Author Mira Ptacin
Credit: Shane Thomas McMillan

When I heard Mira Ptacin was working on a nonfiction book about mediums, I immediately thought about how her 2016 memoir, Poor Your Soul, weaves together two narratives of senseless loss. First is the story of Ptacin’s younger brother, who was killed in a car accident caused by a drunk driver when they were just teenagers. Later, in her twenties, Ptacin unexpectedly became pregnant; only after embracing the idea of motherhood did she learn her unborn child would not survive. Reviewing the memoir for Vol.1 Brooklyn, Joe Winkler summed up its central question: “How do we, as humans, survive the violence of living?” 

Ptacin’s second book, The In-Betweens: The Spiritualists, Mediums, and Legends of Camp Etna offers one answer. The book, published by Liveright on October 29, is the result of five years Ptacin spent visiting a summer camp for mediums and clairvoyants in rural Maine. In it, she chronicles the feminist origins of Spiritualism, a little-known religion rooted in the belief that everyone has an innate ability to communicate with the dead. The movement was popularized in the mid-19th century by two sisters who gave public séances, carving out roles for themselves that diverged from what was expected of women at the time.

Through a mix of research, reporting, and personal reflection, Ptacin explores whether we are eternal souls with access to infinite wisdom—or just “giant bags of chemicals, eating and farting our way through life.” The In-Betweens offers a rare glimpse into the day-to-day lives of practicing mediums, which include a host of activities meant to summon spirits. On their face, practices like table tipping, water witching, and ghost hunting may appear no more sophisticated than a Ouija board. But Ptacin cannot help but become a kind of case study in the therapeutic benefits of connecting with the spirit world—or at least pretending to.

While giving Ptacin a reading, a medium acknowledges the energy of a small child who has passed away. Though reluctant to attribute this to clairvoyance, Ptacin finds something powerful in having her experience named by this eccentric stranger. Of the interaction, she writes, “It wasn’t religious or human or even something palpable or tactile but was rather timeless and weird and absurd and totally illogical and could only be described as nonsense.” Indeed, where logic has failed, nonsense succeeds, by helping her acknowledge the lingering grief she feels over the death of her unborn child.

When I spoke to Ptacin on the Friday before Labor Day, we talked about death culture, grieving, and the habits of modern-day Spiritualists. Before we got off the phone, she shared a last anecdote about an experience she’d had helping souls “cross over” to the next realm, as part of reporting the book. Standing on the front porch of Ptacin’s house on Peaks Island in Maine, a medium had asked her to picture a giant beam of white light shining up into the sky, then invited any lingering spirits to follow it. “Physically, it didn’t look like much,” Ptacin admitted. “Metaphysically, perhaps, it looked like more.” The whole thing sounded crazy to me.

Later that night, while walking in Brooklyn, I noticed two columns of light emanating from across the river in lower Manhattan—part of the installation that appears every year in remembrance of September 11. It occurred to me that I hadn’t fully understood its purpose before. The lights served not only as a memorial for the souls whose bodies had perished there eighteen years ago, but also for those who have had the unenviable task of figuring out how to go on living.

Sarah Kasbeer for Guernica

Guernica: What drew you to the mediums of Camp Etna?

Mira Ptacin: It was an amalgamation of things. For one, the topic of ghost hunters had been popping up with students I was teaching at the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies. One was writing about a ghost hunter, and we had a lot of conversations about what the takeaway of that story was. I had my own angle on the topic that I kept pushing onto my student, who, thank goodness, didn’t fully accept, because it was my perspective and not his. After that, my interest in the topic never died.

A couple of years later my good friend Celia, the founder of SLICE magazine, suggested I look into this place called Camp Etna, a camp for Spiritualists here in Maine. I knew nothing about Spiritualism, so I Googled it and found out about the infamous Fox sisters, who launched an enormous movement with up to 8 million followers in a short period of time, which spread into a huge American religion. I’d had no idea about any of this, and it hooked me instantly. I needed to know more. So one of the inspirations was my curiosity about ghost hunters, and beyond that, what it meant to have faith. Like, hardcore faith, with supposed evidential truth.

Between the time I first learned about Spiritualism and Camp Etna and my decision to write a proposal for a book about it, I had birthed two children. Having children undoes everything you understand about the world and about yourself—both mind and body. Becoming a mother makes your world primal and cosmic. So I came across Camp Etna at a time when it was difficult to figure out what this new existence as a mother was, as well as what my understanding of being alive was, after having created life. I’d given in to lots of ridiculously impossible internal pressure to “do it all” and be the best at it: to be a successful writer, a holy and perfect mother, the perfect spouse, and even to look good physically—and to do it within a short period of time after giving birth. All of this stuff was so isolating and exhausting and impossible and unsustainable to do simultaneously.

