hypnotic state and successfully diagnosed his own illness. In the years ahead, he worked on the fringes of mainstream medicine—with hypnotists, osteopaths, and homeopaths—going into trance states and prescribing folk cures, natural remedies, and more-conventional treatments for hundreds of ill people. Again and again, stories and testimonies held that his readings and remedies worked. Newspapers and medical investigators began paying attention, and, in what represented Cayce’s debut on the national stage, The New York Times ran a long article on October 9, 1910: Illiterate Man Becomes a Doctor When Hypnotized.

Cayce was not illiterate, but neither was he well educated. He never made it beyond the eighth grade of a rural schoolhouse. Though he taught Sunday school at his Disciples of Christ church, he read little outside of Scripture. Aside from a few on-and-off years wildcatting in Texas oil fields in the early 1920s—where he tried, and failed, to raise money for a hospital based on his clairvoyant cures—Cayce rarely ventured beyond the Bible Belt environs of his childhood. Since the tale of Jonah fleeing from the word of God, prophets have been characterized as reluctant, ordinary folk plucked from reasonably satisfying lives to embark on missions they never sought. In this sense, if the impending Aquarian Age or New Age—the sprawling marketplace of Eastern, esoteric, and therapeutic spirituality that exploded on the national scene in the late 1960s and 1970s—was seeking a prophet, Cayce was hardly an unusual choice, but, historically, he was a perfect one.

The Occult Philosophy

If the New Age could be said to possess a starting point, it might be traced to the early autumn of 1923 in Selma, Alabama. After his failed oil ventures, Cayce resettled his family there to resume an intermittent career as a commercial photographer and enroll his sixteen-year-old son, Hugh Lynn, in Selma High. Cayce’s readings had reportedly cured Hugh Lynn of blindness at age six, following a flash-powder accident, and the boy was devoted to his father’s mission. Cayce’s wife, Gertrude, was less certain. She had suffered Cayce’s absences while struggling with a new baby son, Edgar Evans, and ached for the family to assume a normal life.

In September, a wealthy printer from Dayton, Ohio, Arthur Lammers, came to visit Cayce at his photography studio. Lammers had learned about Cayce during the psychic’s oil-prospecting days. The Ohioan was an unlikely combination of hard-driving businessman—stocky and tough, with sharp eyes and powerful limbs—and an avid seeker in Theosophy, ancient religions, and the occult. He and his wife maintained a Victorian mansion in Dayton with stained-glass windows, a pipe organ, and bookshelves lined with what Poe would have called “many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore.” The businessman–occultist insisted that the seer could use his powers for more than medical diagnosis. He wanted Cayce to probe the secrets of the ages: What happens after death? Is there a soul? Why are we here? Moreover, Lammers wanted to understand the mysteries of the pyramids, astrology, alchemy, the “Etheric World,” reincarnation, and the esoteric religions of ancient Egypt and Greece.

Cayce had been willing to put up with the stares and whispers from churchgoing friends and neighbors regarding his trance readings, but astrology and other occult topics seemed vaguely heretical to him. For all his outer humility, however, Cayce was a man of ambitions. The psychical researcher Martin Ebon noted that Cayce showed “the weakness … to give in to the demanding questions of the True Believers, to those who wanted to see him as all-knowing.” And after years of stalled progress in his outer life, Cayce was enticed by the new sense of mission. Lammers urged Cayce to move with him to Dayton, assuring the psychic that he and his family would be well cared for there. Lammers offered Cayce not only a way up in the world but possibly funds for the alternative-healing hospital Cayce dreamed of.

Cayce returned with Lammers to Dayton and soon uprooted Gertrude and Edgar Evans to join him in a two-room efficiency apartment Lammers had rented for them. The older boy, Hugh Lynn, remained behind with friends in Selma to finish out the school term. Cayce also brought to Dayton a new intimate of the family: his attractive, meticulous eighteen-year-old stenographer, Gladys Davis, whom he had recently hired to transcribe his readings. Gertrude could only have looked askance at the younger woman living in close quarters with her family. But Davis’s devotions seemed limited to the Cayce readings alone, which she spent the rest of her life organizing. For Gertrude, Dayton meant another period of uncertainty. There is little record of the loneliness she must have felt or her difficulty in making new friends when the inevitable question that a homemaker would have been asked was: “What does your husband do?” But for Lammers and Cayce, the move marked the launch of an extraordinary inner journey.

