Eat Prey Drug: Witness
Text and Photographs by Paul Kwiatkowski
  • Editor’s Note: This is part six of Paul Kwiatkowski’s cross-country assignment to investigate alternate perceptions of consciousness. Click here for part one [NSFW], two [NSFW], three [NSFW], four and five.
  • “When someone in Lily Dale passes on a good quip, it’s prudent to ask, “Was that person living or dead when he said that?” The word dead isn’t used, of course. They call it “passing over,” “going from the earth plane,” or “leaving for Summerland,” the Spiritualist version of heaven. ”
    — Christine Wicker, Lily Dale: The True Story of the Town That Talks to the Dead

  • Indiana

  • I pulled up the weather app on my iPhone. Tiny clouds raining lighting bolts were stacked for the next three days. The storms moved from left to right, scrolling off-screen in a continuous loop. It was the first time I noticed the animation.

  • That is the only detail I remember from Indiana.

  • Ohio

  • Driving through Ohio was exactly how I imagined it: reduced. The rain clattered so loudly against the roof, the windshield, the hood, the asphalt — everything — that I couldn’t hear the radio. I was trapped with myself.

    I recalled a long-winded story Kelly had told me about one of her friends, Meg. She used to work for a service that sent strippers out to parties for men in baseball caps, sweatshirts, distressed denim and Timberlands. Meg’s job was to jump out of a hollowed cake.

  • Kelly said she once helped Meg shoot Molly mixed with water into her asshole with a syringe. Later that night Meg passed out inside of a cake at a bachelor party. The guys, too drunk to investigate, figured she had never arrived and left the entire mess in the garage. Meg claimed that she shat herself inside the sweltering cake and contracted Giardia.

    Kelly added that it was rumored Meg had been dropped on her head as a cheerleader.

  • Pennsylvania

  • The storm bled across five states, trailing me from Wisconsin to Pennsylvania. Intermittent flashes of lighting illuminated the horizon for miles in a split second. My eyes watered from fixing to that depth then rushing back to focus on the rain pouring down the windshield.

    I drove with my chin pressed against the steering wheel. The rain was actually a welcome change from the monotony of the 12-hour drive. It was good for me to concentrate on the road, good for my mind to stop wandering. The buzz of traveling and of being in new places dulled as the roads narrowed and the landscape changed to smaller trees, patchy woods, shrubs, rolling hills, farmland — to New York State.

  • Lily Dale, New York

  • Lily Dale is the culmination of spirituality, myth, yearning and hype. Its residents claim to have the ability to weave the “spirit world” with our own. There’s an ecstatic belief in the continuity of life after death.

    Founded in 1879, Lily Dale is the pinnacle of the American Spiritualist movement. The town is a gated community of mediums who are consulted by bereaved tourists. It seems the entire town runs workshops and lectures on subjects like psychic awareness, past lives and out-of-body experiences, but their focus is on aligning medium, spirit and client. Outside of the religiously devote, I have never seen the sublime considered with such regard.

  • American Spiritualism as a movement began in 1848 when the Fox sisters claimed to hear knocking sounds coming from within the walls of their family’s farmhouse in Hydesville, New York. From Lily Dale, by journalist Christine Wicker:

    One night the youngest daughter, nine-year-old Kate Fox, called out, “Here, Mr. Split-foot, do as I do.” Split-foot was a jocular name for the devil.

    She rubbed her finger against her thumb as though snapping her fingers but without any sound. One rap sounded each motion of her fingers. “Only look, Mother,” she exclaimed. “It can see as well as hear.”

    The family began asking questions and soon set up a system of taps for yes and no. They invited neighbors in, and the knocks continued. The answers to their questions eventually convinced them that the rapper was the spirit of a peddler and, further, that he had been murdered and buried in the cellar. It made a grand ghost story, although no one had ever been convicted of such a crime.

    The sisters began performing for larger audiences. Their abilities were tested, but no evidence of trickery was found.

  • Years later the Fox sisters confessed that their communication with the dead was indeed an act: The choreographed knocking sounds were done by clicking their knees. It was originally intended to be a joke on their mother. It escalated into a phenomenon.

    The town of Hydesville no longer exists, but the Fox sisters’ cottage was preserved in a move to Lily Dale, two hours away. It suspiciously burned down in 1955. In a rare case of children crying wolf and the wolf crying back, a peddler’s box rumored to contain the belongings of the murdered man was found amid the wreckage.

  • It's hard not to be swept up in delirium within Lily Dale’s gates. If you’re a middle-aged woman with a penchant for tarot cards, the word “energy,” astrology, auras, chakras, meditation, reiki, crystals, cats, fairies and “spiritual well-being,” Lily Dale is bliss.

    I wandered down its horse-carriage-sized streets between dilapidated Victorian homes surrounded by a forest of the tallest trees I’ve ever seen on the East Coast. They loomed over me, connecting branches into a leafy canopy like in California’s Redwood forests. I understood why this place felt sacred to those who choose to believe in what Lily Dale has to offer.

  • I attended a free mediumship demonstration inside a large barn converted into a chapel. The crowd of nearly a hundred was made up mainly of the aforementioned kind of women with a smattering of older male yoga instructors and the children they had dragged here.

    The woman leading the service explained how the demonstration would proceed: One by one, different mediums registered with the town were going to emerge, pick people from the crowd and deliver them a message from the beyond. Clapping wasn’t necessary; smiles and nods were sufficient. After the service there was an opportunity to set up a private session with your favorite medium. It felt like being told the rules of an amusement park or picking a hooker out of a brothel lineup.