There were a couple of points shortly after the birth of my son Theo when I snapped or exploded from all this pressure—one time, I walked into the ocean fully clothed, and another time, after something triggered me, I took off running into the woods and didn’t return home for a few hours. In retrospect, my body was in flight-or-fight mode, and it felt that nature was the safest harbor. So when I came to learn about the women at Camp Etna—women who were living in the woods and making decisions based on their intuition rather than society’s expectations—I wanted to know more about how they viewed the world and lived their lives, because mine wasn’t working out for me so much.

Beyond the fact that they say they can talk to the dead, the women who live there are amazing because they live based on their own intuition and they do not care what other people think. They don’t feel the need to fulfill what other people believe women’s roles should be. It was meaningful to be among them—even while wearing the mask of an objective journalist—and acknowledge that this other kind of lifestyle existed, that it was valid, and moreover, pretty darn healthy.

Guernica: Did you have preconceived notions about what you would find?

Ptacin: I thought that the women would be really overprotective of their beliefs, and be very defensive when I questioned them about their supposed ability to communicate with the deceased. If I said that I could talk to the dead, I’m assuming my family would ask me to visit a psychiatrist. I get the impression that popular culture views mediums as frauds or crazy.  To be fair, Spiritualist mediums developed a bad reputation because of frauds—tarot card readers on the street and 1-800 psychic numbers. But to my surprise, the mediums at Camp Etna were not defensive at all. The subject of their supposed ability to communicate with the dead was discussed just as easily as the topic of their employment history. The fact that they weren’t defensive showed me that this was so much more than a superficial investigation of “are ghosts real?” and made me feel that my own intuition of the possibilities at Camp Etna, as a story and as a personal quest, was spot-on. So I was careful every time I talked to them.

Guernica: My preconceived notion was that psychics are generally in it for the money, for some of the reasons you just mentioned. To some degree, all religions are asking for money. How does that affect the way Spiritualism is practiced?

Ptacin: It depends on each medium. A few of them told me that if the reading doesn’t do anything for you, or if they feel like they’re not getting anything, they won’t take your money, or they’ll give you the money back. And that if a medium is 80 percent correct in their readings, they’re very, very good. That was one thing that made their “ability” feel a little more trustworthy. They also weren’t out in the streets hustling and trying to lasso in clients. Although, some of the younger mediums at Camp were sort of starting to polish up their entrepreneurial skills, and that was part of the tension among some of the old-school or elder mediums at Camp. I mean, you gotta pay the bills, whether you’re a medium or not. You need to be paid for your work, even if your work is healing work. That said, the entrepreneurial mediums didn’t have to work hard to get clients; for the most part, bereaved clients always seemed to seek them out. Their mission as mediums was to offer closure or help soothe the pain of grief. It became pretty clear to me right off the bat that they weren’t in this for the money.

Guernica: When you were with the mediums of Camp Etna, did you ever feel the presence of spirits?

Ptacin: I’m not sure, because for the most part, I was trying to work as a journalist—I had a book deadline, and I had to sniff for the plot, make the women into characters, find story tension. Also, I don’t know what the presence of a spirit feels like—I’m already so emotional and sensitive to the world around me. I’m not sure I’d be able to differentiate the feeling of a spirit in the room from an extreme pang of empathy while watching a cat purr while she’s being pet. What does it actually feel like to have a ghost in the room? I have no idea. I did say to one of the mediums from Camp Etna, “I just want to be able to see a ghost!” Her response was, “Change your words from ‘I want’ to ‘I will.’”

Guernica: Do you think Spiritualism provides a better experience than what you call in the book “American death culture”?

Ptacin: It provides something rather than three days of a funeral and then “buh bye!” and a visit to the gravesite if you want to. Spiritualists believe that a deceased person invites those still living to check in with them, and that they can do so anytime they’d like. They believe that, although funerals help people proceed, the bereaved deserve more than just a funeral. To me, it almost doesn’t matter whether or not a dead person actually is coming back via the medium, or if the medium is just giving the bereaved a chance to role-play. From my perspective, what they do—or, at least, what the good ones do—really helps people navigate through grief. 

Guernica: I keep thinking about the questions that the crowd asked the Fox sisters all the way back in the 1850s. Did you die peacefully? Do you love me? Will you forgive me? Are you at peace? Are these the same questions we’re still asking the dead?

Ptacin: Those are the questions that everybody has—or, at least, those are the questions the mediums tend to answer. We all want our loved ones to not have suffered, and to not have any lingering negativity in our relationships. It’s validation to hear that all is well and that the world beyond is wonderful and beautiful—that all of the stupid little things we care about on the “Earth plane,” as Spiritualists call it, disappears in the end, and it’s just love that lasts, both when we’re living and when we’re dead. If you could talk to people you knew who have died, what would you ask? Probably, Are you okay? and Are we good?

