by Jeffrey Kripal
This last winter I was in New York City. I had two speaking gigs, but I had arrived a few days early to show my mother and daughter around the city. We did all the things that tourists do, from seeing Wicked and The Lion King to going down to Wall Street, where we watched giggling tourists from around the world take photographs of their loved ones holding the testicles of that huge brass bull. There are cross-cultural patterns, it turns out.
It was her spring break, so my daughter eventually had to go back to school. Mom was not on spring break, and she was not about to leave. She wanted more. And the more she really wanted was Live! with Regis and Kelly. So we took a cab up to freeze our butts off in an early morning line that wound around the studio building. We determined fairly quickly that we never had a chance, a fact which we discerned in a warm coffee shop, holding a piece of paper that said “41” on it, as in “41 on the waiting list.” And so we headed back downtown, to freeze in another line, this time to see Al Roker do his weather gig on NBC’s Today Show.
Mom strikes up a conversation with a police officer. He gives her a productive tip: “Why don’t you go across the street to the NBC Studios, where they are filming an episode of The Dr. Oz Show.” Oz! That was all it took. Mom, like millions of other American women, loves Dr. Oz, a fifty-something Harvard-trained heart surgeon who looks like a movie star and has his own show addressing the health and happiness of its largely-female audience.
With a name like Oz, how can you go wrong? I grew up in a little town in southeastern Nebraska called Hebron, which was wiped out in 1953 by a monster tornado—just leveled the place. Not surprisingly, The Wizard of Oz used to scare the living begeezus out of me, mostly because of the opening tornado scene and those damned flying monkeys. I hated those flying monkeys.
But there was wisdom in the Land of Oz, too. For example, it was its eponymous bumbling Wizard who taught my little psyche, somehow, that some of the most bombastic mysteries of religion, of “the great and powerful Oz,” are really little more than human projections. These fake religious projections were in turn answered by an intensely alive, literally colorful mystical dreamscape of floating orbs, magic wands, and an excess of poppy flowers. I didn’t know then what I know now, namely, that this culturally potent combination of religious critique and surreal cultural expression originated in the story’s creator, Frank Baum, who was a Theosophist, and therefore deeply critical of traditional religion. In addition to writing his Oz series, he held séances in his home, wrote about clairvoyants and nature spirits, and believed in reincarnation. As a child, I didn’t know what a Theosophist was; I just knew I liked the topsy-turvy world that this Theosophist made.
Back in the midtown Arctic, mom and I got to the Rockefeller Tower and spent about an hour winding our way through the elaborate security lines, escalators, elevators, and young NBC pages, who happily shepherded us from this to that initiatory level in what looked increasingly like some great cosmic chain of being. We eventually got to the waiting room for The Dr. Oz Show. Physically speaking, I had absolutely no idea where we finally were. We could have been on the third floor, or the fiftieth, or in an underground alien base.
We sat in a really drab room for about thirty minutes. The actual studio was just on the other side of the wall. We could watch the comedian get the audience ready for the taping on a large television screen. We could also hear him through the wall.
Most of the people around us began complaining. Okay, it was more of a bitching. They had been promised a seat on the show, and this was no seat on the show. It was a seat behind a wall of the show. More pleasant pages entered and left, vaguely promising this or that. The people weren’t having it. They kept bitching. Except for mom. She just smiled and talked about how cool it was to be this close. She also loved it when Dr. Oz appeared at the back of the waiting room, surrounded by make-up artists and what I took to be script supervisors.
Then it happened. Dr. Oz made his grand entry onto the studio floor and introduced the show’s topic: “Psychic Mediums: Are They the New Therapists?” The guest was John Edward, the television medium and author. Edward and this particular topic, it turns out, was why we were in the waiting room in the first place. As Dr. Oz explained in his opening lines, this topic had attracted more audience attention than any in the show’s history.
As any scholar of spirituality can tell you, there is a long history of engagement between the medical sciences and the mystical arts. Furthermore, the appeal of such mediums to a mass audience has an equally long history, including stages and pulpits much different from this drab corner of network headquarters. So, I wasn’t surprised at all that John Edward had solicited such attention for Oz’s viewer audience.