Cayce and Lammers began their explorations at a downtown Dayton hotel on October 11, 1923. In the presence of several onlookers, Lammers arranged for Cayce to enter a trance and give him an astrological reading. Whatever hesitancies the waking Cayce felt over arcane subjects vanished while he was in his psychical state. Cayce expounded deeply on astrological questions, affirming the art’s basic value, even as “the Source” alluded to misconceptions in the Western model. Near the end of the reading, Cayce almost casually tossed off that it was Lammers’s “third appearance on this [earthly] plane. He was once a monk.” There was a stunned silence in the room. Here was an unmistakable reference to reincarnation. It was exactly what Lammers had been looking for.

For the following month, the men continued their readings, probing further into Hermetic and esoteric spirituality. From a trance state on October 18, Cayce laid out for Lammers, the reincarnated monk, what appeared to be an entire philosophy of life, dealing with reincarnation, man’s role in the cosmic order, and the hidden purpose of existence:

In this we see the plan of development of those individuals set upon this plane, meaning the ability (as would be manifested from the physical) to enter again into the presence of the Creator and become a full part of that creation.

Insofar as this entity is concerned, this is the third appearance on this plane, and before this one, as the monk. We see glimpses in the life of the entity now as were shown in the monk, in his mode of living.

The body is only the vehicle ever of that spirit and soul that waft through all times and ever remain the same.

These phrases were, for Lammers, the golden key to the mysteries: a theory of eternal recurrence that identified man’s purpose on earth as perfectibility through karma and repeat cycles of birth, then reintegration with the source of Creation. This, the printer believed, was the hidden truth behind the Scriptural injunction to be “born again” so as to “enter the kingdom of Heaven.”

“It opens up the door,” Lammers enthused. “It’s like finding the secret chamber of the Great Pyramid.” He told Cayce that the doctrine that had come through the readings seemed to synchronize the wisdom traditions of the world: “It’s Hermetic, it’s Pythagorean, it’s Jewish, it’s Christian!” Cayce wasn’t sure what to believe. “The important thing,” Lammers reassured him, “is that the basic system which runs through all the mystery traditions, whether they come from Tibet or the Pyramids of Egypt, is backed up by you. It’s actually the right system.… It not only agrees with the best ethics of religion and society, it is actually the source of them.”

Lammers’s enthusiasms aside, the religious ideas that emerged from Cayce’s trances did articulate a compelling theology. They sought to marry a Christian moral outlook with the cycles of karma and reincarnation central to Hindu and Buddhist ways of thought and with the Hermetic concept of man as an extension of the Divine. If there was an inner, or occult, philosophy behind the world’s historic faiths, Cayce had come as close as any modern person to defining it.

The Power of Past Lives

Dayton marked a period in which Cayce went beyond medical clairvoyance (though he never abandoned it as the mainstay of his work), engaging more and more in readings on “past lives.” The past lives he found were rarely ordinary. Subjects were often reported to be ancient priests or priestesses, denizens of lost civilizations, historic kings and warriors. Indeed, the figures that populated Cayce’s past-life catalog took forms and personas similar to those who peopled a vast project initiated several years earlier by the English Theosophist Charles Webster Leadbeater. Both Cayce and Leadbeater attributed their insights to the same source. Cayce said he was able to access cosmic records imprinted on the akasha, or universal ether. These “akashic records” were a concept derived from sacred Hindu writings and popularized in the late nineteenth century by Madame Blavatsky. Cayce, in his Christian worldview, equated akasha with the Book of Life.

Leadbeater and Cayce were probably the two most influential occult thinkers in the years between the world wars—yet the men were stark opposites. Leadbeater was the kind of square-jawed Englishman who made others step out of his way: He was built like a mountain, his angular face was softened only slightly by a bushy beard and wavy white hair, and his glinting eyes were sometimes malevolent, his smile unkind. Leadbeater was a bulldozer, physically and intellectually—world-traveled, well read, witty to a razor’s edge, and ruthless toward adversaries. His libertine lifestyle was dogged by charges of pederasty. Cayce, on the other hand, looked and sounded every bit the small-town photographer and Sunday-school teacher, with his gentle bespectacled eyes, jowly face, receding gray hair, stooped shoulders, and potbelly. He was as mild a man as you could hope to meet. Yet the two contemporaries, a world apart geographically and ethically, embarked on a remarkably similar journey.