Guernica: How much of the healing that happens for people there is just acknowledging these buried feelings? One scene that stuck with me is when the man at the church service is told by a medium that his mother loved him, even though she didn’t say it enough while she was alive.

Ptacin: Yes, he was sobbing. His shoulders were moving up and down. I do think some of it is just acknowledging the feelings that people try to avoid, because grief is so overwhelming. Just being able to bring up these extraordinary feelings or traumas that might have otherwise been blocked is an epic thing.

All that being said, I remain skeptical. There were moments during my fieldwork that made me uncomfortable, too. I didn’t put it into the book, but there was an occasion where I went to a dinner put on by some entrepreneurial mediums where guests bought tickets that provided them a meal and a seat at the dining room table. During the meal, the mediums would travel from person to person and give messages from the dead. That felt like too much—it was loud and there was a lot of spaghetti and I can’t imagine how a medium could do some many rapid-fire readings. That’s the kind of stuff that has given mediums a bad name.

This particular event was like speed-dating for mediums. Regardless, it sold out, and people were crying and very much moved, feeling validated between the messages from a medium and bites of garlic bread. I feel like sometimes people just need to hear what they need to hear. Eventually, though, one of the mediums got a little sloppy and it appeared they themselves were giving the message, rather than a dead loved one. This particular medium, who was probably pooped, started the message with, There’s a young girl here for you, and the woman answered, No it’s not mine, I had a son who died, not a daughter. The medium quickly backtracked with, Oh, no, it’s actually a boy here, but he brought a friend with him as well. But who doesn’t skimp from time to time on their performances?

Guernica: How much of your personal experience drove your interest in this work?

Ptacin: I think, subconsciously, it did. The first big nonfiction piece I wrote as a journalist was a longform story about funeral homes. My first book is about two deaths in my family—that of my brother and my own child. But the connection to my interest in Camp Etna as an avenue for exploring grief was indirect, beyond my own control and even understanding. I tell myself that I went there to learn about being a woman, but I also think I gravitated to the place because I’m still grieving the death of my brother and my child, even if I don’t acknowledge this daily.

Guernica: What do you think the connection is between women and Spiritualism? If women bring life into this world, do they also have a special interest in shepherding it out?

Ptacin: Until you said that, I was thinking this connection is just due to the political history of Spiritualism, a religion that was launched by women who weren’t allowed much of a voice, especially in religion. But you’re absolutely right—women give life, so who is to say they aren’t also primitively very much in touch with what happens after? 

I knew things about my kids, Theo and Simone, when they were just baby blobfish floating around in my womb. I knew what their personalities were like. I knew Theo was male before we learned it officially, and that Simone was female. Even now, I have such a strong bond with the kids. When they were younger, too, I could hear them from a mile away. I knew if something was wrong. I literally knew to turn to catch them seconds before they began to fall. Some of these reflexes were subtle, and some were really obvious. It’s still like that. Another adult, like my spouse, might say Theo (who is now six) needs this or that, but my intuition and instinct knows he needs something else, even if it doesn’t make sense.

Guernica: I have one more question. Can you explain ectoplasm to me?

Ptacin: Oh, Lord, ectoplasm! Even after studying Spiritualism for about six years, I still think about Slimer from Ghostbusters when I hear that word. From what I’ve read and have been told, the deal with ectoplasm is that spirits can somehow pull out some goo or moisture or molecules or atoms from another person’s body or energy, to materialize themselves on the physical plane. The spirit then basically turns into Slimer, but not so green and ravenous and hungry for hot dogs and pizza. I have not seen this yet. But some of the mediums were like, “Yeah, ectoplasm. That’s some wild stuff. I’ve seen that.” Or, “Yeah, I’ve seen these trumpets floating around the room all by themselves.”

The other day, I was writing about a summer camp for child psychics. One of the young mediums there, a teenager named Emma, texted me very late at night when I was visiting camp to ask if I wanted to go on a fairy hunt. It was around 11 pm and I was in bed, too tired to get myself jazzed, so I declined her invitation. When saw Emma the next day I asked how the fairy hunt was, and she replied, “Oh my god, we saw so many fairies!” And I thought, Really? Huh. And that was that.

I’m less interested in whether it’s real than I am in the convictions and faith these people have. Is there life after death? And if so, can we tap into it? There’s no one right or wrong answer to that question. Each individual can only say what their truth is, what they believe, and unless it is dangerous or violent, I see no harm in it. But then again, that’s just my own belief.

Sarah Kasbeer

Sarah Kasbeer is an essayist and fiction writer living in New York. Her work appears in Creative Nonfiction, The Cut, Dissent, Longreads, and elsewhere. Her essay collection, A Woman, a Plan, an Outline of a Man, won the 2019 Creative Nonfiction Award from Zone 3 Press and will be published in 2020.

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