  • Before starting, the host asked us to pray together:

    Divine and loving light, thank you for the order that is throughout the universe that continues to create, which continues to give without thought. We are part of that, although all things we do not understand. In our receiving we ask that we be revealed how we can help ourselves and help all life. We know there is more. The more we learn, and in learning, we realize our life is for loving. Thank you God and all those who come in the name of love.

    She introduced the first medium, an older woman in a flowery pink-and-purple dress who came out singing “It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood” before pointing in my direction with all five fingers. “I’m pointing at the gentleman in the back with the blue jacket and short hair.” Everyone sitting around me turned to watch my reaction with doe-eyed expectancy. I sat there nodding like I was told to.

  • “I see a couple people walked in with you.” She claimed that a grandmother-like woman was standing behind me wearing something “house wife-y,” an apron with roses. The grandmother was wagging her finger at me because of “something I was supposed to do.” I had missed out on an opportunity that was in front of me, most likely work-related. The medium said I should check my attention span. She said I doubted myself too often, which was why I lost these opportunities. “Remember to tell yourself, ‘Yes I can.’ Think about those opportunities.”

    All those things were vaguely true, but it was also bullshit. There are no apple-pie-baking grannies in my past, and calling out missed opportunities is too general. But I didn’t mind that my reading hadn’t hit the mark. I felt haunted enough; I didn’t need a judgmental ghost too.

  • The next person the medium called, a woman, apparently had an older man sitting beside her. “He was on your mother’s side,” the medium said. “He says you look good in the pink you’re wearing, and I see lots of flowers. He’s giving you a gift. Are you expecting a birthday or anniversary?”

    The woman’s face deflated behind her ear-to-ear smile. Her voice wavered when she said “no” in a long Southern drawl. “Well then he’s giving you a bunch of flowers to enjoy,” the medium replied. She spiraled off into plausible guesswork about daughters or grandchildren and how this spirit was looking after them lovingly.

  • Other mediums were called up to the stage. Each one had their own delivery, ranging from motherly sage to monotone to Southern-style preacher to cautionary. In total, eight mediums graced the stage with varying reactions from the audience, although it was mostly constrained to polite acknowledgement.

    The interaction that stood out most was toward the end when the daughter of the host approached the podium and called on a woman in a grey hoodie with sunglasses on. She was the only person there close to my age.

  • The medium told the woman that someone who had passed in her life had served in the military and that she kept this person’s photo in her living room above unpacked boxes. I saw tears rolling down from behind her sunglasses as she nodded in agreement.

    After the event was over I asked the woman if I could speak to her about what the medium had said. Her name was Nicole, and she had recently moved from the suburbs to a new apartment in Ontario with her boyfriend. They poured all their savings into opening a Pilates studio.

  • Most of what the medium had said about her grandfather was true, Nicole claimed. She considered him more of a father figure than her real father. Her grandfather had died several years ago, but she still couldn’t accept the absence. She kept a photograph of him in her living room above unpacked boxes, which had been sitting there for two months. She didn’t want me to take her photo but promised to email me a scan of her grandfather’s.

    I asked her why she came to Lily Dale alone. She said that, as an adult in need of closure, she wanted to be in a place where the past is on level footing with the present. She wanted to hear that she was still being watched over. At the moment, her life was ruled by uncertainty. She and her boyfriend had taken big financial risks to re-purpose their lives. The person she relied on for stability was gone. The synchronicity of what the medium had said was enough to allow her to carry on, to believe that she was on the right path.

  • Fredonia, New York

  • Lily Dale is exclusively for communication with the dead. Mediums performed private healing sessions in neighboring Fredonia. The town was your typical smattering of middle-income housing, strip malls and a better-than-average downtown.

    I met Gloria at a display home, the kind realtors show to perspective buyers. I had picked her because she had the least generic website and looked like a softer version of Laura Dern.

  • Inside, the house was hardly furnished. Gloria led me to an empty room with vertical blinds and a massage table. She asked me to take off my shoes to “keep from trapping energy.”

    She explained that I should tell her to stop if the session became too intense. I smiled politely, aware of how vulnerable she was to be isolated with a stranger under such a strange pretense. I wondered what a bad day healing was like.

  • At the start of the session my eyelids fluttered as her hands passed over them. There was a sensation like strands of hair were being laid over my forehead. Sounds of creaking wood faded then slowed to the rhythm of an empty home breathing, the hum of electricity passing through power outlets became a tremble. Far away, on another street, something giant and metallic like electrical wires snapped and whipped.

    I opened my eyes for a second and saw that both her hands were hovering over my stomach. Vibrations purred from her palms. As I drifted toward what felt like sleep I became aware of the temperature of my stomach rising, as though I was about to vomit. Muscle spasms pulled against the fabric of my shirt like her hands were underneath my skin, parting folds of gristle. A tunneling sensation widened my esophagus.

  • For the first time since moving to Los Angeles, for the first time since the earthquakes had subdued whatever it was that had gone inert in my subconscious, I felt activated. Through an inescapable blur of sunshine pouring through the blinds, I submerged inside myself.

    This was what I craved most. It was escape.

  • After the session was over, my voice was hoarse; Gloria offered me tea like she knew that was going to happen.

    I asked what happened during the healing. She claimed to have elevated my “energy” to a higher level where it could reconnect to the universe to repair itself and clear imprints of trauma resonating from the past.

    I had no idea what that meant.

  • “How is that possible?” I asked.

    Before collecting my $75, she answered, “I'm not a healer, I'm a witness. God speaks through me.”

  • Lily Dale reminded me that if I stood too close to what I wanted to see, it would fall out of focus.

  • Part VII
    Eat Prey Drug: Willow Lake

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