Annie was my mother’s older sister, and she read fortunes for a living. She could divine meaning from cards spread across a kitchen table top to determine whether a husband was prone to infidelity. She read tea leaves to predict if a firstborn child would be a boy or girl. Annie would advise you to improve your luck by putting a bay leaf in your pillowcase when you slept or attract a lover by drinking tea made from ginger. When a mourning dove cooed three times in a row Annie would say it was certain that somebody close to you was going to die.
Annie saw patterns everywhere and she knew how things were connected.
She had short, curly copper-colored hair and ever-present gold hoop earrings that she never took off. When I was growing up in the 60s and 70s, she wore bold floral-patterned dresses she called shifts that hugged her ample curves and made me think of Hawaii. Her lipstick was always ravishing red.
Annie drove a blue Mustang, which I believe she wrecked and replaced at least twice during my elementary school years.
She taught me to dance the hula, barefoot on the grass in the backyard and convinced me there really was a man who lived on the moon with his wife.
“I’m a counselor, honey, I’ve always had a gift.” Annie explained when I asked her how she earned money. “See that actress on Days of Our Lives—I read cards for her and her friends in Hollywood. I have a whole list of clients I help; they’ve come back to me for years.”
Annie gave love life advice to soap opera stars from patterns she could discern by reading a deck of tarot cards in formations she’d been trained to interpret by an old Roma man she’d met at the Eagles Lodge where she’d been cocktail waitressing.
She made twenty bucks every time she gave a reading.
“In the magical universe there are no coincidences and there are no accidents. Nothing happens unless someone wills it to happen.”
—William S. Burroughs
Jane was my pious aunt, married to my father’s alcoholic brother. He had a reputation as a misanthropic drunk, but Jane was known as a woman of God. She was a tall blonde, rail thin and straight-backed with a small tight smile that never revealed her teeth. Her lipstick was such a pale pink you could barely see it. She wore crisp white blouses that she pressed with her iron.
Jane drove a long beige station wagon with plenty of room in the back for kids and groceries. She never broke the speed limit. She was a stay-at-home mom who believed that the man was the head of the household and the breadwinner. She took care of everything else.
Jane had two daughters, one named Sarah who was my age and the younger, Hannah, who was sick all the time and whiney as a stray cat. Hannah was diagnosed with ulcers from “nervous problems” when she was seven, and always got attention by saying some part of her body hurt.
Often, we saw her trip and fall on purpose and then wail for her mom as if it had been an accident. She was four years younger and Sarah always tried to ditch her because she tattled so much. “Get lost cry baby” Sarah would say.
Since Sarah and I were best friends as kids I spent a lot of time at their place while growing up. Sarah loved dogs and bikes and climbing trees, same as me.
I always went to church with Jane and the girls. On Sunday mornings, Sunday evenings, and Wednesday evenings too. God, and the rituals surrounding him, was the center of the home – which naturally excluded my uncle since he was unsaved and therefore destined to hell. As were my parents, and all the rest of our relatives, according to Jane. Even those who professed to be Christians—like my mother—clearly weren’t living a Christ-centered life which meant they weren’t legitimately saved. My mother wasn’t a church-goer and she didn’t try to lead others to the Lord, which was one of the most important signs of a real Christian. Either you were a real Christian and lived every moment as an ambassador for Christ, or you belonged to Satan; there were no gray areas when it came to heaven or hell.
It was unsettling to find out my mother and father belonged to Satan. I wasn’t sure what to do about that, other than pray.
My Uncle Dan worked long hours as a truck driver, just like my father, but he drank so much beer every night he passed out drunk on the couch when he got home. He didn’t have any use for most people, especially kids, and we knew to stay out of his way or risk a whipping. “Children are to be seen, not heard,” Uncle Dan stated at the dinner table, forming his words around a cigarette in the corner of his mouth without removing it to talk. He never smiled and his eyes were dark and mean.
Most of our family members were going to hell. We prayed for them all at least six times a day. And I’d pray in the middle of the night, when I woke up with from bad dreams about Armageddon, the anti-Christ, and the mark of the beast. The devil was everywhere, I could feel him sometimes, like a moth landing on my hair.