Leadbeater’s venture into the past began in 1909 when he discovered an unusual, sensitive boy, Jiddu Krishnamurti, playing on the beach near Theosophy’s headquarters in Adyar, India. He and Annie Besant saw the boy as the incarnation of a new “World Teacher.” (Krishnamurti did, after breaking with Theosophy, become a deeply respected and unclassifiable spiritual teacher.) Leadbeater began to construct an epic, encyclopedic timeline of the past lives of Krishnamurti and his companions. Calling him by the esoteric name Alcyone (for the entity repeatedly reborn through him), Leadbeater in 1910 began serializing his Lives of Alcyone. Alcyone/Krishnamurti and his historical companions made up the temple hierarchies of mythical Atlantis and ancient Egypt and left their marks as statesmen, alchemists, warriors, and philosophers of the ancient world. In a sense, Leadbeater had created a grand prehistory for the lives of his fellow Theosophists.

Cayce’s readings favored similar historical settings and characters to Leadbeater’s: Atlantis and the cities of Hellenic and pre-Columbian empires. Past lives were not without tragedy: Amid the Egyptian princes and princesses, Hellenic conquerors, and Atlantean priests were also victims of war, rape, and other brutalities—sufferings that, in the philosophy of the Cayce readings, explained present-day neuroses in the lives of their subjects. Indeed, Cayce’s subjects often reported feeling relieved at being able to understand current pathologies or obsessions as the result of violence or tragedy in a previous incarnation.

The Cayce family (in its twentieth-century version) provided a case in point. In his biography by journalist A. Robert Smith, Cayce’s elder son, Hugh Lynn, made the startlingly frank admission that throughout his teenage years he experienced profound sexual longings for his mother. All this came to a head in 1923 when the high-schooler traveled to Dayton to rejoin his family for a troubling Christmas. When his father came to pick him up at the train station, Hugh Lynn hugged him and felt the crinkle of paper: Edgar had stuffed newspaper into his thin overcoat to protect him from the cold of the Midwest winter. Lammers, it seemed, had experienced a series of sudden business setbacks and had left the Cayce family destitute. While embroiled in out-of-town lawsuits, the great searcher into the unknown had not even bothered to send the Cayces a few dollars for groceries. Their Christmas dinner consisted of a chicken that could be cupped in the hands. In another unsettling discovery for the teen who had stood so solidly behind his father, Hugh Lynn was told by Edgar about his new psychical experiments into past lives. And as a Christmas gift, Edgar explained, he had secretly performed one for Hugh Lynn, discovering that the lad had once been a great ruler in ancient Egypt. Even by Cayce standards, the family seemed to have slid off the edge.

But as Hugh Lynn listened to his reading, things began to change. The reading took on the eerily familiar tones of the boy’s innermost conflicts: his agonizing attraction toward his mother and his jealousy and resentment of his father. Hugh Lynn, Edgar revealed, had been an Egyptian monarch who coveted a beautiful dancer named Isis. But Isis’s affections were for the kingdom’s high priest, Ra Ta, with whom she had a daughter. Infuriated, the ruler exiled them both. The high priest, Edgar explained, was an earlier incarnation of Hugh Lynn’s father, and the dancer Isis was the past life of his mother. Hugh Lynn was stunned. He had taken every measure to conceal his feelings, but here was this karmic psychodrama that reframed his neurosis in mythical or archetypal terms.

In its way, Hugh Lynn said, the story helped him find a kind of peace. “The reading explained very clearly that what I felt for my father and for my mother was memory,” he told his biographer. “And I was responsible for what kind of memory I had. I was imposing on my father a whole set of ideas that didn’t exist. I was jealous of him, but I had no right to be jealous in the present-day situation.… You see, I was putting on him my own weaknesses, my own problems—and we all do it.”