I was surprised by the sophistication of the show’s writers. They were not asking, yet again, the same old question: Is it all real or all fake? Instead, they asked: Do psychic mediums sometimes function in a therapeutic fashion for grieving individuals? (Answer: Absolutely.) In effect, they did an end-run around the question of belief, evading the classic debunking postures that had populated so many of these magic-science encounters. And they covered their bases, too. Dr. Oz and his producers invited a representative from the American Psychology Association to sit in the front row. And Edward himself spoke about his strong feelings that newly grieving parents should not visit a medium and how one should never substitute a visit to a medium for needed psychotherapeutic or psychiatric help. In the contest between faith and science, Dr. Oz and his guests had one clear reply: therapy first.
Within this therapeutic certitude, however, there was some intriguing ambiguity. One might expect from Dr. Oz—or from any doctor, really—an arrogant dismissal of mediumship and its therapies. However, this is not what we got from Oz. Instead, we got a thoughtful, open-minded, even humble heart surgeon who began by confessing that, “I have seen things about life and death that I just cannot explain, and that science can’t study.” Later, he would gently identify himself with the quarter of the American population that does not believe in an afterlife, but he was obviously intrigued and moved by what he witnessed John Edward doing with his audience. Mom was right. Dr. Oz was cool. I immediately liked him.
Edward began by explaining how he gets the messages—like daydreams—and how the message is seldom, if ever, perfect because of its medium, that is, him. He can only interpret what he senses, much like one must interpret a dream. Edward explained that he can only do this through his own terms of reference. In short, he explained that his ability is not a direct line to the beyond. It is something mediated, filtered, and interpreted again by him. Sounded right to me. Edward began with a young woman named Jen. The hits started immediately. He somehow knew that Jen’s mother had died of breast cancer. He asked her if “she got the car.” She had. She had been given her mother’s Lexus, which her mother had purchased right before she passed. He also knew that Jen and her sister had been discussing “sexting” on the way to the studio. What they had actually been doing was obsessing over which bachelor party photos to post to Facebook. Close enough. Meanwhile, as Edward thought through Jen, I was observing pretty much what I am always observing, namely, that the erotic always finds a way to peek through, even when you are talking to the dead.
It looked as if Jen had asked to go first, since she explained that Edward had done a reading for her mother while she was still alive and she herself was a fan. So his reading of Jen was impressive, but not quite spontaneous. Dr. Oz now opened the show up to Edward’s own intuition. He quickly turned to his left and identified a spot in the audience where he sensed something coming through. Something to do with St. Patrick’s Day. Audience members on the other side of the studio tried to get his attention. Hey, they wanted to be on TV too, and, apparently, they had a St. Patrick’s Day story. But he would have none of it. Edward knew exactly where he wanted to go: somewhere around a woman with a red shirt and a black jacket. He described again getting hits around “St. Patrick’s Day” and, now, a sense of being run or rolled over by a tractor or train.
Nope. Nothing. The woman in red and black knew nothing. Then the opposite side of the studio tried to get Edward’s attention again. No way.
Finally, a young woman (to the immediate left of the identified target) sheepishly stood up and told the story of her friend’s roommate, who was struck by a car on St. Patrick’s Day. Close enough.
And so it went.
Just as this segment was ending, one of those happy pages appeared in our waiting room and scooped up two people: mom and me. The room, I now realized, was a kind of testing pen. The pages had shut us all up in that room because they were looking for the right person, the right character (read: the right woman). That would be my mom. They walked her down to the front row, middle seat, and sat her down for the show’s next taped episode, this one on how to prepare turkey meatballs. They took me for one reason: I was with mom. They sat me in the thirty-something row up somewhere where it really didn’t matter if I had three heads.
To my great amazement, within minutes Dr. Oz was hand-feeding turkey meatballs to my mom on national television. All the pages were smiling and clapping. They had hand picked her, after all. Mom was beaming.
Then it was all over. Mom walked out giddy over Dr. Oz. I walked out marveling at what amounted to a new, and very old, theatre of the occult. If the Spiritualists had mixed entertainment and mediumship on stage in the nineteenth century, their present day inheritors were now doing it on national TV. It seemed to me that they did so with more or less the same paradoxical, ambiguous, fantastic results, through that surreal brew of trick and truth, fact and fiction, dream and daylight, constructed stagecraft and inherent gift that has long defined the performance of what we so clumsily call “the spiritual.”
Frank Baum would have loved it.
(Watch the episode here.)