Insomnia was a problem. There was so much praying to do, and I was never sure I was getting it right. I put my whole heart into praying; I could feel my entire chest tighten up as I lay in bed at night, trying to make sure God heard me.
“Pray without ceasing.”
—1st Thessalonians 5:1-2
Beliefs are complicated and have everything to do with how our lives turn out; as children we don’t know we have any choice in the matter.
I realize now that the reasons for our perceptions and behaviors are often mysterious, hidden even from ourselves. We do not all experience the world in the same way.
Robert Sapolsky Stanford, professor of neuroscience and author of the book Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst, puts it this way:
“A behavior has just occurred. Why did it happen? Your first category of explanation is going to be a neurobiological one. What went on in that person’s brain a second before the behavior happened? What sight, sound, or smell in the previous second to minutes triggered the nervous system to produce that behavior? What hormones acted hours to days earlier to change how responsive that individual was to the sensory stimuli that triggered the nervous system to produce the behavior? What features of the environment in the prior weeks to years changed the structure and function of that person’s brain and thus changed how it responded to those hormones and environmental stimuli? Then you go further back to the childhood of the individual, their fetal environment, then their genetic makeup. And then you increase the view to encompass factors larger than that one individual—how has culture shaped the behavior of people living in that individual’s group? What ecological factors helped shape that culture?”
Understanding the interaction of these all these variables is the heart of Sapolsky’s work.
Nothing is ever as simple as it seems on the surface. People do things for reasons even they don’t understand, and sometimes our own thoughts and behaviors work against us.
Annie made me think of a bright monarch butterfly with ADD. She didn’t spend much time in one spot. Her laugh was a little too loud and her voice could set your teeth on edge. My dad complained about her over-talking, and how she always let the screen door slam. In addition to the card reading and tea leaves Annie could discern meaning from examining the lines in the palms of your hands. This fascinated me as a kid, and I was forever trying to have her show me the meaning of things that she could somehow see but I could not. No matter how hard I tried I couldn’t see what Annie did.
She got me a Ouija board for my ninth birthday but if I was honest, I had to admit my fingers moved the cursor where I wanted it to go. When I played it with Annie it always told me nice things like I’d marry a handsome man with money someday.
Annie owned every book the psychic Edgar Cayce had ever written and fancied herself a medium, but Grandma told her to stop talking about dead people in polite company.
She loved Las Vegas and had several lucky numbers that seemed to show up in patterns that were significant in ways only she understood. At one point she began altering the spelling of her name in order to improve her luck. Anna, Annis, Annie, Anna Mae, Ann-with-an-e. Adding one or two letters could change the course of everything.
I have no doubt that Annie’s beliefs were sincere even if her predictive accuracy wasn’t high; Her belief that she was helping people gave her a deep sense of purpose, and her perception of metaphysical powers reduced anxiety by providing an illusion of control.
“When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you achieve it.”
—Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist
Sapolsky also lectures on how biological and cultural factors play out in our religious expression. He explains that in the 1970s a mild genetic version of schizophrenia was identified, common in close relatives of schizophrenics. It’s a quirky personality type now identified as schizotypal personality disorder, characterized by somewhat loose associations, difficulties fitting in socially, and magical thinking. “Someone who believes in strange things, mental telepathy, UFOs, and concrete interpretations of the spiritual. In traditional non-western societies these would be the shamans, witch doctors, medicine men and women. They make a living from being magical.”
Jane’s worldview came strictly from the Bible. All the sins were clearly and conveniently identified, and they included most normal human behaviors including having things like emotions. Jane was talented at not feeling emotions herself. She never cried or raised her voice, and never once spoke a curse word. Jane was even-tempered and didn’t smile too big or laugh out loud. Even though my uncle was drunk and passed out whenever he wasn’t at work, she kept to her steadfast routine and never seemed to be bothered by him. Her home was comforting in an odd way; it was predictable. I always knew what we would have for lunch (tuna sandwiches and coke), and that we’d pray before we put a bite of food in our mouths. The house would be immaculate, and the laundry done. Jane kept to schedules, only left the house for church and the grocery store, and she held the kids to their chores. Things were lined up straight. Just don’t make noise and do what she says.