It was similar to the experience of others who sought out Cayce for past-life readings. Whatever their source, Cayce’s hundreds of past-life readings did provide a sense of context and meaning that helped resolve feelings of helplessness and anguish in the lives of their recipients, many of whom returned for multiple sessions. The past-life readings prefigured some of the key themes that later ran through Jungian and transpersonal therapies and the work of widely read mythologists such as Joseph Campbell and Robert Bly. Stripped of occult methodology, the insights of the Cayce readings also echoed Freud’s theories of repression and the development of neuroses.

The Esoteric Healer

After escaping the poverty of Dayton through the help of a new donor in 1925, Cayce relocated his activities to Virginia Beach, a town selected by the readings. Cayce enjoyed the ocean climate and nearby fishing. In Virginia, he at last raised enough money to start his “Hospital of Enlightenment.” In 1929, Cayce and his supporters opened a thirty-bed facility on a small hill overlooking the Atlantic. It provided a comforting, homey setting that more resembled a shingled seaside inn than a medical facility. But it was a real clinic. Amid the sunshine, shuffleboard, and tennis, the Cayce Hospital had a staff of MDs, nurses, osteopaths, and chiropractors. Patients could receive clairvoyant diagnoses and alternative therapies such as massage and colonics, along with modern X rays, urinalyses, and blood work. Cayce delivered a metaphysical lecture each Sunday. He made some of the first prescriptions of meditation as an emotional and physical aid. But, in one of the deepest tragedies of Cayce’s life, the onslaught of the Great Depressionclosed the hospital within two years. Attempts to open a metaphysical college, Atlantic University, met with similar results. Crestfallen and withdrawn, Cayce sought solace in the activities he knew as a boy: Bible-reading, gardening, fishing, and chopping wood. While his frame sagged under his disappointment, he carried on his clairvoyant readings at an intensive pace.

Readings carried a fee of $20, which included membership in Cayce’s nascent organization, the Association for Research and Enlightenment (A.R.E.). Records show that he often reduced or waived payments altogether, particularly during the Depression, when he might give a reading for a dollar or two sent by an injured laborer, an ailing homemaker, or the parent of a sick child. Here is Cayce on March 29, 1940, writing to a blind man employed as a chair re-caner, who asked about paying in installments: “You may take care of the membership any way convenient to your self—please know one is not prohibited from having a reading if they really desire same because they haven’t money. If this information is of a divine source it can’t be sold, if it isn’t then it isn’t worth any thing.”

In the kind of medical encounter that typified Cayce’s career, a respected New York publisher, William Sloane, had an unforgettable brush with the readings. In 1940, Sloane agreed to consider a manuscript on the seer’s life, There Is a River, by Thomas Su grue. It was a highly sympathetic biography assembled by a journalist who had been Hugh Lynn’s college roommate and who believed a Cayce reading had saved his life. Sloane was initially wary but changed his mind when Cayce’s clairvoyant diagnosis helped one of his own children. Novelist and screenwriter Nora Ephron recounted the episode in a 1968 article she wrote for The New York Times. “I read it,” said Sloane, then an editor at Holt, Rinehart & Winston. “Now there isn’t any way to test a manuscript like this. So I did the only thing I could do.” He went on:

A member of my family, one of my children, had been in great and continuing pain. We’d been to all the doctors and dentists in the area and all the tests were negative and the pain was still there. I wrote Cayce, told him my child was in pain and would be at a certain place at such-and-such a time, and enclosed a check for $25. He wrote back that there was an infection in the jaw behind a particular tooth. So I took the child to the dentist and told him to pull the tooth. The dentist refused—he said his professional ethics prevented him from pulling sound teeth. Finally, I told him he would have to pull it. One tooth more or less didn’t matter, I said—I couldn’t live with the child in such pain. So he pulled the tooth and the infection was there and the pain went away. I was a little shook. I’m the kind of man who believes in X-rays. About this time, a member of my staff who thought I was nuts to get involved with this took even more precautions in writing to Cayce than I did, and he sent her back facts about her own body only she could have known. So I published Sugrue’s book.