Any time there was a problem Jane would offer one reliable solution: prayer. She told us that life would turn out just fine if we kept to God’s path. She stayed busy doing God’s will and that saved her from worrying.
“Trust in the Lord with all thine heart and lean not into thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge him and he shall direct thy path.”
Sapolsky also discusses obsessive-compulsive disorder, which also exists on a spectrum from mild to severe. He emphasizes that what appears strange or crazy in one setting can make one successful in another. My Aunt Jane was revered within her church community, and was considered a role model, but her religious obsessions kept her from noticing serious problems that were manifesting in her own family:
“Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder is an anxiety disorder. It’s a pathological attempt to impose structure, predictability, and control in a world where everything is pathologically provoking a sense of unease, uncertainty, and anxiety. In OCD the person never escapes. What’s striking with OCD is there’s no insight. The person never says ‘help – there’s something wrong with me. I feel this need to wash my hands six hours a day.’ Instead they say ‘I can never get clean. I’m so dirty. Everything I do makes me dirty.’ There’s no insight.
In a secular context, there’s a tremendous advantage to a mild version of OCD. It works to get you into a place like Stanford, which is regimented and disciplined.
Have a six-hour compulsion to wash your hands each day in the secular context of OCD, it destroys your life. You cannot function in society, you are peripheralized, you are mentally ill. Get it in the right context of religion and it is protected, it is honored, and you are rewarded.
When people are pulling off these rituals in a religious setting it is not to make the anxiety go away, it is to share it. It’s to share it over time and space with a larger community, to give the nameless dread a name.”
Jane and Annie were my role models as a child, and I naturally began handling my emotions with their templates.
I went door to door with the church youth group and witnessed for the Lord, explaining to neighbors how they could be born again. I handed out little booklets about the three easy steps to salvation. I was a soldier for Christ in a cataclysmic battle for good against evil, but I had no idea what to do with my life after high school. Jane told me to listen for God’s voice. There would be a sign. Annie had promised a good-looking man with money.
I met my first husband at Jane’s church on a Saturday night; Saturday was when they had Christian rock bands. I was 15. He was 25 and rode a Harley Davidson, with jet black hair halfway down his back. He had the best hair, like heavy black silk. He’d been a biker, and a drug dealer, but was now born again and serving the Lord.
I think it was love at first sight, but I really can’t remember. We prayed together. And studied the Bible. He knew how things all tied together, the signs, the symbols, the meanings.
God had a plan for us, and he knew what it was. We were meant to be together and start a family right away, since we were living in the end times and the rapture could happen at any moment.
We would be whisked away to heaven in the blink of an eye, while Armageddon took place on Earth. Jesus was coming soon, and we had to hurry.
This felt exciting, important, and dangerous.
I loved it when he picked me up at high school on his motorcycle. “Yes, that big guy is my boyfriend.” The school boy jocks stopped bothering me.
When I turned 16, we got married. A month after the wedding I learned I was ten weeks pregnant. I finished high school early but skipped grad night at Disneyland. My belly was as big as a Volkswagen bug, and my husband would have looked like somebody’s dad. My friends went to parties, and off to college while I went to La Leche League and prayer meetings with women two decades older than me. I had three kids in six years. I breastfed each one for a year.
“Train the younger women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled and pure, to be busy at home, to be kind, and to be subject to their husbands, so that no one will malign the word of God.”
Annie was in her mid-60s when she started losing weight. I lived hours away and had my hands full raising three babies; I hadn’t spoken to her in six years. I called my father once a month for news. “She’s not right in the head,” my dad said, “It’s depressing to watch. I can’t stand to visit her. She needs a real doctor, but she won’t listen to anyone.”