Come as You Were

There Is a River appeared in 1942, less than three years before Cayce’s death, and brought him the kind of national attention his admirers had long wanted. In its review pages, The Christian Century, a journal not typically given to occult enthusiasms, called Cayce “a genuine psychic and … also a simple, direct and religious personality.” The reviewer, Margueritte Harmon Bro, followed up with a widely circulated article, “Miracle Man of Virginia Beach,” which appeared in the newsstand digest Coronet.* The wave of publicity brought equal attention to the spiritual and psychical concepts in the Cayce readings, including astrology, reincarnation, karma, mind–body healing, and trance cognition. Such material was now making inroads into mainstream publishing houses. Another book that began its publishing life with Sloane went one step further in establishing Cayce and his ideas.

The year 1956 saw the publication of a sensationally popular best seller, The Search for Bridey Murphy, by Morey Bernstein, an amateur hypnotist and Ivy League–educated dealer in scrap metal and heavy machinery. (He jokingly referred to his family business as “Ulcers, Incorporated.”) Inspired by Cayce’s career, Bernstein conducted a series of experiments with a Pueblo, Colorado, housewife who, under a hypnotic trance, regressed into a past-life persona: an early-nineteenth-century Irish country girl named Bridey Murphy. The entranced homemaker spoke in an Irish brogue and recounted comprehensive details of her life more than a century earlier. On paper and in person, Bernstein exuded a likability and genuineness that made him a hugely convincing figure, nothing like the Poe-styled version of a creepy Mesmerist that was making the rounds in Hammer horror films. In fact, when Bernstein’s story came to the screen, actor Louis Hayward captured his dry, straight-talking style impeccably in a much-hyped movie version ofThe Search for Bridey Murphy, which was rushed into production later that year.

Suddenly, reincarnation—an ancient Hindu concept about which Americans had heard little before World War II—was the latest craze. In 1956, Life magazine wrote of past-life costume soirees called Come as You Were parties. A popular joke made the rounds:Did you hear the one about the man who read Bridey Murphy and changed his will? He left everything to himself. Books on occultism, hypnosis, and reincarnation were suddenly mainstream hits. “It’s the hottest thing since Norman Vincent Peale,” reported a Houston bookseller. Melvin Powers, a pioneering New Age publisher in Los Angeles, saw sales on some of his titles multiply twenty-five times.

Not everyone was amused. Mainstream medical authorities had long been seeking a proper place for hypnosis, which had made considerable strides since the days of Mesmerism and Andrew Jackson Davis (a seer whose rustic childhood, some noted, closely resembled Cayce’s own). A century before The Search for Bridey Murphy, a Scottish medical practitioner named James Braid had begun using the term hypnotism to demarcate the medically provable applications of trance therapy from its occult associations. Sigmund Freud used hypnosis to begin his researches into the unconscious mind. A more sober view of hypnotism began to reach even the mail-order audience. In 1899, an amateur Chicago hypnotist named Arthur L. Webb published a how-to pamphlet, “Somnambulism,” which set about banishing the ghosts of Mesmerism. “I must … take issue with those who claim the hypnotist is a person of supernatural power,” Webb wrote, calling for the practice to be placed “in the hands of physicians” in order to ensure its fullest potential.

Just prior to the publication of The Search for Bridey Murphy, the British Medical Society cautiously affirmed the medical benefits of hypnotism but condemned its use for probing psychical powers. The American Medical Association concurred, noting—in a statement that could sober up a bottle of liquor—that the practice showed particular promise for “a trained and qualified dentist” who “might use hypnosis for hypnoanesthesia, hypnoanalgesia, or for the allaying of anxiety in relation to dental work.” A tug-of-war developed between those medical authorities who, like the AMA, saw hypnotism as little more than a method of anesthetizing and others who believed it held potential for the exploration of clairvoyance or higher forms of cognition. Philosophers and scientists including Harvard’s William James, British researcher F. W. H. Myers, and Duke University’s J. B. Rhine wanted to strip away a carnival atmosphere without imperiling reasoned inquiries into the potentials of the human mind.

Indeed, within the work of Cayce himself there existed something far more than fodder for reincarnation parties, paperback books, and hobby hypnotists. Cayce was often critical of spiritual trends and shortcuts. When followers who were forming a study group asked him about using mental visualizations or affirmations—precisely the kinds of practices favored in most New Thought circles—he said in a trance reading: “To visualize by picturizing [sic] is to BECOME idol worshippers. Is this pleasing, with thy conception of thy God that has given, ‘Have no other gods before me?’ … Then, let rather thy service ever be, ‘Not my will, O God, but Thine be done in me, through me.’ ”

Those who closely looked into Cayce’s work discovered that it conveyed a consistent set of values. Cayce returned inquirers, again and again, to the principle that the esoteric core of religions, the search for inner knowing, the mystical teachings of the Bible, or any communication received through some kind of metaphysical faculty was worthless unless applied in the pursuit of higher aims, which he conceived in specifically Christian terms. Here, for example, is Cayce during a trance reading in January of 1935, responding to a question on what is required for spiritual growth: “Faith, hope and—MOST of all—PATIENCE! ‘In patience possess ye your souls.’ Be patient even in those periods of exaltation, joy, sorrow, woe. For in this do all become aware of the CONTINUITY of life itself; the more and more that this is made aware in the experience of the soul, more and more may the hope and the faith grow. Be patient.”

“If You Can’t Help Me, No Person on Earth Can”

Cayce’s maturation as an ethicist was often unappreciated during his lifetime. The reach of his empathy may be the truest source of his greatness. During the Christmas season of 1935, Cayce received an urgent letter from a young cousin, a Kentucky college student, who confided, “I am a homosexual.” The twenty-one-year-old had been seeing a psychologist but was obviously receiving nothing of value. “As far as I can explain for a reason for my condition,” he wrote Cayce, “I think masturbation has played a role in it. Of course I realize that environment and other things have also helped to bring about my state of mind. But still I am determined to carry out and believe anything that you say or suggest if it is different from what the psychologist [says] because he never helped me and I have my doubts as to his knowledge of me.”

Having nowhere else to turn—and fearful that his strict Catholic family should ever learn the truth—the boy implored Cayce for advice on how to go on living: “I honestly feel down in my heart that if you can’t help me, no person on earth can.”

The psychic was now well into middle age—a man raised in a backwoods town, who never finished grade school, was called an “illiterate” in the press, read little beyond Scripture, and taught at religiously conservative Sunday schools. In virtually every respect, Cayce might seem a miscast confidant. But he replied with a letter of unusual depth and sensitivity. Cayce told the young man:

Sex, of course, is a great factor in everyone’s life; it is the line between the great and the vagabond, the good and the bad; it is the expression of reactive forces in our very nature; allowed to run wild, to self-indulgence, becomes physical and mental derangement; turned into the real influence it should be in one’s life, connects man closer with his God, and this is the use you should put it to.… That your experience has brought you manifestations that have at times, or often, expressed themselves in sex is not to be wondered at, when we realize that that is the expression of creative life on earth.

Those around the youth, Cayce advised, held no control, no key to the meaning of his existence; he said that the young man’s purpose in life was to discover who he really was and to follow that, always with the aim of Christian love. Within Cayce’s tone and counsel appear the stirrings of the drive toward “self-realization” that marked the alternative spiritual movements and transpersonal therapies of later decades. Yet nothing in Cayce’s background would suggest his ability to write with such insight and depth. Leaving aside whatever debate may be had about the question of his psychical abilities or whether such things exist, Cayce appeared to tap in to something that was knowing, humane, and capable of taking a higher measure of situations—and it all seemed to come from somewhere else, somewhere other than the obvious cultural touchstones of his life.

“Knowledge not lived is sin,” read the masthead of a newsletter Cayce published in the months before his death in January 1945. In both deed and word, Cayce embodied the principle that inner teachings must be—if they are to be anything—methods of service. Cayce would have understood the Talmudic precepts that whoever makes a worldly crown of religion will waste away and that saving a single life is as saving the whole world. As practiced by Cayce, esoteric teachings existed to bring respite, to create a “channel” (as he put it) for good into the world. This prophet of the New Age introduced hope and dignity into lives and places where conventional messages and messengers had failed to reach. And this, in the end, was the highest legacy of occult America.

* Bro was one of the first serious journalists to look into Cayce. Her son, Harmon, later worked with Cayce and in 1955 completed a University of Chicago Divinity School doctoral dissertation on Cayce as a religious seer/healer.

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