She treated her symptoms with vitamins and herbs from the health food store and lots of natural juices. She had sessions with a faith healer from her Edgar Cayce fellowship. She kept her focus positive and practiced visualizations. Certain foods had to be eaten only on specific days of the week. She counted out cards on the tabletop.
By the time she was taken to an emergency room after passing out in K-Mart, the cancer had metastasized to Stage IV. It was the first time she’d allowed herself to think of the word “cancer”, though she admitted she’d had the lump in her breast for a long time. Maybe years.
Annie had read about clinics in Mexico that were curing cancer ‘naturally’ with laetrile, which was illegal in the United States and deemed quackery. Tijuana was only a three-hour drive. She drove off in her blue Mustang and checked in to a clinic.
My father mailed me a polaroid photo of her weeks later, taken in a hotel room somewhere in Mexico shortly before she died. It had come in a plain white envelope with no note. She was pale as an egg and her lips were white. I wouldn’t have recognized her if we’d passed on the street.
The sparkle in her eyes had faded but she still wore gold hoop earrings.
She died in Tijuana at age 66, under circumstances that will always remain mysterious.
“Keep the pineal gland open and you will always be young.”
I drove a beige Volkswagen Squareback with baby seats in the back to college where I studied patterns of human behavior and how not to fuck up your kids. There were always rumpled toddler clothes and boxes of crackers on the floor of the car. It took me ten years to get a degree in Psychology. I was 26, and gears began clicking into place in my head; my thinking went in all sorts of new directions. I saw choices I’d never seen before. After twelve months of therapy I filed for divorce.
My first job was working as a counselor in a residential treatment home for people with Schizophrenia. The clients had hallucinations and delusions; they felt like family. I helped them figure out the patterns of their symptoms and worked to develop a system of mental checks and balances, so they’d stay out of the hospital. The job felt so natural I was surprised I got paid for it. I took graduate classes at night for two years to become a psychotherapist.
My ex-husband fought for custody of the kids. He prayed aloud with the children, clasping hands with them in Burger King, and told them repeatedly I was going to hell. I eventually won sole custody after the court ordered a psychological evaluation. It took three years.
I was licensed as a psychotherapist at age 29 and bought a used black Miata. I worked in a battered women’s shelter and a rape crisis center. I felt old before I turned 30, but I loved to work with teenagers from uncommon backgrounds who had trouble finding their way. I knew it was possible to rebuild a life after losses, mistakes, and disaster. I believed anybody could do it over time with intention and a plan. I was convinced that psychotherapy could save the world.
I had lost touch with Jane, Sarah, and Hannah after my marriage when I moved hundreds of miles away. The family splintered after my mother died of brain cancer when I was 17, shortly after my first baby was born. My father and Uncle Dan had a bitter falling out over a business venture and ended up suing each other; they never spoke again. Dan and Jane moved their family to Texas. The only connective fiber among us had been my mother, and when she died any bonds that had existed in the family withered.
Sarah found me in 2016 after we’d both submitted DNA by mail to 23&Me. We were lined up on the genetic relatives list right next to each other, sharing 15% of our DNA. She told me she’d thought about me often over the past 40 years but had no idea what had become of me. We became friends on Facebook.
She lived in rural Texas and worked as a caregiver in a residential home for the elderly. Her mother Jane had suffered a stroke a decade earlier and now lived bedridden in the Alzheimer’s residence where Sarah worked.
Sarah and I spoke once on the phone, but I didn’t recognize her voice. It had transformed into the deep rasp of a heavy smoker with a southern accent she had not acquired growing up in California. It was entirely alien.
We exchanged small gifts through the mail, echoes of our girlhoods. Sarah sent me a hand carved owl figurine. I sent her a silver crescent moon necklace to match the one I wore.
Sarah lived with her father who despite a life of alcoholism was still alive but doing poorly in hospice care.
Her third husband, the mean one who drank, was in prison. She was desperate for money and had no car.
Her dream was to buy an abandoned hotel in a small Texas town that was rumored to be haunted. She wanted to open a bed and breakfast for tourists who wanted to stay overnight with ghosts, and she thought she’d finally make decent money. She was bitterly disappointed when she couldn’t qualify for a mortgage due to her poor credit history.
“You should breathe deeply and chant, ‘Money will easily and effortlessly flow into my life’ as often as you can every day. Things will start to change after a month. If you believe you will be financially secure, then you are opening yourself up to change.”
I’ve been in private practice for 30 years and love helping people connect the dots. I have a nose for psychosis, and for sniffing out abuse. I’m optimistic about the human potential for growth, but clear on the difference between positive thinking and magical thinking. There are rules that govern the physical and mental world, yet our brains often play tricks on us. Humans are quick to see causality among unrelated events and to adopt maladaptive ways of thinking in order to reduce the anxiety that comes from living in a world where bad things happen randomly.
Our own best judgment can lead us to ruin. I’ve learned to watch my mind closely and question first impulses.
I choose my beliefs carefully and with intention, and bristle at fundamentalists and new age gurus. I love science and the magic of the laws of nature. Within those parameters I’ve found the reliability we were all seeking. I’ve been known to occasionally burn incense and white candles at night—a conscious nod to magical thinking—but haven’t set foot in a religious meeting since my divorce decades ago.
I’m close to my three adult kids; they were just here for Thanksgiving. We live with a shard of sorrow in our hearts for the one of them that struggles with schizophrenia. She was diagnosed at 19, and her life has been harder than any of us can imagine. I am never completely free of grief.
Sarah and I eventually unfollowed one another on Facebook. She kept posting conspiracy videos about chemtrails, and photos she’d taken of cloud formations in the Texas sky as proof of “something ominous going on.”
I’d respond to her posts with a link to a science article about cirrus clouds and aircraft contrails, which she didn’t appreciate. I posted on her Facebook wall “Stop sharing nonsense. It causes harm. People don’t know how to tell what’s true.”
It felt mean, but I couldn’t help myself.
I was surprised to learn that her younger sister Hannah had also become a therapist. Helping people find patterns may be in our genes, and in the right context, that’s a good thing. Sarah said she and Hannah had gone their separate ways many years ago. It’s my guess that Hannah grew up, went to college, and gave up magical thinking. Apparently, she’s also learned it’s okay to let family go their own way.
The ability to understand patterns can make you good at your job. Scientists, physicians, engineers, and therapists all work with pattern recognition. And adherence to a disciplined structure—with reasonable flexibility—is how humans create monuments inspired by grand visions.
Context is everything.
Sapolsky stresses that variations in our neurobiology whether from obsessive-compulsive disorder or schizotypal-type thinking, can be adaptive in one setting, but stigmatizing in another. Schizotypal thinking parallels the magical thinking found in extreme religious theology; Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder can parallel excessive religious rituals. The key point is that the exact same behaviors that can destroy your life in one context, can make you honored and powerful in another.
Sarah recently sent me an email about Jane. Sarah said she was mad at God, because Jane has spent the last ten years since her stroke unable to walk or speak a complete sentence: “All she does is cry and sleep; she cries constantly if she’s awake. It’s not right that she suffers like this. She was a godly woman. I’m having a hard time understanding God’s plan.”
I wrote back and said how sorry I was, because Jane had meant a lot to me when we were children: “She was a good woman. But don’t blame God for any of this. It’s our beliefs that were faulty.”
She didn’t write me again. All we share now are ancient childhood memories; our worldviews and beliefs are oppositional. I’ve made hundreds of conscious decisions to let go of what I learned as a child in order to be sane, and I let go of attachments to some people, too.
I’m no longer troubled by insomnia or nightmares. I’m at peace with all I cannot know or control. Occasionally I sense a benign echo from the past and linger with a softer childhood memory, something having nothing to do with heaven or hell or prayer. Sometimes I dance barefoot in the grass at night and think of Annie when she was young as I smile at the man in the moon and his wife.
Shavaun Scott lives in Portland, Oregon and has been a psychotherapist for 30 years. She has written most often in clinical journals about the process of psychotherapy. Her book Game Addiction: The Experience and the Effects was published in 2009. She enjoys exploring unconventional paths and unorthodox bravery.